Monday, November 23, 2015

Creative Digital Media Forum

Last Tuesday, the 17th June, 2004 I was privileged to attend the first ever Creative Digital Media Forum at Mulungushi International Conference Centre in Lusaka. The Forum brought together the creative sector and stakeholders from the Government and education with an interest in creative digital media in Zambia to discuss the opportunities and challenges in the sector. The Forum also sought to look at how creative digital media was being organised and how it can contribute to development in Zambia. Internationally, digital media is providing access to information, knowledge and access to services in the education, health, tourism, agriculture, mining, business and public sectors. In Zambia, a Diploma in Digital Media programme commenced in February 2014 at the Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce. I was part of the team that visited the class (in photo below) on 16th June, 2014. It is quite evident that the youths are very creative and require support to be even more creative.

The Forum looked at topics such as:
  • Digital Media Industry in Zambia
  • The Role of Digital Media in Communicating Information and Ideas
  • Digital Media and the Creative Arts Sector
In attendance at the Forum was the Irish Ambassador to Zambia, His Excellency Finbar O'Brien. Key speakers were:
  • Mr. Victor Makashi, Director of Art and Culture, Ministry of Tourism and Arts
  • Mr Jerome Morrissey, Chief Executive Officer, GESCI
  • Mr. Daddy Chitalu, Tec hnical Director, Muvi TV
It was so encouraging to see a former student of mine, Mwanabibi Sikamo, whom I taught over 12 years ago, make a presentation on her she had creatively used a blog to discuss issues of gender that affect young ladies in Zambia and Africa. Read her blog for example: What's My Name? 

