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Education, Training and Idle Wheels (A Eulogy to Education)

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

By Adrian Brockless

The idea that education is answerable to the jobs market, economy and business is now more pervasive than ever; in educational settings, subjects habitually advertise themselves in terms of the instrumental benefits relating to employment, the economy and business. It is for these reasons that it is believed (by our current government, Ofsted and many in school and university senior management structures) that educational settings should be run with a business ethic, in spite of the lip service given to the thought that education should be for education’s sake. This is not something new – Plato recognised a version of the same thought in his dialogue Gorgias when the character Callicles said:

A little philosophy is an excellent thing; too much is the ruin of a man…Philosophy is graceful in youth and should be cultivated as a part of education; but when a grown-up man studies philosophy, I should like to beat him. None of those over-refined natures ever come to any good; they avoid the busy haunts of men, and skulk in corners, whispering to a few admiring youths, and never giving utterance to any noble sentiments.” (Plato. Gorgias. 485)

Callicles’s point is that philosophy is worthy of study only insofar as it can assist in attaining prestige and the admiration of one’s peers; take study of it beyond that and it will result in your ruin. For Callicles, the value of academic study lies not in truth, but rather, in the instrumental benefits such study may have.

Today, many profess such a conception of what they tend to call “education for its own sake”, but far fewer believe it in their hearts so to speak – in part at least, because they have little understanding of what they mean by it. The prevalence of what can be termed “low grade educational speak” – a kind of thoughtless and idle jargon that, more often than not, trades rhetorically on innovation, but in reality describes teaching practices which have been understood as good or bad by teachers for years – shows this to be the case. Where a form of language exists, so does a form of life that provides the basis and criteria for its application. In this case, it is the language of business and pseudo-science adapted for education.

Alarming examples of this include, “liquid bananas” (the practice of putting student names on the board with smiley or sad faces adjacent to them according to whether the classroom behaviour of individual students has been praiseworthy or not), “sticky praise” (providing feedback to students of which they take notice (who would have thought?)), “cold-calling” (picking out specific students to answers questions), “SMART targets” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), “Think, Pair, Share” (giving students the opportunity to discuss problems and share ideas), “Dual Coding” (combining pictures and words to help students learn), alongside many more. Sometimes a form of pseudo-science is embraced, which gives rise to rhetoric that echoes the language of science rather than business – but it is, nonetheless, spurious. A current example of this is Cognitive Load Theory – not a theory at all, but something that provides a misleading picture of human nature and, accordingly, of what it means to be educated.

The difficulty with the language of “liquid bananas” and “sticky praise”, alongside pseudo-scientific jargon, is not the practices with which they are associated (which can be useful) but, rather, the blindness to the nature of education that they express. The language through which we show what it means to be a teacher expresses how we think about and, as such, conceive of education; it expresses a form of thought. None of the low-grade education speak identified above tells us anything additional about good teaching practice. Similarly, Cognitive Load Theory assumes the human intellect is based on an information processing model of the mind answerable to four basic categories: sensory, memory, working memory and long term memory. Information passes from one’s sensory memory to the working memory where it is processed or discarded etc.. This is then stored in ‘knowledge structures’ or ‘schemas’ that comprise long term memory and so on.

And yet, what is known is not storable in brains, but only in books, notebooks, photographs and computers; retention of knowledge (knowing) is not storage because knowing is ability-like, and abilities are not storable. And knowledge, i.e. what is known, is indeed storable, but not in brains. There is much more to be said here about misleading models of the human mind which lead to the development of idle wheels such as Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) – I recommend Peter Hacker’s excellent books Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience and History of Cognitive Neuroscience alongside chapters 4 and 9 of The Intellectual Powers: a Study of Human Nature by the same author. Hacker holds a professorship at the Institute of Neurology at University College, London. However, my mention of CLT here only extends to the role it plays in nurturing the impoverished conception of education in teaching that I am discussing.

No one should question the validity of pedagogical experimentation and establishing (for instance) what amounts to an overload in information in a particular context; justification for such experimentation is obvious, but one does not need a theory of any kind for it. Cognitive Load Theory is an idle wheel, and a theory that is an idle wheel is no theory at all. Indeed, theories are hypotheses which are developed in relation to things that are not yet known and that, generally speaking, are judged on their predicative and explanatory success; cognitive load theory is neither of these things but it is for complex reasons associated with both quantification and esteem, that it has gained notice.

