Category Archives: Dystopia

Democratic Education is no Utopia

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Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

Get Kids Cultured

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To be cultured means to nail one’s colours to the mast, and those who fear what’s arbitrary in that (and run to theory for protection) fear culture itself.

Howard Jacobson

The importance of tradition, the great tradition, is not that it is the only possibility but it is the best one that we have. For Jacobson, his tutor at Cambridge, FR Leavis, opened up a world of education to him:

Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.

Being right isn’t what matters to Jacobson but it is the ‘nailing one’s colours to the mast’ that does. This is ‘being cultured’. The vision for education is important, to be involved in that conversation, to add to it, to argue, to say ‘yes… but…’ but not to dismiss and the involvement in the dialogue is lifelong.

It is telling that in a piece called:

Building 21st-century skills: preparing pupils for the future, that a life ‘after education’ is envisaged:

In an ever-evolving world, how can we ensure that future generations have the skills that will truly prepare them for life after education?

In the past I have called this type of progressive education ‘neo-progressivism’. Instead of being revolutionary it is tied to the interests of global capitalism. Instead of education being an ever-evolving involvement with a lifetime of reading and exploring the rich tapestry of culture, the neo-progresssive sees education as a finite vehicle for the good of global capitalism. In her sponsored piece in the Guardian Jessica Clifton, the marketing manager for Lego Education nails her colours to the mast:

…there is a certain expectation to simply fill students with facts and figures. However, this can actually hinder learning, limiting students’ potential to explore concepts and discover solutions for themselves. What we need to do is, quite literally, put learning into students’ hands.

Which, for Jessica is Lego. And I love lego, but it is not ‘Culture’. It is a great toy, and toys can be used for great art; through their knowledge of Goya, the Chapman Brothers, were driven to create works of ‘vertiginous obscenity’ by melting down toy soldiers, maiming, twisting and painting them. The art created is dystopian and disturbing. This is not the vision Lego Education has when it wants to put learning in students’ hands. The article sees education as far more sterile, it quotes Andy Snape, assistant head of sixth form at Newcastle-under-Lyme College, as saying:

“As a teacher, I want to give students the greatest opportunities to achieve and I have found hands-on, creative lessons to be the most effective. Why? Because this learning style not only enthuses and engages pupils, but gives them the chance to understand the purpose of what they’re learning… we use LEGO® MINDSTORMS® Education EV3 to teach engineering, mathematics and computing, as well as using it for an extracurricular robotics club. Using the central programmable “Intelligent Brick”, students can design and build robotic solutions to different scenarios and problems. This could be anything from a sorting system that organises items into distinct categories based on colour, or a prototype space rover that avoids obstacles and performs basic tasks remotely.”

Education as a means to an end, not a life within culture but one that sees education as having a predetermined purpose, to serve the needs of business. It is the misunderstanding of creativity that irks me most. Let us nail our colours to the mast, creativity is not a ‘learning style’, it can be downright dangerous and dirty, but as a great  education cliche it has become the clinical servant of capital. Lego education, Persil et al, who peddle this version of creativity are anti-education, anti-culture, and paradoxically anti-creativity. Creativity is a life force, central to humanity and not the servant of a utilitarian drive to get people into STEM subjects to prepare them for the jobs that have yet to be invented.

This is the tension between tradition and progress; on the side of tradition we have great art, literature and the humanities and a continual dialogue, a great cultural education. On the side of progress we have Lego, STEM subjects (not the subjects themselves but their adoption as ‘a thing’) and an education that finishes when the world of work has taken over your life, this education is anti-cultural. It is the philistine fear of a truly cultural education that drives much of the verbiage of the neo-progressive movement. For them it is all brands, futurology, and education for utility: ‘Mcdonaldisation’; it is the sort of education that will halt progress in its tracks, for it forgets the importance of facts and figures and the knowledge and richness of the past. For all their trumpeting of creativity the neo-progressives can’t create a better story than the one education has been telling for centuries.

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Time to Ditch ‘Those’ 21st Century Skills

 

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We are living in interesting times…

The future is glimpsed through a glass, darkly and, indeed, there may be dark times ahead. A concatenation of unfortunate events are all that is needed for the future to not be as predicted. One minute all is good, the next you are knocked over by the proverbial 48 bus that is running late. Even the most reliable of predictions are destroyed by the discovery of ‘the black swan’.

We must prepare children for the future, they need the skills for living in the 21st century, for a world that looks like… (insert some utopian dreamscape) and suddenly that world looks different, and sometimes, disappointingly similar to the one that already exists. The problem with trying to be ahead of the curve in modernity is that modernity itself is an ephemeral thing that likes to surprise and confound. And often to be ceaselessly boring and familiar.

