Escaping childhood

I can remember clearly the frustration of wanting to be grown up. As a child, I read a lot and the books showed me places and people far more interesting, exciting and most importantly, more autonomous than myself. They had adventures and lives that turned on the decisions they made and fiction or non fiction, I longed for such freedom; to be considered grown up enough that your voice mattered.

I believe that feeling of frustration still exists for children. Day in, day out, in village, town and city, children internalise that they are not yet grown up enough to be listened to and their views, aspirations and decisions will remain largely ignored. They are told that they need to grow up to be considered to have voices that will be as valued as adults  and they receive message upon message from society around them that they do not have the experience, knowledge and independence necessary to make and act on decisions which affect them. The land of childhood is an extraordinary place; on one hand, idealised as a state and time of innocence and security and on the other, considered a fertile breeding ground for misbehaviour, misrule and menace. These two descriptions exist simultaneously in the adult imagination and neither bear the close-up scrutiny of reality. Just like adults, children are neither angels nor demons, but something in between. Capable of good and evil, children like adults, are subject to impulse and desire; bias and bad judgement, but they also bear other similarities – the ability to love, goodness, hardwork and humour. They are people too. I think we are in danger of setting this consideration so far back in policy and decision- making in education,  that we are in danger of forgetting it altogether.

Children are held in childhood – a place which I am sometimes convinced must seem to them like a draughty, austere station waiting-room, where long list of rules and requirements are displayed which they cannot hope to meet and which continually highlights the exotic, exciting and colourful destinations of the future adult world from which they are barred. The problem is, that while they wait, something happens.  Children do not exist in a sanitised space, sealed from and immune to the world around them. They watch and they listen. They talk and internalise. They learn the rules of the adult world without having any real stake in them and this seems to me to be the root of many of our problems in the current education system but also the means of addressing them.

Children learn that despite this country being a signatory to the UNCRC, schools are still largely undemocratic institutions, organised on the basis of unequal power relations between students and teachers. They learn that rights, respect and responsibility is something controlled by adults. They learn that adults seem more concerned about preserving their own authority than educating them in shared democratic practices. They start to internalise that their own individuality, rather than the interests of the community of which they are a part, is best. As children wait in childhood we are actively promoting the wrong things. Wanting to be grown up seems still to be formed by wanting to be like grown ups, and there is plenty of evidence that media preoccupation with fame, money, power, success and influence is taking its toll on how children view what adulthood means and what they’re aiming for in life. We show them this side of adulthood but actively choose to restrict the more worthwhile citizenship and decision making possibilities. This seems to me to be the wrong way round.

What then of the solutions? Teacher burnout, dissatisfaction with the job and retention issues feature heavily in current education concerns. Behaviour problems, no excuses clamp downs, exclusions and off-rolling – these too indicate a system in dire trouble. Every single one of these issues is linked to relationships. If we spent more time on democratic practices in schools – and yes, that does mean rethinking how schools are organised and the roles teachers play in them- if we spent more of our energies on including children in their education and sharing the decision making process, then there might be real scope for solving those issues through the establishment of more positive and engaging relationships. Education should not be about keeping children under control, but about teaching and learning in partnership. Education should not be so costly to practitioners as to make them ill, but founded on mutual respect and shared goals, promoting health and happiness. Democratic practices make it less likely that behaviour issues arise because children are invested in the process of learning (Covell et al. 2010) and the benefits of implementing a rights respecting approach are far reaching, going beyond the immediate benefits for the child and the school and out into the wider community (Dunhill, 2018). Maybe, just maybe, including children democratically in schools, emphasising their rights and the rights of others might prove to be the game-changer. Positive relationships in the classroom make job satisfaction, sound mental health and teacher retention more likely.

Whilst we continue to exclude children and young people from the really important aspects of being an adult which is to have knowledge of, experience in and responsibility for decisions which affect the individual (Article 12, UNCRC, 1989), is it any wonder that children want to escape childhood? They see adults having all the control, all the power and in their eyes, all the fun. They understand that it is adults voices that count. It is imperative to think seriously about what sort of adults we want them to be and whether in the twenty-first century, our present system is fit for purpose. You know what I think.

 

 

 

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Credibility deficit: An adult problem

We hold children to be important. We talk about them as our future. We cherish and care for them, follow imperatives to protect them, and commit to giving them the best possible education and healthcare. And yet, juxtaposed to these views is the very visible fact that we accord them little respect in their daily lived experiences. How to explain why this dichotomy exists, presents us with some interesting issues. Why, for example, there remains such resistance to calls to reform practices and institutions which subject children to adult measures of competency and why children’s autonomy, independence and capabilities are constantly questioned? In considering these issues, I have been reading Miranda Fricker’s ‘Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing’ (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her work provides interesting insights into why it might be that the outward facing narrative of valuing children is not mirrored by the inward facing reality of practices in children’s lives, homes, schools, communities and institutions.

