Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure

When we read educational research, what is striking is how certain common assumptions run through such research. In particular, there is the assumption–hidden from view–that the curriculum or content and organization of studies taught at school–is sacred.

For example, in a short paper written by Jon Young and Brian O’Leary, “Public Funding for Education in Manitoba,” (August 31, 2017), and published by the social-reformist organization Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), they argue that we should not create a two-tier public school system, where some schools receive an unjustified amount of resources relative to other schools due, on the one hand, to increased expenses for field trips, the need for student ownership of computer technology and so forth and, on the other, to unequal funds arising through increased dependence on, for example, fundraising within economically unequal communities and unequal property taxes across school divisions. Differences in revenue from property taxes across school divisions can be as high as a 4 to 1 ratio per student.

One solution has been to shift funding from the local school board level to provincial and territorial funding (provinces and territories are the next largest administrative political unit in Canada) and coupling this with an equity formula to allow for different needs across. The problem with this solution is that it eliminates the democratic accountability that school boards provide by linking professional concerns in schools to the wider public interest, participation and accountability. Indeed, public schools presuppose democratic accountability (page 1):

 At the heart of this in Manitoba has been the commitment to public schooling as a public good – the belief that a strong public school system is the cornerstone of a democratic society that promotes well-being and citizenship for all – and not simply a private good, or commodity that can be differentially purchased by individual consumers. Everything flows from this. Public schooling as a public good involves the commitment to: public funding – that the full costs of public schooling are shared fairly across all sectors of society; public access and equity – that all students should have the opportunity to benefit fully from high quality schooling regardless of geographic location, local economic factors, or family circumstances; and, public participation and accountability – that decisions about public schooling are made in a democratic manner, which in Manitoba has meant a level of local autonomy, including taxing authority, for locally elected school boards.

Young and O’Leary then propose a compromise solution: 80 percent provincial funding and 20 percent funding from local property taxes; this combination would be linked to “a more robust provincial equalization formula” (page 3).

They then imply that this or any other model must involve focusing the expenditure of money on where it most matters: teaching and teachers. This view sounds progressive since school is supposed to exist for student learning: (page 3):

… that the most effective use of resources are those directed to the improvement
of teaching. This is echoed by the highly influential Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) that concluded:

The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals…. PISA results show that among countries and economics whose per capita GDP is more that USD 20,000 high performing school systems tend to pay more to teachers relative to their national income per capita (OECD, 2013, p. 26)

Any discussion of money and funding need to be broadly cast as about resources and making resources matter – with teachers as our most valuable resource.

Teaching and pedagogy certainly matter in schools, but the authors are silent about the influence of the curriculum (the overt curriculum, or the structure or organization and content of studies) on student learning. This silence is typical of many discussions on schools and education.

Given that the modern Canadian history curriculum indoctrinates students by means of its silences concerning the nature and origin of the employer-employee relation (see the series, beginning with A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), teachers can have all the resources they like, but it is unlikely that they will overcome such indoctrination since it is built into the school system.

Furthermore, the bias in the curriculum towards academics over vocational aspects of the curriculum follows the same pattern: it is built into the present curriculum. John Dewey long ago questioned the democratic nature of such a biased curriculum. From (Neil Hopkins (2018)., “Dewey, Democracy and Education, and the School Curriculum,” Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, Volume 46, number 4, pages 433-440), pages 437-438:

A critical area where Dewey’s Democracy and Education [Dewey’s main book on his philosophy of education] challenged contemporary assumptions on the curriculum was the idea that children and knowledge could be categorised as ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. Such divisions have straitjacketed British education for the last 150 years, both institutionally (e.g. grammar and second modern schools; sixth-forms and FE colleges) and in terms of qualifications (e.g. O Level/CSE; A Level/BTEC). These divisions have often replicated class divisions within society-at-large to the extent that schools have often been seen as the nurseries of inequality and social injustice.

Dewey attacked the academic/vocational divide in terms of both knowledge and education. As a philosophical pragmatist, he was skeptical of purely abstract knowledge, stating that ‘the separation of “mind” from direct occupation with things throws emphasis on things at the expense of relations or connections’ (Dewey 2007, 109). These relations and connections are vital – once mind is separated from body, we lose the vital thread that ties ideas with standard notions of reality. Knowledge is an interaction of key concepts with the world as we know it. It is this sense of application and practicality that distinguishes Dewey’s work from some of his contemporaries. He was critical of

intellectualism [where] [p]ractice was not so much so much subordinated to knowledge as treated as a kind of tag-end or aftermath of knowledge. The educational result was only to confirm the exclusion of active pursuits  from school, save that they might be brought in for purely utilitarian ends – the acquisition by drill of certain habits. (Dewey 2007, 197)

This separation of intellect and practice, mind and body is often mirrored within the education system itself…

To this extent, education replicates and prepares children for the division of labour that exists within a capitalist society. This state of affairs deeply concerned Dewey in two ways. Firstly, as I have alluded to above, the partition of learning into academic and vocational gives a false depiction of how knowledge is conceptualised and transmitted. Secondly, the use of academic and vocational routes for students does not allow each to develop their faculties to the fullest extent.

