Developing our Critical Lenses.

In my thirties I had a 9 year gap from teaching in the UK whilst my husband and I studied and then worked overseas for a charity. Afterwards, back in Britain, I tuned back into teaching by doing a Return to Teaching Course. I loved the course and re-engaging with teaching and returning to the KS2 classroom.

One of the things that had changed in my 9 year absence from teaching was the introduction of levelling. I was shocked at the apparent “sausage machine” aspect to schools that had crept in during my time away. I remember the first time someone explained to me that the scores achieved on SATS at 7 years old were then tracked. This meant that throughout Key Stage 2 we had to ensure a certain number of levels of attainment every two years so that they would finish their Year 6 SATS in line with or exceeding the expected level in relation to what had been achieved in Year 2. I was horrified. I went home that day wondering how we could be treating children like this, like sausages in a factory on a conveyor belt all expected to turn out the same and at the same time.

I carried this question around with me for the next seven years.

Why do we measure?

Eventually, holding out my question of “how can we make education more life-giving (and less like a sausage factory)?” I began to understand where the “sausage machine” mentality had come from. Not only was it an effort to raise standards in education but measuring in summative ways through high-stakes tests had become about competition. Not just locally or nationally but also on the globally.

The Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), measures a sample of fifteen year olds every year in 80 countries worldwide. Whilst the aim of PISA is to help countries make their education systems more inclusive leading to equitable outcomes, inevitably it leads to a kind of global league table where countries are trying to get to the top. This then feeds our preoccupation with measuring, comparing and competing. What’s wrong with that? You might ask. What is wrong with that is that the countries at the top of the PISA table have higher numbers of mental health issues and suicides among teenagers than the countries lower down. There is a correlation. There is a cost. What’s wrong with that is that it, along with many of our other educational measuring systems, it treats children and young people like numbers and statistics rather than human beings.

What else could underlie this competitive mindset?

Looking further and thinking through this reality of global measuring and competition, I read about neoliberalism. Henry and Susan Giroux (2006) explain it this way:

Neoliberalism has become one of the most pervasive and dangerous ideologies of the twenty-first century. Its pervasiveness is evident not only by its unparalleled influence on the global economy but also in its power to redefine the very nature of politics and sociality. Free market fundamentalism rather than democratic idealism is now the driving force of economics and politics in most of the world. Its logic, moreover, has insinuated itself into every social relationship, such that the specificity of relations between parents and children, doctors and patients, teachers and students has been reduced to that of supplier and customer... Wedded to the belief that the market should be the organizing principle for all political, social, and economic decisions, neoliberalism wages an incessant attack on democracy, public goods, the welfare state, and noncommodified values.”

In a nutshell, everything has been commodified and is in the marketplace, even education. In beginning to understand this word “neoliberalism”, I began to understand what was behind the “sausage factory” mentality. I began to recognise why I had been so shocked and upset about levelling children and why it felt so dehumanising seven years earlier. If the marketplace had become the organising principle of the planet, no wonder things felt a little “off”. Michael Apple sums it up well: “Neoliberalism opens a space for certain identities and closes down others, it gives people one option of who they are. They are consumers. "

Is teaching political?

One of the impacts of neoliberalism is that our curriculum, pedagogy, resources, text books and teacher training can be organised to help maintain this status quo which privileges some and ends up oppressing others. Finally, I had woken up to the fact that being a teacher is political and that I had never understood that before.

So how might we use our agency as teachers, to resist or disrupt this underlying organising principle in the world? How can we bring dignity and respect where neoliberalism has de-humanised and commodified even our children? Is there a way to mitigate against these forces in our classroom practice? Often it can feel like there isn’t, that we do not have a voice, that Governments are not listening to teachers.

This is where critical pedagogy, I believe, can be so powerful. Instead of going along with everything we begin to use critical, justice-oriented mind frames to ask questions and to teach in a way that invites students into these conversations so that they begin to develop their own critical lenses. Together, bit by bit, we begin to be able to see what is fair or unfair, what is just or unjust, what is equal or unequal, where there is bias or prejudice. And as we take that journey we and our students become equipped and empowered to use our voices and to understand how to be a part of bringing change. Change that is life-giving.

To finish, these words by Daniel Liston and Jim Garrison inspire me:

“With this critical capacity, love can disrupt and disrupt the reigning order, not in a violent or harmful fashion, but with creative and caring energies.”

Further Reflection

Where and how do you see the organising principle of neoliberalism at work in the world? How does that make you feel?

Where in your own life do you see privilege or a desire to maintain the status quo? Why do you think that is?

Where in your own life are there areas of unconscious bias? Where do you think they come from?

Do you notice anything in your school setting and ethos or your own classroom practice which might be upholding the privilege of one group whilst ignoring or not recognising another? Why do you think that happens?

Do you see teaching as a political engagement in society? Why or why not?

Further Reading

Michael Apple (2013) Can Education Change Society? Chapter 1. Routledge.

Henry and Susan Giroux (2006) Challenging Neoliberalism’s New World Order: The Promise of Critical Pedagogy. Cultural Studies-Cultural Methodologies Journal.

Daniel Liston and Jim Garrison (eds) Teaching, Learning and Loving. RoutledgeFalmer.

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