Sunday, 28 August 2016

Pro-social education in posthuman times

I originally wrote this piece after Brexit and the murder of Jo Cox.  Having recently returned from the 'Posthuman Glossary ' summer school at Utrecht University, I am more convinced than ever of the need to re-examine our educational worlds, structures, challenges and conflicts through an affirmative lens.  We need to accept that regardless of how frustrated we feel by the systems we are in (be it our own organisation, educational system or even more widely, advanced capitalism) we do not sit outside of it, we are part of it.   We are, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, 'agents of the very forces we try to resist.'  If we agree that this is the case (and some of course may not!), what might we do differently?  How can we continue to resist, but also sustain ourselves - working with traditional forms of power, but necessarily seeking out new possibilities, for a world moving rapidly beyond the 'human'?


Canals of Utrecht
'Think, we must' (from Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf) was the recurring phrase of the summer school, and the emphasis was on collective and collaborative reimaginings of the world we find ourselves in.  Not for or to our students, but with them, be it through pedagogical relationships which may be rhizomatic and go beyond the classroom walls, creative, art-based processes that allow students the scope to think 'what if?,' and co-constructed curricula that fill in the missing voices of past and allow us to think about the present.  The pro-social models of democratic education I wrote about back in June may be helpful here too in a practical sense.  I would love to know of any other ideas you have for moving us forward in a spirit of resistance and affirmation.


Since the death of Jo Cox last week, the phrase I keep returning to in my mind is 'educate out hate'; and it is present here today in this important New York Times piece by Henry Giroux, who writes about the 'violence of forgetting':

'..education is fundamental to democracy. No democratic society can survive without a formative culture which includes but is not limited to schools capable of producing citizens who are critical, self-reflexive, knowledgeable and willing to make moral judgements and act in a socially inclusive and responsible way. This is contrary to the forms of education that reduce learning to an instrumental logic that too often and too easily can be perverted to violent ends.'

As educators, what can we do to help create the kind of citizens that Giroux is talking about? We are currently caught in a cleft stick of education where we have to tick so many boxes that there is no room left for critical thinking and dialogue. We are even counter-terrorism surveillance officers, as we look out for individuals at risk of 'radicalisation' under the Prevent agenda (as an aside, it must be time now to shift the focus of this to the far-right, if we must have the agenda at all).   Yet my challenge here is to suggest that there IS room for democratic education, but that we need to look, not at content, but at the processes by which we are teaching.  Shoe-horning in a stand-alone piece about equality may be important and worthwhile, but democracy and social justice need to cut through the very heart of what we do.  The cult of 'embedding' needs shifting to a movement of 'promotion' where we model behaviour, enable thinking to happen, and become more overt about what we are doing to create those transformative spaces of belonging and community.  This is possible wherever we gather people together for the process of learning.  And of course it is not limited to classrooms, but also our social and work spaces.

In our lessons now the individual is king (or queen).  Connecting with individual identity and experience, and differentiating effectively is vital of course, but in doing this we can overlook the social settings in which our students find themselves.  Too often all dialogue goes only from an individual to a teacher, and back again.   We need to use pro-social interventions that encourage students to talk to each other, to learn about each other's lives and experiences, to agree, disagree, and to celebrate difference.  Tools such as philosophical inquiries can help; or simply a restorative circle or thinking council where interaction and understanding of difference are the order of the day.

For me, the Thinking Enviroment processes of Kline's work are a great place to start.  An easy introduction is to start every class with a thinking round, where students take it in turns to answer a positive question.  This is based on the principle that 'no-one has arrived in a room until they have spoken'; and even with a class of 20 plus, this doesn't have to take more than ten minutes.  But you do have to enforce the rules of listening without interruption, paying absolute attention (keeping your eyes on the person who is speaking) and allowing students to speak for as long as they need to.  It can take time for students to get used to this idea; we sadly live in a world that values extroversion and allows (or even encourages) people to talk over one another. For many, the chance to have their voice will be a new and perhaps difficult experience.  Persist with it though, and you will teach people to really listen to each other - and what better 'functional skill' than that?  (If, at this point you are concerned about what Ofsted might make of this approach, first ask yourself - what are you assuming, that makes you think they wouldn't get it?*)

