…that teaching is not just complex, it is very complex!
Teaching involves many tangibles, but far more intangibles. There is just so much in the whole complex edifice of teaching and learning that is ineffable, that simply beggars simplistic description. And yet, the schools system is held captive at the present time, in most countries around the world, by a naive and malign connivance of influences that continually tries to reduce teaching and learning to the empirical, the technical, the efficient and the functional.
Like the foolish local government councillor I once had to work with in an earlier phase of my career, too many who hold the purse-strings and the policy reins in education today work to the maxim that, if it cannot be measured, it is not worth doing. By working to this utterly reductionist precept, whether consciously or not, they do damage to so much of what happens in our schools today. That foolish elected official is now the director of an MBA programme at a prestigious business school – I should be surprised, but I am not.
And yet it is not merely the policy functionaries and political big wheels who reduce education in this way. Swathes of so-called research into teaching and learning is founded on a fruitless quest for methodological magic bullets, those quantifiably ‘provable’ tricks or techniques that will ensure that the greatest number of young people get the greatest amount of benefit from the teaching they receive. They search for theoretical clarity; they find colossal oversimplification.
We hear the constant cry for ‘evidence-based policymaking’, as if the processes of education can be analysed and modified scientifically. How often do we hear academics make claims of veracity and authority because of the scientific methodology deployed in the research? It is nonsense, from top to bottom. It is like trying to understand music by isolating the musical experience from the mathematics of sound.
Education, teaching, learning, pedagogy, and all the various aspects we deploy to describe this innately human activity, simply cannot be reduced to technique. Teaching is not a science, it is not a craft, and it is certainly not an activity that can, with any hope of eventual success, be systematised.
Of course, there are almost certainly tiny little corners of what teachers do that can be improved by reference to technique and to empirical research; but at its heart education falls somewhere between an art and a humanity, quite opaque and largely immune to empirical scrutiny.
And because education lies in that highly disputatious space somewhere between the arts and the humanities, with only small segments of the landscape really open to empirical analysis, we must concede that the real arguments around education fall into the spheres of philosophy, belief and prejudice. And, in my book, that is no bad thing.
I have quoted Illich before, saying that education is a place for:
…autonomous and creative intercourse among persons…
and that its purpose is:
…individual freedom realised in personal interdependence…
Education will therefore always be a battleground of ideas, with a topography marked by preconceptions, by credos, by partiality of views and sometimes by sheer ignorance and bigotry. But to deny this and to attempt to cloak education in the trappings of technique and empiricism is an absurd endeavour.
Equally absurd, of course, is the notion, so widely and deeply held, that education = schooling = education. But I will come back to that anon.