Getting back to teaching as a subversive activity

Today, the 11th January, 2016, marks a return to work for many in New Zealand. Summer has barely begun (indeed the best is to come), yet the shift back into routine cannot be delayed any longer. Schools and teachers will make a more gradual awakening, coming fully to life by about the beginning of February. Prospective student teachers will have an even slower start, with their first semester commencing by the beginning of March, although the ones who are choosing the pressure-cooker, compressed Master level postgraduate teaching qualification make their start somewhat earlier (and this notion of a ‘postgraduate profession’ probably deserves its own blog posting sometime in the future).

Despite enjoyable summer days at the beach still to come, some of these students will no doubt be turning their thoughts in anticipation to the year ahead, as indeed, should be the academics who will guide them along the way. On that note, I thought about some of the exciting ideas I was introduced to in my first year of Education study, and amongst these were the ideas presented by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, in their 1969 book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  These authors have been credited with popularising inquiry learning.

Suppose (suggested Postman & Weingartner), all the syllabi and curricula and textbooks in the schools disappeared…In other words, suppose that the most common material impeding innovation in the schools simply did not exist. Then suppose that you decided to turn this ‘catastrophe’ into an opportunity to increase the relevance of the schools…

[Now instead] suppose that you decide to have the entire ‘curriculum’ consist of questions. These questions would have to be worth seeking answers to not only from your point of view, but more importantly, from the point of view of the students…add the requirement that the questions must help the students to develop and internalize concepts that will help them to survive in the rapidly changing world of the present and the future. (1969, p. 65).

There are some remarkable features in this portion just quoted. The first is that it is the opening of a chapter entitled, ‘what’s worth knowing?’, in itself a critical question any educator (or prospective educator) ought to ask. Or, a question any critical educator should ask! And the answer is likely to have much to do with the final sentence of the quote above. That is a second remarkable feature of the quoted material, because it was written nearly half a century back. The insight suggested by Postman and Weingartner seems lost, however, on the army of commentators, experts and ‘modern educators’ who speak of educating and learning for the ’21st century’, using precisely the same words, yet in an evangelistic manner suggesting that they have just invented this ‘great new idea’.

A further figure of importance who suggested ideas that cohere well with those already suggested, was Paulo Freire. In particular, his notion of ‘problem posing education‘ is one that sits well with the idea of turning the questions students have into the ‘text’ of the class. In their quest for relevant knowledge, educators will do well to honour the insights of their predecessors, as well as to apply critical standards to their own work in the present.

A final thought then: a third remarkable feature of the quoted material from Postman and Weingartner is their warning that standards, texts and curricula impede innovation in the classroom. This is a warning that is often repeated, yet teachers and schools work in the midst of neoliberal  accountability demands and a public climate that projects teachers as part of the problem leaving them with few options, it seems. While this seems a dire note on which to conclude, as a new year begins to unfold, critical educators must continue to seek opportunities to teach subversively, if any of their dreams of a transformative education are to be realised.


The accidental meeting

University of Copenhagen

During 2015, I have enjoyed the privilege of taking a 6-month sabbatical from my university job. The focus of my sabbatical work has been my current project, which is to provide a thorough, critical, analysis of the development of flexible learning environments, which are all the rage in New Zealand schools. Sometimes referred to as ‘Modern Learning Environments’ (MLE) (the term first used by the New Zealand Ministry of Education) and as ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ (ILE) (the term the Ministry now prefers), these new building designs provide flexible, transparent and permeable spaces to encourage innovative teaching and learning. In turn, these innovative practices are geared to the provision of educational experiences more in keeping with the 21st century, than the ‘industrial age’ model of schooling is able to provide.

Although most of my sabbatical time was spent working from my desk at home, I did spend a fruitful three weeks in Europe. The first of these three weeks was in Copenhagen, where I met two associates,  Eva Bertelsen (University of Copenhagen) and Lisa Rosén Rasmussen (Aarhus University). My friends kindly introduced me to several individuals and accompanied me to visit several schools and university campuses in Copenhagen.

