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.