The elephant in the room


Part two of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, examines logical positivism

Before I address Professor Biesta’s reply to the question I posed at the end of part one, I am going to spend two instalments discussing logical positivism. Even though this requires a bit of a philosophical dive, I think it is justified because without understanding the fundamental argument about logical positivism, the more concrete disagreements about educational purpose will be difficult to untangle. The elephant represents the fact that all the other, non-elephantine occupants of the room are divided between two almost completely incompatible ways of thinking about truth and logic—they follow incommensurable paradigms, in the approved, post-modernist jargon—and without understanding that important fact, it will not be possible to understand why so many people seem to be talking past each other, almost as if speaking different languages.

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Banging heads on brick walls

Brick wallIn calling for better teaching and better leadership in secondary schools, OFSTED and its political masters are failing to recognise the fundamental problem facing formal education.

There have been three interesting contributions to the ed-tech debate by the BBC in recent days. Yesterday, 10 December (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 2:17:38), Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw complained on the Today programme that too many secondary schools were providing an inadequate standard of education, due mainly to poor quality teaching and leadership. Today, the Today programme covered the problem that schools are having in teaching the new Computing curriculum (link here, for 4 weeks only, and listen from 02:39:00). The two items are connected in that they both demonstrate that the education service continues to fail to recognise its own fundamental problems. It also fails to recognise the importance of the message in this year’s Reith Lectures, given by Atul Gawande, ostensibly about medicine (listen to lecture 2, The Century of the System).

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Should education socialize?

man_reading_and_childCurrent models of ed-tech are based on theories of progressive education which are in turn based on a false understanding of what learning involves.

I wrote the following piece as an assignment during my PGCE, which I completed in 1990 at the Institute of Education in London. It was to some degree an exercise in letting off steam, a cry of exasperation at the complete nonsense that I felt we were being prescribed on our reading lists. I publish it now, partly in response to Harry Web’s review of Gert Biesta’s the Beautiful Risk of Education. It is also relevant to a Twitter conversation yesterday in which my interlocutor suggested that it was up to teachers to ensure that the curriculum was “developmentally appropriate”. 

Ed-tech (the subject of this blog) rests on education theory—and there is a chasm opening up in the current debate in this area between those who think that education is essentially an exercise in development, driven from within; and those who think that education is an exercise in socialization, driven by the transmission of knowledge and values from the society in which the learner is placed. I take the latter side—see my recent article for Terry Freedman’s Digital Education—and to anyone who cries foul (or at least “false dichotomy”) I would say, you take the latter side too. Because while those who believe in transmission (or socialization, as I call it in this essay) also recognise development as a necessary prerequisite for achieving certain sorts of understanding, those who believe in education driven by internal development generally appear to view external influence and transmission as illegitimate. That is why the question is not “should children develop?” (of course they should) but “should education socialize?”.

And to those to whom I have promised some use-cases, to illustrate how the sort of education technology that I am advocating will work in practice, let me say, in passing, that I am working on it.

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MOOCs and other ed-tech bubbles

Girl blowing a bubble gum bubbleWhy most of what currently excites the ed-tech world is hot air: MOOCs, Learning Analytics and Open Education Resources, amongst other fads.

I already know what my new year’s resolution will be. As well as losing a stone in weight (the same resolution every year), it will be to stop writing almost exclusively on why education technology has so far failed to transform education, and to focus more on arguing how education technology will transform education, when it is properly implemented. As the song has it:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mr In-between[1].

The predominantly negative copy of 2012 has been no more satisfying to write than I imagine it has been to read. But it has been necessary. It is impossible to make progress with a cogent argument for how education technology will transform education while most of the community accepts as self-evident half-baked notions of “independent learners” and “21st century skills”, believes that creativity is possible without knowledge, or that testing is a dirty word. Before making a start on constructing the new you need to demolish the old.

That will be my resolution on 1st January—but for the last few days of 2012, I will follow the prayer of St Augustine (“Lord make me chaste but not yet”) and take one last swing with the old ball and chain. Continue reading