Democracy, education and plastic intelligence
This is an abridged version of the full article which can be found here.
Politics and education are inseparable and always have been. This is clear from the history of education in the UK. The expert is Derek Gillard. A very good example, with many modern parallels, can be found in the work of the nineteenth century educationalist Richard Dawes, which is described in this article.
Universal state funded education began in the nineteenth century and its advance was vigorously opposed at every stage by conservative politicians. The reason is clear and was summarised by Jeremy Corbyn’s quotation from Shelley during his speech to thousands of young supporters and admirers at the Glastonbury Festival of June 2017.
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.
It is mass education, or rather ‘education of the masses’ that has driven the advance of democracy and the relentless extension of the right to vote, but I argue that three events in 2016 and 2017 have now focussed attention onto the nature and purpose of state education and how the subversion of democracy is being facilitated in the US and in the UK through the corruption and degradation of national education systems resulting from the ideology of neo-liberalism and marketisation. The three events in question are the EU Referendum in the UK (June 2016), The US Presidential Election (November 2016) and the UK General Election (June 2017). In all three, the forces of conservatism reduced their election campaigns to popular, repetitive, one dimensional sloganising in an attempt to exploit the lack of higher cognitive function (Kahneman’s System 2 thinking) in a large proportion of the voting population. The evidence for this is clear in the differential voting patterns related to levels of education.
A breakdown of the EU referendum data has shown that those with lower educational levels were much more likely to vote for Brexit. Almost half of the local authorities which counted votes provided demographic information to the BBC. Analysis showed that how people voted was ‘strongly associated’ with how far they went with formal education. This link was higher than any other measure from the census, including age and ethnicity. I wrote about the educational implications of this pattern here.
I argue in my articles and in my book, ‘Learning Matters’ that school pedagogy should be focussed onto helping the maximum proportion of students to progress through the Piagetian concrete/formal barrier, because then they will not only be able to understand say, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and other hard stuff in other subjects, but crucially the rational arguments and principles that increasingly underpin all aspects of life in an increasingly complex, technological society. This includes economics, which, like the scientific concepts of weight and inertia, make cognitive demands at the formal operation level.
There were two main ‘dimensions’ in the EU leave/remain election campaign.
The first was ‘immigration’, with less immigration assumed to be good, more immigration assumed to bad. This is not only easy to understand, it resonates with very deep evolutionary fears. For all but our most recent hominid history the greatest threat to survival and that of our children was from the ‘tribe over the hill’ that has a tendency to attack your tribe, kill the men and boys, carry off the women and girls into sexual slavery and plunder your assets. Racists have always played on such primitive fears, often with great success.
The contrary argument; more immigration good, less immigration bad, can also be made, but it is much more complex. It involves Piaget’s formal operational thinking, which can also be characterised as the dominance of the rational (Kahneman System 2) over the instinctive/reactive (Kahneman System 1) mind.
Then there is the second dimension: trade with Europe good, trade barriers with Europe bad. This involves complex economics and is clearly in the formal operational thinking/ Kahneman System 2 category. Even if this is a sound argument, it has to be balanced in the mind against the immigration dimension. Immigration is like the weight of an object in your hand. It can be directly sensed. It is ‘concrete’. The economic argument is like the inertia of the object. It cannot be sensed without deeper conceptual understanding. Its existence must be reasoned by means of a formal cognitive process by applying Newtonian scientific principles. So for concrete operational thinkers ‘immigration’ will always trump ‘economics’, while for formal operational thinkers the economic arguments are likely to prevail.
Hence the higher the level of education, the more likely ‘leave’ was supported over ‘remain’.
The US Presidential Election
In the US presidential election it appears that educational levels were the critical factor in the shift in the vote between 2012 and 2016.
I discuss the educational implications of this result here. The Canadian, ‘Globe and Mail’ published an analysis of the characteristics of Trump and Clinton Voters.
They conclude as follows.
The vote laid bare a sharp divide on education. Ms. Clinton fared better among the more highly educated, winning among college graduates and holding a substantial lead among those who had done postgraduate study. Those with high school or less, as well as those with only some college, preferred Mr. Trump by large margins.
According to Pew Research, Mr. Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree, 67 per cent to 28 per cent, is the largest since the presidential election of 1980.
