Rantflections on Politics, Pedagogy, Education & Covid-19.

Force-mapping for design narratives in CV-19 times…

As part of the design narrative for Block 3 of the Open University module on ‘Openness and Innovation’ we were asked to create a force map and then reflect. The university might wish they’d never requested such a task from me….

I duly created the force map drawing from discussions with my cohort of five (based internationally in different settings and roles), the personas they created for the project, discussions with teachers in wider contexts…Within the force map the teacher, in the end, appears a fragile and lonely figure firmly situated at the centre it all, surrounded by responsibilities and appearing easily crushed or broken. See zoomable force-map image here.

The push has been to maintain ‘business as usual’. And to an extent that has been achieved. Teachers and organisations have hastened to transfer their existing practices to digital, keep the classes running at all cost. Some have succeeded, some have not, some have been left behind in the response to the emergency. I look at my map. Is it any wonder student motivation is maybe suffering along with teacher confidence? Just look at what the teacher is dealing with. The opportunities for experimenting with best practices must be fleeting at best. I know I myself would be likely to revert to didactic methods as the easiest route while I struggled to re-organise myself, my resources and my strategies, all the while trying to absorb the constant barrage of information coming my way… I followed this thought process and took the opportunity to Google ‘Education and CV – 19’. Every single item that came up was an information notice issued either, for the attention of educators, or by educators for the attention of students. Endless lists of whats, whys and wherefores ensuring that everyone had covered all the health and safety and required information guidance. Overwhelming. And there seemed to be little if any acknowledgement of what all this means in real, on-the-ground terms. The nitty-gritty reality of it. The publicly visible response to the crisis currently taking place in education is all about covering the appropriate arses. I was audibly relieved even in my isolation to come across Maha Bali’s 28-05-20 Blog Post “Pedagogy of Care: Covid 19 Edition” https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/pedagogy-of-care-covid-19-edition/. Someone attending to care and well worth a read…Though interestingly it’s all about caring for the students. I get it, if you feel your students are cared for everything is a bit less stressful, but still…what about that fragile figure at the centre of it all?

Not just the publicly visible response. I started thinking about this course. I’m fortunate as I’ve been put into one of two cohorts tasked to research the current situation. But the other five or so are researching the pre-set topics, such as exploring local history and reflective practice. This is how the course has been prescribed since at least 2011 (to my knowledge). Only two cohorts may petition to choose a topic of their own, lucky me got one. All groups are following the pre-ordained design narrative script. I haven’t looked yet to see if they are finding ways to make this relevant to their own work environments and the current situation, I know I would be trying my utmost. But I start to feel angry as I begin to find that many of the links provided for our project are broken, out of date and lead to nowhere. For me personally one of the most frustrating aspects of this is that two of them are to university platforms where I’d been encouraged to do a lot of work on a previous module, now apparently inaccessible. But, worse than that – people, real teachers dealing with the current crisis, are trying also to complete this project. The broken links are just one indication of the inadequacies of the university and I start to feel really angry. Why haven’t they been able to respond to this emergency, like the teachers and education leaders they prepare have had to? Why are they sticking to a copy and paste of instructions that would be out of date at the best of times with their broken links? Why have they not been able to seize the opportunity to support their students to access the vast networks they must have available to them in order to find and generate relevant, high quality research dedicated to the global need? Why not?  Why? To me, it seems to epitomise everything that is wrong with education, especially HE as that is where it is all supposed to lead. Ponderous, laden down by tradition and investment in the establishment, painfully, and in this instance ludicrously unable to respond appropriately to social need.

