Oh, (no!) more marking: getting trainees to examine the impact of their planning and teaching.

More marking, more writing about marking.

I’ve been thinking about the ways that our trainees write about the impact of their work – how they or understand the *what* in WWW and EBI. Our second PGCE / PGCert module asks our students to plan a sequence of learning (SOL), in the light of some reading about teaching that topic, and about using specific techniques or approaches in teaching that topic. The assignment then requires the trainees to evaluate the impact, the effectiveness of the plan, and of how they implemented it.

Different subjects and different partners take very different approaches to the assignment. And, we’ve a range of them, from Social Sciences to Drama, and Physics to D&T, with PE, maths, Science, English and the usual suspects in between. Some subjects take to the idea of a sequence very well, others are more suspicious of the idea that some aspects, maybe knowledge, or activities or even the assessment of those things can really be ‘sequenced’.This means that we take a fairly ecumenical, but at the same time relative focused approach to the variety of styles we see, and how they have tackled the resulting essay.

Clarity and Focus on Progress

In terms of focus we ask them to concentrate on the specific topic – so rather than consider the literature about ‘progress’ more generally, we encourage them to look at professional and classroom resources that help them to understand what that might look like in relation to *this* set of concepts and skills. Sometimes trainees really struggle with this. Some of the drafts we discuss get pulled towards a mechanistic or managerial approach, perhaps focused on GCSE grades, or school-based data or descriptive data terms.

Generally, it isn’t until they have a good sense of *what* they are teaching that some are able to then think about how they will recognise when pupils understand or can do those things better. It can be helpful to ask them to look through a few different textbooks, or examination syllabus(es?) about a topic – so that they can bring together some of the big knowledge themes, and then start to consider sequencing, or what might be difficult.

Case Study 1 – History and Second Order Concept Confusion

I’ve been working with a few history PGCE trainees recently, trying to work out a way together of thinking about *what* it is when we are teaching. A very difficult example came in the form of a sequence, which was really about change and continuity, in the context of a school department which has confused it for ‘similarity and difference’ over time (see the TH180 ‘What’s the Wisdom on…Similarity and Difference (2020) for more on this).

Possibly because of this confusion, this trainee was really struggling to articulate *what* was being compared, in a series of lessons that had teaching about two empires very remote from each other in time and geography, and therefore *what* was the point of the comparison. Talking through aims using a table such as this might have helped, but not because it would or could have settled matters.

In this case we ended up by talking through what is historically difficult and purposeful about making comparisons between these cultures – what contextual or framing factors make it difficult, or less meaningful to make comparisons? What kinds of coloniality or other issues of evaluation and judgement can cloud issues? What specific *points* in time or groups in each society are we comparing (and, of course, why!). These are really hard questions, and often (as in this case) the trainee is also hedged in by the traditions and resources of the department in which they are working.

What it did help the trainee to clarify – a little – was the type of understanding in the comparison that they wanted to see in their pupils’ responses, spoken and written, to the questions and activities he had devised.

Case Study 2 – What does ‘progress look like’ – a maths trainee goes all in on the role of misconceptions and errors

About 5 years ago it was really common for some departments to ask trainees to use pre-teaching tests with a class, so that they can resolve the question of progress by comparing before and after scores. That doesn’t mean that tests, and scores can’t play a role in evaluating progress – there might be really important key ideas, concepts, facts that pupils really need to know, and be able to bring to mind. Making that part of a measure of progress can be really important – but even then it can’t be the only way.

I saw a brilliant maths lesson a few weeks ago as part of my external examining work, in which a trainee had created a sheet of worked, and partially worked, examples of quadratic equations for the end of a sequence of learning. Each of the lines was designed to address a common misconception which the students had been taught to avoid, or to increase levels of challenge and complexity. The first was a complete example, and each following line was therefore progressively more difficult. The real impact and importance of the sheet became clear in our discussions after the end of the lesson – it enabled the new teacher to see which of his pupils had made progress in respect of specific things that had been taught over the sequence, what support and reminders to give, and how to think about re-addressing specific issues in the coming lessons.

Ecumenical Matters

The ecumenical part comes in the way that students can approach the literature based professional justification for their plans for resourcing, teaching and activities. For some subjects, such as PE, History, MFL, RE, English, or Science, there’s often lots of subject community guidance, which can be directly related to the sequence or the topics and concepts at its heart. For others, this is often harder to find. In each case we provide reading lists, but in the case of the latter we also make it clear that they can use other subjects by analogy, and indeed any subject topic might be explained and justified by reference to a generic teaching and learning technique, especially those derived from ‘cog-sci’ approaches. If you want to know more about that then you can read the last blog post I wrote about the affordances, and difficulties, of that approach.

Those plans, the ideas about progress, the learning objectives and the potential activities and their outcomes are then used as the basis of an evaluation – a space for the trainees to compare their practice with the ideas in literature, and to analyse aspects of the pupils responses to them, in order to help them work out which aspects of the techniques, or their practice, they might focus on in their professional learning. As you’d imagine, we also take a focused but ecumenical approach to the form that this analysis might take, and provide the trainees with lots of guidance. The focus comes in the guidance that they should structure their evaluation around the specific aspects of planning and teaching that they developed in their literature review – and that this evaluation should be based on evidence.

Part of the guidance a consistent differentiation between “objectives” and “outcomes” in planning. The former being the aims, the direction, the detail of what is to be learned, mastered, improved or polished – whilst the latter are the artefacts, clues, the stuff that are left as a result of activities of the lesson. For all of the trainees there should be clear outlines of the aims in the sequence of learning that they have planned, but what washes up on the shore at the end of the lesson that will help them evaluate it? I’ll write about that a bit more in the final post.

(NB. This doesn’t mean that trainees can’t write about things like engagement, behaviour, or motivation – they do this, sometimes very successfully. That success depends on the extent that they can outline what is dissatisfactory about that issue, how it might relate to or impact on the planning, and what the professional, community, or subject literature might suggest in ways of addressing those issues).

PGCE Assignments, and the need for space for professional learning: what am I learning from marking?

