renewing the politics of education

how nations have failed education, how cities can liberate it, and how shock will set the agenda

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Bill Law
7 August 2014

Bill Law
the career-learning café

This blog gets it start from a detailed account of change, politics & education.  It's a long account because there's a lot going on - the account speaks for people establishing movements, posing questions and taking stands.  It finds a lot of ways to value learning.

This argument looks to a future where, world-wide, cities are taking on education reform - and its shock that proves to be the driver.  It examines...

  •     politicos - what are politicians trying to do and why?
  •     motives - are we entirely fair to politicians?
  •     tests - how do we know what is fact, pretense, or authentic?
  •     perspectives - in such complexity can we find a political focus?
  •     narratives - what are the stories and what is their meaning?
  •     shocks - why would educators sieze on what is shocking?
  •     cities - what cities have that nations lack and reform needs?

This is for educators looking for how reactionary shock-jocks don't have all the good moves.

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politicos

A globally influential account of how politics works, and fail to work, is set out by Brazilian politician and philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger.  He argues that the failure of politics, is a failure to 'provoke the imagining and realisation of new possibilities'.  He rejects obstruction by political small-mindedness, looking for immediate answers to run-of-the-mill questions. 

This is strong stuff: reform, he says, is what we do about shock.  We need politicians vigorous enough to live dangerously.  And that means their stepping far enough back from the routine to be able see around conventionally shallow-and-narrow thinking.  This sounds to me like a conversation for students and their educators to get involved in.

Because the fusion of political experience and philosophical challenge explains a world-wide rejection of politicians.  They are increasingly held in contempt.  The surveys vary only on the strength of that disillusionment. 

But the reality is complicated.  It’s true, there are politicos who are merely angling for next-election success.  But I’d be surprised if you’ve not found any trying to get something worthwhile done.  Politicos are not all the same.  You may even be able to think of some who come across most immediately as razzle-dazzle-‘em performers.

So should we be reframing politicos in at least three groups? - there are politicians, there are policy makers and there are performers.  Students and their educators would need to tell when they are dealing with...

  1. ...        electioneering?
  2. ...        policy making?
  3. ...        show-biz?

You may well know about 4, 5 and 6 political doings.  But you get the point - despite rumours to the contrary, politicians are not all alike.

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motives

So can that mean that educators, like the disillusioned, dump politics?   Maybe, but not before we've take on-board more of what we would be turning our backs on. 

The more complicated reality is that no politico is so narrow-and-shallow never to be able to rise above mere electioneering.  Unless you know one.  Politicos have it in themselves at times to be electioneers, at times reformers and at times performers.  Their politics move back-and-forth across a spectrum and over time - she did that then, he's doing this now, but does that have to mean that we can't count on them ever to do better? 

It puts political action in varying episodes rather than categories on a list.  It would be a mistake to categorise them in a type-by-type analysis.  They are actually characters in episode-by-episode narratives.  Though, let's face it, some don’t vary that much.

A serious policy-maker, of any political colour, can shelve electioneering in the interests of doing something worthwhile.  Some of these are working on education.  It is good when educators and their students are in a position to converse with them.  They deserve to be heeded, they also need to be questioned.

That conversation needs a congenial space, not overlooked by political and lobbying interests.  Claims are made for the big society.  This is false - it is small government reducing expenditure by unloading onto volunteers.  Education's congenial home is in civil society - a locally-supported mutuality, free of political and commercial control.  It makes curriculum community property, not a happy hunting ground.  

The story moves on.  Some UK politicians are learning to manoeuver mutuality into privatisation.  While a new breed of shareholder is bravely positioning itself to protect civil rights.  There's no shortage of what to hear, to probe and to narrate.  The challenge for educators and their students is find the questions that test for what to heed.

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tests

Politicians are displaying an interest in raising working-class aspirations.  It's in day-by-day press-releases.  What progressive educator could be against that?  But, before the cheering starts, we might ask what that politics means.  Asking 'who?' and 'why?' often suggests meaning.

We're talking about an economy where growth does not mean more jobs.  And that can mean that a gain for a bright working-class family means a loss for a less-bright middle-class family.  So here are the questions: who would want the brightest to be made ready for work? - and why would they want that?  The 'who?' could be business, rather than a middle-class electorate.  The 'why?' could be for economic, rather than egalitarian value.  The meaning could be curriculum capture, rather than community property.  Which would make the aspirational press-releases a handy bit of news management.