Traditionally children have been seen as the incomplete article; the unfinished human engaged on a journey to become the finished one. They are subject to policies and practices which the adult world prioritises. Knowledge, experience and unquestioning obedience are the currencies valued on their transformative journey. To support children and to ensure they gain the right knowledge and experience, we assign adults to key positions to protect children. This process operates in all spheres of life and has impact on  children’s development at home, in school, in healthcare and in law. It acts as an all encompassing ‘safety net’, although it might also be considered something of a straitjacket, depending on the position from which you view the process. It does however, at first glance, seem compatible with the outward facing narrative that we value children and want what is best for them.

But what if this system is flawed? What if the transformative journey and the carefully structured safety net placed around it, is actually rendered damaging by the societal bias adults hold against children? What if the very adults who are supposed to be supporting and developing them hold such unacknowledged bias that they are complicit in perpetuating a system which successfully undermines children and ensures that their rights are never completely expressed or realised? Fricker’s work allows us to view the child’s world through just such a lens of possibility, dealing first with the idea of social power as,

… a capacity we have as social agents to influence how things go in the social world. (p9)

If we try out this idea in the context of education, it becomes apparent that teachers have greater power to influence how things go in the world of the child than the child themselves. In this respect we might conclude that teachers possess a greater degree of active social power, whilst children, though not powerless in this social sense, operate at a more passive level and certainly at a level subject to the teacher’s social power. It is difficult to find an area of life in which children do not have to operate at such a level, but if we continue to focus on the model of the transformative journey, of children being incomplete, and of them needing to ‘become’ the full adult, we can justify children’s weaker social agency because we consider our power as social agents to be supporting them towards adulthood. These assumptions need challenging however and with a particular focus on the very idea of social power itself.

Whilst Foucault asserts that,

Power only exists when it is put into action.

I question this in the case of children, who operate under a continual patchwork of social power, whichever sphere of life they move between. You do not have to be disciplined by a teacher to know that such discipline exists but rather, operate within the system so that the influence of such power is minimised. The knowledge that such power exists, exerts a control over the individual child, despite the fact that they may not be disciplined themselves. Individuals, groups, institutions and practices all act to exercise power over children in this way. Fricker encourages us to ask questions about who or what is controlling the social action of whom, and why. She notes,

… the point of any operation of social power is to effect social control… (p13)

When we consider education, the social control is exercised at both an individual and structural level by adults over children and when we try to answer the question of why, it seems to require a willingness to investigate the ready, superficial justifications relating to notions of the incomplete child. Fricker identifies the problem of having,

…shared imaginative conceptions of social identity (p14)

As adults we continue to focus on beliefs relating to a shared imaginative conception of the social identity of children, something Fricker calls the operation of identity power. We have clear ideas about how children need to behave, learn and relate to adults, based on a shared but flawed understanding, of what it means to be a child and the capabilities they hold. Our collective dismissal of the capabilities of children is an example of identity power working negatively. Our shared beliefs about children and our insistence on continuing practices which reinforce those beliefs act in ways to undermine agency and autonomy for children and which more importantly, generate system wide injustice.

This system wide injustice in relation to our treatment of children is illuminated by Fricker’s work on testimonial injustice. She is concerned with the way in which identity power might influence the way we communicate with each other, specifically the way in which knowledge can be imparted from speaker to hearer. A crucial point she makes is this:

…identity power is an integral part of the mechanism of testimonial exchange because of the need of hearers to use social stereotypes… in their spontaneous assessments of their interlocutors credibility. (P16)

She continues,

… if the stereotype embodies a prejudice that works against the speaker then two things follow: there is an epistemic dysfunction in the exchange – the hearer makes a deflated judgement of the speaker’s credibility, perhaps missing out on knowledge as a result; and the hearer does something ethically bad- the speaker is wrongfully undermined in her capacity as a knower. (p 17)

Fricker’s argument seems relevant to adult treatment of children since the collectively held ideas inherent in beliefs about children’s social identity act to prejudice adults against children as agents qualified to offer knowledge. Put simply, this means that because of the widely held negative beliefs about children’s capacities to make decisions, hold rights and act as reasoned individuals, adults systematically devalue them as speakers and knowledge holders. The testimonial injustice that results means we give them limited credibility and therefore feel it legitimate for us to persist in the practices that create testimonial injustice in the first place.

The question that follows from this, relates to the harm this approach causes. Fricker identifies two types of testimonial harm and I argue that both relate specifically to children. The first harm done to children stems from a credibility deficit, in that the knowledge a child possesses is not successfully passed on to the individual adult hearer. This might be summarised as,

…prejudicial stereotypes distort credibility judgements: knowledge that would be passed on to a hearer is not received… (p43)

The second form of harm caused, relates to the injustice done to children when the prejudicial stereotype,

…prevents speakers from successfully putting knowledge into the public domain…and therefore acts as a serious form of unfreedom… (p43)

To be wronged in this way, both as a knower and a speaker, and to have the way your knowledge is valued and shared curtailed and controlled, is a harm which harms on the basis of something essential to the value of a person as a person. Fricker makes this point  when she says,