I’m marking – a lot. We are assessing and moderating the final submission on our PGCert, which is taught as part of our PGCE, as well as a ‘top-up’ qualification for partners around the region and beyond. Marking it has made me think a great deal about some of the pitfalls and some of the barriers our trainees and PG students face, in writing and developing their practice, through L7 study.

Some of these pitfalls are a question of style. To my irritable and jaundiced eye, an awkward influencer / Louis Theroux documentary style is spreading insidiously in some students’ writing at L7. But, though I find signposts such as “with these challenges in mind, I wanted to find out how X would work in practice…” mildly irritating, it’s not an absolute barrier to passing, or even greater success.

More worrying, and more debilitating, is a tendency to describe pieces of literature in turn, often without drawing out implicit links, synthesis or even tensions. Similarly, long decorative quotations which aren’t interrogated, analysed or even evaluated for their implications, are holding back students attempting to write about their practice. Sometimes these are combined with narrative “documentaryism” – leading to stories about the research process such as “what I discovered when I read Cass and Podesta’s (2022) chapter on how to plan lessons was shocking, when they suggested that….”.

Writing is about making choices (and so is teaching)

Even when they avoid the worst of these stylistic and structural issues, the most common problem is that trainees can be very reluctant to choose (even when explicitly invited to) what to develop their understanding and writing about – and therefore to choose what not to write about. I can see why – it’s hard when you have little basis in terms of knowledge and / or experience, on which to reflect, or make decisions like this (McIntyre 1997). The result is that trainees often make a broad and shallow readings of too many aspects or topics, instead of justifying, and then prosecuting, a focus on a narrow range of salient issues at an appropriate depth.

This is sometimes related to a tendency to see, or at least to describe, pedagogic techniques as things that can be applied to learning situations, in the same way as one might use a medicine, or introduce a nutrient or plant food to a house plant. Confident assertions, that ‘dual coding’ or ‘small group sizes’ produce improved outcomes or test scores are made, sometimes with a couple of references to big-ticket research papers. These evidence-informed assertions are quite often made without considering how teachers’ ideas, experience, subject expertise and decision making, are used to secure the possible benefits that might arise from these approaches.

Again, I think I can see how this happens – trainees don’t know how to justify an approach, because they don’t yet have the right amount or kind of experience and knowledge, and because the pace and character of school and training tend to obscure the way that those decisions and judgements are made.

What Works Didn’t Work

Let’s take an example, quite a simple but very popular form of generic technique – “retrieval practice”. Trainees and new teachers writing about their practice in this way will often describe how the decontextualized application of ‘retrieval practice’, in their experience, ‘didn’t work’. This can lead to a dismissal of approaches, techniques, or even the concept of the application of research in education. A kind of learned helplessness can set in – a (sometimes resentful) externalised locus of agency, arising from the fact that they were told it was ‘what works’.

Contextualization – No Excuses

Getting new teachers and trainees to contextualise their use of such research informed techniques is hard. Contextualisation doesn’t mean letting a trainee say ‘it doesn’t work for these kinds of kids’, or ‘we’ve tried it, but it won’t work in this kind of school’. However, given the power of our expectations, it’s not hard to see why such views and system 1 thinking might have a powerful limiting material effect on the process of contextualisation, and in turn the chances of generic techniques being used effectively.

A more useful form of contextualisation is one that that develops from discussions and reflections on what a generic technique is being used *for*. These discussions need to go beyond the immediate response of ‘improving outcomes’. In other words, to help trainees and ECTs plan effective use of generic techniques, we (school, mentor, host teachers, provider, HE, etc) need to engage in conversation about what that approach is being used to achieve, conceptually and procedurally in *this specific lesson, or sequence of lessons*, or in relation to *this specific concept*, or *these procedures and skills*. Moreover – these discussions about the purposes need to be turned back on *how* this generic technique might (and might not) help achieve them.

What are we learning – and why?

Turning back to retrieval practice – my argument is that mentors and trainees/ ECTs should together discuss and consider why concept ‘a’ is being retrieved now, and how it will be used in the lesson or sequence. This will help new and developing teachers understand much more about the generic technique, but also the teaching of the specific topics and concepts in question. They could discuss (as appropriate at different stages of training or ECT years):

  • where and when pupils last learned about concept ‘a’,
  • what pupils learned about concept ‘a’, and whether this is appropriate, correct, etc
  • how pupils use concept ‘a’
  • the best ways of explaining concept ‘a’
  • who could tell us more about helping pupils to understand concept ‘a’
  • what pupils misunderstand or assumer about concept ‘a’
  • what makes concept ‘a’ a powerful or important concept in the subject
  • what use pupils will make of ‘a’ in upcoming lessons or sequences
  • who could tell us more about helping pupils to benefit from this form of retrieval practice
  • whether concept ‘a’ should actually be a focus for retrieval, rather than concept ‘b’ or ‘c’
  • whether this kind of retrieval practice is appropriate for concept ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c’, and if not, what alternatives there might be.
  • how the ‘remembering’ achieved by retrieving concept ‘a’ is going to be used and built on, in the lesson, sequence and longer term – see for instance Dennis, N. (2016)

Agency and Autonomy – Making Choices and decisions

Choosing what is retrieved (and when or how) is a really powerful position of responsibility, but it’s often not discussed by trainees when writing about using RP, or even when they’re discussing how they plan lessons. That’s a shame, because it could also help make more meaningful any discussions about what is actually being learned, such as:

  • the key concepts pupils need to have as they cross the threshold of the classroom;
  • the concepts that might be described as the ‘fingertip’ working knowledge (Counsel 2012 p.66) – built up during a sequence, which helps establish criteria for using, making or evaluating explanations, or procedures, or for making sense of and connections with more structural or iteratively developed concepts;
  • the(se) more structural concepts (which Counsel calls (perhaps unhelpfully!) ‘residue’) that need to remain when immediate experience of this learning has shaken from the sieve, which will be built on, developed and referenced in later learning; or even just
  • the concepts that are really hard to grasp, or need careful handling of analogies, or rehearsal of explanation, clear diagrams or building carefully over a few lessons.