Well, it's possible - though you'd have to stand back a bit to see it.  If I've stood back too far it will come out when the politicians are found to be rooting for a person's aspirations to be a good out-of-work dad?  I'm in more trouble when policy accepts that aspirations can include quitting work to put an end to stress.  And I will have fatally failed when politics accepts aspirations to oppose the economic growth that damages the planet, ruins neighbourhoods and humiliates the work force. 

A politician can win approval by promising ‘justice available to all’.  And there are some politicians who have earned that applause.  But there are more than enough conflicting interests in politics to allow the suspicion that ‘justice’ doesn’t always mean what you think it means.  Neither does ‘available‘.  Nor does ‘to all’.

Aspiration is about chances in life - in the economy yes, but also protecting the family, nurturing the neighbourhood, supporting colleagues and respecting the planet.  Some politicians live dangerously by acknowledging all of this, but some put on a performance to disguise other priorities. 

Politics is not show business and its consequences are not a lot of laughs, not in Sunderland, anyway.  So, if anything can bring credible hope to Alice in Sunderland, it will be interrogated policy - ‘heeding whose voices?’ - ‘recognised by what stakeholders?’ and ‘acting in whose interests?’.

Was there ever a time when such an interrogation of politics raised more of an issue for what students learn and how educators help them?   

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perspectives

The contradicting, overlapping and unresolved perspectives in the political discourse might be called 'argy-bargy'. The term 'complexity' does it less than justice.  Some punters take cover under a claim that they have found a resolution which is 'as simple as that'.  But it never is.  I think we may need the term 'argy-bargy' as a piece of sociological jargon.  I've heard worse.  

Contrary to the assertions of narrow-and-shallow politics, there are rarely simple solutions to complex problems - have you looked under the bonnet of your car lately?  The twenty-first century needs better than the simple-minded politics of something-must-be-done.  It's the equivalent of hitting the engine with a hammer - which, once-upon-a-time, occasionally worked.  The political version is 'say anything'.  Its press release concludes with vacuous variations on '...and this is why the government is doing what we just said we would be doing'. 

On-line life further complicates the complicated.  It makes social-networking politicos much more visible - but not always more accessible. 

So how do citizens know what to heed as reliable fact, what to ignore as electioneering pretense, and what to respect as authentic perspective?

Prospect Magazine publication, Poverty in the UK, makes a start on mapping what all this is doing for aspiration.  I don’t know how seventy pages could have packed in more argy-bargy.  They reveal how what is supported by one constituency is opposed by another.  They find no bases for disentangling the complexity.  They reveal no clearly agreed action.  In argy-bargy-land all the targets are moving targets.

A significant feature of contemporary policy is speed of change.  And things changed before Prospect’s ink was dry.  It’s out-of-date on bishops and popes; and on what people do in the name of religion.  Neither has it caught up with the economics of debt, or on-line predators, or economic myths.  And, perhaps because Roberto Mangabeira Unger has not yet come into view it’s well behind the curve on the philosophy of recognising a fact, uncovering a pretense, and respecting the authentic.

Education needs to deal with such complexity because the curriculum is not government’s property, nor shareholders’, nor educators’ nor even students’.  It is managed by stakeholders on behalf of communities.  And it must be returned to its owners.

And, so, ideas like those in the Prospect publication will always be longer on opinion than on evidence.  Nonetheless, It is enough, for now, that it bumps into most of the perspectives that Alice-in-Sunderland needs to probe, when she's navigating her journey through that changing complexity. 

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narratives

A journey is a narrative.  Narratives assemble facts, pretensions and perspectives into sequences.  They speak of one thing leading to another.  And so a sequence has opening scenes, leading to turning points and towards closures.  Narrative is our species' most-used way of making sense of experience. 

Career narratives are populated by acquaintances, are set in locations and express interpersonal exchanges.  But there are also meta-narratives - backstories with enough breadth to speak of national participation, in global settings, and telling of long-term causes and consequences.  Meta-narratives stand back.

