Returning to the cave: practicing teachers doing part-time research degrees

I was in a supervision meeting with a part-time research student the other day. For those not familiar with this process, it is a regular meeting in which the academic supervisor engages with the student and acts a critical advisor in respect to the student’s research. This is an intimate and demanding relationship. It is demanding because the student, particularly in social sciences, is working alone with the intellectual and practical challenges of their research. This means lots of challenge to the student’s (and supervisor’s) thinking and emotions, as well as a test of their project management in a rapidly evolving conceptualisation of the world and the phenomena, events, cases and contexts under investigation.

Part-time research students undertaking research degrees in education (either and EdD or part-time PhD) are generally working in schools or in an educational setting. All of my part-time research students are school teachers in the state sector.

My research student and I began talking about fitting university work in with school. She explained how hard it was; how difficult it is to switch between her work in school and the thinking and demands of working on her research. There are two worlds, she said, two types of thinking in two contexts.

Her account is similar to the observations I have heard from others, those doing initial teacher education programmes or part-time masters, where they are in school most of the time but then come to the faculty. It is the different contexts and different types of thinking that present such a challenge.

Two worlds.

School and faculty may not appear to be so different to those who are not involved in either. Isn’t it just about time management? But there is a fundamental difference about the work and thinking of the practicing teacher, to that when engaged in scholarship, as part of a training programme or research degree in a university.

The policy context in England’s schools is a system of centralised accountability. With an emphasis on getting students to perform well in public examinations. And, as a consequence, a focus on a narrow curriculum. Schools have become increasingly hierarchical and managerial. With a culture of surveillance, discipline and performativity. Free speech, free thought and scholarship are a secondary, if not supressed, concern.

At university, life could not be more of a contrast. Teachers, as research students, have to become critical consumers of knowledge, theory and scholarship, in a range of disciplines: psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, politics and economics. This a freethinking, expansive, intellectually challenging environment in which it is necessary to rethink, re-evaluate and conceptualise. It is one in which ideas and expression has to be free, to formulate and examine thoughts and constructs.

I am reminded of Plato’s simile of the cave, where in, The Republic,  Socrates tells of the cave as characterising ‘the ascent of the mind from illusion to pure philosophy’ (Translator’s note, Plato, 1974, p. 316). Socrates’s dialogue with Glaucon begins:

I want you to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of our human condition as follows. Imagine an underground chamber like a cave. In this chamber are men who have been there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads. Some way off, behind and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them runs a road, in front of which a curtain-wall has been built, like the screen at puppet shows between the operators and their audience, above which they show their puppets (Plato, 1974, p. 317).

Like the prisoners teachers are ‘underground’, in schools. They have been there a long time, ‘since they were children’ and their perspective has been narrowed and constrained: ‘their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them’. It is like the accountability context of schools, in which teachers have their legs and necks bound so that they can only see things in a particular way, so that they just focus on examination results. Over a period of time they become accustomed to this way of life, they accept and live with it. They come to accept it as a reality. The accept the concepts as reality.

Imagine further that there are men carrying all sorts of gear along behind the curtain-wall, projecting above it and including figures of men and animals made of wood and stone and all sorts of materials […] do you think our prisoners could see anything of themselves or their fellows except the shadows thrown by the fire on the wall of the cave opposite them? […] Then if they were able to talk to each other, would they not assume that the shadows they saw were the real things? (Plato, 1974, p. 317).

Teachers in the ‘cave’ assume that the interpretations of their perceptions of events and actions are the true accounts. The truth is legitimised by practice norms and education policy. Teachers have to think in particular ways about causality: if I teach in a particular way, the students will do well in their exams…this is how to teach disadvantaged children…the head of department is my manager and complex decisions have to be referred to them…learning takes place through the learning of facts etc. These are the shadows on the walls of the cave. And this is the legitimate truth.

A teacher decides to study for a research degree. They leave the school and go to the university, but this experience is difficult.

Suppose one of them were let loose, and suddenly compelled to stand up and turn his head and look and walk towards the fire; all of these actions would be painful and he would be too dazzled to see properly the objects of which he used to see the shadows (Plato, 1974, p. 318).

They meet with their academic supervisor or course tutor who begins to explain to them that the objects they saw were a limited representations of reality. They had seen teaching, learning and practice in a limited way, because they had been in the cave. This is hard for the teacher to come to terms with at first.

What do you think he would say if he was told that what he used to see was so much empty nonsense and that he was now nearer reality and seeing more correctly, because he was turned towards objects that were more real, and if on top of that he was compelled to say what each of the passing objects was when it was pointed out to him? Don’t you think he would be at a loss, and think that what he used to see was far truer (Plato, 1974, p. 318).

It’s very stressful, the two worlds appear very different and are incompatible. But the teacher researcher grows comfortable and enriched in the world outside of the cave. The teacher returns to school.

Wouldn’t his eyes be blinded by the darkness, because he had come in suddenly out of the sunlight? […] And if he had to discriminate between the shadows, in competition with the other prisoners, while he was still blinded and before his eyes got used to the darkness – a process that would take some time – wouldn’t he be likely to make a fool of himself? And they would say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting (Plato, 1974, pp. 319-320).

The teacher’s colleagues do not understand why they do not see things in the same way. Because the teacher has broadened their perspective on the everyday experiences in school, they struggle to respond in the same way. The other teachers find this confusing and disconcerting, seeing their colleague, having engaged in scholarship, finding it difficult to return. It makes them question the value of undertaking a research degree. The experience of developing broader theoretical understanding and critical thinking can put a research student in a mental space that is inconsistent with the role of the school teacher. It takes time to manage, adapt to and resolve. In the current accountability climate this can be even more difficult.

There is a wider issue here about teacher scholarship and education research. So much is said about evidence-based research and teachers having access to evidence. This should only be a small part of teacher scholarship, the main contribution of teacher research and scholarship is in the critical understanding of their contexts and professional work. It is similar to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in the arts. Teacher research is way of looking at education, pedagogy and learning, more than it is about learning what works. This is what makes it challenging and rewarding.

This is as much my story as it is my research student’s.


Plato. (1974). The Republic. (H. D. P. Lee, Trans.) (2nd edition (revised)). Harmondsworth ; Baltimore: Penguin.

Taxation and government spending: which comes first?

The common assumption is that the UK’s taxation is the source of revenue that pays for public services, health, welfare benefits, education and defence. It is often assumed, and commonly framed as, taxpayers money. I was having quite a discussion on Twitter about this. I was putting forward the idea that taxation is not a source of income. The following justification comes from Larry Randall Wray and is a view held by heterodox [1] economists who subscribe to Modern Monetary Theory or Modern Money Theory (MMT) (see Mitchell, 2016; Wray, 2015).

Wray explains the principles in the following video. If you want a brief overview read on.

Imagine year zero for a country’s economy, the notional point at which the economy begins. The first thing that the country has to do is invent a currency. In the UK we have the pound. The government creates a currency with which transactions and trade can take place. The government is the only institution that has the legal power to create that currency. Anyone else who tries to faces criminal prosecution.

At year zero, the UK has to introduce that currency into the economy, it can give it to its citizens and it can pay them to provide the things we need for our society. The government pays people to provide administration, build hospitals, schools, sports facilities and weapons. It can pay people who don’t have a job. It can pay people to be doctors, teachers and it can provide training for those individuals. It can pay for research and development.

It is only after the government has introduced currency into the economy that it can tax people and businesses. This flow of spending followed by taxation continues year-on-year. And in fact most of the time the UK runs at a deficit, there is lag between spending and taxation. Because spending precedes taxation. You can see this in the graph below.

Government General Expenditure (GGE) and Government General Revenue (GGR) (IFS source)

So what is taxation for, if it does not provide government its revenue?  Wray and other MMTers argue that it creates a demand for the currency, it makes it flow round the national economy. If we did not have taxes then the currency, the pound for example, would not be in demand in the economy. We need it because we have to pay taxes in that currency. Richard Murphy (2015) considers tax a kind of democratic subscription, it gives citizens a commitment and right to participate in democracy. Taxation is also used to redistribute wealth and to regulate inflation by increasing or reducing demand in the economy.

It is important to recognise that running an economy in deficit does not necessarily increase the national debt, because the national debt is not really a debt in the sense that we understand personal or household debt (Wray, 2015). The national debt are bonds created by the government to drain accumulated reserves in the banks. This represents the accumulation of currency in the private sector and technically speaking it is used to maintain the overnight interest rate. This, I understand is common knowledge for anyone in banking or finance.

So when a government talks about maxing out the government credit card, or leaving a debt for our grandchildren this is highly misleading. A government cannot run out of its currency. Therefore, there is really no excuse for not funding health and education and other public services properly.

Related blog posts:

There is plenty of money to spend on schools: a Modern Money Theory perspective

Education, policy and pedagogy: It’s the political economy stupid!


[1] Heterdox economics contrasts with orthodox or mainstream classical economics.

[2] 0n 22/2/2017 I noticed that this blog had been replaced with an earlier incomplete draft, I have now restored it

[3] Thank you to Sandra Crawford who introduced me to this excellent illustration of the ideas in this post.


Mitchell, W. F. (2016). Modern Monetary Theory and Practice: An Introductory text. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Murphy, R. (2015). The joy of tax: how a fair tax system can create a better society. London: Bantam Press.
Wray, L. R. (2015). Modern money theory: a primer on macroeconomics for sovereign monetary systems (2nd edition). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Arendt’s crisis in education

On the Michaela Community School website, Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay on education, The Crisis in Education, is used to justify their approach to strict discipline policy and a curriculum based on knowledge.

