Tag Archives: equity

Which students should I care about less?

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.

I write the tutes that make girls cry

You’ll have to blame Tony Loughland and Barry Manilow for that awfully punsy, a touch sexist and inappropriate title. But there is a little bit in it. The crying part.

As a PhD student scraping for every dollar I am one of the tutors in a unit called Understanding Teachers’ Work here at my alma mater Murdoch University. I run workshops for the first year pre-service teachers. Intro-to-teaching 101. The range of topic is great, understandably, and the idea of the unit is for students to recognise the complexity of this great profession of ours. Today, the topic was, roughly, understanding the diversity, dealing with parents/communities and issues of equity and social justice. Much to pack into two hours huh? To top it all off – I was running late on my prep so I demonstrated the time-honoured skill of winging it a bit.

The mantra in this unit has been: Ask questions! Of yourself, peers and beyond. And boy oh boy – we had a cracker!

I don’t want to bore you with the finer mechanics of activities but a few key links and rough outline will help.

First, we came up with a massive cloud of diversity and challenges students, teachers, parents and entire communities operate with daily. We listened to a story of the newly opened Jarjum College for Indigenous kids in Redfern (I heard it on the way to uni, half an hour before workshop kickoff … teachable moment 🙂 )


Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern
Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern

One student asked: But how is that fair to have a school JUST for Aboriginal kids? I’m sure they want to be integrated not separated from the society?

There goes 10 minutes of heated and quite thoughtful discussion, suggesting a bunch of work in unpacking the context and histories of the area and the Australian Indigenous cultures.

We sailed into ‘safe, white waters’ and I thought I’d flash this oft shown picture and quote.

We all chuckle in approval but ...
We all chuckle in approval but …

“OK, we all chuckle and nod in approval but … why? And just what are the alternatives? What would a different exam for everyone look like? Feasible? Practical? Desirable? Are we just used to our idea of ‘an exam’? …” and so on. Gold!

It was time to pull appart equality and equity. The two are often stuck together with such massive implications. So we did ‘the shoes‘, as described here by Lara David so well.

It's a beauty!

Short and sweet. Pennies dropped. I sensed many.

“And we want all to participate, right. Is that enough? What do you make of this?”


“OK, folks. You and me go into this thing called education to make a difference. I overheard it your discussions and we talked a bit about what that means and the differences in understanding among people last week. That’s great! We are here to make a difference. But do we? At what level? Consider this…” (flashed a few key quotes from Trevor Gale’s speech)

trevor gale

“So does the school system reproduce or re-construct society?” Another curvy one there. Much to talk about, think about, reflect on in students (graded, yes) journals for the unit.

Conversations, debates, voices, gestures as I walk around the room and eavesdrop and poke here and there.

“OK, so we want justice and equity. How do we do that? How do we get them? How do we get people to understand say … prejudice in the first place? Really understand it?”

Here is one possible way. Please do not do exactly this at home…

Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes – Intro by P. Zimbardo

5 minutes left … “There’s another video that shows Jane Elliot more in depth with the kids. Goes for about 15 minutes. Show it?” Nods, nods, nods

And the tears? There were a few during and at the end of the workshop. I was honoured to see them, without pointing them out.

Yeah sure, we packed an ENORMOUS amount of stuff in here and covered a huge amount of ground very lightly. It borders irresponsible. But I do look forward to reading the students’ reflection journals. Today, the conversations, the questions (and the tears…) made me happy that we are about to send out another group of keen, thoughtful educators out there where stuff that matters hugely – happens.

The no good Noongar kid

Meet ‘Ricky’. He is Aboriginal, Noongar his people. He’d be a poster boy for many of the statistics and labels entrenched in public psyche about this group of people, particularly when young – low literacy, poor school attendance, lazy, the only good thing he can do is kick a footy, use hands, drawing and art … want more? You want to hear his life story and reasons why he is currently in DCP care and protection? You don’t.

Ricky has just finished his first ever Big Picture exhibition (a presentation of student’s work over a term). He is pretty shy and I didn’t want to put him on the spot to ‘talk to an audience’ for half an hour. So we dropped ‘the standard model’ and did it together. I listed, introduced things he had accomplished this term, he explained them, answered questions, expanded, showed. Nobody stood up, we just sat around the table with another staff member who was our audience. It was a conversation with, around and about Ricky.

