Utilitarian narratives about Education are so prevalent nowadays that we tend to take them entirely as given, or worse as evidence-based. Often we don’t even recognise they are based on layers or assumptions that almost all fail when confronted with reality. So let me be polemic and argue what is false about so much that is written about education and why a new narrative should focus much more on story-telling.
The lesson of the 21st century: stories rule
The revolution that the internet was supposed to bring according to its ‘inventors’ was a transformation of our societies into knowledge– or information societies where shared access to information and knowledge would create a huge shared basis for our human interactions. The future of our species would consist of all of us adding to this ever increasing base of knowledge, understanding and all this would magically bring us together. How different has it all come. How hard does it turn out to be for many to drop this naivete of the early years.
This development went alongside a different one, which resonates with it, in much of western school and university education. As “knowledge” was effectively viewed as a synonym for “information” and information was something conveniently stored and shared on computers and online the focus of education shifted to “skills“. Research became a skill that largely consisted of looking up the right information and knowing where to find it. Language became a communication skill in which there was little curricular room for literature as this was considered to go at the expense of language acquisition. Mathematics essentially turned into arithmetics and many other subjects were turned into stripped versions of themselves with an emphasis on skills development. After all, what point was there in making students acquire knowledge when that was a commodity available for free online for those who knew how to access it?
But now at the start of the third decade of the 21st century it should be clearer to many what is actually happening. Curricula stripped of knowledge, focussing entirely on information-acquisition and equipping students with ‘skills’ to memorise, find and retrieve have produced in the West an audience that struggles to recognise fact from fiction. The scale of this failure can hardly be overestimated and the price that we are about to pay for it is daunting. At the heart of this failure is a fundamental misunderstanding among many educators about the true nature of knowledge: knowledge comes to us in the form of stories.
Wait! What? How, stories?
When you learn a language purely as language acquisition, with its emphasis on vocabulary skills, grammar and spelling but by omitting literature and culture you are not actually learning a language. Learning German as an English speaker should introduce you to hard things such as the subtle differences in meaning between “Bildung” and its English translation of “Education”. When learning Dutch you should be exposed to how the two Dutch words “Onderwijs” and “Opleiding” carry different content and how neither of them translates properly what the Germans mean by “Bildung” or the English by “Education”. But a curriculum purely revolving around language acquisition assumes that you can “look up” those differences on some appropriate Wiki-page or its 20th century equivalents of dictionary and encyclopaedia.
To understand the different nuances in the meaning of words there is no other way but to tell stories using these words. Only stories have a chance of providing the richness of context that might lead the learner on the path of grasping these meanings. A language curriculum that side-lines stories, side-lines knowledge. It prepares people for a world in which they can rely on “Grammarly” to write their texts for them until we all just become mindless machines whose skill is to execute the instructions produced by algorithms.
This is not only true for languages. It equally holds for a few disciplines I know a little more about: Physics, Economics and Mathematics. If you ask my daughter what she recalls from her A-level physics education, she will say “Suphat”. Which is a mnemonic for a set of physics equations and the order in which they need to be applied in order to solve physics A-level exam problems. That is information, that is skill but it is not knowledge. Every year I see bright undergraduate students tackle their course and problem-sets looking for the mnemonics they need in order to find a way through. Every year I see many undergraduates demanding they be taught the skill to do things right. But when confronted with a story designed to convey them knowledge they draw a blank. When asked to express their knowledge they desperately seek to find out what the recipe is that I want to see them show their proficiency in.
Stories about teaching and learning
Much of late 20th century teaching and learning theories tells a very particular story about what teaching and learning are. But so many people don’t seem to recognise them as such. Instead they are clad in the dress of “evidence-based” which in reality is just another story to augment the former. Let me give you a few examples.
We are for example told that students need to know what the learning aims and outcomes of a course are, and it is presumed that also the assessment allows a one-on-one identification of learning outcomes. It is easy to asses whether a piano student can technically play a certain classical piece of Chopin. It is much harder to assess whether a student can produce music. But in our theories and practices of learning and teaching we are wiping away the distinction between music on the one hand and the “correct order and timing of notes” on the other. The condition under which many teachers and lecturers are forced to work is one of submission to the idea that if you teach students the right order and timing of notes then music will follow mechanically as a given. Of course there is some truth in this. But for the most part it is just a story. Someone who hears the dissonance coarsing through our societies should be able to discern that the basic premise of the story is false.
What happens when you remove story-telling from teaching and learning is not that stories disappear. Instead what happens is that you lose sight of the stories that are being absorbed and you lose track of the fact that you are telling a particular story that has been twisted into a “technical truth” or into something “based on evidence”. And let us not kid ourselves about what evidence-based means in reality. There is typically not only no consideration for reproducibility of the evidence, in many cases it is not even clear what it is that needs to be reproduced in order to generate the same evidence a second time.
