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.

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

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 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” 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

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 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.

The Teacher Gap – a review

This is a review of Rebecca Allen and Sam Sim’s book “The Teacher Gap”.

If you’re a joiner then every problem needs a hammer and nails. If you’re an economist then, this book suggests, you perhaps think you can solve most problems with more information, and the right kind of incentives. That said, the authors provide a brilliantly written book. Its use of case studies and life stories actually make it a bit of a page turner. It is really useful for headteachers, and for new entrants into the profession, and provides some interesting ideas and challenges for policy makers.

The analysis of the current system of ITE and induction is in some ways very perceptive, in that it rightly points out the serious problems with a system that front loads training, then expects trainees and newly qualified teachers to continue to improve, sometimes left to their own devices and with a full, or almost full ‘caseload’ of classes. I also really like some of the suggestions about lengthening and changing the character of ITE courses – so that the challenge of learning to teach is more purposeful, and more manageable.

There are several important strands running through the book – one is that schools need to enable teachers to focus their efforts on activities, both teaching and professional development, that actually matter, that make a difference to the learning and lives of their pupils. There is a really important section in which the mimetic forces, that encourage schools to re-create elaborate and wasteful procedures, are brought into the light. For me the most resonant and convincing theme is the need to provide teachers with some space and time to work collaboratively to build their agency and autonomy, a message which resonates strongly with other recent reading .

This strand emerges in chapter 6 which for me is a cogent, and urgent case for improving the mental conditions of labour under which many teachers work. There’s very convincing use of Ryan and Deci’s SDT theory – a subtle argument for teachers to be able to work on the problems that they collectively perceive are the important ones in their practice. I know quite a few headteachers and MAT executives who would do well to consider the extent to which their

The book does have some important limitations, and a few places where the argument is contradictory – in relation to the extent to which ‘deliberative feedback’ will help teachers continue to improve their practice despite teachers’ work earlier in the book being as an ill-defined problem, for instance.

The analysis of ITE is incomplete, and from my perspective (as an ITE tutor in HE) makes too much of the differences between school-based and Uni-led courses. For me the real difference is in quality of tuition and school-based experience. Most courses spend similar amounts of time in school, for instance, and there are excellent Uni-led courses and SCITTs, just as there are poor examples. There is also a hint that school based courses are better because they give more information to the head teacher about prospective NQTS. For me this rather misses the point of ITE courses – they are designed to give trainees good training, education and induction into a new profession (especially when they’re paying for it), not just act as a clearing house for head teachers to select new employees. That politicians have fetishised ‘time in school’ and ‘practical experience’ over the last 20 years, and if the book’s premise is right, there has been little improvement in teacher quality should perhaps make us pause and think whether time in school is necessarily or automatically the mark of a high quality ITE route.

Despite making some digs at past incarnations of Ofsted, sometimes the logical conclusion to the difficulties in measuring teacher-quality are not drawn. The book is excellent on the silliness of the hoop jumping and wasted innovations that schools have undertaken, either to try to obtain a few extra percentage points in the targets set them by government, or to fend off an Ofsted inspector, but the overall system of punishing accountability behind this is not really called into question. We no longer grade teachers, because we recognise that such grades are inaccurate and unhelpful. There’s quite a bit of evidence in this book that grading schools is a perverse incentive, and other studies have suggested that it does not give teachers or parents the information they need to choose a place to work or send their children (not to mention those that suggest that for most parents school-choice is a myth).

Instead what emerges is an economist’s view of the system – atomised and separate schools and teachers, each of which have set characteristics which allow them to be assigned the label of lemons. The problem is turned into one of avoiding the lemons and hiring or finding work only with the good teachers or schools. Trouble is that life isn’t that simple – some teachers are lemons only in particular schools or contexts, and the problems with retention suggests that school lemony-ness (as defined as a school which puts ineffective and overwhelming pressure on its NQTs and experienced teachers) is an endemic, systemic condition. Furthermore we need to change the lemony teachers and schools into better ones, because they are the teachers (and schools) we have – there isn’t a population of non-lemony trainees waiting to take up the posts of those deemed unfit.

A review of Education: An Anatomy of the Discipline, by John Furlong (Part 2)

In the first part of this review we looked at Furlong’s description of the issues which have faced Education as a discipline, and the ways that these issues have resulted in Education taking up a marginalised position in the University. We ended by tackling the myth that Education is a radically progressive ‘blob’ which has resisted attempts to reform it, and resisted policies which help pupils. Instead what we saw was a sector that has complied with a raft of government changes and initiatives – perhaps to its detriment, and the detriment of pupils and schools as well.

