What does this moment of uncertainty of COVID-19 signal for the future of education?
The intensity and scale of the current pandemic signals the need to look at how children and young people experience uncertainties in their diverse lives. COVID-19 is the most recent of many pressing challenges. Climate change being another notable example.
The current Black Lives Matter protests are also a powerful reminder that uncertainties are experienced unequally and are more acute for those living with economic precarity, vulnerabilities and discrimination.
There are currently many public health messages on keeping safe and well, such as washing hands, but research by Lucy Bray and colleagues shows that it is insufficient simply to tell children to follow advice, without also exploring their difficult questions. Children and young people need opportunities for critical engagement with scientific knowledge to make sense of it in relation to their own lives — washing hands, for example, is not easy for the 2 million Americans without running water.
Children, like adults, are becoming more versed in epidemiology modelling — including R values, herd immunity, and flattening curves — emphasising the need to support them to understand and tolerate that “uncertainty is the engine of science” (Prof Tom Jefferson, epidemiologist). There are now live opportunities to discuss competing and diverse disciplinary knowledge (see Louise Ryan’s blog), with the understanding that science knowledge is negotiated not fixed (see John Dupré's blog), and can be used for political ends.
By deliberating different sources of knowledge and ideas, and hearing young people’s experiences and feelings, they can participate in current debates, including how to emerge from lockdown and return to school in ways that feel safe.
We are currently working with a group of teachers, and Caroline Hickman (Climate Psychology Alliance) — whose work focuses on children’s emotional responses to the climate and biodiversity emergency — to explore parallels between the uncertainties (including anxieties) of climate change and COVID-19. Schools are concerned about both.
We plan to open-up spaces for teachers and children to explore what it means to return to school in a context where they must adapt to an on-going shifting pandemic (and post-pandemic) context.
This includes taking a moment to reflect on what we might want to continue prioritising from before lockdown, and the possibilities to create learning environments that engage children with change and unknowns, in ways that acknowledge their experiences, feelings and thoughts. We shall be using outdoor settings to ensure physical distancing, but also as a conduit for reflection, healing, and an appreciation of how our lives our interconnected, including with the natural world.
The children’s author, Michael Rosen, reminds us that when faced with the perils and possibilities of adventure, ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it’, and that this is best done together. For children, this includes the helping hand of a trusted adult. Such supportive conditions are key to building the types of community resilience that allow for something new and exciting (if a little scary) to emerge.
Acknowledging existing uncertainties, rather than ‘trying to find a way to kill uncertainty’, suggests Riel Miller from UNESCO (see BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week), is a way to appreciate novelty, diversity and difference, and offers the possibility to cultivate the confidence and imagination to explore ways to express these values in ‘radically different ways.’
Acknowledging uncertainty requires paying attention to children as they puzzle over difficult questions, those where adults — including teachers, parents, scientists and politicians — do not know the answers in advance or where things might lead. Such opportunities aim to cultivate children’s capabilities and hope to tolerate and respond to uncertainties, rather than being put-off by complexity, anxiety or futility.
Wim Lambrechts and James Hindson list a range of ‘uncertainty capabilities’ under the following headings:
In education, we take children’s futures seriously, through defining the knowledge and behaviours that might enable them to lead ‘successful’ adult lives. Engaging with existing knowledge and being socialised to ‘fit in’ is important, but so too is working with the uncertainty of what is currently known or possible to do and be, and what might follow.
Working with uncertainty requires adults to let go, if only for a moment, of assumptions about what will or can happen, what children know or need to know, and how children live their lives (now and in the future).
Working with uncertainty requires us to pay attention to how children themselves make sense of their diverse worlds: encouraging them to draw on their experiences and what is already known, as well as to look ahead to the kinds of worlds they’d like to create. This informs how they might live well now, together with others.
This engagement with uncertain futures, suggests UNESCO, offers the necessary ‘futures literacy’ skills essential for responding to the 21st century challenges. Including pandemics. And climate change. And social injustices.
