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Professor Russell Bishop gave a fascinating keynote on the theme of how different discourses we use in education are the single most important determinant for the student learning experience. This Blog is my recollection of what he said and although I think I have the key points of the argument, there may be errors!
In setting the context for his presentation, the professor also established the two main challenges for educational institutions in NZ as being diversity and disparity.
The professor went on to describe his research that shows the most important determinant in pupil’s achievement is the quality of teaching and that the most important feature of this is the relationships between teachers and students. A further significant finding was that in NZ, this is a fact that most teachers deny with pupilï¿½s home circumstances believed to be the most important reason for ‘failure’ at school.
Discourses in use
To illustrate the point about discourse, Prof Bishop drew on his research in NZ schools with Maori students who although often in the numerical majority find themselves in a ‘cultural minority’.
The research project described by Prof. Bishop asked parents, students, and teachers about what they believed that the major influences on performance were. Subsequent analysis used the following three categories to describe the data:
1. child and the home circumstances
2. the structure of the school
3. relationships between teachers and pupils
In a nutshell, the research showed that students overwhelmingly believed that relationships with teachers to be the most important factor, parents that a relationships were also most important but this was less pronounced with a significant number citing structures and home circumstances. However, the most startling finding was that teachers believed that child and home were the most important determining factor.
This clearly illustrates that there is a large barrier to change. As long as the preferred discourse of the teachers is around the failure of pupils and home circumstances, change is unlikely as these are the factors least likely to change!
Repositioning for Self-determination – a prerequisite for dmocratisation
This view of teachers that that ‘the problem’ is located elsewhere and is significantly limits their ability to make a difference. It is their use of a ‘deficit discourse’ that frames their thoughts and actions albeit in an unintentional way. In the Maori New Zealand context this is a manifestation of minoritisation, colonialism, neo-colonialism, post colonialism rule – that is Maori Kids in a minority and seen as the problem (deficit theorizing). For Jerome Brunner theses are connected to issues of folk pedagogy and unless it is addressed meaningful change will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Most teachers already have a ‘child centred’ philosophy and desire to help their pupils, but they are stuck in a discourse and resultant folk pedagogy that prevents this being carried through to action.
So what can be done? The strategies that can bring about change is the use of positive discourses developed through becoming a truly critically reflective practitioner. By critical reflection, we can reposition ourselves and change the discourses that we employ and shift to alternative discourses that move the locus of the blame away from the pupil and their home circumstances to the school. For example, if pupils ï¿½bunk of lessonsï¿½ do we use a discourse that describes this as in some way deviant behaviour or do we use a discourse that questions the relevance of lessons and the relationship between pupilï¿½s and their teachers?
At another level, many schoolï¿½s pedagogy have a dominant discourse that is tied in with social and structural arrangements. In secondary schools, the discourse is largely around transmission of subject-based knowledge. An alternative structural arrangement that promotes discourse about effects of their practice on the students would move the school focus in a positive direction.
At its heart, this is an epistemological and ontological argument. That is our interpretation of situations (our knowing), and our learning and communicating about the world differs from individual to individual and between different cultures. The issue of culture is often referred to as a ‘world view’.
The PCF3 conference on open and distance learning experimented with a non-standard conference format. Results were mixed as these were complex issues that were being addressed and the delegates came with a wide range of expectations and experience of conference formats. To work well, really slick facilitation is required with a lot of preparation.
Key issues as discussion foci identified by Commonwealth Open Learning:
ï Best Practice
ï Latest developments
ï Emerging issues
Each of the key issues were addressed by groups of delegates with specific interests and the conference format was designed for them to share their experiences in each of the issues identified. I was in the latest development strand and found it interesting how our discussions didnít focus on the technology, as one might expect if the conference was dominated by western delegates, but included the factors identified below:
ï The importance of context in the implementation of any projects
ï The importance of the appropriate use of ICT
ï Partnerships ñ how to fund them from a scale of individuals working together through to international levels
ï Sustainability ñ how to ensure initiatives donít end when the project money runs out! This is interesting from a UK perspective where there is a ëproject industryí in education that thrives on one project following another. Perhaps this is the definition of educational change!
ï Recognising the importance of individuals (views and skills) as being at the heart of good initiatives
Importance of context. People from South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana all felt strongly about this issue. namely, that it doesn’t work when course and programmes are ‘transplanted’ from developed countries and nor does it work between developing countries. A good example being the ‘trade’ in MBA between USA/Australia and South Africa. Currently, all such programmes are suspended but many millions have already been spent! Indeed, there was much anger surounding this ‘colonialisation’ of education and the view it propagates that i
indiginous’ education is in some way of less value that those of the western world. This is a viscous cyle, gain quailification with a foreign University and leave the country!
Thinking back to my days as a Geographer, this inappropriate export of technology (tractors without spares and the skills to repair, etc) is well recognised. Depressing that we still haven’t understood context in relation to education!
This week I am at the Third Pan Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning in Dunedin. People from over 40 commonwealth countries. In the workshop I was in today I learned of the continuing predominance and importance of print based materials for countries like South Africa and Botswana and what the digital divide really means. I also heard about developments at the University of the South Pacific and how their dedicated satellite technology had removed the price barriers (NZ Telecom) that made connectivity too expensive and how they can now affordably link University campusís across throughout the Isalnds over an area larger than China!