Some of the respondents to my recent Elephants in the Room entry have agreed to write a guest post dealing with an issue in education that we are reluctant to talk about. Today, Tim King kicks begins our week with The Elephant Ecosystem. Thanks to Tom for accepting my invitation to keep the conversation going, and for designing the graphic embedded in his post.
Structure defines the educational system; it wouldn’t be a system without it. That structure was initially created and subsequently groomed, edited and massaged in order to produce safety, fairness to participants, equity of access, and quality of learning. These goals were enshrined in legal language found in contracts that form the foundations of just about every public education system in the world and were made at a time when your grand children often read from the same book you did in school.
Over time these contracts collected situations and issues and bundled them into ever more complicated packages. Modern contracts are telephone book thick, and focused on minutia. If there ever comes a moment where a board and union cannot find specific language in the contract around an incident, you’ll be sure to find it in the next contract. You won’t find it in professionalism, or fair minded consideration, or reasoned compromise, you’ll find it in legalese.
In Ontario there have been decades of social change, technological progress and political strife written into contracts. Complications, contradictions and vested interests mix in contractual language. Boards strive for the lowest cost/student ratio while trying to ensure standardized test scores don’t suffer. Unions try to defend often unsupportive members from their own poor judgement or irrational exuberance around teaching. It’s a complicated and very human business.
Whether you’re trying to organize an international field trip for some impactful situational learning, or just trying to use web tools to expand digital literacy, you run into the friction caused by our static system.
Boards will do everything they can to make that field trip difficult because somewhere there is a cost ratio that suggests it’s cheaper (and safer) to just keep students in class. Quality isn’t part of that equation.
Student data online is a real panic point. Schools are designed around the idea that while we have students in the building, we are completely responsible for them. This old idea runs into real problems when modern students can be in multiple locations at once, many of them not physical.
Students in my school post threats or even criminal activity on Facebook (which isn’t blocked), usually with impunity using board computers and board internet connections, but if they swear on the board (monitored) google-tools site, they wind up in the office. These Facebook comments are broadcast to hundreds if not thousands of eyes, yet hold no weight, though the board provided the means and opportunity to create them. The same comment overheard in a hallway between two people would result in suspension. Seemingly random rules exist around use of technology in school.
So here we are, tangled in a web of legal language, much of it decades old, none of it looking at the rapid and radical changes we are undergoing. When last we unpacked it to update the language the ipad wasn’t invented yet and cloud computing barely existed, social networks were only just beginning to become popular. We’re cracking it open again this year to make some amendments and grandfather forward all of that old language, much or it related to issues that aren’t relevant. If it was important enough to get ratified once, then it’s best left alone.
The stuff we should be addressing around digital and student centered learning we don’t because many teachers have only the vaguest idea of what it is, and the ones deeply immersed in it are tired to battling the old guard (in union and board) who grossly over-simplify and belittle it. We see PD that suggests and supports digital tools and student centered learning, then immediately return to stale board and union policy that actively derails it.
The vast majority of teachers still teach now as they did when they began teaching in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s. They see digital media as a distraction and those who advocate for it to be academically inferior. Don’t expect to see any striking contractual language around digital learning any time soon.
There are a lot of elephants in the room when it comes to modern education, and they all exist thanks to this static, legal framework we exist in for our own safety. The education production line, warehousing of children, integration of technology, student centered learning, even the qualification of teachers and the very idea of professionalism are all subsumed by a rigid, unresponsive legal relationships that serve organizations and politics before people and ignore the needs of students and teachers in a rapidly changing world.
Educational elephants thrive in this tangled web, best not talk about them.