Where are we?

As a person in education who has fought for a quarter of a century  for a culture of education that values above all, teachers having sufficient freedom to be innovative, truly innovative, I feel I am usefully placed to reply to the question: Where are we?

Perhaps, I could start with a wild card. Why is it so hard, and becoming increasingly harder, to get men into primary teaching? But there is also an associated question: Why are the  applications plummeting overall?

This is what I wrote eight years ago in the autobiographical section for the launching of my then new website networkonnet:

Kelvin Smythe continues to be frustrated by the paucity of attention given by teacher groups to the ideological underpinnings of education issues. He would like to see schools become less bureaucratic, so that teaching could become more joyous, and attract and retain more adventurous people. The metaphor he has in mind is more knight errant (if the chauvinist image can be excused) and less Round Table. When, from time-to-time, he says schools have developed an unattractive sense of petty control, he is really hinting at why he thinks schools will fail to attract or retain male teachers. 

With education such an entanglement of bureaucratic pettifogging, intrepid men and women won’t be attracted into teaching. I have sat in practicums with students and seen the growing feeling dismay of most men and a fair number of women at the command nature of school education. Until schools are places where teachers can be professional in classrooms, the situation will not change. A symptom is that teaching will continue to self-select both men and woman of a certain set of personality characteristics.

Then I said:

As well, it is his view that schools are allowing their clarity of education vision to be confused by the electronic tools available. He is concerned about an apparent shallowness in learning programmes. Process, he believes, is being emphasised at the expense of knowledge.


We have lost it. Yet you promised otherwise. You said it would be a tool, now it is the beginning and the end. So dazzled by the electronics have we become that we cannot see both the flaccidity in the programmes and the implications for our and children’s future. We were warned about this, but to no good effect. Computers have been found a just too successful way for self-promotion. The only way out of this is from the inspired leadership of a great person either in the profession or in politics. What happens in history is not inevitable, it only appears so after the event.

Then I said:

He is not impressed with a lot of the slickness surrounding school marketing (aren’t markets where things are bought and sold?); the way some schools allow themselves to be used as poster schools to promote a narrow, conformist view of education; the large number of out-of-school meetings for principals (more time should be spent standing with their teachers and less sitting with other principals) … 

Yes – I know – I wrote this in 2007. With nothing much to work out in the curriculum, principals are expressing themselves brilliantly in public relations. Yes – I know – here was IES intuitively predicted. I note that schools getting together has, whether IES or nor, become something of an unquestioned good. I don’t rate it highly.

And I conclude in this section beginning with reference to academics like Hattie:

There are claims of new knowledge – it is knowledge commensurate with hierarchical control; university jargon – an academic rite of passage, but also useful for obscuring the downright ordinariness of the actual message in much academic writing; talk of inquiry learning – it is a label now so widely used as to be meaningless; question taxonomies – good questioning does not come in pre-packaged sequences; prolix ministry publications – stop doing international surveys, try being original; the abundance of overseas gurus with ideas, which seem to him, based on pop psychology; and, finally, anyone claiming to prepare children for the 21st century (the best way to do the right thing for children’s future, he believes, is to meet their needs now).

And writing from the present where do I think I am and you are now?

In relationship to Tomorrow’s Schools we are at the beginning of similar downward education cycle of neoliberal depredation, for instance: instead of the weasel expression of parental involvement and co-operation we have co-operation within communities of schools; we have increased centralising of power posing as a reduction of it; we have a system of administrative change posing as a system of curriculum benefit; we have academics who think they know something we don’t; we have declarations of pro-child education change in an anti-teacher environment; we have consultation after the fact accompanied by intense propaganda; we have an absence of the larger question: What are our independently considered priorities for helping children in schools; we have languishing, as a result, the real needs of children in schools; we are at the beginning of the phony period of initial freedom characteristic of early Tomorrow’s Schools; we have principals asserting we can cope with this (they might be able to but we know the system can’t in the long term); we have principals by their actions undermining professional collective response, not only in this matter, but also for matters to come (who will be there to stop the Pearson syndrome?); we have principals in association with the government having a party at children’s and teachers’ expense; we have the wait for this neoliberal move to be revealed as another failure (of schools); and we have a replay of that ‘incomprehension, diversion, and glaze’ I saw in principals’ eyes in 1999 – and me howling at the moon as I did at Onerahi hotel way back in 1989.

In an impressionistic way the above is my reply to the question: Where are we?

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9 Responses to Where are we?

  1. kellyned says:

    An interesting comment Kelvin.
    I am not involved in a CoS and am watching with interest the unfolding of a CoS around me, amongst a group of school with which I have been much involved. I can’t see how or why a Board would approve of such an idea. Much time and money will be spent implementing and debating strategies that are doomed to fail from the outset.
    I am waiting for the outcomes of the NZEI lead initiative. I am optimistic that it might be more useful.
    I have also been aware of schools which were included in CoS by default and have withdrawn.
    Certainly it seems to be larger secondaries that are leading the charge. I think primaries will get burned and ‘burnt off’ by that situation. Secondary doesn’t ‘get’ primary, yet secondary needs primary practice to improve secondary outcomes.

