A New Professionalism: what should a teacher look like in 2020?

Written for the 2016 Subject Specialist Conference at The University of Huddersfield School of Education and Professional Development.  Co-presented session with Charlie Deane.

What should a teacher look like in 2020 SC 2016 – Lou’s slides from #hudconf2016

Update:  Thanks to everyone contributing to the debate at #hudconf2016 and beyond, on Twitter, Yammer, Facebook, at #HudCRES yesterday, and wherever else. This is the rhizome in action:  affirmative, collaborative, provocative 🙂 

The UK education system is horrible.  That’s my starting point and my challenge by the end of this blog is to get us all to a more affirmative place.  Frankly, if I thought I’d be battling this same system in 2020 I wouldn’t be writing this now, I’d be working on a career change.  But I am hopeful.

I believe a perfect storm is on the horizon for education.  It’s coming for education as whole, but I’m concerned here and now with our contexts of further, adult and community

Beautiful image of storm clouds
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

education and of what is currently referred to as ‘the skills sector’.    The ideologically-placed sticking plasters are beginning to fray.  It’s time for change. What we have is unsustainable.

Let me begin by saying where I think we are. Outside a few elite institutions, state-funded education is paved with dumbed-down qualifications, low expectations and attempts to enforce obedience to The Man. Since the school-leaving age was raised to 18 we have hundreds of thousands of young people, barely educated in any meaningful way at school, forced into a sausage-factory of not-quite-fit-for-purpose qualifications, an abattoir for any remaining aspirations they may have; a system that nevertheless makes money for the ever-growing institutions they attend – a success, in capitalist terms, maintained as such by endless goalpost-shifting.  Until now.

If those young people somehow find their way through this hope-curdling morass, they have the privilege of getting into mortgage sized debt for a University education – or, like so many, they’ll fall off the rails of life and the lucky ones may end up getting educated in rehab, at Recovery College, via Probation or in prison, alongside their children at family centres, luckier ones through their trade union, even their workplace, or they’ll wash up where I work, at The Northern College.  That journey might take 40 years.  Along the way they could be forced to work for nothing in intern or traineeships, or for next to nothing on apprenticeships. Or they may get their education elsewhere and end up marching through Rotherham with the EDL, or getting on a plane for Syria. If I was still a Marxist I’d be describing the majority of our students as inhuman labour to feed the capitalist machine. But, sadly, I no longer believe in revolution.

Two things are happening as a consequence of this situation. The first is that I observe an accelerating tendency to ‘other’ students; treat them as lesser thinkers, even lesser beings. In adult education, students have arguably less in common with their tutors than they ever had. The second is that I observe a level of acceptance of the status quo which frightens me.

Let me be clear. Brave teachers begin hopeful careers in every workplace. I believe that every one of us in this room does our best to make sure each student has a meaningful

Gauguin Self-Portrait of his disembodied head
Paul Gauguin Self-Portrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

experience. But we are operating as disembodied individuals within a profession that has terminally low self-esteem. Anyone here read Secret Teacher in The Guardian?  Last weekend’s was one of the saddest I’ve seen…a teacher actively shutting down their networks, to ensure they kept a productive bubble around themselves so they could go on doing their job. I sympathise, and I get like that sometimes…but it’s exactly the wrong way to bring about change.

We need to organise. No-one will change this if we don’t change it ourselves, because they have too much invested in it staying the same.  Obviously it would be lovely if we could bring down the capitalist machine, but that might be a bit ‘big picture’ at this stage 🙂 In the meantime, remember the perfect storm is coming. Education now is making some money for some institutions – some money for some consultants! – but this is becoming unsustainable. The goalposts are inching off the pitch, they can’t be moved any further.

I was at the TechNorth conference the other week, packed with employers from the creative and digital industries; employers who want to take on willing, risk-taking, critical thinkers, not obedient qualbots. The response from Colleges was pretty cringeworthy, to be honest. “We don’t have the funding”, they said, “…the awarding bodies won’t let us.” Well I work for awarding bodies too and if you’re determined, you can certainly find your way to do good work round the edges.  I sat on that stage doing a facepalm (and I did have a little rant when it got to my turn). You may not have found your way into it yet, but I’m telling you there are a lot of people out there who are joining their energies to affirmatively create a different education.

