Personalising people in a depersonalised world

There was a cult book doing the rounds in the education field some years ago, called Letter to a Teacher. It was a collection of accounts written by young Italian people who had been thrown out of school for ‘underachievement’ – often at age 12 or 13. The book was addressed to the eponymous teacher who had expelled them. One kid wrote of having been expelled for failing PE, but explained how he went home some days to carry an axe into a distant wood, climb a tree, cut down a bough, drag it home and chop it for firewood. You get the point.

The free school they set up with a priest became a cause celebre in Europe and educational ‘experts’ (people like me) came to visit. One reflection in the book covered the visit of a Professor of Education. It read [I paraphrase], ‘when he talked to us he looked down at the floor or up at the ceiling – he didn’t look us in the eye. But he didn’t need to – he knew us by heart’.


I wrote a book a while ago about my professional practice – educational evaluation. Don’t be put off by the title, Personalising Evaluation. It’s not a Conversation Oscar nominee, okay – but it is written to be readable by anyone and, I hope, quite an attractive read. It takes you into the lives of musicians and young people, a music conservatoire (the Guildhall), schools, a hospice a prison – and more.

What the book is about is how we, in the research field, represent people. This is a field dominated by statistics, surveys, experiments, theories – with too little room left to portray people’s lives. And yet, at the receiving end of all our efforts in the public sector are people. Not ‘consumers’, ‘clients’, ‘service users’, ‘human resources’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘participants’, ‘subjects’ (‘objects’) nor all the other depersonalising monikers we slap on the citizen. Just as a teacher cannot understand their teaching without intimate knowledge of her students, so a police officer cannot understand policing without a good knowledge of the community they police, and a nurse cannot be a successful nurse without grasping how they are seen by patients and how they find a place in the patient’s struggle for health. Olie, my son, is training to be a nurse. He is studying Pharmacology, Microbiology, Anatomy, Health Sciences, Population Health – almost everything, it seems, apart from patients. He is careful to learn about patients for himself on his ward placements. But his course is a degree in nursing science – not a training on how to be a nurse – much less a nursing education.

This is just one of the telltales of the depersonalised world we live in, but one that concerns me most and of which I have some experience. I am a veteran of the struggle against it. It is to be found in many, perhaps most, fields of professional training

So here is the summary of my book – unfortunately you sometimes have to go through the rigmarole of writing a book before you realise how to reduce it to this simple (but still complex)  rendering.


In the conventional way, what we do in research is to represent the project or the program we are looking at as the all-encompassing circle. The X is, let us say a person. So – if the circle is a school we are looking at, or a course, or a professional practice, then the X is a ‘teacher’ or a ‘student’ or a ‘criminal’ or a ‘vulnerable person’. The person, that is to say, is defined by the way we look at the project or program. No matter that the ‘teacher’ is an athlete, a lover, a daughter, a traveller – for research purposes she is defined by the institutional role we give her – she is a ‘teacher’.

What I argue for in my book is to reverse the circle and X so that the circle – the context, what this is about – becomes the person and the X becomes the project or the school or the course or the classroom. Now, rather than seeing how people fit into schools, say, we see how schools fit into people’s lives.

The point is that we assess the quality of life and institutions and professions and policies through they way we experience them. We can hold a ruler against them, peer through a magnifying glass, take its temperature, prod it and push it – but to understand enough about the quality of public life – policing, nursing, teaching, social work – we have to know how it is experienced, and how it does or does not find a comfortable fit in the lives of the citizen (who, after all, pays the bills).

How do we do this? Well, in educational research we do it by turning the judgement process around – rather than judge people by how well they implement a policy, or fit into a theory, we ask people to make judgements about how well supported they feel by policy, and about whether an academic theory captures the realities and the complexities they face from day to day. Along the way, we find that we need to understand something of their lives, values and beliefs if we are to understand the basis of the judgements they make. And in practical terms? Well, we just go and talk to them and watch what they do. Is it as simple as that? Pretty much. But you do have to be a good storyteller.


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