Progressively Predictable

I’m not going to review Robert Peal’s book for Civitas, because if you want to know what I think of its arguments, you can read this on Toby Young’s pamphlet also written for Civitas or this on Christodoulou’s book, published by The Curriculum Centre who are supported by Civitas. All three make the same arguments. All three are published by organisations close to Michael Gove. All three have received acclaim from people praised by Michael Gove as being excellent teachers. Yadda yadda. Talk about framing the debate through your team mates. What it makes me think though, is ‘what’s so wrong with being progressive’? And what does that actually mean? And having done a bit of reading, I think I quite like the idea of being progressive. I think I’m progressively becoming more progressive.

According to cognitive psychologist George Lakoff (you thought that Daniel Willingham was the only cognitive psychologist in the world, didn’t you?), being progressive is much misunderstood. He defines progressive values as:-

“The nurturant-family model is the progressive view: in it, the ideals are empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication, authority that is legitimate and proves its legitimacy with its openness to interrogation”.

Lakoff’s argument is that political debate, whether it be educational or ecological, tends to be framed around moral values which roughly fall into the ‘strict father’ model or the ‘nurturant family model’ – often described as traditional/progressive or conservative/liberal. His concern is that the former is highly skilled at controlling the debate by claiming the moral high ground while at the same time, ridiculing the opposition to such an extent that the debate is not about two sides debating, but about one establishing the ‘common sense’ narrative while the other scrambles around, denying their position and trying to claim common ground, losing all sense of self and value in the process. To this end, we see teachers, and I have done this, claim ‘I’m not progressive – I see the value of both sides’ while the traditionalists say ‘whatever’ and stride forward taking control. But let’s look again at that definition. What is actually wrong with empathy, interdependence, co-operation, communication and legitimate authority that is open to interrogation?

Young/Peal/Christodoulou all claim that the ‘problem’ with education is child-centred progressive ideology. What exactly is wrong with making education child centred? This is not the same, as I keep saying as ‘child led’. To place a child at the centre of education is to surely meet its needs? To prioritise the child’s needs over, say, the market? To have authority is not anti-progressive – but to have authority without legitimacy is. What might that legitimacy be? That your authority rests on acting in the best interests of the child, and not of the league tables/Ofsted grading/lastest government whim? That you might be answerable to parents and children in order to have your authority legitimised? In many ways, this is what Demos proposed in their report on the problems with Ofsted. Is that really not better than having your authority legitimised by people called Michael?

We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold. When I look at the number of people trumpeting this ‘blob’ fear, there are few. But they are very noisy. And almost all of them are now bound together by the same free school – Michaela – either as governors, managers or teachers. Some even write under two names to make it look like there are more of them. Those in the know call that astroturfing and there is no doubt that there has been a very clever manipulation of social media to create this noise.

I worry. I worry that we are losing confidence in the face of a baying crowd. I worry that too few of us realise the connections between this neo-liberal noise and the dominant market forces lobbying education. I might be getting paranoid in my old age, but here are some facts just about one of those companies – Pearson.

1. Pearson are trialling a ‘Pearson School Model’ in six secondary schools, which delivers a computer based curriculum containing Pearson materials.

2. Pearson funded the research that said that GCSEs were suffering from grade inflation.

3. Pearson own Edexcel and have the contract to assess SATs results.

4. They own most of the textbook market – and Liz Truss has publicly given her support for a return to wider use of textbooks in our schools.

5. Pearson works with TeachFirst on ‘My Education’ a project to promote the voices of young people to demand a ‘more rigorous’ education. That sounds like a good and harmless idea until you look at what happened in the US with the ‘Students for Education’ campaign, funded by private organisations like Pearson in order to create the effect of a student-led grassroots campaign in support of market driven educational policies. The students were easily manipulated into believing that they were championing improvements in education – not unlike some of those inexperienced teacher-come-think-tank-mouthpieces we are seeing at the moment.

6. Pearson works closely with TeachFirst. And the American equivalent of TeachFirst, ‘Teach for America’ has a Pearson company CEO on its board.

