Dancing to the Algorithm, by Dr Pam Jarvis

On the day that an exams algorithm robbed a significant number of working class children of the results they needed to access their university places, I watched Jon Snow’s interview with Nick Gibb on the Channel 4 news. Looking beyond the immediate problem, it gave me a very useful insight to an accountant’s view of education. Gibb begun by telling Snow that the spread of grades across the whole cohort was roughly the same this year as last. Snow then pointed out that the figures indicated that 2% of students, principally from the most disadvantaged backgrounds had been yet further disadvantaged by the algorithm used by the government. Gibb’s response was ‘it’s only 2%.’ Snow replied ‘do you think it matters to that 2%?’

This led me to contemplate the days over twenty-five years ago now, in which I worked with some of the parents and possibly even grandparents of that 2% in a vastly different education landscape. I began my journey into teaching with a BSc Hons in Psychology, completed part time, over my children’s early childhood years. When I was born, only 4% of the British population entered university. By the time I was eighteen, that figure had risen to 14%; but it seldom included girls from my London Docklands background. Hence it was in my late 20s that I started upon the route that would eventually led me to a PhD. Over a twenty-five-year teaching career, I eventually taught in school, further and higher education, including 20 years as an associate lecturer with my alma mater, the Open University. But my very first teaching experiences took place in dusty church halls in the mid-1990s, as a community education lecturer.

My role was to deliver basic child development short courses to young parents living in socio-economically deprived areas in Leeds. Looking back, the most important qualities I brought to the role probably did not centre around my brand-new degree, but my own origins in a working-class community, and my own non-standard journey through adult education. The relationships I built with some of my first students turned out to be very much rooted in my identity as a fellow-mum who knew a bit more about child development than they did and was willing to share. Looking back, I think they taught me just as much as I did them, and maybe even more.

To understand the student cohort with which I was working, readers must understand that this was a very different time, when it was generally expected that mothers should be at home with their pre-school children. There was no subsidised childcare and no real expectation of it; for the Thatcherist government of the time, care for the young, the old and the infirm was for the family to provide, or to buy in. And so young families like mine typically had a woman, a mother or grandmother, at home providing full time care. Community centres, usually patchwork funded with significant input from Local Authorities, provided education, often with an emphasis on daytime courses, for those currently not in paid employment. It was customary for a free creche to be provided for those with small children.

People enrolled for these programmes for a variety of reasons. Some saw them as a way to meet other adults if they lived alone, or were alone for long hours with small children; others signed up to study a topic for no other reason than it seemed interesting, and some enrolled with a focused intention to increase employability. However, such intentions often grew and changed as students became more interested in the subject and immersed in the process of learning, which many explained to me was ‘so much better than it was at school.’

Many of the mothers I worked with had multiple problems. A significant proportion had experienced domestic violence, and I have a vivid memory of a few students engaging me on the problems of getting their children to sleep whilst living on a street where drug dealers held all night parties. Such groups tended to be highly diverse in composition; the one factor that bound us together was the deep interest we had in our children, and the ambition to provide them with better chances than those we had been given ourselves.

Although at that time I had yet to meet the work of Paulo Freire, I now realise that I worked in a highly Freirian way:

  • Dialogue: working ‘with’ rather than ‘on’
  • Praxis: enhancing community and social capital
  • Developing consciousness to change the reality of both the students and of the educator
  • Attempting to educate from the perspective of being someone who is a part of a community, rather than somehow ‘above’ it.

However, the process of community education in which we were engaged pre-dated Freire’s theory. It emerged from the social conditions accompanying industrialisation in which continuing education was devised principally as a liberal exercise; to give people in deprived communities a chance to engage with ideas to which they would otherwise not be exposed. Geoffrey Mitchell (2000) tells the story of Joe Roper, a University of Sheffield lecturer who created a ‘peripatetic university’ that he called the ‘University of the Hills’. Between the early 1920s and late 1940s, he regularly travelled around an area which stretched from Nottinghamshire to the Lake District, with the purpose of establishing ‘an informed, participating, popular democracy… in mining villages and centres of heavy industry’ (p.14). The most popular classes were in Industrial History, a topic that Roper knew would interest the students from a personal perspective. Mitchell describes the resulting pedagogy: ‘a grass roots democracy, community based, student led’ (p.16).

Roper found that, from these beginnings, some of his students would then be bitten by the education bug and find ways to further their education along more formal routes. This was something I also found seventy years later; a proportion of my students regularly signed on for evening classes to resit GCSEs (or in those days, sometimes even to take them for the first time), some applied for professional childcare courses, and a few for Access to Higher Education. I once taught one of my ex-community ed child development students on the psychology module of an Access course at a local FE college. At the time I first met her, she had recently been rehomed with her young son in a council flat, moving from a room in a women’s refuge she had approached for help to leave a relationship in which she had experienced serious domestic violence. She was accepted onto a programme at the local red brick university when she successfully completed her Access course.

