Computers: Battle lines
By Kelvin Smythe
Computers: Battle lines
I clicked to the ministry web site, and then to the digital presentation section – three speakers were featured: Rosemary Hipkins; Mary Chamberlain; and Jane Gilbert. Now, before you click away, saying you have a newsletter to get out, I think you might find it worthwhile to stay a bit: first, because it could give you, as it has given me writing the posting, a better understanding about a major philosophical influence on education and, second, a better understanding of a futuristic look at computer use that we need to take seriously.
This posting is really about four school education futures: two from Jane Gilbert; and two from me. Jane Gilbert says we can have a brilliant computer future of top-end thinking to serve the knowledge economy if we can bring about a 'paradigm shift' away from the present system; if this 'paradigm' shift doesn't occur, another future can be inferred from what she says - computer movement into school education will occur at an increasing pace, but to continued low-level learning effect. I also say that one future can be computer movement into school education at an increasing pace but, not only to continued low level learning effect, also to serious moral, ethical, and pedagogical effect; my other future is that if we appreciate that the new technology is not morally, ethically, and pedagogically neutral, and we are rock-solid clear about our goals for education and our understanding of the curriculum, we can turn that technology to serve the goals of education and the curriculum in inspiring ways.
I did not, and have not, looked at Rosemary Hipkin’s presentation, perhaps a future delight, I clicked first to Mary Chamberlain, the much featured (but not named in my ‘07 curriculum considerations) ministry spokesperson; and then to Jane Gilbert from NZCER, author of futuristic books and articles about the ‘new knowledge’ (post-modernism), and clearly an important influence on the ‘07 curriculum. This posting will take a brief look at Mary Chamberlain’s presentation because, in relation to the ’07 curriculum, I want to consider the effect of Jane Gilbert’s influence on the curriculum, both in what is in it, and how it was presented. In my consideration of the curriculum (‘The ’07 Curriculum – Final verdict’) I say that, in certain places, language is used in a strange way – language that pointed to a desire for computers to feature more prominently but, apparently from a lack of nerve on the developers’ part, not expressed directly. In response to feeling somewhat frustrated by this, the developers, probably unconsciously, seem to have characterised the curriculum in its presentation in a way that had the effect of hijacking the curriculum to post-modern ends (instability of knowledge largely caused by, the theory goes, the effects of computer use on knowledge development). However, while I begin with Mary Chamberlain’s presentation, the focus in this posting is on Jane Gilbert’s presentation on electronic futurology and post-modernism.
Jane Gilbert’s computer message is one we should all listen to, take in, and be prepared to respond to in our conversations, and the way we teach and provide leadership. I would characterise my position overall as a computer-realist with a highly sceptical stance; what we must guard against is allowing electronic determinism to be the new reality. A means to guard against this is to listen and understand messages like Jane Gilbert’s. In one way, I found listening to her strangely reassuring – what I heard was a philosophy of computer use that was likely to outflank anything else I might hear another computer futurist say. It provided a moment of stillness that helped me contemplate the implications of our computerised future away from the distractions of the prospect of this or that dazzling piece of technology being dangled enticingly. In another way, the post-modern philosophy which was sparked by the new technology, and which she espouses, sets the battle lines over whether the new technology is going to be controlled to support enlightened pedagogy and humanising goals of education, or left free to dominate and distort curriculum areas, and tie education to narrow economic ends.
An academic recently sent me an e-mail making some comments (supportive) on a posting, to which he added ‘and I see it was written in your usual take-no-prisoners style’. I want to make it clear that I found Jane Gilbert’s message, despite its confusions, shortcomings, and dire implications – interesting and significant. This posting, in other words, is not intended as a hatchet job.
For education, there are two impulses in the new technology. One impulse relates to democratic, knowledge-developing, ease of access, efficiency-providing, anti-establishment, even humanising possibilities. The other impulse to the deterministic way children can be pressured into heavy computer use to meet the demands of the ‘new knowledge’ economy; the dehumanising characteristics of technocratic learning packages; the reduction in human and social contact; surveillance and control; and the movement away from the affective, aesthetic, and direct experience.
In the long run, even more significant than all of the ideas above (both the hopeful and the concerning) are the implications of the philosophy associated with the new technology – post-modernism. This theory is based on the idea that because of the characteristics of the new technology the big philosophical theories of why things happen have been replaced by a lot of small explanations. The major contradiction in this, is that post-modernism is itself a big philosophical theory, so how can the age of big theories be over? The implication of accepting this philosophy at face value leads to extreme naivety in perceiving why things happen, how societies function.
The post-modern philosophy rests on a number of concepts, but the key one is ‘performativity’ which is used to express the idea that knowledge is no longer linked to truth but to what it can do, whether it works. In post-modern theory this concept is grossly, and to my mind, intentionally underdeveloped. I know you will already have recognised the Trojan horse nature of the definition – and you will be saying, ‘Well – an idea can work for some, and not for others, how is its performativity decided in such circumstances?’ In post-modern theory it isn’t. And remember, post-modernists have dismissed other big theories like ones suggesting that groups who control society tend to make decisions in their own favour. To come straight out with it – post-modern theory has been embraced by neo-liberal groups and governments, and served, serves, and will continue to serve, to deepen the neo-liberal hold on education and the economy.
This posting will agree that when an idea is being evaluated, whether it works should be a consideration, but so should other universal truth-establishing tests such as: reason (which would encompass the idea of whether something works); feeling akin to instinct; sense-perception (which encompasses science processes); and tradition (what has worked from the past). Post-modernism, some democratic qualities aside, is a shallow, naive and self-serving philosophy but, as will be described, one whose time had come, and in the hands of a French philosopher – Jean-Francois Lyotard – far more elegant, ironic, interesting, honest, and nuanced than its subsequent supporters have managed to construct.
