Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

The car maker that sees no evil

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Volkswagen loses its moral compass was the headline of a Times article the other week about the latest scandal to hit the truly awful German car-maker when, as article noted:

"... it emerged that VW and other German manufacturers had resorted to gassing monkeys as part of research into the effects of diesel fumes on humans.  The New York Times and other media revealed that VW, BMW and Daimler had clubbed together to finance an experiment in which 10 macaque monkeys from Java were packed into small airtight chambers and forced to watch cartoons while breathing in fumes from a VW Beetle."

adding:

"Whatever the legal or moral issues of the monkey-torturing affair, it is hard to think of a more numbingly inept stratagem for any modern German company than to associate itself with a gas chamber.  Yet VW, for all its technical skills, has a long history of dubious schemes, and for many both inside and outside the country last week the primate-gassing debacle provided further evidence of an alarming moral void at the heart of German industry."

James Lewisohn has an informative Spectator article on the history of the promotion of diesel within the EU, and, in an article in the Telegraph on the health ramifications of all this, Professor Sir David King, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, is quoted as saying:

"These companies have blood on their hands – I say that without any doubt.  The number of early fatalities in Britain is really very, very large due to NOx (nitrogen oxides) [in the] air, with governments across Europe encouraging diesel on the basis that the catalyst traps worked."

Meanwhile, the UK government just fiddles around as Client Earth notes.

I am appalled at how the German government has connived at protecting all this criminality, and I have resolved never to buy a German car again.  I am surely not alone in this.

 

More challenges around the SDGs

📥  Comment, New Publications

The report on the St George's House consultation on the SDGs contains three sets of challenges, and I wrote about the ones to government the other day.  I was somewhat sceptical as to whether anyone would take any notice.

But what about NGOs and schools?  Are these likely to fare any better do you think?  Here they are:

Challenges for NGOs

  • Contribute to broadening the evidence base that confirms the beneficial outcomes from exploring the SDGs can generate – outcomes than are valued by a range of stakeholders from the learners themselves to government departments including attainment, wellbeing and teacher motivation.
  • Broaden engagement with the SDGs through linking in with broader conversations around the purposes of education and raise the themes and vision behind SDGs to influence key charitable foundations and funders. This links with the need to consider the opportunities to embed learning within other frameworks (for example the Education 2030 project12) that address (but are not limited to) the SDGs and vice versa.
  • Opportunities to explore the SDGs with young people beyond the formal curriculum gives NGOs a licence to work in a way that offers a space for young people to develop their values in ways that may not currently be available within schools.
  • Supporting schools to deliver journeys of learning related to the SDGs is crucial, however this must include consideration of ‘how’ these journeys are delivered as well as what they will learn along the way.
  • The SDGs present those working in the field with an opportunity to rethink assumptions made about the experiences of young people in the global north and south and the false dichotomies that exist and are perpetuated by development education.

Challenges for Schools

  • Those who have direct experience of exploring the SDGs with young people are highly aware of the positive outcomes of these experiences for learners as well as their wider communities. Showcasing and communicating these outcomes more consistently, precisely and completely is essential for gaining support both within and beyond individual institutions.
  • The key is to integrate the SDGs into curriculum learning, not in one subject, but through project based learning where students take a lead role in addressing the challenges that we face.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity for curriculum enrichment offered at KS3.
  • Use new and existing partnerships and networks to spread good practice and resources.
  • Any exploration of the SDGs should include the opportunity to develop critical thinking. This raises the question as to whether it is possible for young people to get behind the SDGs once they have been through the process of critical reflection. Using exploration as an opportunity for developing action competency is therefore also key.
  • Values education can be a contentious topic for schools and teachers. The SDGs offer an opportunity for discussion for students to develop their values. It is important for schools to strike the balance between encouraging specific values and providing space for values to develop.

What do you think?  Answers on a postcard to the usual address ..

