Avoiding the Difficult Choices in EducationOctober 12, 2014
I wrote this post about a week ago, and it largely follows on from my attempt to attend a large number of education events in a short period of time, described here. A number of comments I heard about education over that time gave me pause for thought and for similar reasons.
The first was during the Battle of Ideas panel discussion that I was involved in. Emma Knights claimed that there wasn’t a debate over the role of knowledge in education, at least not in schools. (With hindsight, the two of us on the panel who did object were also the only two who are currently employed as teachers).
The second was in reading this article from Academies Week about Nicky Morgan, in which she adds “the fifth priority” of creating well-rounded youngsters “emphasising character, resilience, grit” to the other priorities of her department.
The third was during a “Policymeet” on the fringes of Conservative Party Conference, when Ty Goddard from The Education Foundation, claimed that some of the debates in education should be re-evaluated as “false dichotomies”, and seemed to give many examples, such as knowledge versus skills, academic education versus vocational education. I was not the only person present who was sceptical about this:
I’m not claiming any of this is exceptional. With regard to the “fifth priority”, in education you can set lists of priorities so long that it would be easier to say what isn’t a priority. You can design a curriculum with dozens of aims. You can give out so many prizes that nobody actually feels rewarded. You can promote almost every teacher in a school without giving them any actual power. When people don’t want to make difficult choices they often find that choosing everything is almost the same as choosing nothing. Like giving a child a 17th final warning, you can create the illusion of making a decision without actually committing yourself to anything.
Similarly, when there are apparently stark choices, (including those relating to knowledge) it is easy to claim that they are “false dichotomies”. Don’t know whether small children are in school to play or to learn? Just claim that they learn best through play. Don’t know whether schools are for education or for socialisation? Just claim children are educated best through socialising. Don’t know whether children should be learning academic subjects or concentrating on hobbies? Just claim that everything is academic. Or nothing. It amounts to the same thing.
There are some genuine false dichotomies in education. There are options that are too vague to be meaningful (like educating the whole child, or encouraging creativity in maths). There are times when certain choices are hidden in order to make an unpalatable position seem the best option. For instance, anyone who wants to let kids get away with bad behaviour is likely to claim the only alternative is a philosophy of “behaviourism”. Or those who want it to be okay for kids to learn nothing, will claim that the alternative is a system driven only by exams. But in cases where we have a choice of what to teach, or what to spend resources on, the choices are unlikely to be false dichotomies. People will have to choose what money is spent on and what is taught in lessons.
All of the examples that I started with, seem to come down to an evasion of difficult choices. And perhaps this is why bureaucracy thrives in English education. For a system to function effectively people do have to decide what they are aiming for. They have to decide what gets priority. They have to commit themselves to their decisions. I am always been sceptical when people claim the NHS faces infinite demand that means resources have to be rationed. But in education, there is always more we can do. We cannot do everything. We cannot prioritise every child and teach every desirable personal quality. Sugar paper, post-it notes and brain-storming might generate lists but they don’t generate decisions. In the system we have, people become unpopular not by making the wrong choices, but by making any choices at all. In systems where nobody chooses what it is that must be done first, nothing gets done, and afterwards people try to find somebody to blame for not doing it.
It is important not to pretend there is no debate to be had. There is debate over everything and there needs to be. There are people we should argue with.
- There are writers on education who would bring back the culture of endless resits;
- There are senior leaders in schools who are against the teaching of knowledge;
- There are teacher training companies who think the internet has replaced teachers as the source of students’ knowledge;
- There are teacher trainers whose advice about managing behaviour includes sharing learning objectives and catering to learning styles;
- There are educational consultancies where scepticism about educational ideas gets you fired.
These are real debates, and while I don’t doubt there are those will try to dodge them, telling me that nobody meant what they appeared to be arguing, or that none of the apparent conflicts are actually real. But I cannot accept this. The differences in opinion are real and important. So please: make a decision; choose a side; express an opinion. It’s the only way anything gets done.