If I don’t tell you about it, how can you change it? Finding the place of political education in school.

The purpose of education is intensely debated; rightly so. Many of the goals are lofty, but lack a clear recipe for action. I’m not much closer to a recipe for action, but am trying to develop a clearer picture as a starting point. I am not yet sure how the goals outlined below would form part of the curriculum.

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My last post discussed why I teach maths, alluding to a belief that developing a student’s capacity to advocate for their self and their community is part of my motivation. Similarly, I hope for our students to be equipped and willing to work towards a society that better realises equality for people of different genders and ethnicities*.

For the purpose of this post, please accept the premise that ‘the capacity to advocate for yourself and your loved ones’ is a Good Thing and worthy goal (among others). It is an interesting and worthy debate (at least for me – I do like to debate!) but, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to write about what actions should stem from the belief.

A few premises to be considered:

– Many teachers don’t and can’t understand the multiple privileges they enjoy (I include myself in this). This can be in terms of economic security, a sense of personal safety (moreso for male teachers, but true for most people who can afford to drive, and live in well-maintained neighbourhoods),  primarily seeing other people with the same skin colour in media and in politics, having no reason to expect to be judged by the colour of their skin or for their faith, expecting to speak and read in their mother tongue as a matter of course (even when travelling), enjoying an adult level of literacy, going into higher education without significant worries about failure, not knowing what it is to experience racially motivated abuse, not having a generalised and insidious fear of unemployment, not being made to feel like an economic parasite (due to receipt of welfare, or due to being born in another country (or having a skin colour that makes people assume so)), experiencing the police force as a form of protection rather than of coercion, being able to expect that most food prepared for them is compatible with their beliefs/background, having a gender that reconciles with their sex at birth, having a sexual preference that conforms with what is portrayed as normal, etc etc. Of course, some teachers may see examples above that aren’t a privilege they enjoy (it would be a worrying reflection of the homogeneity of the profession if none of them pertained); I’d argue that this lack of privilege is much greater in the body of students we teach than in the population of teachers.

– Being well-educated doesn’t automatically make a person aware of sexism or racism in society (British or otherwise), nor of what is needed to eradicate them. It fascinates me when people see no role to for anti-racism campaigns or for feminism. Whilst I’m happy for the people whose life experiences have led them to believe that there is no sexism or racism in society, I would suggest that they are both an exception, and exceptionally fortunate. Other people witness the evidence of inequality but don’t internalise it or recognise it for what it is. Multiple books, blogposts, accounts have been written to educate people about the depth and extent of both problems in society; I shan’t do this work an injustice by giving rushed summaries here. Suffice to say, most people need to be made explicitly aware of these problems before they can see what is before them.

– People become extremely upset and defensive when accused of sexism or racism. It is a cruel irony that in Britain today we know that racism and sexism are ‘very bad,’ and things with which we would never wish to be associated, but don’t actually know what they are. We rely on confident and articulate victims** to educate us about our own deficiencies.

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Taking these premises, and other experiences and reading into account, my tentative conclusion is that I would like to see the following:

– For students (and staff) to know what racism and sexism are, not just that they are wrong. This could range from representations in the media to the role of everyday comments and actions in perpetuating racist/sexist structures to the history and power of derogatory words. This is something Greenwich Free School undertook with the class of 2019, with regard to sexism; if means and time allowed (HAHAHA), I’d love to compare their students’ beliefs/judgments with those in an otherwise similar setting.

– For students (and staff) to have a vocabulary and norms to discuss them in a way that aids communication and understanding. Fear of being persecuted for speaking can create an unhelpful impression of victimhood.

– For students (and staff) to have the means and confidence to articulate themselves, should they so wish, if they do experience or witness racism/sexism.

– For students (and staff) to understand that sometimes they will be called out for doing or saying something that aids sexism/racism and to be able to accept their mistake and move on, and not feel the need to defend themselves to the extent that they deny others’ experiences. I’ve been blessed by colleagues/acquaintances/friends who’ve been both kind and instructive in their corrections of my ignorance and assumptions; I wish I’d learned to accept such wisdom much earlier.

– For students to have some understanding of what power is and how we unwittingly give people power. This is something that Citizens UK have explored with students of primary and secondary age, in addition to their core business with people who undertake paid work.

– For students to be able to identify sub-optimal situations and organise themselves to effect change. It is extremely frustrating that most students are left with the simplistic impression that a vote is the same as a democracy, and that they aren’t educated about the underlying processes of representation, engagement and bargaining.

