Reform Like a Plumber: a review of Education is Upside Down by Eric Kalenze

Teach like a stop-cock.

At some undefined point in either late 1974 or early 1975, the soon-to-be eminent British sociologist Basil Bernstein stubbed out his 42nd John Player Special, removed his thick aluminium-rimmed aviator spectacles and rubbed his aching eyes with ink-stained, little fists.

He had been typing away at his Remington, but had reached an impassable point. Eager to more clearly articulate his concerns about working-class access to and understanding of the codes of state education, he was reaching into the recesses of his cathedral-like mind for just the analogy to encapsulate his nascent theory.

As he roved the apses, aisles and knaves of his voluminous mind, little did he realise that he was on the cusp of typing just three words that would change the history of education theory. Having repositioned and straightened his aviator spectacles, and looking off into an oft-used, yet little-mentioned region of his mental cathedral, he conjured forth those three, most-magical words that would cause future educationalists, thought-leaders and passionate disruptivists to radically revise their thinking on how education is understood and used by students, its most cherished participants.

His ample mind tipped him over the verge of the most perfect, crystalline analogy with these three words:

“Imagine four toilets.”

It is at this point in my reading of ‘Class and Pedagogies: Visible and Invisible’ that I properly woke up, having waded through seeming acres of impenetrable sociologistese.

His basic premise was that two pedagogies were at play in British state education at this time: a ‘clean toilet’, visible pedagogy with clear rules, curricula, levels of attainment (and a textbook); contrasted with a disorderly toilet of ‘totally relaxed’ rigour, in which the rules of pedagogical engagement are unspoken, seemingly benign and yet (because the lock on the toilet door is busted) more invasive and potentially intrusive than the more transparent, externalised pedagogy of the tidy toilet.

In a nutshell (or a bidet), his thesis was that middle-class students, who spoke the language and shared the expectations of those who kept their toilets tidy, were able to make sense of a disorderly, opaque learning environment and see their way through to the rat race beyond. Whereas, students less well-equipped and unaware of the rules of engagement in the middle and upper tiers of society, were left simply to ‘play’ (in the disorderly toilet). Presumably engaging in some sort of sociological dirty protest.

It is, in many ways, the most exquisite analogy to describe the perils of imbuing education with Progressive pedagogical practices. It is, however, also a little bit hilarious. Whenever he wheeled out his ‘Four Toilets’ hypothesis, Bernstein was painfully aware of the darting eye-contact of his peers.  He was particularly crippled with agonising resentment when none other than Michel Foucault, the rude French historiographer, who, upon hearing of Bernstein’s ‘Four Toilets of the Educational Apocalypse’, snotted up into a bowl of hot chocolate and laughed in high-pitched peals like an agitated chandelier of tiny church-bells.

And so, in bitter shame, Bernstein shut up and nailed boards across the doors to his ‘Four Toilets’ – and a crucial articulation of the perils of hidden curricula was consigned to the dusty corners of introductory modules on MAs in Education at the Institute of Education.

Forty years later, half a world away in the United States, a young buck by the name of Eric Kalenze published Education is Upside Down: a book that would address the same issues with a far more palatable, less hilarious analogy.

With the precision and relentless research-prowess of a pedagogical Naomi Klein, Eric Kalenze marshals an array of sources and statistics to convincingly reframe and simplify the mission of state education. Like Bernstein, he shares a grave concern that child-centricity, as currently framed in terms of individualism and encroaching consumerism, is hobbling state education. Essentially, US state education is not equipping students with the skills and knowledge to succeed within post-compulsory institutions.

And his analogy is a funnel. His quite simple, but extremely well-supported argument is that state education should funnel its students towards post-compulsory institutions, matching needs and expectations. Like Bernstein, he understands that middle and upper-class students are eminently better equipped to navigate systems that exhibit contradictory expectations and that working class students are failed by such ambiguity and opacity as they move towards the working world.

According to Kalenze, this funnel is currently upside down: it has been for nigh-on a century. It is an education system that promotes engagement at the expense of academic rigour. Even worse, it is a system that doesn’t foster the attributes that enable the most disenfranchised to succeed: effectively, those least well-acquainted with the rules of the Rat Race, bounce off the sides of this inverted funnel back into the margins of society.

Kalenze moves systematically through 20th Century education history: demonstrating how John Dewey’s ideas were co-opted by advocates of progressive, student-centred education. He moves us onward to the present (the ‘Accountability Era’) where successive governments are mistakenly implementing market-based, audit solutions in order to improve educational outcomes, unaware of the need to ‘invert the funnel’ of an education system that over-privileges the student in the short-term, and disenfranchises them in the long-term.

He succeeds in building a case for reform based on simplifying the mission of schooling (from educating the whole child to preparing the child for democratic and critical participation in social disciplines) and promoting responsibility amongst students and parents for their central role in the education process.

He not only builds the case for reform; he also details with no little precision (and realism) how state education should be refitted for purpose. And it is at this point that his recommendations are boldest and, for some, least palatable. He advocates a range of educational career paths for students, one of which would be a much-reduced duration of compulsory education for those who satisfy minimum standards but do not wish to continue along an academic pathway.

It is by no means a comfortable read. My only criticism of substance, however, would be that, in relentlessly criticising Progressivism in US Education policy, Kalenze runs the risk of alienating those who might intuitively regard themselves as child-centred in the broadest terms (most notably, primary school teachers). He succeeds in redefining what it should mean to be ‘child-centred’, but does so by repeatedly referring to Progressives as a mass of misguided Others.

That small, but significant criticism aside, this is a book well-worth reading regardless of your politico-pedagogical position. Whilst the alienation of Progressives does jeopardise his mission, Kalenze ultimately succeeds in rising above the ideological brickbats of both left and right, in order to powerfully state the case for a radically simplified, transparent and (most crucially) valued education system: valued by its participants.

Bernstein cured himself of writer’s block by exploring the urinals of his cathedral mind. Kalenze proposes to cure the blockages and ricochets of state education with nothing less than a complete overhaul of its plumbing: a gleaming funnel with pipes directed purposefully and powerfully in multiple directions, driving the individual towards society with pragmatic respect for both.

Toilet reading, it is not.


3 thoughts on “Reform Like a Plumber: a review of Education is Upside Down by Eric Kalenze

  1. True it may put off some primary teachers but not all. In addition, I’m not sure that getting teachers of any kind on board by placating them is appropriate when we are talking about children’s life chances. On the other hand these are people who will need more of a shove but I do wonder how much of one, given how many NQTs and RQTs feel lost by all that is wishy-washy in education…

    Liked by 1 person

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