Making Mechanisms Explicit

In other words mentor-trainee dialogue, using the subject-topic context to interrogate the use of generic ‘evidence informed’ techniques, can help improve the use of generic techniques and subject and new teachers’ professional learning. These discussions guide trainees and their mentors to consider whether subject priorities and concepts are being addressed in their planning, in both the short and medium term. Reflection and dialogue like this can also help trainees understand *why* such generic techniques can work by making explicit the underlying pedagogic (rather than psychological, physiological or cognitive) mechanisms.

The other side of that coin has to be that mentors and trainees / ECTS will sometimes decide that, in a specific subject-topic context, a particular ‘what works’ technique isn’t appropriate. That is because, finally and very importantly, discussions like these move responsibility and agency for effective teaching back onto the partnership between the mentor and the trainee (or new teacher), and away from the warrant provided solely by external authority, policy or standardized recipes.

Our Collective Responsibility

This means that departmental or school-wide requirements play a role here. Expectations, arising from policy, or lesson structure models, that are enforced through coercive or normative mimetic isomorphism – (copying or expecting to see surface features) can push out opportunities for professional (and pupil learning), especially if enforcement is blunt. We can again return to retrieval practice as an example. Policies that expect the strictly timed spaced practice / retrieval of specific content will possibly squeeze out more relevant activities, or even opportunities to re-activate knowledge relevant to the current sequence of learning – in favour of knowledge chosen by more the arbitrary criteria of when it was last taught.

I’m not arguing that this is the fault of ‘what works’ pedagogy – isomorphism is a feature of regulated, publicly accountable, or competitive fields – organisations copy approaches from those seen as successful, or which will provide a defence for criticism from regulators like Ofsted. But I am arguing that in our teaching and professional learning partnerships and networks we have an obligation to resist isomorphism, and to create spaces for rational, discursive autonomy and development of practice, and that tutors and mentors who understand their subject-community’s practice and its sources of expertise are best placed to help create these spaces.

Counsel, C Historical Skills and Historical Knowledge: a distracting dichotomy, in Arthur, J., & PHILLIPS, U. O. W. S. R. (2012). Issues in History Teaching. Routledge.

Dennis, N. (2016). Exploring the testing ‘effect’ to enable knowledge retention and deployment in the Key Stage 3 History classroom [Master’s thesis]. University of Oxford.

McIntyre, D. (Ed.). (1997). Teacher Education Research in a New Context: The Oxford Internship Scheme (1st edition). Paul Chapman Publishing.

The Big Listen

A big man, definitely listening.

Ofsted’s “Big Listen”, [Ofsted Big Listen – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)] their consultation designed to “inform [their] thinking going forward”, and to gather our views on the “future direction of Ofsted” feels like a hollow exercise in enabling the inspectorate to signal a ‘listening mode’. The fact that the outcome will be decided by the winner of the election this year adds to the sense of scepticism.

However, I generally tend to do consultations. When I came into teaching from another sector, I was amazed to find that teachers and schools don’t often take part in consultations. These play such an important role in other parts of the social, political and economic framework of the country. Since then I’ve come to understand that education consultations are hard to fit in with everything else (even when they’re not timed to make it even more difficult for schools to respond, such as the generous six weeks between end of July and the end of August provided for ITT market review consultation).

Despite this cynicism, there are examples of consultations making a difference. In 2013 the response of the History teaching community (see – You Spoke. We listened. Our response to the History Consultation 2013 / News / Historical Association) to the terrible Gibb/Gove proposals for a reductive, nationalist history curriculum ended with capitulation, and a much better History curriculum as a result.

So, here I am completing the Big Listen. My responses are below. You’ll see what I entered in response to the the very leading survey questions, and the further detail I wrote in an attempt to escape that sense of constantly being asked ‘when did you stop hating quality education?’.

Priority 1 – Reporting

Further detail:

I think it is possible to comment on the quality of the things you mention in this question, but 'clear judgements' are not only difficult to do with any fidelity, but also result in reductive data such as 'good' 'outstanding' etc. Of course you will have thought carefully about how to word these questions to get the results that reflect the policy of the day, so that this distinction is not seen in the data or analysis.

Priority 2 – Inspection Practice

Further detail:

I have found inspection in the second phase of the current framework to be collegiate, challenging but also focused on some valuable things in ITE/T. The first phase, when political influence required that Ofsted was 'let rip' amongst ITT providers, made the organisation look like the tool of the government of the day, rather than an independent inspectorate.

For more on the ‘let rip’ phrase – DfE hopes snubbed teacher trainers will help plug ‘cold spots’ (schoolsweek.co.uk)

Priority 3 – Impact

Further detail:

These questions aren't about impact. They are assertions or descriptions of intentions of impact (ironically, given the most recent framework).

The most important aspect of impact in relation to Ofsted is that the organisation's institutional memory is short, because of it's dependent nature on the government of the time.

This is not a party political point - I objected to enforcement of the gamification, skillification etc of the DCFS as much as I do the cognitive-turn which has been required by more recent policy. Each turn is enforced by Ofsted, which must forget the previous policies. The number of 'outstanding' providers is therefore a measure not of quality. Instead it is partly a reflection of the level of compliance with the policy at hand and partly a tool for more immediate policy goals. Inspections of ITT/E providers under phase 1 of the most recent framework illustrate both of these points - 'good' providers found themselves outside the new 'good', outstanding providers had not reacted quickly enough to the most recent changes in policy (despite previously being told that the process of development and change would be recognised). This process of softening up for the re-introduction of the Market Review and re-accreditation having been achieved, the practice, tone and outcomes of inspections in phase 2 returned to more usual patterns.

The most recent reports are written in ways that reflect this lack of underlying consistency, quality assurance. These bland summaries using standard text make it impossible for reports, evidence, judgements to be critiqued, intentionally so in my view. Ofsted itself publishes little about the impact, or reliability of its judgements. Schools, teachers, and educators know that the system is a game. The persistence of that game avoids and devalues the legitimate interests of the public in a robust inspection system.

Priority 4 – Culture

The experience of inspection is highly variable - it depends too much on the character and style of inspection teams, and on the policy environment at the time of inspection.

Provision of feedback to Ofsted is one thing - but reactions to that feedback are, non-existent. Processes of reaction to feedback, quality assurance of systems and judgements, relations with policy makers are entirely opaque.

Is there anything else you want to tell us?

Two things would make very easy quick-wins in re-establishing credibility and trust of teachers, schools and providers with the inspectorate.

