03 August 2007

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don't mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals -- to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job...): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:
...serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) 'Zemblanity' is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:
So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.
All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina - which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that "making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design" is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when "learning outcomes" are specified in advance.
And I've been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of "Christian National Education" (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of "Fundamental Pedagogics", which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language -- a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more "scientific". For example, one had to learn such terms as "Temporal Andragogics" (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the "learning outcomes" of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), "they don't have to understand it, they just have to learn it." Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, "you don't have to understand it, you just have to translate it." This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with "outcomes-based education" (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say "we taught them that but they didn't learn it."

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of "Christian National Education". Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness -- new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of "learners" rather than "students" or "pupils". Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that "One of the pu... learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday," you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn't matter what the word "learner" means, it is the one my boss's boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to "facilitate conflict".

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution's budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by "Christian National Education". Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the "old" South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg -- cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn't matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.


Teemu said...

Great article, thanks for taking the time to write this. It's great to get some perspective on what happens in Africa regarding education. Last weekend I went to movies to check out the latest Harry Potter. When I saw Dolores Umbridge stagnating the whole system I immediately thought of the concept I had previously expressed as zemblanity of education. Low and behold, I stumble on this article afterwards. Serendipity?

Steve Hayes said...

I saw the Harry Potter film last night, but because the book is the longest of the series, the film had to be compressed. Dolores Umbridge comes across even more clearly in the book.

Anyway, I must thank you for writing about it and inspiring Dugald Hine, since it gave me a new word!

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Steve,

Thanks for taking the discussion on from my original post - and for bringing such a range of experience to it. Your friend's line about a "curriculum-centred curriculum" is one I'll remember - as well as your description of the St Sergius Institute. (Jonathan Rose's 'An Intellectual History of the British Working Classes' is full of examples of shoestring education similar to those you describe.)

Do you think there is any hope of prizing the limpet away?

Personally, I do see some possibilities. For one thing, the connection between rigorously-assessed qualifications and institutional attendance is arbitrary - and counter-examples exist, even in highly "developed" societies. When I go for my driving test, the examiner doesn't care whether I was taught by a professional instructor or by my older brother...

Yet there is a fierce, irrational attachment to the idea that institutional attendance equals education. Try arguing that the school system tends to do more harm than good and you come about as close as is possible in a secular society to the experience of being branded a heretic. (Illich was right that schooling is the central religious ritual of our societies.)

Steve Hayes said...


A driving test is exactly the kind of example where outcomes-based education shines. It doesn't matter where the input came from, it's the outcome that's important, and you can specify which outcomes indicate competence. And this was there in the idea of "recognition of prior learning" (RPL), in the qualifications standards we set. What mattered was the outcomes.

In skills like driving, or making a table, it is easy to specify outcomes. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

But in theology, or the humanities generally, it is very difficult to specify outcomes without zemblanity.

When I marked students theological essays, I could usually tell from the first paragraph what sort of mark they would get at the end, but trying to sdpecify that outcome was elusive. It was that they showed a grasp of the topic that went beyond rote learning, that they could approach sources critically, that they could think.

This went against all the principles of the Faculty of Education, to the great confusion of students who were taking courses in different subjects, wherew the lecturers had different expectations. As one student said to me, incredulously, "You mean you want us to think for ourselves?" By George, he's got it! But that is precisely what the Education Faculty did not want them to do: "They don't have to understand it, they just have to learn it."

And when you train teachers like that, zemblanity is inevitable.

My advice to the students would be "don't bore me". Don't reproduce large chuinks of the study guide, because I've read it already, and in some cases I wrote it. Tell me something I don't know. Surprise me. If they did that, they would get an A. But if they did that in Fundamental Pedagogics they would get an F.

And that's the difference between serendipity and zemblanity.

Anonymous said...

"But in theology, or the humanities generally, it is very difficult to specify outcomes without zemblanity."

You've given me much to ponder


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