Last period. Hot. Humid. First part of the lesson falls apart completely, no calming down here. ‘Journal writing’ later? Yeah, right. Plan … P?
“15 minutes to see who can keep a piece of paper in the air the longest? Must let go, cannot touch or be supported by anything, launch with two feet on the ground.”
15 minutes of making mayhem, not one child uninterested, withdrawn. Great atmosphere, humour. Clever designs, different approaches to the problem. After that, 15 minutes of launching and friendly, funny argy bargy whose was in the air the longest. The mighty mess all cleaned up in five.
We have a teen who sits on the couch, always quiet, withdrawn, “no good at anything Sir, it’s all luck” lack of belief in any of his abilities, poor attendance record and diagnosed with things he … certainly ISN’T displaying now! He tests, he shows, he smiles, he tries and … comes second, close to the winner and far from number three. Leaves beaming, “Bye Mister”.
Think we have some material to work with there as far as sense of agency, internal locus of control, self-esteem and desire to be included, doing things that are valued? Yeah, we’ll get to the literacy and curriculum thing, for sure.
Yes, he might be in a complete heap tomorrow, no guarantee. All small steps, small steps. Or as the motto of our school goes: “One student at a time.”
PS One of my ‘aspirations’ this year is to briefly recount these little gems (and flops!) that happen in a place called school. I do so publicly not for admiration nor criticism (believe me, I am NOT a good teacher in many a mind based on this) but to simply add to the rich tapestry of understanding of what is it that teachers do. Because the moment you can ‘define it’ – it changes. And I like that in all its messiness.
I have a tank in my class. No, two tanks actually. Fish tanks, metre and a bit long each. I found them sitting lonely and empty as I started my work at my new school.
Took the tanks into my class. Asked a few boys who, I have been warned and confirmed, can ‘be a handful’ to fill both one third with sand. Done, with gusto. ‘My weakest’ (ah, the labels…) student shows me the best way to empty the crate of sand into the tank without spilling sand. Brilliant, smart, effective.
I produce a bag of toy soldiers, four mini armies in different colours. The glass tanks come alive. Forts, dugouts, trenches are built. Number of boys in different classes just ‘want to play a bit’ with the soldiers. ‘Work and play” take-turn system is born on the go. No walkouts, dramas or inappropriate behaviour when playing with the soldiers. Sharing is turned on.
Strategy to avoid ‘doing work’ ie writing most of these boys aren’t good at? Possibly. Enjoyment from being able to play with toys as something the kid may not have had much in the past? Likely, even more.
“Play with the soldiers, go for it, 20 minutes. Set a battle scene and then describe it. Tell, write down who is fighting who. What is the commander of the red guys saying to his troops? Take a photo and describe the view of the machine-gunner at the back. What about the guy with the grenade launcher? What do you think he wrote to his family last night, before the battle? Think you can do something like that?”
You can’t ‘box’ teaching. It’s too beautiful, too frustrating, too dynamic and complex to do so. Why I teach. Or as one of my favourite authors Arundhati Roy would say
“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
Teachers, or not, we all have our ‘fish tanks’. What is yours?
Yesterday, a student baked this cake. For me. The same student organised a class party but refused to call it that: “It’s not a class party, it’s a party for Mister because he’s leaving us.”
This student is one I waited for hours all up, chased down the hall, argued with, copped verbal abuse from, endured her raging fury and theatrical walk-offs, refused her blackmail, nagged, annoyed with ‘stupid boring stuff’ I had to teach, sent out, warned, reported, gave fail or sub-standard grade, raised voice at countless times and more. When I told staff she’d baked a cake, the incredulous looks said it all.
I also stood up for her when bullied, given her space when needed, sent her out not to punish but to just be when clearly upset, given assessment alternatives, extensions, looked the other way over small stuff sometimes, explained when asked for and more.
Most of all, I never held a grudge. Every day, we started with a clean slate. One of us, or both, just ‘had a bad day’. She knew that, as bad as it got the day before, I’d welcome her without a sigh or frown the very next day. This built the all-important net of safety and trust this student could count on.
