Wednesday, November 07, 2012

On Education: "Standard" knowledge vs "Messy" knowledge

So here's more on the link between knowledge and qualifications, and as usual the little quotes lead on to big questions. Here's a favourite of mine:

"Ofqual's report also criticised the content of some text books, saying they were so focussed on a particular exam that they failed to cover the subject in any broad fashion."
What does this mean? What does it highlight? The "conflict" in education really is neatly summarised here. On the one hand we have knowledge which is "so focussed on a particular exam". On the other hand, we have knowledge to "cover the subject" broadly.

Forget all the debate on teaching methods and exam equality. The real crux of the matter is whether knowledge is a social mechanic, or a technical one. That's to say: are you teaching and learning in order to compare individual performance, or are you teaching and learning in order to help students act within situations requiring knowledge of an issue?

As a technical person, you might think I'm all for the latter. But I'm not - both of these have merits and rationale, but must be kept in balance somehow for the system as a whole to be effective.

A social rationale will tend towards natural homogenisation and a race to the "norm". This is a little to do with "teaching to the test" and trying to "game" the system, but really it's a direct linkage to the ideal of having "standards" for knowledge. Once "standards" are in place (and especially under a competitive economic paradigm that encourages most-for-least), the corpus of knowledge will move towards a "social common denominator" approach as everyone rushes to be comparable to everyone else. Anything "non-standard" is dangerous as it makes you less comparable.

A technical rationale is a "messy" one in that it is supposed to provide knowledge which can be adapted to any situation (within the defined boundaries of that knowledge). "Messy" knowledge is inherently anti-standard because it involves creativity on the part of the wielder, unknowability on the part of the situation, and quite often random chance.

Some people like to believe that the technical rationale is the one that's taught, and that social rationale is the one that's assessed as a side-effect. But anyone that's been through the education system knows that in a socially-imposed learning context (large classes, heavy emphasis on results, etc.), any pressure moves "learning" towards not-taking-risks. That is, nobody ever missed University for following the textbook, in the same way that "nobody was ever fired for buying IBM".

(Once a social monoculture approach to education is in place, all blame can be shifted to the "system" - or those in charge of it - which naturally re-empowers the same people who were supposed to be empowering others.)

Currently there is no "answer" to this conundrum, because politically we shy away from assessing "creativity". Our 20th-century thought models look at "subjectivity" and whimpers away into a corner. Setting the "norm" and seeing how well people can follow it is the only form of assessment we have, encouraged ever more by larger class sizes, greater distance between one generation and the next, and rapidly-evolving socio-technical networks outside of the educational sphere (think IT curriculums).

Ironically, as we follow the increasing idea of treating students more and more as "individuals", we end up forcing them to look more and more like each other. Any "individualism" is a microscopic customisation of preference onto which media flashlights stare incredulously. ("Skirts an inch shorter!" "Kids slightly more obese!" "etc!") Does this further compound the problem, in terms of the system acting in the opposite direction that we think we're acting in?

Education is hitting a crisis point. Is it ready to re-think itself in order to get others to think?

Friday, November 02, 2012

Making the grade (up)

Pressurised teachers 'marked GCSE too generously'

I just can't be bothered to comment really. Seriously. What's really irritating is this quote:
Ofqual chief executive Glenys Stacey said: "We have been shocked by what we have found. Children have been let down - that won't do."

"Shocked"? Really?

"Won't someone please think of the children?"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spinning Sarah's Law and the Branding of Legislation

I love this Press Release from the Home Office on the use of Sarah's Law in its first year. It actually reads backwards. I've copied and pasted it here for study purposes, but I'll paste the headline and first 4 paragraphs in reverse order.
If [an] individual has convictions for sexual offences against children or poses a risk of causing harm then the police can choose to disclose this information to the parent, carer or guardian.
(Emphasis added. Note that this category of offences is actually two categories - sexual and other. Theresa May is happy to conflate the two though, as is the later headline, when she refers purely to "predatory sex offenders" in her comment later in the release.)
The scheme, known as 'Sarah's Law', was rolled out across all police forces in England and Wales from 4 April 2011.  It allows anyone to ask the police to check whether people who have contact with children pose a risk. 
Is it a scheme, a law, support, or what? The use of the word "Law" is hammered home in its branded nomenclature for sure, but here it seems to be described as a general system of information. The use of the word "Law" alongside someone's name is even more fascinating; the scheme is to open up information on the offenders, and yet the focal name is that of the victim.

The tying of legislation to a historical individual is curious to begin with - the formalisation of the idea that law is a memorial, the idea that "we shall not forget" through the use of branding. But is it Sarah's law? If a law is based on an individual, why should it be applied to all? On the other hand, if it has been put in place to assist many others like the named victim, is it not their Law as well? Or do all of the un-named victims in the same position, through such branding, become amorphous - to be identified as "Sarah" no matter what their gender or background, in the same way that the Anonymous hacker group adopt a persona of Guy Fawkes?

This individualisation of the masses, the turning of the "many" into "someone", is worth keeping an eye out for.
Over the last 12 months the police have received more than 1,600 enquiries and over 900 formal applications.  At least 160 disclosures relating to child sex offences have been made, together with at least 58 made concerning other offences.
Finding information on what these "other offences" are is tricky - the Press Release doesn't mention them or give you a link to them. This Guidance Document PDF gives slightly more though:

In order to put a scheme in place that raises public confidence and increases the
protection of children the Disclosure Scheme will therefore include routes for
managed access to information regarding individuals who are not convicted child
sexual offenders but who pose a risk of harm to children. This may include: 
• persons who are convicted of other offences for example, serious domestic
• persons who are un-convicted but whom the police or any other agency holds
intelligence on indicating that they pose a risk of harm to children. 
There would not however be a presumption to disclose such information

That seems fair enough - but needs to be remembered when these "other" offences make up just over a quarter of the figures quoted with a fair bit of hand-waving.

The final (first) paragraph:
More than 200 children have been protected from potential harm during the first year of the Child Sex Offender Disclosure Scheme, it was announced today.
"Have been protected from potential harm"? How does that work? I'd rewrite this to say "may have been protected from potential harm". A double-possibility always does wonders for a sense of perspective.

Which gives us the final headline:
'Sarah's Law' protects more than 200 children in first year 
Makes more sense now, doesn't it?

(More than that picture of a snowy swing does, anyway.)