Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.

Advertisements

Missing the Point

Following our new-found political involvement, my wife and I have been bombarded with emails from the various Labour candidates. We are taking our responsibility seriously, and so in the interests of balance went to hear one of the ‘other’ candidates speak locally last Friday. I was genuinely open to persuasion but am afraid it was not an inspiring experience, and if anything it reinforced my view that we desperately need something other than ‘the usual suspects’.

The meeting was packed, and on that front at least, I would hope that the Labour Party and the country in general would see that the ‘Corbyn Effect’ has been good in terms of political engagement. But the fact that even the Labour establishment is closing its ears to the voice of a significant number of people simply because they don’t believe that those people are important in terms of wining Power, is a cause for concern – and yet another failing of our all-or-nothing political system.

As an elector, I wanted to hear substantive reasons why I should vote for the candidate concerned, but what we got was largely platitude and an emotive appeal for support based on assertion and with little strong or specific reasoning. One should acknowledge the limits on what can be discussed in a public meeting – but the depressing shallowness of the speaking was only matched by the toothlessness of most of the questioning: a serious, critical evaluation of a potential prime minister this was not. The other dispiriting thing was the partisan-ship; while it was to be expected at what was effectively a party rally, I don’t like tribalism at the best of times – but much of what came across was raw prejudice rather than any form of considered debate. So much for the critical skills of even the more politically-motivated part of the populace; maybe we need compulsory Critical Thinking For All.

From my educator’s point of view, the candidate sealed his/her own fate. A question was raised by a young woman clearly just out of school; it concerned the angst being experienced by British teenagers, complete with accounts of depression and self-harm among her friends. The question was not clearly-worded, but to my ears it referred to the pressure that young people are being put under by the corporate targets culture; she went as far as to say that she had hated her own school experience.

Unfortunately, the speaker totally failed to register this and proceeded to trot out the usual platitudes about holding schools to account and ensuring that all young people have good opportunities – for which the solution apparently is undiluted support for the comprehensive system without any visible awareness that that system, or at least the culture it has bred, is perhaps part of the problem. I sympathised with opposition to the academy system – but there was no apparent awareness that the solutions to educational problems are pedagogic rather than political or managerial.

Until we have politicians who genuinely understand that the solutions to such problems cannot come from managerialism but have to start with the re-empowerment of people like classroom teachers to do their job as best their individual vocation and intellects permit, nothing much is likely to change. And while their policies create false incentives for the management of institutions such as schools, that often make teaching more difficult and onerous that it need be, this will not happen. Unfortunately, the candidate on Friday showed no awareness of this whatsoever, which in turn only reinforced my opinion that ‘business as usual’ will no longer do.

At least Corbyn seems to be aware of that.

The Golden Watch

Some years ago, we used to use an exercise called The Golden Watch as an ice-breaker at sixth-form induction. It established a moral dilemma over acting honestly in a workplace situation. There was clearly a ‘right’ solution, but my abiding memory is of the significant numbers of students who failed to choose it. On more than one occasion, the view was voiced that it’s only wrong to cheat if you get caught;  well, I suppose this is an area where many parents work in The City…

But in my naivety, I was repeatedly shocked at the number of (one might hope idealistic) young people whose moral compass appeared so different from my own.

I have worked my entire career in a climate of Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and in close proximity to the national (if not global) hub of it all at that. On turning eighteen, I voted for Thatcher during her first two terms – having grown up during the retrenchment of the Seventies, the bright new ways of the Eighties offered a shiny optimism I hadn’t experienced in Britain before. I also remember on entering the teaching profession, a number of colleagues struggling even to make themselves speak to me once this news was out.

Yet, I find myself this weekend in the somewhat surprising position of being labelled (by proxy) ‘Hard Left’. Yes, I am one of the several hundred-thousand who have affiliated to the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger unexpectedly leading in the leadership contest. Ironically, I suspect that it is now some of my younger colleagues who are going to refuse to speak to me on the outing of this news – and I thought one is supposed to become more conservative as one grows older…

I have always had reservations about teachers being politically active; it is within their personal rights of course, but the conflation of teaching with political indoctrination has always been rather close for comfort. I certainly remember some teachers who did not always stay on the right side of that line.

But I also consider that I have a wider societal responsibility as a supposedly- educated professional. I have seen the changes wrought during decades of free-market doctrine. I’m not suggesting that these were solely caused by specific political policies – but there can be little doubt that this country’s chosen path has made it more possible for certain trends to emerge than might otherwise have been the case. The worrying thing is the self-perpetuating consensus that has taken hold that there is no other way, and which is endlessly repeated by commerce – and all of the mainstream political parties. As impartial educators, we have a duty to encourage the questioning of such claims.

I know other even wealthier countries, and have observed numerous cohorts of their young from close quarters. I know that the values the students expressed in The Golden Watch are by no means equally prevalent everywhere, and while increasing wealth does not inevitably bring greater social responsibility, it does not have to bring greater amorality either. It’s more a matter of the thinking that is encouraged about how that wealth should be made, and how it should be used. As one writer to The Independent put it, it’s about whether we want to become more like Denmark or the U.S.- and this is, to my mind, clearly an educational question.

I no more have an answer than anyone else to the deep philosophical conflict between social solidarity and individual opportunity, but I am certainly not ‘intensely relaxed’ about living in a society where the few are ‘filthy rich’ (to quote New Labour’s Peter Mandelson) – at least while inequality is a great as now. The privatised market-economy simply has not delivered what was claimed – and if anything has decreased opportunity, increased costs and coarsened life for the majority. Utilitarianism – whether from politicians or sixth-formers – may appear to be a practical answer to modern problems until one realises that ‘ends justifying means’ effectively unleashes a race to the bottom in terms of the moral and democratic benchmarks of society.

