Covid and Learning Environments

The period of lockdown, that has encouraged the now-clichéd adjective, ‘unprecedented’, is, at the time of writing, into its second week. It seems apt to echo the famous stage direction in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes…”. While lockdowns are giving parts of the planet some welcome environmental breathing-room (literally), they have also forced many to climb off their respective hamster wheels, and, like Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, to reflect on the meaning of their lives—and on many related aspects of their lives.

As the lockdown in New Zealand seemed to become a likelihood, there was increased activity across universities (such as my own) to gear up for a fully online environment. The Ministry of Education was thinking along the lines of a mass closure when it canvassed schools. Lockdown came suddenly to pass, and even as I write, there will be teachers across the country (and indeed, globally) trying to further develop ways they can support their students at home.

The idea that we remain confined to home is perhaps best understood not only as an effort to ‘flatten the curve’ (another new cliché) but to be a way of protecting the vulnerable in the population. Keeping your distance and washing your hands—the complexity of life has been reduced to some quite simple practices, in order to preserve life. Little wonder then that some may feel they now inhabit a parallel universe.

Away from these existential musings, the image of multi-million-dollar educational property infrastructure investments comes to mind. In trying to imagine (as may commentators are) what a post-lockdown period (not to mention post-Covid) will look like, the image of 60 or 90 students and their multiple teachers working in close proximity to each other in large, shared spaces also comes to mind. Or, more accurately, the challenge of social distancing in these spaces that must be front of mind for both the teachers working in these spaces, and the leaders of schools with flexible learning spaces. When schools are able to re-open, the rules about social distancing are likely still to be enforced, at least until a point is reached when it can be safely asserted that Covid has been controlled and even eradicated. The challenge of developing ways of collaborating and working in teams and groups, the staple form of practice in flexible spaces, in a regime of social distancing, may be as significant as developing forms of distance learning.

Finally, that a virus can bring entire economies to a virtual halt almost overnight, with the manifold ramifications of that slow-down, may sound like science-fiction, yet daily the economic fall-out is obvious. So too are the various state interventions to ease the pain. Aside from wondering where all the money is coming from, an obvious question must be how the ambitious educational capital works planned by the current administration will be able to proceed. Scenarios include their halt, a reduction in scale and ambition, or to proceed as planned. It may be expected that many of these intended works will provide for impressive new builds and modifications that, in the main, conform to the concept of flexible, loose-fitting, future-proofed designs. Ongoing concerns over student and teacher health may, however, require – or prompt – further discussion on the suitability of large, shared spaces.

Flexible Learning Spaces: Inclusive by Design? A new article

A feature of both Ministry of Education policy and those who criticise flexible (‘open plan’) learning environments is to call on physical property features as drivers—for the Ministry, of inclusion, and for the critics, of exclusion. An example of Ministry statements that property features can ensure students are catered for and included, can be found here, while examples of critique, that say property features exclude certain categories of students, can be found here, and here.

Can both be right? Is it as simple as suggesting that because a learning environment (ie ‘classroom’) is large, open, airy and colourful, with movable furniture, it is going to be overwhelming to some students? Or that, given the same features, this space will be naturally inviting and engaging and a great place to learn? In a recently published article, I consider this problem, using the language of inclusion and exclusion, but also of equality and equity.

That is because, as I see it (and others too), the question of inclusion is a question of equity (a matter of social justice), meaning that it is about making sure that not only is everyone catered for, but that those who need more assistance and support, are in fact, catered for. The trouble is, New Zealand has had a long educational history of equality, which is concerned with ensuring everyone gets in, or gets to the same fence—but is less concerned with whether they can all see over the fence. And even in more recent times, when policy talk has focussed more on equity, this has tended to be about equitable outcomes (everyone should end up with a qualification, for example—or, everyone should be a ‘digitally connected, responsible global citizen’).

It’s this kind of thinking that helps support the shift into ultra-modern, cutting-edge facilities, as they, in turn, are said to support attempts to prepare all New Zealand youngsters to be these kinds of successful, ’21st century learners’. In these new, radically-designed buildings, teachers will be able to exchange ‘front-of-the-room’ teaching for collaborative teaching, working as facilitators in teams, with multiple students in shared, common learning spaces. And it is aspects of these designs that, as stated above, potentially lead to contrary outcomes.