The first is open-access to important processes. Training materials, manuals, ppts, videos etc should be made available to schools and providers at the same time they are used by Ofsted to train inspectors. Quality assurance materials, outcomes and data should similarly be made available.

You might argue that this provision would encourage more gamification, narrow working to the rules and outcomes set by the Inspectorate. There are two responses to that. The first is that Ofsted's processes, outcomes, training etc should not, if they are capable of accurately evaluating the quality of education, lead to gamification. The second response is that removing the high-stakes nature of Ofsted judgements would significantly reduce these incentives. With a lack of evidence that such judgements are effective in school improvement (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09243453.2014.927369) and plenty of evidence from the crisis in our education system to the contrary (Punishing Ofsted regime is driving us out of education, say school leaders | Ofsted | The Guardian), there is no reason not to change Ofsted's role in this way.

So, the second, quick-win change would be to remove one word judgements, and to make reports much more useful in helping schools and providers understand the evaluation, contexts and reasoning of inspection teams - so that reports are readable, read and used.

What did I read today?

Morsink et al (2022) Studying Motivation in ADHD: The role of internal motives and the relevance of Self Determination Theory

The paper discusses the role of motivation in ADHD, focusing on the Self Determination Theory (SDT). The authors argue that research on ADHD could benefit from the theoretical framework provided by SDT, which defines motivation as a natural internal human tendency towards growth, and which is enabled through satisfaction of basic needs of Autonomy, Relatedness and competence. The document also discusses different theories related to motivation, including Organismic Integration Theory, Basic Needs Theory, Goal Content Theory, Causality Orientations Theory, and Cognitive Evolution Theory. The authors suggest that ADHD research often overlooks internal motivation, focusing instead on external motivation. They call for more research into the impact of need support and the role of internal motivation in ADHD.

Roulston, de Marrias, Lewis (2003) Learning to Interview in the Social Sciences

Roulston, de Marrias, and Lewis’s 2003 study discusses the challenges novice researchers face when conducting interviews, including unexpected participant behaviours, the impact of the researchers’ actions and subjectivities, question phrasing and negotiation, and dealing with sensitive issues. They also highlight the difficulties of transcription. The authors suggest teaching methods for interviewing, such as self-critique, practice, question analysis, using question typologies, conducting real studies, and class discussions about research design and assumptions.

What did I read today?

Richard Pring (2001) The Virtues and Vices of an Educational Researcher


Pring’s 2001 work discusses the ethical considerations and virtues necessary for educational researchers. Through four case studies, Pring argues that ethical codes and rules are insufficient, and that moral deliberation and judgement are necessary. Key virtues for researchers include trustworthiness, openness, respect for persons, understanding the tentative nature of knowledge, and being deliberative. Pring also distinguishes between consequentialist and deontological rules, arguing that conflicts between these can only be resolved through deliberation. He concludes by suggesting that principles need to be enacted by researchers with particular virtues – which need to be fostered in research communities which embody trustworthiness, modesty, resilience and concern.

Helen Trelford (2021) Initial Teacher Education in peril: Why the market review is about anything but ‘world-class training’


Trelford’s 2021 article critiques the proposed changes to the Initial Teacher Education system, arguing that they are based on poor evidence and could lead to a swift dismantling of the existing system. The changes, which include quick implementation, prescriptive requirements for mentors, and more frequent inspections, are seen as ideologically driven. Trelford argues that the prescriptive nature of the proposed curriculum could leave teachers ill-prepared for the challenges of their role, reducing their capacity to adapt and question their approach.

Against ‘Grand Narratives’

The Sirens

I’ve woken up this morning concerned about a post I read (last week, I think) which promoted the teaching of “Grand Narratives” – big stories that offer comforting, or guiding descriptions of the world and our place in it.

These stories often tell us what to do, or what ‘we’ have done in the past. They simplify and re-package the world, with the aim of making it easier to accept, or remember, or giving ‘us’ easy ways of understanding either the past or ‘our’ current situation.

In some ways I can see why a “GN” is an attractive idea for schools. They offer a pre-packaged way of thinking about the world, one that has been smoothed by the action of popular re-telling, one which is often reflected in the “common-sense”, in the street names, statues, advertising, books and sitcoms and other building blocks of a dominant culture.

In a plural society where things are getting complicated, in a time of global uncertainty and economic difficulty they’re doubly attractive. A clear message about who ‘we’ are and ‘our’ place in the world can cut through this messiness, can remind us of better times, perhaps times in which we enjoyed ‘our’ more rightful place in the pecking order.

I would argue that, especially at such times of conflict, GNs are dangerous siren-songs. Their first victim is the truth. The song is so beautiful and so loud that it stops us from considering alternative explanations – from considering un-attractive or contrary evidence. If we are asked to face these, if someone tries to interrupt the song, we thrash about in the bonds the GN has created and, instead of being able to alter our world view to fit the new information, we become resentful – our sense of self is injured.

The second victim of the siren song of GNs is society. It should be obvious that educational narratives such as these create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. ‘You’ were slaves; ‘We’ ended slavery. ‘We’ were brave; ‘You’ were evil. It should be obvious from this that grand narratives will, by their design, create in-groups and out-groups. At the least these groups will readily accept or immediately reject the narrative being offered. At the worst these narratives will cause untold psychological and societal damage as young people think of themselves as superior or inferior, as heroes or victims, as the stories they are told either exaggerate or deny the creativity, bravery, agency and other characteristics of people like ‘us’ or ‘them. It isn’t a long journey from there to a rejection of education characterized by the re-telling of grand narratives, especially where such narratives reject or ignore the stories from home, or the experiences of ones own life.

As well as creating a situation in which education can be engaged with or rejected, the ‘separateness’ that these narratives create actually makes it harder for meetings of minds to occur. The final victim of such narratives is therefore our democracy. Events during this decade have made us think that democracy is something that happens every four years when there’s an election, or perhaps more frequently if we have referendums or instability.

In short democracy is becoming something we do periodically, but often with a sense of inconvenience. But, as a recent episode of the excellent London Review of Books “Talking Politics” podcast reminds us, if you hire a steward, you need to continue to take an interest in the actions of that steward. Without this you risk the steward acting in their own interest, and often against yours. Democracy can only be maintained if we constantly seek to maintain it, by meeting minds, and opinions other than our own, and other than the Grand Narratives, the suffocatingly comforting stories that displace any alternatives.

