Let’s stop sawing sawdust: Conversations in education that build

The media is full of people commenting or sharing comments about education. This is not surprising given what is happening on the political front; and it should be top of mind – education is in a bit of a mess at the moment, and many, many people are feeling the pain. However, without in any way wanting to denigrate or understate the pain, what worries me is the nature of the “conversations” about education. I am not sure how helpful some of it is. Without deliberative processes, as Berggruen and Gardels (2013) so crudely stated, the “dumb mob” with social media, simply becomes “the dumb mob on steroids”. In other words, media, and in particular social media, enables unmediated, unbridled participation and access to information; anyone and everyone can comment.  As a result, social media has been known to topple governments and start revolutions, such as in Egypt. But what has it actually built at the governance, political level? Has it built better governing bodies? With all the talk about education in the media, we need to ask ourselves, “What are we building?” All major systems in the world are experiencing disequilibrium. The challenge of the times we live in is being felt everywhere; but education seems to be faring worse than most, and is responding very slowly to the challenges.

We can argue about the right to freedom of speech. Of course anyone and everyone has the right to comment about education in the media media. But freedom of speech doesn’t automatically guarantee a better future. We do need to express our pain, but we also need to move beyond our pain, to become major players in the story of putting education back together again. We need to do better than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. And who should do it more than educators? Berggruen & Gardels (2013) suggested that it is essential for the power of emerging technologies to be used to create deliberative processes in cyberspace, “augmenting the ability of ad hoc groups to gather information, analyse it, organise proposals and arguments, model outcomes, compare alternative approaches, and negotiate hybrid “positive sum” solutions” (p. 84). It is time for those of us in education to stop simply commenting and to start creating proposals, to test models and to look to hybrid solutions that take account of the complex nature of the 21st century and of education and create positive sum outcomes. After all, there is a great deal being said about the need for more creativity in education. If we, ourselves, cannot demonstrate this very same creativity by creating solutions, how can we model this for our students? The same can also be asked of problem solving and critical thinking.

Looking at the nature of the “conversations” about education in social media, this is not going to happen until we do some things differently. We need to change how we think in and about education - from binary, either/or, formal thinking which is so pervasive, to postformal thinking and a both/and/and approach (see my article). It won’t happen while we continue to blame rather than take responsibility. And it won’t happen until we start to clarify and define just what we mean. “Bring the magic back into teaching and learning,” someone suggested as the way forward. What does that mean? Is that a euphemism for “let us do what we like or whatever feels good to us”? Or is it referring to the huge amount of skill and scientific knowledge that goes into creating the illusion of nature-defying feats and draws a parallel with the skill and scientific knowledge that creates the illusion of something that seems to just happen magically in teaching? Or, perhaps, it is referring to a hybrid of these ideas. The fact is, I simply don’t know what this means. Based on what was written, I can only make assumptions, and I certainly have no information to help me to actually put it into practice. Anyway, just giving more autonomy to do it, won’t guarantee achieving “magic” in every case. We need to be much clearer about defining and explaining what we mean – to move away from simple rhetoric to creating understanding and pragmatic outcomes. We need a shared vision for education and a theory of education that guides what we do.

Just yesterday morning I watched a video, which is getting lots of attention, in which someone stated that what students need for the future is not content and hard skills but soft skills. Does that mean that education should no longer teach reading, writing, maths, history or science, and that the curriculum should only consist of developing resilience, emotional intelligence, social intelligence and increased cognitive capability, for example? That is what the presenter in this video seemed to be saying, but is it really what he meant? At the same time I received an email entitled, “It is about learning, not teaching”. Again, I ask the question, does that mean we need to change the name of “teacher” to something else because teaching now has no relevance at all to education. Perhaps a more important question to ask is, “Just what is meant by “teaching” in this article?” Is the author meaning what I assume he is meaning? Is there a bigger picture that the author is assuming we understand as the reader? Is this being presented as just a small part of a much bigger picture? If we do not communicate clearly and define what we mean, as writers, or, as readers, try to determine the fullness of what a writer means, then we risk jumping onto bandwagons that will take us in the wrong direction.

