The Dehumanisation of Teachers

This feature of the blog is a continuous exchange of correspondence between Graham Birrell and Sam Freedman.  For previous articles in the series, see the Shifted page.

Ford car assembly lineDear Sam

You seem to be wanting to take a rather, if I can borrow a phrase, Apollonian or Dionysian path with your latest piece. To clarify my position on accountability, along with all Head Teachers I’ve ever spoken to, I’m more than happy for schools to be accountable to the children and families that they form a community with. Nevertheless, no doubt there will be pretty clear disagreement between us on how to judge when accountability becomes punishment. I also don’t see forcing schools to become academies and creating a climate where Head Teachers are in fear of their jobs as being particularly ‘collaborative’; furthermore, it’s also not clear that the type of punitive ‘turn-around’ model the government advocate is of long term benefit.

My point, and apologies if I’ve not made this clear enough, is the highly detrimental effect the high accountability and data-driven regime is having on schools and on education. I’ve looked at ways this is happening in my other pieces, but for the rest of this one, I’d like to look at a process that I think is particularly damaging. The process comes from the constant need for schools to show ‘progress’ and for pupils to take a childhood-ignoring upward path to ever greater scores on tests. It comes in three parts:

  1. Fear because schools are scared of what will happen the next time Ofsted come calling (keeping them in perpetual sense of anxiety about when this may be is also a contributing factor). This effect has recently, in my opinion rightly, been labelled as having a toxic effect on schools and education and is having a highly damaging impact upon staff. This constant anxiety then leads to:
  2. Safety First teaching and learning, where the quickest and safest paths to ‘guaranteed outcomes’ are taken. Any teaching that may be deemed as ‘risky’ and with the slightest chance of failure is discouraged or eradicated, when what is valued are lessons with short-sharp doses of easily digestible (and testable) nuggets of knowledge. Teaching becomes dominated not by what is right, but what will be tested. Unfortunately, research suggests this is especially the case in schools with children who are less likely to do well on national tests and thus are even less likely to take risks. A constant diet of highly structured, technocratic, numbers-obsessed teaching then leads to the final part of the process:
  3. Dehumanisation – after all if the process is robotic, then what you need aren’t fallible humans, you need machines. Either you get humans to be more machine-like in their teaching (eg item 2) or you actually replace them with machines full stop. Reducing the role of universities in teacher education and removing the need for QTS are part of this process (after all, teaching’s not that hard is it?), but the bigger story here is the slow, but inexorable rise of Taylorism in education. Modern schooling resembles a production line, because in too many cases it is a production line.

 

As I said in my last post, used wisely, data, especially qualitative data, can drive learning. However, used poorly it is also the oil that drives a scientific management approach. If the system is all about analysing data, the production of that data takes priority, and above all else the data must go up.

So in summary, I’m not saying we should remove accountability and I’m not saying we should remove data. But I do think we need to find ways to lessen the damaging effects that I’ve described, which unfortunately have quite a long history now. I want my children taught in schools with climates of confidence, with teachers who are constantly innovating and who are above all human – I’m sure you do too.

Best wishes,

Graham

 

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6 Responses to The Dehumanisation of Teachers

  1. Phil Wood
    Phil Wood Monday, 8 July 2013 at 12:25 #

    You seem to be covering some of the same ground as a series of blog posts I wrote a while back from a Deleuzean perspective. Really like both your argument and the links to examples. Thanks, a very thought provoking post. http://learning-space.tumblr.com/tagged/Societies-of-control

  2. Graham Birrell
    Graham Birrell Tuesday, 9 July 2013 at 16:50 #

    Thanks Phil. You have made some interesting points in the blogs on the link above and I recommend that people read them.

    I hadn’t come across the term ‘dataveillance’ before, I think this very neatly captures so many of the issues I’m concerned about and have been writing about in my exchanges with Sam. There is a fine line between data between used as a learning tool and data being used as a blunt tool of punishment. Ultimately ‘dataveillance’ is symptomatic of a general malaise that schools currently suffer from – a lack of trust and genuine professional autonomy. It’s vital that these are re-injected back into the educational system.

