Thinking of the blob

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A large proportion of the education profession are resisting, as never before, the Government’s leadership of education policy. In defence, they are attacked as ‘the blob’. In this, Gove and his defenders are not tackling the key issues for teachers – workload, inspections, the pace of reform, forced academisation, funding diverted to free schools and a lack of democracy. Instead they are entrenching a debate about educational philosophy, a tack that makes it easier to score points and be seen as ‘interesting’. For example, Toby Young in his recent anti-blob pamphlet for Civitas:

“What’s remarkable about the educational establishment…is the fact that nearly everyone in it shares the same progressive educational philosophy. They all believe that skills like ‘problem solving’ and ‘critical thinking’ are more important than subject knowledge; that education should be ‘child-centred’ rather than ‘didactic’ or ‘teacher-led’; that ‘group work’ and ‘independent learning’ are superior to ‘direct instruction’; that the way to make children interested in a subject is to make it ‘relevant’; that ‘rote-learning’ and ‘regurgitating facts’ is bad, along with discipline, hierarchy, routine and anything else that involves treating the teacher as authority figure’.” 

This would be described as a strawman argument if it were to argue against a definable position. This phantasmic construction of the blob conflates elements that are incontrovertible with elements that are not true about most educators (or at least not true about the reality of schools). It is incontrovertible that education of children should be child-centred (schools are all about children) and that children will be interested in a subject if they can see its relevance. It is not true that most educators are against direct instruction, discipline and the teacher as an authority figure. They could not do their job in mainstream schools and large classrooms without reliance on these. If many do express concerns about excessive didacticism it is because they are often pressured by school management and a test-obsessed regime to work against the intrinsic motivations of their students.

He goes on to say that “after three decades of research, cognitive scientists have concluded that abilities like critical thinking and problem-solving cannot be taught to children as abstract, stand-alone ‘skills’ “. Teachers already know that. The fact is that even in the cases where critical thinking is taught as a distinct subject (not many universities accept it as an A level for admission so it’s quite rare) it is still contextualised by what students are learning. And anyway, maybe the reason scientists find problems with the teaching of critical thinking in isolation is that it is being taught in a way that is too teacher-led, not allowing students to connect it enough with their own experiences.

This piece in the TES by Daisy Christodolou draws out Young’s point. She gives examples from her own classroom experience to explain why thinking skills are best developed within domain-specific knowledge. What she says seems sensible, partly because it’s obvious, but it’s not well thought through. Only giving examples from her own teaching weakens her argument. If she doesn’t agree with teaching thinking, why lead a debating activity? And why, to research her article, does she not arrange to observe some highly rated teaching of Critical Thinking and give a more considered view? She describes how her students are fluent in arguing about topics they understand, but clam up when broaching topics that are less familiar. But why should any teacher expect them to immediately transfer their analytical and rhetorical skills to a topic about which they have no opinion or experience? This doesn’t demonstrate that thinking skills can’t be transferred. A good teacher would support them to do an adequate amount of research, to tap and evaluate the knowledge of others, before advocating a view. The great value of activities like campaigning, debating or community problem-solving is that students can investigate domains other than ones they are studying in depth. They may often research topics that are emerging and contemporary, feeling relevant to their future careers or their social world. A meaningful challenge helps students research with pace, focus and personal motivation. The good teacher would guide them to research in a way that extends from and builds on their existing knowledge and interests.

But then, Christodolou and Young are dismissive of the value of using the web (despite it being a rich source of books, academic articles, documentary films, global experts and deep data – and much more) to do research. Young makes a hard distinction between web research and ‘committing facts to your long term memory’.

Looking back at what I’ve written I see I’m helpless against accusations of being part of the blob. I think it’s good for students to do research. I think they learn best when they’re actually interested. But it is very hard not to be progressive in contrast to Toby Young. The first education theorist he names and praises is Pestalozzi, who wrote 200 years ago about the wonders of teaching children by rote.

Young and Christodolou insist that thinking skills cannot be abstracted from domain knowledge. But doesn’t this assume there are ideal platonic boundaries that create distinctive patterns of thought for each subject? This may have some truth between the most kinaesthetic and the most conceptual areas of learning, but most subjects have a great deal of overlap. If students do struggle to connect their learning across subjects, perhaps that is because the curriculum is not interdisciplinary enough. A more connected curriculum would offer three things: More teaching of fundamental questions and concepts (for example, how humans evolved, how they have interacted with ecosystems, what is a good life?); more opportunities to solve problems in real contexts; more encouragement by teachers to see commonalities and transfer learning across subjects. All of these require teacher leadership while at the same time according agency to the learner.

So, on the one hand, I do agree that thinking skills aren’t well taught in isolation – with the proviso that nothing can be taught well in isolation. On the other hand, I do believe that there are core concepts and capacities around Critical Thinking that can be usefully isolated and are transferable across disciplines – such as identifying logical fallacies, ethics, empathetic communication, manipulating data. Good teaching (and good arguing) works by a combination of isolating complex concepts or skills by reduction, metaphor or generalisation and allowing students to apply them in practice or see them in messy context.

The overly polarised argument between discipline-based knowledge and generic thinking skills disregards the importance of praxis and situated learning. You can’t teach problem-solving at all without application to a real or real-seeming situated problem. Not all situated problems fit within an academic discipline. Most situations cross and transcend several subjects. In fact, neither Young nor Christodolou use an academic discipline to make their point. Christodolou talks about the hours of practice needed to become good at chess. Young uses the domain of filmmaking to underpin his view, saying that Spielberg didn’t come to think critically by learning French and Geography in school. Well, how does he know that school didn’t provide a foundation for Spielberg’s thinking? On the other hand, isn’t Young undermining his argument for academic teacher-led learning? I’d agree that film-making is a brilliant discipline for young people to learn through, as it works right across the curriculum and beyond.

A recent survey of young people reported in the TES reveals that above all they want to matter, to feel that they are cared for and to have a voice. It is unsurprising they should feel this way when our culture prioritises individual freedom, aspiration and achievement, yet when school systems reduce their agency to make decisions, dress them in uniform and narrow the field of success to academic subjects. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas is from the same stable as Young. Her response to this survey is predictable and lacking in empathy. She, ‘described student voice as “patronising” and an abdication of adult responsibility. “The whole purpose of education is that students are there to learn and access knowledge and the people with the authority to pass that on are teachers,” she said.’

Their views are tub-thumpingly predictable: calling for a teacher-led approach, one based on didactic delivery of a common core of canonical knowledge. However, scratch the surface and the complexity appears. This canon and traditional approach is being imposed by a Government minister who has awarded himself 50 extra powers. Yet Young et al purport to be working for individual freedom against a leftist ideological ‘thoughtworld’.

In order to create a clear difference between their own model and the increasingly conservative mainstream in schools, they have to do two things, which do not sit easily together. One, they have to portray everything about most schooling as wrong. Two, they use the same evidence and practices that are already informing mainstream practice, to defend their supposedly distinctive model. It’s not so much the ethical and philosophical wrongness of their argument that gets up the noses of educators, it’s the muddled and contradictory nature of it combined with its aggression (especially in Young’s case). It is not thoughtful and it’s not decent. You could say it betrays character that is not fitting to lead young people.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking of the blob

  1. Gove’s “blob” formulation always makes me think of Theweleit’s work on the psychosymbolism of the far-right. As someone else said (yes, I’m that lazy):

    “In analyzing letters, fiction, and propaganda created by members of the Freikorps, Theweleit uncovered a configuration in which militarism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were driven by a fear of dissolving boundaries, a reactive need to affirm the body’s hardness and invulnerability, a phobic resistance to the ‘oceanic,’ and to flows and flexibilities of all sorts: these latter being associated with the maternal, the sexual, the feminine, etc.” (http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=280)

    I wonder if Gove would be quite so gleeful in bandying his “blob” meme about if he realised quite how much he is revealing about himself…

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