But picture the leader who has just equipped his school with iPads because they are so 21st century and children need those skills reading this article, in which the author Bob O’Donnell writes:

While some naively predicted that tablets would one day replace PCs, the worldwide tablet market never reached the same level as PCs, and with very few exceptions, tablets never became the general purpose computing device that many envisioned. Instead, worldwide tablet shipments peaked in the fourth quarter of 2013—just two years after PCs did—and have slowly declined ever since.

 If tablets are in decline is it any wonder that marketing to schools might be a useful idea, got to sell them somewhere: “But if we pretend to predict the future and get people to think ‘they are very twenty-first century’…” The various bits of wireless telegraph on the back of the horse picture above were so very twentieth century in 1916, though I’m not sure if someone tried to get every child to use the technology but I’m hoping they did…

It is not technology itself one should castigate, it’s the conceit used to sell it ‘it’s the future’ they say, just as the technology might be consigning itself to the past.

O’Donnell continues:

…the future of computing seems to be about a set of platform and device-independent services. Specifically, voice-based interactions, driven by large installations of cloud-based servers running deep learning-based algorithms are what’s hot these days. This kind of computing model doesn’t necessarily need the kind of local horsepower that traditional computing devices have had.

Of course, he doesn’t know, he is just making a prediction, he goes on to say that for Apple:

…the post- device era is a sort of dystopian nightmare…

Some devices will survive for mundane activities or… well, what do I know? But if you want to really teach kids to be ahead of the curve you would need a crystal ball, there is no certainty and nowadays even crystal balls are looked at as being technology from a bygone age.

What Then?

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When all kids have grit, what then?

When every school is outstanding, what then?

When every target is reached or surpassed, what then?

When everyone’s mindset is switched to growth, what then?

When all is meritocratic and we all get to where we ought to be, what then?

When every twenty-first century skill has been adopted and learnt, what then?

When every child attends the college of their dreams, when every child is fluent in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, what then?

When all children are creative, empathetic, can move from job to job with ease, what then?

When every school leaver is able to commune happily with artificially intelligent machines due to the new jobs that have yet to be thought of that they can now be employed in the exciting never thought of industries of the future… What then?

When the tense is future-perfect, what then?

Gentlemen, there are questions that worry me; solve them for me. You for example want human beings to give up their old habits and adjust their will so that it accords with the requirements of science and common sense. But how do you know that human beings not only can but must be transformed in this way?*

Isn’t the way of things that mankind is drawn to destroying the very things that might, in all sense, be to our advantage? Even in the life of one person don’t we sometimes do the very things we know do us no good whatsoever? Eat that extra bit of cake, drink a couple of glasses too many, wake up in the wrong bed on the wrong side of town…?

How many people will it take to make the system perfect? Won’t we get bored in this utopia, that we stick pins in our eyes, or the eyes of others?

If a system is doomed to fail is it just a vain hope? Has our vision of the future written out the awkward, rebellious, self destructive anti-heroes or zeroes that so many find themselves to be? Oh we are such disappointments us human-beings. We are our own nemesis. Give me a target and I might deliberately miss it and even I won’t know why.

In the meritocracy will schools be there for the inhabitants of the de-meritocracy?

 

*Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground (which is the inspiration for this piece)

 

Are Schools Exam Factories?

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Are schools exam factories?

Take a look at a picture of a contemporary factory production line, how does the analogy pan out? Are the robots teachers? The products, children? The outcome, the exam? If a car factory makes cars, an exam factory makes exams, Pearson?

Well, no, the child must be the outcome, but not any colour as long as it’s black… Isn’t this the metaphor, the Fordist idea? These days factories churn out cars that are seemingly personalised for the customer… any colour as long as it suits your personal choice, different engines, seat coverings… and then the customer can add a smiley sun ‘smell nice’ to add to the character of their car…

Some car companies even cheat at exams…

The metaphor should not be exam factories, it should be ‘Child Factories’… Our factory child is clearly a child though seems different to other children, shaped around customer choice… and the customers? Parents? Or ‘Society’? Can we buy the product? What if we don’t want it, can we reject it to sit in a car lot for the rest of its days?

The robotic teachers all doing the same thing, day by day, wielding exactly the same moves day in day out, hammering the child with exams, the nuts and bolts of curriculum, the soldering on of character, the spray painting of happiness, the dark leathery interior of romantic poetry, the engineering of physical education, the computer brain ready to be plugged in to the hive mind. The robotic teacher – provided by an edTech company near you… The child sits lazily on a line, prodded and zapped, it passively passes through – splitting infinity.

