Exam factory

Commodification and conditioning

Adam Unwin and John Yandell 'Rethinking education: whose knowledge is it anyway?', New Internationalist, 2016, pp143, £7.99

The Easter holidays have just started, and with them, the, um, highlight of the student year: exam/revision season. Or, more appropriately, the season of procrastinating, chocolate bingeing and a whole lot of self-pity.

There could be no better time to read this book, not just because critiques of the education system and feeling as if ‘we’re all in this together’ is sometimes the only thing keeping me on that hamster wheel, particularly during the barrage of fruitless tests pelted at secondary school inmates every year during early summer. Exam season is also the time of year when the problematic aspects of schooling, highlighted by Rethinking education, are the most visible. Just as the sun comes out and it becomes physically possible to leave the house without resembling a human scarf shop, everyone from Ofsted bureaucrats to tiger mums to teachers seems to lose their marbles and come down with a severe case of exam fever - while students themselves get even more fed up with school and with the endless process of assessment and ranking than they already are.

One of the central messages of Rethinking education is that all this exam fever, all this relentless testing and worry about testing, not to mention teaching for the purpose of success in testing, is not necessary. We live in a world where the fundamental nature of learning is being misconceived, to disastrous effect. Learning is seen as passive, context-independent reception of unquestionable facts; as a “process of transmission” (p26) to pupils who are “blank slates or empty containers” (p33), which occurs in “predictable, identifiable and incremental stages” (p105) and depends almost entirely on the individuals involved. Linear assessments are correspondingly seen as an absolute determinant of both teachers’ and students’ intellectual worth and of how much has been learnt, while “every activity [is] regulated and subordinated to the imperative of attaining higher test scores” (p117). The result is that, despite some rhetorical differences and newer technology, the education system looks as individualistic, inorganic and discriminatory as it did a century ago - “the traditional layout of the classroom persists because that is what schooling looks like” (p54).

All this produces robotic exam-passers and “maintains, justifies and reproduces” (p89) structural inequalities, and marketisation and ‘edubusiness’, increased state control of schools and blindly throwing technology at the problem will not mitigate any of these effects. In order to realise the long-held vision of education as emancipatory rather than enslaving, the book concludes, we must radically change the way in which we conceptualise learning and classroom relations. Students need to be active participants in their learning, not passive recipients; curricula should be negotiated and not prescribed; and the process of learning in a formal setting should reflect the dialogic and situated nature of learning in everyday life. Classrooms should be “sites of knowledge-construction”, which acknowledge education as “never merely a means to an end”, but “a mark of what it is to be human” (p139).

As a first-year GCSE student, I wholeheartedly agree with these criticisms and find them an extremely accurate and acutely perceptive assessment of the current state of education. I like to scribble highly unprofessional things in the margins of the books which I intend to review while I read them, and most of my scribblings in this particular book consisted of the word “yes” and varying numbers of exclamation marks. Rethinking education is lucid and descriptive, and manages to cover an impressive number of subsets of education concisely but sufficiently in just over 100 pages, including: how people learn and the misconceptions bred by schooling about this; gender and racial inequality in education; and the relationship between schools and power structures. Most of the points made are extensively backed up by case studies, which are varied and interesting and contribute greatly to the international relevance of the analysis.

The section on British imperialism and English linguistic hegemony in the first chapter - a topic which is not often linked to the role of education in preserving hierarchies, but is intimately related to it - was particularly well thought out and explained. Although the book contains not many analyses which I had not seen or considered before - the authors seem to be coming from the same theoretical angle as I do and the concepts of popular education and active learning are not new to pedagogy - it does lay out radical pedagogical ideas in an engaging manner and poses a sharp, confident and urgently needed challenge to the sleepy dogmas of modern education theory. If you have been trying to find a comprehensive, materialist (though not overly ‘Marxian’) critique of the education system - and there is certainly room for one - I would definitely recommend this book.


That being said, I have a few criticisms. Education has been overlooked by socialist theorists in the past - unjustifiably so, given the efficacy of education as a means by which to preserve class rule and indoctrinate the populace into bourgeois ideology. However, in the past many criticisms have been made of the education system’s ‘exam factory’ nature, its artificial approach to learning and increasing commercialisation and marketisation, by everyone from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Latin American popular education advocates, to Pink Floyd.

