Hidden Variables 5: Obliquity

The ultimate goal of a Jesuit education might be put in today’s language as helping people to find God – or at least be open to a transcendent, value-laden dimension to reality – and become their best, most generous selves, ready to take a creative and fruitful part in shaping a complex world. A hundred years ago, such an aim would have borne a family resemblance to the stated aims of most public and elementary schools, whose curriculum and assumptions were ultimately shaped by the classical tradition and Christian humanism.   This is not to take a romantic view of education as it once was (often, frankly, brutal).  My point is simply that once upon a time, some version of the aims stated above would not have seemed unreasonable throughout the system.  A school that organised itself around such aims – rather than around purely academic goals – would not have been considered blameworthy or misguided.

Now however, a state school is expected to get the best possible exam results out of their students, and this, ultimately, so that the state will have the workforce best equipped to be productive in the modern knowledge economy.   This is a very different aim from helping people grow as human beings. The state assessment apparatus (OFSTED + League Tables) does of course consider ethos when evaluating a school, but schools are saved or damned on the evaluation of their teaching and learning – that which contributes to the primary state goal – not on their ethos.

In a sense, this transformation is understandable.   In a world where the highest rewards are given to knowledge-based work, where the opportunities for other forms of labour are proportionally smaller than in the past and where having gone to the same school as your interviewer is less likely than in former days to land you the job, academic qualifications have become a more crucial ‘objective’ criterion for employment than once they were – vital currency in the game of life. As a very impressive school leader working with a predominantly poor and slightly insular community once explained to me, a good school wants the best exam results for its pupils, because this will give them the best start in life and enable them to take a fuller part in wider society.   Not to aim for the highest results would be a betrayal of the students.

Even if you have not lived the modern classroom experience yourself, you may have gathered from some of the essays below this one that the project of aiming for the highest results has become all consuming. Every system (and every problem) in the school has been relabelled to emphasise that every aspect of school life exists to support learning. Those same systems are judged ultimately on how far they have ‘added value’ (or not) to the expectable scores of students at exam time – the only public, objective proof of how much learning has taken place.

So any state school, in order to survive has to be able both to keep the OFSTED inspectors happy by showing that they are ever on the case with teaching and learning, and show continual GCSE and A Level success, in a field where the margins for improvement year on year, approach a natural asymptotic limit. That is to say where the constantly increasing pressure to improve productivity yields diminishing returns. Is there really any space, can there be any energy left over for other approaches, with other aims within such system? Is there any room left, in the state sector, for a wider, more philosophical approach to education in secondary schools?

One clue to a possible answer may lie in a striking tension between the competitive, exam-focused teaching and learning that has come to dominate teacher energies for much of the school year and the models of good classroom practice proposed and propagated over the last fifteen/twenty years.

Black and Wiliam’s seminal work Inside the Black Box and its successor Beyond the Black Box have helped revolutionise the standards and quality of communication between teachers and students during this period.  Peer assessment, teacher feedback, the use of ‘rubrics’ (short descriptions of what counts as a good piece of work in a particular discipline – as in level descriptions) are now universally used to give students an insight into and ownership of the ‘guild knowledge’ appropriate to each subject.   The questioning used by teachers in class should serve the same end by developing a reflective, inquiring attitude to learning. It should not seek quick right or wrong factual answers, but encourage thoughtful explorations of the deeper connections in a subject area and engage all the students in a shared quest.

This picture of thoughtful acquisition of ‘guild knowledge’ points us towards a different educational goal from that of merely passing an exam. It points us towards an idea that is close to the heart of a more ancient educational notion, that each subject, like any craft, has an intrinsic value and a good educator helps students to discover that value for themselves.   This important aspect of the classroom revolution has been obscured by being pressed into the service of exam training.   But preparing to pass a Maths exam is a different sort of activity from becoming good at Maths, though (clearly) if you have become good at Maths you have a good chance of doing well in the exam.   Perhaps, indeed, a focus on exam training may on occasion actively detract from subject understanding, especially if that focus is on tactics rather than substance.   Yet unless we have given the due time to the substance, how could a tactical success in exams mean anything worthwhile?

This suggests that we may be in a situation where the principle of obliquity applies. Recall John Kay’s analysis of Alastair MacIntyre’s fishing village and the question of how we maximize the profits from our fishing catch.

‘MacIntyre’s fishing expedition reveals a deep truth about markets. We live in a complex world which we only imperfectly understand. Our success in it depends crucially on our relationships with other people. In this environment, what has evolved will often outperform what has been designed, and purely instrumental motivation will often fail in its objectives. This gives rise to the paradox of obliquity revealed by the relative success of MacIntyre’s crews: the crew which values the practice of fishing is more financially successful than the crew which is organized in pursuit of financial goals.’

What Kay uses to reflect on productivity in the fishing market, may yield insight into some puzzles about the modern education market. Why is it that in spite of continually rising exam results (albeit with an artificial dip engineered at the implied behest of a previous secretary of state for education), a transformation in teaching standards throughout the system and a huge investment in sophisticated teaching equipment, universities complain about the standard of subject competence of candidates? If a government wants lots of people who are deeply good at Maths, perhaps, paradoxically, it is mistaken in trying to achieve this through a system much of whose energy is exhausted in increasing the number of A – C exam results year on year.

Let us follow this line of thinking further. Perhaps the named educational goals of the state may best be served not only by teaching in a way that prioritises subject depth over exam training, but also by focusing on the human development of the students in school.   There are, after all, good reasons for thinking that students who are themselves encouraged, valued and appreciated (like their teachers) tend to work more effectively and with greater commitment. Learning how to be good human beings, living generously alongside other human beings may not have anything directly to do with exam league tables, but it would be surprising if it harmed the capacity to learn.

Perhaps there is, after all, still space for a philosophically-rooted, holistic education in the state sector (secular or religious).   Whether or not it can guarantee a year on year rise in the exam scores might be a question – it must after all mean channelling some of the limited institutional energy away from all those extra exam classes.   But perhaps the results achieved would then mean something different and be a part of a richer experience of schooling, designed not around economic units, but around people, not around displays of information, but around growing in wisdom.

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Religion and Altruism (Guardian Friday 6th November)

An interesting report published in Current Biology 25 (Decety et al., The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822%2815%2901167-7.pdf) suggests that there is a negative association between religiousness (of household) and children’s altruism across the world.   This contrasts with a higher parental perception (in religious households) that their offspring are empathic and sensitive to justice, and a more judgmental and punitive attitude to interpersonal harm amongst the children themselves. The Guardian writer highlighted altruism (good) and judgmental (bad) in the summary line, suggesting (as do the researchers) that the long-standing belief that religion contributes to moral development is misplaced.   The implication might be taken to be: remove religion from the human educational and socialization process, and there will be a world-wide increase in altruism and decrease in judgmentalism, at least in primary age children.

For those that have a visceral dislike of religion and all its works, and would like to see it removed from the educational system as soon as possible, this is powerful grist to the mill. At a deeper level it provides a welcome challenge to the unthought-through bleatings of some religious people (many of whom should know better) that all non-believers are ipso facto selfish, individualistic materialists who don’t know right from wrong.   Not only are non-believers not selfish after all. They turn out to be statistically even more not-selfish than their religious detractors.

The first thing to say is that as far as I can judge (my grasp of stats is a bit hazy, though I am working on it) the figures are, in the words of the researchers, robust.   The interest is then on looking a little more closely at the story that they might be trying to tell. Please check my argument against the article carefully, because I might miss some of the detail, in which case, of course, my comments will not apply.

