Two recent education news stories, the proposal to introduce ‘base-line testing’ for 4 year olds*, and the argument about whether 40% of PGCE students drop out within a year*, or whether it’s ‘only’ 20%, confirm my growing suspicion that we’re caught in a data trap*, and that much of what passes for educational debate is centred around the benefits, or otherwise, of measuring stuff just because it can be measured. The pre-occupation with data provides an ideal bait and switch: instead of debating educational philosophy or the ideas and ideals that brought us into teaching in the first place, teachers find ourselves arguing over whose numbers are correct, as if defending or disproving the numbers defends or disproves the validity of claims about the meaning, purpose and effects of the way we do schooling. The idea that properly empirical qualitative research can shed some light on seemingly intractable problems is an attractive one for those of us who consider ourselves academics, but in the hurly-burly of popular prejudice, political manipulation and personal preference which attends every aspect of our schools, the latest bit of data all too often just generates more heat.
I have my views like anyone else, and they’re increasingly informed by the realisation that, on any given stage of education from pre-school to post-grad that you care to type into Google, there is already enough data to drown in. Schools of Education, not to mention departments of Psychology, Sociology and Economics, have been crunching the numbers for decades, drawing conclusions and arguing over the ramifications of the studies they’ve set up to explore, disprove or develop whatever great pedagogical innovation or totalitarian government imposition we’re excited about this year.
I’m not implying that subjecting educational claims to at least theoretically verifiable research is necessarily a futile or unhelpful exercise; it’s worthwhile if only to keep us teachers, susceptible to trends, fads and the influence of plausible charlatans as we are, honest and critically evaluative, if not sceptical. Nor would I wish to suggest that anyone doesn’t want ‘what’s best for the children’, even as we accept and impose the latest round of management/government directives in the drive for raised standards through increased accountability. Most teachers aren’t sadists, just as most politicians aren’t soulless technocrats who actively pursue a policy of churning out compliant factory fodder to compete in the global economy. But when the debate seems to be driven by the the complaints of business leaders that our children are not (even) good at the skills (mainly, but not exclusively, STEM) they need to compete in the global economy, and by methodology-focused reactions and in-fighting among the pedagogues, it does seem that a question is being begged. It’s almost as if we accept the at least debatable, if not dubious, premise that what’s best for the children is a process of ‘education’ that renders them ‘fit for purpose’ for lives as working adults in ‘the global economy’, a dehumanised concept carrying ideas of inexorable and essentially competitive striving that appears to bear little relation to everyday teaching experience, but nonetheless looms threateningly over us all – God forbid I might be the teacher whose lack of adherence to a rubric, whether through incompetence or misplaced idealism, condemns my pupils to future lives of being uncompetitive in the global economy! Even if we don’t accept that premise, and many of us don’t, we tend to get so caught up in the ‘hows’ of teaching and learning that we lose sight of the ‘whys’.
What is it all for? (I could just as easily ask who is it all for, because while much that is written purports to be about the children and young people who are the objects of all this ‘educational’ endeavour, there is little evidence that the children and young people themselves are the intended audience: they’re hardly ever consulted and their views hardly ever appear to be required.)
Asking ‘What is education for?’ takes the spotlight off practice for a moment and re-focuses it on educational ideals. It allows us to engage with each other not as methodological adversaries, but as allies in a common cause, having some view about what that common cause might be. It’s not about retreating into an ‘ivory tower’ either (a dead metaphor resting on a false dichotomy, applied to the academic field by those who fancy a world view defined by economic Darwinism to be the ‘real world’): the question ‘What is education for?’ concerns itself precisely with real life; it moves us away from an atomised and mechanistic view of education comprised of component parts like ‘literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ to which other bits like ‘citizenship’, ‘SRE’ and even ‘character’ must be bolted on, in response to a perceived social problem re-framed as a failure of schooling.
Asking ‘What is education for?’ allows us to ask questions about reasoning and critical thinking that inform our practice. It invites explorations of our ability to communicate ideas to our pupils, and of what ideas we may be communicating without intending to. In an election year, it raises awareness of ourselves as citizens with agency in society, rather than mere classroom practitioners with no wider or more general educational concerns than getting through the next batch of coursework marking. Asking the question ‘What is education for?’ compels us to shift the debate away from instrumentalism and towards questions of human flourishing which should be, and (backed up by the relevant research) I hazard, are the reasons most of us became teachers in the first place.