During a recent trip to the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, we discovered an educational and cultural emphasis on voice and silence as offering opportunities for contemplation.
The Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto, claimed that ‘Beauty is the harmony of purpose and form’. His influence is evident in the new Department of Education’s building at Jyväskylä, in which straight lines merge seamlessly with multiple curves to create spaces where students and staff may think both together and alone. The proportioned white modernist exterior has large windows that let what little light there is at this time of year into a large public atrium. Glass-fronted offices and seminar rooms are arranged around the edge of the atrium, but teaching and meetings spill out into the central area, where different configurations of space and seating allow for students and staff to work together while sitting, moving, standing, and kneeling around low tables. We also see a student lying across a table top during a seminar.
When giving a presentation and engaging in discussion with colleagues in the atrium, we do so alongside a nearby circle of students participating in a group activity, others doing something with large poles (what or why, is unclear!), and a one-year-old child wandering together with an adult. The circular arrangement of our meeting area keeps our attention, but still we wonder why background activity and sounds never seem to provoke irritable requests to ‘Shhh’.
Perhaps this has something to do with living in snow, which muffles distant sounds and attunes the senses to what is immediate. During our visit, we are delighted to glimpse a hare, silhouetted against the white landscape; it pauses, listening intently before crossing a wooded path. Our hosts tell us that Finns are also shy, as well as attentive and curious. They prefer to communicate efficiently without great elaboration, not wanting to stand out too much; they are also comfortable sitting together in silence. In an open society, where there are plenty of opportunities to talk and to be heard, it seems that silence is also highly valued as a form of contemplation and respectful togetherness. Silence is more than a technique to discipline bodies although, we are told, it is still possible to slip into conforming pedagogies and practices in these more democratic education spaces. (We have written about silence as discipline in English primary schools).
On our last day in Helsinki, we visit the Kampin Kappeli (Chapel of Silence), a cylindrical building, constructed in 2012 out of spruce, ash and alder. Situated in a busy shopping area, it offers a place of interior calm, like the eye of a tornado. Here we experience what Deleuze describes as the ‘relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing a rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying’. We take up the opportunity to explore the inner self; making sense of the many ideas, thoughts and emotions experienced on our trip; and becoming open to other ways of being. When a large group of tourists enter noisily out of the rain, we tune out the irritation and into the way rustling waterproof coats and squelching footsteps flood the chapel like a slowly ascending wave.
We wonder what cannot be spoken, and what it is not possible for us to hear, during our brief encounter with Finland. We hope to return before too long to collaborate further with our wonderful colleagues at the ‘OIVA’ Project, working on issues of equality and rights in Early Childhood Education and Care. Also, we wish to hear more about a silence that frames those things worth paying attention to.
Above painting: ‘Silence’, by Helene Schjerfbeck, currently exhibited at the Ateneum Gallery, Helsinki.
Our new Impact Award enables us to work with the ‘uncertainty’ of climate change with teachers and young people locally
We are delighted that the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has provided us with a small grant through its Impact Acceleration Account. It means that we can extend the work we undertook with teachers and leaders in a workshop in the University of Sussex out into the community and into schools to further interrogate ideas of uncertainty and conformity. This time, however, as suggested by teachers with whom we worked previously, the focus of our attention will be upon issues associated with climate change.
The small-scale project aims to create the educational conditions for teachers and children and young people to engage with, and act, in response to personal, local and global challenges of global heating, many of which are inherently uncertain, where ‘answers’ are often complex and unclear. This requires us all to acknowledge that what we might do – both within and beyond school - and what we feel, can be deeply unsettling and anxiety-inducing for young and old alike. We want to work with these disparate feelings and uncertainties in this project, so that pupils (with the support of staff) can explore their own relation to climate ‘facts’. In so doing, we aim to support conditions that allow for what Hodgson, Vlieghe and Zamojski suggest in their manifesto (mentioned in the podcast) are possibilities of transformation through the creation of ‘a space of thought that happens anew’ (p.17).
