April 17th, 2013 § § permalink
Sean Connery, in his thoughtful memoir Being A Scot, tells the story of finding himself on a plane seated next to a compatriot, a young woman. Talking to her, he found that she was a literature student at the University of Edinburgh, and that she was currently studying Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
“Do you see any parallels between Roskolnikov, in the Dostoevsky novel, and the character of Robert Wingham, in James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner?” he asked her.
“Oh, I haven’t read that,” said she, “I’m in the English Literature Department, not the Scottish.” Connery was bemused, but presumably did not bother to ask why, given her odd perspective, she was studying a novel originally written in Russian.
Connery had left school at 13 with little to show for his eight years in Scottish education other than an ability to read. But early in his acting career, a fellow-thespian had suggested a list of books that the young Connery ought to read, and he had subsequently embarked on his own education in fine literature. His young travelling companion, on the other hand, had successfully completed seven years of primary schooling, five or six years of secondary schooling, and by the time Connery met her at least a year or two at university. So what was the difference between the famous actor with his paucity of formal schooling and the literature student with a decade and a half of institutional education behind her?
In the literature student, I believe that we can see something of the schooled mind at work, in this case someone for whom the books she read were prescribed by others and for whom reading was largely a means to an end. In Connery, a lover of literature, we can see the independent mind of someone who has taken control of his own learning, someone for whom reading was a pleasure in itself, and nothing to do with passing examinations or gaining qualifications.
It is interesting to ponder the differences between the truly autonomous learner and the schooled mind, to explore the nature of learning in an age where, although the opportunities for self-directed learning are expanding immensely as the tendrils of the Internet extend into every facet of our lives, the enduring institutions of the school and the college and the university (all of which I am happy to refer to collectively and conceptually as ‘the school’) remain stubbornly tenacious. This durable social construct, one that has been shaped and adapted continuously throughout history to suit the needs of time and place and wealth and power, has allowed the myriad social, political and religious entities that have sustained it, and that continue to sustain it, to retain an often insidious and reductive grip on the minds of those who pass through their hands. And, despite that constant refrain of ‘the school is dead’ that we have heard in different times and in different places, the school is arguably stronger in some ways today than it has ever been.
Of course, the tale of Sean Connery and the young literature student raises more questions than answers: the gulf between the autonomous learner and the schooled mind is rarely identifiable as a simple dichotomy between the free spirit and the captive will. The reality for most of us is that we find ourselves, throughout our lives, shifting back and forth along a continuum somewhere between the two extremes, although we night hope that, as we grow older, we become more aware of the dangers of the schooled mind, and therefore develop a greater capacity to break free of the constraints placed on us by the school in our early years. Connery’s self-taught love of literature was perhaps not entirely free of instrumental intentions: as an actor, he recognized that an appreciation of literature would be useful to him in his career, but it was his own recognition, not one suggested by others or imposed from without. Equally, the young woman, we hope, would have taken up her course in English Literature because of a love of reading. But between those two routes into books, and most certainly in the student’s response to Connery’s question, there lies a discernible difference between the approach that each had previously taken to their mutual love of literature. Connery, consciously or otherwise, had discovered that there is a higher and deeper and wider significance to learning than can be gleaned from submitting to the strictures of the classroom. The young woman had allowed herself to be persuaded that, like the overwhelming majority of ‘educated’ people, she had little choice but to accept those strictures as seemingly the only available path to an education in the discipline that she enjoyed.
The road taken by Connery was one that led not only to a knowledge of fine literature but also, I would contend, to a greater chance for attaining a degree of self-knowledge that, if not actually denied by school, has rarely if ever been an explicit aim of schooling. The school, historically, has not actively encouraged independence of thought, nor has it cultivated the truly spontaneous or creative mind. We develop such traits despite school not because of it. School is fundamentally about training the mind, developing the intellect (as opposed to intelligence), passing on the knowledge deemed important by a society to those whose role it will be to perpetuate and preserve that society at all levels. As such, the school continues what already is and what has been; its function, whatever the rhetoric, is essentially backwards looking, seeking to maintain the structures and relationships from the past and present on into the future with minimal change.
But given the ubiquity of the school, we cannot simply equate the schooled mind with attendance at school. To do so would be ludicrous. If the schooled mind were to be identified merely by dint of someone having attended school there would no chance of escape from the condition for most of us. But schooling does imbue the student, the scholar, with certain characteristics that the learner has to find the means to overcome either while at school, or more likely once schooling is complete.
I will come back to what that schooled mind is all about, why we must not be content with the intellectual framework that school bestows on us, and how critical it is that we are able to overcome at least the most deleterious and pernicious aspects of the school’s legacy on our own development as rational, free-thinking human beings.
