“It can be good to start with a shipwreck. Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbour.”
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
In 1962, advertising executive Paula Green came up with a slogan for Avis car rentals that is still used today: ‘We try harder.’ It was based on the premise that they were not the ‘top dogs’ in the industry but “a No.2 company”, and that “[w]hen you’re a challenger brand, you have to constantly try harder for every customer and can’t afford to offer anything less than great customer service.”
In creating this campaign, Green established what is now known as an underdog brand biography – a rhetorical device used by companies “that chronicles the brand’s origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story”, often of “humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble strategies against adversaries.” This strategy has been taken up by many companies since: think Apple’s largely apocryphal ‘we started in a garage’ story, or the Adidas ‘Impossible is Nothing’ campaign, which tells the story of “a simple shoemaker from a small town”:
The concept of the underdog brand biography (introduced by Avery et al. in 2010 and given subsequent focus in their 2011 paper, ‘The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination Through Brand Biography’) taps into an enduring narrative that has a history for inspiring people. From the stories of David and Goliath and The Lord of the Rings to the well-spun narratives of presidential candidates (both Obama and McCain positioned themselves as the underdog in 2008), and taking in the life stories of Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling along the way, we like to root for the tenacious trier from humble beginnings. The 2011 study identifies the “two main dimensions of an underdog: (1) external disadvantage and (2) passion and determination.” It’s very easy to recognise these in so many of the narratives of culture today. Why do they endure and entice? According to the researchers, it is because we identify with them due to the underdog aspects of our own lives. As most of us have felt disadvantaged at some point in our lives, we are drawn to “the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them.”
But it is important to see this as rhetoric. It is an advertising agency’s conjuring trick. Avis, Apple and Adidas are huge, multinational companies. They are top dogs (Apple and Adidas are arguably the top dog in their respective industries). As Avery et al. tell us: “Being an underdog brand can be a matter of consumer perception rather than a market reality.” Top dogs want to be perceived as underdogs because it lends them authenticity and garners them trust and identification from consumers.
I think that a similar trick has been performed in the rhetoric of progressive education. It seems strange to me that progressive approaches have dominated my short time in education, from training through to inspection (although this latter part seems to be changing), yet the progressive argument continues to take the position of underdog.
The greatest of these rhetoricians is Sir Ken Robinson. His ‘How schools kill creativity’ 2006 TED talk has had 31 million views (when it was at 25 millions views, his website equated this to having been seen by “250 million people in 150 countries”), making it the most viewed TED talk of all time. I am sure you have seen it in a school inset or during your initial teacher training. It is a pervasive narrative in education, a domain where Sir Ken is one of the most powerful people. As well as being professor emeritus at Warwick University, Sir Ken has been bestowed honorary degrees and doctorates from a range of academic institutions. This snippet of the biography from his website gives you a sense of the power and position he holds:
“Sir Ken works with governments and educations systems in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report) was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was the central figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, working with the ministers for training, education enterprise and culture. The resulting blueprint for change, Unlocking Creativity, was adopted by politicians of all parties and by business, education and cultural leaders across the Province. He was one of four international advisors to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.”
Despite all this, the image presented of Sir Ken Robinson – a knight of the realm, no less – is that of someone fighting against a system (“Bring on the learning revolution!”) I’m not certain that he is such a revolutionary. It seems to me that his beliefs are ubiquitous in education.
This isn’t about challenging Robinson’s ideas – that has been done in earnest by Tom Bennett, Alex Quigley and Joe Kirby; this is merely a contention that he holds a false position as ‘underdog’. I think his ideas actually prevail in education.
And so this narrative of progressivism as underdog is carried up by others. Debra Kidd’s book ‘Teaching: notes from the front line’ carries this grave incipit on its cover: “We are, at the time I write this, in need of a revolution in education”. Debra’s position is one of “activism”, railing against the powers that she personifies as “politicians, advisors and consultants.” Yet, most biographies of Debra include various ‘consultant’ positions amongst her many roles within education. As Robert Peal puts it, “Debra and her ilk inhabit those palaces” that they want to storm. Again, this is not a critique of Debra herself or her ideas – I know she is a brilliant and dedicated educator. I do, however, question the positioning of her ideas as revolutionary, and thus positioning progressivism as the underdog.
Another such book which takes the mainstream position and recasts itself as the outsider is Tait Coles’ ‘Punk Learning’. Yet much of what is in this book is the kind of stuff that is embraced in every school I’ve experienced, and has been pervasive in initial teacher training over the last decade.
Even a lot of edtech advocacy I’ve read presents itself as a revolution, struggling against the resistant stance of the establishment (schools and teachers). I don’t think it is struggling though. This BESA report paints a promising picture for tablet adoption, suggesting that the trajectory for 75% of schools is to adopt a 1:1 policy by 2020. Even now, tablets are doing pretty well for themselves in schools. I asked this question a few days ago:
Of course the responses I collated aren’t reliable data. But they give an idea of the prevalence of iPads in schools. I stopped logging the responses at 100 (they were slowly dripping in at that point – there were only a few more after this), but of those, 67 said ‘yes’, 30 said ‘no’, and three said that they were ‘coming soon’. Now, those positive responses will range from having a set for just one class or use in a specific department, right the way through to whole-school 1:1 adoption. These responses don’t seem to suggest a lot of resistance to tablets in schools, and they certainly don’t suggest that edtech is any kind of underdog, pursuing a revolution in education.
By tapping into the two dimensions of underdog brand biography – external disadvantage and passion/determination – many arguments for progressive education create a false position that lends it an enticing authenticity. It is easy for us to identify with the sense of disadvantage; and we are attracted by the passion and determination to overcome it. Indeed, these dimensions are inherent in the discourse of education: how many teachers do you know who don’t identify with the disadvantaged position? How often do you see or hear the word ‘passion’ in teacher’s CVs, job interviews and social media profiles?
Ironically, then, it may be the allure of these precise underdog dimensions that have allowed progressive approaches to occupy a position as top dog in education.
With this in mind, and despite progressivism’s already lofty position, I’m certain we’ll continue to hear the argument: “we are number two but we try harder”.