Jane Gilbert sees the new technology, the ‘new knowledge’, and post-modernism as one. A quote from Richard Lanham sums up her starting point: ‘the multimedia computer, hypertext programmes, and internet connectivity undermine existing forms of authority, encourage visual over textual literacy and open new forms of communications’ (‘The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts’). The new technology will, indeed, in some circumstances, have a democratising effect and challenge the establishment, but the post-modern idea that it will decisively redress power relations in society is dangerously naïve. That is why I call post-modernism, the trickle-down philosophy: in the freedoms gained by opportunities to communicate through the new technology there is a trickle down of those freedoms; in economics, courtesy of neo-liberalism, its co-associate, there is a trickle down of financial benefits. Those with power, position, and capital are well placed by courtesy of those attributes not only to survive any technological change but flourish.
The plot line in this posting, because of Jane Gilbert’s argument, is necessarily a convoluted one. She castigates the present education system (and the quality of the use of the new technology within it) and predicates her vision of the ‘new knowledge’ on a 'paradigm shift' in education towards greater flexibility. If the education system undergoes this shift, she says, then her ideas about the use of ICT and the associated post-modern philosophy will deliver a ‘magic bullet’. This is her Plan A. If the conditions to implement Plan A don’t eventuate, which they won’t, she will need Plan B which, however, is never directly discussed and has to be inferred.
Plan B would seem to be to use every means possible to get the values, pedagogy, and language of the new technology and post-modernism used in education discourse, and to encourage the use of the new technology throughout the curriculum and in assessment and other control functions. Jane Gilbert is both different and similar to other New Zealand computer advocates. She is similar to other advocates in basing her argument on computers and post-modernism, and in presenting computer use as ethically and morally neutral – as unproblematic. Where Jane Gilbert differs from other such advocates is in the strength of her assertion that the potential of the new technology will not be realised unless there is a massive transformation of the education system. She further stakes out her position by saying the use of the new technology in the present system is dismal. To reinforce all this is her main pedagogical argument about the need for cultural and critical literacy, in other words, how disciplinary knowledge is developed and used (more-or-less the metacognition part of the ’07 curriculum). However, by inference from her digital presentation, from evidence of her influence on the ’07 curriculum, and some of her writings, it is clear that while Jane Gilbert is deeply committed to her Plan A, she is also deeply implicated in Plan B. As a result, this posting has needed to respond to her ideas at both levels.
My overall argument in response, though, is simple, just as in politics the election saying is ‘It’s the economy stupid’; in education, for me, no matter the issue, the saying is ‘It’s the curriculum stupid’. As a system we have spent much time and money on the curriculum (and by that I mean curriculum areas), but amongst all the cacophony, I have only spasmodically heard what I recognise as the curriculum, the teachers’ curriculum, the New Zealand curriculum, our curriculum. That is why I felt so disappointed with the ‘07 curriculum, the government gave the developers a free hand – what they came up with was an improvement, except they stuffed it up with the competencies, a huge distraction from the opportunity to concentrate on science, reading, writing, social studies, the arts, mathematics, and so on. The main point I am making in response to Jane Gilbert’s argument is that we don’t need a paradigm shift in education, and certainly not one based on the post-modern philosophy, to make the new technology work to the benefit of children’s knowledge developing abilities. To make the new technology work to desirable ends, though, we need to have a firm grasp of the curriculum areas, the essence of curriculum areas, so that the new technology can be confidently turned to the purposes of those curriculum areas and to a humanising and well-balanced education for our children.
The argument in this posting is that Jane Gilbert’s post-industrial vision for education will not predominate; what will predominate, unless we get our curriculum act together, will be low-level cut and paste investigations; a high incidence of packaged learning; high interest, low quality child-minding computer use; a reduction in aesthetic, affective, and direct experience; and greatly increased surveillance and control over children and teachers. Children as a result of their school experience will be efficiently groomed to be conforming members of the workforce in neo-liberal economies. The supposedly apolitical message of post-modernism, and the naivety of its expressions about power relations, will be used as an anodyne for the ill-effects that appear. We are not moving into a post-industrial age, we are simply moving into a more tightly controlled one. There is only one way out of the impasse, that is by focusing on ethical and humanising goals for education, and using those as a measure for when and how computers should be used.
With the posting on ‘Kiwi Leadership’ I had over 900 hits the first day; ‘The battle for primary school reading’ just under 700; for this one I’ll be lucky to get 200 with, I suppose, less than half actually reading it. If 100 read this posting, though, I’ll sleep easy that night. If that number of principals read it and gain something from it, it will have been worth the effort. We must not be blindsided by post-modernism and the new technology in the way we were by neo-liberalism and the education reforms. In the ‘90s, I came back from taking a course to find my fax strewn with paper from a president of an education group who had sent me copies of something written by Ivan Snook about neo-liberalism. The covering note asked, ‘Did you know about this?’ I had written extensively about neo-liberalism in every issue of ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’ since 1989.
I must admit to being a trifle disconcerted by the mannerisms of the two presenters, there was something filmic about the two of them in combination (though the presentations were separate). At first, I couldn’t work it out, and then it came to me, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Mary Chamberlain, with her other-worldly, kindly, mildly spaced-out way of viewing the world came across as the Good Witch; and Jane Gilbert with her abrupt mannerisms (reinforced by the editing technique) came across as Tin Woman. As well, and I’m only saying this about her message and presentation delivery style, there was something technocratic and lacking in heart about her argument. If they know I exist, and I suspect Mary Chamberlain does, by one or two things she said, they would probably wish me to be two feet sticking out from under a displaced house from Kansas; or, and considerably out of emphasis, because I am only a minor irritant from the provinces, that blowhard old fraud, the Wizard of Oz.
Mary Chamberlain’s presentation will be portrayed as a strange mixture of idealistic, developmental ideas commingling with the influence of Jane Gilbert’s post-modern ones. Jane Gilbert’s presentation falls into three parts: schooling today as an out-of-date industrial age system with computer and egalitarian add-ons; a pastiche of ideas gained from a wide variety of sources – pulp fiction to the inevitable French philosopher – tied into a post-modern bundle; and the implications of all this for our schools and education system.
