Pedagogy is political

It seems a glib truism to state that everything is political, but clearly (to even the vaguest of thinkers) it is. Your choice of partner is a political decision; your choice of friend too; (equally, and perhaps more obviously, your choice of enemy is political); probably, your decision as to whether you opt for butter or margarine is in some way a political one: I tend towards thinking that butter is probably a ruling class scam, but also towards thinking that margarine is much the same. But I also think that shoehorns, spoons, sugar and even the notion of subtlety (along with any every other concept that ever began with a letter, ever) are ruling class scams.


Pedagogy is probably a little less politically opaque than what you spread on your bread: it is deeply and profoundly political. And so, the past, current and future ‘debate’ around what constitutes approved classroom practice must, by nature, be political – there being an Ofsted and therefore government approved method of teaching was certainly political; and those arguing for evidence-led practice, in managing to have this seemingly redacted, have achieved a potent and subversive political act.


One might have assumed that the intention of such an act was to allow teachers the freedom to teach in the way they want, but this profoundly creative act of destruction has been seemingly accompanied by a new dictate: certain formerly Ofsted approved pedagogies are now no longer approved – this time by a different, looser authority – and use or defense of these marks any teacher out as being not in line with current[1] thinking. We find ourselves, therefore, in the confusing and disappointing situation where the revolutionaries formerly at the gate appear to rather like the sofas in virtual Versailles[2]; and we must greet the new boss to note that the only marked dissimilarity to the old boss is the amount of virtual coffee breath expended as they shout ‘ad hom’ in the face of anyone who disagrees with them. (Though I acknowledge here that calling anyone out on this is liable to be termed an ‘ad hom’ attack and that I am actually a Nazi).


Pedagogy is and always has been political. But what seems ignored by any quasi-religious groupthink (and I do not suggest for a moment that my generation of teachers were innocent of this themselves) is that there were rationalised and, yes, ideological reasons behind the employ of the now ‘non-approved’ pedagogies. And that these, in principle at least (and quite often in practice) were sound.


We’ll take only the most easily defensible and most unfairly demeaned one as an example: group work. There were, in fact, rational (and political) arguments for moving away from a transmission model of teaching to what many teachers felt at the time to be a more ‘democratised’ approach. Again, this was more appropriate to some subjects than others: it may be that, in maths, group work isn’t much use at all, or that, in history, fulfilling the rather paltry ambition of teaching them a set of dates works best by the teacher telling them such dates (though there are probably vastly more interesting and more memorable ways of doing this). But in some subjects, English is the easiest example for me as I know little bits about how to teach it, getting students to talk to each other while investigating a text was held to be key to developing their ability to articulate (which is a fairly important part of the job, I think), to share their analysis and to challenge the daft or clever ideas of others. You had to teach them stuff they didn’t know first, but grouped work gave students the chance - how do I put this? – to debate.


English is a quite esoteric, skills based subject (it’s not binary; there’s no correct answer Mr. policy maker; it’s just how well you express yourself) and grouped discussion was felt to be better preparation for an essay than teacher-talk when operating in the abstract realms of pubescent literary criticism. Teacher-talk would generate a whole series of essays in which the kids merely churned out a facsimile version of the teacher’s (sometimes faulty) understanding as with transmission teaching you knew only what the teacher knew, which in some instances was not much.


Also, we divert here into teacher as (unwilling representative of) authority figure. There was a further decidedly political element to the advantaging of group work: many of the previous generation(s) (I include my ILEA forbears here) of teachers were profoundly distrustful of the notion of authority. Many of us were creatures of what might be best understood by younger teachers as a ‘Corbynesque’ version of the left. We were/are socialists: interested principally in equality of opportunity, and the idea behind absenting the teacher from being thought the sole trustworthy voice in the class was, I think, orientated around practicing what was preached. The intention was to nurture the voice of the child, to give them a sense of its validity and potential power; and, rather too softly-softly for my liking, to politicize them.[3] We teach not to be obeyed but to be questioned.


