Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Is expressing opinions unprofessional?

This discussion came out of a conversation about films, and in particular Control, the recent biopic of Ian Curtis. Commenting on this film, someone said: 'biopics never work'. He went on to argue that biopics nowadays tend simply to present more or less factual details of someone's life, in a simple documentary manner, rather than expressing a view about it. The director aims not to be a presence - this would be seen to detract from the truth and objectivity of the film. In this mode critical discussions focus merely on the factual truth of the film, rather than what values it is expressing. This, we all agreed, fitted in with the present ubiquity of minimalist, impersonal, abstract approaches in the creative arts, which, in the same way, typically tend simply to present an image, a film, or a text, without comment or any kind of interpretive framework, for the viewer simply to experience: this tendency does not try to encourage people to think, only to react. The emphasis is on the surface, not what lies underneath: on what things look like, rather than on what they might mean.

My view of this tendency is that as a general approach to art and life, it is a cop-out, an abnegation of responsibility, a tendency to take the easy route, one that presents but does not comment. A political perspective would argue that such art, by doing nothing to express any kind of critical view, supports the status quo.

I wondered whether there was any connection between this conversation and my recent experience of marking written assignments as part of my work as a teacher on PGCE courses. These assignments are sometimes marked at Level 5 (degree level) and sometimes at level 7 (masters level). The commonest comment I have found myself making in feedback at both levels is: 'this is OK, but needs to go beyond the descriptive mode' - that is, these scripts typically present what some academic commentator has written, or describe an event in the student's classroom experience, but don't comment on or discuss these issues in any evaluative way. Sometimes they describe their mode of studying: 'I read the book which was on the reading list and we discussed it in class', rather than critically discussing anything they have read, or responding reflectively to the discussion. This is such a pronounced characteristic of many of these assignments that I wonder why this should be. Is it because students feel some inhibitions or barriers to commenting critically (either positively or negatively) on ideas about their work? Is it because they feel that it is unprofessional to be so personal as to be evaluative, to state their opinions about something to do with their work? Is the minimalist, impersonal mode so prevalent in art now becoming a pronounced feature of the culture in general?

Has having and stating a point of view become 'unfashionable'?

Having stated this question I do remember that after an MA seminar I took part in over 30 years ago, someone said: 'it would be so much better if people didn't express their opinions all the time!' So maybe nothing has changed. But do we want teachers who can't or won't express opinions? If the answer to this is yes, then what are the implications of this for society, politics, democracy, etc in the future?

Friday, 15 October 2010

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Haiku of the day:

A spectre is haunting
The triumph of capitalism

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Talent is not scarce: most people can do most jobs

At a lecture called ‘The Social Craftsman’ given at University College London in November 2009, the eminent sociologist Richard Sennett argued that ‘Talent is not scarce: most people can do most jobs, given appropriate training and support, and therefore our obsession, particularly in the UK and the USA, to organise education primarily as a winnowing process, using continuous testing to weed out the few from the many, is wasteful to the economy as well as unfair in social terms.’

He started by asserting that successive governments in Britain and the US have effectively taken the view that ‘low-level’ jobs can be exported without damaging the economy, including service jobs such call-centre jobs as well as manufacturing jobs.

Robert Reich’s 1991 book The Work of Nations, articulated this view: ‘We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century,’ Reich noted. ‘There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will be no national economies, at least as we have come to understand the concept. All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise a nation. Each nation’s primary assets will be its citizens’ skills and insights.’* Accordingly, developed societies need only foster ‘symbolic analyst’ jobs within their economies.

In Sennett’s view, this analysis initially appeared sound partly because of the exploitative, even imperialistic, way both the UK and the US think about foreign markets. The policies of our governments betray a restricted, static, non-developmental, non-social view of employment in relation to these lower level jobs. And what people in these foreign ‘client economies’ are achieving for themselves through these employment opportunities suggests this view is mistaken.

It is now clear that many people doing these jobs in other countries use their employment to build skills (starting often with learning English) and progress from being employees of a British company to employees of a local company to perhaps starting their own business, all a result of using their work to develop their skills. Sennett believes that almost all work, at whatever level, has this developmental potential – at least in principle – and that not seeing this is a serious and persistent mistake of UK and US employment and educational policy.

Sennett characterises the debate on how ‘skills’ are acquired as an ongoing argument between ‘endogenous’ theories of skill acquisition (in which learning is seen as a largely technical process common to all people and all contexts) and ‘cognitive situated’ theories, which see learning as deeply interconnected with the existing knowledge, understanding and motivation of each individual, and different in different contexts too. (He himself, ‘like any good Marxist’, he said, supports the second view.) We persistently try to ‘cut’ ability and talent much too finely, usually by using the blunt instrument of standardised testing in some form. His view on this is radical – he argues that most people can actually do reasonably well at most jobs – it’s only misleading test results and historic class prejudice that make us think differently.

In Britain and the US, it suits us to assume that talent is scarce and that it is therefore critical to identify the supposed one person in 20 who is capable. But in fact talent is not scarce. Most of the other 19 are just as capable in most circumstances, given the opportunity, educational support and the right social networks. Prevailing assumptions, however, lead us effectively to dump the 19, and to see the low status jobs they get (if they get a job at all) as not worthy of enriching with opportunities for professional or personal development.

We have limited awareness of, and generally little interest in fostering, the social and developmental dimensions of employment. Policy mostly ignores the potential of any work experience, provided it is sustained, to support the development of craft, social, civic and professional skills (understanding these in the broadest sense). The effectiveness for the economy of ‘just in time’ working patterns – repeated changing of jobs, short-term team working followed by dispersal, serial employment rather than sustained employment or careers – is exaggerated, while the disadvantages and costs of continual flexibility and volatility are systematically underestimated.

The net effect of this is that the UK and US exemplify a type of capitalism that (despite its rhetoric) is uninterested in developing human capital. The persistent idea that bankers and others in high-paid, privileged roles are by definition much more talented than those in lower status roles is an underlying cause of the recession and likely to mean that even after the recession, high unemployment and/or a significant ‘Macjob’ sector will continue to be toxic features of our economy, sustaining the vicious circle they are symptomatic of.

At the end of the lecture I asked him for his view on the idea that while too much testing was creating problems for sustained learning, at least it meant that there was less scope for discrimination in terms of access to jobs and higher education, Sennett responded with a story: one year during his stint as admissions registrar for Harvard University, an error in the admissions procedure allowed 90 students whose grades were clearly ‘not good enough’ to enter the university. All of them, he said, graduated brilliantly.....
* Reich, Robert B., (1991) The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves For 21st Century Capitalism

Richard Sennett
Born Chicago, 1943, studied piano and cello until hand injury in 1963
Attended University of Chicago & Harvard University, Ph.D. in 1969
1970s: Co-founded New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University
1980s: Advisor to UNESCO, president of the American Council on Work; teaching at Harvard
1990s to present: Divides time between New York University and the London School of Economics
Work: Social analyst interested in how individuals and groups make sense of material facts about where they live and the work they do
Books include: The Corrosion of Character, 1998, how middle-level employees make sense of the ‘new economy’
Respect in a World of Inequality, 2002, effects of new ways of working on the welfare state
The Culture of the New Capitalism, 2006, an over-view of change
The Craftsman, 2008, investigating the processes and work contexts which support people to develop the highest level of skill.

For more see http://www.richardsennett.com/

Friday, 1 October 2010

Thoughts for the Day

How much less sociable is false speaking than silence! (Montaigne)

Thoughts for the Day

'Students are commonly troubled with gouts, catarrhs, rheums, cachexia, bradypepsia, bad eyes, stone, and colic, crudities, oppilations, vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting; they are most part lean, dry, ill-coloured, spend their fortunes, lose their wits and many times their lives, and all through immoderate pains and extraordinary studies.' Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621

Topics for imminent posts

  • The past is orange: if William of Orange had not died childless, would the UK and Holland now be one country?

  • Private schools: the most important way to reduce class-based unequal outcomes in schools is to abolish private education. So argued an articulate working class teenage girl from Kirby, Lancashire, last week on John Humphreys' documentary.

  • In a keynote speech during his visit to the UK last week, the Pope asserted that 'morality is founded on religious belief': most commentators failed to question this. Do you have to believe in a God to lead a good life?

  • Incentive payments to achieve targets can actually make results worse: see a recent animated lecture on the RSA website.

  • 'Most people can do most jobs' (Richard Sennett): talent is not scarce, and we need our education and training systems to stop operating as if it is.