What we have to do to make it happen is to be our best selves as educators. I don’t mean ‘best’ in Ofsted terms, I’m not interested in that (1). I mean professional, digital, switched onto our pedagogies and the transformational power of education. My message to you today is that if we teach differently, and if enough of us do that, then education will change. It needs courage and energy. It needs a different skills set. We will have to fight our own institutions and assumptions along the way.  And we will certainly have to work and think differently.  But it’s doable…it’s more than doable, it’s already happening.  We are the critical mass.

2020 demands a new professionalism from us:

Democratic Professionalism – Educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Four Cambodian dancers in solidarity
Royal Ballet of Cambodia Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

You’ll note I’m talking about organising from the middle. Education’s future relies on a collective, distributed leadership, a leadership of new ideas and thinking.  I’m certainly not leaving it to those fewer and fewer people who pop up everywhere, controlling things from the top to keep them just as they are. Teaching is leadership, teaching is research, teaching is social responsibility. The structures we work within don’t just happen to be that way, they are actively policed to keep us in our place and to keep our students in their place. I was very struck by something I saw in a TV thriller recently – anyone see The Night Manager?  The work of a senior civil servant was described as, “…preserving the status quo, whatever it takes.”  That is absolutely the case for education. Tait Coles, a hero of mine, wrote something profoundly important in The Guardian a couple of years back:

Education is produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender. Young people who enter the educational system and don’t conform to this vision are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their race, income or chromosomes.

We can dismantle these structures by stubbornly, affirmatively, refusing to buy into them, in any safe way that we can.  By subverting what we can.  Of course, it’s safer when we do this collectively; organising nationally through our trade union to resist the extremes of Prevent, for example, or working as a team to worm critical pedagogies into our curricula. Making time for the collegiate critical friendship of a Twitter chat or other social media space. Drinking from the well, as our students call it, when they return as graduates to our Community of Praxis. Read too, for inspiration, but not the boring stuff, not the old farts.  All dead white male psychologists can tell us is what dead white male psychologists think – and we already know that. Read bell hooks, Spinoza, Edward Said; read what excites you on Twitter (2), read what makes you cross and then talk to your networks about it.

Don’t put your faith in institutions, put it in each other. We have somehow acclimatised to the ‘fact’ that the world has to be about making a profit, that education is about the financial bottom line, but it’s institutions that demand that, not teachers and students. Question everything. Some of the images you see here are inspired by my involvement in a book

Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

called ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a book that has legs – 24 of them! – because the energy we generated there, writing collectively about democratic professionalism, has translated into Tutor Voices, a rhizomatic network of campaigns, projects and people, all fighting for education to survive and transformationally thrive into 2020 and beyond. Join us. Join us on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, over a cuppa, at a conference. But join us (we don’t cost anything :-)).


Dialogic Professionalism – Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Dialogic engagement, as described by Richard Sennett, is about equality and it’s about

A dancing Qajar Princess
Dancing Qajar Princess Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

exploring the middle ground, rather than defending binary positions. It’s about thinking critically and differently. Yes, we enter a power relation with a student when we mark their work, but we can be honest about that and still be equal as thinkers. I hear a tone, increasingly, when tutors talk about students (worse still when students are referred to as ‘learners’, but that could just be me). It’s an ‘othering’ tone. It’s a tone of oppression and inequality. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. That has to stop.

Our Community of Praxis approach involves all of us – theorists (dead or alive), students, tutors, graduates, critical friends – in co-creation of learning environments, on and off line. We curate and transfer “content” – the stuff that inspires us – discuss it, pull it apart. I no longer have to be that ‘false expert’ who is expected to know everything about stuff that bores me, like behaviourism, just because it’s on a reading list.  We seek out all the histories of our subject, as Trevor Gordon will exhort you to do tomorrow.  We defy the #whitecurriculum, systematically constructed to maintain the status quo that Tait Coles wrote about (3).

And we talk. We talk endlessly and we process and we create our own ways of being, our own ontologies as social purpose educators. We use processes such as the Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy and Restorative Practice, to ensure that we continue to engage in every one of those spaces as equal thinkers, whatever our identities, starting points and places of pain. When we are scrutinised by the powers that be – and I’ve been through that twice in the last two years and may well go through it again this year – we come out like shining stars.  Because they have stolen our words for their rhetoric, they can’t then claim that what we are doing is wrong. Our grades are the best, our behaviour superb, our widening-participation reach meaningful and enviable. This stuff works.

