Archive for March, 2011



March 30, 2011

Last time, I argued that the purpose of education was to make people smarter and observed that we would need to consider what it meant to be smarter.

The first point that needs to be made is that I do not accept that the development of the intellect is something that happens in a vacuum. I do not accept that there is a single unitary property of the mind that is summed up by “smartness”. While it may be possible to create a single metric for intellectual functioning, Gould (1996) describes convincingly the many efforts to conceptualise this as a single property of the intellect, usually known as “intelligence”, have consistently been unjustified and biased by the prejudices of those seeking to identify the property. He also observes the extent to which supposedly inherent properties of the intellect can invariably be traced to environment and education. Gardner (1983) describes a number of different properties of the intellect (which he names “intelligences”) and demonstrates the evidence that, at least in some individuals, these qualities can exist independently and are subject to the effects of training and education.

What goes for “intelligence”, is even more clearly the case for less hygienic concepts such as “smartness”, “cleverness” and “the intellect”. While there may be components of the intellect that occur naturally in the untrained mind, when we describe how smart someone is we are referring to a selection of qualities that we value in our particular context, and most of which can be deliberately cultivated. We have to accept that what we consider to be smart changes over time, and is different in different countries and different eras even though, no doubt, there are common elements to views about the intellect in different societies. When we identify what makes somebody smart we identify what types of knowledge and what types of thinking are valued. Arnold (1869) calls this “culture”:

“culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”

This might be a starting point for debate rather than an end; people have widely different ideas of what is the best, but at least we know that this is what we are looking for. We are looking to pass on the most worthwhile parts of our intellectual inheritance.  It seems less debateable when we recognise that most academic disciplines do have within them some consensus about what are the most valuable fruits of that discipline, and where there isn’t a consensus, we can normally identify which positions are coherent parts of an intellectual tradition and which are ideological fads. We should remember that schools are there to pass on what is considered intellectually valuable in our culture rather than to change our culture. The commitment to pass on what is best in the world is not permission to disown the world. Arendt (1961) explains that:

“…the educators here stand in relation to the young as representatives of a world for which they must assume responsibility although they themselves did not make it, and even though they may, secretly or openly, wish it were other than it is. The responsibility is not arbitrarily imposed upon educators; it is implicit in the fact that the young are introduced by adults into a continuously changing world.”

There are political questions here. I know this can be portrayed as simple conservatism, but I believe it is just describing something inherent to a coherent notion of education. The belief that the school must be part of the world as it is should not be confused with the belief that the world as it is must never change, or that children are not the new part of the world:

“To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity, whose task is always to cherish and protect something – the child against the world, the world against the child the new against the old, the old against the new – Even the comprehensive responsibility for the world that is thereby assumed implies, of course, a conservative attitude. But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among adults and equals.”

To develop the intellect in children is to introduce them to part of the world. We are not dealing with an abstract property of the brain which can be directly accessed by a curriculum empty of actual content. We still need to consider how the intellect engages with culture, but we cannot doubt that it must, for our very notion of the intellect requires that it cannot be ignorant. A developed intellect must be firmly anchored in knowledge even if it does not consist only of the holding of knowledge. It is for this reason that INSET which favours dumbing-down is always prone to start with talk of “skills for the twenty-first century”, “preparing for jobs which don’t even exist yet” or “relevance”. All these are ploys to suggest that there is a great discontinuity between intellects in the past and those in the future. To truly empty the minds of the next generation then they must first be inoculated against the contents of the minds of all previous generations. The greatest theft that educators can commit is to steal, from the next generation, their intellectual inheritance.


Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future, 1961

Arnold, Matthew, Culture and Anarchy, 1869

Gardner, Howard  Frames of Mind, Fontana Press, 1983

Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man: Revised and expanded. W. W. Norton, 1996


The Aim of Education

March 14, 2011

I argued here, that if we are going to get anywhere in talking about education or teaching we need a clear idea what it is for. I suggested then that education is meant to develop the intellect. The following develops that argument as part of the Purpose of Education debate.

A few years ago, as the new secondary curriculum was being introduced, there was a craze on INSET days for giving groups of teachers an outline of a human figure and telling them to write on it what they wanted their students to be like when they left school. If you experienced this, and there was a teacher at the end of your table facepalming at the non-academic drivel that was being suggested, and trying to put forward the idea that we might want to answer with the one word “smarter”, then that was probably me.

