Rolling up the odd sleeves – education as a production

Published in November 2009

Pray to Play

‘Pray to Play’ Source:

This is the second post with a particular theme in the series Why is everyone an expert of education?“. The series is written collaboratively by Ira Socol, Dr Greg Thompson and Tomaz Lasic.

In the previous post (Still looking for Eureka), we looked at the seductive, yet problematic, empirical, scientific ‘breaking down’ of actors in education. The primacy of belief that we can measure humans and then improve in a steady march of progress generates not only volumes of data, interpretations and ‘solutions’ but also has a more pernicious side to it in schools. The perceived ‘scientific’ certainty limits what students and other actors in the process of schooling are and become, it locks them into roles that are hard to escape and make meaningful change very difficult.

This time, we are looking at another major generator of much educational chatter. It is the idea of education as production. Here production is not meant narrowly and only as vocational preparation. There has been much excellent critique of education as an ‘industrial production line’ and its historical roots, here is but one example. We contend that there is nothing wrong with education as production, without production schools actually – do nothing!

Whether it is organisational skills or the learner’s recognition of their place in the world, schools are inextricably linked to producing ‘good citizens’. The problem is that some attributes of the ‘good citizen’ aspired to through education are becoming increasingly problematic in a changing world. No longer can we expect that the same types of good citizens historically valued in periods such as the Industrial Revolution will necessarily meet the unique challenges of the new millenia. Hence, we declare that the problem of education is not the idea of effort and production itself but rather what is valued in schools and, as a result of these values, what education is producing. Better world?

We explore this broader view in two ways. First, we look at ‘production of a better world’ through different, yet historically intertwined ideals we have inherited. These two ideals both want the same thing (better world) yet they grate against each other, frame much of the chatter and stunt deep(er) change. Secondly, we interrogate some ‘common sense’ statements we hope you will recognise as well, to demonstrate just how disconnected the endless debate is with the real problems and changes we face in the (future) world our students will grow up in.

Two fundamental views

Schools didn’t just happen. They were historically produced, and as a result, can be considered as artefacts of the distant past. In his excellent work Rethinking the School , Ian Hunter makes the case that the mass, compulsory schooling as experienced by most in the Western world (and certainly in Australia & USA) is a curious mixture of two discordant views on education – the liberal and the vocational (dialectic). While they are not reducible to the following, it may be best to think of the liberal view as the upward-looking, Christian imperative of salvation through the glory of good deeds. The vocational view is a downward-looking need to occupy the (otherwise) idle hands and minds of the ‘great unwashed’ to keep them healthy, productive and in check with industrial demands. They both genuinely aim to create a better world and they have both been occurring since the 1700s England.

One of England’s successes was the transportation, not of (so much of 🙂 ) convicts, but of schools absorbed by these competing ideals. As a result, we have inherited a schooling system that is full of paradoxes and contradictions. For example, we discipline the child as if they were an autonomous chooser (“choose your actions and their consequences”) yet we deny them much real choice in the ways they are educated. We see schools and education as the way to arrest poverty and disadvantage, yet we work within a school system that actively encourages secondary schools in lower socioeconomic status (SES) areas to offer vocational courses that deny young people the opportunity to be educated as their peers in wealthier areas. In short, the system operates on the notion of saving young people, either from their circumstances (if they are poor [vocational]), or from their hubris (if they are rich [liberal]), yet is organised in such a way as to enshrine privilege and maintain disadvantage. This is not new, it is a particularly persistent hangover of the past that will not seem to go away.

Schools invented childhood (maybe an exaggeration, but they are certainly the chief protagonists) and then imbued childhood with the paradoxes and contradictions of salvation versus vocation. Ever seen a teacher, parent, administrator, even a student (again, particularly in low SES areas) who wants to ‘save the kids’ and ‘open their eyes’ but also want and teach them how to comply and work hard? Ever heard a dispute between a teacher who thinks students should be treated gently as respected, autonomous individuals, allowing for them to flourish, and the rule-worshipping, no-bull, ‘school-nazi’ teacher who gets the kids to work and ‘gets the work done’? Ever read about a dispute between teacher unions and curricular bodies about grading practices or reasons for (not) publishing league tables? Then you know what this paradox sounds like…

The trouble is that over the years, the alignment of schools along the salvation/vocation ideals has gotten out of whack. As a result, schools, particularly those in the lower SES areas, now present these paradoxes as the same thing – saving children through jobs. Religious-like morality through economic utility. The “future will be peachy if we just roll up our sleeves and go harder at it”. Seductive at first, this has some particularly unpleasant implications.

Rather than going too theoretical at this point, let’s look answer some of the common questions and statements about ‘education as production’ we often hear around the place. This is to demonstrate how and why so many educators remain largely trapped in the increasingly irrelevant, inequitable and unhelpful ideals of the past, despite the enormous good will and effort of thousands.

“Education is the great leveller, the kids have the same chance and learn the same stuff, so if they work hard they’ll reap the rewards, won’t they?”

