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(Un)necessary teachers’ work? Lessons from England. July 17, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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by Susanne Gannon

Disembarking at Heathrow a few weeks ago, my first purchase in pounds as always was a copy of The Times to read on the train into the city. The second page headline, “CR (Creative Original): Grades on schoolwork replaced by codes” (Bennett, 2017) caught my eye. Skimming the article in my dazed jetlagged state was not ideal for a critical reading but I snapped a photo with my phone of the final paragraph:

“In 2014 the government asked teachers to tell them what created unnecessary work. Three big areas were marking, planning and data management.”

I recognise the data deluge in schooling is now overwhelming, may be driven by externally imposed system imperatives and is not always put to use to improve student learning. However, I’ve spent my professional life as a secondary English teacher, tertiary teacher educator and researcher. I could not see how “marking” and “planning” are seen as “unnecessary work” for teachers.

Planning is surely at the heart of teachers’ work. Otherwise how do we claim our status as professionals? Ideally we don’t just wing it in the classroom, nor do we follow prescriptive scripts. Systematic, responsive, syllabus-informed planning of purposeful sequences of learning and meaningful resources are what make the difference for individuals and groups of students. Well-selected and fine-grained data about student progress (not necessarily only the numerical data that is favoured by educational systems) should of course inform such planning as skilled teachers identify gaps and opportunities for extension and tailor their planning to their students’ needs and their potential.

Having high expectations and creating the conditions – through careful and ideally collaborative planning – for students to succeed and to excel are hallmarks of quality teachers. These features are characteristic of exemplary teaching in disadvantaged contexts (Lampert & Burnett, 2015; Munns, Sawyer & Cole, 2013). Careful planning need not preclude flexibility, creativity and authenticity in learning and assessment practices, but conversely may enable these qualities (Hayes, Mills & Christie, 2005; Reid, 2013). As many of these authors stress, good planning is often underpinned by a disposition of teachers to become researchers of learning within their own classrooms. Where teachers are provided some agency and capacity to gather and use data then problems are less likely to be at the low level of time consuming and potentially meaningless “data management” that is perceived as “unnecessary work” by teachers in England.

Marking is of course close to my heart as a secondary English teacher and I have spent countless hours of my life providing written feedback on student work. Whilst I have become adept at designing and using outcomes based rubrics / criteria sheets since their introduction in the mid-90s with outcomes based assessment and curriculum, I have always endeavoured to provide tailored and specific feedback to students on their texts.

This for me is “marking” as a process, and I think of it – in ideal circumstances – as sometimes like a sort of dialogue on the page between student, text and teacher, and an opening towards further dialogue. It features in formative as well as summative assessment contexts (apart from exams). Now it features in the texts in progress that are thesis chapters for my current doctoral students. In a perfect world it is diagnostic, supportive, explicit and critical in combination and students will take heed. Portfolios, peer and self-assessment processes and tools can be incorporated. As Munns et al (2013) describe, sharing assessment responsibility is an important component of the insider school. The volume and pressure of marking has always been problematic however, when short timelines for results and sheer numbers of students across multiple classes work against ideal scenarios. My research into creative writing in secondary schools (e.g. Gannon, 2014) suggests how English faculties were able to work collegially to support senior students as they developed major works in English. Marking, at best, can be rewarding, encouraging and useful for students and for teachers.