When one is undermined or otherwise wronged in a capacity essential to human value, one suffers an intrinsic injustice. (p44)

The expressed views and opinions of children are routinely and persistently undermined by adults in this way. Adults demean and dismiss what children say and do. They do not recognise or pay attention to their own bias caused by the identity power stereotypes they hold and the level of credibility deficit they normalise. How adults respond to children and reason about the character and nature of childhood are examples of testimonial injustice at work and explain the intransigence towards according children greater respect and participation in all areas of society. In Fricker’s words,

When someone suffers testimonial injustice they are degraded qua knower and they are symbolically degraded qua human. (p44)

Fricker’s work makes me conscious that it is long overdue for adults to recognise the bias they hold towards children and to begin their own transformative journey to reflect on ways they might choose to address such bias. In this respect they might become the truly supportive and knowledgeable adults children deserve them to be.

The case of the missing underpants.

Every Early Years’ Teacher has been there. The children are quietly and sensibly getting changed for PE. You’re reading to them as they do so, or they’re happily listening to music, when suddenly there’s a murmur of giggles and then outright sniggers and you look up to find a child who isn’t wearing any underwear. We’ve all been there; all told the story in the staffroom the first time it happens and then, over the years, the missing underpants incidents becomes so commonplace that these stories blend themselves into the fabric of teaching; funny and endearing and gently cautionary.

Sometimes the missing underpants are a one off forgetfulness, with either a child or parent responsible for the absent-mindedness. But sometimes a chat with a parent after school reveals a daily struggle between adult and child, both equally determined that the underpants will/will not be worn. And you can substitute any item of clothing for the wayward underpants — vest, socks, jumper, scarf, although none of those items cause quite so much hilarity from their omission.

The point is, children choose to exert their wills in ways that adults find perplexing and annoying and generally unfathomable. Why wouldn’t someone want to wear their under clothes? What is served by refusing to eat anything but custard? Why would a child sit down in a supermarket aisle and refuse to budge? We question why on earth children behave in such unacceptable ways and our default response is to view this as a threat to adult authority. In the hectic, muddled, adult world of precious time and tight schedules we use such examples spoken in exasperated tones, to question both the rationality and competency of children to make decisions for themselves. The argument goes, that if they ‘can’t’ make these sort of basic, rational decisions about acceptable behaviour, then how can they possibly be given the scope and freedom to decide more important ones, like say, what to study or having the opportunity to vote? We use such examples to approve children being constantly measured against adult standards and until such time as they are not found wanting, we subject them to adult preferences, adult expectations and adult superiority and power. This happens across many societies and family settings to varying degrees. Although ideas about childhood and what it means are hotly contested one thing remains constant: children are often made to do things they do not wish to, with little option but to comply with adult wishes and they remain, very firmly,  excluded from negotiation or decision sharing opportunities. Perhaps we are getting closer to some understanding of child behaviour when we consider the routine dismissal of child voice, opinion and opportunity to share in decisions. Maybe not wearing underpants, only eating custard and staging a supermarket sit in are examples of small acts of rebellion and demonstrate the ways children feel they can exert power and get the attention of adults? Maybe.

What is certain, is that there is a vast range of reasons given  by people actively working against the idea that children should be given greater opportunity in decision making. This includes the gently mocking, tongue in cheek admission to ‘making’ kids wear all sorts of things (gosh how awful I am — not!), to the argument that the law gives adults/parents/teachers rights over children so that’s the end of the argument. It’s as if these examples are so manifestly proper, so normalised, something so necessary to the functioning of our society, that they are beyond the need of further examination or thought. But many laws and common practices need a light shining on them and in fact, challenging. Look at those practices and laws in the past relating to corporal punishment, segregation based on skin colour, no votes for women; all challenged and all changed, even though previously normalised and accepted in society. This challenge and change came about because we started to examine the issues involved and came to the conclusion that there was such innate injustice in them that they warranted fighting against. I argue that rights for children need to be examined and challenged in just such a way as we have demonstrated ourselves capable of in these other examples. I want us to examine how we justify our treatment of children in making them wear/do/say/attend/sleep/eat/behave/study in the ways adults decide they should. There are arguments from across the educational spectrum, calling into question how children are treated in different education contexts,  but few seem to place this debate within a wider context of the treatment of children generally-children as property.

Children have the most prescribed existence imaginable and increasingly suffer from a reduction in opportunity to develop independence, autonomy and relationships that are not regulated by adults.  I do not accept that giving children greater say in decision making will lead to madness and mayhem or that they are incapable of reaching informed and reasonable decisions on many issues presented to them. My belief is that we need to stop trivialising the case of the missing underpants and look instead at the bigger picture and the important issues which are shaping our relationships with children and determining our respect for and treatment of them. The case of the missing underpants is a small indication that the power adults exert over children is both accepted, expected and lauded in most areas of life. From such small events, pan out and you will see that power replicated, in many ways and in many fields of experience for children. I don’t believe that to be reasonable or just. I don’t believe that to be ok.

