Welcoming Alexandre Pais

We are delighted to welcome another new colleague to ESRI. Dr Alexandre Pais joined us as a Research Fellow in September, from the University of Lisbon, where he worked on the project Urban Boundaries, funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology.   After completing his licentiate in mathematics, followed by a master degree in mathematics education, both from University of Lisbon, Alexandre taught for 9 years in several Portuguese public schools. He then completed a PhD at Aalborg University, Denmark. His research focusses on a critical analysis of the relation between mathematics education and the political, economic and ideological context of using Maths in contemporary society. He has developed a dialectical materialist critique of education, using mathematics education as a case study; and using the psychoanalytical work of Jacques Lacan and the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek to investigate the relations between science, education and society. He has published several articles on this work in Educational Studies in Mathematics (read herehere and here). Following his PhD he won a postdoctoral fellowship at Aalborg University, where he participated in the organisation and teaching of masters courses in Technoanthropology and Applied Philosophy, before working on the Urban Boundaries project in Lisbon.

Harry Torrance

Geeks and Digital E-topias: New media careers and the gendering of ‘tech celebs’

After an intense first year on the project, data collection is now complete. As Heather has discussed elsewhere, we’ve started the initial analysis on some of the group interview data by developing a set of thematic codes to cut into the data which spoke to the research aims and questions, as well as unexpected themes and concerns that came up in young people’s talk about celebrity culture (for example: ‘routes to fame’ and different ‘genres’ of celebrity). Having coded the transcripts, we’ve started to take on individual sub-codes and develop summaries of their content, making initial observations about the patterns and themes within these. While this only represents the beginning of our analysis, this process of immersing ourselves in the data has allowed us to get a handle on some interesting patterns in how celebrity culture relates to young people’s classed and gendered aspirations. In this blog post, Kim discusses some of the themes and patterns that emerged from one of her coding summaries: young people’s talk about celebrities associated with ‘technology and enterprise’.

These celebrities included British entrepreneurs Alan Sugar and Richard Branson, but mainly this talk was about a group of inventors and CEOs of internet corporations such as Larry Page and Sergey Brin who created Google, Jack Dorsey who created Twitter, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and one of our case study celebrities – Bill Gates previously of Microsoft and now of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While these celebrities were discussed less than those associated with music, film, television, sport and royalty, there were some very interesting patterns in how they were mobilised by young people, specifically the role they served in young people’s distinctions around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ celebrity and with this, their notions of ‘success’, aspiration and achievement.  Indeed, these celebs tended to generate very positive responses among our participants, described as talented, clever, inspirational and having made a positive impact on society through being innovative and creative. Perceived as ‘famous for the right reasons’, with fame and money a byproduct of their skill and talent rather than an aim in and of itself, they were associated with ‘good celebrity’:


So do you like Bill Gates?


I mean he’s not really, he’s more famous for what he’s like built, rather than for doing anything else so, yeah.


Is he talented, do you think?


Er yes, yeah, I would say he is talented.

What has been striking in these data are the connections participants made between the products they consumed, and their evaluation of the individuals who have created these, with one participant asking regarding Bill Gates ‘where would we be without half of the stuff he made?’ For some, this relationship as consumer of these social media products seeped into their own aspirations for work. In one discussion between year 10 pupils about the wealth of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Mark Pincus (the creator of the social network gaming company that created FarmVille, worth over £3.5bn), we see how these celebrities become associated with particular ideals about what makes ‘good work’:


They work but they, what they are working is good.

Laura B

Like they enjoy what they do.

Bob S

They have to earn it though.


Yeah but at the end it’s like with their mates.

While I can imagine many people – MPs, parents, policymakers, the BBC – would greet this finding with delight (‘Great – young people want to become successful entrepreneurs and social media successes! Look at the ambition!’) we need to hold back on such celebratory proclamations and think a bit more critically about what’s going on within this kind of positioning of these celebrities, and what this might mean for the ways in which young people can imagine their futures in particular areas of work.

Firstly, in the talk about these ‘tech celebs’ we detect the presence of particularly seductive tropes and ideas about ‘new media’ careers as embodying the characteristics of ‘good work’ which is exciting, informal and cutting edge and where careers are built out of private passions. The work of Ros Gill (one of our advisory group members) is really useful here. Ros has argued that new media workers have emerged as ‘poster boys and girls’ for new forms of work in the knowledge economy – what Ulrich Beck calls the ‘Brave New World of Work’. Such idealisations came up in another group interview where one participant discussed wanting a job like Burnie Burns and Gavin Free, creators of internet company, Rooster Teeth:


Ok. What do they, do?