Add to this that there are many factories with many products, not just cars, there are bags of crisps, many flavours, there are computers, pork pies, plasters, and plastic things, factories make so much stuff…

And there is a lot, too many, the tyranny of choice?

To reject this analogy, what would we have to do?

Would we want to reject the many different products, the vast and troublesome choice that floods our shop shelves? Far too much? A lot of it is exactly the same too… for all that choice there are many boxes of Persil and Daz.  So produce less, take more care, educate fewer? Make each teacher not a robot but a craft’s person – turning wood or clay into unique products… fewer in a lifetime, but each product worth so much more… taking time and care… And each craftsperson  supremely able and talented; not mechanistic, artistic.

The child, crafted into a unique individual, on the shelf of a select arty shop, fewer but more discerning customers picking them up and appreciating the craft that has gone into turning them into these precious pieces…

Or reject the analogy altogether?

Each child for themselves! Not made by others – free to roam, to be out in the fields and forests shaping their own destinies through the force of their inner spirits…

 

No more teachers, no more school…

 

Or find a different analogy?

 

 

Schools, Business and ‘Providing Intelligence’

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As April is the cruelest month I take a jaunt down by the river and see how things are progressing, so much building is going on, people moving in, putting plant pots on their balconies, and a bike on the nineteenth floor. Down on Greenwich Reach potential purchasers are promised property that combines: “…brilliant architecture, breathtaking views and sophisticated living accommodation, New Capital Quay provides a dynamic fusion of exclusive apartments attracting owner/occupiers, investors and tenants alike.” The glass fronted dynamism faces across the river the taller glass dominated offices of Canary Wharf, this is the brave new world.

The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
Wide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

The old wasteland is still visible alongside the new one, not so dynamic anymore, the barges offer industrial colour and the red sails take tourists and office parties up and down the river. The Isle of Dogs is to be renamed the Isle of Designer Dogs, the residents are all Cock-a-Poo…

Progress is inevitable, but not inevitably better, we always take the rough with the smooth, the same is true of our brave new world of schooling. The decline into our contemporary educational wasteland might have started when some schools called themselves ‘academies’ but I think the worst sign was when some tried to ditch the idea of schooling entirely by calling themselves ‘learning villages’. Turning schools into villages is the same trick an estate agent uses to make some glass effrontery seem cutesy and community based. How many ‘investors’ are being attracted to London’s property market? Good place to park some money…

It is all about money, right? That Independent schools, used to being in the market place, might be entrepreneurial and look to the well heeled communist and business families of China as sources of income is understandable but an English State school too? Over 40 private schools have campuses in Asia and the Middle East we are told in this piece in the Telegraph  and now “The trust that runs Bohunt Liphook academy in Hampshire will open a new school in Wenzhou in 2018.” Yes, the school that took part in a telly programme to see if Chinese methods of teaching were more effective than ours; that the Chinese ‘won’ that particular game is of no consequence, as an English education as a ‘brand’ is easily sold abroad. Some money raised on the backs of the fee payers in the far east will be ploughed back into the state school academy trust in England. Schools are becoming more like businesses, they might be a good place to park some money for investors looking to see how the markets might be moving.

You would think that businesses would be loving these changes: academies, villages and markets but no they are not happy, according to the TES, the Institute of Directors say that: “In the past, education was about imparting knowledge… today, it is about providing students with the intelligence and skills to navigate an increasingly uncertain and volatile employment market.” ‘Providing intelligence’ as an ‘off the shelf’ alternative to ignorance perhaps? “Buy your intelligence at Bohunt Chinese Academy!” “Shop away your stupidity at our learning village where we offer a dynamic fusion of exclusive skills that will attract employers and investors in your branded persona…”

The IoD go on to say that pupils should be: “imbued with curiosity, open-mindedness and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated bits of information…” and that: “with widespread internet access, the labour market no longer rewards workers primarily for what they know but for what they can do with what they know…” They, cheekily, add the idea that schools should not be ‘exam factories’. No, they should be Exam open-plan offices, all clean and computer based, glass fronted everything, and suits not overalls, wraps not sandwiches, prosecco and not beer. You see them all at Canary Wharf, the brave new workers all curious and open-minded… or not, as the case may be, but what lives do these people have when they go home from the glass covered office to their glass covered home in their glass encrusted village? This uncertain world that the Director’s worry about, this volatile employment market… as though these things are out of their control. This ‘real world’ where the business you’re working for wants you to spend all your school years being turned into a clone to satisfy their needs will drop you as quick as a flash if you’re no longer profitable. At least the old factories tried to give you a job for life… And Richard and George Cadbury built a village  for the workers to live in, ah patrician capitalists valued their workers… (sometimes… I remember the industrial strife… okay it wasn’t great but…) but our ‘volatile’ world should not be entirely shaped by the needs of capital, that is what makes it volatile.

