03 September 2013

On branding

Fred Inglis ranted about universities as "brands" in the THE a week or two ago. It's a great berserking piece, from which we may conclude that he does not like the idea, and I can sympathise. But rather than fall for prescriptive marketing-speak, it may be that the frame of the "brand" is a useful lens through which to look at a lot of educational discourse, rather than the particular sense in which Inglis takes it, as the way in which institutional market positioning reaches back into institutional systems and culture.

I started writing the following post in January in response to a regular commenter, but it stalled. He asked,
"I've heard the term 'differentiated instruction' thrown around teaching conferences here, but not really looked into it in detail. Do you know if it is merely VAK in another guise, or is it actually more sophisticated?"
I replied in part;
'What indeed is "differentiated instruction"? I've been following this stuff for a while, and I've concluded that it is simply a brand.  And that is a major reason why educational "research" doesn't seem to get anywhere!  I looked up "differentiated instruction" in Hattie's magisterial meta-analysis, and it didn't appear, simply because the label did not exist when the source research was being done. It may indeed be an extension of "learning styles", although to be fair it does seem to embrace more factors, and not to be tied to any particular labels. It seems to be associated with Dr Carol Tomlinson although I don't know whether it is her brand, as it were.'
Two things occur to me.
  • First; in the hard disciplines of science and technology, and even in linguistics, and possibly sport, there is substantial (but imperfect) agreement about terminology--indeed, arguments about the boundaries between (say) physics and chemistry or other disciplines may well be the most fruitful areas for research. From psychology softwards, labels for areas of study or even concepts within the disciplines get fuzzier, more protean and more contestable. Indeed, their definition has become an issue in itself (see the DSM-5 debate/fiasco--for once the Wikipedia link is what it is all about).
  • Second; practically all of this stuff is focused on teaching children. It is conceivable that some of the ideas are valid for the compulsory sector, but they diminish in significance for older students. By the time we get students, they have had 12 years messy training in surviving good, bad and indifferent teaching. Great! They have survived*. They may bear some scars--don't we all?--but they have learned versatility in learning, sometimes despite the teaching. That may be what all the "learning how to learn" guff is about... So possibly higher education has got it right--concentrate on the content! By the time you get to university you should have got over all that "learning styles" stuff; indeed, you have shown that you have.
But that said there is a lot more to branding ...

I've been looking it up. A phrase which comes up frequently is "your promise to your customer". Two things strike one immediately--the first is that the notion is firmly rooted in trade. You have something to offer, and the relationship is buyer and seller, and that does impose a framework on the transaction. Numerous commentators bewail the culture of the "student as customer", as embodied in metrics such as the National Student Survey**. They have a point; Graham Gibbs (following McNay 1995) identified four forms of organisational culture in universities; collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, and argued that the first and the last were conducive to excellence (in different ways) but the second and third inhibited it--and the "student as customer" is clearly a creature of the corporate mindset. But of course students are customers, to the tune of £9k p.a. in England, so the rhetoric of the marketplace is pretty well bound to swamp the whimsical voice of the collegial "scholar".

The other aspect of the formulation is "your promise", and as the marketing idea explains it, that embraces everything the seller/provider offers. Including, again from a marketing perspective, the intangibles and aspirational features. "Cool", "Style" and the like are integral qualities of brands. So, more mundanely, are "value", or "basic".

These are not simply quantifiable descriptive features of a "product", such as might be used in a Which consumer review. They are often values which frame the way in which other qualities are viewed. That is why marketing departments regard them as so important. They don't just add a value; they multiply it.***

And so a major point of the brand is to differentiate it from other brands. A side-effect of this (or perhaps it is the main point) is to ensure that when comparing cars or chocolate bars or banks one can never compare like with like. Which? magazine takes a positivist spin on this, and compares on the basis of shared attributes, but that can never be a complete account, because those attributes are prioritised differently for different brands.

Look at the appealing (if frustratingly vague) ideas for a "New Educational Paradigm" from Sir Ken Robinson. His brand is explicitly opposed to one which defines the success of education by its capacity to prepare students for the labour market; as he says later, ""If you're interested in the model of education, you don't start from a production-line mentality" (he really ought to acknowledge his debt to Bowles and Gintis [1976], and later to Hudson [1967] inter alia).

But the "production-line mentality" is exactly the branding offered, for example, by Blunkett (1998):
"The fostering of an enquiring mind and the love of learning are essential to our future success.[...] We [...] need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable labour force. To cope with rapid change [...] we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. [...] we need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people."
(It makes more sense in context, and yes, I know it's ancient but I really can't bear to go looking for another example!)