As I stated above, I believe if we want to understand where some people, also some technological, social, and economic pressures, are pushing us, we should pay close attention to Jane Gilbert. I acknowledge there is a lack of originality in her thinking, her ideas are secondhand and often contradictory, her approach is remarkably simplistic (just because you are a post-modernist, does not mean it is acceptable dismiss the analyses of other theorists – Marx, for instance – without explanation), there is a strong element of economic determinism, and when she relates the ideas to schooling, it’s all rather a stretch. And it’s no good her saying that she has a wider view of post-modernism than many computer advocates, she will be judged on the company her ideas keep (that is post-modernism and neo-liberalism).
This posting argues that the kind of education children get in schools, and the values of the system, should not be determined by the economic demands of the knowledge society, or by the retrieval and communication characteristics of electronic technology. Not determined in a direct manner, anyway – in a perverse way, the education effects of the demands of the knowledge economy, and characteristics of electronic technology, might spark schools and the system to respond to the problematic parts of these developments and give special emphasis to humanistic and aesthetic qualities. That is not to say, however, the new technology won’t bring some humanistic and aesthetic gains; the point is that no technology is ethically or morally neutral, so we have to be on guard and continually sceptical. An unwillingness to address ethical and moral issues about the new technology is common to electronic futurists, but they are the people being listened to, and Jane Gilbert is the best one we have.
Mary Chamberlain’s presentation was an expression of the developmental pieties plus references to the competencies and the ‘new knowledge’. She probably needs to be reminded that a good few in primary schools know about developmental, but the spirit has largely been drained from the philosophy by the nature of the education system. As an instance, when I left the official education system in 1989, I formed a company named after the philosophy and campaigned it and its classroom implications around New Zealand for a decade, ostensibly to extend and deepen its use, but in fact, as a tactical move to retain a foothold. I knew the storm clouds were coming for the curriculum and our primary school traditions, so I was doing my bit, along with others, to strengthen the defences. How successful were we? Developmental still holds a place in some schools and certainly in the aspirations of teachers, but much of the idealism has been diverted into what I consider the mainly spurious ideas of a clutch of American ‘gurus’; learning style theory; whole brain learning; gross integration; dreamy themes for topic studies; and various strains of New Age thinking. What goes on under the label ‘inquiry learning’ has also been a major diversion. Then there are such party tricks (because their use usually lacks a solid affective and cognitive context) as the ‘Six Hats’, and questioning levels based on Bloom. But this is the stuff of another posting.
There were some moments of particular interest to me in Mary Chamberlain’s presentation. Influenced, it seems, by Jane Gilbert, she put great emphasis on extending children’s learning capacities and the ‘new knowledge’. In association with this I was interested in her reference to inquiry learning and the way she hastened to suggest that other inquiry processes could also be employed. I wondered if one of those processes she had in mind was the one outlined in the conclusion to my consideration of the new curriculum (‘The ’07 Curriculum – Final verdict’). Whatever the facts of the matter, it is good other processes are given the thumbs up. As well, when talking about objectives and criteria, she elaborated on the usefulness of introducing them with the stem ‘Willingness and ability to …’ I have been using that stem for over 25 years, and used it constantly in my consideration of the ’07 curriculum. I had thought, and I’m not being ironic here, that I came up with this stem, but I may be wrong. Again, whatever, it is a powerful way to introduce objectives and criteria. Clearly, and with good reason, she has considerable concern for the well-being of her education shining hope – the competencies. They are not, she pleaded, like another subject area, and they should not be subject to compliance ticking. Both very sound points, but whistle a happy tune.
Jane Gilbert and our ‘industrial age system’
And that was Mary Chamberlain’s presentation; now for Jane Gilbert’s. The first part of Jane Gilbert’s presentation was about schooling today as an industrial age system. Most remarkable was the absolute way she expressed her ideas, and the cut-and-dried nature of her arguments. ICT can be a ‘magic bullet’ for the ills of the present system she said, but we will have to do some rethinking. (I use the acronym ICT here because Jane Gilbert uses it, but I don’t like it; the acronym has the effect of defining what the new technology does in a way that distracts from a consideration of other things it might do.) We haven’t changed our basic teaching practices she declares; we’re preparing them for the past – but, hold on, what about the ’07 curriculum, there’s a lot about the 21st century in that, is that the breakthrough she’s been waiting for? I think not. However, we will let the speaker continue her story.
ICT, as it is at the moment, is just digital busywork, she said, just added to an education system from another time. The point Jane Gilbert will make further on is that ICT, to live up to its promise, must be used at a high philosophical and intellectual level. (A point, I fully endorse.) Then come her two big criticisms: education is a sorting system unsuitable for the present era; and the disciplines, which underpin the traditional curriculum, set up the wrong expectations about knowledge. (You will find her criticism of disciplines is not as trenchant as it seems, indeed she supports disciplines.)
Jane Gilbert asked, ‘Where did these ideas about education come from?’ She draws a long bow by going back to Plato and the way education was for the elite – an education carried out by exposing the young to the greatest knowledge from the foremost thinkers. Socratic-type questioning involved a drawing out of ideas already within people; making it, according to Jane Gilbert, a teacher-centred process. It is difficult, though, to see how what occurred cognitively in those Greek learners is ever going to be different, or improved upon – I know Jane Gilbert is going to tell us about how ‘new knowledge’ is going to be developed in new ways using ICT, and that the disciplines are going to be used for ‘a totally different purpose’, nevertheless, the reasons why teachers have needed to know the disciplines has never varied, it has always been to guide children to the philosophy and content of those disciplines, to understand how disciplinary knowledge is developed, and the nature of truth.
