Category: 7. PhD

No Dr Lasic

escape key

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.

Lastly, I have thanked my awesome supervisors Dr Lisa Cary and particularly the tireless Dr Greg Thompson (@effectsofNAPLAN) in person but it won’t hurt if I do so publicly too.  Thank you Lisa, thank you Greg.

There. I am out.

PS Oh, and as you may have noticed, I have revived the original Human and I am back in the Edublogs fold, happily so and with all posts restored, nothing lost. Please adjust any links if you need to.

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.

What is it I do?


What happens there?

A number of people have asked me ‘what are you doing your PhD in?’  Sometimes, ‘education’ is enough but many who know me better or are a little more interested in what I do deserve a more thorough answer but without giving out  my 12,000 word proposal to read – that may be unkind. You can skip straight to the slideshow but the outline below will give a lot better idea.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is the annual high-stakes standardised testing of children aged between 8 and 14 in every Australian school in literacy, numeracy and grammar conventions. NAPLAN is a major part of the Federal Government’s education reform (no wait, ‘revolution’). Publishing of NAPLAN results and detailed school data on the MySchool website aims to encourage parents to hold schools accountable for student performance. MySchool is there to empower parents with data (NAPLAN, school profile, finances, staffing, socieoconomic indicators to name a few) about the school their children attend. Our current PM has publicly and repeatedly hoped that NAPLAN and MySchool website ‘encourage robust discussions between the parents and the schools’. Her predecessor (equally) famously claimed that ‘if parents vote with their feet [if schools aren’t performing] that is exactly what the system is designed to do’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Makes sense? I mean, schools have to be accountable, everyone is these days… And while the policy unproblematically attempts to empower parents, there is a serious lack of research on how they respond to the challenges and opportunities created by NAPLAN and MySchool.

This push for accountability and business-like application of neoliberal market principles in education (‘GERM’; Sahlberg) runs hand in hand with another powerful manufacturer of ‘common sense’ – performativity. While performativity is nothing new, it has intensified over the past two decades in its influence on both educational policy development and parental responses to it. This intensification has been fuelled by the ascendancy of the mentioned neoliberal market-based ideology and proliferation of technological tools of measurement and surveillance.

Central to the functioning of performativity is “translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures and categories of judgement ” (Ball,  2003, p. 217). This transforms the view of education and its complexities into a set of indicators we can use to name, differentiate and, importantly, compare individuals, organisations, even entire educational systems in a seemingly hyper-rational, objective, unproblematic way. Constructed metrics encapsulate and represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or a school. Their reified and strategic use normalises and regulates what is valued and desirable as ‘quality’ and directs human effort towards what seems, in economic sense, a perfectly desirable, logical goal – a series of calculated performances to achieve the targeted outputs efficiently and with minimum of inputs. Schools, students, teachers have been getting in on the act and/or avoiding it in a myriad of ways. Much has been written about it. But we don’t know much about how this plays out with the parents, the increasingly important ‘educational consumers’.

Which brings me to the third ‘force’ in play here – parenting. Just how does NAPLAN feature, play out in parents’ lives? What do they (not) do about it? Anything differently? How well do the lofty goals of parent power envisaged and spruiked by our leaders really play out on the ground? And just how does NAPLAN and associated MySchool play out with parents coming from different socioeconomic, cultural backgrounds and experiences, rewards of schooling? How much or do the parents fear NAPLAN or do they see it as an opportunity? You see, the questions are … endless.

So, for the next three years I will be deeply interested in what happens at the intersection of policy, performativity and parenting in the context of NAPLAN by the parents of kids in three public primary schools.

In the early 2013, I will be visiting parents of kids in three very different primary schools – one comfortable middle/upper class pushing for and publishing NAPLAN results prominently, one middle-of-the-road with great focus on arts (area that, with sport, usually suffers first in the rush to prepare for NAPLAN), and one … what label shall we use: working class? lower class? struggling? disadvantaged? The kinda school I had worked in most of my career (if you’ve read any of my posts tagged ‘teaching’ you’ll get the idea). I will go there to talk to parents and learn, collect and interpret stories.

No, I am not trying to work out “what Australian parents think of NAPLAN”.  The aim of my study is to optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it. My study (a case study of parents in three very different primary schools) will not seek to represent all responses to NAPLAN by Australian parents. It will seek to capture, interpret and compare the cases of parents at each of the three proposed research sites and gain valuable local, regional, contextual knowledge Foucault speaks of.

At the same time, this may help us advance understanding the broader issue of NAPLAN, high stakes testing, performativity, and parenting and serve as a stimulus for other work in the area. A case study like this can be usefully seen as a small step toward grand generalisations or perhaps signal limitations to the existing grand generalisations.

I am fascinated by parents (well, I am one) and pressures, expectations, stresses they are put under as well as their ingenuity, commitment, understanding and sometimes plain rudeness and cold ruthlessness. While I have necessarily narrowed and deepened my PhD project, I think it is important to keep an eye on the broader trends, events and incidents that affect parents of school kids here in Australia and beyond. If you see any useful posts, tweets, sites, projects etc that have something to do with parents and education please do ping me on Twitter, here or otherwise. Many thanks.

Here are the slides … (link if the slides don’t show for some reason)

Enough to keep me busy for three years at least 😉 !

Ball, S. (2003b). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

The beast of performativity


There is a very good chance that over the past decade or so you have experienced one or series of reviews,  performance management meetings, appraisals, inspections, key performance indicators, benchmarks, bonus rewards and a myriad of similar management technologies that measured your ‘outputs’ and outputs of those in your care (eg. students). These would been compared, often quite regularly, and subsequently published for internal or external comparison, even ranking. Through these ‘events’, you had to, implicitly or explicitly, display ‘quality’ of your work, promote an active, enterprising, ever improving self according to some neat, objective (sounding) criteria which reduced complex social relations to a number, scale, list, standard, box or range.

