Research: The importance of words – for economics, education & evaluation


“Zero is where the real fun starts” is a think piece written for the TEESnet conference 2016 in Liverpool – by Katie Carr (CDEC) and myself.
Download the article as part of the conference proceedings, pages 49-60, here.

…from the introduction:

In this paper, we propose that the dominance of quantifiable measurable phenomena over qualitative, less tangible aspects of experience, is simply a provisional, although ubiquitous, discoursive artefact, a story no more necessary or truthful than any alternative view. The pedigree and increasing pervasiveness of this story can be traced to the ascent of the primacy of rational thinking, which assumes that knowledge is fixed and can be externally verified, that humans can ‘know’ – in an absolute sense – and consequently control, the material world around them, to the Enlightenment period, closely associated with the scientific revolution. From the early 18th century, philosophy became increasingly dominated by scientific discourse, and its principles of reason and logic. Ethics were subject to the same rational treatment, with the emergence of the utilitarian principle guiding moral decisions: ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers’. The authority of the Church was challenged, in favour of attributing authority and legitimacy to government and individual liberty. Arguably, ‘homo economicus’ – the hypothetical portrayal at the foundation of modern economics of humans as rational self-maximising individuals, displaying predictable behaviour – was born, or at least conceived, during the Age of Enlightenment. Soon followed the Industrial Revolution, and even our modern education system mirrors the features and conditions then created to streamline and manage human resources within the ever-increasing pace of the commercial machine: “ringing bells, separate facilities, specialised into separate subjects…educat[ing] children in ‘batches’”. In the early 20th century, the American industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor published “Principles of Scientific Management”. ‘Taylorism’, as it became known, is a production efficiency methodology, which proposed to fragment tasks into the smallest possible measurable part, closely observe workers and measure their output in minute detail, and bestow reward or discipline accordingly.

There have, arguably, been many benefits of “valuing what’s measurable” and its associated conceptual landscape, from improved women’s rights (Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1791), protection of human rights through fairer judicial systems, and widening access to educational opportunities. However, it is not difficult to also trace the origins of the current social and environmental challenges of today – associated with our anthropocentric view of nature as a resource in service to our ever-increasing obsession with economic growth – in the various chapters and engrossing plot of this story. One needs only scan the newspapers to find evidence that, in its extreme articulations, our obsession with quantification and measurability has long since become a burden, even for our educational system, on individual teachers and children. A recent article in Der Spiegel (#35, 2016), entitled “Release our kids – Grades are not everything: what really matters in life” laments the fact that schools have become a highly stress-inducing system, resulting in children moving from school to university already being burnt-out, and quoting the President of the German National Teachers Representation as saying “Grades have lost their indicative power (for future career/success), even if people still believe they do”. What matters, suggests the journalist, are “Love, passion, curiosity” (p96).

In order to explore the ways in which this story, our current paradigm, has been created and reinforced, we here briefly introduce the concept and methodology of critical discourse analysis (CDA), which foregrounds language as being the prime site of the enactment and recreation of ideology, and as such suggest that it should be the focus of analysis for those seeking to understand power relations, domination, and resistance.

Download and read the full article as part of the conference proceedings, pages 49-60, here.