Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Layer 500 . . . Education, Learning, Exams, Creativity, Money, Government, Civilisation, Protestors, Freedom and The Markets

"I didn't feel Oxford was teaching me how to learn - it was just teaching me a bit of German."

So said Sir Peter Moores on One To One (Radio 4) this morning.

He gave up university. ("A pretty cool thing to do," said the presenter, Lucy Kellaway - who has been asking questions about what having a great deal of money does TO people, rather than FOR them.)

"Instead I enjoyed going round the continent in a little car for two or three years."

He also learned to speak German by hanging out in Vienna and Germany.

Through the Peter Moores Foundation he now gives away money in order "to get nice things to happen." "You put money where it's going to be useful."

He's a great supporter of the arts, artists, performers and creativity.






Learning, Schools and Exams

Sometimes you come across a piece of writing that's so perfect you want to pass it on in its entirety. Mehdi Hasan is one of our most important progressive thinkers and writers, and in this one article he manages to sum up quite brilliantly everything Oxzen has been banging on about regarding education and learning throughout the course of the past 499 blogs. In this one piece he hits the nail right on the head as to why this country (ie England) should be ashamed of the changes that have taken place in education during the past three decades, whilst countries like Finland have been evolving educational philosophies and systems that are genuinely fit for purpose in the 21st century.
Our schools exam system is no longer fit for purpose
English pupils are the most tested in the industrialised world. The countries with the best education don't subject their kids to this misery

by Mehdi Hasan

It was a sorry sight. On Thursday, the heads of England's four exam boards, as well as three of their examiners, filed into the Thatcher Room of Portcullis House to be quizzed by MPs on the education select committee. The examiners had been secretly filmed by the Daily Telegraph offering teachers advice on how to boost their exam results – from telling them which topics their pupils could expect to be tested on, to advising them on how to "hammer exam technique" – and subsequently suspended by their boards.

However, in the midst of their litany of excuses ("We all make mistakes," whined one examiner; "It was a throwaway figure of speech," wailed another), some revealing remarks were made. Mark Dawe, chief executive of exam board OCR, told MPs there is "an enormous amount of pressure on the system". Suspended examiner Paul Barnes admitted there are "pressures to raise achievements", and that it is a "competitive world".

They have a point. The corruption of the testing regime is only a symptom. The disease is the tyranny of testing itself; a culture of relentless exams, spurious league tables and artificial competition between schools. Our exam system isn't fit for purpose.

English children are now the most tested children in the industrialised world (thanks to devolution, their Scottish and Welsh cousins do not suffer the same burden of examination); the average pupil will be subjected to at least 70 tests during his or her school career.

This preoccupation with testing is bad for schools, teachers and pupils. For schools, the costs have ballooned: spending on exam fees nearly doubled, to over £300m, between 2002 and 2010. Astonishingly, exams now account for the second biggest cost to schools after teachers' pay.

For teachers, it is deeply demoralising and demotivating to have to "teach to the test", as so many of them are forced to do. For many, teaching has become dull, narrow and uninspiring. There is no reward for creativity, only results, results, results.

For pupils, high-stakes tests are a well-documented source of stress and anxiety. According to children's charities, this can physically manifest itself as sleep-loss, bed-wetting or skin disorders.

Critics of the current system abound, and include the education select committee, the Children's Society, the Royal Society and various academics. In 2009, for example, a Cambridge University review of primary education described national testing as "the elephant in the curriculum" and noted that in the final year of primary school "breadth competes with the much narrower scope of what is to be tested".

In his book Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing, Warwick Mansell explains how a strategy of "pursuing results almost as ends in themselves has been forced on schools, in their desperation to fulfil the requirements of hyper-accountability". But, he writes, "this grades race is ultimately self-defeating. It does not guarantee better educated pupils, just better statistics for schools and the government." He documents how primary school pupils spend an average of 150 hours purely in preparation for the Sats tests: "England's education system is now an exams system," he says.

Mansell's book should be required reading for the test-obsessed education secretary, Michael Gove, and his Labour shadow, Stephen Twigg. Politically motivated meddling in the examination system, by both Conservatives and Labour, has done little to boost school standards or pupil performance. Over the past decade, according to the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) global survey of 15-year-olds, Britain has slipped from fourth to 16th in science, seventh to 25th in literacy, and eighth to 28th in maths.

