What if everything they told you….? (with apologies to David Didau)

I guess I had a pretty traditional up-bringing, being taught by my parents that adults were sensible people who knew what they were doing. O tempora! O mores!

I am increasingly of the view that the vast mass of humanity actually has very little idea at all what it is up to, something that education has so far only managed to fiddle with around the edges. One might have thought, however, that those who put themselves forward for positions of power or responsibility would have had an above-average grasp of the larger tides of human affairs, and have been aware of the various ways of interpreting them. It seems maybe not.

Naturally there are differing, sometimes competing readings of the world, and it is unlikely that there will ever be consensus on the way forward – but one might have expected those with the power to make significant decisions at least to have considered a range of alternatives. It seems that even that is too much to hope for. In recent months, I have had several conversations with people both in and out of education, where an awareness of some pretty important ideas was most conspicuous by its absence.

I accept that my tendency to home in on alternative views perhaps sends me in less-trodden directions. I do this not because I am a serial rebel, but because I believe that one has an educated duty at least to find out what those alternatives are, particularly when the present choice seems not to be working very well. And I am not talking about obscure issues; Oliver James (Affluenza), Daniel Pink (Drive), Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Margaret Heffernan (Wilful Blindness) are hardly insignificant – and yet the vast majority of people, even within the profession, seem never to have heard of them. As I said, one might have thought that those charged with making significant decisions would have at least ranged widely before settling their own outlooks.

And yet ideas that people work best when nurtured rather than put-upon, that intrinsic motivations normally out-strip extrinsic ones, that internal challenge is a key driver of human actions, or that management often cannot/chooses not to see as much as it thinks – seem widely unknown. I am not suggesting that everyone should agree with these ideas – but one might expect them to have at least been considered before adopting the opposite.

I am making further progress through Ha-Joon Chang’s book, and I am increasingly impressed by his critical but balanced approach to the ‘truths’ upon which much contemporary social and economic policy is based. He has just addressed the relationship between education and economic growth, upon which much recent policy in Britain has been based.

He dismantles the claim that education is the key to economic growth, examining the many cases where growth occurred despite a lack of education. He dismisses claims that the modern ‘knowledge economy’ changes the game – salient knowledge has always been the source of competitive advantage, he says, so nothing new there. What is more important is the structure within which it is deployed.

He goes on to discuss the weak and unimportant link between what is taught in schools and workplace skills. He argues that it is usually generic skills that give graduates the edge, rather than subject expertise. It cannot be otherwise, since workplaces are too diverse ever to be catered for at school level, even university level, and their specific demands can often only be learned on the job. It is an error to believe otherwise.

He examines the case of Switzerland, which has achieved the world’s highest economic productivity and yet has one of the lowest rates of university enrolment. Until 1996, it was just 16%. (He does rather ignore that country’s extensive system of vocational training – but this is not inconsistent: work-specific training has a better chance of driving economic growth than the general education that schools can offer). Chang offers wider examples that suggest that education is a very weak driver of economic growth, and that research has failed to find much correlation between growth and even fairly concrete measures such as maths scores. If we want to head in that direction, maybe we should take note.

Yet Chang is not arguing for less education. He says it is one of the most important things a society can provide for its people – but its benefits are not primarily economic. Education’s role is to broaden and enrich people’s lives in ways that material wealth alone cannot. Its main economic contribution is indirect: the creation of a contented and independent population/workforce that lives balanced lives and has the perspective to understand that good economic functioning is an important but not unique aspect in a well-lived life.  Knowing Switzerland well, I would say this is a very apparent characteristic of that country (but not of the U.K).

Chang argues that the drive to increase participation in higher education has also been misplaced. The economic role of education, he says, is largely limited to indicating to employers the level of skill they might expect from a given individual; all the growth of higher education has done is to dilute the skill-set one might expect of a graduate – and having a regular news-feed from our local university, this would seem to be the case. The result has simply been degree-inflation and the down-grading of graduate status. Further evidence that more education can even be economically counter-productive.

Chang’s view is of course only one among many – and yet it seems to me that he and the many others who are arguing for different approaches are systematically ignored by those who actually make policy, be that governments or individual school managers. What’s more, at the risk of my own confirmation-bias, I would say that it seems like common-sense to individuals like me who think a lot about such matters – and yet even within our own establishments, we are too often voices in the wilderness.

At a time when many social and economic problems seem more intractable than ever, one might have thought it wise at least to be casting around for as many views as possible – but bitter experience tells me that entrenched dogma seems to be the order of the day. Those who reach positions of power do not necessary know better than – or perhaps even as well as – some of the rest of us. Is it just ambition or ruthlessness, rather than breadth of vision that allows them to rise, thereby perpetuating one (often harshly Darwinian) view at the expense of the others?

What price enlightened decision-making?

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