Left right out

There’s an old music hall joke designed for a double act. Let’s call them Eric and Ernie: Eric says, ‘I used to play football for my school.’ Ernie says ‘That’s impressive. What position?’ Eric replies, ‘Left right out’. That’s the position I would sometimes like to play.

One of the deepities we hear from time-to-time is the notion that ‘everything is political’. This sounds very wise and is true in a fairly trivial sense. Everything is affected by political decisions, from cola to koalas to contemporary art galleries. But this doesn’t meaning everything proceeds in the manner of politics. Science, for instance, has its own method for determining truth.

Of course, some people genuinely do believe that everything really is political. These are those who see power as the fundamental irreducible particle from which everything is made and they beat reality with their philosophical hammers into a shape that fits this idea. But we won’t waste any more time on these people.

The rest of us understand that power and politics are just one shade of human experience. This is why socialists and conservatives can sit next to each other in church, praying to the same ambiguous god or shake their heads and fists together at a death metal gig or read the same great book and be moved in the same way. Not all is politics.

So where sits education?

Clearly, education is highly political. It is one of those things that governments spend our money on and so it features in our elections, usually with respect to how much money different politicians intend to spend on it. But that’s largely it. And it’s usually a fourth or fifth issue after the economy, crime, health and whatever is the fancy of the moment.

The idea that different teaching methods are political is faintly absurd. And yet it is an idea that has taken quite a hold within education itself. Explicit teaching and behaviour management have somehow become seen as right-wing whereas inquiry learning and other student-centred approaches have become associated with the left.

Enough of this.

It’s the equivalent of labelling evidence-based medicine as right-wing and alternative medicine as left-wing. Such a label makes a sort-of sense if your image of the left is of well-heeled ageing hippies planning their next yurt holiday in Mongolia. We can perhaps imagine these people being into voodoo medicine.

But, er, hello! Prince Charles is probably the world’s most prominent lover of quack medicine and I don’t see him raising the red flag over St James’s Palace any time soon.

And what of all those more traditional champions of the left; the trades unionists and the factory workers? I can’t see them investing their hard-earned cash in reiki or crystal healing.

Viewing teaching methods as political is a category error. We should agree some clear aims for education. Despite the smokescreens, these can be informed by pretty objective data. Do students with strong literacy and numeracy go on to have a better quality of life? If so, what are the most effective methods of ensuring they gain this knowledge? Despite the many difficulties, these are essentially scientific questions answerable by the scientific method. Approaches that work are akin to medical treatments that work.

Educational methods that do not work should be seen for what they are: a lost opportunity at best and quackery at worst. They should not be legitimised by an entirely spurious association with a political position.

Let’s discuss these approaches and let’s discuss the evidence for these approaches like other professions. Let’s leave politics right out of it.


13 thoughts on “Left right out

  1. David F says:

    Hi Greg, if I understand those most likely to make this connection correctly, for them it has to do with closeness to authority…they see explicit teaching, strong behavior policies, adherence to a content-heavy curriculum that emphasizes the Western canon, as being linked to authoritarianism and which stifles other voices, backgrounds and cultures.

    Where I think it goes wrong is what Arendt pointed out in “The Crisis of Education”–this sort of stuff thrusts the child unprepared into the adult’s world, while not providing him/her with the ability to grab the baton from the previous generation. As she ends her essay (I have this taped to my wall): “And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

    • “… they see explicit teaching, strong behavior policies, adherence to a content-heavy curriculum that emphasizes the Western canon, as being linked to authoritarianism..”

      Ah, those people who think everything is about power…

      • David F says:

        That and the issue of what is the end of education?

        I would argue that “explicit teaching, strong behavior policies, adherence to a content-heavy curriculum that emphasizes the Western canon, as being linked to authoritarianism” is intended to promote the common good.

        For those suspicious of authority, the emphasis tends to be on the individual, with often there being a strong dose of libertarianism mixed (see personalized learning, eg, or the Californian Ideology when ed tech gets mixed in).

        In politics, those of us looking for a means of promoting the common good have traditionally tended to be on the left. The more individualistic dynamics of modern politics–taking up both left and right–has manifested itself in a variety of ways, but both usually promoting some sort of personalization, never mind the concurrent commercialization and materialism that often go with these. In the US we see this in the Democrats for Education Reform emphasizing “student/parent choice” (i.e., vouchers and charter schools) and being very anti-union. On the right, they’d just love to blow the whole public ed system up for “market based solutions.

        Those on edutwitter who are anti-authority may not be there, but their very undermining of the traditional relationships between student and teacher in ed plays into this individualistic narrative.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    You left out the coda to “everything is political”, which is “and my side is always correct”.

    After all, it would never do if everything was political and the best solutions were largely conservative and traditional, now would it?

    Pointing out that “everything is political” solves nothing, because politics is contested, won’t sway the zealots. But we need to persuade the moderates away first.

    There’s another codicil too. That is when politically based education “solutions” fail it is always due to some external fault. Improperly trained teachers, insufficient funds, biased research, whatever. (This applies to the right, say with charters, just as much as the left.) Solutions that do not work in practice are not useful, no matter how beautiful the theory.

  3. Education will always be political as it has to be paid for in some way (if for no other reason). People will always argue about the purpose of education in society, what is to be taught, how it should be funded and whether it represents ‘value for money’, or indeed how its value can be ‘measured’ if at all. In Higher Education the debate about the ‘idea of the university’ goes back to Newman and even earlier to Humboldt:
    “Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake” (Newman, 1858: Discourse 5).
    “The central Humboldtian principle was the ‘union of teaching and research’ in the work of the individual scholar or scientist”. (Anderson, 2010).