A meme of underground bomb shelters in London during the Second World War, which compares the ‘grit’ of the blitz spirit, with the complaints of contemporary snowflakes.

A good example of the way that such narratives have these effects is reproduced above. We see quite a lot of blitz spirit memes, comparing the stiff upper lip of the wartime civil response to air raids with the selfish whining or ill informed opinions of contemporary snowflake society. The one cited above compares modern concerns about control, consent, and suspicion of power with a Grand Narrative of the spirit of 1939-40. I’ve seen other similar memes criticising approaches to brexit, the welfare state, immigration.

The interesting thing about this narrative is that it is, to an important extent, untrue. The blitz saw some amazing heroism and bravery, often in the face of terrifying situations. To make of it a pastiche of unthinking foolhardiness, or un-thinking compliance not only denies the agency of those who were living through these conditions, as well as the real courage that it took for many to continue their lives, or to act to save the lives of other or the real generosity at a time of need to help citizens bombed out of their homes.

This pastiche also denies the reality of the human reaction to the conditions of wartime life. It denies that there were terrified people, that people ran away, that they acted, often, selfishly or foolishly or dangerously. The story of the Balham tube disaster, caused by enemy bombs is well known, for instance. Stories of the Bethnal Green disaster, in which a crush of panicking civilians killed more than 170, are much less well known. What is even less well known is that the government had to be bullied into allowing people to shelter in the tube, and only did so when it became clear that the population was taking matters into its own hands and refusing to leave tube stations at night. The necessity to keep government under pressure and scrutiny at a time of crisis is currently being illustrated to us.

The power of a Grand Narrative is not limited to suppressing competing visions of the past in this way. The past is thereby also used to suppress rather than to engage with alternative and often dangerous ideas about the present. Taking the meme above as an example, it’s impact, ironically is to drive such views underground, and through ridicule to strengthen them.

Finally, the “othering” of these Grand Narratives of wartime grit has a terribly corrosive impact on our politics when it comes to our treatment of people seeking asylum, whether from political oppression or from war. We are able to compare ‘ourselves’, with our tradition of ‘grit’, ‘sticking to it’, ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, with the cowardice of ‘the others’, their inability to control their fear or their warlike aggression, their dishonesty in coming to ‘our’ country, not to flee from death, but instead to steal work or take handouts. “We would not act in this way!”, we tell ourselves. “We would take a stand, keep calm, act bravely”, “We would ask for asylum in Greece, or Turkey or the other first country we found ourselves in, if we we real asylum seekers”, our empathy, our ability to think from another’s perspective, drowned in the song of the Grand Narrative of ‘Us’.

Review: Biesta’s Research, an un orthodox introduction. Part IV – The technical invasion of our “Lifeworld” – including a bash at CLT and the Core Content Framework for ITT.

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

In this post I want to look at the relationship between technical visions of teaching – the ‘what works’ approach – and the creation of conditions necessary for the development and maintenance of democracy. This is the underlying theme of Biesta’s book, and though he focuses on the distortions to research and knowledge engendered by the academic publishing system his concerns are based on ideas that equally apply to other professional activities, to schools and to teacher education.

technical visions of professional action, and especially teaching, are a kind of invasion of and stake a claim over the ‘natural

Biesta argues that technical visions of professional action, and especially teaching, are a kind of invasion of and stake a claim over the ‘natural’, in that they make a claim that ‘this is how the world works’. Education is achieved through both the what and the how of teaching, and because of its intimate relationship with our democratic society – students are learning about the world through the way we work as much as what we teach. Technical visions thereby squeeze out the kind of deliberation and conflict that is the oxygen of a democratic society, which itself is not a ‘natural’ state of affairs, not an equilibrium to which human society will automatically oscillate through crisis towards. 

Rather than present democracy as either a natural or an eternal category, Biesta is admirably clear that a desire for and achievement of democracy is based on values and culture, and that such values and culture need to be maintained and preserved.  Our commitment to democracy should go therefore require us to go beyond ‘preferences’ and ‘choices’ in a marketplace of ideas, or the passing on of the wisdom and decisions of previous generations, and extend to the expression of and collective deliberation over values, wants and desires.  In this way democratic professions provide important opportunities for practising and experiencing the wider dynamics of democracy,  and an important contribution to processes in which society is democratised (113).

If you are not producing research then it is difficult to measure your ‘impact’ and therefore impossible to “show you are working”

The final chapter considers how distortions promoted by systems designed to measure ‘impact’ of published educational research erode underpinning academic values of disinterestedness and cooperation by replacing these with competition. Rather than rely on open access journals to solve this problem, Biesta points out how these rely on a very similar model which itself places so much emphasis on the ‘impact’ of the finished ‘product’. This product is taken as a complete representation of the work of Academics. If you are not producing research then it is difficult to measure your ‘impact’ and therefore impossible to “show you are working”. Entirely consistently with the pragmatic approach the book challenges us much more carefully about the work of academics, so as to understand the totality of their practice, activities, production and use of tools. In considering the work of Latour and Woolgers from the 1970s he points out that, rather than only producing peer reviewed research, it becomes clear that such work is a part of a much larger process and set of activities which, because they are not measured, matter less.

When we consider this is the light of the effect of the relative strength of the various networks, that ensure that some ‘facts’ have more chance of promulgation than others, we can see how the themes of the book come together in this final chapter. This distortion has a wider effect than what counts as ‘fact’ in academic publishing, but “contributes to a particular articulation of that counts as rational and reasonable” (p142) in wider public discourse.  Instead of seeing scientific knowledge as sacred and eternal descriptions of what is ‘out there’  and the only way in which we can hope to get in touch with reality or construct forms of intersubjectivity Biesta wants to argue that practical, religious, aesthetic and other dimensions are equally ‘real’.

this tends to restrict rationality to the use of ‘facts’ and excludes discussions of values and ends and their relationships with the means by which we achieve these

The reduction to a technical scientific world view is responsible for a crisis in rationality,  stripping the world of vital qualities which are part of the human experience and forcing us to choose between relativism or the “purchase of scientific title and authority at the expense of all that is distinctly human”. In particular this tends to restrict rationality to the use of ‘facts’ and excludes discussions of values and ends and their relationships with the means by which we achieve these. Rather than becoming sucked into a ‘reduction of options for thinking and doing’ (146), Biesta argues that we should be part of a ‘democratization’ of knowledge, especially if we aim to ‘enhance the scope for professional action’ (146) rather than describe ‘what works’.

