Questioning the purpose and function of schools and systems is an ongoing pressure point for me and is founded in my Foucauldian inspired adolescent exploration of governmentality. The dichotomy of rigid curriculum and testing versus the emerging essential employability skills of collaboration, flexible thinking and empathy challenge the systems and approaches we are comfortable and familiar with in schools.
In the past I have been fortunate as a teacher to embrace different approaches, taking risks and challenging the status quo with freedom. When I was first afforded the responsibility of establishing a learning environment for young adolescents with learning disabilities, I didn’t hesitate to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective not bound by previous experiences (I had none) nor templates (there wasn’t one in the school). This granted, with the incredible support of the school leadership, the opportunity to create learning that was personalised and authentic for the young people and staff, and not contrived or bound by curriculum or structures. This meant that in my first year, students utilised a range of technologies and had dynamic learning experiences including, but not limited to; blogging, passion projects, Identity Days, international collaborative projects, thematic units, authentic work placements and personalised reporting based on skill development and growth against individual learning goals. Not the traditional industrial model of education that is the state of affairs in similar settings, but a modern and responsive learning environment.
Since that time I have been fortunate/challenged to move into a range of leadership roles across the school with responsibility for a spectrum of key areas. This year has seen my responsibilities include oversight of whole school curriculum.
It may be reasonable to suppose that the greater the perceived power in regards to a leadership role, the more influence you would impart on the innovation of curriculum design. Furthermore, that approaches modelled would evolve and amplify with the expansion of innovative approaches and perspectives. Unfortunately, this does not occur organically and just like every young person, each adult is on a personal learning journey with their own prior knowledge, preconceptions and experiences that either curb or drive their openness to new approaches and willingness to take risks and challenge their own conventions.
I am continually reminded that my own zealous approaches to learning new educational approaches and my areas of foci are not necessarily shared by others. This is not to say that many are not equally if not more devoted to the exploration of their educational priorities, it just means that our approaches are informed by different influences. This is by no means a negative, it just relies on greater self-awareness on my behalf when I approach the leadership of curriculum design, trying to ensure a shared purpose and understanding.
Over the past two days, I facilitated the screening of the educational documentary “Most Likely to Succeed”. The film is a commentary on reimagining the American Education system with a particular focus on one model, San Diego school, High Tech High. Whole staff participated along with a handful of middle school students and were provoked by virtue of the film to consider what sort of learning environment is most likely to “succeed” in the 21st century.
It became apparent from the reflections shared that some had previously grappled with many of the ideas and provocations in the documentary whilst for others, the ideas were unfamiliar and even confronting. Most staff felt inspired and invigorated by the possibilities and models presented in the film, however, for a few, it left them feeling overwhelmed and disheartened. The challenge moving forward is how to foster the inspiration to develop different approaches to our current curriculum design and ensure staff who were overwhelmed are nurtured and supported to feel empowered.
The critical takeaway in regards to my current role from the models presented in the film is to have teachers see themselves as powerful designers of learning, not hampered by ticking content boxes, but instead supported to facilitate deep and meaningful learning opportunities with students.
If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it. See below for the trailer and this review by Vander Ark is a fair synopsis.
What people do quite naturally is, if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less. And if it is art, we try to figure out how to do more. And when we put kids in the factory we call school, the thing we built to indoctrinate them into compliance, why are we surprised that the question is “Will this be on the test?” – Seth Godin
Comply, fit in, be quiet! – NO!
I work with students on the autism spectrum, students with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple other physical and intellectual diagnoses. If I was after “normal”, I chose the wrong profession! At the same time, this is what I also protest should not be considered in any way abnormal or weird but I will get to that later.
I have a new team of teachers to work with this year and a new group of dynamic young people have come through our doors also.
One student in particular has a very unique way to look at and experience the world and because he doesn’t do this quietly like some of our other students, it can be quite confronting for some. I had a discussion with a peer who said it was embarrassing when he behaved so silly and when people laughed at him. I asked, who is embarrassed, you or him? I asked her to question when she went to change his behaviour, was it about him or was it about her? Obviously this is a simple way to look at things and behaviour and “fitting in” to society is a complex and valid aspect of being part of a community. My question is, to what extent and to what measure do we take to normalise children as opposed to educate for the development of a more just and fair society?
One of the best lessons I have learnt in my life so far, and the most useful strategy as a parent and and educator, is not to say no until you understand the reason why you are saying no.
There are so many reasons we say “no” as parents and educators, some of which are unreasonable:
- I am uncomfortable with what is being asked
- no one has ever asked that before
- saying yes would mean I have to actually do something
- at times it’s just an automatic response
We say that we want our kids to be individuals, not to resign to peer pressure, to be themselves, to be unique, but we do this only to the extent that it suits us. To a point where we don’t feel uncomfortable. To a point where we can feel safe.
Nothing ever improves or evolves by doing the same though does it. Do we think that over the history of culture that things that were deemed abnormal, unnatural, abhorrent or even deviant have been static over time. Of course not! I often refer the work of Michel Foucault, because I find his discourse of “power” and “abnormality” to be inherent in education, disability and equality. Social constructs have changed over time, including race, religion, sexuality, gender and law. Education has a major role to play in this social construction. Just as we were educating to build factory workers and complacent housewives in the 1920’s we need to be educating for the citizens of tomorrow today. Times have changed and so our schools must reflect that.
My vision is of a school where my students are part of a blur of what is normal. Where disability, sexuality, race and religion are invisible. When I say invisible, I don’t mean they do not exist, I mean they are no longer seen as an abnormality but as fundamental.
I want my school to be a place where care is at the centre, where students are given and create opportunities in a supportive environment to work in “real time” on things that matter.
Where students have a genuine voice in what they learn, how they learn it and a voice to whole school action and change.
I want a school where families are part of the learning journey and have opportunities to celebrate together the growth and development of their children.
Where relationships are core and where ideas and passions are valued. Where students teach/lead other students and staff and share their teaching/learning with a global audience.
I want a school where achievement is measured by personal growth not a one fits all test. Where hard work, grit and determination, reflection and community service is part of everyday learning and a highly valued part of achievement.
Where each student develops a personalised, unique path of learning and completes their school years when they have a tool kit for coping with the challenges of an unknown world not because they achieved a chronological milestone.
There are more things I would add, but these are the things I am most passionate about, it’s what I work towards every day. Thinking outside the square won’t be “weird”, a passion for the peculiar will be embraced and the attention will be on the possibilities, not the deficit of students abilities.
“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” – Michel Foucault
I have previously written about the factory of schools and my early university studies influenced with the philosophies of Foucault, Bentham and Nietzsche. These social philosophies still influence the way I see the world and the structures and organisations I am part of. A colleague said to me recently how much I had challenged the way she sees her role in school. I thought what I was saying was just common sense, but I guess at times my take on the world is far from how many within the “Panopticon” see it.
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. – Friedrich Nietzsche
There are a few things that concern me about our continued actions as educators:
Firstly we continue to make decisions based on what we have always done in schools, not necessarily what is best for kids. We continue to work within a structure that controls how we measure our students success and even when we have opportunities to step away from such practice, we choose to reinforce old understandings by giving awards/rewards based on academic achievement which reflects a standard external to each individual (that’s for another post!).
Secondly, I hear colleagues saying we should be taking on certain programs, or practice because the school down the road is doing it that way. But I don’t want us to be the school down the road, I want us to be better. I want us to challenge what others do, what is expected of us and take risks that give our students unique opportunities. I don’t want our students to be like other students down the road. I don’t want us to churn out clones of graduates gone before with the same skills and knowledge. I don’t want us to make average. That’s not to say we can’t learn from others, but let’s make it personal not a duplicate.
