Wonderful Experiences, Control of our Lives

On ‘The Life Scientific‘ on Radio 4 this week Jim Al-Khalili was in conversation with zoologist Russell Foster. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038c5qj

Professor Foster is another top scientist and high achiever who “couldn’t see the point of school”. (“I was afterwards allowed to run free and immerse myself in biology.”)

“Education should be a wonderful experience that helps people take control of their lives”.

So why is school a far from wonderful experience for so many children and young people? And how many of the young (and the old) actually feel in control of their lives?


What did the children learn in their holidays? A recent chat with my daughter over one of her excellent pasta dinners reminded me of how much she’d learned about Italy simply by being on holiday in Italy – during our family holidays and also during a week’s stay with an Italian family. The wonders of Italy – the people, the climate, the landscapes, the built environments, the cuisine, the language, the culture. This informal education happened without a plan, without a target, or a curriculum. It happened through immersion in stimulating surroundings, through direct experience, through use of all the physical senses, through contact with other people, through conversation, through sheer enjoyment.

Britain has some of the world’s best early years practitioners who truly understand the importance and the benefits of an informal education that takes place through direct experience, through immersion in meaningful, stimulating activity, through interaction, asking questions, carrying out investigations, and so on. We have a long and proud tradition of such practices, in spite of the efforts of those who would put even Nursery children in a formal setting doing formal learning all day long.


Entering the final days of this excellent summer of 2013, and now settling down to some quiet reading and thinking. One of the odd thoughts reappearing this week concerned the bizarre episode earlier this year in which Michael Gove, our ever-industrious minister for education, tried to enlist the work of Antonio Gramsci in his arguments for ‘traditional’, formal, fact-based education.

How did this happen? Gramsci, like anyone with common sense, understood that it’s enormously helpful if we can all speak and write our own language, including its ‘standard’ forms, with power and precision. He also recognised the usefulness of having a broad and deep knowledge of, and a clear understanding of, the world around us. So what? Is this all that Gove was really getting at?

Infed.org runs a website that has posted some interesting thoughts on Gramsci – at http://infed.org/mobi/antonio-gramsci-schooling-and-education/ The following notes are a summary of Infed.org’s own precis on Gramsci, and on his thoughts on education. We offer them here in a spirit of helpfulness to Mr Gove, assuming he’s failed to understand the essence of Gramsci’s work, and was not simply playing silly intellectual games with his political opponents. We’ll post Part Two next week – a more detailed consideration of Gramsci’s ideas on schooling and education.

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) was an intellectual, a journalist and a major theorist who spent his last eleven years in Mussolini’s prisons.

Gramsci’s significance for informal education lies in three realms. First, his exposition of the notion of hegemony provides us with a way of coming to understand the context in which informal educators function and the possibility of critique and transformation. Second, his concern with the role of organic intellectuals deepens our understanding of the place of informal educators. Last, his interest in schooling and more traditional forms of education points to the need not to dismiss more traditional forms.

[“Forms”? Meaning what? Aims? Objectives? Surely not pedagogy?]

By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an ‘organising principle’ that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it becomes part of what is generally called ‘common sense’ so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. [Boggs1976 p39]

Gramsci divided the superstructure into those institutions that were overtly coercive and those that were not. The coercive ones, which were basically the public institutions such as the government, police, armed forces and the legal system he regarded as the state or political society and the non-coercive ones were the others such as the churches, the schools, trade unions, political parties, cultural associations, clubs, the family etc. which he regarded as civil society. To some extent, schools could fit into both categories. Parts of school life are quite clearly coercive (compulsory education, the national curriculum, national standards and qualifications) whilst others are not (the hidden curriculum).

Ideological hegemony meant that the majority of the population accepted what was happening in society as ‘common sense’ or as ‘the only way of running society’. There may have been complaints about the way things were run and people looked for improvements or reforms but the basic beliefs and value system underpinning society were seen as either neutral or of general applicability in relation to the class structure of society.