They defend their approach against criticism, that their approach is authoritarian, they say authoritarianism applies only to violent totalitarian states and make a clear distinction between their own strict behaviour policy and state-level violent authoritarianism:

To brand Michaela Community School as authoritarian, especially without even visiting, is astonishing. Authoritarian regimes have blood on their hands. They have imprisoned, tortured, executed and assassinated millions of people in illegal killings around the world. Frankly, to compare Michaela to these states is an insult to all those who have died resisting these brutal regimes (Michaeala Blog post).

My purpose here is not a critique of Michaela Community School, I have my reservations about it, I have not visited, we’ll leave it there. But Michaela did lead me to Hannah Arendt’s essay at a time when I have  been reading her work more generally. However, her essay is misrepresented on the Michaela blog, that was my first impression at least. So, this blog post (essay) is something of an investigation from that starting point. To be fair Arendt’s essay is a complex piece, wresting with her own self-acknowledged ignorance about public education in the USA and drawing on her own ideas about authority and ideas of past and future. Her philosophy is so entwined with totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s communist Russia that these themes weave through the essay as barely seen threads.

Arendt’s essay on education features in her book Between Past and Future first published in 1961 in the US. Jerome Kohn’s introduction in the later Penguin Edition (Arendt, 2006) explains that the underlying theme in each essay in Between Past and Future is the rupture in the Western philosophic-political tradition. In the first essay, “Tradition and the Modern Age”, Arendt presents a view that the tradition of political philosophy culminates and ends in the thought of Karl Marx. The philosophical ‘tradition’ was of that of the authority of the philosopher and it was the function of ordinary people to enact such ‘truths’. Marx turns this on its head; thought and political ideas were more pragmatic and dialectic. The philosophical authoritative tradition was broken with a new conceptual assemblage, one of tensions, peoples, society, class and struggle. This is at the heart of what Arendt refers to as a crisis in authority, not necessarily in a deprecative way, but as an observer, as a political philosopher.

Before looking at Arendt’s essay in detail, I want to set out the context – the context of public education in the USA in the 1950s at the time when she penned her image of educational crisis. Arendt arrived in the USA in 1941, a Jewish exile from Nazi Germany. Public education in the USA had been undergoing reforms for a many years. Cremin (1961) traces changes in American education back to the 1890s . Cremin[1] cites the influences of William James, Francis W. Parker, Edward L Thorndike and John Dewey which all stem from Herbert Spencer. These influences led to the espousal of child-centred or progressive education. Egan (2003) characterises progressivism as based on a belief that in order to educate a child effectively “…it is vital to attend to [their] nature, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can discover about these” (Egan, 2003, p. 5).

Cuban (1993) describes how in the decades after 1890 there was increased efforts to introduce student-centred teaching practices in schools. “By 1940, the vocabulary of pedagogical progressives had rapidly turned into the mainstream talk of both teachers and administrators” (p. 45). However, in spite of the discourse, the reality in schools between 1920 and 1940 was that teachers constructed hybrid practices based on traditional teacher-centred practice and progressive child-centred practice. Cuban considers that teachers faced a fundamental dilemma as they attempted to reconcile the influence of progressives with the day-to-day realities of schools, which more naturally calls for austere teacher-centred approaches. There was something in the process of implementation of progressivism that contorted it and led it away from the advocates’ vision [2].

Dewey’s vision for an education based on the needs of individual children was, according to Cremin (1964), misinterpreted and misunderstood. It had been Dewey’s intention to develop a curriculum that started with the child’s experience and culminate in more traditional disciplines. However, this was lost in a wave of national anti-intellectualism (Toch, 1991 cited in Kinsler & Gamble, 2001). Anti-intellectualism appears a defining feature of public life in the USA, at times, like the present, it becomes fervent, at other times it abates. Hofstadter (1963), in a Pulitzer Prize wining work of non-fiction on the subject, attributed American anti-intellectualism to religion, politics, business. Through this it is likely that progressivism was led to abandon the teaching of knowledge in the traditional sense, but this was not a Deweyian vision.

The American mind was shaped in the mold of early modern Protestantism. Religion was the first arena for American intellectual life, and thus the first arena for an anti-intellectual impulse. Anything that seriously diminished the role of rationality and learning in early American religion would later diminish its role in secular culture. The feeling that ideas should above all be made to work, the disdain for doctrine and for refinement in ideas, the subordination of men of ideas to men of emotional power or manipulative skill are hardly innovations of the twentieth century; they are inheritances from American Protestantism (Hofstadter, 1963, p. 55).

McCarthyism in the 1950s was something of a past zenith in American political anti-intellectualism where critical thought was treated with at best disdain at worst as treasonable. It is important to note that at the time Joseph McCarthy was leading political repression, Arendt was contemplating authority and crisis in education.

For education, there is something of a perfect storm for progressivism, the misinterpretation of the educational philosophy of progressive child-centred education, the challenges and twists as reform ideas are implemented in the classroom against an anti-intellectual backdrop with derision for knowledge and ideas. It is not my intention in this essay to defend  progressive or child-centred education, but I am in accord with some of its philosophy, although I am opposed to approaches that rely on children (re)discovering knowledge. John Dewey was undoubtedly a progressive educator but with a strong sense of scholarship and intellectualism. Hofstadter is critical of Dewey’s progressivism, but there appears to be a misunderstanding of Dewey’s educational philosophy, which an aspect of is as follows:

…education is neither a process of unfolding from within nor is it a training of faculties resident in mind itself. It is rather the formation of mind by setting up certain associations or connections of content by means of of subject matter presented from without. Education proceeds by instruction taken in a strictly literal sense, a building into the mind from without (Dewey, 1916, chapter 6).

There is little sense here and in other work, that Dewey was an anti-intellectual progressive, his education ideas were progressive and child-centred but not in the absence of knowledge.

In the context of Arendt writing her essay on the crisis in education, there are particular circumstances that must be considered:

  • There is a progressive child-centred reform agenda in public education in the 1950s.
  • Practically many teachers speak the talk of progressivism but classrooms still have the character of traditional teaching with, for example the traditional classroom formatting, tables in rows and teacher-directed learning.
  • There is a cultural context of anti intellectualism further exacerbated by McCarthyism from 1947 to 1956.

It is reasonable to conclude, as Arendt did, that the crisis of education  was a result of anti-intellectual progressivism. Let us now look at the particulars and contexts of her direct criticism of progressive education. She summarises these “ruinous measures” as three assumptions as follows:

The first is that there exist a child’s world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar be left to govern… [The adult] can only tell him to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening (Arendt, 2006, p. 177).

In this, Arendt characterises progressivism in terms of children’s discovery, where children live in a separate and distinct world from adults and this, as a tenet of child-centred teaching, must be respected and supported. She is deeply critical of the formation of what she sees as a separate child and adult world, with children characterised as an oppressed minority. She then goes on to address the relationship between knowledge and pedagogy.

The second basic assumption which has come into question in the present crisis has to do with teaching. Under the influences of of modern psychology and the tenets of pragmatism, pedagogy has developed in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught…This in turn means not only that the students are actually left to their own resources but the most legitimate source of the teacher’s authority as the person who, turn it whatever way one will, still knows more and can do more than oneself is no longer effective (p. 178 – 179).
Arendt’s third assumption is aimed at the notion that “you can know and understand only what you have done yourself….”(p. 179), the teacher’s role is to not to pass on ‘dead knowledge’ but to “…constantly demonstrate how it’s produced” (p. 179). This seems, on the face of it, the dichotomy of knowledge and skill that are regularly barked over on social media today.

Arendt’s three progressive assumptions are: a) the existence of an autonomous child world, b) that pedagogy does not involve the teaching of knowledge or teacher authority and c) learning is doing rather than the acquisition of knowledge. But this is not the main point of Arendt’s essay as I will show, and indeed, having launched what appears to be an assault on progressivism she draws back. Vis-à-vis the third progressive assumption, she says, ” this description is at fault … because it obviously exaggerates in order to drive home a point” (Arendt, 2006, p. 180). This is the point about her criticism of progressivism, she is making a point. Yet reflecting and echoing the media coverage “reported daily in newspapers” (p. 170), she recognises that while newspapers are reporting declining standards, and that while she restates the above well-rehearsed criticisms of progressive education, she acknowledges that “Certainly more is involved here than the puzzling question of why Johnny can’t read” (p. 171). In other words there is something more than an assault on progressivism. But there is a legitimate criticism to be made about the implementation of an anti-intellectual progressivism.

Arendt goes on to state a critical question and what is the crux of the essay:

Which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves…And, second, what can we learn from this crisis for the essence of education…? (p. 180).

Arendt’s criticism of progressivism is largely built around the idea of authority. While the author of the piece for Michaela Community School site has taken that to mean that children need strict discipline, the point Arendt is making is wholly more subtle. You see for Arendt authority demands obedience, but what she means by this can easily be misunderstood.

Since authority always demands obedience, it is commonly mistaken for some form of power or violence. Yet authority precludes the use of external means of coercion; where force is used, authority itself has failed. Authority, on the other hand, is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used, authority is left in abeyance (Arendt, 2006, p. 92).

For Arendt, the essence of authority is hierarchy and this comes from the tradition of intellectual hierarchy as part of the western philosophical political tradition. But, as she observes, this authority of tradition, based on and in the past is contemporarily in crisis. This is the backdrop for the compilation of essays in which The Crisis of Education appears.

