Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Reflective teachers, researchers and subversion

I was chatting with @debrakidd about her PhD and she posted this humdinger of a blog about reflective teaching. My post is basically hopping on her ideas bandwagon and shouting a hearty 'I agree'.

Debra had this galvanising nugget in her first paragraph

It is time, there has never been a more important time, to use all the small acts of subversion we can muster in order to ensure that we, as a profession, reclaim the reflective responsibility to act on behalf of the children we teach.

I feel quite sure that to most people outside of teaching- and perhaps to many in it! - these words seem over-the-top or melodramatic. Dramatic they might well be though, and they are necessary when faced with the epic  tragedy that is the slow dismantling of the agency of teachers. Our whimpers aren't heard, our shouts are silenced so Debra is right to be writing with such an urgent tone.

The traditional avenues of teacher dissent don't seem to work. Gove, despite being so aurally endowed, doesn't want to listen. The trade unions can put together national strikes but their impact is felt mostly on the slightly lighter pay-packets many of us are picking up this week. We can't often go to our school management, because the ethos of accountability weighs them down like a succubus; their need for self-preservation all too often leads to them siding with the suits rather than their teachers.

Research, as a form of subversion, affords great great possibility.

The research endeavour fosters a level of reflectivity, and it nurtures a standpoint that is distinct from that of the teacher. So when researching ourselves, as teachers, we learn to put ourselves outside of ourselves. In this way, it becomes much easier to temporarily see past the menial drudgery of hoop-jumping, box-ticking, arbitrary levelling ... instead, we see things are they are from the perspective of a hidden observer.

We see relationships between pupils and teachers dissolve into negativity, as teachers feel the pressure to reap more work from their pupils, at the cost of dialogue, care and other seemingly superfluous phenomena.  Having a discussion with your children is great, but the internet meme of 'pics or it didn't happen' applies: that which is of worth becomes that which is evidenced.

From the standpoint of teacher-researcher, we begin to see our own actions and the actions of those around us with a more joined up and critical eye.

Like Debra, I am currently engaged in further study alongside my teaching and I truly feel that the greatest benefit of the course - an MA in Sociology of Education  - is in my reflective capacity, and on the impact this has on my teaching. Now, I frame the ridiculous workload in the context of global shift towards a neoliberal 'performativity' culture in education - its KPMGisation. 

My studies constantly reaffirm for me that the children I teach are not 'HA/MA/LA' or 'Booster Children' or '2as'. They are complex living changing characters in their own stories, of which I happen to be a small, potentially influential part. They toy with, challenge and negotiate gender. They navigate through ethnicities and perceptions. In tangible ways, they learn to question the injustices and mistruths of authority. They experience themselves as sexual beings. They are caught between childhood, adolescence and adulthood, flitting between these desired identities.

Research not only empowers teachers to look analytically at their own social spaces, and only does it promote reflective practice; research encourages you to swim against the strong torrents that often drag us down into the murky depths of pessimism, cynicism and powerlessness. 

Research, and the act of researching, reminds us of the potential for good that can come about when children and teachers can work together. Despite spending so much time with eachother, this can happen remarkably infrequently.


  1. "Acting on behalf of the children we teach" is the right and proper - and obvious - thing to do. The problem is that the Govists - like the Blunkettites before them - claim that this is exactly what they do when they go on about "driving up standards". Our central task is therefore to challenge the whole concept of a "standards agenda" and expose it for the simplistic nonsense it truly is. Real education demands that we engage our learners & prepare them for life, rather than teaching for tests & exams. This may well sound like a radical and subversive proposition to a generation of young teachers that has been brainwashed and bullied into what you rightly describe as the KPMGisation of education.
    3D Eye

  2. I can't get my head around this at all. Surely academic research needs to expand the sum total of human knowledge, not express a personal opinion? Otherwise why would anyone listen to it? We all have opinions, and the opinion of a teacher with a masters or even a doctorate is not more valuable than that of one without. And what would be the difference between a person who had passed their qualification and one who didn't? They expressed the right opinions? You might as well write a blog as write a dissertation if all you are doing is expressing your views. At least that way you will get some indicator as to whether your opinions make sense to a wider audience with an interest in the topic, rather than a handful of academics who haven't taught in decades.

  3. Realistically, I don't think any research is completely value-free; in anything that involves human interactions, there are going to biases throughout. The difference between good research and bad research though, is being able to account for those biases and either qualify them or at least flag them up. It's naive to see that there are some 'real academics' pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, whilst teachers' attempts to do so amounts to spouting a 'personal opinion' like a drunk in a phonebox. Good research is the following up of opinion with solid evidence and research experience.

    If a highly-regarded scientist produced a paper stating that grass is made of cheese, despite his/her authority in the field of science, I would still doubt and question his/her conclusion because it goes directly against my experience of the grass as being 'not-cheese'. Similarly, the research being produced 'on education' now (not necessarily 'for education') clashes with the priorities and experiences of children and teachers. The current zeitgeist reflects the governmental shift towards accountability, competition, comparison and performativity: this is why we are having the greatness of Finland, South Korea and Singapore shoved down our throats.

    This is where teachers as reseachers can come in. It is only through ensuring that classroom experiences become subject to academic lenses that the experiences and realities 'on the coalface' can gain credence and authority. Teachers as researchers then, by learning the practices of rigorous research, can lend their own perspectives and voices a sense of legitimation and authority within the academic and public spheres.