5/5 Classrooms in a left-wing era

Here’s a story I have told frequently. It comes from a moment when I was researching a music project in a school. Players from the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra would be ‘adopted’ by a school to work with their students on a music project – in fact, devising a musical performance around a theme from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later, the kids would go to the concert hall to watch the orchestra rehearsing their own performance of the Mendelssohn symphony – and then watch the final performance. This way, the kids had critical access into the process and experience of music production and could learn to relate to music.

I watched musicians struggling with teaching roles and discipline, teachers who could not play music giving wise guidance to their classes on music improvisation. One teacher told me that the reason she opted into this project was because she couldn’t persuade her kids that, in Maths, there were never single, right answers – that uncertainty reigned (yes, 2 + 2 does = 4…..but only under certain, agreed circumstances). She wanted her kids to see that this was so in music, and then draw from that to make the point in Maths.

In order to accomplish this she had to give the students their independence, and so she would leave them alone in a room for one hour at a time to work unsupervised on their music and pop in occasionally for them to report how they were getting on. In any event, she said, they probably knew more about music than she did, and were less frightened of it than she. I watched the kids in their own workshops, documented in some detail just how sophisticated was the music they were devising. I showed how they would snap at each other, accuse each other, argue, attack and defend each other over musical ideas, and when the teacher came in, would meekly report in entirely fabricated ways how they were collaborating and working together. The teacher told me she knew exactly what was going on, but didn’t care, so long as complex music was being produced – a resource she would use later. What came out of the recriminations, accusations and deceit was interesting music that was structured, melodic, paced. At some point I heard shouted, “you can’t play that note there, idiot!” to which came the response, “yes I can if I want – and you’re not the teacher!”.

Later one day I was in the playground watching the young kids playing, pushing, laughing and crying, expelling energies pent-up in class. I found myself chatting with a nine year-old whom I had observed in a class being set upon by others, though he was unusually focused on the music he was playing. What was school like? How did music fit into the routine? In the middle of the conversation an odd question popped out from, I know not where. “What’s it like to be a pupil?”. I think I meant to add, ‘in this school’. I didn’t. He replied, “I don’t know – I’ve never been a teacher.”

§§§§§§§

Nestled in this story is a model of education that illuminates left-wing educational values. Remember, we’re not talking, here, about revolutionary socialism, the overthrow of authority and working class rule. We are, though talking about challenging conservative and reactionary defence of the status quo. We are certainly wanting to challenge authoritarianism and the suppression of talents based on class and economic inheritance. A left-wing approach is an alternative to educational leanings since we were in produced to those most un-Englsh of measures including a national curriculum, national testing, punitive scrutiny by OfSTED and the bureaucratisation of schooling as given by ‘levels’ and ‘key stages’. A left-wing approach challenges the vocabulary of the right-wing made up as it is of control, behaviour-management, success/failure, standardisation, compliance and competition.

This is left-wing defined by some easy negatives. What are the positive values that make up a left-wing approach? These derive from an alternative vocabulary and emphasise respect, autonomy, critique, self-determination, collaboration, acknowledgement of uncertainty and the provisional nature of knowledge.

  • The key question is, ‘what is a left-wing curriculum?’. A left-wing curriculum is defined by the discovery and creation of knowledge and insight by the students, through processes of critical enquiry. Classrooms should be laboratories of social critique.
  • Just as culture as a collective experience can only exist in the minds of individuals, so curriculum knowledge – knowledge of society and life – is all, always personal. it is through interaction between individuals – students and teachers – that we discover culture. Knowledge cannot be objective – which is to say, distinct from how an individual thinks and experiences life.
  • there should be a seamless connection between curriculum and the lived experience of the student. All curriculum, in that sense, starts out being local. If there is a national dimension to curriculum it has to be discovered and argue for its place in schooling.
  • personal autonomy and intellectual independence are the cornerstones of education, and this goes for school management, student learning and teacher professionalism. Autonomy has to be respected by any external agent entering the school.
  • a classroom is just one place where students mount enquiries for generating knowledge. It is a useful starting point and collection point, but the learning process requires critical (not just appreciative) engagement with the world beyond.
  • A left-wing view of education and curriculum denies the possibility of a ‘national’ curriculum, much less that any form of knowledge for young people can be ‘standardised’.
  • All testing is unethical and, thereby, invalid – all assessment is taken to be problematic unless based on respect and the self-determination and autonomy of the student.
  • Where accountabilities are important they are based on the principle that you can only be held accountable for that over which you are responsible.
  • A left-wing approach recognises that there can be no such thing as an overall judgement of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, of ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ – that individuals and the world are too complex for any single adjective to give a summary.
  • The left-wing approach is little interested in results and outcomes, knowing that you simply cannot work back from them to make any reasonable judgement of educational quality – and, in any event, results are too contaminated with socio-economic inequalities and distortions.
  • Educational quality has to be sought out in the context of educational interactions – how teachers work with teachers, how teachers and students work together.
  • Teachers are intellectuals, and their job is to stimulate the intellectualism of students.
  • Teachers learn as they teach. For them, all knowledge is provisional and has to be tested for its relevance in the laboratory of the classroom.
  • Teachers can be neither ‘incompetent’ nor ‘failing’. The task of teaching is too challenging for any individual to master. All teachers are at stages in professional development, and their individual competence can only be mediated and developed within a professional community.
  • Teachers should not be in authority in the classroom, in the sense that students should be left to discover their own forms of self- and mutual discipline. But teachers should be an authority – in that they offer themselves as a resource to students.
  • schools are political places, which is to say that they are places where legitimate arguments are to be had. This is an essential element of the search for educational quality. It is the job of school managers to convene educational debates about practice and curriculum.
  • educational leadership is to be found at all levels of staffing in a school, and not confined to school managers. In any event, the job of school managers is to facilitate the search for educational quality and not to play a stipulative or a disciplinary role.

[SUBJECT TO CONTINUING REDRAFT]

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