In my response, what I argue is that that just as much as inclusion and exclusion are affected by the design features of  a space, they are arguably more influenced by the social practices that teachers and students bring to a space. What that means is that working in a single-cell space is no more likely to ensure that all students will be included and catered for in equitable fashion, than if they are in a modern, shared environment—and what my research has demonstrated, is that flexibly designed spaces create more opportunities than single-cell ones do.

Budget 2018 – Vote Education and the fate of Innovative Learning Environments and Flexible Learning Spaces

The New Zealand Labour-led government that came to power in November/December 2017 signalled several areas of change, and education is one of its key priorities. One area within education that did not seem likely to change, however, was the policy of pushing ahead with the construction of purpose-built, flexible learning spaces, and the construction of schools as Innovative Learning Environments. The Budget, released today, saw education as one of the ‘winners’, with a total increase to $12.26b, up from $11.85b in 2017. This allocation to Vote Education includes well in excess of $300 mil to build new schools and classrooms.

It is of some interest to note that the performance of the education appropriation will be measured against three criteria, one of which is the “percentage of State school buildings with property-related elements of Innovative Learning Environment assessments showing functionality score of ‘3’ or better”. The ‘assessment’ referred to is a Ministry of Education ‘Innovative Learning Environments assessment tool that Boards are required to complete before a school’s ten year property upgrade.

This tool is one I have previously analysed as being an exercise in manufactured consent – that is, “here is a range of colour options, look at them, and remember you can have any colour, as long as it’s black”. It provides questions such as:

“Does the classroom design allow teachers to work co-operatively with teachers from other classrooms or specialist disciplines e.g. are there moveable walls between spaces or access to a shared space?”

The so-called FLS standard or criteria items are ranked as ‘Core’, ‘Moderate’ or ‘Advanced’, with the latter two representing the desirable situation, as evident in new builds in New Zealand and in examples internationally. The item quoted above ranks as ‘moderate’, thus indicates where the Ministry wants its schools to be. As this document is compulsorily completed by schools when having their buildings evaluated as part of the ten year property plan of each state school, the contention that consent is manufactured should now be clear.

Now returning to the explanation in the 2018 Vote Education document: it indicates a score of 3, 2 or 1 as desirable, where a ‘1’ is a school that meets the “requirements for Designing Quality Learning Space (DQLS), Health and Hygiene (H&H) and Flexible Learning Spaces (FLS)”. Precisely what the FLS standard is may be understood by reading the ‘assessment tool’, and includes flexibility, transparency and the potential for collaborative work (in addition to other physical building requirements). So, money will be considered well-spent when more schools conform to the FLS criteria than those that do not.

The take-home message is that the new government looks set to continue the schools’ building programme that was getting into gear under the previous National-led government, and teachers, parents and broader community stakeholders who may be less keen to support this approach to school design may find their position steadily narrowed.

Summing up nine years of education property policy

Property can sound like a dull topic, but New Zealand’s Fifth National Government (which has been in power with the support of coalition partners for nine years) has brought property to the fore. Around the country is growing evidence of its policy commitment to ensuring all New Zealand schools conform to a ‘modern learning environment’ standard by 2021. With an election looming on 23rd September, I am surprised that I have not heard any of the political parties mentioning rebuilds, retrofits or new builds, though yesterday, the Prime Minister announced a major investment for Whangarei Boys’ High School, while on the campaign trail.

An academic article I wrote to review the current government education propertyhaeata-interior2 policy was recently published in the Waikato Journal of Education, and is free, open access. To get the flavour of that article, here is a brief critical summing-up.

Critical summation

State-of-the-art, modern school buildings are the outward embodiment of current state education policies that seek to develop digitally-connected lifelong learners for the 21st century global knowledge economy, while relentlessly focussing on raising student achievement. Flexible learning environments have become ideal vehicle to encourage the required changes to teaching and learning that will support these ends. The developing imaginary of the teacher of the 21st century, and the creation of flexible learning spaces designed to develop and enhance changes to teaching and learning is not up for debate and discussion, and 2021 is the target year for every state school in New Zealand to have modern learning environments. The Ministry of Education presents as unproblematic the nature of these facilities, and the practices envisaged within, while the single cell classroom is an object of scorn.

