Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Consuming education

I've been thinking lately about consumers and education. Over the years I've been teaching, I've noticed the language of consumerism has become increasingly present in the way education is discussed and debated. Parents talk about education in terms of a product and want certain results from their "investment". Words like "client" or "customer" have occasionally appeared where previously they had no role. People swap schools - very quickly in some cases - when their desires are no longer being met.

I have some concerns.

There are dangers in representing education primarily in consumer terms.  Yes, most of us contribute financially in some way to the education of our children (public, private or homeschooling all usually require some financial investments). But does the involvement of money mean we should look at education in same terms as other products we buy?  Is it different to buying a new car?  Or a house?  Or signing up to a broadband contract?

In truth, education has some very different characteristics to most goods and services. For starters, it's a relationship. Parents are entering into a partnership, not buying a product.  And the "product" is not a product at all.  It's the nurturing of a person who is unique and who responds differently at different points in their development. When education gets reduced to a product that's purchased, performance becomes a thing that we buy and in turn we reduce our children's progress and development, and finally they themselves, to an outcome.

Children are not outcomes to be bought.

If education is a product we purchase, the temptation is to start to run education from within that paradigm. The decisions we make (as educators or parents) become about choice, market value, maximising enrolments, delivering desired results, customer expectations and service standards.

What's wrong with that?

It's not wrong to expect standards from our educational providers. They should be held to account for time and money spent and consistently sound teaching and learning practices are important. But that's not the same as seeing education as a product to be purchased or being driven by a need to forever draw in more consumers.

I wouldn't want to argue that we should never talk about results and expectations and accountability. But it's really important that a consumer mindset doesn't become the driving force in our educational decisions, both as educators and as parents.  Parents seem to push more and more in this regard. I think it's partly a generational change in attitudes. It's hard for schools not to be drawn into that way of thinking and start reflecting back to the parents the language and ideas they are exhibiting when they approach schools as consumers.  It's really important that schools educate their school community about what education means and about the nature of a partnership - rather than a product - when it comes to their children's education.

I imagine education isn't the only field in which the rise of consumerism has disrupted relationship-based services and created new tensions.  Medicine and health care?  Churches?  Social services?  The product-marketing-purchase-consume-repeat cycle has become so embedded in how we approach our resources that it is almost the default approach. But it needs to be held in check or it risks annihilating much more important ends.

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