Education conspiracy theories

The problem with seeing life through the lens of a conspiracy is that it distorts your take on reality. You end up arguing with phantoms.

In education, there is a conspiracy theory that Pasi Sahlberg – Finnish education guru – has labelled the Global Education Reform Movement or ‘GERM’ – germs aren’t nice and they’re infectious, get it? This is essentially about test-based accountability and borrowing ideas from business. Sahlberg likes to suggest that this is the antithesis of what led to Finland’s educational success. However, with Finnish PISA results on a downward path, it’s probably worth reading this piece by Tim Oates to get a broader perspective on Finland.

Expanding on the GERM theme, many on the political left have what you might describe as a ‘neoliberals under the bed’ conspiracy theory. This accepts the GERM narrative but fleshes it out with details about shady think tanks and covert attempts at privatisation.

People like me who are making the argument for a more rigorous approach to teaching knowledge are hapless foils for this conspiracy. We don’t know our own minds. This presentation by Steven Dinham (thanks @corisel) outlines this shadowy movement in Australia in some detail.

The issue is that I agree with some of the reforms and not others (despite Dinham insisting that they’ve all been disproved). I do believe that teacher education needs to be disrupted (in order to improve) but I don’t believe in 21st century skills which are largely unteachable.

The ‘neoliberals under the bed’ narrative, coming as it does from the left, has to have big business as the bogeyman. And so the narrative must impose an instrumental view of education on to any reform; that education is merely about preparing kids for the workplace. And yet this is not what I stand for at all. I believe that knowledge is powerful, enriching and our shared heritage. I believe that knowledge is the best preparation for learning new knowledge. Yes, it makes people more employable but this is not the main point.

Perhaps I am being used by these clever conspirators? Perhaps I am a servant of reform but I’m being kept in the dark until D-Day? I don’t think so. Look at the pantomime villain of education reform, Michael Gove. What on earth was he doing investing so much energy in a new history curriculum given that history is instrumentally useless? Perhaps – just perhaps – we should accept that Gove did this because he believes that knowledge of history is important. Where was Gove’s focus on Business Studies and IT skills?

There is, of course, a tendency amongst politicians to view education instrumentally. But this is through witlessness rather than any coherent ideology – cock-up over conspiracy. If you look at Dinham’s list it is a mish-mash of eye-catching ideas from both the traditionalist and progressive movements in education alongside more recent initiatives on reforming school structures and accountability. I doubt that there is anyone who could sign-up to the whole lot, let alone any kind of ‘movement’.

Conspiracy theories cloud our view and result in us advancing arguments against positions that people don’t actually hold. Let us remove them from the debate and consign them to Hollywood movies and the feverish small hours.


6 thoughts on “Education conspiracy theories

  1. There is, of course, a tendency amongst politicians to view education instrumentally.

    And rightly so, in my opinion. You see they are putting up the money.

    Denham’s rant, and his is typical, never gets to how much his “solution” is going to cost. Money for him is not a concern because his mind on is on higher things.

    For example, he doesn’t have to stand up to taxpayers and explain how spending a lot more to decrease the number of private schools is going to help educational outcomes for individuals. He can merely assert it, with “evidence”, but doesn’t actually have to sell it. (Because it would be a very difficult sell to taxpayers.)

    When governments invest more money in schools, they have no choice but to sell the instrumentality. They have to say, “this will prepare our children better for the future” in terms of the workplace because that is what most parents and most children care about most. (It matters not if it is true that the changes are aimed at employment, and the government might know that it is not true, but that is the line they have to sell.)

    I for one would not stand up to the tax-paying parents and tell them that I was going to spend more of their money on giving a fully-rounded education with little concern about their children’s later employability and expect little short of a lynching.

    Education reformers might like to ask parents and children what they want from school. When they receive the overwhelming answer that they are looking for employable skills, they might favour instrumentality a bit more.

    1. I think we have to disagree here. I don’t think the public have such a narrow view of schools. And I don’t think that the kind of education that I promote has to be at the cost of instrumentality. It does all of these things. The irony is that 21st C skills etc that are promoted on their instrumentality don’t actually work.

      1. Most parents, like most teachers, think we can give a broad education alongside basic skills for the work place. But the job aspect is usually there. Even if they do let Johnny do French because “it’s good for him”, they expect him to pass Maths because “he needs it”.

        But when it comes to selling education, the instrumental aspect is much easier, so you can hardly fault politicians for stressing it. Since most will have had quite liberal educations themselves, they probably don’t even believe it.

        Think of what would happen if they tried the other alternative. Adding a slice to the education budget in tough economic times and selling that as “giving our children the best possible liberal education” would be a disaster. It would look like wasting money on frippery. The Greens would be the only party suicidal enough to even try it (because they generally don’t get too worked up about how you might actually pay for social policies).


        Not only do I not think you can teach most “21st C skills”, I don’t even think most jobs will require any more independent thought than they did in the past. But I know that I would not try to sell money to the education budget on the slogan “We need to keep teaching 19th Century skills”.

  2. I just wish to disagree about one point. I don’t think the ‘neoliberals under the bed’ narrative in regards to education is about big business at all. The biggest fear of neoliberalism in education is the mantra of ‘reducing tax solves all problems’ and reducing expenditure in public education. The result of this is, of course, entrenching privilege of the children of the well off and giving them an even bigger leg up.

  3. I did a Bachelor’s of Economics at University, thinking it would increase my employability. I also did double major maths in HS for the same reason, where I battled with complex equations with the aim of getting the answer right rather than understanding what the hell I was doing. I really struggled in the workplace and I partially attribute to having not had a liberal education – “a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement” (Association of America Colleges and Universities). Some of the best people I worked with (and I was working in a multinational accounting and consultancy firm) were History and Arts graduates. They had great people skills, were able to think intelligently about complex problems, and were generally just well rounded, interesting people. If I could do my tertiary studies again, I would dedicate my undergraduate time to liberal education, and do something more specialised in my postgraduate time.

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