Rethinking Education

Adam Unwin, co-Editor of this Journal, has recently published a book with John Yandell, Programme Leader for the Secondary English PGCE at the UCL Institute of Education, London University.  Here, he provides an introduction to the ideas explored in Rethinking Education, one of the No-Nonsense Guides.  

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 09.55.38Education is a huge and contested field – a field in which everyone has first-hand experience and a wealth of opinions, often largely based on those experiences. Being human involves learning – learning about the world in which we live, learning about ourselves and other people, learning how to survive and thrive. And most readers of this article will have had some experience of formal education: in some shape or form, we expect that you will have ‘done school’, and you may even feel that the time you spent in school has shaped who you are. People talk about what helped them to learn, and what hindered them, what subjects they found interesting or boring, which teachers they liked or disliked, and why. People come with ideas and beliefs about education in general and schooling in particular, and these beliefs are often so deeply ingrained, so personal, that it can be hard to scrutinize or challenge them: they appear as plain common sense.

In Rethinking Education, our main focus is on schools and schooling. This is because we have chosen to focus on the phases of formal education that most people (globally) are likely to experience.

Pupils drawings[856]We recognise that these experiences will be very different. A high school in an affluent urban area of Canada will be very different from a rural school in Nicaragua – different in the number of pupils, in the diversity of its intake, in the size of its classes, in the resources available. Differences in schooling reflect and reproduce differences in the societies that the schools serve. These differences are material as well as cultural. There is thus not a single model of schooling across the globe, or even within a single locality. And there are seldom simple, universally applicable solutions to educational problems. Even small schools are complicated and busy places – places in which multiple interests collide.

Our objective was to write a book which will create a debate, in which readers will be able engage fully – and critically – around education. What is the purpose or function of schools? Whose interests do they serve? How are resources allocated? Is education a route to empowerment and liberation, or is it a means of control? Are schools engines of social mobility or social justice, or merely tools that reproduce the inequalities of existing social and economic structures? Are schools beacons of hope, or prison-houses of the mind? What is the relationship between the formal education that is accomplished through schooling and the learning that happens in homes, communities and workplaces?

Much public discourse treats the goals and meanings of education as entirely unproblematic. But does everyone really agree on what a good school looks like? Or on how teachers and schools should be held accountable to the wider society? Is equality in education simply a matter of school places, or of fair and equal access to the same knowledge, the same curriculum, the same qualifications? Our aim in writing this book is to open up these questions about education – and to enable you to scrutinize and contest the easy claims that are often made by politicians and policymakers.

Pupil writing[1144]We should say something about our own position. We are both teachers and teacher educators who have spent almost all our working lives in the UK. Our attitudes to education are shaped by the specific contexts in which we have worked and lived, as well as by our ethical and political values, our commitment to social justice. In this book, we are looking at schooling across the world. Education is seen, quite rightly, as a key issue in the Global South. But what type of education? By selling a model of education that is easily deliverable and appears modern (through its use of new technologies) corporate edu-business stands to make huge profits. But there are questions to be asked about how suitable the curriculum is, and about the approaches to learning that are encouraged. Is this a means of liberation, both personal and societal, or a form of educational imperialism?

We are very suspicious of approaches to education that are insufficiently attentive to difference, to local experiences, perspectives and voices. So, being explicit about our own standpoint is important. Most of the specific examples that we cite in this book relate most directly to schools in Anglophone contexts. This doesn’t mean that our argument is relevant only to such schools, but there are significant differences in how schooling is done in different cultures and societies.1

It is worth noting that what we mean by an Anglophone context is itself not straightforward. In our increasingly interconnected world, English has become the global language. It is estimated that more than 60 per cent of students in non-English-speaking countries study English as a foreign language. In China, English is taught in every school: there are about 350 million students learning English and more teachers of English in China than in the United States. China will thus soon have the largest English-speaking population in the world.2

These developments in China are a relatively recent response to changing economic conditions and goals. To understand more about the reasons for the place of English now, in relation to education as well as to the global economy, we need to adopt a historical perspective. Here, as elsewhere in the book, we are suggesting that past debates and decisions can illuminate present circumstances – even if this sometimes means nothing more than understanding how we ended up in the mess we’re in.

Adam Unwin and John Yandell

Rethinking Education can be purchased here.

1 Robin Alexander, Culture and Pedagogy Blackwell, Malden & Oxford, 2000.

2 Qing Liu et al, ‘Native-English Speaking Instructors Teaching Writing in China’, Changing English, 22(1), 2015. 13 12

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