I will declare my special interest at this stage (this will be obvious from other things on this site). (1) I find the in-principle claims sometimes made by religious people who assume the moral depravity of non-believers irritating, ignorant and deeply unhelpful for any fruitful conversation around vital issues of communal living in a complex society. (2) I believe the religious ethical tradition that I am at home in, which might be (accurately but cumbersomely) described as critical-modern Judaeo-Christian humanism with classical roots, continues to have something to offer in the education and socialization of young human beings.

Let’s look at the question of altruism. How was this tested?   Well a version of the Dictator game was used – a not-quite-game theory decision test whose results have been used to challenge dominant assumptions about economic rationality.   I have just experimented with a version online, and in my efforts to be nice to the peasants have had to survive two assassination attempts by the army in my first four months. I might come back to that. This is of course a remote scenario for the normal five – twelve year-old. It’s pretty remote for a normal Jesuit supply-teacher as it happens. So, in the language of the researchers they employed an ‘ecologically valid’ test:

“In this task, children were shown a set of 30 stickers and were told to choose their ten favorite. They were then told ‘‘these stickers are yours to keep.’’ Children were instructed that the experimenter did not have the time to play this game with all of the children in their school, so not everyone would be able to receive stickers.”

“Of additional note is that the sharing of resources was with an anonymous child beneficiary from the same school and similar ethnic group” [avoiding ‘in-group’, ‘out-group’ biases].

And here are the results:

“Results from a linear regression with number of stickers shared as the dependent variable and age (1-year bins), country of origin, socioeconomic status (SES), and religious identification of the household (dummy coded) suggest that age (bstandardized = 0.39, p < 0.001), SES (bstandardized = 0.16, p < 0.001), country (bstandardized = 0.1, p < 0.01), and religious identification (bstandardized = ␣.132, p < 0.001) are significant predictors of sharing, (model r2adjusted = 0.184). Paired comparisons (corrected for family-wise error) showed that Christian children (Msharing = 3.33, SD = 2.46) did not differ in their altruism from Muslims (Msharing = 3.20, SD = 2.24); however, both were significantly less altruistic than non-religious children (Msharing = 4.09, SD = 2.52, both p < 0.001”

It is not completely clear to me how the task worked, but it looks as though, having been allowed to choose their ten stickers, the children were given the option of sharing some of their selection with an (unknown) person who otherwise would not receive any. The average religious child shared 3 1/3 stickers and the average non-religious child, just over 4. The importance here is that this was not a hypothetical experiment (as in my dictator game – I might well alter my behaviour in real life, after the first assassination attempt), but a real choice of the children concerned, and thus a real cost. The numbers: 1170 children across six countries (US, Canada, China, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa (Cape Town).   Roughly 310 would count as non-religious.

It is apparently suggested statistically in other studies that the capacity for altruism increases between the age of five and twelve and this was confirmed in the correlation coefficient of 0.39 above. Other significant variables were country of origin (0.1) and social economic status (1.6). When these were accounted for, the religious households showed a negative (-1.32) correlation, getting relatively worse with age, over against non-religious ones, midway between country of origin and socio-economic status.

There are follow-up questions for this experiment.   How does the experimental behaviour of the children in the sample compare with their behaviour in the playground?  What would happen if it was about sharing food, rather than ‘property’ or ‘gifts’?  What form will their teenage rebellion take, and will it leave them more or less committed to the rules of their parents?  More or less resentful of a demanding world?  More or less autonomous in their treatment of rules?  How will their education (religious or non-religious) develop their compassion and their capacity for deep and subtle discernment of difficult moral questions?  What sort of adults will they turn into in response to the kindnesses and cruelties of daily life and their fellow human beings?  Longitudinal studies would be interesting here.  Nevertheless there is, prima facie,  an interesting case to answer: why might the religious-household children, at this stage in their lives, other things being equal, give up fewer of their stickers?   Or (a slightly different question) why might the non-religious-household children give up more?

The first thing to say is that the answer is very unlikely to do with a basic belief in the existence of God or the presence or absence of religious experience.  Such belief or experience is in itself is behaviour-neutral, though (in the case of a conversion experience) it can lead to behaviour change.  However, it may very plausibly be to do with the things that are believed and communicated by parents about God and what they believe is at the heart of their religious tradition.  Note here that religious households can be very different in what exactly they communicate.  This should not be surprising since most religious textual traditions alone tell multiple and conflicting stories.  Is your God primarily the figure who will obliterate you if you step out of line or the figure who loves you with an everlasting love?

So let us take as a working assumption that all households generally will communicate in some form a big story about the universe and other human beings in relationship to rules, behaviour, reward and punishment, and this will give  the conceptual framework in which children develop their thinking about behaviour.   But alongside this, the specific behaviours modelled by elders and betters, and the daily messages (do X, don’t do Y, be like Z) delivered with (or without) consistency and fairness will be key factors.

The second thing to notice is that the prima facie argument supported by the statistic is not that religious children are not altruistic, it is that they have a tendency to be less altruistic than their compeers.  This may mean either that their natural capacity for altruism tends to be hindered by growing up in their environment, or that their fellows grow up in an environment that enhances their altruism.  These are slightly different things.

Let’s start with rules, because other things in the report suggest that these may be a key factor.  A second set of statistics looks at making judgments and prescribing punishment.  It shows a significantly higher correlation between a negative judgment about harming other people (“that’s mean”) and religious background. It also suggests (at least in some religious communities and in some cultural contexts) that religious children tend to prescribe harsher punishment for misdemeanours.

A slight digression here.  Both the report itself (in its charts) and the Guardian in their discussion conflate these two rather separate activities of identifying a wrongdoing and prescribing a penalty in order to apply the ‘judgmental’ label to religious children.  But it is significant, for instance, that – according to the report – the group of christian religious children was not significantly different in awarding penalties from the non-religious group.  This suggests that ‘religious’ is indeed a critical variable for the former, but that other factors (including variations of interpretation within religions and cultural parenting practices) might play a more significant role in the latter.

The statistic that religious children are quicker to identify and condemn behaviour that hurts other people as ‘mean’ might plausibly suggest that the religious group are living in an environment in which their attention is regularly drawn to particular behaviour types – possibly with some discussion of the why’s and wherefore’s (hence the ‘that’s mean’ judgment).  The fact that children from some religious households in some countries make harsher judgments is (I suggest) most likely to reflect the experience of correction at home, reinforced by a particular narrative of reward and punishment.   That probably needs further investigation.

To report the first of these on its own as an index of how ‘judgmental’ a child would be a little misleading, since that term is usually pejorative.  It has connotations of a lack of mercy and understanding towards someone who needs and deserves it.   It might well be true that children from a certain type of religious household might turn out statistically to be less forgiving than others, but that would require a separate and more subtle test.  Here it does seem a trifle odd to imply that the capacity of primary age children to identify the harm done to others as ‘mean’ might be a bad thing.

Returning to the altruism question, let us suppose that rules are the key, and develop a story around that.  In religious households there is a clear structure and story told of reward and punishment. This might include clear identification of misdemeanours but it may also include a clear identification of entitlement to reward. It might include clear expectations of duty towards others, but modified by reflection on how to quantify and limit what counts as fulfillment of duty.   The Koran has clear prescriptions about being generous to the needy – so do the Old and New Testaments. However all three sets of texts, insofar as they make positive suggestions of how to do this livably, can also be taken to imply that there is a reasonable limit to what one is expected to give.   How might the adult behaviour reinforce such a perception – the way the parents talk about taxes? For Christians in the US (Catholic and Protestant) the payment of the tithe – 10%, (but ‘only’ 10% )?   Religious children are not not altruistic, but perhaps they are calculatedly altruistic.