Earning and paying respect

I’m trying to understand how the idea of respect has become associated with terms we would more commonly use when talking about money. We routinely talk about people having to earn respect and also the importance of paying respect to others when it is considered due.  Earning and paying respect are complex things. They have both a price and a value. As a society, we consider both to be a necessary currency.

Within this monetary description of respect, lies an underlying acceptance that respect is to do with an idea of reciprocity. It involves a relationship which is located in both the personal and impersonal; the familial and the social. You give respect to others and others give it back. We pay it out and draw down on it. We are all , it would seem,entitled to it. Exploring the idea of the reciprocity of respect is what this post will try to do and I am particularly interested in how this relates to the respect we are prepared to pay children and the way they earn respect from us.

Conceptualising respect in this way which involves earning respect yourself as well as paying respect to others, also makes us conscious that  there are winners and losers in the audit of the respect budget. Some people are given greater respect than others. Some are expected to pay more respect because they are seen to be somehow, worth less.  As a society, we hold the idea of giving and receiving respect as being important to the way our relationships function in both formal and informal ways. The giving of respect to others seems to me to rely heavily on the idea of identifying deficiencies and weakness in ourselves, and admitting a lack of knowledge or skills in a particular area in which the person we give respect to, excels. We recognise their proficiency in what ever area that is, and we accord them respect because we have an awe or appreciation of their experiences and knowledge which we lack. The paying of respect to these individuals rests also on an underlying acceptance that they have power or status in the sense that they know more about X than we do, can pass judgement on X with greater knowledge and clarity and also that sharing their experience and knowledge of X can perhaps, help us in some way.  It can also, in some senses, rely on power in a negative way, verging on respect as being an admission of fearful reverence. Values too, play a huge part in how we make choices about those to respect or not.

Let us then, position children in this model and let us position them in the education system. Continuing the monetary analogy, we have traditionally held a deficit model of childhood. Children are seen to require investment if they are to be made informed and knowledgeable citizens of the future and they bank educational credentials towards that end. The educational emphasis is on remedying their knowledge deficit. Adults don’t respect children in the way adults generally accord respect to other adults, because the normalised view is that children know very little, lack the competency to make decisions and are immature, thereby necessitating adult intervention in every sphere. Children are perceived to have weaknesses, deficiencies and a lack of skills and knowledge. They are deemed to be less than the finished product; the fully formed competent adult of their future self.

Under the earning respect model however, children gain respect when they comply with adult rules and expectations for behaviour and achievement. Children earn respect when they internalise and act upon what it means to succeed in school as prescribed by the adults in control. They gain respect when adults bestow their recognition that children are acting like the adults we insist they need to be. This involves a dedication to hard work, obedience, respect for authority figures and largely unquestioning acceptance of the rules which govern the teacher-pupil relationship. They gain respect by accepting the power and status of adults as respect givers. Many, many children do this, day in, day out. But where’s the payback for them? If they earn adult respect by following  adult requirements, where is the payback of respect located? How and where are they given respect by adults and where might we find it if we look at relationships in schools?

To try to answer this question, I began to think about what positive behaviours adults use to show that we have accorded respect to someone. My idea is that perhaps in identifying such behaviours, I might be able to locate examples in the education system. I decided that paying respect to someone usually involves some, if not all of the following behaviours :

  1. We make space and time for people we respect to tell us about their views, experiences and opinions.
  2. We stop what we are doing to listen when they talk to us and make sure we try to understand what it is they are saying, acknowledging the unique experience and contribution they are making.
  3. We give due consideration to what they talk about and we evaluate their words, taking from them those things which make sense to us and challenging ourselves to grapple with things they say which we don’t yet understand.
  4. We may politely ask questions about what they’ve said, ask them to clarify and explain because we know that it is our lack of understanding which is preventing us from full understanding.
  5. We engage with them in taking the dialogue further, involving ourselves in discussion with them, trying to participate in and conquer that which we presently find difficult.
  6. We accept them for who they are, celebrating them and the views they hold because we recognise that they have had experiences which we have not and understand perspectives and contexts which provide insights of value.
  7. We act in ways towards them which indicate they are important to us and we value the contribution they make to our community.

I think many teachers expect students to exhibit some if not all of these behaviours in lessons and would see them as an indication of being given respect, but my challenge to the current model, is to question the apparent absence of reciprocity inherent in it. Where do students find respect given to them? Do they benefit from any reciprocity of respect? What does that reciprocity look like in schools? It is important to find out if and where the reciprocity respect relationship exists in our present model of schooling  because I believe, whilst we insist children work hard at trying to earn our respect, we are falling far short of paying them the respect they deserve in return.

 

 

Teaching children about (their) rights is important because…

I’m wondering how often we think about that sentence as adults or whether perhaps we think about it at all? Don’t we just take it for granted? And that second bit that’s implied in it? The bit about ‘their rights’?

What’s that all about really?

