Schools: A contested space

Over the years, differences of opinion about best schooling practices have resulted in swings in education policies on such issues as: standardized tests (who to test and when, if at all); distance learning and technologies, in the classroom, in students hands, and remotely; memorising vs. discovery (especially in math learning); whole language vs. phonics; discipline and what to do about students who are disorderly or distracted; individual plans and how best to serve students with special emotional, behavioural, and cognitive needs; the role of schools in teaching emotional self-regulation, building character, and promoting understanding and acceptance across difference; what belongs in health education and what belongs in the home; streaming and what inclusion should look like; social promotion, student assessment, and whether students should be grouped according to age or ability; class size and school size; funding for the arts; the importance of activity, play, and reconnection to the outdoors; what subjects and topics should be emphasised; what grades belong together in a school; what to do about bullying and cyberbullying, and the list goes on.

These days students exist as both education’s products and its consumers. A desire for and expectation of equal success for all, regardless of difference (despite a world that plays out quite differently) has resulted in increased mandates meant to translate particular ideals (in principle) into achievement outcomes (in practice) – as, for instance, through differentiated instruction and student-centred learning. Meanwhile, we see the proliferation of tutoring programs and summer camps to catch students up, behaviourist principles (still) underwriting protocols for managing individuals & classrooms, and, all the while, ever-rising anxiety across learners and their teachers especially in the wake of pandemic strictures. All, attest to “trouble in schooling.”

For all our technological prowess, societies are only beginning to appreciate that learning is a whole-self event and never separate from relationships with others and our world, past and present. Despite assurances of “making certain about this and that,” we are a far cry from knowing what to do. We continue to prepare teachers according to theories that keep cognition, motivation, behaviour, physical bodies, and the interpersonal separate. Never mind that, neurologically speaking, most of what we do depends on unconscious & nonconscious motivations, these realms remain hardly a consideration for educational theory and practice.

An integrated and comprehensive understanding of learning, as starting point, would serve students, teachers, school leaders, and inclusive ideals so much better.

Below is just a sampling of the quandaries that run underneath a determination to “ensure” the effective “management” of schools.

A few conundrums to begin…

What we now know about the interplay of unconscious, nonconscious, and conscious proclivities in thinking, being, and doing challenges the very way we have been going about improving the conditions of schools and the people of schools. For example:

The things that matter most in education are relational, contextual, and emergent – eluding scientific principles of isolation, replication, and measurement. If we even could acknowledge this, then from a management perspective a whole set of challenges ensue. For example:

  • How can we know enough or control enough to improve education? 
  • Without measureables how can we hold anyone (e.g., students, teachers, schools, districts, governments, publishers, researchers) accountable? 

Moreover, individuals and societies do what they do and want as they want, less because they need better information and skill,

and more because of convictions and broadly inaccessible motivations within them. If this were the case, then… 

  • Does it discount the value of information and skill?
  • How do we get from information and skill to knowledge and wisdom in action? 

In short, what would it shift in us and in practice if we could realise: that the scripts for the moments of anyone’s lives have been fashioned out of much earlier and older pre-places; that who we are has been written into and as our bodies; and that they have been the particularities of experience, nuanced and subtle, that have over time veered us on seemingly self-chosen paths to difference? 

  • How might coming to terms with this quandary bring us closer to the essence of inclusivity?

If we understood the degree that trust frees capacity; meaning enlists it; structure focuses it; and anxiety inhibits it, then

  • How would we structure classrooms and learning events such that students, free from debilitating anxiety, grew to trust us and to trust their own capacity to find meaning and success in learning? 

It is to productively and practically address these very questions, that I searched far and wide for relevant and meaningful life principles (in the sciences and the humanities) and reconciled them into a coherent practical model to support teaching and learning practice. Ultimately I have an abiding respect and, yes, love for teachers. And I deeply believe in the untapped potential of schooling. I hope you find promising-enough insight in this website to prompt further inquiry into these matters, either by picking up my book, talking to me about tailored professional development opportunities, or simply writing me a note to start a conversation – that we might further our understanding together.

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