The Commons Education Select Committee held an interesting conference last Tuesday as part of its investigation into the purpose of education. I believe that the issues that were raised are vitally important for the future of education. The popular consensus among teachers and educationalists is that the purpose of education is either a platitude or a mystery but that, either way, it is not something that teachers should worry about too much. I believe that this assumption is profoundly damaging to our attempts to improve education—but that it is based on a consensus so deeply engrained that addressing the problem is no simple matter. As is the way with all conferences, people have their say, drink their coffee, head for the door, and leave a pile of unsorted opinions and unresolved disagreements all over the carpet. Sorting through this detritus will take some time but, as I have been criticised for writing at excessive length in the past, I will split my reflections into about ten reasonably manageable instalments, aiming to publish two or three a week. This is the first.
Why progress on edtech is dependent on a better understanding of educational purpose
If my last post was a light-hearted love story, this one is more of an attempt to write a Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. But I hope that the reader will be compensated by finding the argument to be original. I make the case that the recommendations of the recent Commission on Assessment without Levels are fundamentally mistaken.
It is a response I submitted to the current House of Commons Select Committee’s enquiry into the purpose of education. When announced, this enquiry was dismissed by Andrew Old as a waste of time: the purpose of education, said Andrew, was simply to make people cleverer. While I know where Andrew is coming from (who needs another waffle-fest with a lot of high-faluting rhetoric?) and agree with Andrew most of the time, I disagree with him that this is a pointless enquiry, if the question is understood in the way that I will suggest.
As my previous posts have argued (especially How technology will revolutionize education), technology is not about generic kit, but about the systematic means by which we pursue our ends. If no-one can be sure what our ends (or purposes) are, then any technological approach to education is doomed to fail. If we are not taking a technological approach to the business of teaching itself, then what hope is there in applying digital technology to education productively? Judging by the success we have had so far, the answer has to be “not a lot”.
My contention in this piece is therefore that the development of systematic pedagogy will never be achieved until (a) we know how to describe our educational objectives more clearly and consistently, and (b) until we understand the role of digital technology, both in supporting the description of educational objectives and in implementing the pedagogies required to attain those objectives.
Tim Oates’, Chair of the Expert Panel responsible for the recent review of the National Curriculum, has posted an interesting video about assessing education without levels. I agree with large parts of the video but suggest that in some respects, Oates’ model is unhelpful
I am grateful to Harry Webb (@websofsubstance) for the link to Tim Oates’ recent video explaining the report of the Curriculum Review body, which resulted in the abolition of levels in UK schools.
No-one, either individual or committee, is going to get everything right. The first thought that occurs to me from viewing Oates’ critique of our current assessment regime is “how could people—how could the whole system—get it so wrong last time round?”—and if people got it so wrong last time, how can we be so confident that they will get it right this time round? Those who produce recommendations for politicians to implement need to be very cautious when the harm caused by mistakes at this level can be so great. Even if the drift of those recommendations is substantially correct, everyone involved in such processes should welcome a continuing debate, which is the only way that we will avoid spending the next couple of decades up yet another blind alley.