Gareth Stevens discusses the interplay between modern education, neo-liberalism, meritocracy and democracy. In part five he discusses the demise of close-nit communities and how this has impacted on the efficacy of democratic processes and individual wellbeing, before summing up in a short conclusion to parts one to five.
Let us be very clear about one thing, your school is not a community school just because it rents its badminton courts out on a Saturday morning.
I want to move on to a discussion of what real ‘community schools’ might look like. I want to also suggest that the community aspect of a school’s life is not an ‘also ran’ or an add-on. A true community school has its community, and that which goes on in it just beyond the school perimeter, at its front and centre. Inextricably tied up with its curriculum offer, learning springs out of the ever present reality of the surrounding community and the forces on it, rather than incidentally referring to them now and then. I want to argue that we should see beyond subject and initiative silos in schools. I am not arguing for the multiple plate spinning approach, I am instead arguing that we need to synthesize our development of community school approach with a more pronounced preoccupation with citizenship. To fuse the two with the core curriculum is to capitalize on the interplay and overlap between these strands. We need to bind them together and to make students’ experiences as authentic as possible.
Just the other day the great George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian…
“Without community, politics is dead. But communities have been scattered like dust in the wind. At work, at home, both practically and imaginatively, we are atomised.
As a result, politics is experienced by many people as an external force: dull and irrelevant at best, oppressive and frightening at worst. It is handed down from above rather than developed from below. There are exceptions – the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns, for instance – but even they seemed shallowly rooted in comparison with the deep foundations of solidarity movements grew from in the past, and may disperse as quickly as they gather.”
I think that the demise of the connectedness we once felt living in the circumstance of strong co-located (not online) communities, alongside the disabling effects of meritocratization, deeply affect students’ attitudes to their life chance opportunities and to learning itself. It is best not to forget that living in strong communities with a deep sense of collective identity, breeds strength and self-esteem in youngsters. Currently, I would argue, students struggle with self identity and are perplexed about how they will develop any agency for change when they live in disconnected and fragmented social groups, and are at the mercy of unseen and alienating political and economic forces. As well as this, face-to-face sociality is currently in competition with virtual social connectedness. Increasingly youngsters curate and forge their identity online not in the midst of a more secure participatory culture in their own locale.
Of course the atomisation of which Monbiot speaks is, as is often said, down to thatcher’s policies. Encouraging low-income families to own their own council houses, the systematic dismantling of mining communities, international outsourcing of manufacturing and low-skill labour, have all combined to break down strong co-located communities. Whilst all this is hardly refutable, earlier than that new technologies, not least the mass use of the family car, fuelled separation of families and contributed to the high turnover of individual membership of geographically defined groups.
So this begs the question, to what extent should schools be instrumental in developing politics “from below” rather than sitting by and assuming that politics is wholly “handed down from above”. I believe that the citizenship programme needs to be expanded, made more action based and should equip students with a lived understanding of their democratic power. At the same time this would provide a different direction to the notion of social mobility and build the self esteem and dignity of all students. Moreover it would grow social connectedness within communities.
Looking back to when I was head of a thriving Design Faculty (Art and D&T), I can now see that we were attempting to drive our pedagogy by requiring students to use their growing subject capabilities to serve the local community. We had regularly charged students with tasks such as designing murals in situ in care homes for the elderly or work placements with small local businesses, but we began to develop a different level of connectedness and authenticity of experience.
You had to get into water in order to learn how to swim we argued. I had always been an advocate of getting students to solve real world problems as a prerequisite of learning craft skills and theory and have had a career long battle with those who seemed to think it was an immutable natural law that students be taught a set of dry, context free skills prior to experiencing their ‘real world’ application. I had seen that to do so had led to students becoming disengaged and listless. They had to see the point of learning the theory and had to experience the real need for acquiring skills to feel any emotional traction and to be motivated to become better.
