Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable. – Milton Friedman
Dr Robert Stratford,
Assistant Principal of Mana College in Takapuwahia
This quote, from one of the Godfathers of neoliberalism, is a reminder to me that you can always learn from people you disagree with. For a world dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘actual’ nature of this crisis has forced many of us to draw on the ideas ‘lying around’ and apply them to secondary schooling at a time of lockdown.
There is much that we will continue to learn along the way. Sadly, there will be ongoing economic and social fallout from this global pandemic and this will continue to pile stress on our communities and schools. That said, if we are to continue to grow and develop schooling, there is still a need to reflect on what ‘ideas’ and ‘alternatives’ have emerged from this time and apply them to a world already enmeshed in a series of social, pedagogical and ecological crises. This blog post then, is an attempt to both acknowledge Milton Friedman’s homage to ‘crisis’, but also, ironically enough, highlight what ongoing creative, and even politically impossible possibilities, might inform secondary schooling beyond COVID-19 and an otherwise neoliberal educational context.
The first creative possibilities to consider is our ‘Googled’ education system. During the lockdown there’s been a seismic shift towards Google Classrooms, Docs, forms, ‘Meets’ and ‘Hangouts’. We have also seen such generic pedagogical platforms as Education Perfect, Stile and so on, massively introduce useful, universal and decontextualised curricula that students have been able to complete at their own pace.
Some haven’t of course, for a variety of reasons. But the addition of such technological, distance learning platforms has piqued the imaginations of teachers who can see how the advantages of these platforms could lead to all manner of blended learning possibilities in the future. Why, for example, be limited to one subject teacher? Why not have teachers collaborate and share resources – both in school and beyond? What’s wrong with having students working through an individualised programme, with the support of mentor teachers who know them well?
I won’t try and list all the specific initiatives that could inform the new ‘blended’ normal. I look forward to using much of what I’ve learnt, but I’m also wary of the non-neutrality of technology. Technology reflects a rationality and set of assumptions that make it much more than ‘just a tool’. In short form we might wonder: are we using technology, or is technology shaping us as efficient and nihilistic consumers? Some of us might be adventurous enough to explore this through the work of Martin Heidgger, among other education philosophers (see, for example Michael Peters or Chet Bowers). And while I won’t try to rewrite those arguments here, I would point out that our futures need to have much more meaning and depth than the technological rationalism built into this nevertheless useful educational technology.
Poverty and inequality
One of the key ways we need to continue to be creative should be how we respond to poverty and inequality in education. As Ivan Snook and John O’Neill have argued, the New Zealand education context has been hampered by overly simplistic views on being poor in Aotearoa. Many of these views have minimised the role played by socio-economic backgrounds. If nothing else, the COVID-19 context should have cemented in the minds of policy-makers and educators that poverty and inequality strongly influence educational outcomes. Creatively speaking, just as so many school staff are doing now – responding to the lack of access to decent devices, food, housing and health care needs to be a central aspect of improved education policy.
Wellbeing and Place
Aside from better theory and action on poverty and inequality, there is a need to understand schooling alongside the realisation that students are full human beings, interconnected to communities, whānau and iwi. While technology and poverty can make education (and life in general) somewhat meaningless, belonging to a Place – a community and family, speaks to what it means to be healthy. We see this in the best educational practice now – online or otherwise – when teaching and learning is concerned with flourishing across multiple domains (such as Te Whare Tapa Wha) and students are active participants in improving their health and the health of their surroundings. To borrow from the work of Wally Penetito – we need education that helps students know ‘who they are’, ‘where they are’ and, additionally, ‘what they can do to help out’.
Teacher, whānau and student partnership and agency
As much as the lockdown, technology and poverty can have a limiting effect on education, the compassion and creativity of teachers, whānau and students underlines that better relationships can come from our current context. While many students and whanau have really struggled at this time, some have also enjoyed the freedom, choice and partnership with teachers that has ensued. Many staff have developed relationships with students and those at home that could not have easily developed through institutional norms. These relationships form the basis of ongoing cultural responsiveness in education and reflect dialogue and problem-solving for meaningful learning.
New ways of working – teachers and learners
An aspect that really needs a full creative examination after COVID is the question of whether we need to do school from 9am to 3pm. So much of what happens at school is as ceremonial as it is pedagogical. Alternatively, what’s wrong in having students working from home one or two days a week – every week – especially when they can choose which teachers, students, community members and whānau they may want to work with on a project? What’s the potential to build partnerships with whānau and iwi to develop rich kaitiaki projects? Why do we also have to lock teachers to a timetable, when so many flexible part-time and full-time working options could be built into teaching and learning from here on?
One of the curiosities from this time is the interconnections that exist between the impact of COVID and the wider context of a world in ecological crisis. Watching animals take back deserted urban spaces, or the momentarily shrinking of our carbon footprint, are more than side bars in otherwise grim night time news reports. Being kinder to the planet is a key point to the education system, as is connecting with our learners and our communities. If we can remember these fundamentals, and the creative ways we can build this into our future education system, then renewed ‘impossible’ creative possibilities can help give education its full meaning.
Dr Robert Stratford was a Doctoral Scholarship holder at the University of Waikato as well as a 2015 winner of a prestigious international scholarship from Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia (PESA). His thesis examined Higher Education and the Anthropocene and how tertiary education policy in New Zealand could respond to the Global Ecological Crisis. His supervisors were Professor Michael Peters and Associate Professor E Jayne White. He is currently the Assistant Principal of Mana College in Western Porirua, focusing on developing a school-wide approach to Place-Based education.