Are you sure? Are you really sure? (part 2)

(continued from yesterday’s post)

As a result, I also find myself wondering, too, about the educability of people: for all that the education system sees itself as a social panacea, is it really possible to educate people against their will? It strikes me that a greatly-overlooked essential is the willingness of the pupil to be educated, and the possession of a suitably receptive mind that will make this possible. While formal education of course needs to be structured, its success must lie on the willingness (however unknowing) of the recipients to submit autonomously to its attentions.

But of course we continue to labour with the notion of the ‘noble savage’ when it comes to our pupils. How much of the self-flagellation that goes on about the failure of education to tackle the supposed  lack of opportunity is really the failing of the system – or are we simply asking too much of it? How many of those ‘educational failures’ are caused more by the singular refusal of the individuals concerned to be educated than the failure of teachers to overcome this? And how much right do we really have to impose a one-size fits all solution on them? After all, much of the work they seem destined to spend their lives doing is being increasingly deskilled, and not everyone can (or needs to) be a Professor. If those individuals, even as children, refuse the opportunities they are given, is that really our fault? Plenty of other European societies would seem to think not. We can offer – but should we really impose?

Waiting, some while ago, for a delayed flight at Gatwick, I was watching the ebb and flow of humanity across the terminal, and pondering the fact that someone, somewhere, has been required to try to ‘educate’ every single one of them. From the general behaviour observed, I found myself wondering what sort of success criteria would be appropriate for this frankly dispiriting task. Is education really for all? Does it need to be? And if so, what sort? Some days, I find it hard to believe that a fairly academically-inclined person like me is really best-placed to offer the less intellectually-able part of the population much of use. Am I/are we just wasting their time that would be better spent on something entirely different? Again, there are plenty of systems that seem perfectly comfortable not imposing academia on all…

And I’m really not sure that the medically-derived concept of ‘interventions’ in their lives is at all what is required; for all that there may be nobody at home in some cases, intelligence (or the lack of it) is not an illness in need of a cure. I even question the fabled ability of education to change lives: to what extend was my own antecedents’ ability to lift themselves out of the working class really down to anything that happened in school – or was it purely reliance on their own inherent resources, good fortune and aspiration? The starting point has to be the fact that my largely uneducated grandparents still genuinely valued the effect of education for their children, and did not just see it as consumer ‘right’. How much does enforced education really change the trajectory of people’s lives – or is that yet another professional fiction? Is successful schooling anything more than a convenient, socially-acceptable proxy to which the fortunate can attribute their advantage?

There are plenty of people who have lived ‘successful’ lives (whatever that means) without much education – while the increasing log-jam at the top seems to be leading to a world where success in career terms at least will be harder than ever to achieve. Are we simply producing generations destined to be frustrated by over-expectation, on the back of a heap of promises we really can’t fulfil? Or worse, are we simply enabling those who can to pull ever further away from the rest and then pull the ladder up – as indeed they are doing? Maybe we should be trying to educate people for a different kind of success altogether – say, the ability to live a fulfilled life on their own terms rather than somebody else’s (which need not depend on being highly academically educated) – or indeed just leave them to muddle through as people always have, and which they probably ultimately still will?

Consequently, I am less and less certain about the huge amount of work that is going in to pinning down what successful teaching supposedly is – and not only for the above reasons. I cannot see how it is anyone’s gift to decide on another’s behalf what they have successfully learned. The only person who knows what I know or can do, to what extent, and what value this represents, is me, no matter whether I am a pupil or a teacher. Granted, immature children may not always know what use they can make of the experience – but then, adults may not always fare much better on that front. That’s the oblique and unforeseeable nature of Reality…

All this makes me increasingly unsure, too, about the edifice that has been built around education, much of which, it seems to me has little to do with the simple-but-complex act of learning something, and much more to do with the careers and institutions of those who make it their living. It is becoming an organism whose main purpose it its own self-perpetuation – a consequence, I suspect, of the ultra-specialisation and resultant tunnel-vision of modern society.

I think that it is this which has caused the whole concept of learning to be made so complicated: not necessarily cynically, but because it provides a greater sense of reward and purpose for those who are professionally engaged in it. And unfortunately, I feel that this and real learning have come increasingly to work against each other: the web of proxy-measures and success-indicators for learning is only moving us further and further away from the almost-naive creation of the simple situations where actual, real learning can take root if it will.

The same could be said for the techniques which we are urged to use: just how complicated do they need to be? The profession is rapidly vanishing up its own backside on this one. It seems to me that a lot of the voice that we attribute to children within the process is actually that of adult educators (mis)appropriating the young for their own ends. Day in, day out, I am left with the impression that children are still far less canny than we suggest: the sometimes over-critical or even cynical insights and demands we project onto them may say more about us than them. For even able, older children their real expectations of their time in school seem to me to remain naively human – yes, precisely: childish.