The cognitive processes for Greek learners would have been the same as for contemporary ones, information once taken in by learners, becomes their own, and for the life of me, I can’t see what Socrates was doing, and how the learners were learning, and why they were doing it, differs in its fundamentals from Jane Gilbert’s advocacy for learning in the future. Yes – the new technology is going to make some changes in how knowledge is developed and distributed, but the fundamentals won’t change, for instance, universities are hailing the way they are signing up for Apple’s i-tunes – the purpose: so students can tune into lecturers presenting lectures, that is, exposing the young to the greatest knowledge from the foremost thinkers; but, it should be noted, without the valuable addition of having that knowledge tested and refreshed by insightful questioning. I do acknowledge, though, that there can be electronic questioning and answering; and there is the ever-present characteristic in the new technology of ease of access, which I further acknowledge is going to support some of Jane Gilbert’s predictions – but I hold to my thesis, the fundamentals remain, and if we recognise that, we will get more advantage from the technology, and be better placed to avoid the moral and ethical traps it poses.
As for the idea that knowledge is whatever that works (in other knowledge relativism) that would have by no means have startled Socrates. He wrestled with, for instance, Protagoras’s idea that people are ‘the measure of all things’, and while failing to come to a satisfactory conclusion, he knew he disagreed with him.
Jane Gilbert moved on to state that mass education is a relatively recent development resulting from the need for economies to have a better educated human resource. However, to this kind of education was added the idea of education for egalitarianism. Many tensions resulted, she said, from these two differing purposes for education. The ‘new knowledge’, she said, offered a way out from the industrial-type education system, and the tensions that beset it: the production-line model; the yearly progression in age-group classes; the pre-set curriculum; the standardised product; the quality-control standards (assessment); and, the one size fits all. Many students drop off the production line, she said, and the number of low-skill jobs available will diminish. Jane Gilbert declares we can’t go on like this. The era of learning as something that happens in individuals, as stuff, as storing stuff, as stuff in disciplines, of education for sorting, is coming to an end.
There will be a paradigm shift, she says, a rupture, a fault line – our ideas about knowledge will be ‘totally different’. It will be akin to the dislocation caused by the move to the industrial age. What Jane Gilbert was saying interested me, it provided pointers, but beware of futurologists bearing messages of ‘totally different’. Put it like this, I suggest the future will, indeed, trend in some of the directions she is suggesting, but people in looking back on her predictions will say she was very much ahead of her time, so much so that the situation still isn’t even close to what she predicted.
Post-modernism and the new technology
Jane Gilbert was now in full flow, almost animated, as she provided us with the details of her post-modernist and futurist reading. (By the way, having read this posting, there won’t be much need to put yourself through Mark Treadwell’s ersatz prognostications, at least Jane Gilbert is a primary source – world famous in New Zealand – for other people’s ideas.) Her main inspiration comes from a very interesting French (of course) philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, whose main interests were art and politics, but who strayed into philosophy with a small but influential book ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’.
For those who are still with this posting, I can almost hear you say: Oh no! Not a French philosopher, I really do have to go. But please stay – stay with Jane, and Jean-Francois, I truly believe it will help you get a better understanding of what is being said in certain circles, and where things are trending, and what you need to prepare for, or start guarding against. Lyotard transferred the term ‘post-modernism’ from art to philosophy. He said he preferred a multiplicity of small narratives to the large meta-narratives, in other words, minor explanations about why things happen, to say, Marxism. For this reason, post-modernism has become associated with extreme relativism. Technological progress in the areas of communication, mass media, and computer science, he said, had made large theories untenable.
In attractive French style, though, he was to call his book a ‘parody’, the ‘worst of all his books’; that he had little knowledge of science or computers; that he referred to a number of books he hadn’t read – however, it is a most influential book. It could be said with confidence, that if the book hadn’t been written, it would have been invented by someone else. The time had come, the pendulum had swung, for the ideas in this book to be held as important.
As discussed above, you will have noted the major contradiction in Jane Gilbert’s belief that meta-narratives (in this case, read Marxist theory) were untenable and that small narratives provided better explanations – the contradiction being that post-modernism, is itself, a meta-narrative. And to my view, given the huge amount of research based on Marxist or related theory still being produced, it is naïve and philosophically self-serving, to declare meta-narrative untenable – it is at the very least ‘tenable’. There are, of course, meta-narratives other than the Marxist one, but the sights of post-modernists are drilled very much on the Marxist. (A working definition I have of Marxist theory is that the people and groups who control society, control society to their perceived interests.) I am bold enough to declare that Marxist theory, given the characteristics of human nature and group dynamics, will always be tenable. In my view, post-modern small narrative theory does not challenge the Marxist meta-narrative; to the contrary, it fits within it, making explanations of the complexity of group and human behaviour more nuanced and realistic (more boring though).
I am reminded of a much loved and admired Marxist theorist from Massey, the late Roy Nash. It was the 1990 research conference and being Friday afternoon, it was, as was the custom, the time for the debate. At the centre of this was always Roy Nash, who looked the part – he of the long face, lank hair, and distracted gaze; for all the world like a character who has wandered off the pages of a Tolstoy novel. The room was crowded, the air of expectancy high, the topic promising – ‘Access and opportunity in education’; nothing better to get things going than talk about cultural capital and the like, and formal and informal barriers some groups face in gaining access to education. What a disappointment! Roy Nash was doing detailed research; instead of cramming everything into the Marxist dialectic, he palavered on about preliminary findings. Admittedly, he hesitated a lot in his delivery, a rhetorical advice to create the effect of a mental logjam caused by a number of equally brilliant ideas competing for his cognitive attention. But to no compensatory effect. It was boring. The research rationale might have been provided by Bordieu (a Marxist theorist), but it was anchored in profoundly prosaic detail. And that, in my view, is the role of small narratives, providing some detail to the Marxist discourse. In fact, Roy Nash was going to collect 1500 small narratives in the course of interviewing 1500 lower-North Island families about what it was about their way of life that affected educational aspiration and progress. For me, it added up to one of life’s disappointments.