Where, then, does the aversion to marking come from for teachers in England? The article in The Times does not provide any pointers towards the government survey of 2014, but is rather an announcement of a large randomised control trial to be funded by the UK-based Education Endowment Foundation, based on a Report reviewing written feedback on student work that they commissioned and recently published (Elliot et al., 2016). The opening of the executive summary of the Report provides further detail:

[T]he 2014 Workload Challenge [UK] survey identified the frequency and extent of marking requirements as a key driver of large teaching workloads. The reform of marking policies was the highest workload-related priority for 53% of respondents. More recently, the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group [UK] noted that written marking had become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers and recommended that all marking should be driven by professional judgement and ‘be meaningful, manageable and motivating’. (2016, 4)

Well, of course! What has gone wrong in England that marking is not driven by these qualities. Are there lessons for us in Australia (yet again from England) of what not to do in educational reform? Although the report acknowledges that there is very little evidence or research into written marking, they nevertheless identify some inefficient and apparently widespread practices: triple-marking, awarding grades for every piece of student work (so that the grades distract students from the feedback), too many texts required from students, marking excessive numbers of student texts, provision of low level corrections rather than requiring students to take some responsibility for corrections/ improvements, and moving on without giving students time to process and respond to feedback.

Despite the caveat in the opening section, the report is worth reading in full (though it has been criticised by local critics e.g. Didau, 2016). Secondary teachers are much more inclined to put a grade on every piece of student work, they say (2016, 9). Unsurprisingly, offering clear advice on how a student may improve their work in a particular dimension seems to be more useful than broad comments (‘Good work!’) or excessively detailed and overwhelming commentary (2016, 13). Targets or personalised and specific “success criteria” may be effective, particularly where students are involved in establishing them (2016, 20; also see Munns et al., 2013).

It is in this part of the Report that the overall logic of the newspaper article becomes apparent. Buried well down into the subsection on “Targets” is the following comment:

Writing targets that are well-matched to each student’s needs could certainly make marking more time-consuming. One strategy that may reduce the time taken to use targets would be to use codes or printed targets on labels. Research suggests that there is no difference between the effectiveness of coded or uncoded feedback, providing that pupils understand what the codes mean. However the use of generic targets may make it harder to provide precise feedback. (2016, 20).

The Times headline is therefore not quite accurate. It seems that “Grades” will not be replaced by “codes” but rather that teachers’ written comments will be replaced by codes. In another article, “Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial” (Ward, 2017) this is called “FLASH Marking” and is an initiative developed in house by a secondary school in northwestern England that will be rolled out to 12,500 pupils in 100 schools (EEF, 2017). The school claims that teachers will now be able to mark a class of Yr 11 exam papers in an hour. Students will receive an arrow (at, above or below expected target), and codes such as CR = “creative original ideas”, and V= “ambitious vocabulary needed.”

It seems from these news stories (and presumably EEF will put up the design protocols on their website eventually) that two different factors are being measured – one is holding back grades and the other is using codes instead of written comments. I’m curious but ambivalent, after all at university it is now mandatory to use “Grademark” software for coursework students. This enables teachers to provide generic abbreviated feedback (“codes”) but also gives us the opportunity to personalize responses, and supplement these with an extended written comment, or even an audio-recorded comment. These are highly personalised and appreciated by students.

To turn back to the English example, I wonder whether the randomized control trial design (in this case an efficacy trial that will be evaluated by Durham University) means that participating schools will not be able to improvise around the conditions of the feedback? At least, if the reduction of feedback to codes proves not to improve student results, given the need for the control (or “business as usual”) group, the damage will be limited to only half the participating schools and students. The news articles are unclear about the purpose of the study – which is described as a way to reduce teacher workload more than to improve student learning. However the EEF project description also mentions, reassuringly, that the rationale is focused on student outcomes, as “specific, actionable, skills-based feedback is more useful to students than grades” (2017). The project will follow year 10 students in senior English classes through to the end of secondary school with a report to be published in 2021. Already, I can’t wait.

References

Bennett, R. (June 17, 2017). CR (Creative original idea): grades on schoolwork replaced with codes. The Times.

Didau, D. (May 18, 2016), The Learning Spy Blog.

http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/marked-decline-eefs-review-evidence-written-marking/

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Flash Marking. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/our-work/projects/flash-marking/

Elliot, V., Baird, J., Hopfenback, T., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M, Richardson, J., & Coleman, R. (2016). A Marked Improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/-on-marking/

Gannon, S. (2014). ‘Something mysterious that we don’t understand…the beat of the human heart, the rhythm of language’: Creative writing and imaginative response in English. In B. Doecke, G.Parr & W. Saywer (Eds), Language and creativity in contemporary English classrooms (pp. 131-140). Putney: Phoenix Education.