I’m about to finish my ‘rantflection’ when a dangerous thought flits across my mind…I wonder what the links are between countries ranked as successful educationally and countries who have managed to control the CV-19 pandemic in a reasonable manner? I can’t help but do a quick search. Immediately Google tells me that according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)  (https://www.undispatch.com/here-is-how-countries-rank-in-education/) South Korea is leading the field in terms of ‘highly educated young adults’. I think we already know the South-Korea Coronavirus story…South Korea have been focusing their education for years now on supporting their students to operate effectively within their context and culture. That has included fully embracing technology at all levels of education, arguably at cost to other more creative arts, but they’ve determined what their citizens need in order to survive and are actively and apparently efficiently pursuing this. Close to South Korea in the education stats sits Finland. They’ve taken a totally different approach and recently became the first country to abolish all subjects at school – also in an effort to prepare its students for the unknowable future: https://curiousmindmagazine.com/goodbye-subjects-finland-taking-revolution-education-step/?fbclid=IwAR3w5I9Ybk5aoiY2yyQS7sPA8VaRqVofBOs4MY-xfYjfr2NKa_kCW20zzSQ . I haven’t looked up the Finnish coronavirus stats but somehow I don’t think I need to.

https://data.oecd.org/eduatt/adult-education-level.htm#indicator-chart Accessed 29-05-20

The sluggish response of our educational power structures…Not just the willingness to subject their (paying) educators to shamefully outdated resources, practices and pedagogies but to insist they adhere to a design narrative created ten years ago and in no way relevant to the current situation. A narrative in no way designed to help them to cope with the current situation, because the establishments themselves have no precedent for knowing how to cope and dare not step outside the known for fear of breaking with the traditions that are long since no longer relevant.

I see my fellow students struggling and lashing out in frustration. Tempers frayed and too many balls in the air. The course that should be helping to manage this situation hampering instead. What I guess I want to say is: dare to be a design narrative rebel. Write your own based on what you’re having to deal with now, and how you’d like the landscape that you and your responsibilities have to inhabit in the future. This education ‘machine’ that is causing you so much grief, find a way to use its own tools to create a narrative that works for you and those for whom you feel responsible. A narrative that helps you to exist within a pedagogy of care that encompasses all parties, including yourself. Be kind to yourselves.

Whispers of Despair from the Forgotten Frontline?

Image by Oriel Butcher

Unless you’ve been a teacher, or lived with one, it’s hard to imagine how much they actually care about their students. Apart from the occasional anomaly I think that applies across the full range of what could loosely be covered by the word ‘teacher’: from pre-school to doctorate level and everything in between. Questions of how best to help their students keeps a teacher awake at night. Preparing materials and marking work consumes your evenings and weekends, dealing with statutory and administrative requirements…sometimes parents, guardians, social services, probation services, deprivation…It all adds stress to a teacher’s working day, but they care deeply and a small part of them is invested in every single student…Every student, whoever they become, is part of our future. Teachers know that and they dedicate their energy to those futures in the best ways each knows how. Over years they hone their skills and available resources within their setting. And then almost overnight it all went on line…

The shift to online happened almost silently to the public eye and ear, as organisations rallied internally to rise to the challenge as quickly as possible. Emails and online-meetings flew back and forth between management, colleagues, admin, students…a few weeks of mayhem, then business as usual. Except of course it’s nothing like usual and the silence is almost ominous.

First, lists of resources began to appear, hastily compiled and shared on social media. Dave Cormier’s collection from across his network is the most comprehensive I’ve found so far: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Rz4qjMRLA9dVx2ExxTwBg1FtXMVh5ruQMQTs4eG3_oc/edit

Then the almost silent, fleeting whimpers of pain started to appear as excellent teachers and educators suffered multitudes of difficulties while trying to continue serving their students. The result: stress, self-doubt and even self-hate. This morning I read a Tweet from an educator I deeply respect along the lines of “Please God help me to pass today without screaming at my child”. My heart broke for her as my respect grew. Respect for her honesty. Another educator Tweeting in a cry of despair said “I waited ten years to have my daughter and now I just want her to shut up so I can get on and sort my students out.”.

Everything has changed for teachers and their students, and now they are in limbo again waiting for the next directive that will impact their entire lives. And as with every single one of the policy changes they’ve had to deal with over the years, they’ll do their best to do what they’re told, or make it up when they’re not told, with just occasional whimpers escaping.

