Thursday 5 September 2013

Why is education (usually) crap?

I entered Manchester University in 1988 to read music. I was 19 and wanted to become a composer. Actually, I already was a composer: in the previous 2 years I had started to become quite productive - nothing completely earth-shatteringly brilliant, but not bad. Then I went to University. What happened? Well, by the end of it, I wasn't composing any more. I felt I had 'dried up'. Not that I didn't find some of my experiences enjoyable - I did (mostly social experiences), but now I look back, I think it did me some damage. I can't blame any individual for this - certainly not my professor who was an unforgettable inspiration (not least because he also had disdain for educational institutions and knew deeply the 'real thing' of a great composer (Tippett): "Composers don't learn anything in places like this, you know!"); but there was a lot of dulling of enthusiasm, of squeazing to fit a mould; of NOT LISTENING! (ironic for a music department)

I came out not composing, and actually thinking I'd wasted my time. Glad I didn't pay for it! (and I got a full grant - unthinkable today). As things have turned out, I've not done too bad. I had the benefits of being middle class, reasonably articulate, supportive (although not wealthy) parents and a family environment of 2 brothers and a sister which had taught me the value of compromise and flexibility. The latter I needed as I had to work out what I wanted to do for a job. An MSc in computer science followed at the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the Science and Engineering Research Council (I couldn't have done it if I had had to pay for it).

Compared to music in Manchester, the MSc was dreadful. Dull stuff to learn, no opportunity for creativity, and encroaching bureaucracy with regard to 'learning outcomes' which made the whole thing rather inauthentic. But it was always a means to end. It was a rather dull and miserable end too: as one of my better lecturers said "You know that most computing jobs are dreadfully boring, don't you". He was right.

Six rather unhappy years of trying to program computers, change jobs frequently, and keep hold of my withering soul followed. Eventually I followed the inevitable course of so many disgruntled and depressed professionals: I decided to become a teacher!

I wanted to be a music teacher, recover my soul, help children, make a better world. But my PGCE at Manchester Metropolitan University was even worse than my MSc, despite some good teaching. Those dreadful bureaucratic 'learning outcomes' had become endemic, and turned themselves into something even more sinister: competencies. And to 'hit' my competencies, I had to create a 'portfolio' (basically a folder full of rubbish with sticky labels saying which competency each piece of rubbish applied to). I also had to get my competencies 'signed off' by "mentors" (other teachers) who also clearly thought it was all a bit silly, but this is what the University (and the General Teaching Council) had asked them to do. Did I learn anything about teaching? The "baptism by fire" bit worked! I ended up as a teacher of IT: compromise kicked in again!

My PhD at the University of Bolton was my most recent experience of education. Actually, this one bucked the trend. PhDs don't have learning outcomes: you have to be original. I did a PhD by publication and found it a liberating experience. I was able to find my voice by re-examining all the things I had written, and all the things I was interested in. I even had to invent my methodology (I was never going to buy one off-the-shelf anyway!). There was no agenda and I was very lucky in the way I was supported. Bolton was fantastic - the best, most academically challenging University I've experienced (and through my e-learning work, I've seen a lot of them). There were however bits of bureaucratic nonsense which seems to be par-for-the-course these days. But I didn't have to take them too seriously. But I was lucky - PhDs can be desperately miserable experiences too (see this:

Why am I thinking about this? Because I think there are some themes here. Not just that each educational experience (apart from Bolton) was worse than the  previous one, but because from 1988 until 2011, Universities have become increasingly technologised. They are now 'information organisations', driven by data, funded by data. Learning Outcomes are the mantras that guide the ship: they guide quality procedures, they guide pedagogical 'delivery' (whatever that is); they guide student assessment and even now, funding. But what nonsense they are!

I was browsing undergraduate courses in Business Studies the other day. I found a promoted link from Google to the OU's offering. "Business Studies Standard Pathway". Modules in Stage 1 (I guess the 1st year) are:

  • An introduction to retail management and marketing (B122) 
  • Discovering mathematics (MU123) 
  • Professional communication skills for business studies (LB160) 
  • Working and learning: developing effective performance at work (BU130) or the version of this module specifically designed for people working in delivering public services – BUXS130 
  • You and your money: personal finance in context (DB123).
Looking into the first module, I see:
"The retail industry is highly dynamic and innovative, which means it is very engaging to study . This course looks at how retailing has developed, how retail outlets operate and how retailers apply retail marketing techniques. During your studies you will consider contemporary factors that affect retailing: globalisation; the impact of ever-changing technology; and social and ethical issues. This course is designed for retail industry employees wishing to develop a career in management, and anyone interested in working in the retail sector, or simply wanting to know more about the world of retailing."
Now even as an 18 year old, I know enough about education to know that if someone tells me something is "engaging to study" that only means one thing! Why all these words? Because the institution, being an information-driven organisation, feels the need to inform students about modules. This text is not written for the benefit of students; it is for the benefit of the institution that wants to feel it is doing the job of informing. If I wanted more evidence of this, I might turn to a different pathway - how about "Business and economics"? But I find the same module there too! Who's  benefit is that for? It's not 'informing' me; it's oppressing me! Universities don't  know what 'informing' is. If they did, they wouldn't do it like this!

But as an 18 year old, I just want a degree. "Ethical, social... whatever!"; "that's education - I pretty much know what to expect. I'll probably get what I've always got before from education..."; "what modules? Oh, what the hell...!" Of course that's fine until you fail your assignment out of sheer lack of enthusiasm and are faced with the misery of refers, defers, mitigating circumstances, unfair means panels, and goodness knows what else. Of course you never find Universities 'informing' students about all that, do you?! Misconceiving information causes us to set our ambitions very low, and our practices can become rather cynical operations of institutional survival, not learner development.

If we really wanted to communicate to the next generation, we wouldn't start here. 

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