Hayes, D., Mills, M., & Christie, P. (2005). Teachers & schooling making a difference: productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Allen and Unwin.

Lampert, J. & Burnett, B. (Eds) (2015) Teacher Education for High Poverty Schools. Springer.

Munns, G., Sawyer, W. & Cole, B. (Eds). (2013). Exemplary Teachers of students in poverty. Routledge

Reid, J. (2013). Why Programming matters: Aporia and teacher learning in classroom practice. English in Australia. 48(3), 40-45.

Ward, H. (June 16, 2017). Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial. Times Education Supplement. https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-wanted-take-part-marking-without-grading-trial

 

Dr Susanne Gannon is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, Australia.

What can education do in response to fear of strangers? July 19, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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By Carol Reid

Today we hear growing anti-Islamic slogans related to dress practices, religion and citizenship. Saying it is wrong to do this is only part of the struggle to resist this simple rhetoric. Examining why it is wrong might be marginally better, but where that leads us is often into a tricky path of us/them and a focus on difference. Better still might be a focus on the values of a civil, cosmopolitan society that we want to sustain.

While we have been a successful multicultural society this is often understood in demographic terms, in simple numbers. For others it means celebrating different ways of being – food, lifestyle, customs, dances, languages and so on. In education in particular, the approach has often failed to respond adequately to a fear of strangers. The approach has been called liberal plural multiculturalism, a celebration of difference, which is much better than assimilation but isn’t helping us deal with the global reach of ideas, instant communication of terror and increasing mobilities of people.

I argue, as do others in Europe, Canada and elsewhere who are thinking about new ways to live in this globalising world, that we need more than a return to the old model of multiculturalism. We need what has been called an ‘agonistic’ approach or cosmopolitan thinking (Todd, 2010), the idea that to deal with difference at a deeper level might mean that we don’t end up with consensus. We see this anyway in our election result, in the politics around Brexit in the UK and Trump in the USA. It is the way of the world, this expression of difference. But how do we live with it?

The model of multiculturalism we have built our success on was about one-way integration, helping people to integrate, recognising their unique languages and cultures while committing to the nation. In practice the mainstream culture did change, and has become what has been called everyday multiculturalism, but just under the surface there are cracks.

Our nation, Australia, like many other nations, is now more open, whether we like it or not, and thus the call for a return to closed borders, a singular national identity on the part of citizens, and backward-looking protectionism is not achievable. Just listen to the fallout of Brexit. Teachers know that young people in our classrooms come and go (Reid and Watson, 2016). They return to countries where relatives still live, and they come back. Connections are global. For Aboriginal students this has always been the case so in many ways they are our first cosmopolitans, transforming their lives through trade and mobility (Forte, 2010). They have done so through what has been called ‘cultural translation’ – comprehending, connecting and evaluating to create new ways of living (Papastergiadis, 2011).

What to do in schools then? The first step is to offer no recipes, no prescriptions about practice that remove the judgement of teachers in often complex situations. This also means that applying universal principles of what constitutes human rights might not be a simple thing to do. Applying and following rules without thinking leads to problems. Hannah Arendt has argued it was one explanation for the rise of fascism in Germany (Arendt, 1994 cited in Todd, 2010). Human rights, for example, can be about listening to all the explanations about why cultural practices are valued while accepting that some will be shared and others not. Appiah has called this being ‘partial cosmopolitans’ (2007).  The point is that we cannot really know our students through a set of cultural attributes that are static because the practice of living is a dynamic process that teachers engage in every second of the day. This cannot be prescribed in professional knowledge lists as a set of competencies to be measured. It is practiced through the development of reflexivity; the idea that all our viewpoints are culturally conditioned, yet keeping an eye on inequality.

