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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