Reflexions on Week 3 – Students’ Voices
My first thoughts are around collectivism, and equality. Years ago, when I first came to Northern College, I empowered some individuals so well through my teaching that they went out into the big wide world and significantly oppressed others. It took me years to realise that what was missing was collectivism: that sense of shared social responsibility, of looking out for one another, for #standbyme. In adult learning, in the UK, we have rightly focused on differentiation (however inexpertly), on embedding diversity, on enabling every student* to be present as themselves. The danger of this individualism is that the collective is forgotten, that one student’s ‘needs’ will cut across those of another and that the most needy either become marginalised or draw energy and attention from others who may have quieter or unidentified ‘needs’. The relationship has traditionally been between teacher and individual student, with student to student relationships dumbed down into ‘buddying’ (for me that folksy term can sound patronising). The – unspoken, unacknowledged – assumption is that the collective hides and maybe even oppresses the individual (visions of Maoist China); I don’t believe that’s true.
There’s something massive in here for me about self-responsibility, about agency. It is right that the organisation (in class, embodied in the teacher) meets the needs of the individual student. But what does that student give back in this exchange? How do they take responsibility a) to meet their own needs and b) to meet the needs of others? Even the word ‘needs’ is irritating me here, with its connotation of dependency. What if we replaced it with ‘rights’? We are culturally conditioned to expect that, along with ‘rights’ comes ‘responsibility’…ah, now we’re back on a more even keel. An empowerment model of teaching means that students become more able to make things happen for themselves (that’s what I mean by ‘agency’). A shift in language away from the dependency word of ‘need’ and towards a powerfully mutual interpretation of ‘rights’ would take us a long way in education.
Equality is all about rights and I am concerned about the erosion of equality in education, which goes hand-in-hand with the loss of an honest agenda. I appreciate that legislation is all about drawing lines but equality is about more than the protected characteristics (though it’s right that they need additional protection). It’s also about relationships and communication, about how we speak to one another. Where equality isn’t present, there cannot be respect. (As I write I’m realising more than ever the truth of Nancy Kline’s assertion that all ten components must be in place for a Thinking Environment to begin).
I get that where the teacher is marking the student’s work there is inequality, though I don’t accept that assessment has to cause as much inequality as it does – the issue is what we see as assessment and maybe that’s a different blog post, but I really do want to come back to the thinking Dave Cormier has sparked in me about a sort of collective dishonesty around assessment (‘Emperor’s New Clothes’). If I am honest about that, and not disingenuous, can we still be equal as thinkers? I think so.
I may have more experience than some of my students, though not always. On PTLLS I have taught unqualified teachers who have been practising their craft for 20 years or more. What’s been different about my position to theirs is that I will almost certainly have spent more time contemplating pedagogy than they have, because it’s my job and passion to do that. Whatever I learned, or could learn from them, or they learn, or unlearn, we are equal as thinkers.
To take another view, in today’s risk-averse, organisationally obedient culture, the Student Voice is a terrifying concept for beleaguered teachers: some carrot, lots of stick, where individual students can (sometimes unthinkingly) play out their frustrations, hiding behind ‘sticking it to The Man’ (“it’s not you, Louise”) without thinking that The Man is going to turn round privately afterwards and stick it to the teacher. Could you imagine an organisation that would put up a public ‘Appreciation’ whiteboard for teachers to write what they wanted about students, without punishment or sanction? No? And rightly so. But the Student Voice, anonymously cloaked, can be as bullying as the apocryphal chalk-throwing teacher (on reflection, this should say ‘in an environment where everyone, except The Man at the very top, feels disempowered).
When we are present as ourselves, as equal thinkers together, we have the chance to co-create knowledge (where knowledge is defined more broadly than the dates of battles, where it includes nuance, perspective and challenge). Here, the teacher is skilled as faciliatator, enabler, catalyst and critical friend. The student is skilled as learner, enabler, catalyst – and also, critical friend. Tell me, do we have that in the Community of Praxis? Can we have it – ever – as part of an accredited learning framework? What more do we need to do, to make that possible and to fundamentally change what adult education is?
*I do really struggle with the term ‘learner’. It’s steeped for me in assumptions of ‘tragic life story’, of deficit, of ‘them’. Perhaps this notion of the deficit model will remain with me in Week 4.
Other thoughts from the week were, as ever, fascinating. One of the most powerful outcomes of the #TDReflex14’s sister project, The Diversity Programme, was the presence of faith (and non-belief) diversity, a missing element in the socialist hegemony of Northern College’s history. Over in the blogging group, Adrian powerfully compared two approaches to a straightforward task, drawing out thoughtful learning around how the teacher can help reflexivity and the emergence of the student’s own voice, as opposed to the indoctrination approach. Reflexive pedagogy provides spaces where students can tell their own stories and use them to make sense of the world, to reflect and act in genuinely transformational praxis. As Ojaih said,
“The people I work with can create their own answers to what’s right for them, if I give them space and time.”
Across the platforms we talked about unexpected voices. It seemed as though the week was full of these, or maybe we were just tuning in? Maybe, attuned to the week’s theme, we gave that space and time more generously and were repaid. Certainly, when people were ‘just saying words’ I noticed that keenly, this week.
And what about the voices we don’t hear…still? Where are the ‘lurkers’ (horrible word) in this community. Not peering through the windows, I hope, but here in the room with us, waiting until they have something wonderful to say, until they speak. And then we’ll all listen.
Week 3 – Students’ Voices 12th – 18th May
How can we empower our students to find their voice? How can we create the conditions in which people think for themselves and are able to challenge and support one another’s freshest, finest thinking? How can we enable students to be present as themselves, even when that makes the learning a bit messy? How can we help the ‘Student Voice’ to have some clout? And how can we evidence transformational learning within organisations set up to support obedience?
Please join us wherever you feel most comfortable for this week’s discussions: Yammer, Facebook, Twitter or via the #TDReflex14 Writing Room over on Google+ Check out Your Unguided Tour of #TDReflex14 to find out how to get started. And have a great thinking week 🙂