A call to a set of rules about how to live, such as those currently being trumpeted across the globe, are a reflection of where we are today. It is a wakeup call for those of us involved in teacher education to engage with how teachers’ judgement is being taken away with increasing lists of competencies. Facing the complexities of the world we live in will require more than rules. It will require a cosmopolitan disposition and thinking.

 

References:

Appiah, A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. New York London W. W. Norton.

Arendt, H. (1994) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York. Harcourt.

Forte, M. C. (Ed.). (2010). Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Transnational and Transcultural Indigeneity in the Twenty-First Century (First ed.). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Papastergiadis, N. (2011). Cultural translation and cosmopolitanism. In K. Jacobs & J. Malpas (Eds.), Ocean to outback: cosmopolitanism in contemporary Australia (pp. 68-95). Crawley, W.A.: UWA Pub.

Reid, C. & Watson, K.  (2016).  Compulsory schooling in Australia : perspectives from students, parents, and educators.  Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Todd, S. (2010). Living in a Dissonant World: Toward an Agonistic Cosmopolitics for Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(2), 213-228.

Professor Carol Reid is a member of the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia, and a senior researcher in the university’s Centre for Educational Research.

 

NAPLAN is only one measure of achievement May 16, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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by Katina Zammit

Recently I finished reading a publication from the Grattan Institute entitled Widening gaps: What NAPLAN tells us about student progress (Goss & Chisolm, 2016) and was reminded of the limitations of this Australian-wide test for students in years 3, 5, 7, & 9.

The main purpose of the publication was really to advocate for a new way of analyzing the data to show what they consider a better means of measuring student achievement, i.e. years of progress. It reports that high achieving and low achieving students are not improving their results. Despite this, their starting point in this report for considering a change is still based on certain assumptions about NAPLAN.

Now that NAPLAN testing has concluded for 2016, it is worth examining the assumptions about NAPLAN that pervade this document, as well as the general public and media discourse around NAPLAN. Included in these assumptions are that:

  • NAPLAN tests actually are a good indicator of overall achievement and success at school, in learning and seeing education as a positive. [But that is not conclusive.]
  • the NAPLAN test results are a good predictor of a student achieving or not achieving their potential. [Again not conclusive for all students across the range of abilities]
  • the same or similar test environment occurs across the years and the same or very similar items are included across the years in the tests have been administered.
  • data and results from the test should be used as a major input upon which to base educational decisions by policy makers.

I think it is timely to draw attention to the limitations of NAPLAN and to remind parents, and students, that it provides information about a child’s achievement based on that one day, at that time, completed under stressful test conditions.

NAPLAN does not take account of the development of students’ interests in learning, their passions, or engagement in learning. NAPLAN outcomes should be considered in the context of all the other measures teachers use to assess student achievement of learning outcomes, especially in the other key learning areas of Creative Arts, Health and Physical Education and so on. NAPLAN does not take into account the other value-added dispositions and community involvement provided by schools that are not measurable in a test. Interventions and pedagogical changes in classrooms at a school take time to demonstrate results, and again, many of these may not be measurable by the NAPLAN test.

Data from NAPLAN is still limited, no matter what approach to data analysis and reporting is undertaken – whether data are compared against benchmarks or measured by years of a student’s progress. It is not the results and reporting that is questionable, it is the basis upon which these data are used for system evaluation of schools, a school’s progress, and to drive policy.

Perhaps governments need to look at employment policies and other support mechanisms, not just school education, for students from low socio-economic backgrounds living in poverty. A multi-pronged approach is needed to improve the outcomes for students to break the cycle of inter-generational disadvantage.

Reference:

Goss, P., and Chisholm, C., 2016, Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress. Technical Report, Grattan Institute.

 

Dr Katina Zammit is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is Director of the Master of Teaching (Primary) teacher education program at the university.

