Fish64 recently pointed me towards Dylan Wiliam’s sexily-titled book Embedded Formative Assessment  (thanks) but being stingy, I took a ‘look inside’ on Amazon first… Chapter One begins:

Wiliam 5

Two things struck: Wiliam talks about ‘educational achievement’ and not education; I assume this is intentional. I concede that I have not read the rest, but on this showing I am not inclined to.

Secondly, I wonder what Wiliam thinks about the education that leads to the all-important ‘achievement’. How does reading Shakespeare’s plays or studying the customs of rainforest peoples lead to ‘achievement’? Perhaps he has the times-tables more in mind, but then he is a mathematician…  I’m also curious about how he manages to define achievement so precisely. Maybe I should read it after all.

He continues:

Wiliam 6

Now, he may be right about the harsh economic realities of the world. I don’t think many would contest the need to be self-supporting, nor that reducing unnecessary burdens on the State is undesirable. Nor is it wrong to look to the future, though Dylan risks falling prey to the ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ fallacy.

But I read with a heavy heart. For if these are the only reasons that an eminent educationalist can find to justify educating people, then we really are in trouble. Becoming an educated person has been subordinated to the abstract of ‘achievement’; in this view, the day-to-day reality of teaching real children in real classrooms has no other purpose than to stave off macro-scale socio-economic disaster.

I do not get up on dark January mornings with such utterly miserable aims in mind.

For all that these things are undoubtedly useful by-products of what we do, to have sunk to such utilitarian depths fills me with despondency. Are we really suggesting that the pleasure to be had from an appreciation of poetry or world culture or scientific insight is of no higher use that keeping the pay-cheques rolling in? And in any case, global trends are tending to de-skill most work, not the opposite – so will more education really help?

At present, I am loosely privy to investigations into under-achievement in older students. My reluctance to discuss specifics makes it difficult to be more precise, but I know this group well and have worked with its predecessors for over 25 years, longer than anyone else involved. I have noticed changes from close at hand; I have views on what the issues are, supported by an accumulated back-catalogue of comment and discussion.

Here we have a microcosm of the wider problem: those addressing the issue have tried any number of technical fixes and none has worked. The thinking seems to be that what is needed is more control, more coercion and less freedom. The solution is seen in changing the procedures.

I beg to differ. Both this approach and Dylan Wiliam’s book are missing something essential, namely that education is about people, not machines. In fact, people generally intensely dislike being treated as though they are machines. I don’t care how many books dissecting the human mind tell us that it is all a matter of brain chemistry and cold behaviouralism: people do not experience life like this, and therefore do not understand it thus.

Those who believe people can be engineered in this way, and that successful education is simply a matter of getting the systems right, miss the vital point. What is actually needed is more emphasis on the intrinsic life-affirming qualities of education, and less on the dull routines. The situation I described above is both a delicious and an exasperating example of the limitations of the technocrat’s world-view, the most striking evidence yet that my instincts are correct. I am simultaneously bathing in schadenfreude and wishing I could do more to help.

My certainty comes from two sources: in a rather oblique way, I asked the students for their perceptions. I am in a slightly unusual position, one that perhaps gains me answers they wouldn’t give under more senior scrutiny; more of this anon.

The second source is even simpler: the experience of the other human beings enduring similar difficulties: their teachers.

Teaching is often described, with reason, as the most satisfying of occupations, and yet many of the teachers I know best sound increasingly sick to the back teeth of it. I will not mince my words: I know many dedicated, competent and hard-working teachers who seem utterly hacked off with the way their chosen profession is going.

It’s not the teaching, nor for the most part the pupils. And I’m not even aiming for the easy (management) target – but the fact is, the whole joyous ensemble has been reduced to little more than an unremitting grind by the sheer pointless tedium of the production-line mentality.

This most creative and intellectually stimulating of activities is having every last breath of life squashed from it by the endless, grinding routine of targets, reviews, initiatives and yet more targets. The pleasure of learning has been replaced by the fear of failure, curiosity usurped by the dullness of tick-box and target review. And so far, I’m only taking about the teachers.

When I asked the students what they felt was important they were forthright:

  • Schools that feel like a community not an exam factory.
  • Teachers who know you as a person not an exam target.
  • A regime that does not threaten and constrain as its way of ‘motivating’.
  • Interesting things to learn, from teachers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.
  • And they were honest enough to admit that their own motivation was key: without it, no amount of coercion will work; with it, none is necessary.

There are other subtexts – but the fundamentals are little different from how the teachers are feeling about their work. It is about nothing more than the basic considerations of the ‘Humane Factor’.

We might learn two things:

  1. Forcing people to teach or learn (well) doesn’t work.
  2. Paying people, whether in certificates or salaries, is not enough either.

And this is precisely what the technocrats cannot see even when it is staring them in the face.