We recently made a podcast for a week of ‘climate change crisis’ action at one International University in Germany for teaching colleagues and students thinking together. It highlights aspects of the work we will be undertaking through our impact work, placing it within the wider context of ideas of conformity and uncertainty for transformation in education.
 Funded through a Quick Boost Impact Award along with colleagues, Sean Higgins and Fawsia Haeri
Mazanderani by the Dept. of Education in the University of Sussex during the summer of 2019.
 Hodgson, Vlieghe and Zamojski have produced a wonderfully accessible slim volume entitled a ‘Manifesto for post-critical pedagogy’ which frames a way to be and to act now, and to have ‘hope in the present (p.18)
Attending the British Educational Research Association (BERA) 2019 conference, in Manchester, we re-engaged with TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION as a platform for those interested in broad education concerns. Listening to others’ contributions, as well as the thoughts and feelings that these provoke, is helping us to revisit ideas about transformative education. This includes the importance of thinking together and attending to micro moments in schools.
We have been thinking about the different purposes of education. This is important when we consider the provision of an educational system that might go some way to prepare students for the complexities of 21st century living and working. This has led to us to model how an idea of transformation sits alongside conformity in educational provision.
Women remain reticent to propose marriage in heterosexual relationships; they wait instead for men to pop the question. Making a proposal of marriage is an inherently uncertain process, for it means embracing vulnerability as a declaration of love with the risk of rejection. For a woman to propose in a patriarchal society, it also means challenging the way things have been done for a very long time.
The world is uncertain, and an education that suggests otherwise does not equip students for the future. More than that, an unquestioning belief in certainty is potentially dangerous to freedom and democracy. These are two of the key messages that were discussed at the December launch of TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION, hosted by the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTLR) and the Centre for Innovation and Research in Childhood and Youth (CIRCY) at the University of Sussex.
Last week in Copenhagen, at an academic seminar organised by the Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University, I find myself laughing, along with other participants, at a poster drawing of the ideal listening pupil. It is one that will be familiar to many working in English primary schools: the child sits upright, facing forward, eyes looking ahead, hands folded nearly in the lap, feet together facing forward. I saw a similar poster during my research in Year One classrooms, along with the teacher’s rallying call ‘Remember good sitting and listening means good learning’. During a maths lesson, I observe two girls leaning forward and towards each other, resting their forearms on the carpet as they write answers to questions on whiteboards placed on the floor, when suddenly the teacher calls out: ‘Roz and Yaz, you’re not at home, you should not be lying down’. The logic that children should be sitting rather than inclining extends beyond learning in any simple pedagogical sense. The implied superiority of the vertical includes the moral reprimand to become upright, alone, independent, and excludes other possibilities. Virginia Wolf, in A Room of One’s Own, warned against ‘the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.’
Sitting in the seminar, reminded of my own research, I begin to feel slightly uncomfortable laughing at the poster image, which sounds a critique of the representation of the ‘ready to learn’ child. I am alerted to the irony that we, the assembled seminar participants, are engaged in a similar pedagogy: sitting upright while listening attentively to Maggie Maclure’s fascinating presentation about early years literacy within a forest school setting. The irony is felt more acutely because the theme of the seminar is how to move away from critique as something negative - one that emphasises errors, according to pre-existing ideas of what is true - to one engaged in creative experimentation offering possibilities for change. Maclure acknowledges the on-going challenge for us researchers to adopt an affirmative critique given a long academic tradition of standing at a distance and casting judgement.