In this post I want to cover some reasons to be cheerful. We’ll look at the changes in Education over the last 30 years which Furlong wants to celebrate, and also discuss why some of his most bleak worries about the implications of the Coalition’s policies for ITE were not confirmed in the 5 years since the book’s publication.

School Direct loomed large as a threat in Furlong’s book. It is clear from Gove’s pronouncements that School Direct was designed to weaken ITE in Universities, by increasing competition between them as to their ‘offer’ to training schools. As time went on the ITT allocations system was used to force applicants to the “School-led” routes by restricting the number of places in HEIs . A particular low point was the year (2015-6) when we had ‘secret’ national allocations for subjects, which meant we were all encouraged to scramble to fill up our books with applicants as quickly as possible, before we received the dreaded ‘stop’ notice which informed us that the secret allocation had been filled, and we weren’t allowed to recruit any more.

A quick trawl through the archives of news and analysis suggests that the unfolding crisis-wave has been longer in coming, and will be longer in washing back out again, especially if those who have the ear of the relevant minister can’t produce some much better advice than they currently do. Some very good courses and providers have closed, victims of the financial squeeze caused by the choking off of allocations, or struck-out by Ofsted in its most unpleasant and dogmatic phase under Michael Wilshaw*.

And yet, in 2018 many of us in HEI routes are still here. The survival of University teams involved in ITE is the surprising outcome of these events and reforms. School Direct recruitment has been excellent at providing alternative routes for those who are suited to them, but there are still large numbers of new teachers who want to learn their new profession with the help of a University. Not only that, the majority of School Direct routes have been created with and by University partnerships. Those HEIs who have embraced School Direct have been able to help schools develop high-quality routes, but have also used this an opportunity to keep HEI teams afloat, as well as an excellent source of developmental ideas. Applicants to ITE routes across provider-led and school-led courses have fallen again this year. Far from removing HEIs from the mix the government should realise that they need us, and that schools value our contribution. Their own reforms having perhaps used up the reservoir of local candidates that needed the flexibility of the School-led routes, have also ignored regional issues, confused new entrants, encouraged bursary tourism and alienated teachers with a strong public service ethos, who find themselves working long hours so that MAT CEOs can earn thousands of pounds a week.

It turns out that whilst a small number of school leaders and politicians may have seen this as an ideological battle, many schools value the work and relationship with their local HEI. At the University where I work we have excellent record on partnership work, which we are actively extending and developing all the time. In turn this work has influenced our ‘University-Led’ route, alongside the internship model used by Oxford University to create a hybrid route which enables our School Direct and ‘Provider-led’ students to gain access to the benefits of both kinds of course. Our trainees and our School partners value the subject specific pedagogy that HEIs can access and have the time to teach, as well as the support for difficult times that a dedicated team of IT Educators can bring to bear. In short we are still here because we have a role to play.

But this might not be enough. John Furlong worried about the ability of HEIs to advocate for a role in ITT, following the practical turn which has seen ITE regulation focus on a narrow set of skills set out in the Teachers’ Standards (2012). Part of his answer involves introspection, in the shape of an examination of the purpose of the University. Chapter 10 is a discussion of four archetypes, in the shape of Newman, Hubolt, the ideas behind Scottish Enlightened Universities and ‘Mass’ Higher Education in the 20th Century. This chapter really should be read by all new entrants to Teacher Education, given that such academics usually come from the world of school-education. Furlong gives us excellent context to help us understand the different roles that we undertake in University, and the tensions that show up in our day to day work. Furlong also helps us see an educational role for Universities which is very valuable in the current climate of marketization, where it is tempting and lucrative to see the University merely as a machine for validating qualifications devised and delivered by others. This is especially the case where such qualifications merely recognise previously developed knowledge or skills, or even experience.

For Furlong, even if we find ways to use these sometimes competing ideas to help us understand out roles, we risk not recognising or addressing the issue of the complexity of knowledge and truth. Rejecting the post-modern ‘anything goes’ approach, Furlong also asserts that we cannot treat knowledge as un-problematic. He concludes that Universities should instead maintain a commitment to the pursuit of truth, but rather than seeing truth as an end-point, it should be characterised as process or transaction which, borrowing from the ideas of Lay, he calls “a commitment to the maximisation of reason”.

This transaction is described as a dialogue, the requirements of which are exacting and serious.

The implications of this transaction I’ll discuss in my next post.