He explained in detail about his bricklaying ‘Try A Trade’ course (he did brilliantly there!) and his use of tools, principles of physics, maths, spatial awareness, precision, motivation, all in conversational manner.

We moved to his first website he started creating with me. It’s about dirtbikes – first picking the images (stage at now), then descriptions, followed by comparisons and reasons (all coming up next term). Through the conversation about bikes it emerged that he regularly gets spare parts off other bikes and puts them on his bike to fix it. Just like that, ‘no big deal’.

Then came a guided demo of of a couple of online games he plays – problem solving, maths, economics in action, right there on screen but without the fancy terminology and lingo to describe it exactly. But skill and knowledge of principles? Easy!

It also turned out that he has probably achieved the highest sporting achievement at the school this term by playing (well!) for Peel Thunder in the 2012 Nicky Winmar Cup (football tournament for Aboriginal youth with top metro, country, even interstate teams).

We talked about his care about getting the right spelling when writing his two journal entries and a couple of weekly reflections this term. Nobody in class writes slower out of care for getting things right.

We talked about his trampolining prowess, his ability to get along with students and staff, his calm and cheeky ways, the respect he gives and takes and which is miles from when he started coming to our school last year. He does not have any enemies here, truly.

At the end, he wrote down his strengths and weaknesses (pictured above). And we talked about them. He was really honest, he didn’t shirk back from saying he is lazy sometimes and wants to go and get more things done.

We laughed, shook hands to congratulate on a job well done. His exhibition took 55 minutes, more than any other in my room!

Not bad for a ‘no good’ kid who, on paper, has ‘low IQ’, ‘low aspiration’ and a bagful of other ‘low’ descriptors much like many of his brothers, sisters and cousins.

I have goosebumps as I write this, the colleague who sat in with us welled up with tears afterwards.

Low? Bullshit.

Go Ricky, you got my back any time mate!

Better place



This is ‘Billy’.  He is 15.  He allowed me to post this photo of him from a visit to the local animal centre yesterday.

This is one of my favourite photos. It means so much. A couple of months ago, Billy was in a bad, dark space where no young person (or adult for that matter) should be. Desperate, lashing out at things and people, horizons closed. Not all his problems have gone yet but things have turned …

Yesterday (Halloween), he got on to the dressing up act (yes, I too walked around the school and public with a fake knife and blood to my head), allowed his face to be painted, went in public with it, played with animals at the centre and relished the company of a little weero on his head and shoulders with a SMILE on his face. This term, we are deliberately working on strategies to express himself – writing, drawing, music … whatever! He’s in a better place, albeit precarious for many reasons. But he is beginning to flourish! Little by little.

Billy also saw a crocodile for the first time yesterday. A few other kids saw kangaroos (!!), eagles, snakes, lizards for the first time. In Australia for crying out loud – they are everywhere! But they are ‘everywhere’ if your world expands beyond your couch, your mate’s couch and local shopping centre. If you have been taken places by your family, shown, read, discussed, laughed about them. And they are the things we need to keep in mind and never assume.

Today, we did not assume that all our students would automatically know what Melbourne Cup is (for good and bad) in the fabric of the broader society, beyond the limited circles many move in. At the spur of the moment, we turned half the day into a Melbourne Cup day. Kids helped make the snacks and fruit punch (non-alcoholic …). We rigged up the big screen and watched the big race via live stream from Melbourne. A bunch of kids started making hats. Some cracked jokes about horses. Some came up with and others answered questions about horse racing. We sat around our big shed and watched the race.  Relaxed, spontaneous, caring, as a community, a family of a kind.

After the race, I got sprung by a bunch of kids and sprayed with foam streamers while they were singing Happy Birthday (to me, very important number now 😉 ). Priceless!


Yesterday, I was quizzed by a person filling out a funding application about kids’ progress.

Me: ‘They have hugely improved their social skills. Confidence and maturity have grown, communication has come along in leaps and bounds.”

Person: “OK that’s fine. What about learning outcomes?”

Enough to make anyone who knows what makes learning go and who has worked with young people (especially those ‘at risk’ ones …) blood boil. But I did reply politely 🙂

Or as my good friend Ira would say: Evaluate that!