Why might I object to a conception of education expressed through this language and misleading pictures of the human mind?

A form of thought which substitutes the language of education with that of training and business betrays itself as deadened to the differences between them (even if there is a rhetorical claim that study for its own sake is a good thing for rhetorical purposes). Nowhere is this more apparent than in relation to the idea of colleges and universities as ivory towers. The distinction between education and training is, in its essence, straightforward, but because it has been ignored for so long, much of what follows will be a discussion that attempts to enliven it again by making it intelligible.

The concept of an ivory tower is now largely outdated and, where it still exists, is largely derided by businesses, politicians, universities, schools, teachers and parents. This kind of dysfunctional relationship between business, education and ivory towers is not accidental. An ivory tower concerns itself with education and, as such, the pursuit and love of truth; training and business are largely concerned with instrumental benefits of one kind or another. Due to their focus on quantifiable ends, business and training tend to encourage a prescriptive idea of what counts as good and bad thinking. Indeed, good and bad thinking – what counts as such – is answerable to and determined by the ends that are intended to be the results of such training. By contrast, an ivory tower does not encourage prescriptive thought – indeed, it is an obligation that it does not do so within an educational context.

The language of strategies, acronyms and slogans, alongside that of customer and service provider, is the language of business because, among other things, it is the language of value for money and economic welfare. It is, as such, also the language of quantifiable ends and success criteria that are extraneous to the nature of academic disciplines themselves; in other words, it is the language of instrumental benefits. This has inevitably also become the language of educational settings, as political pressure – alongside a lack of understanding of the distinction between education and training within bodies such as Ofsted, and thoughtlessness inside academic institutions themselves – has led to the loss of a conception of education that is anything more than a species of training.

In response to complaints that academics have made about the degradation of education and the sense of alienation that it has fostered within them, many educationalists and business leaders have said that it is important to get the balance right in teaching between the world of business and its importance to economies and standards of living, and single minded pursuits of disciplines driven by nothing more than a love of them. Yet this kind of thought is both persuasive and misleading, because there are no value-neutral ways of determining what goes on to the scales or how much it weighs. Indeed, what does weighing even mean in such cases? But, of course, the rhetorical force of the metaphor of the balance is substantial, because it lends an air of objectivity to any proposal being considered.

Business leaders, managers of educational settings and politicians who invoke such metaphors are inevitably trying to assuage concerns raised by teachers and academics by suggesting that a certain amount of emphasis in education needs to be focused on, for example, the economy and employment. And, indeed, they may follow that up with arguments about the need for accountability; after all, parents and students need to be reassured about the quality of education. Of course, quality assurance is vital in educational settings, as is the need of education for economic welfare, decemt standards of living and more general good societal function. But the irony is that a trained society as opposed to an educated one will find it more difficult or, perhaps, fail entirely to rise to the demands of an ever increasing number of unpredictable external pressures. These pressures, often applied by other countries (some with hostile intent; others merely acting competitively), may not always take the form of what we expect or are used to, and our responses to them will inevitably determine our own future national success. Surely it is far better if we are able to respond in ways that are not, in one way or another, compromised by an inability to deal with not knowing where we are going to end up? And this requires an education system that teaches and guides towards a love of truth, not one judged by criteria which are always extraneous to the subjects studied in educational settings.

The success of business-speak in educational settings is now almost complete meaning that there are almost no practices that continue to nourish a conception of education than anything more than a species of training. Students and, now, almost all teachers and educational managers learn and are taught to use it; they become fluent in it and it grows to be the only language through which they can express what it means to be a student or teacher. Few now remain who understand education in anything other than such terms.

But what, exactly, has been lost?

When I teach, I do not set the standards under which students, aspiring to rise to the highest standards within their subject, should perceive what they do, nor does the college, or Ofsted or, indeed, the government, exam boards or universities. Rather, when I teach, I try to rise to the standards set by the great figures in (my case) philosophy such as Plato, Kant and Wittgenstein because they (along with many others) set the standards in my discipline and I want my students to do the same. More often than not, I fail.

