Education has been called on to serve many masters, many purposes and many functions. It has served the state (think about how the Taliban used schools in Afghanistan), the church (more than 25% of schools in Australia have an overt religious affiliation), employers (we need to have students work ready – whatever that means) and the needs of the broader community for social order (think about how Victoria responded to re-establishing school life after the Black Saturday bushfires). Currently most formal education in Western societies is in thrall to the wider economic philosophy, for which we use the shorthand term, neo-liberalism. The effect of this philosophy is to deem education as a private or individual good, from which the individual derives economic benefits and for which there should be a market price attached. Within this system, education is a commodity that can be traded to international customers to increase state or private revenue. The image or reputation of the system has to be protected and enhanced using standard measures of performance (data form tests).
So prevalent are these philosophies that we simply take their truths for granted. Thus, in Australia in the early 2000s, we had Prime Minister Gillard, from the progressive side of politics, who deemed the aim of our education system was to be in the top 5 finishers in the regime of international standardised tests. (We had the same aim for the various Olympic Games across this period – providing a clear corollary between sport and education as equivalent competitive systems for the elite). Teachers in classrooms across the country were re-orientated toward getting students to reach higher test results by practising more of the tests, whether this be the national or international tests. Now teacher education is to be revamped with a higher entry score. The attainment of this score, like the Olympics where there must be a qualification time/height/distance, is deemed a greater good than the personal qualities bought to the role of teacher. Thus the attainment of knowledge is privileged over any other dimension of education, because a higher ‘entry score’ is deemed a sign that the teacher candidate has the ability to absorb and communicate more knowledge. There has also been an unedifying scramble by bureaucrats to travel to Finland and more recently (and more reluctantly) to Shanghai and Hong Kong to uncover the Holy Grail of success.
The prevailing purpose of formal education for most of the 2000s has been to have people work ready and equipped to innovate to earn money for the state or private economy. For those who are uncomfortable with this approach to education, it raises the question, If not this, then what? What else are we trying to achieve in education for what purpose? How is this evident in my classroom?
What I would like to do over the next few posts is to explore more on education philosophy – to support teachers to ground their own practice within a solid philosophical rationale. So that when the discussions arise in staff rooms, with parents, among friends, and when there are reports in the media about education and teaching we will be able to say this is what I believe about education and why and this is how it impacts on my classroom teaching, and sometimes, this is what I have to accept about education and why and this is how it impacts on my classroom.
This issue of teaching or learning has stayed with me all week (see my blog entry for 16th February)
Our language about teaching is now dominated by the language of 'learning intentions'. Much of the discussion is prompted by the research of John Hattie. I am a fan of this research and at TLN we have engaged teachers to deliver a number of courses about how they are implementing learning intentions and Hattie's concept of feedback. You can click here to see some of them. Increasingly I have been forced to ask - have we got the term right? Should we be using the term teaching intention?
It could be a subtle but important shift in the way we think about our work. As teachers we are in control of what we teach. We make decisions each day, each session, each moment about what and how to teach. These decisions are based on our professional training, based on the requirements of the curriculum that we are required to observe and perhaps local school requirements. Each day we apply our professional judgement to the thousands of interactions we have with students. Only the teacher and the student see and know those interactions. The curriculum writers, the politicians, the education bureaucrats, even the academics who write well researched books, the school Principal are not witnesses to those interactions. So we are charged with making the best decision in that moment - that is what we are trained to do.
(These encounters we have with students are a reminder that we are in a relationship business.)
If we accept the personal or singular notion of those interactions then we must also accept that the teacher must make decisions about the best teaching plan for that group of students in that place at that time. This is then the teaching intention for that lesson.
However, we have absolutely no control over what students learn. We cannot make them learn. Specifically we cannot make them learn what we want them to learn. We can create the conditions in which we hope that they will learn what we intend to teach, but that is all. They may well learn something completely different than what we intended or they may learn something from another student in the class. This may be different from our intention. And that does not make our teaching a failure or wrong or misguided or less than adequate.
