Putting The Moral Purpose Back Into Education

I was listening to a great talk today, given by Lawrence Lessig (one of the founders of the Creative Commons). Regular readers will know of my fondness for the metaphor of the ‘Global Learning Commons’ in trying to explain the changes which are taking place in how we learn: in sanctioned settings (schools, college, university) as well as at work and how we learn socially (where we see the greatest changes). In fact, I’m so fond of it that I’m currently writing a book about it. But that’s another story.

So, Lessig is talking about the ‘Tragedy of The Commons’, as first explained by Garret Hardin. Hardin’s argument has been a powerful counter-argument to the benefit of the commons, so it’s worth explaining. The ‘tragedy’ was that if you put a few extra cows on to a commons you might get a short-term gain – a better yield from your cattle – but, if everyone does it, pretty soon the grass will disappear, the pasture fails, and self-interest will have put paid to the common good. (Hardin was a tad more loquacious, but I realise your time is precious, so I’m abbreviating). First appearing in 1968, Hardin’s premise has often been credited with foreseeing the collapse of communist ideals. 

Lessig’s argument, however, was that those who look for the ‘Tragedy of The Commons’ in modern day contexts (environment, intellectual property, transport, etc) miss an important interpretive distinction. There are finite, and therefore ‘rivalrous’ properties (if you eat my apple I no longer have an apple), but there are also non-rivalrous properties – like ideas or, education. If I share an idea with you, you may gain from that idea, but I don’t lose from the exchange – I still have the idea. These principles helped establish the ‘Creative Commons’ license which does so much for the spread of contemporary thinking, untethered by overly-restrictive copyright mechanisms.


And this applies particularly to the business of learning. As there is no loss of illumination when a taper takes light from one candle to another, so no-one should lose out when teaching and learning proliferates. Even the teacher learns more about the subject through explaining it to another learner. These are the lofty ideals which attract people into the teaching profession.


But most accountability structures in education are built upon the belief that, when it comes to schooling, rivalry is good. It drives up standards, right?

Well, wrong. By making competition the focus of schools’ activities  we’ve enforced a rivalrous framework around something as innately non-rivalrous as  learning, and that’s the real tragedy. Instead of creating a true learning commons, the  obsession with ranking turns something as pure as learning into a competitive ‘enclosure’, where there have to be losers, so that there can be winners. This affects us all, from the global measurements of PISA International Tables, to county/authority performance data. It distorts one noble vision – making learning the shared, ubiquitous, resource it ought to be – through the prioritisation of another (though still laudable) goal: to support governments and  parents in making the right choices for their young people. It may, indeed, seem a laudable aim, but competition contaminates what should be the non-rivalrous environment of learning.

How does this tragedy manifest itself? Well, for a start, schools soon realise that doing the required thing invariably trumps doing the right thing. Schools won’t be interested in becoming learning commons – spaces where a wide range of occupants adopt a shared involvement in, and responsibility for, learning – so long as their very existence is  threatened by not keeping up with their rivals.

But that’s just the start. The testing mechanisms which turn education into a rivalrous property, also de-moral-ise the professionals in whom we place our trust. Once there’s a system with such high-stakes, they’re almost duty-bound to find a way to ‘game’ it. We know we can manipulate student options, (as we’re currently doing to improve English Baccalaureate performances) or find the easiest exam boards to boost results, but we lose our sense of moral purpose along the way.

This question of whether learning should be a rivalrous or non-rivalrous property is much more than a philosophical exercise. In recent years it’s easy to observe almost a global sense of resignation in school senior leaders, here in the UK, through No Child Left Behind in the US, and in other countries. Many have lost any sense of self-determinism, instead questioning why they came into a profession which seems to reward only compliance and conformity.

But not all.

Six years ago, I sat in on a workshop at a Specialist Schools Trust Conference. The school in question, Walker Technology College, had attracted a highly excited crowd by showing them how to garner a cheap, quick, GCSE pass in art & design, from the Students Who Mattered (the borderline literacy and numeracy students), so that time could be freed up  to unleash a torrent of  literacy/numeracy improvement strategies on them. Sitting in the audience, I could have wept.

Nor did it work. In 2008, Walker was made a ‘National Challenge’ school: a euphemism which means ‘you’ve got two years to improve, or we close you down’.

And yet, at last week’s Whole Education Event in Manchester, I found myself welling up for a very different reason. This time the presentation from Walker school outlined their transformation into a ‘Human Scale’ school. It was genuinely inspiring. They are turning their school into a learning commons, taking learning outside the classroom, bringing parents into the learning conversations, enabling students to co-construct the lessons and working with anyone who can make learning more engaging for the large proportion of their disengaged kids.

Faced with such rivalrous pressures, the overwhelming temptation upon Walker would have been to do the required thing: circle the wagons, and drill-and-skill the ‘bubble’ kids to within an inch of their lives – or boredom thresholds. Instead, they did the right thing, by creating a commons and not worrying too much about the exam results. So far, they’ve seen significant improvements in behaviour, an improvement in literacy levels, 93% hand-in rates for homework (previously around 30%) and much greater parental engagement. Like I said, moving and inspiring stuff.

And at the same event I met Andrew Chubb, the Principal of the Archbishop Sentanu Academy in Hull, who has taken a one-man stand against the imposition of the English Baccalaureate by announcing that he would create his own version. Far from being the attention-seeking self-publicist one might have imagined, Andrew is an unassuming – but determined – school leader who simply thinks things have gone too far. And he’s far from alone. In less than a week, a fast-growing coalition of agencies have come together to create a ‘Better Bacc’, one which is designed from the ‘bottom-up’, through the input of school leaders themselves, not imposed by dictat from on-high. But more school leaders need to get behind this campaign if it is to gain the momentum it needs.

So, I’d urge any school leaders reading this to contact the Build A Better Bacc coalition , show that positive resistance is far from futile, and begin to create a better alternative by signing up here.

It may be naïve idealism to re-think schooling in terms such as learning commons and non-rivalrous environments. But simply finding ways to do the right thing, not always the required thing, as both Walker Technology College and Archbishop Sentanu Academy have done, helps restore the higher moral purpose of education and lift spirits, at a time when both seem to be in short supply.




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