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!

My f*#!%ing goosebump story (a reminder)

Now on the new site, I am re-posting something I wrote as a catharsis in 30 minutes, a year and a half ago. This is the post I am most fond and proud of, and has always reminded me of two things: why do we teachers (with an ed-tech bend) do the things we do and why is it a good idea for any teacher to keep a reflective blog to share. The wonderful original comments (link here) spurred me on to keep writing, nearly two years on.

Here is ‘My f*#!%ing goosebump story”. Enjoy …


Before reading this post a word of warning. If you are easily offended by expletives or graphic descriptions please avert your eyes. If not – welcome to my world.

Our school carries a wonderfully bureaucratic euphemism – it is a “difficult to staff” school. We operate in one of the poorest areas of town. Many parents who send kids to our school have not been rewarded by the system of education and they hardly instil the values of importance of education in their offspring.

Last week, one of our students got assaulted by a former student of ours at a bus stop waiting to go to an excursion at a neighbouring university. I stopped the assault only to be assaulted myself. This afternoon, on the way to the bus stop I was called, loudly and in my face, a “fucking cunt” by a Year 10 student after calmly disposing of a piece of plastic hurled at me few moments earlier. He had sat in my class just a few hours before. This school term alone, I have lost track of the times I was told either directly or indirectly (but clearly) to either ‘fuck off’ or ‘piss off’, or was simply and completely ignored as a person, let alone some sort of person invested with authority and responsibility to care for and (forbid!) teach, role-model or ‘inspire’ as the quote garden would have it. About half of my Year 11 Economics class openly say that they are ‘dumb and don’t care about the grades anyway’. My colleagues could recount dozens of stories just like this or worse as part of their ‘regular day’. Yes, we have a reputation of a ‘bad’ school and, depending what measure you look at, we have numbers to prove it (hello bean counters and ‘performance managers’ out there!)


Continue reading My f*#!%ing goosebump story (a reminder)

No Child Left Blind

This week, I showed the series of classic clips ‘A Class Divided‘ in my Philosophy & Ethics class. At certain points I paused the clips and asked questions like: Does this sound familiar? Is this you? Anyone you know? And pennies dropped…

I wanted to show that fighting any form of discrimination (in this case racism) is not just a matter of throwing more information and exposing the fallacy of harmful, deeply prejudiced and logically flawed ways of seeing things. It is a matter of bravely ‘touching the soul’ too.

Watch the little kids turn nasty, watch them lose faith in their abilities while others flourish when seemingly better, then ask yourself: Is this what we (are asked to) do, overtly and covertly, in our educational system? Broader society?

Take a few minutes to watch the first two parts of  Jane Elliot’s classic ‘Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” exercise in its original version with her 3rd grade class and share what I’ve shared with my class today. Jane, thank you!

Sorry dear American friends, I couldn’t resist the calamitous pun.

Rolling up the odd sleeves

Pray to Play

‘Pray to Play’ Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dannynorton/228708030/in/photostream/)

This is the second post with a particular theme in the series “Why is everyone an expert of education?“. The series is written collaboratively by Ira Socol, Dr Greg Thompson and Tomaz Lasic.

In the previous post, we have looked at the seductive, yet problematic, empirical, scientific ‘breaking down’ of actors in education. The primacy of belief that we can measure humans and then improve in a steady march of progress generates not only volumes of data, interpretations and ‘solutions’ but also has a more pernicious side to it in schools. The perceived ‘scientific’ certainty limits what students and other actors in the process of schooling are and become, it locks them into roles that are hard to escape and make meaningful change very difficult.

This time, we are looking at another major generator of much educational chatter. It is the idea of education as production. Here production is not meant narrowly and only as vocational preparation. There has been much excellent critique of education as an ‘industrial production line’ and its historical roots, here is but one example. We contend that there is nothing wrong with education as production, without production schools actually – do nothing!

Whether it is organisational skills or the learner’s recognition of their place in the world, schools are inextricably linked to producing ‘good citizens’. The problem is that some attributes of the ‘good citizen’ aspired to through education are becoming increasingly problematic in a changing world. No longer can we expect that the same types of good citizens historically valued in periods such as the Industrial Revolution will necessarily meet the unique challenges of the new millenia. Hence, we declare that the problem of education is not the idea of effort and production itself but rather what is valued in schools and, as a result of these values, what education is producing. Better world?