Ever mindful of the GAP

📥  Comment, New Publications

I had an email the other day from UNESCO's representative on Earth.

This included a couple of policy briefs that have been developed through the Global Action Programme (GAP).  The email said that these were the key messages:

  1. As a means of implementation, education is an important tool to support the achievement of each SDG.
  2. Improvements in the quality of education and equitable access to it can have a wide diversity of development benefits that demonstrate a high return on investment.
  3. ESD provides a valuable framework and methodology for achieving the goal of “quality education ... for all” as stated in SDG 4.
  4. Educational policies play a primary role in the effective implementation of ESD and framing how it influences and benefits the curriculum, teacher training, development of learning materials, and the learning environment.

What's remarkable about this is the unremarkableness of points 1 & 2 which I might paraphrase as "education is a necessary component of effective socio-economic development.  But has UNESCO just stumbled across this idea?  It's hardly an outcome of the GAP.  Time to wake-up!

Point 3 is just UNESCO having an internal conversation between its special-pleading ESD-ers and the more mainstream (and numerous) education for all types.  This has been going on for years to no great effect.

As for point 4, if you ever find out what it means, do drop me a line ...

 

St George's House and the SDGs – the report

📥  Comment, New Publications

As you know from all those posts about the sustainable development goals late last year, there was a St George's House, Windsor, consultation in December on the SDGs and young people.  St George's said:

We already know that a number of schools have programmes focusing on this, but if goal-related learning by students can help increase the likelihood that the goals will be valued, supported and hence realised, is it also the case that a critical study of the goals can enhance the focus, and help raise the quality of student learning? This Consultation examined these twin propositions.  We looked in depth at what good goal-related outcomes might be; and explored what more can be done to embed a focus on the SDGs in work with young people both in and out of school.

The report has now been completed and you download it here.

It contains the background papers for the consultation, the presentations that were made and summary thoughts of participants.  The final part of the report sets out reflections and challenges, saying:

"The discussions and conversations over the 24 hour period generated key insights amongst participants as well as highlighting a number of challenges, both broad and narrow in their nature, to be considered when exploring the SDGs with young people."

Although there are no recommendations, there are key insights, and three sections setting out challenges (in the sense of why don't you do this ...) for government, schools and NGOs.  This is the challenge to government:

  • The SDGs are knitted together by a common set of values. Recognising the role that education has in achieving the SDGs triggers the need for a national conversation around the purpose of education as being for the development of a responsible and just society rather than for the acquisition of skills to complete a job, and amendment of the Education Act as a result.
  • Convene a cross-sector coalition of organisations and individuals to consider the vision of the purpose of education and to deliver the systemic change necessary to realising this agreed purpose.
  • From the perspectives outlined during the consultation, there is a need to consider the discrepancies between approaches to enabling and supporting learning for the SDGs across the UK nations.  Similarly there is a need to consider the opportunities for incorporating learning for and about the SDGs at different stages of education.

It seems highly unlikely that any of this will happen any time soon.

 

PIRLS of wisdom

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I hadn't realised that French school kids did so badly in the PIRLS tests, and that they've been getting worse at it over the last few years.

PIRLS * is known as a reading test, but it's much more like a new-fashioned comprehension test – a 21st century version of all those interminable exercises I did at school which I saw little relevance in at the time but which, as it turns out, helped me start to develop a language skill that I've used in all the work I've ever done.

Anyway back to the French and their concerns over what to do about PIRLS given that it demonstrates that not all's well with the French Bac.   One option is to withdraw from it whilst making self-serving noise about how it puts too great a burden on children teachers, parents, etc.  This is what the Scots did after the 2006 results **.   And for depressingly similar reasons, so, of course, did the Welsh,

Another option is to try to do something about it as the Economist reported this week. The New Napoleon has ordered significant changes in the French Bac although there seems to have been less than extensive consultation with teachers who (always on the lookout for a chance to parade their virtue on the streets when the days get warmer) are said to be upset.

