Time to question 'groupthink'

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
One advantage of the summer holidays is that they give teachers and pupils a chance to escape from the herd mentality that afflicts much of education. Sociologists call this tendency "groupthink", a mediocre consensus of views designed to silence dissent and promote conformity.

The term was coined in the 1970s, but I was reminded of it recently when reading an angry newspaper letter from a teacher who questioned the tenets of A Curriculum for Excellence. He called it "the most ill- conceived, ill thought out, ill-described ragbag of empty verbiage and feel-good platitudes that I have encountered in 27 years in education". Readers may well have other nominations for that title.

It is unlikely that the letter writer will be seeking promotion in the future, which is just as well since ritual obeisance to current orthodoxies would be much more likely to produce a successful outcome.

The ability to remember the approved mantra of A Curriculum for Excellence successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, effective contributors is now an indispensable requirement for those aspiring to advancement. And no continuing professional development course is complete without several PowerPoint slides extolling the virtues of this quartet of capacities.

Would mixing up the adjectives and nouns make a difference? Why not effective learners, responsible individuals, confident citizens and successful contributors?

Groupthink is a form of control that relies on various techniques. A simple message is repeated in a way that does not encourage reflection. An illusion of unanimity is thus maintained. The expression of true feelings is discouraged and those inclined to question or challenge find themselves subject to direct or indirect pressures. There are usually rewards for those who promote the approved message with zeal.

Much of the power of "professionalism" as an ideology can be explained in these terms.

Examples of groupthink can also be found among pupils, including "fashion fascism", whereby those who are unable or unwilling to wear the latest designer gear are subject to adverse comment or bullying.

The strength of some anti-school sub- cultures depends on similar tendencies. Disaffected pupils can gain status among their peers by turning the approved values of the school upside down: their street credibility depends on showing disrespect to teachers, not working hard, truanting or turning up late for classes and disrupting lessons.

It might be objected that these are negative examples and that group solidarity can work in more positive ways. That is sometimes the case, but solidarity should not require submission. Those who define what is "positive" and "constructive" rarely subject their own assumptions to scrutiny.

Take the current promotion of "soft skills" the emphasis on teamwork, flexibility and relationships. These are presented as having moral and social value, not just as a response to the changing needs in the labour market. Equally, they can be seen as a subtle form of control in which victims act as their own censors. Anyone disinclined to subscribe to the group ethic risks being marginalised as a troublemaker, or portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist.

Holidays allow us to step back from the assumptions of our daily routine. I think it would be healthy if teachers returned from their break more willing to challenge groupthink.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

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