I started to think about this question and the implications of inserting ‘their’ when I began to feel a creeping realisation that there was actually a tension and mismatch between the two. Two very different questions with very different answers which probably have different destinations or outcomes for children.  I am hoping to research this tension in my ongoing work, but for now I want to try to finish the sentence for myself, outlining some of the issues raised by the following answer:

Teaching children about (their) rights is important because it gives access to power to represent yourself with others and against others. It provides a framework for an understanding of responsibility and entitlement as a means of regulating yourself and others towards respectful everyday interactions and relationships in the context of a diverse, changing and uncertain society. Most importantly, it gives children a voice.

So, let’s unpick those ideas…

Firstly, let’s deal with this idea of the two types of rights education indicated in the sentence stem. As I hinted earlier, teaching children about rights is not the same as teaching children about their rights. Whilst generic rights of the child as exemplified by the UNCRC (1989) is supposed to be at the core of rights education, I hope to find out how and where this rights curriculum is expressed and how schools implement it, particularly with the youngest children. The tension and mismatch exist because it is unclear whether the aims of this curriculum are to educate children in rights, so that they might become informed future citizens in a general sense or whether the curriculum aims should be to educate for rights, implied by the ‘their’ and concerned with an acknowledgement of the partnership children should hold with adults in being rights holders themselves. Particularly problematic in this whole area of discussion is the very real absence of rights for children in the system where rights is largely taught. The absence of child rights apparent in the education system where children themselves are located is a very real area of concern

In my answer, I consciously use the word power to remind me of the importance of this  in relation to rights and to highlight my concern with the unequal power relations which characterise adult-child relationships. Having access to power, characterised here as knowledge about rights and experience of them, diminishes for children as the present neoliberal agenda in education continues to be normalised. In advocating for individualism and emphasising a narrative which see the individual as solely responsible for their life and actions, schools play an ever important role in urging children to focus on their personal and academic outcomes and being prepared for their future. In this sense, an adult collective tightly controls children’s access to knowledge and therefore power, deeming them incompetent and insufficient to make informed decisions which relate to their own lives. As part of this agenda, teaching children about rights pretends to give them access to power as a future citizen but does little to respect their agency, autonomy and competency to act for themselves in the present. In this respect, their rights are limited.

The idea that children need educating about rights, including their own rights, is important because humans do not have a good track record of harmonious co-existence. In my answer, I consciously wanted to draw attention to the necessity of teaching rights because of the way they can be used to align yourself with and against others. These alignments and antagonisms are relational mechanisms for sorting out problems and identifying solutions. They only work however, when there is an understanding of what the issues involve and the implications of your actions are clear. Adults are generally convinced that children do not have the capacity to understand issues which they deem to be above their stage of maturity. Adult opposition to including children in decision-making processes is based on a belief that their immaturity precludes them from being able to operate at this level and therefore from having rights in these areas. But children’s understanding of complex issues can be seen in the practical ways they operate in diverse and demanding circumstances and the ways they have internalised and operationalised rights in their daily experiences. In contexts where children are supported by adults willing to act in partnership with them, children discuss, evaluate and make decisions relating to fairness, justice and empathy. They align and unalign themselves from relationships in both familial and societal situations using prior experiences and knowledge which allow them to present themselves and their understanding of rights in meaningful ways.

Teaching children about rights, including their own rights acts as a way to embed their understanding of their place within the social network and is made up of experiences at home and school and from interactions with other people in official and unofficial capacities. Experiences of rights in the wider social context give children a sense of belonging and teaching them about rights through a rights curriculum increases the child’s understanding of ties to others beyond the familial or cultural. Teaching about rights and having confidence in their own rights enables children to think about the treatment they are entitled to and the obligation and responsibility they have to replicate that treatment in regard to others. This is a good thing, since it emphasises the relatedness of us all.

Educating children about their own rights acts as a counter measure to the often perceived notion that rights are bestowed by adults and removed in the same arbitrary way. Having a frame of reference acts as a way of counteracting children’s beliefs of rights as gifts handed out by adults and reinforces instead, the idea that that they are fixed, with boundaries that cannot be moved on the whim of an adult. This idea of children having a fixed point of reference is an important one, since knowledge of rights, including their own, add to a shared understanding and reliance on the known effect of rights’ outcomes.

As a final point, as a signatory to the UNCRC we have pledged to uphold and implement the Articles of the UNCRC and we are identified as duty bearers in that respect. We have responsibility to make sure rights permeate our systems and culture with the aim of improving children’s lives through them. It is important to teach children about (their) rights because we have an obligation to translate the Articles of the UNCRC into a curriculum which enables children to enact rights. It is this enactment which will ensure children have a voice and it is with the support and help of adults committed to this end, that child voice will be heard and eventually listened to and acted upon.

 

 

 

 

When I think about rights…

 

When I think about rights, I imagine a room. Inside it, is a very large piece of furniture – a cupboard, tall and wide with a great many drawers. The drawers do not appear to fit very well. Some have no handles and need to be prised open with a not inconsiderable effort. They do however, contain many important and useful things.