Happily (but unhappily if you're the saviour of Europe), Les Rosbifs are doing rather well in PIRLS, as are (of course) the Northern Irish.  To see what sort of test PIRLS offers, just have a look here.

......................................

Note

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) measures the reading ability of 10-year-olds, which can then be compared with other countries. The study is run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) on a 5-yearly cycle. The next round of the study takes place later this year and will be delivered through Pearson Education and Oxford University in England.

** A 2016 ELINET survey of literacy in Scotland said this:

"The average reading performances of Scottish 10-year-olds in PIRLS 2001 and 2006 were similar across years and across both reading and reading comprehension processes. Scotland’s performance was slightly lower than the average across participating EU countries, but with greater spread. In contrast, while the average reading test performance of Scottish 15-year-olds in the PISA surveys has fluctuated over the period (2000-2012), it has always been above the average for participating EU countries. The performance spread for Scottish students has been lower than that for the EU countries on average: the proportion of top-performing readers has been close to the average of participating EU countries, whereas the proportion of students considered as low-performing readers has typically been below the EU countries on average."

 

Manchester, Bedford and the Steady State

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is a brief review of the discussion paper that Susan Brown, from the University of Manchester, has written for Steady State Manchester [SSM], and which I wrote about on Tuesday.

We learn from the Introduction to the paper (page 5) that Steady State Manchester (SSM) is concerned with how we transition to a ‘steady state culture’ – by which SSM means ways of shared living “where people thrive without harming the planet”.   SSM adds that a steady state culture emerges through and develops local economies founded on a ‘viable economic model; that is, a model which recognises a dependence on the environment, on the social structures the environment supports and on the well being of the individuals that make up those social structures.

There is a lot packed into these brief sentences, and some of it needs to be contested.  The first thing to say is that SSM is not the only group interested in people being able to thrive without harming the planet; arguably, everyone interested in sustainability / sustainable development would want that – more or less – although it does depend on what ‘thrive’ means, and who gets to decide this.  And I take “harming the panet” to mean really buggering up the biosphere rather than dropping the odd bit of litter or dog doo-doo, deplorable and distressing though these are.  It seems reasonable to conclude that, in SSM’s view, thriving implies ‘shared living’ as they link the two phrases closely together.  I am not really clear what shared living means, or what the implications are for those of a more individualistic turn of mind (and I don't just mean hermits).

The second thing to note is the stress on the need for a viable economic model: one that acknowledges the dependency of individuals and social groups on the planet.  I am sure that SSM thinks that this is not the economic model that we currently have, and many would agree with them.  However, a key question (but not for today) is whether such a viable model has to be a steady state one.

The next section of the paper shows the immensity of the task of transitioning to a steady state culture as this requires a “shift in underpinning understandings, values, and aspirations”.  That is, we shall have to change what we know, how we know it, how we think, what we value and what we want from life.  The point of the paper is that it is education (viewed broadly) that has a “crucial role to play in helping us make the transition”.  Or, I wonder, should that be that "in helping us want to make that transition".

Susan Brown asks:

“… what educational communications/activities can help shift understandings and values and develop the skills needed to make the transition to a steady state culture and the economy?”

In the space of a few lines on page 6, we’re told that

[i] education can be a primary force for change, enhancing the life chances of individuals and the workings of societies, and that ...

[ii] education tends to support change which accords with the values existing within society rather than striving to change those values.

And there is no contradiction here particularly when it comes to schools which tend to be conservative / status quo institutions.  Whilst they are capable of changing the lives of individuals for the better (I am one such), it’s always the case, for obvious reasons, that schools are easier to change by society than society is by schools.

Although the paper quotes Jacombs (2004) who describes education as "the most sophisticated instrument yet fashioned by society for its own conscious social evolution", that role is easier to see working in universities than in schools.  Indeed, some argue that it is the prime role of the research and scholarship that emanates from HE – and we might add technological evolution to the quote.  In schools, however, the instrument is a blunt one largely because learners don't learn what teachers teach.