There is no box to tick about it. It doesn’t register. There is no ‘tool’ for it nor is it new, ‘revolutionary’ in any way. But it helped us both to learn, be. It helped us not to just get along but sometimes have a conversation, a task, an act to learn all sorts of things from and achieve some, if seemingly little, academic success. The cake says we got something right, with much left to do.
Is this some kind of ‘outstanding teaching’ thing? No, not really. It’s what thousands of my colleagues do, day in day out, around the world.
Which invites the question as basic as it is open-ended: What is the role of a teacher? I invite you to read this ponder by Bill Boyle and watch the outstanding video below (well worth a few minutes of your time, the end is particularly poignant). I cheat here and say ‘me too’ to both these sources because in so many ways they echo my sentiment more eloquently than I can.
Getting the foundational answer to that question right is more important than any of the stuff the revolutionaries, reformers and regurgitators would have us believe.
I hope you have a peaceful and wonderful festive season and, to my Southern Hemisphere colleagues – a case of great summer holidays.
PS For the record … 6 of my 25 Year 10s that bothered to turn up today simply sneaked out of class five minutes before time as I returned a cord to the office, not a kind word uttered or a gesture made. This after a year spent together and loads of effort and considerable expense on my part. I’d rather them say ‘screw you’ than that but … it is what it is. Just so you don’t think I operate in some magic edu-land.
Horse whisperer (noun) A person who tames and trains horses by gentle methods and speech.
Recently, I was described by a respected educator as a ‘kid whisperer’, a person who, as the originating definition above suggests, is gentle and fairly attuned with students in my care. Now, those of who have worked with me know I can bellow a mighty shout and a stern look when needed too, let’s not pretend … But overall, the gentle and patient has been my forte. To be called a kid whisperer is, to me, a badge of honour.
I have been asked the ‘what do you do?” type questions. A quick, from-the-hip reply goes like the following. And please do read the disclaimer too:
Tip #1 Watch what is going on. Listen, watch the child’s body language and your own, know the context, ask, create then keep a SAFE space for expression, whatever the form. If a kid looks hungry, upset, sleepy, sad … don’t ignore it for the sake of ‘efficiency’ but acknowledge and work with what you have in front of you, not what you would like to have in front of you.
Tip #2 Respond in unusual ways if need be. Disrupt the standard responses (raising voice, punishment, showing disappointment, overly praising, coldly quoting the rules, just slower and louder … you get it, surely). Say something the student is not expecting to hear but would perhaps like to hear, then go from there.
Tip #3 Find out something personal about each student. Does not have to be big, just big enough to strike a conversation, quick occasional “how is the BMX racing going? Got your new bike yet?” Yard, informal a great place for it.
‘Pablo’ (not his real name) is ‘trouble’ – in trouble, labelled as trouble, causing trouble. I could throw half a dozen edu-acronyms and phrases at you to describe him. He had called me a f*****g c**t only a few weeks ago, to which he was suspended for a day. Rightly so, boundaries do and must exist.
Yesterday, Pablo flatly refused to work on the environmental assignment like the rest of the class. Five minutes later, I asked him (gently, one-to-one): “OK, look, I get that writing about the Murray river probably isn’t the most important thing to you right now. What IS important to you right now?” Not the usual response …
Pablo paused and said: “I need to work on my CV [resume].” An interesting thing for a ‘trouble’ 13-year old to say. “Would you like me to help you with it?” Nothing to do with rivers here but let’s see where this leads …”
Where it has lead to is an amazing insight into his life, aspirations and family circumstances. He felt safe to tell me. He felt listened to. Tomorrow, we are finishing our collaboratively written CV and cover letter so he can letter-drop local businesses for a small part-time job. I, the guy whom he insulted a week ago, will be honoured to be his referee. And what do you think are the chances of him at least trying to write about the Murray river after that? Yeah, that.
The story I tell is real. The ‘tips’ I offer are real. But then, they are mere tips and they remind me of another story:
Ratko Rudic, the world’s most successful water polo coach (and my former coach) was invited by our national federation to work with coaches. He was bemused by the number of people who wanted ‘quick tips’ on all sorts of things:
“These Aussies are funny. Like the Americans, they want … what do they call them … ‘tips’ on legwork. Sure I can give them that in good will but I can’t give them the ten years of time and effort it took me to work it out myself. And I am still learning it!”