Both teachers and pupils are utterly beset by imposed diktats that sap their morale, kill their interest and reduce their work to little more than a chore for the sake of keeping their superiors off their backs. Each time they jump, the only response is ‘jump higher’. And we wonder why motivation evaporates…

I know from bitter experience, when you cloak education in bureaucracy and compulsion, it kills the vital interest STONE DEAD. The only motivation left is to survive in the bland and futile world that remains.

The most likely human reaction is to put the brakes on. There comes a point where enough is enough, where the tank is empty, where there simply is no more to give. And at that point, people start refusing to co-operate. They become desperate to preserve what remains of their autonomy and wider lives and if anything, commitment falls.

And the people who instigated these systems? They look on with puzzled expressions, wondering why their clever science and management algorithms no longer give the results they expect. But being products of a utilitarian world where nothing other than mechanical pragmatism and material outputs matter, they do not see. What’s more, though all this is hardly news (there is a large body of work from people like Daniel Pink on what really motivates people), they do not have the grace to listen to anyone who dares suggest that they have it wrong. Their only remedy is More of the Same.

I’m not given to sympathy for wide-eyed progressives who believe that education should be a process of indulgence, but this surely worse. I don’t believe we have an entitlement to a cushy life, but is this really the best the (arguably) most advanced civilisation the world has known can come up with for even its more privileged members?

To reduce one of the great civilising and cultivating forces of human existence to nothing more than an exercise in defensive utilitarianism is a catastrophe. It crushes the spirit – not that those responsible would understand, less care, for such concepts. It turns life to dull routine, grind, drudgery. It kills optimism and the genuine appetite for knowledge. We become just grist to a particularly faceless, mean-spirited mill. And it’s insidious: it reaches even into my weekend, when I sit down to plan the week’s lessons.

Wiliam’s error is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. True, the world around us is changing – but the basic needs of ordinary people really do not change very much. The basic functions of life remain broadly the same, as do those of the human mind, such as the ability to be motivated or bored, fascinated or uninspired.

There is very little point in trying to organise a small-scale, bespoke activity like teaching from the perspective of the macro-strategist. What is important is not whether economic Armageddon is being averted, but whether people are finding their education interesting, whether they are making sense of the world around them, whether they feel valued and cared for – and whether they can go on to live largely ordinary but fulfilled lives; this isn’t primarily about ‘achievement’.

The problems facing education are not those of macro economics. But in creating an education system predicated the converse, they have utterly failed to notice that these are not the things that inspire people, unlike the fascination that comes from a genuinely lively, humane mind. And if this comes good, most of those larger concerns will probably take care of themselves. You can only create an educated society by creating educated people. Yet the system has created such vast amounts of pointless busy-work that people scarcely have time to pay attention to the things that really do matter, such as the time to think deeply or to build meaningful relationships.

I don’t doubt that Dylan Wiliam is correct about the trends, but a much better approach would be to educate people for a world where they see different priorities, different ways of finding fulfilment and of supporting themselves. It means lifting our eyes from the ground – what education has long been about – not simply fixing them ever more firmly in the dirt. It may mean helping people to find fulfilment elsewhere than the shopping mall. Wiliam’s is an outlook based on an Affluenza-fear of losing what we have got – but the solution is not to make the anxiety greater.

This approach has turned education into little more than an unending cycle of grinding procedural drudgery. Willing workers have been turned into resentful slaves, and those responsible look on uncomprehendingly while their grandiose visions fail before their eyes, and then they crack the whip once more.

No wonder people are looking for ways out.



3 thoughts on “Grind

  1. I think what you are saying is that Wiliam’s ideas have led to tick box teaching, the worst example of which seems to be the PiXL organisation, which seems to believe that education is simply breaking everything down into can do statements on checklists which pupils and teachers have to tick off. I would agree it is a depressing approach to education which needs to be challenged, for all its supposed success. I am not actually sure whether that is what Wiliam intended and I enjoyed David Didau’s post on assessment for learning, which stated that it has become an unchallengeable orthodoxy in too many schools. I suppose it indicates that writers have to give thought as to how their ideas will be interpreted. For myself, I see nothing wrong with learners being aware where their strengths and weaknesses lie in each subject, but I believe that such strengths and weaknesses are too varied and broad to be reduced to tick boxes on a spreadsheet and I would say that formalised “target setting” has led to education becoming a drudgery for many.

    • Thanks for your comment. I hope I conceded that I need to read more of what Wiliam is actually saying, and that even if I am right, it is more a case of taking one’s eye off the ball than anything deliberate. But that is precisely where I think education is going wrong.

      I completely agree that a degree of self-awareness is part of learning, though whether it is as true of children as of adults, I’m less sure. But in some ways this is a classic case of over-analysis – too much obsessing about the ‘outcomes’ has no other effect than diverting from the path and pleasure of reaching them.

      In the end, I’m simply saying that all my experience (my own and those pupils I have most successfully engaged) points to the fact that *enjoyment* is a key part of the process, and ticking boxes does not create that for many. BY the way, I don’t equate enjoyment with making everything ‘fun’!

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