*The sort of person that E B White must have been thinking about when he wrote “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men”

A review of Education – An Anatomy of the Discipline by John Furlong (part 1)

I found this book to be really informative, and in many ways empowering – it’s especially helpful to me as a relatively new entrant to the job of overseeing the work of Initial Teacher Educators, and it has given me some excellent ideas about how to develop our work as a team. Focusing on the inherent complexity of the discipline of Education (and at the same time a claim that Education can be seen as such), this book is also partly a record of the troubled history of Education’s journey to its place in the University. As an analysis of the reasons why Education’s place in University has been marginal and insecure since that arrival, Furlong can then offer a set of ideas and suggestions for “re-tooling” the discipline in University.

Continue reading

Cleverlands by Lucy Crehan

Iglobe‘m not usually a big fan of international comparisons, or borrowing policy from more successful jurisdictions. This suspicion has been made much more acute by the egregious policy cherry picking carried out by lobbyists, politicians (from all parties) and academy leaders over the last decade. Such cherry picking can be seen in Nick Gibb using the UK’s PISA results from 2000, despite being repeatedly warned of their statistical doubtfulness, along with his use of Tim Oate’s flawed comparative policy paper on the use of textbooks in order to push ‘Singaporean’ maths methods.

Finland is a great example of how commentators, politicians and teachers across ideological divides can simultaneously cite Finland’s lack of a national inspection regime, and it’s history of having a robust inspection regime as the main cause of its success. Nick Gibb for instance talks about Finland when it comes to textbooks (Finnish teachers like to use these), but not the late start or lack of setting or streaming, or indeed the university-based initial teacher education system.

So, it was with a bit of reluctance that I started to read ‘Cleverlands‘ – possibly with the same heavy heart that some pupils approach their increased homework load implemented by a keen-as-mustard MAT executive head after a Singaporean study tour.

I need not have worried. This book was a really interesting read, and not always a comfortable one. Sometimes I found my ideas challenged by its findings, but I never felt as if this had been done through the creation of a progressive ‘straw man’, as sometimes happens when I read self-consciously iconoclastic edu-commentry.

Crehan has an amazing eye for detail, but uses this in order to give us the big picture about each of the jurisdictions she visits. Rather than focus on one classroom practice, or one aspect of the educational system that fits her ideological world view, we are given a tour of the educational and relevant cultural landscape in each place. Synthesis has to wait until the end, and even though there are lessons that we can learn from comparison, Crehan is careful to warn us that we cannot just import policies from a different culture and expect them to ‘work’ here. Really refreshingly she also asks whether we _should_ import some policies merely in order to move our PISA scores up.

Of course my own ideology had me nodding along in some passages. Of course I agreed with the parts that argued for the strong role for universities and the importance of subject pedagogical knowledge for the induction of new teachers, and of well-constructed early years education that isn’t seen merely as ‘easier primary’ or ‘easier secondary’ curriculum and teaching methods. I also bristled with frustration at the anecdote about the author being asked by a friend at the DFE about the lessons she had learned on her travels, and how the policy commitment to school-led ITE meant how the conversation fell on deaf ears.

What I found really challenging, and interesting, was the sections on Singapore and Shanghai, and the thoughtful analysis of attitudes towards repetition and practice in the chapter on ‘the Paradox of the Chinese Learner’. This chapter forced me to reflect on the way that memorisation can be used in the classroom – a task to get done, or perhaps a way of enabling students to use items of knowledge in exam responses that will enable them to get higher marks or grades. Rote learning has a bad press – and perhaps deservedly so. My only recollection of this being used in my own education was by a terrifying teacher at primary school who regularly terrorised us for not being able to recite out times tables. Memorisation and rote learning also perhaps carries some folk memory of the ‘payment by results’ system which seems to have raised standards in the second half of the 19th Century by preparing pupils for examinations during inspections The system fell out of favour as people feared it encouraged teachers to Gragrind unconnected and therefore meaningless facts into children’s brains.

The paradox is that, despite a heavy emphasis on repetition and memorisation, Chinese students consistently outperform others in the PISA tests. Cleverlands draws on studies from 1996 to suggest that perhaps the West might have been doing memorisation wrong (Watkins 1996) by drawing a distinction between ‘rote’ learning, which is ‘shallow, mechanistic, with no attempt at understanding’, and ‘repetitive’ learning which ‘involves deepening your understanding through deliberative repetition, paying attention to the features of whatever it is you’re repeating’ (p.185).

There’s so much more to this book however. The discussion and development of ideas on motivation are also fascinating – helping us move away from a crude ‘intrinsic -v- extrinsic’ model towards one that recognises that extrinsic motivation can nonetheless reflect our own goals and aims – and thus that not all kinds of ‘extrinsic’ motivation are negative or ‘bad’ for learning.

For a really interesting thoughtful and well written journey around the educational landscapes of the world, I can’t recommend this book enough.

Watkins et al (1996) The Chinese Learner: Cultural, Psychological, and Contextual Influences.