If you think that any of this can help your work with kids in your care – please use, spread, change, quote, make yours at will. No problem. But just like my old coach, I am telling you that all this is hard work in progress for ends I can never be certain of.
Just like listening itself. I for one still don’t do enough of it, especially of the youth in my care. And every teacher worth their title will probably tell you that.
I read and resonate with Dr Linda Graham’s post ‘Educational researchers are right: schools should dump naughty corners and time-out strategies’ and I can see how it can be a red rag to thousands of my teaching colleagues, parents and pundits. Naughty corners, time outs, behaviour peg ladders, smiley faces/sad faces for behaviour, various points systems etc ‘in breach on International Convention on the Rights of Children’? “Come on, you are joking, right?” I read and hear the calls: “Where are the rights of the teachers? Kids who do the right thing?”
No, I really do hear them. In every class of teens I teach, there are those whose presence is a persistent disruption. Unlike violence and aggression in some other places I had taught, this is mostly low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour, identified in another, related piece of research as ‘the main problem in our classrooms‘. But what should I do? What do I do?
‘Engage all students with well-designed learning activities’ goes the de rigeur, ‘teaching standards’ answer. Sounds nice doesn’t it. It IS nice and it happens sometimes, expectedly and unexpectedly. But in a microcosm of personalities, experiences, abilities, learning preferences, teaching preferences, curriculum demands that exists in every lesson, this is a rare educational nirvana I aim for and strike sometimes. For most of the time, it simply ain’t that way. Some students will and do resist, disengage, disrupt, sabotage and more. The question remains: What should I do?
The ‘standard’ responses, wrapped in nice sounding pseudo-Skinnerian speak (‘Positive Behaviour Support’ anyone?), Dr Graham points out are as standard as they are useless beyond perhaps the immediate triage. And triage is what you do when you have limited resources, need an immediate response under less then ideal circumstances. You treat the immediate symptoms, hardly ever the underlying cause. We devote considerable resources to build entire systems of tracking and improving these triage efforts (apparently our school needs a better, expensive computer tracking system to reduce the rate of kids wagging [Australian term for ‘skipping school’, absenteeism]). These systems generate terrific amounts of data that admin get to analyse and devise solutions for the busy teachers. Results? Well, the rates of disruptive behaviour and disengagement haven’t exactly dropped have they. So, ‘better triage’ doesn’t seem to be a great answer to my question: What should I do?
Here is a little of what I do …
In a particularly challenging Year 8 class, there is chasm between ‘achievers’ and ‘strugglers’ (I hate labels…). I try to use activities that involve all and include as much as possible. However, a chair flying across the class, two kids disrupting class next door (let alone ours!) by shouting and kicking, an erupting argument over a stolen phone, withdrawn kid or two who refuse to do anything etc all at the SAME TIME calls for a wiser moves than simply the triage send off or two. The send offs might preserve a bit of peace and sanity and allow at least ten other kids who, at the SAME TIME, want to get on with the lesson and engage in the learning activity I had planned, spent my time creating too.
Very soon after realising what sort of group this is, I said to all of them: “Amongst you there are students who want to get on with it and those who don’t. I understand that. The question I ask you: Which students should I care less about, spend less time and effort with?”
Let’s just say we had an interesting conversation. Now, we are slowly building an understanding that I or rather we simply won’t ignore or exclude people in here but the price of that may be that sometimes the achievers, sometimes the strugglers will not have all their needs met. Like many teachers I try to listen, find a little bit about the kid, provide alternatives, conduct one-to-one, eye-to-eye meetings followed by hands shakes (very powerful with boys!) and making ‘deals’ rooted in trust and not breaking promises. Some of these strategies push the boundaries of the school behaviour code, some colleagues may feel undermined as I am ‘the soft that allows them to have what they don’t allow’ (we’re talking minor stuff here). Many of these strategies don’t work straight away, many never do. It is bloody frustrating, exhausting, emotionally draining work.
Yet…many colleagues are coming up to me saying ‘you are doing great work with these kids, what do you do?’ Well, I give them time, ear and trust. That’s all. Again, don’t get rosy eyed – this is hard graft. I get let down, disappointed many times by teens, get unkind looks by my colleagues. Burnout material and a way to an earl(ier) ‘teaching grave’. I know it. But if my underlying message is one of trust, responsibility and care I am happy to absorb the blows until the student(s) realise it. There is no database to store that one either.
