Friday, November 9, 2018

Disengagement, or is it something else?

Where has your professional inquiry taken you this year? Our whole school focus on culturally responsive pedagogy has led me on a wild ride... 

We kicked off our Spiral of Inquiry this year with the intention of having a culturally responsive and sustaining focus. As part of my new learning, I read Culture Speaks (a book EVERY New Zealand educator should read). The sections below really stood out for me:

"They control you, and it is really annoying. They have to be the boss. I don’t know, but if I don’t like the teachers I can’t learn. They just like, pick on you, it just makes you not want to work. So you don’t work. You do that on purpose. Or you do that because you don’t know how to do the work anyway." (Kindle Locations 438-441)  
"These students raised the issue of not being able to sit by, or associate with their Māori mates. One student saw this as an attempt by teachers to separate groups of resistance, to ‘neutralise’ Māori students." (Kindle Locations 466-468)  
"They think we will gang up on them if we are all sitting together, so they make us sit by ourselves because then they think that will control us easier. That will shut us up. Well, that’s what I think." (Kindle Locations 476-477)  
"I don’t want to be a ‘dole bludger’. But … the problem is some classes are really boring, and some teachers give me such a hard time. ... He went on to tell us that he had given up working in most classes. ’Cause there was no point. They don’t like me, and I don’t like them." (Kindle Locations 670-671) 
"That’s a substantial number of our students. Not only Māori students but certainly Māori students ... the first thing you notice is the lack of equipment when they turn up in the form room and accompanying that, often, a great big chip on the shoulder." (Kindle Locations 3110-3112)

If your schooling experience was one where you felt that teachers were trying to "control" you and "neutralise" you all the time, like the students in the exerts above showed, how likely are you to feel a sense of empowerment? If you were told continuously when and if you can use the bathroom, what you should or should not be doing, and what you can and can not wear, how autonomous are you likely to feel? It is no secret that schools attempt to control the students, their behaviour, etc. It would be chaos otherwise, wouldn't it?

Our 'control' of students is of course not just confined to the logistics of schools. We also control their assessment and what they learn. By setting the due dates, choosing the standards, deciding on the learning objectives are and prioritising what I know to be the 'most important knowledge' that students must learn, I am again making some attempt at control. Our senior students are often experiencing the effects of being chased by the 'content monster', where we just have to "get through" the content that they have had little to no influence on. In senior science, there are so few standards that students hardly get a choice about what standards they have to do. The content in standards has usually been predetermined too, and not by the students...

Essentially the curriculum itself is also a form of control, it controls what learning we value and prioritise in our schools. And further, there is a range of scholars who argue that the curriculum is Eurocentric in many ways, and as a result, contributes to the colonising and control of Māori people in a harmful way.
"However, in many cases, the education system has negatively affected te reo Māori indirectly through aspects of Eurocentric education.  These  include assimilation, cultural invasion, cultural subordination, language domination, hegemony, the curriculum, class structures, racism, meritocracy, intelligence testing, and negative teacher expectations." (The impact of colonisation on te reo Māori:  A critical review of the State education system) 
"Hegemony, used as a colonising tool is invasive and attacks the fundament ideological nature of indigenous beliefs, values, and customs as well as questioning the value of indigenous languages." (A Critical Analysis of the Impact of Colonisation on the Māori Language through an Examination of Political Theory)


As I read more, thought more, observed more, I had a hunch... What if the disengagement that we see from so many of our Māori students, is not disengagement at all? What if it is disempowerment? I remember reading about a student in Culture Speaks that said "If I don’t like the teachers I can’t learn. They just like, pick on you, it just makes you not want to work. So you don’t work. You do that on purpose." These three sentences have continued to haunt me as I increasingly began to think about how the actions of a disempowered and an empowered student might differ.

An empowered individual might know that they should, could and can focus on learning in spite of the teacher. An empowered person might find other ways to do the learning. They might even seek help from a trusted adult to help them if they feel that they are being picked on unfairly. A disempowered person, in contrast, might feel that they have little choice or influence about their situation. They may be unlikely to seek help, ask questions, challenges injustice and demand more and better.
If my hunch is correct, then I am dealing with an entirely different kettle of fish than I first thought. Rather than seeking to engage students, I would be trying to empower them. It would mean that all the fun lessons in the world, upskilling on my assessment for learning practices, or building up my Universal Design for Learning arsenal is all unlikely to make enough of a difference. Perhaps it means that I would need to seek ways to dismantle the power structures that keep exerting control on the most disempowered of our young people? Maybe it means that I would need to challenge embedded cultural narratives? Or does it mean that I would need to fight against the systemic ways that we seek to control students?


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