The Private Public Partnership concept, increasingly deployed by the government to fund the building of new schools, is contested. PPPs raise questions around whether turning a profit from education is appropriate, and whether the education profession has its professional autonomy undermined by limitations on design input or occupancy use.

setwidth945-haeata-community-campus-1The Christchurch earthquakes enabled the rapid acceleration of the government’s property strategy, but the negative response of some communities to the Shaping Education strategy has included resistance at having flexible spaces, and the underlying changes to teaching styles, foisted upon them.

The current government, and its state apparatus, the Ministry of Education, link flexible buildings, pedagogy and learning for the 21st century in a deterministic, linear fashion. Nevertheless, it is now wishful thinking on the part of any teacher, school leader or parent to imagine that they may somehow avoid having to experience a flexible learning space as long as they are in, or associated with, a New Zealand state school. The school building programme that reinforces this situation may be one of the enduring legacies of the Fifth National Government.

‘There is no research’: Bringing balance to the Modern Learning Environment debate

The reporting on Seven Sharp on Monday 7th August of developments in New Zealand schools around so-called ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) sensationalised these changes. The item, intended to be positive and balanced, was in fact presented in the skewed terms of ‘backlash’ and ‘dislike’, and the actual learning environments referred to as ‘open-plan mega classrooms’. While the item carried comments from two principals and two parents, each representing opposite sides of the ‘debate’, the weight of ‘evidence’ clearly favoured the anti-camp. In particular, Dr Anne Malcolm, principal of Ponsonby Primary, made the surprisingly ill-informed claim that ‘there is no empirical research’. This requires the record to be set straight.

Is there really no research? Suggesting so makes it seem the Ministry of Education has embarked on a policy that has no rational basis in evidence (treating children as ‘guinea pigs’ it was suggested). Here I will provide a quick snapshot:

  • 2004, the Ministry of Education commissioned a study by AC Nielsen to ascertain the views of a range of key stakeholders in regard to the role of school design in securing and improving learning outcomes.
  • 2008, the Ministry of Education undertook a learning studio pilot project. Five schools were selected from around New Zealand where future-oriented building projects were built and trialed to point the way to appropriate design for 21st century school buildings.
  • In 2005 in Australia, Kenn Fisher, Assoc Prof in Learning Environments at the University of Melbourne and consultant to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was matching the learning activities and skills outlined in the curriculum of the state of Victoria to likely building solutions.
  • In 2011, Prof. Jill Blackmore and colleagues produced a literature review on behalf of the state of Victoria. They surveyed extensive literature into the connection between the built environment and student outcomes.
  • European research in this area has been ongoing for many years, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), such as its 2013 research on innovative learning environments. American research by architects such as Lackney goes back to the 1990s.
  • More recent empirical research is being undertaken at the University of Melbourne, under Assoc. Prof Wes Imms, and his LERN team.
  • In New Zealand, those actively working on producing research results include Leon Benade, Chris Bradbeer, Jenny Charteris, Graham McPhail, Mark Osborne and Alastair Wells.

Anne Malcolm’s statement is intended to be authoritative and effectively shuts down any further debate. Furthermore, linking the idea of ‘no research’ to a parent claiming or suggesting that MLEs are some kind of mad-cap experiment that are doing damage to children, simply sends alarm signals to parents, and teachers not currently working in these kinds of spaces.

Bernadine Oliver-Kerby: Readers are casualties of her flawed op-ed

A couple weeks back I happened to hear an op-ed about flexible learning environments delivered on the early show on Newstalk ZB by the stand-in host for the day, Bernadine Oliver-Kirby. I was immediately struck by her ignorance and lack of knowledge. Ignorance of the work of teachers; and lack of knowledge of a subject on which she felt qualified to freely opine. My second thought was the realisation that these foolish comments would appear in the New Zealand Herald as the two media outlets have become ‘NZME’. Indeed, they did appear in press on the 17th Feb 2017.