Most educational research papers dealing with things that are “measured” are not at all measuring the things they stake their claims about but they measure “proxies“. IQ tests claim to measure intelligence but in reality they simply measure performance on a very specific type of mental test. Yet the IQ scores of people are used to tell stories about those people as if these stories were fact, based on evidence, rather than stories. Plenty of economics research papers express educational outcomes in terms of discounted lifetime earnings. As if the educational outcome of a Harvard graduate with a particular degree earning $100,000 a year on average across 35 years, who believes that the Earth is 5638 years old, that fossils are attempts by God to test the faith of the faithful, that healthcare access for all is communism and that there is a Deep-State Cabal attempting to “replace his race”, is the same educational outcome as that of a Harvard Graduate earning the same a year across 35 years who appreciates Darwinian evolution, the development of the Human species across hundreds of thousands of years that have left this planet with a single race of humans: Homo Sapiens.
Much “evidence-based” research on Teaching and Learning treats educational outcomes essentially as content-free, as tick-box lists to which we design assessments to test which student ticks which boxes. These are sad stories about what teaching and learning are. Stories of rat-races where the higher prizes are available to those who acquire the skill to tick the largest number of boxes. Where the prize are lifetime earnings … and where earning equate to happiness. Soul-destroying stories that only serve to soothe the winners’ guilt and to blame the losers for their loss. A system which makes students want to learn the skill of ticking boxes correctly and which makes educational institutions tell teachers they should exactly specify which boxes are to be ticked and how.
When you tell people the wrong story, they’ll find another one
Just imagine yourself being a black immigrant girl living in an educational world of ticking-box-stories and knowing from your everyday experience that there are boxes you’ll never tick because of who you are, how you look. Just imagine yourself to be that white working-class boy entering primary school with less exposure to books and reading than your middle-class peers and you slowly realize you will always only tick boxes on lists that are a few years behind the lists on which they tick theirs. Or imagine you are that kid whose brain simply isn’t that attuned to ticking boxes because it wants to explore, it needs to explore as it will only ever really understand what it is have conquered for itself. A brain that will only know what it understands.
A story I often tell my students is of a primary school kid who struggled in primary school with learning simple arithmetic. It was not because the kid was not smart enough. What the little 8-year old boy struggled with was that he had realised at some point that whenever you had a number, you could always add a number to it and hence the list of numbers would never end. The kid was asking itself a question that many first-year college Math student struggles with. His teacher simply told him to forget about it. I could only comfort him that one day he would have chance to learn about this. But I knew that if he would not find his own temporary resolution this could impede his ability of progressing with the standard material. If a child’s mind reaches out for a notion of infinity it can easily end up punished for it, rather than rewarded. His mind was not busy ticking boxes but struggling to understand … he was actually trying to learn.
So what happens to people who do not fit with the mechanical stories of teaching and learning? In my life I have seen roughly three routes along which they tend to go. Some adapt either by sacrificing their natural curiosity and drive to the demands of the system that wants them to tick boxes. Some of these might do well but many underperform. A second group rejects knowledge they are being offered. That doesn’t mean they fail in their course or school. No in fact some adapt and reject and do what they asked to do, possibly even do it well, but in their hearts they have decided it is all bullshit. I am not kidding! I have spoken to plenty of students paying thousands of pounds of tuition fees for a degree of which they are convinced that what they learn in the degree is utter useless rubbish, but they know the degree is a ticket to where they want to go. A third route is for people to reject themselves. They respond by viewing themselves as failures, misfits or disappointments with all the mental health consequences that this entails.
The ones that flourish in such mechanical learning and teaching narratives are often almost indistinguishable from those who adapt. Their formation gave them a story which they take with a grain of salt and which over the years loses its importance. Some invest so much in it however that they believe this is how the world works. The ones that reject knowledge or reject themselves search for, and find, other stories. Stories that restore their self-worth because they reveal their race, nationality, ethnicity, or identity in a broader sense, as somehow special and worthy. Or stories that present the knowledge they rejected as hostile, imposed from the outside with ulterior motives, their schooling as their moment of choice between the blue pill and the red pill.
Much of educational research and practice has banned story-telling to the side-line, or treats it as just another “didactic tool”. It pretends to work on the basis of evidence and oftentimes seems utterly unaware that what it says is itself just another story. As a result it presents what is essentially just another story about learning and teaching as evidence-backed fact. What I see as a result after many years is an overall failure across the board and many human beings that have found a story of their own despite what they were taught. Unfortunately some of the alternative stories they found are equally false and sometimes destructive or making them vulnerable to manipulation. Where education was to be broad, open-ended, character-strengthening, curiosity-driven it has become in large parts formalised, stratified, hollow and soulless.
Sadly most educational institutions I see around me are hopelessly enthralled by the mechanistic narrative. I fear all I can do is note down my observations and carve out my little niche in which I try to do things differently. Fortunately I also see colleagues who attempt to do the same. Unfortunately I see to much senior-management of educational institutions that cannot see beyond that false narrative of evidence-based mechanistic education … and they don’t even seem to know it.