We took this to a different level when, for the first time and for a short period, D&T became a mandatory part of the KS4 curriculum experience. D&T had traditionally had a higher proportion of less academic boys than other GCSE subjects, but now we had every student in our workshops for 10% of the timetable time at KS4. So the question of how we were going to make the subject meaningful to all students, specifically high achieving girls was a nut we had to crack. Luckily a stronger emphasis on one of our core philosophies offered the answer. My formative mentor when I joined the profession had already introduced me to the book “Design for the Real World” by Victor Papanek and we adopted the statement “Design for need” as our guiding principle. I had a large laser cut acrylic sign made for the threshold of our block as a daily reminder of what we got out of bed to do. Our raison d’etre was the idea of designing for need and, by implication, not for luxury.
And so what did we do? Well we insisted that all GCSE students designed for people with either disability, the elderly or for those looking after young children in the immediate vicinity of the school building. These became halcyon days for me, all students’ major GCSE projects started with them spending time with a prospective end user or client. We hooked students up with the elderly in local care homes, people with cerebral palsy and other physical challenges, those with mobility problems or learning difficulties and we said alright observe the daily lives of these people, identify their needs and find ways of applying what you have learnt on your course to help improve the quality of their lives or help in some way. The student outcomes were astounding, both in terms of effective use in the real world and in terms of relative examination success.
Students designed and made products that went on to have real use for other people. All too often students in D&T design for themselves. In an effort to boost student engagement teachers had often given free reign to student preferences and designed projects in which students could take the end result home for their own use or to be passed on to their parents. My argument was that students at GCSE level should be required to design for others and in doing so learn more about how design operates in the real world and to develop the commensurate dispositions of empathy and the will to engage in their communities. Students designed one off products for real people that actually had purpose.
Some of the many artifacts that was born of this process were truly original, but at times they fell foul of a normative assessment structure. One girl, I remember, had spent time with a very frail elderly woman who, she identified, had very weak arms. The ‘client’ had particular difficulty when trying to fill her hot water bottle at nights. Through an exhaustive iterative ideation process the student finally came up with a most elegant and effective solution. She made a product that held the hot water bottle steady and enabled the client to use both hands to fill it with very hot water. A kind of hot water bottle filling hands-free set. The product itself was made from one piece of expertly cut and formed acrylic sheet. It was beautiful in its simplicity and embodied all that is good and great about effective product design. As her coursework was the best in that year it inevitably became part of a sample that was moderated by a visiting examiner. On the day of his visit he took us to task on the A* grade we had given the work. One of the assessment criteria said something like “shows an excellent ability to join materials”. Well her product was made from one complex piece of acrylic that was bent and shaped intricately so that it achieved a high degree of functionality. The fact that the product did not tick this box, the examiner argued, precluded it from getting the top grade. I mention this to point out the ongoing madness of backwards by design assessment.
Our work was featured in the TES at the time. The headline was “Help for the Pour” I seem to remember (LOL!) and I was invited to write a chapter for a third edition of John Eggleston’s OU book “Teaching Design and Technology”. I see that setting the GCSE D&T course up as a community service design consultancy is a good exemplar of how individual subjects may become part of a compound of curriculum experiences that develops empathy for community causes and increases levels of civic engagement.
In the same way as we required students to get “in the water” of real design problems involving real people, I argue that you can’t effectively teach citizenship in the ‘black box’ of the classroom without students being involved in community service. But hold on, that term community service, isn’t that part of the array of punishments handed out to criminals? We have to be careful of the terms we use.
So what would happen if we applied the same thinking to the citizenship curriculum? What “water” would students have to get into to truly learn “the skills to think critically and debate political questions” in an authentic way in their local neighbourhood?
In their book “Politics In The Classroom: How Much Is Too Much?” Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy say that “There are a number of schools that encourage students to get involved in political campaigns, but they tend to be political campaigns that really aren’t very controversial. They’ll encourage kids to form a campaign about something that everyone agrees should be done. For example, that we should clean up the litter that’s around our school, or that it’s important for people to eat healthy food…” they qualify this by saying that this isn’t a “terrible thing”. Students, they say, learn a great deal by doing such projects, but oftentimes there is already an overriding consensus on the issue chosen thereby rendering the topic inert. They argue for enabling students to deliberate more controversial topics characterised by multiple oppositional standpoints. Whilst promoting the idea of the non-partisan discussion and action in a locally based context they also argue that every classroom is incontrovertibly political. I agree that there is no way around this. To believe that any social circumstance, not least those in which learning occurs, is anything but political is a flight of fancy.
