Social Engineering – part 2 of 2

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by Ed Cadwallader

In a previous post I argued that social engineering is what schools do and the specific features our school system installs are hierarchy, passivity and atomisation. I ended by asking the question ‘what sort of society should we engineer?’ In this post I argue that our schools should try to engineer equality, the belief that our fellow citizens are no more or less valuable to society than ourselves; autonomy, the ability to work and self-organise without direction from authorities; and community, the habit of forming connexions to those around us through enjoyment of shared activities.

To achieve this requires an adjustment to the curriculum but it also requires a more fundamental change to the ethos of schooling. At the moment the purpose of school is to obtain grades in qualifications and where possible academic qualifications, as vocational ones are predominantly offered to those who have not been successful academically. A clear line can be drawn from academic ability, to good grades, to higher earning potential and thus to higher social status. School in its present form connects academic ability, which strongly correlates with having educated parents, to high social status. In order to engineer an equal society this ethos must be replaced with the starting premise that although we may not be equally capable as workers or thinkers, we are equally valuable as citizens.

There is, and will always be, a wide difference between the best and worse academic performers so in order for the contention that we are equal to be credible, the curriculum must be broadened beyond academic study, for all children. Rather than a vocational component, that trains children for a specific occupation, this should be a practical one that, like its academic counterpart, provides children with knowledge and skills applicable to a broad range of future paths. For this, I propose that children should, in teams of four or five, set up and run small businesses. At primary level these would operate within school, using school issued currency then at secondary children would move on to the real world and make real money.

Running businesses would develop children’s ability to agree a shared goal and work with other people to achieve it, to organise themselves and to build strong relationships with clients, by making realistic promises and honouring them. Such a feature of the curriculum would help correct the natural inequality that bedevils school in its current form. Despite the worthy efforts of Growth Mindset advocates there is a weak relationship between effort and academic reward; a child with an IQ of 140 can, with minimal effort, outperform a herculean striver with an IQ of 70. In a practical endeavour like running a business the correlation between effort and outcome is much stronger, all children would grow up knowing that, whatever their natural gifts, they can be successful if they are prepared to work hard.

Fostering equality amongst members of a school community also requires changes to the way the academic curriculum is delivered. Not its content, all children deserve to study the best that has been thought and said, but its mode of assessment. Making grades the ultimate objective of study reduces the motivation of all who are given average or below average grades, with the strongest discouragement accompanying the lowest attainment. Grades should therefore be abolished. Exploring relationships and the mind through great works of literature, deepening our understanding of society by gaining knowledge of the past, stripping the world down to abstraction in maths and then testing abstract theory through scientific experiment, all this and more is its own reward and it is a reward we should not dare to taint with badges of inferiority.

I have heard it argued that as kids know who is bright and who is dim it makes no difference that these judgments are crystallised into letters and numbers. I disagree. Making what is implicitly understood explicit and public makes a powerful difference. Consider a football team. All the players know who the best and worst players are, yet all can enjoy playing together. However, if the coach gave each player an individual mark out of ten at the end of every game, the team would quickly fall apart, poisoned by envy and stigma that do not exist when players’ individual merits are left ambiguous.

The curriculum changes necessary to engineer equality can also be a driver for greater autonomy. Currently all work in school is set by those in authority and in the academic sphere this is, to an extent, inevitable. Students don’t know the best that has been thought and said and so cannot be expected to spontaneously choose to study it. In the practical sphere, in contrast, no such explicit direction is necessary. Students can be given a remit of deciding a shared goal, which could be to make money or launch a social enterprise, and the freedom to pursue it. The opportunity to choose what they want to achieve and to solve whatever obstacles the real world presented would show children that work does not have to be bestowed by those in authority, it is something we can define for ourselves.

Creating a student economy would also allow children direct experience of a fundamental right and responsibility of a citizen in a democracy, that of choosing a government with the power to tax and spend. Allowing students to confront in practice the questions of ‘how much of our earnings should we keep and how much should be dedicated towards a common fund?’ and ‘how can we ensure that the money we pool is spent wisely?’ would raise citizens better equipped to be full participants in our democracy by dispelling the notion, implicit in current school structure, that the world runs as it does because of the decisions of powerful others, made behind closed doors.