However, a far worse failure is to judge one’s teaching by standards that are extraneous to the discipline itself – standards that inevitably demand that teachers quantify what they do. The language of business adapted for education revolves around families of concepts centred on transferable skills, learning outcomes and so on. In terms of pedagogy itself, we now encounter these concepts in the guise of “walkthrus” under which are subsumed others such as “cold calling”, “big picture, small picture” “dual coding” and those mentioned above.

In all of these cases, the assumption exists that one can understand the requirements of good teaching irrespective of the subject being taught (or whether one knows anything about that subject at all). But much more important than that assumption is the way such practices are expressed in business or low-grade education speak – such expressions betray an impoverished conception of education, not only through the limited family of concepts allowed in the world of instrumental value, but also deliberate misspellings; I am referring in particular to “walkthrus” – one of the more recent expressions that is making its way into official strategies developed by schools and colleges. Of course, like those which preceded it, it allows for quantification of teaching and, as such, a way of measuring success. But, of course, that is not success in terms of showing how one is trying to rise to the standards set by the greatest figures in one’s discipline. Indeed, the misspelling itself shows the condescension to the kind of conception of education that I am trying to make explicit; the thought that education should be about instilling fundamental standards (for example, correct spelling) seems foreign to educationalists. If that thought seems precious, then I would suggest that this is symptomatic of an impoverished conception of education. It is this kind of ethical commitment to an instrumental conception of education that makes redundant the idea that education is primarily about a love of truth and communities of scholars within a school, college or university.

In today’s climate, in order to meet the demands of accountability (as they have been set by governments, Ofsted and senior management structures), teachers and academics cut their subjects to fit (often on pain of losing their jobs). And the practice of teaching itself becomes answerable to the same kind of thing – this is expressed through the answerability that teachers now have to the various strategies trending at any given time.

Nevertheless, teachers and management structures still talk about studying subjects for their own sake, all the while suggesting that this is a good thing, but also simultaneously making clear that it is important for a balance to be struck between this and the needs of society. For them, the concept of ‘for its own sake’ is sufficiently nebulous to be of little practical consequence – but it is a good marketing tool! Such nebulosity exists because it can only mean something concrete in contexts that no longer live for us. With only a few exceptions, the language of education expressed through phrases such as a love of truth or the requirement that we be true in love, is redundant; at best, such language seems precious.

With such redundancy now more or less complete, it is easy to see how our contemporary instrumental conception of education nourishes the idea that students are customers and their teachers and college, service providers.

To many, what I have said about education and a love of truth will just not be practical in the modern world. But it is important to understand that whatever “balance” is arrived at will, itself, be an expression of the culture of the times – it will be something already acceptable within our culture as it currently exists. Exemplifying a love of truth in one’s teaching is not such an expression; it is not something that would carry much weight if suggested in a CPD session, for example. Understanding that “getting the balance right” is merely a metaphor with a degree of rhetorical force however, also requires that we understand the relationship between what is practical and what matters. It is not an uncommon phenomenon for parents to try to dissuade their offspring from pursuing a particular educational choice with remarks such as, “What are you going to do with that?” or “Choose something else, this subject is just not practical!”

These remarks come from the best of places – usually they are born from a concern about their offspring’s later financial security and stability. In the end however, one cannot argue from what is practical to what matters; things are, in fact, the other way round. What matters determines what is practical. If what I want to do is pursue a career in the banking sector, then choosing economics rather than drama would be a prudent decision; however, if I want to develop my own theatre company then drama would be the more practical choice. I might want to be a poet or a car mechanic – again, in each case, what is practical for me in terms of the courses I take at college is determined by what matters to me. Like the metaphor of “getting the balance right”, arguing that a choice of subject “is just not practical” is, more often than not, a rhetorical device used to express disapproval of a student’s choice of study. The same is true in relation to those who argue that the kind of conception of education that I am articulating is just not practical in the modern age; what is practical to them is determined by what matters to them.

It is nonetheless important to realise that different choices of study do not amount to the difference between education and training. Both vocational and academic subjects have instrumental benefits and this, in part at least, is what has led to the conflation of the concepts of education and training; but whereas vocational courses are directed towards specifiable ends, courses with an academic heritage need not be.