Many of the over-complex approaches that are being tried are more an expression of what adults want from the system in terms of validation, than anything I suspect the majority of children would say they wanted if they were really asked. Children are still at the early stages of finding their way in a confusing world: expecting them to have complex insights into their own learning – or indeed how they are planning the rest of their lives – is utterly unrealistic, derived from an educationalist’s perspective, not a child’s.

What’s more, when it comes to methods, our single biggest advantage lies not with the teacher, but with the pupil – the fact that people do learn: automatically. All the time. Indeed, the young in particular of all species learn very quickly, for reasons that are nothing to do with the quality of the teacher. But they also do it by one simple, untaught mechanism: imitation. They see what others do, and attempt to do the same. No lesson objectives, no peer-assessment, no exam results.

Remembering this could recalibrate our professional compass when it comes to assessing how learning takes place, and how much success can really be claimed by or for the teacher. It does however seem to me to be a major justification for teacher-led learning, for without effective modelling of how to do things, what will the young imitate? And it might also lead us to give more attention to the wider example we set in their presence. I suggest that the oft-heard saying, “You remember the teacher before you remember the lesson” might give credence to this. Role-models are important; giving a sense of purpose and direction is more important than which particular memory-tricks we employ.

There are only two immutable things that we need to bequeath to the next generation, and they are nothing much to do with the specifics of the school system: we need to cultivate in them a desire to know more – and in order to do that, we first need to cultivate the desire to question what they do – or don’t – already know. From this will come all the love of learning needed to develop a learned mind – and it is precisely the same thing that makes me doubt and question so much of what I continue to do. But we should accept that not all will be able or willing to do so.

I have not always made myself popular with my superiors because of my willingness (I would say need) to ask questions. It’s not that I set out to demolish their cases – just that I need to be persuaded that an approach is wise and worth it before I begin. It has often seemed that they wanted me simply to accept what I was told without question and do as I was instructed, and I wonder whether this was because those rationales simply weren’t robust in the first place. That, to me, seems just about as far removed from professional practice as it is possible to get. What is the point of educating people if blind obedience is all that will be expected of them? And what kind of an example is it to set to young people to behave that way ourselves? We need to live the lives we would wish them to live.

So it is not that I oppose the system per se, it is just that I need to exercise my professional and intellectual faculties to evaluate – as far as one can – whether a course of action seems plausible. It is not as though we have never been misled before…

Unfortunately, the more time progresses, and the more the perpetual wrangling over purpose, technique and evaluation within teaching continue, the less convinced I am that this ‘profession’ really has much idea of what it is doing at all. Given the nature of our activity, that is not entirely surprising – we can’t foresee the future and we can’t really control what people learn, or what they ultimately do with it. The whole thing is fundamentally and unalterably speculative. What depresses me is the inability to accept as much, the need to impose unproven views on others, and the need to create spurious illusions of control and ‘purpose’ where none can ever really exist. I recoil from the level of general compulsion that the system seems to think it needs; the apparently-growing belief (admittedly not restricted just to schools) that coercion is the best way to achieve ‘results’, no matter how it tramples on people’s legitimate sovereignty, seems to me a tacit admission of failure by a sector that has stopped listening to its own message.  We really should not need to be reminded that force is the resort of the weak and unthinking.

Of course it is not possible to run organisations on hot air and dreams. Somewhere along the way, concrete decisions need to be made. But over-simplistic and possibly inaccurate ones are little better than having none at all. Running education as though it is simply a matter of machine-maintenance is to grossly miscomprehend the factors involved.

For all that I frequently disagree with his intermittent management-speak, the likes of John Tomsett remind us that it is possible to retain one’s earnest curiosity about the learning process, and a humility that admits no-one knows it all, despite having drunk from the poisoned chalice. But I fear he is rare; many more seem to exercise power without either any real appreciation that the situations they are attempting to control are far more complex and nuanced than the average management manual might suggest, or any apparent awareness of the cognitive flaws that they fall for time and time again. Or even any awareness that such things exist in the first place.

My scepticism is not destructive; it only ever seeks better ways of doing things. It is based on a hors d’ouevres of ideological implausibility, a main course of the sheer practical, self-contradicting impossibility of what is being demanded, and a dessert of seeing the real, human cost to committed professionals of this dog’s dinner. What kind of rational system, for example, demands deep, considered, methodical work from its practitioners but scarcely gives them time to catch breath, let alone thought – and then penalises them heavily for the occasional failure?

Forget aping medicine or business: the point at which this profession will mature and become worthy of the term is the point when it ceases trying to be something it isn’t, and starts getting to grips with what it is. I’m not hopeful that will be within my career-time.

If you were starting from scratch, are you sure you would really design it to be the way it is?