    In my own teaching of statistics to Business School students I have to strike a balance. I am conscious that graduates will need to earn a living. We need to teach specific techniques which will be of practical use in later life but also empower them to use statistics as a tool to critique society (and even to challenge traditional statistical methods). This is contentious and inevitably leads us into political territory.


    Newman, J.H. (1858) The Idea of a University defined and Illustrated
    Available on-line at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24526/24526-pdf.pdf
    Project Gutenberg [accessed 14th December 2017]
    Also Available on-line at: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/
    The National Institute for Newman Studies [accessed 14th December 2017]

    Anderson, R. (2010) The ‘Idea of a University’ today. History & Policy King’s College London
    Available on-line at: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/the-idea-of-a-university-today [accessed 12th December 2017]

  4. How about education is political, but learning isn’t. If you strip it right back to ‘learning is a change in long term memory’ and further ‘an individual’s long term memory’, maybe this can focus our attention on what we are here for. I agree with Andrew Old’s comment in a panel a few years ago when he said the point of education is to make people smarter. A soon as we take it upon ourselves to get students to change the world (as the devotees of Friere would have us do) then we’ve become political activists.

    • Tyrone says:

      ‘learning is a change in long term memory’. I like this as a simple yet not simplistic yardstick.

      I find it so refreshing to leave work and go to Jiu Jitsu training, where we are all explicitly taught the same skill/concept (because the human body only moves so many ways), then we practice it, and then we try and apply it in a live context with energy, timing and movement. You know and and are taught that to begin with, you will be bad, you will lose and you are taught to just look for tiny wins, to survive for a bit longer, to begin a technique even if it fails.

      There is no debate about whether the explicit instruction at the start of the lesson isn’t “authentic and personalized enough”, there is no questioning of the value that you need to finally try and apply the skill to a live grapple. They are all simply viewed as a continuum of practice steps, on the way to fluency and mastery. Some people take longer, some practice more often and when you are good enough, you are graded to the next level. The assessment follows the same process as the training. Demonstrate the skill/concept without any other variables in play, then in a live grapple.

      This is the same experience when I was taught life saving, when my mates showed me how to fish or ride their motorbike or when my mum taught me to cook something. Yet at work, professionally engaged in “education”, we somehow seem to disappear down the rabbit of hole nonsensical complexity.

      At the end of the day, if I have not put something in my long term memory that makes me more slightly more successful, (reduced effort or increased outcome) the next time I come back that task, then I have learned nothing, regardless of how “left or right wing” the instruction might have been.

      It is a shame that something so ancient as one human showing another human how to do something, is now described in political terms.

  5. Worthwhile reading here on why some writing sounds so like it is about appealing to one group rather than seeking truth.


    From https://twitter.com/JonHaidt/status/993680634479632384

    Does this sound familiar
    “Moreover, to earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. Communications of practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty. In contrast, unusual, exaggerated beliefs—such as supernatural beliefs (e.g., god is three persons but also one person), alarmism, conspiracies, or hyperbolic comparisons—are unlikely to be said except as expressive of identity, because there is no external reality to motivate nonmembers to speak absurdities.”

  6. Tom Bennet,Research Ed,has the right and exciting idea out of the muck-enlighten and inform the teachers and set them free.
    I`ve been an advocate and trainer in a niche and in 25 years of watching politics in education at the mercy of vulnerable children this is the first time I`ve seen anything make sense.
    The publishers sell a lot of things that are “fake”,drummed up in the back room and thrown in catalogues,Universities are pathetic at preparing our teachers and often are guilty of perpetuating things and ideas that don`t work.
    Tom`s idea of enough is enough is the best idea I`ve seen to date!

  7. Tempe Laver says:

    People like to make assumptions. and categorise people. In terms of achieving an egalitarian ed. model where ALL children would benefit, not just those with “interested/invested” parents at home, you would think it would be blindingly obvious that we need to adopt a knowledge-based Ed. system and teach explicitly. Knowledge makes us smarter. Some parents – most likely those from the middle class – will purposefully or inadvertently equip their children with a lot of knowledge throughout their schooling. They wont leave it to chance and they will step in when things go awry. Many others are not so lucky.

    It is interesting to me that the Conservatives seem better able to grasp this connection than the Left,who supposedly champion the working classes and claim they what more equality for all. If they want things in ed. to be more equal they need to level the playing field. At present the odds are stacked against those kids. It is also interesting how you are immediately branded right-wing if you believe in a more traditional ed. system. If I tell people that, in actual fact, I vote to the Left they seem bamboozled. How can this be so? To them it is a puzzlingly contradiction.

    I was struck by an interview with the principal from Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney, Mr Paul Burgis in the Aust. who said something along these line. HSC English was encouraging students to become activists by de-constructing power structures, such as the patriarchy rather than approaching a text for ‘literature appreciation’ or ‘truth finding’ or ‘language analysis’. Also, he was dismissive of the utilitarian approach the Gonksi 2.0 and many others have towards Ed. ie equipping for jobs of the future. Surely, first and foremost it is about furnishing the mind and developing the intellect. I was so heartened by his ideas.Now I just need to find a way to get my girls into that school.

  8. Pingback: A curriculum in tension – Filling the pail

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