Tag Archives: educational philosophy

What I learned in 2011

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My big(gest) lessons and reminders of 2011:

The importance of doing what you love doing in your career.

I never have or will regret joining Moodle HQ but I never have or will regret leaving Moodle HQ this year either. Thank you Martin & Moodle HQ. I love Moodle and its community but I am really happy to be a Moodle volunteer again and get paid (less) to work with teens that I dare say majority of teaching colleagues would not want to see in their class.

The importance of expectations.

You don’t significantly change or disrupt status quo by doing more of the same (way) but harder. Changing expectations shifts things dramatically.

Picture the expectations of a kid (and his surrounds) who has been told, overtly and covertly by the system of mainstream schooling, that most he can aspire to be is a dumb poor loser with some dead-end job as his only option (like many in his family). Suddenly, he completes a great project in the field he is passionate about. He is told, for the first time in his life, that a local university is offering courses in that field, and that, on the basis of things shown and in all sincerety,  going to uni and/or getting a well paid, challenging job in the industry is a realistic option for him in a couple of years if he puts in the effort. I saw the reaction of this kid and his parents. And it gives me tingles as I write this.

The value of Big Picture.

Big Picture is not a panacea for all our educational ills. It also isn’t for every kid out there. It requires a special kind of educator to really ‘get it’ too. But from what I have seen, learned and experienced this year after working in a Big Picture school and seeing some great work of kids and colleagues in BP schools around the country and the world, it is an approach, a state of mind rather, that truly empowers.

‘School’ is deeply ingrained in our societal DNA

It is soooo damn hard to ‘forget’ what ‘school’ looks like and does. In a ‘school’ you learn to play the game (usually called ‘what does the teacher or test want me to say’) then pass … and largely forget. There is a teacher, the knower, and a bunch of students who need to be ‘taught’ stuff prescribed by often someone else and contextually remote. You need a grade to show how much you are worth. Above all – you don’t ask (tough) questions. Things like: ‘What are we doing this for?’ And if kids don’t learn, the teacher says ‘I taught them that but they didn’t learn it’ (akin to a realtor saying ‘I sold them the house but they didn’t buy it’ …).

No wonder it takes us a very long time at our school (yes, we are one, but a Big Picture one) for kids and parents to come to terms with statement/questions like: “What are you passionate about?”, “What is worth learning?”, “No, I am NOT going to tell you what to do next, but I am happy to figure it out WITH you.” “You (student) know more about this (topic) than me (teacher) already so I am going to learn with you.” Crazy stuff huh? Or is it? Ask yourself why (not).

The value of networks

You have no idea how grateful I am of my, well our, network. This goes particularly when I see you from around the planet interacting with kids at our school, kids who, in most cases, have barely left their suburb all their life. Things like comments to ‘John’s’ motorbike website or ‘Billy’s’ ‘World Of Drugs‘ wiki project (one I am hugely excited and hopeful about in 2012) are small but priceless.

Every comment here on Human, every @ reply on Twitter, every *Like* on Facebook, every email, Skype call, shared document or other interaction reinforces my liking for Stephen Heppel’s observation: Previous century was about making stuff FOR many people. This century is about helping people help each other.

and finally … drumroll …

Watching students flourish in front of my eyes in moments during the year and particularly during their Big Picture exhibitions reminds me why I want(ed) to work in education: not to be “the knower” in some field and bang on about it as if it were the most important thing in the world but watch and help others becoming knowers (of) themselves in the fields they chose and share.

PS. If I don’t post anything before Christmas/New Year it probably means I am playing with my own kids and enjoying a bit of holidays. But I do check in here and Twitter …

Have a peaceful Christmas and a wonderful New Year. Kiss your kids and loved ones and tell them you love them. Often. And mean it.

More than a game

Monopoly play small
Our very own !

I get to play at school. No, really. And so do our students.

This time, we gave birth to an idea of converting a couple of broken plastic desktops destined for the rubbish tip into a giant Monopoly set (not a new idea). And this was not going to be just an extraordinary set in size. The challenge was on and today – we played our first game!

The set is ‘ours’, based on our (school) surrounds and places, streets, stations, utilities where our students spend their lives. The custom Community Chest and Chance cards are a work of many suggestions from students and staff in person or via Moodle forum, full of lines some of which only we would fully appreciate and laugh or curse at. Cards were designed and worked on collaboratively by several people via Google Docs.