***

Before I left my last school, and with the help of Stefan Baskerville (a colleague at OUSU who introduced me to many of the ideas discussed above) and Sam Butterfield (an English teacher who is now, happily, joining my current school), I did a Melian Dialogue exercise with my Y10 group. Briefly, it comprised of students reading The Melian Dialogue (“a dramatic set-piece debate inserted by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War” – thanks Wikipedia), being assigned the role of Spartan or Athenian and being told to negotiate. The inaccessibility of the text is an intentional part of the exercise, as was having Sam give the instructions (a stranger, and wearing his nicest and most intimidating suit!) and deliberately withholding advice on how to negotiate or plan.

Although my execution lacked finesse (to say the least), it was incredible to see how compliant the students were and how quickly they capitulated to perceived authority. The subsequent discussion was fascinating and there many gasps as we considered how often (during the exercise) they did as they were told simply because they were told to do so. Moving to a discussion about their role and power within school was the most challenging part, unsurprisingly; I think they left with an understanding that their ability to reject instructions is only a source of power if they are furthering their educational ends.

Earlier this year, I received an email from one of those students: they were unhappy with the amount of time they were being given for revision, had arranged a meeting with the deputy head, met resistance, sought advice, created a petition and asked for a second meeting (in which they were successful). Although a small victory, they were amazed that they could actually change something, and not just complain privately.

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There are greater foes in the world outside of school: structural unemployment, the EDL, cuts to local (and national) services, democratic deficits in how they are represented, gendered expectations of how they should behave… I think those Y10s are marginally more prepared to meet them. I hope I can figure out the means to equip all my students to be prepared to meet these challenges.

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*This is not to dismiss other forms of inequality. Schools clearly have a role to play in – for example – challenging the extent to which society disables people and tackling homophobia, but I envision slightly different routes for these campaigns. It is for the sake of brevity that I’ve omitted them.

**I don’t mean that someone is automatically a ‘victim’ when they experience sexism/racism; I’m referring to the common event that, when casual ‘ism’ occurs, the level of defensiveness and dismissal is such that minds are only changed if the person who experienced it is very confident and deft when explaining why it was wrong.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “If I don’t tell you about it, how can you change it? Finding the place of political education in school.

  1. Another great post Dani. I think your list of premises is a really powerful one. Have you seen this: http://www.amazon.com/Rethinking-Mathematics-Eric-Gutstein/dp/0942961544 (should be in university libraries if you have access to one)? It may offer you some ideas on how to fit a recipe for action within the curriculum. It was reading this in particular and other work like it which brought maths alive for me (in my twenties, sadly!) and showed me how powerful it can be and what it is to be deprived of mathematical understanding.

    I also love the idea of using Thucydides to set up a debate!

    • Thank you for the book recommendation Harry – I’d never heard of it. I’m struggling to imagine a marriage of social justice and maths, so hopefully it will be an illuminating read!

      From a history/knowledge point of view, you might be interested to contact London Citizens about the work they do. I’ve been trying to understand in my own mind how understanding of power/authority affects interpretation of historical events, and if it can be (part of) a vehicle for students to identify their own capacity to change things. Although I hasten to add that it’s not to detract from the main business of growing historical knowledge (given that it’s pretty awesome in its own right 🙂

  2. Jessica Lund

    Thank you so much for writing this, Dani – it articulates beautifully the wider, important issues that I want my pupils to be aware of and act upon as they grow up. I hope I can do the same with GFS Class of 2021 as has already been done with their predecessors!

    I’m chairing a discussion group next week on feminism in education, some of which material dovetails nicely with what you’ve mentioned – if there’s anything useful or salient that comes out I’ll forward you the minutes!

    Enjoy the rest of the Summer!

    • Hi Jess, please do pass anything from the meeting that might translate to a school context; any food for thought is welcome.

      GOOD LUCK this week (and year) – I hope you have a wonderful time. Please consider writing a blog or similar as I know I’d really enjoy hearing about what you work on and am sure there would be a keen audience.

  3. Hi! I really like the debate idea as a way of demonstrating to students the power that they might have – and anyone who is untroubled by some of the ‘isms’ you describe, isn’t really looking. 30 yrs ago, feminism really gathered pace and had an effect. Although its ideals seem to me to be needed more than ever, there are few voices with influence – that I can hear, anyway.

    • I know what you mean by “isn’t really looking” – it totally blows me away how sometimes people can be so insensitive to what’s right in front of them!

      It’s interesting that you say feminism’s influence is waning but more needed. Is that from what you see in school? A friend was commenting that he thinks feminism has become a norm in society – I’m now wondering if it’s just the case in my little bubble (friends, acquaintances, the media I consume).

      • I can see it’s impact in the way we live and work but is it only me that worries about the impact of the way young, female celebrities are portrayed in the media? Who are the role models for teenage girls nowadays? There’s a big job to do here, I think.

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