Of Heresies, Heretics, and the (im)possibility of Hope in Higher Education

(This blog article is taken from Paul Prinsloo's blog: Open Distance Teaching and Learning)
Amidst the absolute horror, fear and nausea triggered by events such as the recent attacks in #Beirut, #Paris and #Mali, and the continued sponsored and condoned violence in #Palestine and #Yemen, there is, I suspect, a deep-seated questioning of “how is all of this still possible in the 21st century?”
What happened to ‘progress’ and the belief that a better world is possible and achievable? Where does the current (and possible permanent?) disillusionment leave the belief that education is the key driver to ‘progress’ and will, per se, result in a more just and equal society? Last week a meme circulated on social media with a picture of Malala Yousafzai with the words “With guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorism.”
I wish I could believe. But I cannot. Not that I don’t want to believe, but somehow I suspect that we overestimate the potential of education, on its own, to address generations of injustice, poverty and inequality. Call me a heretic if you want, allow me to explore the possibility that unbridled economic growth and progress is a heresy. And education, as this heresy’s servant.
Allow me then, for a brief moment of your time, to reconsider our continued and uncritical belief that humanity, progressively gets better… As conversation partner to this blog I take the work by John Gray (2002, 2004) and Zygmunt Bauman (2004, 2011, 2012). Considering the work of Gray, John Banville said that “John Gray has always been the odd-sheep-out” and John Preston called Gray a “prophet of doom.” Bauman’s work has also been up for criticism and his work characterised as full of “sombre warnings and dark judgments.” Despite these criticisms, I agree with the assessment that “"Bauman on a bad day is still far more stimulating than most contemporary social thinkers.”
In contemplating education in this interregnum (Best, 2015), allow me then to reflect on some of the points made by John Gray and Zygmunt Bauman.
Gray (2002) suggests that “The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin” (p. 28). Regarding humanity’s belief in progress as inevitable Gay (2004) suggests that “the core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny” (p. 106; emphasis added).
Considering the advances since the Enlightenment against the backdrop of the absolute horrors of the two World Wars and the banality of evil as represented by the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Holocaust and the Vietnam war, one would have expected that humanity would permanently shied away from the abyss. And yet we didn’t and we still don’t.
Instead of doing everything we possibly can to steer clear of the abyss, we are “messing with forces on a grand scale” (Martin, 2006, p. 15) – on a number of levels. Amidst the many challenges facing humanity are, according to Martin (2006) environmental collapse, extreme poverty, unstoppable global migrations, non-state actors with extreme weapons, and violent religious extremism resulting in a new Dark Age.
Depending on your worldview, many suggest that higher education have unreservedly bought into the neoliberal project of globalisation as championed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the corporate-industrial-military complex. Economic growth is a leitmotif in curricula and is sold (often literally) as prerequisite for human progress despite evidence suggesting that “economic growth does not translate into the growth of equality” (Bauman, 2011, p. 50). Amidst the unbridled consumerism and decadent and rampant (if not rapacious) capitalism, inequalities have increased and the number of displaced people is the biggest in human history. The millions of displaced and permanently unemployed are classified as disposable, as the collateral waste of progress, those who have become permanently redundant suggest a new normal, the new, permanent “Other” (Bauman, 2004).
We live in times where “the incomprehensible has become routine” (Bauman, 2006, p. 14). As we built higher walls around our gated communities, closed our borders, and increased our entry requirements, our fears just got worst.
Fear is at its most fearsome when it is diffuse, scattered, unclear, unattached, unanchored, free floating, with no clear address or cause; when it haunts us with no visible rhyme or reason, when the menace we should be afraid of can be glimpsed everywhere but is nowhere to be seen (Bauman, 2006, p. 2)
Welcome to the 21st century.
As humanity spirals from one genocide to the next, we have increasing reason to question the gospel of Progress. John Gray (2004) state that the “belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes” (p. 3). I would like to add to this, that the unquestioned belief that education, on its own, can make a difference is most probably co-prescribed with Prozac.
Gray (2004) makes the claim that “History is not an ascending spiral of human advance, or even an inch-by inch crawl to a better world. It is an unending cycle in which changing knowledge interacts with unchanging human needs. Freedom is recurrently won and lost in an alternation that includes long periods of anarchy and tyranny, and there is no reason to suppose that this cycle will ever end” (p. 3). Gray therefore contests the view that the Enlightenment set humanity on an irreversible path of progress where advances in science and technology will, per se, result in a better world. For many Gray’s statements amount to heresies, such as his claim that “The lesson of the century that has just ended is that humans use the power of science not to make a new world but to reproduce the old one – sometimes in newly hideous ways… Knowledge does not make us free” (2004, p. 6).
After the recent events in #Beirut #Paris #Yemen and #Palestine the statement by Gray that “The most striking development in politics in the past two decades is that this apocalyptic mentality has gone mainstream” (p. 10). In the light of the increasing influence of religious fundamentalism (whether in America or Iraq), terror has become “privatised” - that cannot be tolerated, but also not eliminated (2004, p. 11).
Gray (2004) furthermore states that no one cold have foreseen that “irrationality would continue to flourish alongside rapid advances in science and technology” (p. 18). Even the hope sold by Silicon valley that technology will solve all of humanity’s problems is without foundation as “[t]here is no power in the world that can ensure that technology is used only for benign purposes” (2004, p. 20). He continues:
"We are not masters of the tools we have invented. They affect our lives in ways we cannot control – and often cannot understand. The world today is a vast, unsupervised laboratory, in which a multitude of experiments are simultaneously underway" (p. 21).
"We can’t control our new technologies because we don’t really grasp the totality of their effects. And there is a deeper reason why we are not masters of our technologies: they embody dreams of which we are not conscious and hopes that we cannot bear to give up" (p. 22).
Sobering is the proposal by Gray that homo sapiens is actually homo rapiens with ambitions that are limitless, but living on an earth with resources that are irrevocably finite.
Our present way of life is more prone to disruption than most people think, and its fragility is increasing. We tend to think that as global networks widen and deepen, the world will become a safer place, but in many contexts the opposite is true. As human beings become closely interlinked, breakdowns in one part of the world spread more readily to the rest (p. 61)
In the light of the fact that democracy is seen and sold (literally) as one of the biggest (and deadliest) exports of the United States and its partners/alliances, and the claim that education should help spread the belief in one-size-fits-all type of democracy (Giroux, 2015), Gray (2004) states that “After all the babble about the irresistible spread of democracy and free markets, the reality is war, protectionism and the shifty politics of secrecy and corruption in other words, history as usual” (p. 66).
Despite the advances in science improving the lives of many, Gray (2004) states “Science cannot end the conflicts of history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide” (p. 70).
So where does this leave us? How do we then teach without necessarily believing? How is hope possible in this interregnum?
A good place to start will be to acknowledge that “Knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be as much a curse as a blessing. If the superseded science in the first half of the twentieth century could be used to wage two hideously destructive world wars, how will the vastly superior science of today be used?” (Gray, 2004, pp. 70-71). I really think that all curricula should have a warning attached to them – advising curriculum developers, instructional designers, students, and quality assurers (to mention but a few) that “knowledge is not an unmixed good”…
Is education willing to acknowledge that “the knowledge maps of the past have, to a large extent, been proven to be fragile and (possibly) the illegitimate offspring of unsavory liaisons between ideology, context and humanity’s gullibility in believing in promises of unconstrained scientific progress” (Prinsloo, 2016 – in press).
Will we teach different curricula if we believed that “history might be cyclical, not progressive, with the struggles of the earlier eras returning and being played out against a background of increased scientific knowledge and technological power” (Gray, 2004, p. 101)?
How do we help students to “read the world” (Freire, 1972, p. 120) – to recognise the metanarratives, the curricula sold-as-truth, engage with claims and counter-claims, realise (in more than one sense) their agency as constrained, entangled, fractured and possible?
Realising, at least for me, that history may be cyclical, that knowledge and advances in technology may serve evil or justice, give me a sense of purpose, if not hope. In this permanent interregnum where “the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 110), a certain amount of morbidity and skepticism may be in order.
Bauman, Z. (2004). Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2011). Collateral damage. Social inequalities in a global age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (2012). On education. Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Best, S. (2015). Education in the interregnum: an evaluation of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid-turn writing on education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 1-18.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Giroux, H. A. (2015). Democracy in Crisis, the Specter of Authoritarianism, and the Future of Higher Education. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 1(1), 7.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York, NY: International Publishers.
Gray, J. (2002). Straw dogs. Thoughts on humans and other animals. London, UK: Granta Books.
Gray, J. (2004). Heresies. Against progress and other illusions. London, UK: Granta Books.
Prinsloo, P. (2016 – in press). Metaliteracy, networks, agency and praxis: an exploration. Chapter accepted in T. Mackey and T. Jacobson (eds.), Metaliteracy in Practice