This leaves us with something of an unresolved problem, having dispatched the progressive educational model in which children are treated as a distinct society, in which they have to form their own authority and politic, we cannot then turn to the traditional authority as an escape. What Arendt drives at is the superiority of adult over child, but this is temporary as the child develops. Arendt’s sense of authority in education is based on a fluid dynamic of adult superiority which evolves as the child develops. It is what I might describe as ‘professional relationships’ to trainees on an initial teacher education programme. It is the idea that the teacher has adult authority and can communicate a set of rules or principles, but at the same time the child is growing to adulthood and must ultimately be respected as an equal. There is in no sense the espousal of a zero-tolerance or no-excuses approach to education as a resolution of the crisis in education.

Arendt’s criticism of progressive education, as she believed to be existent in American schools, is reminiscent of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies:

…by being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority[…]the tyranny of their own group against which they cannot rebel, with which, because they are children, they cannot reason, and and out of which they cannot flee because the world of adults is barred to them (Arendt, 2006, p. 178).

Overall, Arendt raises some valid criticisms about education, criticism that continue to be relevant. In the essay she does not propose a particular solution. This is understandable since, as she acknowledges, she is not a professional educator. She suggest that necessarily education must be conservative, in the sense of ‘conservation’.

[Conservatism]is the essence of educational activity, whose task is to cherish and protect something—the child against the world, the world against the child, the new against the old, the old against the new (Arendt, 2006, p. 188).

But she is happy to recognise that this is a paradox, because, she says, if the world strives to retain the status quo, then this can only lead to destruction. It follows that what vexes educators is the paradox of educational conservatism in a changing world. She observes:

Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve the newness and introduce it as a new thing in an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction (p. 189).

In spite of this paradoxical and impossible demand on the educator, Arendt makes a clear statement of what schools should do, “…the function of a school is to teach children what the world is like and not to instruct them in the art of living” (p. 192). This is a general state

To conclude, Arendt identifies the problems with 1950s American educational progressivism, the criticisms are justified in the historical context.  What she develops from this is what schools should do, though this is paradoxical. Can we, therefore, derive anything from Arendt’s critique? Yes, I think she sets educators a considerable challenge to deliver a critical progressivism, not dissimilar to the approach put forward by Dewey. In that the educator, the teacher that is, must manage tensions of conservatism and progress, and past and future, in a developmentally appropriate way. What is clear is that Arendt is not arguing for a strict and exclusively knowledge-based education as proposed by the Michaela Community School.


[1] I have cited Cremin’s historical analysis from:

Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[2] I imagine something similar to Black and Wiliam’s ideas of formative assessment being implemented, or Dweck’s mindset theory. The implementation of which takes little account of cultural practices and the result is kind of superficial enactment rather than principled implementation. This diminishes the power of the original idea.


Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.
Cremin, L. A. (1961). The transformation of the school; progressivism in American education, 1876-1957 (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Dewey, J (1916). Democracy and education: an introduction to the philosophy of education. The Macmillan Co.
Egan, K. (2003). Getting it wrong from the beginning: Our progressivist inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-intellectualism in American life (1st ed). New York: Knopf.
Kinsler, K., & Gamble, M. (2001). Reforming schools. London ; New York: Continuum.

An investigation of culture and habitus in teaching

A surprisingly popular blog post I wrote was on cultural scripts in teaching. I want to develop the ideas from that here in the form of a public writing experiment. To inform the theoretical considerations, I draw on observations from the research I have been doing with Underground Mathematics looking at how teachers incorporate new tasks and activities into their teaching. This is in the context of A Level mathematics in England. The understanding of the impact of culture and habitus in teaching could be helpful in a wider range of teaching and contexts. Culture and habitus in teaching are ideas that have not been given a great deal of attention, the emphasis has been on a) how teacher thinking impacts on their teaching and b) what practices result in greater learning gains? Culture and habitus do not replace these ideas, but I think give us much better understanding of why teachers teach in the way they do.

The following is an investigation of ideas that will be a component of a future publication. I share it here for discussion and comment.

What is culture?

The idea of culture comes to us as a critique of evolutionism. Anthropologists rejected the idea that all human societies progressed through the same stages of development. From a social evolutionary perspective different groups must pass through the same developmental stages. Franz Boas was a foundational thinker in the development of modern cultural anthropology. He argued that the world was populated by distinct cultures.

There has been an emphasis on behaviours, artefacts and symbols: the external actions and symbollism. For example, Meade (1953, p. 22, cited in Prinz, 2016) says culture “is the total shared, learned behavior of a society or a subgroup.” More recently there has been a turn to meaning and semiotics, “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” Geertz (1973, p. 89). It is these ideas that are fundamental to my discussion later.

There is a complex and rich sense of what culture means, almost defying definition. The moment one becomes specific the general sense is lost. And if the idea is too general then it becomes unusable. The following idea gives a sense of the issues:

…most definitions characterize culture as something that is widely shared by members of a social group and shared in virtue of belonging to that group. As stated, this formulation is too general to be sufficient (a widespread influenza outbreak would qualify as cultural). Thus, this formulation must be refined by offering a specific account of what kind of shared items qualify as cultural, and what kind of transmission qualifies as social. (Prinz, 2016).

Overall, culture means shared behaviours within a group. In my previous post on international comparisons in mathematics education, the international comparisons of teaching practice relied on the idea of distinct cultural practices in the different countries studied. Cultural anthropology provides the basis for making this assumption.

Habitus and habits

As an individual many of our habits are idiosyncratic, they are ours. The original meaning of habit was how a person holds themselves, their demeanour. This has developed to include apparel, then on to dispositions, behaviours and ways of doing things. “A settled disposition or tendency to act in a certain way, esp. one acquired by frequent repetition of the same act until it becomes almost or quite involuntary; a settled practice, custom, usage; a customary way or manner of acting” (OED Online, 2016). According to Camic ‘the term “habit” generally denominates a more or less self-actuating disposition or tendency to engage in a previously adopted or acquired form of action’ (Camic, 1986, p. 1044).

Pierre Bourdieu argued that habits are not idiosyncratic, especially in the context of professional practice. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus represents culturally acquired habits. Habitus is developed socially which result in enduring patterns of behaviour (Bourdieu, 1984). Habitus represents a socially acquired cultural basis for routines and patterns of behaviour.

This then is the basis of my discussion, that habits (habitus) is a cultural phenomenon, I look at this in the context of teaching, developing from extant ideas about the nature of teaching, practice and pedagogy.

Theories of teaching

Teachers’ beliefs

The tradition of theorising pedagogy and practice emerged from psychology (this is looking from the perspective UK and the USA in particular). Firstly, behaviourism explained behaviour as a consequence of external stimuli and behaviours are developed through reinforcement. While this was a dominant theory of learning, it does not adequately explain how teachers learn to teach and the practices they use. Later, theories of practice evolved around constructivist views of learning. We are talking about Vygotsky and Piaget. In simple terms individuals construct a view of objects and actions. This sort of cognitive functioning was absent in behaviourism. Within constructivism people have agency which contrasts with the behaviourist model, where agency is a kind of random action that is disciplined through reinforcing responses.

The dominant explanation of pedagogy and practice since the 1970s has been influenced by constructivism but in a particular form. Teachers’ views about practice that ultimately guide their actions are described as ‘beliefs’. Paul Ernest (1989) proposed that in mathematics teaching, the way teachers teach is based on their belief about the most effective way of way of teaching and learning and their beliefs about mathematics. I have a previous blog post on this.

While there has been extensive research on the relationships between teachers’ beliefs and practices, a consistent link between beliefs and practices has not been found. It is frequently observed that enacted beliefs (what is observed in the classroom) is different to what teachers say they believe in, their espoused beliefs. Ernest explained this difference as the effect of social context, meaning that teachers do not have full agency. They may believe that teaching and learning takes place in a particular way, but the way in which they teach is influenced by the expectation placed on them by the students, parents, colleagues, the schools’ leadership and policy expectations.

Situated cognition

In the 1990s more attention was given to the social aspects of learning. That people learn to adopt cultural practices as they become part of a discourse community. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) suggested that professional communities have a dominant discourse, including language as well as practice. There are, in discourse communities, legitimised language, grammar and behaviours. As we become part of a discourse community we learn what they are and the extent to which they can be deviated from.

In my role in initial teacher education, at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, I am well aware of the socialisation that trainee teachers experience as they train in our partner schools. They learn the dominant forms of practice and some develop the confidence to subvert and extend existing practice. They also learn the routines of practices and language forms that teachers use to talk about their work, the progress of students and in describing learning. This is within the constraints of policy and accountability, these factors in addition to the disciplining character of social interactions normalise behaviours. As individuals we still maintain a degree of agency and configure these performances to our own preferences. While there are characteristics of what we do that are consistent with a dominant form, each of us acts in an individual way.

In the last three years I have increasingly discussed this with trainees. It is important to understand the socialisation process that we need to undertake in order to enter professional practice. I sometimes wonder what trainee teachers think the learning process is, whether they see it as the acquisition of skills, which is only partly true, or whether they see learning to teach as socialisation. I think the former is the more likely explanation based on my questioning at interview and in the early part of the course. So to understand social learning, to understand your own learning as social learning is valuable in understanding your progress. You understand why it is necessary to observe teaching, as well as interactions with pupils and colleagues and the exchanges that happen in staff-rooms and corridors. While it is easy to understand the idea of situated cognition and social learning, the processes in which this takes place is a little more demanding. To explain this I am going to draw on the ideas of social cognitive theory, self-efficacy, reflexivity and observational learning.