Innovation - always a good thing?

Businesses, colleges, quangos, and government departments always aspire to innovate. Innovation is one of those words that seems to have no negative connotations - redolent of creativity, modernity, flexibility, responsiveness, and other buzzwords that offer similarly positive but essentially vague promises.

Of course innovation is a good thing, but, and this is my point, not in principle. A new product, system, policy, or piece of software may well be innovatory, in the sense that it breaks new ground technically, or generally does something or offers something that has never been done or offered before. But none of those qualities guarantee that the innovation is useful or productive.

Let's look at some examples. Utility companies, providing gas, electricity or phone services, continually bombard us with junkmail, text messages, or even personal callers, offering us 'new' payment packages, through which we may be able to save money. These packages are described as new and innovatory 'products', through which their services are being brought to a competititve market place. My point is that they may well be new and innovatory in some sense to do with the range of types of payment package on offer, but in fact they clutter up the market place so that it is actually harder for consumers to find the way to pay that suits them best. Far from being useful, they make life more difficult for consumers.

Most people agree that the world recession was caused by some of the banks behaving like gambling consortia. One of the ways they brought about the crash was by innovating. I've heard these innovations also described as 'products': they offered new types of
investment opportunity, based not on funding useful economic activity, but on the buying and selling of investment risk. These products may have been innovatory, but they also helped inflate the bubble that when it burst brought about the present financial crisis across the world.

In the world of policymaking, we have the intractable conundrum that while the most important social, political and economic problems are not inherently solvable in the short term, policy is expected to be developed and implemented within the lifetime of a government, ie 5 years maximum. New ministers want to make an impact quickly, so they are tempted towards 'innovatory' policies, not because they are useful or they are workable in practice, but because they sound good and give the impression that the minister is active and hands-on. This syndrome, of course is found not just within national and local government, but in all types of organisation, among senior and middle managers, who routinely change jobs more and more frequently. In the early days of New Labour, in the late 90s, I read this, written by a government adviser: 'Anyone who stays for more than two years in an organisation becomes a drag on that organisation.'

This kind of inanity represents tunnel vision about the future: anything new is good, anything old is bad. This is the language and thinking of thoughtless and irresponsible advertising agencies and snake-oil sellers. Innovation can get a bad name very easily, and that would be disastrous, because we need new ideas and inventions to help us solve the huge problems we face in relation to climate change, world poverty and inequality.

All new ideas should be welcomed, but not implemented until they have been evaluated for their utility: do they work, will they improve things, are they practicable and affordable, will they have any unintended side-effects? Don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Thought for the day

'Data is not the plural of anecdote' - except possibly in the world of blogging!

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Welcome to my new Blog, titled 192 192!

I am setting up this Blog as part of a course I am taking looking at the educational potential of Web 2.0 tools and the issues raised by using these tools in educational contexts.

I now work as a teacher trainer in the UK, after many years working in Adult and Further Education as a teacher, curriculum manager, and Head of Department, specialising in adult literacy, numeracy and language teaching and learning. More about my work can be found at www.bluesky-learning.com

I imagine that most of my posts to this Blog will concern aspects of education that I am most interested in, which include policy on assessment and accountability, effective teaching and learning using formative approaches to teaching and learning, and the integration of learning with work. However, the issues raised by these topics, for example on accountability in public service areas of professionalism, have relevance far beyond a narrow educational focus, so my lucubrations (look it up) are likely to range wider than this. Hopefully this will make the blog interesting to a wider group of punters.

Although very interested in the potential of Web 2.0 tools to enhance educational activity, I tend to take a sceptical view at first, partly because so much that people write about digital technology tends to be over-enthusiastic, gushing, and idealistic, and also naively technocratic, as if everything about life can be improved merely by regulating it more heavily. Much of what I read about the new technologies, particularly on the web itself, makes me react the same way I do to a door-to-door insurance salesperson, ie negatively.

I have called the blog 192 192 as a reference to old technology, a reminder that technology doesn't necessarily bring improvements just because it is new, and that sometimes good things are lost when old technologies or platforms become extinct. 192 was the old number for directory enquiries on the analogue landline phone system. I admit it, I'm a collector of interesting aspects of life in the past which are now gone: this one might as well have disappeared a million years ago - in fact it was only a decade or so since it was replaced by 118.