This shift is something I grappled with during my doctorate. My supervisors commented that an early draft chapter showed a lack of redemption for the research schools. I felt shame, provoked by my display of ignorance, and the sense that I was an imposter in the academy. During a later writing retreat, I dipped into a copy of Moby Dick. There I discovered the Catskill eagle, ‘that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces’. This is a metaphor for those who can rise and profit from moments of suffering, rather than avoiding them as most of us so frequently do, ‘even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar’(ibid.). Even shame, in all its misery, can be productive (see Elizabeth Probyn). My partner’s family are from South Africa, where ‘Shame!’ is colloquially used to imply ‘cuteness’ and to demonstrate sympathy, as in ‘you poor thing’, but overused it whitewashes feeling. My shame became a wrenching out of myself; it demands a more ethical sensibility, alerting me to difficult feelings about my own and my children’s education, evident when I stand and write knowingly at a distance, rather than inclining, sensing and revealing my proximity to the school research participants. This includes recognising how I am entangled in the education system that I am attempting to critique. To shift my understanding of the classroom means not having the answers in advance; it means engaging in the sort of listening that Les Back described as recognising ‘the importance of doubts’ more than certainties.
At the seminar, Dorthe Staunæs talked of another ugly feeling, envy, as the ‘shadow side’ of the use of data in education, including performance data. She beautifully illustrated with her own academic data – including graphs comparing numbers of academic publications – that invokes a desire of others and a fear of being left behind, while at the same time it motivates. The critique is felt in the intense envious ache of the belly, rather than imposed from outside. Staunæs suggested the need for careful curiosity in exploring the use of performance data, opening the possibility for doing things differently, rather than simply debunking its use.
Children’s critique of the demand to learn mostly while sitting upright and still is felt in their aching and longing bodies. In my research, they repeatedly tell me they do not like sitting quietly and still for long periods on the hard floor: listening to things they do not understand or else already know. Their young bodies frequently cannot help but move and mingle with the human and inanimate, even when expected to sit still. Children look around, stretch arms and legs, twiddle fingers, rub limbs, pick scabs and noses, hold hands and move up close, braid hair and fiddle with clothing, run a hand along the smooth box of books or stroke the soft lion at the edge of the carpet, repeatedly replace a sticker, jiggle a leg or bounce a hair band. Bodies occasionally find a way to squat, kneel, lie down or even stand when expected to be seated. My field notebook sketches (see above) show Julia lying down during phonics, lunging on the carpet while the teacher explains an activity, and balancing her legs on the back of a chair during a table activity. In these moments of movement, children are looking after themselves, wrestling with their bodies, generally careful not to disturb the class or attract the attention of the teacher, demanding a ‘wisdom’ that Janusz Korczak observed in a 1930s Polish classroom.
In her presentation, Maclure did not aim to challenge the dominant teaching of reading and phonics, which she suggests has a place in today’s classrooms. Instead, she explores how literacy in an outdoor tipi allows for a different kind of multisensory event, including sounds and bodies, offering something different to that achieved when sitting quietly in the classroom, where sounds are muffled and bodies stilled, aimed at ensuring children concentrate on listening for meaning. There is a value in learning to sit quietly – it is helpful, for example, when grappling with the complex theoretical and empirical ideas discussed during an academic research seminar – but what is needed, and what Maclure offers, are additional images of readiness for being taught, and an understanding of what each may offer and deny.
Despite having made steps towards a more affirmative critique, I retain an uneasy sense of voyeurism at commenting on others’ education practices. There remains a space for a more detached critical voice, but more a need for researchers to work together with others involved in education. Staunæs runs workshops with teachers on how ‘data do more than they show,’ to identify ways to take care of teachers and students when using data. Maclure writes with early years practitioners to explore the possibilities of co-construction. The forthcoming TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION launch event, on 10th December, aims to open up a space for conversations between educators, researchers, parents and others on how to foster the conditions to achieve the balance of conformity and transformation in education. We hope you will join us, in person or via live stream. There will be moments to sit and listen as well as to move and talk.