We could perhaps make similar arguments about the technical vision of teaching presented by theories and approaches such as Synthetic Phonics, Cognitive Load Theory or Direct Instruction.  These ideas are the latest in a continuing flow of ideas privileged by powerful sponsors, and they also crowd out discussion of purposes or ethics and, in the ways that they are enacted and enforced through accountability measures, restrict practitioners’ scope for action, and hedge the boundaries of professional reflection.  My point here is not that these theories are good/bad or right/wrong, but in the way that they function in education. Similar revolutionary impacts were promised by formative assessment theories, and as enacted similar processes of sponsorship, enforcement and accountability occurred – anyone remember APP, and its descent into pupil friendly National Curriculum Levels?

In some ways the problems with previous revolutions are exacerbated by ideas such as CLT which promise a global united theory of learning and teaching. Much is made in the critical literature on constructivism of approaches to *teaching*, based on ‘activity’ or ‘enquiry’ or ‘discovery’, being a misapplication of various theories of *learning*. CLT is a theory self-declaredly about both teaching and learning – though over the years what the theory says about each has changed and developed. Each iteration of the theory is still ‘out there’ and can be picked through for approaches and mantras that support a particular view, or even world view. The Core Content Framework for Initial Teacher Education, for instance contains references only to some key CLT texts, and for the most limits its consideration and promotion of CLT to the core ideas of load reduction and the limits of working memory, some of which approach over-simplified pastiche.

In particular it fails (and I think these are a failing of the CCF) to consider serious critiques of CLT (de Jong, T. Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: some food for thought. Instr Sci 38, 105–134 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11251-009-9110-0) or even the epicycles such as the “expertise fading effect” which CLT’s proponents have had to introduce to deal with situations in which outcomes inconsistent with the underlying theory have emerged. The decision not to include Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later. Educ Psychol Rev 31, 261–292 (2019) in the CCF reading list is a troubling one, given that this summarizes many of the important ‘exceptions to the rules’ that CLT is otherwise presented as in other papers.

The regulatory force of the CCF crowds out other approaches, and suppresses the nuance and questions that arise from these officially sponsored ideas. It has become a kind of 39 Articles that Initial Teacher Educators must promote

What’s the problem with this limitation? It limits the approaches that teachers can take and the approaches that we have to take as teacher educators. The regulatory force of the CCF crowds out other approaches, and suppresses the nuance and questions that arise from these officially sponsored ideas. It has become a kind of 39 Articles that Initial Teacher Educators must promote. For instance, the treatment of knowledge, thinking and memory embedded in the CCF are flattening distortions of rich concepts and processes which trainee teachers need to instead to consider in the light of the traditions of their subject communities.

In presenting a flowing process between stimulus, short and long term memory, mediated only by processes of chunking, practice and adequately spaced and interleaved recall activity not only does CLT flatten out the processes of meaningful thought embedded in the school subject traditions (theorising, problem solving, evaluation, construction, development, transformation, examining, questioning), it also renders the humans involved as mechanisms, strangely passive – their individual and group histories contributing little beyond the capacities of their short term working memory.

Importantly for Biesta it also flattens the discussion central to this book of what education, and what education research is *for*, which I think also applies to teacher education, and CPD. Is education about improving ‘outcomes’ – what is measured, or does it have wider aims? If something is not ‘teachable’ or amenable to assessment, should it be learned in school? Is it learned in school anyway. Over the last 20 years policy documents have seemed to ignore the question of the purpose of schooling, or attempted in the first paragraphs to shut it down by reference to global competitiveness or the acquisition of’skills’ or ‘knowledge’ (powerful or otherwise). In the next post I want to consider Biesta’s opening up of this question.

Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction” part III (with some Arendt thrown in).

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Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part Three – Democracy and Education

One of Biesta’s most important themes is the relationship between democracy and education. He develops this in discussion of the judgement required of educators in navigating the tension between the different functions of education. One of the most frustrating aspects of recent educational policy perspectives (for decades) has been the reduction and closing off of debate on the functions of education. Democratic professionalism requires a more sophisticated relationship between client and profession than the metaphor of the market or competition will allow, and a more satisfying and humane role for teacher and student than those of transmitter and receiver of a standard culture.

This purpose of teaching is the promotion of ‘educatedness’, which is characterised as ‘promotion of cognitive and moral independence of students’.

Biesta conceptualises teaching as a ‘deliberative’, values based profession, orientated towards a particular form of human wellbeing. Professional action can therefore never be merely technical, as it is concerned with the articulation and realisation of a ‘telos’ – a purpose beyond immediate goals. This purpose of teaching is the promotion of ‘educatedness’, which is characterised as ‘promotion of cognitive and moral independence of students’. This telos, whilst it gives the practice of education identity, direction and meaning, cannot be settled in detail or once and for all but requires ongoing reflection and deliberation amongst interested parties, in specific contexts and always involves norms and values and not only ‘facts’ and ‘technique’. This, in turn, implies the need for communication and discussion, for public deliberation and public defence of professional action.

This vision of democratic educational practice is at odds with contemporary neo-liberal visions of accountability, in which governments no longer see themselves as key actors in political debates about the definitions of common goods. Governments instead work through processes of standards, measurement and inspection, supressing discussion or debate about how meaningful such standards are. Biesta describes this as an kind of overcorrection to the democratic deficit inherent in traditional professional-client relationships.

Biesta argues for a third-way, a dialogue which allows each party to contribute their experience and their expertise. In this kind of relationship both parties play a role in needs definition, rather than one acting as a consumer coming to a market to find the best value provider of a service that she has already defined.

