ranty pants (part#2): the conversation

The ‘Faculty’ I call home has a deep sense of personality disorder, incorporating both the ‘Arts’ and ‘Creative Arts’ as well as ‘Education’. There are very few channels of communication between these mammoths, so it’s difficult to know exactly where and with whom I should be having the conversation, but there is a worrying similarity between the concerns with ‘higher’ education I outlined in the previous post, and the series of issues that are emerging during H’s first year (prep) of primary school.

It’s H’s second term and the symptoms are showing, we know the cause of the malady (funding tied to assessment and performance), but there are ancillary complications connected to continual assessment practices that are disturbing at a fundamentally pedagogical level. Her first homework, learning about ‘community’, is connected to a performative task in the classroom in which she is required to ‘present’ on a the topic. The presentation will be assessed for her capacity to maintain eye-contact, speak clearly and confidently, not fidget, and to recall her wrote-learned lines. It is a task designed to prepare her for a life of meeting targets, metricised indexed performances and strict behavioural control over her own body. Beyond the fact that most academics would have a hard time doing well on those assessment criteria, and would certainly never expect it our students, it’s the first glimpse of the future. Even if this is foundational work, its emphasis and focus is a disturbing sign of things to come.

It was a long hard decision to choose a school for H, and it really was a privilege to have so many options to choose from. The density of population means Melbourne’s state schools come in all shapes and sizes. We ended up choosing a nice little school with a diverse mix of students, after being sold by the Principal’s ability to remember student names and actual smiles on teachers faces (don’t underestimate these as real performance indicators). Any principal who came across as an administrator was clear warning bell.

Growing up as a child of a teacher, a principal, the physical buildings of schools revealed a double life to me, and seeing those empty corridors and classrooms, getting to know teachers as people over the dinner table, watching my sibling become a primary school teacher and seeing the work both my parents put into improving the standards, environments and communities of the schools they worked in, I know of the tremendous potential that is grated and ground against the centralisation, standardisation, assessment based learning, continuous assessment practices, and so on.

The school requires much of the parent, calling on them to be involved in fundraising, attending events, and being part of the ‘life’ of their child’s school but there is a disconnect, dividing what the child does at the school and what it is the school does for the child in their learning, and the relationship between the parent and the child’s learning. We are not involved in the curriculum, aside from a monitoring role, our physical labour is appreciated but our involvement in the curriculum is not.

I always new that school was not the place H would ‘learn’, I know she can acquire all the skills and abilities of a ‘good’ student, but it’s not an environment that supports the individual in becoming a critical, capable, independent and collaborative learner. Primary school, it seems, is the place to become socialised, to acquire the rules and behaviours of an appropriate citizen, but I didn’t realise how much more panoptic the primary experience has become since I, and my parents went to school. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the enforcement of Victorian cursive writing, H will be conditioned by hours of repetitive tasks to turn her p’s into a runic elvish script. Home schooling is very much an option that is still on the table (I love seeing the look on teachers faces when I say that).

Yes, there are ways to manipulate the system and some teachers are very good at this, but most teachers are kept occupied in the short term, concerned with scores and tests and assessments, they are too busy operating the system to have the conversation about the system. There is also a tremendous amount of ego involved in teaching, so much of the teacher’s identity is produced through their environments, their classrooms, and now their assessments. Having constant power and control over the bodies of small people has important consequences, and it’s a lot like being a prison guard. None of this is intended as disrespectful, teaching (and being a prison guard) is a very difficult job, made worse by the complicated conditions and expectations of their professional lives, which ends up absorbing a great deal of their personal lives, like a pitcher plant, and so there is very little room left for the conversation about what education and learning is, and what it could be.

I’ll admit to being a fan of Ken Robinson, not because he has the answers (he doesn’t) or because he is mildly funny, but because he asks the right questions, and points to an industrialised model of education developed during the industrial revolution’s response to the Enlightenment principles of universal education that simply fails to live up to the potential of the child’s capacity to be creative, to produce knowledge in collaboration and to learn. He’s having a conversation, but who with? Us.

It seems we are having a conversation, of sorts, about religion in schools, that has dragged me back to using Facebook, so I will finish up this rant with a summary next time.

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