  3. Hannah Leslie Monday, 20 October 2014 at 20:13 #

    There is an endless cost-benefit analysis here arising between the levels of accountability involved in schools; as you say needing to show ‘progress’ and the urgent drive to produce data on an ongoing basis. This has clearly damaging effects on teaching professionals, not insofar as mentioning the indirect effect on pupils themselves and the wider community at the receiving end.
    Therefore, I couldn’t agree more with your analogy regarding the ‘process’ in which this notion is being advocated.
    Taking the part about ‘anxiety,’ there is a strong emphasis on Ofsted inspections within schools and during my experience of the education system I find myself familiar with the negative impressions that this may leave on teachers, transpiring onto pupils and unfortunately into the wider community. Not only does this provide a negative impression but it is highly likely to offer false hope to those members of the community who are considering on sending their child to what may have once been regarded as a ‘good’ school. However, in saying this, is it coincidental that schools have lost focus on what they are initially there to do? Teach! Or am I right in saying this may be due to the ‘fear’ installed in teachers straight from the word go? This is the most probable answer.
    Your point on Safety First teaching and learning is of particular interest. There are many parallels with schools today almost being forced to cut corners upon being told that Ofsted are visiting within the next few days. Reinforcing the notion of anxiety and fear.
    Running this alongside ‘dehumanisation.’ The concept of ‘Taylorism’ becomes evident and I believe that if we are not careful the education system could evolve into a commercialised business possibly with no human interaction whatsoever, run by machines. Would you like to great-grandchildren to experience that?

  4. Hannah Leslie Monday, 20 October 2014 at 20:29 #

    There is an endless cost-benefit analysis here arising between the levels of accountability involved in schools; as you say needing to show ‘progress’ and the urgent drive to produce data on an ongoing basis. This has clearly damaging effects on teaching professionals, not insofar as mentioning the indirect effect on pupils themselves and the wider community at the receiving end. Therefore, I couldn’t agree more with your analogy regarding the ‘process’ in which this notion is being advocated. Taking the part about ‘anxiety,’ there is a strong emphasis on Ofsted inspections within schools and during my experience of the education system I find myself familiar with the negative impressions that this may leave on teachers, transpiring onto pupils and unfortunately into the wider community. Not only does this provide a negative impression but it is highly likely to offer false hope to those members of the community who are considering on sending their child to what may have once been regarded as a ‘good’ school. However, in saying this, is it coincidental that schools have lost focus on what they are initially there to do? Teach! Or am I right in saying this may be due to the ‘fear’ installed in teachers straight from the word go? This is the most probable answer. Your point on Safety First teaching and learning is of particular interest. There are many parallels with schools today almost being forced to cut corners upon being told that Ofsted are visiting within the next few days. Reinforcing the notion of anxiety and fear. Running this alongside ‘dehumanisation.’ The concept of ‘Taylorism’ becomes evident and I believe that if we are not careful the education system could evolve into a commercialised business possibly with no human interaction whatsoever, run by machines. Would you like our great-grandchildren to experience that?

  5. Graham Birrell
    Graham Birrell Thursday, 23 October 2014 at 10:28 #

    Thanks for your comment Hannah. Interestingly/sadly, there are an increasing number of schools in the USA where large chunks of the curriculum are delivered by kids sitting down at computers and working through exercises – so the rise of the machines in education has already begun.

    I think your point on re-focusing on what schools should do is key. We urgently need to have a national debate on the purpose of school – is it a relentless focus on numerical progress, or is it something bigger?

  6. laki msapa Monday, 18 April 2016 at 14:42 #

    I would say that teaching is transforming indeed, but the problem is the micro-managing of classroom activities from bottom-up. Officials generally want to control everything; they do not have trust in the teachers. They generally believe that the top-down approach is the best way to do things. They forget that the teachers who are in the classroom have the real experiences of the content, of the learners, as well as the surrounding context. I feel that sometimes teachers are ‘dehumanised’, disempowered, and taken for granted.