I find it difficult to support the rampant individualism pedalled by my (as no doubt many) schools, when it leads young people to have no higher principles than those I described earlier; this is a product of an Affluenza mentality that promotes self-interest (even in academic performance) as more important than anything else. But I work in education to further a fair and just society, where honesty, authenticity and the life of the mind are valued – not the kind of debased dog-eat-dog, society-as-market-transaction that has now taken hold. Many of the people currently ringing the alarms about the supposed resurgence of the hard left themselves seem so deeply saturated in market values, that they simply cannot conceive of anything else. And it is just not acceptable for people who dissent from this not to be able either to advance their arguments or to expect to be represented.

Corbyn is simply expressing values that I agree with, and he has a plain-talking sincerity that other glossy, career-politicians clearly just don’t ‘get’. I admire his refusal to engage in negative campaigning – and I would have been attracted to this no matter what party he represented. The crude, false-dichotomy terms in which much debate in British public life is now couched must itself raise concerns for the skewing effect it has on public understanding and debate. More than ever, we need an educated population that can cut through the c**p. It is not true, for instance, that all of Corbyn’s supporters are Militant Tendency cryogenes – some like me are just people who are fed up with a non-choice of self-aggrandising politicians and their unvarying diet of pulp commercialism.

Neither is it true that there is no alternative to the market society – it exists quite comfortably just across the Channel; is it a coincidence that those more ‘socialist’ societies are in many cases more stable, tolerant and outward-looking than our own? As a teacher, these are issues that deeply inform my professional purpose.

I do have concerns that the far-left would reassert progressive education, but hopefully the traditionalist genie is too firmly out of the bottle now to be put back. And this is certainly no more concerning than the deep damage that has been done to education by the imposition of market principles on what should be an impartial provider of social capital.

Corbyn’s actual electability is, in a sense, beside the point: what is important now is to create a wider choice within the British political system. The obsession with election-winning is understandable, but it also shows how far politics has moved away from the principle of democratic representation towards the sheer exercise of power. But people cannot vote for an alternative if one does not exist – and the overwhelming sense at the last election was that it would make no difference in the end who won…

In fact this surge of interest is precisely what good politics should be about – a genuine movement of the electorate wishing to express their views. The fact that the Party and the media are united in telling people that they are ‘thinking the wrong thoughts’ demonstrates the degree to which the tail of what is left of our democracy now wags the dog; as an educator, that is also something that I need to take seriously. On a more personal level, I am simply seizing the opportunity to express a preference that our broken electoral system denies, by virtue of my living in a ‘safe’ constituency.

I don’t apologise for being political here – it is a truism that politics affects education, and not just at a policy level. Both are fundamental forces that shape how we live, and the society of which we form part. This issue also shows how we need more complex insights than a simple Left/Right shouting-match. I see no conflict between my conservative-traditionalist teaching and my more liberal social views; I am certainly not ‘hard-left’ and even the label ‘Socialist’ does not sit easily. It is more complicated than that – for a start, old-school conservatism actually shares this sense of social responsibility.

The irony is not lost on me that in the process I seem to have ‘gone native’ as a teacher more fully than I ever expected. But how can one do this job without some sense of social idealism? And how can that square with a view of life as being just one long commercial transaction?

Education has an essential role to play in developing more complex insights in people, and at times like this, these are sorely needed. In other ways, we are witnessing the political system struggling to cope with the more complex motives and loyalties of ‘thinking people’.

I used to play a fuller part in this by teaching ‘A’ Level European Studies and Critical Thinking. But both courses have been scrapped or downgraded – you guessed it – thanks to (privatised) exam-board ‘market forces’.

No alternative to cheating unless you get caught? I don’t think so. Principles are important.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Political tribalism is, in many ways the antithesis of what education allegedly stands for. I hold by my perhaps-naive ideal that the purpose of my daily work is to develop in people the independence of mind to make their own decisions, rather than remain prisoner to those foisted on them by received wisdoms and historical precedent. I also equate that with a growing  breadth of vision, and a widening of horizons that hopefully lead to the realisation that one’s own interest is more than a simple matter of self-serving.

It is also evident to me that the resultant perspective is more likely to cross partisan boundaries than respect them. Thus, my own general perspective is progressive, even while I embrace a generally small-c conservative conception of what constitutes a good society. The values of fairness, compassion, the rule of law and a positive-default respect for one’s fellow citizens are not the exclusive property of any one political group, and they belong as much to the future as the past.

This belief in community extends to offering a real welcome to those who seek refuge or genuine self-improvement within our shores, and to working co-operatively within the family of European nations, from many of whom we can actually learn a lot. When it comes to Europe, it is this spirit of consensual co-operation that our petty, confrontational nation just does not ‘get’.

It involves supporting those who struggle within our society – for whatever reason – accepting that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor – and probably morally and intellectually indefensible while we persist with not making the same distinctions when it comes to the rich.

I cast my vote unwillingly, being deeply unimpressed with almost all of the choices in front of me – and as expected it made no difference at all; I am one of the millions disenfranchised by our current system. In the end, mine was a vote of principle, a call for more regard for our environment because if we get this wrong, the rest of human affairs amounts to little more than fiddling while Rome burns.

Yet conversely again, I believe that the best way to advance liberal societal views is through the use of long-established educational techniques. The surest way we have found to give people independence of mind is to equip them with rigorous critical skills and deep knowledge about the world within which they live.  In this way, they will be most able to draw their own conclusions – and, I hope, achieve the perspectives that understand why parochialism and narrow, material self-interest are not ultimately the best model for our species.

And with the same logic, I conclude that our education system – in its broadest sense meaning any and every way in which the young are inducted into the world – is failing as never before. Neither the progressive philosophy of magical self-discovery nor the narrowly economised approach of recent decades has made much headway against the ongoing descent of our nation into a factionalised, dysfunctional set of self-interested tribes, much as it was in primitive times.

The growth of rampant self-interest and the depth of approval for the winner-takes-all culture is, in my view just another sign of this nation’s retreat from compassionate, civilised values. It is also a sign of a society failing to cope with a changing world, and retreating yet further into illusory ‘certainties’. The dogma of yesterday’s election winners must carry the blame for having done more than most to further that – or at least for  failing to counter it.