It is undoubtedly the case that there is much questioning of the extent to which current educational provision (again viewed broadly) shores up economic models based on growth, trade, markets, capitalism, etc (which some term neoliberal), and which are taken to be inimical to both a well-functioning biosphere and human (and perhaps other) well-being.  But it's not obvious to everybody who thinks about these matters that a steady state culture would solve all the problems, and it is certainly to be hoped that were a transition to a steady state culture begin, there would be as much reflexive questioning of the appropriateness and effectiveness about what's emerging as there is of the current system.

We’re told (page 7) that, in a transition to a steady state culture, there would be a need for the following:

  • an emphasis on place-based education
  • a focus on interdisciplinarity
  • an open, inquiring, empathic mind-set

There’s nothing wrong with any of these (and much that’s right about them), but I’m sure geographers would want to say that they exist already in most schools – and environmental educators are always banging on about such things.  There also doesn’t seem to be anything particularly steady state about them, as far as I can tell.

The main body of the paper then helpfully goes on (pages 9 to 30) to ask what might the educational landscape for a steady state culture look like, and discusses wide range of issues in 5 sections:

  1. Skills
  2. A diversified learning landscape
  3. Involvement and contributions
  4. Communication
  5. The Information Landscape

The issues covered are not all the usual sort of thing you find in papers like this, and they warrant a read (and I shall return to these at some point – though not today).  The issues include, for example:

  • 1.3 Legal literacy
  • 1.4 Engagement with technology
  • 2.3 Grassroots learning
  • 2.5 Local Apprenticeships
  • 3.1 Ranking and value
  • 3.2 Access, accreditation and assessment

The points that that Susan Brown choose to emphasise in this core section of the paper included the following, and they illustrate the radical nature of what's envisaged:

  • We will need to nurture and value a much broader range of skills than are currently focussed on and ditch unhelpful dichotomies between manual skills and academic skills;
  • Informal and formal learning communities will need to work more closely together, with formal institutions finding ways of responding to the initiatives of local communities;
  • Formal institutions will need to significantly widen access to the knowledge and expertise they hold;
  • We’ll all be learners and teachers, drawing at whatever stage in life on our natural inclinations to learn and communicate information, knowledge and skills to others;
  • A focus on communication skills will be central to shaping a Steady State. Kernel to that focus will be listening skills, empathy and an understanding of the value of pluralistic conversations;
  • We’ll need to value and invest in a sense of ‘place’, with all of the rediscovery, innovation and creativity that this will entail.

But in the end, there was too much is this transitioning to get into the paper as Susan Brown notes that she might have discussed the following:

– the skills we need to establish local financial systems: this is an area that those with significantly more knowledge of such systems than I have may be able to address from an educational perspective.

– how education can explicitly tackle the deeply ingrained value systems associated with ‘over consumption’.

– the demands on our time that prevent many of us from engaging in community activities.

– the levels of playfulness, fun and imagination that will be needed as we learn new skills.

And so on – although (again) none of the above seems particularly steady-state to me.

Steady State Manchester is keen to understand how education can help shape a steady state culture and Susan Brown has done a useful job, I'd say, in helping them (and the rest of us) think about this.  This is part of the final part of her conclusion:

"There are a growing range of educational initiatives; a few alluded to in this paper, which are changing the learning landscape in ways that can shape a Steady State Culture.  The number of such initiatives needs to substantially increase and their activities supported and nurtured.  For this to happen we need profound change in the ways in which we think about education.  Through writing this paper I realize the vocabulary we use in most formal educational contexts is constrained, and relates, without many of us consciously realizing it, to competition, status, authority, recognition, power, intellect etc. ...

