Teacher reflections on policy

This post is a part of a series being written for my EDUC6352 online masters students.

Educational policy always sits at the intersection of the past, present and future, with the latter often expressed in policy texts as an imagined desired future” (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p. xi).

settings

Much of teachers work is shaped by policy – yet do we know how teachers feel about this aspect of their work? Currently in Australia there is a push to professionalise teaching – and yet much of the current policy  has removed agency from teachers (the last ten years have seen the removal of curriculum control, increased standarised testing, and the introduction of a prescriptive model of teacher professional standards). At the same time there is a growing criticism of how many children are missing out on the benefits of education. (See the video below, for an example). Some of this criticism comes with a sense that teachers are to blame and that managing the teachers, via policy settings, will create a better future and a better education system.

Jon Andrews, a teacher in Queensland has questioned the future being created by current policy trends:

What I wonder is how teachers come to perceive the future. In an educational context, how is it that we develop an attitude towards an unknown prospective event? Our work is heartfelt, requires significant energy, thinking and criticality and so we like to know that all we do has purpose. However, do we pause to consider who is influencing the purpose? Who or what is driving our endeavours, and to what end? Are our voices, ideas and professional experiences heard and playing an integral role in shaping educational futures, irrespective of external forces? To feel critically engaged in educational directions is to feel some sense of agency. To feel we are contributing to a contrived future is disempowering, despite being surrounded by the rhetoric of optimism and solutions. The professionalization agenda feels like it is becoming a brand, pushed along by brands promising confidence and security.

Jon shares this quote: “Optimism can become a trap when it encourages investment in promises about the benefits of education that cannot be realized for all.” (Sellar, 2016). This optimism can prevent real engagement with the deeper questions about why not all are able to realise education’s benefits.

Jon has also reflected upon teachers’ emotions, drawing on the work of Willard Waller, who in 1932 examined the nature of schools as micro communities. Jon notes:

Waller was quick to point out that policy-makers and politicians rarely grasped the fundamental nature of schools as they operated and steered education at a distance and spent little time directly listening with attentiveness and empathy to the range of voices of emotions of those in the job, doing the job.

Because schools (according to Waller, although also true today) are ‘small societies’ run by employees with a strong feeling of vulnerability to pressures, both from within and without, we strive for control, efficiency and demonstrable progress to appeal to onlookers with an array of expectations. He noted that when under constant threat politically, economically and socially, schools assume a garrison mentality and give birth to other potent emotions, most notably guilt.

It is hard to create good policy when it is born of the assumption that that schools need fixing. It is hard to implement such policy when it causes teachers to be defensive. It is also hard to create good policy for schools when the policy is based on incoherent notions. Deborah Netolicky, a teacher and school leader from Western Australia, critiques the future that is being imagined via the push for ’21st century skills’ :

the education world seems obsessed about framing our thinking around what the future holds, and guestimations of its possibilities. The term ‘21st century skills’ is a symptom of our future-obsession, as schools and governments scramble to prepare their students for … duhm duhm daaaahhhhmmm … The Future. In the late 20th century those words were a way of saying educators were futures thinking, but almost 20 years into the 21st century, I wonder about the usefulness of the phrase. How about just talking about the knowledge, skills, and capabilities students need now and into the future? Does ’21st century skills’ mean anything or is it a meaningless phrase interpreted in different ways by different people? When will we start talking about 22nd century skills?

There is no doubt that the education could be improved and that some children miss out. But solutions to fix this will not come from policy that positions teachers as deficit, and students as commodities. Perhaps to think about the future, we need to turn to the past and be reminded that education is about preparing children for the task for renewing the world.

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it, and by the same token save it from that ruin which except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” (Hannah Arendt, 1961)

References:

Arendt, H. (1961) The Crisis in Education. In H. Arendt (ed.) Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: The Viking Press

Rizvi, F., & Lingard, B. (2010). Globalizing education policy. New York: Routledge.

Sellar, S. (2016). Leaving the future behind, Research in Education, 96, 12-18 doi: 10.1177/0034523716664602

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