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?

No comments: