I'm writing this blog a day after the celebration I, my family and my Dad's friends and ex-colleagues had reflecting on his life, a final goodbye to a man much loved who will be sorely missed. There is much that could be written about my Dad, many perspectives which could be taken on a person with many talents and interests. As my brother put it, he was a true Renaissance man; he was fluent in five languages and more than competent in at least six others. He wrote novels and short stories and was a published expert on the history and development of the French language. He could play the piano, clarinet and accordion all self-taught and took an A-level in maths during his twenties because he thought it would be fun to learn something new. He also did much of the carpentry which filled both the home and garden he shared with my Mum.
But here I want to focus on a central philosophy, a core belief system he held about the world and his place within it. To explain this worldview and the person who held it, it is easiest to introduce through a short anecdote. In 2001 I was fortunate enough to be invited to take up the position of Head of Geography at a large secondary school in South Lincolnshire. It was a promotion I was happy to take on but I was also anxious as the department I was joining was staffed by an experienced and knowledgeable team which meant that I would be by far the most junior member when I started.
At that time, my family would often take my Mum and Dad on a summer holiday with us and the summer of 2001 was no exception. While sitting on the back terrace of a gite in central France one evening, drinking a bottle of wine with Dad, I asked him to share a ‘pearl of wisdom’, one thing he would give me to help me into the transition to my new job, something I could hang on to as I found my feet. By this time he was retired, but he had had a long career in school teaching and headship which had been extremely successful; he had been the youngest headteacher in Lincolnshire and one of the youngest in the country when he gained his position at the age of 35 in the early 1970s.
I had to ask him his advice as he never offered it otherwise, he was too modest. When I asked for one insight he thought for a while, staring into the middle distance the indication he was giving the question genuine thought, and then after a slow sip of wine he simply said,
‘There's a lot has been written and said about managing and leading but ultimately your job is to make their job as easy as possible, the rest is merely detail.’
Dad had a habit of saying this kind of thing, something so clear and obvious yet so profound and important it needed little discussion or clarification and yet it spoke so deeply and clearly about him both as a person and as a teacher. For the thing which gave him pleasure, gave him genuine happiness, was to see others reach their potential, for them to succeed. He saw his role as being to help, to support, to facilitate, and if asked, to guide, to help that success grow and flourish. And this was his approach as a teacher, as a head teacher, a local councillor and as a Dad. He never once shouted at either me or my brother and he always took time to explain the world. Together with our Mum he was our most fervent supporter and yet throughout he did this with humility, never telling us how we should do something or even that we should do it at all. He would merely set out what he believed our options to be and then supported us in our decision-making. This is also how he led his school, his only concern was to ensure that the staff and students for whom he had responsibility had the best opportunity possible to flourish. My brother emphasised at the celebration of Dad’s life that he did this for 17 years at a secondary modern school because he believed that those who had been cast aside as unimportant by the 11-plus system were going to get a damn good education and positive life chances whilst he was able to have influence.
He did this with no concern to be seen as some leading guru. He never told others that they should run their schools in the same way as he did, or that to approach things in ways different to him was wrong headed or immoral. As with the rest of his career he simply tried to have a positive impact through care, through support, through love of those he had responsibility for. And to do this he worked tirelessly, from taking disadvantaged children from the back streets of Middlesbrough to Paris in the mid 1960s so that they could experience a different culture, a different way of life, through running his school through staff dialogues where decisions were always communal if possible (it was a great source of pride for him that he only ever pulled rank twice in making decisions about school policy in 17 years) to sitting and watching a TV programme each Sunday morning on the BBC about disability and learning difficulties because he wanted to understand how he could best help the children in his school with disabilities maximise their potential at a time when in the wider sector it was still acceptable to label such children educationally subnormal.
He found the trajectory of education from the 1990s onwards both bewildering and saddening. The rise of the quasi-market, the loss of clear guiding principles for the sector based on helping and valuing all, both academic and alternative. The rise of Ofsted as a regulatory police as opposed to a medium for guidance, growth and potential building. And especially the apparent development of super heads and edu-celebs, more attuned to building corporate careers then focusing on the well-being and growth of their staff and students.