The piece of furniture, this cupboard, stands in the middle of the room, which has the effect of dominating and dwarfing everything else and obscuring the shapes and outlines of all the other pieces of furniture and objects in the room. If you look carefully though, there is a comfortable chair, a desk, a lamp and some photographs of the people who come here, but the cupboard takes up so much space that they are difficult to see and jumbled towards the walls.

To use anything in the room it is necessary to navigate around the cupboard and you are constantly snagged by it when you try. Toes are stubbed and purple bruises flower where its corners jab into your skin. But you know that if, eventually, you can open the drawers and take hold of the useful and important contents that they hide, you can find a better place for them and the cupboard can be moved.

Opening the drawers and sifting through their contents will be a cumbersome and exacting task and who knows how long it will take. But you are sure that the lives and experiences of the people who come here will be improved and enriched if you manage it. You feel that if the contents of the drawers can be placed by the comfortable chair, someone will take the time to contemplate them and if you can only find a place for them on the desk, there will be people who will study them and give them serious consideration. That handy lamp will shine a light to illuminate it all.

You know that once this happens, the photographs in the room will become the thing that gets noticed first by anyone who comes there, and that, quite rightly, is how it should be.

A commentary:

This is a piece of imaginative writing I set myself to complete, having given myself the task of trying to visualise rights as common everyday objects. I felt this was an important exercise to do because the nature of rights as a concept is actually quite difficult to pin down. It is populated by ideas of justice, respect, autonomy and equality, but those words in themselves pose questions which require complex answers if you’re after a definition. I was concerned too, to try to reduce some of the conscious fear which discussion about rights produces. Rights engender powerful responses from people as they try to defend their own and the rights of others, against those who may have quite different views. By conceptualising rights as ordinary objects, I hoped to be able to get closer to the idea that people’s discomfort and fear about knowingly or unknowingly disrespecting rights might be reduced by exemplifying them as inanimate objects. So, in my writing, the cupboard with its many ill-fitting drawers and which dominates the space represents for me the conscious acknowledgement that rights are a dominant and important issue which cannot and shouldn’t be ignored. It is also an acknowledgement of how uncomfortable that can make us feel, since rights have impact in every sphere. I was also conscious of trying to convey my own opinion that this uncomfortable feeling about rights impinging on every arena of life is only because we hold them as separate. They are a body of laws and agreements which need to be upheld but which have yet to find their way into many of our common practices – schools being a prime example. My analogy of the cupboard being gradually cleared and the papers it contains being placed on more accommodating pieces of furniture, immediately recognisable and usable in everyday life, works I hope, as a way to express the necessity of rights being made available in everyday situations and being a focus for real thinking about ways in which our systems might change. The emphasis on the end result, being able to see the people in the photographs at last is, I hope, self explanatory.

I would love people who read this post to offer me their own examples of what they see when they think about rights. It would be really interesting to read how others conceptualise rights either through everyday objects or in other ways that clarify their character and intent. In an idle moment or two in your hectic day, I wonder what will come into your head…?

 

 

Dialogic Imperative

‘Dialogue that constructs, reconfigures and transforms’ Margaret Carr*

I love this quote. I love the hope that it encompasses and the possibilities it hints at for the power of talking and listening to change the present and the future. I love the way it characterises dialogue as being a mix of the practical, the explorative and the imaginative. I love that in something so simple as talking and listening, it suggests the possibility of being able to analyse weaknesses and problems, share ideas for how to put things right and enact those ideas to bring about change. I love how idealistic it sounds whilst also urging us to use it in the reality of the present.

When we think about dialogue, it should be simple to do it, and yet we seem reticent. Why? Because some of us have quiet voices that find it difficult to be heard. Some have no voices with which to speak at all and feel left out or unworthy of entering the conversation. And some have such loud and insistent voices that they fill the space and speak endlessly, being wholly concerned with the importance of what they have to say.

When we consider dialogue, it should be simple to benefit from it and yet we don’t. Why? Because some of us don’t listen. We’re so busy with our own concerns that we actively choose to tune out. Some of us can’t listen. We’re so entrenched in our own views and opinions or caught up in jobs which require us to think and behave in certain ways that listening presents too much of a challenge to our reality and security to chance it. And some of us think we’re listening, but we’re not; a half-hearted attempt to be present in the conversation but not really attentive to it.

Because of these weaknesses, there is I believe a need for a dialogic imperative in education. This imperative necessitates a different way of engaging with each other professionally and a willingness to use our considerable intellects and energies to the best advantage. We need dialogue on so many issues but we seem to think we are cleverer with debate. We need to talk and we need to listen and we need to lose the desire to prove we are the ‘winner’ in the debate. We need to keep expressing  views that are important to us but at the same time, listen to the opposing arguments without dismissing them at the outset. We do not need to gather mournfully or mockingly at the sidelines as ministers encourage and manipulate their own ‘New Blob’ to take shape, made in the image of an education system they want to see and which places no value on dialogue whatsoever.