Teaching ‘shared humanity’ and promoting inclusive belonging in schools. Could this be an answer to radicalisation? February 10, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Inclusive Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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by Sue Roffey

The shooting of a police accountant by a teenage boy in Parramatta last year the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris have led to increasing calls to identify young people who are at risk of radicalisation. Although assessment of those at risk “shows a group of people clearly failing to gain satisfaction or friendship in mainstream Australian life” (Australian Strategy Policy Institute, June 2015) there appears to be no clear appreciation that what happens in schools can either contribute to or help address the problem. There is much that can be done but it needs to be pro-active and start yesterday.

In order to take preventative action we must understand at least some of the psychological motivations behind radicalisation.

Young people often have strong ideals and many need to feel they are important. Giving their all for a ’cause’ can be motivating if it turns you into a hero. A sense of belonging is also critical to psychological wellbeing and many young people look to groups and associations as a means of finding both belonging and meaning in their lives. Many of these hold out the promise of building a better world for future generations. This is an exhortation that has run throughout history – often with devastating results as many wars attest to.

Feeling connected is a major factor for resilience. It is one reason why marginalised young people often end up in gangs. Belonging that is exclusive rather than inclusive promotes rejection of anyone outside the group. We therefore need to do everything we can to promote inclusive belonging in as many contexts as possible. Feeling connected to school means you believe your presence matters, you are valued for who you are, not just how you perform; the learning environment is both positive and safe and you perceive your learning as meaningful.

In March 2009 the New Scientist reported on a study (Wike & Fraser, 2009) with the headline “Teen killers don’t come from schools that foster a sense of belonging”. Incidents of multiple killings in US schools took place in establishments where some students were seen as stars and others rejected as outsiders, even though they might be academically able. It was these marginalised individuals who perpetrated these atrocities, partly in revenge and partly to make themselves feel noticed at last. The killers reportedly showed no empathy for those they gunned down and had no apparent concern for their own safety or future.

Learning to Be and Learning to Live Together were identified as two of the four pillars of education for the 21st Century by UNESCO in 1996. The other two pillars are Learning to Know and Learning to Do. The overwhelming focus in schools on academic content can mean there is no time left for learning about relationships or exploring values. Any time devoted to understanding the self or developing relational skills can be deemed by some as a distraction from the ‘real’ purpose of schooling – educating for an economic future.

We not only have young people being radicalised, we also continue to have bullying in our schools alongside homophobia, racism, and increasing incidents of family violence and abuse in our society.

Much of the conversation appears to focus on reactive strategies. We cannot continue to put our energy into picking up the pieces. We need to actively teach our children and young people ‘shared humanity’ – helping them understand and appreciate how much they have in common with others.

They need to reflect on how every major religion in the world espouses a version of ‘ The Golden Rule’ – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. More connects us than divides us, but unless we give young people structured opportunities to think and talk about this they may be at the mercy of those who want to denigrate and dehumanise those ‘not like us’.

Schools can provide activities that connect students with each other – not just their mates but with those they don’t usually associate with. We can teach empathy. In the light of what we share we can value diversity. We can enable young people to understand their emotions and therefore raise awareness of how these might be manipulated.

There are skilled educators doing this all over the Western world and changing perceptions and behaviours as a result. But this is often under the radar where social and emotional learning does not fit with current policy. We are now paying the price for ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ being jettisoned in favour of more time spent on formal curriculum goals. We need to revisit the balance in education for all our futures.

Reference:  Wike, T. L., & Fraser, M. W. (2009). School shootings: Making sense of the senseless. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(3), 162-169.