And yet there are so many headteachers and teachers who still hold dear the same principles as Dad. Who quietly make a difference every day without telling everyone through social media or conferences how fantastic they are. Who value nurture and support. Ultimately it is these quiet disrupters, these individuals who undermine and subvert the harshness of Ofsted, the corporate sanitization of some of the MATs in the quasi-privatised education sector who will be remembered fondly, who will be the true drivers of social justice. Yet, as with dad, often their full impact will not be recognised for a long time, they will not be the ones invited to the DfE on panels and being given gongs. For as Lao Tzu said,
‘a leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves’
As with so many others who lead through humility Dad will be sorely missed but fondly remembered and the immense good he did in the world will only continue to grow through those he quietly enabled and encouraged to fulfil their dreams and their potential.
Florian von Donnersmarck’s 2006 film, The Lives of Others, is an excoriating analysis of the work of East Germany’s Stasi during the Communist era in East Europe. On the personal whim of a government bureaucrat, the result of jealousy over a female actress, a playwright’s flat is bugged, an operation overseen by Stasi Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler. If you have never seen this film, it is well worth a watch, both for its script and performances, but also the deep analysis of a state machinery so paranoid about its citizens that it conducts surveillance on anyone who has been brought to its attention for the smallest of issues, or even as the result of made up charges.
It is the vision of an overpowerful state which leads many to continue to fight for free speech, to try to ensure that we all enjoy the freedom to put forward points of view within the ‘marketplace of ideas’. This offers the opportunity for others to engage with arguments and judge for themselves what might be both relevant and useful for them, or indeed ideas that they disagree with. These dialogues need to take place in an environment of mutual respect, and there are some ideas which rapidly become culturally unacceptable, and it is in these cases that the moral difficulties of what should be allowed to be aired and what should not become contentious. But on the whole, most topics, within the mainstream of society and politics, are not contentious in this way and should offer no barrier to dialogue.
But this is where the Department for Education becomes rather Janus-faced. On the one hand, the government are so concerned that universities are closing down alternative views that it has decided to intervene. Back in June, Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge academic was appointed the government’s free speech tsar. They cite no-platforming within universities as a reason for putting in place a system to ensure that this does not continue, that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ is diverse, so that all can be heard. I suppose that this is at least in part to ensure that confirmation biases (the DfE and their astroturfers love a good bias) are not allowed to form, that indoctrination of those in universities cannot take hold. Even though this has been a storm concocted by special advisors, the right wing press and Conservative politicians, at a push it might be argued that ensuring free speech is a good idea to work to, except that……
…..at the same time as the DfE is extolling the virtues of free speech, that organisations really do need to ensure a wide range of views are shared and explored, even those which appear unpopular or extreme, the DfE appears to be employing a little team of Hauptmann Wieslers to put possible undesirables under surveillance. Ruth Swailes and Aaron Bradbury, highly regarded Early Years specialists who work widely within the sector, supporting professionals and offering ideas and fostering dialogue within their area, recently found that they had been blacklisted by the DfE after an anonymous tip-off to the DfE that they were proposing ideas and opinions not wholly in line with those at the DfE (article about this here) (remember the DfE are the defenders of free speech in the education sector according to the appointment of a free speech tsar). It appears that after a single individual told the DfE that Ruth and Aaron had made a negative comment about some government guidance, they did a ‘Wiesler’ and sent someone off to hunt down their social media record and write a report on their level of subversive action.
There are three things I find immensely troubling about this. Firstly, given all the challenges the DfE face, with a crumbling ITE system they’ve badly stuffed up (with much worse still to come in Autumn 2024), a recruitment and retention crisis, and schools on the edge of physical collapse, to name but some, they feel that the best use of resources is to have individuals ‘playing Stasi’ and putting surveillance on members of the public for their potential thought crimes. Secondly, this is highly anti-democratic; in previous decades a story such as this would have been headline news as a government acts in an authoritarian manner to suppress ideas it doesn’t like. If this doesn’t send alarm bells ringing it demonstrates how desensitised we have become to state authoritarianism playing a major role in our lives with little more than a tut. Finally, it shows the acute hypocrisy at the centre of government, a government and an education department which is loudly proclaiming that is stands for free speech one minute, whilst the next its quietly doing a Wiesler!! And for those who say, well departments are allowed to only champion those ideas which align with their policies, two reactions. Firstly, you can’t call for free speech whilst simultaneously suppressing it, and secondly, if the ideas swimming around in the DfE are so obviously correct, then they will be more than happy to foster fora where dialogue about alternatives can be explored, if only to demonstrate that they are not as useful as the ideas in the DfE. Alternatively, it could just be that they don’t like challenge and believe the proles should pipe down and accept what is given to them!!
