There has been a long history of teachers being sidelined from discussions about teaching and education in general. This seems odd, but it’s not uncommon. For example, the recent parliamentary inquiry into the status of the teaching profession, led by Andrew Laming, often held public hearings at times that were impossible for average teachers to attend and present their thoughts. Even in the current discussions about literacy and numeracy tests for teachign students, bursaries and cut-off ATARs, the key figures leading the dicussion are politicians and policy-makers, as well as other education stakeholders like parent groups or initial teacher education providers, rather than teachers themselves. This is something that the IEU has constantly challenged, aware of the well known adage: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.'

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This is the fifth part in an ongoing series about Flipping the System Australia. I’ve just finished reading Benajamin Doxtdator about Risk vs Vulnerability. It was a very thought-provoking chapter, and I’ve jotted down some reflections below.

Doxtdator begins by discussing Gert Biesta’s call for education to not be risk-free. Biesta’s argument stems from what I might broadly call the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) which is the increasing corporatisation of education – by large multinational companies all offering risk-free, evidence-based ‘solutions’. Biesta suggests that this is the wrong approach. Education shouldn’t be risk free because it is an encounter between human beings, not an interaction between robots.

Biesta decries the ‘learnification’ of education – whereby students are empowered through disruptive innovation, and social justice is achieved through neoliberal capitalism. In these contexts, the purpose of education is limited to preparing students to take part in the workforce, and any failure is the failure of the individual, not the system.

These narratives of risk are troubling. Risk management, to use the corporate term, does not necessarily decrease vulnerability – it simply manages it. Discussions about risk, in an education sense, can fall victim to abstraction, rather than empowering students to resist colonialism and oppression.

It’s arguments like this that show how far in the direction of neoliberalism that education has moved. I think any suggestion of ‘resistance’ would be roundly criticised by many educators – and, perhaps more overtly, many policy makers and education commentators. This is the classic strawman argument about education as the home of ‘cultural warriors’ trying to indoctrinate our youth.

However, if we were to adopt a language of vulnerability, we might suddenly be able to talk about marginalisation, oppression and precarity. Doxtdator gives an excellent example of a students assignment on blogging. By adopting a risk perspective, we might consider how to block harmful sites and prevent harm for students publishing their work in the public domain. However, from a vulnerability perspective, we might consider what is owed to users by websites, and how such an activity might accentuate vulnerability – in different ways – of the students.

Then the chapter gets really interesting: he takes to task the ‘what works’ education movement in education and suggests that our focus on evidence-based research is limiting our agency as teachers. So far, so good – I certainly agree with that. However, Doxtdator then shares some fascinating data about Hattie’s famous effect size studies. Ignoring some of the statistical concerns, he points out the benefits for students of colour in lower class sizes – which are significantly higher than the complete group. There are other examples too.

Doxtdator’s chapter is fascinating simply because it is diametrically opposed to the conversations taking place in education today. Perhaps not so much at a tertiary level, but in a practical, day-to-day sense, much of the discourse is directed by Hattie and ‘what works’. Doxtdator challenges teachers to recognise that by adopting such large categorisations, we run the ‘risk’ of marginalising specific communities within our schools.

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