Stepping back from the stress

I’m in the slightly strange position of not being directly involved in any of it but feeling totally invested. Having spent the 10 years up to 2016 more or less full time as a teacher educator and then a further two mentoring teacher educators, I cannot help but think about all of them right now. My ‘thing’ from the beginning was integrating digital technologies, leveraging the Web 2.0 applications and trying to ensure that teachers and organisations were adequately equipped for the inevitable future. I worked with many cross and multi-sector organisations on different Professional Development programmes, almost all based around effective use of technology. It was a very, very slow and surprisingly difficult process with many wide-ranging barriers. As we are all now painfully aware, embedding of digital skills and technology in education has not progressed quite as much as it might have. Innovation needs a driving force to create change. We have that now, big time. At first it was really hard for me to watch from such a distanced perspective. My instinct was to get in there and help where I could, but realistically I can’t just now, so I observe with a growing pride in the profession as they just get on with it. They don’t even get any clapping. But there’s also a growing worry as the whimpers begin to emerge…

And I remember, there’s value in being outside and able to look at the bigger picture, not just my own corner which is where I’d inevitably be (along with everyone else) if I was actually teaching….With four international colleagues on my Open University MA in Online and Distance Education, we are tasked to create a website. The focus of the task is the design process, but the content of our site is ‘Providing teacher support in response to CV-19’. Our group meets and discusses how we’ll address the challenge and we find that actually, despite being based in England, Wales, Ireland, Brazil and Malawi, we are all at base, finding the same problems. I root around a bit and discover, unsurprisingly, that there’s little research out there as yet so it seems the obvious thing to do is to collect our own. I’ve been collecting my own data for many years, a habit I think I started as a means of tracking and evidencing outcomes when piloting new ideas and initiatives so I was a little surprised that others don’t seem to have done the same. There is another cohort working on the same topic as us. I was surprised to read that as there was no research available specifically relevant to the current situation, they plan to draw on previous research. That led me to wonder why large, well-networked organisations haven’t implemented some wide-scale, snapshot research themselves? With a sigh I return to typing out my survey and surmise that it sums up the lumbering, slow moving education system that has, until now, viewed technology as an optional add-in. A system whereby changes have to be justified through longitudinal studies or cabinet changes – both outpaced by the exponential advances in technology and how we use it and access learning.

I’ve been surprised by the responses so far. Maybe not surprising is that 80% of teachers say they’ve suffered a lot or some stress as a result of going online. It’s interesting that 80% also identify student lack of motivation as a cause of most student difficulty. I’ve also been surprised by comments that answering the questions helped to prompt personal reflection about practice and the teachers and students under someone’s responsibility – bonus! Comments expressing interest and surprise that I’m inviting participatory research. How else to find out I wonder? If I was teaching I’d be questioning my students, my colleagues and my professional networks constantly, trying to gauge the route to take in this unprecedented situation…Then I remember – if I was teaching I would be consumed by keeping my little little bit of world going and exhausted by my efforts. Trying to think outside of even more boxes is just too much to ask so maybe that’s where already being on the outside can help.

I’m excited about being part of this project. For me it’s not about the university outcome of the design process. It’s about actually understanding what’s going on for educators and their students in different contexts around the globe and seeking ways to support them now and into the future.

Be kind to yourselves

That’s become a sort of motto within our little cohort. It’s impossible to be kind to everyone else in your life if you’re not kind to yourself and just because you’re dealing with a world of change doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher, or a bad parent, or a bad manager. Find the moments, however brief, to step back from the stress and let your mind wander. Dwell on the successes, the moments of elation and the all the solutions to problems you’ve found so far.

When I wrote the survey it was with the thinking that responses would help to inform future, more focused questions. Immediately I want to drill down much deeper into the question of motivation. Ideally I’d like access to students as well to get their perspectives. Please share (and complete) if you find yourself reading this. the survey