Democracy, education and plastic intelligence

This is a long article with many links to supporting evidence. It may be better for a first read to ignore the links so as to absorb the gist before a second read that takes in the linked material.

Politics and education are inseparable and always have been. This is clear from the history of education in the UK. The expert is Derek Gillard.

A very good example, with many modern parallels, can be found in the work of the nineteenth century educationalist Richard Dawes, which is described in this article.

Universal state funded education began in the nineteenth century and its advance was vigorously opposed at every stage by conservative politicians. The reason is clear and was summarised by Jeremy Corbyn’s quotation from Shelley during his speech to thousands of young supporters and admirers at the Glastonbury Festival of June 2017.

 Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.

 It is mass education, or rather ‘education of the masses’ that has driven the advance of democracy and the relentless extension of the right to vote, but I argue that three events in 2016 and 2017 have now focussed attention onto the nature and purpose of state education and how the subversion of democracy is being facilitated in the US and in the UK through the corruption and degradation of national education systems resulting from the ideology of neo-liberalism and marketisation. The three events in question are the EU Referendum in the UK (June 2016), The US Presidential Election (November 2016) and the UK General Election (June 2017). In all three, the forces of conservatism reduced their election campaigns to popular, repetitive, one dimensional sloganising in an attempt to exploit the lack of higher cognitive function (Kahneman’s System 2 thinking) in a large proportion of the voting population. The evidence for this is clear in the differential voting patterns related to levels of education.


A breakdown of the EU referendum data has shown that  those with lower educational levels were much more likely to vote for Brexit. Almost half of the local authorities which counted votes provided demographic information to the BBC. Analysis showed that how people voted was ‘strongly associated’ with how far they went with formal education.

This link was higher than any other measure from the census, including age and ethnicity. I wrote about the educational implications of this pattern here.

I argue in my articles and in my book, ‘Learning Matters’  that school pedagogy should be focussed onto helping the maximum proportion of students to progress through the Piagetian concrete/formal barrier, because then they will not only be able to understand say, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and other hard stuff in other subjects, but crucially the rational arguments and principles that increasingly underpin all aspects of life in an increasingly  complex, technological society. This includes economics, which, like the scientific concepts of weight and inertia, make cognitive demands at the formal operation level.

There were two main ‘dimensions’ in the EU leave/remain election campaign.

The first was ‘immigration’, with less immigration assumed to be good, more immigration assumed to bad. This is not only easy to understand, it resonates with very deep evolutionary fears. For all but our most recent hominid history the greatest threat to survival and that of our children was from the ‘tribe over the hill’ that has a tendency to attack your tribe, kill the men and boys, carry off the women and girls into sexual slavery and plunder your assets. Racists have always played on such primitive fears, often with great success.

The contrary argument; more immigration good, less immigration bad, can also be made, but it is much more complex. It involves Piaget’s formal operational thinking, which can also be characterised as the dominance of the rational (Kahneman System 2) over the instinctive/reactive (Kahneman System 1) mind.

Then there is the second dimension: trade with Europe good, trade barriers with Europe bad. This involves complex economics and is clearly in the formal operational thinking/ Kahneman System 2 category.

Even if this is a sound argument, it has to be balanced in the mind against the immigration dimension. Immigration is like the weight of an object in your hand. It can be directly sensed. It is ‘concrete’. The economic argument is like the inertia of the object. It cannot be sensed without deeper conceptual understanding. Its existence must be reasoned by means of a formal cognitive process by applying Newtonian scientific principles. So for concrete operational thinkers ‘immigration’ will always trump ‘economics’, while for formal operational thinkers the economic arguments are likely to prevail. Hence the higher the level of education, the more likely ‘leave’ was supported over ‘remain’.

The US Presidential Election

In the US presidential election it appears that educational levels were the critical factor in the shift in the vote between 2012 and 2016.

I discuss the educational implications of this result here.

The Canadian, ‘Globe and Mail’ published an analysis of the characteristics of Trump and Clinton Voters.

They conclude as follows.

The vote laid bare a sharp divide on education. Ms. Clinton fared better among the more highly educated, winning among college graduates and holding a substantial lead among those who had done postgraduate study. Those with high school or less, as well as those with only some college, preferred Mr. Trump by large margins.

 According to Pew Research, Mr. Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree, 67 per cent to 28 per cent, is the largest since the presidential election of 1980.

The UK General Election

Before the UK General Election of June 2017, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had been systematically undermined by most of his own MPs and misrepresented, ridiculed and demonised by the UK media. This is from a research report by the respected London School of Economics.

The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.

It was not just the overwhelmingly Conservative supporting print media. The UK state BBC TV was also guilty as pointed out in this Guardian article.

So when Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap General Election for 8 June 2017 it was widely assumed by the entire UK commentariat that Labour would be defeated in a landslide that would massively increase her majority and authority in the House of Commons. In the event Labour gained rather than lost seats from the Conservatives and Theresa May lost her majority in a devastating shock reversal of expectations.

The broadly accepted explanation is that Jeremy Corbyn managed to motivate a high proportion of young voters and especially university students and graduates. The age and social class profiles of the Labour voters are set out in this Guardian article.