Few better understand the learning usefulness of narrative than educators.  I'd urge every education outfit to work on its meta-narrative.  The sequence tells all.  Here's one...

an education meta-narrative

  • unfettered growth driven by accelerating technology damages lives in ways ranging from the personal to the planetary
  • while on-line off-shoots of these technologies strengthen global commerce and weaken national governments
  • but it's true that commerce and its technologies can both help and hinder access to opportunity and the personal fulfillment it offers
  • while on-line and social life can persuade people that they are free of control and living according to how they make sense of things
  • but these attitudes work out differently in different backgrounds enough to make neighbours strangers to each other
  • so group and family allegiances fragment society meaning that what is favourable to some is unfavourable to others
  • and that shapes aspiration differently in different settings so that what is welcomed by some is rejected by others
  • but nothing is inevitable because all of this comes with people's consent and withdrawn consent changes everything

A meta-narrative does for an organisation what a narrative does for a student - it sets out a reason to be.  I'd say it's of more practical use to an education outfit than a mission statement, a vision, or a list of targets.

So where do students figure in meta-analyses.  A meta-analysis is not Alice's story, it's everybody's story.  But it speaks of where she will make her sense of how things are.  And she will do that by assembling the story of her part in it.  What the meta-analysis is finding in her Sunderland is as much Alice's business as it is anybody's.

So Alice and her educators need to hear from each other on this.  All education outfits have enough people and material to help her figure how her story and all the stories belong to each other.  It's where she makes her claim on her membership of that society.  It may even enable some families to take an interest in other people's children.  Would that count as an aspiration?

There's no disguising the complexity, contradiction and confusion in all of this - the term 'chaos' crops up.  But the term is of no use to a sense-making processes embedded in shared and personal narratives.  Indeed, seemingly chaotic complexity, contradiction and confusion are the stuff of that process - there is no useful learning that has not worked its way through the discomfort of that kind of questioning.  Enabling such critical thinking is what education is for - enabling Alice in her society to deal with what's going on, and not to be dealt with by it.

A narrow-and-shallow search for simplicity ducks all this.  It is also ducks surprise.  And it is surprise that brings Alice to her turning points.  All that is creative, reforming and progressive in learning comes from welcoming surprise. 

Then there is shock, which is more than surprise.  And, according to Roberto Mangabeira Unger, no surprise provokes more that is creative, reforming and progressive than shock.

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shock

I suppose there are professionals so committed to public service-education that they believe they can count on government support - if not now, some time and indefinitely.  Defenders of careers work are among the believers in strong argument bringing government riding to their rescue.  But hope that a neo-liberal government will forever defend public-services is turning out to be the latest scene in a sad saga of professionals being stood up by politicians.  It must come as a shock.

All the more shocking because there is, world wide, no shortage of evidence on public service education (p.16) making the professionals' case.  Public-service education helps to maintain social stability.  The more open and responsive its institutions the greater their value to society.  The imposition of ready-made ideas for structure, curriculum and method narrows perspectives and causes able people reluctantly to give up on public services.

There are profits to be made from what most people think of as public services.  And, world-wide, national governments are not resisting privatising interests moving in on public-service institutions.  The career-coaching industry is taking over from public-service careers work.  In the UK education front-benchers are openly urging infusing fee-paying practices into public-service education.  And compliant educators are taking the bait. 

It's not always clear whether a government can't resist global economic pressures, or whether it just won't.  Either way we are entitled to wonder whether the curriculum, which is community property, is safe in any government's hands. 

Is this shocking enough to provoke ‘the imagination of new possibilities'?  And what possibilities could there be for finding more reliable support?  The Royal Society of Arts has a long-standing interest in education reform.  And it is now coming up with seriously radical proposals.  They are that city governments are better placed than national governments to offer reliable support to education.  Is it possible that Sunderland can do more than Westminster for Alice on her journey?

She may see the point.  National governments are too big to really understand local damage, and too small to resist global trends.  Would educators ever agree that a city can be more alert to that reality, and more agile in that response?

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cities

The RSA is looking for what it calls The Power of Cities (journal #3).  Its argument starts from the fact that around half the world’s population lives in metropolitan areas.  The numbers are increasing – Alice’s Sunderland is among them.

In cities people learn to live with other people - all kinds of other people.  City dwellers are visible to each other - less likely to be strangers.  Cities each have their own account of how things are changing.  People can grasp what’s going on well enough to suggest realistic responses.  And a city can readily canvass more than one way of responding to those voices.  All of this is why RSA-chief Matthew Taylor (p.5) recognises cities as a promising new setting for reforming education.