It’s likely wasted effort to respond to this diatribe—in part why my comments are being made 10 days later. Her implicit teacher bashing aside, the point still needs to be made that those who have the benefit of the media spotlight ought to exercise greater care over their choice of words in relation to anything to do with our children (‘kids’, by the way, Ms. Oliver-Kirby, are baby goats, as I always remind my students). This is so because the parents of those children can be very easily wound up over such topics as education.

For the record, Ms. Oliver-Kirby’s emotive language included: ‘sprawled’; ‘newfangled’; ‘roam free-range’; ‘feral’; ‘erupting numbers’; ‘stepping over bodies’; ‘resembles an airport terminal when the French are on strike’; and ‘these zoos’. This is the kind of language that plays into the hands of other, equally ignorant people, or serves only to confuse and concern those parents who are unfamiliar with changes in school building design. Her use of animal metaphor is troubling, but is one among many ‘cheap shots’ (see Claire Amos on this point).

The argument that ‘open plan learning was tried in the 70s and failed – this will fail too’, is the last refuge of many Jurassic’s one happens to meet along the way. What they, and Ms. Oliver-Kirby, fail to recognise are the significant differences between then and now. These differences include superior building and acoustics standards, the role played by digital technology, the changing nature of teachers and teaching, and especially the radical changes evident in young people.

The chaos of the strike-ridden airport is juxtaposed with the picture of a closed environment that offers “privacy…noise control…[and] optimum learning”. I would suggest that the closed environment of the traditional single-cell also offers a limitation in human resources (one teacher, not several), generally requires the teacher to be stuck to the front in delivery mode (as opposed to allowing multiple forms of teaching and learning), and significantly reduces flexibility (making anything apart from individual and paired work much more challenging to organise).

It would pay Ms. Oliver-Kirby to undertake at least a modicum of research, so that she can address these issues in a more balanced manner. And by ‘balanced’ I do not mean biased in favour of flexible learning environments—critique is to be welcomed. My blog readers need only look at the contents of this site to realise I have engaged critically with some of these ‘newfangled’ ideas. For a recent academic piece, see this article (or this free version).

Countering educational obsolescence

Since 2011, I have engaged with a term that had become very fashionable in New Zealand education by that time—‘21st-century learning’—and wrote a philosophical paper on the subject for the annual conference of the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA) in 2011. The paper, teasingly entitled,  ‘Bits, bytes and dinosaurs’    has since been published in the society journal, Educational Philosophy and Theory. While I looked critically at this term that had taken on a ‘buzz phrase’ aura in educational discourse in New Zealand (and beyond), the thrust of my argument, with reference to two ‘dinosaurs’, Levinas and Freire, was that, despite rapid changes to and in our common world, such thinkers continued to offer a discourse of possibility and hope. Furthermore, these thinkers remind us that certain attributes and dispositions transcend time and place, and schools have both a right and an obligation to develop these.

This research interest has evolved over the intervening period, first by developing a deepening sense of the ways participant practitioners (teachers and school leaders) understand 21st-century learning, and how the concept, acting as a policy imperative of a neoliberal government, influences their work and their thinking about their work (see, for example). Secondly, the research examined more closely a number of schools that have new purpose-built facilities initially referred to in New Zealand as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) and more recently as ‘innovative learning environments’ (ILE). Additional, related, research I conducted focussed on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device, or 1:1 computing) school.

The thrust of this research in the past year or so, is to ask the question, ‘what is it to be a teacher in the 21st century?’ I seek the answer in the ways that my participants interact with a range of environments that enable or reflect a way of teaching that has either been unimagined in the past, or very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in the past. I continue to be interested too in how they reflect on these dynamics that impact on their daily working lives.

The idea, in particular, that learning spaces (not ‘classrooms’, note) be designed to accommodate say, around 90 students and three teachers working in a team, is a significant departure from standard practice. Before responding to what I have just said by claiming, “oh, that’s not new— open plan learning was tried in the 60’s and failed”, let me say that I tend to hear this response from those who wish to hear no more of what I am saying to them. Dealing with resistant attitudes is one (important) part of the narrative. A quick response, however, is to say there are differences—we did not have the digital and mobile technology then; educators had very fixed ideas about teaching and learning then (mainly transmission models); and school environmental design (buildings and furniture) were rigid and inflexible (and unhealthy) then. Furthermore, in the old open plan model of the past, the teachers often taught independently (essentially, multiple classes being taught separately in one big space).

