Feet of Clay

Image source: Two Clay-baked feet via Wikimedia Commons CC4.0

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history… The crisis is exacerbating pre-existing education disparities by reducing the opportunities for many of the most vulnerable children, youth, and adults…. On the other hand, this crisis has stimulated innovation within the education sector”.

UN Policy Brief August 2020

Many of us are familiar with the phrase ‘feet of clay’ – referring to a fundamental flaw or weakness in a person who may be otherwise revered. The phrase originates from the book of Daniel in the Bible where Daniel interprets a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In that dream, a magnificent statue is seen with a head of gold, but weaker and less valuable metals beneath, until finally having feet of clay mixed with iron. I can’t help but wonder if this metaphor may have significance for us as we seek to resolve the issues facing our education system.

Much has been written in the past couple of years about the impact of the COVID-19 school lockdowns and the lessons we have learned from those experiences. As noted in the UN Policy Brief quoted above, there is overwhelming evidence of how this disruption has exposed some fundamental weaknesses in our system – most of which already existed, but became exposed once the traditional veneer of place-based learning environments was removed.

As we see a range of actions being taken in response to this, I can’t help but wonder about the extent to which much of the focus is on simply ‘polishing up the gold and silver’ at the top of the system, and avoiding the fact that the ‘feet of clay’ have been severely damaged.

Here’s an example…

Consider, for example, the current level of concern about students who are not attending school – the rise of absenteeism. This was certainly a rising area of concern before COVID, but has been brought into sharp focus since the 2020 lockdowns and subsequent pandemic disruptions with reports now of attendance in some areas dropping below 50% – some of which is related to student health and the impact of Omicron, while some sheets back to many of our learners simply becoming ‘disinterested’ in continuing to attend school due to a variety of factors.

The government response has been to release a new school Attendance and Engagement Strategy that sets expectations and targets to turn around these years of dropping attendance rates. This is a perfectly understandable response given the government’s investment in an education system that is premised on having learners gather together in a physical place to receive instruction and engage in learning.

In this rhetoric we see that ‘attendance’ is taken as a proxy for ‘engagement’ – i.e.” if you are physically present then you are engaged in learning, but if you are absent, you are not.” This emphasis on physical participation in or at school is reinforced in a recent PISA report that states…”

“…engagement is characterised by factors such as school and class attendance, being prepared for class, completing homework, attending lessons, and being involved in extra-curricular sports or hobby clubs.”

OECD (2020) Student Engagement at School

This explanation clearly links all aspects of attending school in person with the concept of engagement – which is certainly valid if we’re talking about engagement with school – but does that automatically correlate to engagement in learning?

The responses seen so far to the issue of absenteeism include a lot of ‘polishing the golden head’ in the form of increasing truancy services, implementation of better attendance tracking and monitoring systems, making school more ‘attractive’ through provision of lunches, wellbeing services and even some ‘edutainment’ approaches. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of these initiatives in and of themselves, but do they really address the foundational issues leading to this dilemma? Could we instead (or in addition) more deeply and genuinely engage with questions such as…

  • is physical attendance at a place called ‘school’ a requirement for learning for every learner?
  • are schools (as we know them) still the best model of education provision in the 21st century?
  • how could we better factor in the home circumstances of individuals, different cultural and religious needs/requirements, as well as different learning needs and preferences?
  • is our current expectation of full-time attendance across a week, a term, a year, the most suitable or appropriate way of accommodating the needs of all learners – or teachers?
  • how might we differentiate between engagement in school and engagement in learning – what new measures might be required?
  • what sort of support needs to be provided in cases where learners may engage in learning from places other than ‘school’? And how do we then ‘support the supporters?’

These questions are often posed at conferences I attend or online communities I participate in, but are seldom followed through because they become ‘too hard’ to do anything about – they challenge the foundations of our system (the clay feet) which becomes simply too difficult to do anything about.

But what happens when those ‘clay feet’ show signs of crumbling as a result of the ‘shaking’ experienced in times of disruption? Do we wait for the whole structure to fall, or should we be looking to reconstruct those foundations?

Other examples…

I’ve focused on absenteeism as just one example of where the focus needs to be on the ‘feet’ rather than the ‘head’ of our system – but there are countless others, all of which are, arguably, things that have been exposed as weaknesses during the past few years of COVID disruption. These include (for example)…

  • evidence of structural inequity across so many parts of our education system – strongly correlated with structural inequities across other parts of society (health, law, welfare etc.) which means that tackling it alone within education becomes impossible.
  • identification of new measures of success that challenge our existing assumptions about assessment and achievement, and require structural re-alignment of things such as curriculum, pedagogy, learner-agency, role of teachers etc.
  • participation of parents/whānau and community in the process of ‘raising the child’, creating new forms of partnership that enable this to occur and new forms of ‘social contract’ to ensure responsibilities are understood and followed through on.
  • legislative, funding, resourcing and policy frameworks and structures that fail to offer flexibility to recognise leaners and teachers that operate outside of the bounds of a traditional school setting, and so deprive the system as a whole of the benefit of their expertise and experience.

So what can I do?

If you’ve read this far and feel, like many I imagine, that this is something that can only be addressed ‘at the top‘ (i.e. by the Ministry or Government), and that there’s nothing you can do from your position as a teacher, parent or even as a student, then don’t despair, you’re not alone. Truth is, any system depends on the stability of its foundations and is effective in ensuring they remain in tact and unquestioned as bureaucracies work to establish their services upon them. Add to that the impact of short-term political cycles and its inevitable that the ‘big issues’ seldom get addressed.

But don’t despair altogether – I strongly believe that it is possible for educators to begin to make the changes that matter, even when the ‘bigger picture’ can feel overwhelming. In fact, there are plenty of examples of individual educators, leaders and schools that are already ‘bucking the system’ to ensure the programmes they offer, the services they provide and the relationships they establish are not dependent on the ‘feet of clay’ foundations that exist.

As you set about designing the settings and experiences to engage your learners in learning (not schooling), consider some of the questions below to guide your thinking and challenge yourself to engage in some radical experimentation that will benefit your learners in the long term.

  • Who is ‘driving the learning’ in my context? Who is involved in making the decisions about what is learned, how it is learned and who the learning is done with?
  • What is informing the decisions made in my context about how learners are organised, who is responsible for them and how their time is organised and managed?
  • How authentic are my relationships with parents/whānau and community? Is there a genuine sense of partnership involved? If so, what sustains this?
  • What does success in learning look like for my learners? Who decides? Is the process understood by everyone involved? Who is responsible for the measures of success, and for maintaining a record of learning for each learner?
  • If I’m not physically present (in my school/classroom) for a period of time, who takes responsibility for continuing the teaching and learning? How do they know what is involved and what needs to be done? How do I design learning to account for this?

The responses to each of these questions will inevitably lead to an examination of motive, and the need to answer “am I simply conforming to established practice, or am I pushing the boundaries and challenging the traditional foundations of practice in ways that need to be challenged?” In this way each of us can take responsibility for things that will, in their own way, contribute to a strengthening and eventual re-casting of the foundations of our practice and of our system as a whole.

One thought on “Feet of Clay

  1. Kia ora Derek
    As always, great provocation. I liken this to a concept that economists use when they discuss variables that will often shift one way but not the other. They describe things as ‘sticky’. So for example once a ‘market price’ for something has gone up, it’s hard to make it go down, it is ‘sticky’. Similarly with educational change, except that current conditions are the ‘sticky’ part, whether it be industrial conditions, or ITE paradigms, or the paradigms of those already working in the sector.
    Ngā mihi

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