Tagged: change

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.

Technologies of delight

Yesterday, I took our two boys (aged 6 and 3) to a place where they could be their best. Not the only such place but a great one nevertheless. The place is called Naturescape, free and right in the heart of Perth’s Kings Park. It is an impressive place with a particularly impressive (if not obvious) feature – its design was based on extensive survey of kids. What did the kids want? Dirt, water, sticks, rocks, stuff to climb, stuff to build, to craft and move.

Our boys dreamt up games, challenges and scenarios. They hung on and drew their breath while crossing creeks on tricky logs, climbing tall ladders, hanging off ropes or waiting if the structure they built with sticks is going to hold out. They built a dam, a bark boat, a ‘rock harbour’, read the map to find the way around, pretended to be Lorax standing on a chopped trunk (spot them on the pics below :-), spotted different rocks, plants and bushes, ran around a maze, fell off ropes, got wet, sandy, dirty, tired … a great few hours spent. It has also triggered a stack of stories and (no doubt) upcoming pictures, annotated cartoons, Lego creations on the theme and more.

As stated in the opening sentence – they were at their creative, acting, learning best.

When our 6 year old goes back to school this week, he will be expected to sit in a chair pretty still and ‘behave’ from 8.45am to 3pm. His teacher will be expected to ‘show progress’ with our kiddo on some pretty narrow parameters that dominate newspapers and societal DNA on ‘what schools should do’.

Likely results? Mr 6 will not be bouncy, creative self as much for sure and his teacher might feel guilty for not bringing the best out of him. Do I feel sorry for both of them? I do. Because a chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day are not necessarily the things, the spaces, no wait … the technologies (!) that bring out the best in people. Every day I watch ‘at risk’ teenagers who turn into zombies when they walk through the school gate but they are brilliant mechanics, traders (just don’t ask what they trade…), bike riders, carers, navigators, budding chefs and lawyers (judging by their ability to argue finer points :-)) out there.

A chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day (with a teacher who ‘knows’ and students who ‘don’t’) are simply historical accidents that we have found comforting to fund and support.

Now please, I would not just ‘get rid of schools’ but I would like us all in a society to think deeply and carefully about the lessons we can learn from watching the kids in places like Naturescape. And don’t for one minute think adults are hugely different and don’t want to play and learn.

Change by delight, not by fright. An old line we could heed a bit more.

And as I got home I came across this post by an old friend…

Mad or what?

The heart of it all. Questions !
The heart of it all. Questions, glorious questions !

This isn’t a ‘flipped classroom’. This isn’t ‘disruptive’ pedagogy or ‘disruptive technology’. This isn’t (just) about what is often understood as ‘critical thinking skills’.

I had tinkered with it and applied it in pieces in a mainstream school. Only in dosaged pieces because at the heart of it, this thing goes against the purpose embedded in the very (classroomed, corridored, square) building, let alone the way a ‘school’ is organised and thought of by most people who come in contact with. And this time, I’m going for it full throttle at our awesome … school.

About 45 years ago, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote an eloquently genial and provocative book about it. Even that cranky old Greek called Socrates would probably like it (he just wouldn’t like it for being written down, for fear of de-personalising and de-contextualising).

After such a bombastic opening you are probably expecting to read about something terribly clever, innovative, creative and so on. But it isn’t, it is so damn simple and quite old really but with a contemporary e-twist.

This is what we are up to, a factual account.

At our first individual, in-person meeting for the term, the student (six so far, half my group), myself and often another person (a colleague, friend, support staff, parent, carer …) sit around the table with a big sheet of paper. In the middle of the paper sits the topic of student’s interest with words What? Where? Who? Why? When? How? What if? as visual reminders under it.

Together, we come up with as many questions about the topic as we can. We go for about 30 – 40 minutes and we are only interested in questions, answers not permitted. We ensure that the student contributes a healthy chunk of questions (least we’ve had is about a third, most about 80%, usually around 60%). The student can veto ANY generated question at any time but has to explain the reasons for the veto.

When done, the student is given options on the format they would like to use to work on these questions, keep them organised, interact with others and so on. So far, all of them have chosen a website over other formats (eg. portolfio, folder, poster …) for this purpose. A unique Google Site takes about a minute to set up with all the capacity needed to gather, curate and interact.

