The Uberfication of teaching

Our schools are addicted to the tyranny of measurement, underpinned by a multibillion dollar business.

Graham Brown-Martin
2 March 2017

This is part two of an interview with Graham Brown-Martin. Part one is here.

One of things I see happening now, within the public sector, in a sense, is an attack on ‘the commons’. By ‘the commons’, I mean things like education and healthcare, the judicial system, law enforcement, which should rightly be owned by the people. I don’t say that in some sort of communist way, I mean that in the sense that in order to have an inclusive educational or healthcare system, we need that to be devoid of commercial, private interest. The metrics of capitalism and the metrics of the private sector are really about shareholder value. And maybe that’s quite right, maybe it should be in terms of having competition in the private sector.

But when you apply that to education, what happens is that privatisation really depends on standardisation. And standardisation is really the opposite of personalisation. Despite what you hear from technology companies, it’s very difficult to write computer software that personalises learning, and I think where the confusion comes from is because the language of ‘personalised learning’ has been hijacked by the technology sector. But also I think we get confused because we are used to the customisation or personalisation of things like Amazon, which is really not the same thing.

What I mean by personalisation is the relationship between people, so the relationship between a practitioner, a teacher who is experienced and qualified, who knows and learns about the individual changing needs, passions and aptitudes of the children, of the students within the cohort. So that’s where teaching is a craft. There’s clearly some science associated with teaching, but inevitably it’s a craft, and you would want artisans to be perfoming that craft with children. Certainly I would with my own children and I think most people would if they had the choice.

But I think what’s happening now is the sort of result of the industrialisation of the educational structure. And of course a big challenge is how we provide a consistent standard: a high standard of education to a large population of students, in an affordable manner. So what we’ve been doing, probably more intensively over the last ten years, but really over the last thirty years, is moving towards the 'tyranny of measurement'. Actually those involved in measurement call it assessment, but assessment is not the same thing as measurement – again a word that’s been hijacked by technocrats and bureaucrats. Because if you want to know whether a child is learning, or a student is learning, that’s actually quite easy. You talk to them, you be with them, you listen to them. That’s how you know whether a child is learning. Measurement is something very different. 

And so what’s happened is that the measurement industry, or the assessment industry, is a multibillion dollar business, and it’s run by large, multinational corporations. The result of having measurement as the goal, as the purpose of education, is that while most people wouldn’t agree if you said, 'the purpose of school is to get kids to pass tests', even most teachers wouldn’t agree – but inevitably, that’s what it’s become. Because we collude, we collude around grades, we collude around tests. And we’ve got ourselves addicted to a set of state exams, which are provided by commercial organisations. The awarding bodies are primarily all commercial organisations. 

So, regardless of whether we have a functioning state education system or not, the monetisation point is through commercial corporations. Now that sets a challenge, because we then have a teaching community, and the majority of teachers go into teaching for absolutely the right reasons, they’ll go in there to help young people become their best selves. Teachers go in for that reason, but many of them leave when they realise that what they actually have to do, particularly at secondary school level, but now creeping back into primary even, is to get young people through these tests.

And so we have a standardisation system, which is also a homogenising system. So on the one hand, we praise our species for its individuality, that every child is actually different, there’s no such thing as an average child, it’s a statistical myth, and yet we have deployed a system, which is essentially homogenising for this arbitrary normal. Now everything that you measure, will become automated at some point, so if we then look at those exams that are produced by commercial organisations, and then we think, well, in order to get kids through those exams, it’s really about content distribution, and testing. So you’ve gone from a teacher, whose practice has been about helping the learner contextualise knowledge – education surely shouldn’t just be a content-distribution and testing system, but that’s what it’s become as a result of this goal. 