Social Cognitive Theory, self-efficacy and reflexivity.

A more in-depth explanation of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1997) is available in a previous post, here I am just going to recall a few key points. The important point about social cognitive theory is that it integrates the social aspects of learning and learning through the acquisition of knowledge. Within social cognitive theory is the construct of self-efficacy and vicarious (observational) learning.

Self-efficacy is a self-assessment or self-belief. When doing something new we consider the situation and consciously construct an approach, we plan for the situation. We also assess how successful we will be. Self-efficacy is partially dependent on knowledge but importantly it is dependent on the belief the individual has in being able to apply existing knowledge to a novel context. Teaching self-efficacy is the belief a teacher has that, as a result of the teaching approaches used, students will make progress in their class.

Self-efficacy is a useful construct as it operationalises knowledge, it connects affective aspects with knowledge. It is not just knowledge and skill but the belief an individual has in being successful in a context. It explains then why, when teachers are tired or stressed, they generally become less effective even though their subject and pedagogical knowledge is still intact.

The second aspect of social cognitive theory vicarious learning. It was Miller and Dollard (1941) who highlighted the vicarious nature of learning. While they referred to imitation, they did not mean that we learn by copying precisely what others do, we adapt observed behaviour as part of the process of vicarious or observational learning. This was famously demonstrated in Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment, in which children observed adults engaged in violent behaviour toward a Bobo doll. The children were then observed to imitate the modelled behaviour but also, and importantly, they introduced novel behaviours.

Lortie’ (2002) aphorism that learning to teach is based on an apprenticeship of observation is a significant acknowledgement of vicarious learning processes in teaching. We spend hours, as students in classrooms, observing teachers and then, but to a lesser extent, as trainee teachers on a one-year training programme. Observational learning is an essential part of cultural transmission.

Social cognitive theory involves both self-efficacy, a cognitive and affective basis for the formation of behaviour, and observational learning. In this frame we can see a reflexive dimension of behaviour formation. There is continuity from existing established practices that are communicated vicariously, at the same time the individual can adapt and personalise the existing practices.

Automaticity and routinization: the basis of habitus

Malcolm Gladwell’s (2009) claim in Outliers, that we need 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a particular human endeavour or profession, is something of a ponderous assertion in the context of learning. I think what Gladwell is really trying to get at is the point at which a learner no longer has to consciously think about what they are doing in their professional role or in a field of endeavour. Many skills once learnt can be carried out efficiently by drawing on established patterns of behaviour that exist in our long term memories. What Gladwell probably means is that 10,000 hours is necessary to develop professional habitus.

According to Bandura, once we have become self-efficacious in a domain of activity our actions become routinised and we do not need to mentally model each of our actions in advance, we can draw on scripts and patterns that we have already become confident with. This is equivalent to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus but a professional and occupational context.

This makes sense from the perspective of neurophysiology and in human evolutionary terms. Our working memory capacity is limited and conscious reasoning uses up a lot of energy. It is natural that we preserve our bodily resources for times when we are under threat or when we really need to think through a problem. To do this all the time is simply too demanding, we have to rely on established patterns of behaviour most of the time and respond almost intuitively. Human beings are animals capable of reasoning but only a limited amount of our behaviour is guided by conscious reasoning (Johnson-Laird, 2009).

When I observe trainee teachers, they have to consciously think about most of what they do. This is very demanding, it can be and often is stressful (Chaplain, 2008) and is certainly very tiring. This is a result of the demand for conscious reasoning in preparation for action in the classroom and in the school milieu. What is more, without actually carrying out an action, it is impossible to know the outcome, the contexts of classrooms and schools are complex and predicting the consequences of certain actions is also impossible. In this analysis, it can be seen how important the role of the school-based mentor is, an experienced teacher who can help guide, construct and evaluate the trainee’s proposed actions.

As the trainee’s self-efficacy develops they exhibit routinized action, in which they have greater confidence in the outcome. They know what to expect. Leinhardt (1988) describes experienced teachers’ cognition as situated in the context and relying on almost automatic responses based on heuristic thinking. How I understand this is that teachers are able to recall patterns of pedagogical behaviour in long term memory they match these to the situations they meet and probabilistically evaluate as an appropriate response. Action is contingent, a teacher encounters a situation and is able to adapt and reconstruct a previous response. Teacher cognition is based on rule-of-thumb and the heuristic use of previous actions that are in long-term memory – it happens in an instance.

Let me now return to culture and habit more directly. Observational learning alludes to a cultural impact on practice, that cultures of teaching are transmitted through observational means. The development of routinization, automaticity and the use of heuristics as self-efficacy develops underpins the formation of teaching habits. In the next section I consider how these aspects connect together.


Roger Scruton’s (2001) idea of conservatism rests on the value of, and indeed social capital of, customs, traditions, institutions and laws. There is value in such things as ‘constants’. Quinton Hogg went as far as saying,  “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself” (Hogg, 1959). Although I identify myself with the left of politics, I can’t help but to find myself in agreement. Especially when we locate the political and philosophical ideas of conservatism in the context of state schools and classrooms. And in my experience as a school teacher, I was as much a conservative as Scruton and Hogg. Indeed schools are conservative institutions and the practices observed there are conservative and teachers, by-and-large, are conservative. All this with a little ‘c’.

This has not always been so true, not to the extent that it has been since the late 1980s and increasingly so over time. In the 1960s in England there was a widespread progressive movement, with attempts to break away from traditional schooling and to responding to new thinking about learning and development. But still at the core were conservative curricula and practices. Similarly in the US where traditional teaching, like in England, followed patterns of practice where teachers explained and demonstrated followed by students engaging in practice or exercise. A time-honoured tradition that goes back to the grammar schools of sixteenth century England, at least. Larry Cuban, a historian of public education in the US, observed the traditional teacher-centred teaching had been there in perpetuity through a century or more of public education. Yet the progressive movements of the 1960s did not, according to Cuban (1993), significantly unhinge conservatism in schools. He observed what he described as “teacher-centred progressivism”, the essence of which are the traditional routines but with progressive features such as tables set out in groups – indicative of dialogic approaches – rather than desks and tables in rows for the traditional didactic approach. The same can be observed in England’s state schools, the mainstay of practice is traditional routine and conservative pedagogy, but with superficial ‘progressivism’. The traditional nub has proved to be impervious to fundamental change.

It was Cuban’s view that the perpetuity of pedagogical conservatism is down to day-to-day practical demands on teachers. State schools in the UK and US are resource-constrained, a secondary school teacher needs to be able to keep a class of students busy, they need to be able to maintain standards of behaviour. They may have six, seven or eight classes each week, each with up to 30 or more students, some of whom – because school is mandatory – will not want to be there. Naturally then, the most efficient pedagogy is a traditional teacher-centred approach. The teacher explains and demonstrates a central idea or method, then students work at a similar pace with the express aim of becoming more proficient in what is being taught. The work is routine enough to keep the students busy and the teacher can assess progress by observing how far students have worked through the task and how accurate their answers are.

While others have attributed the actions of the teacher and the pedagogy that is formed as a function of teachers’ beliefs about what is effective teaching and learning (see previous blog) , the practical explanation above is the more likely explanation. It is also an explanation that Stigler and Hiebert drew on in the analysis of eighth-grade mathematics classrooms in Germany, Japan and USA in 1995. They saw pedagogy as culturally distinct: there was more variation in practice between countries than there was within them. They saw pedagogy as following a cultural script, established routines within which teachers and students knew what was expected and what was likely to happen. This is similar to Hogg’s conservatism -“a constant force” based on institution, tradition and rules. While it corresponds “…to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself”, its permanence and constitutionality is much over stated and my view, like Arendt (2006) for example, is that there is a fundamental tension and dialect between progressivism and conservatism; between tradition and future. Or in Archer’s (2012) terms between structure (and culture) and individuality, that is between the self and the social, cultural and institutional context in which we act. It is on this I will finish, but before so doing, I want to consider very briefly why schools and classroom practice are generally conservative.

I left school in 1980 and did not set foot in a state school until 2000. I had an overwhelming sense that schools had become more conservative, I didn’t understand why. My expectation, based on a naive assumption that progress meant more progressivism, was that schools would be more progressive. Schools had in fact become more conservative. In the last few years I have been working on a hypothesis that helps me understand why. It was my initial view that this phenomenon was a consequence of policy, latterly I have expanded this to consider that a key influence on school culture is political economy at national and global level. I wrote about political economy in education in a previous blog. It is from this analysis, I show that the shift from liberal state interventionism to neoliberalism in the late 1970s had a profound influence on the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers’ jobs became more demanding and their teaching subject to greater scrutiny. The appearance of performativtiy (Ball, 2003), where teachers are frequently observed in a high-stakes accountability context, leads to the normalisation of practice. It leads to greater conservatism in the classroom. The reason for this can be explained through social cognitive theory. This more intense professional experience leads to higher levels of anxiety, this reduces self-efficacy and teachers are more likely to sustain conservative practices than to innovate. This is ironic since some of the policy -led reforms were supposed to be progressive, but in accountability contexts the opposite is achieved because of the impact on teachers’ levels of stress.