Many schools shy from student democracy, or permit it only in heavily constrained form, because of the antipathy of many students towards school. But that antipathy is a product of hierarchy, that tells a few they are bright and successful and most that they are average or worse. A school that treats its pupils with equal respect would face no such impediment to responsible student government.

School can engineer a sense of community by fostering connexions formed by enjoyment of shared activities. Having children work together, towards shared goals, rather than solely towards individual ones facilitates this. Schools could go further by using the arts as bridges to the wider community. Instead of using Art, Music and Drama lessons to produce work to be assessed they can be used to produce work to be displayed, played and performed. The point of the arts is not to master skills and techniques, doing so is a means to achieve a broader goal of expressing ourselves and congregating with people to experience the joy those skills allow us to create.

Student leadership in organising such arts events would develop the skills and habit of bringing members of the community together to celebrate our shared culture. The house system provides a further opportunity to develop this organisational capacity and to extend it to the sports field. Dividing students into teams (‘houses’) and organising competitions between those teams, rather than just having school ones, raises by an order of magnitude the number of opportunities to participate. More participation means more connexions, a broader set of people united by a shared pastime.

Communities are strong and harmonious to the extent that their members know and interact with each other, but such interactions do not always happen organically, especially when populations are mobile and have diverse cultures and languages. By making the development of those connexions, and the skills to carry on making them, an explicit goal of schooling we would make our society happier and more at peace with itself.

How we structure school has profound implications for the nature of the society we live in. Almost everything a child learns about the world beyond their family they learn at school. This learning encompasses what is explicitly taught in the curriculum and what is implicitly understood about our relationships with the authorities and one another. Therefore to work in Education is to be a social engineer, whether we balk at that responsibility or embrace its challenge. I believe we should engineer a society of people who respect one another as equals, who respect authority but understand it is their duty not to bow to it unquestioningly and who seek out their neighbours, knowing that the connexions they’ll form are the foundation of their security and happiness.

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.

 

Social Engineering – part 1 of 2

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by Ed Cadwallader

To say that a policy is ‘social engineering’ is to say that it is bad, with no further explanation required. This strikes me as strange because social engineering is a very apt description of what schools do. The curriculum is a competition between individuals to see who’s top and who’s bottom. Children born to middle class parents are usually taught that they are at the top, their work is valuable and they can expect to have stable, well-paid employment in the future. Children born to poorer parents are far likelier to grow up with the mirror image of that experience, their academic performance denoting that they are inferior, less valuable citizens. School provides our formative understanding of how we as citizens relate to those in authority and each other. The way school is structured ensures three prominent features are embedded in these relationships: atomisation, passivity and hierarchy.

The overwhelming focus of our school system is exam results, that is the grades we receive to denote our individual achievement. Virtually all jobs involve working with other people towards shared goals, yet for the first fifteen odd years of our working lives we are taught to conceive of attainment in purely personal terms. Later on, our employers invest huge sums in making us more effective collaborators, effectively trying to unteach us the conception of work as a solo enterprise that we learned as children. Of course, schools to varying degrees engage their pupils in group work to try and foster these elusive team-working skills, but this if anything exacerbates the problem because the groups in question have no identity and their achievement no meaning. The lesson of group work is that working with other people is a means to achieve our own targets, the group is the tool of the individual rather than the other way around.

As well as raising us as atomised workers, school makes us passive ones. The tasks to be completed are defined by those in authority as is the quality of our responses. Pupils are taught in minute detail how to pass the particular exams chosen by their school. The lesson they absorb while doing so is that work means doing precisely what you’ve been to do, the way you’ve been told to do it. This passivity extends to disputes between pupils, as the correct response to any such disagreement is ‘tell a teacher’. The authorities at school assume the responsibility for all matters of student life, great and small. When problems arise in society, often problems caused by the way we as citizens behave, a cry goes up of ‘something must be done!’ This is the learned reaction of people who have formed their idea of how society works in a benign autocracy.