This may feed into what the report identifies as ‘moral licensing’ – the phenomenon that because I feel that I am, on the whole, righteous, I can allow myself to ease up in other areas of moral endeavour. I would certainly recognize that phenomenon in myself occasionally.   It is the sort of behaviour denounced roundly in the Gospels and has proved remarkably resilient in the history of Christianity. It is worth adding that such self righteousness and the moral licensing that goes with it are not the exclusive property of religious groups.  In any group that has a clear set of non-negotiable rules, those who successfully keep most of them can sometimes catch themselves taking liberties with those that are occasionally inconvenient.  Nevertheless (on this account) perhaps the religious children are (at some level) telling themselves the story, ‘because I’m good I don’t need to give away that fourth sticker’.

But what of a non-religious household? Well if it is a household in the US, then it is most likely to be trans-Christian non-religious. It might have rejected the existence of God and some of the norms that some religious households down the road find very important, however, it may find inherited general norms of charity and generosity something worth holding onto – in a non-specific way.   Generosity, as held up as a rule for behaviour, is thus an open-ended value rather than a defined one.   If the parents have thought through their attitude to rules (this can apply to religious parents as well), they are more likely to have come out on the side of epieikeia – the prudent discernment of how to apply general rules – and they may simply have fewer of them.   The child with a more dominant sense of the generosity rule and without ‘guidelines on giving’ may respond more generously than the child governed by a larger set of rules and with an intuitive understanding of prudential or reasonably-limited generosity.

Would it be different if you were a non-religious household in China or South Africa? Perhaps the stories there would have more to do with a narrative of social solidarity, common ownership and equality. Again such a parental narrative might naturally highlight an open-ended virtue of generosity. If reinforced by parental behaviour, that would be a reason for the child to respond more generously.

There is another significant and subtle set of possibilities (though further details of the conversation in the experiment might prove them invalid).  Can you recall what you got anxious about as a child?  Children will not only imitate the behaviour of their significant elders and repeat their wisdom, they will also want to please them.   One of the key things that might be going through the heads of the children given the stickers, told they are theirs, and told about the other children is likely to be, ‘what am I expected to do?’.   The question is likely to be both more intense and more complex for children coming from households where expectations are more regularly expressed and in greater number and obedience is given a higher value than autonomy.   As in any area of life, both overthinking and caution can inhibit one’s spontaneity (this is certainly the case in my own experience).  Is this perhaps something of what is happening here?

Let’s imagine a conversation inside the head of child A (the Samaritan) who grows up in a less introspective, less rule-bound and higher autonomy environment:

‘These are nice stickers.  But this other person hasn’t got any.  They can have four of mine.’

And child B, who is used to worrying about getting it right (the priest who walks by to avoid ritual pollution)…

‘He’s given me these stickers.  So he wants me to have them.  But he says this other person doesn’t have any.  It would be nice to give that other person some of mine.  Does the man want me to give them some of mine?  But how many does he want me to have?  Will he be upset if I give away too many?  Maybe it will be alright if I give the other person three…’

These are just suggestions about possible stories we might tell to put flesh on the figures.  The statistics give us a significant correlation.  But they cannot tell us directly about cause and effect.   These ones give us interesting material for reflection about the relationship between frameworks of rules and sanctions, the affective aspect of moral development and the nature of moral maturity.   Interestingly, the challenge they raise is one that has been at the heart of self-reflective religion for millenia, and is encapsulated in the story of the Good Samaritan or the tirades against the Pharisees and Lawyers in the Gospels.

So at this point, it is appropriate to go back to a crucial assumption embedded in the report, about what counts as ‘religious’.  We find it in that discussion about judgmentalism and punishment.

“Research indicates that religiousness is directly related to increased intolerance for and punitive attitudes toward interpersonal offenses, including the probability of supporting harsh penalties. For instance, within Christianity, fundamentalists tend to be more punitive and advocate for harsher corrections than non-fundamentalists”

“While this association is documented in adults of the major world religions, here the relation between greater religiousness and preference for more severe punishment is observed in development, when morality is in a sensitive and fragile period, subject to social learning and cultural practices”

The implication here seems to be that the more fundamentalist (or rule bound) you are in your religious practice, the more religious you are.   This excludes, a priori, the notion that being very religious can contribute to mature (and socially useful) moral development.   However, there are many forms of religion and philosophy that are not rule-bound in this sense, and which can help people grow in and chart a subtle and responsible pathway through a complicated world, in which judgment is balanced with a mercy often conspicuously absent in the wider social domain.  Just because they are not fundamentalist does not make them less religious.   ‘Religious’, as indicated above, can mean a lot of different things and include a variety of forms of commitment to core beliefs and group membership.

The questions raised here really focus on the relationship between the ‘natural’ capacity for altruistic behaviour and the pedagogical framework and narrative within which a child is reared.   Clearly there seems to be something significant to do with the articulation of rules for behaviour within households, but what exactly we are being told requires the sort of fine analysis and qualitative story-telling that yields no simple rules of cause and effect.  The report usefully challenges the easy assumption that being religious makes you more altruistic than the people down the road but it might be a bit hasty to replace that with an equally easy opposite.

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Hidden Variables: Part III

What does data mean?  Well the rules have changed. OFSTED does not expect a standard method of reporting on pupil progress in all schools and the infamous key stage levels have been replaced with… well, for many schools, the old KS3 levels, because it’s too hard to come up with better measures. OFSTED does however use RAISE online data to track pupil progress from KS2 to GCSE in secondary schools, and this in turn can raise problems for data based management within schools if the implications are not properly thought through.

The RAISE data deals in statistical averages and expectations across the country. Across the thousands of children in a cohort we expect all of those who achieved level 4 in English at KS2 to achieve C or better at GCSE and of those who achieved level 5 or above to achieve B or better at GCSE. Across 700,000 of children, the expectations are fulfilled by a substantial majority. Clearly it is possible to identify those schools whose candidates rise above and those whose candidates fall below the expectation. From this we find preliminary grounds for judgment about the quality of education provided in each institution.

The problem is that a story that may be statistically or probabilistically true for 700,000 people has a decreasing chance of being so true as the numbers considered diminish through 100,000 to 200 to 30 and to 1.   This is because statistics do not immediately tell us anything about causes.   There is no direct causal link between scoring 4 at KS2 and C at GCSE. There will be multiple factors contributing to an individual educational result, some of which (like ‘quality of teaching’) will be common to all individuals, some of which will be unique to each individual, some common to a smaller group of individuals.   When numbers are very large, we assume that the unique and limited causes pushing candidates up or down cancel each other out, allowing us to tell a story around the most obvious common cause – the quality of teaching.  The story might run like this:

“Nationwide, the majority of students achieved their expected grade or better. This shows that for the majority of students, the quality of teaching that they received was at least reasonable.   For some the quality of teaching was inadequate.”

Such statements have a reasonable probability of being true.

We can now start using the national statistic to adapt this narrative to, say, regions of 100,000. We may find that some regions are below the national average and some are above. We can tell the story that in some regions the quality of teaching was less adequate than in others. Already we might start to have concerns that other, local causalities may be starting to have an impact.   This can be partially balanced out by looking at schools within a region.   Again we work by analogy and observe so many schools that are above the national average and so many below.   But by this stage, other very local factors (like school location, neighbourhood and parent profile) come into play. By now the probability of ‘the teaching was inadequate’ being the whole truth or even the most useful bit of the truth is already reduced. The only self-evident truth is that learning has not matched statistical expectations.

