Sunday, 14 January 2018

Becoming Radical

What does it mean to be 'radical' in England today?  When I think of the word itself, lots of things spring to mind.  As a kid in the 80s 'rad' was a slang term for cool (I think it was also used by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - don't feel particularly 'rad' for mentioning that though).  Being 'cool', different, wanting change, seeing new and unusual perspectives... all of those things, plus probably having a beard (women don't immediately spring to mind when I think of 'radical', which is troubling).  I also think of Saul Alinsky and his 'Rules for Radicals' - a guide for community organisers, taken on board again in recent years by US Democrats.  Alinsky's Ten Rules for Radicals are here:

Reflecting on the word and Alinsky's philosophy as outlined above (often accused as polarising and anti-feminist) reinforces my sense of 'radical' as a problematic term.  The word is now of course also used freely throughout the government's Prevent policy, undergoing an etymological shift from the OED definitions of a person '...characterised by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive' to a person undergoing a process of being influenced by and joining extremist groups that are violently opposed to the general way of life in Britain today. Carol Wild, in her article Going to Extremes - How Radical are you? (2016) suggests that terms like radicalism are being 'made strange' by constant repetition in a particular context.  Certainly the word seems to have fallen out of use in terms of education; more emphasis is put on being a progressive, or a 'critical educator'.

Given this strangeness it felt timely to attend the University of Kent's 'Radical Pedagogies' Forum 
Richard Hall's Keynote
along with my colleague from University of Leeds Lifelong Learning Centre, Catherine Bates (@cathpuppeteer).  This event was the brainchild of organisers Claire Hurley and Tom Ritchie, who, on their university teacher training course realised that there had been very little mention of progressive, critical or indeed 'radical' education. Universities are often labelled as hotbeds of radical, snow-flakey, SJW thinking, particularly where teacher education is concerned, so it may surprise some to see an instrumental approach being advocated internally for teaching and learning. Given the creeping neo-liberalisation of our HE institutions however it is likely we will see more of this shift in the days and weeks to come.

Rather than recount the entire conference (which was brilliant, incidentally) I have attempted to distill the sessions I attended into 25 questions.  My aim is to turn these into tools for reflection for educators in HE institutions (you'll also find some of these appearing over on Twitter for #30DaysReflectResist).

From Paula McElearney's session - What 'gives life' to critical pedagogy?'

1.What is 'critical pedagogy' and what does it look like in England today?
2. How can we sustain ourselves as critical educators in a system that makes sustenance feel impossible?
3. Critical pedagogy has its roots in the work of Paulo Freire, who was writing over forty years ago. How different should the principles look today? Is there a need for (post) human critical pedagogy, and what might that look like?

From Darren Webb (University of Sheffield) session - Exploring the archeology of consciousness as an aspect of utopian pedagogy'

4. 'There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.' (Leonard Cohen).  How do we know when we have found the cracks, fissures or gaps through which we can reimagine teaching and learning? How do we spot this happening in our classrooms?
5. Should we also seek to create these 'cracks' in the system - and if so, how?
6. What 'disruptive behaviours' can we undertake to shake (even if temporarily) the status quo?

For more on Utopian pedagogy, read Darren's piece for Open Democracy here

From Kathleen Quinlan (University of Oxford) session - How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching

7.  Powerful learning experiences have emotion behind them. If this is true, why do we only focus on the cognitive domain?
8.  What 'unwritten' rules around emotion affect our teaching?
9. How can we better use emotion as a catalyst for reflection and growth?

For a preview of Kathleen's book, How Higher Education Feels: Commentaries on Poems that Illuminate Learning and Teaching click here
The Master's Office
The Master's Office

From Geoff Bunn (Manchester Metropolitan University) session - The Student Journey, Power Relations and the Development of Agency'

10.  Why do we always use the linear journey metaphor to describe student progression, and how does this limit how we teach our students?

11. Bureaucracy is not neutral...It creates students who are good at fulfilling (or subverting)
bureaucratic processes. What is the impact of new bureaucracies on our students? How does it affect the relationships between us?

The Student Voice - session with students from the University of Kent

12.  Students and lecturers are increasingly suffering the same issues with mental health, precarity of employment, poverty and debt. How can we narrow the gap between us to find spaces of support and solidarity?
13. 'I don't need you to sit there and use long words with me - just chat to me like a normal human being.'  How do we address issues where individual academics misuse (and abuse) power through 'micro-aggressions'? Is this a problem of growing feelings of threat and vulnerability? And is there a wider concern about the demonising and 'othering' of young people today?

From Richard Hall (De Montfort University) session - Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

14. How white is our curriculum?  How democratic?  How feminist?
15. Is it possible to re-imagine and re-create the academy from the inside, or do we need to find another way?