Voters crossed party lines, challenging traditional class-party loyalties. Middle-class votes swung to Labour, which increased its share of ABC1 voters by 12 points compared with the previous general election. However more working-class voters came out for the Conservatives and the party increased its share of the C2DE voters by 12 points.

 The educational attainment profile follows the social class groups with the Conservatives attracting most of the lowest social class groups (with the lowest educational attainment).

The only thing that went wrong with the crude, populist Conservative strategy that had worked so well for the Brexiteers and for Donald Trump was that Jeremy Corbyn achieved a much higher turnout of young, better educated voters than has happened in the past.

So what have these elections to do with national education systems? I write about this here.

There are many clichés in ‘edu-speak’. A very common one is that schools should enable students to ‘reach their potential’. It implies the notion of fixed intelligence, whether conferred through genetic inheritance at birth, and/or determined by the quality of early years parenting. It is a ‘let off’ for secondary schools, enabling them to opt out of any responsibility for raising the intelligence of their pupils as they progress through the school, on the basis that this is either ‘not possible’, or not the main business of schools, which is a combination of filling heads with knowledge and providing discipline and training so as to maximise their employability.

This leads to a tacit assumption about the process of teaching and learning in schools, that conforms with that promoted by theGlobal Education Reform Movement’ (GERM) that is increasingly finding its expression in Charter Schools in the US, and in England in the Academies and Free School movement.

The converse of this notion, ‘Plastic Intelligence’, opens a door into a quite different educational paradigm that can and should empower and inspire both students and their teachers. It is increasingly being described as a ‘growth mindset.

‘Plastic Intelligence’ is explained and promoted in my book, ‘Learning Matters’, and its manifestations, in the form of a synthesis from a number of different ‘real world’ learning contexts, are described and explained here.

Plastic Intelligence really is a very big deal in the world of education because it provides the ultimate refutation of GERM.

The underlying evidence for plastic intelligence has long been recognised in the ‘Flynn Effect’, which is the well established and proven tendency for national IQs to increase in response to national education systems and the growth in complexity of modern societies.

Crucially this is no longer happening in England (and probably also in the US) as a result of the degradation of their national education systems as a result of GERM.

The internationally respected IQ specialist James Flynn, from whose work the ‘Flynn Effect’ is named, has recently written a book that discusses ‘Plastic Intelligence’. My review of his book can be found here.

The ‘Anti-Flynn’ effect is the halting, and indeed in England, the reversing of the year on year rise is national cognitive ability levels. Put crudely, the population is getting dimmer and therefore more susceptible to the simplistic  popularism of right wing election campaigns. This is discussed in my review.

Flynn himself writes as follows about the potential of plastic intelligence at all levels of education systems and for people of all ages.

“My analysis gives human autonomy a potent role. Here we must distinguish between internal and external environment. You can join the book club but it is more important to fall in love with reading; you can fill your mind with trash or ponder over a chess problem or any other problem that provokes wonder.

How wonderful it is that adults enjoy autonomy throughout their lives!

 University students come to me and say,” I know I am not as quick as the very best but I want to improve my mind and solve problems that captivate me; is that possible?” To this the answer is “yes”.

I did not do well at school; will I be able to handle your introductory course in moral philosophy?” To this the answer is that you may do very well indeed: some of my best students are mature students because they work out of genuine interest. Note my assumption: that current [cognitive] environment is the key and they need not worry too much about the past environments that have handicapped them since school.”

 Flynn’s book has a very useful summary of current theories of intelligence. In it he admits to being very influenced by Oesterdiekhoff, who he describes as, ‘the most original thinker among the continental Piagetians’.

Oesterdiekhoff links Piagetian stages to anthropology, He notes that the ‘formal operational’ stage develops only in modern societies, usually sometime between the ages of 15 and 20 and is associated with high IQ test scores. Flynn explains the Flynn effect (large gains in population IQ) mainly in terms of individuals having to come to terms with the cognitive demands of modern societies, which have steadily increased throughout industrialisation and ‘taken off’ in the last two decades of the digital revolution. The consequence is that school students and adults still at the ‘concrete operational’ (or pre-operational) level at 16 will increasingly struggle with the cognitive demands of modern life, demands of employers and with recognising rational weaknesses and ‘fake news’ in election campaigns. A ‘cognitive underclass’ is therefore in the making, all too easily taken in by the very carefully designed simplistic, populist messages of the ‘thought manipulators’ that lay behind the successful election campaigns of Brexit and Donald Trump.

The final element of my argument concerns the nature of the marketised model of education that is increasingly being inflicted onto our children by Academisation in the UK and the parallel ideological forces that spawned and exported it from the US.

Good relationships are central to deep learning and cognitive growth

Approaches  to teaching and learning that develop cognition and so improve plastic intelligence require pupils to be confronted with cognitive problems above the level at which they can solve them without assistance using their existing mental models. Teachers are now often taught never to allow children to fail to solve problems because this reinforces failure (the behaviourist model), whereas for cognitive growth children need to learn in a culture that supports and encourages learning from mistakes.