Little wonder the experiment did not last long, and schools quickly reverted to the single cell model (what Stephen Heppell calls ‘cell, bell, hell’). People like Heppell have, however, long questioned this conventional approach to schooling and higher education (and, indeed, we teach what we know). Surprisingly, however, apart from the likes of Heppell, who at least has a background in education, it has been left to non-educators to force the pace of change. For example, Prakash Nair, an architect, claimed that the ‘classroom is obsolete’,   and the firm he represents, Fielding Nair International, has a robust international profile in the area of educational design.

Since around 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Education has increasingly committed to building schools that reflect advances in school environmental design, beginning with such schools as Albany Senior High SchoolOrmiston Senior College and Stonefields Primary. Several more have followed, and the pace of building (both new and refurbished) flexible learning areas has increased dramatically across the country.

Despite its capital investment in this building programme, the Ministry of Education provides little support or direction with regard to pedagogy and classroom practice, apart from providing several case studies on its website. The Ministry prefers to leave decisions about the use of these learning spaces to individual schools to decide. Given this lack of direction, and the increasing pace of change in New Zealand schools, the School of Education at the university where I work, which has an explicit ‘futures focus’, agreed to pilot a number of new papers this year in its undergraduate Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) primary and early childhood programmes. These papers attempt to emulate the pedagogy (both classroom practice and teacher thinking about practice) encouraged and enabled by the new learning environments. The pilots are premised on the view that the altered space alone does not bring about these changes; that individual teachers must grapple practically and theoretically with the possibilities (and challenges) afforded by these spaces; that those teaching these papers (ie the lecturers) must attempt to model the evolving and emerging pedagogy, reflecting openly with each other and the students along the way.

While both physical refurbishment and new building investment was out of the question for the School of Education or the university, it was within budgetary possibilities to refurnish an existing large, rectangular space (measuring about 135 sq. m). The underlying thinking was that this change alone would begin to alter the mind-sets and attitudes of those taking and teaching the papers. Further underpinning this notion is the advance in the development of educational furniture that emphasises flexibility (creating pedagogical variety) and that contributes to student health and well-being. For instance, furniture design expert, Paul Cornell advocated on behalf of ‘user-centered’ furniture design that addresses comfort, health and safety, that is usable, has psychological appeal and is functional. He claimed (somewhat controversially):

In the knowledge economy, where learning is not only continuous but also more informal and serendipitous, anything that makes the experience more positive will also increase learning…furniture is more than a place to sit; it can be a strategic asset. (p. 42)

As anyone familiar with educational bureaucracy will attest, the wheels grind slowly, thus the capital expenditure grant won by the School was allocated too late to purchase and install the furniture prior to the start of the new semester. Three weeks into the semester, the students went away on teaching experience, but on their return, the new furniture was in place.

In my personal experience, I noted the following reactions:

  • A more relaxed learning atmosphere, and by the second class since the new furniture was in place, an atmosphere of productive discussion;
  • From a teaching perspective, an emphatic denial of the ‘teacher-at-the-front’, stand and deliver, or unitary focal point;
  • A dramatic increase in spatial volume, once the large, cumbersome tables and chairs that previously stood in the space had been removed;
  • Unsurprisingly, some complaints from colleagues not teaching the pilot papers, yet still having to use the room (which is used widely). I would expect this reaction from people of my generation, accustomed as we are to decades of convention;
  • Surprisingly, complaints from some students (in and beyond the pilot papers) who insist that their university fees purchase for them the right to a monologic, transmission-style learning experience, in which they are seated at fixed desks and chairs, while listening to one teacher, in the front. I did not expect this reaction from people in their twenties and thirties.