We’ve got one gentleman who’s become quite favouritised both in the US and the UK educational systems, E.D. Hirsch, who talks about ‘foundational knowledge’. It’s interesting, there seems to be a dichotomy between what they call ‘the instructionists’, and ‘the constructionists’. So instructionism is about focusing on instruction, and direct instruction, and the communication of knowledge, and the transmission of knowledge. Constructionism is saying, well, education is a reconstruction of knowledge, rather than a transmission. And in some sense, you probably need a bit of both, in a balanced education system, but we’ve gone very much in this instructionism perspective, that education is the transmission of content and the testing to make sure you’ve understood it within a short amount of time – whether you forget about it afterwards is neither here nor there. 

By narrowing the curriculum, by assuming it’s just about ‘content’, it becomes standardised and therefore decontextualised. And therefore very much open to privatisation. 

Privatisation, in order to scale, in order to be profitable, requires standardisation. And that means removing cost elements, it means you end up being less inclusive. In order for a student to game the system, in order to get to the other end of that system with a set of certificates, they have to mold themselves around that education system, so you end up with a teacher-centred or institution-centred education, as opposed to the craft of teaching, which is about molding it around the student, finding out their interests, and contextualising it, so that they discover the knowledge. So these are competing ideologies in terms of education provision.

But the idea of contructionists is of the teacher as designer of learning experiences, of curriculum, a teacher who will know the cohort of students they are working with, and allow them to solve problems and therefore receive deep learning as a result, because we remember more the things that we’ve done, as opposed to the things that we’ve read, and there’s a lot of research to back that up. But that level of craft, in education, that level of craft in the teaching profession, is expensive. These are craftspeople. These are people that once upon a time, to become a teacher, you would do a four-year teaching degree – an education degree. That was reduced to about a year in the UK to a PGCE, so you would get a 2:1 or better in your degree, then you do a PGCE. And to be honest I think many thought that was quite short, but at least you would learn at least some learning theory, how children learn, about literacy, you may even learn a little about child psychology. But that also is going.  

Laura Dale/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Laura Dale/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.We’ve had organisations, probably well intentioned, like Teach For All, that came out of New York, and that spawned all the 'Teach For's, so Teach for America for example, and in the UK it’s known as Teach First. Teach First is an example where if you’ve got a good degree, at least a 2:1, hopefully a first, you can then join up to Teach First and within five weeks, after a five week orientation, you’ll find yourself in front of a classroom of children. To me this is very worrying. That said, I know plenty of teachers who’ve gone through Teach First who are exceptional. But I think it’s more to do with their ability, rather than the idea that you can become a teacher within five weeks. And I think we are heading towards a kind of Uberfication – the equivalent of Uber drivers but for teaching. And why do I think that’s so?

I think if you have an education system which is focused on delivering content, if you believe teaching is a science which can all be measured, then it’s only a leap of imagination to say, actually we don’t really need the teacher to be qualified, we can just deliver them a script for a lesson and they can deliver that to children.

And so if we stick to content distribution in the form of E.D. Hirsch, that’s the direction we might go, particularly as we have, globally, a teacher shortage, you have multinational businesses who are very interested in maintaining the ownership of content. Take an organisation like Pearson for example, I just choose them because they are the largest. Look at the history of Pearson, a long history of over a hundred years – they originally were textbook publishers. It was a very good idea for them, in order to make sure their textbooks were necessary, therefore to maintain their commercial interest and shareholder value, they would own the awarding bodies. So in order to pass this test, you had to read these books, and you could argue there was a conflict there, but as a business, that’s a good business decision. 

Now what we’re seeing happening with Pearson, there are now chains of schools that they own – they own the school, they employ the teachers, the content, and they own the exam. This is a closed loop system, and in my opinion, problematic for democracy. We’ve seen what happens for example, with how Facebook and social media have affected our democracy. But imagine a corporation which owns the entire programming of young people, from nursery school through to university. That’s a huge amount of power to put into commercial hands. 

We have to be extremely careful about what we think education is for, and who we allow to provide it, because at the moment I believe we are heading in a potentially catastrophic direction.

This is part two of an interview with Graham Brown-Martin. You can read and watch part one over here, which explores the relationship between our age of democratic crisis, and the crisis in educational provision.

openDemocracy is partnering with the World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy. Read more here.

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