Jane Gilbert then moved to some of the big concepts the post-modernists use. In the context of a high philosophical use of computers, knowledge she declares (via Jean-Francois) is no longer linked to the truth but what it can do, to innovation – this is the concept of ‘performativity’. Knowledge freed from the ‘truth’ and attached to ‘performativity’ can cause things to happen, much like energy. Old knowledge is like matter, stuff does stuff – a noun; new knowledge does things, like energy – a verb. New knowledge is a process, is developed to be replaced, does things, is developed in teams. Learning is developed to be replaced, generates new knowledge – new knowledge for everyone, linked to the real world.
The idea that knowledge is a process not the product of a process is, for me, a monumental error; and one that found strong expression in the presentation of the ’07 curriculum, and finds strong expression in the presentation armoury of all computer advocates. (I notice, though, that Rosemary Hipkins, probably the most impressive of the people developing the ministry pedagogy, seems to have avoided falling into this process dominance trap.) I accept, of course, that knowing about the process of developing knowledge is knowledge, but to make it dominant over the product of that process is silly, contradictory, and morally and pedagogically harmful. Silly because large amounts of knowledge have remarkable stability (think Shakespeare); change in knowledge is largely evolutionary; and we need to take knowledge as it is, seriously, for the insights it can provide, and whether it stands up to the truth-finding tests. It is contradictory because if the product of a process is given reduced status, what does that say about the status of the process which was designed to produce that product? It is morally harmful because extreme knowledge instability and relativity puts more power into the hands of the powerful. While the post-modernists aren’t concerned about this because they dismiss the idea of the powerful acting in concert for their own interests, people like me, with a different view of how society functions are concerned. It is pedagogically harmful because in some parts of the school system, knowledge has all but disappeared, belittled as a concern of the past, replaced by ‘inquiry learning’ (that is, cutting and pasting).
I have discussed in various places above my disagreement with the idea that knowledge can be detached from the truth and simply judged on whether it works. Detaching knowledge from truth is really detaching knowledge from its moral base and, in effect, delivering to those with most power, the ability to establish and declare, which knowledge works (in other words ‘truth’ by another name, but produced through a shallow and unconvincing process). Just as the victors in a war write the history of that war, so will the powerful write the commentary of what works in society. Small narratives might nibble away at the self-serving actions of the powerful, but the power of the powerful will not be collapsed. In my view, the powerful will recognise that the multiplicity of small narratives that will occur are a small price to pay for the advantages the new technology and its associated post-modern philosophy will, in return, bring them.
By the way, futuristic messengers like Jane Gilbert continually detract from their message with their stereotyping and cheap shots at knowledge production, acquisition, and use in the present and past. Mary Chamberlain got caught up in this as ministry spokesperson for the ’07 curriculum. Jane Gilbert, as an instance, says minds will no longer be containers like filing cabinets. This does not do justice to what cognitive processes do with any knowledge, no matter the source; or to the good teaching, of any sort, from the best thinkers of Socrates’ time, to the best teachers of our time.
The next post-modern concept Jane Gilbert discussed was ‘connectivity’. New knowledge, she says, will be dependent on, and develop from, an emphasis on the connection between two or more individuals, rather than the individuals themselves. I can see this one going over well with parents: ‘It’s not your little darlings the education system is interested in; it’s the space between them’: children as nodal points. This does, however, point to a trend in knowledge development and technology use, but I don’t see it as representing a substantial change
Jean-Francois Lyotard says, ‘In the ordinary use of discourse – for an example, in a discussion between two friends – the interlocutors use any available ammunition, changing games from one utterance to the next: questions, requests, assertions, and narratives are launched pell-mell into battle. The war is not without rules, but the rules allow and encourage the greatest possible flexibility of utterance.’
You can see why Jean-Francois is such an attractive and charismatic thinker. On a personal note, I’m applying his thinking to my situation and amused by some of the paradoxes. Here was I, away from the education discourse for eight years, then motivated by a number of things to creep back in again using computers – yes the point of many of my jibes, computers. How else could I break through to communicate with a few hardy souls in schools? My own petard. Then how well does Jean-Francois describe my writing style? He says: ‘questions, requests, assertions, and narratives … launched pell-mell into battle’. You may have noticed that I recently had a series of articles on the ’07 curriculum published in EDUVAC – I was grateful to them to be able to communicate in this way, but that is the limit of where I can publish because academic journals have rules I find limiting, not worth the effort to conform to, and would get in the way of what I wanted to say. Having said that, I respect the need for those rules for academics, the basis of which is, I will quote you if will quote me, a step-by-step approach to knowledge development. The approach, though, is often detrimentally affected by academics trying too hard for the sake of their careers to come up with something different, or overstating their case, or shrouding the ordinariness of their message in the extraordinariness of the jargon-laden language. The academic approach does not suit my personality, purposes, or main source of my knowledge (experience in schools and classrooms), so in the present circumstances, the computer is, for me, a communication saver. There you go, might say Jane Gilbert.
On the other hand, to extend the paradox, it is Jean-Francois, Jane Gilbert’s mentor, who poses a challenge for universities, by asking the question:
‘Does the university have a place for language experiments (poetics)? … The answers are clear: yes, if the university opens creative workshops …; yes, if the limits of the old institution are displaced.’
There is a scene in ‘Portrait of an Artist’ when Stephen Dedalus, as a young man, is in a room with a priest who is by the window. Stephen says something along the lines of, ‘Get out of my light’. Academics and academia are important to me but I like them in manageable doses. Yes, I have degrees and diplomas, but have always resisted the killer degree, the doctorate – you have to be very self-aware to get through one of those unscathed. I can remember when I was regularly criticising, in ‘Developmental Network Newsletter’, anyone associated with Picot – one person from the university who was associated, responded by what seemed to be a personal mission to get me enrolled in a doctorate – an attempt, it seemed to me, to assert control. The push by universities to put staff through the doctorate mill, especially staff from a schools’ background with a mainly schools’ lecturing purpose, should be resisted as harmful to these staff and to their purpose. To sum up, universities are unlikely to change much – it’s human nature, group behaviour, and the meta-narrative (about power and control) again. Why didn’t Jane Gilbert direct her futurism to universities, many of her ideas, if they are well-based at all, would seem to be more appropriate to those locations? (To be fair, in other forums, she probably does.)