A life dedicated to study of astrophysics, geology or philosophy, for instance, is a life of absorption in those things – what some mistakenly label as “study for its own sake.” This label makes it sound as if such study has positive value in itself and that that is why one should study it. In other words, that such study is still being done for some instrumental benefit even if it is only for the sake of oneself. But it is only in a context in which someone is absorbed in a discipline for no other reason than that they love it that “study for its own sake” will not mislead towards thinking in terms of instrumental benefits. An analogy may help here.

A parent plays with their child not because they do it either for reasons of instrumental benefit or because the parent feels the need to fulfil certain duties as a parent or, indeed, that they do it “for its own sake” because playing with your children has positive value in itself. All of these things are possible of course, but none present us with the parent as absorbed in an unqualified sense in what they are doing. The lesser known English philosopher John Leofric Stocks expressed this in his book Morality and Purpose when he pointed out that such activities wholly abandon means-ends relationships. It is in this sense that education (as opposed to training) has indefinite and infinite possibilities, and for those who become absorbed in the subjects they love, no specifiable ends either.

From a pedagogical point of view, we do our students a disservice by reducing everything we do to fit in with learning outcomes, transferable skills, “liquid bananas”, “sticky praise”, “cold-calling”, “SMART targets”, “Think, Pair, Share,” and so on, because it is a requirement of such absorption that one does not know where one is going to end up and this means that not everything can be quantified. A culture in which one can no longer make sense of such an idea – one, sadly, in which we now live – means that no one within formal educational settings is given the opportunity to inherit the kind of education that was available in the past. And, of course, because such absorption is no longer encouraged or even acknowledged as a possibility within teaching in formal settings, far fewer will find this kind of love for themselves, corrupted as they will be early on by thoughts about instrumental benefits and purposes.

From my perspective as a teacher, it has become very difficult to believe in the vocation of teaching – a profession is now the preferred term for it, which, of course, is itself expressive of the kind of erosion of the conception of education I have been trying to articulate. Teachers, nonetheless, uphold excellent professional standards in the face of ever increasing and unmanageable workloads answerable to political and pedagogical trends of the day, and so none of what I have said should be interpreted as suggesting that teachers are any less dedicated than they were in the past or that their integrity or ability is now compromised. My intention here has been to highlight something that has been lost in our understanding of education and, accordingly, lost in terms of how we teach. The loss is too far in the past to be ever reclaimed within formal settings, but something of it, nevertheless, may still be bequeathed to future generations outside of the classroom should the right conditions exist.

A sincere commitment to a discipline beyond any instrumental benefit it may have, must involve truthfulness (sincerity) as well as truth (facts), because facts can be exploited for reasons that are extraneous to studying a discipline for the love of it. Coupled with this conceptual truth about commitment to a discipline, is an observation concerning those who believe in an instrumental conception of education: an instrumental conception of education provides specifiable ends and a form of certainty that a pursuit of truth does not; they provide, if you like, a sense of safety through satisfying the (apparent) psychological need human beings have to quantify. Once such ends have been achieved and quantified, there is no further need to pursue the discipline (apart from any refresher courses required to keep up with the demands of any future instrumental criteria). In relation to operational concerns, if one always has specified quantifiable ends then one always knows where one is going to end up, so to speak; either one achieves such ends or one does not. Within educational settings, knowing where one is going to end up is often expressed in the phrase “learning outcomes” with more and more teachers and university academics being compelled by managers to specify what they are and the transferable skills that can be derived from them.

No one is denying the importance of a healthy economy, striving for a decent standard of living, or the role of education in achieving these things, but to see education as merely an investment for the purpose of certain instrumental benefits immediately makes it answerable to criteria that exist independently of a love of truth.

That, of course, leads to an unexamined life which, as Socrates pointed out, is unworthy of a human being. In genuine education as opposed to training, we have the gift and privilege of being able to pursue truth, to go wherever it takes us and to enrich our lives by so doing. It is an unforgivable neglect of our humanity if we fail, but today that is exactly what we are being trained to do.


Adrian Brockless has taught philosophy at the University of London, The University of Hertfordshire, Sutton Grammar School and Glyn School. He currently teaches at Woking College.

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