 

Associate Professor Sue Roffey is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is a psychologist, academic, author and creator of the Circle Solutions framework for social and emotional learning. sue@sueroffey.com

Young people, “radicalization” and schooling October 26, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Engaging Learning Environments, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Carol Reid

The recent events in Parramatta and subsequent ‘threats’ on social media located at two south-western Sydney high schools has brought to the fore the role of schooling in developing and countering threats to social cohesion. This is not the first time that the relationship between schools and terrorism and crime have been raised and it is not just in this part of Sydney, which is home to the most diverse number of first and second generation immigrants in Sydney. For those of us who have worked in and with schools around these matters for a number of decades there is little surprise. Before discussing what might be done it is critical that we comprehend what hasn’t been done, or rather what has been erased.

In the culture wars over school curricula Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire argued that critical approaches in high schools were ideologically driven and took the place of what really ‘ought’ to be in the curriculum. Donnelly was the ‘non-ideological’ choice of government for interrupting what was seen as left-wing tendencies among teachers and reforming ‘tainted’ curricula. This article does not want to waste space recounting the debates as arguments can be found elsewhere, but it is important to outline what this has meant for schools and young people.

The attack on critical thinking skills (including critiques of government policy and our history) by conservative educationalists leads to schools becoming places where ‘touchy subjects’ can’t be raised. They are taboo in schools. This means that they find space in subterranean places. This happens in schools in part because that is where young people gather. Schools are therefore important sites for airing and challenging views, no matter how extreme. It is not surprising that fellow students of the Arthur Phillip High School student involved in the Parramatta shooting had not heard him mention anything untoward, nor is it surprising that he also silenced discussions of religion or appeared disinterested. This concealed two things – his own complicity with unspeakable texts, but more importantly the related silencing of different views of the world by conservative forces surrounding schooling.

If we are not blind we can take this opportunity to reconsider what schooling is and how marginalising some forms of critique only serves to deepen disaffection but more critically drives some young people to commit acts of terror. The new Turnbull government is beginning to soften the tone but often points to factors such as mental health issues, isolated young people or poor family relations as factors that leads to anti-social behaviour at school or by young people of school age. But this begs the question given all the mental health opportunities provided for young people. Assistance for this kind of anomie is off the radar. It cannot be spoken.

In the rest of this short article I would like to outline what might be done and in doing so stand in solidarity with commentators such as Yassar Morsi who said:

It maybe counterintuitive but the answer lays in less authority – a space for young Muslims to politically dissent in their own language, rather than more policing of their dissent. Less parenting, more growth and a space to criticise the west and Australia, without an Islamophobic or generational backlash and without the hysterical fear and suffocation that surrounds everything they do and say.

Indeed, the first response to the Parramatta shooting by the NSW State Government is to monitor more closely ‘prayer’ groups in schools and while not clearly stated, this appears to be only Muslim prayer groups. Dr Anne Aly – who works with Muslim youth and adults who are already radicalized – similarly argues for dialogue. But what can schools do? In the remainder of this article I provide an approach that builds on young people’s capacities to know, and to trust them to articulate this knowing and emerge with new understandings that enrich them, their peers and their teachers.

In late 2006 I was invited by Larissa Treskin, then the NSW Department of Education Liverpool Education Director of Schools, to consider a project working with public high schools in Liverpool on racism post-Cronulla riots. Apparently there were still simmering issues bundled up with everyday competitiveness by school boys about girls and turf; the usual spatial dynamics that have been around for a long time. Six high schools were approached and I invited two of my colleagues (Drs Les Vozzo and Debra Costley) to work with me on the project, which was funded by a competitive ‘Living in Harmony’ grant for 2007, managed by the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) with a contribution by my university, now Western Sydney University (WSU).

The project began with selecting the age groups to be involved. Year 9 and 10 students (14 to 16 year olds) formed two groups. The first (47 in total) spent a full day at WSU where we discussed the media representation of young people involved in two riots – Macquarie Fields and Cronulla. We were careful to approach the issue as one where the construction of young people was at the heart of the matter and thus to evoke a sense of ‘needing to understand’ different perspectives from and about their own peers. The objective was to explore and document through youth voices the causes of youth tensions in a context of rapid social change. We provided them with workshops on how to interview, carry out focus groups and ethical research practice. We argued that the main concern was to understand racism – whether it was indeed an issue, thoughts about the Cronulla riot and whether another might occur.

