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Right wing pedagogy and social justice: on the academic / vocational debate

BLOG seeming to favour academic as opposed to vocational knowledge generated some debate on twitter yesterday both for and against. Some valuable additional contributions were made to the debate here and here. Followed by a further response here.

The debate turned to educational research and a curriculum model outlined by educational sociologist Michael Young (see below), which is a useful framework for discussion.

I have a couple of issues, no doubt others do as well:

1) In the model described below there are three visions of curriculum outlined. I would argue that there are only two visions and that in this scenario the authors use Future 2 as a mechanism to distance themselves from the problems of relativism in some extreme models of constructivism / constructionism.

2) The argument seems to forward that knowledge can be understood external to social relations and that it has intrinsic power as a “thing in itself”  with a reference to the Scottish curriculum albeit described as a “caricature”. Nonetheless the caricature is there for a purpose. Clearly some knowledge has power as a “thing in itself” but I would argue that “its power” is largely dependent upon its utility in the world rather than anything intrinsic to the knowledge.

For the purpose of debate we can define Future 1 as neo-traditionalist education given the reference to Hirsch and aspects of Future 2 and Future 3 as progressive education. The criticisms of future 2 are valid but there is little evidence, other than in the rhetoric of neo-traditionalists, that a purely skill based conceptualisation of curriculum exists, or has ever existed (notwithstanding point 2 above).

Within each category there is probably argument and counter argument. However in my view I think it is hard to justify favouring  Future 3 pedagogy / curriculum with any of the following views:

1)           Medieval English poetry is as relevant as historical knowledge gets  given that history is a key source of socio-cultural knowing in society

2)           Teacher talk is the primary method of delivering learning

3)           Vocational based education should be undertaken by employers

4)           Traditional subjects should be studied up to the age of 16

5)           New knowledge and skills that are emerging are equivalent to “seaside studies” or  “Birmingham studies”.

The nub of the twitter debate lies in the claim to Future 3 when to all extents the rhetoric and arguments put forward sound more like Future 1. Or alternatively the claim to Future 3 when the arguments put forward sound like Future 2.

The authors demolish the claim that a neo-traditional education offers any kind of social justice largely being a fantasy of right wing “think tanks” such as Civitas (and presumably Policy Exchange).

Anyway read away these are not my views so don’t shoot the messenger.

(Tip of the hat to MF for link )

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A theoretical model of the curriculum

In a recent paper (Young and Muller 2010) Muller and I distinguish the different assumptions that curricula can have about knowledge and postulate three possible futures for schooling. Gove’s approach which lays down the knowledge pupils are expected to know and schools to ‘transmit’ can be understood as a version of what we refer to as Future 1.

It treats access to knowledge as the core purpose of the curriculum and assumes that the range of subjects and the boundaries that define that knowledge are largely given. It tends towards being, I suggest elsewhere (Young 2011), a ‘curriculum for compliance’ and in extreme cases encourages little more than memorization and rote learning.

One example of a Future 1 approach to the curriculum is E D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy which attempts to make explicit ‘what every child should know’(Hirsch 1988). Hirsch’s ideas have been taken up by a number a number of Right Wing Think Tanks such as Civitas that have influenced the Conservative Party. In 2011 such a curriculum seems like an attempt to return to the pre-WW2 era; critics like John White (White 2010) argue that it is a throw back to the 19th century or even earlier. It assumes, unlike earlier versions, that if combined with an ethic of hard work and strict discipline, it can be a curriculum model for all schools and all pupils.

The educational rationale of Future 1 is found in its respect for knowledge as something to be valued ‘for its own sake’. It has an insight into the real purpose of schools (Young 2009a), a vision of schooling as an intellectual challenge for students and teachers, and as an opportunity for students to engage with the knowledge that has been produced by specialist scholars and researchers who work in and sometimes across the disciplines that school subjects draw on. This may explain why a sophisticated and certainly not fixed version of it has survived in elite schools and why it cannot easily be characterised as a ‘curriculum of the past’ (Young 1998).

A similar argument can be made for Gove’s proposal to return responsibility to universities for A levels, the public examination that is usually taken at 18+ and is the main basis for university admissions. However Gove’s version of Future 1 is trapped in its own elitist past and is no basis for a future curriculum. With its ‘given’ concept of subject knowledge, Future 1 began too lose credibility after World War 2 because it was unable to respond either to the political demands for expanding access or to the new knowledge that was being produced that would be the potential engine of a future economy. Post World War 2 versions of Future 1 were more flexible and new subjects were added, but it gradually gave way, except in the elite private schools and the few remaining grammar schools, to the ‘modernizing’ claims of what we refer to as Future 2.

