In The Sunday Times of 26.01.14 Sir Michael Wilshaw reacts to accusations that his inspectorate wear progressivist goggles when judging the efficacy of teaching in the Conservative party’s flagship “Free Schools.” (If school inspection in England is anything like that in Northern Ireland, these accusations hold more than a grain of truth.) Sir Michael refutes the charge that “the Blob” (Mr Gove’s dismissive term for left-wing constructivist/progressivist learning theories) continues to influence the judgement of too many OFSTED inspectors. It is revealing, however, that Sir Michael’s defence uses vocabulary dear to every progressivist: he deplores the fact that children are “lectured … in serried ranks,” engage in “rote learning” inappropriate for “learners in the 21st century” because the ability to do well in examinations somehow diminishes the child’s capacity for “think[ing] for themselves.”
Sir Michael warns that Mr Gove is in danger of creating an equally damaging right-wing blob which stifles creativity. But this is to miss a central idea in pedagogy: a core purpose of school is not to offer children opportunities for being creative (the progressivist case) but, rather, to enculturate children into a framework (the practices and traditions of the established school disciplines) without which creativity is impossible. This process of enculturation – what Michael Oakeshott called the “inter-generational conversation” – has teacher authority at its heart. Wittgenstein is in the Gove camp: “Any explanation has its foundations in training. (Educators ought to remember this.)” The Education Secretary also has the support of Michael Polanyi who counselled: “No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework.”
In The Sunday Times article, Sir Michael attacks those close to Mr Gove who suggest that the blob continues to hold sway in OFSTED. However, if the Chief Inspector finds himself drawn over the event horizon of education’s very own black hole, Mr Gove has been all but swallowed up. My evidence for this seemingly outrageous claim? Simple: the Education Secretary’s support for OECD/PISA. I have little doubt that the next few years will see a plethora of articles in the education literature interpreting current Conservative education policy as strengthening the case for the blob’s progressivist pedagogy.
Mr Gove is probably unaware that the model of mind which underpins “item response theory” – the statistical model which generates the PISA ranks -accords exactly with Ernst von Glasersfeld’s radical constructivism, when applied to the individual child. Von Glasersfeld sets out the implications of this model of mind: “[A] philosophy of education that believes in teaching right answers is not worth having.” There has to be something ill-conceived in a PISA methodology which claims to capture the education quality of an entire continent in a single number. After all, three numbers are required to locate a simple point in space. Sir Peter Medawar, the Nodel Laureate, characterises such claims as “unnatural science,” by noting that several numbers are required to encapsulate the properties of a particle of soil:
The physical properties and field behaviour of soil depends on particle size and shape, porosity, hydrogen iron concentration, material flora, and water content and hygroscopy. No single figure can embody itself in a constellation of values of all these variables in any single real instance … psychologists would nevertheless like us to believe that such considerations as these do not apply to them.
Clear blob-like leanings surface elsewhere in the OECD programme. Michael Gove has a healthy disregard for theory in education, seeing teaching as a practical activity where precedent guides effective pedagogy. This echoes Oakeshott’s view that “The theoretical understanding of some activity is always the child of practical know-how, and never its parent.” The OECD, on the other hand, rejects the idea that an important purpose of school is to provide the child with a framework. Rather, at the core of its educational enterprise is the nebulous notion of “learning how to learn.” The inventor of this approach (which dates back to the 1980s) summarises it as follows: “The learner is the centre. This process of learning represents a revolutionary about-face from the politics of traditional education.” While Mr Gove is intent on limiting the endless fad-producing theorising of educationalists, the OECD sees teacher education as vital to promoting a progressivist agenda:
“Throughout the world educationalists and teacher instructors promote constructivist views about instruction. … If policy seeks to support constructivist positions, a promising strategy might be to enhance the systematic construction of knowledge about teaching and instruction in teachers’ initial education and professional development. Interventions may be especially important for experienced teachers and for those who teach mathematics. … It is therefore a good sign … that professional development is positively associated with constructivist beliefs across countries.”
In conclusion, blame attaches to both protagonists in The Sunday Times article. The Chief Inspector’s recent outburst against grammar schools will no doubt be construed as support for all the blob holds dear. In addition, Mr Gove’s praise for Andreas Schleicher, in effect, makes him one of the blob’s most significant cheerleaders.