At the end of the day’s workshop we all co-constructed five questions (eight teachers included) that would be covered in their research. The students then left and with their teachers developed plans to interview a group of students and teachers at another school after a pilot focus group at their own school and an interview practice with a teacher or two volunteers. They also interviewed community members such as parents and local business owners. Staff workshops were also held.

A second group of students worked with a theatre group led by Kaz Therese on a creative representation of the issues, and also findings from the first group’s investigations. The youth theatre group decided to use a narrative approach so that the students involved could use theatrical forms to narrate stories of migration, indigeneity and everyday teenage concerns, along with a song they developed around the rejection of racism. The production was called ‘Pieces of Harmony’ because the students felt that while harmony was a fair enough aim it was a little naïve, but that in the act of aiming for harmony a rapprochement could be attained in pieces of harmony. The performance was held at the Liverpool Catholic Club and was attended by community, parents and dignitaries with a DVD produced.

What happened to those doing the research? The students were slightly apprehensive; pleased they had got the questions agreed on before leaving the workshop, but feeling intimidated about talking to parents due to cultural mores about respect and obedience among many second generation students. So, we had a mock focus group to prepare them. Students interviewed 301 other students in total across the six schools. Initially they were concerned about going to other schools but the evaluation of the project revealed that collaboration with other schools was the aspect they enjoyed most.

Furthermore, when they were asked about what they had learned, the greatest number of comments related to how doing the research had shifted their thinking about issues of cultural difference, race and harmony. A number had held negative constructions of students from other schools based purely on ethnicity or reputation rather than knowledge of their perspectives. Other interesting results here include the relatively poor perception of parental support for young people. Students were also surprised by some of the attitudes of teachers. The young people involved in the research requested another full day workshop to discuss their findings and asked why there were no more opportunities for this kind of learning. The young people who were involved in the research found some startling facts about others, themselves and their teachers.

Some key community attitudes about young people and the project that emerged from the focus groups led by students were:

  • They felt there was a lot of diversity in their communities;
  • Dominance of a certain culture made others feel inferior to that group;
  • Kept referring back to just ‘youth’ rather than racism – i.e. not their problem in other words;
  • Families had different values and morals;
  • Indigenous parents particularly enjoyed the performances where students told their stories.

From the students’ perspective:

  • The project produced an overall shift in attitude towards students from other schools and cultures developed through an exploration of local and global issues;
  • They concluded that older students had more fixed views influenced by the media;
  • Younger students were less decided. Still testing out the possible ideas available;
  • Concluded that Year 7 and 8 is a good place to start as they haven’t formed opinions or stereotyped people.

The students found that teachers:

  • Held the basic idea that more diversity produces racism and that this is an area that needs some substantial work done with teachers;
  • Lifestyles did not include much mixing with diversity;
  • Were worried about Bebo – site of racist narratives.

To conclude, the outcomes of the project were that people were now more conscious that racism takes many forms and that it is not just young people but community, parents and teachers who are implicated in multiple ways. While this project was related to racism, it is the model of youth engagement in understanding the issues from their perspective and in their words that is central. Working in multimodal forms also makes different forms of expressing these understandings and perspectives available. The project also developed critical thinking capacities and provided knowledge about ethical research practices.

More could be done to make schools safe places for student discussion of current issues. While it may seem counter-intuitive from a conservative perspective – that ‘touchy subjects’ ought to be repressed because they are dangerous – not dealing with valid concerns that young people have, whether radicalization or other matters, means that it is hard to make schools relevant in the totality of their lives. Educationalists must be explaining and debating. It is fertile space for further research and community engagement.

 

Dr Carol Reid is an associate professor in the Centre for Educational Research and School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

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