In my view, teachers and academics should do their utmost to embody higher, more considered values, as part of their wider role within society – though this need not mean having no opinion. But if recent personal and online experiences are anything to go by, even this (theoretically) most altruistic of professions is now increasingly infiltrated by people who are really only in it for their own gain. The deteriorating conditions of employment of many, the increasing hegemony of a few all-powerful people, the disdain with which they treat their juniors – and the unprincipled machinations of those who aspire to join them – must be a concern for any who believe in a fair and principled society, most of all in a profession whose purpose is supposedly to provide positive role models.

I don’t see this improving in the next five years; as Clegg said, this is a victory for fear and regressive thinking. As such it represents a defeat for educated values.

If so, then I’m afraid I think our profession too, stands accused of adopting Nero’s approach to the growing conflagration.

The Best of all possible worlds

All nations tell stories about themselves: it is a way of creating a shared consciousness about their place in the world. Unsurprisingly nearly all of them paint the nation concerned as the most virtuous and blessed on the planet. They need not be encumbered by more sober appraisals of reality, and one might even observe that the more flattering the picture, the less so may be the reality – after all, those most in need of a good story are often those for whom reality is most wanting.

We British are no slouches when it comes to the national story. In fact we’ve been at it longer than many, since well before the appellation ‘Great’ was added to our name. And we still are – for what other purpose serves the current imperative to be teaching ‘British Values’ to our young, as if they were not the values of other civilised nations too?

The last time this issue arose, the best response I read was from the excellent Mark Steel in The Independent. Unfortunately, I can’t find it, but I can well imagine him talking a pot-shot at this latest incarnation: the current reality of the British Story includes the most polarised wealth of any nation in Europe, the longest working hours, some of the least secure employment, a political system increasingly unsuited to modern governance (which has repeatedly failed to be reformed) and a government that has periodically contemplated withdrawing from its people access to European Human Rights legislation that is apparently perfectly adequate for millions of others, even in countries supposedly much less satisfactory than our own.

I have recently been reading The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, a 1957 text appraising the ways in which working class life in Britain was changing in the post-war period. It became a classic of social analysis, and is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in social affairs, whether from an educational perspective or otherwise.

In many ways, Hoggart’s observations remain very relevant today, and the book was reprinted in 2009. Hoggart’s description of the remants of northern working-class life provide much food for thought on the matter of social progress, particularly considering the priority that has been (and still is) accorded to that matter as a supposed aim of mass education.

The second half of the book is a polemic against the loss of a humble but authentic way of life under the assault of the commercial vested interests that were starting to seep into British society, principally from America. This was the beginning of the hollowing out of society that arguably continues today.

Hoggart acknowledges the material improvements that were coming to ‘ordinary people’ at the time, relieving the drudgery of daily life – and the increased educational opportunities being afforded as mass access to secondary schools did indeed lift some out their uneducated state. However, he bemoans the fact that this occurred hand-in-hand with an almost irresistible commercialisation of life that neutralised much of the potential cultural and intellectual gain by appealing to the mass populace’s instincts for the low-brow. In one fell swoop, liberation by mass education was defeated by the self-interest of base commerce. One can argue that this too has continued – even strengthened – to the present day.

Hoggart has much to say about the educational system (he was an academic from a working-class background). Even then, he perceived in the application of education (and commerce) to those with little aptitude for it, as much the destruction of the authentic working class as a force for social progress. He argued that it removed people from their roots without ever allowing them to settle comfortably in their new social milieu. This is the story of my own parents, whom I know took decades to feel comfortable in the middle class surroundings in which they found themselves by dint of having become grammar-school teachers.

As the book progresses, Hoggart becomes rather condescending, but what he says does still resonate:

“the over-importance of examinations, the piling-up of knowledge and received opinions…a technique of apparent learning, of the acquisition of facts rather than the handling and use of facts.”

“[the scholarship boy] learns how to receive a purely literate education, one of using only a small part of his personality and challenging only a limited area of his being.” He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage…He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his pulses; he rarely discovers an author for himself and on his own…”

Hoggart invokes Herbert Spencer, who in the 1900s spoke of education thus:

“The established systems of education, whatever their matter may be, are fundamentally vicious in their manner. They encourage submissive receptivity instead of independent activity.”

I found myself wondering what has changed. It is a significant point: acquiring the trappings of education is of little consequence if one has no idea what to do with the thing itself.

One can perhaps read in such sentiments the origins of the progressive movement of the 1970s, but despite this (and its many failings) I fear that the current system of education is reverting rapidly to the earlier model. For all that I support the philosophy and methods of traditional teaching, my aim is to develop in my pupils the capacity for rigorous independent thought, and thereby an ability to become one’s own person. I do not believe it exists simply to validate small-minded institutional conformity.

If we remove for a moment the man-made structures that surround education, there can remain only one real purpose: the enhancement of individual lives. Humans are born with large and active brains; learning is not elective – it is instinctive. The purpose of any education system should therefore be to harness this capacity to permit the individual to lead a fulfilled life during his or her time on this planet, and (ideally) to assist others in doing the same.

I found myself wondering whether we have made any progress at all in this since the 1950s. In many ways, that was a time of optimism, perhaps the only period in recent British history when there was genuine social mobility, from which my own parents benefitted. Material progress has of course been mind-boggling since then – but I wonder whether it has really had much effect other than the diminution of the loftier aspirations in people’s lives. But as the unsentimental Hoggart points out, there was a large sector of the population that was not in the least interested in furthering itself – and again the same can possibly be said today.

As the many incurious young people that I encounter would suggest, material abundance seems to have done little but dull any interest in higher aspirations. The commercial world whose emergence Hoggart was witnessing has since sated the vast majority of people’s desires, while simultaneously dumbing down the diet so as to placate them in a fog of materialist self-satisfaction. When life‘s reward comes from the next iPhone or a flat-screen T.V. why worry about anything more abstract? Or as one student said to me this week, in what way might aspiring to earn £5 million a year be seen as an unreasonable life-goal?

