Lecture for Leeds Beckett University’s Education for Social Change pathway 18.11.17 At the start of the session, I set up the conditions for ‘freshest thinking rounds’, one aspect of the pro-social pedagogy Thinking Environment, and the lecture broke to accommodate these rounds at various points.
Hello and welcome to the session. Please feel free to tweet using the hashtag #repowerment.
I left teaching when I could see that education was going to hell in a handcart and my efforts to change things were just tinkering around the edges. I also fell out badly with the concept of ‘management’ and how managerialist cultures are concerned not only with bureaucracy for its own sake but also with the enactment of power. I saw this damaging the mental health of the workforce and it was time to get out. I divide my time now between what you might term ‘community education’ – such as the brilliant #iFemale financial digital empowerment programme with women offenders here in Leeds – and trying from all angles to influence education policy. I’m a professional thorn-in-the-side.
My conviction comes my values – not in a woolly unformed sense but in their intentional practice. I check in with myself so often that I recognise the physical feeling now of being out of kilter when I don’t get things quite right. I teach with integrity, where integrity is what happens when all my values are being fulfilled. I’d like to take a moment to check in with you. What is a value that is of most importance to you in your practice? What is the practice principle you have put in place to enact that value? I’ll give you a simple example to get you started. As a community educator, I get there early on Mondays to switch the water boiler on, so that everyone can have a hot drink while they arrive. This is grounded in a value of empathy for me. A simple practice, but the ‘feel’ of the welcome would be very different if I didn’t bother to do that.
The exercise we’ve just done is one which opened teacher education courses for a decade in my previous work – and still opens them now. My mission here today is to encourage you to develop your personal pedagogy and at the heart of that should be your own values. These will guide you not only in your practice but in the choices you make about your career down the line. Enact your values in every action and you fundamentally can’t go wrong.
In education, one of the places values play out is in the language we use – about ourselves, what we do and the people we work with. I’ve been working recently on a community education research project, which has enabled me to glimpse community learning practice across providers nationwide. I’ve noticed that paternalising language plays out in protective practices which, although invariably well-meaning, have the effect of infantilising students, extending dependency…a sort of anti-social mobility, if you like. You may work with children all the time, but there’s still no need to infantilise them (unless they are literally infants, and as human beings they still deserve to be treated with respect). So you will hear me refer to participants in education as people, more often than not, occasionally as ‘students’. Never as ‘learners’ or some of the other words we use to distance people from ourselves: in various forms of education, ‘children’, ‘parents’, ‘women’ are all used with an othering inflection from time to time. The word ‘parents’ is an interesting example; in family learning, I’ve frequently heard ‘parents’ used to as code for a certain type of parent: often by people who are parents themselves (just not that type of parent). A ‘parent’ from a “deprived” or “hard to reach” community carries a train-load of social coding baggage: poor, possibly single, on benefits, unhealthy, poorly educated, feckless…you can imagine my feelings about the terms “deprived” and “hard to reach”!
Adults, however young or old, should not be infantilised, or how will they ever take up the reins of power in their own lives? According to my values-set, education is fundamentally about change and growth. Its social purpose is to enable people to feel powerful enough in their own lives, to make personal decisions which are positive, compassionate and healthy. Sometimes this sort of work is referred to as ’empowerment’, but that ignores the disempowering influence of society, placing the ‘problem’ firmly with the person. And sometimes people have plenty of power, they just use it oppressively! I’ve been playing around with the term ‘repowerment’, to disrupt conventional thinking a little and see if anything fresh emerges, which might help us reimagine what education should be.
I call upon you to question the language used in your practice context. What does it say about you and the way that you think? What’s your freshest thinking about this?
Before I go onto share some thinking around professionalism, I would like to say a little about subject knowledge, considered by some to be the Holy Grail of teaching. Obviously we often teach to pass on knowledge (sometimes we teach to pass on a skill, or change attitudes and behaviours). Sometimes all of these. This requires us to be accurate, precise and up-to-date in what we know about the subject(s) we teach. This for me is a given, as it gathering accurate data about the work that we do, and there is no need for all the hot air wasted in pointing it out in discourses about education. There is no ‘traditional vs. progressive’ – that’s a made-up argument to distract you from getting on and changing things about education that are not working. What often gets missed in this dialectic is the importance of knowing the history of your subject – all its histories. Its female history, its Black history, its LGBT history, its colonial history. It’s an argument for another day but if we only teach our subject’s white curriculum, nothing will change in an unjust world. To read more about this, I direct you to Lola Olufemi’s open letter to Cambridge University, which caused a media storm in recent weeks.
