Schools and Education. Have We Got the Basics Right? Brian Garton. Wednesday, 07 February 2018. To see the paper it is here.
The Law in the UK requires parents to ensure that their children have regular access to an appropriate programme of education, but not specifically that they have to go to schools as such. This also serves to highlight the challenge posed in the title. Why does the Law make that requirement?
• To keep society under control.
• To meet the requirements of the labour market.
• To promote the fullest development of each individual.
• Because it’s been that way for a long time, and other countries do it.
After this Introduction, the paper has a Preface which presents some references, which I have personally found helpful in addressing these issues. It then seeks to present and discuss three main themes, primarily of a theoretical nature, but also with reference to actual practice These are:
1. What is Intelligence? How does it relate to the Theory or Multiple Intelligences associated with Howard Gardner and his followers.
2. The Deschooling Debate associated with the writings of Ivan Illich and others and the movement towards “Free Schools”.
3. The UK National Curriculum, OFSTED and some “public domain” information about 2 schools in Wincanton.
Preface: • A fact: Socrates, who can reasonably claim to be the founder of the Western liberal educational tradition, was condemned and forced to commit suicide by the Athenian authorities in 399 BCE for “corrupting the youth”. Of course Socrates did not himself actually create a “school” as such. That was to be the work of his disciple, Plato, whose “Academy” was probably opened some time after 387 BCE, and in its revised form closed by the Emperor Justinian in 529 CE, as it was seen to be potentially subversive of education in its Christian context. I wonder how many of the promoters of “Academies” today are aware of this somewhat chequered background to the word!
2 • A quotation from an unlikely source: Anselm, native of Aosta (now in the Italian Alps, but then part of Burgundy), then monk, scholar, teacher and ultimately Abbot of Bec in Normandy, and finally controversial in English politics, and promoter of major building expansion as Archbishop of Canterbury in Kent, England. He will have many references in Christian theology and Western philosophy, but not usually in texts on Educational theory and practice. In c. 1124 his biographer, Eadmer, recorded this comment of Anselm’s in a conversation with a very traditional abbot about the education of young monks: “If you were to plant a young tree in your garden, and to hem it in right away on all sides, so that it could not stretch out its branches at all, if you released it after several years what kind of tree would result? “A quite useless one, of course, with gnarled and twisted branches.” “And whose fault would that be but your own, for shutting it in without using any judgement?”
• A definition: Education “can be defined as the wise, hopeful and respectful cultivation of learning undertaken in the belief that all should have the chance to share in life.” (Smith, M. K. 2015. What is education? A definition and discussion. The encyclopaedia of informal education.)
• A comment: “Really powerful human organisations – such as pharaonic Egypt, European empires and the modern school system – are not necessarily clear-sighted. Much of their power rests on their ability to force their fictional beliefs on a submissive reality.” (Harari, Yuval Noah: Homo Deus)
1: Intelligence. Success in Schooling is very frequently set in the context of “Knowledge” and of “Intelligence”. In this “Information Age” there will always be opportunity for endless discussion on which aspects of Knowledge are likely to be important and even priorities. How this is carried out has been made even more controversial by the apparent acceptance of such concepts as “Alternative Facts” and “Fake News”. Whatever we personally may think of such concepts it has to be understood that millions of people of economic, social and political importance believe them to be valid.
3 It is frequently observed that UK Universities offer Degree Level courses in almost every conceivable area of knowledge, with the prominent exception of “Common Sense”! So “Knowledge” can be perceived as a continually expanding bubble. But Knowledge by itself has no value unless it can be addressed in the context of “Intelligence”. But what actually is Intelligence, and how can it be utilised to promote better schooling and a high level of education? Any discussion of schools and education will inevitably be infused with many references to the word “intelligence”. This immediately raises a number of questions and confusion. Until relatively recently, and probably still for the vast majority of people, this, and especially in its shortened form of “smart” or “bright”, has been seen as equivalent to competency of performance in literacy and numeracy.
Over the past half century this equivalence has been challenged by a number of distinguished scholars with the concept of “Emotional Intelligence” as described (but somewhat controversially) by Goleman and others, and even more by the most challenging description of “multiple intelligences” by Howard Gardner and of a band of his colleagues at Harvard and by many others. You will have noted that in my description of the older definition I expanded it to incorporate the notion of coompetence of performance, as it is the measurement of “intelligence” that has been seen as key and so we have been inundated with a battery of so called “intelligence tests”, and their further statistical manipulation into “IQ Tests”.
