We need to talk about the army of elephants

by James Mannion |

I wrote this back in March 2013 in an attempt to map current and historical discourses around education, and to question why some things just don’t seem to be up for discussion any more. 

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“The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

(HL Mencken, 1924)

During the last two or three years, I have spent an unusual amount of time reading blogs written by teachers. There is certainly no shortage to choose from, and I am often pleasantly surprised by how well written they are. And so to the edubloggers of planet earth, to paraphrase what Stephen Fry once wrote of Douglas Adams: your ability to put one word after another in the service of awakening, delighting, bamboozling, informing or amusing the minds of your readers never fails to amaze me.

In particular, I find it incredible how much time and energy teachers are willing to invest in this emerging extracurricular activity. I feel it is testament to the commitment teachers typically feel toward their vocation of choice – that in spite of the already questionable work/life balance that characterises our profession, we are prepared to sit tapping away at our keyboards at unsociable hours, chipping away at the marble in the hope that one day, our individual and collaborative efforts might just have shaped something more worthy of our gaze.

The vast majority of the blogs teachers write adopt an optimistic tone, and I think it is fair to say that the majority of posts could be described as sharing good practice, or seeking to establish “what good looks like”. No-one gets paid for blogging – we do it because we want to learn, share and connect with one another. This is a wonderful thing indeed. Through social media and a dizzying array of grassroots gatherings, teachers are coming together in unprecedented numbers to share resources and ideas, to meet and question education researchers and to challenge one another to see things from different perspectives. Through this, I have a strong sense that a new professional identity is being forged – one that is more robust, and more sure-footed, than ever before.

To me, the underlying message that emerges from all this activity is that teachers know infinitely more about “what good looks like” than the people who call the shots, and to whose tune we all dance daily. It must only be a matter of time until the burden of governance is transferred to safer hands.

In the mean-time, I would like to explore three questions:

  1. Where lie the boundaries of current discourses around education?
  2. How does this differ from educational discourses throughout history?
  3. What paths in the current discourse are well-worn – and are there areas where we no longer dare tread?

To take the last of these first: This is not the most scientific thing I’ve ever done, but here’s a ‘word cloud’ of topics that have been up for discussion in recent months, on some of the most widely read teacher blogs:

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 19.28.06

 

The ideas that define our professional lives

Take a good look at this word cloud. What do you notice? These are the components of currently accepted and acceptable discourse around education. The boundaries of this discourse are regulated and reinforced daily – by political parties and their favoured think tanks, by journalists and newspaper editors, by institutions such as Ofsted and Ofqual, by education consultants and advisors, by school governors and academy sponsors, by academics who are themselves regulated by strict assessment and funding criteria – and increasingly, by teachers themselves. Everyone except students, basically. Not that I’m suggesting students should be running the show – but their contribution to these wider discourses is notable by its absence nonetheless.

I wrote recently that Twitter makes me raise my game every day – that I hear a multitude of critical voices now when I teach, or plan, or give feedback. While this may sound disturbing, I consider it to be a rather healthy state of affairs. So, I would like to emphasise that what follows is not intended in any way to diminish the Herculean efforts of my fellow teacher bloggers.

Here comes the ‘but’

The scope of current discourses around education appears to be broadly limited to sharing good practice, within the institutions and organisational structures of the system that generally pre-date our entry into the profession. These discourses take place within a set of assumptions about our education system which – as far as I can discern – have gone largely unexamined since the 1970s, when people like Jerome Bruner, Richard Peters, John Holt, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner, Paulo Freire, John Garnder, Jurgen Habermas, AS Neill, Ivan Illich and Pierre Bourdieu were doing the rounds. (I realise how male this list is, by the way. Is this my bias, or a 1970s one?) Now the names I read about most frequently are John Hattie and Doug Lemov – more technicians of “what works”, than rattlers of the cage.

Now, I was only born in 1976, and I did not engage much in educational debate as a toddler. It might well be the case that in the late 70s, everybody collectively decided that Deschooling Society is a terrible idea and agreed to get on board with the programme. Maybe that meeting did happen, and it passed me entirely by as I sat watching cowboy films, slurping bowls of cereal. But I have not yet been presented with any evidence to suggest that this is the case, whereas I am fairly convinced that many of the issues authors like these were writing about 40 years ago, are just as relevant today as they were then – if not more so.

What concerns me is this: the rich seam of educational discourses that question or challenge the status quo, which can be traced throughout history from Rousseau through people like John Dewey and Carl Rogers to those listed above – this centuries-long flow of critically engaged intellectual thought appears to have all but run dry. Have the concerns of these authors – about how education happens despite schooling, not because of it; about how compulsory schooling serves to perpetuate and even deepen social divides, as well as perpetuating existing power structures; about whether Mencken might not have been wearing a tin foil hat when he wrote the quote at the top of this article – have these concerns really gone away? And despite the noble intentions that have driven the recent explosion in teacher blogs, by spending our precious free time writing about “what works” within regulated discourses prescribed by establishment institutions, without ever pausing to question the long-forgotten assumptions that underpin them – are teacher bloggers too merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?

