Caring doesn’t scale, and scaling doesn’t care

Last night I had a really enjoyable dinner and thought-provoking conversation with Sirkku Nikamaa, her husband Mark, and Dr Mike Martin. We talked about many and varied things, including social reproduction, elite performance, and the current state of the English education system.

On my way home, I saw that my former Mozilla colleague Geoffrey MacDougall had tweeted a question which led to a short exchange:

Both the conversation over dinner and the subsequent Twitter conversation reminded me of a short video clip that Graham Brown-Martin shared featuring Prof. Keri Facer:

The problems we face in trying to change the education system are at least threefold:

  1. Parents want the best for their kids and they often believe this is through gaining credentials that are the results of high-stakes testing.
  2. Politicians want to impose their worldview on the next generation of the electorate through the education system.
  3. The filters we use (e.g. elite university admissions) to separate out people into social roles are extremely narrow and confining.

I was struck that I didn’t really have an answer to Geoffrey’s question about teaching subjects and skills that I usually equate with a private school education. Nor did I have a response to Mike’s question about how to scale something like the Oxbridge tutorial system.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to scale almost anything that makes a really profound impact on people’s lives. I’m the person I am today because of supportive parents who are my biggest fans, because of a really interesting History teacher I had growing up, an inspiring university lecturer, a former boss who believed in me. The list goes on.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide answers, but to point out that I’ve now come across a number of people who have had an elite education who are genuinely interested in how others can receive the same. The problem is, of course, that caring doesn’t scale, and scale doesn’t care.

Image CC BY-NC Macroscopic Solutions


The title of this post comes from an O’Reilly article. It’s unrelated, unless you’re a developer.

8 Comments

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  1. I have been meeting a few people in the education system now from heads of MATs, mainstream secondary, 6th forms, colleges, universities to new schools such as studios and free schools. My interesting conversation yesterday was linked to your post and we discussed how to create a social network and influence them and their parents and peers to ensure they see how many opportunities are out there for them and encourage them to learn and achieve. Although I need to do more research the Studio model seems to be a potential way, but this could be replicated in a number of mainstream schools also, to actively link successful external employer networks into school and help the students expand their hozizons with much more practical linking of the curriculum to work outcomes and the variety of work with experience which students can access.

    The aim of this is to break the cycle of social reproduction and encourage kids to reach further than they would have been able to do within either being placed in an elite school with no support or in mainstream. The best studio schools should be placed in relatively deprived areas and attached to another mainstream school to give children and parents an alternative and ensure you can get the numbers enrolled.

    I’m watching for the evidence that this is the case and I hope to discover more about the fascinating education system over time as we have an opportunity to do something within the North East which could be a model elsewhere.

  2. I’m a mature (well, old) philosophy undergraduate who spent most of my adult life in France. In secondary schools there ‘philo’ is still a taught subject, as it ‘should’ be in the UK, especially analysis of fallacious arguments and, in general, critical thinking. Also, the Ecole Polytechnique, probably one of the best universities in the world, teaches a mixture of minors, languages etc. In the UK, we learn how to pass tests and get grades, we do not educate.

    As for the scaling problem, once we have decided to ‘educate’ (again), peer learning using teacher supervised, senior-led (school) and postgrad-led seminars will make a big difference. However, remember Tony Benn’s view, which I share, to wit ‘An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern’. Perhaps that’s why no-one in government really, really wants this, to quote the immortal Spice Girls.

    • Well indeed, and I’d argue that’s one of the reasons that teacher training has been transferred away from universities (run by, as Michael Gove would have it, ‘the blob’).

      I’d love it if we taught Philosophy in schools. However, given the existing system, I’d be concerened that we’d inevitably end up with a watered-down bastardised version.

  3. Doug, thanks for writing this. I’ve thought a lot about the whole issue of “scale” as it relates to education and broader social justice issues. (Have you read “Walk Out, Walk On”?)

    I’d love to have a conversation about this on the NWP Teachers Teaching Teachers show. If you (and/or others) might be interested in being a part of this, drop me an email.

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