Monday, April 04, 2016

25 years of oppressive education policy 

The cost of the latest initiative - to make all schools into academies - is likely to be £1.3 billion. That's a significant outlay on an unpopular intervention that will probably do little to improve education or raise attainment. It's the most recent ideologically-driven change that will be imposed on the school system. Parents and teachers are deeply suspicious of government motives and there is already indication of dissent. Threatened union action is set to disrupt this year's testing and marks an unhappy anniversary. It is nearly 25 years since central government first imposed its testing regime. Concerns voiced then by protesters continue. In May 1991 parents joined teachers in pointing out that workloads would increase and class time would be devoted to preparing for tests rather than teaching. It was the first time we'd thought about the backwash effect, but we're now so used to the way in which measurable pencil and paper tests warp the curriculum that we're very used to seeing classrooms full of children engaged in tedious, often meaningless routines to prepare for the annual testing ritual. In 1991 parents had a voice, there was dialogue with teachers and testing could be 'dis-applied' on the grounds that schools were obliged to provide an education 'in accordance with their parents wishes'. As a parent I exercised that right, and my daughter (centre frame) who was part of the first cohort to encounter SATs at each phase of her education, missed the lot without any detrimental effect. Parent governors were essential in negotiating parental and professional dissent and ensured that there was minimum disruption to educational provision. Good relationships were maintained throughout this campaign. I sincerely hope that this continues, but pause for thought, 25 years is a long time - we have witnessed a steady erosion of educational values and despite the hype, there is little evidence of genuine educational improvement.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Outrageous education policies 

As we wait to see the real effects of the latest swathe of educational reforms, reforms that appear to completely remove all local influence and parental involvement in the running of our schools, it may be time to rethink how we respond to unwarranted political interference in public education. The problem recurs at a number of levels as well as in many different spheres of civic life. Take the health service, beleaguered and battered by government reform - actions which often provoke anger, despair or cynicism. In this case, old school activists may petition or demonstrate whilst others, imagining this is probably futile, simply wring their hands and think of early retirement. At times it may seem that these reforms, or attacks, on our once great public institutions are ridiculous, or absurd, at others  that they are simply intolerable. It's often the small incursions that are the telling ones, and these, the small movements of power without a conscience, prompt me to ask whether they are, in fact, absurd or intolerable? A story that may well get buried by the sheer scale of the next wave of education reforms concerns the sad case of the exclamation mark - yes, that humble little point, capped with its light-hearted vertical dash. In a spasm of powerful bureaucratic interference, the Department for Education attempted to legislate on its use in schools. The move provoked some derisory responses as well as some more measured explorations in the press. The guidance actually says: 'A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown above, is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation.' For the purpose of the test: 'an exclamation is required to start with What or How.' Much debate could, and probably will be had about the status of this as guidance to make an assessment workable or as an attempt to police the English language. It may be that such as small point is not worth getting excited about. It could be laughed off as simply absurd. But actually it's intolerable to think that intelligent and creative teachers will have to reign in the usually enthusiastic outpourings of young writers to teach them yet another rule which isn't really a rule, and because...? It is, to my mind, important to consider how this small intervention may ripple through classrooms and how we might read its significance in relation to large systemic change which is, perhaps, easier to see as intolerable rather than just absurd.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Social networking book 

I was pleased to be asked to contribute to Kurylo and Dumova's volume Social Networking: Redefining communication in the digital age and flattered to be in as Chapter 1, apparently acting as a 'launching pad' for the rest of the book. In my chapter Together and Apart: social and technical works, I attempt to locate social networking in the much larger network of material, discursive and semiotic practices in a way that some have suggested is more like actor network theory. In fact I draw on Latour's work to make some points about the wider ordering of things in which social networks, and particularly online social networks, sit. But I'd shy away from calling that an ANT approach, but let's not get into that here! Anyway there's some great chapters in the book that explore a range of contemporary social networking issues including self-disclosure, social movements and networked activism. This makes this whole topic area very live and very relevant, and as far as I'm concerned - the more scholarship on this, the better. Buy the book!

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Straight carrots 

A while back there was a spontaneous outcry about what was happening to our vegetables. Through some sort of consciousness-raising process, people had noticed that all the carrots in the supermarket were getting to be more or less the same length, the same colour, clean from soil and so on. What had happened to the earth, to the dirt that usually clings to them? And more importantly where were the misshapen ones? Well they just didn't fit, did they? Given a choice of vegetables Deleuze and Guattari would have favoured the mushroom because of its rhizomic character, but the fate of the misshapen carrot would I'm sure have worried them too. In fact it is carefully described in AntiOedipus. The misshapen carrot is in fact 'trapped within the residual or artificial territorialities of our society' (p. 37), referred for therapy or simply consigned to the mixed vegetable soup factory. It is surplus. Let's face it, supermarkets are homogenising the food shopping thing. Tesco is anywhere; just like Whole Foods Market and all the rest. Everything looks the same. A carrot is a carrot  wherever you are. And is it such a leap to think about how this sort of conformity, this market standardisation or whatever applies to us, too? Does the architecture of social media force us all to be certain kinds of carrots on display - and if not carrots, shiny aubergines, or even 'exotic fruit' of a certain size and shape (and country of origin). It doesn't stop at social media, though. Time and again we are required to perform certain kinds of identities and not others. And certainly not troublesome ones. Heaven forbid! But slowly though, we reach our use-by date. We become reduced. That is if we have not already been removed!