Vygotsky asserts that understanding first appears in the social space that learners share. Only then does it become internalised by individuals. The key point is that in a school the resolution of cognitive conflict in individual learners works best as a social process. The participants assist each other in grappling with the shared cognitive conflict. This is called peer to peer learning. It requires high quality social relationships in the classroom.

I was lucky enough early in my career (in the 1970s/80s) to work in a comprehensive school where such high quality relationships existed and it became a career goal to eventually achieve it in the 1990s in my headship school. Pupils have to trust each other and not fear humiliation by the teacher if they are to risk revealing the true depth of their misunderstandings.

A school culture of behaviourist authoritarianism will not provide sufficient personal psychological security for the teacher or the pupils for the necessary social interactions to ignite. Obviously nothing can be achieved where informality degenerates into anarchy and chaos reigns. Great demands are placed on the teacher, who needs the skills to be able to promote positive self-sustaining, reasoned discussion between pupils. This is very difficult to achieve and the hallmark of a good teacher, supported by like minded professional colleagues working in a school that supports such a culture.

There are regrettably a growing number of schools, led by the Academy and Free School movement, many feted by the Department for Education, where relationships between school managers and teachers, teachers and pupils and pupils with their peers are so limited in depth and quality that this type of high level learning will be impossible. If cramming and repetition, reinforced by rewards and the shame of failure, have any effect at all on individual cognition then it is cognitive depression, leading to rejection of challenging concepts, consequent alienation and the ‘Anti-Flynn’ effect.

Academy schools in England have increasingly moved away from a developmental approach focussed onto improving analytical powers of cognition, to a knowledge-based approach whereby teaching is defined as ‘telling by the teacher’ and learning is ‘listening by the student’.

 Unsurprisingly, many students react badly when, despite listening as hard as they can, they still don’t ‘get’ what the teacher is ‘on about’. See the cover of my bookThey become bored, distracted and eventually rebellious, so a regime of strict discipline backed up by sanctions is needed to maintain order.

 According to an article in the Guardian of 19 November 2013, ‘It’s around noon at a popular and successful Academy School’.

Through the glass walls of the classrooms children can be seen with their heads down over their work. Open a door and they will all jump to attention and stand silently, shirts buttoned to the top, ties neatly pulled up under pinstripe blazers. Tight discipline is something of a feature in many of the sponsored academies of north London.

 Strict dress codes, daily uniform checks and long lists of rules about the different types of detention have won praise from some parents, but others believe it has gone too far.

 At another nearby academy the behaviour policy says students are not allowed to go to the toilet between lessons or visit a local shop on the way home.

 In another London Academy there is a five-stage ‘behaviour improvement path that begins with 20-minute detentions for minor matters such as not filling in a year planner properly, or bringing the wrong equipment, and escalates to exclusion for persistent rule-breaking or more serious offences.”

 A parent is quoted, “They are all Academies around here or are run on similar lines. There’s only one school that isn’t, and it’s hugely oversubscribed. We’re being given no choice about how our children are educated. Why is it only in poor areas that children are being made to do this?”

But worse is on the way from the US in the form of replacing teachers with computers and forcing students to comply with ‘programmed learning’. It is being described euphemistically as ‘Personalised Learning‘. See this article by Matthew Bennett, and the comments to this article by Janet Downs.

These debased and degraded teaching methods are being assessed in England by a similarly debased and degraded GCSE system run by privatised exam boards that have co-evolved to make their exams ‘accessible’ to students taught this way, but lacking deep understanding or development of their general levels of cognition. So the methods may work in the short term for GCSE results for the schools that are forced to compete with each other in the English marketised education system. However, such students are likely to be ill prepared for progression to academic university studies.

The national education systems of England and the US continue to fare badly in the international PISA assessments. My analysis of the results of the latest (2015) PISA round and its update can be found here and here. I use a fresh approach validated by international academics of the highest standing. The articles need to be studied in order to grasp their scope and significance.

There is clearly very little to be positive about that is for sure. Even more depressing is that the frantic pace of ‘reform’ is to be stepped up with more testing, more Academies and Free Schools and with more selective grammar schools in England only belatedly abandoned after the Conservative’s disastrous 2017 General Election result. It would be hard to come up with proposals to make the English national education system worse.

The most important implication for the UK and US education systems is the key role of cognitive ability in driving higher attainment. This needs more of the well-proven developmental pedagogy that the ideology of marketisation is replacing with knowledge-focussed rote learning and behaviourism implemented by computer-based instruction and testing, all enforced by ever more draconian and abusive systems of harsh discipline.

 More importantly in the context of this article we are increasingly not equipping our school leavers and future adults with the cognitive abilities needed to resist the efforts of populist conservative politicians to manipulate our democracy. The Labour Party is proposing a new, ‘National Education Service’. This needs to support the potential of ‘plastic intelligence’ throughout life and will require the recognition and abandonment of the ‘Educational Lysenkoism’ that has afflicted the UK since the 1988 Education Reform Act and New Labour’s creation of independent Academy schools.

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