The OECD's Economic Survey 2011 points out how, in spite of school spending per pupil rising sharply over the past decade, improvements in educational outcomes have been limited, bolstered only by grade inflation. The OECD notes that "high-stake tests" have proliferated in England, and yet these can often "produce perverse incentives" and "lead to negligence of non-cognitive skill formation".

So what if we took a radically different approach? What if we scrapped all the endless exams, abolished the headline-grabbing school league tables, and freed our teachers to teach kids how to think instead of how to take a test?

Would our schools get better or worse? Finland provides a clue. The country has topped the various Pisa rankings over the last 10 years. But Finland has no league tables, no school inspections, no pupil-by-pupil tests. In fact, the first national test a Finnish child sits is when he or she is about to leave school, at 18. The government does carry out regular assessments of school performance, by testing representative samples of students, but these are only for internal use and the results aren't published.

The Finns prefer to empower their teachers, who tend to be better-qualified and better-paid than our own. But it's not just sandal-wearing Scandinavians. Take Japan. A recent report for the Japanese ministry of education said the country should "avoid school ranking and unhealthy competition". And in Shanghai, China, as Mansell points out, school-by-school exam results tends not to be published – yet this didn't stop Shanghai from taking the top spot in last year's Pisa rankings.

Here in the UK, though, we have fetishised exams and deified league tables; we have prioritised test results – statistics, numbers, scores – over the hearts and, crucially, minds of our children.

And to what purpose? Exams are means, not ends; they do not, of themselves, raise standards or produce better-educated children. Nor do they truly measure the qualities necessary for a well-rounded education – from independent reasoning to creative thinking. Instead, in the words of the US educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli, we have created a new version of the Three Rs: "ram, remember, regurgitate".

For far too long, the debate over exams in this country has revolved around "dumbing down". The issue, however, is not whether exams are easier or harder than they once were but what role they serve. To conflate mere test results with a high-quality education is to do a disservice to our children. The truth is that education by exam isn't an education worthy of the name.


It's also worth quoting extensively from this excellent piece by Jeffrey Sachs, the author of "The Price of Civilisation".
Western politicians are dire, but we mustn't despise government
Our leaderships, in thrall to big business, are failing in so many places all at the same time. But we can't give up on them

The year 2011 will be remembered as the year of failed summits. Governments proved themselves time and again to be failures at addressing the growing crises engulfing the world, whether the eurozone debacle, climate change, or budget politics in the US and Europe.

Why should governance be so poor in so many places at the same time? There are several factors at play. 

In the face of high unemployment, growing inequality and looming budget deficits, most governments are paralysed, in thrall to powerful interests. Wall Street, the City of London, the Frankfurt banks and other corporate lobbies hold politics in their grip, and block effective change. Top income tax rates are kept low; banks remain undercapitalised and under-regulated; and urgently needed public investments for education, job skills and upgraded infrastructure are being slashed in response to budgetary pressures.

The politicians are also in way over their heads. They are typically negotiators and public relations specialists, not experts on the policies needed to resolve the world economy's crises. The special interest groups write the scripts, but these scripts prove impossible to stage. Every European summit in the past two years has not only failed politically, but also technically. The policy prescriptions put forward by Germany's Chancellor Merkel are poorly prepared and designed, and impossible to implement. The euro is being killed not only by politics but also by incompetence.

The actual process of governing has descended to soundbites. In the US the Obama administration has failed to produce a major policy document on any area of key policy concern: the budget, taxation, energy, climate, financial regulation, healthcare or poverty. Policies and legislation are decided in the backrooms dominated by lobbyists and negotiators. Politics is by horse-trading among interest groups – not by reason, expertise and democratic deliberation.

The European Union processes are now equally bizarre. The entire union of 27 countries awaits the word of one member, Germany, whose policy logic in turn reflects a mix of post-traumatic stress, coalition politics, powerful yet crippled banks, and amateur politicians. The European commission seems to play little or no role.