I have just been reflecting upon and writing about a wonderful recent experience I had with a group of colleagues from the Education Department at the University of Sussex as part of a collaboration with Nigerian Higher Education colleagues in Abuja, Nigeria in September. The focus of the week-long engagement with HE teachers from across Nigeria had been on ‘transformative pedagogies and practices’. Specifically this meant conceptualising ideas of ‘high quality’ in both; the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of assessment; digital technologies – their capabilities and their applicability; ensuring participation and inclusion of diverse groups of students; and on reflection. This included thinking about the themes we explored together during the week more formally, and much more discussed in our more informal encounters, especially the challenge of finding the time to reflect on the demands of the complex role of the HE academic in today’s teaching and research-intensive universities with their global reach. This is a challenge for all teaching colleagues, of course, regardless of whether the context be that of the pre-school nursery, mainstream school or HE institution.
One of the activities that we shared towards the end of the week was to do with writing. The point of this was not to focus specifically on one type of writing, whether for an academic paper, book chapter, professional journal, blog or information bulletin, but rather to reflect upon how we might just ‘do it’. In order to undertake some individual writing, but altogether in our shared lecture hall space, we participated in a short burst of ‘Free Writing’. As the link to the hand-out suggests, ‘Free Writing’ involves either just picking up a pen or tapping on the keyboard for a short period of time without any particular pre-conception of what might emerge. It does also presume that – for just a short length of time at least – we take ourselves into a space of ‘slower time’ of kindness to ourselves in order to relax into the task to give it our undivided attention without interruption and to be open to what might happen. Crucially, it requires that the writing should be continuous regardless of what emerges onto the page in the process. A focus on the action rather than the outcome is an integral commitment to this seemingly simple task. In so doing, this might mean – of course – the repeating a word or phrase before something comes. It also means the suspension of judgement or expectation by way of ‘quality’: these are emerging thoughts and tentative ideas perhaps. They may/may not be ‘nonsense’. It is an uncertain process. What struck me particularly as colleagues commented upon their brief experience of Free Writing engagement on this occasion in Abuja was a focus on feelings: how the experience of writing in this way had made them feel. A couple of colleagues spoke about their sense of a suspension of anxiety (so often associated with writing and the pressures of imagining the perfecting of a text and of the angst of ‘getting started’). They also touched upon ‘being surprised’ by the emergence of ideas that they may have been bandying about for some time in the busyness of the ‘fast time’ thinking of Getting Things Done that excited them. It made them feel that they wanted to keep writing….
In my latest blog on the Writing Into Meaning site I share with colleagues, Emily Danvers and Tamsin Hinton-Smith, I have reflected further on the productiveness and possibilities of writing techniques that allow us to open up spaces to find things out without being sure what they might be. These are approaches that Laurel Richardson1 has termed ‘writing as a method of inquiry’. In the Writing into Meaning blog, I expand further on this idea of promoting writing as a way of finding out – a process - of what it might be possible to write and think so as to be a little uncertain and surprised by what emerges from the pen as it scribbles, or from the keyboard as it is tapped.
On National Poetry Day earlier in the month, a brief excerpt on the ‘Today’ programme of the BBC Radio 4, took the listener to surprising territory which has resonated with me since as Perpetua and I have discussed our thoughts on the place of ‘uncertainty’ in our schools and colleges, our curricula and our pedagogies and practices and ‘what is to be done’. Lieutenant David Boyles focused on the educational institution of the army and of soldiering and of the place of poetry in it. He spoke of the huge complexity ‘of the modern environment’ and the ambiguous nature of so many encounters that we are required to make with it, and the need, therefore, for soldiers’ exposure to texts that ‘educate [them] for uncertainty’. He read aloud, with clarity and erudition, a short poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963):
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The power of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ lies in the first line of ‘so much depends’ and the possibilities this allows for discussion and inter-relational social engagement with interpretations of what this might mean, in what contexts and for whom, and in what ways: all crucial to the ‘being’ of thinking for Lieutenant Boyles.