I find myself wondering whether it is really worth trying to impose educated values on those who seem to have little real desire for them, any more now than in the 1950’s. Maybe we would be better concentrating on those (of any ability) who do show interest and promise?

The post-war idealism is long-gone. I find it hard to feel positive about a national story that is increasingly built on consumption-derived conformity and a lack of critical thought. Most worryingly, while the masses are glued to their flat screens, I suspect we are witnessing the emergence of a new aristocracy – that of the executive classes, who are increasingly cornering the real power and wealth, even in supposedly socially-orientated fields such as health and education. Several stories encountered this week point to the fact that management is increasingly becoming an end in its own right. It scarcely matters whether it is a school, hospital, university or commercial company – or indeed an entire nation; what is important is that it be managed, that its operatives be controlled and aligned with the corporate mission-statement, that the self-promotion of the organisation is more important than the substance of what it delivers.

Management too often feeds itself at the expense of its host; it is becoming a parasite on the real business of organisations. The platitudes may flow from those in charge, but words are cheap, and I might feel more convinced by their sincerity if those issuing them showed less need to regard themselves as deserving greater perks and vastly larger incomes than their minions. I might have more confidence in the mission statements if they didn’t come at the expense of the work-life balance, pay levels and sometimes even health of those lower down. Let alone the sometimes-demeaning treatment of those who for whatever reason do not play the corporate game.

It is particularly regrettable that education, an activity whose authentic goal is the intellectual liberation of the individual, is being increasingly misappropriated to serve the corporate power-dreams of a few, who are looking more and more like a detached cadre of self-aggrandising  fixers than an integral part of cohesive learning communities.

So much for an education system that works in the interests society as a whole; the values it now promotes are to entice the next generation of this aristocracy to make it for themselves if they can. It rewards personal ambition, material recompense and the clinical exercise of power over anything closer to the humane founding principles of education.

And so much for a national story that still considers its values superior to much of the world. In the introduction to Hoggart’s book, the writer Lynsey Hanley says

“Without self-respect, [Hoggart] argues, you are open to … denigration and exploitation by those who see opportunities in human vulnerability.”

Yet it is just such a destruction of individual self-respect that the British national story is now facilitating through its abandonment of higher educational and intellectual ideals. I entered teaching with those higher ideals in mind and I deplore the way this new aristocracy is diverting my own working life too, to deliver its narrow, selfish corporate objectives.

 

Bread and butter

“….and what do you write about?” asked the pleasant lady from Ofqual. “Erm…erm…well, educational matters actually”, I mumbled. She seemed to lose interest.

For the second time in one evening, I had struggled to explain what my blog is about. And with it, my approach to teaching. I wasn’t able to mention discussions of classroom technique, specific educational research, the latest initiatives or the benefits of hard data. (“If you can handle data, then you can sock it to Ofsted by playing them at their own game”, I was told).

All evening long, the education conversation flowed; this is what Andrew Old’s blog-meets thrive upon. While there seems to be a general presumption in favour of more traditional teaching, the spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps once again giving the lie to the them-and-us view of the divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The age-profile of the attendees is predominantly young, though there were a few greying heads in the crowd. I don’t for one moment blame ambitious young teachers for being excitable about what they do, and for being highly engaged with the policy and technical debate; I was once, too…

But time has, I must admit, wearied me of such matters. I’ve come to see it as marginal to the real, everyday business of dispelling young people’s ignorance. That’s not a criticism of those who enjoy it, but it does seem to me that the bread-and-butter of teaching is so easily marginalised these days in the wider politicised, technical-ised discussion within the profession.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I’m of an age with even older pupils’ parents these days, rather than their older siblings, but the personal impacts of education seem to matter more and more, and the policy less and less. I know some would argue that the two are inseparable, but I’m not so sure.

I very much doubt (in hope) that John Hattie goes home each evening and runs his family the same way he would have us running education. “Hmm, must buy the wife some flowers; perhaps she’ll cook dinner then. (Effect size 0.7). Won’t bother talking to the kids – they only ignore me anyway. (Effect size 0.2)…” I don’t operate like, that, and I sincerely hope that others don’t either.

For my money, teaching remains a simple human interaction, not so different from any other. Granted, the classroom demands a certain protocol – but then so do many other social situations. But while we all have a broad understanding of the dynamics of social psychology, across wider society, I genuinely hope that effect sizes are not overtly the reasons for people’s actions. We would all be the poorer for living in societies that operated on such mercenary lines.

People’s needs are just as holistic, irrational, conflicting – and ultimately humane – as they have ever been. It is not our ability to be rational that defines our humanity, but our ability to go beyond that into the fields of empathy and originality. Our growing understanding of the workings of the human brain may be showing us how it works – but not why. It would be a tragedy if this insight were to reduce the human experience to that of biological-economic machinery. Neither will it explain the subjective experience of being human, any more than Hattie’s effect sizes explain the subjective experience of learning.

So for all the techno-talk, my blog remains resolutely low-tech. I am really not especially interested in the machinations of the professional educational world. I am, however, greatly interested in how people’s minds and personalities develop, of how they know what they know and do what they do, and how they come to form part of the wider groupings we call society.

I’m not sure how that can be adequately expressed in technical terms. Authentic human lives and societies are a matter of narratives, and wide-ranging ones at that. For this reason, I believe that education is best discussed in such terms. Despite the data we deal with, much of teaching and education is still experienced as a narrative (just listen to the dominant conversation in any staffroom), and I don’t think this is a weakness. For all its lack of technicality, there is much the teacher can learn from the insights obtained in this way.

That (I hope) is where my distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined blog comes in.

With thanks to Andrew Old for organising another stimulating evening.

Traditional teaching: it’s all academic

The debate about the respective positions of traditionalist and progressive education shows no sign of abating. Earlier today, Old Andrew posted a reflection on the role of knowledge in education – which is perhaps widely seen as the totemic difference between the two sides.