Atomisation and passivity weaken the fabric of society but their negative impact pales in comparison with the most damaging feature that school engineers into our relations with one another: hierarchy. It is simple to rank children based on school performance from best to worst. The language we use to describe them – ‘high ability’ ‘low attainer’ – makes this clear and it is a hierarchy of status, those we label as high achieving will gain secure, professional employment while ‘low achievers’ can expect insecure employment or none at all. A child’s position in the hierarchy determines their relationship with those in authority, as those treated with respect grow up to be respectful and those shamed with contempt become oppositional and defiant. The fact that the prison population is overwhelmingly made up of the latter group is usually explained by a deficiency of learning, lacking a good education these people turned to crime. But many people immigrate without qualifications and they don’t show the same propensity to commit crimes. Rather than what the lowest attainers didn’t learn at school we should think about what they did, the humiliating lesson they are considered the bottom of the social pile. If that was your formative experience of a society how much respect for that society and its values would you have?

Divisions of status harden into a class chasm because they not only affect how we relate to authority, but also how we relate to one another. Equality is a necessary condition for friendship and so the child who gets As is very rarely friends with her peer who gets Fs. As adults those who were successful in education and grew up to exercise control over the education system are untroubled by personal connections to those who are so ill served by it. Meanwhile, working class children who have the ability to succeed within the system are placed in the unenviable position of being asked to say to their friends and family ‘I’m going to leave you behind in poverty and go and join a separate, higher class of people’, if they are to pursue the social mobility that middle class system designers have decided they, but not their friends and family, deserve.

School engineers a divided society of citizens ill equipped to challenge established power structures, with fear and antagonism on both sides of the line that separates those who passed from those who failed. Social engineering is not an occasional threat posed by changes to university admissions procedures, it is a feature of modern society.

Though the responsibility is great and terrible the question educators must ask themselves is: what sort of society should we engineer?

About the author

Ed Cadwallader is an Educational Consultant who advises schools on assessment and curriculum design. He is interested in history, economics and the dangers that lurk around the corners of modernity. You can follow Ed on Twitter @Cadwalladered and his personal blog is Kingdom of Even.

Inclusive CPD?

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On Monday I delivered CPD on making our classrooms more inclusive.

I shared quotes from the technical guidance on 2010 equalities act that says when it is not ok to exclude and why we need to make reasonable adaptations to our systems.

I shared extracts from the Scottish Standards for teacher registration that use the words ‘care for’ and ‘wellbeing’ and reference responsibilities of all.

I suggested 8 myths that we need to debunk:
* Things have never been this bad.
* This is not the right school for him.
* We can’t do anything until she gets a mental health diagnosis.
* If X gets away with this, the other pupils will think they can too.
* I am not a social worker and this is not my job.
* There is no hope for that child.
* There is a quick fix.
* (Mrs Carter is a soft…

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Piecing together the Jigsaw: Common Weal and Edinburgh University childhood project

by Common Weal (see original post here – used with permission)

‘Piecing together the Jigsaw: Connecting the politics of childhood poverty, education and welfare’ will start with a Policy Lab looking at the specific ways in which poverty affects children and young people.

THE link between poverty and underachievement is undeniable but there is still limited agreement on why they are related. The Scottish Government are pursuing with great urgency a strategy to remedy the situation, but risks repeating the mistakes of education systems in England and the USA where frequent testing has not helped overcome disadvantage. There is clearly a need to extend discussion of this complex and intractable problem.

In response to this challenging situation, and in the belief that good policy needs to be built on widespread discussion and democratic participation of all relevant parties, Common Weal and the University of Edinburgh are inviting you to take part in ‘Piecing Together the Jigsaw’, a series of Policy Labs followed by a conference to present the findings. The first session will take place in September 2016 on the question How does poverty affect children and young people?

Our plans are for three Policy Labs, each lasting three hours, leading to a whole-day Conference.  The events will seek to bring together professionals, parents, policy makers, politicians, service providers and young people to better connect research and thinking.  They will seek to bridge across the silos and cul-de-sacs of policy, research and practice to generate consensus on how we go forward.  One major concern is to examine whether current policies and initiatives concerning school attainment, care, early years, early intervention, additional support for learning and ‘wellbeing’ merely act as sticking plasters for much deeper and entrenched inequalities.

The aim is to bring together all those with an interest in forming a deeper understanding of the lives of children and young people growing up in poverty, its impact on education, and the contradictory nature of responses including the Attainment Challenge. The policy labs and concluding conference are designed to enhance participatory policy formation and enactment, and create a sound consensus for future developments.