Jane Gilbert, earlier in her presentation, had derided the disciplines and, again, later on, seemed to suggest that the ‘new knowledge’ could not be codified into disciplines, but here she is saying disciplines do matter, but the reasons for them mattering are ‘quite different’ (you’ve got to laugh). In the past, she says, knowing was an end in itself. Wow! All knowing? It’s amazing we ever moved out of caves. (Steady on – I promised this wouldn’t be a hatchet job.) Indeed, she said, we need a mastery of disciplinary knowledge, so we can put them together in a ‘completely new way’. (No comment.) We need to take elements from one knowledge and combine them with elements from other knowledges. This, she said, is ‘quite different’ from ‘inter-disciplinary studies’. The criterion for judging the success of combined knowledges is ‘performativity’, that is, does it work? (Enough said.)
ICT is valued by the present education system, she said, but what happens at the moment is simply information retrieval and presentation of findings using techniques like PowerPoint in which learning is a ‘completely passive process’. In the ‘new knowledge age’ the emphasis will be on finding and presenting exciting knowledge – ‘utterly new knowledge’. The ‘new knowledge’ will see children generating answers to ‘real community problems’; it will be ‘real research’. To help in this ‘real research’ there will be a need to move away from an emphasis on print text to a multi-modal process which gives much more attention to such things as images, sound, body language.
She continued by saying that the emphasis will be on process not the finished product, how meaning is made. This puzzled me because she had just finished saying that the ‘new knowledge’ will generate answers to community problems; here she seems to be saying that the answers were not as important as the way those answers were developed. Schools, she went on, needed to be producers not consumers of knowledge; to be active knowledge builders; to undertake real research with children playing with different ways of making meaning. All this ‘could be the magic bullet’, but to achieve this we would need to move away from the industrial age system.
Jane Gilbert ended, for me, on an ironic note. This she said, ‘Could be the 21st century version of the Beeby vision of equal opportunity for all’; ironic, because Beeby and education developments from that time, including Elwyn Richardson, are icons for this web site. I know, in many respects, Jane Gilbert, has her sights on secondary schooling rather than primary but there is an irony in that, too. Primary schools have all but given up on knowledge, though they have taken enthusiastically to integration, but this combining of knowledge is more a flight from knowledge than an embracing of it; secondary schools on the other hand value knowledge highly, though they use it in a way that Jane Gilbert is targeting critically. The irony is extended when the chances of any significant change in secondary schooling are close to nil because of the very meta-narratives that Jane Gilbert has declared passé. Parents and those who control the system will reject significant change because they will say it won’t work, it won’t do things that they want to have done.
There are many misdirections in what Jane Gilbert has to say about the application of her ideas to classroom practice. There will be no ‘utterly new knowledge’, but there can be children speaking with originality of view and voice; yes, children should be developers of knowledge, but, in many respects the internet, hinders rather helps this process; I would want to know what she means by ‘real community problems’, I think it could end up with trivialities; in social studies, for instance, the aim is to get children to appreciate and understand individual and cultural difference – that is problem solving at a heightened level; community research sounds like inquiry learning which signals children should act like neophyte social scientists, rather than children being cognitively and affectively informed by the process on the way through to enlightened and integrating knowledge. Children should, indeed, have opportunities to learn how disciplines work and how meaning is made, but a pre-condition for that is getting children thinking – a major task in itself; and she is right, images are going to be more important in gaining, developing, and presenting knowledge, but the fading away of print, like the projected fading away of paper communication, is bound to be greatly exaggerated.
Since 1969 – when I was appointed a lecturer at North Shore Teachers College – I have been going around schools with an epistemological message bearing some similarities to the one Jane Gilbert has outlined, minus computers, of course, which arrived on the scene much later, and the dominance of process over product. What she has to say is in some respects inspiring, but there really isn’t anything new, including the difficulties her message will face in being implemented. Of course, computers are going to change things but, if this change is going to be managed successfully, we need to keep grounded in remembering what we know about the curriculum and children’s learning. Given the right education context, Jane Gilbert sees computers in a visionary way trailing clouds of glory. Where she sees ‘utterly different’ ways of developing and using knowledge, I simply see evolution. Remember the old story about France and England facing a political issue? The English found precedent for it some centuries before and absorbed the resulting change without fuss; the French said it was a revolution and promptly had one. And where she sees computer use as unproblematic, I see it as pedagogically as well as ethically fraught.
Children can do all the things Jane Gilbert wants them to do with knowledge without the need for a computer, except the distance communication, and the easy access to large amounts of internet information. I have found, however, the easy access to large amounts of information is often limiting to children’s cognitive processes and to their originality; that is why, in working with a school on a policy statement on social studies I recommended the inclusion (amongst others) of the following two statements:
The new technology can be used at all parts of the learning process, but it is especially recommended for the ‘Expressing understanding’ part in which children should have opportunities to inquire into matters of interest which are genuinely open in response, requiring children, if they are to satisfactorily complete a task, to understand, interpret, and transform the various sources of information gained.
But there is a crucial precursor statement to this:
I believe that computer futurologists like Jane Gilbert, connected as they tend to be with post-modernism, are dangerously head-in-the-sand. They do not seem to take into account human nature, the wider effects of computers in education, the messages implicit in the marketisation and commodification associated with post-modernism, and the realities of the exercise of power. To give an apparently trivial example of the human nature side of things: many students in secondary schools are highly resistant to using computers for learning, as entrenched in their world view is the idea that computers are for life-style. Even the acceptable part of Jane Gilbert’s vision faces a myriad of obstacles like this. She should get down off her visionary cloud, smell the coffee, free herself from post-modernism, and engage with us in evolutionary change in the context of ethical and humanising goals.
Heidegger (in the ‘50s) issued a famous statement about technology, one which Jane Gilbert seems to ignore, but which we do at our peril.
‘Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.’