The UK General Election
Before the UK General Election of June 2017, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had been systematically undermined by most of his own MPs and misrepresented, ridiculed and demonised by the UK media. This is from a research report by the respected London School of Economics.
The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.
It was not just the overwhelmingly Conservative supporting print media. The UK state BBC TV was also guilty as pointed out in this Guardian article.
So when Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap General Election for 8 June 2017 it was widely assumed by the entire UK commentariat that Labour would be defeated in a landslide that would massively increase her majority and authority in the House of Commons. In the event Labour gained rather than lost seats from the Conservatives and Theresa May lost her majority in a devastating shock reversal of expectations.
The broadly accepted explanation is that Jeremy Corbyn managed to motivate a high proportion of young voters and especially university students and graduates. The age and social class profiles of the Labour voters are set out in this Guardian article.
Voters crossed party lines, challenging traditional class-party loyalties. Middle-class votes swung to Labour, which increased its share of ABC1 voters by 12 points compared with the previous general election. However more working-class voters came out for the Conservatives and the party increased its share of the C2DE voters by 12 points.
The educational attainment profile follows the social class groups with the Conservatives attracting most of the lowest social class groups (with the lowest educational attainment).
The only thing that went wrong with the crude, populist Conservative strategy that had worked so well for the Brexiteers and for Donald Trump was that Jeremy Corbyn achieved a much higher turnout of young, better educated voters than has happened in the past.
So what have these elections to do with national education systems? I write about this here.
There are many clichés in ‘edu-speak’. A very common one is that schools should enable students to ‘reach their potential’. It implies the notion of fixed intelligence, whether conferred through genetic inheritance at birth, and/or determined by the quality of early years parenting. It is a ‘let off’ for secondary schools, enabling them to opt out of any responsibility for raising the intelligence of their pupils as they progress through the school, on the basis that this is either ‘not possible’, or not the main business of schools, which is a combination of filling heads with knowledge and providing discipline and training so as to maximise their employability.
This leads to a tacit assumption about the process of teaching and learning in schools, that conforms with that promoted by the ‘Global Education Reform Movement’ (GERM) that is increasingly finding its expression in Charter Schools in the US, and in England in the Academies and Free School movement.
The converse of this notion, ‘Plastic Intelligence’, opens a door into a quite different educational paradigm that can and should empower and inspire both students and their teachers. It is increasingly being described as a ‘growth mindset‘.
‘Plastic Intelligence’ is explained and promoted in my book, ‘Learning Matters’, and its manifestations, in the form of a synthesis from a number of different ‘real world’ learning contexts, are described and explained here.
Plastic Intelligence really is a very big deal in the world of education because it provides the ultimate refutation of GERM.
See the longer article for a full development of this argument.
The greatest concerns lie with the nature of the marketised model of education that is increasingly being inflicted onto our children by Academisation in the UK and the parallel ideological forces that spawned and exported it from the US.
This too is fully explained in the longer article.
The national education systems of England and the US continue to fare badly in the international PISA assessments. My analysis of the results of the latest (2015) PISA round and its update can be found here and here. I use a fresh approach validated by international academics of the highest standing. The articles need to be studied in order to grasp their scope and significance. There is clearly very little to be positive about that is for sure. Even more depressing is that the frantic pace of ‘reform’ is to be stepped up with more testing, more Academies and Free Schools and with more selective grammar schools in England only belatedly abandoned after the Conservative’s disastrous 2017 General Election result. It would be hard to come up with proposals to make the English national education system worse.
The most important implication for the UK and US education systems is the key role of cognitive ability in driving higher attainment. This needs more of the well-proven developmental pedagogy that the ideology of marketisation is replacing with knowledge-focussed rote learning and behaviourism implemented by computer-based instruction and testing, all enforced by ever more draconian and abusive systems of harsh discipline.
More importantly in the context of this article we are increasingly not equipping our school leavers and future adults with the cognitive abilities needed to resist the efforts of populist conservative politicians to manipulate our democracy. The Labour Party is proposing a new, ‘National Education Service’. This needs to support the potential of ‘plastic intelligence’ throughout life and will require the recognition and abandonment of the marketisation reforms that have afflicted the UK since the 1988 Education Reform Act and New Labour’s creation of independent Academy schools.