Um. Basically … make short films and web series, merchandising that sort of thing. [I: okay] They release a weekly podcast as well. They did the first live screen video podcast as well. So, they do that … I would love Gavin Free’s job … He just plays games.

The Internship 5You need only turn to the recent film The Internshipto see the currency of these ideas. Featuring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as slightly washed up, unemployed ex-salesman who ‘bluff their way’ into a ‘coveted’ internship at Google. The Google HQ workplace is presented as youthful, playful, fun, and non-hierarchical: the creator of Google, Sergey Brin, featuring in the film riding an elliptical bike and mingling merrily with the interns. When Vaughn and Wilson first arrive at Google HQ, Wilson looks around and says, ‘Picture the greatest amusement park you’ve ever been to as a kid. Now imagine nothing like it and a million times better’. This is not just Hollywood fantasy: The official youtube video on ‘the real Google Intern’ is full of these tropes, presenting Google HQ as a desirable E-topia of challenging but rewarding work, which enables creativity and autonomy (‘google is an environment which places few limitations on where your mind can go’); and rewards motivation and passion (‘Interns have in common a passion and motivation to get these things done … you don’t have to know everything but you have to be willing to learn’).  As Ros Gill and I have argued, the celebrification of new media careers is dangerous, as the pleasures associated with new media work sweeten and mask the insecurity, exploitation and inequality which are characteristic of work in these industries.

googleinternAt the end of the ‘real’ Google Intern Video, one intern says: ‘If this is what being an intern feels like, I’d love to be an intern for the rest of my life’. Arguably an advert for Google, the film and broader cultural representations of careers in these sector, can also be seen as adverts for precarious types of employment like internships, where young people are told they’re ‘lucky’ to get the much ‘coveted’ and desired opportunity to work for free.  My own work shows that internships not only on reproduce privilege by operating as mechanisms for social closure; they also work to foster young people as compliant, enthusiastic and willing to self-exploit: the happy housewives of the working world. Even though it is reported that Google pay Interns well (as this celebratory Daily Mail article tells us), what is important is that such normalisation of internships in sectors such as new media, masks the reality that such high payment (and indeed any payment) is the exception rather than the rule in an economy where young people like our participants are likely to struggle to find ‘decent work’.

Secondly, what is striking and depressing about these data is the significance of gender – as well as class and race – to who gets to embody the ‘tech celeb’, associated with ‘deserved success’ and the ‘inspirational role model’. Depressingly, as I compiled a list of these celebrities, I was struck by the gendered and raced homogeneity in this category, as the visuals below startlingly illuminate.


 As we have discussed elsewhere, hierarchies of good and bad fame and debates about a crisis in ‘aspiration’ are infused by judgments about social class and gender.  Women, particularly working-class women, have come to embody ‘bad’ celebrity, the abject and othered status of ‘famous for nothing’: with Kim Kardashian and Katie Price positioned ‘at the bottom of the celebrity pit’ (as one of our participants summarised).  Given this, the gendered, raced and classed homogeneity of those tech celebrities celebrated by our participants  and in broader debates is worrying.   As Carole Leathwood has recently argued in a paper on the symbolic construction of ‘the intellectual’ in academia, the realm of the intellect has long been constructed as the preserve of elite white men, with women, judged on the basis of their sexual attractiveness as well as their capacity for ‘care’ , positioned outside of this domain.

We see within our data the clear presence of similar cultural codes and the Cartesian dualism which ascribes to the masculine characteristics such as rationality, authority, control, discipline and intellectual mastery, which appear to function centrally in evaluations of ‘good celebrity’. This sits in contrast to the central place of the unruly, excessive, sexualised body of female celebrities who have come to epitomise ‘bad’ celebrity and generate disgust and vitriol on this basis.  Research on the gendered constructions of STEM subjects (like computing, physics and maths), including work by Heather, demonstrates how narrow representations of the professional worlds associated with STEM subjects make it difficult for women and young girls to imagine themselves in these kinds of careers, impacting on their subject and career choices. If celebrity culture provides cultural resources in young people’s understandings of who they are and who they might become, the gendering of good and bad celebrities, ‘deserved success’ and the ‘dream job’ – exemplified here in the case of tech celebs – is a cause for concern.

