Of trees and forests…

Photo by Steven Kamenar on Unsplash

We need many trees to make a forest

Vietnamese Proverb

Speculation of what may happen when the current level 4 lockdown is over is fuelling all sorts of conversations on social media as well as mainstream media. The concept of eventually ‘returning to normal’ is a common theme – despite the many voices also referring to what we may call the ‘new normal‘, a time where we might capitalise on the lessons learned through this time of crisis, change and upheaval.

Of course, for many, simply coping with the immediate challenges of surviving in a lockdown situation absorbs most of their energy and thought, leaving little opportunity to think about ‘what next’ – so the anticipation of returning to ‘normal’ is understandable. It is something of a ‘safety net’ that helps us through the present difficulty. It’s what Donald Schön has called Stable State thinking.

One of the characteristics of that Stable State is the issue of equity – at least, the extent of inequity in our society. In the field of education where I work this is particularly true, with some schools having no trouble connecting with their learners at home, while others are challenged to connect where there are no connections – no internet, no devices etc. And worse, where there even some of the more basic needs for human existence may be missing.

As we contemplate a ‘return to normal’ and the ‘stable state’ that we were used to we need to consider this, “are we therefore saying that we’re prepared to tolerate the continuance of the inequities that are now so exposed in our society? Is this really the ‘normal’ we long to return to?

For me, a key issue here is that in our modern society we’ve become increasingly focused on the ‘cult of me’, over the ‘health of we’. We’ve lost sight of the fact that you can’t have a forest without trees, but that a tree alone doesn’t make a forest. The need for collaboration at all levels has never been so important – and I’m not talking about the superficial level of collaboration here – but the deeper levels of sacrifice involved in pursuing ends that benefit everyone, not just the privileged few.

Our education system must shoulder some of the responsibility for the current ‘divides’ that exist. Many of our structures and the practices around which we have built our system are actually designed to perpetuate inequity. Consider this quote from John Dewey almost a century ago:

[T]he schools, through reliance upon the spur of competition and the bestowing of special honours and prizes, only build up and strengthen the disposition that makes an individual when he leaves school employ his special talents and superior skill to outwit his fellow without respect for the welfare of others.”

John Dewey, 1934, The New Era in Home and School, in Archambault, R. D. (1964). John Dewey on education: Selected writings. New York: The Modern Library, p. 11

While there are some outstanding examples of individuals and some schools doing some really great work through this time of crisis, we are still a way from truly working together as a system to redefine and re-vision how we might work into the future, based on the lessons learned currently. Do we really want to return to the ‘old normal’ where competition prevails to the extent that it feeds privilege, leaving others to suffer from the consequences of inequity?

There’s been a lot said and promoted in the past few weeks about ‘wellbeing’, with many commentators urging educators to focus first on the wellbeing of learners through this lockdown period, and not be over anxious about having to continue to deliver lessons etc. A noble thought, and one I agree with entirely – as long as our view of wellbeing is a ‘communal’ one, and not restricted to a personal level.

Again, as educators we must consider how our curriculum and practice contributes here. Another Dewey quote drives this point home for me…

There is no greater egoism than that of learning when it is treated simply as a mark of personal distinction to be held and cherished for its own sake. … [K]knowledge is a possession held in trust for the furthering of the well-being of all

John Dewey, 1934, The New Era in Home and School, in Archambault, R. D. (1964). John Dewey on education: Selected writings. New York, NY: The Modern Library, p. 12

My reflection in this blog is simply this, within the education system we must stop thinking that the causes of inequity lie entirely outside our system. We must consider the things that we do, the structures and systems we support (and which support us) and the practices we commit to on a daily basis – and how these may be a part of the problem here.

Dewey’s perspectives are as contentious now as they were when he wrote them – but the truth behind what he says provides a very real challenge to us as educators. The issues of privilege and entitlement that are the subtext of many responses to what is happening at the moment are a direct reflection of the very things Dewey speaks of. As a result, we have lost the deep understandings of the things that make us human. It’s not our capacity as individuals to grow and succeed at the expense of those around us – but to do this in a way that our success contributes to the wellness of others – of society as a whole.

This is a central theme of the true meaning of ‘agency’ as I’ve explained in other posts, where the privilege of having choices and the ability to act on those choices comes with the responsibility of acting in such a way that the consequences of those choices won’t be harmful to self, to others or to the environment shared by all. Or, to word that in the positive, that choices I make with actually contribute to my personal wellbeing, the wellbeing of others and the health of the environment we share.

Let’s be mindful then, as we contemplate life beyond the lockdown, of the motivations and assumptions behind the thoughts we have and decisions we make. We have a moment in time to be able to shift the education rhetoric beyond the ‘each learner achieves to their potential’ discourse, characterised by a competitive approach that, by design creates inequity. Let’s instead consider ourselves as part of an ‘ecosystem’, where characteristics such as ‘resilience’, ‘trust’ and ‘collaboration’ (for example) aren’t viewed as qualities of an individual (and therefore recognised and rewarded at an individual level) – but are instead understood as qualities of the ecosystem itself – and measures of the health of that ecosystem. Only by doing that are we likely to truly address the issues of inequity that are currently becoming so apparent.

Trees are important – but so too is the forest!

4 thoughts on “Of trees and forests…

  1. Agree with this Blog Derek. Thanks for caring to put these ideas out there for thinking and discussion. Combining your thoughts with the challenges posed by Denise Blake (Massey Uni)•, who talks about how COVID-19 ‘disaster readiness’ is a discourse for the privileged and a form of structural violence, I was able to offer support to a colleague’s concerns. At present their forest is a ‘bubble’ that is currently a ‘small and isolated patch of bush’ where the challenges of social connectedness and current mainstream attitudes/expectations of formal education, continue to challenge them daily. There are answers we must pursue in your thinking.
    • Preparedness and Recovery as a privilege in the context of COVID-19; Denise Blake.

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