The various meetings, the blogs posted in preparation, and summaries of the discussions, will form the basis for online and print publications.

Draft schedule

21 September: How does poverty affect children and young people?

This session will highlight the way poverty is experienced, including the voices of young people. It will look at the the curtailment of opportunities and experiences and the impact of child poverty on identity, health, learning and self-esteem.

(Blog posts in preparation for this discussion: deadline 14 Sept)

25 November: How do we understand the impact of poverty on learning and achievement?

This session will look at competing explanations of underachievement. It will challenge theories which point fingers of blame at parents, neighbourhoods, teachers and young people themselves. It will open a discussion of which features of schooling in Scotland are helpful in enhancing young people’s development, and which aspects might be exacerbating and reproducing the problem.

(Blog posts: deadline 18 Oct)

11 January: Examining the jigsaw of policies and initiatives.

This session will take a look at key policies designed to assist disadvantaged young people and improve their learning, qualifications and opportunities. It will examine recent and current policies including early years, community schools, literacy hubs, ASL, GIRFEC and the new Scottish Attainment Challenge. Questions will be raised about whether these responses are coherent or contradictory, and whether they get to the heart of the problems. (Blog posts: 4 Jan)

22 March (Conference): Tackling the attainment gap – taking social justice really seriously

This conference will review the debates and ideas from the three earlier gatherings, and look at examples of good practice internationally. It will work towards the formulation of democratic and progressive principles for improving the welfare, achievement and futures of young people. Our aim will be to develop holistic and creative solutions which offers hope to young people currently bearing the brunt of austerity politics, and a sustainable policy framework which points towards a fairer Scotland.  (Blog posts: deadline 8 March)

We believe this process can help develop a deeper understanding of the real issues affecting children and young people in Scotland at the same time as informing the policy debate, connecting creative ideas and promoting more integrated solutions.

We would welcome your involvement in this project. The CommonSpace Policy channel will be opening itself up to contributions preceding and in the aftermath of each Policy Lab. If you would like to get involved in this project, please email aedan@common.scot, To register for the first policy lab on 21 September, email aedan@common.scot for an invitation.

About Common Weal

Common Weal is a ‘think and do tank’ campaigning for social and economic equality in Scotland.

We are a think tank, a campaigning and advocacy organisation, a news service, a network of local groupsand more. We are also a philosophy of a different kind of Scotland and how we can achieve it.

Our goal is to achieve a Scotland of social and economic equality and environmental sustainability with a vibrant community and cultural life, widespread democratic participation, a high quality of life and cooperative working. We believe there are a series of key ideas which can explain how we achieve that kind of Scotland. These are all linked to a vision of what a better Scotland could be.

Common Weal is a non-profit company with a Board drawn from Scotland’s leading activists and campaigners. It emerged during the Scottish independence referendum campaign and began operating as an independent organisation in October 2014.

Common Weal has a smal staff team that works on a number of different areas of work. Common Weal Policy develop research-based policy proposals, and through our policy channel engages a wide community in policy discussions and seeks to make policy engaging and easy to understand. Through our campaigns officer, Common Weal organises campaigns and advocacy work around priority issues and builds campaigning coalitions with other like-minded people and organisations. The Common Weal Local team support and coordinate a series of local Common Weal groups. Each is autonomous and pursues its own priorities but all share the Common Weal philosophy and seek to make it a reality in their own communities. And CommonSpace is a news service and social media hub which seeks to bring people together, help them to organise and provide them with the news they want to read.

Common Weal is entirely funded through lots of small regular donations from our supporters, and from some merchandising and events income. Every penny is used to support all the activities above, overwhelmingly by enabling us to employ our staff.

Going up: Improving Scotland’s Attainment Levels

by Jackie Brock

Confession time. I believe fervently in the importance of attainment and achievement. I detest the way our education system marches our young people through an increasingly narrow range of options to the extent that on results day their learning journey – and its success – is judged by their grades at national and higher levels.

As a mum, my rhetorical views, have been challenged by this year’s Results Day and my child’s “disappointing” grades.

My rose-tinted assumption of a smooth journey to university was overturned. My annoyance that his school could have been more challenging and supportive clouded all the great achievements of the previous years.

Then, of course, we got moving. We explored all the options, identified a college course and life again feels full of possibilities.