As I suggested in my first post on Ofsted, governments since the early 1990s have opted for a model of school improvement based on hyper-accountability and creeping micro-management from Whitehall. At the centre of this model is Ofsted as regulator. But is regulation the only or even best, model for system development? I argue that any regulatory system is founded on accountability, and in turn that accountability can be negative and overbearing and can stifle the work of educators. This isn’t a given, but in general accountability tends to veer towards quantitative systems, particularly when you have a regulator which is merely wanting proof that organisations have met a set of given standards. The easiest way of doing this across a system is to have a series of quantitative benchmarks. But this begins to distort the work of organisations and individuals. For example, as Green (2011: 62) reflects,
‘Consider the requirement for teachers to be precise and explicit in their practice about ‘outcomes’. This duty to be explicit results from the ideological pressures...which have made all public sector organizations transform themselves into an auditable commodity – ‘one structured to conform to the need to be monitored ex post’ (Power, 1994b: 8)’
This ultimately leads to a situation where all work needs to be made transparent and explicit, and leads to an inverse relationship between trust and accountability, i.e. that as one increases the other decreases. Hence, in those schools where there is micro-management of all tasks, be it behaviour, teaching etc, there is a very low level of trust. This might be something that is deemed acceptable, but nevertheless it is a feature.
The big problem with a regulatory system such as has been created by Ofsted is not only the centrality of a limited view of accountability, but also that this distorts what schools do and how they do it in a way that is unhelpful. Schools are complex places, built of huge tangles of processes, but simplistic regulation collapses this complexity beyond a level where it continues to understand what is purports to measure. As Tsoukas (1994: 10) argues,
‘Events, processes and experiences in organizations are rarely transparent, self-evident or completely fixed, but are intrinsically ambiguous and therefore open-ended in the interpretations that can be attached to them.’
Any regulatory system will collapse the complexity and context of individual organisations, and will ultimately be based on some degree of coercion and threat. This is particularly true in a system which over-simplistically labels the rich and diverse reality of schools with single attributes such as ‘good’ or ‘inadequate’. In turn, those in the system are scared of not being assessed positively, and will therefore feel coerced into working within the narrow frameworks set out by Ofsted.
This is dangerous when a regulator is no longer independent to government. In recent years, Ofsted has become a limb of the Department for Education rather than an independent agency which is testing the government as much as schools. Government is not being held to account by Ofsted, instead, the Department of Education appears to determine how Ofsted sees the world. This is a hallmark of a failed regulator. In addition, the unhealthy relationship between government and regulator means that secretaries and ministers of state are able to micromanage schools through Ofsted (a feature since the New Labour government introduced the Self-Evaluation Form). As a result the curriculum becomes a political vehicle and teachers are essentially forced to teach in particular ways.
Regulation of this form has a long term damaging effect. Aspects of professionalism are curtailed as teachers simply need to follow the government line on how to do their job (just see the CCF, ECF and NPQs for evidence of this). In addition, ever increasing burdens of work beyond the classroom to measure, record, and justify, actually make the act of teaching a minority activity. In the most recent teacher workload survey (DfE, 2023), data suggests teachers spend, on average, 48.7 hours a week working, and of this only 23.7 (F/T teachers) spent teaching.
Regulation can therefore be argued to have distorted the way teachers work and schools prioritise, merely to prove to Ofsted that they have yet again morphed their work to suit the most recent Ofsted framework, something which itself shifts regularly, with no coherent trajectory over time; frameworks merely reflect the views and peccadillos of chief inspectors and government ministers.