Such assumptions can take many forms, but my identification with them generally stems from naturalistic observations of behaviours that significant numbers of young people display, especially in secondary schools: the apathy and the learned helplessness; the all-pervading desire to be cool or popular, or to conform to expressions of boredom or disinterest; the staggering levels of bullying; the betrayals of former close friends; the wilful disruption of lessons, from the gentlest tapping of a pen to sudden explosions of anger or aggression; the ‘boffin-baiting’; the endless attention-seeking; the creation of melodrama as entertainment; the mental health issues; the increased prevalence of smoking, drinking and drug use schoolchildren.

This list makes for uncomfortable reading, and I have no desire to dwell on the negative aspects of schools which are, simultaneously, incredibly rewarding and life-affirming places in which to work. But it is a list that anyone who works with young people will recognise. These issues do not present themselves constantly in schools. But they are there, every day, in every lesson, bubbling away beneath the surface, quietly undermining everything the system ostensibly sets out to do. I am not suggesting that these issues are caused directly by the education system. I am simply asking – are we really sure that there is nothing else to be done, beyond spreading good practice in the domains outlined in the word cloud above?

The unquestioned assumptions that underpin current educational discourses are many and varied. In no particular order, here are a few:

  • The best age to get people to sit state-funded, high stakes compulsory examinations, is 14-16;
  • Compulsory schooling to age 16 should be insisted upon for all young people;
  • Raising the age of participation is a good idea;
  • We should restrict the number of subjects students study as they progress through the system;
  • All students should attend an assembly at least once each week, regardless of whether there is anything important that needs to be communicated in this way;
  • Primary and secondary schools should continue to be separate;
  • Secondary schools are a good size;
  • Adults should not be able to enrol in classes that run in the daytime;
  • Maths, English and Science should continue to be compulsory;
  • Exams are a good way to measure educational success, ‘student learning’ or ‘student outcomes’;
  • Schools need to exist as physical buildings that people attend every day;
  • Teachers can reliably attribute a numerical value to a student’s ‘attitude to learning’;
  • We should educate children in batches according to chronological age;
  • ‘Stage not age’ is organisationally impossible;
  • Classrooms should continue to exist in their current form;
  • It is a good idea to study 8 or 10 subjects simultaneously – in fact, we should never deviate from this model;
  • The school day should be divided into roughly 5 one-hour slots;
  • We should encourage higher ability students to pursue academic courses, and lower ability students to pursue vocational courses;
  • Some students need to fail exams in order for others to pass;
  • It makes sense to speak of a single ‘education system’, rather than ‘systems’;
  • Teachers should only be allowed to teach certain subjects;
  • Learning should be based around subject disciplines;
  • Students’ abilities can reliably be represented as an alphanumeric code, or a number on a scale;
  • School uniform is a good idea – especially when it resembles grey suits;
  • Labelling young people with various Special Educational Needs is in their best interests;
  • If you work hard in school you will get a good job and earn more money. This will make you happy.

In short: our classrooms and corridors are occupied by an army of elephants so vast, it is surprising we are able to breathe.

If there is one thing almost everyone agrees on, it’s the diagnosis that “all is not well” in the state of education. People get attached to different ideas as to how to treat the symptoms: we need more effective CPD; or whole-school behaviour policies; or to promote a ‘growth mindset’; or to interleave the curriculum and testing regime; or to promote imaginative enquiry; or to do battle with Ofsted; or to become ‘research literate’. I do not doubt that there may be value in each of these things. But should we not perhaps also be asking more fundamental questions as well?

Here’s one:

If you could design an education system from the ground up – to what extent would it resemble the one we have?

14 Comments

  1. Very interesting, thanks, and I agree the debates about the fundamental purpose and organisation that existed in the 70’s seem to be absent, or at least absent from any forum that practitioners have easy access to (if you trawl through the programme of BERA’s annual conference, you’ll find some… but how many classroom teachers go to that?)
    It occurred to me recently that the whole system of external examinations, which distils knowledge and understanding down to the measure of a single grade (which all other forms of interstitial assessment apes, from individual pieces of homework to assessments of school quality) is just the ultimate form of shorthand, the main purpose of which is to make life easier for university admission officers and prospective employers when young people present themselves for judgement. The issues of power implicit in this process make me uneasy, and I do wonder if there isn’t a way of assessing knowledge, understanding and potential at these key ‘gateway’ points which doesn’t stretch a pernicious influence back across the years of a young person’s education.
    But I’m not confident in this interpretation, and more importantly not sure what can be done… and this is always the problem when anyone from Keith Robinson to Dominic Cummings critiques the education system – and again, when I read this I was thinking, ‘yes, but what do you suggest?’ We can all dream of the day when we become an unelected despotic Secretary of State for Education and can rebuild the education system up from some hypothetical ‘year zero’, but what does a realistic project to address a known issue, actually look like?
    In this case, the mechanism does actually exist, thanks in part to Dom – whilst you can’t control the whole system you could set up an individual school along the principles you hold. I was really interested by this school in Roanoke. I was obviously very intrigued by the lack of grading and the 20-page narrative for college entrance –
    http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/oct/26/alternative-us-school-education-curriculum-grades?CMP=share_btn_tw
    – I don’t know how effective it is and others have described as ‘bonkers’, but personally I’d be as interested in visiting a school like this as any KIPP-type ‘no excuses’ charter or going on a NCTL-funded jolly to Shanghai.
    But maybe that’s just me.

