I teach, therefore I am.
Positive activism is something that I have become convinced of as a way to understand how we can improve education. For me it means an engagement in fighting for the change in education that you want to see through positive action, whether that be in the form of public speaking or writing, or through the establishment of active education groups or policy at national or school level. Over the last few weeks I’ve been at two events which epitomise this thinking: Pedagoo London and the Education Reform Summit. What both events had in common was a sense of optimism about education but also engagement with the challenges present.
Positive activism has to subscribe to both the uplifting, supportive nature of collaboration but also critically to the struggle – the difficult thinking and debate which demands more of your thinking. In thinking about this I’ve realised it poses a problem: you can’t be an activist for change in education without having a clear set of values and philosophy about what that education should look like; yet as a community we lack unity. At the Education Reform Summit, I heard leaders and politicians talk positively about collaboration and sharing of ideas. In a talk on technology, Richard Culatta, spoke about the benefits of using online platforms and digital recording to capture and disseminate good practice. All of this sounds great and appeals to my need for the profession to take charge and work together. But how do we share good practice if we don’t agree on what that looks like? Does collaboration and support fall flat if it simply means us all politely agreeing with each other?
I discussed this with John Blake (who was delighted to rock up just at the moment the speaker started talking about personalised learning). We talked about the potential danger of the grassroots movement becoming another forum for sharing bad practice or for reducing good practice so much that it becomes bad practice. I also had a Twitter exchange about this, which again led to a discussion of values and ethos.
The solution comes back to the importance of engaging with the challenges to your own way of thinking. Where this is really critical is perhaps at that point of tension between people who have similar educational values and philosophy but differ in the ways they approach this on the ground. If you argue with someone who completely opposes your values and philosophy of education, there is a danger you just back into corners. Likewise we also need to avoid surrounding ourselves with ‘yes’ men. We need to know more and be more critical of the knowledge we receive as a consequence. I know I can be in danger of being lulled into the sense of knowledge through reading a tweet or a blog or a piece of research from someone I respect. It requires us to be a bit tougher with our positive activism. We have to be willing to stand up and speak forthrightly and to expect to have to defend our ideas as a consequence.
This requires a shift in the way we approach our ‘collaborations’. It’s a fine line. I think the supportive community of educators is essential; there has to be a sense that you are safe to share your practice without feeling you will be torn down. This is why I keep focusing on the idea of ‘positivity’ – I think we have to assume that people really believe they are doing the right thing, even if we think it is wrong. Starting from that platform means our criticisms are constructive rather than personal. However for collaboration to be meaningful we have to embrace the ‘challenge model’ outlined by Ty Goddard at the EdReform Summit. We have to move beyond the conversation around reform and start enacting it. In reality I see this being smaller groups of teachers and schools with shared values working together to develop policy/curriculum/pedagogy which is formed through the fighting out of ideas and then evaluated once in practice. Andreas Schleicher spoke eloquently about the successes in other countries where they have taken a very active and resourced approach to developing CPD and ensuring collaboration. Whilst this was largely popular, it did bring up some questions about the consequences such as increasing class sizes. I also worry we can sometimes use “the system” as an excuse for not making change – Schleicher spoke of how “people naturally favour the status quo; they’re afraid of change”. I’d agree with that and think we are stronger when we work to make change rather than getting hung up on what is wrong now: challenge but take action.
This can begin for teachers at training level; teachers should be taught the range of ideas and evidence present in education but also how to be critical consumers of this theory and research. Mostly so they can challenge anyone who presents an idea to them with the phrase ‘the research says’. John commented that a focus on knowledge within teacher training would potentially ensure teachers have the knowledge background to engage with the big ideas of education and to contribute to the debate.
The message I took away from the day and from Pedagoo was about the importance of debate – something which Tristram Hunt admirably mentioned in his speech at the summit – and the essential need for action as a consequence. If the profession is to be taken seriously in its intent to reform education; it has to embrace the ideas of celebration, ambition and inspiration as espoused by Education Foundation through taking positive, fearless action.