What is important is that we find out what the students have learned. This is where Feedback is really important and if you get hold of a copy of the TLN Journal on Feedback (March 2017) there are great articles about how teachers gather this feedback on student learning. This is important. I am not suggesting that we ignore what students learn - but perhaps we need to think about the teaching and learning encounter from the point of view of what we can control - which is the teaching. Perhaps next time you write on the board at the start of a lesson - write 'Teaching Intention' and see what happens.
I had a terrific experience recently where I visited a Special Development School in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I had the privilege of sitting with a fabulous teacher for a couple of hours and just talking with her about her teaching. The school as with all SDS schools in Victoria is for students with intellectual disabilities. I won't go into the detail other than the students all have profound learning difficulties and often multiple disabilities. Karen (not her real name) talked about teaching a 14 year old student with severe autism, who was non-verbal, wheelchair bound and scored very low on the standard range of intelligence tests. This student was capable of giving Karen very limited feedback about the learning. I was in awe at the theoretical knowledge and the practical skills that Karen brought to this education encounter. What struck me most is that this was almost pure teaching at work. Karen had to have extreme confidence that her teaching interventions were the best possible actions for that student at that time on any given day.
I then went home and continued my reading of the education philosopher Gert Biesta. He is widely published and a very accessible writer. If after reading this you are interested in following up, I suggest that you get hold of a copy of The Beautiful Risk of Education. It's relatively inexpensive for an education text ($30-$40 - some of the online bookshops advertise it for over $100 - don't buy from them) and it comes in at less than 150 pages - so very digestible over a weekend or in a holiday break. I have presented some sessions at the TLN and written on his work in the TLN Journal. (Click this link to the article from the 2015 issue - Why Do I Teach, it is member only access - so you will need your email and password)
One of the things he emphasises is the difference between teaching and learning, which we have a tendency to 'lump' together. He uses the word 'learnification' to describe the over-emphasis we have in current education language and thinking on 'learning'. He is certainly not opposed to learning but he raises a number of issues that sometimes get lost in the debate. He asks the question about what is the purpose of the learning that is meant to be taking place? As teachers we are being encouraged to state the learning intention up front. Biesta simply asks 'What is the purpose of that learning intention'? As teachers have we positioned the learning within an overall context of what we are seeking to do? If we extend that out - have we as a school had the discussion about what is the purpose of education in our school in 2017? I wonder when was the last time that there was an extended discussion at a staff meeting about the purpose of education at your school and why? I would love to hear that it is happening - feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Biesta also raises the question about whether as teachers we can and should control the learning outcome. We may have a stated learning intention, but what if a student learns something different in that lesson or session? What if a student learns something new, not from me the teacher but from another student? Does that mean that my lesson is a failure if the student does not learn what I intended for them to learn? These are not easy questions to answer and the response could be quite complex - but they are important questions for us to discuss as educators.
This brings me back to the discussion with Karen at the SDS. The particular student could provide only the most minimal feedback about the learning experience. In this scenario, Karen is focused on the needs of the student, but she must reflect constantly on what she as the teacher is bringing to that encounter. Is she providing the best experience for that student based on her own experience, judgement, professional knowledge and learning. For me this is the essence of teaching at work (not learning) - making these judgements, applying professional knowledge, using professional skills, all with very limited possibility of feedback about the success of these actions.
And thus for me does Biesta's focus on teaching and not learning come into sharp focus.
Relationships are at the heart of education - that is stating the obvious for those who do the daily work of teaching, (sometimes this gets overlooked by politicians and bureaucrats - but that is for another time). If I am in a education relationship then I need to know about the other person. For me this is about knowing the other person's narrative (or story).
I now think about stories in terms of the Narrative Inquiry methodology popularised by Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly. Their approach owes much to the work of John Dewey. If you have no experience at all of Narrative Inquiry it is worth 10 minutes to have a look at this youtube interview with Jean Clandinin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnaTBqapMrE. There is a lot of good material available with a simple google search.
If you (as the reader) and I are in an education relationship then it might be good if you know my story. So here it is:
Temporal Dimension - past, present and future
I have to admit to always having been a teacher and always wanting to be a teacher. Teaching is in the family genetic code, with more than 20 teachers in various education roles in my direct family connections.
