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). 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.