7. In the US Pearson run over 50% of the standardised tests set by states and provide the curriculum materials to go with them, creating a profit in excess of £2 billion.

8. Had Michael Gove been successful in reducing the examination system down to one board, Pearson owned Edexcel would have been the most likely successor.

9. Sir Michael Barber is the Education Advisor to Pearson. He is also the author of the widely quoted McKinsey report used by government to promote the notion of international comparisons as a means of measuring educational effectiveness.

10. It stinks.

So I think, so what? What can I do? Well, I can carry on teaching in the way I know works for my students and myself. I can carry on reading a range of cognitive and neuroscience and draw my own conclusions. I can make sure I find out who publishes and funds the latest ‘must read’ and figure out if there has been a responsible and critical editorial eye. I can make sure I don’t get bullied into denying who I am and what I believe. And I can write counter narratives. Like this one.



36 thoughts on “Progressively Predictable

  1. Deborah. It’s really strange, because the 3 people you quote are NOT (currently) teaching… not that it matters… but it is an important aspect to include. I have refused to get involved with the debate via my own blog… Put simply, one CANNOT exist without the other and I cannot see how some do not accept this. Today, I was mostly progressive in my teaching. Last week, I was a traditionalist. I would imagine this will continue throughout the examination period (rote teaching) and then I will return to a progressive model of teaching ‘after’ half-term. Why? Well, a blog will be needed for that!

    The study of Semiotics/Media teaches us about “binary opposites”…. that one cannot exist without the other. “For example, our interpretation of the word ‘progressive’ surely depends on the difference between that word and its opposing idea, that of a ‘traditionalist’ (and to complicate matters further, a moment’s thought should alert us to the fact that interpreting words such as ‘traditionalist’ and ‘progressive’ is itself much more to do with what our society or teaching-culture (ITT) attributes to such words than any meaning the words themselves might actually contain)”

    The other notable point, is that those NOT on Twitter and Blogs do NOT give a poop! Not to say that they do not care; but P. vs. Tr. debate is not at the forefront of the ground-troops. Certainly not in my local area. And perhaps more realistically, like academic research – most do NOT have the time to form an opinion and like most political-edu policy, is a top-down dogma from those NOT in the classroom with time to say what works best for all of us! As in the fabulous TeachMeets CPD model, perhaps the PvsT debate is needed from grassroots-up teachers?

    Should it be discussed by every teacher? Yes, and the 3 people you quote, SHOULD ask those on the front-line, who are not influenced by those that blog, or those who fund/advocate each others’ arguments.

    I am starting to small a ‘rat’! We cannot tarnish one school – one system – with ONE ideology. What works best for your students, doesn’t work for me/you…

    I also have a few things (+&-) to say about TF – as a direct user of teachers in my school – but I will save that for another rainy day.

    n.b. Just to be clear, I have left comments on other blogs who express ‘other’ views.

    1. “We cannot tarnish one school – one system – with ONE ideology. What works best for your students, doesn’t work for me/you…”

      That statement in itself is predicated on a particular ideological position.

      The acceptance that one can change from being ‘progressive’ one week to ‘traditional’ is also the manifestation of a philosophical position that is not compatible with the ‘traditionalist’ argument.

      I’m pretty convinced there are irreconcilable differences between the fundamental premises of these two positions- that’s why this is causing such debate, amongst us as a group and, I’d be willing to bet, for many internally in their concept of what underlies how they teach. I’ll admit it- that’s been the case for me.

      Many of us accept the credence of certain methods that would be considered to be more traditionalist at the same time as accepting that of those that would be considered to be more progressive. However, the underlying philosophies and enacted teaching methods are different and distinct things. The philosophies themselves are not compatible, if you accept the legitimacy of one I don’t think you can logically accept that of the other.

      That’s why this debate is happening.

      1. Hi Oliver, I was definitely on the ‘we use both methods’ track until I read Lakoff, though I think his definition of progressive is much broader than the narrow ones often offered in education. I’m still fumbling through it and working out where I am positioned, but it’s definitely interesting stuff.