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Secret Teacher: schools turn a blind eye to bad managers as long as they hit targets

As soon as John* became a deputy head it was clear that he did not have the skills to deal with his team. He was an outstanding teacher, but couldn’t handle his new role and became autocratic. He now dictates how his staff should work, stands over them, checks every little thing they do and undermines them at every opportunity.
As with many excellent teachers, he is a terrible manager. Once he complained about a display outside a classroom. I thought it was a good example of quality work, but John disagreed, criticising the teacher in front of her teaching assistants (TAs) – and me – for not double mounting and allowing the “messy” work of a child with special educational needs to be displayed. He demanded that it be taken down and put up properly, leaving the teacher visibly shaken. I helped her re-do the work; it didn’t look better, but it was done to his specifications, and so was deemed acceptable.
Even if it was a shoddy effort – which it wasn’t – speaking to a colleague in such a derogatory manner was unprofessional. A quiet word, or suggesting that a TA who was particularly good at displays might be able to give some pointers would have been a better course of action. John is now a headteacher.
This is not an isolated case. Often teachers who are outstanding practitioners, producing amazing lessons and getting great results, can be completely out of their depth when promoted to management.
I’ve been a key stage leader and a primary practitioner for years, but before that I managed a team of 200 in a large organisation. I had a lot of training in personnel and management issues, whiling away many hours investigating theories of team building and leadership, which stood me in good stead for leading a team of teachers.
But most managers in teaching haven’t had training in how to give positive feedback, they don’t know how to build a team or how to get the best out of people. They do not realise that there is more to leading a team than making sureOfsted is happy and results are good. This permeates up into the senior leadership team, who do nothing about outstanding teachers who bully their staff and adopt an unprofessional approach because they are getting the results the school needs and ensuring their students’ progress. If the school data dashboard looks great, the fact that some of the less well-paid staff are not happy is not a priority.
My friend Lucy* is a TA. Her boss is an outstanding teacher, but she couldn’t manage her way out of a paper bag. She expects the TAs to stay late to complete tasks over and above the hours for which they are paid and makes pointed comments if they don’t. She has never said anything positive about Lucy’s work, only criticised her time management and lack of commitment to the job because she goes home at 4pm, which is when she is paid until.
Her behaviour has taken its toll on her team: she goes through TAs like there is no tomorrow. Lucy has gone from being a confident young TA to dreading encounters with her manager, and there are frequently tears among the staff in her key stage. Alarm bells should be ringing among the senior leaders of this school – and yet, because of her excellent results with the children, the school has never questioned her on it.
If, as a manager in the private sector, I had had such a rapid turnover of staff there would have been serious questions asked at my annual performance management review (which incidentally, was always pay-related) and I may well have found myself not only failing to receive a bonus or pay rise, but worse still, being taken down the competency route, however good I was at the rest of my job.
Part of the problem lies with the structure of the teaching profession. The only way to progress is to go into management. You can become a specialist leader in education (SLE) for the kudos, but that’s actually about developing leadership skills not – as the old advanced skills teachers were – about developing outstanding classroom teaching. There are some outstanding teachers who know their skills lie in the classroom and choose to remain there without taking on the extra responsibilities (and pay) of managing staff. But there are others, who come across brilliantly at interview and, of course, in the classroom, where they demonstrate their obvious teaching ability, and who get catapulted into positions they can’t handle.
When I worked in the private sector, promotion to managerial positions was a robust and difficult process. We weren’t just interviewed or observed doing our job, we had role-play activities and different scenarios to handle. The interviewing process for the final job I did involved conducting a performance management review with an employee who was failing in their person management. Even when I took the job, I was drilled within an inch of my life on Belbin and Myers-Briggs. John Adair’s action-centred leadership model became my bible. But most of all, I had training in how to deal with people, how to build teams – not flatten them.
We need to make sure great teachers have the right management training. After all, surely promoting happiness among colleagues is a crucial part of being a truly outstanding teacher.
*Names have been changed in this article.

Festival of eLearning Conference kicks off

The Festival of e-Learning officially started yesterday. The Festival of eLearning is an opportunity to deepen the network of e-Learning ex...