There is, undoubtedly, something in thus, but it's not the whole picture by any means and it's not helpful to hint that it is.  Anyway, should we really be opposing 'intellect' and 'competition'?   Will Premiership football be frowned upon in steady state Manchester I wonder.  And will status, authority, recognition, or power diminish?  I don't believe that for a minute.  I have thought for a long time that our education system has always been predominantly in the service of the economy – just as it would be, I think, were SSM to come to power.

The paper ends (it follows on from the previous quote) like this:

... This means that even when we wish to change education we end up reverting to default educational understandings and processes that are not conducive to shaping a steady state.  For them to be so they need to be fused at a fundamental level to the vocabulary of mutuality, shared ownership, collaboration, humility, creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination."

Again, there's nothing wrong with (and much that’s right about) creativity, experimentation, learning from failure, discovery, motivation and imagination, but it's not helpful to think that they are wholly lacking from the current system – particularly, perhaps in primary schools.

My final thought (for now) is that I'm more likely (just) to found living in Manchester than in Bedford in 2045 – if I'm still around then, of course.  I say this because it looks more likely to be open-minded (only just though).  Mind you, my real plan is to keep on living (or dying) safely quartered down in Wiltshire where things are always steady.

 

 

Bedford 2045 – part 2

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is the second post this week on Bedford 2045 which was first published as part of Huckle J. and Martin A. 2001. Environments in a Changing World (London, Prentice Hall).

In Chapter 3 (Sustaining Development) of Higher Education and Sustainable development: possibility and paradox, Stephen Gough and I commented on this classic text.  We wrote this just before the extract that I cited:

"... there are those who ultimately want no truck at all with ‘development’ (at least as the term is usually understood), and advocate instead that humans should choose to live in steady-state communities of some sort.  Such communities may well be described as ‘sustainable’ or as practising ‘sustainability’.  They are usually envisaged as being small scale.  They are often modelled on some real or imagined historical example, perhaps with the addition of such modern conveniences as are thought excusable or indispensable.  They are never animated by competition or market-exchange, but always by collaboration for the common good and a state of harmony between society and nature.  An interesting example is provided in Box 1."

Box I was the Huckle & Martin text.

We then wrote this immediately after the box:

It may very well be argued that for Bedford to arrive at the circumstances described in Box 1 would constitute a form of development.  Further, the example continues by suggesting, among other things, that a Brazilian firm is looking for opportunities to manufacture anti-cancer drugs in Britain.  This too, surely, would be development if it happened.  But why would it?  The problem is that both the provenance and the continuance – that is, the development – of this ‘sustainable community’ depends on assumptions about social change which are as counter-historical as they are economically unsupportable, and which, more fundamentally, rest on a particular conception of what it means to be rational.  In this book we are working with a conception of development which incorporates the view of Amartya Sen when he writes that:

"Exclusive pursuit of self-interest is not banished, in any way, from the domain of rationality, but neither is it mandatory. Its role in rationality is contingent on self-scrutiny."  (Sen, 2002, 47)

People may rationally choose to behave in ways which render a town like the one described in Box 1 wholly unsustainable.  We would add that there is abundant historical evidence that they often do so, that there are clear economic and social reasons why they might, and that anything recognisable as a university might well facilitate them in doing so.  For example, what if Tom wants to take out a high-interest loan to buy a villa in Spain for Bill, who very much dislikes looking after children in his old age but feels that he must do so because of community pressure?  It is surely possible that the Credit Union (or some of its members) will see advantages in setting up a fully-fledged bank to meet demand for financial instruments of this kind, so diverting funds from lower-return uses and also creating a need for specialists in financial management.  These specialists are recruited from the leading university in the field, which happens to be in Scotland.  They demand a premium payment above the rates set by the Neighbourhood Council for their inconvenience in moving to Bedford, so enabling them to choose individual over collective service provision and injecting additional spending power into the local community.  Meanwhile Tom, who has simply made a rational choice based on the balance of his preferences, needs extra paid work at the best rate he can get to cover the interest on his loan.  As a result he doesn’t have time to give Jake his breakfast any more.  And so on.

