Teachers’ Informal Learning, Identity and Contemporary Education “Reform.” NALL Working Paper.
background to study
This chapter explores links between teachers’ learning, the politics and practices of education reform, and questions of identity. How do teachers learn to negotiate the spaces between promises of improvement, effectiveness and accountability that are made in heterogeneous discourses of education reform, and their experiences of deteriorating material conditions and social relations of schooling? Education reform (and particularly ‘official’ reforms initiated by governments) can be viewed as powerful interventions in the structures and material conditions of schooling, often driven by ‘externally’ generated ideologies that both distort and shape the realities of schooling.
However, it is also important to attend to how education reform, as discourses and technologies of change, provides new (and some not so new) practices, frameworks, terms and categories for teachers to use as they make sense of the work they do and the decisions they make. Moreover, the dispersion of education reform, particularly in this second sense, is organized through apparently neutral practices of management, measurement, recording and accounting circulating in education, as well as through the more explicitly ideological and political debates and legislation about education.
We argue that learning how to work with or against education reform is a complex process of identity-making for teachers, where they encounter, and make use of, contradictory ideas about good teaching/ers, as well as about children, curriculum, pedagogy and learning. Negotiating between ‘old’ and ‘new’ methods, between child and curriculum-centred teaching, and between evaluations focused on process (or experience) and outcomes is hard work that has profound effects on teachers’ sense of self, their identities. Between 1996 and 2000 we worked together on a research project that Kari directed to investigate the changing role of parents in Ontario education reform. Toward the end of that project the two of us designed a small study to pursue in greater detail the ways in which teachers were being positioned and how they understood themselves in the complex milieu of reform. This chapter is one result of that study. One of our central questions is how notions of effectiveness, improvement and accountability shape images of the good teacher/ing in reform discourses, and how these notions are woven into teachers’ talk as they ‘account for themselves’ in interviews (MacLure, 1993).
Twelve teachers were interviewed. Some were participants in the original research. Some were selected because they had worked as teacher representatives on school advisory councils, others because they teach grades 3 or 6, whose students were targeted for yearly provincial testing. The teachers were asked to comment on contemporary school reform, particularly those aspects having to do with curriculum, assessment and reporting. However, because the interviews were open-ended, several teachers took the conversation to topics that we did not elicit. For example, they talked about stress, burnout and health-related problems that they experienced. Working Knowledge, Informal Learning and Making ‘New’ Teacher Identities Notions of informal learning provide ways to describe connections teachers make between the more general discourses and practices of reform and the ways and conditions in which they articulate what they do and their ‘sense of self’ in relation to them (Avis, 1999; Coldron and Smith, 1999).
Teachers’ Informal Learning, Identity 3 and Contemporary Education ‘Reform’ embodied (Church, Fontan, Ng and Shragge, 2000) in the everyday working knowledge of teachers. On the other hand, it is embedded in the more general discourses and conditions of reform. We consider first some of the teacher identities that are assumed, preferred and legitimized in contemporary education reform discourses and practices, and then explore where and how teachers encounter these identities, and how they learn to “take them up” (Walkerdine, 1990) or “work them through” (Farrell, 2000). How are different bodies differently situated in relation to new teacher identities? What kinds of embodied learning might be involved in the take up or refusal of identities, what rewards, risks and costs might be attached to “the labour of identity” (Adkins and Lury, 1999)?
At the end of the chapter we speculate about how such learning, risks and costs are gendered and racialized. We frame our interpretive questions around identity because the workplace is one of the central sites where identities are formed and learned (du Gay, 1996; Miller and Rose, 1995). This might be especially so for teachers, whose work has historically been described as “more than a job,” and whose workplace is at the same time thoroughly known and recognizable to anyone who has attended a school, yet mysteriously opaque to anyone who is not an educator (Britzman, 1991).