But what of an alternative? Firstly we need to accept that alternatives do exist and that they can’t be flicked away as something silly or wrong-headed, which is the general refrain from certain of the DfE astroturfers and outriders. After all,
‘Colas has shown how the liberal war on humanity’s psychic powers of imagination has effectively entailed the will to pathologize all political utilizations of the imagination as fanatical and mad (Colas, 1997)’
(Chandler and Reid, 2016)
I start by going back to Jane Green’s (2011) work. Accountability and its system-level version, regulation, have led to a serious erosion of trust within the education system. This is apparent in the English education system where there is little trust in teachers, replaced by an extensive accountability system with the need for schools to take on the role of proxy-parent, proxy-social worker, proxy-community worker with all the administration that goes with it. These roles have defaulted to schools as other agencies have atrophied, the result of local funding to councils collapsing, with a government happy to assume that the education system can keep taking up the slack with less and less resource, but with more and more frameworks and statutory responsibilities. A surprise then that there is a recruitment and retention crisis!!
So what might a different system look like. Firstly, we need to redevelop the myriad of support services which have been lost. This is more difficult in some senses now because of the disjointed academies system, but there could be a requirement for certain services to be centrally sourced, so that communities have a known and consistent set of agencies from which they can draw. Yes, this deadens the quasi-market philosophy held so dear by some, but this would be part of a wider philosophical reorientation. By funding community activities, support services, and peripatetic professionals, schools could move back towards focusing their energies on their core activities, whilst working in a multiagency network to re-establish stronger, more developmental processes to help families and children meet the challenges which naturally emerge from time to time. This would make a huge difference to the current system which is effectively a constant, high-pressure triage process in the hope of getting minimal support to those most in need – many get nothing or fall between the cracks.
A contrasting approach to what we have now would jettison regulation and in its place foster a system based on responsibility and collaboration, all within a broad drive to re-establish and develop the notion of community, both within schools and between schools and their local areas. How this might look in practice is the focus of my next post.
In thinking about how we might create a system which supports schools in their development (I use development deliberately, rather than improvement which I feel has become too closely aligned with reductionist, quantitative ways of understanding change) I certainly wouldn’t want to start from where we are at the moment. From the outset, I argue that Ofsted is now not fit for purpose and is indeed a barrier to creating a really fantastic education system. We need a drastic rethink across many areas of the current English education system, but core to that change is a different way of supporting and collaborating with schools. In this first post outlining the change I believe we need to see, I think it is instructive to reflect on how we got here, and the changing approach taken by Ofsted over the years, and why it is now a problem.
Prior to 1992 school inspections were carried out under the 1902 Education Act by inspectors who were based within local education authorities. His/Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMIs) reported to the Secretary of State concerning education across the country, based on the work in each local authority area. HMIs were there primarily to support, and to suggest improvements. They were experienced in their local area and their work was often formative and collaborative.
In 1992, Ofsted was formed, part of a wider move towards regulation with such agencies as Ofwat (Water Services Regulation Authority) and Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets). This shows a particular shift in government thinking, as in the latter two cases, a regulator was needed to ensure that a free market sector was held to given standards. But why was a similar idea used in education, particularly as it is not a competitive, private sector activity? I suggest that this showed an ideological consistency by government, as education and health were both in the vanguard of the revolution in New Public Managerialism (NPM). This was/is a philosophy which argues that those public services which cannot act as a market, nevertheless need to operate in line with market principles. Thus, schools were to compete with each other through the mirage of school choice for parents, touting for children by showing they were the best school in an area. Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher’s ideological gurus, saw the idea of schools growing or shrinking in relation to consumer choice, a desirable and sustainable solution to marketisation in education! Grant Maintained schools were set up allowing individual schools to leave local authority control to be funded directly from the Department of Education. At the same time, internal changes began to occur in schools, with a greater focus on performance management and a burst of interest in ‘leadership’, both seen as important levers for improving outcomes in the private sector. Thus, with the move towards a competitive education system underpinned by NPM, the idea of an independent regulator which was there to ensure quality, and give consumer information to parents to help them decide which school they would send their children to, was in keeping with regulation in the newly created private sectors.