When we start looking at individual classes and individual students, we move into the area of real histories, personal development, the accidents of life and the struggles of individual teachers to channel the raw adolescent energy in their care in productive directions.   Clearly the most likely explanation for things going wrong with a class will have something to do with the teacher, but there will often be deeper causes that have to do with the support systems in the school and the character and histories of the individuals in the group. Even more so when evaluating why any one individual falls below the line.

So the big statistical story is useful as a tool for raising the question ‘why’, and this is well and good, so long as it does not already presume a simple answer. The investigator must include in her examination the local and individual factors that are ironed out in the national statistic.

When schools make use of the RAISE data, the benign purpose of this is to anticipate problems with teaching and learning before GCSE results day. A student is falling below his/her expected level of attainment, we ask the question, why? And we attempt to address the issue once we have an answer. This is a perfectly sound procedure in principle. However considerable subtlety is required the moment we start applying it to individual cases.

In the RAISE framework it is assumed (at least in all the schools where I have worked) that all students receiving a reasonable level of teaching should improve linearly in each subject up to GCSE.   But what is a reasonable assumption averaged out over 200 students becomes deeply questionable when considering an individual student. Wise learning leaders know this.   Unwise ones, who fall in love too readily with the magic of statistics and charts often fail to understand it – and this can lead to unhappiness and misunderstanding all round when it comes to putting the boot in over an individual teacher’s (or student’s) performance.

The main reason for the problem (I suggest) is that the subject learning curve, as with language learning, is nonlinear.   It will include long, flat periods, where the learner adjusts to new material, it will include spurts of growth, where familiarity with a set of building blocks allows new levels of creative thought, it may include downward slopes where a sudden onset of complex material confuses, undermines memory and reduces motivation (probably the key factor in exam success). It seems likely (this may be controversial) that each person’s curve may have an asymptotic limit (as in sport or music, I can always get a bit better, but I am unlikely to get to that level, at least at this point). Over time, if someone is good at 11, then they are probably going to do all right at 16, but it is not rational to expect everyone to move up a sub-level each term as the standard linear model supposes.

Related to the problem of learning curves, is the problem of criteria for measuring progress. The level descriptions that have been ingeniously developed in agonizing detail for each subject give generic descriptions for the skills that each student should be able to demonstrate if they are working to a particular level.   They can be very useful tools for guiding students in how to improve their work and helpful motivators during KS3. However they are given as a global assessment of quality of work, rather than as an exam mark and so do not actually fit on the line between KS2 and GCSE, which are sudden-death exams artificially welded to the levelling framework. This may be one of the reasons why levels have been abolished for official purposes.

A second (and more subtle) problem with the generic descriptions as measures of progress is that achieving a level is context dependent.   A task appropriate to 11 year olds may enable half the class to achieve a deserved level 5, according to the level description.   Two years later, those achievers may find themselves still scoring level 5, because the material for the task appropriate to their age is exponentially (rather than linearly) more challenging.   The problem is compounded in subjects like language, English, music and art where the skills sets across a level are often only loosely related and development in one set of skills does not necessarily go with development in another. This takes us back to the theme of learning curves.  In other words, scoring a level 5 at age 13 means something different from scoring a level 5 at age 11.

Unless learning leaders have thought through the complexities (not all do) there will be many unnecessary tears – as well as (and this happens) a lot of ultimately unhelpful dishonesty all round.   If the system is to be data driven, let the data at least be intelligent.

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Being Good in a Big Bank

This continues yours truly’s efforts to think aloud about the connections between economics and ethics – and ultimately the connection or common ground with the ‘common good’ language of Church documents like Laudato Si’.   Apologies if I at times painfully state the obvious or painfully miss the point.

One of the striking things about John Kay’s book Other People’s Money is the amount of ethical comment on the behaviour of key participants in the financial sector over the last thirty years.   There are frequent references to a number of leading figures who have ended up behind bars in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.   His descriptions of the trader culture that emerged within financial institutions in the course of the eighties carry clear ethical judgments:

‘The world Wolfe [in Bonfire of the Vanities] and Lewis [in an account of his time at Salomon Bros] described was aggressively male… That world is full of obscenity, fuelled by drugs-notably cocaine- and given to sexual and alcoholic excess. Young men-some with high educational qualifications, some with none-suddenly found themselves in possession of amounts of money far in excess of those they were capable of handling.’ (21)

‘The dominant ideology of the times legitimized the more aggressive pursuit of self-interest and encouraged a different and more limited view of the social responsibility of the large business organization…’ (22)

‘Their moral convictions [Thatcher and Reagan] found little to applaud in the culture of the trader. The Thatcherite emphasis on hard work and self-reliance sat alongside a belief that compassion should be a private virtue rather than a social practice. These are very different from the greedy individualism and sense of personal entitlement characteristic of much of the finance sector today.’ (23)

There are echoes here of Adam Smith’s description of the rich in which phrases like ‘natural selfishness and rapacity’ or ‘[their] sole end… the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires’ occur. However Smith seems content (for metaphysical reasons, discussed below) to make the judgment about motivation, but to accept the behaviour that arises as a sad fact of life, on the grounds that the invisible hand works through even immoral characters pursuing profit for the ultimate good of all. In this regard he is probably inhabiting a not dissimilar moral universe to that of Cicero and the great and the good who populate his dialogues (Cicero’s writings provide a conceptual springboard for some of Smith’s and Hume’s ethical thinking). They sip their wine, deplore the degraded pursuit of wealth and power by others and celebrate the selfless service of the common weal by the (patrician and male) heroes of the Republic.

Kay, however, does believe that the behaviour he identifies in the financial sector can and needs to change, along with the structures that promote it. The final chapters of his book are devoted to describing the alterations in the structures and systems which would be needed for such change of attitude and behaviour to take root. The ultimate reasons for promoting change are (1) that the sector is no longer focused on its primary purposes in the service of the real economy[1] (2) that its claims to be generating wealth for the national economy are spurious, since any wealth appearing in wage bonuses and balance sheets is ultimately extracted from other areas the national economy and (3) that the current structures will continue for the foreseeable future to generate intermittent economic crises whose costs will be paid not by their authors, but by the general public (as is currently the case).

As in the Mytilenean debate, the teeth of the argument for change are found in the common interest of the group addressed. We are not simply interested in what unfortunate traders might be doing to their souls. Nor do we just deplore the immediate victims of rapacious behaviour. Many people will deplore tyrants and regret the harm done by their depredations, but will also tolerate them if they believe they are in some sense collectively (at least for their corner of the collective) better than the alternative.   Rather, the claims that doing what they do is for the ultimate good of all can be shown to be false. It is therefore no longer in the common interest for the current behaviour of large financial institutions to be tolerated or, more specifically, for the current structures to continue to receive unlimited public financial support. Such an argument fits well within a ‘common good’ framework. It gives a collective us and the individuals involved a reason not just to deplore bad behaviour, but to do something about it.