So, how do you teach for social justice, for transformation, for a better world?**  It may depend on your teaching context, but there will be many ways in which we all instigate positive change; not through what is dictated in the curriculum but by means of the processes we use.   Perhaps like my student Jason you greet each student that enters your classroom with a handshake.  Maybe, like my colleague Karol, you use restorative practice; regular circles and dialogues to resolve conflict or build relationships.  There will be many things that you do, so please share ideas and techniques and make critical education an explicit part of your practice. By doing this we can begin to reclaim our pedagogy, and start to build a world that we and our students would really like to live in.




*I was inspected by Ofsted in two separate inspections last month.  The Thinking Environment processes used in both classes were viewed as an excellent means of initial assessment and for promoting British values of democracy and respect.

**To focus our minds, the kind of questions to ask ourselves could include:
- What am I doing to foster a sense of belonging and community in my classes?
-  How am I preparing my students to play a positive part in a globalised and diverse world?
- How am I enabling my students to express their views and respect the views of others?
- How am I helping students to gain 'cultural competence' and how secure is my own knowledge of people who are culturally different from myself?









Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Educate out hate


I'm in the midst of a #brexit fuelled angst, caught between the highs of marking inspirational, transformative Cert Ed/PGCE work, the lows of despair about the death of Jo Cox and the image of Nigel Farage's face.  It isn't a great place to be.  When Jo was murdered last week I felt the rising of a deep anger and a desperation to continue doing whatever I can (little though it may be) to educate out the kind of hatred that kills an innocent woman; a woman of my age who worked so hard for the ward in which I lived for seven years.

'Educate out hate' is the phrase I keep returning to.  It is present here today in this important New York Times piece by Henry Giroux, who writes about the 'violence of forgetting':

'..education is fundamental to democracy. No democratic society can survive without a formative culture which includes but is not limited to schools capable of producing citizens who are critical, self-reflexive, knowledgeable and willing to make moral judgements and act in a socially inclusive and responsible way. This is contrary to the forms of education that reduce learning to an instrumental logic that too often and too easily can be perverted to violent ends.'

As educators, what can we do to help create the kind of citizens that Giroux is talking about? We are currently caught in a cleft stick of education where we have to tick so many boxes that there is no room left for critical thinking and dialogue. We are even counter-terrorism surveillance officers, as we look out for individuals at risk of 'radicalisation' under the Prevent agenda (as an aside, it must be time now to shift the focus of this to the far-right, if we must have the agenda at all).   Yet my challenge here is to suggest that there IS room for democratic education, but that we need to look, not at content, but at the processes by which we are teaching.  Shoe-horning in a stand-alone piece about equality may be important and worthwhile, but democracy and social justice need to cut through the very heart of what we do.  The cult of 'embedding' needs shifting to a movement of 'promotion' where we model behaviour, enable thinking to happen, and become more overt about what we are doing to create those transformative spaces of belonging and community.  This is possible wherever we gather people together for the process of learning.  And of course it is not limited to classrooms, but also our social and work spaces.

In our lessons now the individual is king (or queen).  Connecting with individual identity and experience, and differentiating effectively is vital of course, but in doing this we can overlook the social settings in which our students find themselves.  Too often all dialogue goes only from an individual to a teacher, and back again.   We need to use pro-social interventions that encourage students to talk to each other, to learn about each other's lives and experiences, to agree, disagree, and to celebrate difference.  Tools such as philosophical inquiries can help; or simply a restorative circle or thinking council where interaction and understanding of difference are the order of the day.

For me, the Thinking Enviroment processes of Kline's work are a great place to start.  An easy introduction is to start every class with a thinking round, where students take it in turns to answer a positive question.  This is based on the principle that 'no-one has arrived in a room until they have spoken'; and even with a class of 20 plus, this doesn't have to take more than ten minutes.  But you do have to enforce the rules of listening without interruption, paying absolute attention (keeping your eyes on the person who is speaking) and allowing students to speak for as long as they need to.  It can take time for students to get used to this idea; we sadly live in a world that values extroversion and allows (or even encourages) people to talk over one another. For many, the chance to have their voice will be a new and perhaps difficult experience.  Persist with it though, and you will teach people to really listen to each other - and what better 'functional skill' than that?  (If, at this point you are concerned about what Ofsted might make of this approach, first ask yourself - what are you assuming, that makes you think they wouldn't get it?*)

So, how do you teach for social justice, for transformation, for a better world?**  It may depend on your teaching context, but there will be many ways in which we all instigate positive change; not through what is dictated in the curriculum but by means of the processes we use.   Perhaps like my student Jason you greet each student that enters your classroom with a handshake.  Maybe, like my colleague Karol, you use restorative practice; regular circles and dialogues to resolve conflict or build relationships.  There will be many things that you do, so please share ideas and techniques and make critical education an explicit part of your practice. By doing this we can begin to reclaim our pedagogy, and start to build a world that we and our students would really like to live in.




*I was inspected by Ofsted in two separate inspections last month.  The Thinking Environment processes used in both classes were viewed as an excellent means of initial assessment and for promoting British values of democracy and respect.

**To focus our minds, the kind of questions to ask ourselves could include:
- What am I doing to foster a sense of belonging and community in my classes?
-  How am I preparing my students to play a positive part in a globalised and diverse world?
- How am I enabling my students to express their views and respect the views of others?
- How am I helping students to gain 'cultural competence' and how secure is my own knowledge of people who are culturally different from myself?










Saturday, 14 May 2016

Gift of words - A poem for my students


It's always true that I learn much more from my students than they learn from me.  This poem is for the Cert Ed/PGCE classes of 2016, Barnsley and Northern Colleges, with thanks and love.

Alternative notes from a teaching observation



You're a juggler
A tight-rope walker
A spinner of plates -
In this three-ring circus
Where the show goes on

I observe in the wings
my view obscured
by the cloak you wear
and a blurred lens
that is not my own

It's a spectacle of faith, hope and circumstance
Of fear, joy and love
The best show on earth
I could watch a million times over

And I will wait and return
Because I know
That when the cloak falls from your shoulders
There will be no words left to write

Because the colours will be so dazzling
I'll have to turn my face away.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Prevent and critical pedagogy


As an educator who aims to work affirmatively and openly, Prevent has been a challenge. I've started writing about the topic on a number of occasions and given up (perhaps the very word 'Prevent' itself has had this effect?)  My views on the agenda will be clear to anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads my blogs, but I have been desperately trying to take a stance that opens up rather than closes down debate - that 'problematises' it in the Freirian sense; knowing also that the legal duty applies to me as an educator and public servant. 

Hearing and exploring diverse and oppositional views is vital. In a world of lesson planning that currently advocates 'Haynes manual' approaches, speedy bite-size and chunked sessions that tick all the Ofsted boxes, there is little room for debate and discussion (unless scheduled in).  In this world we do not like uncertainty either; yet Prevent itself is an area for fear, confusion and misunderstanding, where people are scared to open up and spaces are no longer safe. The 'fundamental British values' appear sound yet can also be divisive.  I use Twitter* to surround myself as much as possible with diversity - of opinion, culture, race and thinking and am following with interest the stance taken by University of Warwick and the NUT; organisations wishing to distance themselves from the agenda as much as possible.   My dilemma as a teacher educator has been whether to subvert, resist, or facilitate debate, but my biggest feeling at the moment is one of responsibility for my own students  who will be going out into the world needing clarity and having had the chance to think all of this through.

It is always worth going back to the source when discussing policies and regulations, so as a reminder here is a link to the updated Prevent duty:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445977/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__England_Wales_V2-Interactive.pdf


Of course, if you teach you will no doubt have already been trained in Prevent; perhaps going on the government's WRAP training course (Workshop Raising Awareness of Prevent), or working through one of the many e-learning courses (mandatory, in many organisations).  These courses provide basic information about the policy and 'fundamental British values', as defined, not by British people, in actual fact, but by the government.  What these courses do not allow much room for is any discussion of the policy or issues it raises.  I felt it was imperative that I allowed room for this within my own teaching, but struggled for a while with how to do this, and what kind of session to run.  I was also extremely wary of imposing my own values and views but wanted to allow discussion through principles of critical pedagogy.**

Enter community philosophy.

This practice is essentially an enquiry-based process that explores and unpicks language; connects ideas and philosophical concepts; challenges hegemonic practice and assumptions; and collaboratively builds new knowledge.  Much of this is based around the Freirian concept of 'conscientization'; the process of developing a critical awareness of one's social reality through reflection and action.. I love many things about CP but perhaps the best thing in my view is that individuals and groups create their own questions. Sessions usually start with the introduction of a stimulus; a photo, newspaper article, poem, activity - anything really. In responding to the stimulus, groups come up with their own question which they then discuss.

What's philosophical about this? Well, discussion tends to centre around concepts - so that a question around 'community' may lead to debate around society, identity, respect, even love.  There is something very empowering about deconstructing these terms we hear bandied about and lazily used in everyday language ('shirkers', anyone?!). Try exploring and questioning the concept of 'health' or 'radical' to see that interpretations are culturally-informed and complex.  Community philosophy is a positive activity however, so doesn't leave a group feeling threatened by this exploration - as well as deconstructing concepts, groups build new concepts with real meaning and value. Sessions end with a period of reflection, to discuss and take action - where do we go next?

You can see the relevance of this tool for exploring a topic like Prevent; and so I am in the process of running a number of Community Philosophy sessions that allow trainee teachers and teacher educators to enquire into the topic and create their own questions.  So far these questions have been important and far-reaching, including:

- How can we foster a sense of belonging in our classrooms?
- Is Prevent racist?
- What does it mean, to be 'radical'?

Philosophical enquiries always end with a call to action, and for many of my students these have included:

 - re-reading and analysing the original Government guidance
- following diverse voices on Twitter and joining campaigns
- learning more about other cultures and religions
- researching 'non-violent communication'*** as means of facilitating respectful debate
- running a philosophical enquiry on British Values with their own classes
- doing Identity and values work with their own groups
- using Restorative Practice approaches to build classroom communities.

I'm not sure that teachers (and their students) have safe spaces in the way that they did before, but I'm convinced that using community philosophy for critical thinking can help to give educators room to explore their own views and work towards positive action.  And perhaps it is time to reclaim the word 'radical'; as Paulo Freire said:

"The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side."





*Useful Twitter accounts to follow:
@rapclassroom (Darren Chetty)
@writersofcolour (Media Diversified)
@Preventwatch
@schoolequality
@IRR_news
@DiLeed (Di Leedham)
@totallywired77 (Tait Coles)
#educationnotsurveillance

** For more on critical pedagogy, take a look at this article by Tait Coles
http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/feb/25/critical-pedagogy-schools-students-challenge

*** Rosenberg, M.B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Birdsong, after the flood

Reed Bunting

I walk the causeway
that bisects the hollowed bowl
so long a crater
now pitted scar turned wetland.

Before me the cast is now of thousands
Of goldeneye, gadwall, lapwing and grebe
Playing interlinked roles
And excavating damp earth for food the floods failed to wash away

The booms are bitterns.
Drills the wheeze of peewit
Beneath, the low thrum of wings
And rising above, the song of the teal in a minor key

I turn and trace the half-light
Until the antropocene dream
Fades like the sun behind the dragline
That nature reclaimed
For the roosts of owls.



Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Storyjumpers: 7 'Not really arrows'

This is part 7 of a story jumping activity for Digital Writing Month. Bruno started it, followed by Kevin, Maha, Sarah, Ron and Tanya.  Sign up in the Google Doc if you'd like to join in.

As Kevin bit into the cookie, he suddenly felt reality return and the mists in his mind began to clear.  He looked around.  What the hell was he doing in the garden, and why was he eating a random biscuit that he had found on the ground beside him?  He staggered to his feet and headed back inside, only to collapse again in a heap on the sofa.

The events of the past few days had clearly been too much. He was over-tired, hungry and clearly exhausted by his constant sax playing. He was no longer sure about his relationship with Sandy; how on earth had she become so violent?  And this was now layered with confusion about his feelings for Sarah.  She seemed to be the only person who understood his constant need to fix things.  It was about time, he pondered, that he fixed his emotional situation; maybe he should try applying those practical skills to his own personal life.

To distract himself, he took another look at Bruno's map which was lying crumpled on the floor.  He hesitated as he picked it up; the last thing he needed was another out-of-body experience.  As it was, he was starting to feel a little paranoid; he had almost got used to that feeling after realising that he was under constant surveillance from his neighbour, but this was different.  It was as if people around the globe were listening in to his private thoughts and reading his mind as they unfolded. He felt a strange sense that this map would predict his future in some way, and that every event and happening was already out of his control.

Kevin put the map down again without looking at it and walked into the kitchen.  He needed to eat and sleep, and shake off these strange ideas before he really lost the plot.  But the compulsion to look at the map was almost unbearable, as if time was running out. Surely a little peek wouldn't hurt?  He poured a glass of water and studied it from a distance.  Even in the dim light he could make out a number of arrows.   This time, he decided, he would do it properly.  Opening his tool-box he took out a magnifying glass, some plastic gloves, tracing paper and a pencil.  He rested the map on the table directly under the anglepoise lamp and put on his glasses.  Safe within the familiar trappings of his usual 'fix-it' mode, he started to feel calmer and in control.  How weird could this be?

The letters at the top of the map were clear; whatever had smudged the letters hadn't reached this part. It was a date; 30 November, 2015. Only a few weeks away! Kevin wondered if this could account for his deep-rooted sense of urgency.  He hurriedly moved down the map to the part which was worn and water-marked, and much harder to make out.  Perhaps the arrows would provide a clue.

But as soon as the magnifying glass was in place he realised his mistake.  He'd been looking at the map upside down and as a result had completely misinterpreted the symbols.  What he thought were arrows were in fact something entirely different, and much more sinister.  They were...

[to be continued... by Ron @ronsamul)




Saturday, 31 October 2015

Me, mapped

"We are often asked to tell our stories according to someone else’s standards of what counts, but we are not necessarily asked about what matters to us, what we value, even if it can’t be measured."

So begins the first challenge for Digital Writing Month (#digiwrimo).  It's a 'what if' question that asks us to introduce ourselves, not using the standard and limiting CV format but in whatever creative means takes our fancy.

CVs are indeed limited; they lay out our lives under standard headings, in sans serif font (naturally); they condense the most exciting of happenings down to one line and MUST BE ON TWO SIDES OF A4 ONLY.  And as for the hobbies and interests section... if you say something remotely interesting you are probably lying and if you are honest you are possibly the dullest person in the history of the universe.

I've been looking at maps as an alternative way of expressing and exploring personal journeys and tracking my own thinking.  In her book, The Post-Human, Rosi Braidotti uses the term cartography to describe the process of examining where we are, now:

'A cartography maps what it means to live at this moment in time.  It is a theoretically based and politically informed reading of the present.'

Cartographies, according to Braidotti, examine power locations, are non-linear in time; they de-familiarise and challenge thinking. Braidotti associates them with critical theory, but I like the idea of applying the principles to lives too; a map can show complexity, contours, colour and be multi-dimensional in a way that CVs cannot.  A map will show the mountains we have climbed, the rough patches we've overcome, the scary bit where there be dragons... it will be coloured by the stuff that's influenced us, show where the pain has been but allow us to move on through it, not making that aspect any more or less important than what else appears alongside it.
  
This blog for me, is my cartography.  I doubt it is what Braidotti intended, but nevertheless I've realised I'm applying similar principles.  There's theory which I use to inform my thinking; I unsettle myself through the use of unfamiliar writing styles and methods; there is politics running through the heart of it all. Most of all it is value-based; so that everything I write comes from the examined and explored ethical measures that form my basis for action.

Some parts are sketchy and hard to navigate - a back of a fag packet job (often literally).  Others are more detailed, filled in with coloured inks, pored over and written out a few times.  Braidotti often talks about the need to 'get over ourselves' so I try (usually) to infuse them with the hope and affirmation that she talks about as a post-human way of being in the world.

My blog isn't a CV; it is subjective, biased, and rough around the edges, but it tells you much more than those two sides of A4 ever could.

I might still add a hobbies and interests section though.


  • Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.