Now, we, teachers, do triage not because we don’t give a damn about the kid. However, the systemic memories and barriers of the past and present are simply too great sometimes for us do each students’ needs justice or at least give them a hearing: “Sorry kiddo, I gotta run, get through this, attend to that, need help with…here is detention!” Hearing, understanding even the needs of a particular student but being unable to cater for them with the limited resources is THE frustrating part. It is also part of the ire teachers so often direct at researchers or anyone else not directly immersed (bruised, battered, frustrated by…) in the daily realities of classroom teaching. ‘Walk in our shoes’ teachers say ‘then judge!’ Or as Dr Sullivan ends:
So teachers, next time you wonder what on earth caused that child in Year 5 or 6 to tell you to get stuffed and run out of the room or the child in Year 8 to throw a chair, spare a thought about their earlier school experiences and the strategies used to manage their behaviour. I will lay a bet this child began as a Hayden.
Sure, but a similar question begs: What did the teacher began as? Non-caring, ego tripping control freak who loves the behaviour charts or someone who wants to awaken, inspire, challenge, create, ‘make a difference’? My work with hundreds of preservice teachers strongly suggests the latter. Why this massive dis-connect between the wishes and lived realities?
‘Sparing a thought about students’ earlier experiences’ is surely better than no thought or insight. However, it is incredibly corrosive where there is little you can do about to hear those out fully, resources to adjust things to allow the kid to blossom. It is this sense of powerlessness that teachers so often complain about that ultimately boils over in the staffrooms, comment sections, kitchen tables and elsewhere.
“If I can’t care for all equally, which students should I care about less?” The answer to that lies in the answer to the broader question: “What is education for?” And it is this seemingly naive but powerful question we don’t ask nowhere near enough.
Due to lack of funding, my short-term teaching contract at a local high school runs out in early April 2014 and I am looking for work.
Below is the required self-promotion in an abbreviated resume format. I hope you get a sense of the person behind these words.
Bachelor of Education (Secondary – Society & Environment major/English minor), Master of Education (Research – Thesis on cultural identity of refugee students and social equity), PhD candidature (Parental views of NAPLAN).
Secondary school teacher (10 years) – Humanities (S&E, English, Geography, History, Philosophy & Ethics, Economics, Career & Enterprise), specialty – work with disengaged youth.
ICT integrator, e-learning designer, presenter, trainer, administrator in school, university, corporate and government sector.
Tertiary sector educator, publisher, researcher – work with pre-service teachers, active research, journal publishing at Murdoch University School of Education.
Professional sports – played and coached water polo, male and female, junior to international level, over 100 caps for Australia, Sydney 2000 Olympic squad member.
Beneath and beyond my work history lie years of experience in a number of fields.
I have had a significant online presence as a commentator, blogger, tweeter, participant in a number of communities since 2004 (well before Twitter and Facebook). In these spaces I mostly discuss creative use of technology in education, educational equity and sociology of schooling.
Years of reading, writing, research and participation in education in a number of settings have given me deep understanding of education, learning theories, and edu-policy initiatives. SAMR, BYOD, AITSL, PISA, ACARA, NAPLAN, ERG … throw an edu-acronym at me and there is a very good chance I will know what it means and does.
I have travelled extensively, particularly in my elite sports playing and coaching years, and speak several languages. I value family as a husband, a father of two primary school boys. I espouse healthy, active lifestyle and community participation as a long standing member of a local primary P&C council.
Working WITH people and building relationships. As frustrating as it may be at times, I am at my very best with people – colleagues, clients, students, juniors to adults, beginners to elite. I uphold high ethical standards whoever I work with. Unless being insincere, many who have worked with me say that I am ‘creative’, ‘innovative’, that I ‘inspire’ and ‘lead’ well.
From early April 2014, possibly earlier if needed, someone can have this person on their staff.
I would greatly appreciate if you could consider, pass on, link to or otherwise let people know about my availability.
But wait … there’s more. If you would care to contribute to my profile, please write something appropriate about me in either the comments below or add a recommendation on my profile at LinkedIn. Every little bit helps, all truly appreciated!