The student and I share the editing rights for the site. I am the tech hand, (s)he is the content manager and vice versa. We collaborate. I’m not a ‘sage on the stage’, nor a ‘guide on the side’ – I’m a ‘meddler in the middle’ (thank you Erica McWilliam for the phrase, seminal paper). We (will) involve others too as we go along, locally and (inter)nationally.

And the questions, some still in their raw, ungrouped, un-critiqued, un-pulled apart state are the term’s curriculum. That’s it! What is worth learning to this person, right there.

Here are a couple of examples about becoming a visual artist, joining the Navy, online gaming and an earlier effort about drugs. All are in their embryonic stage but with questions there.

If you look at the questions, some contain a dozen PhDs in them if explored to extraordinary lengths. And they can! They are there to trigger that wonderfully humbling paradox of learning: “the more you know the more you realise what you don’t know yet.”

As the advisor (umm, ‘teacher’) I question, praise, challenge, argue, poke and prod, interpret, scaffold if need be. I encourage the student to do the same. I educate in the sense of the original Latin word educare – drawing out the potential, the latent from a person. These kids are not passive ‘recipients’ of knowledge – they produce it. The job is not that easy as it may sound but I have not been this energised about my own profession for many, many years.

Now … where will we end up with all this? Frankly, I don’t really know (probably THE most frightening aspect to many of my colleagues in education and students too). But I DO know that these kids will have a much deeper, meaningful, contextualised understanding not just of the topic they are looking at but ways of learning, thinking, interacting, reflecting, and – acting!

Some of you reading this might see this as great for all sorts of reasons – pedagogical, technological, social and so on. Some of you may be indifferent: “Meh…” Some of you may be truly horrified and you may be right: “How can you track this to syllabus? How can you test this? How can you make sure they are covering areas other than just what they are interested in?” Valid questions. But if you ask them, go beyond the superficial and ‘common sense’, ask the odd ‘why so’ along the way then wrestle with it honestly.

Yes, students starting the term with about 50 of own questions rather than a set course in something their teacher is probably good at is probably an anathema to what society considers as ‘school’. But if I have the engagement of these ‘hard-to-engage-in-schooling’ young people after the first few days to go by – we are onto something.

These kids CAN question. They CAN lead. They CAN learn. They CAN see themselves in a light a school would rarely (or never!) have them before.

Mad, courageous, awful, irresponsible … ? You decide.

Great Moot but …

#mootau11 collage
A memorable moot !

Quick slideshow…

This is what I tweeted at the end of 2011 Australian Moodle Moot 2011:

To sum up #mootau11: We flew First Class! Thank you @ns_allanc [Allan Christie] and @netspot crew.

It was truly wonderful.  Great ideas, great people, great venue, great organisation, great community vibe. It was a three day Moodle love-in.

Highlights – meeting soooo many people I have net-known for a while but we have never crossed paths in person (Mary Cooch, Helen Foster, Geoff Young, Nigel Mitchell, Shannon Johnston, Nathan Hutchings, Michael Woods, Claire Brooks, Jon Powles … to name just a few!!!), working collaboratively with the one and only Sarah Thorneycroft on the game-based learning stuff, sitting in some very cool sessions and speakers, watching Martin strut his stuff on the dance floor, toughing it out with four fellow moodlers at the inaugural MoodleMoot jog on a wet, cold and windy morning, doing the Baywatch slo-mo impersonations with the indomitable Louisa ‘Buzz’ Wright … and so much more!

Mark Drechsler has posted a few reflective posts day by day and I invite to you to head over for a great rundown with added personal reflection of a team member who has worked very hard to make this moot such a success.

But it made me a bit … sad, too.

Sad because ideas like:

  • Give students a course to create and demonstrate what they can do and care about.
  • Give students the power (and associated responsibility!) to edit and become co-creators in a course/parts of you run.
  • In staff PD, get reluctant teachers to come up with examples of use of a tool as a buy-in before they learn how to set it up.
  • Pique curiosity with quest(ions), interesting challenges for staff or students to complete and build-in some feedback as they go along (game-based learning).
  • Don’t spoonfeed – teach how to think not how to do the new tool.
  • “You never know more than the people you train.” – be humble and listen, value, adjust.
  • Get the audience to contribute their ideas via real-time editable doc and use, build on those.
  • Instead of building new ‘portals’ for content to hoard and lock down – open up and build networks instead with a few simple, existing tools and invest in people instead.
  • Make your assessment match the conditions of the ‘real world’, make it as authentic and relevant as possible.
  • and more …

were met with ‘wow’ and gushing tweets how ‘fantastic’ and ‘innovative’ that was to hear and see. Yeah sure, these are all great things. But why aren’t they as common as dirt? They are hardly new or revolutionary – arguably, they have been around for millennia in different contexts.

