The Style and Code of Education

Posted: February 4, 2014 in Critical Pedagogy
Tags: , , , ,

Education is like football.

People of differing opinions, philosophies and experience prefer the game to be played in different ways. But, there are two very important distinctions here: style and code.

Style, is the way it should be played. The differences in the style of football could be a dogged display of determination (think, long ball highly effective football, e.g. Stoke City) or a controlled exhibition of virtuosity (for example, watching a sublime performance from The Arsenal).

Opposing preferences of style can only be tested when there is a universal agreement about the code. The code is how the game should be played, for example Rugby Union, American Football, Australian Rules are different codes of football; they are different games, they have different rules.

There are equally significant differences between codes and styles in education. People of differing views prefer ‘the game’ to be played in different ways (style). While the goal (please excuse the glaringly obvious pun), or code of education falls into mainly two positions. The problem is many people tend to confuse differences between codes of education with differences of style.

Do we spend too much time disagreeing about the style when we should really be focussing on the code? Is this possibly a successful attempt to hide the question of what education is, and importantly, what is it for?

If we take look at a quote from everybody’s favourite go to educationalist, perhaps the code of education is this: “The educational achievement of a country’s population is a key determinant of its economic growth, and so improving educational attainment is an urgent priority for all countries.” How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine? Dylan Wiliam, 2011.

Or perhaps it is not; it depends on your view of the educational code.

Back to the game of two halves…

A teacher with a conservative/traditional orientation may see education as a preparation for work. They may seem themselves as a ‘realist’, transmitting knowledge, concepts and facts in order for their students to find a place in society, having the necessary knowledge to fulfil the roles and positions of work.

Where as a liberal/progressive teacher may view education as a preparation for life rather than work. They may see their role as a constructivist, allowing students to build cognitive structures through interaction and experience. Thus allowing their students to have the skills to better themselves as a person.

Wiliam suggests* that the four main reasons why we educate young people are for:

  1. Personal Empowerment
  2. Cultural Transmission
  3. Preparation for Citizenship
  4. Preparation for Work

If that is the case, then let’s look at the skills (often described as ‘transferable skills’) being developed by our students in a day-to-day classroom of a progressive teacher or a teacher that believes the purpose of education is either or a culmination of 1, 2 and 3 in the list .

Independent Learning – The skill of following instructions and the skill of applying oneself diligently to tasks without understanding their importance

Collaborative Learning – The skill of ‘fitting in’ and the skill of following the lead of others

Developing Learning Behaviour/Power – The skill of fulfilling the needs of those in power to gain merit/acceptance and the skill of meeting behavioural expectations of a hierarchy

Reciprocal Teaching – The skill of presenting oneself in the mould of what is universally expected

Purposeful Real Life Learning – The skill of completing ‘real life’ scenarios, to further indoctrinate students with the idea that school is not real life.

So even if a style of teaching is seen to be progressive, with ‘admirable’ purposes (Personal Empowerment, Cultural Transmission and Preparation for Citizenship), it is in essence still focussing on the traditional/conservative code of education i.e Preparation for Work. A code that prepares our young people with the necessary skills to become submissive economic fodder to support and enhance a neoliberal society.

These ‘transferable skills’ place a premium on certain skills wanted outside schools for certain purposes that are not in the interest of students themselves but that of their place in work, again more akin to the traditionalist outlook of preparing kids for jobs. In reality they are the skills seen as required and important for success for and by a capitalist society.

My thinking is that perhaps our ‘progressive’ teachers may in fact, through their routines, expectations and strategies in their classroom, be unconsciously preparing students to develop traits of the obedient and meek – the perfect attributes of the submissive and oppressed.

Perhaps the code of education remains the same for both progressive and traditional teachers and only the style changes.

We need to change the code of education.

This idea was inspired from a small passage found in Orientations to Curriculum and Transition: Towards The Socially Critical School. Victorian Institute of Secondary Education 1983.

Since writing this post their have been two artcles in the Telegraph that have direct links (or more accurately, complete opposition) to what I’m banging on about! Thanks to Jack Cassidy (@mrjcassidy) for the heads up on the second one.

* From his Principled Curriculum Design (October 2013) is here: thanks to Roo Stenning (@TheRealMrRoo) for pointing me in the direction of this.

  1. […] a time when the focus on education seems to be on style rather than on the purpose of why we teach young people and at a time, when new teachers need to develop their own teaching […]

  2. […] firstly asking the complex question; effective for what? Something I have written about before here and […]

  3. colingoffin says:

    Reblogged this on I'm just passing through here … and commented:
    Super stuff. COYG!

  4. Colin Goffin says:

    Hi Tait. I definitely think this is a worthwhile conversation and would broaden it further with something from the boss (Wenger not Springsteen) that serves to take the discussion to another level and perhaps serve as a warning. Sometimes while all these discussion are going on I think we stray not only from the code to the style but also to an obsession with style, or talking about style, that becomes more appealing to some than a focus on the code or even the style. To continue your analogy we have people who don’t just talk a good game regardless of playing regularly or not and in some cases seem to be more focused on sounding good on the Goals on Sunday sofa than delivering a solid 90 minutes. If we allow ourselves to fall into this trap through blog posts and twitter followers consuming us and giving us affirmation that we should be getting from the classroom then our focus os punditry not playing and the code is far removed from our discussions and focus.
    As Mr Wenger put it

    “It is a spiritual thing. I am convinced of that. I believe you have two kinds of players who play football. Those who want to serve football like you serve God, and they put football so high that everything that is not close to what football should be is a little bit non-acceptable. And then you have those who use football to serve their ego. And sometimes the ego can get in the way of the game, because their interest comes before the interest of the game.

    “Sometimes the big ego is linked with what we call strong personalities, charisma. But most of the time what people call charisma is just big ego.”

  5. What a fascinating post Tait. I’m just about to deliver a talk on purpose and strategy for what should be taught so there are some real gems I will be stealing here to excite and frustrate in equal manner. Time for your manifesto.

    • taitcoles says:

      Cheers Jonesy!

      Excite and Frustrate – sounds like a Stooges track!

      I’m writing all this stuff to get my head around what we need to do as a school regarding a transformed learning vision involving and incorporating all the curriculum changes etc. Possibly similar to what you are looking at?

      My thinking is that perhaps our ‘progressive’ teachers may in fact, through their routines, expectations and strategies in their classroom, be unconscioulsy preparing students to develop traits of the obedient and meek – the perfect attributes of the submissive and oppressed.

  6. Harry Webb says:

    I don’t agree that traditionalists see the goal of education as preparation for work. Perhaps some do? Can you point to anything?

    I am a traditionalist and I certainly don’t. The best description I know of the goal of education is credited to Judith Shapiro, “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” Perhaps you are conflating educational traditionalism with the imperatives of big business.

    In fact, I make the same criticisms of transferable skills as you do. I add that don’t think that they can really be taught as transferable skills; they are domain dependent.

    • taitcoles says:

      Thanks for your comment Harry.

      I was very deliberate in the use of the word “may” when describing the possible codes of a ‘traditionalist’ teacher. I think some do share that code, perhaps others don’t. My thinking stems from day to day experiences in schools for many years.

      I like the Shapiro quote. I certainly don’t think the goal of education should be as Gramsci suggested: “It only serves to create misfits, people who believe themselves superior to the rest of humanity because they have accumulated in their memory a certain quality of facts and dates which they cough up at every opportunity to almost raise a barrier between themselves and others”.

      My idea is, and hopefully it came through in the post, that so-called ‘progressive’ teachers may in fact, through their routines, expectations and strategies in the classroom, prepare students to develop traits of the obedient and meek…the perfect attributes of the submissive and oppressed.

      I think the discussion about code and purpose of education is far more interesting than the disagreements about different teaching styles and orientations.

      The ‘Transferable skills’ not being transferable argument; is that William? I’ve never bought that idea if I’m honest, again based on school experience, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise…maybe.

      • Harry Webb says:

        OK. Accept that this is an argument from you experience. I cannot falsify that.

        I have written quite a bit about the transferability of skills. However, I would defer to Daniel Willingham here. He is talking about Critical Thinking skills – so not all of the skills that we try to teach – but the main point is there.

        • taitcoles says:

          Thanks for the link Harry. I think Critical Thinking (whether it is a skill or not, as the article suggests) is something that could truly empower young people and allow them to see opportunities for emancipation. However, when it is done badly it merely becomes another ‘technique’ for our progressive teachers. One that may be wallowing in a sea of unconciously indoctrinated hegemonic values.