Digital Professionalism – Educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

The Frog Princess, dancing Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

And now we get to the crux of the matter. Not the philosophical crux, that’s our old Marxist friend, hegemony, us unthinkingly colluding in our own exploitation as our profession implodes around us.  This is the practical crux. The resistance right here right now to digital pedagogies. (I’m guessing that, by the way. I’d love you to prove me wrong). I am no longer apologetic about what I am going to say next. If you don’t go digital, you shouldn’t be teaching. And this is not about laptops in classrooms and state-of-the-art whiteboards. It’s not about lending iPads. It is about broadband reach and the digital divide, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about the latter which is really just about educator/institutional resistance.

#FELTAG spelt it out and others since have clarified and refined the message. Jisc are really getting into their pedagogical groove, promoting the digital and physical blended together, helping us “…see the digital as a set of spaces, not just a set of tools.” We can work with this! Instead of sitting sulking with folded arms, because you think you’ve been asked to do something ‘extra’, get over your ego and get down with your students in figuring out new ways of learning and being. Why? Because they are leaving you behind and you are doing them an ethically unacceptable disservice by under-skilling them for life and work, particularly in terms of keeping themselves safe and effective online (4).  And the bigger why? Read David Price‘s ‘Open’. Open education, open media, open research…this is how the world will transform.

These are the skills you need in 2020 – so you have four years to get them in place.

  1. ›Creating dialogic, restorative, philosophical Thinking Environments
  2. ›Growing digital Resilience, Creativity and Curation
  3. ›Participating in Open Education (research, journalism)
  4. ›Amplifying diverse voices, through Communities of Praxis
  5. ›Being a democratic, dialogic, digital Leader of ideas (whatever your place in the hierarchy)
  6. ›Dismantling the #whitecurriculum

›To paraphrase the Mental Health Leadership project I’ve been involved in recently, ‘Break the Rules’ (5) – affirmatively, this is not about whingeing – in any way you can, with the support of the rest of us out there. If you don’t buy into new ways of being, it’s not just that you’ll get left behind.  There won’t be anything left, for you to be left behind from.


(1) And I maintain that the main practical problem with Ofsted is the narrow way many senior managers interpret their requirements.  For the philosophical problem with Ofsted, see Finland.

(2) Check out the Twitter list at the end of @kaysoclearn’s thoughtful blog on PREVENT to bring diversity to your thinking.

(3) Much of the post-#hudconf16 debate has centred around #whitecurriculum and the dismantling of privilege – or rather the dismantling of denial of privilege.  It’s a painful process and the first step towards it is the hardest.  Trevor Gordon prefers the term #monoculturalcurriculum but I think that tries to hide from the pain and that’s impossible.  What do you think?

(4) See @helenbeetham’s work on Digital Wellbeing.

(5) Check out #Breaking_Rules



Welcome to Your Education

To a traveller in Gujarat, what is most striking is the level of hospitality which welcomes you in.  This finds its apogee in the concept of ‘Gujarati Snacks’, which caused us to have m…

Source: Welcome to Your Education

Breaking the Rules

Updated for Keynote to Barnsley College pre-service PGCE students and Certs 2014 at The Northern College 18.4.16  Please click through on the links for access to deeper research.

(If you read one thing after this, please make it The Centre for Mental Health’s ‘A Day in the LIfe‘ Report – and follow @markoneinfour on Twitter.

Slides accompanying this blog will be are here: Breaking the Rules April 2016

Link to an Adobe Voice recording will follow.

A troubled face, with the caption Welcome, Breaking the Rules Affirmative Mental Health Leadership, ELMAG 3 Mental Health. Also includes logos for Time for Change, The Education and Training Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute

This blog post reflects on our experience of the ‘Breaking the Rules’ affirmative mental health leadership project, funded by ELMAG, the Education and Training Foundation fund which makes possible so much brilliant work around leadership, always on a short timescale; an adrenaline-fuelled experience, a rollercoaster ride.  Inspired by the growing movement of neurodiversity, which tells us that mental ill-health and learning disabilities are not just not a deficit but an actual JOY to the WORLD, we put together a leadership programme called ‘Breaking the Rules’.  Note that, for us, leadership is something we all do, it’s not just the remote preserve of those who sit at the top of hierarchies.  We refer to it as ideas – or thought – leadership, an extension of democratic professionalism.

