Philia and Phobia

Schools can appear to be both naive supporters, and utter opponents, of technology.

With the one hand we give out laptops and ipads and install electronic whiteboards in classrooms: with the other hand we worry about the uses of the internet and mobile phones.

It is my view that technology is one element in a much bigger picture.

Schools need to be able to successfully both construct and deconstruct authority.

Examples of Constructions

School architecture and playground design communicates the manner in which we expect students to move about the campus. Some schools crowd students into narrow corridors to move between classes, and corral them into echoing canteens to purchase food. In United Kingdom I visited one school which had a t-intersection set of corridors, requiring a teacher to stand on a small raised dais and play traffic cop at the close of each lesson.

Other schools provide gardens and open pathways on which to walk.  Wide staircases and open courtyards give a sense of freedom and responsibility.

In our Assemblies we provide students with our beliefs, values and virtues. Some school leaders inform, guide and enable students. Others instruct, berate and threaten. The range of tone in the teachers’ voices, the acceptance or non-acceptance of certain behaviours, and staff responses to everything from humble student initiatives to how student achievement is acknowledged, impact the construction of how authority is carried within the school.

Each school by necessity must be ordered but its view of its own authority is a significant factor in student culture.

Examples of Deconstructions

Whilst schools are continually articulating and reinforcing their authority structures, they also have a duty to deconstruct them. The student begins as a child, but finishes an adult. Along the journey school leaders and teachers have a duty to allow the students to understand that many rules are functional, not absolute. Some schools leave this process to the final years of schooling: I believe wise schools give responsibility as early as possible. Obviously, students work through many issues by themselves. They wonder about the purpose of uniforms, the subjects they don’t enjoy, modes of teaching and certain school rules. Courses that reflect upon matters of faith, politics, epistemology and the history of ideas provide scaffolds for student deconstruction of the school’s authority.

Connections to Technology

Now that we have our new technologies, students have a great deal more power to deconstruct the authority structures of the school. If they are upset with a teacher, they can text a parent. If they are researching a topic, they can read in areas not recommended by the reading list. If they are bored in class they can access Facebook on their laptop.

It is a move towards greater democratisation that opens tremendous possibilities, but doesn’t necessarily lead to more disciplined thinking habits. Students can access a million web pages on the arrival of the First Fleet, but might not be able to discern which sources are the more reliable.

School Responses

Some schools have adopted a ‘bring down the walls’ approach to technology, whilst others are shoring up the bulwarks. Some see it as a threat, others as an opportunity.

In relation to student academic development, technology engages students with a polyphony of voices. Schools that successfully guide students so that they can critique these voices, schools that give them structures for analysis and those that have teachers who make their own thinking processes visible to students will empower their student communities. Students learn in clusters and help each other. I do see that there is still a strong, positive role for the teacher to guide the students through the curriculum. Students don’t automatically know the questions to ask, and they need to be led to those areas that they might fear. Too many students review the Mathematics they already have mastered at the expense of the topic with which they struggle.

And computer technology isn’t the only kind they need to encounter. They need paint and play and wood and ink and garden soil and Bunsen burners.

I worry about the schools that are scared of phone technology. I understand the reasons. Students might access inappropriate sites or they might cyber-bully in school. Schools are, however,  places where students grow up. Some will make quite public mistakes. With or without technology, teenagers can and do sometimes hurt each other. We understand that as adults, because it sometimes happens to the adults in the school community too. Phone technology can provide us with an avenue to assist students to make better choices. We don’t need to ban it, but we do need to manage it. We do need to create an etiquette of usage.

And we need to be careful to not glorify the past. Steve Turner wrote: These are the good old days, just wait and see.  Our own schooling wasn’t perfect. Whenever a technological change has occurred, we are quick to forget the sins of previous systems. According to the New York Times, in the early 1800s, between  100,000 to 200,000 horses lived in the city. A typical horse produced from 15 to 30 pounds of manure (with the average output about 22 pounds) and about a quart of urine a day, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable (New York Times, June 9, 2008).Today, as a society, we are utterly committed to the motor vehicle . It is convenient, private and a relatively fast form of transport. Yet we know that we have too many road deaths and that carbon pollution is a significant problem. What a joy and what a monster the automobile must have seemed at the turn of the 20th Century! It is still that today. Yet we seek to teach our young people to manage it.