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Slippery subjects 

It must be symptomatic of something that the most searching questions that one can ask can often be met with a dismissive cynicism if not outright derision. Dan Fox, in a new book, nails this as the prevailing climate of anti-intellectualism or dumbing down (see here for a review), and he could well be right. So that makes me all the more determined. Determined to return to the identity topic, and turn to the picture next to this and ask 'is this me'? Not, I hope, to provoke the reaction that by opening the topic I'm engaged in some sort of pretentious navel-gazing - although perhaps that wouldn't be such a bad thing after all?  But to interrogate what all this activity of capturing images, taking selfies and textualizing these online is all about. Really. This is not me. It's as if layers of difference have been tightly pressed together, fusing them in a process you could call lamination. Whilst there is resemblance or representation, there are also bits, bytes, and pixels. There is framing not to mention posing, cropping, colour enhancement and so on. The result may be an image of me, but that's all. Here, it's recontextualized. It enters another space, another time, juxtaposed with writing, squeezed into a template, worked into a particular form and recruited in a particular way for a particular purpose. Showing the image here becomes part of a performance, a performance that may be read off by an audience. But this me business is slippery. The image holds all sorts of other resonances, an affective dimension, a motley collection of shifting memories, the sharpness of the air, the Himalayan rock beneath my boots, the paucity of oxygen and so on - all of which may or may not be me. In current social theory this could all be seen as an emerging entanglement of affective, socio-material and discursive practices - a mouthful I know, but a sort of flowing together of bodies, things and ideas. A state of affairs in which constructions of me-ness are always contingent. If we live in times of space-time compression, of context collapse or whatever, it seems to me that we have also become slippery subjects. But perhaps I should just speak for myself, because that's what it looks like from here. I'm also aware of power geometries at work, creating conditions that allow for or provoke this slipperiness (a certain age, class, gender configuration for example). And that leads me to wonder whether some subjects are more slippery than others?

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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Personal, colonial  

I'm back! Back from what friends fondly refer to as my gallivanting, which roughly translated means making the most of my time to explore new places, or places that interest me - alternatively rendered as going to warm and exotic locations just because I can.  This time Sri Lanka. And from my humble iPhone snaps this Hillman was the best, parked up on a sidestreet it strongly resonated with my 1950s boyhood whilst also being totemic of the whole colonial legacy. Corny as hell, I know, but cars seemed so important to me back then.  That beige two-tone was the colour of my childhood and the taste of milky tea all wrapped up in one. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as we then called it, was something we did in geography as a prelude to getting on with life. So much for innocence. In Sri Lanka the communication system, both road and rail, put in place by the British, constituted an elaborate net to capture the country, to suppress resistance and to strip the hillsides first for coffee and later, when that failed, for tea. The road system is still there, you can see some well-preserved classic cars and tea is still big business. But amongst all that are centuries of culture, a whole history of art and architecture as well as an exquisite and diverse natural habitat. Returning to work might seem dull in comparison if it weren't for the enthusiasm of colleagues, the promise of new projects and the slow closing stages of previous work, all of which may well get reported on here in due course. As a corrective, before I stop for a cup of tea, I do want to make it clear though that I am not remotely interested in classic cars but it's just that I learnt at quite an early age that my father earnestly believed that owning a Hillman would make him happy, that it would be a step up in the world. That was abandoned when he splashed out on an MG in cream and British racing green...and just as I know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, these sorts of things remain with you.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

New work in new literacies 

I was flattered to be asked to present for the Global Conversations in Literacy series. The video is a screen capture of the talk, probably a reduction of the live experience, but useful to share anyway. What Peggy Albers and her colleagues are doing here is important, and although I'm familiar with all the affordances of elluminate and other similar video conferencing/virtual classroom environments the idea of doing what is in essence a large scale public lecture online is significant in bringing ideas and scholarship to a wider audience. I definitely recommend this to students, researchers and fellow scholars. In playing with the idea of mobile literacies in that talk I was acutely aware of what exactly becomes mobile and what doesn't with the advance of new technoliteracies, and this will be a theme I'll be pursuing soon. In the mean time, it's good to see the Handbook of Research on the Societal Impact of Digital Media published. I have an overview chapter on virtual worlds in there. There's also  a new paper co-authored with a former doctoral student of mine (Ruth Barley) in Childhood based on her fascinating ethnography of young children in a cultural diverse classroom setting. A fuller account of her work is available in the book Identity and Social Interaction in a Multi-ethnic Classroom. And finally, you can read about The Challenge of 21st Century Literacies in the current edition of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.

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