What was ‘Breaking the Rules’?  It blended a face-to-face Thinking Environment day with an online, reflexive programme; there were options for one-to-one coaching and leadership analysis work.  It gave the opportunity for current and potential leaders to affirmatively explore the leadership of mental wellbeing, with the support of leadership coaches. It absolutely rejected the othering of those who experience mental ill-health, who are often us (though we maybe dare not say so).  Mental health diversity is not a deficit, it is an actual thing and many of the people in the room with you are experiencing it right now, whether they are prepared to go public with it or not (I increasingly am and it’s proving to be a virtual spiral of liberation as others share their strategies too).  What’s more, mental ill-health can be a thing that is actually caused by the work we do, so maybe our ‘sector’ (whatever that means) has some responsibility here.


One of the unspoken ironies of adult and further education – whether sausage factory or social purpose – is the mental health cost to its staff.  The irony, of course, is that adult education, done properly, is one of the greatest contributors to improved mental wellbeing.  At places like the Exchange Recovery College Barnsley, transformational pedagogies are integral to the recovery process; staff are properly teacher trained and partnerships with local adult education providers nurtured.  And they are making a difference.

But if the staff themselves achieve these successes by pushing themselves to the max, limiting their own potential in the process, the net cost to education is tragic.  We are all in danger of forgetting that we have ‘mental health’ too; that we are all vulnerable (particularly under stress), and that users of mental health services make up only a proportion of the “1 in 4”.  We define diversity (in part) as “being present as yourself”.  At those times when your mental health is fragile, can you truly be yourself at work?

Pretty much everyone who works in adult, further and community education means well. Increasingly, in this world of pay freezes and zero hours, none of us do it for the money. We are likely to have invested in our own training, for a pay-off of doing rewarding work in precarious circumstances.  We arm ourselves daily against media slingshots and political A complicated Cubist paintingsneering.  We live with our profession being deregulated and downgraded from ‘education’ to ‘skills’. We find it impossible to meet anyone socially who doesn’t assume we work in a school. Somehow, in all of this melee, we raise families, maintain relationships, grieve and care for loved ones.

We’re fighting back but that takes it out of us too; added to the emotional labour of believing in people who don’t – yet – believe in themselves is the terrifying courage needed to challenge statuses quo. And we are likely ourselves to be people who don’t quite fit the mould of the ‘professional’, who are maybe developing our own cutting-edge definitions of professionalism. Many adult educators are people who benefited from adult learning ourselves and who are now pedagogical pioneers. We have ‘passion’*. We want to ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’.  We are good at what we do because we’ve been there.images-3

And so our own mental wellbeing gets eroded. The early starts…the late finishes.  The long (unpaid) ‘holidays’ so envied by our non-teaching friends packed to the gills with marking and the secretive checking of emails. Family members resentful, bank accounts in the red. Panicky organisations over-regulating, micro-managing, Ofsted-petrified.Traditional autonomy replaced with tick-boxy bureaucracy. Teaching observations. Paperwork. Loss of dignity and control, yet sort of publicly ignored at the same time**. Under this level of pressure, no wonder many of us become ‘mentally diverse’; life gets harder as we struggle to keep it all in balance and the vicious spiral begins.  As long as we are in a culture which sees mental diversity as something lacking, rather than something potentially creative, we risk being attached to a label that will haunt us endlessly.

And we know, of course, that even before considering the needs of the most marginalised in our society, such as refugees, that if in our individual identities we are diverse from the #whitecurriculum ‘norm’; if we are female, if we are black, if we are poor, if we have other ‘disabilities’,  we are likely to experience both more mental ill-health and less helpful support.  ‘A Day in the Life‘ makes that absolutely clear.

A commitment to diversity is increasingly – and healthily, wellbeingly – defined as people who can be present as themselves in any given situation. How true is that of you at work? An image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."How true is it of me? How does that fit in with ‘fitting in’, where there is an unspoken ideal of quiet reasonableness, of diligent and consistent graft, of neatness and order (oh yes, there is). Nancy Kline, founder of the Thinking Environment, points out that even in business (sold to us in adult ed as a hive of creativity and free-thinking), there is an ‘epidemic of obedience‘. It’s a measure of how institutionalised I am that, watching The Theory of Everything with my son over the holidays, I was mostly worried that Stephen Hawking would get the sack from Cambridge, but of course in that day and age, for someone of his background, brilliant awkwardness was almost de rigeur; his physical disability just took it to another level (Ian Walsh would argue that times have definitely changed).