And yet it appears that the traditionalist camp (within which I broadly count myself) isn’t as united in its understanding of this as it might seem. The observations that followed betrayed a wide range of understanding, not to mention conflicts, regarding the respective positions of progressive and traditional education.

For example, if you support the use of education for the transmission of a canon of knowledge (particularly of ‘great thought’), then it seems that this also labels you as a supporter of the Establishment.  To belong to this camp, you must apparently also subscribe to the view that education is all about passing exams, and that the purpose of the whole undertaking is to ready people for their place in the grand economic plan.

This caricature of traditional education is about as far removed from my own understanding as it is possible to be, as supported by my own experiences at a grammar school in the 1970’s. Employability was about as far away from the lips of my teachers as it is possible for a word to be, and few of my teachers were straight apologists for the intellectual or social Establishment. In fact, many were sceptics and cynics in the mould of a great part of the teaching tradition.

To my mind, it is actually the progressive tendency that has had the utilitarian understanding of education, arguing that transferrable skills are more important than specific knowledge, that external applications are more important than intrinsic value, and that child-centred approaches are more important than the knowledge of the teacher.

Contributing to Andrew’s discussion, I suggested that the whole point of traditional education is to keep it academic – but it should be noted that the OED offers two definitions of the word, and maybe this is where the misunderstanding lies.

That second definition is: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.

chriswmparsons criticised my view that the whole point of traditional education is to leave the wider purpose of study indistinct. Much to my great surprise, he argued that my position was so relativist as to be ultra-progressive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you accept this definition as opposed to the other one (relating to education and scholarship), then one can only conclude that traditional academic education must essentially remain open-ended. To assign specific purpose to one’s study is to make it contingent on that end. In other words, we define its purpose before we actually know what it is. To define something in this way is to place limits around it and this is anathema to true, open-ended intellectual thought.

Certainly, and rightly in my view, traditional education espouses the teaching of an accepted canon, and it prefers clearly-defined techniques for doing so – but this is to conflate its method with its purpose. It ignores the fact that the canon itself was evolved over a period of time and constitutes the collective wisdom of many individuals, where speculative thought was essential and disagreement frequent. In many cases, the refutation of prior wisdom is precisely what led to the validity of the established canon – in a sense it’s a matter of what has withstood trial by destruction.

So I do not for one moment think that traditionalists should reject any notion of radical dissent, nor that they need become meek organs of the establishment.

The key here is that the traditional education is a) founded on substantial academic procedures and b) it tends to make progress by evolution rather than revolution. The only way to facilitate this process is firstly to make people aware of what the ‘accepted wisdom’ actually is, and secondly to provide them with the means of rigorous evaluation of it, in the form of critical thinking skills.

Back in August, I wrote a little-read piece on the meaning of tradition, prompted by a book I was reading on the current state of traditional culture in Scotland. It seemed to have an amount of resonance for the education debate, and some of that post is perhaps worth re-stating here:

“Teachers as a breed need to look to the future: their entire work is founded on the notion that the future can improve on the past – but they also need to respect the legacy that that past endows.”

“So where does this leave the supposedly redundant methods of ‘traditional’ teaching? West resorts to the notion of the ‘carrying stream’ to explain. In his view – and he quotes the Scottish poet and intellectual Hamish Henderson – the carrying stream flows out of the past and into the future, linking our past accomplishments and understandings with those yet to come:

“It is a tradition that flows through time, picking up new flotsam as it goes, leaving some things on its banks in the process. At any given point, its content and form may be a little bit different from places further up or down stream, yet it remains recognisable as the same tradition”.

West also points out that a stream, in flowing, is not like a pond which is indeed static. He suggests this is the difference between tradition and convention, the latter of which is indeed stagnant and adhered to ‘because it has always been this way’.  Traditions tend to die when they become mere convention, as they need change and evolve to keep them alive.”

“However, tradition tends to be a process of evolution rather than revolution – and maybe this is where the teaching profession is going wrong, both in its widespread rejection of traditional methods and its obsession with ‘silver bullets’, quick-fixes which often turn out to be rather less helpful than they first seem. West again:

…change, within tradition tends not to be revolutionary or even rapid, but incremental, considered, evolutionary. That is not to say that radical new ideas or approaches do not appear…but time tends to be the judge. Roots are important, as is an appreciation of where things come from, where we stand within the stream, and how to use that knowledge to create fresh and meaningful art going forward.

Tradition can be of great use in the modern world, a questioning, solidifying force, and a reminder that society cannot spend its entire time in the fast lane. Yet it can help us move forward and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.”

 

I must admit that this brief exchange has pulled me up short – I too had assumed that the traditionalist movement was largely agreed on what it valued and understood. I think the re-emergence of this debate is one of the most important things happening in education at present, and it pleases me greatly that it is no longer unacceptable to admit to being a traditionalist. But I think we need to clear up these issues urgently:

  1. We need to be clear about the difference between method and purpose. It is one thing to employ traditional teaching techniques in the classroom, but quite another to consider that their only purpose is to embed an uncritical, unchanging view of establishment values and tastes. One of the key attributes of real academia is the process of critical review.
  2.  Consequently, traditional teaching may involve rejecting or downplaying utilitarian views of education. What and why one teaches is as important as how, and if you only think that education is about passing exams or securing employment, then your practice will reflect these views.

Traditional teaching may indeed have a relativist purpose – it refutes the idea that education is for anything in particular, and by doing so it accepts that it can indeed be ‘for’ anything at all – whatever each individual chooses. In that sense, it is a democratising force as it leaves each individual sovereign to interpret the experience as they choose, not as an external agency pre-specifies.

As the excerpts from Gary West’s book show, traditional education need not be backward-looking or regressive. Tradition is best used as a force for informing the future. Likewise, traditional methods need not be preserved in aspic – they need to be able to adapt to changing times, while still retaining their emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and the power of critical thought.

In my opinion, it is absolutely essential that such misunderstandings are cleared up; the conflation of traditional teaching with Victorian values and social regression cannot help its cause one iota.