The cultural dimensions of teaching: structure, culture and agency

I have developed the idea that teaching is a cultural act. That pedagogy follows cultural scripts that participants (teachers, students and even parents) recognise and within which they can predict actions and responses. Teaching is not just a matter of imitating the practices of  previous generations and unthinkingly doing the same as was done in classrooms of previous decades. Yet there is a recognisable cultural and historical constancy. As actors in contexts, as teachers in schools we have agency, but behaviours in such institutions are not expressions of teachers’ preferences. Their preferences and individualism transact with cultural practices and scripts to form actions that are personal but culturally consistent. There is a further dimension: structures. Here, I have talked about the defining factors of institutions on cultural practices. It is the interaction and transaction between structure, culture and agency that shapes individual thinking and action through a process of reflexivity (Archer, 2012).

Taking the English context, the normalising effects of high-stakes accountability in a neoliberal setting, are likely to diminish innovation. As a consequence, there is a tendency to sustain more traditional forms of teaching. Interestingly activist groups have appeared to argue for a new conservatism. For me this is not critical enough, conservatism in teaching is merely a feature rather than a philosophy of education.


Archer, M. S. (2012). The reflexive imperative in late modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arendt, H. (2006). Between past and future: eight exercises in political thought. New York: Penguin Books.

Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Camic, C. (1986). The Matter of Habit. American Journal of Sociology, 91(5), 1039–1087.

Chaplain, R. P. (2008). Stress and psychological distress among trainee secondary teachers in England. Educational Psychology, 28(2), 195–209.

Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Ernest, P. (1989). The impact of beliefs on the teaching of mathematics. In P. Ernest (Ed.), Mathematics teaching: The state of the art (pp. 249–254). London: Falmer Press.

Geertz, C. (1973). Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
“habit, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 10 February 2017.

Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: the story of success. London: Penguin Books.

Quintin Hogg Hailsham of St. Marylebone. (1947). The case for conservatism. West Drayton: Penguin.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2009). How we reason. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Leinhardt, G. (1988). Situated knowledge and expertise in teaching. In J. Calderhead (Ed.), Teachers’ professional learning (pp. 146–168). London: Falmer Press.

Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social learning and imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Prinz, J. (2016). Culture and Cognitive Science. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved from

Scruton, R. (2001). The meaning of conservatism (3. ed). Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

International Comparisons in Mathematics Education – Mathematics Education Masters Seminar 8 February 2016, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

I have changed this seminar from previous years, this year I have taken a political economy turn. This means that I want to look at international comparisons in mathematics education (in relation to school mathematics) not just on the basis of the comparison of teaching and learning but in the context of political economy, particularly globalization. Generally, discussions about international comparative research begin with comparisons of the performance of students in different nation states, this is often followed with consideration of the differences in societies, politics and culture in the compared jurisdictions and then there are questions about the validity of such studies and whether the comparisons are fair.

When we think about international comparisons in mathematics education we tend to think about those studies that are based on assessment, like for example PISA. International comparisons are, however, not limited to assessment-based surveys, comparative studies have been undertaken on teaching and learning, based on observing and comparing classroom practices in different countries.

International comparative education is an aspect of, indeed a phenomena of, globalization. So here I want to promote a discussion not only about the nature of this kind of research, what it can tell us and what it can’t, but what is its role in the context globalization, and how does globalization play a part in education?

I begin with an explanation of the idea of globalization in economic, political and cultural terms. I follow this with a summary of the key lines of international comparative research in education. Finally, I present a critique beginning at the level of the different types of study and finally in relation to globalization.


This is a term that describes the a variety of economic, political, cultural, ideological and environmental processes. This contested idea first appeared in the 1940s, though really became widespread in the 1990s.

Globalization is a set of social processes that lead to the social condition of globality, through the growing consciousness of global connectivity (Steger, 2013, p. 1).

It is a contested idea:

There is no consensus on exactly what processes constitute globalization, but common themes include the creation of networks, expansion of social relations, and the acceleration of social exchange (Steger, 2013, p. 1).

The economic, political and cultural dimensions of globalization:

The economic dimension of globalization

The Bretton Woods conference held at the end of the Second World War established binding rules about economic activity. Currency was fixed to the gold value of the US dollar. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created. Systems of trade were developed through the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, which was later to become the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.

Between 1945 and the early 1970s, nations’ economies worked through interventionism (government spending) with a freemarket economy. This resulted in growth and full employment in the US and UK, for example.

By the late 1960s this system was not working and led to high inflation in the UK and similar economic problems in US. It was assumed that interventionism of Keynsian economics was no longer working. This gave way to neoliberalism, typified by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and US President Ronald Reagan. Neoliberalism is based on the belief that the freemarket is the ultimate economic arbiter, that the big state and state intervention hampers this. This includes the replacement of public services by outsourced and private providers and the privatisation of nationalised industries (Harvey, 2011).

Global trade increased from $57 billion in 1947 to an astonishing $14.9 trillion in 2010  (Steger, 2013). While millions were lifted out of poverty, levels of inequality within developed nations were increasing. For example in the US, between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 per cent seized 65 per cent of the national income growth (Stiglitz, 2012, p. 3). A similar pattern can be found in other developed nations under neoliberalism.

The global financial crisis in 2008 revealed that neoliberalism had fatal problems with its reliance on private debt and consumer spending as the basis of economic growth. The level of low-grade private debt in the US, resulted in the insolvency of banks which had a knock on effect around the world.

The political dimension of globalization

The political dimension of globalization goes beyond the nation-state. It sees the rise of super national organisations like the United Nations and the European Union. These, arguably, threaten the role of nation-states.


The nation-state in a globalizing world Source: Jan Aart Scholte, ‘The globalization of world politics’, in John Baylis and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics, 2nd edn. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 22.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is one such international organisation. Founded in 1960, it has 35 member countries, its express aim is to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

The cultural dimension of globalization

This involves the spread of culture in a globalized world. Critics claim that culture can become overly homogenized, with dominance of powerful nations like the US. This has an impact on language, day-to-day life as well as arts and culture. There are clearly aspects of globalized culture that have an impact on education.

A brief history of comparative education

In 1959, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) piloted a conceptual and methodological framework for large-scale international studies (Owens, 2013). These developed into a formalised First International Mathematics Study in 1964 (FIMS), a second between 1982 and 1983 (SIMS) and a third, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995 (TIMSS). These were designed to measure students’ problem solving skills. This developed through the 1980s and 1990s with expansions from maths and science to other subject areas. Since 1995, TIMSS has monitored trends in mathematics and science achievement every four years, at the fourth and eighth grades. TIMSS 2015 is the sixth such assessment, providing 20 years of trends. TIMSS 2015 can be found here.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was introduced in 2000. PISA is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.

The result of the 2015 survey are here.

Classroom research

While there have been the survey and assessment based approaches to comparative education research. Comparative studies have been undertaken of classroom practice.

TIMSS video study

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study is a follow-up and expansion of the TIMSS 1995 Video Study of mathematics teaching. The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999) compares practices in eighth-grade classrooms in Germany, Japan and the United States. It is a seminal work that highlighted cultural scripts in teaching as well as drawing attention to practices in South East Asia, including notably, lesson study. In my view it was this work initiated pedagogy-envy in the UK and to some degree the US. It was both the character of practice and results from assessment-based comparisons that created this phenomena. But I will return to this.

Larger and more ambitious than the first, the 1999 TIMSS Video Study investigated eighth-grade science as well as mathematics, expanded the number of countries from three to seven, and included more countries with relatively high achievement on TIMSS assessments in comparison to the United States. The TIMSS video study involved videotaping and analyzing teaching practices in more than one thousand classrooms.

Learners’ perspective study (LPS)

This built on the ideas and methodology of the TIMSS video study. Although a centralised methodology was developed at the University of Melbourne, by David Clarke and collaborators, data collection and analysis was undertaken by local teams in each jurisdiction. It examines the patterns of participation in competently-taught eighth grade mathematics classrooms in sixteen countries in a more integrated and comprehensive fashion than has been attempted in previous international studies. Research teams now participating in the Learners’ Perspective study are based in universities in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, The Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA.

The results of the Learner’s Perspective Study are reported in a Book Series, published by Sense Publishers . The first three volumes are: Mathematics Classrooms in Twelve Countries: The Insider’s PerspectiveMaking Connections: Comparing Mathematics Classrooms Around the World and Mathematical Tasks in Classrooms around the world. 

I reviewed the fifth volume, Algebra Teaching Around the World (Watson, 2016).

You can also find a discussion on cultural practices and scripts here. I am currently working on a paper with my colleagues, Lizzie Kimber and Louis Major looking at the role of cultural scripts and habitus in teaching.

What do comparative assessments tell us?

TIMSS 2015

The mathematics content can be found here. Achievement results are summarised using item response theory (ITR) scaling, with most achievements scores in the range 300 to 700.

The following charts present headline results from TIMSS 2015. The aim is to show comparative trends in achievement.


 PISA 2015

The following are headline trends from PISA 2015


Critique of comparative studies – from Askew et al. (2010)

Askew et al. (2010) present an analysis of the findings of assessment-based international comparisons:

  •  Findings from repeated TIMSS and PISA studies add to our knowledge of changes over time, but these international studies are limited by their lack of longitudinal data that examines learning through tracking the same pupils over several years of schooling (see Theme 2: What rankings tell us, page 18).
  • Not all high attaining countries have closed the attainment gap between pupils from differing socio-economic backgrounds (see Theme 7: Attainment gaps, page 28).
  • Findings from TIMSS suggest the match between curriculum content and the TIMSS test items matters more than teaching in explaining international differences, although the quality of teaching still has a significant effect on mathematical learning (see Theme 1: Impact of teaching, page 16).

And the following are specific observations.