The latest transformational leadership models focus on enabling the creativity of staff, affirming (more or less) measured risk taking, and the centrality of mistake-making to creativity. Nonetheless, many workplaces don’t feel like that and, despite the health-promoting paternalism of modern HR strategies, there’s a lot to be said for pro-actively taking hold of your own mental well-being before things get out of hand.

There may be a book you can take strength from – I’m reading Brené Brown’s research into shame at the moment, something that really resonates with me as kicking in when I’m under stress.  I am learning to be shame-resilient.  Therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) don’t work for everyone, but are certainly thought to do no harm in the case of mild to moderate Image of the sea with the caption 'Find what feels good'depression and/or anxiety – and you don’t need a referral from your GP to try a CBT course you’ve found on Groupon, or work through exercises from the web.  It may be that you have regular coaching, or get to work in a Thinking Environment, giving you space to develop the resilience not to dwell on stress or fear.  You might practice Mindfulness. (When I was 50, friends bought me twelve bottles of Prosecco and three of those Mindfulness colouring-books, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they viewed my life).  What all of these have in common is a sense of agency.  Work on what you can fix for yourself and don’t waste energy on what you can’t change.

You may already know what else works for you – fresh air, running, yoga, lots of sleep – but it’s possible you’re not doing it because if one thing is certain, it’s that the chemicals of stress take away our desire for wellbeing behaviours. What I want to say to you, with painful self-awareness, is that nobody will do it for you and no amount of work-based stress management training will replace you doing what’s good for YOU.

Organisations have plenty of processes for identifying and supporting mental ill-health, and some of these are even genuinely about staff wellbeing, but external forces are strong and the level of stress and struggle continues to ratchet up. We need to take up the reins ourselves, itself an empowering act.  As the hugely successful (by every measure) drag diva RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the  hell can you love somebody images-6else?” When we suffer (get fractious, forgetful, go off sick), our students suffer. Something has to change.

There are some brilliant resources on www.mhfe.org.uk to help you keep yourself safe and to help you teach this practice to others. And of course the legal and emotional safety net of belonging to a trade union should not be discounted. One of the horrible paradoxes of the employment landscape in adult and further education is that the most exploited of us – those on zero-hours or fixed-term contracts – are the least likely to be unionised and consequently have the least protection from the darker side of working life.

As I’ve written elsewhere recently, we are all seeking the nirvana of creativity, but not the extreme mental stress that comes with it, because we don’t know how to handle the fall-out from that. The fact is that our entire sector, with its model of heroic leadership and its mimicry of corporate business, continues to ‘other’ and deficit mental health diversity; acceptable in ‘learners’ and pathologised amongst its own staff. Until we have leaders who get it, who are prepared to shatter #whitecurriculum thinking with their own experiences of being black/female/disabled/young/mentally diverse, we will continue to marginalise and exclude those brilliant minds amongst our own workforce, who are just the people to lead us to a brighter future.

Can I get an ‘A-MEN’?


Interested in Breaking the Rules?  Although the ELMAG Pilot has finished, we hope to continue to offer the course.  Please contact Sally Betts sallybetts@ideasforlearning.co.uk 

*Pah-pah-pah-pah-passion (as David Bowie might not have sung).  Certainly a double-edged sword.  In adult education we pretend it’s a good thing and we certainly mine it heavily.  But it’s not passion that gets you to places of influence; or if it does, it’s likely to be the thing that topples you.

**My heart is palpitating as I write this.  And I am one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of a permanent contract in an organisation which has tried for 38 years to live the good values it espouses.

Three Dimensions of Professionalism

In fairy tales, threes are powerful.  Three wishes, three bears, three guardians of the dark…these are narratives that form part of human mythology, the stories by which people have navigated their lives since time immemorial.

imagesAs with the Twelve Dancing Princesses*, fairy tales help us break out of repressed thinking and look at old concepts in new ways.  So it is with the professionalism of teachers.  All over the UK right now, educators on Cert Ed/PGCE programmes will be writing essays about professionalism; drawing on the same old canon**, failing to find any common ground between what they are writing and what they are actually experiencing.

