Michael Rosen
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Education for Liberation


I think our job as liberationists, socialists, humanists, Marxists is to examine closely, the content, the methods and structures of education to see what are the philosophies that underpin them, how the different parts function, what are the consequences?

This enables us to posit alternatives.

What are the means by which education in the present context is against liberation?

One of the difficulties we have with thinking about education is that we are easily led into thinking that the process of being at school is simply or only a matter of being taught. In fact, schooling is about many things. So, though it is true that teachers are asked to teach certain ideas, concepts, skills and certain kinds of knowledge, and that we should look at these, we should also be much more holistic than that, and look at the all the processes of schooling.

So, first, can we break down these processes into several categories before putting them back together again into a whole?

There is 1) the curriculum – which is quite well documented in the papers, and booklets. However, these do not  and cannot state exactly what gets taught in lessons. In other words, there is an ideal curriculum and an actual one.

There is 2) how the curriculum is taught. This is the process by which teachers teach. This is not simply described because teachers teach in a variety of ways: whole class lectures, with or without previously issued notes, whole class discussion chaired by the teacher, group discussion supervised by the teacher, writing solo, writing in pairs, writing in groups, writing initiated from worksheets, writing initiated from whole class stimulus, practical investigations with specific parameters set by the teacher, team teaching, pupils setting up the subject of study through raising questions, pupils examining a given subject by setting the questions and so on. Each of these methods has embedded within it a social and political philosophy that is part of schooling.

There is 3) how power is sustained. In any school, there is a power structure. At one level, it’s easy to see what that is: a head teacher, senior staff, post-holders down to classroom teachers, then on down to teaching assistants and non-teaching staff, and finally to the pupils themselves who may well be arranged hierarchically according to age and some kind of responsibility as with ‘monitor’, ‘prefect’ or ‘house-captain’ systems. What is not so easy to see is how these power-structures are sustained. Is it only or purely through some kind of punishment system – detentions, ‘on report’, suspensions and the threat of expulsion? Or are there other systems eg behaviour-reward systems which also serve as minor punishments for all those who don’t ‘win’ the rewards as with ‘smiley faces’ and ‘stars’ in primary schools and the apparatus of ‘certificates’ throughout the school system. There is also the question of the testing/exam systems which are outwardly about the curriculum but are also about sustaining the power structure.

There is 4) how schools are organised in relation to each other. In every area and across the country there is a hierarchy of schools. So nationally it’s understood that Eton, Harrow and Winchester are ‘top’ schools and, then working down through the private schools, through the ‘top’ state schools, we arrive at what are supposed to be the worst schools.  We can ask:  who arranges this hierarchy and how do they do it?

Now, let’s put all four processes together and ask some questions about who is involved in laying down the structures and processes? It’s clear straightaway that children and students are excluded from controlling any of these. They have no part to play in any of them. So straightaway we’re confronted with a piece of naked power politics: the people on the receiving end of schooling have no say in what happens to them, the moment they cross the threshold of the school. This is quite extraordinary and exposes the hypocrisy that lies behind the word ‘education’ in our society. Remember, the claims made for education are that it teaches children ideas that will equip them to play a part in society and that our society is one based on tolerance, freedom and democracy!

However, it is not only pupils who are excluded from the processes. To a large extent classroom teachers are excluded too. .

So: we can say that the curriculum (more so in the last decade than ever before) is  laid down  by the government and its agencies, passed down through documents and dictated through teachers to the children. This process if policed by the use of testing, exams and inspection – none of which incorporates any voice from pupils or classroom teachers. In other words, it is an utterly totalitarian process.

How the curriculum is taught is to a very large extent (but to be fair, not entirely) controlled by the same system: government and its agencies. In rare circumstances, where the senior management of a school is courageous then the processes of teaching have been liberalised to include a good deal of pupil discussion, pupil ownership of learning. However, this is always circumscribed by exam results and inspections and even in the most liberal of institutions it’s very rare that pupils themselves have a say in determining that very liberalism!

The power-curriculum (ie how power is sustained) is to a large degree laid down by government through inspection systems and therefore from government.

How schools are organised in relation to each other – there is a long history of selection, specialisation, privatisation, academies, league tables, clusters, eaz’s, beacon schools - all of which is now very closely controlled by central government. Neither teachers or pupils are involved in any of this.

Following from this, if schooling is now largely controlled by central government, then are adults (as voters) involved in making these decisions? Only to a very minor degree. Consider the bringing in of academies. This has happened with no real political debate, no real mandate. Where localities have opposed the arrival of academies, they have been over-ruled.