Or look at the vicious arguments which rage between the theorists: 
Gene Glass, a former president of the American Educational Research Association, introduced an electronic discussion forum on research priorities with the following remarks: “Some people expect educational research to be like a group of engineers working on the fastest, cheapest, and safest way of traveling to Chicago, when in fact it is a bunch of people arguing about whether to go to Chicago or St. Louis.”

With research understood in this way, it should not be surprising to find that the education profession has little by way of a solid knowledge base on which to rest its practices.

Carnine cites this in support of his (conservative) argument that woolly-minded constructivists are muddying the waters to obscure the clear evidence that Direct Instruction (following Engelbaum, and including phonics) is the only way to teach the basics. Vested interests are not interested in the clear results of research...

But shift the perspective a little, and Paulo Freire is just as rude and caricaturing about "banking education". He extols the virtues of the "pedagogy of the oppressed", which is much more respectful and empowering. The only problem (and I concede I draw some simplistic conclusions from Taylor [1993] and other studies) is that it was not very effective as a literacy programme and nor did it promote any effective political empowerment. Even so, its values trump the mere (claimed) "efficiency" of the banking model, in the eyes of its adherents.

This argument is a well-trodden path, of course, and there's no point in re-treading it yet again. But we do need ways to transcend it.

Carnine (in the naive days of a dozen years ago!) held up medicine as the "mature" profession which had resolved the problem and was progressing inexorably towards the sunlit uplands of certainty and truth. Sorry! See Goldacre, and Ioannidis ... (and DSM-5, and as this post asserts, "Every time someone compares the medical and teaching professions, a fairy dies.")...

It can't be done. Perhaps Which? has it right after all. Separate out the researchable basics from the ineffable glosses. Perhaps the early Wittgenstein had it wrong after all. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." No, it's all the more reason to keep talking about those essentially-contestable ideas, in lots of different ways.

But when I start being pretentious enough to argue with Wittgenstein, it is time to shut up!

*  OK. Some didn't. I've just been editing my page on inclusivity etc, and I'm struck by how little attention is paid to developing resilience by overcoming obstacles, and how much emphasis there is on removing them....

** On the NSS and its methodology, see this letter in the THE, 22 August 2013. And there will be a forthcoming post, too, "On Missing the Point".

***So; compare the brand values of electronic products (This argument is based on total ignorance and speculation). Say Which rates the products on three fairly objective scales and they all score the same: Performance--6/10; Reliability--7/10; Usability; 5/10...
One is from Huawei (who?) Rate them 0.5 on brand credibility.  So 6+7+5=18. 18*0.5= total rating 9.
The other is from Apple (wow!) That rates at 2x on brand credibility. So 6+7+5=18. 18*2= total rating 36.
Or value to consumer = brand (quality1 + q2 + q3...)


Develop a tagline : A former Dean at a university where I once worked, who was rather keen on importing ideas from business, led a session for colleagues on the market positioning of the university. She admitted that given its place in the league tables, particularly for research, it would be unrealistic to make grandiose claims for it--they needed to consolidate a position in the middle. So, in all seriousness, she suggested the tag-line, "Aspiring to Mediocrity".


Blunkett D (1998) Foreword to The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain London; Department for Education

Bowles S and Gintis H (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life New York; Basic Books.

Carnine D (2000) Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine) Ohio; Thomas B Fordham Foundation, online available http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2000/200004_whyeducationexpertsresist/carnine.pdf accessed 23 August 2013

Hudson L (1967) Contrary Imaginations; a psychological study of the English Schoolboy London: Pelican.

McNay I (1995) "From the collegial academy to corporate enterprise: the changing cultures of universities", in T. Schuller (ed.) The Changing University? Buckingham: SRHE/Open University Press.

Taylor P V (1993) The Texts of Paulo Freire Buckingham; Open University Press

Wittgenstein L (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (tr. C.K. Ogden), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

1 comment:

  1. I currently work in the fitness industry which is surrounded by branding but inevitably reinventing the wheel. What I find frustrating is the new fads such as Crossfit which encompasses most styles of physical training but would attempt to prevent others from using their style even though it has simply combined pre existing methods and given it a brand name and turned it into a franchise. I feel this is the same in education and purchasing a branding training package for your teachers or coaches seems to be the way these educational entrepreneurs are now making their money. An example of branding is the package that teachers now deliver on the school sports day with a foam javelin and a series of jumping and landing tasks, what ever happened to the egg and spoon race?
    I now feel that high level professionals such as Sportsmen and Women, now almost feel pressured to create their own branding and franchised courses to ensure they capitalize on their life successes and reputation. The process of branding oneself cannot be an easy task unless you have a dedicated marketing team at your disposal.


Comments welcome, but I am afraid I have had to turn moderation back on, because of inappropriate use. Even so, I shall process them as soon as I can.