Why schools need to cut the bullshit

Modern-day businesses and other organisations are drowning in bullshit – and schools are no exception, warns researcher André Spicer. Misleading and empty language is particularly damaging in education – so reach for your ‘shit umbrella’, he tells Carly Page
11th September 2020, 12:01am
Why Schools Need To Cut The Bullshit


Why schools need to cut the bullshit


This is the age of bullshit. The amount of bullshit created and transmitted each day is now so great that encountering it is no longer a special event. We’ve even become accustomed to playing the game of bullshitting ourselves. We’re drenched in bullshit. And it stinks.

Or at least that’s how André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School, at City, University of London, paints it. He defines bullshit as empty claims disconnected from the normal standards of truth.

You may think that this sort of thing only happens in White House press briefings, but Spicer believes it’s rampant everywhere, including schools. A self-styled expert in “bullshitology”, he has written in-depth about the subject in his research paper Playing the Bullshit Game: how empty and misleading communication takes over organisations.

His definition of bullshit echoes the theory of American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who argued that whereas a liar cares about the truth - their aim is to prevent others from learning it - a bullshitter does not care about the difference between the truth and the falsity of their assertions.

So, why do we bullshit? And why do we often fail to challenge those who bullshit us? One of the main reasons is because we - and the organisations we work for - are image-obsessed, Spicer says.

“One major driver of bullshit is when organisations care more about what they look like than what they actually deliver,” he says. “That can be driven by all sorts of things, such as ranking systems and branding, which all focus on the importance of the external image.”

Ranking systems and branding are, of course, both forces that press on schools. But they are not the only things steering education, in particular, towards bullshit: the rise in non-teaching roles is also an issue, according to Spicer.

He cites those who do more presentations, email-sending and meeting-sitting in their roles than actual teaching as often being the source of the river of bullshit.

“In universities, for example, the number of people employed in administrative roles has massively increased over the past two decades,” Spicer says. “These aren’t just paper-pushing jobs, but also roles that you might refer to as ‘bullshit creators’.

“Their role, effectively, is to create this stuff - these management phrases or empty terms - or to distribute it through in order to get change programmes or rebranding initiatives happening.”

He says that when new people join an organisation, the effect is then amplified rather than challenged.

“People enter the organisation, and then they realise that to fit in and get ahead, they need to adopt the managerial language that is often quite empty,” he says. “They know it’s rather empty and pointless, but they also know that’s how you enter the club. Then it becomes these circles of mutual toleration.”

How damaging is all this BS, though? Isn’t it more irritating than fatal for organisations?

The authors of a 2019 paper titled Bullshit and Organisation Studies argue that it is necessary to understand the organisational significance and performative nature of bullshit, claiming it plays a significant role in being able to command and strategise. Essentially, they don’t think it is as much of a problem as some claim.

Spicer disagrees. He says that the use of recycled and misleading jargon is undoubtedly damaging to organisations of all shapes and sizes. It gets in the way of the proper functioning of a company, it’s often a sign that people don’t know what they’re doing, and it helps those in positions of power to maintain that grip. He believes that it is particularly corrosive in schools, where language must be clear and intelligible to all, and where leaders need to be mindful of the dangerous side-effects of bullshit.

“It’s dangerous,” Spicer warns. “It can ‘crowd out’, which means that the time available to deal with core tasks, such as teaching, becomes smaller and smaller as people have to spend more time dealing with empty, pointless language.”

This can lead to stress and exhaustion, and could even force talented people out of the profession, he says. “People will say, ‘If I want to deal with management rubbish all day, why don’t I go and get paid better to do that elsewhere?’”

What type of bullshit is typical in schools? Kate Martin, vice-principal of alternative-provision school Restormel Academy in Cornwall, says that in her previous roles in the mainstream sector, BS was rampant.

“During my time in mainstream, I dealt with oodles of horrendous management edu-speak, and I’m now frequently bombarded by the same on Twitter,” she says. “Sometimes I’m genuinely baffled by the meaning itself, let alone deciding whether it is appropriate for our children. I particularly enjoy phrases such as ‘value-added modelling’ and ‘rubric-based assessment’.

“When phrases such as these are brought up in meetings and at conferences, half the room are just nodding their heads sagely in pretend understanding, while the other half make a note to Google the phrase when they get home. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes - nobody wants to admit that it’s over-complicated and confusing, for fear of sounding thick.”

Martin says that this bullshit can even creep into the teaching itself.

“This empty language becomes the way in which very young children begin to talk about their own learning - they begin talking in Ofsted talk, basically - and that clouds being able to engage with the core skills they should be learning,” she says.

Shelter from the shitstorm

So what can organisations like schools do to mitigate the impact of bullshit?

Spicer says we need to become bullshit detectors, and he says this should start with those in positions in power acting as so-called “shit umbrellas” for their staff.

“The most effective leaders protect their people from all the shit raining down from the top or outside of their organisation. It can be very distracting, and, sure, people need to know about this stuff, but they also need to get on with their jobs.

“They can also institute a bit of crucial thinking and reflection in their decision-making - routinely asking, when making a decision, ‘What’s the evidence?’ And, ‘What’s the logic behind it?’”

Martin has seen the impact of such policies: “Our CEO, who is extremely hands on, has a pretty low tolerance for bullshit. He is about as plain talking and open as they come and, thankfully, this trickles down through the organisation. Our key words are ‘empathy’, ‘positivity’ and ‘respect’, rather than dealing with ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘cooperative learning goals’.”

So there you have it. Bullshit may be rampant in your school - and it could be ruining good work that you try to do. So fine-tune your bullshit detector and put up your “shit umbrella” or this year may be lost to management speak before you know it. And if your first temptation was to say, “I’ll diarise that brown bag session for you,” then you may be too far gone already.

Carly Page is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 11 September 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on…Cutting the bullshit”

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