So it is interesting to compare what Kay says about ethics in his earlier book The Truth about Markets.   In his discussion of the American Business Model – whose deconstruction is one of the objects of the book – he focuses on the model of human character and ethics that it implies. He contrasts several views around the issue of self-interest. One view suggests it is simply a mistake to deplore materialism and selfishness as vices. Thus if there is to be any redistribution, this should only happen as and when individuals privately happen to feel like offering charity. ‘Any further claim by the community would infringe our autonomy’. A milder (though according to Kay, a less coherent) view is that self-interest can be widely interpreted to embrace a vision of corporate social responsibility. A third suggests that there are simply two different spheres of ethics each with their own value set. Kay quotes Friedman: ‘the social responsibility of business is to maximize its profits’.   He adds,

‘This position is acceptable to many business people because it puts few restrictions on their behaviour. The corollary is the general contempt amongst intellectuals for business and those who engage in it.’

His own view (as touched on below) is that the fundamental appeal to self-interest should be rejected because as a description of human behaviour it is false.   The American Business Model is predicated on a flawed understanding of humanity.   Here he is picking up on a line of thinking that runs from ancient moralists, through David Hume to Michael Sandel and other recent authors.   The things that motivate us and that we care about are wide ranging and complex. Not all of our motivations are selfish, and when we are self-interested, the self-interest is not necessarily to do with greed.   Without requiring Plato’s world of the forms to challenge the invasion of the human soul by pleonexia, observation of human beings and their concerns suggests that for most people, most of the time other things are more important.

‘Our sense of what constitutes a good life is very similar to that which Aristotle described more than two millennia ago. Most of us still find Thurow’s assertion that those who do not achieve great wealth are ‘by definition, second rate’ bizarre.’ (Markets 315)

However, self-interested materialism remains an important feature of economic life. This is why ‘Economic systems based on appeals to work for the common good will fail’. That can be read as a critique of a pre-Animal Farm view of communism, or perhaps to the occasional tone of Church appeals for a new world order. Nevertheless, Kay claims:

‘Self-interest is necessarily hedged in by the complex institutions of modern economic, social and political life – formal regulation and implicit rules, mechanisms of reputation and co-ordination, instincts and structures of co-operation, feelings of solidarity’. (Markets 316)

If this were not so, and the economy were entirely driven by individual greed, the result would be chaos.   In fact economic motivations are multi-faceted, reflecting adaptive behaviour shaped by social and economic circumstances.   Kay seems in part to be conducting a descriptive social/ethical anthropology in the Aristotelian style – though developed with the modern idea of evolved behaviour.   There is, necessarily, an ambivalence in such description, between providing a limited objective legitimation of ethical view points (we can explain why greed is not good) and removing any reason for preferring one set of behaviours to another (everything is, after all, a fortiori adaptive).   Indeed Kay elsewhere allows that the frameworks different political organizations will choose can change according to shifts in values (for instance from a greater desire for state support for needy citizens to a reduced desire for that support).   Nevertheless, we can see in this line of thinking something of an abiding ethical parameter in the idea of evolved systems that allow people to flourish together – not only economically, but definitely including economically.

The talk of adaptation will sit uncomfortably with some, especially those who rely on a rule-based account of objective morality. However, in the realm of politics and economics supporters of objective ethics have struggled just as much as anyone else to identify constants.   In fact the system of ‘disciplined market pluralism’ that Kay recommends as the only effective way of ensuring the real economic progress of polities has some analogies with the ‘common good’ of Aristotle and modern Church social teaching.   ‘Common good’ is, as Pat Riordan suggests[2] a heuristic concept. That is, it points us in a direction but does not tell us exactly what to do, because that is rarely possible. We can’t know until we’ve actually worked on it what a polity structured around the common good will look like. We discover this as much by trial and error as by planning. Nevertheless, the label suggests some of the things that we might expect it to yield, including happiness, individual flourishing, having enough to eat, good relations with the neighbours. Plato’s first sketch of an ideal state is a society of subsistence farmers. Cicero’s great and good are moved ‘in our consultations and in our labours to render the life of human beings more secure and more wealthy’. Prosperity with or without growth.

So something like Kay’s ‘disciplined market pluralism’ within the context of the ‘embedded market’ could be a candidate for specifying the ethical parameter ‘common good’ at least in the area of economics (it wouldn’t be the only candidate).   The idea of the embedded market – a market that has integrally evolved within a particular society, with specific laws, customs and values – puts him on the side of the so-called ‘communitarian’ philosophers (he names MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor and Walzer), who have in different ways challenged the ‘rational self-interest’ assumption that lies behind the diverse political philosophies of Nozick and Rawls and underpins extreme market fundamentalism. He disagrees however with the belief of some communitarians that there is necessarily a conflict between the aims of the market and the aims of a community.

Thus he discusses MacIntyre’s[3] contrast of two approaches to fishing, the one driven by the market imperative to maximize profits, the other an activity embedded in the life of small community.   From MacIntyre’s point of view, there is something inherently valuable about the latter, with the tight and supportive community interdependence it encourages and the pursuit of fishing well as an excellence (an Aristotelian virtue or aretê) in its own right. Something valuable is destroyed by the pursuit of the profit motive. Such an argument, as it stands, leaves us with the dilemma of a choice between a nice but relatively unproductive model of human social and economic collaboration, and an unpleasant, socially corrosive, war-of-all-against-all environment which yields great riches. Hard-nosed realists will reply with the quip ‘if you want a friend, get a dog.’ How could you win this Mytilenean debate?

Kay however suggests that the answer might be surprising. The second approach, with its evolved and balanced use of co-operative skills and focus on the art of catching fish (rather than pursuing profit) may well be more successful than the first. He cites the case of the Prelude Corporation whose aim to dominate the fishing industry with the power of technology and money ended in failure (Markets 350). He draws this extended conclusion:

‘MacIntyre’s fishing expedition reveals a deep truth about markets. We live in a complex world which we only imperfectly understand. Our success in it depends crucially on our relationships with other people. In this environment, what has evolved will often outperform what has been designed, and purely instrumental motivation will often fail in its objectives. This gives rise to the paradox of obliquity revealed by the relative success of MacIntyre’s crews: the crew which values the practice of fishing is more financially successful than the crew which is organized in pursuit of financial goals.’ (ibid)

Exploring the idea of obliquity more widely, he makes a comparison with John Stuart Mill’s recognition that happiness could only be achieved by not making it the direct end of one’s activities. He adds, by way of explanation of the phenomenon, an important and fundamental critique of ‘rational-self-interest’ as a framework for interpreting, let alone prescribing, human economic activity: ‘We cannot be rational, calculating, maximizing agents, because we do not have and never could have, sufficient knowledge of the world.’ (Markets 351). It is this observation about imperfect knowledge that explains both why the evolved collaborative fishing practices of the villagers are so successful and why ‘maximising shareholder profit’ is an impossible goal for any company. He concludes ‘Profit is [not] the purpose of a market economy, and the production of goods and services… a means to it: the purpose is the production of goods and services, profit the means.’   Companies which focus on producing what they produce well will be more successful at negotiating to the complex environment in which the production takes place than those that focus on maximizing profits.

It is against this background that Kay suggests that for the goods which might enhance the life of a society to be produced most effectively, there needs to be a structure which allows for experimentation and which quickly demonstrates failure. Such a structure he calls ‘disciplined market pluralism’. The pluralism (which sits fairly comfortably with Catholic Social Teaching’s ‘principle of subsidiarity’) means ensuring a number of different agents with the freedom to experiment, but without over-prescription from a central authority. The discipline means in part the sort of responsibility that must accept consequences of failure (while avoiding the detrimental back-covering behaviour encouraged by a culture of blame). Here he is rejecting forms of corporate or state intervention that artificially preserve projects that would otherwise have naturally failed and so allowed alternative avenues to be explored. In part it means the governmental or legal framework that sets targets or standards within which the work is to be done.   Such ‘market pluralism’ recognizes that not everything is best dealt with in the market place. Kay cites as natural monopolies utilities networks (rail, telecommunications, water, electricity) – though not necessarily the providers – healthcare and education.