Finland’s pupils have been considered high performers in mathematics given their success in recent PISA studies. Finland ranked first in 2003 (although the Canadian province of Ontario was the highest scoring) and second after Hong Kong in 2006. This success was a surprise both in Finland and elsewhere (Pehkonen, Ahtee, and Lavonen, 2007). Efforts to understand this achievement have been hampered by a limited research base. The Finnish education system consists of comprehensive school education at both primary and lower secondary levels. Children start school at the age of seven and there are nine years of compulsory schooling. All types of education in Finland are free and well supported.


Singapore’s educational structure comprises six years of primary, four years of secondary and two years pre-university. Only the first four years of primary follow a common curriculum: pupils follow one of two ‘orientation’ curricula in the last two years of primary, one of these being a reduced curriculum at a slower pace. There is a leaving exam at the end of primary: some pupils take a different exam if they have followed the ‘reduced’ curriculum. There are three courses at secondary school: around 60% of pupils follow an ‘express course’ leading to a GCE O-level in four years, 25% a ‘Normal’ (academic) course leading to O-level in five years (or an N-level in four years) and 15% in a ‘normal’ (technical) course leading to N-level. Between 20% and 25% of pupils continue to university. While the curriculum is centrally mandated and there is high-stakes assessment, schools have flexibility over the implementation of the curriculum. Since the 1990s there is no longer a single state-mandated textbook, with commercial publishers producing textbooks in an open market. A five-fold curriculum framework emphasises attitudes and meta-cognition as well as skills, concepts and processes. Compared to its near neighbours, Singapore’s pupils do report more enjoyment of mathematics.

 How valid are international studies?

It is not our intention to reiterate the arguments pointing out the difficulties and flaws in studies of international comparisons of mathematics education. For example, there may be considerable differences in the extent to which schools and students feel the tests are important. In PISA 2006 the comparison of first round school participation rates between Finland (100%) and the United Kingdom (76%) is telling. Perhaps more striking is the oft-quoted anecdote from TIMSS 1995 of Korean students marching into the examination hall behind the national flag. Others provide further cogent arguments into the shortcomings of TIMSS and PISA (see for example Brown, 1998; Goldstein, 2004).

The role of international comparisons

The purpose of the OECD for example is international economic activity and trade. However well meaning, the intentions of the organisation in the methodology and administration of PISA, education is framed in terms of trade and economics. Given the OECD’s role in globalization, it is necessary to question what impact it has on global education. It is fundamentally committed to economic globalization and questions have to be asked about its impact on equality. Capitalism, in particularly neoliberalism, increases competition by creating markets in public services[1]. Within this system, there are winners and losers and hence inequality is advanced. On the other hand, PISA and TIMSS are useful in looking at trends in educational performance within individual countries. Assuming, that is, the measures represent ‘quality’ in education. This, though, is a major assumption.

Comparisons of practices in different countries are valuable in understanding pedagogy and practice within different cultures. There is a danger that, taken with assessment-based comparisons, aspects of practice are copied, with an assumption of causality.  England has been invested in policy borrowing, and at times, cherry picking aspects from so-called high-performing jurisdictions. However, this overlooks the complexity of the systems being borrowed from and naive assumptions about causality.

As the global and economic landscape changes rapidly, as capitalism stumbles through another crisis, it is necessary to rethink the role of international comparisons. Greater attention needs to be given to social justice and the environment as opposed to a preoccupation with growth which leads to and exacerbates inequality.

We need to pay more attention to the local, within a globally connected world. Development needs to attend to geographical and cultural locality, it is through this that local communities are empowered. We also need to think about what a mathematics education might look like. Is it in the kinds of assessments used in PISA or TIMSS, and does it look like the kinds of practices we see in video studies across the world? I am not sure that it does, but that is for another time.

Finally, as I have argued elsewhere, we need to consider the driving forces of political economy. We thought we had reached the end of history in this respect and our attention to this had subsided. The global financial crisis has restarted history, we have to consider the globalized forces that impact on what we do in education.


[1] Since writing this I discovered the following article on the impact of PISA in Europe.

Grek, S. (2009). Governing by numbers: the PISA ‘effect’ in Europe. Journal of Education Policy, 24(1), 23–37.


Askew, M., Hodgen, J., Hossain, S., & Bretscher, N. (2010). Values and variables: Mathematics education in high-performing countries. London: Nuffield Foudation.

Harvey, D.(2011). A brief history of neoliberalism (Reprinted). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Owens, T. L. (2013). Thinking beyond league tables: a review of key PISA research questions. In H.-D. Meyer, A. Benavot, & D. Phillips (Eds.), PISA, power, and policy: the emergence of global educational governance (pp. 27–49). Oxford: Symposium Books.

Steger, M. (2013). Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. London ; New York: Penguin Books.

Watson, S. (2016). Algebra teaching around the world. Research in Mathematics Education18(2), 211–214.

Why I think we should leave the EU

I voted to remain in the EU on 23 June 2016. If there was another referendum I would vote to leave. I have two main reasons for this. The first is that I understand more about macroeconomics. This is through reading in the period subsequent to the referendum. Classical economics has failed to make accurate predictions about the national, regional and global economics. While heterodox economics, like Modern Money Theory or Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), post-Keynesian post-Marxist has been much more effective in predicting the 2008 crisis. Part of the reason for this is that it does not assume that people’s decisions are rational, it considers the role of power and hegemonous groups.

Central to MMT is idea that a nation state, with its own sovereign currency, cannot become insolvent, it is solely responsible for creating its own currency and for spending that currency. There are other provisos, like for instance, a nation’s currency must not be pegged to another nation’s currency. This is the problem with the Euro and for those countries that have this currency. None of which are able to use fiscal policy to ensure that their economy works for their own people. In fact the European Central Bank (ECB) imposes austerity, it limits the extent to which each country can invest, through deficit spending. This is why Modern Money Theorists like Steve Keen and Bill Mitchell are eurosceptic. They predict that at some stage the eurozone will come apart, with considerable political and potential social upheaval. In the end, the UK is best out of this close economic union, even though it is not part of the Eurozone. According to Bill Mitchell, it is not brexit that is the problem it is austerity. That’s why those of the left should stop rerunning debates about the legitimacy of the referendum and focus  attention on exposing  the Tory government on its horrendous record on managing the economy. It’s not just their record on managing the economy, its the corruption also, they have abused their power by lining the pockets of their backers by giving them access to running state services for profit and through favourable taxation

My second main issue with the EU is its response the fascist coup in the US. The Donald Trump administration decieved the US voting poblic and persuaded them to put it into power. The US now has a dangerous far-right authoritarian and racist government. There are many who see the EU as an allience to counter the rise of fascism. I have little faith they will do this. The EU has failed to address the rise of the far right within its own borders, it is institutionally powerless. The reason for this is that inspite of being formed to ensure peace between European nations, its development as an economic block has turned neoliberal. The EU, by having the Euro, runs an economic system that minimises state intervention, encourages outsourcing and deregulation. It forces other nations to do the same. The EU will primarily protect its favoured form of political economy. And what we have seen with neoliberalism of the last 30 years, is rising inequality, unemployment or underemployement and stagnating wages, except for the wealthy. This is fodder for the far right, the same conditions that led to Trump in the US. The EU is wedded to neoliberalism, it will defend this and the Euro ahead of anything else, there are too many vested interests to counter any demise. And while the EU is a neoliberal institution, it is part of the problem and not a solution.

Two illustrations: A Labour MEP holds up a sign ‘He is lying’ while British fascist Nigel Farage speaks in the European Parliament. The EU leaders gather in Malta and issue a joint criticism of Trump. Both of these are platitudinous. The antidote to fascism (based roughly on Arendt) is through the public sphere. In Europe this would translate to radical economic and democratic changes, an end to neoliberalism; universal basic income and/or job guarantees; improvements in civic, institutional and workplace democracy; and progressive taxation. Fascism is overcome by empowering people to overcome it. I do not see any of this happening in the UK or Europe. Platitudes and indifference will have dangerous consequences.

Education, policy and pedagogy: It’s the political economy stupid!

At the heart of all the main issues in education at the moment is economics. In fact economics in education has become of increasing importance and is a growing field in itself. Analysis of data to evaluate education policy has been valuable in understanding how schools perform and the achievement and a progress of different types of students, for example.

This approach is in the tradition of classical economics. Underpinning classical economics is the idea that people make rational decisions within markets. This leads to econometric models that can be used to predict the behaviour of markets and the behaviour of the economy as a whole. In education, for example, it leads to predictions about earnings following participation in school-based programmes or interventions, the study of various subjects or attendance at Higher Education.

Classical economics sets its boundaries at the edges of the economic system. It does not concern itself with the political dimensions of economics, apart from say, informing policy makers on resource allocation. This rests on its fundamental principle of rational behaviour.

If we step outside classical economics, we can still see the distributions of wealth and power that classical economists observe, but we can also begin to see the forces that create these systems. It is not simply rationality with, as Adam Smith observed, an invisible hand ensuring that all would be fair in a freemarket society. Karl Marx’s critical analysis of capitalism in the three volumes of Das Kapital showed that the freemarket does not lead to a fair or equipatable distribution of wealth. It necessarily leads to the accumulation of capital. As a consequence there is an exploited working class. And hence economy is necessarily political.

One can be forgiven for thinking that in state education political economy can be ignored. The reason we think like that is that since the end of the Second World War and until recently, we have had no reason to think differently. But now we must. I shall explain by dividing the period between 1945 and the present into three economic phases.