A few countries, notably the northern European social democracies, are keeping their heads above water, at least for now. They are stable because income inequality and poverty are kept low by active government policies. Transfer payments to the poor and the social safety net are robust. Tax collections are ample and budgets are in balance or surplus. Even these countries flirted with financial deregulation in the 1990s, paid a heavy price and then got their banking sectors back under control. Tough financial regulation has served them well during the past decade.

So what can we learn from the few success stories? First, societies function properly only when they are judged by their citizens to be reasonably fair. Northern Europe has built its policies on a framework of equality and inclusion. In the US, the idea of fairness has been almost absent from political vocabulary for three decades. The Occupy Wall Street movement, thankfully, has brought it back to life. Most of Europe is somewhere between the fairness of northern Europe's social democracies and the glaring inequities of the US. Yet in much of western Europe there has been a clear shift away from solidarity, towards harsher policies that shield the rich from their responsibilities to the rest of society.

Second, economic success requires increased public investments in education, infrastructure, energy, job skills and more. Simplistic budget cutting will destroy governments rather than fix them. Higher taxes on top incomes and wealth must be part of any sound fiscal strategy. Yet till today, Washington politicians of both parties have been recklessly and thoughtlessly squandering American prosperity by prioritising tax breaks for the rich.

Third, more expert policymaking is needed. The eurozone crisis, for example, requires urgent attention to Europe's decapitalised banks. Yet German politicians, driven by ideology and local politics, have been fixated on fiscal problems while allowing the banking crisis to fester and worsen. The US crisis is fundamentally about the under-taxation of the rich, yet the policy focus remains on budget cutting. In both Europe and the US, political debates consistently miss the mark by short-changing serious diagnostics and policy design.

Our temptation in the face of rampant government failures is to despise government, and even to cheer its demise. How can we avoid that feeling when we watch politicians preening on the TV screen? Yet we desperately need to make the US and European governments work again – not for the politicians' sake, but for ours. Unless we restore skill, fairness, and vibrancy to our democratic institutions, the unrest on the streets is bound to grow.


Both of the above pieces appeared in last Saturday's Guardian, as did this one by Nina Power:

The meaning of Time magazine's celebration of The Protester
The praise is welcome, but behind Time's sanitised image of the protester lie real people beaten and killed by police and armies
Time magazine's person of the year 2011 isn't a celebrity, an artist, an entrepreneur or a politician. The "person" is the anonymous marker of a global movement: The Protester.
As Time's editor, Rick Stengel, argues, to celebrate the protester is to defend the idea "that individual action can bring collective, colossal change". This collectivity has spread like wildfire in the last year or so – each protest, revolution and occupation triggering new uprisings against state oppression, class inequality and police brutality. "From the Arab spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow" declares the Time cover, with Stengel pointing out "the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history".
But how to represent this collective subject, to give a face to this global anger?

The other serious, radical, progressive thinker and writer I want to feature in this 500th blog is George Monbiot:
This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression
It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and Policy Exchange. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty. It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it's the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'." So, he argued, some people's freedom must sometimes be curtailed "to secure the freedom of others". In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. "If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral." It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people's freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned "freedom" into an instrument of oppression.




The Masters of the Universe

One final serious thought for now. Thanks to the financial crisis, we now fully understand who really decides what goes on on this planet. Or what. "The Markets". Not the United Nations. Not the USA. Not the EU. They all operate in fear of "the markets", and in terror of the markets' Provisional wing - the credit rating agencies. The 1% who control the vast majority of the wealth on this planet also control what individual governments believe they can do in terms of aims and policies. Sensible governments in places like Scandinavia and China make damned sure they protect themselves (and their people) from being too beholden to "the markets". The rest do not. This is the end result of "globalisation", which is just what the Chicago Boys, the Friedmanites and the designers of the Washington Concensus intended it to be. Money rules.

Extreme capitalism/neo-conservatism lies one end of a continuum which should possibly be called the axis of evil, which runs from Washington through Wall Street and the City of London all the way to places like Pyongyang.

Give someone you know and like a copy of Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" for Christmas.
Have a Happy New Year.


Kim Jong-Dead

The Kim is dead. Long live The Kim.

I'm just saying.

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