If values are one half of the magic formula in education, professionalism is the other half. Another set of values, of course, but these too should be yours, alongside any codes of conduct that you are expected to work within (if you can’t, you may find you are in the wrong job, or working for the wrong organisation). In adult education, we work within the Professional Standards for teachers in FE and if you work in schools there will be something similar I’m sure. Professionalism exists in three dimensions and the final part of this lecture explores what this means for educators, in the broadest sense of the term:
Democratic Professionalism – educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.
Education’s future relies on a collective, distributed leadership, a leadership of new ideas and thinking. There’s precious little of this happening in policy-making and it’s up to us to influence that. Education is not working and we can’t leave the future in the hands of those fewer and fewer people who pop up everything, controlling things from the top to keep them just as they are. Being an education professional is not just being a classroom teacher: it’s being a leader, a researcher, a thinker. The structures we work within are actively policed to keep us in our place (and keep students in their place). Tait Coles (heard of him? check out his book, Punk Learning) wrote, a couple of years back:
Education is produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender. Young people who enter the educational system and don’t conform to this vision are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their race, income or chromosomes.
Whatever the space is for you to influence the future of education, find it and contribute your own unique and diverse perspective. Education needs new voices and that includes yours. Whether this is your trade union (unlikely, but I feel I should say it), a regular Twitter space such as #ukedchat or #ukfechat or looser networks that grow up around energising events such as Northern Rocks (held here in May, don’t miss it), figure out what you think and then say it. Don’t just be absorbed in the machine. We can dismantle oppressive thinking by refusing – affirmatively – to buy into the structures that support it, such as white-only, male-only reading lists just to use one example. Read what excites you and read what makes you cross. It will all make you think.
Don’t put your faith in institutions, put it in each other. We have somehow acclimatised to the ‘fact’ that the world has to be about making a profit, that education is about the financial bottom line, but it’s institutions that demand that, not teachers and students. What we do is try to subvert what we are given, rather than change things. Question everything and as Rania Hafez writes in Dancing Princesses, remember that subversion has its limits and its cost. There comes a point where we have to hold out for fundamental change.
Dialogic Professionalism – educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.
Dialogic engagement, as described by Richard Sennett, is about equality and it’s about exploring the middle ground, rather than defending binary positions. It’s about thinking critically and differently. Yes, we enter a power relation with a student when we mark their work, but we can be honest about that and still be equal as thinkers. As I implied earlier, I hear a tone, increasingly, when tutors talk about students (worse still when students are referred to as ‘learners’, but that could just be me). It’s an ‘othering’ tone. It’s a tone of oppression and inequality. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. That has to stop.
Dialogic professionalism is about creating ways to get students thinking for themselves. I use “pro-social” facilitation processes such as the Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy and Restorative Practice, to ensure engagement as equal thinkers, whatever our identities, starting points and places of pain. We’ve done some of that today. These are techniques which teach both listening and critical thinking; they grow community and encourage individuals to be accountable to themselves and to the group in which they operate.
These pedagogies are my practice of nearly 20 years now and when I was part of a team that was scrutinised and judged, as educators in a formal setting, we came out like shining stars. Our grades were the best, student behaviour superb, our widening-participation reach meaningful and enviable. This stuff works.
Digital Professionalism – educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.
The resistance to digital pedagogies is right here, right now and yet they are the perfect companion to dialogic approaches. Raise your expectations about what students are capable of digitally and save the time you’re together to do the deep dialogical work I’ve described above. I’ve been saying for years now that if you’re not digital, you shouldn’t be teaching and I am no longer apologetic about it. This is not about laptops in classrooms and state-of-the-art whiteboards. It’s not about loaning iPads (then carefully counting them all back in). It is about broadband reach and the digital divide, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about the latter which is really just about institutional resistance.
Instead of sitting sulking with folded arms, because you think you’ve been asked to do something ‘extra’, get over your ego and get down with your students in figuring out new ways of learning and being. Why? Because they are leaving you behind and you are doing them an ethically unacceptable disservice by under-skilling them for life and work, particularly in terms of keeping themselves safe and effective online. And the bigger why? Read David Price‘s ‘Open’. Open education, open media, open research…this is how the world will transform.
In the past few years #FELTAG and ETAG spelt out the need for rapid digital growth in education and others since have clarified and refined the message. Jisc see digital as a “set of spaces, not just a set of tools.” The professional imperative is there and it’s up to you to seize it. If you’re resistant, unfold your arms and check out the FAB Model of Digital Resilience. It’s a really effective way of both teaching and challenging yourself and it’s worth investing some time in practising it here.
My final challenge to you is a bold one. Education is reaching a crisis point. If you don’t buy into new ways of being, into pedagogies of change and hope, it’s not just that you’ll get left behind. There won’t be much left, for you to be left behind from.
Coles, T. (2014). Never Mind the Inspectors Here’s Punk Learning. London. Random House.
Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015). Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.
Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2017). The Principal: Power and Professionalism in Further Education. London. Institute of Education.