On the face of it, the connections between the palpable, quiet, hot intensity of a closing reflective writing session in one lecture hall in Abuja in September, a Radio 4 interview about soldiering in October, and ways in which we may or may not encounter children or adults as teachers and learners in multiple spaces of education in the next few weeks, may seem tenuous. But there are integral links in my view. We should grasp the significance of opening up spaces to contest the certainties of so much of the knowledge we are required to both assert and embody on a day-to-day basis, to allow ourselves – and others – to do and be just a little bit more about ‘so much depends’...
1 Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: a method of inquiry. In Handbook of Qualitative Research,
‘I don’t know’, was my initial response to the first question following my presentation at the recent British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference. I had been talking about my doctoral research highlighting Year One children’s anxiety when they do not-know expected answers. Children must deal alone with their ‘emergency’ feelings, with schools instead stressing they be Resilient and Aim High. Such character education can encourage children to try harder but it can also be felt as a pressure. It demands children concentrate for long periods and constantly challenge themselves; they become responsible for their successes but also their failures. Five year old Amelie tells me resilience means ‘learning hard. . . trying again, again and again’. Staff are also expected to be resilient to meet changing government demands, but similarly feel the pressure that they are not doing their ‘best’ for the children. Male and middle class children are those most often rewarded and encouraged for their resilience and for aiming high, which serves to reinforce existing hierarchies rather than challenge structural barriers to education. Frances Howard identified something similar in her conference presentation on the Young People’s Arts Award. Working class or ‘dis-engaged’ young people are more likely to receive a didactic and tightly controlled model of teaching, what she calls a ‘pedagogy of poverty’, compared with the ‘pedagogy of possibilities’ available to other young people that includes real life engagement and open-ended tasks offering the affordances of being like an artist. The latter offers a vision of an education that is broader than resiliently adapting to existing conditions. It offers the possibility to challenge accepted wisdom and the taken-for-granted so that students might become something different as well as contribute to a more just society. It is a vision taken up by Paul Miller, in his keynote speech, in which he sounded the pressing need to tackle racism in educational leadership, with the call to move from ‘conformity, to conviction to change’.
The dominant classroom emphasis on learning what has been tightly defined, limits opportunities to move into areas where the answer is uncertain and open to different interpretations and possibilities. Becoming a doctoral student, I realise my previous education had not prepared me well for not-knowing, so that I feel my vulnerability when not-knowing the meaning of difficult academic papers, not-knowing what to make of my classroom observations and interviews, not-knowing how to consolidate a mass of research data into a thesis that contributes something of value. Slowly I begin to allow doubt and uncertainty to exist, so that I no longer aim to know too quickly or narrowly when deciding how to respond at each stage of the research. This is more about patience than perseverance or resilience; I take more time to meander in the classroom and my analysis. I began to shift from wanting to grasp the meaning of everything I read to experiencing the thrill of seeing how I might use a text to help me think more deeply about my own work. Tara Westover writes about such a shift in her recent memoir, Educated, in which she eloquently and disturbingly traces her upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family in the United States, one including physical abuse and neglect, and her move from being mostly self-educated at home to achieving a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. She discusses how at first her approach to reading Mormon texts was ‘to learn what to think, not how to think for myself’, and how she begins ‘to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration’. There is a pivotal moment in the book, when Westover tentatively questions her brother’s assertion that she is responsible for her repeated abuse; writing in her diary she asks, ‘Could he not tell he was hurting me? I don’t know. I don’t know’. This moment of doubt signals the possibility for what Westover suggests some might call her ‘transformation’, but what she calls ‘an education’: ‘Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs’.
The woman who asked me the question at BERA, a teacher educator, wanted to know what could be done to stop teachers putting stress onto children, adding that her own child had begun pulling out his hair a week before entering Year Six. She identifies an important challenge. Teacher performance has always been entangled with that of their students, but is felt acutely under the demanding accountability framework including the publication of SAT results, school league tables and Ofsted inspections. Addressing issues such as these requires on-going supportive discussions between policy makers, educators, parents and children, as well as researchers. My paper provided no definitive answers; it narrates important aspects of contemporary Year One classroom life that invites others to see what they might make of it.