Our point here is not that people should hate looking after children or want villas, but that any useful conception of either sustainable development or higher education has to accommodate the possibility that they might.

...............................................

In the first post, I posed these questions:

  1. would you like to live in this version of Bedford?
  2. what sort of schooling and HE would there need to be to make (and keep) Bedford 2045 possible?

My response to [1] is that I think it would likely be an unpleasant place to live because there would be a lot of strife within the community as the core values underpinning Bedford 2045 would have, one way or another, to be imposed upon increasingly, skeptical, disillusioned and angry population.

The place would clearly be rife with propaganda about how good life was in Bedford compared to, say, Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable, Luton or Milton Keynes, where (no doubt imperfectly) regulated capitalism was still able to provide people with wants as well as needs.  There would also obviously have to be be Stasi-style snooping and informing by (keen and willing) volunteers in order to discourage the sort of individuality of thought and action that undermined values.

As for [2], well that's for later this week when I consider the paper that Susan Brown wrote for Steady State Manchester.

 

How can education help to shape a Steady State culture?

📥  Comment, New Publications

This is the title of a discussion paper that Susan Brown, from the University of Manchester, has written for Steady State Manchester [SSM].

This is how SSM summarises the paper:

  • Argues that a learning renaissance is required to achieve a Steady State culture.  A transition from the current role of education ‘to ensure a workforce able to compete in a global market’ to one where people ‘play full roles in developing sustainable local economies’
  • Includes an accessible, broad, diverse, inclusive vision of a Steady State education culture which responds to the initiatives and issues of local communities.  It is brought to life by descriptions of existing educational initiatives from near and far which are ‘which are changing the learning landscape in ways that can shape a Steady State Culture.’
  • Moves from a very individualistic, competitive form of current education to a collective endeavour

I'm not a steady-stater because I don't see how it could ever work to human benefit.  There also has to be a beggar thy neighbour edge to it which happens when the "initiatives and issues of local communities" come into conflict.  I'm also skeptical because I think that a "collective [education] endeavour" would have to be enforced whatever those being educated thought about it.

So, you'll understand that I am reading this paper with Bedford 2045 in mind.  More tomorrow ...

 

Bedford 2045 – part 1

📥  Comment, New Publications

There will be a couple (at least) of comments this week on John Huckle's classic text, Bedford 2045.  The first (which deserves to be read without any comment from me), follows.

I'd only ask you to have two questions in your mind as you read this:

  1. would you like to live in this version of Bedford?
  2. what sort of schooling and HE would there need to be to make (and keep) Bedford 2045 possible?

Bedford 2045 ...

It is a Wednesday in September 2045 and Jane Pearson wakes early. … The solar collector on the roof has warmed the water for Jane's shower and by the time she has dressed and gone downstairs, husband Tom is giving Jake his breakfast. … Jane, Jake and Tom tuck in to their breakfast of cereals and fresh fruit from the neighbourhood orchards.  A lot of food in now grown around the town and Tom spends some of his time working at a local nursery where the glasshouses are heated with hot water from a small combined heat and power generating station which burns straw and willow. …  Over breakfast Jane and Tom talk about their plans to add another room to their house before January when their second child will be born.  Friends in the street will help them with some of the work once the prefabricated timber sections are delivered and they will engage a plumber and electrician through the town's local economic trading scheme (LETS) which now accounts for 30% of local business turnover.  They will need to get a low interest loan from the Credit Union. …  Most people now live near enough to walk or cycle to work, but there are electric bus services and some light rail links to surrounding towns which accommodate dual rail-road vehicles. …  At the tram stop Tom meets his father Bill who is disabled and needs the tram to get him to the community centre where he helps look after young children like Jake. …  It takes Tom another five minutes to reach the engineering factory where he works for twenty hours each week.  The regional government now guarantees all adults between 18 and 55 this amount of work and with a national minimum wage, it is generally sufficient to meet their needs.  They can do additional paid work but few do so.  Most prefer to use non-work time for education, leisure and voluntary work and this means that there is less stress and fewer health problems. …  The community cafe, like the community laundry, is a way of sharing domestic work and saving energy.  Some people work in them for wages which are set by the Neighbourhood Council, but most people work in them to obtain services at a cheaper rate and meet their neighbours.  All the talk over dinner this evening is about the community meeting ….