It is truly sad to see ‘tighter submission of assignments’, ‘improved procedures for protecting content’, ‘better tracking capabilities’, ‘faster delivery of content’ (whatever that means …), ‘building content portals’ etc. becoming so pressing yet normalised concerns and ideas.

It is equally, if not more, sad that things that we as species are so intuitively damn good at, such as ‘working out a problem’ and ‘challenging ourselves’ and ‘being curios’ and ‘wanting to be involved’ and ‘valuing listening’ seen as some incredibly smart, ‘progressive’, bleeding-edge notions?

Hey, some folks are making a mozza on speaking circuit peddling the obvious…if we took a second to think for ourselves. But I do wonder how and why have these rudimentary human strivings become so counterintuitive to ask, wonder about, and try to stimulate for learning?

I know schools and universities aren’t going to disappear or change in a hurry. And they shouldn’t, for my money. But if education is/were a business, what is its currency? What do you/we want it to be?

I know I’m using broad brush strokes here. I know the minutiae of our professional lives prevents the odd navel-gaze and wonder. But it is important to see the forrest from the trees sometimes.

Once again – thank you organisers of 2011 Australian Moodlemoot. I hope to see you next year on the Gold Coast, weather (aka $$$) permitting.

Ed-tech Ferrari in first gear – why change?

This is a reply to a healthy ‘ring’ of posts by Mark Drechsler (Learning technologies – should the tail wag the dog? – an excellent string of replies growing there!), David Jones (The dissonance between the constructivist paradigm and the implementation of institutional e-learning) and Mark Smithers (e-learning at Universities: A Quality Assurance Free Zone?). I invite you to read these excellent posts to get a better picture. In a nutshell, they collectively wonder that old nut in many guises and variations: “Why aren’t educators using progressive pedagogical approaches by using technologies that lends themselves so well to such approaches?”

First, let’s clear with some nomenclature. Here, let’s call constructivism (mentioned by these guys) and the likes as ‘progressive’, and ‘results of outdated policy changes that have calcified into conventions’ (Nehring) as ‘traditional’. One could drive a truck through this argument, I know! David explains this continuum nicely, so does Alfie Kohn (Progressive Education; Why It’s Hard to Beat, But Also Hard to Find).

Similarly, learning theories (the various -isms) are useful, but frankly oft overrated, mis-understood edu-psych discourses with shades of purism. In sporting parlance, every -ism is a ‘well-meaning’ club with its main players and legions of fans. It thrives on membership & wins against other -isms, sometimes to the detriment of the game itself. While perhaps fonder of a particular theory on a dynamic continuum, a wise educator has to be part-constructivist, connectivist, traditionalist, instructionist or other -ist, strategically. Let’s not get too stuck on purist theory but take things with a grain of pragmatic salt.

And this is getting to the heart of the matter, for me at least: Educators will mostly use pedagogical approaches which align with the answer(s) to the question(s): What is the primary purpose of education? What are the priorities? What are we here for?

Importantly, they will NOT always align with their own answers to these questions, but also answers of the school/uni they work at, parents, students, and the larger society the school, and themselves, are a part of. These can be poles apart but need to be upheld, negotiated in different spaces and different times. No glib universals and binaries please!

Educators bring their own passions and priorities to technologies they use in their work. Take Moodle for example. An educator with a ‘progressive’ mindset will relish wikis, forums and collaborative tools in Moodle, her colleague might puke a bunch of files and worksheets in Moodle (thanks for that turn of phrase KerryJ 😉 ) because they are a convenient electronic version of ‘have what kids need to know’, another one may love the intricate ‘drill and kill’ possibilities of Quiz … you get my drift, surely (and they are all ‘using Moodle’!).

Now, all this gets tempered with, for example:

  • what students’ preference may be (I’ve heard “no more Moodle forums Sir, can’t we just talk about it in class” after an enthusiastic Moodle overdose on my part),
  • what schools allow (‘Allowing YouTube? Are you nuts? How about some teaching instead?” – oh yes, heard that one!),
  • what parents want (“I just want my little Johnnie to get the best exam marks and your job is to help him do that” – yep, many times),
  • what the Prime Minister is touting on TV (“schools that don’t perform will have their funding cut…” – and I thought bullying was a thing to get rid of in schools, silly me)

A glorious mess of tensions and priorities to negotiate!