We explore this broader view in two ways. First, we look at ‘production of a better world’ through different, yet historically intertwined ideals we have inherited. These two ideals both want the same thing (better world) yet they grate against each other, frame much of the chatter and stunt deep(er) change. Secondly, we interrogate some ‘common sense’ statements we hope you will recognise as well, to demonstrate just how disconnected the endless debate is with the real problems and changes we face in the (future) world our students will grow up in.

Two fundamental views

Schools didn’t just happen. They were historically produced, and as a result, can be considered as artefacts of the distant past. In his excellent work Rethinking the School , Ian Hunter makes the case that the mass, compulsory schooling as experienced by most in the Western world (and certainly in Australia & USA) is a curious mixture of two discordant views on education – the liberal and the vocational (dialectic). While they are not reducible to the following, it may be best to think of the liberal view as the upward-looking, Christian imperative of salvation through the glory of good deeds. The vocational view is a downward-looking need to occupy the (otherwise) idle hands and minds of the ‘great unwashed’ to keep them healthy, productive and in check with industrial demands. They both genuinely aim to create a better world and they have both been occurring since the 1700s England.

One of England’s successes was the transportation, not of (so much of 🙂 ) convicts, but of schools absorbed by these competing ideals. As a result, we have inherited a schooling system that is full of paradoxes and contradictions. For example, we discipline the child as if they were an autonomous chooser (“choose your actions and their consequences”) yet we deny them much real choice in the ways they are educated. We see schools and education as the way to arrest poverty and disadvantage, yet we work within a school system that actively encourages secondary schools in lower socioeconomic status (SES) areas to offer vocational courses that deny young people the opportunity to be educated as their peers in wealthier areas. In short, the system operates on the notion of saving young people, either from their circumstances (if they are poor [vocational]), or from their hubris (if they are rich [liberal]), yet is organised in such a way as to enshrine privilege and maintain disadvantage. This is not new, it is a particularly persistent hangover of the past that will not seem to go away.

Schools invented childhood (maybe an exaggeration, but they are certainly the chief protagonists) and then imbued childhood with the paradoxes and contradictions of salvation versus vocation. Ever seen a teacher, parent, administrator, even a student (again, particularly in low SES areas) who wants to ‘save the kids’ and ‘open their eyes’ but also want and teach them how to comply and work hard? Ever heard a dispute between a teacher who thinks students should be treated gently as respected, autonomous individuals, allowing for them to flourish, and the rule-worshipping, no-bull, ‘school-nazi’ teacher who gets the kids to work and ‘gets the work done’? Ever read about a dispute between teacher unions and curricular bodies about grading practices or reasons for (not) publishing league tables? Then you know what this paradox sounds like…

The trouble is that over the years, the alignment of schools along the salvation/vocation ideals has gotten out of whack. As a result, schools, particularly those in the lower SES areas, now present these paradoxes as the same thing – saving children through jobs. Religious-like morality through economic utility. The “future will be peachy if we just roll up our sleeves and go harder at it”. Seductive at first, this has some particularly unpleasant implications.

Rather than going too theoretical at this point, let’s look answer some of the common questions and statements about ‘education as production’ we often hear around the place. This is to demonstrate how and why so many educators remain largely trapped in the increasingly irrelevant, inequitable and unhelpful ideals of the past, despite the enormous good will and effort of thousands.

“Education is the great leveller, the kids have the same chance and learn the same stuff, so if they work hard they’ll reap the rewards, won’t they?”

Let’s get back to the salvation/vocation (mis)alignment. Interestingly, it does not seem to happen at the elite schools, dominated by the Christian liberal tradition of ‘salvation’. If asked why they go to school, students at elite schools are probably more likely to say things like “to make a better world”. Majority of them then all trot off to uni to become (powerful) lawyers, doctors, politicians, executives etc. They do so while enshrining their privilege and ‘saving’ themselves and those below (many of whom may not exactly appreciate being ‘saved’!).

