Public school education, the citizen fully alive, and democracy -uLead, too

I am in Banff, with about 1,100 teachers, researchers and academics from at least 10 countries around the world. We are brought together for uLead. This conference, organized by the Council for School Leadership of the Alberta Teachers’ Association attracts a world-wide audience because it is a world class event.

For about 50 of us, uLead was preceded by Twin Peaks, a day-long research summit.

I appreciate every invitation to be involved. It is a blessing to be in the company of 1,100 educators who are fully engaged in a well-planned and multi-threaded program.

For me, the evidence of success is that I am provoked into new lines of thought and new images to carry potent ideas forward. I have been provoked, for which I am grateful.

Typically, energy and innovation are the characteristics of the workshops, but it is revealing, and concerning, that the prelude is very often “we recognize a crisis in education and this is our modest contribution to choosing ‘great opportunity’ rather than ‘great danger’”.

I am convinced that education is in crisis, and I am thankful that so many educators choose to pursue the opportunity rather than to become mired in the danger.

What exacerbates the danger is that many of the public don’t recognize it and, with teachers, take up the challenge of dealing with it.

My interest in education is a citizen’s interest, concentrating on public education as the cultural institution and process by which my community decides, from time to time, what is the essence of our community, and then works, very deliberately, to convey that essence to our children. I think of the essence of community, the work of public education, as including values, form, process, and content.

Public education is the only (more or less) powerful and universal process by which we can draw students into an understanding of, and a commitment to, life in a civil democratic society. In other words, public education is all about character and relationships.

It is sometimes said that we design our buildings and thereafter, our buildings design us. The same can be said of public education. We create a model of what we want and our model creates us. Sometimes, however, model building involves the unconscious adoption of many assumptions, without examination. Or, sometimes the assumptions that were once valued, explicitly acknowledged and wrestled with get lost sight of, become implicit, and are no longer valued or wrestled with. What happens when we discover, probably in a deep crisis, that the old model is essentially a completely unreliable map for the wholly new territory we have wandered into, unaware?

Some of you know that I am fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, who said: “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something is crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself — while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble.”

I agree with Havel. However, it is sometimes (often?) the case that what is on the way out is most dangerous as it becomes self-destructive. If you remember the movie “Multiplicity”, you remember that the ‘hero’ was a less and less reliable and valid iteration of himself with every re-iteration.

Similarly, liberalism has succumbed to neo-liberalism, which has succumbed to Trumpism in the U.S.A., (Dutertism in the Phillipines?: Orbanism in Hungary?), and which may shortly be replaced by neo-fascism.

Although there is no direct relationship, democracy is in decline around the world. An understanding of, and commitment to democracy is in decline in some of the so-called stalwart democracies.

When I hear from teachers, when I plumb the depths of their concern, I see trends that should worry every citizen, every parent, and everyone concerned about the best possible education for every child.

Curriculum development is a vital and potent aspect of public education. So is the development of curriculum resources. So is student assessment. So are standards. So is the use of computer technology.

But what happens if these become arguments that favour the absorption of externally constructed meaning, rather than supportive of students eliciting knowledge from their inquiries?

What happens if these become justifications for externally energizing learning (motivation) rather than internally energizing it (inspiration)?

What happens if these become arguments in favour of conditioning and compliance rather than self-discipline and self-forgiveness?

What happens if these become the rationale for competencies as givens rather than competencies discovered?

What happens if these become the rationale for students performing as responders rather than actors?

What happens if the cumulative effect of all this is to isolate and atomize us, rather than relate us and cohere us?

As only one example, what happens if the PISA constructs that test for the global competence of ‘sustainability’ are used to ever more tightly frame the subsequent public discourse about the issue?

I am absolutely confident that something new is being born, and it will be better than what we have. But, the world is not going to be more humane – it may briefly be less humane, perhaps even brutish — until citizens wrestle, in their own lives, with some of the deep issues foreshadowed by the challenges to what public education is and could be.

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