Forever blowing bubbles…?

Priceline.com was an online company that sold excess airline capacity. By the year 2000, the stock market had capitalised it to the tune of $150bn, or more than the value of the entire airline industry. That was, of course, before the dot-com crash of that year. A similar effect was seen pre-2008, when Northern Rock amassed loan liabilities of over £100bn on assets of a mere £1.5bn.

Reading further into Aeron Davis’ book, it becomes clear how such bubbles arise: herd behaviour dictates that more and more people pour investments into a company simply because others are doing the same. Even though people know this is risky behaviour, the short-term consequences of not doing so, in terms of lost shareholder confidence – and thereby even senior jobs, are too great. Bad practice is thus actively rewarded – and when the crash ultimately comes, those at the top simply blame everyone else, walk away, and move on to their next executive post.

In both crashes, there were a few individuals who warned of what was to come, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. They tended to make lower returns – and thus paid with their jobs, in some cases a matter of weeks before they were proved right.

Education can’t have bubbles like this – or can it? Reading Davis’ account, I could not help but consider the possibility that it does, in the form of ideologies. The recent history of education is one of a sequence of fads that gained traction, and were wheeled out across the nation via the networking of senior managers and agenda-shapers. We have seen AfL, The Growth Mindset, Effect Sizes, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats, peer-assessment, green pens, triple marking and more follow this trajectory. Sometimes they originate in research, but quite often they seem to generate their own self-justifying ‘evidence base’ which is used to bludgeon people into compliance. For a few years, everyone piles into the latest idea, whose supposed value rapidly balloons until no one who claims to be serious about education can afford not to be doing it – and talking about it incessantly. Some build entire reputations on such behaviour.

And then the bubble bursts – not so much from financial unviability, but because the fad turns out to be unworkable, or because it does not after all deliver the demonstrable improvement in learning that it promised. I have sat in meetings where certain stellar individuals openly panned the very ideas they had been championing just a few years earlier – but by then they were onto the Next Big Thing, their careers safely intact, unlike the sanity of those who had been charged with implementing their now-disowned schemes. The collateral damage is not so much out-of-pocket shareholders as out-of-education teenagers whose schooling experience was badly distorted by such recklessness, not to mention the frazzled lives of teachers who were required to jump through yet more hoops in the process.

There are bubbles of different sizes too. Those within individual schools may be of quite some concern – but the impact of, for example, the bubble that promoted Free Schools is another matter entirely – in this case the disrupted education of those whose schools are increasingly closing mid-way through exam courses. Those consequences are not imaginary.

In all cases, education bubbles are caused in precisely the same way as financial ones: fads that no one can be seen to be ignoring, that create bandwagons of questionable practice, which can only have one conclusion. Yet everyone is required to take them deadly seriously at the time. One might have hoped for something more considered from the thinking part of society, but it seems the pressures for herd behaviour and the desire of some to build reputations and careers are just too strong.

And as in the financial sector, those who refuse to go along are penalised for their restraint with lost career progression and in some cases their jobs, for not using enough green pen, or not using group work, or failing to cook their pupils’ data records to satisfy the target-mongers. Let alone what befalls those who stand up and publicly say that the whole thing is wrong.

Oops. That’s getting personal again.

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