 

 

Selective thinking

For all that we are the heirs of an honourable profession that dates back to Ancient times, I sometimes wonder whether we have really advanced very much at all. In fact, the modern profession of teaching often feels less mature than its ancestor might have, though to be fair, debate over the purpose and practice of education is hardly new.

But one might have hoped that an acceptance of the inevitable plurality of belief would be something we could have reached by now – in effect the conclusion that we will never reach a ‘conclusive conclusion’, at least in matters of human affairs where there probably is no such thing as an absolute answer.

In recent weeks, I have experienced several ways in which the current education system, far from tolerating diversity, seems actively hell-bent on eliminating it at least from within its own ranks. The irony is, of course, that we generally continue to preach tolerant ideals to our pupils while widely failing to get anywhere near them in our own professional discourse.

The case in question is a meeting I attended this week whose subject was the Growth Mindset. Not surprisingly, the supposed limitations of a fixed mindset were also examined, and during this, the issue of selective education came up, because of the fixed mindset it supposedly represents. It was taken as given that there was unanimity in the audience about the undesirability of selection, and I know for a fact that this caused genuine indignation for several who hold well-considered views in favour of selection.  And there are those of us who went through grammar schools ourselves, for whom such right-think comes close to invalidating our own education.

I am not intending to mount a defence of selection per se here, because my own views are genuinely ambivalent. But I do know that dismissing a view simply because it is not popular is unjustified, and that doing so amounts to ignorance of the fact that education can never be anything other than a matter of social and intellectual judgement. The claim of any one side to hold absolute virtue is both unrealistic and a betrayal of the considered, intelligent thought that we supposedly espouse.

In several recent encounters, the defining experience has been the reductivist nature of the argument, whereby all views and facts except those that supported the desired conclusion were either ignored or dismissed, no matter how relevant they might have been to reaching a more sophisticated, considered conclusion. It is the repeated and widespread tendency of the education sector to do just this that is why I suggest it is still far from being a mature profession.

By means of example, here are a few points from the selection debate that seem salient to the matter, but which to me seem to receive little coverage thanks to the blanket-bombing of the selection-is-bad contingent.

  1. Selective schools are not all the same. There is a huge difference between the ‘high-church’ ones that look and feel like wannabe private schools, the more mundane small-town grammars such as was my own experience, and the complacent one I once visited that was trying to do a good imitation of Summerhill. I suspect that many of those who are opposed to grammar schools have never been in one, and are blind to the differences between them.
  2. The social context of selective schools varies as much as for any other. The notion that they are packed with pre-tutored middle-class kids may be true in some cases, but it was most certainly not the case in the experience of both of my parents. They attended grammar schools in resolutely working-class parts of the country, where there was little middle-class to do the packing. In those cases, grammar schools provided a route away from the limited opportunities of small-town mining communities for those with academic ability – some of whom went on to be eminent practitioners in a range of fields. If that is not a story of improved opportunity, then I don’t know what is. (My own experience a generation later was somewhere in between, with a clear middle class, but plenty from other backgrounds).
  3. The removal of grammar schools may actually widen the divide.  Despite their principles and amid great family scrimping, my parents sent my sister, who post-dated comprehensive reorganisation, to the local small independent secondary rather than the sink comprehensive to which she had been allocated. She eventually went to Oxford. How many others did – and do – the same?
  4. There is a difference between the act of selection on educational grounds and the process whereby it is effected. Even many in grammar schools accepted that the Eleven-Plus was flawed, but it is not logical to dismiss the whole idea of selection as a result. There are other criteria and other mechanisms by which selection can operate, as I have seen in Switzerland. The opportunities for hard-workers to access academic schools at various points can be created, and I have met numerous Swiss pupils of various ages who have worked hard and achieved that transition. Likewise, poor performers in academic schools can be transferred out if they do not earn their keep.
  5. We need to accept that the whole issue in the U.K. seems irrevocably connected with class advantage and ‘opportunity’. While we cannot and should not ignore this, it is a different issue from educational selection per se. The reason the practice is less contentious in Switzerland, and I think, Germany, is that access to academic schools simply does not come with the social connotations. It is seen simply as a matter of individual ability and/or aptitude.
  6. Talking of aptitude, we could perhaps envisage a situation where pupils could opt for schools depending on their inclination rather than a crude test of ‘ability’. This, after all was roughly the intention of the 1944 Education Act, whereby the tripartite system would cater for different aptitudes. It failed for lack of complete implementation and an inability to escape those self-same social snobberies. In the mining town where my mother grew up, there was a very successful and popular technical school. It worked. There is a lot to commend a system that allows people to opt for different types of education according to their values and priorities rather than crude ability. In this way, bright-but-lazy students might not block access for keen but less able ones.
  7. Even in current times, we seem to have little difficulty with the notion of specialist education for talented sports-people or those of theatrical inclinations. We also venerate those who supposedly have exceptional talent. We even have some tolerance of those whom the system permits to self-select on account of their wealth – and even the fact that this is buying them access to better schools. And yet, we refuse to allow those of exceptional intellectual ability to enter institutions where this can be nurtured. Because for all the claims to the contrary, I am afraid that I have yet to encounter a comprehensive school that has managed to cultivate the same general atmosphere of quiet studiousness that my own modest, small-town grammar managed.
  8. There is the difficulty of potential division within the teaching profession. I suspect that this is a bigger issue than many will admit. Again, in the past it came down to class-ridden perceptions of the social superiority of grammar school teachers. But it is also true that the grammar school teachers of my experience did have a different mindset. Most importantly (and allowing for the different era) they had a different view of learning from the current norm – it was not a matter of competitiveness but more a matter of individual discovery. I am not convinced that those who promote the winner-takes-all, maximalist view of education understand the real nature of the beast, let alone the needs of those of high ability. High achievement does not need to be a competition, especially not an economic one. What is needed here is an acceptance of the equal validity of all types of education, a horses-for-courses view if you will, and again this seems to prevail on the continent. Given the enduring class-envy in British society, I am not holding my breath.

