Governed by freedom
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 …
Oh, the irony.