A couple of years ago it became very fashionable to write about and cite Hannah Arendt’s “The Crisis in Education” when discussing ideas of authority. I read the piece for a @PESGB reading group that we had at work, and found it polemical. I think reading Biesta has helped me clarify what it is that concerned me about Arendt’s analysis and it’s potential impact on practices in school.

The crisis that Arendt is referring to is sited in a wider societal crisis of authority that she detected in the mid 1950s, which stemmed from a fear or rejection of responsibility for the world by those in power or positions of such responsibility. Arendt connects this with a progressive naturalism that sought to free children to develop their own talents and views, to engage in activities that would drive this development naturally.

According to Arendt this manifested itself in a lack of discipline. As children are left alone to negotiate their own world and relationships what occurs is a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all, out of which emerges dominance, charismatic leadership and bullying, and the concomitant submission of weaker and marginalised students. It also manifests in teachers giving up authority in the form of their knowledge of the world, and instead relying on pedagogic skills as an alternative. Teachers are thus cast as generic experts in ‘teaching and learning’, whilst children discover the world as a result of their own enquiries.

For Arendt, in aiming to emancipate children by exposing them to the light of the public world, in the ways that we have similarly attempted to emancipate women, workers and other oppressed people, we have in fact destroyed the protections necessary for their development.

Both of these abdications (of authority over behaviour and conduct, and of authority stemming from knowledge of the world) “represent serious infringements of the conditions for vital growth” of children. In aiming to emancipate children by exposing them to the light of the public world, in the ways that we have similarly attempted to emancipate women, workers and other oppressed people, we have in fact destroyed the protections necessary for their development.

These conditions require a strict dividing line between pre-political education for children, and post-educational politics, for adults Education when applied to adults amounts to propaganda, we are told. Politics applied to children amounts to premature expose to the public world. There is a further dividing line between the pre-educational world of the family, in which the overriding metaphor is one of darkness, of the growth of the seed in complete protection from the outside world. Children should be sequestered from the world in their early development. The school therefore acts as an introduction to the world, and the teacher’s authority rests on their taking responsibility for the world by representing it as it is.

Unless we teach children gradually about the world as it is we will deny them the chance to make it anew themselves. Our attempts to teach children about the way the world should be amount to an imposition by us of a Utopian vision, our generation’s solutions to as yet unknown problems and conditions. Our true responsibility is in acting as a “representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: this is our world”

For Arendt the problem rests with our repudiation of responsibility and our suspicion of anyone willing to take it up. This has led to a loss of authority in teachers and to “the absurdity of treating children as if they were an oppressed minority in need of liberation”. This crisis of repudiation and suspicion has therefore led to a crisis of authority and discipline, of knowledge as teachers specialise in pedagogic technique rather than their ability to represent the world through their subject, and to the assumption that we can only teach by getting children to do things, nothing can be taught or transferred directly.

For Arendt this crisis was far worse in the US than in places such as England where there was a system which separated children into abilities. In the US the attempt to make citizens equal had led to attempts to equalize relations between children and their teachers, further eroding teachers’ authority and the impact of their knowledge of the world.

Biesta’s call for there to be two way communication between pupil and teacher – for relations in school to reflect our wider democratic and dialogic relations in society are incompatible with Arendt’s model of school as a place of authority and transfer. Biesta’s refreshing admission that democratic relations need to be promoted and maintained precisely because they are *not* natural, and will not develop naturally could be seen by those who agree with Arendt as an attempt to create a utopia – to impose our prescription on the problems that students will face as adults. I think they’re right, in one way, but Arendt ignores the way that her prescriptions are also a form of utopianism – also an attempt to impose a future on the young (which is in fact the essence of education – as R.S. Peters puts it).

Some young people are oppressed, in various ways. They experience school in different ways from children in dominant or privileged groups, from those with higher levels of capital in dominant cultures. It is unrealistic to expect that they will not have experienced oppression, seen how the world works even before reaching school age. It is even more unrealistic to expect that these experiences and insights will not affect the way that children respond, quite apart from the impact on them of wider societal suspicion of authority, to the authority presented by the teacher and the school. This will especially be the case when there are cultural clashes between school and pupil.

If we want to teach the world as it really is we also have to teach about the way that the world really *is* suspicious of authority, and how the notion of the impossibility of “un-perspectived”, objective truth is actually at the heart of the way that the subject discipline operates. For some subject communities the dialogue between perspectives is actually the point of the discipline, the bedrock of the way that its knowledge is developed, tested and created. Telling it like it is in history means more than teaching a received version of the past, it means being honest about the way that history is constantly being re-written and revised. In teaching about the world as it is we should therefore be honest about, and modelling the way that views are held lightly, the way that views are amended by being open to new perspectives, and the way that some perspectives are privileged whilst others are blocked from being part of the public dialogue.

The overriding model of the pupil in Arendt’s analysis is one of extreme passivity – like a seed growing automatically, she will hide in her family and then passively take up the model of the world presented by her teacher, irrespective of the experiences that she has had, or that members of her family and community have had. We know that children push against their boundaries from their earliest moments – we know that pupils have different experiences and expectations of society before they reach primary education. We know that children do not only learn what we teach them directly, from the actions of society, from our actions as teachers they learn about power and how it is exercised, about hierarchies and their ethics even as we teach them photosynthesis.

Teachers’ authority is accepted, but also ‘justified’

Children are therefore persons – not merely recipients. Biesta’s idea of democratic values in education reflect this, but in ways that recognise that they are persons who are still children. He is clear that in school there will be a gap between what the child wants and what is thought desirable for them by teachers, parents and society. This means that the relationship needs to be one in which the teachers’ authority is accepted, but also ‘justified’. This is a relational authority, rather than an automatic one, but it is also one that changes over time. As children develop their knowledge and skills, their self knowledge and their own autonomy their position in this relationship will change.

This is the final way in which analysis like Biesta’s is more satisfying and generative than that of Arendt – it opens up the question of the source(s) of authority. Arendt’s single dimensional model of authority does not reflect the reality of the diverse ways that power and influence is experienced and enacted in school. The poverty of her polemic struck me forcibly recently when reading Pace and Hemming’s excellent 2007 paper “Understanding Authority in Classrooms: A Review of Theory, Ideology, and Research” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/003465430298489. Some of the findings they cite jar with my own ideological perspective – the way I want the world to be – but they do so in a way that takes no sides in examining the complex ways that teachers try obtain and use authority.

Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction” part II

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Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part Two – How ‘what works’ obscures questions of values and the need for judgement.

Biesta would like us to consider the role of theory throughout the process of planning and carrying out research. He argues that, rather than take a confessional approach in adopting a stance or taking sides in a quantitative or qualitative culture war we should take a pragmatic (indeed Pragmatic) look at the purposes of any theory or approach we intend to use. Instead of seeing theory as representing truth we should see it as a tool, with uses and origins that we should also be aware of and investigate.

we need to be much more thorough in our consideration of the purposes of education than a focus on they body of knowledge that is to be transferred will allow. 

Crucially this means understanding the ‘question’ that the theory was an answer to, and much earlier use of theory in the process of conceptualising the phenomena under investigation. It also means moving beyond the objective and relative dichotomy and resisting the colonisation of professional action by a scientific world view. Biesta forcefully argues that in seeking to understand, and emancipate as well as explain, we can also make a claim to be thinking and acting rationally.  In open systems our understanding of, and the evidence we have gathered about what has happened in, the past is a valuable source of information in helping us understand our current position, and to formulate plans and react to the implications of our acts in the present.

we need to be more aware of the ethical and social costs of the mechanisms that we use to make education more systematic

For the profession the pragmatic approach means recognising that a focus on ‘what works’ means little whilst we leave unexamined the aims of education. It means that we need to be much more thorough in our consideration of the purposes of education than a focus on they body of knowledge that is to be transferred will allow.  It means also being aware of the ethical and social costs of the mechanisms that we use to make education more systematic. In highlighting three overarching purposes of education, credentialisation, socialisation and subjectification Biesta opens up a rich and exciting arena in which we can explore what schools are for, and enables us to address the question of what we lose when some purposes are squeezed at the expense of others or, using the striking metaphor of pasteurisation, when we try too hard to make schools work like closed loop laboratories.

What emerges from this consideration is the importance of the relationship between democracy and education. This awareness arises out of the observation that education is an activity constituted by its purposes, because children learn about society, their place within it, how knowledge is generated and how it should be applied, from the way we teach as much as what we teach.

This allows us a much more nuanced and much richer role for education as part of the life of the community than is allowed in a Hirsch-ian model of education as acquisition of enough knowledge to take part in democratic discourse later in life.  It also enables us to show how implied purposes are concealed in discourse about effective pedagogy, where ‘outcomes’ are treated as neutral and given rather than embodying underlying purposes of education.

Review – Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”

This image has an empty alt attribute
Biesta (2020)

This is a longer version (in several parts) of a review for the CollectiveEd working papers, curated and edited by Prof. Rachel Lofthouse at Leeds Beckett University, of Gert Biesta’s “Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction”.

Part One – The Problem with Cause and Effect

I’m often struck by the similarity of the messages that emerge from weekend conferences, mini-conferences, teaching literature and books. Whilst this clearly shows the emergence of a number of key ideas and evidence based practices, the extent that they can be rolled out, or are immediately useful to a range of practitioners across our profession is I think still in doubt, especially when one looks at the prescriptions more closely.

In order to make generalisable claims, the premises and principles of many of these talks, blogs, articles,  books and weekend conferences have to be abstracted, often to the point of genericism. This, in turn, tends towards the production of rather bland instructions to ‘check understanding’ or ‘sequence’ learning, ‘chunk adequately’, avoid ‘overloading working memory’, or ‘enable recall’. These become so broad in the attempt to make them applicable to all situations that they become empty categories – chunking becomes bullet points, recall becomes testing, sequence becomes the examination specification.

In this way empty categories are open both to interpretation (which is not necessarily a bad thing but can become wild and self-referential) or  to the imposition of interpretation in social or management hierarchies. Each can mean however that what results is either confusing or comforting mantra, or becomes inflexible diktat.   

Biesta’s new book is a kind of drawing together of some of his recent work, developing and bringing out conclusions from articles such as ‘Why what works won’t work’ (2007, 2010) into a powerful but in my view incomplete case for a pragmatic and democratic ethos of educational research and practice.  It is also a source of arguments against the imposition of generic intervention on the professional judgement of educators.

This book is an extended examination of the assumptions of an ontology based on cause and effect which underlie the calls for evidence based profession in education. To achieve this Biesta builds on a brief historical and philosophical investigation into the use of the concept of theory, exposing a search by humans for objective permanent truth, as ‘spectators’ of a universe that is separate from them in which science provides the ultimate form of knowledge because of this separation and the universality of its findings.

The recognition that such knowledge can only be generated in closed systems in which variables can be limited and controlled is well understood and accepted. The recent vogue (now in decline) for all pedagogical discussion and decision making to be based on evidence generated solely by the gold standard in research represented by Randomised Controlled Trials is evidence of the pervasive hold that it has taken in education. 

Instead Biesta argues for scientific knowledge to take its place as one way of understanding reality – one form of knowledge, gained from a particular form of interaction with the world. In the process he suggests that we dethrone it from its status as ‘pure’ knowledge of an unchanging eternal world ‘out there’.  The world outside the laboratory is not a closed loop. What is especially satisfying about Biesta’s analysis of the nature of the ‘system’ of education is not only the detailed consideration of its open, semiotic and recursive nature, or the recognition that our formal education system operates through mechanisms (such as timetables, behaviour and recruitment policies, marketing, textbooks, setting and streaming, homework etc) that attempt to simplify and create ‘quasi-causal’ systems in school.  The fundamental insight is that correlations, between action and outcome, occur as a result of “people trying to make sense, trying to communicate, trying to teach and trying to be taught” (p40) rather than these things just ‘working’.

The fundamental insight is that correlations, between action and outcome, occur as a result of “people trying to make sense, trying to communicate, trying to teach and trying to be taught” rather than these things just ‘working’.

This is not however a call for ‘anything goes’, for unbridled relativism in research, or for an ultra-progressive rejection of the systems and rules that help schools function. It is rather a call for a focus on ‘function’ or purpose in both arenas, and a recognition that in choosing particular tools or systems we risk closing off opportunities for wider understanding or obscuring or denying the relationship between education and wider social and political functions.