However, when students in non-elite, working-class, lower socio-economic status (SES) schools are asked the same question, their most frequent response is “to get a job (many of them add  “so I’m not a bum and live on the dole”). In these schools, we are seeing the rise and rise of the vocational imperative. Consider a comment by a principal of a working-class, vocational-oriented school about offering a particular course with a non-vocational, liberal bend: “Our kids wouldn’t be suited for it.

Both of these ideals are failing the needs of our society at an alarming rate, particularly among the lower SES students.

But just why is this a failure? Doesn’t someone have to sweep the streets? You gotta have top and bottom, right? After all, they do have the same opportunity!

Volumes of educational critical literature from the 1970s onwards stress (and disagree with) the idea that schools existed as a form of social role selection – that they sorted young people into vocational streams that led to them assuming life opportunities commensurate with their roles. In this sense, schools sorted menial labourers from scientists, laywers from tradespeople, and artists from the “no-hopers”.

This stratified society was easier to manage, and it perpetuated itself many times over. In fact, it is still doing the same today. In Australia, the 1970s were a halcyon day for alternative schooling, but the impetus quickly stalled, to be replaced by neo-conservative imperatives. The shift went from “de-schooling” to “re-schooling” in less that a decade, till we end up in the current situation where schools are businesses, they are managed, teachers are technicians and students are commodities. The backlash of the 1970s is an uberconservative schooling structure that has reestablished its control. In some ways, we are now more traditional than the past!

Schools are working well at social role selection. For all those that claim otherwise and tout ‘better opportunity’, we would invite them to spend some time in traditionally structured schools in lower SES areas. If these schools have changed so much, why is it that children from low SES still tend to be denied educational opportunities, philosophies and structural access of the elite? It follows that if schools are not involved in deep change, they simply reinforce disadvantage. If nothing changes, nothing changes… but we do talk about it a lot. Changes in curriculum, grading practices etc are simply superficial.

So just what is wrong then with a compliant, obedient, uncritical workforce?

Nothing. It’s just that they are unemployed or lowly paid at best…

“Look, in the past education served the society better. It produced kids who were more mature and responsible than these guys today.”

Through their historically valued policies and practices, informed by the (mixture of) the two aforementioned ideals, mainstream schooling has been producing certain types of individuals. The trouble is, these types are increasingly shaky, untenable, even damaging in the contemporary world.

One such type is a quiet, conforming individual. “Nothing wrong” you may think, we want our “trains to run on time” don’t we? Consider the (very real!) case of a principal who came into a tough, inner city school that was having money thrown at it from various government agencies to ‘fix’ the problem of low student retention and ‘poor’ academic achievement. You know the story – short term, limited funding that does little to address deep problems but does a lot of rearranging of deckchairs. He said:

I dismantled some programmes that were meant to be for academic extension and when we looked at them the kind of kids who were in there – it was all wrong! The kids were not being chosen for the real capacity to achieve. But those kids were predominantly female, white, quiet, conformist.

So, in this sense, the school is valuing those students because of primarily how they behave and comply, never mind their creative and other potential. That OK with you? Entirely or just a little bit?

Another prized type is a highly individualised, competitive student who is great at amassing personal rewards and benefits (wealth!?). The capacity to identify with realities beyond their personal ambitions, needs and wants is secondary or even further down the track of priorities. Don’t believe so? Ask for a choice between being ‘top of the class’ and being kind, thoughtful, willing to share, think critically and differently … you know those slippery things you can’t really test and don’t REALLY matter . How do we rank on those internationally again?

The lofty school mottos, various graduate or vision statements are often couched in the liberal imperative terms (Bold, Caring, Creative or For Others and the likes). Paradoxically, the reality is so often the opposite of what is espoused – highly individualistic programs and policies that communicate the ideas of individual, competitive success and hierarchy very early on. These idea(l)s of schooling stick and stay with young people long after they leave school and, if nothing else, continue to frame and with it perpetuate the understanding of ‘school’. Just ask a parent of your student next time: “What was the most important thing by the school for you to do”?

“Why don’t we just go back to basics? We used to do stuff that kids these days would not have a clue today!”

This is the ‘back in the good old days’, halcyon view of education, usually followed by the phrases like ‘dumbing down’ and the likes. Whenever I hear people who hark back I wonder: Is our current situation really that bad or were the past times really that good? And then the old, wobbly straw man comes out.