Let’s get back to the salvation/vocation (mis)alignment. Interestingly, it does not seem to happen at the elite schools, dominated by the Christian liberal tradition of ‘salvation’. If asked why they go to school, students at elite schools are probably more likely to say things like “to make a better world”. Majority of them then all trot off to uni to become (powerful) lawyers, doctors, politicians, executives etc. They do so while enshrining their privilege and ‘saving’ themselves and those below (many of whom may not exactly appreciate being ‘saved’!).

However, when students in non-elite, working-class, lower socio-economic status (SES) schools are asked the same question, their most frequent response is “to get a job (many of them add “so I’m not a bum and live on the dole”). In these schools, we are seeing the rise and rise of the vocational imperative. Consider a comment by a principal of a working-class, vocational-oriented school about offering a particular course with a non-vocational, liberal bend: “Our kids wouldn’t be suited for it.

Both of these ideals are failing the needs of our society at an alarming rate, particularly among the lower SES students.

But just why is this a failure? Doesn’t someone have to sweep the streets? You gotta have top and bottom, right? After all, they do have the same opportunity!

Volumes of educational critical literature from the 1970s onwards stress (and disagree with) the idea that schools existed as a form of social role selection – that they sorted young people into vocational streams that led to them assuming life opportunities commensurate with their roles. In this sense, schools sorted menial labourers from scientists, laywers from tradespeople, and artists from the “no-hopers”.

This stratified society was easier to manage, and it perpetuated itself many times over. In fact, it is still doing the same today. In Australia, the 1970s were a halcyon day for alternative schooling, but the impetus quickly stalled, to be replaced by neo-conservative imperatives. The shift went from “de-schooling” to “re-schooling” in less that a decade, till we end up in the current situation where schools are businesses, they are managed, teachers are technicians and students are commodities. The backlash of the 1970s is an uberconservative schooling structure that has reestablished its control. In some ways, we are now more traditional than the past!

Schools are working well at social role selection. For all those that claim otherwise and tout ‘better opportunity’, we would invite them to spend some time in traditionally structured schools in lower SES areas. If these schools have changed so much, why is it that children from low SES still tend to be denied educational opportunities, philosophies and structural access of the elite? It follows that if schools are not involved in deep change, they simply reinforce disadvantage. If nothing changes, nothing changes… but we do talk about it a lot. Changes in curriculum, grading practices etc are simply superficial.

So just what is wrong then with a compliant, obedient, uncritical workforce?

Nothing. It’s just that they are unemployed or lowly paid at best…

“Look, in the past education served the society better. It produced kids who were more mature and responsible than these guys today.”

Through their historically valued policies and practices, informed by the (mixture of) the two aforementioned ideals, mainstream schooling has been producing certain types of individuals. The trouble is, these types are increasingly shaky, untenable, even damaging in the contemporary world.

One such type is a quiet, conforming individual. “Nothing wrong” you may think, we want our “trains to run on time” don’t we? Consider the (very real!) case of a principal who came into a tough, inner city school that was having money thrown at it from various government agencies to ‘fix’ the problem of low student retention and ‘poor’ academic achievement. You know the story – short term, limited funding that does little to address deep problems but does a lot of rearranging of deckchairs. He said:

I dismantled some programmes that were meant to be for academic extension and when we looked at them the kind of kids who were in there – it was all wrong! The kids were not being chosen for the real capacity to achieve. But those kids were predominantly female, white, quiet, conformist.

So, in this sense, the school is valuing those students because of primarily how they behave and comply, never mind their creative and other potential. That OK with you? Entirely or just a little bit?

Another prized type is a highly individualised, competitive student who is great at amassing personal rewards and benefits (wealth!?). The capacity to identify with realities beyond their personal ambitions, needs and wants is secondary or even further down the track of priorities. Don’t believe so? Ask for a choice between being ‘top of the class’ and being kind, thoughtful, willing to share, think critically and differently … you know those slippery things you can’t really test and don’t REALLY matter . How do we rank on those internationally again?

The lofty school mottos, various graduate or vision statements are often couched in the liberal imperative terms (Bold, Caring, Creative or For Others and the likes). Paradoxically, the reality is so often the opposite of what is espoused – highly individualistic programs and policies that communicate the ideas of individual, competitive success and hierarchy very early on. These idea(l)s of schooling stick and stay with young people long after they leave school and, if nothing else, continue to frame and with it perpetuate the understanding of ‘school’. Just ask a parent of your student next time: “What was the most important thing by the school for you to do”?

“Why don’t we just go back to basics? We used to do stuff that kids these days would not have a clue today!”

This is the ‘back in the good old days’, halcyon view of education, usually followed by the phrases like ‘dumbing down’ and the likes. Whenever I hear people who hark back I wonder: Is our current situation really that bad or were the past times really that good? And then the old, wobbly straw man comes out.

Consider this classic, peddled around by the ‘dumbing down’ brigade. The useful commentary merely begins to break down their weak yet dangerous argument.

Is this ‘1895 exam type’ the sort of thing we want to go back to? Isn’t this largely where we are now at too, we have just changed the content and sophisticated a method of delivery (eg. regurgitation online is still regurgitation)? We now argue about some minor technical point like ‘cut off scores’ instead of asking ourselves larger, fundamental questions about what do students of tomorrow, not perhaps teachers of yesterday, really need. Is it ethical to ask first what systems of yesterday need before asking what students of tomorrow need?