In the above, I am not setting out a one-sided argument in favour of selective education; as I said I am genuinely ambivalent. Crucially, I respect those who disagree with the above, including it has to be said some colleagues who themselves attended grammar schools: the matter is simply not cut-and-dried. But there are genuinely important factors that simply never get a hearing and as a result, the debate is flawed. The above list simply offers some of them.

While we have an incumbent clique that insists on imposing pseudo-consensus, claiming its right-think has a monopoly on truth and virtue, thereby preventing an open debate on such issues based on educational rather than socio-political merit, we will be none the closer to becoming the inclusive, mature profession we need to be. When I entered teaching, I hoped for better.

More desert

My previous post raised the question of what children might be considered to ‘deserve’ from the education system. It was perhaps a little unfair to use part of John Tomsett’s comments out of context, and should say that I found little to disagree with in the main thrust of his argument about exam marking.

However, the concept of desert (in the philosophical sense) is a very difficult one and not to be bandied around lightly, as I hope the rest of my comments showed. In my understanding, desert implies a proportionate connection between cause and effect. I find it difficult to accept that any of us deserves anything at all in an absolute sense of the word: this is not consistent with my understanding of the universe. Any linkage between an event and the appropriateness of the outcome is merely a human construct and subject to all sorts of value judgements.

Like so many in the education debate, such ideas are used pretty indiscriminately, and are often more a matter of advancing a particular world-view than anything more objective. Suggesting that children deserve anything at all actually says most about a certain adult perception of those children vis á vis our wishes for them. We need to separate it from a perfectly reasonable but subjective desire to do our best for them.

Even this gives me some cause for concern, since it comes close to placing adults such as teachers in a position of servitude to children, and while there is, in a philosophical sense probably an element of this in what we do, it is certainly not my desire for that relationship. I would prefer to consider the majority of children (at least in the U.K.) to be fortunate to have as much as they do, and I wish many would appreciate that rather more. Suggesting that they have an infinite and indisputable right to ‘more and best’ is not beneficial to either their self-perceptions or their relationship with wider society.  Call me old-fashioned if you will.

It is ironic that the one situation where I myself would use the word ‘deserve’ in relation to children has fallen from favour: namely when it comes to the relationship between their exam results and the effort they invested in their learning. When one examines exam results in this light, one can come to a very different conclusion regarding what a ‘just’ result was, compared with starting from an abstract and impersonal notion of what children collectively deserve. I would argue that more lessons are learned from the experience of deserved (even if sub-maximal) results than undeserved ones – and that little harm is done by it, except perhaps to the school’s statistics.

Such judgements are undoubtedly subjective, but I would suggest not beyond the capability of any fair-minded teacher. They also happen to conflict with the total accountability teachers are expected to accept for exam outcomes. What appears important is that the maximum grade is achieved by as many children as possible, irrespective of whether they might ‘deserve’ it or not in terms of their own effort.

Making generalisations about what children en masse ‘deserve’ is completely consistent with absolving them of any responsibility for the results or other outcomes they achieve. This comes perilously close to the notion of spoiling the child and in the wider educational sense, I would argue that this is  not a good message to be sending.

We need to be very clear that desert really doesn’t come into it when we are really talking about what may or may not be (merely) an aspiration or an entitlement.

 

Can Science really part the clouds?

This post is a response to a productive discussion on the blog Evidenceintopractice (EiP) in the last couple of days. The original can be found here.

Climate Change is a really important topic – and a really complicated one. Science is trying to identify what is really happening in the atmosphere – but that is not enough to prevent sceptics such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson vociferously expressing their reservations. Provocatively writing on the leader page of today’s Independent on Sunday under the caption Don’t let balance get in the way of the Truth, Katy Guest complains that Lawson is being given too much airtime, saying that if 99% of scientists agree on something, the reason is probably that they are right. Lawson, on the other hand, typically counters that “99% of scientists” normally means 99% of climate change scientists – who might be considered to have a vested interest – and that wider science is by no means so unanimous. Who is right? It is almost impossible, especially as a lay-person, to know. Taken in terms of their own logic, both sides might be seen to have a plausible case, and as for what the Truth is, as I said, who knows?

Seen in scientific terms, the issue ought to be clear-cut. Either climate change is happening or it isn’t – there is no other option. If it is happening, then either it is being exacerbated by humans or it isn’t. But that is where things start to get complicated. In utterly rational terms, one might argue that it really doesn’t matter. Climate is continually changing as a result of natural variation; even rapid change can occur due to the effects of volcanic activity and other epochal mega-events. It only matters to us because of its implications for human existence – and at that point, we cross a Rubicon from the realm of scientific objectivity to that of subjective interpretation.

At that point, the clear waters of  our best research efforts into climate science are instantly muddied by matters of opinion, vested interest and individual philosophy. Since we are human, it cannot be otherwise. Quite apart from the desirability of continued human existence itself being a subjective matter (try asking, if you could, all those species whose extinction we have caused what they thought about it), there is nothing more than a probability-judgment that humans are causing the change. If nothing  else, the ‘yes’ camp is balanced by those who argue that it is a sign of hubris to think that humans are significant enough to cause climate change – and it is indeed curious that the issue emerged pretty much at the time when the previous bogeyman – the Cold War – ended. The theory that mankind ‘needs’ something to worry about is not, in my view particularly far-fetched.

It is also very likely that those on both sides of the argument have significant vested interests to protect that colour their conclusions. The scandal caused by leaked emails from the Climate Change Unit at the University of East Anglia some years ago suggests that scientists are not immune. So much for objectivity. God has yet to descend from on high and give us a Great Big Tick and say, “Yep, humanity, you screwed up!” And in this instance, self-assessment is frankly proving useless and peer-assessment not a lot better.