Gramsci maintained that the working class movement should produce its own intellectuals. Remember that Gramsci said that all men were intellectuals [i.e. have an intellect] but not all men have the function of intellectuals in society. He went on to point out that “there is no human activity from which every form of intellectual participation can be excluded” and that everyone, outside their particular professional activity, “carries on some form of intellectual activity …, participates in a particular conception of the world, has a conscious line of moral conduct, and therefore contributes to sustain a conception of the world or to modify it, that is, to bring into being new modes of thought”. What he was really trying to convey is that people have the capability and the capacity to think. The problem was how to harness those capabilities and capacities.

The creation of working class intellectuals [and thoughtful, reflective people generally] actively participating in practical life, helping to create a counter hegemony that would undermine existing social relations was Gramsci’s contribution to the development of a philosophy that would link theory with practice. His philosophy was a direct counter to those elitist and authoritarian philosophies associated with fascism and Stalinism. His approach was open and non-sectarian. He believed in the innate capacity of human beings to understand their world and to change it.

The role of informal educators in local communities links up with Gramsci’s ideas on the role of the intellectual. The educator working successfully in the neighbourhood and with the local community has a commitment to that neighbourhood. They are not ‘here today and gone tomorrow’.* They may have always lived in the area and have much in common with the local people or they may not. What is important is that they develop relationships with the people they work with that ensures that wherever they go, they are regarded as part of the community (‘one of us’). “They can strive to sustain people’s critical commitment to the social groups with whom they share fundamental interests. Their purpose is not necessarily individual advancement, but human well-being as a whole” (Smith 1994 p127). (Our emphasis)



Unfortunately too many education professionals are ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ – arriving in schools to ‘drive up’ their test and exam scores, then moving quickly on to the next step of their career ladder without any thought of challenging or needing to change the 19th century paradigm that continues to dominate and direct the education system in countries like England and the USA.



About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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2 Responses to Wonderful Experiences, Control of our Lives

  1. Deb says:

    Very interesting. I was like Professor Forster – couldn’t see the point of school and dreamt my way through my exams. My imagination was more interesting than the drivel being taught at school. Twenty years later I got a first class degree and my mum, perplexed, said to me “what went wrong at school?”. There is no easy answer to that except for one thing: school was a meaningless exercise of regurgitating facts which I deplored (still do). For me, I learn from doing, from interacting and from seeing, not from a textbook and not from a teacher telling me what I should know.

    Looking back, I think my education (particularly my secondary education) let me down massively and I ended up leaving school disengaged, frustrated and lacking confidence. Somehow I managed to carve something out of the mess and became a Personal Assistant to senior directors but I will always wonder what I could have become if my education had been better. Getting a first class degree later in life has been a bitter sweet experience; finding out I was capable when I had been told for so long that I wasn’t illustrates the failure of my schooling.

    Perhaps though that is what the government wanted at the time; the failures and the successes based on an ability to regurgitate facts. An easy way to control who does what work and protecting the ‘elite’ jobs from working class people like me? Perhaps that is why this government wants to return to those fact learning days; a means to reduce the number of successful students applying for top jobs? I mean someone has to do the crap work don’t they?


    • 3D Eye says:

      Many thanks for these comments, Deb, especially “I ended up leaving school disengaged, frustrated and lacking confidence.” This has been true of millions of young people down the years – yet everyone has talents, whether academically able or not, and no-one should have to suffer from disengagement, boredom and frustration, like you, me and all those others. This is why we should continue to fight for real education that meets all of the needs of every pupil. See also today’s Guardian front page headlines about ‘exam factories’, etc. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/22/gcse-pupils-damaging-exam-targets The CBI’s Katja Hall makes the most telling comments – “Employers don’t want exam robots – they want young people who are academically stretched, rounded and grounded. Turning schools into exam factories and cramming two years’ syllabus into one benefits no one.”


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