One of my Italian colleagues, Federica Tagliafichi, mentioned how the plight of Claudio Ranieri, the recently sacked Leicester City manager, was much like that faced by our teachers the world over. In case you don’t know, Claudio Ranieri masterminded Leicester City’s Premier League win in miraculous fashion with massive odds and limited resources. To many, Ranieri was a demigod, slaying football’s greed with wry cunning and gentlemanly grace. This year though, Leicester’s results have slumped and he was unceremoniously sacked, prompting media shouts of disloyalty and disrespect. Federica twisted Ranieri’s fate towards education with this question: ‘are the outcomings and the results more important than the process?’. You could extend this question to: does this dehumanise education?
As I discussed in an earlier post, PISA and other global comparison systems are pushing education towards standardisation. However, these systems are problematic: they can only successfully measure the inputs or outputs of education. They really struggle to measure what goes on in the middle, something the Economist Intelligence Unit (2012) calls the ‘black box’ because it relies on the interactions of each system’s cultural values with are inherently difficult to compare. Therefore, global education comparison systems such as PISA have to focus on quantifiable inputs and outputs.
‘Comparison Is the Thief of Joy’ – Theodore Roosevelt
In a globalised world, these constant comparisons make education a political weapon, brandished to demonstrate cultural and economic strength. However, for every winner, there is always a loser. When fear turns the educational ideal to topping international league tables, pragmatic short-term policies become simply irresistible.
One consequence of this is an increase in felt accountability, defined as ‘the subjective experience that one’s actions will be subject to evaluation and that there are potential punishments based on these evaluations’ (Gelfand, Nishii, and Raver; 2007). As the need to compete increases, measures are put in place to compare favourably and gain advantage. Thus, we teachers are urged to push for these standardized goals and cajole students through the required tests and watchmen ensure progress and administer carrots and sticks. This has begun to define educational goals. Education goes from promoting cultural values and social cohesion (whether this is an approach which is correct is a discussion for another day) towards a pragmatic approach rewarding short term successes. In Britain, teachers and students are constantly subjected to policy changes and curriculum adjustments to compensate for Britain’s perceived failure in global comparison systems. Michael Gove, Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014 shifted towards standardized, comparable outcomes that used market forces and competition as a catalyst for change.
As a teacher, I’ve felt it and I’m sure you have too: to meet these goals we are encouraged to leave most of our compassion and humanity at home to ensure that our students uniformly meet their targets. However, although education is extremely hard to define (everyone has their own interpretations, especially academics), a strong economy and looking good internationally isn’t the only function of a successful education system.
How can we stop comparing education systems from dehumanising education?
It seems there is confidence is the answer. Many global superpowers have utmost confidence in their approaches and this stems from being secure on their cultural identity. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Learning Curve 2012 report explains that Finland’s and South Korea’s ‘ideas about education have been […] shaped by a significant underlying moral purpose’ and quotes Mr Angula, former Finnish Prime Minister: ‘the key ingredient is for everybody to be committed and to understand that they are doing a public good.’ (p43) Developing this takes nerve though. Hanging on to ideals and values when the rest of the world constantly changes requires confidence and trust and it seems that Finland and South Korea have this in abundance despite having vastly different approaches and cultural values.
This brings us back to Claudio Ranieri: a lack of confidence meant that the club’s owners overlooked the qualities that made him so popular because of Leicester City’s poor results. If Leicester avoids relegation from the Premier League, they’re vindicated to some extent. But by culling him, they’ve lost special human qualities that have helped to define their club’s status.
We’re fighting the same fight in teaching. We’re never going to go back to being a purely values-led vocation with academic achievement as a happy accident. In Britain, we could do much worse than learn from the confidence that countries like Finland and South Korea hold in their cultural values and education system. That way, comparing outcomes doesn’t result in dehumaned education.
Economist Intelligence Unit (2012). The Learning Curve Report 2012: Lessons in country performance in education. Pearson. http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com/content/download/bankname/components/filename/FINALLearningCurve_Final.pdf
Gelfand, M. J., Nishii, L. H., & Raver, J. L. (2007).On the nature and importance of cultural tightness-looseness (CAHRS Working Paper #07-05). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cahrswp/462