Human beings like things neat. We’re wired that way. We like a beginning, middle and an end. We like to know who the heroes and villains are. There’s an ingrained need to translate the chaos of existence into something more palatable, something more easily comprehended – a squeezing of experience into simple narratives (even if they don’t fit) for the sake of our own sanity. Anything that doesn’t conform to the shape of a story unnerves us.
It’s the same in education. We often use the term "pathway" when describing the supposedly linear narrative of either academic or vocational learning. There is structure, a clearly defined destination. You complete the tasks, you move forward, and you get there.
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A little messier
But the chaos of life means that A to B is not always the journey that is taken. Sometimes it’s a little messier and a little less ordered, For countless reasons, many people stop their education, or have their education stopped, or cannot follow the path. The straight rope is cut and then bundled, tied, knotted, bundled again and left looking like spaghetti junction.
And what’s worse, this failure to conform to the accepted way of things means that sometimes those who, for whatever reason, have meandered are eventually left abandoned; social pariahs within a system that only recognises and funds a certain way of doing things.
My own educational path has been as straight as a ruler: from nursery to Reception, infants, juniors, secondary, college, university, training – then on into work. I could be the poster boy for a clean-cut, straightforward educational narrative. By contrast, my teaching career, in the main, has seen me working with people whose story doesn’t quite fit, who have been left on the outskirts who have had to strafe left and right, double back on themselves, or gotten lost completely and in doing so have been made invisible.
Unreachable next step
Adult learners, SEND, those that have been removed from mainstream education, those with grades that means the next step is unreachable, those where the straight and true path has led to nothing but trouble, nothing but pain.
There is power in stories. They are how we make sense of the world. But the problem with this is that if the story isn’t a simple one, the systems that are built around those stories allow them to go unheard. In the case of education, the need for linearity results in, if not the abandonment, then the marginalisation of certain people within education. The people who arguably need the most help don’t receive it because of a systematic failure to perceive disorder in the learning journey (whatever that means).
Neatness worked for me. I flew straight, kept on the path and my story is an oft-told one. But it shouldn’t be the only one, no matter how comforting the familiar is.
Tom Starkey is an education writer, consultant and former further education lecturer