For a long time I hoped not to publicly write this. But here it is – I am quitting my PhD. Twenty months into a clear and interesting project I have collected my data, drafted the Methodology chapter and outlined another, sharpened a theoretical lens, held many great meetings with my two helpful supervisors … but I am out. I am divorcing myself from a dream, an ambition I have had since realising, as a mature-age undergrad, that I may not be as academically dumb as I once thought. I will spare you the reasons but they could probably be bunked under ‘personal’. If interested, email or tweet me.
Doing a PhD is unlike anything. I found that I didn’t really know what I was in for until doing it, for all the wonderful, helpful advice around. It has been a deeply personal thing, brutal at times to the body, mind, relationships alike. I have admired people who have done it before, now I understand them better as well. And if you are contemplating doing one – best wishes, go for it.
I am wiser for the experience and the things I learned along the way. Here are some of the key ones. Firstly, I recognise, now even more, the skill and importance of methodologically and theoretically sound research. Put crudely, academic research is one of those few remaining domains where bullshit doesn’t cut it. The expected critical eye, even if always seeing through a particular and arguable lens, is such an antidote to the uncritical, cliche-recycling discourse of most of the media of mainstream and social varieties. What sometimes gets brushed off in these media as academic, theoretical nitpicking is (mostly) a product of incredible, painstaking effort and writing that is carefully crafted, justified and open to, expected, scrutiny. How refreshing but how hard to do!
Secondly, by doing a PhD and working at university (tutor, casual lecturer), I got a first-hand insight into the world of academia. And largely – it isn’t pretty. For all the exalted perks many imagine and covet, the pressures people at universities are under are as increasing as they are common. Efficiency drives, publishing pressures, performativity regimes and re-writing of what it means to be a professional in that field are no different to so many public workplaces.
Thirdly, I have realised that PhD is not for me. Bit tautological there but I am not a ‘lone writer’. I need people to work with and for, interact and engage my senses, raise my heartbeat, raise my voice, laugh aloud and shed a tear if need be in doing so.
Those of you who know me can see where this is heading now … yes, I am back in a classroom. But it is a shaky deal, for all my (supposed) experience in the edu-landscape. After a recent pile of confidence-shaking rejection letters and interviews, I’ve got a short, one term teaching gig at a public metro high-school. Pays better than teaching at uni, I get to work with kids and staff where I believe I do my best work, I do look forward to it but … it ends in three months. So, if you know a school or other educational organisation in Perth looking for a teacher or similar role that roughly fits my description (updated LinkedIn profile here) – please do let me know. Really, please do so.
I just got back from the most emotional Year 12 high school graduation ceremony I have ever attended (and I have attended a fair few over the years). In this case, only seven students graduated. It was a small, very modest affair but it felt like family. It happened at the school I left last year to start my studies and in which I have described a number of times.
The three young people (pictured above) of the class of about a dozen I started with back in Year 10 finished today too. Against massive odds, they persisted with it and they leave not only with a leaving certificate but on the verge of pre-apprenticeship at local businesses. The angry, lashing, shy, often off the rails boys put on their best tonight and with a bit of swagger (compulsory in this part of town) and a touch of unintended blush accepted their certificates plus a couple of special awards.
During the speeches, the staff, the parents and many of the kids were in tears. They, no … we, broke down at times in acknowledging just how hard these kids and with them the entire school community have had it. Drugs, break ups, alcohol, pregnancies, abuse, suicides, low expectations, miscarriages, school upheavals, disappointments, homelessness, hopelessness (and that’s on top of just being a teenager) – they, we saw it all. Well, we had some great times too.
Before the ceremony we talked about the importance of relationships. One of the colleagues remarked: “I had an epiphany – I realised why the kid who was the most painful, giving me the most grief, kept coming day in day out, more than the ‘good kids’. He needed and got a relationship.” During her speech, another colleague broke down describing her relationship with a young girl, whom she nurtured and stuck with for three years through some truly awful times no person, young or old, should go through. In the students’ farewell speech, this very colleague was addressed with the following words: “She started as a teacher, she ended as a friend.” And more … Without relationships, schools are empty shells. Neat but empty.