The important shift here was from an HMI which was there to support and develop, to one which was there to regulate. As a consequence, Ofsted has never played a role focused on helping schools to understand how they could develop their work, how they could further understand the contextual complexity within which they are embedded and work with it to help local communities. It is there to report the degree to which schools are in line with predetermined criteria. This automatically makes the role of Ofsted narrow, non-contextual and summative. The little bit of formative feedback given in reports is often very generalised, and is also pretty useless on the whole as by the time a school is inspected again, Ofsted have moved on to a new framework and may not even be interested in the areas they have flagged up previously. Hence, their work is indeed regulatory rather than developmental.
This situation was made even worse by New Labour. Under their ‘deliverology’ philosophy developed and matured by Michael Barber, schools were to be micromanaged form Whitehall through the development of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF). Introduced in 2005, the SEF was a framework which had a large number of questions/foci a school had to reply to, submitting detailed, evidenced answers each year to the Department of Education. This led to an explosion of quality assurance work in schools with leaders at all levels, as well as teachers, now having to collect and collate myriad forms of data and evidence which could all be funnelled into the SEF, thus proving to the DfE that the school was operating well. This in turn changed the role of Ofsted. Where, prior to the SEF, Ofsted would come into a school for a week with a large number of inspectors to check all aspects of a school’s activity, now a small team would come in, there merely to quality assure the quality assurance of the school leadership team.
There were three insidious consequences to this move. Firstly, the SEF became a way of micromanaging education from the centre as the detail of the SEF could be changed, with the knowledge that this would result in a shift in activity and focus in schools because if such shifts were not made, then an Ofsted visit would lead to trouble. Secondly, the fear of Ofsted meant that school leadership teams effectively became branch offices of Ofsted, with a school-based inspection team within the school 365 days a year, leading to well founded criticisms of the Ofsted approach being underpinned by panopticism, i.e. self-surveillance within schools. Finally, the link between Ofsted and the SEF meant an erosion of the idea of an independent regulator, as Ofsted began its move towards being a subsidiary of the DfE rather than an independent body.
Since the election of the Conservative party into coalition and then individual power since 2010, this trajectory has continued. As with a number of areas of activity, New Labour opened the door, Gove, Gibb and their SpAds then barged through it. So here we are with a ‘regulator’ which is far too close to the DfE, which regulates and does not play a role in development. In one or two instances they have attempted to involve themselves in development, but then produce deeply problematic materials, many of the subject reviews being an example. There is an increasing view that Ofsted have predetermined ideas about what they want to see rather than accepting context and alternative models or approaches, for example, which reading scheme is being used.
And underpinning all of this is a continued increase in the amount of quality assurance that is expected, the amount of paperwork needed to underpin the work of schools, and ultimately results that are sometimes seen as unfair, are distrusted, and increasingly challenged. This is perhaps the result of attempting to ride two horses at once, that of independent regulator, and that of DfE ‘wingman’. Given the pressure on headteachers, particularly in some MATs, where they are more area managers than headteachers, where a poor Ofsted result can lead to professional oblivion, we have allowed the creation of a behemoth which appears to believe that it is above scrutiny and which appears to play only a minor role in helping schools develop, but a huge role in stifling creativity outside of the narrow ideological parameters of Gibbean educational philosophy.
Given the recruitment and retention crisis, unsustainable workloads and the growing rifts between the DfE/Ofsted and those on the ground, it is high time that Ofsted was replaced with something very different, and in my view something which goes back to the supportive and developmental role of the original HMIs. I’ll reflect on this alternative in my next post.
Given the posts I have already written about the nature of education, here I present a working definition. This will always be in some ways incomplete due to the vast nature and complexity of the concept, but it is still useful to present a definition if offered as a starting point for dialogue and reflection. Based on the posts so far, together with the processual stance that I take in understanding reality, I offer the following as a definition.
"Education is an emergent tangle of the contextualised processes of teaching and learning."
Education occurs across many contexts. It can be formal, predominantly located in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities but also non-formal and informal, where it can occur just about anywhere, in homes, sports facilities, museums and galleries, virtually, etc. This means that contexts of education will be multiple for an individual, with each context having very different processes, sometimes complimentary, sometimes not. How they coalesce gives a starting point for the educative experience of individuals.