Consider this classic, peddled around by the ‘dumbing down’ brigade. The useful commentary merely begins to break down their weak yet dangerous argument.

Is this ‘1895 exam type’ the sort of thing we want to go back to? Isn’t this largely where we are now at too, we have just changed the content and sophisticated a method of delivery (eg. regurgitation online is still regurgitation)? We now argue about some minor technical point like ‘cut off scores’ instead of asking ourselves larger, fundamental questions about what do students of tomorrow, not perhaps teachers of yesterday, really need. Is it ethical to ask first what systems of yesterday need before asking what students of tomorrow need?

Consider a quip by a colleague: “Never ask a question you can google up.” Back in say 1940s there was hardly a need for a rigorous ‘filter’ of information. These days, not having a solid, critical, informed personal filter  and foregoing development of thinking, questioning, collaboration and creativity at the expense of remembering easily searchable data and performing to a narrow, pre-established, systemic set of ‘indicators’ to reach a reward is becoming increasingly untenable. Before it was points and right answers, now it is increasingly about seeing the patterns and dealing with change.

And on the skills front, I wonder how the 1895 students would go with a basic internet search these days, perhaps sending a text message. In 1895, students had to know about the environment for their exam, kids today are working out how to stop ourselves from killing it for themselves and their children. For starters…

Beware well-meaning people in their 25+ years starting a sentence with “When I was at school…”

“But look at the ways schools, methods and curriculum(s) are constantly changing! We haven’t exactly stood still…”

They may have new buildings, better equipment, better teaching practices and so on but schools have not really deeply changed in any meaningful way over more than 250 years. This is mainly because they have taught us and controlled the ways that we see and understand the school.

The chief tool of maintaining and controlling this paradoxical, yet historically incredibly persistent understanding of the school (again, see the mix of liberal/vocational imperatives) has been the incessant debate dominated by mere variations on the theme.

For example, in Australia at the moment we are experiencing a debate on education particularly through the issue of literacy. On the one hand, many stakeholders in education are up in arms at the perceived lack of literacy in our schools. The answer often generated requires a return to the 3Rs, or a vision of literacy as a functional, transactional set of processes that employees need to get jobs (and through this employment, to lead a successful life) – the vocational imperative. On the other side of the debate, many educationalists advocate for lifelong learning and rich, deep understandings of texts as a means to create individuals who are able to critically ‘read’ their worlds – the liberal view of the empowerment of the individual as a means to lead a successful life. This debate is becoming increasingly vitriolic and is becoming (mis)managed in the guise of state versus federal approaches to curriculum, phonics versus whole language, standards and grades versus outcomes and the likes. This fervour is dominated by individuals and organisations maintaining and vigorously defending their ‘take’ on education – the experts we spoke about in our first post and throughout the series.

The real problem with this is that change, when it occurs, is focused at the what of teaching (the curriculum), even sometimes the how (methods) but not the why. And it is at that ‘why’ level that the deep change has a chance to occur. Continuing in the present see-sawing debate will solve none of the problems, but will enhance the status of the “educrats” who justify their exstence through creating conflict that is not resolved. (For a scathing critique of the bureaucratisation of our world check out John Raulston Saul’s works The Unconscious Civilisation or Voltaire’s Bastards.)

Final words…

At the end, we repeat that we are not against effort and production in schools. But we argue that as a society, we need to think more carefully and clearly about what schools produce and why. The question we want to keep in mind is whether the historically valued types of citizens, no matter how useful in the particular past periods, will be capable of meeting the pressing shifts and problems of the future, near and far. You know the obvious ones – environmental destruction, terrorism, eruption of technology and social media, changing roles of women in societies, shifting employment practices, crossing and changing old class divides, global trade and crises of all kinds…the list is long. Dealing with any of these effectively and justly does not really call for the type of student a ‘traditional’ school has been producing. A range of declining environmental, economic, social and other indicators paint the picture so let’s not pretend that ‘schooling as usual’ (oops, just ‘harder’!) is going to somehow reverse the trends.

