Gloss and light: On PhDs and education debates

by @debsnet

I love a good metaphor. I really do. I blog around metaphors a lot – coaching as strawberry picking, PhD thesis as stone sculpture, selves as kaleidoscopes, connections as webs. Additionally, my PhD data revealed participants’ identity metaphors, which I found invigorating and fascinating to map and interrogate. Metaphors help us to think in different ways. They provide a powerful vehicle and a coherent frame for defining our realities.

So I was interested to read of Brett Salakas’ use of metaphor in his Education Nation keynote this week, ‘PISA Pipe Dreams’. I wasn’t at Education Nation, so only have Twitter and this blog post by Brendan Mitchell on which to base my response. I tweeted some thoughts to Brendan and Brett after I had read the blog post. In my tweets, I noted that I agreed with Brett’s points that education and what works is contextual, that reliance on external testing metrics like PISA needs continued critique, and that education should begin with and be guided by its core purpose. I also had some wonderings around two metaphors Brett used, a couple of which I flesh out below.

Metaphor 1: The glossy PhD

This one got me thinking. Brett had a slide in which he outlined what he was not. One thing he was not, according to this slide, was “someone with a glossy PhD”. As a newly-doctored PhD, I found this way of looking at the Doctor of Philosophy amusing and bemusing. I understand that Brett was outlining his perspective to the audience (and the English teacher in me loves a good adjective), but my experience of the PhD is anything but ‘glossy’.

Gloss suggests both shininess and superficiality. It is shiny and lustrous. A gloss can be a veneer covering a lack of substance or hiding something sinister below the surface. Certainly, I popped champagne and luxuriated in the joy of the beautiful final thesis document, and I’m kind of looking forward to donning my graduation regalia. Yet, the experience of much of the PhD is about being down and dirty, not glossy and sparkling. And certainly not superficial.

To explain the messiness and struggle of the PhD, the rabbit hole became a metaphor for me. I was Alice, tumbling deep into a new world, on a journey of sense-making and self-making. I was simultaneously the rabbit, burrowing into dark earth. Digging, digging, digging, the light far behind me and the unilluminated darkness ahead. The PhD is all about embracing discomfort. It’s about persistence, sweat, tears, keystrokes, insomnia, the pit of despair and occasionally the triumph when breakdowns turn to breakthroughs. It’s the ultimate in transformative learning. And it is hard. Stories of struggle abound. It’s the opposite of gloss and glamour. It’s wailing at a computer screen while wearing your least fashionable pajamas. It’s furrowing your brow for hours at a time as you pour over literatures in an attempt to understand the world in new ways and through new eyes. It’s spending years obsessing over an issue about which you feel passion deep at your core. It is reading and writing and deleting and re-writing and gnashing teeth.

Am I someone with a PhD? Yep. Is it glossy? I don’t think so (although I might buy some fabulous shoes to wear to graduation). I’m someone deeply marked with that experience in the way I think, read, write, learn, talk, assess evidence, and work through critical feedback from others. I know more now about all that I don’t know. I still have the dirt of the rabbit hole beneath my fingernails and the scrapes on my knees from a personal and intellectual journey that was rough and wonderful, not soft and silken.

Metaphor 2: Be the light in the darkness

In his blog post, Brendan shared that the takeaway message from Brett’s keynote was that we as educators need to be beacons of positivity to stave off the darkness and the negativity. In some ways I agree with the notion of ‘being the light’. I tend to be someone who is less combative and more co-operative. I advocate for compassionate and graceful debate, rather than divisive attack. I celebrate and advocate, rather than confront or complain.

However, I also see some dangers in the notion that educators embrace being positive and shining light, without considering ‘the darkness’ or negativity. Some of the most famous stories have two sides, both deeply committed to their cause and believing that their position is right. Folk heroes like Robin Hood and Ned Kelly can be seen as criminal outlaws or people’s heroes, depending on point of view. The Star Wars Rebel Alliance can be viewed as the goodies, or as a rag-tag band of terrorists disturbing the order of the Galactic Empire. I’ve been in school leadership roles now for 15 years, and the more I have led, the more I have learned to value those who question or resist. I ask myself: What can we learn from the perspectives of those who don’t agree, don’t embrace new change, or who have negative things to say? Where are they coming from? How might this change be made meaningful for them? What might be missing? What might their points of view offer? Negative or oppositional voices are not ‘the darkness’, but rather alternate perspectives to be heard, understood and considered.

Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman, in The Adaptive School: A source book for developing collaborative groups, point out that high functioning groups are not happy agreeable places. In fact, they say that low functioning groups tend to be polite and reluctant to engage in dialogue about differences. High functioning groups are ones that embrace cognitive conflict and graceful disagreement.

But not all disagreement is helpful. Unproductive conflict, Garmston and Wellman argue, includes disagreements over personalised, individually-oriented matters which are destructive and lead to decreased empathy and poorer decisions. Productive conflict, on the other hand, is where substantive differences of opinion are thoughtfully thrashed out in order to increase empathy, develop understanding and make better decisions. In productive disagreement, the aim is to understand conflicting viewpoints and honour all perspectives while working together towards a decision.

If the education community is to be a high functioning one, it too needs to be ok with being challenged and with productive disagreement. We need to poke around in the darkness, trying to understand and illuminate it. Finding ways forward in education is less about divisive arguments or staving off those with whom we don’t agree. It’s more about seeking to understand competing perspectives in order to agree on the why, how and what of education, so we can do the best job for our students.

Thanks to Brendan and Brett for getting me thinking.