On the ‘physical’ side, the tables were cleaned, sanded, primed, painted, balanced, hinged and carefully detailed – again by many! Cards had to be printed, cut, laminated, shaped and collated, thanks to the work of a bunch of students over the week in a very relaxed working atmosphere.

But this was not just ‘anything goes’. In design, for example, everyone was encouraged to have a go at even the trickiest little detail. “Go on, have a go and don’t worry if you stuff up. But do know there are standards expected and you can just do it again if not ship shape.” (eg. all letters had to be stencilled, no free hand). Failure was no huge deal but willingness to (first, at least) have a go and improve WAS. Some kids contributed a little, some a lot, none of it compulsory, none of it forced.

There were kids who handled a power drill for the first time, done their first roller paint, first masking tape, those who learned the need for a washer under a nut, learned the difference between oil and water-based paints (made an interesting clean up time I tell you 😛 …). there were kids who gave up but came back to do a better job. There were kids who had done nothing all term but were now happy to spend a couple hours working on the cards, laminating, contributing card entries. There were kids who saw the ‘magic’ of a collaborative online doc via Google Docs for the first time and more …

And then there were questions! Last week, I tweeted a link to a document to encourage deeper questions about our lives that games like Monopoly can stimulate. And have we got some beauties there – thank you @7mrsjames @drb @scratchie @malynmawby @billgx for your contributions.

We have already asked the kids, casually as we were making the set, and more formally this morning in class, to reflect on some the questions asked. And, as expected, the occasion generated some gems of insight. So far, we have touched on themes of (I’ll list, so many there, statements are all students’ unless indicated otherwise):

  • poverty (“oh, but I live in Medina (lowest property on our board), that makes me a poor **** doesn’t it”),
  • economics (“if the bank just printed more money everything would just get more expensive, people wouldn’t actually have more of stuff … [inflation anyone?]),
  • equity (“yeah but if some ****** has everything to start with how harder is it for me then. That’s bullshit, not fair!…),
  • opportunity (“some players get behind but they can make up for it and get smart and start winning…”),
  • racism, prejudice of kinds (“if you had a special rule for one player and they couldn’t get shit unless they did what others asked them to do … that would suck, I wouldn’t want to be that.”),
  • importance of learning (“Monopoly is about half luck and half skill”. Me: So, you have no control over luck but you have control over skill. How do you get that? Student: You learn stuff and understand. Me: Bit like in real life? Student: Hmmm … yeah, it’s a bit like that yes.)
  • moral choices (“… but if you could just steal stuff and everyone else would steal yours and you want to then carry a shotgun around that wouldn’t be good in the end.”),
  • philosophy of happiness (“I don’t know what makes a successful person. In Monopoly you have to be rich I suppose, I real life you don’t always have to be but it’s boss if you are because you can buy shit and all that…”)

… and more!

All these are individual gems, many overheard by others in the chaos and teenage noise but they were like a razor cutting through to what I believe is the purpose of great education – learn how to ask and wrestle with questions, problems that matter to you and the people you share a community with.

Thank you to all question contributors, thank you for your supportive tweets all along (you know who you are 🙂 ). Most of all, a massive thank you to the 16 contributing students and 3 staff members at our school for making this happen and giving us a sense of being a part of something good, successful, enjoyable and maybe, just maybe, triggering a few lifelong reminders.

Now that you got through all these words … please do check out the photos 😉 (click on the image to see larger). Cheers!

Overschooled and undereducated

Yesterday, I read and keenly tweeted a link of a(nother) excellent post by Ira Socol (@irasocol) called ‘Schools That Matter‘. It’s vintage, eloquent Ira. A few replies later, I noted a link shared by Geoff Alemand (@scratchie, thanks mate) that pointed to an absolute gem, shared below.

I borrow the post title from a book by John Abbot (@21learn) and Heather MacTaggart I am about to order. You can read more about the book and explore the excellent site of Born To Learn animation series and (of) its associated organisation 21st Century Learning Initiative.

I’ve seen many a 21st century call-to-arms but this one, for my 2 cents, stands above the pep-crowd with its simplicity, research support and an easy-to-grasp genealogy of current mainstream schooling. Bit of confirmation bias perhaps here but you know …

I am embedding the three clips here, in no particular order. They could be used in so many presentations, sessions, workshops and similar gathering to stimulate truly important conversations.