          • Harry Webb says:

            I am not a Marxist and the term ‘hegemony’ contains so many inbuilt assumptions that I don’t find it useful. The point is that critical thinking is essential but critical thinking in one domain eg science is entirely different to critical thinking in another eg literature. There is no general skill or disposition that transfers from one to the other. In fact, critical thinking can be observed in toddlers and so is in some ways innate. In order to think critically, you need to be able to relate different sources of evidence. I am unconvinced by creationism because I know about the alternatives and when I weigh them, creationism comes off poorly. However, if I didn’t know about the alternatives then I might find creationism appealing; as have most humans, for much of history. So it all kind of reduces to what you know about. That’s why education is so important.

  7. […] maybe this post from Tait Coles on the style and code of education might prompt a few […]

  8. David Didau says:

    Ha ha! Nicely deconstructed.

    But where does that leave the liberal traditionalists like me? I’m certainly not interested in preparing anyone for the world of work. My ‘code’ is about cultural enrichment for its own sake. Education, for me, is about sharing the ‘best of what’s been thought and known’. I’m with AE Housman: “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use'”

    Thanks Tait

    • taitcoles says:

      Cheers David. My thinking is that even if your teaching ‘style’ is a liberal traditionalist one (whatever that is!) your routines, expectations and strategies in the classroom prepare students to become submissive and oppressed workers. My idea is, and hopefully it came through in the post, that so-called ‘progressive’ teachers may in fact be developing traits of the obedient and meek.

      I think the discussion about code and purpose of education is far more interesting than the disagreements about different teaching styles and orientations.

      • David Didau says:

        That’s very interesting. Why does the very traditional teaching at schools like Eton not result in oppressed and submissive workers? Maybe there’s something more complex at work here?

        • taitcoles says:

          Perhaps even though the teaching is ‘traditional’ the attributes and traits learnt by the students aren’t? I’ve no idea about Eton, so I can’t comment accurately.

          Perhaps their hegemonic paths have already been identified by virtue of their background so it doesn’t matter.

          Perhaps even though the Eton education leads to positions of power and influence (government and media) they are still submissive to the capitalist force? What ‘code’ of education do the most powerful (i.e banking) experience?

          • David Didau says:

            Maybe so.

            Are you advocating that children should be taught, per se, not to submit to authority?

            • Colin Goffin says:

              Surely they should be encouraged to question the origins of that authority and if it’s deemed unfair or to be an abuse of position, privilege or power then challenging rather than submitting arbitrarily is something we should be teaching. Where would Ghandi, MLK, Mandela or indeed our own noble struggles against the oppressors of the inspection system be if we didn’t have a little of this within us?

              • David Didau says:

                That’s true.

                Two questions:
                1) I wonder what their schooling was like?
                2) What would a society where everyone behaved like these people be like?

                • Colin Goffin says:

                  1. I can’t say I have an encyclopaedic knowledge or with a full day at school ahead time to research but I would suggest they had an education that was wider than their schooling and that perhaps it is this broadening of horizons that we should seek to bring into our own curriculum. Especially if, as opposed to the oppression that these faced, we are hoping to break the mind forged manacles that Tait refers to.
                  In answer to 2 it’s difficult I think to classify ‘these people’ by behaviours as even in the few examples I have suggested there is such a range of activities to try and achieve their ends and these are to a degree defined by their circumstances. Perhaps rather than looking at how they behaved we could look at how they thought and in that case I wouldn’t mind a society where people saw equality as a driving force and wanted to work with each other to create greater harmony with the successes and failures of one being the successes and failures of all rather than being driven to compete and out do each other. I’ll find the exact wording when I get to school but have been teaching Year 8 students about society and the nature of man and someone wrote something along the lines of we can be beautiful as people but while we can’t see that a single sadness outweighs thousands of joys we will remain as savages. Was much better than that but it’s half five and I’m eating my crunchy nut as a I type.

                • Colin Goffin says:

                  “We may have civilized bodies and yet barbarous souls. We are blind to the real sights of this ?world; deaf to its voice; and dead to its death. And not till we know, that one grief outweighs ten ?thousand joys will we become what Christianity is striving to make us.”

                  Herman ‘Crunchy Nut’ Melville

                  Told you it was much better in the original

          • Colin Goffin says:

            We might not see it as submission at Eton but it’s still a reinforcement of the status quo. It’s just that they have a different position within that to those that have been the focus of the origins of the post. So perhaps it’s just as submissive but easier to deal with when your position is nearer the top of the pile.

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