Perhaps the Institute of Directors should do less pontificating, schools should not be about churning out workers, they should be about enriching their pupils’ lives. Humanity at heart – people before profits…

Perhaps these directors could start seeing their workers as human beings and start seeing education as something you can’t just conjure up on a screen or that ‘provides’ intelligence. Maybe, it’s more important than that, if they want to do good, they could use some of their acumen to invest philanthropically in their community schools, build theatres, science labs, provide sports fields in their dynamic fusion villages and in other older villages and towns.

Don’t throw away the ‘factory model’ of schools and replace them with the ‘office model’ of schools, instead educate for humanity’s sake, and children will grow to know, to think, connect and communicate beautifully, and instead of employing ‘workers’ employ human beings and shape businesses more to their human needs.

Teachers! A Call to Arms!

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“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”

GK Chesterton

We need to summon up the spirit of, the albeit fictional, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing. We need to smash up the 21st century equivalents of the threshing machines and power looms!

O Teachers! Click on this link! Can’t you see what is happening in front of your noses? In the name of progress and twenty-first century skills? A movement made darker by its motto: “Kids don’t need teachers in order to learn…” This movement wants to see the Death of the Teacher!!! No more chalk and talk, no more elbow patches on tweed… No more planting a seed in the mind of a child…. No! Let the child go wild on the screen they say…

“Minimally invasive education,” is the future they say! We should see this, teacher, as a call to arms!!! You have nothing to lose but your livelihoods! Adults and teachers, passing on knowledge is seen as old hat! Embrace the new, they say, and put all your trust in faceless, global, neoliberal, evil corporations that accrue capital, steal your identity, and then sell it and resell it to the highest bidder! They TRACK YOUR EVERY MOVE!!! And some want these people to become the arbiters of your child’s education?!

Smash the Self Organised Learning Environment – it is a trick to keep the poor in thrall to big business! “Knowledge is Obsolete!” They say, whilst saying the internet is all powerful because it holds all knowledge! These people contradict, obfuscate and hide behind wooly ideas about: creativity, critical thinking, and social communication… BUT HAVE YOU SEEN A ROOM FULL OF KIDS STARING AT SCREENS???? How much critique do you see? BRAINWASHED BELIEVERS in the power of APP!!!! How communicable???? Grunt and SCREAM when you take away their screen!!! Creative??? They can’t even make a revolution, they can just click a like button…

“If knowing becomes obsolete I think it’ll leave us with space for something that is perhaps more important, which is creating,” WHAT DO THEY KNOW?????!!!!!

If someone wants to make knowing OBSOLETE, we should oppose them! They are a danger to our children’s BRAINS!!!!

I WANT OUR CHILDREN TO KNOW STUFF!!!!!

SMASH THE S.O.L.E. AND KEEP IN TOUCH WITH THE SOUL!

Mobile Phones for Life!

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Twitter is awash with adults grabbing their mobile phones to tweet their outrage at the use of mobile phones by pupils in schools. There is evidence to prove student test scores can be improved if you ban mobile phones, the evidence “suggests that restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”

Is There?

But has anyone researched the impact of high stakes testing on mobile phone usage? Is there any evidence that GCSEs severely curtail mobile phone use? Is there any evidence that during the fortnight before the 15th May mobile phone use by pupils is severely restricted by the use of coursework deadlines to concentrate minds? What about mobile phone use by teachers, is there a scandal brewing? Is there any evidence of teachers being unable to tweet and blog as much as they can during the rest of the year due to the ridiculous demands of controlled assessments?

Gove

It might be found from next year that, due to coursework changes brought in by Gove, teachers will be freed up to use their mobile phones more – Gove is a well known user/abuser of mobile phones witness how David Cameron had to severely admonish Gove and confiscate his phone for life when said device disrupted a cabinet meeting.

Perhaps it was the Cabinet Meeting that was getting in the way of the phone use?

There is an answer to all these problems: ban everything that gets in the way of mobile phone use.

Smart phones make you smarter – witness what the OCR board’s Will Hornby said: “I’m quite struck by the idea pupils might use techniques they did not know when they walked into the exam room by being able to search [the internet].”

Far simpler would be to ban high stakes assessments, any pupil or teacher found in possession of an OCR, Pearson, AQA or ‘Educas’ paper could be put into solitary confinement and forced to watch a powerpoint on twenty-first century skills for hours until their eyes bleed and they too begin to believe.

This is the modern world, get with it cats!