Read Richard's article 'The Rise of Academic Ill-Health' here

From Lee-Ann Sequeira (London School of Economics) session - The Problem with Silent Students - It's You, Not Them

16. Why do we fetishise extroversion in education?  How can we better value silence, attention and listening to others?
17.  Why don't we ask students about how they prefer to participate in learning?
18. How can we build in more time for reflection? (for students and teachers)
19. What can we learn from non-Anglo/American practices and ways of being?
20. How often do we praise good listening?
21. How aware are we of how much space we take up by our own vocal contributions?

Read Lee-Ann's blog, Silence in the Classroom here

From Shahidha Bari (University of London) keynote - The Art of an Education

22. How can we make universities more like a medical triage system - where we treat those in the most need first?
23. How can we build in more critical reflexivity - in our students, our colleagues, ourselves? And what can we (should we?) do about those who don't want to engage in critical dialogue?

From Malcolm Noble and Tracy Walsh - Learning and Teaching for the Post-Capitalist Economy - Co-operation, not Competition

24. What might a 'co-operative' curriculum look like?
25. Is a co-produced curriculum truly possible when students are becoming consumers of a product?

Find out about Leicester Vaughan College (new co-operative venture) here 

Becoming Radical

The reflective space offered by this conference has helped me consider further what it means to be radical in education today.  I get the sense that it is a process of 'becoming', very much connected to personal values and something to reconsider, reframe, and question continually as we try to navigate the shifting world around us.  It isn't a process that can be done alone - and I'd love to hear your comments and your own questions, either on this blog or on Twitter via #30DaysReflectResist.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Philosophical Inquiry

Finding Spaces to Dance


Image result for twelve dancing princesses sheilah
Image by Sheilah Beckett

Twelve princesses, each more beautiful than the last, sleep in twelve beds in the same room. Every night, their doors are securely locked by their father. But in the morning, their dancing shoes are found to be worn through as if they had been dancing all night. The king perplexed, asks his daughters to explain, but they refuse. The king then promises his kingdom and each daughter to any man who can discover the princesses' midnight secret within three days and three nights, but those who fail within the set time limit will be sentenced to death.


This fairytale by the Brothers Grimm is used in the book 'Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses' (Daley, Orr and Petrie, 2015) as an analogy for the state of the FE sector today.  The neo-liberalisation of education in England is spreading - and affecting the freedoms of students and educators so that, like the princesses, we have limited 'spaces to dance'.  In Teaching to Trangress (2014), bell hooks suggests that '...the classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.' Is the classroom still the place where we can enact our own 'midnight secret'?  As educators, are there other spaces that we can escape to to avoid oppressive and managerial regimes? And as students, what does it mean, to dance, in the educational sense?

Philosophical Inquiry

Take a look at the image and consider the story in the context of your educational life today.  What thoughts, ideas and questions does it raise for you?  You can post your ideas and discuss in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter using the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist or #RadicalKent.

Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015). Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


As educators, we have little time to reflect on our practice.  I'm convinced that the reason for this is largely political - who knows what we might think, share, or decide to change if we have time to really explore and consider the issues affecting our practice?  Means of resistance are becoming more squeezed, as we fight the bureaucracy of 'academic capitalism', where time is money, and less time is our own.  It is easy to feel defeated - yesterday's appointment of Toby Young to the board of the new Office for Students (along with a former director of HSBC bank and a managing director of Boots, yet no representative from the National Union of Students),  was yet another blow for those resisting the neo-liberalisation of universities in England.  I know less about the picture in the US, but can imagine the feelings and frustrations of teachers there too.

Yet we need to continue to seek out affirmative approaches to change, that take us out of places of pain and inspire hope. These might just be temporary 'lines of flight,' but the disruptions to the status quo can produce a ripple effect that lead to lasting change, even if we can't see what these might be right now, or know where they might take us. 

The wonderful Benjamin Doxtdator (@doxdatorb) put together a podcast which encourages us to take a pause and reflect on the 'productive interruptions' which might create small ruptures in the systems that limit and constrain us. You can listen to it here:  On the back of his brilliant idea, I suggested we take the first 30 days of January 2018 to continue pausing and reflecting in response to different questions about social justice in education, grouping them with the hash tag #30DaysReflectResist.

The first question was 'What is your social justice goal (big or small) for 2018?' and the responses so far have been inspiring (I have started to capture these on the 30 Days Google doc).  How much or how little you join in is up to you, but if you would like to pause and reflect with us, take a look at the questions coming up here and perhaps add your own too.

As a result of day one I have connected with some new and exciting international thinkers on Twitter and can feel myself emerging from my turn of the year stupor.  It's in our interests to stay awake and alert to means of resistance, even when anaesthetizing (in whichever way we choose) feels like an easier way to deal with the pain. As the structures within which we work become more restrictive and stultifying, it may be that the rhizomatic connections we make through projects like this really are the best hope we have for change and transformation.

Looking forward to reading your thoughts and tweets and many thanks for sharing.