The Defeat Device: VWs and the Ponzification of Teaching


Schrodinger’s car?

 This week, Volkswagen has admitted the existence of a ‘defeat device‘ in some of its cars exported to the United States. The defeat device is a piece of software that detects when the car’s emissions are being tested, then reduces the car’s emissions during the test. The ramifications of the existence of such software and the wanton duplicity that may have motivated its use are, frankly, staggering.

For many years, I have been a champion of ‘the people’s car’: its brand has been built upon a kind of benign neutrality. VW make cars that say nothing about you, but in doing so, say everything. To find that they may well be less than reputable, and may indeed be hoodwinking us into thinking they are more ecologically-friendly than they really are, has really shaken my faith in a brand that I had previously felt to be unassailable in its apparent banal functionalism.

It reminds me of the Ponzi schemes run by Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford: bogus investment pyramids revealed only after the financial crisis of 2008. Our capacity for trust appears to be strangely unlimited (given our dependency upon regulatory bodies) and is only challenged when paradigms shift, times change and moods deteriorate. The very idea that people might lie to us is still, bizarrely, surprising to us.

Which brings me, as ever, to education. When moods change, which of our current practices may be revealed to be nothing more than Ponzified progress; which of the tricks of our trade might in fact prove to be the ‘defeat devices’ that hoodwink learners and parents into thinking that learning has happened?

Teaching to the test is an obvious candidate: the short-term, gaming of an assessment in order to synthesize the skeleton of an understanding – that all too quickly crumbles once the test is done.

But are there less obviously naughty things we do in order to create a veneer of learning: practices that are in fact sanctioned by high-stakes and a political imperative to show progress (and value for money)?

Marking (especially last minute before book scrutiny); homework as evidence of rigour (as opposed to fostering independent inquiry and enjoyment); musical or drama performances that are so heavily-scaffolded as to provide spectacle over substance: could these be nothing more than pedagogical blinkers, generating the superficial appearance of ‘things having been done’? Nothing more than busy work.

If this is the case, then what is to be done? How best is a teacher to prepare for a turning tide which may reveal them to be less teacher and more marketeer? That appearance should hold sway over substance and content, in this age of image and rhetoric, should come to us as no surprise.

When the time comes to lift the bonnet on education, let’s make sure that, individually, we are positioned on the side of authentic practice: the fostering of deep understanding and critical regard, and, above all, a desire to build again.

But build again, this time, with schemes and devices that neither defeat nor deceive; but rather reveal and renew. Now that is a brand that I can believe in.


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