Spool Five



Journal - Centralised Learning

Author: Eoin Carney Published: May, 2021



I’m fairly apolitical by nature. I’m not sure where this comes from. It’s probably form my father.

I grew up in a rural area of Ireland, near the Northern Irish border. When I eventually discovered Marxism through the Communist Manifesto (I was around 20), I was blown away by its clarity and precision. I still believe its the only analysis of political economy that makes sense. I’m generally not a fan of ‘grand theories’, but if there was ever a case for their validity, it lies in Marx, not Einstein, or Hawking, or anyone else. I still go back and read some Marx every so often, and it continues to astound me. I get the same feeling reading Freud. Even at the level of style, I love their works.

Anyway, as convincing as I find Marxism from a philosophical/analytical perspective, it’s never really ‘taken hold’ with me as a political ideology. When I was young and getting excited about Marx and Brecht and Godard and ‘revolutionary’ thinking, I would sometimes try discuss it with my father. He would always talk about the history of the ‘troubles’ and the realities of revolutionary violence. I knew better than to try argue against that.

Still, even though I’m not political, if I was I would be communist. In particular, I’ve always actually liked ideas about centralised planning. For example, I really loved the idea of the A.I. computer in The Dispossessed, the one that allocated work assignments. In the last few months, however, my ideas about centralisation have been thoroughly put to test.

Our school recently switched its ‘franchise’ (remember, private schools in Korea are more like ‘businesses’ than traditional schools). Previously, the curriculum was set by our boss. Now, its set by some office in Seoul that also administers to hundreds of other academies in the same franchise. We all access a common file-system (just a cloud based storage system like dropbox), and the syllabai/schedules are uploaded there every month. Also, there is a strong ‘e-learning’ aspect to the syllabus - every night the students will have to log on to a the franchise’ site and complete digital exercises. The daily schedules correlate with their online exercises. For example, we might have to cover a page of the book on ‘names of rooms in a house’, and that night they will have some kind of online activity quiz/game based on that content.

So, we have to stick exactly to the centralised schedule. The main reason for this, as it was communicated directly to us, is that we have to prepare the students well for their online tasks, because their parents will probably be present during those. In private school culture in Korea, the parents are the real boss. 90% of your job is simply keeping them happy and paying their monthly fees.

At first, it was kind of nice having everything pre-organised by the central office. All you have to do is stick to the schedule and everything is fine.

Problems started arising due to the ‘complexity’ of the curriculum. A business as big as the one we’re currently under naturally tries to cover as many bases as it can, provide curricula for all ages and levels. However, our school is pretty small, and in the past there wasn’t any kind of ‘management’ layer. Even the boss was incredibly laissez-faire. So, now it’s mostly down to the individual teachers to manage any inconsistencies or quirks in the central scheduling.

The problem, though, isn’t really with the lack of management structure, it’s with the centralisation itself. We’ve become slaves to some learning software that the kids do for homework.

I worked in a university for a while and, even though the structures are different, there are similar problems. Universities these days, at least in the U.K., are economic powerhouses and require a lot of management and oversight. As with my current situation, most of the administrative and managerial tasks are actually given to lecturers. Even though there is a huge management structure above the academics, those people mostly deal with things like admissions, outreach, accommodation, funding, etc.. In other words, getting people in the door and taking their money. Those people are also seen as much less ‘expendable’ than the actual lecturers, as I witnessed first hand during a period of cuts at my previous university (of course, I myself was never in danger as an ‘adjunct’ teacher, my ‘margins’ were already so wide. I did however, know some really good, more senior, academics that lost their job).

The actual day-to-day tasks of organising courses, assessments, etc., is left to the departments themselves. The academics who are in charge of these things (for example, a ‘head of department’) do not receive extra compensation for their work. At best, their servitude simply makes them a better candidate for promotion later on (to ‘senior lecturer’, ‘professor’, etc.). This is mostly taken on faith. At the end of the day, you could easily be outpaced by someone with a better research profile but no administrative experience. In academia, however, you’re rarely in a position to say ‘no’ to these kinds of extra work.

Long story short, our little school now seems to need some dedicated organisational/management roles. But, I don’t think this would make things better. I hate management systems. What I love is flexibility and freedom in what you do. In the context of education, especially, I feel it’s a necessary ingredient in productive learning. We’ve been on the new system for just over two months now. It was fun at first. Now, I feel that even the kids are succumbing to the monotony of the new schedule. It feels like we are on rails. Some days I have to push the kids so hard because we are a few pages behind due to a lack of internal communication within the school. They are definitely learning in a more intensive and structured way than they were in the past, and maybe this will benefit them in the long run, but I also feel they can only be pushed so far, as can the teachers. The thing is, even if you sense they are going too fast or too slow, there’s not much you can do to change course, to adapt to individual students’ needs. You have to keep chugging along.

Complexity can’t be managed centrally. That’s why, I think, so many Marxists are happy bedfellows with anarchists. Marx himself was against the idea of a centralised ‘state’ at all, aside from maybe as an mid-point between capitalism and communism (the proletariat would take control of the state and gradually decentralise it). True complex, organic growth can only really take place at a localised level. Yes, in cases of education there need to be standards and centralised bodies of knowledge and research. But, at the end of the day, I feel these should serve more as ‘repositories’. Individual organisations and teachers should also feel free to experiment. It might seem that, in a post-enlightenment era, ‘education’ is settled matter. But, I think that there is still a lot of room to discover new methodologies, new practices. Especially ones that can resist the increasing technolgization of the classroom.

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