The buzzwords we use don’t always meet the values to which we aspire
Those immersed in the educational milieu of our time are well acquainted with the buzzwords that surround our practice. We hear these words in professional development seminars and workshops, at conferences, and in educational publications. Words like ‘agency’, ‘self-directed’, ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘risk-taking’ are part and parcel of most graduate profiles. However, I believe we need to be careful what we wish for, because a quick glance at the daily news reveals certain spray-tanned world leaders having exactly these qualities!
The results of this are plain to see — ego run amok, ‘othering’ on a grand scale, division and disharmony, exclusion and exponential ignorance. The problem, of course, occurs when those competencies we so often champion, become radically divorced from the values that underlie our humanity. Empathy, compassion, manaakitanga, kotahitanga, and whanaungatanga. In a word, LOVE. THIS is where digital technology can REALLY be harnessed — not for dehumanising the Other, but for RE-humanising. Yet, how often do we use the word ‘love’ in our practice, and see it in our graduate profiles?
We are lucky here in Aotearoa New Zealand, as our own curriculum gives us license to develop these essential values:
- diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages
- equity, through fairness and social justice
- community and participation for the common good.
Inspiration from a past student
A ‘Wow’ moment for me occurred in 2016. In the local paper I saw a profile of an ex-student of mine. She had been year 8 when I taught her in 2009. In the article, she described how she experienced a fundamental pivot in life direction, which she attributed to learning about child labour in our class that year. This sparked her interest in global issues and development, and she was about to set off to Vietnam to participate in a water project. Hearing about this kind of thing is what teachers live for!
Inspired by this, I revisited the issue of child labour with my class at the time. We learned that through World Vision we could repay a family’s debt and set a child labourer free for only $150! So, we came up with a plan. Our syndicate (about 100 children) divided into teams, each armed with a bucket, a 150-link metal chain, and some bolt-cutters. Each team headed off to a different part of Tauranga Moana — some in Papamoa, some at the Mount, some in Red Square, and elsewhere. Using graphic design posters made in class, we took this issue to the streets, inviting members of the public to contribute a gold coin, and to break one link of the metal chain. That morning we raised over $2000 — enough to set free 14 child labourers!
This was the inspiration for my 2017 eFellowship project, which looked at how global connection can increase children’s sense of agency around making a positive difference. I had seen it happen before. Could we do this again and identify what it was about the experience that really changed children’s hearts and minds. The context this time was around water justice.
eFellowship project around preparing students for a
Having spent time at school learning about the issues, I watched as the children articulated their learning passionately with members of the public all around Tauranga Moana, and we raised over $1300. And we knew exactly who would benefit — a small rural community in Kimilili, Kenya, and the school at the heart of it, the HIP Academy. This was a school I had connected with two years prior during another global project. This is how our learning was expressed in an authentic context of genuine need. The money went towards providing Bucket Filters, providing drinkable water for a community that previously relied on a single tap from a pretty muddy puddle.
For our learners, the very next day, to get back pictures from the HIP Academy, addressed to our school, thanking our learners for their help, really brought home to all of us that our actions can have a real and lasting effect on the lives of others.
The concepts of ‘Droplets’ became important to us. Yes, we may feel small, if we imagine ourselves as a single drop. In the face of the world and its problems, children really can feel quite small and powerless. But, who of us really doubts the power of those droplets when combined together, to create a tsunami of action and compassion?
What I hoped to highlight in my eFellowship project was that by making connections beyond ourselves, we make connections within ourselves and to our place in our world. These connections, combined with the values in our own curriculum, can be an incredible driver of change.
Agency and future-focused learning built on solid values
Agency is definitely one of the buzzwords we hear a lot, and I agree this one is super important. But, what does it really mean? Is it just a matter of a learner choosing when they would like to do maths, and where to sit? If it is, we are selling ourselves short, because student agency, when built on a rock-solid base in values, can have far reaching effects.
I often feel cynical during presentations about ‘21st century learning’, or ‘future focused education’. Who are we trying to create? Yes, the world is changing! The old model of education did seem to be on a trajectory towards university professorship, as though that were the ultimate outcome in the future of our learners. But nowadays, I wonder if the goal has become the creation of Silicon Valley start-up entrepreneurs. Are we really in the business of turning our learners into the next Tim Ferriss or Elon Musk? Is this any better than the old model?
Future-focused learning, if we must use the term, primarily needs to be based on values!
The future of the world we live in depends fundamentally not on whether our learners can code, app smash, and launch companies, but on being able to look at the world and imagine it better, and have not only the skills, but the values to make it happen: manaakitanga, kotahitanga, empathy, compassion and, yes, let’s say it — love.
The power we have as educators
How easily we underestimate the power we have as teachers. Our classrooms are the seedpods of the future, like dandelion seeds on a stalk. To plant a seed is an act of hope. It is a truly future-focused act. I believe that in teaching we do the same — we don’t know where the seeds will land, but we must carry this hope into our everyday practice.
We must remember that amongst the buzzwords, bells and whistles, our mission is so much greater than this. I’ve long thought the ‘E’ in ‘e-learning’ should stand for empathy — the recognition that there is no “Other”, just sister and brother. As teachers we have the power to redefine, reconnect, and rehumanise the future. It is a noble calling, and we should rise to it!