Dear reader, I am not making this up. These were genuine thanks after years of genuine listening, caring, swimming together in good and bad, not some nice, well-intended and ultimately so ugly middle-class salvationism.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that I work with pre-service teachers at uni these days. Many of them included the phrase “want to make a difference” in their answers to the question: why do you want to become a teacher? And I always, always invite them to really examine what that means and what is the cost they are prepared to pay for their idea of difference.
There’s a big difference between a student saying ‘thanks for helping me to get better grades’ and a student thanking a teacher, both in tears, for helping them first to survive and then to become a better person. If you want the latter, I invite anyone to go and work in a school that is perhaps called ‘hard to staff’ or where the ‘no good’ kids go.
Because I tell you – you will remember it. Forever.
- Dedicated to the wonderful colleagues, educators at SMYL Community College -
During one of many great conversations in our workshop yesterday, a student remarked:
“Teachers are always complaining about something. They talk about how wonderful teaching can be but then they spend hours going on about how terrible things really are.”
So, we are a profession of compulsory whingers, right? This was too good an opportunity not to scratch the surface of the statement.
Just this week, we were looking at the (lack of) systemic changes in education over the years. How things were, how they are and … how they are likely to be. As a stimulus to the conversation about the future, we used a useful and well publicised OECD study on six possible scenarios of Schooling for Tomorrow. Although a little dated (2004), the study offers some excellent food for thought.
In short (if you can’t be bothered going to the link), the report identifies six main scenarios that may (continue to) play out with regards to mainstream schooling.
1. Schools in ‘back to the future’
This scenario shows schools in powerful, bureaucratic, systems that are resistant to change. Schools continue mostly with ‘business as usual’, defined by isolated units – schools, classes, teachers – in top-down administrations. The system reacts little to the wider environment, and operates to its own conventions and regulations.
2. Schools as focused learning organisations
In this scenario, schools function as focal learning organisations, revitalised around a knowledge agenda in cultures of experimentation, diversity, and innovation. The system enjoys substantial investment, especially to benefit disadvantaged communities and maintain high teacher working conditions.
3. Schools as core social centres
In this scenario, the walls around schools come down but they remain strong, sharing responsibilities with other community bodies. Non-formal learning, collective tasks and intergenerational activities are strongly emphasised. High public support ensures quality environments, and teachers enjoy high esteem.
4. The extended market model
This scenario depicts a wide extension of market approaches in who provides education, how it is delivered, how choices are made, and resources distributed. Governments withdraw from running schools, pushed by dissatisfaction of “consumers.” This future might bring innovation and dynamism, and it might foster exclusion and inequality.
5. Learning networks replacing schools
This scenario imagines the disappearance of schools per se, replaced by learning networks operating within a highly developed “network society.” Networks based on diverse cultural, religious and community interests lead to a multitude of diverse formal, non-formal, and informal learning settings, with intensive use of ICTs.
6. Teacher exodus and crisis
This scenario depicts a meltdown of the school system. It results mainly from a major shortage of teachers triggered by retirement, unsatisfactory working conditions, more attractive job opportunities elsewhere.
Students then got to choose the one or max two scenarios which they think our broad schooling system in this country is at now and one or two scenarios they wish were in place in the future, especially as they head out in a couple of years as qualified teachers.
The picture above shows the voting results from the two groups (Monday & Tuesday):
The difference is striking. They mostly identified (and rightly so) we are at scenarios 1 (‘Back to the future’), 4 (Extended market model) and 6 (Exodus and crisis). What they wish for are largely 2 (Focused learning organisations), 3 (Core social centres) and some 5 (Learning networks replacing schools).
“And you want to become a teacher? Look at it! Oh you dummies … why?” I said, in jest.
I continued: “There lies the heart of some of the deepest teacher grumbles. They may be expressed in references to day-to-day and seemingly petty things but the disconnect between what most educators came into the game for and what happens so often is telling. What is more, brochures, websites, press releases, mission statements, policies and similar texts are full of rhetoric couched in terms of scenarios 2, 3 and even 5. Teachers recognise, connect with the aspirational voice in them but realise they mostly pay lip service to the ‘real world’ of scenarios 1, 4 and 6.”