The first phase is from 1945 until 1970. The post-war period saw considerable government spending on health and education and sat alongside a  freemarket economy. Education was grant-funded through local authorities. This investment was seen as a benefit to society as a whole. However, from the late sixties until the 1970s, things changed. The economic context changed and public education economics had to change in response. This leads to our second economic period between 1970 and 2008.

In the 1970s, there was a change from a mixed economy with public sector spending alongside a freemarket economy to neoliberalism, where there was much greater emphasis on the freemarket. During the early seventies there was a crisis in capitalism, in the UK this was characterised by inflation, decreasing company profits and increasing wage demands by the work force. In the end the unions lost, their pay was controlled and businesses were able to maintain their profits to some degree. The worst outcome was that the economic crisis was erroneously blamed on the unions, inefficient nationalised companies and a supposedly bloated public sector. When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, she famously took on the unions, began privatising nationalised companies and reducing the size of the public sector. Underpinning this was the belief privatisation and marketisation was the best way to run our public services. The invisible hand would do its job. Neoliberalism was the political economy that continued until 2008. It was adopted by New Labour in 1997 and was supplemented by an increase in public spending. Although much capital spending in schools was from private capital. For large businesses, neoliberalism created opportunities to profit from public-sector services and subsidised by the state.

The preoccupation through this period of neoliberalism has been on the deficit in public sector finances. That is the difference between tax revenues and government spending. The preoccupation with eliminating deficit spending and an attempt to return a surplus in public finances has the effect of reducing private sector surpluses (I explain this in more depth here). In other words private sector borrowing has to increase, households become more indebted, house prices inflate. This creates demand in the economy (consumers are debt spending) and the banks profit. In 2008 this whole sorry pile of private debt was found to be overvalued and the big banks had to be bailed out by the state. Once again capitalism is in crisis. But the financial crisis of 2008 was a symptom of underlying problems brought about by neoliberalism itself.

The neoliberal period of unregulated freemarket capitalism has resulted in increased wealth inequality, while the richest 10 per cent or so, have got richer the rest have got poorer or are carrying considerable debt. Inequality in society is indicative of a divided and unhealthy society. Wealth and income inequality leads to democratic inequality, where the wealthy are in a position to influence government much more than the less well off. It also leads to health and education inequalities. Furthermore, it leads to a less productive society since there is less investment in workers and their development.

We find ourselves in period of post-capitalism or post-neoliberalism, the collapse of centrist politics is indicative of this also. No longer is the status quo working for a large proportion of society, this is evident in the election of an unequivocally anti-austerity leader of the opposition, and more dramatically the referendum result that will ultimately lead us out of the EU. This was the precipitation of an anti-establishment and anti-status quo vote.

In terms of the character of education, the three economic periods (public sector, neoliberalism and post-capitalism) have shaped schools and pedagogy in particular ways. During the public-sector period (1945 – 1970) practices and organisations were emergent, but drew heavily on the approaches used in traditional establishments, like for example, the grammar school. In an attempt to address diverse social needs and with new ideas developing in the fledgling field of education research, there were attempts to address individual needs using student-centred practices. However, the mainstay of educational practice drew on traditional teacher-centred practices, because it is much easier to prepare for and to manage classrooms.

The neoliberal period (1970 – 2008) can be characterised by increasing accountability, increasing managerialism and perfomativity. The emphasis on accountability means that teachers are expected to ensure students achieve targets and expectations in terms of progress and examination results. There is increased surveillance and attempts to identify effective practice in terms of progress and attainment. In the 2000s this extended to a prescription of classroom practice and pedagogy. While practice remains largely traditional, there are elements of progressive student-centred teaching, but on the whole the latter, apart from among enthusiasts, was superficial. The importance of the social aspects of learning, such as discussion and dialogue, the importance of affect and motivation and the recognition of constructivist learning were recognised and mandated in official views of pedagogy. However, given the demands placed on teachers and the intensity, as a result of being held increasingly accountable for students’ results, these elements were only really implemented in a performative way, to please observers and inspectors rather than placing them at the heart of education.

The post-capitalism period (2008 – present) continues a neoliberal theme, but it does not hide the crisis beneath. Since 2010 the Coalition government and the  Conservative government from 2015, have extended the privatision projects brought in by previous governments. Academies are effectively outsourced education service providers to the state. There is increased emphasis on quantifiable outcomes to monitor the quality of the service provided by schools. In an attempt to make the educational commodity more clearly defined the student-centred aspects of pedagogy have been abandoned and even vilified. The emphasis has been increasingly on narrowly defined definitions of knowledge and the reduction of learning to a process of memorisation of increasingly complex facts. The crisis beneath this, within the post-capitalist school, is the overall reduction in teachers’ pay and conditions, longer working hours, excessive workloads and deprofessionalisation. The recruitment and retention of teachers is increasingly challenging. There are also deep concerns about the impact of intense school experiences on children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Economically, we move into a post-capitalist post-neoliberal world in which economic, technological, social and political forces are undermining existing approaches. Yet the government continues to press ahead with a privatised and marketised approach to education. What we need to do is develop schools and educational practices to respond to community needs in a more holistic way and to draw on contemporary understanding of learning in terms of culture, socialisation and cognitive development. We cannot return to public sector nationalisation of state education, but we must reduce the managerialism and hierarchical structures of schools and academy chains and improve the working conditions and professionalism of teachers. They can be mutualised as community co-operatives, to devolve decision making and to collaborate with communities. This is an antidote to the corporate managerialism of the neoliberal period. While schools cannot mitigate for wealth inequality, they can connect with local communities and help develop confidence and build social and cultural capital. Austerity (deficit reduction) is a political choice and not consistent with the post-capitalist period we find ourselves in (I elaborate on this in a previous post here).

The driving force in state education is political economy and by considering economic and political forces, not only can we better understand policy, practice and pedagogy, we can better design schools and learning to respond to the political economy in which we live.

The politics of mental illness: from R D Laing, The Frankfurt School to Mark Fisher and Capitalist Realism

I recall reading R D Laing’s The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise almost 25 years ago. Laing was a radical psychiatrist, part of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. Anti-psychiatry viewed a patient’s illness not just as the patient’s but as part of sick society. His was a bold attempt to get inside the minds of those with a mental illness and to recognise the politics of the experience of mental illness.

There is no such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia’, but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event. The political event, occurring in the civic order of society, imposes definitions and consequences on the labelled person. (Laing, 1967, p. 100)

Much more recently  I read The Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Frankfurt School, from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century until the latter part of the century, fused Marx’s political economy with Freud’s psychoanalysis. Their critical theory offered an analysis of the development of popular culture and its impact on individual psyche. The twentieth century was the century of mass communication, broadcasting and consumerism. What Theodor Adorno, a key thinker in the Frankfurt School, recognised was that the potent combination of mass communication and consumerism was used to not only suppress any revolutionary zeal of the proletariat, but also to enhance capitalism by creating consumers, pandering to base needs and creating superficial and relocated desires leading to consumerism. Adam Curtis’s, The Century of the Self, presents a stunning visual representation of the effects of the acquisition of psychoanalysis by advertisers and their capacity to use this to control our behaviour. It translates human alienation that arises from subjugation and subordination to capitalism to a desire for consumption of unnecessary products. Capitalism becomes an imperial power in the mind of the individual.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is a fine read, it takes you through the lives of individuals involved in the Frankfurt School as they navigate through the latter parts of the First World War, the Wiemar republic, the Third Reich, exile to California and the liberation movements in the US and Europe in the 1960s.

I was just finishing reading it, when I heard about the death of Mark Fisher. Mark Fisher was a critic, theorist and activist. I was alerted to his short book (90 or so pages) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by people I follow on Twitter. Intrigued, I downloaded it to my e-reader. It was within the first few pages that I found that Capitalist Realism is both extension and critique of ideas of the Frankfurt School. I can probably best explain what I mean by saying that the Frankfurt School is located in modernity, while Fisher takes something of a postmodern turn. Modernity was a dominant identifiable cultural philosophical movement emerging in con text of mass production and mass consumption. It is concerned with structures, overarching theory and in many ways mechanistic explanations of the relationships between phenomena and experiences.

Postmodernity is the paradigm shift. As society becomes fragmented, communications and broadcasts fragment to provide individualised experience, as liberalism becomes a dominant political ideal, as communities become diverse and heterogeneous. Thought and experience become fragmented. Philosophy cannot rely on the more monolithic modernistic structures. Lyotard, in the The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, heralded the end of grand narratives.

What Fisher does in such a concise and powerful way is weave together Marxist political economy and psychoanalysis while acknowledging the postmodern fragmentation, contradictions and ironies. This provides a powerful critique of mental health as a deeply political and politicised experience. In modernity our desires were controlled and manipulated. The postmodern condition is so much more insidious, sure our desires are controlled, but by images and narratives that we create for ourselves, that we construct from the narratives that are presented to us through the media and reinforced by neoliberal structures and organisations which discipline and normalise our actions through performativity and targets.

We are never away from these personalised constructs, it is our own thinking that disciplines and punishes and keeps us alienated from direct and real experience. We persistently live in a fictive world created by capitalist media. When our mental and physical health is under threat the external narratives that we internalise start to unravel. We become politically active. But more often than not we punish and discipline ourselves because we no longer think or behave ‘normally’. More often than not our mental health conditions are medicalised, we are subdued by chemicals and our senses and reactions are dulled until we submit to the reformation of a personal fiction that is within the limits of normality. That we are restored to being an individualised component in a self-governing capitalist system.

An important point Fisher makes is that the postmodern mental control and self-disciplining experience is with us 24/7. In modernity, we would go to work do as we were told and then go home. For Fisher we are constantly self-regulating and self-directed. Work and production continue because we are under the impression that we are autonomous. We are not.