In each of these contexts there is a dynamic relationship between teaching and learning. As explored in earlier posts, teaching might occur between friends, relatives, or in the case of formal education, professional teachers. It is also possible for an individual to teach themselves, albeit often with the help of others through blogs, websites, videos or books, etc. Teaching is a complex adaptive system in its own right, constituted of a multitude of processes. This is particularly the case where teaching occurs in formal educational contexts. Here, a very unnatural context exists, where a group of individuals are enticed to learn content which has not always any natural interest by a teacher. This makes classrooms extremely complex processual tangles, hence the need for the expert understanding and practice of the teacher to keep the teaching/learning context going.
Symbiotic with the processes of teaching are the processes of learning. This symbiosis varies in nature as identified above. The individual learns within the context of their own experience, but also in interaction (Illeris, 2003) with society. Much of the current Anglo-American narrative of formal education suggests a lonely individualism in learning, a hyper-reductionist model of knowledge (information) transfer from teacher/textbook to working memory and from there to long-term memory. However, whilst these cognitive processes are important in individual learning, they do so through interaction with emotional processes within the individual, impacting on their function, and also as part of society, as part of a community, a family, or with friends. These social aspects are particularly important in informal contexts but are also crucial in formal settings. Whilst in much of formal education the outcomes of learning are increasingly given primacy, it is the processes of learning which are central, and these are an ever-shifting tangle of processes which interact with teaching processes, and the contexts within which both occur.
Curriculum and assessment are not explicitly mentioned in the definition because they are only important as processes in some contexts if defined as formal aspects of education. It is the case that even playing a computer game could be argued to have a curriculum (the order in which aspects/problems are presented to the player) and assessment (making it from one level to the next), but here I see them as resultant processes linked to teaching and learning.
Given the processual nature of education, and the many contexts within which an individual learns and is taught, it is emergent in character; the various experiences an individual has and how they entangle with wider social aspects of their education, emerge and change over time. As argued above these different contexts and processes entangle to give a complex, emergent experience to the individual and the social contexts of which they are a part, hence the definition of education as being an emergent tangle of processes which are contextualised from moment to moment, and which are reliant in the main on learning and teaching.
Illeris, K. (2003) Workplace Learning and Learning Theory Journal of workplace Learning 15:4. (link)
What does it mean to be a teacher? In trying to define education and taking into account the previous two posts to this, the concept of teacher needs some thought. At a basic level a teacher might be defined as someone who teaches. But in turn, what does it mean to teach?
A simple definition from Merriam-Webster is:
This suggests that teaching as a process is not only carried out by qualified individuals in formal education, but by most people given the right context. This means that children might teach children, adults can teach children and children can teach adults. The reasons for teaching and the form of teaching may also take many forms as the aims, processes and ongoing results of teaching may all be different.
Therefore, we might say that most people have a natural capacity to teach, to explain things to each other, to demonstrate something or to help someone become more expert at a given process. In this sense, most people, at a very simple level, might be thought of as teachers. However, are most people the same as those teachers who work in formal settings like schools.
We can think of teaching as being a collection of processes within a spectrum. Most people teach in informal settings, often helping only a single other person, sometimes as part of a group. The settings also tend to be focused on a specific skill or area of knowledge. This might be a child teaching another child how to overcome a problem in a video game, or an adult showing and then observing another individual as they hang wallpaper for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum are teachers in formal educational settings.
Professional teachers tend to operate in a very different context, one where they have to teach larger groups of individuals at the same time; they need to develop and/or follow a set curriculum; most often they have to assess learning in some way. Due to these facets of formal teaching, the processes involved are more complex and interconnected than in informal settings, and hence a greater level of understanding and expertise is needed relating to the action of teaching. Therefore, qualified teachers are separated from others who teach in that they take an explicit interest in how to teach, and how to relate teaching to other processes such as learning, curriculum development, child development, assessment approaches, etc. The process of teaching is also at the core of their activity, and often becomes part of their identity as professionals.
We often see teaching as a defined set of processes taking place in formal educational contexts. In thinking about how we characterise and define education, we have to see teaching as a holistic set of processes which occur in many different contexts, and which focus on many different foci for learning. However, we also have to differentiate between qualified teachers and informal teachers based on the degree to which they engage with conscious development and increasing expertise as teachers, particularly when working with learners in formal educational contexts.
