Friday, 16 November 2007

Mark Taylor on the Battle of Ideas 2007 education debates

There were a number of specific education-related debates at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival. The most prominent on Saturday included the opening keynote ‘What is education for?’ and ‘Academic freedom under threat’ as well as ‘All tested out: what’s the point of exams?’ On Sunday, attention shifted to ‘Debating Darwin: should evolution be taught as the only truth?’ and ‘Moralising the curriculum: the battle for children’s minds.’ A number of other debates also included educational themes, such as ‘Toxic childhood’, ‘Teach the world to sing’, ‘Child protection: has adult paranoia gone too far?’ and ‘School sport: selling kids short?’ Inevitably, what follows is only a snapshot of the weekend, as there was (refreshingly) too much choice for anyone interested in these themes, particularly teachers like myself who are drip-fed an intellectually impoverished diet of ‘Continuing Professional Development’ – or constant patronising drivel.

More surprising was how superficially non-education related debates ended up talking about educational issues. This included sessions on ‘The politics of well-being: do we all need therapy?’ and ‘The new heresies’. This unexpected shift possibly validates the idea of education as a ‘pre-political’ intellectual area, and cautions us not to conflate education and politics, although they can appear to be the same thing in times – like ours - of confused political authority.

What pleased me most about the debates I attended was the intellectual movement across the two days as presenters and attendees talked through key themes and ideas. There was a definite sense of collectively working through and questioning of key themes – some of which we had only scratched the surface on at previous Education Forums. Although there were few definite conclusions, the Battle of Ideas really crystallised the long-term work of the Education forum and in many cases enabled us to enter the debates at a high-level of both clarity and rigour right from the start. For example, in the first session on ‘What is education for?’ David Willetts usefully introduced education as the transmission of a fixed body of knowledge between the generations. A few months ago, that might have been a satisfactory starting point (and even finishing-point) for those concerned to defend subject knowledge against attacks from various sources. However, the debate has moved on as the speech from Keith Bartley of the GTC proved. Keith framed his response – following his recent call for ‘active registration’ by teachers in the GTC - as aligning well with David Willetts through a balanced defence of subjects and self-directed learning in the context of the achievements of ‘Every child matters’. However, Frank Furedi pointed out that the education debate at present reflects a wider lack of meaning and purpose because it has lost a sense of foundational authority. Furedi was raising the issue of the wider collapse of educational culture and general expectations of what it means to be an educated human being. Following questions from the floor relating to the tendency to either lower intellectual aspirations or shift educational aims to the understanding of the self rather than the study of the world, it became clear that there was more of a difference between the speakers than was evident in the initial introductions. Willetts response was more of a restatement of his initial position, while Bartley pointed out that there was a big attempt to ‘challenge and engage’ children to a high-level. Furedi – seeking a way out from the two positions - attempted to re-present education as a creatively open-ended bridge between past and present. However, in asking the question what is education ‘for’, perhaps this debate did shift the focus too much towards rhetorical conjectures rather than intellectual assertions, leaving Bartley to think he had answered his critics. I would say that he had not, as later debates proved.

The session ‘All Tested Out’ addressed the crucial question of how we judge the knowledge of another human being – at a time of an increasingly artificial official ‘debate’ about examinations (as I pointed out in my Battle in Print written for this session) and diplomas. Tony Neal of the GTC put the case for exams as useful but stressful and contrary to the happiness and well-being of students. This was developed by Eric Macfarlane, who pointed out that exams often mistake limited educational objectives for the whole process of education. He noted that multiple intelligences are not examined in the current system, leaving the skills of many students unassessed. Macfarlane interestingly added that while head of a sixth-form college he had pioneered the introduction of unexamined courses, without affecting A-level results adversely. Shirley Lawes countered that we need to be careful not to focus too much on how we examine at the expense of what we examine, particularly through the current drive to focus on ‘Assessment for Learning’. She warned that much of the stress perceived in the current system was more of an expression of adult’s lack of confidence in education than the expression of genuine childhood worries. The implication, to recall the earlier remarks of Keith Bartley in the morning, was that ‘challenging and engaging’ should depend more on the internal logic of subject disciplines than the ‘needs’ of the children to ‘enjoy and achieve’. The audience discussion split between those in favour of exams and those concerned that children are over-examined, although many of those voicing the latter view were themselves children getting ready for examinations, indicating the level of interest this debate had generated. Time ran out as Dennis Hayes, convenor of the Education Forum, made the point that examinations are for subjects, whereas assessments are for skills - and observed that the latter are beginning to dominate the former, thus diminishing and confusing the character of education. The audience, wanting more, were left to take the issues away with them to the Royal College of Music for the beginning of the evening.

