Category Archives: Theory

Flipping icebergs: a neo-liberal curriculum?

It feels to me like an iceberg about to tip.
Ultimately this is an argument for qualitative research into the so-called subjective realms of values, beliefs and feelings. Because, in part, I suggest it is the enclosure of the subject for the reward of a few, which is at the root of the general mess we (me? Britain? Liberalism? Society? the globe?) appear to be in (NHS crisis, austerity, higher education funding and regulation, housing, migration, cyber-security, etc).

The theoretical approach or perspective of a neo-liberal curriculum appears to be:

  • Utilitarian (idealist, ratio-driven: promoting the greatest good for the greatest number
  • Pragmatic (what works);
  • Pareto-optimal (80% of the reward or output comes from 20% of the input or effort and the remaining 20% of the output comes from 80% of the input).

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A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Among many overt and covert curricula, higher education institutions teach graduates to internalise and then, in subtle ways, to manifest superordinate authority based on a narrowed set of criteria. This narrowing is achieved, in part through enclosures. As Slater (2014) suggests, as the aristocracy enclosed the common land, now today’s elites enclose electronic, digital virtual and subjective territory:

The extension of enclosures beyond the purely physical realm and into the terrain of subjectivity is a pressing concern and necessitates the development of concepts capable of engaging this development on those same grounds (551).

I use desire as an example. Desire is a manifestation of physical, embodied subjectivity: immanent and rational. Desire is a direct and (nearly?) universally accessible human concept. It is an observable phenomenon of being embodied. The enclosure of desire is the appropriation, limitation or exclusion of feelings, passions and affections, from allowable discourses.

“The waxing and waning of these paths awaits a full socio-philosophical inventory” (Barnett 2016 p. 148). There is research to be done. My aim through this exercise is to illuminate one possible direction of inquiry. I examine hierarchised identity formation and “enclosure” with respect to desire as a hidden or covert curriculum behind the degree. This hidden curriculum has hierarchical positionality locked in a codependent embrace with enclosed desire.

By desire I do include sexual desire. But lust, the libidinal and kama go further than that. All passion and urges-for are moments of immanent desire. Nietzsche’s will to power is desire. We talk about lust for life. The virtual learning platform Desire2Learn ( is not accidentally named. Desire to learn is the central theme of Plato’s Symposium, even so entangled with other desires as that meal was. By the enclosure of desire I mean that this immanence is walled off, bounded and appropriated, monetised, analysed, squeezed dry, transgressed and transcended. Even here. I stand, of course, on a participant-observer continuum stretching concepts on a frame.

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..

Back to the really hard stuff

I am doing, in a way, what I have always wanted to do: teaching in a university, running an academic conference, editing a journal, supervising dissertations, some consultancy. And now I seem to have found the time and space to develop the two items that have been hardest for me to achieve and for which I have taken or given myself knocks: psychic and physical: the MA Education (Higher Education) and the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching. (HEJLT)

Every student published? Original MA work? At the cutting edge of policy and provision.


Lots to do: thoughts on the task ahead

The task, for me, the lots to-do is to transform theory to practice. That is, education development aims not just to bring about correct understanding but to create social and political conditions (that is, community) more conducive to human flourishing than the present ones.

I became a Football Coach last winter and now help run a childrens’ football club (Donnington FC). My head coach has a to do list to keep Alexander the Great busy. I feel kind of the same at work. So many good ideas! Not all mine, I hasten to add!

Big on the to-do list is bringing a number of blogs back to life, not least my own! In teaching you do have to walk the chalk not just talk the talk. It can get dressed up as authenticity and typologised away into abstraction but that only lasts so long: froth. I was going to say like froth on a cappuccino but the cappuccinos from the machines today seem to have industrial strength froth that way outlasts the coffee. You get my point?

I say “social media” but I am far from the biggest of the big-time edtech bloggers. Not even close! Am I having my “those who can’t…” moment? I say “social” media but I do not do social media? So many film references, so little time: “here’s Jack,” “he’s back,””unforgiven.”

Look at my own typology. Experience? Well ok, or at least a few years under the belt. Dialogue? I have become better over the years at giving voice to others. Reflection? Yes but in my world, too private. This goes to a correction needed. Participation? There is a gap for me, which I will get to. Community? don’t get me started. It is all what matters and strikes me is incompatible with most hierarchies – but significantly: not all hierarchies. Outcomes? They matter. Whether or not specified or unintended what happens as a result of setting yourself up to do something is consequential. And, finally Activity. You actually have to do stuff. Like write. In blogs. And make pictures about it, which could mean lines in the sand, or yellow dandelions on green grass setting up positions for a transition moment: a change of possession. And in that moment, team, there is lot’s to do.

The participation gap? I said I’d come back to that. There is a gap, I suggest, for everyone in education. There is something called the “real world”. Where “real people” feed children, or not. Where absolutely all some people have is the child in their arms and a half a bottle of water.

Like I said, the task, for me, the lots to-do is to transform theory to practice. Education development aims not just to bring about correct understanding but to create social and political conditions (that is, community) more conducive to human flourishing than the present ones.

Higher Education Studies

Structurally, politically, philosophically and commercially there is more change in higher education in the UK today than there has been since the Polytechnics had their magic wand waved in 1992

The OfS’s foundation is more than a simple re-branding exercise. The shift from a ‘funding council’ to a ‘regulator’, a body found in many public and private sectors from energy, telecoms, to financial services and beyond, is a fundamental change in philosophy. (WonkHE, Monday briefing, 3 April 2017)

In a leap across several nations and several arguments, I expect England, along with Scotland (already) and Wales (very soon) will have a common, but possibly chaotic regulatory and funding framework for post-compulsory (“tertiary”) education including a plethora of new providers (many private) and new awards including Degree Apprenticeships. But difference, hierarchy and competition will persist and be generated within and between institutions, nations and firms (or syndicates or enterprises).

It appears that rules of “firms” more so than rules of “markets” or “businesses” apply. An altogether more Machiavellian future of privateers on the edge of empires beckons.

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Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.


Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

What to do about Rhodes and other evils

I recently read Joanna Williams’ piece in the Conversation, “Safe space hand wringers are attacking academic freedom – we must fight back“. I have also been party to both academic and dinner-table conversations that addressed freedom of speech and cultural representation, currently exemplified by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) debate. A number of themes merge into a wider discourse of freedom: freedom of speech, academic freedom, cultural representation, the infantilisation of students, protection from hate speech and similar. Continue reading