Tuesday, 22 September 2015

And Give Me Back My Curriculum! (or, The Mean, Green, Teaching Machine)

By JL Dutaut

In my last post, Stay Out Of My Classroom! (Unless I've Invited You.), I urged teachers to retake the initiative on their professionalism, to wrest control of their pedagogical practices from teacher-leaders, school leaders, politicians, academics, Joe Public and snake-oil salesmen alike, to kick them all out of their classrooms, and only to let back in those who could be trusted to help them make a positive impact on their students.  But what then?  Who can a teacher trust?

Within schools, it's easy to see how teacher leadership might be achieved.  Reciprocal accountability, self-direction in CPD, mutually supportive networks of colleagues and collective responsibility are all facilitated by a shared experience of community and culture: a clear sense of localism and self-reliance, within a global context of citizenship and morality.  It isn't an unattainable ideal but the ethos of many school leaders, the reality for many schools, and arguably the reason they are deemed outstanding.

Beyond schools, however, reinstating teacher professionalism in the modern education landscape raises two important questions.  In the context of the atomisation of institutions and providers, the apposite centralisation of power over the curriculum, the marketisation of exams, the publication of competitive rankings of schools and school systems, and the proliferation of writing about and research into pedagogical practices, policies and educational philosophy: what power do I have, and what responsibility?

At all levels in education, a fear permeates decision making, and it is the fear of a loosely defined under-performance.  The zeitgeist has it that the ogre of education must be brought to heel, to serve the interests of economic growth and competitiveness.  An ogre!  Think of the children!

The Ogre Awakens: What are you doing in my swamp?
The result of many years of agonising (read: voter-baiting, research funding, book selling...) over 'failing schools' has turned the world of the ogre into a swamp full of homeless fairytale characters: The Three Learning Styles, Little Red Thinking Hat, Jack and the Hierarchy of Needs, Flow Right and the Multiple Intelligences, Growth Mindset and the Three Core Subjects, A Luddite and the Genie of the Laptop.  One-dimensional in their didacticism, their narratives are self-contained, simple, and linear.  Everything education is not.

To usher these fairytales back to their rightful places in the pantheon, to limit the damage their wrongful application and their jostling for attention continues to have in classrooms across the world, we must move the ogre to action.

How long will teachers let it go unchallenged that they are the ogre, that theirs alone is the responsibility for under-performance?  No government I know of has challenged this syllogism:
  • Education is under-performing;
  • Teachers do education;
  • Therefore teachers are under-performing.  
They only offer different solutions: some say we need more stick, others more carrot, but the diagnosis remains constant, notwithstanding the occasional passing of the buck to a previous government for giving us too much stick/carrot (delete as appropriate).

And for as long as the stick and carrot have been applied, nothing has ever moved the ogre.  He has continued to under-perform, and allowed his swamp to be invaded.

Leaving aside the first proposition of the syllogism for a minute to better focus on the second.  If education is an ogre, then there is one thing we know about ogres.

Ogres are like onions.

There Will Be Tears: The layers of the education onion.

The current paradigm has teachers as lone practitioners, isolated from the world, wrapped in concentric layers of authority.  Everything (pedagogical practice, curriculum design, examinations, and daily administration) is handed down through consecutive layers with little or no teacher agency.  Effects are then monitored, assessed, reviewed and conceptualised in a process increasingly removed from the classroom and subject to competing forces.

In effect, our classrooms are the petri dishes of a vast social experiment run by a mad scientist with multiple personality disorder. Our students are cells to be cultured, and teachers are the inoculum, in a fools' race to find a cure for a mysterious disease called under-performance.  Its symptoms are unclear. Its diagnosis is inconsistent.  Only two things are known about it: its epicentre is the ogre's swamp, and its victims are our children.

There is a dissonance at the heart of this.  To blame teachers for under-performance in a system within which they have no control over their professional practice is like a biologist blaming the inoculum for creating the wrong culture, or me blaming paracetamol for not clearing my hangover.

I, Teacher: Free School 18. Your workforce upgrade is ready for deployment.

Conceptually, we need to stop thinking of education as a medicine to be administered, and of teachers as the delivery mechanisms for that medicine, as the inoculum in the petri dish, as the ogres in the swamp.  There is only one logical end to that way of doing things: Our children will increasingly be taught by a roboticised workforce of content delivery personnel, until those can be replaced entirely by content delivery robots.

Education is messy.  It's a swamp of beautiful and monstrous potentials.  It can't be sanitised.  Every part of it grows according to its own requirements, and it never under-performs.  It performs as well as the climate allows it to.

If our aim is to see more children grow into happy, capable and independent young adults, then all of the myths of the swamp have to go:  Little Red Thinking Hat, The Three Learning Styles, and the Ogre of under-performance too.

The way to make that happen is to become professionals again, to involve ourselves in every aspect of education, from staffing and school policy decisions to research and curriculum development, from inspection and monitoring to setting government priorities.

Donkey Xote: Tilting at the windmill of under-performance.

The carrot and the stick have been wielded effectively by governments for decades.  While the stick has been dominant in recent years, it can't continue to be in the midst of teacher shortages and a recruitment crisis.  But it's important we don't fall for the unattainable carrot again.

So.  What's next? Professional self-determination that is contained to one school is only a simulacrum of professionalism.  If your school has got this far, it is still subject to the vagaries of the political cycle, the news cycle, and the whims of book publishers.  "Stay out of my classroom" isn't enough. Up the ante with: "And give me back my curriculum!"

Who can we trust?  Ourselves and each other, because we all want to do our best for our students.  That's what a professional is.

What power do we have?  The power to say no, to reclaim control of our working practices, to enable ourselves to be involved at every level we want to be involved at, according to our strengths and our desires.

And what responsibility?  To ensure our children don't grow up believing in ogres but in themselves; that they, too, can shape the world into what they want it to be, and not to have it imposed on them the way it is.

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