Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Education without Failure

Imagine an education system without failure. Could it work? Or is creating failure a necessary function of education?

We would have to rethink what it is education is doing. Can it still be considered a 'filtering mechanism' or a means of judging who should get what job?

Does an education system without failure necessitate a society without fear? Because people are fearful, so education addresses their fears, but it replaces one fear with another. The fear it replaces is irrational and existential. Educational 'fear' by contrast is rational, systemic and 'fair'.

But we all know it isn't really.

The things that separate us from one another are the judgements we make about each other which derive from our individual anxiety to preserve our identity. The preservation of our identity is, I think, tied to the preservation of a particular set of relations with those we love: our tie to our parents, our children, our friends, etc. Those ties are based on reliable patterns of communication, where strategies for action can be formulated with sufficiently accurate foresight as to the results of those actions. Those people we fear, those who are outside our circle of attachments, are people with whom we cannot predict communications. We fear this disruptive and unpredictable element and its effects not just on us, but on those we stay close to.

The labelling of education serves a purpose in this regard (indeed, the curriculum itself can be seen as instrumental). It marks out those with whom we may have a chance of predicting how they might communicate with us, even if we don't know them that well. It provides a starting point for social engagement. In this way, labelling is an extension of the class system. Failure serves to ensure this labelling system continues to work.

The irony in education is that deeper metacognition can overcome the reliance on labels for making judgements. The deepest metacognition leads to the "loving openness" that is the epitome of wisdom. At this level, the relationship between identity, attachment, and the world at large has been re-programmed. Identity is an unendingly flexible set of relations between the individual and the world. Preservation of identity is never in doubt, and fear is minimised.

If we are to have higher education for everyone, then the basic labelling of education is likely to cease working in terms of its ability to allow people to predict communications. Having a degree in x may mean vastly different things depending on the institution, the individual's social background, etc, and this will be quickly revealed through social interaction. Moreover, an individual may fail in degree x at institution y, but succeed in institution z, and whilst success at z is still success, the efficacy of the success may well be exposed.

If we didn't create failure, would it matter? Perhaps, in having such a range of different institutions, we are already doing away with failure. But this means the labelling doesn't do its job. It's not just a matter of asking "what might take its place?", but of demanding "whatever does take its place, can it be reasonable and fair?"

Here we have deep problems. Because in pushing everyone through education, there is inherent unfairness already. Individuals cannot help their upbringings, and in turn they will have less choice with their educational journeys. But they still have to pay, irrespective of the benefits of their narrow choice. Yet the labelling is already determined by the choice; it was already determined (by and large) by school, the family, etc. And education without failure in some ways makes this more confusing and less effective.

But I don't want to argue for failure: failure is terrible. I believe the onus is on those institutions at the bottom to offer something different from those at the top. Rather than trying to ape the elite, widening participation institutions should deal directly with those issues of fear that undermine the essential fairness of opportunity for all. Metacognition, inquiry, technological flexibility through to sheer 'nous' and creativity can overcome the barriers of the labelling of the elite universities. Learning how to teach this ought, I think, to be their central concern.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Interesting blog post...Unfortunately, it would be difficult if not impossible to change the current educational structure--though it certainly needs to be changed.