Tellingly the 2013 subject report for citizenship prepared by OfSTED says that a weakness in provision was characterised by the fact that “the curriculum did not prompt or support a significant number of pupils to take responsible action apart from through fund-raising events.”
All well and good, but where is the water?
What of the process of teaching of democracy that the UK citizenship programme demands. Surely students need to experience the democratic process rather than just learn about it? What could that look like?
Alinsky said “The price of democracy is the ongoing pursuit of the common good by all people. One hundred and thirty-five years ago Tocqueville gravely warned that unless individual citizens were regularly involved in the action of governing themselves, self-government would pass from the scene. Citizen participation is the animating spirit and force in a society predicated on voluntarism.”
In his book ‘Bowling Alone’ Robert D Putnam says “If we think of politics as an industry, we might delight in its new “labour-saving efficiency”, but if we think of politics as democratic deliberation, to leave people out is to miss the whole point of the exercise.” I am no political theorist, but despite the rise in populism it does seem that people, particularly those with which this book is concerned, are being left out of any political equation.
Consequently it seems obvious to me that all educators need to acknowledge this fact and develop ways to address it. The broad conclusion of my thesis is that an enhanced and authentic civic engagement programme for all students will not only ensure, to paraphrase John Dewey, that education continues to be the midwife of democracy in each generation, but it will also empower students beyond the narrow trajectory of examination and monetary success.
We need to provide opportunities to all students for critical service-learning. In her book ‘Service-Learning and Social Justice’ Susan Cipolle describes what is meant by this with reference to other more common forms of community based learning. She says that an example of SERVICE is when students clean up a riverbank. In Science, when students study water samples under a microscope they are LEARNING. A synthesis of the two modes, SERVICE-LEARNING happens when Science students take samples of water from local sources, then analyse them and present their findings to a pollution control agency. Importantly, she explains that CRITICAL SERVICE-LEARNING occurs when the same Science students create a public-service announcement to raise awareness of human impact on water quality to change community attitudes and behaviours. She argues that this participatory experience, this opportunity to effect change is when the learning is deeper, more connected and builds in students the capacity to actually make a difference and be immersed in a proactive democratic process.
Our citizenship programmes must require students to become more active, not to stand by, but to participate. The corollary to this is that teachers too, need to be allowed renewed levels of creative autonomy and not to just exercise the conferred political will of the corporate mind.
We need to transform the way we educate so that the public we continue to create does not persist in voting for policies which damage the collective good of the disprivileged. Otherwise we can not be sure they will not vote for some trumped up corporate anti-intellectual to preside over the largest so called “free” democracy in the world. We wouldn’t want that would we?
In the words of Marlon James’ character Nina Burgess in his incredible book about life in the Jamaican ghettos in the 1970s, “If you don’t live politics, politics will live you”
We need to understand the vast and barren plains that lie between the meagre gruel of the public education diet and the ‘large print’ political discourse from which our students are alienated. The experiences that we provide our students with, should help them to join the dots across this wasteland so that democracy can live again for both those that are disprivileged and those that have inherited power.
We need to encourage students to develop strong social capital in their own neighbourhoods and to help them to realise that politics should start local and influence upwards and not just the other way around.
To end let us consider this section of Liz Coleman’s fabulous TED talk on reinventing the approach to liberal arts education in the US.
“The values and voices of democracy are silent. Either we have lost touch with those values or, no better, believe they need not or cannot be taught. This aversion to social values may seem at odds with the explosion of community service programs. But despite the attention paid to these efforts, they remain emphatically extracurricular. In effect, civic-mindedness is treated as outside the realm of what purports to be serious thinking and adult purposes. Simply put, when the impulse is to change the world, the academy is more likely to engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.”
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