The compromise classroom

Traffic laws, conventions and regulations do not perfectly suit many people. There are some excellent drivers who could safely exceed the speed limit on motorways. There are some drivers who have slower than average reaction times for whom even sixty miles per hour is much too fast. In the middle of the night there really is no reason why motorists could not safely park on double-yellow lines in some areas.

The laws, conventions and regulations we have are best-fit compromises – inevitably imperfect for an imperfect world in which there are a near-infinite number of interested parties with often conflicting aims.

We all understand and accept it has to be this way. The alternative – to personalise traffic laws to every motorist’s individual context – would be preposterously complicated and chaotic – worse for everyone overall.

We are not as good as accepting this about education despite the problem being effectively the same.

If we were to set up education to meet the individual learning needs of each child what we’d come up with probably wouldn’t look much like schools today. It might involve highly trained personal tutors for every child or at least for small groups of similar children. Teaching might start and finish later than most schools do today. It could mean no formal grades at all at any point.

Such an uncompromising approach to education – or a different one looking entirely different might – or indeed might not – increase overall learning.

It would also be incredibly expensive with the country having less money to spend on health or pensions. It would probably be a tough political sell and a party proposing it likely to be heavily defeated at its next election. It might pose serious childcare issues for families. It might also mean destinations using less transparent and more mysterious criteria than exam grades to make decisions about who to admit.

This is not comfortable. Nobody likes to compromise or even consider compromise about things we care a lot about. Doing so can feel like a moral failure and an admission of defeat. And most of us don’t have to do it. When we are responsible for only part and not the whole of the puzzle we have the luxury of not considering the trade-offs and can safely argue we want more or less of something without thinking about what the impact of this would be on other things. We can argue for exponential increases in school budgets without having to propose where proportionate cuts should be made. We could make a case for schools staying open late into the evening without worrying about how pupils will get home.

Others – those responsible for putting all the pieces together – do not have the luxury of such moral purity. These people make choices knowing in a world that’s never zero sum, advantaging one individual or group disadvantages others, and the relative merits of each proposed strategy or policy must be carefully and dispassionately assessed. This can be very unpleasant and disturbing work but it has to be done because not doing it means making huge life-changing decisions on whims without oversight, which sadly but inevitably often ends up damaging the most vulnerable in society most of all.

This is – of course – not to say bets are always right or those responsible for making them are always the right people. Very often they are not and often the consequences of the wrong bet can be catastrophic. My recent interest in the history of people with learning disabilities has provided me with many awful case studies of this – but doing better cannot mean thinking about the wider consequences of our decisions less.

All of this is as true for classroom teachers as it is for high falutin’ decision makers. What is best for a whole class may not be best for any of the individuals in it. The way children prefer to read is a good example – some individuals may like to read on a beanbag while listening to music while others may like to sit at a desk in silence. Both children cannot get their preference in the same classroom without making other adaptations that create further complexities. The teacher has to make a decision which will be a compromise which recognises many interlocking and moving parts and might not give any one person exactly what they want.

This is not to go as far as saying there is no place for very radical proposals. To say so would be to place blind trust in authority it can never be deserving of and precludes the possibility of paradigm changes from which huge numbers of people benefit. Those those making cases for dramatic change must also account for all the wide-ranging consequences of them and pre-emptively find ways to mitigate against the worst while allowing room to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.

Whether it’s ending exams forever, individually personalising learning or reducing holidays those advocating the idea must also have ideas about all the things that happen because of their decision and not just the good bits they’re excited about. They must understand all big decisions have losers as well as winners and they must be willing to speak calmly and rationally with those who will be negatively affected. They must recognise not doing this and making out their idea is a sort of panacea is at best disingenuous.

If we want thinking and conversations about change to lead to actual meaningful change we must have them in the context of the world we live in and avoid utopian pontificating – interesting in the pub on a Friday night but no good at all in a meeting on Monday morning.

Failing to do this isn’t bravery or conviction. It is wilful ignorance.


One thought on “The compromise classroom

  1. Pingback: Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam) | Ben Newmark

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