Community education operated from a basis of establishing an area of shared understanding with a learner, which I quickly began analogise as finding a ‘song’ to ‘sing with them’. From this foundation, it was then possible to extend into the more abstract and academic. Probably because of these roots, this has always been a fundamental issue for me as an educator. In fact, even before I became an educator, this process had worked for me personally as a young mother, as I moved from helping out in my own children’s playgroup in the mid-1980s into a psychology degree with a specialism in child development. And in my first teaching experiences, it worked for the young mothers who were my very first students, who also began from the perspective of a deep interest in their own children. This practice is called ‘sustained shared thinking’ in early years education, having its roots in the process that Jerome Bruner dubbed ‘scaffolding’ and Lev Vygotsky represented rather more abstractly as a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’.

A year after starting with the child development short courses, I began to teach more mainstream FE programmes, which included several GCSE psychology classes for mature adults at a range of local community centres. Over the next two or three years open-ended non-assessed short courses were gradually replaced by nationally validated, formally assessed programmes. I noticed that students tended to find less enjoyment in this mode of teaching and learning, particularly given that the structure was very similar to the style of pedagogy that they had disliked and often struggled with at school. While I was aware that a stepping-stone was being stealthily removed, I was not fully aware of the wider implications of the issue-until a particular incident clarified this for me.

The car I drove at that time had been made long before air conditioning was a standard feature, and when I arrived at one centre on a warm, sunny afternoon in early September with all my windows open, I caught the strains of a familiar melody: In the Mood, by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. This took me back to memories of my dad, who had died quite recently, sitting listening to his old records and watching old Hollywood movies during his long illness. I got out of the car and caught a glimpse of grey heads and smiling faces bobbing around the floor of an old scout club on the other side of the road. It turned out to be one of the few remaining community education funded ‘leisure’ programmes run by the centre. And for the rest of the academic year, if I was able, I would arrive a little early to listen to the music and catch a glimpse of the dancers before I went in to teach.

When I was allocated the same teaching slot the following year, I looked forward to seeing the dancers again. However, the scout club door was padlocked when I arrived, and when after a couple of weeks nothing had changed, I asked the administrator at the centre if the dancing class times had changed.

‘We can’t do dancing anymore’ she said.

‘What do you mean, you can’t do it?’ I replied. ‘It seemed hugely popular last year’

‘It’s not that’ she said ‘we have to offer courses like your GCSE now, where we can demonstrate progression. That type of dancing isn’t the type of thing that you can do on a programme where there is an assessment. And if we can’t do it with the community ed funding, the fees we would have to charge would be too high for people round here’ (‘here’ being an old mining area, still experiencing high levels of unemployment).

In further conversation, I found that although both the dancing class and a similarly popular embroidery class had been running for twenty years, they had both been recently discontinued because they could not, like my short child development programme, be shoehorned into a nationally validated, formally assessed qualification.

And now, twenty-five years later, we seem to generally accept that all that is learned must be formally assessed, and that people must be continually measured and ranked against each other, in every possible way. And this does not only relate to education; for example many light entertainment shows have become competitions, with viewers asked to provide the evaluation as contestants compete for a public vote.

I recently published an article about tweaking education modes for children under 14 to respond to uncertainties created by COVID-19. Some of the responses from teachers on twitter told me, sometimes quite angrily, that parents (in general) did not have the skills to support their children’s education. Thinking back many years to the passionate ambitions of the young mothers in my community education classes to learn how to contribute to their child’s education and development, I asked why my respondents had constructed parents in this way, and was told that education was the communication of a very specific sets of facts towards highly structured assessments, for which parents had not been trained. In such a world, it would seem that the dancing and embroidery classes, and Roper’s University of the Hills no longer meet the contemporary criteria for ‘education.’

A society that sends 50% of its young people into higher education is, superficially, a clear advance on the culture of the past. But the current crisis is highlighting problems that arise when people become data to program into algorithms which subsequently open and close doors to future potential. This situation has been a long time in the making. The ‘Exam Factories’ report of 2015 found teachers anxiously teaching children very closely to test to produce the best possible statistics for government rankings; this process created the data that produced the algorithms upon which this year’s A level candidates either set sail or were dashed against the rocks. Many teachers interviewed in the Exam Factories research expressed concern that such a mode of teaching and learning produced shallow understanding in their students, and both teachers and students reported a constant feeling of anxiety permeating their lives.

Perhaps, when I first sat in that church hall with those other young mothers, discussing how to create a better childhood for our children, we did lack focused targets to some extent. But it seems to me, that somehow, during the intervening years, our society has embraced a dysfunctional impetus to run at those targets via the shortest possible route, crushing individuals on the way. We live in an environment in which the dancing, the embroidery and the lives of the uncertificated, the ubiquitous 2%, no longer matter. Whether we have the collective will to do something about this in the Post-COVID period remains to be seen.


Dr Pam Jarvis is a researcher, author and Chartered Psychologist with a PhD in Education. Until October 2019 she was Reader in Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University, where she remains as Honorary Research Fellow. 

You can read our interview with Dr Pam Jarvis in our Voices from the Sector section. Here you will find links to other articles and books she has written, as well as her vision for the future of education.


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Blog – The Psychological Historian

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