  2. Kelvin says:

    An interesting comment in return Kellyned. Thank-you.

  3. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Like you Kelvin I have been involved in education for a long time and now find myself on the sidelines. Like you I have done my best to encourage a creative learner centred education and, like you, are concerned with the direction education has taken since the 1980s.

    With regard to your question ‘where are we’ I am reminded of the dire position Paul Gauguin once found himself in. Being depressed he decided to paint one last painting before finishing his life. He called his painting,’Where have we come from, where are we now, and where are we going?’. The best thing was, as a result of his creativity, he brightened up and continued with his career.

    What we need in teaching is creative action to create a better learning culture in our schools rather than being forced to paint by numbers to designs created by distant experts

    As for retaining men ( or creative teachers generally), at a workshop I was involved in once, a male DP shared with me his thoughts on the subject. His flatmate worked for a local business. He didn’t mind his friend being paid more, or that he had a company car – what he was envious of was that his friend was able to make his own decisions. As a teacher, he felt, everybody told him what to do. This is the petty control you mention.

    The big problem is, as you also mention, is the lack of awareness of the ideology underpinning current educational directions. The principals and teachers I meet seem busy doing what they are expected to do – they ‘go along to get along’ reminding me of turkeys looking forward to Christmas. They all seem happy ( or resigned) to implement yesterdays ‘best practices’ and this conformity will be made worse when the government’s ‘community of schools’ is implemented. led by ‘super’ ( conformist) principals and teachers. As you say we have a system that is designed to ‘self select a certain set of personality characteristics’.

    I also agree with you about the shallow use of information technology. I heard on the radio the other day that ‘we are entering an ‘age of glib’;an age of instant knowledge; of ‘cut and paste’ learning. I used to read the ‘inquiry’ projects I saw in classrooms I used to visit. What was sadly missing was evidence of student ‘voice’, there was no questioning of ideas, no sense of confusion, which is the motivation of all learning. Good inquiry projects/studies should end up with more questions than answers.

    And then there is the ‘Christmas tree’ effect where schools try to market themselves – your ‘poster schools’. School offices now resemble slick business foyers and this is particularly so in the , so called, ‘modern learning environments’ where they more resemble command centres.

    I have already commented on ‘inquiry learning’. I am all for it – but only it about real inquiry and not just a label to cover shallow learning. And as for 21st century leaning skills the best preparation is to meet students needs now as you say. If I am right ,John Dewey wrote in the late 19th Century, that ‘children grow into tomorrow as they live today’.

    Schools are certainly more under central control than they have ever been. Schools are not free to develop an education to meet the unique needs of every student. Compliance is more the name of the game than creativity. And, along with compliance to Ministry requirements, there is the insidious effect of school based compliance. And, in the future, those who design the tests will determining the curriculum – as is the case in Australia and the USA.

    Current education reminds me of the Gallipoli campaign – wrong war, wrong place and wrong leadership. It seems we haven’t really learnt the true lesson of Gallipoli.

    It is all a bit depressing. Paul Gauguin had the right idea – time for some personal creativity – for a bottom up revolution.

  4. Kelvin says:

    Thanks for your contribution Bruce – it enhances the posting beautifully. When I send out postings I can estimate to a T how many unsubscriptions I will score. I estimated big and correctly on this one.
    We begin another cycle and, by the way, we have Labour starting to back off opposition to the present system. So typical. Chris Hipkins is not the person for the job – a technocrat bereft of vision, possessing only a gab-bag of political points. We are left with Tracey Martin of NZ First, but a what a remainder.

  5. Stephen says:

    Great posts in the last few days Kelvin. As usual.
    Personally very disturbed by the role of ICT in the NZ curriculum. Classic case of “the hammer shapes the hand.”

  6. Kelvin says:

    Thanks Stephen. Well said and thanks.

  7. Stephen says:

    Thanks Kelvin. I am currently engaged in consultation with my community around the role of ICT in our school curriculum. I have been absolutely stunned and heartened by the response from parents who overwhelmingly wish to see ICT taking a very minor role in our curriculum. We need to resist the snake oil “21st Century learner” bullsh*t artist consultants and experts who peddle this stuff. We recently enrolled a year 5 student from one these “digital” schools. It stuns me that this child cannot write with a pen. She can tap oh yes. The fine motor skills development which support many other life skills are just not there.
    Any educator who cares about the insidious effect of the googlerati on education needs to read “The Internet is Not the Answer” by Andrew Keen.

    • Stephen says:

      OPTION 7 – Using technology to address Hattie’s Top 10 in the classroom
      Presented by: Grant Grosser, Director, Business and Product Strategy, SEQTA Software
      Sponsored by: SEQTA
      Workshop at an up coming educational conference across the ditch.

  8. Kelvin says:

    There’s something of a killer posting on Hattie just put up on the website. Have a look. I’m not sending out a posting alert for a few days. Schools need to keep their eyes on the curriculum with any computer stuff secondary. Good work Stephen. Hattie’s top number one is mentioned in the posting, with more to come, much more.

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