Kim Allen

This is re-posted from the Celebrity and Youth blog which documents a research project entitled: ‘The role of celebrity in young people’s classed and gendered aspirations’. It is being carried out by Heather Mendick and Laura Harvey at Brunel University and Kim Allen at Manchester Metropolitan University between September 2012 and April 2014 and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Quantified Self – a post of 839 words, finished in 35 minutes at 18:32 on Wednesday 18th September

On Tuesday 17th September I attended the inaugural meeting of the Quantified Self Research Network, convened by Mark Carrigan and Chris Till.  For those of you who don’t know, which included me until very recently, Quantified Self/ quantified self is very basically using technologies to track, monitor and improve. There is Daytum that lets you track your everyday data, MoodPanda that tracks mood, or FitBit that tracks movement. All you need to do is use the devices or applications, monitor what you do and take steps to improve.  (If you’re interested, read more about QS here here and here and Google it.)

The event brought together speakers looking at applications of QS in health, sports (cycling and triathlon) and the movement in general.  I’ll link to the event write up when it’s available (here).

One of the standout issues for me and apparently for the rest of the audience was who these individuals are, and so the significance, scale, and generalizability of this trend. QS’ers are typically the tech savvy, entrepreneurial, self-starters who meet in start-up spaces apparently in between pitches for venture funding and/or highly motivated triathletes, marathon and ultra-marathon runners.  Can these obsessives really be the future for the rest of us, over-weight and only partly aware of the data of our failings?

My gut reaction is that QS poses the prospect of a dangerous alignment with homo economicus, a homo quantificati.  The issue is the comparison between the quantified and improved QS selves and the un-quantified masses of the great unwashed.  There is a long-standing tradition of blaming the poor and wretched for their situation due to their moral failings.  The indigent are unemployed because they are feckless and lazy.  This is, of course, the culture of poverty thesis. The bête noir of the underclass was given the kiss of life by New Labour and now is friends with (but pushing for without) benefits of the Conservatives, especially Michael Gove and his views on why people use food banks (read here).  The point is that rather than the retrospective framing of failure in terms of deserve and a pattern of moral and individual failings, QS could provide the data of all the steps not taken, the pounds not shed, the unappealing habits left in place, the perspiration un-perspired, the boxes unfilled and checks un-ticked.  All of an individual’s efforts, plans, activities and actions quantified and added to matrices and leagues that rank from high-to-low, successful to objectively bad and failed.  Standing opposed to them will the high-achievers that stand over and above, whether in steps taken or money earned… and there will be the data to prove it.

I spoke to the obesity researcher and she noted that when she stands on her scales and is heavier than she or society would prefer, or doctors say is healthy, then she stands alone on those scales. The metric of kilograms or BMI on fancier scales does not factor in having to work many miles from home, care for children, fall exhausted in front of a television each night and generally live in an obesogenic environment. Blaming the poor and obese etc based on metrics of decisions, activities and consequences individuates conditions with societal and structural influences. Simply charting a graph of an individual’s descent into poverty, to take an example, would reflect dwindling finances caused by bad financial management but it would ignore the negative effects of scarcity on the brain leading to decisions and actions that worsen poverty as identified by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having too Little Means so Much (read a review here).

There were some interesting tensions, parallels and in all likelihood fairly terrifying prospects for education.  Education, at least the GERM variety, is sold on the idea of a self that can be quantified, measured, monitored and improved. It is easy to see applications of QS in schools. I just got sucked into trying to improve my reading speed with Eyercizer.  For a list of developed QS technologies for learning click here. The distinction between the QS self-starters is the level of choice and agency to start tracking and to select a particular tracking tool etc.  Pupils do not usually get to choose what tools that are made to use, or maybe that could change if there were enough tools and pupils were hooked up to something that was pushing them, grading them and forcing them to improve. Yet there were numerous examples where the intrinsic reward of going for a run or taking the stairs was replaced with the extrinsic reward of producing, viewing and sharing the data.

Another thought is that maybe it is not only pupils in schools that need to worry about having to endure QS strategies.  Car insurance is now offered with inducements of cheaper deals if the driver fits a black box recorder, has his or her driving monitored and drives safely.  This is a form of QS device, offered to us as part of a better offer.  There are lots of similar ways in which these forms of technologies might be offered to us as incentives. We’re bounding towards private health insurance so you might get 5% of your premium if you wear a FitBit and move around enough. Check out this video on potential future scenarios, including games leading to tax breaks for encouraging your child to learn the piano

QS provides the technologies, rationalities and a cadre of ‘power users’ to bring these factors into all our lives, changing our relationships to our self/ selves and each other.