      2. Oliver

        “The philosophies themselves are not compatible, if you accept the legitimacy of one I don’t think you can logically accept that of the other.”

        I have bought some Lakoff and this might possibly answer my questions, but I am a little confused. Other than defining the 2 approaches such that they are not compatible, why would you think that they are not.?

        I can see that maybe the two extreme positions are difficult to reconcile but my experience is that there are few extremists.

      3. Oliver. We need to meet and talk. Too much to say here 🙂
        Just caught up on @Headguruteacher blog:
        which I know you have read and commented on. I used to work with Tom and his blog for me, sums up what I’d like to say fittingly. I agree with your points.. and do agree that if you accept one, you cannot accept the other… BUT I do believe you can teach both and that one CANNOT exist without the other. Coffee?

  2. As usual an excellent post. One itsy bitsy bit that grabbed me was this one….

    “This is not the same, as I keep saying as ‘child led’”

    ….. do you know, I don;t think they are listening. These arent among the world’s accomplished listeners, they are talkers.

    Can you give me a reference for the Lakoff book, would like to read it.

    Thank you for posting. I find “gibberish nonsense” to be the currently dominant orthodoxy on twitter. It is nice to see a few people talking common sense.

  3. In December 2012, Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published The Learning Curve which ranked countries’ education systems (UK came 6th) and tried to found the illusive qualities of a good educational system. It concluded there was no magic bullet.

    The report’s authors warned much data was missing and was subsequently criticised by organisations such as Sutton Trust for these gaps. However, the major finding – there was no one way in which to produce a good educational system – stands.

    That said, the chapter on educational choice was the weakest in the Pearson/EIU report and contradicted the report’s conclusion that education “choice” shouldn’t be regarded as a panacea. The chapter claimed to base its findings on PISA 2003 when in fact the “evidence” was a paper which used PISA 2003 selectively. PISA 2003 actually said the opposite as I explain here:

    Should we care that a report, now largely forgotten, contains misleading evidence? Yes, because it was published by Pearson which, as Debra says, has its fists in the education market and also because the ideas on “choice” in education are widely shared by Gove and other supporters of GERM (Globalised Education Reform Movement). For more on GERM see:

  4. The Times, 26 April 2014 re Pearson:

    “The company’s fortunes today are heavily tied up with the changing landscape of the British and American education systems.”

    Shares in Pearson have fallen sharply because, the Times claims, the introduction of the Common Core national curriculum in the US has delayed textbook purchase at the same time as more US young people are going straight into jobs rather than do vocational courses. In the UK, the reduced number of resits has affected Pearson’s revenue stream.

    Nevertheless, Pearson has grouped together its “emerging market education activities” in a “so-called Growth division”.

    Pearson’s profits rely on the sale of textbooks (heavily promoted by schools minister Liz Truss as Debra says) and exams. It’s worrying then, that extensive exam reforms in England are not moving towards graduation at 18 with few high-stakes tests at 16 which is prevalent in most developed countries. There’s millions of pounds at stake for exam providers.

    We should be very worried when business seems to be influencing education provision – not because education is a public good but because there’s mega bucks to be made.

  5. As a predominantly traditionalist, albeit in HE, I completely agree with every word of your last paragraph.

    I completely disagree with linking traditionalist teaching methodology with neo-liberalism, speaking as someone who refuses to use a Pearson text or online resource on my course (partly on anti-neoliberal principle, partly that there are plenty of better examples).

    I would have no problem with books of the ‘7 myths ideology’ type being on the reading list of Initial Teacher Training, in part to spark some real debate from the outset. How often do you see “critically analyse key theories/concepts…” or words to that effect in programme or module learning outcomes on ITT with a reading list of predominant progressiveness and an anti-traditional narrative? Feel free to disagree, but expose to both sides, and armed with your last paragraph, we might just get teachers who are content with teaching to their own strengths.