What’s it like to be in a profession, that people popularly don’t know exists?  Meeting someone for the first time, isn’t the assumption always that you teach kids in schools? I’ve been a community development worker (“Eh?”) and a public health professional (*hides glass of wine*) so I know all about that sense of being a professional impostor.

So it’s time for us to claim it back.  No matter who you read on professionalism, you’ll bang up against the word ‘autonomy’ at some point, so let’s repossess that and redefine our own professionalism, for ourselves***.  Here are some new definitions, as a starter for three.

Democratic Professionalism – Educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Dialogic Professionalism – Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Digital Professionalism – Educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

imgresTeaching is leadership, teaching is research, teaching is social responsibility.  Over the next few days, in January 2016, free-thinking, independently minded educators are going to be mulling over these new dimensions of their professional responsibility.  We’ll then open up the debate to our communities of praxis, to figure out what all of this means.  Join us on social media, using the hashtag #FEITE



*Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015).  Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.  London.  Trentham Books.

**Plenty of #whitecurriculum in the recommended reading for teacher ed, still.

***Like the sound of that?  Join Tutor Voices tutorvoices@gmail.com


What is Critical Education?

Everyone knows criticality is a good thing, right? 

The concept of criticality, or critical thinking, critical education, critical pedagogy (depending on your perspective) is rarely spoken of as a bad thing.  Who would admit that students shouldn’t be encouraged to think for themselves?  In a desensitised society, where the unspeakable has begun to be heard, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before some Government minister (of any hue (1)) dares say this out loud, but no-one has done so yet.

Sometimes, in education, in more honest spaces, critical thinking isn’t spoken of at all; in many other places it appears in relation to levels of assessment as another stick to beat teachers with (“Not enough criticality!”)  It’s a Dancing Princesses thing, an Anti-Hero thing, a Tutor Voices thing – the empirical certainty that critical education has world-changing properties. As with anything in this representational world, where descriptions of a thing become twisted to suit every agenda until the images-1sight of the thing is lost, getting the point across the whole adult education sector is not easy.  Many people don’t expect to hear real honesty in this day and age. They don’t want to hear that education equals change.

Change (or transformation) is at the heart of critical education, it is its heart.  Whether you call it critical pedagogy, social purpose (as we at Northern College and our WEA colleagues do), or, as Rebecca Maxted terms it (2), social justice, doesn’t matter.  It pares back to the same Freirean (3) place:  students and tutors working as equals to question their world as a prelude to direct and affirmative political action.  This – inevitably – terrifies those who hold conventional power, whether that’s ‘the patriarchy’, Nicky Morgan or your line manager.

The smoke and mirrors surrounding questions of how to ‘do’ critical education is evidence of how obfuscatingly scared many people are, because actually it’s quite straightforward (4).  Despite that, I’m writing about critical pedagogy for the first time today because I’ve needed the cojones of Rebecca Maxted to inspire me.  I’ve allowed myself to over-complicate what is simple.  I’ve listened to ‘The Man’.

In practice, critical pedagogy looks like an energising exchange between teacher and students, who are operating as equal thinkers (not sure about that? check your privilege and the Learning for Democracy proposals (5)). It might be structured as a Thinking Environment or Community Philosophy Inquiry, or it could be a discussion between curious thinkers.  Maxted’s research found that “attitude, personality and values” (2014, p.43) were more important than technique, in both tutor and student; plus the gumption to go off-piste or off-site.  An important principle is that no-one is neutral – not teacher, not student and certainly not policy maker – at the same time critical pedagogy is not what I witnessed in the bad old days of my teaching career, which was essentially political indoctrination.  It can’t more powerfully be defined than as thinking for yourself, from the foundation of your own values, with a healthy dash of humility thrown in.  Yes, we sometimes can be wrong.

The formation of critical questions leads to a lot of head-scratching; after all, professional coaches have earned fortunes from the creation of questioning frameworks.  This I did work out a little while ago…just asking ‘Why?’ (repeatedly) or, sometimes, “What are you assuming?” will do the trick; given practice and the generative, non-interrupting attention of other thinkers, your brain will work all that out for itself.

