Friday 16 May 2014

The ITEC Project and the Ontology of School

Schools, like other social institutions, incorporate relations of power, roles, responsibilities, obligations, commitments and rights. As learning progresses and as children get older, these relationships change. It is through changes in these relationships – particularly as it is evidenced in discourse with teachers – that we ever really know if someone has learnt anything or not.

I think Veblen’s analysis of higher education as being status-dominated is applicable to schools. Parents now compete to get their children into the schools with the highest status, we increasingly see what Alison Wolf calls ‘super parenting’ (see her book within the middle classes, and nations compare their educational performance according to international league tables. In the process, much depends on tests, scores and certificates. However, the ‘status game’ is never explicitly acknowledged; instead school’s explicit claims are that they are about learning, and that all the scores, tests and certificates are measures of their effectiveness in ‘delivering learning’. But what does this mean?

In recent years, there have been many attempts to ‘enhance learning’ through technological interventions in schools. At the same time, the opportunities for learning provided by the internet have vastly expanded outside schools. Yet despite this, the social status of individuals, and often the status of institutions, is relatively untouched: the social mobility of learners remains low (much lower than it used to be) and teachers labour under increasingly burdensome workloads, bureaucracy, de-skilling, political interference and interference from well-meaning projects - all of which are rhetorically presented as for ‘increasing learning’. 

In approaching the reality of the institution of school and the power relations between individuals and other institutions of society, Searle’s focus on the responsibilities, commitments, obligations and rights of individuals is useful. Using Searle's idea of 'status function' (a kind of social declaration), the social setting of school can be analysed to determine the way that the validity of certificates, league tables, power relations and the curriculum are established. Learning interventions can be analysed according to their impact on the rights, responsibilities and commitments of those involved. The simple question is, Who wins? Who acquires new responsibilities and obligations and who can declare new rights? In asking this, the iTEC ( presents some interesting data for exploration.

From Searle and Veblen’s perspective, projects like iTEC are delivered by people with relatively high social status, and are focused on those with lower status. Whilst the intention is to increase the status of those at the lower end, this rarely happens; however, the rights and responsibilities enjoyed by those responsible for the project are increased irrespective of whether the interventions are successful or not. There are also some finer distinctions regarding instances where the interventions were deemed successful. In iTEC, some interventions in some schools and some countries appear to be more successful than others - but these reveal concrete evidence of changes to patterns of responsibilities, obligations and commitments in local settings (even then, this is more marked for teachers than learners).

I think the lesson from projects like this is that emphasis on ‘learning interventions’ is misleading and serves the interests of those who already have high social status. Searle’s approach reveals the power-relations and changes in positioning to be measurable through analysis of patterns of communication. This provides an alternative to our ‘learning fetish’. We should be asking what schooling does and how it relates to society. Status lies at the heart of  that question, not learning.

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