This lack of critical distance from the present school system, with its biased curriculum structure,  is characteristic of much educational research. There are schools that have tried to overcome this bias. The University Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School) in Chicago between 1896 and 1904. In this curriculum, the focus was on the common needs of most human beings for food, clothing and shelter throughout history. The children reproduced, intellectually, socially and on a miniature scale, different historical epochs (such as fishing, hunting, agriculture and industrial). Reading, writing and arithmetic were functions of the human life process and not the center of learning as they now are in elementary schools.

A more recent approach is Kingsholm Primary School in Gloucester, England (page 439):

Kingsholm Primary made a strategic decision to move from a subject-based to a thematic curriculum to meet the perceived needs of the pupils at the school. The curriculum has been envisaged as a set of interconnecting circles to incorporate aspects of the child’s world, specific themes/curriculum areas, the geographical location and what the school has termed ‘the wider curriculum’.

One particular theme that was concentrated on in the video was ‘Earth and Beyond’. This was a Year 5 and 6 project that uses the idea of space to explore different elements of the primary curriculum. The theme included transforming the learning environment itself alongside work on the creation of a space poem using ‘word stones’ and a collaborative dance interpreting the concept of space in the form of bodily movement (as well as other activities).

It has to be acknowledged that such examples already build upon the excellent work on themes and projects undertaken by schools throughout England. These examples offer interesting opportunities to challenge the academic/vocational divide in the school curriculum. It allows children to see and create the connections between different aspects of knowledge so that concepts and their application become concrete. As we have already seen, this dynamic between concept and application was important in Dewey’s theory of knowledge. However, such innovations are likely to be easier to undertake in Early Years and Key Stage 1 – the requirements of programmes of study in Key Stage 2 and beyond make such thematic work more challenging (although not necessarily impossible). It will be interesting to see if the development of academies and free schools that can operate outside the parameters of the National Curriculum will lead to radical curriculum experiments in primary and secondary schools. For Dewey, such curricular innovation needed to take [the] statement below as its starting point:

In just the degree in which connections are established between what happens to a person and what he [sic] does in response, and between what he does to his [sic] environment and what it does in response to him, his acts and the things about him acquire meaning. He learns to understand both himself [sic] and the world of men [sic] and things. (Dewey 2007, 202)

Not only do Young and O’Leary neglect the importance of the curriculum, they also neglect the importance of marks and competition between students as an aspect that generates inequality. This situation contrasts with a more democratic form of schooling, one that attempts to avoid competition among students by eliminating marks altogether. Again, there were no marks used to evaluate students in the University Laboratory School (the Dewey School). A more recent example is from the 1950s: St. George-in-the-
East Secondary Modern School in Stepney, East London, with a much more democratic school structure (page 436):

Alongside this democratic decision-making structure were what Fielding terms as ‘existential frameworks for democratic living’ (‘Our Pattern’). These include values and principles that underpin the work of the school. As part of ‘Our Pattern’, a far-reaching set of beliefs and attitudes were formulated within the school body:

No streaming/setting→heterogeneous, sometimes mixed-age grouping
No punishment→restorative response
No competition→emulation
No marks or prizes→communal recognition
(Taken from Fielding 2007, 550)

The idealization of the modern public school system, by neglecting  the divided curriculum and the fetish for marks and competition, is typical of social democrats and social reformers. The call for the expansion of public services (without inquiring into the nature and adequacy of such public services) is also typical of the social-democratic left.

This lack of critical distancing from modern social reality by the social-democratic left feeds into the emergence of the far right and strengthens the right in general. Many working-class adults have experienced the modern public school system as in many ways oppressive. The social-democratic left, by failing to acknowledge such experiences, aid in reproducing the oppression characterized by the academic/vocational divide and the oppression of the assignment and competition of marks.

Should not the radical left distance itself from modern oppressive social reality and critically expose such oppression and possible, more radical alternatives?

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