It may not be wrong…

…that I stayed at school later than usual supervising students on the Controlled Assessment catch-up.

…that as a result I endured a significanty longer journey over the thirty miles home.

…that as my wife got caught behind an accident and took 80 minutes to go fifteen miles, by which time I was already working again, I have hardly spoken to her this evening.

…that she still cooked the dinner so I could carry on working.

…that because of a few days feeling off-colour, I am having to work extra-hard to catch up with the backlog.

…that I have just enough time to take a shower and read for ten minutes before bed – and that is the day done.

…that all of these things need to be done in the name of providing today’s children with a good education.

But it sure as hell is wrong that the uppermost thought in my mind as I did those things was the need to cover my back because of what ‘might’ happen at the forthcoming work scrutiny if I don’t get it all finished.

What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.

Global warming – bring it on!

Despite the lovely weather, I’ve been spending much of the last few days marking G.C.S.E. coursework, to get it out of the way before my wife also finishes for Easter, today. And yes, sadly I have been spending a fair bit of time scanning the blogs too. At least I can claim a greater purpose for that on this occasion, but more of that another time.

Having read few blogs from teachers of Maths, English and other important subjects, I was quietly congratulating myself on teaching a relatively straightforward one like Geography. Compared with the abstraction of the various theories of how to teach children to read and so forth, Geography really seems quite unencumbered and plain sailing. After all, despite the sociology-type projects, it’s still largely about knowledge – and of something relatively tangible at that: the world about is. Unlike say, a mathematician or linguist, I can easily stick a photo of something up on the screen at the start of the lesson and in effect say, “Understand that!”

Though contentious, Robert Plomin’s work on heritability seems to confirm this experience. His findings suggested that subjects such as the humanities have a lower heritable component than those that depend on more abstract principles such as the rules of grammar. It certainly seems plausible to me that tangible, real world phenomena – of which children might conceivably have some prior experience – give us a bit of a head start. Perhaps even over history, whose main vector – time – is equally abstract in some ways. I suppose the use of artefacts and source documents is one way round this. It also seems true that it is the abstractions, even in Geography, that children struggle with; that’s not really surprising.

I’ve also just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths About Education, which I found to be an impressive justification of the call to teach knowledge, and which has had me thinking about the place of Fact in teaching.

So it would seem I have life relatively easy. But then it came to marking the coursework. Discretion prevents me saying anything too specific, but suffice it to say that the provisional marks fully support my knowledge of the pupils concerned over the past two years, in almost every case.

Thanks to the wonders of the options system, I have been teaching a ‘set’ whose performance regularly covered every grade from A* to U, all in the same lessons. This was consistent with my impression of these children based on years of prior experience of teaching exam classes. We all know that the advised method of dealing with this situation is to differentiate like mad, but this presented me with a problem that I’ll elaborate on in a moment.  However, the situation was compounded by the fact that those same pupils had minimum target grades, with one exception, lying in the range A* to C – despite the fact that there is more change of the rocks melting in the sun than some of those targets being met.

Now what is one to do in such a situation? For a start, how does one differentiate facts? I know that facts, knowledge and understanding aren’t the same thing, but the point still stands, Geography depends on knowing (and applying) a lot of factual information. Either you know it or you don’t – for all that you can be selective over which facts, or how many you introduce. It’s not like skills that you can do to varying degrees of competence. In the end, getting an A* grade depends on knowing a lot of stuff.

When it came to fieldwork, on which the controlled assessment depended, then we all had a look at pretty much the same coastal features and either understood them or not. When it came to write-up time, I could only stipulate the same procedure for all – as after all, that is the one they all had to follow. Surprise, surprise, those who followed it closely did indeed end up with high grades, while those who didn’t – or couldn’t – did not. Obviously, in controlled assessments, the scope for  teacher intervention is NIL. And rightly so – this is, after all the logical conclusion of my other exercise when I sprang brain-only assessments unannounced on lower school pupils. An exam should indeed be a test solely of what the individual can do unassisted.

So I now have the prospect of a class, a significant number of whom have not hit their minimum target for the coursework component, and now have an uphill task ahead during the written exams, if they are to meet their targets (and, of course, mine…). Do I tell them the grades or not? This despite the fact that virtually all have accounted for themselves as I expected from knowing them for two years or more.  Just who is the better judge of these individuals – me, or a number-crunching machine? It strikes me that this could be an entirely manufactured problem and one that if I don’t manage it carefully could discourage more pupils than it does the opposite.

There’s a further twist: when one is teaching a class of this sort, an issue that normally remains in the background jumps out to ambush you. With some pupils in the class very capable of getting A* grades, it would be deeply irresponsible not to provide them with the teaching they need to reach them. Despite differentiation (which as I said is not so easy when there’s a specified body of fact to cover), one inevitably ends up teaching ‘high’. In fact, given the target grades of the others, that is precisely the right strategy, as in theory, they aren’t so far behind in any case. This is what I did, even though the material was more complex than some of the pupils could sometimes handle. (Yes, the intervention did kick in at that point). If I ‘taught down’, not only did I risk those A* pupils, but I ended up teaching at a lower level than the targets said the other pupils could achieve too. What to do?

As I mentioned before, pupils often report that understanding geographical information during a lesson is not a problem – there may be a lot of it, but much is fairly straightforward, until you get into the underpinning theoretical principles (which we do need to do). Even many of the less able pupils proved able enough to complete decent class work, the main impediment for some indeed being their written skills. But there is also no getting away from that. What seems more of a problem is long-term retention, despite the usual testing regime, and when the immediate feedback from the student is positive, it makes judging the success of any strategy all the more difficult. This seems to be a fundamental cognitive problem, and one that maybe the teacher has limited ability to remedy. I think we have to accept that some students are never going to achieve high grades – and wishfully inflating their targets isn’t going to change that fact.

I’m still trying to formulate a specific conclusion to this dilemma, so this post will end a little open-ended. One thing I am not questioning is the value of teaching knowledge; Ms.  Christodoulou’s book has served to reinforce my prior belief that only through knowledge can understanding and skills develop. (Or is that confirmation bias again?)

The niggling doubt in my mind at present more concerns the pernicious effects that learning targets can have on teaching  – all the more so when they are of dubious accuracy or relevance. One thing it strikes me we should not do with targets is tell those to whom they apply, what they are.

Or maybe the only answer is more global warming, then perhaps those rocks will melt after all.