The index-cardification of education

This blog post (a kind of montage-pastiche of educational observations) was inspired by Jon Andrews’ wonderful post today, Trouble Brewing at Snake Mountain High, which used the characters of He-Man and Skeletor to make some very powerful comments about education.

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The following is a transcript of a podcast in which Dr Adora, school principal at Etheria College, speaks to Mr Hordak, head consultantpreneur at the Institute of Think Tankery and Toolkitisms.

Adora: Hello Mr Hordak. Thank you for joining me for this week’s Education Newsroom podcast.

Hordak: Thanks, Dr Adora. It’s great to be here. I’m looking forward to clearing up some common misconceptions about our work and sharing some of the great things we’re doing at the Institute.

Adora: Your work at the Institute has caused some backlash in the educational community …

Hordak: Well, we at the Institute of Think Tankery and Toolkitisms are getting a bit sick of being called ‘the Evil Horde’ in the media. We are doing excellent work. We have developed toolkits which really distil the business of teaching down to its essence. There’s no reason for teachers and schools to get caught up in worrying about research and innovation and such. We’ve done all the hard work for you! Our toolkits each provide a one-page summary which tells you all you need to know. About teaching literacy in the early years for instance. Or about instruction in the sciences. Or assessment. It’s index cards for the profession, if you like.

Adora: But Mr Hordak, you aren’t listening to the profession. Those working in schools want to engage in thinking about, reflecting on and interrogating our practices. We want to engage in research literatures and what insights these might offer to our own contexts. We enjoy engaging in robust debate that teases out our understandings or challenges us to think differently and act deliberately. As a principal, I don’t want a one-size-fits-all straightjacket or a one page simplification of the complex work my staff and I do. I want my teachers to consider the needs of their students, the idiosyncrasies of our school and the ways in which we might work together to serve our students.

Hordak: Let me interrupt you there, Dr Adora. We at the Institute make your work easier. We make sure your people are doing teaching right. We cut through the mumbo jumbo and the disputes between educational factions who are constantly warring and disagreeing about what should and shouldn’t be done. You can say goodbye to having to listen to experts and academics and teachers banging on about their apparent knowledge and expertise and, ahem, research studies. We’ve done the analyses and the diagrammatic representationising and the product researchervisation. We are experts in education thinkification and edu-preneurial-innovationism. You don’t need to do all that time consuming thrashing about with ideas, or unproductive action research in professional learning communities. For too long the concept of teaching has been spiralling out of control into some kind of overblown and meaningless discussion. We’ve given it meaning again. Clear, indisputable meaning.

Adora: But as you noted, Mr Hordak, those actually on the ground, teaching and leading in schools, don’t like the way you’ve distilled teaching down into atomised parts. Teaching and school leadership aren’t things you can streamline into wafer-thin pieces. School culture isn’t something you can cook up from a shake-and-bake packet. These things are contested for a reason. They are complex. They are nuanced. They are contextual.

Hordak: Types like you won’t ever come to understand what we at the Institute understand. Overthinking, egomaniacal principals like you will continue to ‘lead’ your schools into the ground. Why overwork your teachers when you have the short, sweet recipes for success at your fingertips? Even now my Think Tankery minions are finialising our brand management and commodification procedures. My Toolkitists are reassessing our pictorial illustrations for their effective cognitive impactiness and persuasivity.

Adora: To me your toolkits and pictures-of-practice sound like Orwell’s totalitarian Newspeak, in which the complexities of thought and action are deliberately limited through the distilling of language down to parts. This no longer allows the kinds of thinking we want teachers and leaders to be doing. You are attempting to control teaching in order to make money. In doing so, you are destroying the profession, not helping it.

Hordak: That’s where you’re wrong, Dr Adora, so very very wrong. We are purists. Our index-cardification of education allows not only the guidance of practice, but also its measurement. You can have all the data you’ll ever need. Our one page summaries aren’t just index cards, they’re score cards. Everyone from principals like yourself to education ministers can easily and quickly score teachers against our simple formulae in order to determine their effectiveness and punish or reward them as appropriate. Failing teachers and failing schools have never been easier to identify. This is the future of education! At this very moment we are in discussions with the Ministry of Education in order to distribute the work of the Institute throughout the country. We will influence every school and every teacher. Mwahahahahhh!

Adora: Well, that’s all we have time for today, Mr Hordak, but I’m sure there are many educators around the nation despairing at the thought that organisations like yours might have power over the important work that they do.

End of transcript.

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An afterword …

Since writing this post, the following blog posts have been written by other bloggers exploring satire and/or 80s icons as lenses into educational issues. They are well worth a read.

A pedagogy of Astro Boy, by Stewart Riddle

The Missing Superheroes, by Corinne Campbell

Eye on Education, by Mark Johnson

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(Disrupting) disruption in business, academia & education

disruption: dis·rup′tion n. ~ from the Latin disruptionem ~ “a breaking asunder”; to break apart, split, shatter.

