modern learning environment

Open Letter To Secondary School Principals

Dear school leader,

I have been working in schools for 20 years. I am also a product of the New Zealand school system. I am also proud to work with young people in the 21st century. I’m aware of the challenges of change, of change that is occurring rapidly and the desire to produce the best possible outcomes for those in our institutions.

The desire to move with the times in regard to future oriented/focussed education has seen modern learning environments and the integration of technology to grasp the new and complex ways of working and creating‘ ‘confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners’. Ensuring young people have a strong sense of who they, to be ‘positive in their own identity’. Therefore I ask one simple question. How can young people who are questioning their gender or sexuality experience ‘inclusion’ while they are outrightly denied opportunities to be who they are? How can New Zealand Secondary Schools call themselves ‘non-discriminatory’ when their very practices are designed to enforce discrimination, in order to maintain a sense of school identity? I’m confused, and I don’t think it’s a phase.

While it seems that MLE’s work hard to break down physical and pedagogical barriers there appears to be a counter move to maintain traditional ideas of gender. We have inherited a legacy of ‘single sex education’ from the early 20th century and these are perhaps caught between tradition and historical constructions, but is this a valid reason to maintain policies and practices that deny the existence of transgender or those students who’s sense of self falls outside prescribed normative notions of masculinity and femininity? Schools find ways to respect cultural diversity through inclusion of additions to uniform but refuse to allow students flexible options to express their gender regardless of sexuality.

If I could suggest one thing that might enable a new way of thinking, I’d invite school leaders to see this not as a moral issue, rather an opportunity to bring the concept and representation of diversity into the 21st century, it is actually about accessibility. But not just access to physical space, but to social, emotional, psychological and pedagogical access to knowledge, ideas, and practices that validate their identity. Yes this is a plea to be MORE PC – to Please Consider, Providing Choice.

Please phase in uniform choice and phase out outdated assumptions that require male and female bodies to be clearly identified by separate uniforms. Gender inclusive practices go beyond bathrooms and changing facilities (but these are still needed), staff training around use of language that helps young trans, gender and sexually diverse people (including staff) feel acknowledged needs to be part of ongoing professional development.

There are new sexuality guidelines for school, please do not ignore them or hope that ‘common sense’ will suffice, otherwise, schools rely on sense informed by fear, myths, and misconceptions. Respect for diversity requires ‘unique sense’, careful and thoughtful consideration BUT more important, courageous action. That is, to acknowledge these students exist in your community whether visible or not. Allow groups of young people to form support groups, do not force them ‘underground’ and into the shadows, to slam the closet door shut to protect the reputation of the school, or your own. To me, this is the ultimate indicator of a school that has yet to grasp the value of a more complex, uncertain and flexible concept of diversity. I’m still waiting to see Principals encourage and endorse these groups openly. I hope I don’t have to wait for my own child to get to High School (you have 5 years to get it sorted).

As an ex health teacher and a counsellor I ask that you consider the violence inflicted by denying and invalidating at least 10% of a school population. Then consider the violence that is normalised by society through homophobic and transphobic language and ask yourself if you are satisfied ‘common sense’ is working to make schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, fa’afafine, and takataapui young people.

Finally a personal reflection question -are you leading your community into the future of diversity or the past?

Modern Learning Environments – rearranging the desks and chairs on the Titanic?

There are some great teaching practices going on in schools and other learning institutions. There are resources being developed, pumped, and thrown into the mix. And there is new furniture to buy desks and chairs in all sorts of configurations to ‘zhuzh up’ learning spaces. I’ve just been trying to do some ‘zhuzhing’ (how on earth do you spell zhuzh?). I hate shopping at the best of times I can barely buy my own lunch. But as my neurons fired off in a panic around table shapes, ottomans and whiteboards I wondered how a Modern Learning Environment (MLE) is defined.