I’ve tried to put things in a hopelessly inadequate graph. I cannot stress enough (again) that people move through this graph at different times for different purposes. But here it is…

ed-tech quadrant
Not a static thing!

Now, I do work for the makers of one (and love it!), but for all the bells and whistles, it’s a bit pointless calling a piece of software ‘progressive’ (or ‘traditional’ for that matter). Makes about as much sense as calling say leeches in medicine ‘primitive’ . While certainly built with ‘progressive’ use in mind, Moodle (for example) is only as ‘progressive’ as its use. And I assure you it is painful for Moodle HQ to watch a Ferrari built to facilitate ‘progressive’ approaches, driven so many times in the first gear and without considering a change …

I answer Mark’s (paraphrased) question “Are we happy with just using technology or are we only happy using technology in a particular, progressive way?” with a question: Will/do these ‘progressive’ approaches fail to take hold because we didn’t/don’t use technology at hand in a particular way?

Beware getting stuck in the reflexive cause-effect conundrum (in plain English – chicken or egg?) but it is bloody important to ask.


James H. Nehring, “Progressive vs. Traditional: Reframing an Old Debate,” Education Week, February 1, 2006, p. 32.

The ultimate question

Pompous title? Read to the end and that may change 😉

Yesterday I watched an avalanche on Twitter, for lack of better analogy. Within minutes, a very casual pondering of a couple of good, open ended questions (OK, let’s call them philosophical) between Bianca Hewes and myself turned into a frenzy of criss-crossing replies by almost a dozen people. In a typical Twitter fashion it was messy, bit restricted (no essays is not an inherently bad thing either), we all kinda threw bits of philosophers we have read and like(d) into the mix, made some new connections, challenged, asked each other a bit, wondered together … in short, it felt like a shot of thinking espresso (at least to me).

And it was the second such little avalanche in two days … We were onto something!

I have never formally studied philosophy, apart from a few units at uni. I taught Philosophy & Ethics at a high school (and loved it!) for a year. I am no ‘philosopher’ but I have always liked and enjoyed to think, read, poke, question, wonder, stir and sleep with clear conscience.

Everyone is a philosopher, even the young kids. In fact, they ask the best questions! To illustrate, just a few recent questions from my 5 year old: Why can’t we have a day off today at school today? Why do adults drink things kids can’t? Why people don’t share money? Why do people have different languages?

And it is sad that it is only the young kids and the very top scientists and scholars that ‘get away’ with ‘dumb’ questions like that. Anyone else would be dismissed along the lines of ‘what’s wrong with you to ask that sort of thing?’ or, worse, be threatened by it because they immediately think YOU have the answer and they don’t. We are addicted to answers, particularly if they are quick and delivered with certainty, no matter how bluffy, unsound and downright crappy, wrong, even hurtful they may be. Want an example? Read this passionate post by Leesa Watego on her views of our Prime Minister’s rhetoric).

Philosophy is at the heart of everything we do, every choice we (don’t) make in our lives. Don’t believe it? OK, let’s ask, top of the head scenario: Were you at work on time this morning? Why (not)? Why is that important? What things should always run on time and which ones not so? Who decides? What gives you/them the right to decide for many? Can somebody then tell you what to do with your body? Why (not)?  When is it OK to ignore them? … I am sure you can see the infinity of possibilities. I am also sure you can see how conversations like that can be steered in a particular direction. And I hope you can see the value of pausing sometimes and thinking about these things. Are you a teacher? Parent? Reckon kids would like to have a crack at some of these questions in their own way? You bet !

And do we need a PhD in philosophy to ask such questions? Do we need to learn the entire history of Western philosophy or know in depth some French guy who wrote 5 books on the topic 300 years ago to wrestle with answers? Sure, it may help a bit (oh, and dropping a name or two on Twitter looks so cool 😉 ) … but answers, no matter how partial, incomplete, must ultimately come from within, no matter how ‘educated’ we are.

Now, I am NOT dismissing professional philosophers neither am I suggesting we navel gaze all day long and doubt with every single breath we take. But sometimes it is just nice and useful to (in the parlance of road campaigns for kids) Stop, Look, Listen, Think (thanks Leesa 😉 ) and, importantly, Act.