In part 1 of this thread I sketched out the idea that when we try to say what education is, one way of considering this is the context involved, leading to a brief consideration of formal, non-formal and informal education. As suggested, framing education in these ways leads to further questions.
1. If we only include formal education, what are the processes which occur outside of this narrow sphere?
If we only equate education with formal education, we are narrowing our view of what education is. In essence, it becomes synonymous with schooling, FE/apprenticeships and higher education. This leads to education as a formal structure which is driven by certification, and which on the whole leads to traditional processes involving a teacher and a learner. In most cases, the teacher has some form of expertise in the area being taught, and the learner is assumed to know less than the teacher and is to have knowledge and skills transferred from the teacher to them. This is a gross simplification of the spectrum of activities and approaches taken in formal education settings, but as a basic outline it gives an essential idea of what is involved.
However, is it sustainable to define the complete spectrum of education in this way? We might argue that education encompasses all those processes which involve learning in some way, be it formal or not. In addition, if we take a very wide view of education, and see it as the process by which people develop their understanding of the world and how to act within it, then suggesting education is merely formal is far too restrictive.
2. If we include these wider processes what implications are there for the processes and position of formal education in relation to this more holistic context?
Perhaps one way of understanding what we believe education to be is to reflect on a core process. Education can only take place if it involves learning of some kind. It is learning which will bring individual change and a change in the way we act in and on the world. It has to be stressed that this is not to diminish the importance of teaching, but perhaps we need an equally broad way of defining this as a process.
If we begin by thinking about learning, it is useful to give a basic idea of what the dimensions of learning are. Illeris (2003) offers a model of learning, involving three dimensions.
I see this as a central diagram in education, and it will no doubt crop up again in future posts. Illeris is arguing that learning has three dimensions. Within the individual there are two dimensions, the cognitive and the emotional. These are crucial for an individual to learn as firstly they need to be cognitively ready to learn, for example in terms of attention, and in terms of how the new knowledge they are engaging with fits with what they already know (e.g. schema theory) to name just two elements. Emotion is also crucial. If an individual is anxious, or tired, they might not be emotionally receptive, but it they are relaxed, motivated and challenged at the right level, they will engage far more easily. The interplay of these two dimensions leads to the process of acquisition and is the core of the learning process. However, it is incomplete without a social dimension as the interaction of the individual with others, with artefacts etc is a crucial element of learning; learning always takes place in a context and in the vast majority of cases learning is something that is done with the aid of others. Even if I am sitting at home in a comfy chair and reading a book, I am interacting with another person, it is just happening asynchronously.
If we accept this model of dimensions of learning and see this as the core of the notion of education, then formal education as the limit of the process is seemingly far too restrictive. We can learn through these dimensions in many contexts outside that of formal educative structures. As suggested in part 1 what-is-education-part-1.html, learning can take place in families and communities, through dialogue, through copying what others do and learning from them, e.g. learning how to help put up a fence.
Therefore, when we try to define what education is, we need to ensure that we allow for a wide range of contexts, well beyond the formal education system, as learning can occur in a wide spectrum of environments and can be supported by others in many different ways. This then suggests that in trying to define education, the nature of the ‘teacher’ becomes equally diverse.
And it is a reflection on the teacher that I’ll consider in my next post.
Illeris, K. (2003) Workplace Learning and Learning Theory Journal of workplace Learning 15:4. (link)
In beginning to think about the characteristics of a well-conceived education system, one which may require change to the current system, we first need to begin by reflecting on what education is. This is important as experience suggests that education is a concept which is used to mean different things by different people. An example of this is the relatively frequent argument made by some teachers on twitter that ‘educational research is often a waste of time’ because it doesn’t focus on the concerns of teachers and their practice in the classroom. This demonstrates a particular positioning of both research, and for the purposes of this current reflection, education itself. It suggests that for some, education is synonymous with schooling. In some ways this might not be particularly surprising; successive English education secretaries have decimated wider notions of education, and have focused solely on schools, colleges and universities. This might be due to the purposes successive secretaries of state have assigned to education. Under New Labour the purpose of education became handmaiden to economic growth; under subsequent Conservative administrations, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb (the real power behind the department once Gove had left) both saw education as a generator of social conservatism and traditionalism. In both cases, such aims could only be realised through certain channels within education, hence the defunding of a wider spectrum of activities, such as community education. Over an extended period, politicians successfully narrowed the national perception of education to cover only formal education (i.e. structured, systematic education which is formalised by the state and which covers the core elements of education which take individuals through their learning from perhaps 3 or 4 years old, to graduation or completion of training through apprenticeships).