We tend to communicate in binaries because binaries make great sound bites and create persuasive rhetoric. As a result, people are drawn to them and often accept them uncritically. Binaries offer a simple and “cleaner”, uncluttered view of the world, which in a time of great complexity and challenge, is a very attractive proposition. In this day and age, people want very short reads. I understand that we are all busy, but if this is all we do, it does mean that we are always getting the simplified version. To find the complexity and a view that is a more accurate representation of the reality we face and the world we live in, we need to do exactly as Berggruen & Gardels (2013) suggested – pull together all the disparate, (even simplified) views of the world and make sense of them and create hybrid, positive sum solutions. This will result, not in a simple summary of truth, but in a much more complex picture. However, it will serve us better as a blue print for moving forward. If we are committed to building a strong educational future, we need to avoid binary, either/or thinking and be willing to engage critically with complexity. We need to be actively seeking, from and with others, the fullness of the picture so that we can make critical and informed decisions going forward. 

We also need to shift our position from one of blame to one of responsibility taking. Blame is the enemy of change because it is so disempowering. As Shannon L Alder said, “Blame doesn't empower you. It keeps you stuck in a place you don't want to be because you don't want to make the temporary, but painful decision, to be responsible for the outcome of your own life's happiness.” In the media, there is a great deal of blame being cast about. The introduction of National Standards has been blamed for narrowing the curriculum. The Neo liberal policies introduced by a labour government and continued by National have been accused of stripping education bare. National’s economic policies have been accused of the same. Senior leaders and principals are often seen as the bad guys because teachers are overworked, under resourced and required to implement policies they don’t like. Parents are accused of being too demanding. It is very human to want to prove who is at fault (or that I am not at fault) for the situation we now find ourselves in. We want justice! However, I think the reality is that many factors, some beyond our control and some within our control as educators, have contributed to this fraught place we find ourselves in.

In actual fact, where education is right now may not be all negative. Perhaps education, as it was, needed dismantling, so that it could be reimagined and rebuilt. Rather than looking to blame, we could see this as a necessary opportunity to change the “conversation” and rebuild education into something much better. Continuing to blame, however much blame might be deserved, will stop us from moving forward. One of the wonderful things that has happened over the past 20 – 30 years in education is that we have thrown out the bell curve and changed the expectation that some students will be successful in our schooling systems and some will fail. We now talk about meeting the needs of every single child. I suspect that this expectation was never going to be achieved within the schooling system as it existed. The system was never built to enable the success of every child. While we stand and argue, like Dr Suess’s Zacs, about who is to blame, things are not getting better.  Placing blame, though gratifying at some level, is a futile exercise. It takes our focus away from actually solving the problems. What do we want more – to have someone put up their hand and say, “I did it” or to see the problem solved? Do we want change or do we want to stay stuck?

Going forward, I think getting agreement on a vision for education in New Zealand will be easy. It will have something to do with every child continually fulfilling his/her potential in an education that is humanising and concerned with the “whole” child. What is going to be much more difficult will be getting agreement about just how we do that. We need to pull together all the disparate ideas (all sides of the binaries) into a cohesive theory of education that guides how we, in New Zealand, will achieve our vision. The theory will cross traditional boundaries. It will embrace “otherness”. It will propose multiple perspectives and diverse views and ideas about how the world/education works. I think that we now know all that we need to know to develop a cohesive theory of education for this time; and, not only is it timely to do so, but it is an absolutely urgent priority. How much longer are we going to waste our time arguing about teaching or learning, MLEs or single cell classrooms, content or soft skills? A clear, agreed upon theory of education will change the conversations in education and no-one will lose. It will be a hybrid, positive sum outcome.

Certainly the project I now have at the top of my list is to play around with all the educational ideas that have escaped from pandora’s box and make an initial stab at pulling them together into a cohesive theory of education. Perhaps my initial foray will be the subject of my next article. In the meantime, I urge educators to focus on “conversations” about education that build rather than simply pull down. Let's not saw sawdust.