Rebecca Maxted uses a curious metaphor, that of the art form cubism, which as a principle tried to show all sides of a thing at once (so that the ‘thing’ could be seen differently, present as all of itself and not just a representational form).  Whatever we do, if we can do that, including the bits of the thing no-one wants to see, we are engaged in critical education. And surely A complicated Cubist paintingthat’s a definition of diversity too? As Trevor Gordon memorably says (6), we need to know all our subject, all of its histories. And part of doing that is blurring the lines between disciplnes – Maxted’s interviewees call for this as do the posthumanist approaches of Rosi Braidotti and others.  How can it even be that humanism (humanities?) divorced education from politics, for example?  From community studies? From psychology?  In fact, it didn’t ever separate from the latter.  The canon of educational theory persists in being dominated by dead white male American psychologists and the clear demarcation lines don’t allow us to see one ‘discipline’ being favoured over another.  A refusal to view education as inherently political is a direct ancestor of today’s disempowered workforce.



So why indeed would those in power want any of the above?  Operating as we do within an education ‘system’ that has been enslaved to capitalism, it’s true that a world of pain awaits any one of us who wants to clear a bit of floor space and dance differently.  The heckling starts before we’ve even thrown down the talc.  Professional loneliness is a very real thing – I experienced it for years and I wouldn’t want to go back there.  Maxted’s chapter calls in the end for the establishment of a critical education forum for further (and adult) education – and makes a very clear point that critical pedagogy should counter a policy of deliberate fragmentation with a collectivist approach.  It’s my hope that Tutor Voices might just be that forum, if we can work rhizomatically so that the energy and power of the whole is not in the hands of a few.  Being involved with Tutor Voices from the start, I can tell you that the commitment to organising democratically is a genuine one; I see spaces to dance being already carved out across the country and online.  Get involved (7) and let’s think together about how we can grow this appetite to a critical mass.
Logo of Tutor Voices

(1) Tristram Hunt?

(2) Maxted, R. (2014) ‘Critical Pedagogy in FE’ in Daley, M., Orr, K., and Petrie, J. (2014).  Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London.  Trentham Books.

(3) The Freire Project (2012) Looking through Paolo’s Glasses:  Political Clarity, Courage and Humility. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4jPZe-cZgc

(4) I’m not saying easy.  The school system ensures that few people enter adult education knowing how to think for themselves.

(5) Click Learning for Democracy Proposals to download their wallchart.

(6) Trevor’s lecture here (sorry, only available to staff and students with a University of Huddersfield login, I couldn’t find anything freely online).

(7) Email tutorvoices@gmail.com or join our vibrant Facebook group.  Website to follow soon.

Anti-Heroes Assemble…

Talk given to colleagues participating in the first organising conference of the Tutor Voices democratic professional campaigning organisation, held at Northern College on 26th September 2015.

Those of us here today and following on social media have assembled because we are angry that something we love and believe in is being undermined to the point of extinction.  We are already a network…an assemblage of people who have come together to amplify our voices.  Our job is to broadcast our power and potential as adult educators.  What concerns me as I look around this room of determined, passionate, dedicated faces, is that we run the risk of narrowcasting to people who are, to generalise, ‘just like us’.  This country is not run by people who are ‘just like us’.  By the same token, our students and potential students are not entirely represented by ‘people just like us’ either.  Logo of Tutor Voices

We have two tasks, of equal importance.  One is the work we have planned to do here today and, for those who can stay, tomorrow.  Work which has already begun in at least one social media space:  I’m sure most of you here will have signed the petition against ESOL cuts put together by Rachel Yarwood-Murray and Vicky Clifton, after they hooked up in the Tutor Voices Facebook Group.  That petition is due to be presented to Louise Casey next week.  That’s absolutely the sort of grassroots campaigning that Tutor Voices should be about in my view – and today is about finding out what YOUR ideas and priorities are.  What are our lines of attack and as a rhizomatic network – I’ll come back to that later – how do we organise to make our voices un-ignorable?

That’s one job.  The other is the necessity of broadcasting, rather than narrowcasting to people ‘just like us’.  We need to talk to decision makers, many of whom, as my colleague Robin Simmons memorably reported, think that adult education is for other people’s children. How do we do that?  We don’t have the ear of Government, so we need to turn the media they control back against them.  And we need to talk in many voices.  Looking round the room, I am not completely convinced that the diversity of our society is represented here today.  We have white work to do – and by ‘whitework’ I mean not only to reference race, but to acknowledge the privileges we all hold, simply by being able to make it here today.  Our work is to connect with those voices that are heard even less than ours, to broaden our networks even when that’s uncomfortable, when we’re clumsy, when we are knocked back…even when it feels unjust.  Those are the territories I want us to assemble in: finding ways to hear the voices of those educators who work with the most marginalised, who are marginalised themselves.  People grafting away unpaid, or moving around huge institutions like zero-hours ghosts.  We are one, or we are nothing.