Deleuze, one of my favourite philosophers (showing off here? 😉 wrote this about art: “Art is not a notion but a motion, It us not about what art is but what it does that is important.” You can easily replace ‘art’ with ‘philosophy’ (or anything else for that matter …’education’, ‘love’, ‘snow’, ‘cooking’, ‘kiss’) and you can see the ultimate point of philosophy is a pragmatic one – it is to be done, not merely known and learned about.

And to break the shackles of perception of philosophy as something you ‘take’ at uni and something only those who have read great philosophers in depth can do and similar nonsense, we (Bianca Hewes, Malyn Mawby, Mitch Squires, Nathan Hutchings, Janie Kibble, and myself) started a special hashtag on Twitter: #42c

Sure, we can have some very sophisticated discussions and links in there BUT (at least in the humble, naive view of yours truly)… the tag is NOT about showing off how much you know about [insert name of a philosopher]. It is NOT about big words to impress (some may be needed though, just is…). It is NOT about feeling guilty for not having read more or thought more. It’s NOT about talking, it’s more about listening. It’s NOT about providing definite answers, it’s about asking good questions (a skill not practiced enough in classrooms and broader society). It’s NOT a win-lose debate, it’s a dialogue (distinction here ). It’s NOT a bogey to shame, it’s a chance to learn.

So when you feel like asking a curly question and/or wrestle with one- just type and hash #42c on Twitter and away you go. To keep the hashtag brief and relevant, we had settled for the genially funny ’42’ and added the ‘c’ for cents so Twitter search picks it up. Why 42? Good question! Watch below, it’s a must 😉

Spread the word, we only have 7.5 million years left!


Imagine this …

The medical scenario may be laughable but, transferred to the context of many schools and classrooms today, quite … (in)conceivable?

The anecdote in the presentation is an extract from a classic and wonderfully dangerous book titled ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity‘ by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, written in 1971 (!). If you haven’t read it (ever or recently) I warmly recommend it.

Of course, all analogies and metaphors have their limits (and the authors acknowledge that, see below) but in the spirit of the book, the presentation is meant to be a conversation starter and generator of important questions …

Here is how Postman & Weingartner expanded on the analogy:

Perhaps our playlet needs no further elaboration, but we want to underscore some of its points. First, had we continued the conversation between Dr Gillupsie and his young surgeons, we could easily have included a half dozen other ‘reasons’ for inflicting upon children the kinds of irrelevant curricula that comprise most of conventional schooling. For example, we could have had one doctor still practicing ‘bleeding’ his patients because he had not yet discovered that such practices do no good. Another doctor could have insisted that he has ‘cured’ his patients in spite of the fact that they have all died (‘Oh, I taught them that, but they didn’t learn it’). Still another doctor might have defended some practice by reasoning that, although his operation didn’t do much for the patient now, in later life the patient might have need for exactly this operation, and if he did, voila!, it will already have been done.

The second point we would like to make is that we have not made up these ‘reasons’. Our playlet is a parody only in the sense that it is inconceivable for doctors to have such conversations. Had we, instead, used a principal and his teachers, and if they discussed what was taught during the week, and why, our playlet would have been a documentary, and not a heavy-handed one, either. There are thousands of teachers who believe that there are certain subjects that are ‘inherently good’, that are ‘good in themselves’, that are ‘good for their own sake’. When you ask ‘Good for whom?’ or ‘Good for what purpose?’ you will be dismissed as being ‘merely practical’ and told that what they are talking about is literature qua literature, grammar qua grammar, and mathematics per se. Such people are commonly called ‘humanists’.

There are thousands of teachers who teach ‘subjects’ such as Shakespeare, or the Industrial Revolution, or Geometry because they, are inclined to enjoy talking about such matters. In fact, that is why they became teachers. It is also why their students fail to become competent learners. There are thousands of teachers who define a ‘bad’ student as any student who doesn’t respond to what has been prescribed for him. There are still thousands more who teach one thing or another under the supposition that the ‘subject’ will do something for their students which, in fact, it does not do, and never did, and, indeed, which most evidence indicates, does just the opposite. And so on.