Why am I telling this to future teachers? Am I not just about condemning our profession and discouraging them to continue their study, do something else other teaching?
Perhaps – yes. But I know I am also helping to send out resilient practitioners who are not going to crumble under the first demand that pierces their bubble of ideal education nor will they fall for the shiny promises of the ‘new’, much of it mostly recycled (<- love this post, more goodness there from The Pedagogista). They may better ‘read’, understand the staffroom whinge, grasp the beers celebrating the end of term or the ‘hump’ week, and resist the temptation to become a superhero but instead be ‘good enough’ for the kids and colleagues they work with.
Because let’s face it – no matter what the future of schooling will look like, it is those good enough educators that will make it work. But there remains something about the examined life worth living…
I can pinpoint the moment that made it clear to me what I want to do as the topic of my PhD.
Last July, while visiting the NetSpot offices in Adelaide, Mark Drechsler, a dear friend, colleague, a maths whiz, tertiary-educated, edu and tech-savvy, prudent and very ‘with it’ (please, this is a ramble, not a piece of sharp academic writing…) parent of an 8 year old told me a story. He wanted to check how his son would go against the NAPLAN literacy tests. The nub of Mark’s story, told in the clip below is this – after about 30 minutes of checking out laid out samples, graphs, bars, averages and bands provided by ACARA, he was frustrated with no clearer to his goal of finding out how his son would go, particularly when compared to his peers.
Here is Mark. A great, raw, un-edited, straight story from a parent-of-a-NAPLAN-kid! (and the insight of his son is … priceless!)
Right there and then I thought – what do parents make of NAPLAN? What about MySchool? For the next three years, this will remain my throw-away, BBQ line when someone asks me “what are you doing for your PhD?”…
Of course, these broad questions branch out and just invite more questions. One such tangent: If a parent like Mark can’t make sense of the info to parents provided in the name of transparency, what hopes do the parents of most of the kids I have worked with as a teacher have in interpreting it, using it, and for what purpose(s)? If used, how do they make sense of the samples, the bars, the charts, the bubbles, graphs, lines with a smattering of edu-lingo?
Soon after coming back to Perth, I did a quick readability test (text) of documents provided by ACARA to parents. If the stats provided by the Australian Bureaus of Statistics and a few online readability engines are to be believed, about half of the population would not actually understand the text on offer! Not to mention the graphs, charts and bands representing some pretty advanced algorithms.
What does that mean? Well, selfishly, there’s probably a conference paper on it. Something along the lines of a working title “MySchool – transparent but complex; implications for parents making ‘the right choice’ as governed self”
There is a body of literature on readability of documents with implications for people with poor(er) literacy, numeracy and graphicacy skills. Much of it comes from the medical contexts, where not understanding the information could carry serious health effects.
I will try to test the text presented with a few standard readability engines and measures. I am still looking for some sort of measurement tool for the degree of difficulty of understanding mathematical concepts in charts and graphs (if you know one, please do let me know! Thousand thanks!).
I could leave it there but the budding educational theorist in me needs to connect this to the field. As the second part of the working title suggests, I’m keen to see this through the lens on Foucault’s notion of governmentality as used and developed by Nikolas Rose in his classic ‘Governing The Soul’. The main idea of it is that we are governed not by oppression and top-down coercion but through our freedoms and choices that we make. Or rather – we are not governed, we govern ourselves instead. We are regulated ‘from inside’, knowing what ‘right’ choices we need to make in the ‘market’ as the dominant, pervasive way to imagine human relations in the late capitalist/advanced liberal democracies. We not only choose, we are expected to construe the course of our lives as the outcome of such choices, and to account for our lives in terms of the reasons for those choices. What I mention here is but a sketch, I do invite you to read more on it.
NAPLAN, MySchool materials are there for parents to make choices. Nowhere does it say what those choices may be but the weight, or rather the web, of societal, economic, political, educational expectations make the ‘right’ choices for us neoliberal subjects implicit – and very powerfully so.
And if we can’t choose, particularly where we are ‘meant to’? If we don’t understand the information upon which our choices depend on? These and more questions, asked by Mark and parents like Mark alike will keep yours truly dig, write, think and elaborate further. Just so I can publish a conference paper and be more marketable post-PhD …