So we have an ideal structure for economic development which is neither the minimalist state of Nozick nor the command economy of the old Soviet Union.   The structure is inherently social and cognate with the real motivations and aspirations of most human beings.   For it to work to best effect, the different actors need a range of ‘virtues’ (characteristic dispositions for behaviour) that do not include the pursuit of personal gain at all cost. Given that human behaviour is adaptive, careful thought needs to be given within organizations at every level of society to the quality of behaviour it is encouraging. For greed does not, after all, appear to be good.

Something like this, if I have read correctly, gives Kay his social and ethical framework for criticizing the current financial regime.   The reason to set up systems that rebuild trust, integrity and human knowledge in the relationships between agent and client by changing hearts (rather than complexifying regulation), like the Mytilenean debate, includes pragmatism but is more than pragmatism. The roots of his critique overlap (though do not identify completely) with the roots of Church concerns about ‘the profit motive’, fairness and solidarity. The critique in Other People’s Money itself offers powerful, persuasive and above all specific content for those who share such concerns but (like me) simply do not know or understand enough to counter experts with an interest in the status quo who tell us that there is no real alternative.

[1] He describes these as providing payment systems, matching lenders with borrowers, helping us manage personal finances across lifetimes and between generations and helping individuals and businesses manage the risks of ordinary life.

[2] In Global Ethics and Global Common Goods

[3] MacIntyre 1994.

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Making Connections

Laudato Si’ is a deeply challenging document. Who would listen to a call to live our economic lives differently and why would they do so? We may find that when we break its message down there might actually be different answers to those questions.  I want to look at one area where at least a part of it might find surprising support.   Fundamental to any answers that individuals may give are of course their fundamental convictions: the web of beliefs about the world, about ethics and responsibilities, along with their affective capacity for compassion – their commitment to lived compassion, their beliefs about the implications of their religious/philosophical tradition and their commitment to following them out consistently, as well as the story they tell themselves about the sort of person they are.   And so on.

It is unlikely that those whose capacity for compassion is limited or who recognize no responsibilities beyond their own well-being and that of their immediate circle of dependants will find a call to change their lifestyle at all interesting.   However, there is another significant obstacle even for those who are well disposed to listen. It lies in the difference between an ethics concerned with the character and choices of an individual in relation to other specific individuals of their acquaintance and an ethics concerned with the behaviour of large numbers of people who share a common living space with one another and with other large numbers of people who live outside that common living space.   In the ancient ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno, this was a little less problematic. The ancient city was a small enough unit to allow personalized ethics to stretch across the gap between the aggregate of individuals and their goals and their collective identity in the conscious or unconscious pursuit of a common good.   Or at least for the purposes of theoretical discussion.

Nevertheless, even in the small world of the ancient Aegean, the Mytilenean debate (Thucidides History 3.35 – 49) reveals an abiding obstacle to collective decision-making founded on compassion.   The city of Mytilene had rebelled against Athenian control. The Athenians had recaptured the city. Fuelled by anger the people had voted to send a ship carrying the order that all the inhabitants of fighting age were to be killed as punishment and the women and children enslaved.   The next day they had qualms. It seemed brutal (omon), on reflection, to kill the whole city rather than just those identified as responsible.   The envoys from Mytilene saw their chance and were able to get the assembly reconvened.   Cleon the demagogue denounced being nice (andragathia) as a luxury that the Athenians, running an empire and a war, could not afford. The envoys replied by arguing that it was in the Athenian interest to show other rebellious cities that there was a way back, otherwise they would be guaranteed every time a fight to the death. This argument in terms of self interest tipped the balance – just. Only those found responsible for the revolt would be killed. The second boat arrived just in time to prevent the slaughter.

The point is that while the Athenian people clearly wanted to show some mercy (otherwise they would not have had the second debate), they needed to be persuaded that it was in the interest of the city before they did so.   A decision involving compassion is a risk, but it is the sort of risk that we can take upon ourselves as individuals more readily than we can take on behalf of others.   We cannot presume on the generosity of those who will also be affected by the decision – unless we can guarantee that they will not be disadvantaged in the process.   Do I, living on my own in a large house, open it to a refugee family that I know is struggling to survive in the neighbourhood? Does a government open the country’s borders to 100 000 refugee families? The ethical quality of these decisions is significantly different. There is a mirror of this in the case of prudential, self-interested decisions that have to override compassion.   It is easier to sit on a board and agree to a decision that will result in large job losses for the good of the company than it is to go through a competency procedure with a needy employee living in your house.

This is perhaps part of the reason why political philosophers and economists have often taken rational self-interest as the natural starting point for discussions. It is not just that it makes the calculations easier (according to the insightful remark of John Kay – see below).   It also reflects the rather depressing minimum that we could reasonably persuade everyone to agree on in collective decision-making.   However, this is most plausible only when it is allied with the more thorough-going claim that the only model of rational decision-making is that of rational self-interest.  Once you allow that individuals can have other reasons (for instance, a commitment to compassion or Adam Smith’s ‘common humanity’) for their actions in their personal decision-making, you also allow space for such reasons to find their way into collective decision-making. When the Athenians called the assembly, after all, the good of their city was not uppermost in their minds. For them to kill thousands of innocent men seemed, the morning after, simply brutal.

Pat Riordan SJ in his book Global Ethics and the Global Common Good has explored just this ground (see a presentation of it here: A Review of Global Ethics and Global Common Goods by Pat Riordan SJ). I found particularly interesting his reference to work of Rawls and Searle from the last fifteen years that pointed towards how collaborative decision-making could emerge against a rich background of goals and values shared, or partially shared, by a communities of individuals. It dovetailed neatly with some of the insights of Derek Parfit in his On What Matters (see Appendix 2 below).   The common ground for discussion about collective action is actually more diverse than the rational minimalists supposed. Riordan presents examples of international activities (like accepting quotas of refugees) which do not simply fit the rational self-interest paradigm.

This makes it reasonable to include concern for the future of the planet, compassion for the working conditions of employees, or the plight of the poor into the mix of global and personal decision-making. But there is one powerful obstacle in the form of the received economic wisdom that has dominated politics and business since the early eighties.   Perfect markets yield the best outcomes, both in terms of profits and of products. Such markets are ideally driven by individuals and collectives pursuing their own gain. Provided trade is allowed to flourish in a perfect market, ultimately everyone benefits as much as is possible.   No alternative can produce a better result. It is easy to see why this is appealing – especially when supported by beautiful mathematical formulae. If this is true, by doing what I like for myself and those around me, I benefit everyone anyway, so I don’t even need to worry about being nice to anyone else.

If this were true, it would be a good reason for abandoning any form of political interference in economic activity beyond that of the minimal state, as proposed by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia.   Talk of ‘common good’, let alone control and regulation of business activity for the sake of the environment or human ecology would be pointless.   Provided all were freely pursuing shareholder value, the invisible hand will guarantee the best possible outcome.