    1. I appreciate that addition thank you and perhaps I need to look at my wording again. I think the neo-liberals have hijacked the traditional moral frame, promoting it as their own and that this has won overt support through covert strategy. I also wouldn’t want to stifle a reading list by populating it only with books I agree with 🙂 But I do think that counter-narratives are important and personally I’d rather see Hirsch or Willingham on there than the Civitas/Curriculum Centre publications which I don’t feel have a rigorous enough editorial process behind them. Both Hirsch and Willingham offer ideas and thoughts which are useful to both ‘sides’ of this debate and in my opinion, provoke some interesting and useful thinking. Attacking academics, teachers and progressives as ‘blobs’ on the other hand is simply inflammatory.

      1. Yes, agree Hirsch/ Willingham v. suitable for reading lists also, and yes academically more so. However NQTs are going to be exposed to other sources with a strong and current UK teaching context once they get into teaching (or Twitter). Better to have the debate (inc. editorial rigour) whilst in training, rather than ‘resenting’ aspects of their training.

      2. That is the key. My problem is not with Toleration of traditional or progressive extremes, its claiming ownership of science and evidence when mostly it’s politics making selective use of science and evidence. Ie bad science. Saying “they” do it so it justifies us doing it indicates far too much time in the company of children 😉

  6. A few observations sparked by your blog:

    Some things we need to avoid in our education system:
    -conflicts of interest, such as, exam boards linked to publishing houses, Ofsted inspectors also operating as consultants, data processors linked to commercial or political organisations.
    -proscriptive pedagogies (there is no where enough evidence available to justify this)…this has caused huge harm and polarisation.

    What we need are accountability systems that are non-proscriptive with respect to pedagogy…..and respect, one for another.

  7. Another gem, Debra. I especially share your sense that “We seem to be living in a time and a world in which it is becoming common place to ridicule those who hold on to the belief that they are there for the benefit of children; that community is important; that happiness, relationships and skills matter. And yet this is the view that the majority hold.”

    I am about to step down as a community governor at my grandson’s small primary school for reasons that are hard to explain to governor colleagues. This is because they have been told by others what the school should be doing. They are hard-working dedicated individuals, some of them new to governorship, and Ofsted told them just last autumn that the school required improvement so that is what they are engaged in doing. Two HMI visits later and some ‘input’ from one of the few remaining LA advisors and targets abound. How can they afford to question in the face of such unflinching certainty? Surely, this is what the school’s data tell them!

    I do not blame them for their reactions. People under the cosh are indeed “losing confidence in the face of the baying crowd”. Never have we been so devoid of moral leadership and I fear where this may lead us. Someone has to prioritise the child’s needs over the needs of the market and the whim of governments. Ideally, it should come from local communities led by professionals working in the best interests of young people to help them achieve full personhood.

  8. Excellent article. One thing missing from your Pearson list: The ‘new’ NAHT Edge union is to be led by Chief executive Louis Coiffait, previously the head of research at the Pearson thinktank.

        1. So they influence who trains, who passes, the exams that children sit, the curriculum they study, the materials they learn from, the research to support the production of their materials and now policy too through their think tank. And I was accused of being a conspiracy theorist!!

  9. We need a new word for false debates generated by Think Tanks. Any suggestions? Please do read ‘Reign of Error’ by Diane Ravitch (2013) to understand where all this nonsense is leading us. Ravitch describes in depressing detail the outcome of corporate reform of the US school system. Keep up the good work Debra.

  10. Not sure if I missed this here but Pearson also worked with the CBI on the publication of their annual survey of what businesses think of education in the UK. Another of their tentacles!

  11. The English education system is one of the last nationalised industries. And suffers from the faults of all such: too producer focused, insufficiently customer focused and dismissive of anyone from outside who wants to change it. The workers in the industry claim to be professionals yet act like old unreformed unionised hotheads.

    1. I would argue that it is a service and not an industry though there is clearly money to be made in organisations such as examination boards. May I ask Bill when you last spent any significant time in a school?

  12. It’s astounding the foothold Pearson have in the education industry, I personally didn’t realize how embedded they were.

    Show My Homework / @ShowMyHomework

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