Now I don’t teach anymore, so I’m hardly in a position to be an expert, but I’ve seen some of the wonderful work my colleagues do. Indeed the NZ media has taken on the subject of MLE’s this weekend and others like Sally Hart have responded more eloquently than I will. I suppose my question is more a philosophical one than a pedagogical one. I’ll leave that one to others who are more qualified to talk about differentiated learning in the 21st century. My question has to do with the structural power imbalances that still exist and more obviously defined by uniforms and how teachers relate to students via the use of titles such as Miss and Mr. I suppose it’s a bit curious how we have not seen any real shift in curriculum content and structure in the last 100 years either. Of course there have been ‘upgrades’. Subjects are still divided into sciences, arts, languages…etc. We still sit students down to sit 3hr exams (and expect teachers to mark them yesterday) – whether this is done on computers or not makes no difference – it’s just rearranging the deck chairs.

Why? I think the larger question is where does the school system fit in the 21st century? I believe that question has to be framed in the larger socio-political and economic framework. The basic format and purpose of schools has not changed. The illusion of change is superficial and alluring especially the advances in technology – shiny things. Basically, schools are still training workers for jobs to contribute to economic growth. We are creating conscientious consumers – but still consumers. Schools train young people to fit society. The various rituals and protocols are about providing opportunities to know the expected success pathways of life – be heterosexual, but if you are gay (or any other variety of diversity) get married, reproduce, get into debt, spend the rest of your life paying it off, maybe save the world on the side and create a cure for cancer and world peace, and be happy.

Perhaps a little cynical. Perhaps uncomfortably accurate. Regardless I still hate shopping and we know what happened to the Titanic. Time to design a better ship to move through a different medium.

Class Act

I remember a time when the message to young teachers about how to establish authority in the class boiled down to some simple instructions about remaining distant and aloof. Many of us will recall the doctrine of ‘no smiling before Easter’. While most new to the profession these days will be encouraged to develop more positive connections with students before Easter there is still some of this authoritarian hangover lurking for teachers who’s own default settings remain in the reactive negative affect range of basic emotional responses. In spite of having fully developed frontal lobes, yelling, humiliating, mocking and shaming young people is still a preferred tactic for some.

And I can speak from experience. When I started teaching I was still understanding my own reactive limbic system defaults and wish my teacher education had spent more time to help me work through how to become more aware of how my behaviour impacted on the learning and well-being of young people. I was a bit reckless at times – and had social media been around I’d probably have had a few hash tags of the not so salubrious kind.

Given as a nation we don’t have such great statistics with violence and abuse toward children it seems highly undesirable to have our learning institutions endorsing abuse tactics with so much understanding these days about the effects on developing brains. Yet as adults we tend to hide behind our privileged position as the ‘older species’ assuming this chronological difference entitles us to respect regardless of our own behaviour. Sometimes I wonder who really needs to grow up?

The artificial structures of respect and authority in 21st century schools that linger from post industrial revolution ideologies and practices taint modern learning environments. In a postmodern landscape with technology blurring the accessibility of personal boundaries growing, the very idea of calling teachers Mr or Miss is crazy if teachers profiles can be seen online.

Perhaps the best litmus test for a readiness to change is the openness to restorative practices as these really do challenge assumptions about power, authority and how to do respect. The most confronting aspect however is not so much in the kinds of conversations that are had but the need to acknowledge the recognition that we are all human beings in process. Developing empathy and caring is not done by the time you are 18. Every conversation changes a person therefore the quality of those conversations and interactions matter.

For those still unsure about the power of restorative practice watch Daniel Reisels TED talk. Emotions are there to connect with understanding and I think there is more to empathy than what happens in the brain. Genuine learning engages uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. We need to ditch the idea of negating or ‘managing’ these emotions or seeing them as primitive and a mark of weakness. Thinking and being reason-able is over rated sometimes or at the very least over emphasised as a mark of maturity.

I hope we can start creating modern learning environments that expect smiling on the first day and compulsory facials by Easter due to face ache.