Even Donald Trump from his secure fortress of Twitterdom has recently drawn attention to this vocabulary usage, although evidence of his understanding of the concept is still to emerge! (The New Yorker 10 October 2017: WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)— In an I.Q.-test tournament devised by Donald Trump to determine the smartest person in his Administration, Trump suffered a humiliating defeat on Tuesday, getting knocked out in the first round by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.)
Apart from the problem of “intelligence” as being seen as something that was inherently measurable and so capable of being compared, there is the further confusion whereby it is popularly equated with “memory”. Someone with what is considered to be a “good memory” and the ability to recall and reproduce a significant amount of information is often labelled “intelligent”, although I would argue that this is a serious misuse of language. If this understanding made it also a requirement to manipulate as well as recall and reproduce, it would perhaps be much more helpful, and it is within this area that much of the current debate on “artificial intelligence” seems to focus.
4 Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences can be widely understood as self-explanatory, and it is important to note that the number of categories has been expanded as research and discussion has continued over the years since the concept was first propounded in “Frames of Mind” (1983). The list below is what was available in 2004. There were attempts to include such areas as spiritual/religious intelligence, but these are not so easily assimilated into the overall framework on the basis of a consensus that could be readily agreed, let alone with universal approval!
1. Verbal-linguistic intelligence (well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words)
2. Logical-mathematical intelligence (to think conceptually and abstractly, and capacity to discern logical and numerical patterns)
3. Spatial-visual intelligence (capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualise accurately and abstractly)
4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skilfully)
5. Musical intelligences (ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timbre) 6. Interpersonal intelligence (capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others)
7. Intrapersonal (capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes)
8. Naturalistic intelligence (ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature)
9. Existential intelligence (sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence such as What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? How did we get here?
Is it reasonable to propose that the maximum development of as many of these “intelligences” as possible for the widest possible range of children and adolescents should be the target for any worthwhile programme of education? If schools cannot or do not try to do this, should they be regarded as having failed in some significant way? And if they have failed, what then?
Alternatively, should we regard it as a hopeless objective? Should we be looking at the title question in quite a different way? Should we be looking at the path of Deschooling?
5 2. Deschooling The writings of Illich, and even more the publicity given to them, are very much the same as the underlying assumptions behind the title for this paper. The main points of his argument, e.g. in Deschooling Society (1970) are to be found in his Introduction.
• Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools.
• Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.
• The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.
• We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries. In short it is the ethos and not just the institutions of society that need to be deschooled.
Within the debate on so-called “free schools” today, it has been inevitable that many of his arguments have surfaced again, and, of course, such schools have been granted the freedom to operate (with certain provisos) outside the specific parameters of the UK National Curriculum. Nonetheless these schools have tended to pursue alternative (and significantly parent-dominated and controlled) structures and curricula, rather than a full programme of deschooling.
Of course these “free schools”, particularly at the time when Michael Gove was the Secretary for Education have been very controversial, and they should perhaps have been regarded just as part of the proliferation of alternative models of more traditional types of schooling rather than as a significant element in the deschooling debate. The continuing, and accelerating, use of the Internet and the uncontrollable expansion of social networks have created a cognitive and social environment that could not have been anticipated by Illich.
It is perhaps a matter of some regret that there does not appear to be anyone of the cognitive or moral stature of Illich today to lead us forward into this (possibly not so) Brave New World
6 3. The UK National Curriculum, OFSTED and all that…… As a counterpoint to the very wide range of available theories about “Education” I then began a tentative examination of what might be regarded as the realities of “Schools”. For this purpose, I considered first the UK National Curriculum, which could reasonably be regarded as a practical blueprint for converting educational objectives into school practice The aims of the National Curriculum were set out (somewhat defensively!) in a document published in September 2013, and are: “3.
1 The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement. 3.
2 The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.”
With very little adaptation I would contend that both Socrates and St. Anselm would feel happy with such a statement, though they would equally quickly point out that the statement under 3.1 with its claim that the National Curriculum “provides” would have to be very carefully examined. The very common usage of Government documents which is reluctant to state the more philosophically acceptable “seeks to provide”, and settles on the very blunt, and obviously challengeable “provides” does not help us here.
The 3.2 statement with its reference to “core knowledge” then creates a range of further potential challenges. What is “core knowledge”? Obviously we should expect that this will be outlined in some detail in the rest of the National Curriculum documents, and so it is, but then immediately we have the issue of who decides what actually is core knowledge, and why has that judgment been made.