The third point we would like to make about our analogy is that the ‘trouble’ with all these ‘reasons’ is that they leave out the (patient) learner, which is really another way of saying that they leave out reality. With full awareness of the limitations of our patient-learner metaphor, we would assert that it is insane (literally or metaphorically, take your pick) to perform a pilonidal-cyst excision unless your patient requires it to maintain his comfort and health; and it is also insane (again, take your pick as to how) for a teacher to ‘teach’ something unless his students require it for some identifiable and important purpose, which is to say, for some purpose that is related to the life of the learner. The survival of the learner’s skill and interest in learning is at stake. And we feel that, in saying this, we are not being melodramatic.

from ‘Teaching As A Subversive Activity’ by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner.

Read it – it’s a dangerous book.

Nobody asks

Last week, I was invited to a high school as an ‘expert’ on using Moodle in the classroom. I had a series of 45-minute sessions to, as my brief read, ‘inspire’ each group of teachers (average size of about 15-20) over two days of PD to use their nice local Moodle & Mahara setup in their teaching.

Yeah right.

I’ve never liked ‘gurus’ showing flashy wares and ideas, especially right at the start of school year with so many things to get ready before the kids arrive. I’ve never liked being considered one either.

So, I thought we’d use the 45 minutes for a guided chat about things we are kinda all good at – talking about our needs. Needs of teachers I spoke to and, importantly, the kids they teach. In the context, shoot a few Moodle ideas past them and see how use-full or use-less they may be. But it was about the hole, less about the drill.

Digigogy Images

I even flashed these sort of things as a visual reminder:

Great teachers

and …


EVERY group sat a little stunned at first. Believe it or not, the ideas did not flow very freely. The replies ranged from encouraging (‘enthusiasm’, ‘motivation’, ‘meaning’ …) to downright pathetic (‘textbook’, ‘ways to easily memorise a range of acronyms we use’). We’d eventually get about 5 – 10 needs on the board to work with.

And behold the question “Why DO you teach?” asked as the conversations began to flow. Many felt a little threatened even!

Or as one teacher put it: “Nobody really gets asked these questions.” Rarely, if ever, do teachers ask these themselves. It’s all assumed, we all know what happens at school and what the school and teachers are there for, we all ‘innovate’ but it basically changes bugger all while giving the impression of progress and change.

I am NOT  bashing teachers here. Quite contrary, I understand so many of them, barraged by things to, often mindlessly, tick and do while lacking time, space, even increasingly a reason for these questions (other than stuff like ‘raise scores’ etc.).

A friend noted in reply to my email containing a few gems collected over two days: “I often reflect that all of these controlling, narrow and limiting views of education are expressed by people who once showed wonder, imagination, a sense of fun, and often got into teaching because they wanted to have a positive influence on the lives of young people. How is it that they are who they are today? Not easy to answer, but important to try nonetheless.”

While I did cover my brief and talked about Moodle and ‘technology’ over the two days, I was glad, while sad and often a little horrified, to talk about the ultimate technology and weapon for change – asking good questions and wrestling with them.

I wish all my Australian & New Zealand teaching colleagues and their students a great school year 2011 (first day today for most). Turn the crap detectors on and use them! Make it matter.

And if you think I can help you in some way in doing that, you know where to find me.

And it starts in kindy

Cosmic Kindergarten

Source: Cosmic Kindergarten http://www.flickr.com/photos/hexholden/3374990171/

Yesterday, I did a couple of hours of ‘parent duty’ at my 5 year old son’s kindy (abbreviation for ‘kindergarden’), helping out with learning tasks, minor cleaning and a few other bits. It was wonderful to see this group of 4 and 5 year olds loving being there, playing, sharing, inventing, doing their first letters, numbers, rhyming, painting games and generally having a ball.

Their teacher is ‘Donna’ (not her real name), an experienced, wonderfully caring and professional in the kindest and honest meaning of the word. Kids adore her and are coming along in leaps and bounds. Donna knows I’m a teacher too and we had a brief chat over our morning cup of tea while the kids were busily devouring platters of fresh fruit:

Donna: These are such a great bunch of kids but I am finding myself struggling.

Me: Oh, how so …

Donna: It’s these curriculum and reporting changes and pressure that comes with, I can imagine what’s going to be like with this National Curriculum coming out soon too. They just expect more and more of kids, constantly. So I am finding myself spending more and more time doing this evaluation, covering skills and content and following guidelines and ticking boxes.

Me: More of that recently?