It's not flaky thinking.  Political scientists (pp.20ff) find four kinds of gain.  Cities have (1) a wide-enough range of sources to draw on, (2) a great-enough range of ideas to engage with, (3) a willingness to let go of what no longer works, and (4) an ability to make sense of what is up-close but fragmented experience.  Cities thrive on each their own version of these complexities, potentialities, priorities, and sense-making.  The evidence on reform (pp. 21-25) includes accounts of how, in cities, centralised uniformity is replaced by creative and reforming progression.

This is bigger than local government.  Every city has a hinterland of neighbourhoods, suburbs, outlying villages and settlements.  As populations migrate towards cities few out-lying locations are left out of urban reach.  Most cities can reach out by encouraging networks of local and scattered stakeholder groups.  And each outlying group can identify needs and propose action calling for city support.

The independence of cities can be sustained by their freedom to look outside of central government for funding.  Economists (pp.10ff) have tracked city use of alternative funding from charitable agencies, which make grants with no arbitrary strings attached.  Some business-world voices (pp.32ff) welcome this trend as independent of commerce and state, and fostering change which is both owned by communities and developed on a human scale.  This is civil society.

The RSA reports positive results.  Cities move quickly into locally-relevant crime-control measures, transport-management and health-and-safety programmes.  They develop rapid responses on climate change.  They are well placed to undermine international trafficking of both people and of drugs.  And short lines of communication get timely responses. 

If any policy sphere needed this kind of grasp and flexibility it is policy for education.  Metropolitan smarts hold out hope of replacing national politicking and outflanking global power.  But Matthew Taylor advises patience. 

He's right - this is a long-term trend and vulnerable to capture by market players.  There are city governments already in the hands of commercial interests.  But there are also cities whose best hope is to take control of their own future

The RSA’s proposals succeed if they liberate education reform from both global and central control.  And that would require the consent and support of educators - well, maybe all educators is too much to hope for, but the consent and support of enough educators.  You?  You'd need to be shocked enough?

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Before you make your move understand that I am not impartial about this.  Is anybody?  Better to declare the favouring of critical enlightenment above arbitrary power.  That may not be impartial but neither is it arbitrary.  It opposes regimes - the world over - which control populations with ill-founded and misleading beliefs, driving disapproving wedges between the accepted and the excluded, using the resulting conflicts as opportunities for take-over, putting the biosphere at risk, and demanding that their posturing is transmitted as education - while dismissing the rest as irrelevant or foolish.

And there are no clearly identifiable opposing protagonists and antagonists here.  What we are facing is a criss-cross of causes and effects driven by conflicting interests and shifting alliances. 

And it is not to say that, in the midst of all this, an enlightenment-driven politics has made no mistakes or committed no transgressions.  But it is to say that there is hope in learning from both.  You find out most about how your car works when it breaks down.

The issue is imperative, because the criss-cross of global change is not cyclic.  There's will be no recovery to restore a temporariiy lost normality.  What we are facing has been characterised as crises without end - because it's hard to see how they will be resolved.  

Educators must be involved because the crisis is anti-educational.  So what are they dealing with?...

  • politicos - what are politicians trying to do and why? - educators need to find the other-than-self-interested 
  • motives - are people entirely fair to politicians? - they need to scan political narrative for episodes revealing authentic voices
  • tests - how do we know what is fact, pretense, or authentic? - educators can find talk of raising aspirations a particularly telling test of authenticity
  • perspectives - in such complexity can we find a political focus? - people see curriculum as community property not government's or commerce's
  • narrative - what are the stories and what is there meaning? - educators can develop their localities' backstories so that their students can extend them
  • shocks - why would educators sieze on what is shocking? - they can join students in moving from shock to the imagination of new possibilities
  • cities - what do cities have that nations lack and education reform needs? - educators work with cities on complex, potential, prioritised sense-making

That reform can be implemented with or without government support.  And the nations' different histories of monarchy have shaped different attitudes to centralisation.  Some can see central government as protector.  The Anglo-American history of monarchy has deeply embedded distrust of government.

The question underlying all talk of aspiration and equaiity is 'who gets to do what in this society?'.  I find it hard to think a more important question for social policy.  And there is no outfit better placed to take it on than an educator's.  But the call for reforming research-and-development on education calls for more than educators' abilities, it needs their time and their courage. 

This is not to dwell on a failed past, or to take comfort in a plausible present, it is to take on a future struggle.  Because nothing is inevitable - not for governments and cities nor for reactionaries and progressives.  And also because, in all political systems, the withdrawal of consent changes everything.

But what part can Alice in Sunderland have in that movement, if her educators take no part at all?

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