A Future 2 curriculum rejects the ‘givenness’ of knowledge and sees knowledge as a ‘social construct’ and therefore a product of and responsive to changing social and economic demands. Driven by the goals of expanding ‘access’ and economic benefits, Future 2 dismisses the idea that the boundaries between subjects, between school and everyday knowledge, and between academic and vocational curricula might express epistemological realities. From the perspective of Future 2, arguments in favour of school subjects and the boundaries between them became seen as conservative or backward looking and were increasingly treated as little more than masks to perpetuate privilege. One consequence was the end of the idea of the curriculum as a ‘secret garden’ and something that politicians did not interfere with; increasingly it became dominated by political and economic priorities.

Gove’s approach raises critical questions about the consequences of an uncritical adoption of Future 2; not the least in assuming that year on year increases in examination passes are necessarily an indication of higher standards. On the other hand, it faces us with Future 1 and Future 2 as polarized alternatives, largely but not entirely associated politically with the Right and the Left.

Whereas Future 1 denies the social and historical basis of knowledge and its organization into subjects and disciplines, Future 2 treats the ways that knowledge is organized as historically arbitrary and in some forms as little more than expressions of power. Elsewhere (Young 2009) I have used the term ‘knowledge of the powerful ‘ to describe this view of the curriculum.; its primary focus is on ‘who defines the knowledge?’ not ‘what the knowledge is’. Future 2 denies that subjects may not only represent ‘knowledge of the powerful’- they dominate the curriculum of elite schools- but also the most reliable ways we have of sequencing and pacing knowledge in the curriculum.

In its most extreme form, Future 2 argues that because we have no objective way of making knowledge claims, the curriculum should be based on the learner’s experiences and interests and that somehow these can be equated with the interests of society. In essence, the curriculum becomes primarily an instrument of politics and only secondly an instrument for achieving educational goals. With the differences between knowledge and experience increasingly blurred, learning becomes a kind of generic process leading to outcomes or competences prescribed by the curriculum. A good example is the new Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. This defines its outcomes as creating :

• successful learners

• confident individuals

• responsible citizens, and

• effective contributors

(http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/understandingthecurriculum/whatiscurriculumfore xcellence/thepurposeofthecurriculum/index.asp)

In such a curriculum, the teacher becomes a facilitator of learning and the distinctiveness of the pedagogic relationship between teachers and pupils in providing students with access to specialist knowledge is played down. This is of course something of a caricature; however, it is important for two reasons. First it is what Gove and his colleagues see themselves as combating; hence his enthusiasm for returning to the past. Secondly, with its emphasis on access and participation and its confidence in claiming that no form of knowledge is necessarily more reliable than any other, it appears progressive and democratic and has been seen as attractive, in its less extreme forms, on the Left and among some researchers in educational studies.

What it never does is to appeal to elite educators such as the Heads and governors of the top fee paying schools or the parents who send their children to such schools. They recognize that knowledge is not ‘powerful’ just because it is ‘defined by the powerful’; it is ‘powerful’ because of the understanding it offers to those who have access to it. A reluctance to acknowledge the ‘power’ of knowledge is a feature of most versions of Future 2 and a tendency of the soon to be abolished QCDA(Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency) and, by implication, of recent Labour governments.

This reluctance to recognize that the distribution of knowledge cannot be understood solely in terms of power relations may explain why inequalities between different types of schools have increased in the last decade. In our paper(Young and Muller 2009), we argue that Future 1 and Future 2 are not the only options, and that in a sense both are wrong about the assumptions they make about knowledge. We argue that knowledge is both social in origins and objective, and it is that objectivity that is expressed in subjects in the school curriculum and in disciplines in the universities.

This view of the objectivity of knowledge, which underpins our model of Future 3, differs from the givenness of knowledge associated with Future 1 in a number of ways. Firstly it is located in the specialist communities of researchers in different fields and those educational specialists who re-contextualise disciplines as the basis for school subjects. As a consequence this ‘social’ objectivity is not ‘given’ but fallible and always open to change.

However unlike the openness of knowledge envisaged by Future 2 these changes are not arbitrary or responses to political pressures but take place within the epistemic rules of the different specialist communities. Future 3 rejects the a-social giveness of subjects associated with Future 1 and re-interprets their social objectivity as a tool for treating the world as an object- and so enabling students to gain access to understanding the world that takes them beyond their experience. It is this access to knowledge that takes students beyond their experience that must be the primary goal of schools.

Future 3 implies that a curriculum must stipulate the concepts associated with different subjects; a  similar argument is made by Tim Oates in his article( Oates. T this issue pp: ). It is the inter-relatedness of concepts in a subject or a discipline that distinguish them from the everyday concepts that pupils bring to school, and which offer them ways of going beyond their experience.

Concepts, Muller and I argue, must be linked to the contents that give them meaning and to the skills involved in acquiring them. They are the starting point of a Future 3 curriculum. It is a new balance between the stability of concepts (expressed in subjects), and changes in content(under-emphasised in Future 1) and skills (over emphasized in future 2) that Future 3 points to. It emphasises the distinction between the curriculum (with its role in stipulating concepts) and the pedagogy of teachers through which they enable students engage with the concepts of the curriculum (Young 2011).

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