March 28th, 2013 § § permalink
I have enjoyed reading the reaction in the UK media following Eddie Mair’s typically relaxed laceration of The Man Who Would Be King on Newsnight at the weekend. Mair, for me, as someone who listens to a lot of radio, has been one of the best radio journalist in the UK since I used to listen to him years ago on Good Morning Scotland on BBC Radio Scotland. Talk of him finally making a move onto television news is both welcome and sad, since he will be undoubtedly excellent on the screen (as Newsnight showed) but will be missed from radio if he comes to neglect that medium.
But amidst all the chatter about Mair’s performance and Johnston’s dismal showing, I couldn’t help notice one telling phrase used by Leo Benedictus in his Guardian appraisal of Mair on Monday 25th March.
Born and brought up in Dundee, state-educated, the son of a lorry driver and a nurse, he was as obvious a broadcasting prodigy as you could ever find.
It was ‘state-educated’ that caught my eye. Here in Scotland, we would simply call Mair ‘educated’. That Benedictus thinks it important to add the qualifier tells us so much about the condition of English education.
February 20th, 2013 § § permalink
There is a conspicuous and abiding fallacy residing at the heart of formal education, namely that what is taught is what is learned, that what the teacher teaches is what the student learns. Education systems, schools, college and universities around the world today rest, as they have done for much of their existences, on an illusory foundation, and I believe that much of what is wrong with formal education today arises from this enduring and mistaken belief.
When we come to the full realisation of the actual relationship between teaching and learning, we begin to discern the sheer pointlessness of so much of what passes for educational policy and strategy in today’s world. We know that human beings learn through interaction with others, with ideas, with information, with the world at large, but that ultimately they create and shape their own learning. The intervention of the teacher in this process is important and valuable, but at no point in the interaction of teacher and student, other than by occasional happy accident, does the learner ‘learn’ what the teacher ‘teaches’.
An appreciation of this, the true nature of learning, means that the complex edifices of curricula, pedagogy, assessment, accreditation, teacher education and professional development, as well as the overbearing structures of institutional management and educational organization, start to crumble to dust before our eyes.
December 16th, 2012 § § permalink
A letter in today’s Observer about George Osborne’s financial competence caught my eye — the letter was in response to an article by Will Hutton in which he had assumed that Osborne really is seeking to remedy financial inequality in the country but he just doesn’t have the economic competence to make it happen. The sentiment in the letter resonated with my own thoughts, not just about Osborne, but about the whole Tory endeavour in Government at the moment, and especially about Michael Gove’s assault on schooling in England. Of Osborne, Graham Aspinall, of Sheffield, wrote:
To credit Osborne merely with economic illiteracy, as Hutton and Blanchflower et al do, is too charitable. He is a shrewd ideologue and strategist. It’s not that he doesn’t understand the ruin he is inflicting on families. He knows what he’s doing; he just doesn’t care. Osborne is not an economic illiterate; he’s worse – a moral illiterate.
Polly Toynbee has called the current administration:
…the most rightwing of all postwar governments…
I agree. And deep at the heart of this rightwing government is a clever, seemingly-complex (but really not), unfailingly polite, well-read and media-savvy ideologue who just happens to be in charge of education, apparently by his own choice. At least in Scotland we have only to contend with an egotistical incompetent as education secretary; English state schooling, on the other hand, is now being systematically undermined and dismantled by a man who thinks that his own life tale, that of someone from humble beginnings made good by a rigorous schooling of a tradtional kind, is the model that must serve everyone.
But that is only part of what Gove is about. Gove, like many of his rightwing friends in this Government and beyond, accept wholeheartedly the concept of an education system as a race to the line, as the means by which the country’s elite is selected and trained, and as a system designed to weed out those who are not capable (defined by criteria designed to serve the rightwing credo) of benefiting from any kind of academic schooling. Many will throw, and have thrown, the epithet of elitist at this crew, and will intend it as censure. To Gove and his colleagues, such name-callers are merely stating the obvious. They would call themselves exactly the same, being merely descriptive of their philosophy and intentions and values.
Michael Gove is a man with a mission, and he is in a hurry to complete it. State schooling in England has been, for many years now, a foreign land when viewed over the fence from Scottish education; soon, it will be more like viewing the surface of Saturn, an exotic place beyond our easy ken and understanding, a situation not lacking in irony given that Gove’s own schooling happened in Scotland.
November 28th, 2012 § § permalink
Like war, formal education is a continuation of politics by other means — less direct, less controlled, less controllable, but no less powerful in its long term effects.
I wrote the above on this blog three years ago in a post that lamented the sheer cack-handedness of most Government interference in education (they call it policy-making) in England over the past 30 years. I should have emphasised the uncontrollable effects of this ‘policy-making’ much more than I did — a long succession of education ministers in Westminster over the past 3 decades have attempted to inflict their own variants on social engineering, and all of them have failed spectacularly. Unfortunately, each inevitable failure leaves a legacy of yet more disarray behind it.
Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian, agrees:
Accountability for England’s schools is now a total mess.