Huckle J. and Martin A. (2001) Environments in a Changing World, London, Prentice Hall.

 

Soviet art and the Gulag

📥  Comment, News and Updates

As I read the Economist's 'The Big Squeeze', I thought back to a recent visit to the Tate and its magnificent exhibition of Soviet poster (and other) art.  The Tate's blurb noted:

"After Stalin became leader in 1927, the propaganda machine promoted the collectivisation of land and the drive for industrialisation, oblivious to the terrible hardships caused by these policies.  Stalin’s benevolent image was everywhere, but it barely masked the terror of the show trials and executions that blighted the 1930s.  The revolutionary fervour conveyed through the early posters now enforced a repressive dictatorship."

The debate amongst my fellow visitors was about whether the ideals (egality / fraternity / etc) that inspired the revolution and, hence, the Soviet Union had inevitably to lead to the Gulag, or whether, it was all blown off course, by the mad machinations of fallible humans aided by the climate of fear that they had established.  I used to believe the 'mad machinations' thesis because I wanted to think that the egality / fraternity side of the equation (ie, socialism) was possible, but no more: reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the 1970s put paid to that, even though it was written to have the opposite effect.  The egality / fraternity calculus depends on the perfectibility of humanity and its surrender of individual want to the collective need, and so is dead in the water.  Read some Kant if you don't agree.  I fear we may have to learn all this again sometime soon.

The Economist's article is about the economic ideas that underpinned the Soviet economy, and it dwells on the forced collectivisation of agriculture:

"The Soviets believed that industrialisation would succeed en masse or not at all.  Those steel plants, tractor factories and machinery-makers needed to operate on a big enough scale to justify the heavy upfront cost of building them.  And the success of any one industrial venture depended on complementary investments in others.  Upstream suppliers need downstream buyers and vice versa.  Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, a Bolshevik economist, argued that a broad advance was needed across the whole industrial front, not an “unco-ordinated advance by the method of capitalist guerrilla warfare”.  

We'll likely be hearing more of that idea if there is a change of government.  The Economist went on:

The workers for this industrial advance could be found in abundance on the farms, the Soviets believed.  Agriculture was so overmanned it could lose millions of field-hands without much damage to the harvest.  That was just as well, because the remaining peasantry would have to feed the factory workers as well as themselves.  One way or another, resources would have to be transferred from the countryside to the cities.  By organising the peasantry into collective farms, the Soviets hoped to make them more productive—and easier to “tax”.  A collective farm was, they believed, easier to collect from."

Alas, it was not to be:

"Stalin expropriated, expelled or exterminated many of the most prosperous and sophisticated farmers (the “kulaks”), requisitioned grain at low prices and tried to nationalise draught-animals.  In response, aggrieved farmers simply slaughtered their horses and oxen or stopped feeding them.  These efforts to extract resources from agriculture by force were a disastrous blunder as well as a crime.  At its worst, agricultural output declined by over a quarter compared with 1928, leaving the planners with less to redistribute to the urban workforce."

And so the Gulag came.  For the awful details of what happened you can do no better than read Stephen Kotkin's Stalin Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1928-1941 (Allen Lane).  The Economist article ends with an examination of the potency of Soviet economic ideas for modern China and other parts of Asia.

As for the exhibition, even if you factor out the Gulag's inevitability, the art is disturbing but rather magnificent.