Just as significant, is the rather extraordinary idea that education should be something that takes place in institutions determined by the age of those to be educated. Indeed, part of why education is so totalitarian is for the very reason that it’s seen as something that is done ‘to’ children, as opposed to being a process that anyone of any age could take part in. To state the obvious, schools would be very different places if they were open to all, no matter how old or young.

Some points for consideration:

We should be wary of getting drawn into arguments about what is taught. This is to argue on the ground that the education-totalitarians like the best. Of course, we should not totally neglect this field, but at the same time, we should remember that it is quite possible to teach eg the history of slavery, in a hierarchical, dominating way. In which case, little or nothing has been achieved.

So,much more crucial are questions of control. If we are serious about ‘education for liberation’ we need to expose who controls education, we need to argue for democratic processes throughout the four areas of education.

If we don’t, we are in effect saying to pupils that these processes are fixed and inevitable. So to take one example: the smiley faces in primary schools. Children who behave well are rewarded. There is a smiley face chart and every child in the class sees the smiley face chart. The child with many smiley faces is rewarded every day by seeing his or her name next to a row of smiley faces. Everyone else sees that they are not so good as this child, some nowhere near as good as this child. This teaches the majority of children: ‘the not good enough’ principle ie ‘I am not good enough’. However, it also teaches that this structure of top dog, nearly top dog, middle and nowhere near top dog is ‘normal’. The all-powerful adult has set up something that is ‘obviously’ fair and appropriate – reward for being good – without the idea or the notion of a hierarchy of ‘good behaviour’ being up for debate or questioning. It also teaches that it should be the sole prerogative of this powerful adult to determine what constitutes ‘good’ and who is ‘good’ and by default what is ‘not good enough’ and who is ‘not good enough’. Making the judging  and classing of children natural and inevitable is one of the most powerful processes of education and it’s one which we should be challenging.

If you link smiley face charts with the setting and streaming of children, which goes on in some schools from the age of five, then we can see that a majority of children are being taught from a very early age that they are not good enough. Whatever else is going on in schools, this is, I would suggest, the main agency through which class and race hierarchies are reinforced through schooling.

This should lead us into looking closely at several things eg the processes by which certain children end up being setted in the bottom sets, and failing to earn smiley faces.

One of the key theories we can look at is that of Bourdieu. He argued that schooling serves best the children of those who have already been schooled the most. He talked of a ‘habitus’ which, in relation to educated parents, means that such parents create a home background that uses a language and a mode of thinking that matches and suits the kinds of education (in all four of my categories) that goes on in schools as presently constituted.
So, schools as constituted, prioritise certain kinds of knowledge, certain ways of talking, writing and thinking; their power structures involve a certain kind of deference and acceptance and the hierarchies between the schools involve a certain notion of how society should be arranged along ‘natural’ lines of privilege and elites.

Consider kind of knowledge: why is it that some kinds of knowledge have no place in schools – or if they are there, they are very low in status until the theory of such activities is tackled higher up in education eg farming (and all food-creation), cooking, nurture and building. Yet, these are the processes by which the human race survives. The fact is there is real expertise in each of these processes held in many different ways by the least educated people in society. It can be stated that in general terms, the kind of subjects that have the most status in education are those subjects that the most educated people can control and determine. This suits very neatly the requirement that education produces a hierarchy that roughly resembles the class structure of society. This is what Bourdieu called ‘reproduction’.

This also applies to the kinds of hierarchies I’ve described which are shown to children as ‘natural’. This a) suits those who rise to the top and b) those who show the right degree of deference and acceptance that this system is indeed natural. It’s a neatly self-reinforcing system for the parent-achievers and the sons and daughters of achievers. For those parents who weren’t in on the system when they were going through it, it’s very hard (not impossible) for them to crack the code on behalf of their own children.

If we are serious about an education for liberation, we should be laying down

  1. alternative principles based on how teachers and students can co-operate and enable learners to take control of how they learn and what they learn

  1. alternative principles on how education is organised, how schools are run, and what happens to power inside schools..

  1. alternative principles in relation to cognition and democracy: that’s to say, an education based on  investigation, discovery, discussion, imagination and play.

Just to unpack that – ‘investigation and discovery’ is not a privatised, individualised activity. They are rooted in co-operation, debate and action. In turn, action is rooted in making, doing and creating.

We should be challenging who controls education and how they control education in order to pose alternative models. These alternative models will come through the kinds of struggle we take part in as with, say, opposition to SATs. Here, parents, children and teachers take part in fighting against a government imposed system of power and through that struggle we learn new ways of making education together.
There are elements in all that I’m saying here that are worth fighting for, some indeed that can be won, some that can't be won under the present set-up but are worth holding in one's head as the means by which we can see what's wrong with the present set-up.




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