If I were showing these at a staff meeting, teacher education or similar, I would strategically pause the third clip (Class Reunion) at exactly 2.48 into the clip and ask the room for responses.

They may just frame the essence of the(ir) view, purpose and reasons to be(come) an educator.


Born to Learn from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

The Faustian Bargain (Trailer) from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Born to Learn: Class Reunion from Born to Learn on Vimeo.

Thank you Geoff for sharing, thank you John and Heather for your work.

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.

Three shakes


Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dariuszka/374750916/

Shake one – Friday afternoon

A beer with “Michael”, a friend, teacher at (one of) the most ‘exclusive’, expensive, ‘high-achieving’ girls school in Perth. I have just explained what I do at Moodle these days and touched on my deep conviction against spoonfeeding students and instead giving them real responsibilities, real problems, real chances to fail and succeed.

Me: “I hate it when they look up to me to give them the answers as some kind of oracle. At 15! “Go away and don’t bother me because you can’t be bothered to figure it out  on your own, with your classmates or a person on the other side of the world – but wake me up in the middle of the night if you want to learn more or tell me I am wrong somewhere.” This is why quite a few kids, majority (wannabe) ‘high achievers’, never liked my teaching style and philosophy. But that’s life sunshine! What am I setting you up for?”

Michael: “Oh mate, you would struggle at our school. That’s exactly what I’ve been telling them for years. But… the school is all about academic results, that’s all they are really interested in. And the kids? “You are here to help us get the top marks so just tell us” It drives me mad sometimes, what are they going to do when they get the top marks, what are we really teaching them?”

Shake two – Sunday morning

A visit to another friend, another teacher and former colleague (yes, I do have non-teaching friends too 🙂 ) Let’s call her Dina.

Dina really wanted to do a bit of emerging curriculum with Year 8 kids new to school. They looked at a documentary, then a mockumentary to pick differences and the kids really ‘got’ the genre and the idea. Then it dawned on her that the kids could actually try and make one. They jumped at it! Kids were asking their teachers if they could they leave their class early so they could come to Dina’s class and work on their doco. The two AEO (Aboriginal Education Officers) assigned to her class as support remarked “you don’t need us, these kids are doing amazingly well!”

Me: “So, what happened?”

Dina: “Well, I came one day all excited to the office and told our Head of Department [a ladder-climbing tick-a-boxer, my note] about it, expecting a “great job, how can we help” sort of thing. Instead, I got questioned and told off : “…I am concerned about this, ”documentary” is not in the Education Department’s ‘Scope and Sequence’ document for Year 8, only for Year 9.”

Shake three – Sunday evening

I had a long phone call with my brother in Slovenia.

His 6 year old son (my nephew) started Grade 1 in September. He enjoys school and learning activities, plays basketball a little and is generally a happy, yet quite an observant and sensitive child. He also carries a bit of extra weight. Recently, he developed a severe tick. It works out he has been bullied at school (won’t go into details but quite heinous).

My brother: “… and to top it all off, he comes home the other day all in tears because he made, for the first time, two mistakes in the maths test (!!!!) He came apologising, as if he somehow let me down. My heart broke I tell you.”

Excuse the swearing but have we gone fucking mental? THIS is what happens when real people are reduced to educational numbers, syllabus documents and grades.

I could write rantily or eloquently (or bit of both) on us becoming the bastards of ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ (John Ralston Saul wrote an outstandingly scathing and well-argued trilogy on this last decade, highly recommend) – but I won’t, not tonight at least.

Kiss your kids and tell them you love them. Often.  (Those who follow me on Twitter will have seen that line before and times I said it…)

Sacred cows

Miss Miller, Teacher of the Year.
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/34053291@N05/3953923181/

While thinking about my teaching plan and the challenge for 2010, I sent out a tweet this afternoon:

Conceiving & justifying a 2010 teaching plan… keywords: rhizome, Moodle, community, challenge, ‘sacred cows’, ‘we’. Excited.

I will post details another time, but let’s just the say the “rhizome” part is informed by the original ideas of Deleuze, outlined a lot more eloquently by Dave Cormier (link) and Erica McWilliam (Meddler-in-the-middle, Unlearning How To Teach) and is something I am passionate about, read about, think about and which I have, in parts, tried already at my old school (how time flies 🙂 with encouraging success. ‘Moodle” – the plan involves students creating and managing their own Moodle course, knowing just a couple of Moodle-basics that my old classes learnt in an hour. “Community, we” – gist of the rhizome, above. “Sacred cows” – some below. Will post, promise.