It doesn’t take much consideration to see why making kids smarter is the true aim of education. Even if I hadn’t critiqued several alternative aims already (see: Developing character, Improving emotional well-being, Fitting children to their future role in society) none of them fit adequately with the notion of education. A person could be well-educated and immoral. A person could be well-educated and unhappy. A person could be well-educated and at a loss as to what to do with their life. A person could not have been successfully educated and nevertheless be stupid or ignorant. The intellectual aim is the only criteria by which we can judge whether education has actually taken place, the others, no matter how desirable are not essential.

Although I observed here that two thirds of the aims of the new National Curriculum were unrelated to academic aspirations, the remaining aims are not unproblematic. The education system is meant to produce students who:

have the essential learning skills of literacy, numeracy and information and communication technology

are creative, resourceful and able to identify and solve problems

have enquiring minds and think for themselves to process information, reason, question and evaluate

communicate well in a range of ways

understand how they learn and learn from their mistakes

are able to learn independently and with others

know about big ideas and events that shape our world

enjoy learning and are motivated to achieve the best they can now and in the future

As with the non-academic aims of the curriculum, all these outcomes are desirable.   However, again we have the problem of aims that aren’t actually related to what can be taught and aims that have more to do with attitudes than learning. This means that they can provide an excuse for activities which serve no obvious educational purpose but can be justified with vague claims about their effect on attitudes. Want your students to play games? Then it’s helping them learn with others and enjoy learning. Want your students to make posters? Then it’s going to make them creative and practise their use of communication technology. Want students to sound off about their ill-informed opinions? Then it helps them understand big ideas and communicate well. Vague aims, even ones that appear to be related to developing the intellect, are the midwife to dumbing-down.

It is not going to be enough to point out that education is meant to develop the intellect. It is not going to be enough to say that our purpose is to make kids smarter. We are actually going to need a decent idea of what it means to be smart and future blog posts will consider this.


10 Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Tidy my House

March 2, 2011

This blog post is dedicated to the ardent denialists of the Local Schools Network.

Looking around my house, I really think it is a mess. I haven’t vacuumed upstairs for months. There are bags of worksheets I intended to file just left on the floor in the spare room. Letters from the NUT and the GTC sit unopened on my doormat. In the kitchen there is washing up waiting to be done and let’s not even mention the state of the bathroom.

Looking around the education system I really think it is broken. Behaviour is out of control. Academic aspirations are sidelined. Managers actively obstruct effective teaching. Now, plenty of people have told me that I am wrong about this. Perhaps I should consider the possibility that I am also wrong about the state of my house. Perhaps there are good reasons to think I don’t need to tidy up.

1) As an anonymous blogger I cannot be believed when I say my house is a mess. If it was true that my house was a mess I would be willing to say who I am and where my house is.

2) Wanting a tidy house is an unrealistic aspiration. It might seem plausible to the privileged middle classes but it is not actually practical to tidy it.

3) There hasn’t been any peer reviewed academic research that says my house needs tidying and anecdotal evidence is worthless and should be ignored.

4) There is nothing new about people saying my house needs tidying. People have been saying it for years. In fact a recently discovered, but unverified, quotation from Socrates says “Andrew’s house really is a mess. That lazy bastard should just tidy up”. This proves that fear about the tidiness of my house is a moral panic started by the Daily Mail and not a real problem.

5) Just because I am experiencing a mess where I am now, it doesn’t mean the whole of the house is messy. I have probably just tipped the bin over on the floor in front of me, and rather than taking responsibility for my own actions I am seeking to make out that it is a more general problem.

6) Other people have visited my house in the last few years and many of them have said it isn’t messy. This is particularly true of people who gave me advance notice and who didn’t go upstairs (or use the bathroom).

7) I am obviously writing with a particular ideological agenda. If I wasn’t biased by ideology then I would see that my house is actually still clean and tidy.

8) Moaning about how messy my house is won’t solve anything. It is just negativity, and my negativity is probably what causes any mess that I observe.

9) I may have experienced tidy houses when I was growing up but this was in an outdated world. Technology and social change have changed the meaning of “tidying” and will continue to change it for years to come and I simply need to adjust to progress and abandoned archaic nineteenth century notions like being able to see the carpet.

10) A house where you know where everything is, and where everything is clean, is a form of totalitarianism. I need to allow the dirt and clutter to clear itself up and stop being so intolerant of differences between where everything is and where I want it to be.

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