Education in ‘not broken’ shock


This is what all education is like – FACT.

I've complained about the "education is broken" meme before – my reservations about it have been threefold:

i) It's just lazy – saying something is broken (or dead) avoids having to do any subtle analysis and appeals to a simplistic viewpoint. 

ii) It frames technological change as a crisis and not an opportunity – Mike Caulfield covered this better than me, but once you adopt a 'broken' metaphor then a whole set of language accompanies it which frames it as a negative problem to be fixed.

iii) It's suspicious – those who peddle the "education is broken" line usually have something to gain from its acceptance. Either they are directly selling a solution that will mend it (after all, a broken something needs to be fixed, see point ii) or they have individual prestige in being seen as someone who can at least see the means of fixing it.

I've been studying the Masters in History at the OU recently (it's an 18 month long haul, only 2 months in). So I thought I'd reflect on how 'broken' this experience feels. The answer is, well, not at all really. This isn't an advert for the OU, I'm sure the majority of reliable HE institutions would provide a similar experience. The point is that it isn't a radical course in terms of approach or technology, and so provides a reasonable experience of what education is really like I think. I'm sure there are plenty of worse examples, and grudgingly, maybe I'll concede there are some better ones, but this is what distance education in the 21st century roughly equates to, I'd hazard. 

First of all we had to read quite a dense text (Davidoff and Hall's Family Fortunes), we were provided with reviews around it and the first assignment was based around analysing its approach. The aim of this was, I think, to introduce us to the type of academic writing in history (I suspect it weeds out the people who really just want to do genealogy), and to think about the range of references and resources required to provide a comprehensive argument (Davidoff and Hall are exhaustive, and at times, exhausting in this respect).

The assignment was an old fashioned 2500 word essay. And it worked – I read the book in a much more analytical manner because of it, I followed up references, I considered the manner in which evidence is found and constructed to form a picture, I engaged with fellow students in the VLE (shhh).

We're now on to a more active block, looking at the range of online resources. This is enjoyable stuff, I really didn't know there was just soooo much stuff out there. I have been lost for a few evenings in the House of Commons Parliementary Papers, or the Proceedings of the Old Bailey, or the National Library of Wales, etc.

I'm not going to do a critique of the course, but studying it has reinforced my belief that "Education is broken" is an unhelpful stance to take. For a start it doesn't reflect the reality. I would urge anyone who uses this claim to study a course outside of their own domain of expertise and see how it feels (I'm obviously focusing on higher ed here, the claim is also frequently used for K12, which I can't claim expertise in). I think many protaganists are basing their claims on rather outdated views of what it feels like to be a student. 

But more importantly, if one adopts the broken stance then you want to start afresh. In my experience this isn't beneficial. I can see how you could take the existing course and maybe add some new elements in to it, or campaign for open access to all historical archives for instance, explore new forms of assessment, find ways of making such courses more accessible and open (I didn't say MOOC, no sir), etc. These are opportunities to build on top of a successful approach, which seems a better, if less sexy approach, than demanding wholesale revolution with some glorious new leaders installed.

Reflecting on this has made me think of a fourth reason why I don't like the 'education is broken' rhetoric, and that is it is fundamentally cliquey or elitist. It's underlying message is "all these other people don't get technology like we do. That's why they're stuck in that old fashioned way of thinking which we know is hopelessly broken. Come join our new gang." But of course, if this new gang became the establishment they'd quickly abandon it. They don't really want educational change, they just want to feel cool for a while. Let them do that, we can do better.


  1. Icey_mark says:

    Hurray. Rational optimism. Nice post.

  2. Robsub says:

    You have linked to the OU MA in Art History. Did you mean to?
    I’ve felt for a long time that education isn’t broken, but educational policy is – and has been for at least thirty years. Successive politicians have completely failed to understand what both individual citizens and the country as a whole need from education.

  3. mweller says:

    Thanks Mark – (and huge congrats on your THE award). Don’t worry, normal miserable service will be resumed :)
    Rob – education may not be broken, but this Prof obviously is. Thanks, no corrected. I agree with your point about what politicians see as the _point_ of education. In fact education is remarkably unbroken given the battering it has had. I’m obviously more focused on the technology perspective here, but the education is broken brigade try to entwine the two.

  4. “This is what all education is like” silly hats for the ladies?
    The thing is, as you point out your own experience, when education works, it is not newsworthy, not even noticed. I firmly believe, on a regular basis, hundreds of millions, maybe more (lack of analytics) people are learning something effectively.
    The adjective does not even belong applied to a system. Your kitchen plumbing, your car, your shoe laces are things clearly identified as being broken, they do not work as intended. But a system? It’s like claiming the ocean is broken, or the universe is broken. It does not even make sense.
    That said, what your experience describes as working .e.g. not broken, and for you) is the process of education in action. There *are* problems with the system, access to education, cost of education, slow rates of change, inequities…
    I could nto agree more (I think this is what you are saying) that if the description “broken” is broken (oh the recursion!) then the idea of “fixing” a system is also… broken.
    What we are doing, I hope, is the iterative process of trying to make it better.
    Now get back to your homework!