While the dictionary definition of disruption points to breaking apart, in fact now disruption often means to make anew. In business, disruption is about creating new markets and discovering undiscovered needs. Traditional products and modes are replaced by new business models, new technologies and new ways of appropriating the old. Google’s now-defunct ‘20% time’, which instigated ‘genius hour’ in classrooms around the world, was designed to nurture disruptive, moon-shot thinking. Often Uber, Airbnb and Apple are touted as examples of businesses which have displaced other services with their innovative thinking. Businesses and entrepreneurs like to see themselves as ‘disruptive’ because this means they are radical, ground-breaking and on-the-bleeding-edge of innovation.

As an English and Literature teacher, I am drawn to teaching texts which were either disruptive in their context, challenging socio-political status quos, or which feature disruptive characters. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, feature films like The Matrix and The Hurt Locker. These texts allow me to challenge and extend students’ thinking, inciting discussion about humanity, history and ethics. They allow us to interrogate dominant belief systems and representations, and dig into our own values, attitudes and assumptions. Being a critical questioner of everything, including ourselves, is a key to disruption.

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

Tootle the disruptor-train goes off-track

One of the books I read my own small children is Tootle, Gertrude Crampton and Tibor Gergely’s 1945 children’s book (you can see the Tootle birthday cake I made in this post on PhD-as-cake). In it, the young engine called Tootle breaks the firm rule ‘Staying on the Rails No Matter What’. Instead, he frolics through fields, making daisy chains, racing horses, talking to frogs and crushing buttercups. I continue to be dismayed that, unsurprisingly for a 1945 text, Tootle ends up complying with the rules. Rather than celebrating his individualism and his new way of being a train, he tows the line like every other locomotive. Each time I read the story, I want to shout through the pages: ‘Go your own way, little train! It’s ok to be different and subversive and joyful and live a life off the subscribed journey!‘ Clearly this says more about me than it does about the story.

In the blogosphere, I follow traditional academics, as well as independent off-centre researchers who are questioning, through action, what being an academic might look like. My PhD research uses a bricolaged paradigm and a fairly unconventional approach to writing up participant data. Bricolage refers to a kind of drawing together of a range of traditions to make a bespoke, rather than off-the-rack, approach, tailored to the particular research problem. This might be considered disruptive in the sense that it rethinks well-worn traditions and stitches them back together in a new form. Perhaps my inability to conform to one research approach is a bit like my inability to follow a recipe in the kitchen, where I’m always using recipes as a kind of springboard-guide, if I use them at all. But disruption isn’t just failing to conform, it’s finding new ways, forging new paths, building new possibilities. It’s providing alternatives to accepted ways of doing things. I think it’s so important that we define what terms mean for ourselves and our sectors, before we begin bandying and bandwagoning them about with reckless, jubilant abandon.

Some educators see the job of education as to nurture the innovative thinking of students, to prepare them for uncertain futures. In education, words like ‘edu-preneur’, ‘edu-innovation’ and ‘disruptive education’ have become popular. In my Twitter bio, I’ve used the word ‘disruptor’, to suggest that I am someone who questions and pushes at the boundaries of what is known and what is accepted, but I have questions around the thinking and behaviours of some self-professed disruptors. The irony is not lost on me; perhaps I should rethink my Twitter bio, but I like delicious words like ‘disruptor’ and ‘flâneuse’. Therein lies part of the problem. Trendy-sounding words are seductive. We like to roll them around in our mouths and social media feeds. 

On the one hand, I know business owners, writers, academics and educators who thoughtfully question the status quo, pushing the boundaries of practice and questioning accepted ways of thinking and acting. These people and their organisations are taking risks and building alternative ways of being in the world. Yet I’ve also noticed that some others bristle when their pithy, jargonistic talk of ‘being disruptive’ is questioned. Sometimes self-professed disruptors don’t take well to being challenged, or disrupted. Sometimes advocates of more traditional approaches or technologies attempt to disrupt the disruptors, but are shot down for being old-hat, stuck-in-the-past or not-on-the-bleeding-edge. Sometimes the whole discussion breaks down into paradigm-war name-slinging. I’ve spoken before about the importance of robust, respectful discussions in which we are ok with graceful disagreement and are able to listen to opposing viewpoints with compassion. I think if disruption is embraced, those doing the disruption should embrace deeper interrogation of their ideas than slick presentations or 140-character tweets might allow. This is why I love blogging and podcasts; they deepen conversation.

So, I approach the idea of disruption with both fascination and healthy scepticism. I do think we should ask what it is that might need disrupting, and why. Or perhaps what might need reconsidering, or consolidating, or investigating, or researching, or rebuilding. When buzzword-saturated talk of disruption becomes the unquestioned norm, perhaps it is those who question the dominant discourse of disruptors who are the most truly disruptive. Let’s not forget to be questioning, critical thinkers, especially within echo chambers of (disruptive, or other) discourse.

Advances are made by answering questions. Discoveries are made by questioning answers. ~ Bernhard Haisch

'Wave 1' by Annette Thas

‘Wave 1’ by Annette Thas