Being able to identify and analyse problems and weaknesses in the system is a valuable skill, but it is the first in a hierarchy, not the last. Having the skill to shape the conversation that contributes positively to solving those problems is of a greater value and a higher order. Engaging in dialogue which actively constructs, reconfigures and transforms is a greater intellectual skill again. It should be simple, but for some reason we are making it very hard indeed.

*Margaret Carr is a Professor of Education at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

Become an informed educator… but for goodness sake, don’t become an expert

I think you would have to be of an Eeyore mindset to dismiss the atmosphere of optimism that is creeping back into the professional life of teachers. This is not to downplay the significant battles yet to be won over workload and marking, meaningful CPD  and recruitment, but there is an increasing sense of the possibilities open to us as professionals and that we may be able to carve out gains if not for ourselves, for the teachers who may come after us.

You don’t have to be an overly optimistic sort of person to sense that there is a buzz of determination in the air. Yes, there are problems to be solved and troubles to be tackled, but there is also a feeling of possibility and ownership. Partly this arises from an understanding that if we do not speak as a profession, with reasoned voices and eloquent leaders we are lost. Partly this arises from the teacher led conference movements that have inspired people to spend their Saturdays at venues all over the country, sharing practice and taking inspiration from others. Partly this arises from the possibilities offered by a new Chartered College of Teaching, which, whether you like the idea or not, has resulted in a valuable debate and a clearer understanding of people’s anxieties, frustrations and hopes for the profession.

There is optimism too, in the call for evidence-led practice. Teaching is a profession and at its core there needs to be a belief that it is important to understand what helps children learn and to find solutions to those things which act as barriers. Call it research if you will, or something else entirely if that term grates on you, but teachers need to examine how they can enhance, assist, improve and guide learning in their classrooms. We need to become knowledgeable and authoritative; to engage in debate and use research of all descriptions and persuasions to pare away practice and pedagogy until we can describe what was successful for our children and what wasn’t and to replicate that process if we can in different contexts. When we find something that works we need to use it and evaluate it and dismiss it when it doesn’t. There is a need to cultivate a professional ability to view research objectively and to assess its claims without prejudice.

Of course, help is now at hand for our research endeavours. The establishment of the research schools and giving teachers the opportunity to have access to up to date and varied research papers offers the possibility not simply  to seek out research which coincides with our own current beliefs but to read and critique and discuss those papers from researchers who might describe something altogether different and maybe alien to our current understanding. If such a thing could be brought about in education, I think it would be wonderful. Expert teachers in our classrooms, using informed practice and thinking about the very latest and interesting research available.

But something troubles me about this vision. Something  undermines it. Something tells me that despite my own optimism and a belief that this is the right thing to be aiming for, all is not well. What worries me is the context we now find ourselves in which sees a government championing education as an ‘engine of social mobility’ but which simultaneously ridicules the expertise of academics and researchers, deriding their lack of real-life experience and calling into question the relevance of their work. The call for research-led practice is loud and clear; if you want to be taken seriously, read the research, apprise yourself of its strengths and weaknesses and use it to inform your practice. But heaven help you if in pursuing that aim, you become an expert because according to some politicians, experts should not be listened to. Experts, it would seem, are more likely to make mistakes than the rest of the population. Their advice is suspect and shouldn’t be trusted. Experts have no place in shaping the future because apparently, they have made such a mess of the past… unlike politicians it would seem!

The hypocrisy in this is barely believable. Become as educated as you can and be an expert in your chosen field but do not expect to be respected enough to offer that expertise or to be listened to if you do. Undermining academics and researchers, the group of people who embody education and learning,  while simultaneously maintaining that education is the ultimate tool to transform our society makes no sense to me. You cannot champion research if you dismiss the people who undertake it. You cannot argue for research-led practice if you dictate the type and nature of the research beforehand.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves, does a government really want informed educators?

So beware research-teachers everywhere. In using evidence-based practice so that we might be taken seriously at last, we may find that at the end of the journey it is the very thing used to consign us to the irrelevance of the expert in the field…that is, if some politicians get their way.

ps. This will make you giggle! I couldn’t resist 😉

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/10/michael-goves-guide-to-britains-greatest-enemy-the-experts/

image:michelleloch.com

 

 

 

A thin blue line

For the first time in my life, I am genuinely interested in currency. This goes way beyond my “We need some holiday money. Who’s going to the post office for the euros?” conversations of the past. This is serious stuff. I have installed a currency tracker on my phone. I have become slightly obsessed by watching a thin blue line on a graph take its daily roller coaster ride along the x and y-axis. And I need to talk about it alot too. My lovely husband receives texts informing him of the state of the pound against the other currencies, roughly on the hour, every hour. Needless to say, after a week of this behaviour, he’s stopped responding with quite so much enthusiasm!

I can’t explain my preoccupation, except to say that I feel a sense of responsibility. I need to watch what the pound does; to share the pain as it dips and dives and feel the elation (short-lived) as I see it climb. I didn’t vote to leave the European Union but feel that in monitoring the thin blue line, I am offering support for the beleaguered pound, willing it to march upwards and be strong once more. I know nothing of the markets and the nuances of their operation. For me it’s really very simple: I cheer when the pound goes up and slump into despondency when it falls. I know I have very little chance of a bright future in fx dealing!