Moreover, a great deal of research on educational change and improvement is preoccupied with teachers’ identities, seeking variously to ‘develop’ individual teachers’ inclinations towards, and capacities for, change; to ‘empower’ teachers to find and express their ‘voice’ and capacities as ‘change agents,’ or to engage teachers in research and reflection on their practice (Fullan and Hargreaves, 1992; Sikes, 1992). Such ideas proliferate in pre-service teacher education, and they are also appropriated into some of the rhetoric of official, governmentsponsored policies and discourses of reform. In a 1998 paper, for example, the Deputy Minister of Education for Ontario advised teachers to “be the change you wish to see” (Lacey, 1998). At the same time, the Ontario government’s interventions in schooling have served to seriously compromise the environment wherein such ideals might be realized, creating conditions where “being the change you wish to see” has become near impossible for many teachers (see Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, 2000).
Nevertheless, notions of the efficient, forward-looking and self-reflexive teacher who collaborates with colleagues and seeks ways to involve parents are very much ‘at work’ in educators’ talk and reasoning. This is so even as schools are subjected to budgets cuts, restructuring of governance and standardization of curricula, testing and reporting. How do teachers make sense of this? How do we? The notion of governmentality (Foucault 1991; Rose and Miller 1992; O’Malley, Weir and Shearing, 1997) is helpful for thinking about the multiple ways in which power is exercised in schools and rationalized in contemporary education reform discourses – whether generated by and circulated among researchers or asserted through official policies and political debates.
According to Gordon (1991) governmental forms of power characteristic of neo-liberalism work by (more or less) indirectly shaping general conditions and capacities for conduct, particularly individuals’ exercise of freedom, selfreflection and self-improvement. In this account, freedom is not an essential capacity of human subjectivity standing in opposition to power. Rather, freedom is viewed “as an array of competencies that are ascribed to different agents and can only be realized in relation to specific conditions of possibility” (Barnett, 1999, p. 383). Freedom and agency NALL Working Paper # 56 – Teachers’ Informal Learning, Identity 4 and Contemporary Education ‘Reform’ are simultaneously the “condition of possibility” of power and its “effects” (Foucault, 1990; Rose, 1996b; Hall, 1996).
Hunter and Meredyth (2000), Popkewitz (1998 and 2000) and Popkewtiz and Lindblad (2000) have made use of governmentality to re-think the discursive and spatial organization and effects of contemporary education policy and research. Popkewitz, in particular, has explored relations between reform, research, teachers’ “reasoning” and practices of inclusion and exclusion. In this chapter, governmentality enables us to think about ‘education reform’ as one of several contemporary fields where discourses and practices of ‘improvement,’ ‘effectiveness’ and ‘accountability’ shape general and everyday conditions of teachers’ work and teachers’ thinking. It opens up questions about how, in addition to its enactment in legislation and its capacity to control teachers, ‘reform’ also operates through teachers’ self-reflexive practices and “labour of identity” (Adkins and Lury, 1999).
However their “dispositions” may be shaped, teachers’ actions and ideas cannot be fully predicted or controlled. There is always something in excess of, or not quite like, the “rules of reason” that education reform provides (Popkewitz, 1998). Indeed, by exploring the ‘spaces’ where teachers encounter and ‘take up’ new identities, we may be able to see where education reforms reach (one of) their limits. At the same time, these encounters may be ones where indirect and governmental forms of power meet up with more direct modes of containment and discipline, and more overtly ideological and political rhetoric.
How do teachers in this study make sense of different and contradictory discursive resources to explain their work, their students and themselves? In order to address this question in detail we rely on research into teacher biography and identity, in particular the work of Deborah Britzman. In analyzing interviews with student teachers who were developing teacher identities, Britzman draws on the antagonistic push and pull of discourses to create new meanings (1991, p. 111). Teachers, Britzman argues, ‘take up’ identity through both compliance and resistance to a normative, stereotypical notion of ‘the teacher’. She suggests that a “normative voice … defines what a teacher is and does in relation to the kind of authority and power teachers are expected to display” (p. 115). A “resisting voice” on the other hand, “speaks to one’s deep convictio
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