At a miniscule and anecdotal level, I would like to give an example of how technological change is not neutral. A year or two ago I visited a highly computerised school – a good school with well-motivated teachers. The school used the kind of inquiry approach set out in the ’07 curriculum – the children enthusiastically took up issues then, in effect, downloaded information from the internet in response. This kind of inquiry learning is tailor-made for computers. When I pointed out an alternative approach based on the relationship between the cognitive and the affective there was considerable disquiet – eventually they came out with it and said that education had moved on from such ideas. I am grateful for their response because it gave me pause for thought. A little while later a teacher in another school, in a similar vein, said, ‘We still remember your course at our school [15 years ago], and we still use some of your ideas, but we have now moved on to inquiry learning [that is a process of learning tailor-made for computers].’ The implication for me was that including the affective in investigations removed it from being inquiry learning.
Jane Gilbert and the ’07 curriculum
I acknowledge that the following brief speculation about Jane Gilbert’s influence on the ’07 curriculum is something of a diversion but the intention is to throw some light on the way computer advocates advance their argument, and on a document that is the basis for our work in schools.
Mary Chamberlain in her presentation of the curriculum made much play on the post-modern idea of the importance of the process of learning over the actual knowledge produced; of children not needing to remember knowledge, just needing to have access it; of the transitory nature of knowledge; of inquiry learning being what they should concentrate on; of the prime importance of what children learn connecting to the business world; of children concentrating on community problems, not on societies ‘on the other side of the world’; and of preparing children for the 21st century.
Mary Chamberlain said, for instance, that ‘We’ve got computers, we don’t need people walking around with them in their heads’. Statements like this were linked to inquiry learning with its emphasis on process as against product. At other times her theme was the focus the curriculum had on developing skills ‘that met employers’ demands’. Then there were her remarks reflecting on present and past teaching and learning practices in schools, for instance, ‘The new national curriculum will teach pupils how to hold a conversation or ask for help rather than remember facts, historic dates or periodic tables’. Mary Chamberlain’s emphasis on computers and inquiry learning in the presentation of the new curriculum is backed up by computer-coded references within the document, references like, ‘enhancing the relevance of new learning’, ‘facilitated shared learning’, future focus’, and ‘teaching as inquiry’.
Within the ’07 curriculum, though, my main concern is the tight arrow driven inquiry model suggested for inquiry learning. The model that should have been put forward was one of providing activities that establish in children sufficient knowledge for a topic to proceed, then activities to test cognitive flexibility and affective depth, followed by opportunities to apply what has been learned to new situations. This is a child-centred inquiry model. The inquiry model in the ’07 curriculum, though, has not been put there for children, but to provide a process suitable for computer learning. In such ways, is the curriculum distorted.
Also within the document, and to some extent admirably, is the attention to metacognition which draws from ideas derived from theories about cultural and critical literacy (children gaining an understanding of how knowledge is developed, and using this understanding to develop knowledge for themselves). A wonderful aspiration, but in the context of the present cautious school environment and, ironically, the damage computers have already wrought on the status of knowledge in schools, it seems more an artefact destined for cargo-cult wonderment.
My response to Jane Gilbert’s argument is to some degree summed up in her use of the expression ‘magic bullet’. The hope that the present education system is going to change rapidly and significantly is, indeed, hoping for magic. It isn’t going to happen, so where does that leave her argument?
The ‘paradigm shift’ she requires for her post-modernist hopes to be realised isn’t going to happen because our education system doesn’t do paradigm shifts. Parental attitudes and, for that matter, student attitudes, won’t accept a paradigm shift away from the present system. Neither are teachers ready for anything approaching a paradigm shift, many have wonderful qualities, but being part of developing new forms of knowledge is often not one of them. Education is also more than about the development of knowledge; it is also about those with significant power in society being very cautious about changes that might diffuse that power. In other words, meta-narratives still pertain.
There are, however, a number of things I warm to in Jane Gilbert’s argument – I also would like knowledge to be developed in deeper and more exciting ways; and the new technology to be shifted from its present trivial level of use to deeper and more exciting purposes.
I think I have made it clear that I disagree with Jane Gilbert at various levels: ‘performativity’ as the sole criterion for deciding the worth of knowledge, is under-developed (intentionally), and self-serving to the powerful; I disagree with the associated idea that truth is so relativistic as to be fleeting – I believe that the truth-establishing ideas common to all societies (tribal to complex) are fundamentally useful and important; I accept the importance of ‘connectivity’ in developing knowledge, but I have fundamental concerns with technology being seen so dominantly as the means for developing that knowledge.
A paradox arises from Jane Gilbert wanting a paradigm shift in education: neo-liberalism, the associate philosophy of post-modernism, works against her hopes by the way it has entrenched a number of values and institutions that are impeding, and will continue to impede, such a shift, – for instance, the emphasis on management over curriculum, and the education review office over adventure. Could I suggest to Jane Gilbert that she break her intellectual partnership with Jean-Francois and settle for a looser arrangement? It might do wonders for her academic life. She needs to recognise that both post-modernism and neo-liberalism (you can’t have one without the other) are unhelpful to her education aspirations.
My concerns with technology being seen as the dominant way to develop knowledge have a number of bases. We should recognise that we are talking about knowledge and the new technology in the context of education for children, we are not talking about it for, say, university research or the work-force; that means we should continually remind ourselves about the purposes of education for children, purposes such as liberating and humanising children, and preparing them for living – living in its widest sense, and using those as a measure for when and how to use any new technology. In my view, it is important that we don’t mistake children for mini-adults. It might seem like siege mentality, but I think education for children, especially at the primary level, should give them a chance to contemplate the daisies, and to express, in various ways, the significance of daisies to the meaning of life. On looking back, primary school might seem like the end of the golden weather, but such golden reflections might serve to be wonderfully sustaining.
Did you hear about the dog and barking? But the dog didn’t bark. I know. And Jane Gilbert was very remiss in not discussing the possible ethical and moral implications of the new technology, even if only to dismiss concerns about those implications. My view is that knowledge should be gained, developed and expressed in a range of ways that can include, for instance, dance, contemplating works of art, poetry, drama, and clay. Not only does this broaden and humanise knowledge, it helps to avoid some of the ethical and moral dangers of the new technology relating to surveillance and control, packaged learning, propaganda, and depersonalisation.