Very soon, I got a reply from Olaf Elch (a fellow moodler 🙂 ) in Germany:

My t-plan is similar to yours. I left out the rhizome and changed the “we” to “I”. (It makes it more likely to actually happen. ;o)

But that kinda misses the crucial point of it Olaf… so we started a quick Twitter conversation. Two lines by Olaf particularly raised my eyebrows in further conversation:

1) McWilliam makes some VERY big assumptions. “A T[eacher] who doesn’t add value will be bypassed.” How can a pupil bypass a classteacher?


2) If you turn a teachers from an expert into a meddler or co-learner you are taking away the chief selling point of the teacher role.

Olaf then expands on the expert part, saying that as a teacher, he needs to be an expert, that his students (adult and young) expect it and ‘demand it‘, and that some of his colleagues are stimulating but have ‘faulty factual knowledge’, which makes them ‘just as useless’ as experts who can’t teach [probably meant as stimulate, since Olaf recognised the importance of teaching of how to learn and engaging students].

I opened Olaf’s question to the venerable Twittendom full of very intelligent and caring people and got a bunch of replies which Olaf no doubt read too. Another Twitter-sation success, thank you all who chipped in.

OK, but let’s clear the air a bit here and shoot some sacred cows…

  • I am not against content knowledge. It helps to know the stuff we are talking about, have depth to it, see where it fits. I can’t ‘teach’ French if I don’t know how to say ‘Bonjour!’ and what it means (although Stephen Downes has something interesting to say on that). I am also not throwing the didactic baby completely out with the bathwater. But content knowledge to then ‘fill the vessel’ of those who don’t have it (oh, the deficit, the poor darlingsl!) – that alone is inadequate and unfair to millions and is depriving many creative, smart kids. Not to mention the implicit value of knowledge by “those who know’ (and those who don’t)…
  • A teacher who doesn’t add value SHOULD be bypassed. Let’s take a look around us… Isn’t that what networks of people do and have done for ever (just the range, speed and volume of networks has exploded in the last decade and we’re just beginning to used to it)? They do so sometimes foolishly too and it’s not always wise but … why not? Alternative? Interestingly, Olaf makes a point of people who are ‘stimulating but light on content’. Well, as far as I know, given a chance, kids would bypass those as much as the experts who drone. For now, kids resort to mischief or withdrawal, bypass of a kind.
  • On meddling. My most treasured memories of teaching were exactly the ones I was “the meddler in the middle”. We produced things that mattered to us. See our Web 2.0 Expo for the latest example. Knowledge transmission versus value creation. Chain versus network. Stable versus dynamic. Learning just-in-case versus learning-on-demand. Routine and known versus inventive and unknown. Error-avoiding versus error-welcoming. “I” versus “Us-ness”. I know where the world is heading, social, economic, educational (?) …
  • Having ‘an expert’ breeds dependency, the ‘just tell us’ attitude to learning (hm, learning?). Dean Shareski hits the nail on the head. I love the moments (much like Tony Searl, according to his tweets) where I am not the expert but the kids let fly, challenge me, teach me. I mentioned one such ‘incident’ of a colleague in my farewell speech. There were many!

Quick quiz: Which of these best describes the verb ‘to learn’: a) to be clear, certain, never fail,  b) to be confused, uncertain, fail frequently

A  breeds false self-esteem, steeped in extrinsic rewards, B is an increasingly common discomfort in our societies.  As McWilliam states “let’s take ‘lifelong learning’ seriously (or stop using it)” and not just as a nice gimmick.

And in that mess, ‘teacher’, valuable as we are, may become a placeholder for a name of a role that needs to and will change. And that’s OK with me.

Have something to say? (I) missed a/the point… Click ‘Comment’ and go for it

Catch-A-Teacher Day


It’s over! Our four day school Web 2.0 Expo extravaganza over the last few days of school year was largely (and I don’t use the word lightly) adjudged as ‘a success’, ‘eye opening’, ‘interesting’, ‘informative’, ‘fun’, ‘enjoyable’, ‘a bit crazy’, ‘unusual’ by a range of people around the school (eclectic and funky as our cover clip 🙂 )

For four days, three teachers (Simon Carabetta, Jaeik Jeong & myself) and about a dozen student-helpers (13 to 15 years old), put on a ’23 things’ of a kind for our school community to inform, teach and stir about ‘Web 2.0’ and its culture-changing potential that is starting to be realised in our societies yet (still) largely outside school walls.

