Monday, January 5, 2015

The amusing 'problem' of education.

I've just been reading Dave Cormier's post 'Trying to solve the problem of education in 2015' 

There was much too much in it to respond with a short comment.

Indeed, I shall no doubt have to go back and reread it a number of times...

So here is an initial rambling response for me to reread...

I am fairly convinced that there is not, and there has never been 'a problem' of education.  Dave does suggest that is 'a complex problem' here. I agree.

Education...a mish mash

Education and therefore problems (depending on one's view point as to what constitutes education or problems) is a multiple, diverse and complex mish-mash (nexus) of often conflicting discourses.

'Education is a set of social systems developed to encourage learning at scale.' 

Education, viewed from one perspective, is about elites establishing and maintaining social, cultural and economic hegemony, from another perspective it is a business opportunity, a market for selling technology, seen  from another perspective it might be viewed as a question of architecture, seen from another perspective it might be viewed as a leisure activity...one might go on.

It strikes me that simplifying 'education' to a question of 'learners' 'learning' masks more than it reveals.

The problem(s) of education(s) in the 19th Century (England)

From a historical perspective, the growth of compulsory education reflected a changing economic landscape and a growing middle class.

So we are not talking about any old learning - we are talking about learning for operating in a specific environment.

General education emphasised teaching or instruction, of distribution of knowledge.

Physical education and team sport emphasised the importance of moulding a fighting force.

Moral education emphasised a religious agenda.

We would need to differentiate how education was conducted for different classes, different regions.

In the 1850's the children of Manchester cotton spinners would have had little real use for learning the classics, its central place on the syllabus expressed more about aspirations to become part of a culturally recognisable elite.

"'Upper middle-classness' came to be more a matter of educational standards and social manners than of family connections...The comradeship of the 'old-school' tie." (Weinberg, 1967)

A quote from 1904 illustrates this:

"The actual education of the boy, the development of his brain power, of his mental faculties, is the last thing the parent has in mind. The training of the boy's character is what he is looking to."

Sporting prowess was for many years seen as much more important in many elite schools than nerdy academic studies. Education here was about learning to be a 'gentleman'.

Basic general education was of use to all in an industrialising economy:

the ability to read, the ability to count, the ability to follow instructions or give instructions.

I would imagine that the most important of all of these would be 'following instructions'.

Rote learning, or memorisation enabled the individual not just to mug up facts, and equations but enabled him to become one of a body of men.

What constitutes learning has been diversified according to the needs of elites.

The education offered in a British elite public school (private school) would bear little ressemblance to what was offered in a school for training kids to be a mechanic.

If we consider Dave's definition of learning 'that mysterious thing that all living things seems to do in adapting to their environment,' education therefore would be more about creating an environment in which kids were to adapt.

We learn to operate in a social environment.

For anyone wanting to teach everybody a foreign language, like Dave's Johann wanting to teach all the Swiss to read, it is very difficult to implant new languages or practices which seem alien to the 'learners.'

Indeed, learning which was social/economically inappropriate may have been/be/would be of little use to the individual however engaged the learner might be...

I ask myself the question of 'knowledge' and the colonisation of folk 'knowledge' by an academic elite...

If an Amazonian tribe have the means to cure certain illnesses with plants, the value of this 'knowledge' requires a sponsor to exploit it in an academic journal, which of course the Amazonian tribe does not have. The same goes for folk tales or music exploited by 'composers' (remixers) and 'authors' who were able to distribute 'their' works to a wealthy audience.

The Film Educating Rita illustrates (amongst other things) the conflict experienced by the individual who finds themselves not in their place.


Elite education or general education in the nineteenth century might be contrasted with non-conformist, cooperative or Quaker movements which encouraged learning and reflection as part of their mission.

Evening classes for the workers, were alternative means for individuals to learn skills which might enable them to progress upwardly socially. With industrialisation came a more diverse range of possibilities.

Education viewed from this perspective was less about teaching and more about learning. Here were upwardly mobile competing groups for new opportunities.


The 'problem(s) of education in 2015'

When I hear 'it is generally accepted that we need to be raising a generation of life-long learners', I fear that what we may be saying is that we need to have a generation who will have to accept geographic mobility, instability, constant retraining, for ever diminishing returns.

If globalisation and a digital economy in 'developed countries' entails more outsourcing of production, centralisation of control, massive concentration of capital, reduction of public services, reduction of value of professions, then what will be the value of 'life-long' learning?

One major advantage for some of 'life-long learning' might be 'life-long testing'...

If we are talking about the most economical way of testing - then surely we are talking about standardised testing?

'Caring about learning' can be seen as caring because I love doing something or caring because I need to do something to make a living.

People are more likely to care about 'learning' or anything else if it enables them to achieve what for them are primary objectives (generally, initially at least, financial).

A major challenge for reforming educators is to show that education is no longer simply about preparing people to be fit for jobs or social classes but is also about creating new activities and new sources of wealth or well-being.

Or maybe we need to see it more  from a non-conformist, Illichesque learning web perspective?

Dave asks how do we 'teach learning'?

Well I have the impression that we are beginning to see small steps in that direction.  I hear now of courses in 'creativity', in multiple digital literacies...

I am not sure that I go along with the 'inevitability' of bureaucratisation of 'new means of enabling learning', of education?..

It seems to me again, that we are in the realms here, of non-conformist, reading groups outside of existing elites which grow up from the base...(still problems of finance...?)

I have a feeling that the rhizome is model for competing knowledge creation communities.

I suspect that it might enable us to better understand the complexity of the mish-mash of discourses which are underpinning apparently fixed systems.

I am far from sure that you can or that should attempt to 'roll out rhizomatic education' anymore than you can or should attempt to roll out non-conformism...

I am fairly sure that rolling out 'uncertainty of knowing' rather than 'knowledge' is a hard sell...(unless you can show positive after-effects).

I am fairly convinced that the rhizomatic learning that I experienced with 'rhizo14' revealed the same powerful discourses which underpin higher education: research agendas, academic discourses, senior life-long learners...so there were intertwining and competing communities...

I think 'rhizomatic learning' is NOT how I think of education, it might be a model for the complexity of society, it might be a model of knowledge development.

One might replace 'school' with 'internet' and remix Illich:

the internet 'is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.'

If this is the case, is the society we are being sold one in which life-long learning is rather like life-long pornography or life-long football, about amusing ourselves to death (Postman)?

Is the problem today of education, spending our time asking ourselves what the problem of education is?

Are we learning to ask ever more unanswerable, unGoogleable questions, while trapped into seeing simple exploitation as complex?

Are we forever publicly challenging intellectually a system but never actually doing anything to change it?

Ultimately with the complexity of the systems in which we are entangled, perhaps the only sensible response possible is to stop caring...(too much)?













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