Rethinking education does a great job of pulling together all these criticisms, but to bring something really new and revolutionary to the table which has not been discussed before, a more in-depth look at the root causes of the identified problems would be ideal. There is a lot of detailed discussion of problems and their effects, and attention is drawn to how disparities and hierarchies in education reflect wider society; but not enough attention is paid to that society itself, to what social circumstances are making education the way it is and need to be changed in order to improve education. This leads the criticisms made in the book to be, while true, a little abstract and disconnected from the societal context in which they exist; and, as the authors rightly point out, education does not “happen in a vacuum” (p106).

Indeed, the book mostly concentrates on criticising, devoting most chapters to picking apart flaws in the current system rather than describing root causes or alternatives; and, where alternatives are described, they are not quite as inspiring as I had hoped. One case study of what is termed “active pedagogy” (p48) and praised as a form of teaching which “starts with different assumptions about learning” and “seeks to make the students active participants in their own learning” (p45) involves Cultures in Contact, a project run by the British Museum and adopted by several schools. This informed 12-year-old students about the period of European imperialism in west Africa, using a starter activity at school, followed by a day at the museum and a plenary back at school. Ample use was made of artefacts, pictorial resources and ‘hands-on’ approaches, and each section involved a role play of some description, which was presumably how the students were made “active participants” in their learning.

I understand that some people have problems with anecdotal evidence, but, since I am in full-time education, hopefully my own perspective will be helpful in this instance. Personally, if I had been a participant in the Cultures in Contact project two years ago (at the age of 12), I would most likely have seen all the role-play and “hands-on learning” as a novelty, but found it slightly patronising and not been able to recall the information I learnt later on. Because the way I learn, for as long as I can remember, has been by reading written information, making notes and drawing whatever conclusions I wanted from the information in the form of an essay, which I would take great pleasure in writing. That sounds old-fashioned, and certainly does not align with modern pedagogical orthodoxy, which preaches ‘interactive learning’. But it is how I learn.

And one of the great paradoxes of the education system is that, while ostensibly being individualist, it makes huge generalisations about the most effective ways to learn and assumes that one teaching strategy is universally better than another. For all their talk of learning styles, schools are abysmal at taking into account the fact that everyone learns differently, and that there is no ‘one true method’. Even ‘interactive learning’ does not work for everyone. This is an important component of the lack of contextual awareness - criticised for good reason in this book - in the education system. Yet it is not taken into account in Rethinking education, and in fact the authors are rather disparaging towards the notion of learning styles, arguing that “there is no robust evidence that any of these types of learner actually exist” and that the idea serves to “encourage teachers to put children into different categories” (p99). I for one would like there to be more categorisation of students; as long as we were allowed to categorise ourselves and to choose classes which utilise the teaching methods most helpful to us. Sweeping generalisations are equally as coercive and detrimental as categorisation.

Finally, apart from Cultures in Contact and some additional case studies focusing on relatively small-scale philanthropic projects targeted at adults in Latin America and the (largely short-lived and unsuccessful) popular education establishments of the 20th century, there is not much description of a possible alternative education system and no truly daring, visionary propositions. The space to make such propositions is limited by the intention of showing that “other ways of doing school are possible, not in some far-distant future, but now” (p133). This is well-intentioned, but right now, as the entire world is mired in perhaps one of the most severe periods of reaction in history, there is no way for schooling to exist in a way which does not reflect these reactionary attitudes. Since education systems reflect wider social conditions, we would need a revolutionary period at the very least, if not a society on its way to socialism, to yield a system which does not reproduce inequalities or implicitly condition everyone into capitalist dogma and which can permit the self-emancipation of the working class. This is, of course, necessarily a future society. Thus in order to envisage a genuinely radical, alternative method of schooling, some deductions would need to be made from our ideas of a future society.

This does not have to mean explicitly labelling this critique of education as ‘Marxist’, but it could involve making reasoned inferences from socialist ideas about certain characteristics of a future society. However, people on the left seem to be a bit allergic to attempts to predict any feature of our future vision, for fear of utopianism. This ‘allergy’ is both misplaced and harmful. Utopianism does not stem from logical deductions of possibilities, but from abstract prophecies, which consider the ends without the means. And without a clear, multifaceted idea of a possible end point, the socialist movement has no direction and no selling point.

Despite the above shortcomings, Rethinking education is well-argued and thought-provoking - it is certainly worth a read, particularly for those new to pedagogy. I just hope that a serious discussion about the nature of education and attempts to re-imagine will continually be engaged in by socialists, because this issue is profoundly relevant to the fight for emancipation.