Do you want to live in a world full of docile, easily managed consumers, uncritically bent on amassing wealth and lacking the capacity to perceive reality beyond the personal ambition “as long as they are OK”, the kind produced by schooling and rewards of (primarily) individual effort? We can’t value highly individualised effort and rewards (hey, the government wants me to rank students!) then, confusingly, expect the kids to be highly ‘collaborative’. Sadly, the latter begins to sound like a buzzword! For now, schools largely still want students (AND teachers) to cooperate rather than collaborate. There is an important difference between the two. Cooperation means working together to achieve what you are required or told to do. Collaboration is a shared effort of a group of people working towards shared goals and using method they choose and agree on.

Today’s kids will have (to start) to give a damn about the issues that affect us across the geographical, cultural, racial, class, gender and other divides. But because we are so mired in the thinking and answers of the schools in 1700 England (one or the other or the mixture of the two types mentioned), we can’t move education beyond the superficial chatter while the world around us changes fundamentally and much faster than before in our shared history.

Education can be productive in good ways but it’s not being used in good ways to change the society. Yet?

PS Just as I finished typing these words I came across a very recent speech (5 Nov 2009) on education reform by Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education The Hon. Julia Gillard. I invite you to crack a beer or have a cup of tea and read what she said, then go and make a few circles around the points we have collectively worked hard to get across to you today (we may not be celebrities like Sir Ken Robinson, but it is interesting to read what he says too in his remarks after his signature TED talk too).

As always, YOUR comments are most welcome! 🙂

Still waiting for Eureka: the problem with schools as a science

Image source: http://blog.scs.sk.ca/tado/vschools/archives/GroeningCartoon.jpg
Image source: http://blog.scs.sk.ca/tado/vschools/archives/GroeningCartoon.jpg

This is the first post with a particular theme in the series “Why is everyone an expert of education?“. The series is written collaboratively by Ira Socol, Dr Greg Thompson and Tomaz Lasic.

Science is an awesome, admirable pursuit of measurable, testable, replicable truth. It is a pursuit of certainty that something has, does and will work as we imagine it. We want to be certain that a medicine we give to our child has been tested and declared safe, a bridge we drive across stable enough to carry us. Data and methods we use give us control to predict, improve, avoid. That’s all fine when dealing with inanimate objects. Yet ask an engineer and they will tell you that even concrete and steel could behave unpredictably, hence the overdesign and consideration of safety margins. Enter humans.

Data and scientific methods give us the delirious joy of thinking that things are repeatable and replicable with human beings too. Because something works/does not work in one context, we assume that that must be the case for all contexts. This applies to curriculum, to standards, to teaching strategies, to discipline and management strategies, to educational psychology, to the very organisation of schooling.

Scientifically observing and measuring actors in schools fools us into believing we are capable of absolute knowledge, absolute categories, and once we got those right – absolute solutions. Fools us? Just look at performance pay for teachers debate, curriculum wars, ad absurdum arguments over accuracy of assessment, validity and usefulness of standardised, statewide literacy and numeracy testing and more. In all these we want to measure so we can be ‘certain’, to establish norms and through them (as the term suggests) normalise people and put them in brackets. Once they are in boxes, brackets and percentages, we can apply the right dose of whatever it is we have come up with as the solution.

Now please – categorisation is a perfectly human thing and helps us live our daily lives, no doubt. But when categorisation becomes unexamined, unquestioned purpose of what we do with human beings in education, then we have a few problems. Or put bluntly: It is rubbish, and it bewilders and alienates students (and with it many teachers, parents and others).

When seeing education as a science, we tend to break it down to its elements, particularly those we are familiar with. Instead of having a more holistic view of an actor in the process of schooling, we prefer a cleaner, reductionist, building-block view. We build walls around and guard our areas of expertise. There we propose solutions to fix things we are certain of. And when we want to justify, we look for figures. In this need, the efficient simplicity of “68% on the test” becomes very seductive. We are insecure in trusting the ‘soft’, slippery immeasurables like intuition, freedom or hope etc. so we invent ever more complex, ‘hard’ systems of quantifying people to cling to and value: “Is this a 72% or 74% answer?” Sounds like “is this Class B or Class C concrete”? But hey, “it has worked for me at school so why not for these kids too, they should be motivated by it.”

So, apart from all having a lot to say and guard as ‘experts’ – where does this lead us?