    1. Thanks David. In terms of ‘what would I suggest’, I do have some ideas for what I would do differently if I could design the thing from year zero, but I would prefer to withhold those ideas for now if I may… it feels a bit like when we discuss the death penalty or whatever in PSHE, and students ask “what do you think”? I really don’t think it’s important what I think, at this stage at least… I am a classroom teacher, and ‘what I think’ would just be one more set of ideas to be entertained or dismissed, without ever being tried. What I am interested in is trying to inculcate some sort of debate about the constraints of our educational institutions, to see whether there’s any appetite out there for having a serious rethink about the entire thing.

      I would offer one thought though… When I woke up this morning another assumption occurred to me, which I might have included in the bullet point list. It goes something like ‘Schools should be run according to the vision of a head teacher or academy sponsor, rather than in accordance with the principles of participatory democracy, say’. By extension, you might replace ‘head teacher’ with ‘secretary of state’. In short, I would rather send my son to a school that is able to take account of the talents, ambitions and needs of the people they serve. If we use the language of ‘freedom’ to describe free schools and academies, but then subject them to the same scrutiny of Ofsted and league tables (even if we do gives them a heads up that the dementors are coming) – well, that strikes me as a funny sort of freedom.

      Thanks for sharing the example of the Roanoke school. It seems like a pretty good model for the kind of thing I would like to see more of, although it does raise my suspicions slightly that the article reads like a press release… I would like to see a balanced account of what that school looks like – or indeed to visit it myself. But you’d have to hang around for like a month to get a true feel for the place. Maybe we should send Michael Wilshaw to have a recce… it might just open up his third eye =)

  2. Great post. I’m the same age as you, and grew up always dimly aware of the elephants. As an undergraduate looking at the anthropology of education, I wrote about all the critical ed books coming from the 70s (in puce covers priced in old money) while the books from the 80s onwards (with their seductive photomontage covers) only covered ways to conform and succeed in terms of current policy.

    To change the discourse, I suggest, we need to talk about values – what ones we share with regard to education, and whether and go we put them into practice. You might find the Index for Inclusion valuable here ( http://www.indexforinclusion.org ). Related to this, I wrote a similar ‘from first principles’ question on the local schools network regarding assessment: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/08/the-crater-good-what-counts-as-evidence-of-improvement-in-education/

    You’re not alone!

    1. Thanks Rupert. The Index looks really interesting – would love to hear more about it… please can you DM me your email? Also loved your crater piece… it occurred to me the other day that ‘impacts’ are often associated with internal bleeding =)

  3. Great article. I am no academic but mother of 4 home educated kids. I am constantly amazed how kids learn without a school structure. However great school is for some students there are those who tolerate it and some who have a terrible time. If I could restructure schools I would be looking at something along the lines of Leaves of learning in Cincinnati .

    1. Leaves of learning! Thanks so much for this Bev. I feel like I’ve just have glimpsed the future.

      http://www.leavesoflearning.org in case anyone reading this is too lazy to google it =)

      I agree with you that school is OK for some students. We just need a more diverse / responsive system so that we can focus on aiding the development of ALL children, instead of the current model of school as a social filter, which even within its own narrow terms generates as much ‘failure’ as it does ‘success’

  4. James, thanks for reposting this blog. So many elephants, I can barely see the woods for them.
    I can’t fairly comment on the extent to which the discourse today is more tinkering, and less questioning of the fundamentals, than in the 70s. Certainly there has been a democratic explosion of practitioner-informed comment, which I think we both welcome. But perhaps we are all so embedded in the system we cannot step back and critically appraise it to the extent you suggest. Then the emergent mass of comment that you and (less so) I are part of just serves to reinforce the status quo.
    Your bullet points could be loaded in a great big gun and fired at amyone sitting in a staffroom, or DfE backroom, or thinktank thinkroom. My observation is just this: at no other point in a person’s life (with the military or prison being the only exceptions I can think of) do we expect people to exist for hours at a time in groups of a 1000+, wearing the same clothes, tolerating arbitrary rules and experiencing varying levels of abuse from each other, only to be tested at the end of it to see how well we ‘succeeded.’

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