Sunday 28 August 2016

Pro-social education in posthuman times

I originally wrote this piece after Brexit and the murder of Jo Cox.  Having recently returned from the 'Posthuman Glossary ' summer school at Utrecht University, I am more convinced than ever of the need to re-examine our educational worlds, structures, challenges and conflicts through an affirmative lens.  We need to accept that regardless of how frustrated we feel by the systems we are in (be it our own organisation, educational system or even more widely, advanced capitalism) we do not sit outside of it, we are part of it.   We are, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, 'agents of the very forces we try to resist.'  If we agree that this is the case (and some of course may not!), what might we do differently?  How can we continue to resist, but also sustain ourselves - working with traditional forms of power, but necessarily seeking out new possibilities, for a world moving rapidly beyond the 'human'?

Canals of Utrecht
'Think, we must' (from Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf) was the recurring phrase of the summer school, and the emphasis was on collective and collaborative reimaginings of the world we find ourselves in.  Not for or to our students, but with them, be it through pedagogical relationships which may be rhizomatic and go beyond the classroom walls, creative, art-based processes that allow students the scope to think 'what if?,' and co-constructed curricula that fill in the missing voices of past and allow us to think about the present.  The pro-social models of democratic education I wrote about back in June may be helpful here too in a practical sense.  I would love to know of any other ideas you have for moving us forward in a spirit of resistance and affirmation.

Since the death of Jo Cox last week, the phrase I keep returning to in my mind is 'educate out hate'; and it is present here today in this important New York Times piece by Henry Giroux, who writes about the 'violence of forgetting':

' is fundamental to democracy. No democratic society can survive without a formative culture which includes but is not limited to schools capable of producing citizens who are critical, self-reflexive, knowledgeable and willing to make moral judgements and act in a socially inclusive and responsible way. This is contrary to the forms of education that reduce learning to an instrumental logic that too often and too easily can be perverted to violent ends.'

As educators, what can we do to help create the kind of citizens that Giroux is talking about? We are currently caught in a cleft stick of education where we have to tick so many boxes that there is no room left for critical thinking and dialogue. We are even counter-terrorism surveillance officers, as we look out for individuals at risk of 'radicalisation' under the Prevent agenda (as an aside, it must be time now to shift the focus of this to the far-right, if we must have the agenda at all).   Yet my challenge here is to suggest that there IS room for democratic education, but that we need to look, not at content, but at the processes by which we are teaching.  Shoe-horning in a stand-alone piece about equality may be important and worthwhile, but democracy and social justice need to cut through the very heart of what we do.  The cult of 'embedding' needs shifting to a movement of 'promotion' where we model behaviour, enable thinking to happen, and become more overt about what we are doing to create those transformative spaces of belonging and community.  This is possible wherever we gather people together for the process of learning.  And of course it is not limited to classrooms, but also our social and work spaces.

In our lessons now the individual is king (or queen).  Connecting with individual identity and experience, and differentiating effectively is vital of course, but in doing this we can overlook the social settings in which our students find themselves.  Too often all dialogue goes only from an individual to a teacher, and back again.   We need to use pro-social interventions that encourage students to talk to each other, to learn about each other's lives and experiences, to agree, disagree, and to celebrate difference.  Tools such as philosophical inquiries can help; or simply a restorative circle or thinking council where interaction and understanding of difference are the order of the day.

For me, the Thinking Enviroment processes of Kline's work are a great place to start.  An easy introduction is to start every class with a thinking round, where students take it in turns to answer a positive question.  This is based on the principle that 'no-one has arrived in a room until they have spoken'; and even with a class of 20 plus, this doesn't have to take more than ten minutes.  But you do have to enforce the rules of listening without interruption, paying absolute attention (keeping your eyes on the person who is speaking) and allowing students to speak for as long as they need to.  It can take time for students to get used to this idea; we sadly live in a world that values extroversion and allows (or even encourages) people to talk over one another. For many, the chance to have their voice will be a new and perhaps difficult experience.  Persist with it though, and you will teach people to really listen to each other - and what better 'functional skill' than that?  (If, at this point you are concerned about what Ofsted might make of this approach, first ask yourself - what are you assuming, that makes you think they wouldn't get it?*)

So, how do you teach for social justice, for transformation, for a better world?**  It may depend on your teaching context, but there will be many ways in which we all instigate positive change; not through what is dictated in the curriculum but by means of the processes we use.   Perhaps like my student Jason you greet each student that enters your classroom with a handshake.  Maybe, like my colleague Karol, you use restorative practice; regular circles and dialogues to resolve conflict or build relationships.  There will be many things that you do, so please share ideas and techniques and make critical education an explicit part of your practice. By doing this we can begin to reclaim our pedagogy, and start to build a world that we and our students would really like to live in.

*I was inspected by Ofsted in two separate inspections last month.  The Thinking Environment processes used in both classes were viewed as an excellent means of initial assessment and for promoting British values of democracy and respect.

**To focus our minds, the kind of questions to ask ourselves could include:
- What am I doing to foster a sense of belonging and community in my classes?
-  How am I preparing my students to play a positive part in a globalised and diverse world?
- How am I enabling my students to express their views and respect the views of others?
- How am I helping students to gain 'cultural competence' and how secure is my own knowledge of people who are culturally different from myself?

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