I mentioned earlier the word ‘rhizomatic’.  For the gardeners amongst us, a rhizome is a plant that’s stubbornly impossible to shift.  You think you’ve got it and it pops up somewhere else, quite possibly in your neighbour’s garden.  Ginger is a rhizome, and irises.  Also couchgrass.  But what a metaphor!  Unexpected, subversive, stubborn.  That’s what Tutor Voices needs to be.  We have to operate differently in this posthuman landscape, where spin is king and apologies meaningless, where politicians say the opposite of what they mean and reinvent themselves shamelessly. Our political structure is Kafka, it’s Lord of the Flies, it’s 1984.  We cannot win on their terms, by forming huge organisational structures that mirror what’s gone before, tie themselves in knots and ultimately lose their way.  Anger might be an energy, but speaking from our place of pain will get us nowhere.  What we need is an affirmative politics, values laid bare and adhered to with integrity, minds open to thinking differently. We need to tell the stories and successes of adult education, which essentially are the stories and successes of all people.  We need to operate as nomads, by which I mean guerillas, rhizomatically popping up where we are not expected – like that pesky couch grass – assembling and re-assembling in different combinations, getting ourselves EVERYWHERE. Getting, as my mum would say, where water can’t.  And we need to act quick.  When Ewart Keep said at the AoC conference earlier this year that there would be no FE in 2020 this year’s general election had not yet happened.  What seemed doomy at the time now looks a little optimistic.

I may be at odd with my fellow organisers in this, but I don’t think we have time to build constitutions and elections and AGMs, without also getting on with the work.  Of course we may have all those things, those are the trappings of democratic organisation and I’m not disrespecting them or the values base that underpins them.  But we can’t wait for them, unless we want our heroic story to end up more Les Miserables than London Blitz.  We need to act now, and one of the ways to do that is social media.  Some of you are there already. Some of you look scared.  Some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking, “She’s off again.”  But it’s quick, it’s free and it works.  It makes a noise.

If I can contribute one thing to Tutor Voices, I believe it is this.  If you are willing, I can teach you how to campaign online, to raise your voices – collectively – so high that they cannot be ignored and overlooked.  But you’ve got to be up for it.  Just looking on Twitter is not enough.  Just talking to people you already know is not enough.  You’ve got to put yourself out there, out there where it’s scary, where it feels dangerous, where trolls lurk.  And you need to bang on about adult education, at every opportunity, every single day.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t do all the other things as well.  But this is MY affirmative politics.  I go to the places where people think differently, and I change their minds.  Sometimes, in the process of listening, I get my mind changed too.

Lego Superheroes of DiversityAdult education needs to transform to survive and by that I don’t mean buying into capitalist ideologies of austerity, crisis and profit. We’ve tried doing that and it doesn’t work.  We are the vehicle for challenging racism and marginalisation; we’re expected to get people back into work, cure them of addictions and even, it seems, prevent terrorism – and we’d be equal to all of that if we weren’t also then told how to do it by people who don’t have a clue.  So this affirmative political work is also about protecting transformational pedagogy, as we called it in the ‘Dancing Princesses’ book, “spaces to dance.”

This is dancing princess work, it’s anti-hero work and we are all those things in this room, educators who give enough of a toss about their profession to give up their weekend to come here.  We are disrupters, unsettlers in the great romantic tradition of social action.  You’ll hear many wonderful, inspirational campaigners cited today, from Che Guevara to Joel Petrie, but I’m going to leave you with Charlotte Church, whose voice cut through old rhetoric at the Anti-Austerity rally in June.  She addressed these words to academics, journalists, public figures who consider themselves progressive:

“We need to stop genre defining our politics and harking back to old ideologies and start talking about the future of government, the future of democracy, our children’s future; how we can be innovative in our thinking, how we can capture the attention of the disengaged demographics…”

…we are right there.  Education is how this is done.  But we have to believe it and believe in our own power to assemble and influence change.  Don’t leave it to others to make things happen.  Go away from here and be part of the voice.