However, this is a very narrow description of education. An alternative is to see education as encompassing a range of activities and processes which stretch from the cradle to the grave; it sees education as a tangle of processes through which we learn in a wide range of contexts. An example of this might be community-led learning through informal projects such as allotment societies or groups who teach each other how to repair and upcycle old furniture. Here, those taking part are doing so because they have a keen interest and motivation to learn a particular skill, or develop an area of understanding and expertise beyond the core process of schooling and FE/HE. Where learning activities are provided to help people grow beyond the formalised structure of schooling/FE/HE it is described as non-formal education.
Beyond both formal and non-formal education occurs the ongoing emersion we experience through being part of a family, a community and a society. In the contact we have with other people, and even other species, we learn from conversations, dialogues and experiences which all add to our learning. This might include the insights a child gains from listening to the life experiences of a grandparent, or the way in which a child shows their grandparent how to use an app on their mobile phone. In these cases, learning is spontaneous and is not focused on but is the by-product of interaction and experience.
These different ways of defining the contexts and processes of learning are important in aiding us to begin to think about how widely or narrowly we wish to define education as a concept. If we wish to keep it narrow, and only include formal education, what are the processes which occur outside of this narrow sphere? If we include these wider processes what implications are there for the processes and position of formal education in relation to this more holistic context? I’ll reflect on these questions in my next post.
There is a quote in a book I read a few years ago which has stayed with me a long time and which I think about often. The book is called The Neoliberal Subject: Resilience, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Chandler and Reid, 2016) and considers a critical exploration of resilience – it’s a fantastic book, and no doubt at some point I’ll add a review of it to this site. The quote which I have mulled over time and again is this
‘Dominic Colas has shown how the liberal war on humanity’s psychic powers of imagination has effectively entailed the will to pathologize all political utilizations of the imagination as fanatical and mad (Colas, 1997).’ (Reid, 2016:19).
The reason I have turned this quote over in my mind so many times is the result of what I have observed, and at times been involved in debating (and at times arguing), on social media when discussing education. Since the rise of the Conservative party to power in 2010 there has been a radical and often vitriolic shift in the education system. In my opinion this has been a shift from a very imperfect system developed under New Labour, to a different imperfect system, one which at times is both incoherent and detrimental to the well-being of some of the children who are a part of it.
No political party has ever created a perfect system, and there will always be debate and disagreement, but the last decade or so in England has been characterised by a period where anyone who suggests education might look different to the State sanctioned narrative have been presented as either fanatics who want to see children fail, or as generally just mad, unable to see the common sense and evidence before their eyes that the government’s view of how education should be micromanaged is patently wrong. And much of the vilification, sometimes dressed up as ‘banter’, has come from a loose confederation of teachers, turned consultants (for the most part) who suggest that any deviation from a narrowly defined set of cognitive perspectives, aligned with a particular way of seeing things like curriculum, are by definition selling children short, are lacking in any evidential base, and are generally to be sneered at.
This blog, as it emerges over time, is a space I want to use to pursue an imaginative process, one which asks lots of questions, perhaps begins to answer some of them, but hopefully opens up new ways of seeing, imagining and thinking, for myself if no one else!
As the static pages on this website suggest, I am coming at this process from a particular perspective, one based on a mixture of process philosophy and complexity theories and will mix evidence and insight from lots of different directions, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, economics, education, organisational sciences and even cognitive sciences to name but some. The blog will also cross paths with the other two blogs I’ve started on this same site – one on general musings about change, and the other summaries of things I’m reading or watching/listening to which I think are interesting. The blog will hopefully have a general direction, but will meander along the way as I try to navigate the ideas and interests which will emerge as I think through this main question - if I imagine change in education and navigate that imagination, what might my idea of education end up looking like?
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education