You had to have something to talk about, though. And where perhaps some of us went wrong was in seeing the pedagogy as an end in itself rather than as a vessel through which ‘knowledge, understanding and skills’ were taught (or arrived at). In some instances, this went too far and a collapse in teacher authority resulted in lawlessness. But I would argue this was not the fault of flawed pedagogy, but of flawed, overly permissive systems; many of us also had profound reservations about being told that we could not put ‘By the end of this lesson you will know’ on our lesson plans.


Again, this is not to say that there was no rationale behind this. It was, I think, predominantly about kids not being bored witless by being talked at all day every day, and adding the unnecessary and wrong headed compulsory skills element to the setting of lesson objectives was merely a flawed way of ensuring the kids got to do something in the lesson and were not treated as being just vessels (I am aware of the contentious nature of this word; I think it’s reasonable). Regarding listening as not being an entirely passive activity has some truth in it (not a lot though, really), but you wouldn’t want it as a sole diet, six hours a day, every school day for 13 years.


And the old questions remain about knowledge being in no way politically neutral remain. What knowledge are we talking about? Whose version of history, and whose history? Which works of literature should appear on the curriculum? How are we to view colonialism? Is there a class system underpinning everything that is wrong in this country? Or is it correct, right and proper? How hard do those at the top work to ensure the structures that put them there remain unsullied by revolution or dissent? Is education set up to ensure this divide remains? Is society just? Should the study of Latin be democratized, or is the appearance of doing this merely a means of instating that the ways of the ruling class are intellectually superior to the practices of other castes? Are media studies and sociology useful subjects in which we might learn about how society is structured and organised, or just the soft playthings of idiots? Was Teach First solely intended to get subject specialist posterior on velvet, or was there a wider political agenda to change the demography of influence in the profession? How many of those arguing for a traditional approach are graduates (and perhaps protectors) of a tradition that put their parents at the top of things? How many of those arguing for textbooks are intrigued by the commercial and political possibilities of writing those textbooks? What is the significance of the word ‘return’ in Absolute Return for Kids? Who are the masters here? If you are a glowing footnote in a Policy Exchange document how does this affect what you believe? Is an accusation of paranoia often the precursor to fiscal or political rape? What are the likely long-term political consequences of all this ‘apolitical’ discussion of what works? Does stating that you are not a plaything of a political movement make you something more than a useful idiot? Or does it just make you more useful?


These are legitimate … political … questions to ask. To dismiss any questions about the political motivations or consequences or heritage behind those arguing (broadly) for a reversion to a more authoritarian time as mere paranoia is merely one of the many unsophisticated though successful textbook techniques of the right wing. And therein is the leap that concerns. We seem to have moved away from the idea that teaching was a dialectic activity involving teacher and class in joint search for enlightenment back to a brave old world in which approved knowledge must be asserted by unimpeachable authority figures. I’ve noted that some of the assertions seem to coagulate around some key ideas: boredom is good for you, inequality is somehow just, enjoying lessons is anti intellectual, engaging kids is much the same.


I think the neo trads are more than just being conservatives masked as radicals, and that some/many of them make a compelling case. (It is also clear from the levels of righteous and deep anger expressed that that case is sincere). But political actions have political consequences and wondering what those might be (even at the point it is apparent to the blind) remains justifiable. We fought this war before, y’know: I am not yet convinced that the good guys lost.


[1] (Note also here that the present tense will always convert to the past: everything, always is just a matter of time)

[2] This is unfair, but the phrasing has so pleased me that I couldn’t kill it.

[3] I’m aware that the neo trads (for want of a more accurate name) also argue that they are motivated by equality of opportunity (though a few seem to regard inequality as a good thing (!)). I don’t doubt the sincerity of those with the former position. The latter is just copying the words of a profoundly unprincipled politician hoping that he’ll notice you and give you a badge.

Added Fri, 8 Apr 2016 21:36

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