Friday, 26 March 2010

The fetishisation of mediocracy

My dealings with formal education ended twenty three years ago but I have never stopped being interested in teaching and learning. Since then, this has come in the form of work, where I am involved in the apprenticeship scheme, at home as a parent, and in my martial arts studies. 

And in those twenty three years, in all those fields, I have seen a disturbing phenomenon. It is not so much dumbing down or lowering standards - although these are both consequences of the process - as the growth of a teaching method that tries to  break everything down into its constituent parts but is unable to put them back together again. It is also literal, anal, guaranteed to kill any spark of passion in the subject, and ultimately devalues the very thing it is trying to promote - quality. 

And it is a vicious circle that produces mediocre teachers and mediocre students.

I see it at my daughters' school - every lesson starts with a stated 'learning outcome' and every piece of work has 'success criteria'. But the best learning happens when the student realize what they have learned  only after the event. And clumsy attempts to create tick-boxes for quality are not just spoon-feeding but  actually produce something that is less than the sum of  the parts, lacking in flair. 

At work I see the same thing with the 'evidence criteria' given for the NVQs - it may be vocational training but the emphasis is definitely on understanding the criteria and cross-referencing it in a portfolio, rather than actually knowing the skills to do the job. 

And in martial arts we see the rise of the McDojo approach - collecting techniques and belts like cub-scout badges with no reference to an imbibing of fundamental principles.

I'm reading Richard Sennet's The Craftsman at the moment. It argues for a modern restatement of the values of craftsmanship and explores the didactic process of 'craft' learning. Teaching by mentoring and osmosis so that knowledge is implied rather than stated and the acquired values feel as if they are intuitive. He talks about  traditional manual skills - like those of chefs or violin makers - but he argues that the same approach can be extended to more abstract skills - and specifically discusses linux-programming as an example of a modern craft. 

The crucial difference is that it develops people who are passionate and engaged with what they are doing, rather than people who are just going through the motions. 

Maybe I'm just a grumpy old git these days but it seems that our world is increasingly obsessed with just going through the motions. Bruce Lee talked about the dangers of being so concerned with pointing our finger at the skies that we end up seeing only the finger and not the 'heavenly glory'. Marx would have called it alienation.

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