Finally, I don’t want to hear “I have to teach it because that’s what is in the exam” or “they have to learn it because they need it for year x”. Recently I was in a workshop at a conference and we were discussing how technology should be transformative. I have immense respect for the presenter and agreed with what he was delivering. At one point though he mentioned that he would not replace the pen and paper with a computer because that was purely a substitution. I questioned why would you do that if the child could do better on the device. This started a discussion around handwriting and that kids need to be able to write. There were fair arguments on both sides with access to equipment being the most valid as I could see. One argument was raised by a high school ICT teacher who explained that in his senior computing class he had to provide them with practice at hand writing for long periods because their exam required them to do so! Hang on a minute…….did you say your computing topic requires hand written exams? Does anyone not see the problem with this?
I respect what Wayne is saying, in that he does not want to compromise his students opportunities for university entrance. At the same time, if we continue to comply, how many students will we disadvantage not just in the test but beyond?
I resist doing things the same “just because” that is the way it has been done. I want all my decisions to be based on what is best for kids, not what is expected, or status quo. I want us to say “no” to practice that is constraining our kids. If we don’t say no, who will? Let’s not leave it up to someone else but be “the change we want to see”. Let’s not sit by and play our role in the machine and keep churning out average when we can twist the cogs, shake the machine and help make school better.
Nothing ever changed with a shrug of the shoulders and placing it in the “too hard basket”. Change will only happen if we are prepared to make some tough choices and stand up for what is right.
Are there other actions we need to change to eliminate the school factory?
Lately I have been thinking about the role that power plays to inhibit the learning in our classrooms and schools. This has led me to think back…back ………back to my early impressionable years at university, as I studied justice and law and visited the works of such thinkers as Michel Foucault and german cultural critic Friedrich Nietzsche. I remember being caught up in the ‘rise of the institution’ as a construction of power and control. At the time it wasn’t the institution of schools that I was most intrigued by, it was in fact the prison and psychiatric institutions I was more obliged to investigate. The system of education was secondary but still of interest due to my reliance on being part of that machine to complete my degree! It is now that my memories of such studies comes to the forefront as I consider why it is that our classrooms often preside as the playground of power struggles and control and how the systems we work within constrain and restrict originality.
Foucault saw schools in the 17th century as functioning to contain disorders, prevent ignorance, idleness, and insubordination (see Discipline and Punishment). He then saw it develop with the rise expanse of the factory and population increase into the more modern system.
Schools began to develop, first, functional spaces, and later, separate classrooms; and pupils were distributed spatially and serially, not only according to progress, age, or level of achievement but also character, cleanliness, even morality.
The twentieth-century shift from traditional didactic or teacher-centred to more co-operative or child-centred instructional formats has not dissolved or tamed power relations but merely reformulated them.
I can walk around my school on a daily basis and see this in action. We have some amazing teachers in our school, yet if you asked each one of them who owns the power in the classroom, who controls the learning, I am quite sure most, if not all, would say they do.
George Couros recently suggested reading Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant. It was quite serendipitous that 2 days from starting to formalise these thoughts on here, George would make this suggestion.
Notter and Grant declare that we are in fact struggling to be “fully human within our organizational lives” as they explain that our organisations have been “modelled after machines”. Foucault would assert that in fact they ARE machines and we are but cogs within it.
Notter and Grant see that the “revolutionary breakthrough in technology” (the internet) has enabled us to become “more human”. The social connections and implications creating transparency and enabling the line between professionals and amateurs to be blurred.
Yet our organisations (schools) remain rigid and our classrooms structured to maintain the machine. The struggle for control and power continues despite the mechanics failing those it is trying to ‘produce’. Most would agree and most schools would even impart in their vision that their objective is to support students to be innovative, creative and successful. How many of our schools are actually able to support their staff to be innovative, creative and successful? Does it start there? Shouldn’t our principals be able to be innovative, creative and successful too?
The challenge as Notter and Grant see, is “to make our organizations more human”. They suggest:
Taking more chances
Giving up control
Thinking about old issues from new perspectives
Bringing in new voices
I would love to see these ideas being discussed within faculties, within schools, within executives, within regions. I would love to hear about and see schools challenging the machines and transforming themselves to become more “humanized”. Most emphatically I am excited about challenging my own classrooms, my own staff, my own peers and my own leadership, to see how WE can become more “humanized”!