The Dishonourable Lie

How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing.  This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties.  This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning. 

As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be.  So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.

The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN.  Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers.  Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.

Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity. 

There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!

The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’!  This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years.  Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.  This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.

Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever.  However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed.  This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence.  More success with more effort, sounds familiar!

Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies.  In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach.  To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!

The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field.  How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy!  Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field.  The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm.  Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school!  Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.

The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success.  Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests.  A few points:

  • NAPLAN is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test.  This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
  • The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools.  This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population.  Hardly a significant sample!

The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding.  I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.

However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’!  If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed!  If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.

And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying!  Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life!  The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!

Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage.  Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn.  So far – no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.

The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception.  A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements.  Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate.  At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking.  The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves.  In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’.  In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.

Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self – but how?  The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher.  This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do.  As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!

Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents.  We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment.  It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other.  Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently.  You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background. 

In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life.  This what good teachers do!

John Frew

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *