Thursday, 3 August 2017

Posthuman curriculum

"Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that". (Braidotti, 2013, p. 1)

How often do we consider what we mean by 'human' or 'humanity', terms so often used but rarely analysed or questioned? We assume a consensus about what a human is - an entity based on common shared identities, with certain relationships to the environment and the globe - explained for us via philosophies that position 'man' at the top of the chain. But the notion of what is human has also been exclusive and binding - denying the 'other' that does not fit the ideal, holding on a pedestal the 'Vitruian man' of Da Vinci's drawing - perfect in its geometry, white, male, able-bodied, European, well-off, probably heterosexual (although Da Vinci was reputably gay).

Post-humanism asks us to change this paradigm, to 'de-centre' the white, male human and to look at other possibilities for 'humanity'. Technological change (we are all mediated by technology in some way), the need for a new politics, and looming environmental imperatives require us to look differently and creatively at the world; and in turn to examine ethical considerations, as we “investigate perspectives we usually leave aside” (Ferrando, 2012).

So if we agree that it is time to rethink what it means to be human (and of course, we may not) - what might this mean for education? There's no doubt that conditions for teachers have worsened considerably in recent years; rising workloads, increased casualization, low pay, intrusive performance monitoring and interventionism - all causing increased stress and widespread mental health problems. In Further Education, increasing emphasis on ‘skills’ and ‘employability’ has reduced students to marketable commodities. Creative subjects have seen a decline in recruitment; Art and Design at AS Level has seen a 33.4% drop in candidates (National Society for Education in Art and Design, 2016) and further education pathways are being streamlined around English, maths and employment-focused subjects. The value of lifelong learning is minimised, as the focus has shifted to apprenticeships and 16-19 provision; we are very far away from the Workers' Educational Association's founder R.H. Tawney’s call for 'education as an end in itself'.

Global concepts of inequality and environmental predicament are impossible to address alone, and can feel overwhelming; especially for educators already oppressed and marginalised by the systems within which they work. Posthuman thinking, however, calls us to move beyond 'places of pain', towards an ‘ethics of affirmation’ that ‘functions through the transformation of negative into positive passions’. (Braidotti, 2013).

So as a starter for ten, these are my ideas for a posthuman curriculum.  It is education that:

1. Rethinks what it means to be human
(and what that means for our students)

Reflective Practice - Hannah Cambé
If we de-centre the Enlightenment idea of the 'perfect' human, we start to truly promote the voices of of the oppressed. We should also consider non-human agents; animals of course, also but 'things' and the influence of objects, places and space on our capacities to learn and interact. Jane Bennett's 'Vital Matter' talks of 'Thing-Power': ...'the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle'. What 'things' (spaces, places, objects) have been animated in our educational systems and why?  What impact does this have on teaching and learning?

2.  Decolonises the curriculum...

...and embraces the living knowledge of students, 'to challenge received wisdom, to ask questions about society and to generate the insight needed to change the world' (Sabaratnam, 2017).

NUS Black Students' film 'Why is my curriculum white?' and Dr Meera Sabaratnam's blog, 'Decolonising SOAS' are great starting points here. We need to examine the 'genealogy' of the subjects we teach (whatever these may be) - while we strive to promote equality and diversity in our teaching, this is often piecemeal, shallow, or restricted to special events, such as Black History Month. A forensic examination of our curriculum will likely reveal deep biases, prevalent in reading lists (take a look at teacher education) or the way in which traditional cultural practices have been appropriated (Beauty Therapy).

Subject knowledge and expertise is important, but it is also vital to move from a search for absolute truth to an acceptance of complexity and uncertainty.

3. Rejects subject silos

And perhaps turns towards a Finnish model which uses “phenomenon-based” teaching; moving away from “subjects” and towards inter-disciplinary topics.

Collective - David Ball
A posthuman curriculum also embraces art as a ‘thing that does.’ Clover and Stalker (2007) suggest that “… art-based adult education and learning provokes radical and creative visions of an alternative world; ‘as if’ things could be otherwise – a hopeful goal much required in these neo-liberal times.” (2007:2).   Including art across the curriculum can help '[break] open a dimension inaccessible to other experience,'  allowing us to re-imagine the world and our future in it. (I have written previously about the use of art in a teacher education curriculum here).

4. Accepts that we are mediated by technology...

In every sense. Our bodies are changed by medicines, genetic modifications, adaptations to help us hear and see, prosthetic limbs, smartphones soon to be implants... If we truly acknowledge these things, how might education be different?

We can also embrace technological interventions in our teaching, of course (whilst not allowing tech to be the tail that wags the pedagogical dog).  Considering digital resilience, digital criticality and importantly digital responsibility (the ethics and impact of digital waste) are vital considerations.

5. Acts in rhizomatic spaces, outside formal structures
Bluebells @aandpbikephoto

Posthumanism emphasises the role of connections - 'constellations' -, and the construction of new knowledge through rhizomatic assemblages’, in present times often mediated by technology. Educators are already acting in ‘rhizomatic’ ways; coming together on social media to take action, and forming grassroots organisations such as @tutorvoices or @ukFEchat. Like the rhizomatic bluebells, such assemblages pop up in unexpected places; they are persistent and form complex invisible networks of roots and nodes.  For educators, they are often the connections that sustain and revitalise us.  Who influences your rhizome?  And how do your students interact during and after learning has taken place in order to form their own?  How can we work with these networks to extend our learning into global spaces, or as a means of activism?

6. Employs pedagogies of belonging and togetherness.

Placing an emphasis on pro-social teaching inventions such as philosophical inquiry, critical pedagogy and restorative practice could result in a bottom-up move for change and allow teachers to gain agency while waiting for the slow wheel of politics to turn.  

These ideas are a mixture of the easily realizable and the more fantastic; and much further thinking is needed to refine and build on them.  Which are the most important and why?  And what can we do practically and rhizomatically right now, to begin to shift our ideas of what it means to be human in the twenty first century and beyond?

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter - a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.
Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press
Clover, D., & Stalker, J. (Eds.). (2007). The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Adult Education and Community Cultural Leadership. Leicester, UK: NIACE.
Ferrando, F. (2012). Towards a Posthumanist Methodology. A Statement. In Narrating Posthumanism. Frame, 25.1, May 2012, Utrecht University, Utrecht, 9-18.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

From resilience to activism - Art and Reflective Practice

' learning provokes radical and creative visions of an alternative world; ‘as if’ things could be otherwise – a hopeful goal much required in these neo-liberal times.' 

If life as a teacher is hard, life as a trainee teacher is even harder. For my in-service and pre-service Cert Ed/PGCE trainees, navigating new identities, battling behaviour issues, balancing work and study and the daily grind of planning and marking is challenging to say the least. Recent research suggests that more than half of teachers in HE are on insecure, impermanent contracts (The Guardian, 2016). In addition to this, 84% of teachers who undertook the Education Health Survey (2015) reported suffering from a mental health problem within the past two years. I would say that around one quarter of my students have had to deal with significant levels of anxiety, stress or depression within the past year.

In the midst of this, trainee teachers have to produce significant amounts of reflective practice to evidence a mindful approach to teaching and learning improvement. Often this takes the form of a journal or diary, which can often be repetitive, restrictive and boring to complete. For a while I have wanted to explore whether the use of art in reflective practice presents an opportunity for teachers to reflect in a different way.  Can expression and creativity in reflective practice help teachers to break free from an oppressive and harmful education system, even if that freedom is fleeting? Can art provide ‘freedom of spirit’ (Gordimer, 1984) and can this influence trainees' own resilience? What might be the impact of creating art or poetry on the teachers themselves and the wider world?

Not everyone considers themselves an artist, although I would argue that every single human being has the capacity to be creative in some way. For teachers this creative impulse often shows up through a love of their specialist subject. In observations, talking through a concept or exciting idea I will often catch them in a state of 'flow' where the rest of the world disappears for a while.  Given the decline in the study of creative subjects (Art and Design at AS Level, for example has seen a 33.4% drop in candidates this year) my first idea was to use art as a stimulus for initial reflective work.

In Barnsley, we are lucky enough to have the Cooper Gallery on our doorstep; the exciting Picasso lino-cuts exhibition is on until the end of April. The challenge for my students was to visit the gallery and find a piece of art that spoke to them, in some way, of their journey as a teacher.


The resulting reflections are worthy of much more than I will say here, but proved to be a pathway to a much deeper level of self-awareness and understanding.  Connections were surprising, and emotional for some.  Yet for us all, the process was affirmative and enlightening; as Clover and Stalker (2007) point out Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience’.  

Some trainees are going on to create their own poems, stories and pieces of art to illustrate their journeys as teachers. This is perhaps the next stage in the use of art for reflective practice; moving from stimulus to creative experience.  Where this is happening it is proving therapeutic for many; a form of escapism, exploration or distraction, with a tangible and often beautiful outcome.  We plan to move our art from the private to public sphere, in order to share with the world our painful, emergent and embodied experiences of 'becoming teacher'.  This posthuman idea of affirmative action for social change (Braidotti, 2013) has proved to be an exciting and unexpected by-product of our new approach to reflective practice.

Art is clearly a vehicle for trainee teachers to explore emerging thoughts and subjectivities, rejecting fixed identities and allowing scope for ‘becoming’ teacher, in a posthuman sense. It seems clear that there is scope within a heavily academic teacher-training qualification to push the boundaries of the curriculum, allowing creative expression to give teachers a form of almost meditative escape, which may in turn allow scope for greater creativity and innovation in the students’ own classrooms.  In a time where FE teachers need resilience and community more than ever, encouragement of this kind of practice seems paramount.

This research will be presented in full at the 'Beyond Words: Privileging the unspoken in arts and communities in a posthuman world' Conference, University of Plymouth this March.

Trainees' own works of reflective art will be exhibited at Northern College this summer in an exhibition entitled 'Becoming Teacher'. Join us for the full education conference here.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Clover, D., & Stalker, J. (Eds.). (2007). The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Adult Education and Community Cultural Leadership. Leicester, UK: NIACE.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. London: Random House.
Gordimer, N. (1984). The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility. Available: Last accessed 22th Nov 2016.