 

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7 thoughts on “Are you sure? Are you really sure? (part 2)

  1. Blimey. This is very thoughtful. At times, it’s also very dark, and my initial reaction to this bit was negative :

    “But of course we continue to labour with the notion of the ‘noble savage’ when it comes to our pupils. How much of the self-flagellation that goes on about the failure of education to tackle the supposed lack of opportunity is really the failing of the system – or are we simply asking too much of it? How many of those ‘educational failures’ are caused more by the singular refusal of the individuals concerned to be educated than the failure of teachers to overcome this? And how much right do we really have to impose a one-size fits all solution on them? After all, much of the work they seem destined to spend their lives doing is being increasingly deskilled, and not everyone can (or needs to) be a Professor. If those individuals, even as children, refuse the opportunities they are given, is that really our fault? Plenty of other European societies would seem to think not. We can offer – but should we really impose?”

    But I think further on, you add important nuance to this when discussing role-models. I agree that it’s almost impossible to coerce information into an unreceptive/unwilling mind (although I think it can occasionally be placed there by trickery). However, as you go on to say, perhaps the most important role of the teacher is to model/inform behaviours which will allow the door to be opened from the inside :

    “There are only two immutable things that we need to bequeath to the next generation, and they are nothing much to do with the specifics of the school system: we need to cultivate in them a desire to know more – and in order to do that, we first need to cultivate the desire to question what they do – or don’t – already know. From this will come all the love of learning needed to develop a learned mind – and it is precisely the same thing that makes me doubt and question so much of what I continue to do. But we should accept that not all will be able or willing to do so.”

    This is approximately where I’ve ended up, I think. Trying to model an inquisitive and acquisitive mind, a questioning of orthodoxy, and a profound contempt for unreasoned or unsupported opinions, practises or beliefs. And I think teachers CAN model this, although I’m loathe to say so, because before we know it, some plonker from the NCTL or Ofsted will be along to set targets for it and demand it is observed by people who wouldn’t recognise such modelling if it dressed in a tutu and bit them on the nose.

    The latter half of your views I agreed with almost entirely, and I absolutely loved this :

    “I recoil from the level of general compulsion that the system seems to think it needs; the apparently-growing belief (admittedly not restricted just to schools) that coercion is the best way to achieve ‘results’, no matter how it tramples on people’s legitimate sovereignty, seems to me a tacit admission of failure by a sector that has stopped listening to its own message. We really should not need to be reminded that force is the resort of the weak and unthinking….”

    In fact, there’s quite a lot here I wish I’d written myself. So I hope you don’t mind that I’ve reblogged it in the hope that some of my own blog’s readers will similarly by challenged to thought and maybe reaction.

    • You’re very kind, and no I don’t mind at all. To be honest, I’m feeling pretty bleak at present, but the purpose of this is not to be negative, as you spotted. There *has* to be a better way of ‘doing education’, but I think it would need a rethink of this depth before it could happen. Some of the assumptions and things that don’t work are just too embedded otherwise.

      Kind regards
      T.P.

  2. Reblogged this on Disappointed Idealist and commented:
    This is the second part of a long and really thoughtful blog by a secondary teacher not a million miles away from me in age and outlook. It seems rather dark, almost pessimistic, at first, but if one perseveres, then I think there’s some fundamental truths in here.

  3. I think this is an interesting take on education, generally. It appears that very little is known for certain. But, if parents are keen on education and associate it with improving opportunity, there is a better chance that their children will also think so, and take their education seriously…and then do better (even if the education isn’t directly responsible for the outcome….but it might be). It appears that education is a feature of civilised societies, but that economic success per se is only weakly correlated (a strong law of property appears to be more important, for example). But, this just shows how complicated everything is, rather than showing that education is not important. In some ways, the education system of a nation signals how much respect the nation has for its constituent parts (its people), and when people think that they are respected and valued they are more successful…(?)

    Intuitively, it is hard to believe that education isn’t very important for the health of a nation. However, as a Scientist I know that intuition can be completely wrong. To end on a positive note: there appears to be change afoot.

    • Thanks for your comment. My post wasn’t meant to be as dark as it seems it reads, though I admit I’m not at my most optimistic at present!

      Someone once said, if you doubt the effect of education, just look at a country that doesn’t have it. There’s a lot of truth in that – and even those behaving badly at Gatwick were no doubt mostly able to do the Three R’s. That’s helpful – but there’s a big difference between the aggregate functional effects of education and the impact it does or doesn’t have on individuals. I’m still grappling with the relationship between the two.

      But I think if we’re really serious about improving education, we need to go right back to the most basic assumptions of all about what it is and does, because the more I teach the less certain I am that some of them are right. That may be why we are producing people – even supposedly educated ones – who seem capable of the most thoughtless, inconsiderate, selfish and unenlightened behaviour in society.

      In particular, I think we need to deal with the ‘small’ problem that you can’t educate people who refuse to learn. I’m not saying we should stop trying to change that, but it might redress a very important imbalance, and make us look elsewhere for both causes and solutions.

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