So it is reassuring to read[1] (even if the message does not seem to be widely appreciated yet) that the belief in the power of the perfect market to deliver the best of all possible worlds is false because such a market does not and cannot exist, and because, where an approximation to such markets has been attempted, the results have generally been dire.   John Kay, as far as I can tell from The Truth about Markets, does not carry a torch for socialism. He appears to have the normal assumptions about the value of economic growth that are held by most politicians – and are being questioned by ecologically minded economists. Nevertheless his language of ‘embedded markets’ points towards a way of thinking about economics that gives the role of the social context – and the values of communities and their relationships – an essential role in the discussion, rather than reducing the personal realm to a notional beneficiary or necessary collateral damage. This at the very least makes space for engagement with that highly suggestive concept from Laudato Si’: human ecology.

Here, then, is what Kay has to say about the idea that redistributive market liberalism (let business do its stuff and just collect the taxes) will make the world a better place:

‘The fundamental objections… are the mistaken assumptions about motivation and behaviour, the failure to acknowledge the socially constructed nature of property rights, the inability of market institutions to deal with risk, the problems of securing necessary cooperation among self-interested individuals and the difficulties of handling asymmetries of information within a complex modern economy… For all these reasons market economies function only by virtue of being embedded in a social context.’

His argument neatly reverses the assumptions of the free-marketeers of the eighties. They assumed that if they selfishly pursued profits, they would achieve all the goals humanity could expect, without having to worry about the human dimension of their activities itself. Here Kay argues that unless the activities are recognized as human and treated as such, the pursuit of profits according to the perfect market dream is doomed to failure. His answer to the question why rich states are rich and poor states are poor is something like this.   The former have an evolved complex social and physical infrastructure that includes laws, education and welfare systems and political structures supporting trustworthy and reliable transactions under what he calls ‘disciplined pluralism’ – a framework for businesses (whether state or privately controlled) to compete in finding the best solutions to complex problems by trial and error. The latter may once have had these (they may never have had them) but they do not have them now.   Markets bring them no benefit, because the human structures are missing.

An important strand of argument in this and in his recent book Other People’s Money emphasizes the importance of knowledge of the realities of a business or a transaction or of the human needs that are involved, and how this knowledge gets marginalized and lost when focus shifts to profit alone.   In The Truth About Markets we read ‘Corporations may aim to make profits, and there is nothing wrong with that, but their aims and their responsibilities are not the same. Heidi’s primary aim [Heidi is a teacher, one of several recurring examples in the book] may be the welfare of her family but her responsibility is to her students.’ And in Other People’s Money we see a stark illustration of the change from a humanized view of the activity of a firm to a decontextualised one in the course of the eighties. Kay quotes from two annual reports from ICI:

1987: ICI claims to be the world’s leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. Through the achievement of our aim, we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.

1994: Our objective is to maximize value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base.

Kay goes on to chart the gradual decline of ICI and concludes with the comment. ‘The company whose objective was ‘to maximize value for shareholders’ was not successful even in achieving that.’ (OPM 46).   If I understand the point correctly, focus on the market activities that yield frequent bursts of profit distracts from the real concerns of a business and can ultimately damage it. Long-term business success is only likely to be achieved with sustained care and attention to what the business is trying to create and who it is creating it for (this is almost Aristotelian!). That does not get us to the sort of new economy or lifestyle that Laudato Si’ is urging, but it does provide a very significant reason at least for taking the idea of human ecology very seriously, whichever side of the desk you sit.

[1] Both in Ha Joon Chang and John Kay

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Revisiting Mr Smith

I want to go back to trying to find some sense of the connections between economic theory and western ethics (both Christian and trans-Christian flavours).   As a young adult during the reigns of Lady T and Mr Reagan I found the economic and political world me around dominated by the language of the free market. As a suburban Londoner, I was shielded from the bitter realities of the removal of state protection from older industries and the destruction of local communities over two decades.   Nevertheless, even to someone as unaware as me, there seemed to be something cruel and inhuman about the process, which I would want to label wrong or flawed, because it hurts my fellow citizens.   The eighties in particular felt like an era in which a post-war sense of solidarity amongst Britons of all classes was systematically undermined. But what if it worked? What if this was indeed the only way to guarantee longer-term prosperity for all – including the descendants of the battered post-industrial communities?   How then would we evaluate what was really for the common good?

Similar questions can be put globally as nations struggle with debt and exploitation. A dominant strand of answers, apparently supported by leaders in finance and industry, suggests that the freer the markets, the less the regulation, the less the interference of the state, the more profit, and ultimately the more profit and better living-standard for all.   ‘Ultimately’ for a very large number of people around the world may of course be a very long-term goal, but we are asked to trust the system, which appears to be the only serious game in town. If this is so, where does that leave much of traditional religious and philosophical ethics, with its appeal to the rights of the poor, its disapproval of greed and avarice and the notion that the members of a polis might have mutual obligations of protection and support.

John Rawls painstakingly articulated a somewhat abstract response in A Theory of Justice. With the aid of a thought experiment and a veil of ignorance, he argued that reasonable people would choose to live in a society in which economic progress would only be allowed if the least well off benefited as well. Here was a brave attempt to accept the depressing (but difficult to challenge) idea that the only serious political and economic choices are fundamentally to do with rational self-interest – and still get a good outcome for poor people.

Yet how could this abstract reason for niceness compete with the alternative position that markets need only to be truly free for self-interest to produce (paradoxically) the optimal outcome for all? The seeds of the idea are found in Adam Smith’s picture of the rich man (discussed below) who, because he cannot, humanly, consume everything himself, is bound to enrich those around him.   We also find in him the remark that those who focused on trading for themselves generally did far more for the common good than those who traded ‘for their country’.   Here is the invisible hand at work. Take this to its conclusion and the most ethical thing to do appears to be to pursue personal wealth in the free market without worrying about anyone else, and you’ll be doing them good anyway. If some happen to get hurt on the way (like miners or steel workers and their families) that is a fortiori a necessary sacrifice for the long-term greater good.   This seems appalling – and that sort of sense of outrage lies behind some of the language of the Pope’s encyclical excoriating the pursuit of profit irrespective of human or other ecological cost. But is it mistaken?   Is the whole thrust of Catholic Social teaching, and its appeal to solidarity and fairness one vast economically naïve mistake?

I have found John Kay’s book The Truth About Markets very helpful for putting some of these things into perspective.   He describes in the third part of the book how the concept of the invisible hand guiding the markets to the best outcome was given mathematical rigour in the twentieth century, providing an apparently objective basis for claims that the best welfare outcomes (in the allocation of limited resources) are best guaranteed by perfectly efficient, competitive markets.

We have already seen that Smith, though indeed arguing against tariffs and subsidies (or bounties) in favour of free international trade does so within an ethical and political framework. He has no hesitation in using ethical language to criticize the behaviour of some rich people. Though he talks about ‘natural price’, when it comes to wages he balances any natural downward thrust in wages with an appeal to common humanity. Though he preaches an end to bounties, he allows that governments might have to phase them out slowly in order to give those dependent on subsidized industries for their livelihood to adjust.   He even speculates that a completely free market is an impossible goal.

Kay has this to say about Smith:

‘The passage containing the invisible hand metaphor is not about general equilibrium theory: its purpose is to explain why merchants would continue to buy British products even if tariffs were removed… While it is unlikely that Smith held the views popularly attributed to him, speculation as to what exactly he did think is not helpful in arriving at the truth about markets. Our purpose now is to explain economic systems which Adam Smith could not conceivably have imagined.’ (184)

Nevertheless a particular distillation of a reading of Smith, a theory of rational self-interest and the reflections of mathematically rooted twentieth century thinkers lead to the neo-classical economics that underlie the American Business Model.