Is it possible to say whether someone who can reproduce the Periodic Table with 100% accuracy is more grounded in “core knowledge” than someone who can recite the Queens and Kings of England with their dates? It is true that the document does not state that core knowledge ipso facto is an essential 7 requirement for all children to have in common, but rather that they should have access to an outline of “core knowledge”.
If they fail to make use of that access has the educational objective failed? Under Key Stage 4, Science – Chemistry (December 2014) it is stated that “students should be taught about Atomic structure and the Periodic Table, including the modern Periodic Table, showing elements arranged in order of atomic number (and the) position of elements in the Periodic Table in relation to their atomic structure and arrangement of outer electrons”. How can we assess whether a school can be successful in doing this other than by testing memory?
For the purpose of Key Stage 3 for History (September 2013) there is the objective that “Pupils should extend and deepen their chronologically secure knowledge and understanding of British, local and world history, so that it provides a well-informed context for wider learning.” That seems to be a very acceptable objective, though clearly very different from the archaic school requirement to reproduce lists of the kings and queens of England.
But what is meant by “chronologically secure”? There is research evidence that at least until the age of 16, a sophisticated grasp of chronology, may well not be easily achievable. The media regularly give us information as to the extent by which students in ordinary schools are meeting the attainment targets that relate to the different Key Stages of the UK National Curriculum, but does that information actually help us to understand whether they have received a desirable level of education?
In the original version of this paper I considered looking very objectively at the published information (OFSTED Reports etc.) on Wincanton Primary School and King Arthur’s Community School. This was very interesting and encouraging, but did not produce any clear result in terms of a meaningful and succinct statement as regards precisely what their educational objectives were or whether, as schools, they had been successful in meeting them. This comment is in no way intended as a criticism of either school, but of the impossibility of undertaking such an assessment.
What are the objectives for King Arthur’s? “Welcome to King Arthur’s School. It is a privilege to serve this community in such a beautiful area and to work with our excellent students. Our size allows us to offer a genuine sense of community alongside a clear vision that we want the very best for our students and the very best from our students. Our motto provides a simple view of our values; students who RESPECT themselves and others, take PRIDE in their work and achievements and have the COURAGE to take on new challenges and to do the right thing. We wish for your child to be happy and successful as we help to prepare them for adulthood.”
8 To move on to Wincanton Primary School….The School has a motto of “Achieving through Experience”, and this is expanded further as follows: “We like the concept of working together and recognising that one success builds on others. It implies movement and new destinations. We are life long learners and this journey will never end. We are building for excellence as an absolute to which we can inspire but on which we may never settle. We may achieve a moment of excellence, but it is only an illusion of a journey’s end. As we take breath and congratulate ourselves, a new horizon will unfold and the building begins again. This is not frustrating. It is the way of life for the lifelong learner. We make the extraordinary ordinary and pass this on to our learners.
At Wincanton Primary School we aim to provide the highest standard of education within a caring and stimulating environment.”
Clearly the statement that “We are life long learners and this journey will never end” (however commendable) cannot be used as a yardstick to measure what a Primary School actually does. So any attempt to use such published information for the purpose of examining the relationship of Education and Schools in this case just cannot be successful.
So, back to the question in the title? The simple answer is that we just cannot know if we have the basics right. The realities of societies today are that there is nothing like a consensus as to what direction they should be following. It is easy to set out a range of seemingly attractive blueprints for individuals and for society as a whole. It is equally easy to explain the very many practical limitations there must be on establishing a realistic context for attempting the implementation of such blueprints.
Austerity leading to curtailed budgets and some significant areas of low morale is the reality of our world. Any discussion of Education and Schools can only be meaningful in that context. Obviously any assessment of “Requires Improvement” is disappointing and needs to be effectively and promptly addressed, but that is probably a valid assessment for where we are today. There is no Eldorado for Education.
9 Education and Schools – A Glossary UK National Curriculum – – The national curriculum for England to be taught in all local-authority-maintained schools. … The national curriculum sets out the programmes of study and attainment targets for all subjects at all 4 key stages (14 Oct 2013) OFSTED –
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills
The Department for Education – is responsible for children’s services and education, including higher and further education policy, apprenticeships and wider skills in England. The department is also home to the Government Equalities Office. We work to provide children’s services and education that ensure opportunity is equal for all, no matter what their background or family circumstances.
Secretary of State – Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Education is the chief minister of the Department for Education in the United Kingdom government.