The question of how much we share of our personal lives in the educational context of schools and classrooms is a vital one. Getting the ‘right balance’ of self-belief and social awareness is even more crucial. However, without the personal tone, it’s hard to communicate what makes us passionately focused on the content and approaches to school-based K-12 curricula. Here’s my own autobiographical sketch of how I came to do what I do.
Beginning as a teacher
I initially trained as an English & Drama teacher, with a passion for History and Biology. Having entered university at 16, I was what you call an ‘all-rounder’. I seemed to be passionate and curious about lots of things. However, theatre won out in the end through a chance stumbling onto a lead role in a University Dramatic Society production. I was hooked. I loved the collegiate and problem-solving space of theatres with its insistence on engaging with a living and breathing audience.
It was the mid-70s and drama education was just starting to raise its profile. My first teaching position was within an English Department which was embarking on introducing Drama into the Lower Secondary curriculum. I was it! The Drama Teacher ready to help school leaders to utilise the social bonding powers of the new drama curriculum to amalgamate two smaller single-sex secondary schools into a large co-educational college. You might say, from the outset I experienced the visceral impact of ‘the curriculum’ to do more than just measure how students performed on paper or in a test. The curriculum made things happen… it changed things.
I revelled in the trust placed in me to do something special for students and for the school as a whole. That trust was to have an exponential effect on my love for working in schools. In the first decade of my teaching life, I went onto introducing new drama programs in three different schools and set up a suburban youth theatre. At the same time, I developed a deep affinity for colleagues through joining my subject association and went off to my first international conference around the third year mark. Ken Robinson (then a professor at the University of Warwick) was the keynote speaker!
About my tenth year of teaching, I started to notice that my enthusiasm for education was not enough for me to substantially do the job. I needed greater reserves of knowledge and skills, so I embarked on postgraduate studies and fed my growing knowledge of dramatic forms and pedagogical learnings in developing new curricula.
Consequently, I came to the attention of the State and National curriculum managers, upon which two things happened. Firstly, I was commissioned to write curriculum support documents for my peers, and secondly, I was invited to sit on policy committees for devising new statewide curricula. (Read the details of my escapades on my LinkedIn profile). Well, that took care of the 80s which by-the-by also saw the birth of my three children.
Working as a curriculum developer
By the mid-1990s, the appetite in Education Departments globally was towards reforming curricula that had been around for more than a century. The phrase on everyone’s lips was ‘outcomes-based education’. I joined the Assessment and Reporting Branch of my State’s education department and spent three important years refining curriculum framework documents and devising implementation strategies for introducing new curricula. I had the honour of working with a great curriculum manager (John Gougoulas) and a fine team of primary and secondary curriculum specialists (including co-authoring curriculum documents with Allan Blagaich current Executive Director at the Department of Education and Training, Western Australia) not to mention having access to numerous other curriculum specialists from all the Learning Areas.
I began to develop an eye for looking for ‘evidence of learning’ through collecting ‘work samples’ in order to demonstrate the achievements and progress made by K-12 students. I became particularly mindful of the relationship to the student’s demonstration of success and the power of an ‘open-ended’ structuring of units of work.
However, my preference was not at the policy level, so I left and set up an experimental space in which I hoped to observe the impact of theories of critical and creative thinking on student achievement. I devised ‘nonsense projects’ in which students from kindergarten to year 10 applied research and analytic skills together with the creative output of multimedia works – writing, animation and live performance. I worked closely with Philosophy in Education colleagues, as well as continuing to write textbooks for the new Year 11 and 12 Drama Course Of Studies. I was also fortunate enough to work on an Australian Research Council project, whose chief investigator, Dr Felicity Haynes, was heavily influenced by the conceptual metaphor theory proposed by cognitive scientists and linguists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In fact, Metaphors We Live By (1980) and Philosophy In The Flesh (1997) opened me up to a substantial movement in the performing arts which looked to explain performativity through a cognitive scientific perspective.
Turning to technology
In 2009, I began a six-year residence in London to research the economic basis of the Creative and Cultural Industries. It was a focus which had begun through my doctoral research on theatre entrepreneurship in which I wanted to better understand how cultural values shaped creative workplaces. Not the least, it seemed to be an important issue to investigate in light of the obsession in business circles on innovation and creativity. To do the fieldwork, I worked as a theatre reviewer for London Fringe Theatres and observed the impact of its vast organisation of more than 500 fringe organisations.