James Duggan

Another Year, Another BERA

This year the British education research establishment decamped to sunny Brighton for BERA 2013.  As the incoming BERA President Ian Menter (University of Oxford) noted in his presidential address, this is a crucial time for education research.  Foregrounded by Raymond Williams’s notion of the long revolution and the short counter-revolution, Prof. Menter observed that it is incredible and shocking how quickly and profoundly William’s prescient question has been answered,

It is only a question of whether we replace them by the free play of the market, or by a public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture. (Williams 1961: 176)

Yep, that one didn’t go so well for democracy and the good guys…

BERA is a fairly big conference and so any perspective of it can be partial but mine was of education being discussed through a series of borrowed lenses:

There was education as evidence.  Since, and indeed before (read this), Ben Goldacre’s foray into education research posing the importance of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) there has been a back-and-forth debate about the apparent insufficient amount of RCT research in education.  The lack of sound evidence on which to base ‘what works’ is a focus of much debate (Bennett 2013) and significant initiatives (e.g., the Education Endowment Foundation).  I spoke to advocate of RCTs in education and she thought that the medical profession had reached a stage higher than teaching, founding practice on evidence.  It would be ridiculous to think that evidence isn’t important but as Frank Furedi was reported to have said recently “if I am ill, I am quite keen to know that the medicine I am given will cure me. But children are not an illness. They are not a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to be nurtured and embraced” (read about this here).

Then there was education as practice or more accurately evidence-based practice.  There has been a definite surge in interest in evidence-based practice in recent years (e.g., Petty 2006, Hattie 2008, Higgins 2011).  This narrow focus, again, on ‘what works’ threatens to distance critical educational research from the ever-present imperative for teachers to improve practice to, as the logic goes, improve results.  As funding and pooling of resources is located closer to schools there is a danger that considerable research efforts will be focused upon this narrow agenda.  Furthermore, in his keynote address, Chris Husbands (IOE) described the risk of academy chains becoming autarkic, with considerable resources being invested in developing the best practice but this knowledge remaining within the academy chain, protected by intellectual property and commercial interests. In the US the Relay Graduate School is an example of a for-profit provider of education practice although the audience at BERA erupted with laughter at the advice offered in one video (watch it here), “She means it… She’s got a timer!”

Following on from this was education as practitioners.  There seems to be a long-running theme in education of wistful and inferiority-inducing comparisons between teachers and other professions.  Under New Labour teachers, well head teachers in particular, were compared with business leaders and expected some of them at least to be as good as the best in business.  Since Hargreaves (1996) there have been largely unfavourable comparisons between teachers and doctors, recently stoked by Ben Goldacre’s (2013) advocacy for education to imitate the use of RCTs in medicine.  I spoke to a therapist and she suggested that teachers are more like therapists than doctors because in research on the efficacy of therapy the focus is less on the form of therapy, the ‘thing’, which would correspond to the molecule in medicine or practice in education, there was a focus on the relationship between the therapist and the client.  Interesting perhaps but… well, see below.

Finally, as ever, there was education as policy defines it. This is turning into a fairly long blog, and we all know what this means…


The point I would like to make is that thinking of education in terms of evidence, practice, practitioners, and policy are ways of avoiding discussing the purpose and significance of education on its on merits in relation to young people and society.  Furthermore thinking of education as evidence/ practice/ practitioners/ policy are in effect engagements within the terms of the de-politicised, de-professionalised, technocratic, privatising and so on of the Right view of education, and so we will remain within the terms and territory of the short counter-revolution.  This is not to say that evidence, practice, practitioners, and policy are not fundamental to educational research but until we can be clear about what education is as, Williams outlined, ‘public education designed to express and create the values of an educated democracy and a common culture’.

So how can we respond?  I turn for inspiration, as with all matters, to the TV show the West Wing. The West Wing is salve from heaven from frustrated lefty types who wish for a better world or at least better people in charge of a pretty much similar world.  On education, Sam Seaborn, says,

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be getting six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.

Also, from the West Wing is ‘Let Bartlett be Bartlett’ the idea that the sometime hesitant President Bartlett should not be courageous and fight for the things that matter. So ‘Let education be education’.

89350A starting point can be found in the initiatives where academics and practitioners have started discussions about the purpose of education.  There was PurposED, an online campaign – now decommissioned – that asked people to write 500 words on the purpose of education.  The ASCL have launched the Great Education Debate that in part seeks to discuss the purpose of education.  It’s also in discussions that are taking place around the Co-operative School Movement (see here).  John Schostak and I are developing the Collaborative Action Research Platform in response to the one-sized fits all approach to practice, and the clear need for teachers to develop and hone their craft of educating young people to contribute to and participate in a democratic society.

To reiterate: evidence, practice, practitioners and policy are important but only as guides, styles, forms and nudges towards a destination.  Our choice is whether this is higher PISA rankings or true democratic society?

James Duggan

Is Moodle making us (and our students) stupid?

