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.