But whatever you conclude, the practical truth is that it still remains impossible to determine whether any one unusual ‘weather event’ is a product of climate change or not. Even given of the data and computing power we have, the planetary climate  is just too complicated a system (and its timescale too huge) for us to be able to say with the necessary resolution what caused what. Even when local events do seem to echo larger patterns, causality is by no means clear.

So even if we eventually confirm beyond a shadow of doubt what much science seems to be telling us, there will, I suggest, still be very little chance that we will understand precisely why any single event happened. At best, Science will give us a general framework but no more. It may be able to tell us what we could do at a macro-scale to tackle the problem, but it is very unlikely to be able to tell us what to do to manage any specific matter. In that sense, our understanding of the climate is still rudimentary – and is likely to remain so, simply because the climate is such a complex system that accurately predicting its behaviours down to a local scale is too immense a task – especially when one remembers just how many localities there are to be dealt with. In other words, we are dealing with a system whose causal density is so high as to make predicting it at a useful resolution effectively impossible.

I have used this analogy because EiP cited it as an example of how Science can tell us useful things about complicated issues. (S)he is probably right – so long as one retains a suitable level of resolution, but it is of only limited use at the scale at which we really need to intervene. I hope the parallel with education is clear.

EiP also argues that scientific evidence is not an event but an accumulation of probability. This seems very reasonable, as does the claim that the give-away for pseudo-science is its often-exaggerated claims. In this sense, we might be able to use research evidence in education to insulate ourselves against all of the cargo-cult stuff to which we are regularly subjected.  Well, it’s a nice idea, and it would indeed be great if it worked. But if science struggles to prove anything at a really useful scale, then it is always going to struggle to disprove it too. That’s not to say that we might not dismiss things where the evidence well and truly stacks up to the contrary – but as in Lawson’s case, that is not going to stop people arguing the opposite, sometimes with some force. And as Einstein (I think) in effect said, it only takes one experiment to disprove a Law.

Thinking is really difficult. Somewhere out there, we know there is (probably) an objective Truth – but finding it is another matter. Just recently, I was involved in something of a disagreement over – shall we say – the future direction of a creative venture. I had a position that in all honesty was in significant part a matter of personal preference, albeit derived from knowledge and reasoning. That said, as a critical thinker, I always attempt to set  mere bias aside and arrive at a more tenable view by means of reasoning and scrutiny of evidence. So my actual view ended up as a cocktail of instinct and reason that was nonetheless inadequate to win the argument, for all that my position was well-supported. My opponent was (I assume) doing something similar, but coming to very different conclusions about the same situation. That said, when I proposed a compromise based on balanced scrutiny of the hard evidence, very little was forthcoming from the other side, and certainly nothing that persuaded me to change my stance. Regrettably, the issue was not resolved by reason but by gut feeling – and this was all amongst educated, thinking people.

I mention this because I think it is very important in relation to what education is ‘for’. EiP seems relatively content to accept that in the current climate, the maximisation of exam results is an acceptable benchmark against which to measure what works. I disagree – and I believe I am living evidence that the relationship between exam results, the acquisition of a well-functioning intellect and living a fulfilled life is not strong. You can read that whatever way you choose!

I also suspect that science is unlikely ever to give us sufficient insight into the human brain ever to be able to explain the specific processes going on in any one of the seven billion-odd brains on this planet, each of which consists of countless billions of neurones, let alone the connective permutations possible between them. In fact, it didn’t even prove more than very generally helpful in the very specific, localised dispute I outlined above. In that sense, I think this is an even bigger problem than climate change.

So far as I can tell, EiP maintains a high level of intellectual rigour and the blog contains much of interest and use – and there is evidence from other plaudits to suggest that I am not alone in thinking that. But that is not to say that his/her assumptions are always correct. So to summarise my reservations:

1. To deploy science/research/evidence in education with any rigour requires a top-down macro-approach, normally of some size. This means that the results will similarly be based on generalised findings rather than specific circumstances.

2. (As I repeatedly say) educational impact is only meaningful at the individual level. When we are trying to learn something, if we fail, knowing that 95% of others succeeded is of little help.

3. As with climatic events, the confidence levels that science can achieve are nowhere near sufficient to provide us with any useful insight for specific circumstances. At best they can give us a general overview of what tends to be the case – so a general framework in which to operate, useful but not sufficient.

4. What tends to be the case generally and what obtains in any specific circumstance can be wildly different, so generalisations are easily rendered redundant.

5. Since we do not have perfect knowledge, and cannot therefore anticipate the future, we can never be certain in advance whether we are encountering a typical or atypical circumstance. Therefore, despite the science, we are effectively reduced once again to trial and error – hopefully using techniques that may be generally known to help (not ‘work’). To quote Einstein again, when asked about his working methods, he is reputed to have replied, “I grope”.

6. It is not in any case possible to determine ‘what works’ unless you can both agree on criteria and then measure them. As many are now saying, the best we have for learning is proxy measures – and as my creative disagreement above shows, there is no guarantee they will be of much use when applied to the intractable situations of real life with which education is presumably ultimately meant to assist. People just aren’t like that.

7. Even if we could arrive at a situation where we knew with 100% certainty ‘what works’ in education, what are the moral implications of this? Do we really want to create a situation where we are effectively the instruments of mind-control, in which the individual recipient has no sovereignty?  Do we really wish to take on the moral responsibilities that this would confer? This might prove comforting for head teachers facing Ofsted inspectors or teachers being observed – but if it were to come to pass, I would not be able to sleep at night. I would have thought History gives us enough warnings to realise that attempting scientific control of the people’s thought-processes is not a Good Thing.

Maybe, as EiP suggests,  I am being too pessimistic about the potential of science – it has certainly moved us far over the past few thousand years – though not largely in the behavioural domain. I am not against Science trying to show us things that might help us to teach and learn better – but the search for either perfect learning or a vaccine against educational doggerel is, I fear going to prove to be in vain. The task is simply to big for us, at least any time soon – and in any case, it will remain overwhelmingly subjective. Wishing for something is  no guarantee it can be done – and I am hardly the first to counsel “Be careful what you wish for”.