Technology makes our jobs as educators and parents both easier and harder. We have to think harder about when we construct authority structures and when we deconstruct them.   It can lead us into some very helpful conversations

I wish to note a point about my own Christian faith here. It makes transparent my thinking. In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians he talks about the incarnation. In verses 6 and 7 of Chapter 2, Paul wrote: Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 

As the Principal of a Presbyterian school I seek to follow His lead. We build a learning community by both accepting authority and by seeking to release our authority. Some students require tighter structures for a time, but our goal is to assist them to become mature adults who are able to seek the truth, to have integrity and to be humble in relation to their own understanding. Truth, integrity and humility are difficult virtues: but they have always been an antidote to societal excesses.  A technological world does not free us from our responsibilities towards God and others.




The Value of Learning

It is a real privilege to talk with parents about how they are seeking to raise their children. Almost all parents I meet are seeking to raise responsible, considerate and honest young people. They want them to enjoy learning and to do their best at school.

I hear from parents who have thought very carefully about everything from reading to dating. One of the reflections I think I am able to make with some evidence-base is in how, in general,  their methods work. I admit that these are anecdotal observations, influenced by my own beliefs about parenting, but I believe I can see some patterns. As a principal of a school of over 1200 girls, who has previously been principal of a co-educational school of about 940 students, I offer these thoughts.

I worry about parents of young children who set up a pattern of extrinsic reward to encourage their children to go well at school. It is usually built around a framework that says: “If you do well in ‘x’, I will reward you with ‘y'”. I admit that in the early years it appears to work.  It can be very motivating, and the child has a powerful boast to use at school about how much their parents provide for them. I observe, however, that it is not a good long term strategy.

Firstly, it places the child in a position of power that is not helpful later on. The subliminal message is that the child has power over the parents’ responses. For the period of time that the child really values the reward, the system may work. When the child becomes a teenager and wants to have something that she can use to differentiate herself from her parents, the reward system is an obvious target. Teenagers don’t like to feel manipulated. If they feel that their school work is connected to a system that is trying to control them, I have seen them stop trying at school as a way of diminishing the power of their parents.

Secondly, it undervalues learning. A really important message that we should be sending as parents is that an education is better than toys or holidays or a new item of clothing. Learning is its own reward. Reading enriches your life. Mathematics helps you understand both the universe and how to do things. Science is the basis of a healthy body and a healthy environment. We would not think it necessary to reward our children if they won a treasure hunt. The treasure is of value in itself. If we continually in subtle and obvious ways, by our own discussion about some of life’s big questions (and even its little ones), and by our joy in our children’s learning, express the idea that the best thing we can give our children is an education, they will learn to value it.

Thirdly, in the end we want our children to own their education. Today at PLC Sydney we celebrated the students who achieved excellence in the 2011 Higher School Certificate. What a joy to celebrate with so many past-students! As I looked across the faces of the young women as they posed for the group photograph, I thought: “They are all intrinsically motivated. They have all learned how to learn.” Their parents supported them and encouraged them, they agonised with them and celebrated with them. I am sure they would say that they made mistakes. I see, however, that they regarded their child’s education as her own. And it has paid off.

It is a difficult thing to hand over an education to a child. They will almost certainly not treat it correctly from time to time. Yet they will grow confident because of the trust their parents and their teachers place in them. If they stumble, it can build resilience. If they struggle, it can build patience. When they succeed they will have a deep satisfaction.

I watch the dynamics of this process occur every day…

Conversations with my daughters (2)

What are the metaphors that are the basis of our conversations with one another?

One is development. In the West development is often assumed to be ‘good’. Children ‘develop’ their skills in literacy and numeracy; societies aim to ‘develop’ better medical facilities; principals seek to ‘develop’ the schools they lead. The idea of development is deeply embedded in our thought lives. It can become the ‘unquestioned good’.