I worked in catholic secondary schools across NSW and Victoria for 11 years, English, Humanities and Religious Education. I moved to work as the Training Officer at the then Victorian Independent Education Union and from there to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service as their National Workplace Learning Manager. This was my entree into RTOs , the VET sector and the training industry (as opposed to schools). (By the way to all those who are blood donors - great work - it is so important. To those who have not yet donated - give it a try. To those who for various reasons can't donate - be supportive of colleagues who do - perhaps pick up an extra or a yard duty for them - so you are still making a contribution.)
After a few years I heard the call to return to schools and I have found myself at the Teacher Learning Network. It's a rewarding role working in teacher education and within the values of the education unions. I get to work with great teachers who want to share their practice, whether in writing or course delivery, with their colleagues. I feel like we are making a contribution to support teachers to do their work more effectively and more efficiently (we try to find ways to help teachers save time in their daily work).
Where to from here? I have been at TLN for close on 11 years. The job is so different from when I started that it feels like a new job. What I do know is that working in education is my life work and I cannot see that changing.
This is always a difficult concept for me. Born and raised in Broken Hill, a couple of years at school in the central west of NSW, six years in Gippsland, Victoria, and now 20+ years in Melbourne. I have strong family ties to Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra. So where am I from? Which is the place that I call home? Not sure really. What I know is that place matters - where we interact with people influences the interactions we have with them. This is really critical in teaching and it is a topic on which I intend to write in the future.
Personal and Social
I am a writer (obviously) and a reader. Most of my current reading is for some postgrad study, so you will read a bit about that in this blog. Research and study is important to me. An initial education degree at Macquarie Uni in Sydney, a follow up course at the University of South Australia and now a few years enrolled at Victoria University here in Melbourne. If all goes well - that will come to its conclusion at the end of 2017 and then a break from formal study for a while to pursue some interests in education in a less structured environment .
Outside of work and study, it is family. I contribute to my local community through involvement in the local basketball club and I have a commitment to changing Australia's policy toward asylum seekers. I find the whole idea of the 'Pacific solution', with all of its historical connotations repulsive and an international embarrassment for Australia. We can be better than this.
I hope that snapshot allows you to engage with this blog at the human level, at the relationship level. If you become a regular reader feel free to contribute your narrative - temporal, place, personal and social.
Welcome to Victory@TLN, a blog about education, teaching, philosophy, schools and a whole range of things that are of interest to me.
If you stay with me on this blog journey you will get weekly posts, (possibly more frequent) about what we are setting out to do as educators. John Dewey, one of the world's great educational thinkers, who I came to late in my career, much later than I should have, wrote that education is life. If it is that important then there can never be enough discussion, debate and opinions about education. In this blog I intend to share my views.
What you can expect philosophy, a touch of politics, lots on teacher professional development, and a genuine promotion of the great work undertaken by teachers and educators. Education is relationship-based and teological or purpose driven, so we need to constantly challenge ourselves about why we are doing what we do and with whom. This is difficult to do when you need to meet the demands of 20, 25, 30 or even 100 students in the course of day. I don't have to do that in my job, so I do get the chance to think and read about what we are trying to achieve in education. That is how I hope to support the work of educators; to bring to you some of the great thinking about education. I hope it will inform you, challenge you, maybe occasionally annoy you, but mostly support you in the work you are doing.
At the moment I am doing a lot of reading on Gert Biesta, Nel Noddings, John Dewey, Axel Honneth, Paolo Freire & John Hattie. Some of this will come through the blog. My own research is on the role of agape (or love) in teaching relationships. It is based on the writings of Paul of Tarsus from the first century CE - so you will also get snippets of that also.
Most of the posts will be in writing - that is my preferred medium of communication, but I know that some visuals - photos and videos will make for a richer experience for you. I anticipate I will write most of the posts, but education is collaborative, so there will be times when I will invite others to contribute. I will make it clear when you are reading the thoughts of another person.
Next post will be a little more insight into me. I am committed to the Narrative Inquiry approach of Michael Connelly and Jean Clandinin, the latter who I had the good fortune to meet last year and what a great educator she is. In their approach they write about the personal and social dimension of life (or narrative); the past, present and future actions (temporal dimension); and place or location. So that will be the shape of the next post - so that if you choose to keep engaging with me, you will know who you are connecting with.
The TLN is supported by the AEU Victoria Branch and the IEU Victoria Tasmania Branch