  5. The thing is that both the broken/not broken perspective can be valid at the same time.
    The “education is broken” rhetoric builds on completely false premises. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the education we have. At all levels most students get exposed to the information they need and have opportunities to make something of it. Teachers are by and large well informed of their subject, care about the students’ success and follow a reasonable pedagogical framework. Sure, there is a large minority of students who are excluded both for good and bad reasons, but (following Pinker – although I really hate that book) we’ve never had it so good. I wrote about that discussing the ’21st century education’ cliche:
    I can exactly imagine your history course. It would be just fine. Some readings, some discussions, some assignments. If you want to learn about history, there’s only so many ways to slice the cake. Sure, if would be nice if it was a MOOC so that more people could take part, and if the essays were taking place outside the VLE on blogs, etc. But for most participants it must be just fine.
    But, at the same time, education is completely bonkers. It is an irrelevant, repressive, inefficient and hypocritical system. Most arguments for the organization of schooling are simply cargo cult delusions. From the perspective of social utility I doubt it would make much difference if we assigned grades randomly instead of based on examinations. You could probably imagine a completely different system:
    So what to make of that? I always come back to the title of Cuban and Tyack’s book ‘Tinkering toward utopia’. Make our utopias explicit but tweak what we do rather uproot everything.
    I guess I could have found a briefer way of saying I agree.

  6. mweller says:

    @alan – yes, that is what I was saying. You & Jim are probably the most revolutionary people I know in terms of actually implementing ideas in education. If most educators only did a tenth of that it’d be a highly innovative system. So it’s not like everyone has to be Jim Groom. But even your ds106 work is taking place within an educational system, and look what can be achieved then.
    @Dominik – I agree, the ed system is a bit bonkers. I’m not sure I’d go as far as saying you can allocate random marks, but it does seem sometimes you can adopt any pedagogy you like and get the same ranking. I haven’t come across Cuban and Tyack – that’s a great title, and says in a sentence what I was trying to say.

  7. Lisa M Lane says:

    Agree, agree, and felt a great sense of relief reading this because I’m one of those people trying to innovate into the old system rather than throwing everything out.
    So, not broken. What about antiquated? (I like the hats)
    I hear this all the time – that the big problem with education is that it’s *old*, its patterns of learning are antique, it aims toward an industrialized electorate instead of a postmodern world of teamwork and crowdsourcing. Thus the desire (often, as you note, self-serving) to throw out the old models.
    And yet, as a history prof myself, I must say that there’s no substitute for intensive reading and analysis of the kind you describe. The marvelous, wonderful educational change is in the access to the huge resources you mention. If you class ignored those, or didn’t use them, that would be the real shame. Then we wouldn’t be building on what we have, or tinkering toward anything.

  8. Geoffstead says:

    Great post. I guess another problem with the “education is broken” mantra is that it implies education is one thing, which is a daft simplification. It is a wide, diverse group of schools (state and private), Colleges, University (the bricks and mortar type, as well as OU), work based training, self driven, etc etc.
    Of course there are a range of problems that impact on some, or all of these institutions. Of course we are all trying to help them evolve, and improve continually. But that doesn’t mean we should fall back on lazy generalisations.
    (Good post. Thanks)

  9. Tom Woodward says:

    FWIW, I probably fall in a more depressed version of @Dominik’s camp. Exposure occurs. Teachers care but many fundamental things seemed misguided at best and harmful at worst.
    I think @Alan is setting the bar too low. Lots of people learn lots of things without a gigantic machine and vast amounts of money in place dedicated to that purpose. There ought to be really dramatic demonstrable benefits from all this energy, structure, and money.
    I can’t see it as an ocean/universe comparison as these aren’t systems designed for a purpose- plumbing yes (shoe laces no). I imagine education (in the way we’re talking about it) is a designed system with some sort of (ill) defined goal. To decide if education is broken I imagine we’d have to agree on what education is supposed to do (and which part is supposed to do what) and how to measure the impact of the energy in vs the output. I don’t envy anyone that task for a small portion of the pie, let alone at scale.
    Personally, I can’t imagine anyone looking at USA K12 (my home turf) would be wildly happy with the results at a macro level. I also think it’s hard to separate culture and education. It’d be hard to argue that US education/culture is churning out happy citizens, who have the ability to resist manipulation, think critically and delay gratification for the betterment of themselves and/or the world (a super slim version of my hopes for education). It seems that many teachers are unhappy, many students are unhappy, and lots of people are unhappy with the “results.” I predict current efforts will make all participants (vendors excluded) less happy.
    I don’t know if this would be the definition of “broken” but it’s certainly messed up and I have no idea how anyone could possibly fix it. I think of K12 education as being a lot like the USA’s medical system. Expectations, goals etc. are all messed up.

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