And certainly the elimination of small pox, or the reduction of the number of cases of malaria, or the growth in the percentage of students who can read and write, are all excellent things. Yet the idea that development is always good needs to be critically analysed.

Our middle daughter is at university, studying to be either a linguist or a teacher. Towards the close of last year she asked me to listen to a podcast of one of her lectures in Linguistics. The lecturer was lively and engaging in his presentation. He was arguing that ideas about sex and gender in language are constructed in particular ways, and earlier notions of language are ‘outmoded’. Previous academic knowledge used to show ‘x’, now it shows ‘y’. For ‘outmoded’, we could use other negative terms: ‘archaic’, ‘old-fashioned’…

Having lectured in the United Kingdom in a similar area, I asked my daughter if the lecturer had surveyed the major views as to how language works. The difficulty with saying that we used to think ‘x’, but we now think ‘y’, is that academic knowledge is often contested and the student is not being allowed to understand why a person might disagree with the popular theory. It is very interesting to explore alternative ways of dissecting an issue.

‘No,’ she said. ‘He presents his views very forthrightly.’

And, from listening to that one lecture, it seemed to be the case. It was quite a polemic, complete with occasional dismissive asides to other positions. At least in his view, we have ‘developed’ past those other perspectives.

I wonder how long it will be before we ‘develop’ past his view and his ideas become ‘archaic’.

There are theories that are discredited: phrenology, the Ptolemaic understanding of the heavens, fascism. But they are still worth understanding, if only to ensure that we don’t return to them.

And there are many ideas in Homer and Aristotle and Augustine that have a lot to say to us today. As an educational methodology, the survey of views is  important  because it enables the student to step away from the current direction of scholarly activity and to select a different pathway. It might be a dead-end, but it might also open up to whole new ways of thought.

There was a time when arsenic was seen only as a poison: today it is used in the treatment of leukaemia.

Conversations with my daughters (1)

I have three daughters.

The eldest recently commenced work at corporate law firm in Sydney. This weekend we chatted about aspects of being a young woman in a profession such as Law, where most of the partners are men, and, increasingly, graduates are women.

She works hard and her employer treats her very well. She feels their trust in the responsibilities she is given and their respect in the positive feedback she receives. And, yet, there are things that she wonders about.

She notices of a Monday that some of the young male graduates stop with the partners and talk about the weekend. David Warner’s switch hitting in the cricket, for example.

“What is switch hitting?” my daughter asks.

Her husband explains.

My daughter reports that while the boys chat about cricket, she is working at her desk. Through the glass walls she watches their body language. She sees the comraderie.

Professor Roslyn Arnold developed the theory of psychodynamic pedagogy for school teachers. In positive relationships people mirror one another. Over time they can even develop the same facial expressions. Really effective teachers help children to mirror positive responses by their own body language. The body and the tone of voice are the teacher’s main ways of creating a positive class tone. It is very subtle. And this is what my daughter sees played out in her workplace: tiny nuances of connection.

There was a book she read, New Girl on the Job, by Seligson, ten tips for the workplace for women. A key insight that she gained from the book was that women are more likely to think that the employer’s top priority is for the staff to be industrious and to earn money for the firm. They come to work and get straight to it. They can easily become assistantised. The young men are happy to have a conversation. When it comes to a significant task, the partner in the firm asks the person whom he knows well, the one he can trust, the person who can talk as well as research.

My daughter asks me what I am doing as a principal of a girls’ school not just to seek to build trust, but to help young women to work out the dynamics of the workplace. I tell her about the plans for professional women to chat about such things at assemblies. She knows about the work we do in leadership development and the way that girls are constantly asked to take the lead in school activities. “It’s a start,” she says. “Women need to think carefully about how to communicate professionally with men who are in powerful positions.”

It makes me realise the importance of having some male teachers and leaders in a girls’ school.

And, I think, I will grab a copy of that book.