Well, not just Moodle I guess, but any technological innovation that is over-enthusiastically and zealously adopted, uncritically, by a school, college or university?
At the university where I work, the technological pace has picked up quickly in recent years. In the last couple of years, a new Moodle platform has been implemented to replace the failing WebCT system that we had; iPads have been given to all staff; new members of staff have been appointed to assist staff with what is hoped will be their ‘technologically enhanced’ teaching; on many courses students themselves are being given iPads for use during their studies; electronic submission of assignments is fast becoming the norm; and I could go on.
But for many of us, the embrace of technology in our professional and private lives is far from ideal and not something that should advance unchecked. Many writers are expressing increasing reservations about the impact of mobile and social technologies and the detrimental effect they play in our lives. This is particularly true in an educational context. If this week is anything to go by, it seems that these technologies are being adopted without sustained critical thought to their limitations and, indeed, the very things that are being lost as they replace alternative approaches.
Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future presents a compelling alternative that we would be wise to consider. In his wonderful blog on this book, Peter Lawler asks the question about whether this might be both the smartest and dumbest generation that has ever existed? Discuss!
Through twelve provocative points (read them here), he amplifies Bauerlein’s thesis in a highly entertaining way that I’m happy to blatantly copy here:
  1. Virtually all of our students have hours—and often many, many hours—of daily exposure to screens.
  2. So they excel at multitasking and interactivity, and they have very strong spatial skills.
  3. They also have remarkable visual acuity; they’re ready for rushing images and updated information.
  4. But these skills don’t transfer well to—they don’t have much to do with—the non-screen portions of their lives.
  5. Their screen experiences, in fact, undermine their taste and capacity for building knowledge and developing their verbal skills.
  6. They, for example, hate quiet and being alone. Because they rely so much on screens keeping them connected, they can’t rely on themselves. Because they’re constantly restless or stimulated, they don’t know what it is to enjoy civilized leisure. The best possible punishment for an adolescent today is to make him or her spend an evening alone in his or her room without any screens, devices, or gadgets to divert him or her. It’s amazing the extent to which screens have become multidimensional diversions from what we really know about ourselves.
  7. Young people today typically are too agitated and impatient to engage in concerted study. Their imaginations are impoverished when they’re visually unstimulated. So their eros is too. They can’t experience anxiety as a prelude to wonder, and they too rarely become seekers and searchers.
  8. They have trouble comprehending or being moved by the linear, sequential analysis of texts
  9. So they find it virtually impossible to spend an idle afternoon with a detective story and nothing more.
  10. That’s why they can be both so mentally agile and culturally ignorant. That’s even why they know little to nothing about how to live well with love and death, as well as why their relational lives are so impoverished.
  11. And that’s why higher education—or liberal education—has to be about giving students experiences that they can’t get on screen. That’s even why liberal education has to have as little as possible to do with screens.
  12. Everywhere and at all times, liberal education is countercultural. And so today it’s necessarily somewhat anti-technology, especially anti-screen.  That’s one reason among many I’m so hard on MOOCs, online courses, PowerPoint, and anyone who uses the word “disrupting” without subversive irony.
I like that Lawler highlights, simultaneously, the potential affordances and limitations of screens  and the experiences that they present. However, I’m sure that there is much here that folk will agree and disagree with. For me, though, point 11 is telling and I agree entirely with him on this. Higher education, liberal education, in fact any education, must be about giving students experiences that they can’t get on screen, not just seek to replicate things on screens in insipid ways. It is just too important to follow cultural or technological norms.
This is particularly important, to me, for processes of initial teacher education. Here, human relationships are central to the effectiveness of the training programme. For me, the university tutor and student relationship is of particular concern. But you could say the same about the school mentor and student relationship, or the peer to peer relationships that students develop.
In one of our sessions this week, an English tutor on one of MMU’s programmes spoke eloquently about how he builds strong relationships with each of his trainees from the earliest opportunity, well before the commencement of the course and the moment that a student arrives on campus. Much of this centred around current students meeting up with and mentoring new students, a Saturday event where various pre-course readings are shared and discussed, and much more besides.
Another colleague at the university whom I know well and respect immensely lectures in human communication. Despite being an expert in these matters, he has chosen recently, like Lawler, to banish screens in their various incarnations from his lecture hall.
Is Moodle making us and our students stupid? On balance, I think it is. Whilst there will be those who argue pragmatically for the benefits of these digital tools (saved administrative costs, ease of access to materials, etc, etc), we must all remember what we are also loosing. Screens divide. They result in disengagement in the learning process.  They diminish the human interactions and relationships that are an essential part of, and integral to (I would argue) the educational process.