I feel like that thin blue line on the graph mirrors what’s happening in our society and to the people who live in it. We are being driven up and down by events with little chance to understand and respond to them before something else momentous takes their place. You can’t guarantee that the line is going to stay on the same trajectory from one hour to the next as it drops, rallies and tumbles once more. People are the same. Some hopeful, some cautious, some blaming, some violent; their energies and passions fuel and get fuelled by each new pronouncement and turn of events.

Predicting and dealing with those responses needs judicious and firm decision-making. It needs politicians and populace who are going to listen to each other. They need to respond by making policies which address the issues raised and put their hands up to demonstrate a shared understanding of what constitutes a fair, inclusive and optimistic vision of the future for our country. Sadly, any thought of cross-party working on these aims seems beyond hope, although in every party, great minds could and should come together for the good of the country. We are going to need very able minds indeed and thoughtful responsive policies if we are to make real the hopes of people who feel they have been forgotten. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to undertake to listen to the views of those who seem to believe that people should be treated differently because they speak another language and have a different cultural heritage. How to convince someone who holds such views to rethink them is the greatest test of our shared responsibility as citizens.

I know I’m into thin blue line watching for the long haul. It’s one of the things I feel I need to do; that, and getting more involved in politics at a level I can commit to. Oh, and talking to people about their views, whatever they are. I shall continue to watch that thin blue line in the weeks and months to come. In the same way that I hope I’ll see it on an upward journey, indicating a pound that will rally and remain steady, I will hope that eventually the people of our country can do likewise.

 

 

 

social justice-an obligation and an opportunity 

In my first post social mobility I argue for increased funding in the early years of a child’s life and a greater will to implement policies which focus on providing high quality childcare, compensatory education and intervention strategies as means to deal with disadvantage. I am grateful to all those people who commented on my post, challenged me, asked questions and gave me areas to consider for further reading. To those who wished merely to characterise the debate as one around Early Years professionals being mired in ‘group think’, I urge them to widen their focus and their reading materials.

In this post, I wish to bring the argument closer to home. There is no doubt that many teachers are facing increased workload as a result of teaching children who come to school without ‘desirable’ developmental milestones of core literacy and numeracy skills, socialised relationships and emotional fluency. It is important to stress that not all such children will come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Entering school with these early competencies enables children to go on to make successful schooling transitions, heightens likelihood of further academic success and supports positive emotional, social and economic outcomes into adulthood (Entwistle and Alexander, 1993; Heckman, 2000; Lombardi and Coley, 2014).

It follows that when these competencies are not in place securely, schools are forced to play catch-up with the children who are not ‘school ready’. The intervention programmes operating in schools to developmentally support children are both time consuming and disruptive to class teaching time. Interventions that take place before compulsory schooling seem like a possible way for this to be addressed and removing schools from this initial equation would go some way to reducing the  associated ‘psychiatry’ workload that teachers undertake and often object to.

But all actions have consequences and such a move places further burden on the preschool sector and indeed on families who will face ever closer inspection and judgement about their child rearing. I am aware of the problematic nature of any policies and interventions which seek to extend their remit into the private family world. Issues too, relating to the education and care of ever younger children in the system cannot be ignored but I will not pursue those lines of enquiry here.

In considering the above I am  still not dissuaded from my belief that the possibilities for developing social justice lie with improvements to and investments in the Early Childhood Education and Care sector.  This is a fertile area for discussion. Read  The Marmot Review: Fair society, Healthy Lives here via Kathy Brodie , State of the Nation 2015: Social Mobility and Child Poverty in Great Britain foreword/summary ,‘Equity in education requires early intervention’-Aylward, N, and Building Skills For All: A Review of England, OECD January 2016 should you have some time on your hands!

But the writing of these posts was never meant to become a  jousting contest about the most relevant research. So here’s where I think we are so far:

1. Compensatory and intervention programmes here and in the US have had some success and impact. It’s not unqualified success but it has had impact on the lives of children and made those lives better.

2.To the argument that says because the research is not an unqualified success it can be dismissed I say this: is it not better to invest in and build upon what success there is? And if the answer to that is ‘no’ then what are the wide reach and deep impact alternatives to take its place? Don’t wait too long for an answer here, because there are none.

3. Introducing mentoring programmes when the children are old enough to benefit from the support of retired people or students or volunteers from business and industry are a great idea but they can only ever have limited impact in terms of scale and reach because they are too little too late, even if they begin when children are seven.

4. If you think interventions at secondary school and beyond are a good idea, talk to the teachers and TAs who are having to teach 14 year olds to read and who are picking up the pieces of children who cannot access the curriculum in any meaningful way because of it.

5. Social justice is not an add on to society: it is integral to its functioning and development. It is both an obligation and an opportunity. To argue that we should not support the development of children in disadvantaged households as early as possible is both illogical, diseconomic and inhumane.