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Reflecting our students – The need to hold up the Mirror

This started as a blog post on ‘accidental collaboration’, but what it exposed were some far deeper thoughts I’ve been having around how we can apply our teaching pedagogy to our own behaviour in the classroom.

Education has become a silo.

I initially wanted to open this post with the suggestion that we ‘teach’ in silos. However, I quickly came to the realisation that this didn’t quite capture the extent to which individualism and competition drive teaching and learning across Aotearoa. We’ve exist in a culture where schools, teachers and students compete for the top prize. This culture is driven by several key forces but at the heart of this debate is neoliberalism. Neoliberal reforms have “framed education as a commodity for individual economic advancement”, meaning the work of teachers has become “standardised and pressurised” (Sleeter, 2012). Senior leaders, teachers and students are all driven by individual economic advancement. Competition eats at the heart of collaboration. The repercussions of such driving forces are felt at each level.

Across Schools

I recently attended a feedback session on the proposal presented by the Tomorrow's Schools taskforce, which mooted several ideas aimed at promoting equity. At these sessions opponents of the recommendations regularly referred to “their students” (specifically Maori and Pasifika) performing well. For this reason, they argued there was no need for the proposed reforms. The problem with the statements made was the collective pronoun. It suggests that as educators we are only responsible for the “our students”, meaning those in our classroom or school. Surely, our role as educators is broader than the four walls within which we teach. I believe ‘our students’ span Aotearoa; that we are responsible for all students. The minute you frame education through this lens, collaboration across schools becomes second nature.

Unfortunately, in a world where you drive down the motorway and see schools boasting their academic pass rates and dual pathways, promise of such collaboration seems bleak. If education remains commercialised, we will always have winners and losers and our schools will reflect our society; not the promise of something better.

Within Schools

Competition is evident even in the ways teachers collaborate and share resources. I have met many teachers who are loathed to share their hard mahi within their own schools, let alone across schools. At the heart of this thinking is the same competitive driving force. If I’ve done all this hard work and I want my results to look great, then why would I share my resources with other teachers. Again, Sleeter (2012) rightly points out that such neoliberal imperatives grind against the foundations of collaboration. The incentive to share resources is outweighed by the incentive to achieve the highest test scores.

The trouble here is that unless everyone contributes equally, people feel cheated. Remember that group work assignment where you did all the work and research and your friend, who spent the weekend out drinking, got the same mark. My suggestion is that collaboration might require an act of political defiance; that we show grace to our colleagues. That doesn’t mean people get a ‘free pass’ on the mahi involved in collaboration. However, if we can begin to reframe ‘my’ students as those across all classrooms, then sharing our work for their benefit, seems far less troubling. We shift our focus away from the neoliberal imperative of results towards student learning. Competition becomes collaboration when we remember why we are educators, not to achieve the top grades but rather to support young people’s learning.

Within Classrooms

Despite the fact that collaboration should be encouraged by our national qualification, even our students speak the language of competition. The irony of NCEA is that it’s designed to fight the impact of neoliberal imperatives. The implementation of a standards, as opposed to norms based, assessment should reflect a move away from individual achievement and a move towards collective success. However, we’d be lying to ourselves if we believed that NCEA was entirely standards-based. If it were, there’d be no need for grade boundaries. Unfortunately, even our young people are conditioned to understand that individual economic advancement is the language of neoliberal Eurocentric education. We’re living with the hangover of the previous norms-based school certificate. Students don’t see the system as one that support collaboration and their belief remains that only some can achieve excellence.

So, what does all this suggest? Well, it is evident that a focus on the individual seeps into our belief systems, course design and pedagogy and that this jars with the collectivist cultures of priority learners.

If individual economic advancement is the driving force across schools, within schools and in our classrooms then collaboration becomes an act of defiance. If we take a general glance at schools across the country, we’re likely see pockets of collaboration amongst this wider culture that is driving learning. Is this good enough? Imagine if, as educators, we reframed collective identity. If we began believing that our profession was, as Freire envisioned it, a political one (Freire, 1970). If we started to collaborate not just within classrooms and schools but across them.

One of the reasons I love the Vision for Learning that we have adopted at Kelston is that it has a dual nature.

At KBHS learning is about having strong relationships and agency through collaborative and meaningful experiences that reflect the aspirations of our students.

The key foci of strong relationships, agency, collaborative and meaningful experiences can be applied to both students and staff. If we apply this logic to the way we view student collaboration, then it must stand that teachers collaborate in the same way and see the same benefits. Take the following statement:

Discussion increases students’ engagement, helps them take responsibility for their learning, and prompts higher-level thinking.

Is there any reason we couldn’t change the word students to teachers? If we do, then it follows that more discussion amongst teachers will increase our engagement, makes us more agentic and allow us to think at higher level thinking.

And this is the rub; we’re not practicing what we preach.

At the heart of this entire reflection, is the idea that teachers and students are identical. What works for students works for teachers. We espouse daily our knowledge and pedagogy around what works for students. What if we applied this to our own critical reflection? What if we took agency and actually engaged in meaningful, collaborative learning?

We espouse that we don’t want students learning in a framework defined by individualism and competition, so let’s stop teaching in one. It’s time to hold up the mirror.


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