Occasionally, while writing a blog post, I find I’ve written something that on second thought has greater significance than it seemed at the time. A case in point was the phrase used in my previous post, “The journey is the destination”. It’s hardly original, but perhaps worthy of further thought.
A couple of mornings ago, the Today Programme covered the latest claims from some M.P.s that High Speed 2 (the proposed new London – Manchester/Leeds rail line) “does not represent good value for money”, with the implication that therefore it should not be built.
The problems with this are twofold. Firstly, there is the assumption that Value for Money is a relevant, even defining, factor. In fact, there may be many other criteria which justify its construction: anyone who has travelled on French or German high speed trains will know just how excellent they are from a passenger’s perspective, whether or not they make money. Yes, a British ‘Pacer’ local train may get you to the same destination (eventually) as the new Intercity Express – but the actual experience of getting there most definitely won’t be the same. Not that speed is everything, of course.
Secondly, there is the implied certainty in the claim, even though it involves making predictions about a project that will take many years even to construct.
Cost-Benefit Analyses are being done by organisations all the time. Government is a past master at them, as they supposedly represent an evidence-based approach to effective management of national expenditure. They have also become extremely complex, and I don’t pretend to understand their intricacies. The results they yield, normally expressed as a multiplier factor of benefit to cost (as in 4.3 : 1), look precise, and seem increasingly to be accepted without question. But quite apart from the questionable possibility of quantifying the future, one needs to remember that the interpretation remains totally subjective. Discussions about the value of productively-used time on trains are immutable, as are the financial figures attached to things like environmental benefits.
And the threshold for what is considered to justify investment is, as far as I can tell, entirely arbitrary and subject if nothing else, to political expediency. Moreover, CBAs attempt to second-guess uncertainty by incorporating elements such as ‘Optimism Bias’, which is a figure inserted supposedly to counteract the effects of excessive enthusiasm. On what grounds such figures are arrived at, is unclear – but they can make or break a project.
They can still be spectacularly wrong. Cost-overruns on governmental computer systems and the now-closed Millennium Projects are examples, while a classic is the Channel Tunnel, which has never reached its predicted traffic levels – largely because when the CBAs were done, nobody foresaw the emergence of low-cost airlines and the global shift to China. No amount of complex analyses will make the future any less of a Black Swan. On the other hand, the London Eye was meant to be temporary but proved to be so popular that it was retained, while Andy Scott’s Kelpies sculpture near Falkirk has proved wildly more popular than predicted and the local authority is now hastily developing expanded visitor facilities.
The education sector has been blighted by bogus quantification. We too like to imply that the future is certain, and that pupils’ educational results are a matter of when rather than if. It makes schools look as though they are in control, that they can deliver a predictable ‘product’. But I don’t think this helps because it can cause complacency, while unrealistic targets can demotivate if they are taken too seriously. The presence of such bogus certainty can create an intractable sense of destiny, and if the future does indeed turn out unexpectedly, the consequences can be far-reaching.
Assuming we are not going to scrap the procedures entirely, we desperately need an optimism bias to counter practices such as the arbitrary rounding up of targets for no better reason than “that’s what we feel we should be aiming for” – which is hardly scientific.
But there’s a deeper level of concern. The focus on ‘destinations’ diverts the attention from the journey of getting there. The whole of the Research drive in education is inextricably linked with the assumption that outcomes are what matter; the process of reaching them is treated as no more than a means to an end. One wonders what will happen if the most learning-efficient processes turn out to be morally or ethically unacceptable.
Yet given that all of us only have one ultimate destination, one could argue that it’s what happens along the way that is of more importance – at least if you’re not religious. The process of becoming – and remaining – educated is arguably more important than any one destination that it might have. It’s the experience of doing it, every day, that arguably offers greatest rewards. And destinations are, in any case, as numerous as people – so just as with ‘cost-effectiveness’, on what grounds are the assumptions justified?
Yet all sorts of arbitrary destinations are being used, be they exam results, inspection outcomes, career objectives or that ultimate measure of arbitrariness: “success”. It’s not completely unhelpful to set objectives, of course, as they clearly create the impetus to get things done. But we should perhaps pay more attention to their mostly arbitrary and rarely final nature. Even where major investment predictions have proved catastrophically wrong, life generally went on; fudges were developed to explain why – when theory fails to live down to real life, it is ultimately the theory that has to give.
While the question, “To travel or to arrive?” has two valid answers (and each may be appropriate in different circumstances) we need at least to ensure that the choice remains, either for what is necessary on specific occasions, or just for what people might choose. The quality of the journey can be valuable in its own right, no matter where we are going.
The more I think about this analogy, the more traction it gains. Which is more important: the supposed ‘outcome’ of a lesson – or the educational experience that the pupils have on the way? How do we treat lessons that might offer great views, but where they destination isn’t especially exciting? Let alone lessons/journeys made entirely for the pleasure of doing so, where there is no especial destination? I’m not advocating specific teaching styles here, but from a philosophical point of view, ensuring that we balance the experience of learning with the more utilitarian aspect of ‘objectives’ is perhaps more important than we presently consider. We tend to obsess about punctuality (and indeed this may sometimes matter) – but does a few minutes’ lateness really matter, if we gained from a pleasant journey?
It seems to me that we in education have become so focussed on the supposed destinations of the educative process that we have neglected the quality of the journey. I would go so far as to claim that for many children, it is the experience of school that is more important than the pieces of paper they end up with; it’s only the adults who obsess about the latter, even if it rubs off on some pupils. Those who have had a good journey may be more likely to keep on travelling than those who took the short-cut, seemingly reaching the same place, but who missed out on the experience. I often encounter such people struggling to come to terms with ‘A’ levels…
It is easy to dismiss those who object to the target culture, but there is a perfectly sustainable objection based on the unreliable assumptions that such predictions cannot avoid. Given the unreliability of futurology and the finality of our ultimate destination, one might argue that what we do along the way is all that matters. In education the journey is (at least) as important as the destination.