The problem with education as a science is amplified by the centralised nature of most school systems, where control is exerted from a distance. If you remove relationships from schooling (let’s face it, the majority of system administrators/policy makers spend very little time dealing with relationships in schools), what is left is the idea that schools are largely the same, and therefore, the same tests should elicit the same responses. If they don’t there must be something wrong – and the finger is normally pointed at teachers!

In Australia, USA at least, and we imagine many other countries, the people making decisions on education have probably not done more than tour a school in the last twenty years, yet they still are able to provide ‘expert’ commentary. A few problems rise immediately from this.

First is the modernist view of scientific solution – a belief in the inevitability of human progress through science. These decision-makers enter the debate with a belief that each adaptation in the educational system has been “progressive,” and thus that the education system which they succeeded in was “near perfect” – the result of centuries of continuous improvement. A bit of “tinkering”  (Tyack & Cuban, Tyack & Hansot) will thus result in “perfection.”  Their authority flows from certainty and the promise of being led to such perfection. The second problem is the idea that success is quantifiable and that the idea of it applies to all of us equally. The third problem is the leaders presuming that their framing of experiences is both correct and applicable universally.

This all adds up to create an understanding of education as a science where results are replicable and reliable. We call this phenomena “white coat replicability”. Governments, the media, and bureaucracies deal in white coat replicability when they talk about effective schools and teachers, about ranking schools based largely on benchmark testing.We are hearing a lot in the media at the moment about Joel Klein and New York public schools. Consider this article which talks about the ways that data collected can be misused and misrepresented.

Today, schools are dominated by externally developed testing, reporting on student achievement that uses mandatory standards and systems, and continual reform. What is this doing to students? Do we think that schools cater more or less for student difference and uniqueness now than they used to? After years of education as a science, the system is at least as discriminatory as ever. We think that we collect and control so much information now, it is slowly paralysing us from dealing in intangibles such as freedom and hope.

The interaction between students and teachers is becoming less relational and more normalised, where outputs are measured and teachers and students are measured and measure each other. The problem with this is that the measurement fixes students as good/bad, successful/unsuccessful, likeable/unlikeable and students increasingly live/perform these measurements. Ever wonder why there are groups of students who are Rebels in every school regardless of context? Schools need rebels to show students who not to be.

This fixing of students into neat packages are things that schools do all the time. After all you can measure deviance/compliance can’t you? Students find these packages very hard to change. We are indebted to the work of Stephen Ball from the University of London and the notion of performativity.

To put it simply, students and teachers are trapped in their performances as a result of the ways they are measured and organised within education as a science. The trick of performativity seems to be that individuals come to see themselves in terms of the data collected. They perform as they feel they should be expected to/come to expect themselves. For example, a “dumb” student may hardly try to do well in a test because he does not see himself smart – and the grades simply confirm it. The data assigns the well-known and well-rehearsed roles. These roles are so reified by repetition that even altering the performance to accommodate (a change in) their self-image becomes unacceptable, much like when one actor discomforts audiences if he/she replaces another in a television series. When students act out of their accepted role (for example, “good” girls getting drunk), they experience negative feedback, often from students as well as teachers. Ontologically, schools teach students to limit their being – limit who they are and can be. Change anyone?

You can’t collect all this data and employ these evaluators in schools without people performing their results (positionality). Want to know why many students feel alienated from schools? One of the key factors is that they are continually judged as being less or even non-successful. The same is true for teachers! Who hasn’t felt despondent when the school they are working in has performed at unacceptable levels in their subject through something like NAPLAN (Australia’s nationwide literacy and numeracy testing)? One of our colleagues had this experience and the school spent the next 6 months ‘diagnosing’ the problem, counselling the subject teachers, exhorting the students to do more, aim higher etc. The end result? Teachers were forced to run after school study classes, they began to ‘teach for the test’ and the school results stayed the same. The drop in teacher morale was curiously never measured, or seen as significant. We don’t think that the educational experiences of the students would have improved as a result either – teaching for the test negates most of what is wonderful in the relationships between teachers and students and the richness of student learning.

So what is being learnt when education is run and organised as a science? That your performances measure you – that you are quantifiable. You learn how to see yourself as a particular type of student/teacher, and grow to see this as ‘normal’ – the business of schools becomes normative measuring and pedagogy becomes sterile, limited, controlling and superficial. But gee it looks clean!