The second and final day of the 2016 National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour took on a different tone for me. It became about respect for the relationships I was forming within the education community. On Day 1 there was a big emphasis on the relationships schools have with parents, teachers have with students, students have with each other, schools have with and within education systems and policies. I have been mulling on these relationships for the couple of days since the end of the Summit and have decided to try and articulate those thoughts as my review of Day 2 (though some of Day 1 is mashed in).
Respect for students
On Day 1, Dr Anna Sullivan talked about changing the language around schooling to one of respect. To address endemic sentiments that lead to students being called “feral” by having policies and supports in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen.
Peter Hutton from Templestowe College spoke on the second morning. He spoke about how he and his team went about saving a Victorian government school from closing by radically overthrowing the horizontal structure of schooling. They developed a more flexible vertical approach where every academic offering is elective, students are encouraged to be entrepreneurs in their own school and the school pays them for their time, where timetabling is looking at including flipped classrooms in staff load, to name a few things.
Hutton is a very charismatic speaker who, in typical TEDx style uses provocative visual and spoken analogies to make a point.The point I heard was that the education system needs to respect the students to make the right choices for them, and that cannot happen under the current industrial schooling model that treats students like battery hens. He makes an argument for “free range schooling”.
I think that respect is key to improving all aspects of schooling and not just improving how students are treated but all staff. While both Sullivan and Hutton were talking a couple of non-Summit goers engaged with the 140 character media bites being broadcast on Twitter. These tweets asked the general Summit enthusiasm to “give teachers a break”, that “teachers are battered too”, that the battery hen cage analogy was insulting to teachers who care about their students. Furthermore, Corrine Campbell, a Principal of a school for children whose behaviours prevent them from existing effectively in mainstream schooling, challenged the notion that NEVER suspending students was possible.
Just because the Summit was focused on student well-being, does not mean that teacher well-being was not being considered. In fact, the second most engaged with tweet over the whole conference was by Hutton quoting one of the delegates: “You can’t have student well-being without teacher well-being”.
At the Summit closing dinner I asked Professor Russell Skiba his thoughts on the push-back that came from staff within and outside the conference and his response was that derailing conversations about the well-being of students with worst case scenarios was unproductive; that it risked shutting down the important conversations which need to be had about the connection between punitive approaches to school discipline and the cultural reproduction of inequality including the financial strain on the welfare and justice system.
To an extent I agree with him. In the education system, the rights of the child should be the primary focus. Teachers and researchers need to be advocates for children because they are politically voiceless in a democratic society, some commentary on the Brexit fallout being a useful example of that.
The flip-side is that the radically democratic respect for children and their futures presented at the Summit needs buy-in by the people that are hired to make that happen. If a teacher is mentally battered and unsupported by the education system that continues to tell them that children will get better if only teachers will, they are less likely to appreciate research and alternative schooling structures that ignore their personal plight. “What works” solutions like those presented by Melbourne Graduate School of Education through Revolution School, researchED, or Sillicon Valley’s Class Dojo are going to get buy-in from teachers because they are presented as straight-forward solutions to a complex problem.
If students are the focus…
In my opinion, students need to continue to be the focus, but the focus in a way that takes into account the diffracted light of the spotlight. The other bits as well as the brightest focus. To do that, I believe we need to get back to the notion of dialectic, or investigating all the points of view and their solutions, but also taking into account the motivations for those points of view. Writing the grand narrative I have written about before.
In today’s day and age the dialectic has degenerated into aggressive arguments about who is right. I think understanding a point of view’s motivation can give some insight into why the viewpoint exists and how to better negotiate a diplomatic solution. For example, just because someone is an academic and has never been a teacher does not mean that they have never been a parent. Maybe their motivation for putting students first comes from a different place.
My theory is that if every stakeholder in a dialectic’s motivation for improving education keeps student well-being central and every stakeholder decides to respect each viewpoint within that motivation, then education/schooling might be able to move forward and see some real change.
Summits like #ngage16 allows those different contributors to get together and thrash out ideas. It allows people to present their viewpoints on stage, in workshops, over food and drink. It’s vision is to formulate respectful relationships between teachers, school administrations, parents and academics. It puts them all in a room together. And that, in my opinion is awesome.