I was reading Orwell’s 1984 again recently. It prompted me to think what education would be like in the dystopian social system of English Socialism of his fabled Oceania. The first realisation was that we would not really be talking about education – seeking enlightenment and the acquisition of knowledge. Instead we would be referring to schooling – pertaining to training and disciplining the mind. Sure there was ‘re-education’ but in newspeak this ‘education’ was what we would otherwise call ‘schooling’. Indeed this newspeak realisation jolts me to remember that words matter. When did I last think about the deep meanings of ‘school’ and ‘education’. It seems Orwell has again achieved his objective.
So, with that important semantic connection, what would schooling look like? Reinforcing the importance of meanings, I guess the first important point is that there is no ministry of education. Instead there is the ministry of truth that controls ‘information’: there is no education other than ‘re-education’. So I’m left with thinking what information? The ministries objective is to re-write history to support the existing and present political line. What does this mean for what we might call education or even schooling? Cleary it is the transmission of sanctioned information that in turn requires a controlled system of distribution – not a profession. Perhaps the term ‘curriculum’ would be retained for the formal documentation of this information. After all it suggests some form of specialised professional knowledge that obscures propaganda.
I can imagine a system where those that succeed in the political and information edifice around them are rewarded with the status and security of maintaining its hegemony. There would have to be some entry benchmark. Overtly such positions would most likely be based on belonging to the right class, ones that can be trusted. Though such overt measures would most likely bread resentment so would need some form of informal selection like an education system that is presented as open and equitable but is really stacked in favour of those with the right sort of background. Much safer to pull the wool over peoples eyes through the propaganda of equity: any subsequent success or failure can be seen as a fair outcome.
Everyone would have a number; perhaps we can call it a registration number. Training would have to be standardised, perhaps the one course delivered at multiple sites and practice evaluated against a uniform framework. The vision would be one model of professional practice geared towards the transmission of sanctioned information and in accordance with the sanctioned interpretation.
Maybe, given advances in technology compared to Orwell’s imagined time, an online system could be used to ensure the consistency of application. Teachers could pick the information they are scheduled to deliver on that particular day throughout the land (Oceania) and have content material, teaching strategies, assessment strategies and lesson plans delivered online. They would all align with the necessary information curriculum, the model of professional practice and sanctioned delivery approaches – the edifice of professional exceptionalism. Through a teacher’s identification number, and that of every student/citizen, their career could be tracked through pre-defined stages. The progress of their students tracked and attributed to each episode of their information transference, and so on and so forth…
Then the true horror hit me – are we living that now perhaps?
We have, through national standards of the profession and the need for all teacher education courses to be accredited against them, essentially one national course. Look around institutions and there is very little difference in course content and structure. Through this structure pre-service teachers are all nearly universally assessed with similar professional experience forms that entail the ticking off of these said standards. Teachers all have registration numbers and their careers are increasingly being determined by progress through the standards. But more than simply standards each jurisdiction has a model of pedagogy that they promote as the ‘best’ way to ‘teach’, all of which are similar having been broadly based on the same four or five studies. We are now moving to a national ‘curriculum’ and national student identification numbers.
Through the various federally brokered initiatives we can quite literally now develop online lesson plans and programs for the national curriculum, complete with resources, linked standards, suggested strategies and graded work samples. Take for example: the Australian Curriculum work samples linked online, the linked resources provided by Education Services Australia (a company owned by all Australian education ministers), the online program builders of each jurisdiction, case studies and examples of practice meeting the national standards and ‘Great Teaching Ideas’ on the AITSL website. These ‘advances’ are promoted as an innovation and helping teachers ensure ‘standards’ and save time.
In NSW the curriculum board and teacher registration body amalgamated last year, to barely a murmur of comment. But what does it really mean to combine the authorities charged with developing the curriculum and assessing it with the one concerned with teacher quality, professional standards and career development? In the resultant closed shop is there room for dissident voices and new ideas? Do we really believe what to teach and how to teach it is one and the same?
Notice though the subtle shift in language that essentialises the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of teaching: e.g. ‘what to teach’, ‘how to teach’ – curriculum as information, pedagogy as transmission. Here in our use of language and terms like pedagogy and curriculum lies the root of the problem. I wonder if as a profession we have slipped into simple definitions of these terms and largely internalised the manner of their use in bureaucratic and political language.
Sure, some of these new ‘innovations’ save time and make the day-to-day work of teaching a bit easier. But the need to save time by accepting these limiting definitions is only created by accepting an overcrowded curriculum, increased accountability and public reporting in forms that are not of our own making. In doing so do we become complicit in our own de-professionalism? Take for example the MySchools website and the annual league tables of senior secondary results and university entry and the way they influence curriculum and pedagogy.
Perhaps professionalism has even been redefined as practice through the affordances of the new online infrastructure. Instead of critical evaluation, reflexive learning, action-learning and dare I use the word ‘research’, we have teachers talking directly to teachers about practice through ‘Teacher Feature’ on the AITSL website. That this is universally in relation to the very curriculum, standards and pedagogies promoted by the state ensures a closed loop of practice and keeps alternative voices outside the wall. Where is the role of socially critical voices or academic evaluation? I recently read a report prepared by a state department’s research branch which based conclusions on the opinions of school leaders and involved no testing of data or research methodology. It simply wouldn’t pass peer review.
Most importantly though, what is missing in any of this is students and the place in which we teach. Not that long ago ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ were situated and relational terms. Curriculum was a situated enactment tailored to suit the students in your classroom. It connected to their life world and to other possible worlds or futures. We might be striving for a similar outcome in terms of skills or knowledge, but the route we took, examples we used, lesson sequence was relational. Pedagogy was the situated skills we used to promote learning in different students in our class. We had a pedagogical relationship with students. Schools had a curricular relationship to their communities.
Nowadays, punctuated by the politics of national curriculum reform, what content to include, and debates about ideological influences, curriculum has become nationally contestable. As a consequence curriculum has been redefined on a national scale rather than related to school communities. Take for example the review of the Australian curriculum. Pedagogy has become the means of achieving national comparable results or similar to ‘like schools’ rather than the learning relationship with the children in our class. We don’t see many media reports about how schools have enhanced the opportunities of students, just where they ranked or how many were below average.
In the process we bypass the old curriculum question of whose knowledge are we valuing and how does that knowledge relate to the particular community and students we are working with. As I’ve written recently, a rural student arguably doesn’t see their life world in the curriculum, instead they see that their life world is backwards and something to leave behind. We bypass the pedagogical question of how best to motivate, engage and promote learning in each of our students for the larger concern of how to maximise measurable achievement where it is assessed. Can a teacher who has lived all their life in the city connect with a child in a small country town, and do they even see that there may be a difference there?
We use the language of standards through this curriculum as some universal reference to enhancing equity – but at the same time national testing, international testing and senior secondary assessments consistently show that social background overwhelmingly determines educational outcomes. That we have schools that dominate senior secondary achievement and access to university, that concurrently are populated by more socially advantaged students under the guise of choice and competition, makes success and failure ‘natural’. Surely though curriculum isn’t simply a vehicle to legitimate success and failure? Surely it is more than information? Surely pedagogy is more than effective transmission to enable this?
Of course this is merely a musing upon a dystopian future. However, it does suggest that pondering what we mean by elements of our professionalism and thinking about the implications of our language around ‘curriculum’ and ‘pedagogy’ is time well spent.