Jane Gilbert’s argument for the new technology rests largely on the establishment of what she calls her vision for a post-industrial education. As I have indicated, the likelihood of this vision being established in the hotly contested arena of education is nil. However, whether it is or isn’t, makes little difference to my concerns – the ethical, moral and pedagogical effects of the new technology, and post-modernism, remain whatever the education context. For Plan B, Jane Gilbert needs to detach herself from post-modernism, set more humanistic goals, and put forward her vision for education that has a much wider view of how knowledge can be gained, developed, and expressed. Much more prosaic than her present stance; not the stuff of visionary presentations and writings – but what our children and their teachers need.
There follows a diagrammatic and goal-setting outline of my alternative to Jane Gilbert’s vision. It is not one I have put forward before, so I present it tentatively. Opening statements about achieving a balanced education are followed by concentric layers expressing various kinds of ethical, humanising goals. While there is no curricular reason why something like this could not be put into place (given the open nature of the ’07 curriculum), there are a lot other pressures, particularly intangible ones, resulting from the prevailing effects of bureaucratic mind games (Foucault’s meta-narrative provides the best explanation).
… School is seeking a balanced education for the children who are its responsibility – the balances it will strive for are:
A balance between preparation for employment and the basics, and preparation for life in general and life-long learning
A balance between knowledge gained from direct experience, and knowledge gained from secondary sources
A balance between knowledge gained from aesthetic experience, and knowledge gained from academic experience
A balance between knowledge gained by interacting with people, and knowledge gained from technology
The following could be the goals set out in concentric layers with the children at the centre:
The first ring of goals could be about the values the school is to be based on (for instance, be fair, be honest, act co-operatively, act independently, persevere, appreciate individual and cultural difference, accept responsibility for actions ); and the virtues that spring from these (for instance, love, hope, tolerance, courage, commitment to and respect for others)
The next ring could be about how knowledge will be gained and used, and the way the affective is part of this
The next ring could be examples of sources for knowledge (for instance, films, books, poetry, plays, dramatic movement, visual arts, music, dance, direct observation, computers, transactional and expressive writing, physical activity, mathematical, science and social patterns in the world they observe, patterns in history, physical movement and healthy living)
The final ring could be about the desired learning characteristics (for instance, curiosity, originality, humility, openness, inquiring mind, critical frame of mind, willingness to listen and learn from others)
Yes – the choice of concentric rings as a shape has the defensive connotations of a laager – that is intentional as I believe children need cosseting. They have an immense capacity to learn, but they are not little adults: I do not want them to be educated for the work-force as a primary focus (influences for that happen without making it an issue); I do not want them to be educated in directions determined by technology; I do not want them to be educated for the 21st century; I want them to be educated for how they are now (which also happens to be the best way to educate them for the 21st century).
Jane Gilbert’s vision for a post-industrial education and the development of a high level of technological, interactive thinking will not predominate – it will not predominate because there is no likelihood of a paradigm shift in education. On the pathway we are following, what is likely to predominate is low level use of new technology; considerable use of pre-packaged learning; the imposition of strong control and surveillance measures over teachers and children; and a decided move away from the affective, the aesthetic, and the expressive. The outcome will be conformist citizens for the neo-liberal economy and political structures, and an increase in social alienation.
For those wanting a different future, Jane Gilbert inadvertently pointed to a pathway to achieve this. Toward the end of her presentation she said her vision was the 21st century equivalent of Beeby’s vision for the latter half of the 20th. She got near to the truth without realising it. Beeby’s vision is a timeless vision; her vision is a flawed and vulnerable – Beeby’s vision is the vision for the 21st century as it was for the 20th. But it will have to be fought for in the 21st century, just as it had to be in the 20th.
In a recent posting I constructed a seven-part posting ‘Teacher Diary’ from events in Elwyn Richardson’s 1960’s book, ‘In the Early World’, but disguised the origins. When readers had finished those postings, I invited them to find out more about the teacher concerned by clicking to a letter I had written. The letter said that the purpose of ‘Teacher Diary’ was to show that teaching in its fundamentals, has hardly changed, nor was it likely to change. If the Elwyn Richardson of that time, I said, was available in this time he would be considered just as wonderful a teacher – a sensation. I pointed out that the four key characteristics of Richardson’s teaching were his attentiveness and sensitivity to the responses of the children; his demand for children to be rigorous in their observations, thinking, and expression; the way he linked thinking with imagination; and his determination to work things out for himself – teaching as a personal journey. And I concluded, fingers crossed, that ‘As society becomes more technocratic, pressured, and impersonal; and computers less beguiling – there could be greater demand for teaching that is about creativity and expression.’ I hasten to acknowledge that the new technology can contribute powerfully to this kind of teaching, but that will require us to have a firm grasp of the nature of the curriculum and humanising goals for education; and it will require the technology futurists to be more respectful to classroom teachers and their curriculum achievements and heritage, and to promote the new technology to serve, not control, the curriculum and those humanising goals.
When, at the end of the film, one of the hangers-on laments the loss of all that treasure following the disintegration of the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Indiana Jones says with deep significance: ‘Knowledge is the treasure’. On that point, I am at one with Jane Gilbert. Let us be grateful she brings knowledge to the forefront of the education discussion, but let us widen the view of what knowledge is, how it can be developed, and the purposes for which it can be used. In the exchange across the battle lines over these matters we need to make clear that we see knowledge and the affective as part of the same; knowledge as part of process as well as the purpose of process; knowledge being generated from many sources and presented in many ways; and, teachers knowing curriculum areas as a prerequisite for successfully using techniques like integration, and tools like computers. Education should not be shaped to suit the characteristics of computers; quite the reverse, computer functions should be shaped to suit the interests of humanising and life-enriching goals of education.