Donna: Yes, particularly since we’d come under Department of Education umbrella attached to the local school. Before we were community based and it was a lot more relaxed and I dare say productive. You know, I had time to do and think about things like room arrangements depending on the kids I had in group that day, shift things around to suit them, listen to them. Now, I just don’t get around to it or maybe do less of it. I have all these checklists to go through.

Me: Checklists?

Donna: Yes, have a look at this pile. And it’s not as if the kids will forget about the thing I ticked today tomorrow. Or maybe they’ll ‘get it’ when I’m not around to tick that box, while they are playing at home or somewhere else. It’s not to say we should not evaluate how things are going with each child and look out for potential difficulties – that is a very important part of our job. But so much of what we do now is just plain silly and a waste of time we could spend a lot better.

Me: And if you don’t follow these things ….?

Donna: That’s the strange and uncomfortable thing – I feel guilty. Guilty for not reaching what I am supposed to be able to cover and guilty for some kids not being able to do what I am told they should be able to do.

Me: So learning becomes a kind of performance and you and the kids … performers?

Donna: Yes, well put, exactly!

Me: And you start seeing yourself and the kids in terms of that performance?

Donna: I resist but often I can see that.

Me: And if we cast our mind in the future, the kids will see themselves in terms of that performance at school, of school?

Donna: And that’s really sad, isn’t it? And it starts so early here, in kindy.

Me: Sad, and a lot more wrong than it is right. Thanks for the cuppa Donna, looks like the kids are done with their fruit.

Donna: Thank you, we often don’t get to talk about these things.

OK Apples, well done for your wonderful eating and sharing of fruit, it’s time to put our plates away …

What Donna has expressed there has actually been noted, researched and has a name – performativity (for this particular kind of performativity I highly recommend the work of Stephen Ball – his “Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity” paper is a great start).

I invite you to explore the concept, its impact and its implications, unburdened by any of my own commentary.

And every time you hear a politician or a pundit banging on about accountability, standards, performance, curriculum and the likes in education, every time you hear rants (for AND against) about this stuff – go beyond it. Think about what it is doing not just to what and how we learn but (through it) what we are, what we become and how do we see ourselves and others as individuals and community members.

Socrates apparently said: “I can’t teach you anything, I can only make you think.”

I wish so.

Give a

Yesterday, I stopped at traffic lights and watched an angry old man telling off a kid of about 16 trying to eke a few cents by washing windows. I’m sure you’ve seen the sight alike. Shoulders dropped, expletives exchanged, and move on  – to my car.

I wound the window down to tell him that I had the car washed yesterday (a rare event, but very true!) and to thank him for the offer.

Then I recognised the kid. And he recognised me. School. Not the first time I’ve bumped into a former student washing windows at traffic lights …

‘Hey Sir. You know me? You used to teach me?’

Raking brains, what’s the name …. ‘Michael’ !!! (not his real name)

‘Michael, good to see you mate.’

Eyes lit up, a smile came on his face.

‘Yeah Sir, are you still teaching at that poxy school?’

‘No, I am giving teaching a bit of a break but I’m still interested in it, you know… Poxy school?”

“Yeah man, they were always saying I’m stupid and then I got into too many many fights and that.”

“Didn’t work out for you did it?”

“Nah, but you know, I can work hard, look at my hands!”

His hands were dirty, patchy, backing his spoken words with a scream.

“You think you’ll go and do some other … you know, TAFE courses or something?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind. I know I’m not that smart hey but I don’t want to look stupid, you know.”

“Yes, that’s a killer sometimes isn’t it.”

“But you were good Sir, you gave a shit about us.”

Unsolicited words that mean deeper than any certificates possibly could. The light was about to turn green…

“Thanks Michael. Look, the light’s nearly green, I probably cost you a few bucks.”

I handed over a few coins rattling around in my dashboard.

“Hey cheers Sir. Good luck.”

“You too Michael, good luck and take care will you.”

I am not glorifying Michael or saying how ‘wonderful’ this experience has been. But sure as hell I’d like him to be listened by many students, teachers, parents, administrators. Not for ‘look what will happen to you if you don’t go to school (a distinct possibility though)’ but for ‘listen to the kids you work with’. Listen, understand, accept, challenge if needed, don’t think about ‘the norm’ and how you are going to represent it by lecturing from the safety of your own existence.

Michael, I wish you luck, people who’d understand you better and strength to improve our lot (we are in a community together after all).

And you, dear reader – give. Give a few pennies but sometimes even more importantly – give a shit!