Sunday began with ‘Debating Darwin’, where the confusion at the heart of modern education was stripped bare in a brief discussion of the theory of evolution and whether it should be taught as the only truth alongside creationism. Steve Fuller entertainingly appeared to call for some sort of ‘teaching the controversy’ as part of scientific literacy. Simon Conway Morris argued for evolution as far superior to intelligent design, without confronting the teaching process. Physics teacher Dave Perks meanwhile stuck doggedly to the need for scientific principles to be taught through the distinct disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology – without formalising the ‘controversy’ in the science curriculum. For a non-expert like myself, the three speakers seemed to encapsulate the confusions of the current debate well. Steve Fuller was like the government, over-actively confusing everyone through the introduction of ‘21st Century Science’; Simon Conway Morris was the voice of pure science, wanting to be left alone to get on with it, but equally aware of pressure to present a ‘public face’; Dave Perks expressed the frustrations of schoolteachers wanting to teach their subject so that the next generation can become physicists, chemists and biologists like Conway Morris – if only they can be allowed to do so.

Later in the afternoon came the session ‘Moralising the curriculum’, designed to consider whether the government was turning every current social preoccupation – obesity, health, work, personal finance, happiness - into a school subject. Robert Whelan, editor of the recent publication Corruption of the Curriculum, stated that the academic integrity of the current curriculum was indeed being drained by the new approaches. This point was confirmed by Alex Standish, who noted the influence of concerns such as ‘global warming’ on the Geography Curriculum – as opposed to the traditional spatial knowledge supposedly at the heart of the subject. Sean Lang, meanwhile, observed that the subject of History should be allowed to deal with the issues raised in new ‘subjects’ such as Citizenship. He added that he had started a petition to argue the case for History to be compulsory to age 16. However, the well-informed Chair Kevin Rooney (who also wrote a Battle in Print) did challenge Lang on whether he had himself contributed to the current problems through previously advocating the introduction of citizenship. This debate really developed well, particularly through impressive audience contributions. One contributor pointed out that, contrary to the speaker’s views, the new national curriculum is actually less prescriptive and allows teachers freedom to make their own judgement on what to teach, especially for those children who are not going to be academic. So, for him, complaints of a moralisation of the curriculum were exaggerated – although he possibly forgot that teachers should be wary of diagnostically deciding who is going to be academic or not. Other contributors pointed to the inevitable relativisation of knowledge entailed in the constant pressures to incorporate more and more unacademic opinion in previously academic curricula. This confusion was well expressed by the young contributor who asked, ‘So am I intellectually ignorant just because I don’t know where places are on the world map?’ For me, he is indeed inferior, as we all are, if we allow ourselves to substitute political opinion for the intellectual core that should be at the heart of the academic curriculum. And I think this returns us to previous points made on Saturday about what education is for. Furthermore, as was articulated from the floor, we ought also to be constantly dissatisfied with our existing level of knowledge – in the sense of Socrates - and seek to improve it and better ourselves.

My final comment on this developing debate was that it usefully and unpredictably revealed – in the best sense of the Battle of Ideas – that something more distinctive is going on than the initial session title revealed. What we are really witnessing is not the ‘moralisation’ but the amoralisation of the curriculum, as the relentless introduction of new initiatives in fact ends up undermining all values and principles, including that of education itself?

The debate will continue at the next Battle of Ideas, 1st and 2nd November, 2008!