Meantime, I and my two hard-working and deeply-supportive colleagues with whom I share one of the pilot papers (the other is the responsibility of three of our Early Childhood Education colleagues), are experiencing a pedagogical life different than the one we have grown accustomed to over many decades of teaching. We share long collaborative meetings in which we attempt to map out an uncertain journey with few clear markers on the way. I realise some of our students may read this piece, and perhaps be troubled by this confession. They too, have grown accustomed to teachers who are meant to know their subject intimately, and to have the scope and sequence of teaching off-pat. We do not—at least not yet. We three openly point out to our students (ours, not mine or yours) when we have floundered, when we have become excited, or when we are uncertain. Time will yet be the judge of the inherent value of what we are attempting, or it may judge that we have merely been pushed under the wheel of the neoliberal steamroller, with its discourse of knowledge economy and lifelong learning. To repeat a cliché, however—rather have tried and failed, than not tried at all.

School funding – An issue of social justice

Last week, a somewhat surprising announcement suggested the current method whereby New Zealand state schools are funded is in for a major overhaul. This system has revolved around the concept of ‘decile funding’. Effectively, based on certain socio-economic measures (such as employment status of parents, number of people living in a household, and real estate values of the neighbourhood) schools are allocated a ‘decile’ grading or ranking. Decile One schools are located in disadvantaged areas or areas of low socio-economic status, while Decile Ten schools are typically located in areas where real estate values are high, parents are in employment and homes are not overcrowded.

The funding rationale is quite straight-forward and strives for equity, with low decile schools receiving proportionally higher rates of funding than higher decile schools, whose parents are better positioned to top up the school’s government funding. And while this idea is sound in concept, it has developed some significant flaws: for example, in the context of the promotion of a competitive ethos by various neoliberal education policies (such as school zoning and self-managed schools), the decile ranking has become a proxy for achievement. In other words, high decile schools are considered to be ‘better’ schools able to produce greater success in national examinations or attainment of National Standards; while low decile schools are assumed to be struggling schools characterised by dysfunctional behaviour and image.

In a bizarre twist, the decile system has become part of the marketing furniture in the hands of real estate agents. Nothing sells a house like being in a ‘grammar zone’ with nearby high decile schools (for example). The decile system is not related to the quality of teachers or the quality of educational provision at any given school, yet many families living in proximity to a lower decile school will avoid the school, and endeavour to enrol their children in more distant, but higher decile, schools.

This funding system, though apparently equitable, fails for several reasons, including the points above, but also because it fails to recognise nuances. A good case in point was the secondary school at which I worked for many years. As a Catholic, state-integrated school, it was able to draw students from outside the neighbourhood. In the particular historical trajectory of this school, once based in a neighbourhood increasingly populated by migrant Pacific island families, it evolved from being a mainly European boys’ school to one that was a mainly Pacific Island boys’ school. In the 1990s, the area became gradually gentrified, the working poor moved out of the area, and an increasing number of the students bussed in. The school demographic did not change, but the material ‘value’ of the area was greatly enhanced. Thus, while the school continued to draw on the working poor, the local real estate values skewed the decile ranking, so that what ought to have been a Decile One school (because its students were from poor homes) was in fact a Decile Three school, consequently attracting a lower level of funding.

So, this system does require overhaul, and perhaps the government should be applauded for reviewing this funding formula. Some of the changes it considers, however, are not unproblematic. For instance, it is suggested that funding be tied to individual students within a school who come from homes dependent on benefit; or from homes with a history of incarceration; or from homes with a child abuse history; or from homes where the mother has no formal qualification. Inevitably, questions are raised concerning the possible stigmatisation of students, and the question of data gathering.

Are teachers and schools going to be burdened with gathering this information? The government is claiming its Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI), which links data from a long list of government agencies including corrections, health, education and the tax department, will be doing the work. That may be so, but it seems a long stretch of a generous imagination to believe that schools (ie teachers and administrators) won’t be responsible for increased accountability and measurement tasks.

Being a critically reflective teacher: A Freirean perspective

For those who work in Southern Hemisphere universities, Semester 1 is just beginning now, so I will soon meet some keen (hopefully!) students who are a third of the way into their 3-year Bachelor of Education programme. This may be a good time to briefly reflect then, some of what the great critical educator, Paulo Freire had to say about what it is to be a teacher.

Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) drew particular attention to the teacher, and some of the qualities and attributes Freire believed teachers, educators and thinkers of education ought to aspire to.