But I don’t want to lose sight of how quickly my fundamental beliefs were challenged and, if I am not alone, how much we have to do to get behind the Scottish Government’s ambition to improve excellence and equity in our schools, early years settings, colleges and universities.

I have no doubt, now more than ever, that we need changes to be made in Scotland’s education system and changes in how we value and reward success among children and young people.

For me the question is who is our education system for? If it is for every child then how are we valuing the achievements and attainment of every child? Saying things like “university isn’t for everyone” or “there are some very good colleges”, is incredibly patronising and in no way demonstrates value. Beware: every young person and parent has antennae that can pick up tokenism instantly.

A critical starting point is the engagement of parents.

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting to volunteers who had been working in schools over the last year. One of those present was also the Chair of his child’s school’s parent council who said how pleased he was with his own child’s learning and the way in which teachers were monitoring and supporting progress.

I later outed myself as once being a civil servant who had been involved in the implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). I told him that I had rarely heard a parent talk so positively and knowledgably and it was a great sign that progress is being made.

We always knew that once we reached a tipping point with parents buying-in to the benefits of CfE, we would have succeeded. While it’s great to have international recognition that our system is innovative – for me, nothing beats a child, young person or parent speaking passionately about the benefits of CfE for their learning.

The Scottish Government is right to focus on priority curriculum areas, such as those highlighted last year by the OECD – literacy, numeracy and the uptake of mathematics. The equity gap between most and least disadvantaged, as well as between girls and boys is also critical to address, which is why we need to retain our efforts to improve wellbeing. As well as all the other benefits, these are real, tangible improvements which parents can buy into and feel increasingly that Scotland’s education is doing right by their child.

Before the summer, the Scottish Education Secretary John Swinney published the government’s plan to deliver excellence and equity in Scottish education. Many of these ideas are reinforced in his formal Education Delivery plan. The extension of the Scottish Attainment Challenge is also underway.

Announcing the Programme for Government to Scottish Parliament yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also reminded of her promises around nursery provision, and school reforms. These include the provision of a qualified teacher or childcare graduate in nurseries in deprived communities as well as plans to consult on a new funding formula for schools in 2017.

These are all welcome developments but it is crucial that we take the action needed that will take forward the practical support required to support families and schools in areas of deprivation.

In early years we need to focus on reinforcing the opportunities for our toddlers to learn through play. We need to extinguish the notion that time spent playing is time wasted. It has very real and evidenced social and developmental benefits. We need to recognise this and enhance the opportunities available for some of our youngest learners. 

We need to support parents to support their children. Helping develop parents’ confidence will enable them to better support their children’s learning. Equally, secondary schools need to work closely with parents to make sure they know about their achievements as well as their attainment and make sure that parents can feel confident in how they can support their children around their choices and, particularly on results day, play their part in responding constructively and supporting options, if the results are unexpected.

School leaders must have the very best access to evidence for improving literacy, numeracy and health and well-being. We need to emphasise whole-school approaches and share more widely what’s working on a practical level, and what’s getting the best results.

We need to build on the best of the support currently provided, such as the brilliant work and support on offer from the Scottish Book Trust and the Paired Reading programmes provided through Scottish Business in the Community.

Finally, we need to reduce the bureaucracy which can inhibit school leaders working with the third sector. There are a number of wonderful resources available through the third sector but increased bureaucracy often means partnerships can be too difficult, cumbersome or simply too time-consuming for school leaders to negotiate.

By bringing together the coalition of partners who want to support schools, communities and families, and reducing bureaucracy in education, we can start to plan practical action that will help deliver in areas of deprivation and where the attainment gap is most evident.

These should in turn improve overall attainment levels for pupils in Scotland and increase the opportunities available to them.

If we are all better at navigating the education system, valuing every stage of the learning journey and engaged meaningfully with parents, it might even bring stress levels on Results Day down a notch.

About the author

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Edinburgh based charity, Children in Scotland. She took up post with the charity after 12 years in the civil service, during which she led on the development of Curriculum for Excellence in her position as Deputy Director of Learning and Support. Jackie’s key priorities are improving educational attainment, tackling child poverty and improving the early years.

Follow Children in Scotland on Twitter @cisweb, and Jackie @jackiejbrock