How useful are generic educational ideas?

The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once made a helpful distinction between a ‘practice’ and an ‘institution’. For MacIntyre, a practice is a social activity that contains its own standards of excellence and traditions, such as football, architecture, farming, physics, chemistry, biology, history, painting and music. An institution, in contrast, is concerned with ‘external’ goods such as money, power and status. As MacIntyre put it, ‘chess, physics and medicine are practices: chess clubs, laboratories, universities and hospitals are institutions (After Virtue, 2011; p.226) There is a complex relationship between practices and institutions. Practices need institutions in order to survive, but this is always a strained relationship, as the goods of the institution (money, status, etc.) can all too easily infringe on the goods of the practice (excellence in football, or physics). 

It is not difficult to see how this relationship plays out in schools. Schools are institutions which exist to make it possible to teach people specific practices. Schools as institutions need resources, and financing this comes from a source (the government, parents, charities) who want to know that their money is not being squandered. Schools are legal entities who enter into contracts with teachers which requires some stipulation of what a teacher can reasonably be expected to do. Schools have to attract pupils and parents, and this requires marketing and working with a community. And someone – or some people – need to take responsibility for making sure that these institution-wide necessities happen. We call these people school leaders. Without these things, it would not be possible for the subjects taught in schools to survive. 

This is then not an attempt to suggest that school leaders, or inspectors, or HR departments, are unnecessary: to the contrary, they are vital parts of the institutional machinery that sustain the practices being taught in schools. The problems begin to emerge when, for the convenience of institutional leaders, the subjects existing in the school are treated as more or less the same kind of thing. If an inspectorate can afford to send only three inspectors to a school, then ideally those inspectors want to inspect the things that are common across the subjects being taught: maths, English, geography, music, PE and so on. If leaders want to invest resources to improve the overall quality of the education on offer in a school, then, in order to get the most ‘bang for their buck’, they might invest those resources (money, time, staff capacity) in things that apply across all of the subjects in the school.  

You might argue that the differences between the things being taught and the people to whom those things are being taught are not so great. For starters, the ‘to whom’ bit is straightforward: in most cases you are teaching novices who have not yet had much experience in the thing you are teaching them. In most cases, you will be teaching a complex practice, such as mathematics or music that will take many, many hours of study to master. There are things that all teachers of all subjects have in common: perhaps it is something to do with how we assess what a group of novices have learnt, or how we explain a new concept to that group. I am not for a moment suggesting that there are not commonalities to be found, and this is why teachers of one subject can sometimes learn something about how to teach their subject from teachers of a different subject.  

Imagine though for a moment that we were to write a list of a few thousand things that a decent maths teacher needs to know and be able to do. And then let’s do the same for an art teacher. There will be a number of things that appear on both lists, possibly hundreds of things, but there will be many things that are distinct to each subject. For a leader or inspector, the things that both subjects have in common are ‘low-hanging fruit’: as these things are held in common across the different subjects being taught, one can see why one might choose to focus on these things, perhaps as part of a training programme or evaluation strategy. In a world of limited time and money, leaders might thus decide to focus on the things that are likely to benefit the greatest number of people in their school. 

But there are several potentially damaging assumptions that a leader, an inspector, a teacher educator, a government minister and so on might make:

  • the things the subjects have in common are the most important things
  • the things the subjects have in common are equally important to each respective practice
  • the things the subjects have in common mean the same thing to each respective practice
  • emphasising the things the subjects have in common will not be to the detriment of the things the subjects do not have in common.

I would argue that the more likely that an idea might be relevant to all the subjects, the less likely that the idea might be useful to any individual subject. This is a deeply uncomfortable paradox for anyone who transcends the subject-level in education to hear, whether they be school leaders, teacher educators, inspectors, CPD providers or publishers. But it does explain why those people might find that their actions are not having the kind of impact they want them to have. 

If we follow MacIntyre’s logic, then improvements need to come from within, for all new ideas need to be understood within the context of the particular practice at hand (maths, football, chess, etc.). At heart, this is an argument for ongoing curriculum and teacher development: change needs to be made at the level of the practice in the light of the standards of excellence unique to that practice. If changes are just institutional changes, then the only reason they get done is because people are worried about things like status and money. 

This is why the locus of educational improvement in a school will nearly always be the subject team rather than the senior leadership team. I wrote recently about a time when I experienced this working well. Part of my diagnosis for where England’s educational revolution is faltering comes down to the fact that I think institutional concerns have made it much more difficult for such departments to exist. I shall return to this in my next blog post. 

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