Yesterday, I had a strong, visceral, negative reaction to a claim by an organisation which stated that their ‘mission is to transform mathematics education in the UK’.
I think the use of the word ‘transform’ in education without any suggestion of what something is being transformed from, and how that relates to what it is intended to be transformed to is pernicious.
I was disappointed to then read a number of complimentary references to organisations looking to ‘transform practice’ in education in the Teacher Development Trust’s ‘Developing Great Teaching’, a well-received review into effective professional development.
I have to acknowledge that I have described my experience of being taught on my maths PGCE as being transformative, and I have, in the past, intended to inspire transformation in my students through the education I provide.
Problematic to all of this is the apprehension of what something is being transformed from, and the intention of what it is then being transformed to. Transformation could mean a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but it could also mean a well thought out profession becoming the provision of an inflexible set of dogmas. In short, transformation does not imply that things get better.
It is my view that education is unavoidably transformative. Whether a teacher likes it or not, their teaching causes a student to be different at the end of a course of study to when they started it. This change will be in the knowledge the student has, as well as a number of other aspects that are more tricky to pinpoint, but perhaps would include their relationship with authority and their self-esteem. This transformation is certainly not simple to describe. It may well be positive, but it could also be negative, and it could well be a combination of the two across a spectrum of many different aspects of a student.
Aiming at transformation is devoid of meaning; transformation is inevitable, complex, and I would say very difficult to control. As a teacher, I would look to the things that I can control: the set of practices that surround the principles ‘have the students learned what I wanted them to learn? How could I improve on that so more of the students learn more of what I wanted them to learn?’ As a teacher, my only expertise is in teaching my subject, if I want students to come out of my course with raised self-esteem, then the best thing I can do is teach them in the best way that I can, so that they learn my subject.
Looking at the intention of the organisation aiming to transform maths education, we might surmise that they intend to improve maths education, and no one would argue with this desire. However, in the same vein, we could surmise that by using the word ‘transform’ instead of improve, they contend that there is something ‘wrong’ with maths education as it is at the moment, and not just that, they believe they are going to transform it from its present state, ‘bad’, to a state that their CPD would act as the catalyst for: ‘good’. This reading would certainly help them in their efforts to sell their services to schools.
Lets look at the differences between the everyday use of the words improvement and transformation. Improvement acknowledges that there is something worthwhile that already exists, and describes an intention to build on that. Transformation implies that what already exists is not good enough and will be replaced. Improvement requires the complex negotiation of determining what is already being done well, it requires the expertise and knowledge to be able to find this out and then to build on it. Transformation can be thought of as ‘out with the old and in with the new’. I contend there is a reason why the word transform is being used and not improve: it’s because it’s a far, far easier strategy to implement if you want to impose your ideas onto someone else.
So why have I used transformation to describe the education I received on my PGCE, which elsewhere I have described as Kindness? It is because I felt that I had improved in so many ways through the course, that the accumulation of these improvements was a form of transformation. This is the everyday view that ‘transforming’ something is always positive. I was wrong to use the word, and I wouldn’t use it now to describe the effect I want to have on my students. My experience of my PGCE was positive for me in a wide spectrum of ways. And what do I want for my students? I want them to learn maths.