As I was mostly working alone at the time, I made more and more use of London’s superfast broadband and I completed as many courses I could afford in order to learn website creation and e-learning software packages such as WordPress, Articulate and Adobe Captivate. I became fascinated with the growth of online and blended learning.
But I soon came to tap into the realisation, as did by many curriculum developers at the time, that a huge paradox was facing us as curriculum writers in a digital world. While it was easier and cheaper to produce documents and resources, the very same documents were rendered useless unless we put pedagogy first. Helen Beetham’s and Rhonda Sharpe’s editing of Rethinking Pedagogy For A Digital Age (2007) was particularly influential on my explorations. I got in touch with John Hattie’s (2009) and other critics who also had begun to question the value technology was bringing to education. Their concerns were hard to ignore.
More fundamental questions of education
By the time I returned to Australia in 2014, I had once again begun to ask more fundamental questions about teaching and learning which had been originally sparked by the ‘thinking skills’ work which I had started a decade before in devising ‘nonsense projects’. I turned back to Metaphors We Live By (1980) and Philosophy In The Flesh (1997) which, by now, were linked to a substantial ‘cognitive turn’ by teachers and researchers in the performing arts like Professor Bruce McConachie.
Their insights were to bring the humanities and sciences together through a multidisciplinary ‘embodied cognitive’ perspective that proposed learning about human culture through a common biological foundation. Professor Bruce McConachie’s outlines, for instance, in Theatre& Mind (2012) how our human capacities for playing, acting and spectating have directly enhanced the capabilities of the neo-cortical part of our brain which resulted in a species-wide development of “better memory, conceptual thinking and language, and the mysterious ability that allows us to think about cognition at all, which we call consciousness” (2013, 9-10).
In fact, the ‘cognitive turn’ that distinguishes the work of theatre historians like McConachie exemplifies the scientific principle of changing ‘truth’ according to a reasoned analysis and rigorous study. In human history this has occurred alongside practices of questioning, interrogating and reflecting on ideas and social phenomena.
It’s come to this … or, describing the here and now
As a result of the many highways and byways of dealing with formal State-based school curricula and the social contexts through which we create cultural values, by now I had come to realise that to ‘just do’ curriculum, in practice and according to child-centred approaches, is not enough.
Sure thing, we have always known that to participate in teaching and learning is to be fundamentally involved in communicating how our students are developing cognitively, socially, physically and psychologically over time. Traditionally, we have communicated the changes in milestone events like annual examinations. We’ve ‘marked’ student work through leaving comments and we’ve explained in face-to-face parent and teacher meetings and through ‘reports’ how the child’s development is mapped alongside agreed standards.
However, the 24/7 nature of digital communications, I believe, is currently disrupting all traditional means of building up trust between parents and teachers, the efforts of school leaders to motivate and professionally develop their staff, even while classroom teachers face a stream of criticism about ‘covering the basics’ in the press.
I believe that we should see issues around our ‘failing schools’ as the symptoms of the complexities of what it means to communicate via the internet and social media platforms. As the accessibility of materials on school websites, school curriculum policies and practices are always available, whether the front gate or the main door of the school is locked or not.
How we should we be optimising the opportunities this brings to schools? In the democratising effect of the internet, the locus of communication is with each and every one of us. What is said and not said, what is half-explained or exaggerated is now repeatedly present, creating reputations that are always visible.
Internet communication systems contain within them the elements of marketing, a good dose of public relations, the fiery passions of the evangelist and the artistic expressiveness of the entertainer so that schools in a digital age will have all kinds of different understandings and relationships to the performativity of how their communications systems and policies are being disrupted through 24/7 internet connectivity.
And so I find myself writing this blog at a moment when I am also focused on planning how in the next five years my education services company Fantastic Learning Systems P/L will specifically assist schools to communicate the value of their curricula in a digital age. We have a number of services being currently developed in educational research, facilitating self-publishing and project management, but at the heart of the company is the service we have entitled ‘The Curriculum Writer In Residence’ which models for schools the new ‘hybrid’ and ‘performative’ model of communications needed for a digitally enhanced education world.
But before that role is set out, I want to show how there’s never been a better time to be a curriculum writer and manager. As such, I want to strengthen their ability to plan, devise and assess courses, projects and programs. Understanding how the internet brings transparency to professional accountability is imbued with ancient wisdom that is re-teaching us that communicating is very, very rarely just a one-off utterance or message or event. Rather, it is rhythmic, repetitive, tonal and it viscerally resonates in our hearts, minds and bodies. Shakespeare would have loved communicating online!