Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Ctrl Shift Esc (From Performance to Networking)

In the first instalment of this series, I used Aristotle's Politics to show that to ask after the purpose of education is a linguistic trick that delivers schools into the hands of ideologues, with two chief consequences: the deprofessionalisation of teachers, and narrow conceptions of education that reflect their political agendas. In the second instalment, I used Aristotle's Rhetoric to explore what education is, rather than what it is for, offering as its three key features the personalisation, socialisation and qualification of citizens. In this final instalment, I return to the concept of purpose in education to show that none can truly be said to exist without the free agency of teachers and students.

Let us entertain a thought. though we do not accept it. Let us hold for a moment that education indeed has a purpose. We must ask ourselves for whom it has this purpose. If education is the process by which we become and are always becoming citizens, it stands to reason that my education serves a purpose primarily for me, and yours for you. Society benefits from my education and yours, but that is not its purpose. If it were, then my education could easily become the means by which my freedom might be limited or my development stifled. Assuming even the most benevolent of governments, still I would be deprived of the responsibility for my education if its purpose was to benefit society first, and me second.

Whether to serve ideological aims (ethos), rational socio-economic goals (logos), or utopian ideals (pathos), if decisions about my education are made for me in absentia, without my explicit personal involvement, then regardless of how well designed it is, it will remain by definition an incomplete education. I must be more than just an economic unit, more than simply a law-abiding citizen, more than a mere emotionally intelligent being. I must understand myself as all three, and I must choose to be these things. I must see the value in these things for myself.

So, if education has a purpose, it is to help the individual to achieve her own aims. It follows that any programme of education, be it a school or professional development curriculum, must at the earliest opportunity offer students chances to consider their own aims, so that they may begin to take responsibility for their education, every aspect of it. I am reminded of the fox in The Little Prince, who explains to the prince that "one only understands the things one tames". Whether it be knowledge, emotions or beliefs, to understand them, one must "establish ties" with them.

We have at present in schools a model that asks neither of students nor of teachers what their aims are, or does so seldom, patchily, and only within strictly defined parameters. Over-reliance on summative assessments and performance-related pay only exacerbate a disempowering culture.

As a result:
  • Students too often have little sense of what the value of their education is, other than in terms of a delayed gratification in the form of future prosperity. Their formal schooling is focused on extrapersonal knowledge, and targeted at extrapersonal incentives. 
  • Teachers too often have little sense of what the value of their professional development is, other than the approval of line managers and external inspectors.  Their professional life is focused on measurable progress data and targeted at their pay cheques. 
Aristotle shows us that this logocentrism is not wrong of itself, but wrong by virtue of being based on an incomplete picture of the citizen. It is evident that what this model is missing is a meaningful (ethos) and personal (pathos) engagement with its aims and objectives. It is equally evident that its consequence is to isolate teachers and students alike from each other and from their own aspirations.

This is not a romantic plea from the heart or for the heart of education. I have no urge to repeat the pathetic fallacy of a similarly incomplete view of education, founded on pathos alone. Nor is it an appeal for education to serve the needs of society and its ill-defined set of shared values, its ethos.

It is, in fact, not a plea at all, but a pragmatic approach to education in a modern democracy. For democracy to be sustained it must continually be chosen anew by its citizens. Democracy may be jettisoned, but I for one would prefer to see that done consciously rather than through lack of care. For all citizens to partake fully of this choice and all the other choices that affect their lives, their education must be whole, and must be protected from the pendulum swing of political priorities (from knowledge, to skills, to well-being and back to knowledge, as if any of these can mean anything at all if not in balance with the other two).

It is as close to a philosophical proof as you will find in a democracy-loving teacher's blog: Democracy requires that we empower teachers to empower students as citizens.

I hope to have convinced you that education can only have purpose for each of us alone, and must never have its purpose delimited in advance by another. And I hope to have opened a dialogue on mastery by it too, for it is my (albeit nascent) contention here that there are three distinct but interdependent domains of mastery: knowledge mastery, social mastery, and self mastery. Finally, what I hope to have presented across these three pieces is a robust defence of education as the making of the citizen, and that it is fundamental to it that teachers and students be the drivers of their own learning, not monitored and admonished from above but supported and encouraged in peer networks; so that, in short, each of us may be able to tame our own learning.

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