Freire was committed to the idea of teaching as a political activity and the idea that teaching is an ethical activity. Freire’s claim is important to uphold when teachers are increasingly seen as mere functionaries of the reformist, neoliberal state.

Freire held a controversial position on the development of critical consciousness. There are, however, two ways the idea of critical consciousness applies to teachers and teaching: first, teachers should be initiating their students into the process of developing criticality, and second, teachers have a responsibility to both themselves and their profession to develop as critically reflective practitioners.

Freire regarded teachers to have chosen to make a difference to the world, and believed the work of teaching professionals to be intrinsically valuable, calling on teachers to dignify teaching. These commitments require actions, however, some of which may be discomforting to some teachers.

Not all teachers (especially beginning ones) will realise that policy directly influences their professional lives. Being aware of, and challenging, the role of policy reveals teaching to be a political activity. Policies too often are a knee-jerk response to perceived failures of the education system to deliver a return on taxpayer investment. Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom (1998) revealed his concern with the impact of the “scourge of neoliberalism” (p. 22) on teachers’ thought and practice. This fatalistic ideology places enormous emphasis on the accumulation of grades through continuous assessment, and encourages teachers to see the world as a given, discouraging theorising of its underlying causes and tensions, giving preference instead to data manipulation as an explanatory tool. The promise of a hopeful education that develops a love of society and consequently, egalitarian tendencies, is no more than a vain hope under these policy agendas.

Freire argued that educators ought to recognise that their role is more influential than merely teaching content—their role includes the moral formation of learners, which cannot be separated from teaching content. Teaching is people-centred, and the relationships that develop in an educative context are complex. Therefore, teaching, Freire would argue, is an ethical activity, and at its heart is consistency between the actions and words of teachers. Thus, Freire accentuated teachers’ actions over their words (actions speak louder than words).

The ethical teacher listens, rather than speaks. This focus on listening over speaking does not silence the teacher’s voice, but allows the student voice that is struggling to make meaning and sense of knowledge. To create the climate in which this student voice can be heard requires a spirit of humility on the part of the teacher, although this does not imply the submission of the teacher. By being an active listener, however, the teacher models appropriate behaviour for students to follow in their relations with teachers.

Teaching is not a technical matter, but a task richly ethical, yet radically uncertain. This state of uncertainty was captured by one of Freire’s well-known notions, that humans are never complete, thus teachers are in a state of ever–becoming.

In his acclaimed Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/1996),  Freire rejected ‘banking education’ in favour of ‘problem-posing education’, a rejection he reiterated in Pedagogy of Freedom. Transmission style teaching was thus rejected in favour of dialogical education that would develop a critical disposition. The life experience and prior knowledge of students are a text in the development of critical understanding. Problem-posing teachers will seek ways to bridge existing knowledge with students’ knowledge, to ensure their students cross over to critical curiosity and consciousness.

Students require teachers who assume responsibility for promoting and developing critical thinking. If students are to think critically, they must think about something. Specifically this will be the knowledge of the curriculum and the knowledge of the students. It is important then that teachers must see themselves, and be seen, as authorities in their field of expertise, but not seek to be elitists or authoritarians.

Critical teachers commit themselves to transformative change. Therefore, Freire clearly intended that teachers be open to change and new ideas, through critical reflection. This reflective activity will support teachers to be consistent and coherent. Critical reflection on practice is thus central to Freire’s theory. When teachers think critically about their present practice, their future practice will benefit, and they develop their theoretical understanding of their own purpose as educators. Through a process of reflection, self-reflective teachers theorise their practice, then try out their emerging theories as they gear their classrooms so that students can bridge the gap to critical curiosity.

As self-critical learners, and problem-posing educators, teachers research their students as if they were themselves ‘texts’. Teachers seek to understand their students much as a reader seeks to understand a text. Critical reflection on practice is morally informed and committed to transformative action. A focus on the relationship between theory and practice by teachers as part of their daily routine helps to challenge the technical and instrumental rationality pervading education in the 21st century.

Freire’s simple humility and respect for the dignity of others, and his driving passion for the attainment of a just world in the face of a global orientation that emphasises greed, self-aggrandisement and individual attainment over social cohesion, serve as an object lesson to all educators, and a model for all teachers to emulate.