Currently we are seeing an adjustment to world orders and authority. It is as if this shake up of old truths, a crisis of capitalism and a collapse of postmodern fragmentary narratives, open things up so we can see what Lacan called the Real. There are great dangers as well as great possibilities in the future. R D Laing, The Frankfurt School and Mark Fisher have left us with some important insights from which we can proceed. Importantly we should recognise the politics of mental health.

I understand that Mark Fisher died with little money and intestate. There is a campaign by Mark’s friends to raise some money so that Mark’s wife and child can have a little time to grieve and come to terms with his tragic death.

Privatising the universities: the real agenda of the Higher Education and Research Bill

Much like the privatisation of state schools, which I have written about previously, the Coalition Government between 2010 and 2015, and the Conservative Government from 2015, have accelerated the marketisation of Higher Education. A process that began under the previous Conservative Governments under John Major and Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour between 1997 and 2010.

You see, neoliberalism has been a dominant political economy since the 1970s. Neoliberalism is a special kind of freemarket capitalism, that extends beyond the traditional domains of capitalism, the factory for example, to what were previously nationalised or public services, the Post Office and Royal Mail, British Rail and domestic energy supply. The expressed benefits of privatising and marketising these services was that competition would lead to greater efficiency, better value and a smaller state.

Neoliberalism has been such a successful manifestation of capitalism (for some), effectively a state subsidised private sector businesses with, by-and-large, something of a monopoly, the private sector has been creeping into to many other public services. The Multi Academy Trusts that run schools are private companies, prisons too are outsourced to private companies like G4S. There was even an attempt to sell off Land Registry lately. Now we are starting to see similar happen with universities.

It is not obvious, because it is not always easy to see the emergence of private from the public. That is, it is not always clear when an organisation is based on private or public capital. The Multi Academy Trusts are private limited companies with a charitable status, and do not make a profit in theory, though many of them generate surpluses. They do not exist in a genuine freemarket, they often have a local monopoly and they are regulated by the state. But for all intents and purposes their quasi-private market status works in the same way as any corporation underpinned by private capital. They are largely autonomous from the state, and state and local democracy, they have customers (parents and children) who have a certain amount of market choice and they provide a service that is codified and quantified by public assessment.

One of Karl Marx’s most important observations was that capitalists, or those that have access to private capital, are obliged to accumulate more capital. By capital he means money, goods or means of production that are engaged in the process of production and sale of goods and services. Accumulation is not simply down to the vice of greed, it is due to the existence of the market, if the capitalist does not accumulate capital at the same rate as the competition they will fail. Capital obliges capital accumulation. Capital, is not just about accumulating money it is more often than not the expansion and replication of existing means of production.

Now, we have observed this in schools over the last few years, large academy chains have grown very quickly and in some cases (see for example Ark Schools) have expanded into overseas projects and spin-offs in this country.

In universities the marketisation and privatisation process began in the 1990s. Ron Dearing was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, in the Major government in 1996, to report on Higher Education and consider how it might develop in the subsequent 20 years. It was hear that Dearing proposed that students should pay 25 per cent of their tuition fees. In 1998, Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, in Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, introduced student loans with means-tested tuition fees. Student grants of £1710 was replaced by income-contingent student loans.

This is ground zero on the march toward privatisaton and marketisation of universities. Blunkett effectively created a market by making students customers. This changes the dynamic, subtly, students are buyers and have choice where they spend their money.

This was strengthened in 2005 when New Labour gave universities the right to charge tuition fees of up to £3000 per year. When the coalition government came to power in 2010 this was increased to £9000 per year. Where Higher Education had been paid for through government spending it was now being paid for through private debt. It was argued this promoted widening participation in universites, while minimising public spending. This argument is disingenuous in my opinion, it disguises the forces of neoliberalism that underpin the marketisation of Higher Education (you can see the economic argument for this in a previous blog).

This brings me to the Higher Education and Research Bill which, if it passes through parliament, will further cement privatisation in Higher Education. If public and private is considered as a continuum, this is turning the dial up. Firstly, the introduction of private challenger universities will introduce greater competition into the Higher Education ‘market’. Some argue this is a good thing: shake things up a bit, put complacent universities on their toes. Fine, but Higher Education is so much more than simply purchasing knowledge and skills. It is a time for young people to explore and innovate, for students to question themselves and the world. If it is reduced to buying a ‘commodity’, it undermines so much of this. Furthermore, the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) serves to commidify this experience, the metrics will lead to a race to optimise on narrow outcomes. Worse still, universities will be competing on the outcomes of parochial measures. It will contort Higher Education from providing rich, stimulating and provoking experiences to the acquisition of defined knowledge and skills. Within the TEF metrics courses will score more positively if they are linked to employment. This has the potential to undermine subjects that do not have a direct link with the world of work. These course may disappear, or be reconfigured for employability. This is at a time when we need graduates to develop creative and divergent thinking informed by the broadest study of diverse disciplines.

Of course, I have to admit, this is likely to have little impact on so-called elite universities such as the one I work in. Certainly not to the extent that it will have in many of the newer universities, where it is going to be a much tougher competitive environment. My previous university committed itself  to neoliberalism, it became observably more managerial and hierarchical, as well as expanding by opening campuses in other countries.

I concede that there are things that could be done to improve Higher Education and the quality of teaching and learning in it. But privatisation is the wrong answer.


A reaction to the College of Teaching’s announcement of the planned availability of academic journals for teachers

I was pleased to hear that teachers in England would have access to research literature.  And I was pleased also that the most charming Dr Vincent Lien who had campaigned for access to journals had been acknowledged in this.

My first question was, which journals and how many? But I will assume that access will be to a range of international education research journals and perhaps some subject specific journals.

When I was teaching and growing an interest in research, I wanted access to education research but academic journals were,  by and large, paywalled. Frustrating. Because I also became aware of the tidy profits that the small number of publishers made. In the 2000s though, you could get access to a 10-credit Open University course for around £100 and this would give you access to just about every academic journal for six months or so. Indeed 30-credit and 60-credit courses were affordable too and for a few hundred pounds you could get access for 12 to 18 months. That has all changed now, since the Coalition Government brought in its economic policy to rebalance the wealth of the 99 per cent to the coffers of the 1 per cent. OU courses are now at least double what they were.

This is something of a diversion, but nonetheless important, since my engagement with academic research when I was a teacher was just that ‘engagement’, making sense of theory and practice across a range of disciplines: sociology, psychology, anthropology etc. How could I make sense of my practice in the context of school, policy, the community and in my classroom? How do I understand learning as a social cognitive, biological and cultural phenomena? How could I develop what I did? What are the methodologies and methods for such inquiry?

I was engaging with ideas, theory, concepts as well as results and findings. I was engaged in a process of scholarship. It was time consuming, I gave a lot of my own time to it, as I have the habit of blurring my interests with my work which seems to have been with me always.

This is my concern. In the last ten years teachers’ workload and the intensity with which they work has increased considerable. Accountability has become increasingly pervasive and poor performance is increasingly treated punitaively, though the notion of ‘poor’ is spurious. It has lead to a system of performativity, in which prescribed practices are imposed in pedagogy and assessment. It is difficult for teachers to find the time to engage in research in a scholarly way, to reflect on ideas and concepts in relation to their own practice.

So it worries me that since Michael Gove’s education reforms, teachers are framed as consumers of research, that research provides definitive answers about practice and about the effectiveness of different approaches. In a post last Christmas I wrote about the Book of Intervention, a satirical presentation of the Education Endowment Fund’s (EEF) Toolkit. It was inspired by a visit to a general practitioner who, when I described my symptoms – a heavy cold, as I recall – perused a large volume of listed pharmaceuticals and then presented me with a prescription: medicine that is the result of a randomised control trial. The Michael Gove vision for education research, prompted by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, was that educational research should be ‘scientific’ and experimental. The EEF was established to do scientific educational research using randomised control trials. While educational researchers follow the scholarly principle of beginning their inquiry with a research question, the EEF begins with, in dogmatic fashion, a prescribed methodology.

Of course, this dovetails sweetly with Gove, Dominic Cummings and Policy Exchange’s freemarket neoliberal plan for state education. The codification of interventions and pedagogy, scientifically derived, reconstitute education as a quantifiable service and thus makes outsourcing and privatisation so much easier.

On the other hand, teaching is a complex undertaking, complex relationships and complex constructs of learning and behaviour. In spite of whether we know some aspect of teaching is good or bad, or whether we reduce education to a process of memorisation of facts, the complexity remains. Teachers cannot always replicate the practices that were identified in experimental studies, least those practices may not always be appropriate to the unique situation they find themselves. Constantly teachers are faced with varying experiences and interactions that calls upon their professional judgement.

It is my view that teachers should not be seen as consumers of research but as scholars in their own right, where they engage with research and use theory and knowledge to develop their own thinking in relation to teaching and learning. The latter is time consuming and requires more than referencing the EEF Toolkit, it is necessary to read mulitiple sources reflect and discuss with colleagues and academics.

So while I welcome the news that teachers will have access to journals, I think the Chartered College needs to be reminded that this and previous governments have set our schools on a neolberal course, one that has taken time and autonomy away from classroom teachers. It is the outsourcing and privatisation we should be opposing and we should be fighting together to ensure that teachers’ pay and conditions are adequate enough to permit them to be scholars in their own right and not simply consumers of research or worse still that teachers become deliverers of an experimentally-defined centralised curriculum.