Presented at the ACU Blackfriars Lecture July 30, 2019
Part 3: How Do We Do It?
What are the risks to teachers who want to be critical consumers?
Teachers who become critically reflective are at risk, of course, of being marginalised, because when we ask awkward questions, we're also asking people to account for their decisions and actions.
We're also at risk of losing our innocence. Teaching is complex, contradictory, confusing and chaotic. Sadly, there are no neat solutions for difficult problems in education. We teachers are beautiful, unformed, unfinished projects and true examples of lifelong learning. When we recognise this essential ambiguity, we suddenly lose our innocence, and those rose-coloured glasses aren't so rose-coloured, anymore!
So how do we do it?
There are six excellent ways in which we can be brave critical consumers:
- Form collegial relationships. Find a professional friend or team willing to engage in some hard conversations with you that won’t solve all of education’s ills, but will keep you engaged and on your toes.
- Value your own experience, which is not to be discounted as subjective and unreliable.
- Take some time to locate and study the best research you can find. Put on your critical literacy hat to think about who’s writing it, and for what purpose? What are their affiliations? What are they trying to achieve? I think the best research I’ve engaged with has been deeply, professionally disturbing and dissonant. That was never a bad thing!
- Interrogate and articulate your values and your personal teaching philosophy, and be sure of what you believe, in order that you’ll be able to effectively manage the inevitable trade-offs as the emperor's procession moves ahead, regardless.
- Insist on an educational discourse that espouses the values we hold to be true. Ask questions. Ask for clarification. Ask for a reference. This is how we’re going to encourage rigorous respectful professional discussion, a bit of intellectual argy-bargy, and improve the ability of others to deal with critical comments and analysis. We’re doing them a favour! Don’t sit in silence going along with half-baked ideas - not in the staff room, not in Twitterverse.
- Find a good leadership team. Yes, indeedy. Find a leadership team who are willing to have you engage in a measure of intellectual struggle as you make approximations toward a desired pedagogical approach. Stick with a passionate team of leaders with patience and tenacity of vision, who will encourage you to be creative, to experiment with new practices, and to fail sometimes.
Teaching requires acknowledging and balancing competing goals and values for education. We should encourage each other to find safe spaces in which these tensions are acknowledged and discussed. Let's engage in democratic conversations where we have opportunities to wrestle with ideas and develop oppositional imaginations that critique, resist, and rebel - conversations that empower teachers to contest the groupthink, and take a stand for their values, and for social justice. As the media, the system, and the gurus myopically pursue their own interests outside the work of the classroom, let’s not let them squeeze out comprehensive and robust discussion about the nature of knowledge, of schooling, of curriculum, of assessment, and of teaching.
So, be confident to ask the awkward questions. Undertake critical reflection about your practice. Be brave, critical consumers of research. Be like the child in the story...
Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Emperor's new clothes! Don't they fit him to perfection? And see his long train!" Nobody would confess that they couldn't see anything, for that would prove them either unfit for their position, or a fool.
"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.
"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said the child’s father. And each person whispered to another what the child had said.
"He hasn't anything on! A child says he hasn't anything on!"
At last, the whole town cried out: "But he hasn't got anything on!" The Emperor was embarrassed and troubled, for he suspected they were right.
But he thought, "This procession has got to go ahead." He walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.