In education: To whom should we listen?

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Today I had the privilege of being part of the ‘Extreme After Dinner Speakers Club’, a main stage event at the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement, held this year in Marrakech.

This session had me sharing the stage with Michael Fullan, Lee Elliott-Major, Cecilia Azorín, Dean Fink, Pooja Nakamura and Jihad Hajjouji.

Pierre Tulowitzki was the compare, revving up the audience and introducing each speaker. We each entered to a piece of music we had chosen, and we each spoke for 8 minutes on something in education about which we are passionate. There were no audio visual supports, and certainly no PowerPoint slides. It was just each speaker under a single spotlight.

I share my speech below. (You’ll need to imagine the strains of Roxette’s ‘Dangerous’ playing as I entered.)

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Teaching can be a personal, political and dangerous act.

I’m an English and Literature teacher, and an avid reader, so I love metaphors as a tool for making meaning. I often find myself comparing education to the worlds of various texts.

One metaphor that’s resonated with me is that being in education can feel like existing in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an 1865 novel about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world with strange creatures and absurd goings on. This metaphor is a playful way to consider education reform and examine to whom we should listen in education.

The novel is set simultaneously in Victorian England and in the imaginary world of Wonderland. The characters in the novel are constrained by the worlds in which they exist. The regimentations of Victorian England reflect the constraints of our current education systems. There are rigid rules of the education game, and inflexible, standardised and often externally imposed, indicators of success against which teachers, school leaders and schools are measured.

In Wonderland there’s a lack of equity, with some characters having huge amounts of power, and others existing without agency. The autocratic Queen of Hearts might be seen as the international culture of testing, accountability and performativity. She’s a force for panic and alarm, imposing a narrow focus of right and wrong. Characters race around anxiously in fear of her.

In our education systems, teachers might be seen as the White Rabbit: rushed, watching the time, constantly in a hurry to meet expectations and ever-increasing workloads. Teachers are mostly absent in the formulation of policy, on advisory boards, and on media panels. Often so-called ‘experts’ speak for or about teachers and schools. Everyone has an opinion on education and on teaching. Teachers themselves are often undermined or deprofessionalised.

School leaders could also be seen as the Rabbit, buckling under deadlines, external pressures and challenges to their wellbeing. Leaders might alternatively be conceptualised as the Cheshire Cat, doing often invisible work and empowering others through just-in-time advice as they shift in and out of the spotlight, constantly code switching and operating in multiple contexts almost simultaneously.

In the novel, the Eaglet says,

“Speak English! . . . I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!”

Education buzzwords can become nonsense language devoid of meaning. Academic writing can seem impenetrable to practitioners. Contradictory advice abounds, and those of us working in schools and in research must make sense of multiple competing voices.

To whom should we listen?

As a teacher, school leader, coach and researcher, I feel a lot like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole and muddling my way through a foreign landscape. Belonging and not belonging. Betwixt and between. Constantly working to make sense of the education world, to sort through a sea of information, and to make my own voice, and the voice of my profession, heard.

I’ve taught in schools—in Australia and England—for 20 years. I’ve been a school leader for almost as long. In middle leadership positions, I shared the voices of senior leadership down, and the voices of teachers up. Now as a member of a school executive, I eke out the voices of teachers, students and families, in order that we can improve in ways relevant to our context. When I speak and write, I am a voice of my profession.

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

Like Wonderland, which seems confusing to the newcomer Alice, schools and education systems are non-linear ecologies of complexity and interlocking relationships. In schools, we navigate competing demands with the needs of our students and the moral purpose of the greater good. In schools, change happens in ways that researchers and school boards don’t or can’t suppose. The work of schools is not easily quantifiable. In fact, measuring and ranking schools and education systems can diminish the humanity of education. Often what we can measure is not what actually matters.

Wonderland was perhaps Lewis Carroll’s way of pushing back against the regimentations of England at the time, a way of embracing chaos, surprise and wonder. Many teachers and school leaders, too, resist external demands or play the accountability game while working hard to protect and serve their students in ways that embrace their humanity.

Metaphors work because of their recognisability, but as I reflect on the metaphor I’m sharing today, I realise that it’s limited and potentially dangerous. There are so many versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that meaning can get muddied and diluted. More worrying, however, are the biases inherent in metaphor. This metaphor has a Western origin. While the novel has been translated into almost 100 languages, it is a work of English-language fiction. It’s by a white male British author. It’s set in upper-middle-class England. How, I wonder, does this exclude particular views of education? Does it marginalise some from accessing its meaning? Does sharing this metaphor promote a linear, masculine, white and Western view of education, based on hierarchical structures and economic agendas?

So when I think about the question – To whom should we listen? – the answer is manifold.

We should listen to researchers who interrogate what we know about education. We should talk with policymakers who oversee the big picture. We should listen to parents. We should listen to students who are the core of our work and our why. We should certainly listen to teachers.They are experts whose professional experience and judgement should be a key part of education discourse.

In the book Flip the System Australia my co-editors and I worked to include a range of voices. Dr Kevin Lowe, one of our Indigenous authors, pointed out that Aboriginal contributions are often tacked on to the end of books, if they appear at all, as an afterthought. He challenged us to think carefully about not just who we included, but also where we situated particular voices.

We all do need to listen to each other. But this is not enough.

As we consider to whom we should listen in our work in school effectiveness and improvement, we need to carefully interrogate whose voices are being invited and amplified. We need to include those often marginalised by or excluded from the dominant narrative.  We need to embrace diversity rather than homogenisation. We also need to consider the risks to individuals and groups in sharing their views publicly. Often those who are the most vulnerable in our systems feel the least able to speak up and speak out. We need, however, to seek out, and make space at the highest levels, for voices that will move us towards democratic, equitable and inclusive education for all.