Yes? Nothing new?

Now please, checking that people are performing, doing their job, is probably as old as labour itself. Didn’t catch that fish your people counted on – you all went hungry. Didn’t row fast enough in a slave galley – got whipped. Dug up enough dirt – got extra potato. Won a gold medal – got a bonus. Botched too many operations – got sued. Endless, really.

But there has been a shift in the educational landscape and beyond over the last fifteen or so years and the shift is intensifying. What counts as educative, valuable, effective, satisfactory performance and what measures of teacher and student achievement are considered valid has increasingly been determined remotely, outside the relational space of eg. teacher’s class of kids, school, community according to a set of distant, hyper-rational, objective-looking system that employs a stream of seductively neat, business-like judgements, criteria, standards, categories and benchmarks.

There’s an increasingly dynamic, ever-changing and incessant flow of changing demands, expectations, indications making teachers and students continually accountable and recorded, measured. Educators’ primary tasks (curriculum, care for students, engagement, research) have increased in volume but so have the second-order tasks of monitoring, reporting, documenting, and, put crudely, ‘putting the best foot forward’. In many cases, the secondary tasks of ‘performing’ has assumed the primacy. To make things worse, it’s not always clear what is expected.

And the most corrosive aspect? What is expected is inconsistent with teachers’ own best ethical and professional judgement. Teachers are increasingly made to value things that ‘count’ but know they don’t matter over things they think matter but don’t ‘count’.

Lyotard called it a system of ‘performative terror’. You are stuck, not sure what you do, question yourself, wonder which is ‘the right thing’ … and more.

Some of the main effects, observed and reported widely in USA, UK and Australia? Increased stress, and pressure, increased pace and intensity of work, change in social relationships and (eroded) collegiality among teachers, rising superficiality of measures, initiatives and changes, more paperwork  and maintenance, more surveillance, rising gap in perspectives, values and purposes between budget-allocating, managerial senior staff or higher and those below, on the ground dealing with students, and more …

By way of a couple of vignettes via Stephen Ball:

What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?

I was a primary school teacher for 22 years but left because I was not prepared to sacrifice the children for the glory of politicians and their business plans for education.

It’s as though children are mere nuts and bolts on some distant production line, and it angers me to see them treated so clinically in their most sensitive and formative years.

I have a sprinkling right through this site too, this story perhaps the most notable one.

This is just a glance at the phenomenon, the technology described producing these effects. It’s called performativity.

Know it? Got stories? Let me know. It is one of the central concepts I am looking at in my PhD project. Thanks.

References (if interested… not even a scratch here, rich field of research exists, check Stephen Ball in particular):

Ball, S. J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of  Education Policy, 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 215-228.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, vol. 10. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

PhD – Planning Heroic Dreams

Sunday, 1 July 2012. It’s the eve of starting a life-changing journey. I am starting it voluntarily and happily. After over a decade of high-school classroom teaching I am starting my PhD at Murdoch University. Tomorrow.

After telling a few people about my decision to do a PhD, some have already jokingly called me Dr Lasic. Yeah, please, about 3 or 4 years later if all goes perfectly to plan. Sure, it’s a goal to reach but not really an ambition to be defined primarily as one (Doctor). It reminds me of migrating to Australia 20 years ago. I wanted to make it to Australia and change my life living here. It was never my primary ambition to become or be called Australian but I am happy to have become one. In the words of Deleuze, one of the key authors in my work, it’s a matter of constant becoming, always folding, refolding and unfolding. More on Deleuze some other time …

Why PhD? Over the past few years, I have been percolating ideas and done some writing and research, always interested in “why things happen (in education) the way they do?” The process grew after my Masters research and intensified while working with some of the most disadvantaged, but not helpless or pitiful, young people in our society. I want to dig deeper and see where the rabbit hole goes, knowing full well there is no end. You can’t stop learning.

I have seen the caveats, the warning signs, the stories of horror but also the stories of bliss, of the almost magic affordance to read, think and write, connect, grow, invent, mature  and change in the process. Parallels with running a marathon (and I have run five of those in the last two years) abound.

As part of my PhD, I will be joining a project Effects of NAPLAN. The project, funded by the Australian Research Council, is headed by Dr Greg Thompson (@effectsofnaplan), DECRA Fellow and long-time collaborator. As its title suggests, the project looks at the effects of NAPLAN, a federally funded high-stakes literacy and numeracy test run in grades 3,5, 7 and 9 across Australia.

Informed by some initial findings, my research will look at how a heightened sense of fear and anxiety about NAPLAN among Year 3 students, their parents and their teachers promotes fearful ways of seeing themselves and ways of acting upon it. I am interested in seeing how fear, an isolating, divisive and pervasive force and one of the key features of Deleuzian ‘societies of control’ has, and continues to, affect and alter many long present and expected sets of human interactions in the Australian educational landscape

I leave the classroom content and knowing reasonably well what many teachers’ daily realities are, what pressures they and the kids they teach can be put under and how difficult, but not impossible, is to change things. I know I run the risk of losing credibility with some people who, over time, might say: “What would he know, he last taught X years ago…” but I sincerely hope that being in touch with so many colleagues in person and online with allay some the effects of that physical, daily (dis)connect.

So! Tomorrow, I am going in necessarily naive. More accurately, naive enough not to be scared by the enormity of the project but not over confident in thinking this is going to be easy.

Or in the words, long thought about by of one my dearest students and written on my farewell card asking the question: “What does PhD stand for?”

Planning Heroic Dreams

And I will never forget these guys! You know, ‘low ability’, ‘no good’, ‘low this’n’that’. Yeah right, see it for yourself!