‘The Arrow-Debreu [mathematical models for market equilibrium] are the culmination of a long tradition in economics which emphasizes supply and demand, perfectly competitive markets and the search for market equilibrium, conducted by independent, self-regarding agents.’ (189)

The point of Kay’s book is to explain why such models and insights while interesting and at times enlightening cannot give a complete account of the economic order, because they do not capture everything that is true about behaviour and motivation – let alone the social structures in which the markets are embedded and which provide reasons why ‘Some markets are perfectly competitive, but most are not.’

He goes on, for instance, to challenge effectively the assumption of rational choice based on self-regarding materialism – and the motivation economists have for preferring this assumption against the evidence:

‘Self-regarding materialism is predictable; the actions of those who balance multiple objectives are more difficult to analyse… a further attraction… is that conclusions can be drawn from wholly a priori reasoning. No empirical investigation is required.’

Much later in the book, after analysis of the real significance of cooperation in making pluralist markets benign contributors to collective wealth, he has this to say about the 1980s consensus:

‘It is difficult to overstate the damage done by those who have claimed that self-regarding materialism is the dominant value of a successful market economy. They have set back the cause of economic development in the East and undermined the legitimacy and performance of the market economies of the West… We shall only gradually learn how much the competitive advantages of businesses in rich states have been eroded in the pursuit of unsustainable reported growth in earnings: banks which have lost the loyalty of their employees; pharmaceutical companies whose pipelines are increasingly thin; media companies which have alienated their creative talent; insurance companies which no longer have the confidence of their customers.’ (368)

In other words, there are important features of human economic activity that include collaboration, co-operation, mutuality and value that cannot be erased from the script without doing damage to the whole enterprise. Here then, it seems, is a point d’appui for discussing economic decision-making for the good of the polis which naturally and properly considers the welfare of the weakest in the context of a fundamentally collaborative enterprise.

That’s as far as I’ve got, to be continued.

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Hidden Variables 2: The Chinese School

I have to confess that I only caught the last of the three programmes. There was enough there, however, to hint at some important hidden variables: those elements in education that are ignored or underplayed in the current regime for assessing the performance of schools and teachers.

The school in Hampshire chosen was OFSTED outstanding – i.e. it could reasonably be expected to provide top-of-the range teaching according to the current UK standard.   A mainstream group of year 9s was pitted against a selected group of 50, who participated in a Chinese style schooling (provided by teachers from China) over a four-week period, concluding with exams in (I think) four subjects, including maths, science and Chinese. Which education system would prove most effective at exam time? When the results were announced, the average marks of the students from the Chinese school were significantly higher in every subject than those of their rivals in the main school. What might this mean?

The first thing to note is that the teaching style in the Chinese school appeared to be dominated by teacher explanation, note-taking, practice and repetition. The lessons were content-driven, there was little room for discussion, rebellious behaviour emerged, but was not tolerated, complaints about not understanding were met with the challenge just to try harder. As far as I could see there was none of the sophisticated use of teaching aids, small-group discussion, peer- and self-assessment, carefully crafted lessons etc that was presumably going on in the control group (though to be fair, we did not see very much of them in the programme I watched). There appeared to be no formal data entry nor was there any use of pre-existing data – but there may have been in previous episodes.

In many ways it was a glimpse into a not-so-distant past in our system: an exercise book marked with flying ticks and a simple comment ‘not good enough’. One pupil complained about the lack of help in class – students were just expected to keep up. One of the Chinese teachers marvelled at the lack of desire to work and understand in the British children. However, another acknowledged that maybe there was something important in the British system – the fact that the students did have the freedom to explore and ask questions, rather than just learn what the teacher presented.

All in all, what the Chinese teachers were doing would at best have been judged ‘requires improvement’ under the current regime for assessing teachers. The fact that they got better results in the examinations requires some explanation. Learning clearly took place in spite of teaching techniques that are (for very good reasons) widely believed to limit learning unnecessarily. In the programme some of those practices were criticized by the pupils experiencing them and even questioned by the practitioners themselves.

One important piece of information left out in the class averages was of course the spread of marks. The Chinese school averages were higher, which is likely to mean that its highest scoring students scored higher than their mainstream counterparts. But that could still be consistent with its lowest scoring students scoring lower than their counterparts. Now one might well expect rapid content-rich teaching aimed at the frontrunners to allow these to make more rapid strides than the slower paced participatory learning offered to their direct rivals. However such progress of the frontrunners might well be at the expense of those who complained that they just didn’t get it. [That is what I remember school being like forty years ago as a pupil, though that may be an unfair memory.] However, if the weakest members of the class in the Chinese school did outperform their peers, then that would make the results even more striking.

So what factors might make a difference? One is clearly the astonishingly long school day (7:00 am – 7:00 pm). The students are simply spending much more time in school, much less time outside class doing anything other than school related activity. That time itself was highly structured with recreation carefully controlled. All the activities (which included dance and sport) are framed within an ethos of purposive, focused, collaborative ambition, with the responsibility to conform to the standards of success placed squarely on the shoulders of the student. This latter was clearly a significant area of culture clash between pupils and teachers. However, it would appear that by the end of the period, the school’s discipline structure had won out, the will to subvert had been broken and almost all students were committed to doing their best for the school.

So there are two things to highlight. The first is controlling time – and thus the range of things that students have the opportunity to give their attention to.   Only boarding schools in the UK can currently exercise that sort of control (for good or ill) over students’ lives, though some academies are making moves in this direction. The other is the will to commit oneself to the struggle for learning, even when that does not come easily. ‘Shaping the will’ is something more familiar from images of army training (or older models of public schooling) where we see the will being forged through adversity and deviance rooted out. Modern UK teaching prefers to invest its energies in ‘wooing’ recalcitrant teenage wills rather than breaking them, though this can distort problems by laying the burden for failure on teachers rather than pupils. Whichever style does it for you (I would on the whole prefer the latter) those wills have to be won over somehow and the Chinese school appeared to succeed. Particularly striking was the teacher who was simply terrifying. No one messed with her. That is a highly effective strategy in any system.

There are a couple of other things to consider. Highly content-led teaching (most of us will be most familiar with this from university lecturing) delivered by someone who is good at what they do demands more work from the listener, concentrating, making notes, trying to understand, trying to remember what has been said in the course of the hour. For those that commit to the effort over time (even if at first it is difficult), they not only grow in knowledge of content, but they also grow in the skills needed to get the best out of that kind of presentation – how to wrest understanding from a spoken text for oneself without scaffolding, how to pay attention to memory work. Is that possibly what happened for some of the students in the Chinese school over the course of the four weeks? This is not to say that this is the best way to learn for everyone (though it may be for some) but just because it is not the best does not mean that it can’t work. Indeed that should probably not come as too much of a surprise when one reflects on the last two and a half thousand years of educational history.

The final hidden variable was revealed in the story of one of the rebels, who had particular issues with the Maths teacher. After bunking his extra Maths classes he was detained and spoken to at length. The teacher spoke to him kindly, tried to understand his motivation (and demotivation), assuring him that he could do it if he tried. The same rebel scored well in the exam and explained afterwards what had brought about the change. The teacher had believed in him. That sense of an affirming and supporting relationship had been sufficient to win over an otherwise recalcitrant will. It confirms what most experienced teachers and what most difficult pupils will say, that it is the quality of relationship that in some ways matters most for learning – but how do you quantify that?

The experiment was only four weeks – that in itself is a distorting factor – and was judged on an exam (rather than long-term work patterns). It was also, as we have seen, uneven in a variety of ways. However, there is enough there to raise some interesting questions about how our inspection and assessment regime might reweight the variables.

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