Cottage weavers

In another twist to the spiral curriculum thrown up in discussions triggered by the responses to Covid-19, we learn once again that things come round again, but different.

In Britain much heavy and primary industry has moved off the islands, where logistics, marketing and finance networks continue to make it uneconomic either:

  • To engage in such activities on the island; or
  • To develop new primary industries.

A century and more of bureaucrats and secretaries dictated structures and archived the protocols that wove these networks together.

Information technology enabled the expansion of information output as the assembly line and integrated hydrocarbon energy systems enabled the expansion of industrial output.

We gathered in great numbers on the roads and highways at predictable times as we crept to the great information mills where we worked: universities, research institutes, insurance companies, oil companies, banks, transport firms, health care providers and – of course – law firms.

There were some techno optimists who advertised Cisco Systems or Hewlett Packard lifestyles with a mobile phone and a laptop from a mountain cabin. We could be cyber commuters, dressed from the waist up. But for many reasons found it difficult.

Then, in February 2020, we all were forced through the looking glass to that world where we (who could, the information workers) had to work from home. We were shut out of the big information mills and found ourselves sat at our home looms weaving each our own very small part of the great information tapestry that holds our info-verse – our social imaginary – together.

And what is it all for? I have heard that for universities it is now “… all about control and compliance for service delivery. Not so much that academic freedom stuff.”

But, I repeat, what or who for?

Sustainable assessment

Been asked to reread David Boud’s (2000), Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. For me the article dances around problems of performativity and supervision.

Implicit and explicit throughout is the assumption that individuals might become effective at self-assessment.

Assessment involves identifying appropriate standards and criteria and making judgements about quality. This is as necessary to lifelong learning as it is to any formal educational experience, although it may not be represented in formal ways outside the environment of certification. Assessment therefore needs to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to lifelong learning. This means that it has to move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners. A focus on methods and techniques needs to be replaced by a new conception of sustainable assessment required for lifelong learning.

Boud 2000, 151

On reflection I might see that I bring these problems. I often question supervised performance. Supervised performance is linked to real hunger through not lifelong learning but through lifelong employment. Real hunger is where will the next meal come from? For me? For my children? My neighbourhood, city, region. Can I provide my children the lifelong security I have had? There are plenty in the world who cannot, mostly through circumstances brought about by supervision and performance put at the service of, call it what you will: colonisation, surplus value, interest, rent, oligopoly; usurpation of a common wealth.

In abstracting many factors into the term “learning needs” we lose sight of the moral aspect of the question.

Sustainable assessment can similarly be defined as assessment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs.

Boud 2000, 151

Sustainability becomes an empty value unless there is consideration of some substance around what is sustained. Is learning a good in itself without regard to application or outcome? And, what is a “learning task”? Learners “… need also to be prepared to undertake assessment of the learning tasks they face throughout their lives” (152). Could daily activity become a learning task? How much activity should be framed as learning? Who frames the learning task? Who says: this-is-real-life; and: this-is-a-learning-task? When assessment is framed this way, questions of justice are raised.

Maybe this is easier when employed by a university or any educational institution. Boud reserves his comments for “…formal educational experience… within courses” (151). People like me and my colleagues are employed by institutions to assess formal learning activities in courses. If you remove “the domain of these assessors”, have you removed the need for assessment? For whom is the assessment performed, in the end? The assessors? Or, the assessed? Or another? Again I return to justice.

The idea of reciprocity appears to offer a means to retain justice within a framework of assessment for (and of) the other, but can a grand-narrative learning society serve reciprocal justice without doing to others? Boud draws on Frank Coffield’s excellent work. Coffield’s (2006) “Running ever faster down the wrong road”, summarises work undertaken throughout the 1980s and 90s, concluding, “… the government’s programme of reform in the public services, despite significant investments and successes, is now doing more harm than good.” I suggest this is as true today as it was then. There have been some successes in the first two decades of this century as there were in the last two of the previous century but, directionally, the inequities remain. Health and wealth inequalities are starkly illuminated by the coronavirus presence.


Boud, David. 2000. ‘Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking Assessment for the Learning Society’. Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2): 151–67.

Coffield, Frank. 2006. ‘Running Ever Faster Down the Wrong Road: An Alternative Future for Education and Skills. Inaugural Lecture’. Institute of Education.

Our World in Data, Gapminder and Justice

Thumbnail link to original chart and data, is one of those things that makes the Internet a-good-thing. It is one of those things that makes universities worth some of their pennies. “Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems… All free: open access and open source.” Strapline and mission, in one. And their data visualisations are the best since Gapminder. Gapminder is another of those things that makes universities and the Internet good things. Truth through numbers made accessible visually, addressing problems that most people will understand. Kind of like Michael Sandel’s Justice course. There are more, but I realise this could become a long post, for which I do not have time this morning. About which, more later.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.

Shaping an Identity: hacking the human?

Higher education shapes identity on many levels. We can readily identify three:

  1. the individual student/academic;
  2. the institutional characteristics of the higher education sector;
  3. and wider transnational cultural-historical activity.

This slicing into comprehensible tranches is characteristic of my pragmatic approach to knowing, characterised by a logic of effectiveness in the present: sure, it is a continuum, but clumping into useful groups helps if you want to do something.

Continue reading “Shaping an Identity: hacking the human?”

Flipping icebergs: a neo-liberal curriculum?

It feels to me like an iceberg about to tip.
Ultimately this is an argument for qualitative research into the so-called subjective realms of values, beliefs and feelings. Because, in part, I suggest it is the enclosure of the subject for the reward of a few, which is at the root of the general mess we (me? Britain? Liberalism? Society? the globe?) appear to be in (NHS crisis, austerity, higher education funding and regulation, housing, migration, cyber-security, etc).

The theoretical approach or perspective of a neo-liberal curriculum appears to be:

  • Utilitarian (idealist, ratio-driven: promoting the greatest good for the greatest number
  • Pragmatic (what works);
  • Pareto-optimal (80% of the reward or output comes from 20% of the input or effort and the remaining 20% of the output comes from 80% of the input).

Continue reading “Flipping icebergs: a neo-liberal curriculum?”

A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Continue reading “A hidden curriculum”

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading “Tinkering with algorithms”

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..

Back to the really hard stuff

I am doing, in a way, what I have always wanted to do: teaching in a university, running an academic conference, editing a journal, supervising dissertations, some consultancy. And now I seem to have found the time and space to develop the two items that have been hardest for me to achieve and for which I have taken or given myself knocks: psychic and physical: the MA Education (Higher Education) and the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching. (HEJLT)

Every student published? Original MA work? At the cutting edge of policy and provision.