One of these visits was to a newly modelled building at the University of Copenhagen, where we met the architect (‘Thomas’, for anonymity) who managed and executed the design and implementation of the new build. Amongst the innovations related to the new design was the location of the lecturers’ offices (partly glass-walled) within the library, located on the visible second level. Part of the thinking here, Thomas explained to Eva and I, was to

create the possibility of what we call the accidental meeting between lecturers and students…[If a student was]…sitting there reading and a lecturer is returning from their office and [the lecturer]…see[s] [the student] reading whatever book and say, ‘oh this book is actually quite nice, but in comparison with that one it would be brilliant’. So it’s like six seconds of instruction that would make a connection and confirmation of being there…

The photograph attached to this blog fails to capture the dramatic visual effect of the building and the area described by Thomas, but its ironies are what interest me here. The glass, and its implied transparency, are reminiscent of Foucault’s notion of surveillance. In a neoliberal educational climate that favours accountability regimes (checking-up; checking-on; evaluating performance), marketisation (competing for students) and public choice (‘the student experience’, as my university calls it), the following from Thomas has a chilling ring:

As I said [earlier] when you came to work here you didn’t know where the people were teaching or they were preparing or concentrating or they were out travelling but you can’t share anything because you had no idea what’s happening. Present, not present, no idea. We [the planning team] discussed [creating] a culture being present. It was quite important to have that, we want to be there, we want to participate and share both culture and knowledge. (Emphasis added).

So the physical vision of lecturers at work, in their offices, or of walking between the shelves towards their offices, may be more about ensuring that they can be seen to be doing their work, than about providing opportunities for them to be conducting quality research, for example, or developing exciting programmes of learning. It may only incidentally be  motivated, as Thomas suggested, by the desire to create the chance of ‘an accidental meeting’ of students and lecturers.

Taking even this motivation at face value however, what does it mean in a lecturer’s life to accidentally meet a student for ‘six seconds’? Imagine any chance encounter – there is little likelihood it will ever only be for six seconds. Call it a minute – imagine this multiplied say half a dozen times each day. That is half an hour each week (seeing as we’re counting). Back to the neoliberal demand for accountability and the intensification of work flowing from these demands – academics and teachers are required to do more and more with less and less. Yet here is an opportunity (in the name of transparent learning, and making knowledge public) to add further stress to the work of the lecturers in this building, by the further erosion of their time resulting from ‘the accidental meeting’.

The visually pleasing, more comfortable and more environmentally-friendly buildings increasingly appearing on the educational landscape offer many teaching and learning opportunities, but may also come at a cost, namely that associated with an underlying intent to promote an agenda less concerned with aesthetics, environment, personal comfort or education, and more concerned with promoting an economic vision.

Measuring social skills

In the current century-indeed, the current decade-the concern of many educators is with the assessment of ‘soft skills’ or competencies, beyond the usual academic skills. Many national curriculum statements and documents (such as The New Zealand Curriculum) are now as likely to refer to some kind of soft skill or competency development as they are to academic development.

Schools (and universities) have developed a range of methods to assess academic progress. Measuring though, whether a student or child is learning ‘self-management’ or is an effective participator, or has developed empathy, is a quite different issue. Many of these skills are regarded as important for their potential to add to a school-leavers’s job adult performance.

It may thus be of some interest to those who are calling for greater emphasis on assessing competencies that Andreas Schleicher, the  education director of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has made an important announcement commenting on this very issue. The much-vaunted (and much-despised by many educators)  PISA (Programme International Student Assessment) testing regime will now assess collaborative problem-solving.

Whether this new slant on PISA testing is going to have any benefit to schools, teachers or students in OECD states remains to be seen. Given, however, the track record of the OECD global governance and the mania surrounding its league tables, it may soon be noted that some states ‘could do better’ at collaborating, leading to fresh rounds of anxious navel-gazing.

To read more detail, see