Jenkins takes aim at the latest ridiculous ‘league table’ to be imposed on England’s schools by Michael Gove. As he writes:
The craving for uniformity in public services has become a frenzy.…The belief that the crooked timber of mankind can be beaten straight on a Whitehall worktable is the greatest of all ministerial fallacies.
It reminds me of Campbell’s Law, first stated by Donald T. Campbell, the psychologist who pioneered the study of human creativity:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Michael Gove might well be pushing for a particular version of history to be imposed on England’s schools, but he is obviously less than keen to learn history’s lessons himself.
November 27th, 2012 § § permalink
This has been cross-posted from my new blog at iamlearner.net, which I have established to support and complement my business website at consult.iamlearner.net.
In the light of my recent post, about the I Am Malala campaign, it was interesting to come across the intelligent and thoughtful article in this month’s Prospect Magazine by Clare Lockhart of the Institute for State Effectiveness. Clare believes that the UN’s obsession with primary education in its Millennium Development Goals has backfired.
The UN’s MDGs were set more than a decade ago, and the one that is closest to being met is the one on universal primary education, with around 88% of school-age children across the developing world in primary school (in 2010, up from 81% in 1999). Clare’s article argues that the focus on primary education has had the unintended consequence of skewing investment away from secondary education and vocational training, both vital instruments in achieving the continuing and growing needs of countries for:
.…their next generation of doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, and project managers.…without secondary and tertiary education, a country cannot run its health, agriculture and financial systems.…
And ironically, given the MDG’s rightful focus on the critical importance of education, this skewing effect has also led to:
.…a shortfall of teachers to train the generation beyond them. Even maintaining primary education services, especially in the countries with growing populations, requires large numbers to be educated at secondary and vocational levels.
Clare is, of course, very careful to state that she does not want to see investment in secondary and tertiarty education at the expense of the primary sector. She is advocating a more balanced approach that recognises the need for continued and strategic investment in all key sectors. This balanced approach requires certain key questions to be asked, and answered:
- What are the skills a society needs to develop and strengthen its public, private and civic sectors?
- How can a country equip its next generation with the skills to meet those needs?
- How can education and training policy balance the imperatives of stability, economics and civil inclusion?
There’s a lot to think about in this piece, but I think I am persuaded that the original set of MDGs failed to set a firm and sustainable foundation for the balanced approach that Clare favours — given that the successor goals are being debated right now, I would hope that these are issues that will be given due consideration.
November 16th, 2012 § § permalink
This has been cross-posted from my new blog at iamlearner.net, which I have established to support and complement my business website at consult.iamlearner.net.
…the most recent figures published by UNESCO in their Global Monitoring Report show that 61 million children don’t receive an education.
A further 200 million remain illiterate despite attending school. Equality of opportunity remains a hollow dream.
The petition in support of Malala Yousafzai has now attracted almost 1 million signatures worldwide. As Gordon Brown points out in a piece on the BBC news website, time is running out on meeting the Millenium Development Goals. Progress has, to say the least, stuttered, with many millions of children still working instead of learning, many millions of girls still being forced out of the classroom and into loveless marriages:
We have around 40 months to meet our deadline for universal education. We have one chance left to deliver in these three years. If the tragic story of Malala tells us anything, it is that we must do all we can to achieve it.
The Taliban thought they were halting a one-girl campaign for the education of girls; instead they created the impetus for worldwide movement that should strengthen the resolve of those world leaders who meet at the joint summit on this critical issue of our time between international agencies and governments in April of next year.
They need to do it for Malala and the many millions of girls and boys around the word who are still being denied a basic education. There is simply no more important international campaign than this one.
July 30th, 2012 § § permalink
Our approach to formal assessment seems to be so outdated that even pub quizzes are showing it up. The irony of a team of teachers winning a pub quiz by accessing the answers on their smart phones shouldn’t be lost on us. The kids I teach can access everything which is blocked to them in the classroom by stepping outside into the corridor to use their phones. They can access Facebook and Youtube and Twitter and possibly the answer to every question we are currently asking in school.
Even in the pub, after his customary half-pint of guiness, Kenny Pieper can see how outmoded our systems of formal assessment are.
Closed questions, closed books and devices switched off are all signs of a mode of assessment that, while they might offer results that can populate league tables, really offer little else of value today.
Our relationship to information has changed, but the processes that test that relationship have not.
July 13th, 2012 § § permalink
- The school as we know it is based on a limited understanding of human nature
- School cannot be reformed in isolation from reform of the wider society in which it exists
- School has failure built in
- The concept of mass schooling — one-size-fits-all-schooling — is no longer valid
- School, by its nature, is designed to build society from the top-down, and ignores the criticality of culture in enabling learning from the bottom up
- School isolates learning from life
- School is the primary instrument for social engineering in society today — and all such social engineering is doomed to failure
- Pedagogy in school today is limited by the structures that school imposes
- Disintermediation will happen (is happening?) to schools — but do not look to newspapers, the music industry or the travel industry as models of how this will play out
Just some thoughts.….