Consider a quip by a colleague: “Never ask a question you can google up.” Back in say 1940s there was hardly a need for a rigorous ‘filter’ of information. These days, not having a solid, critical, informed personal filter and foregoing development of thinking, questioning, collaboration and creativity at the expense of remembering easily searchable data and performing to a narrow, pre-established, systemic set of ‘indicators’ to reach a reward is becoming increasingly untenable. Before it was points and right answers, now it is increasingly about seeing the patterns and dealing with change.

And on the skills front, I wonder how the 1895 students would go with a basic internet search these days, perhaps sending a text message. In 1895, students had to know about the environment for their exam, kids today are working out how to stop ourselves from killing it for themselves and their children. For starters…

Beware well-meaning people in their 25+ years starting a sentence with “When I was at school…”

“But look at the ways schools, methods and curriculum(s) are constantly changing! We haven’t exactly stood still…”

They may have new buildings, better equipment, better teaching practices and so on but schools have not really deeply changed in any meaningful way over more than 250 years. This is mainly because they have taught us and controlled the ways that we see and understand the school.

The chief tool of maintaining and controlling this paradoxical, yet historically incredibly persistent understanding of the school (again, see the mix of liberal/vocational imperatives) has been the incessant debate dominated by mere variations on the theme.

For example, in Australia at the moment we are experiencing a debate on education particularly through the issue of literacy. On the one hand, many stakeholders in education are up in arms at the perceived lack of literacy in our schools. The answer often generated requires a return to the 3Rs, or a vision of literacy as a functional, transactional set of processes that employees need to get jobs (and through this employment, to lead a successful life) – the vocational imperative. On the other side of the debate, many educationalists advocate for lifelong learning and rich, deep understandings of texts as a means to create individuals who are able to critically ‘read’ their worlds – the liberal view of the empowerment of the individual as a means to lead a successful life. This debate is becoming increasingly vitriolic and is becoming (mis)managed in the guise of state versus federal approaches to curriculum, phonics versus whole language, standards and grades versus outcomes and the likes. This fervour is dominated by individuals and organisations maintaining and vigorously defending their ‘take’ on education – the experts we spoke about in our first post and throughout the series.

The real problem with this is that change, when it occurs, is focused at the what of teaching (the curriculum), even sometimes the how (methods) but not the why. And it is at that ‘why’ level that the deep change has a chance to occur. Continuing in the present see-sawing debate will solve none of the problems, but will enhance the status of the “educrats” who justify their exstence through creating conflict that is not resolved. (For a scathing critique of the bureaucratisation of our world check out John Raulston Saul’s works The Unconscious Civilisation or Voltaire’s Bastards.)

Final words…

At the end, we repeat that we are not against effort and production in schools. But we argue that as a society, we need to think more carefully and clearly about what schools produce and why. The question we want to keep in mind is whether the historically valued types of citizens, no matter how useful in the particular past periods, will be capable of meeting the pressing shifts and problems of the future, near and far. You know the obvious ones – environmental destruction, terrorism, eruption of technology and social media, changing roles of women in societies, shifting employment practices, crossing and changing old class divides, global trade and crises of all kinds…the list is long. Dealing with any of these effectively and justly does not really call for the type of student a ‘traditional’ school has been producing. A range of declining environmental, economic, social and other indicators paint the picture so let’s not pretend that ‘schooling as usual’ (oops, just ‘harder’!) is going to somehow reverse the trends.

Do you want to live in a world full of docile, easily managed consumers, uncritically bent on amassing wealth and lacking the capacity to perceive reality beyond the personal ambition “as long as they are OK”, the kind produced by schooling and rewards of (primarily) individual effort? We can’t value highly individualised effort and rewards (hey, the government wants me to rank students!) then, confusingly, expect the kids to be highly ‘collaborative’. Sadly, the latter begins to sound like a buzzword! For now, schools largely still want students (AND teachers) to cooperate rather than collaborate. There is an important difference between the two. Cooperation means working together to achieve what you are required or told to do. Collaboration is a shared effort of a group of people working towards shared goals and using method they choose and agree on.

Today’s kids will have (to start) to give a damn about the issues that affect us across the geographical, cultural, racial, class, gender and other divides. But because we are so mired in the thinking and answers of the schools in 1700 England (one or the other or the mixture of the two types mentioned), we can’t move education beyond the superficial chatter while the world around us changes fundamentally and much faster than before in our shared history.

Education can be productive in good ways but it’s not being used in good ways to change the society. Yet?

PS Just as I finished typing these words I came across a very recent speech (5 Nov 2009) on education reform by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education The Hon. Julia Gillard. I invite you to crack a beer or have a cup of tea and read what she said, then go and make a few circles around the points we have collectively worked hard to get across to you today (we may not be celebrities like Sir Ken Robinson, but it is interesting to read what he says too in his remarks after his signature TED talk too).

As always, YOUR comments are most welcome! 🙂

Thoughts of an educator

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