To ‘walk the talk’, we not only set up stations, but also created the event’s wiki (largely student work!), even a Ning (well, sort of … 🙂 ), got a bunch of students to start up their blogs, Twitter, set up RSS readers, fooled around with Skype, Etherpad, Twiddla, Moodle etc.. We had a number of educators from around the world dropping in virtually via Etherpad (copy of excellent contributions here, thank you SO MUCH to all who have contributed), we had encouraging tweets from around the world … all in all, we were ‘doing’ Web 2.0.

But out of the four days of messing up, playing, teaching, learning, succeeding, working together, guessing and generally having a ball, the last day will remain seared in my mind forever.

Until the last day, we had very few staff that came to the expo. They would bring groups of students down but then (most of them) didn’t quite engage with the expo in any way. “That’s for the kids, not for us…” was the general sentiment, with few notable exceptions. With the whole thing PRIMARILY for staff, we weren’t making the dent. The matter was raised at our regular morning ‘war briefing’. We made the decision that the last day was going to be ‘catch-a-teacher’ day.

It was pretty simple really. Student-helpers were encouraged to approach a teacher, invite them to the expo, try to work out and ask what the teacher might be interested in to learn…then demonstrate, teach and help them learn (about) a particular Web 2.0 tool and how it could be useful to them (the teacher). We also asked our student-helpers to note down on the central ‘tally’ board what teachers they taught what.

Students took up the challenge very seriously and we had them literally chasing teachers down the halls to invite, talk to, teach the teachers. With most teachers agreeing to come (even if out of courtesy if not curiosity) it was an incredible sight.

Catch-a-teacher ... live
Catch-a-teacher … live
Catch-a-teacher ... come in
Catch-a-teacher … come in

And this is what the tally board looked like after only a few hours!

21 teachers, 10 different tools, 4 hours - ALL by students!
21 teachers, 10 different tools, 4 hours – ALL by students!

Yes, I repeat: teachers are far less likely to say no to a student than a ‘tech integrator’ with a resonable (tech) proposition for teacher’s problem/idea in class. It just works!

Another highlight of the day was the technically so damn easy yet so profoundly different (to ‘regular school’) Skype conference of our ‘helpers’ with a good friend Ira Socol. I saw Ira tweeting, hooked up over Skype and within seconds the whole class said ‘Hello” to Ira and his dog (“with a weird name Sir…”) in Michigan. We soon shared a screen with Google Earth on it where Ira literally showed us around his neighbourhood, place he works, we zoomed out to see and learn a bit about the Great Lakes (some of the kids watching have not been further than a few blocks from their place in their life!), cracked a joke or two and after a few minutes thanked Ira for his time. After the event Ira tweeted:

Damn right!

I read the tweet aloud to claps, cheers and hollers of approval at our post-expo ice cream ‘debrief’ (yes, we did treat the awesome crew 🙂

Yum! Well deserved.
Yum! Well deserved.

The sense of community, appreciation, working together, problem solving, the JOY of learning, particularly on the last day of our Expo was palpable. Many of our student-helpers ‘got off’ on it, dare say far, far more than many a lesson in the year just finished. There it was, a working rhizome of education I dream of, where roles/status/label/credit did not matter, only what we can learn, share, help, improve. Sure, it was quite an intense day, but one where the students saw the potential of what many of us have been banging on about for … years now.

Before we took our parting group photo, I asked the student-helpers is they would like to attend a school organised and run a bit like our expo – passionate, hard-working, following people’s interests, funny, a bit messy and unexpected, unclear at times but always valuing learning of all kinds: “Yes, sure, we’d love to…” I replied with just a line: “Demand it for your own kids.”

Just imagine! Or as a colleague quoted in his farewell speech yesterday: Logic will get you from A to B, imagination will get you anywhere.

And since I mentioned farewell speeches – I delivered mine yesterday too (copy here). I will miss the people of Belmont City College (and my first Moodle, my baby 🙂 ). They matter.

Thank you!
Thank you!

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! 🙂