Following the previous post on this topic, I have been asked to get on with writing up part two. So here we go.

The second part of the BERA Special Interest Group (SIG) in Educational Leadership meeting at the OU last Tuesday revolved around a more “activist” than “leadership” axis. As this was after lunch, it was just as well. The day was entitled Educational Leadership, Power and Activism (in FE): a reconciliation. Anybody who attempts to reconcile anything large within a day is just asking for trouble, but it was noticeable how far we got, principally because of Azumah Dennis’ framing of the questions in the morning session, but also because in FE, activism as a form of student and teacher voice and as deliberately created opportunities to think hard and act on what you have thought – seems a lot more alive in FE than it does in schools – or perhaps even in HE. Over the course of the day it appeared that the “holy grail” that we were straining for was an integrated mechanism within institutions that would repeatedly, generation after generation, challenge leadership, self-renew, constantly be open to the voices of the marginalised and the poor, and challenge itself not to become institutionalized. Whether this is achievable depends on the willingness of leaders in subsequent generations to being open enough, humble enough and aware enough of their blind-spots to allow such activism.

The speakers in the afternoon were Kay Sidebottom and Lou Mycroft who were trying to explore the future of the research/activism agenda (it was more fun than that actually sounds), and Rob Smith and Vicky Duckworth, speaking about college leadership and social justice.

Kay and Lou led us through what was less a talk than an experience. Thinking about the nature of power, particularly in the light of the work of Rosi Braidotti at Utrecht (where even the nature of humanity is problematized, in order to allow us to address the complexity of our modern life – avoiding easy polarisations, embracing differences and avoiding linearity in our thinking), they hoped to find an “ethical navigation” as cartographers through issues of power that recognised our own complicity in the situation we live in. Braidotti’s debt to Spinoza and her coinage of the term “posthuman” were much in evidence. Kay and Lou quoted Braidotti & Hlavajova’s (2016) question: How do we come to terms with breathtaking transformations of our time while being able to endure and to resist?

Because of this new (to most) conceptual framework, much of the language used in the talk needed redefining against standard usage – this was slightly confusing, as the posthuman framework was adopted without criticism, whilst the talk remained firmly in a more orthodox social science frame and its associated language. Some key messages from the talk were very helpful to showing how activism might be sustained:

  • David Cormier’s idea of the community as the curriculum, and the concept of rhizomatic education, where new ideas formed on the margins of the old, akin to rhizomes popping up in unexpected places. This is subversive and activist simply by the deprofessionalisation of knowledge that takes place as a consequence, and the resultant re-establishment of agency. As Lou put it: “rhizomatic constellations can be genuinely revolutionary because they grow agency in places where agency has forgotten to grow.” In seeking to establish the “thinking environment” as a pedagogy in itself, Lou and Kay directed us to the ETF-sponsored study “Creating Spaces to Think” which has more ideas and explains the conceptual framework more fully.
  • Potestas v. Potentia: these alternate ways of seeing and describing power differentiate the “power as usual,” hierarchical, bureaucratic, institutional (often male) form of power (POTESTAS) with the Spinozan concept of power as hope, power as affirmation, power as transformative (POTENTIA). Lou asked us to think about a group of people in a situation we were working in, and then assign each person a value between  1 and 4 for their “potestas” – usually where they were in the hierarchy – and also a value between 1 and 4 for “potentia” – the unreleased, influencing, hopeful power that these people brought to the group. Plotting these on a Cartesian graph and dividing up the space into four quadrants gave this:Picture8
  •  Following this exercise, which we all found absorbing and enlightening, Kay and Lou returned to the idea of cartography, making the map of our lives, our learning environment, the teams and people we work with and the way in which we interact, through:
    • establishing the politics of location
    • mapping our own background
    • bringing in identity markers
    • recognizing theoretical orientations
    • using scholarly as well as practical interests
    • connecting personal knowledge and histories to active experiences
  • Finally, referencing her own TedTalk on the subject, Lou encouraged us to think harder about the ethics of joy, which sustains rather than betraying activism (Rebecca Solnit’s full quote from Hope in the Dark is here). The talk finished with a brief reference to Jasmine Ulmer’s paper on writing slow ontology, in which reality emerges as we write. She writes: “If materiality and merit became as important as metrics, Slow Writing might lead not only to more joyful, productive writings, but also to scholarship that is more responsive to the landscapes and cityscapes in which we live.” (Qualitative Inquiry, 2017, Vol 23 (3): 201-211) – which brings us back to the importance of the learning environment.

Rob and Vicky’s talk, entitled “College Leadership and Social Justice” tried to locate what leadership might mean within the context of the challenges facing FE: cuts in funding and provision, “classing” of FE – a determinant of whihc backgrounds were likely to end up in FE rather than HE, instrumentalisation of training simply for “jobs,” social justice being a contested concept from the government perspective, the rise of agnotology (purposeful production of information to create ignorance through metrics and big data), marketisation as the enemy of social justice as it creates division and competition, history – and the transmission of values, etc.

What does leadership mean in this context? Rob suggested that it had to remain committed to social justice, as seen in the redistribution of public goods (whether material, intellectual or democratic) and in a deliberately relational dimension so that community is sustained. Leadership also had to be deliberately transformative (of itself and of leadership in FE generally) and also transformational (of the settings, colleges and working life of each institution).

This talk was illustrated with the colleges used as part of the research project, where the commitment to “social justice was locally and historically defined” – relating to a college’s history, the geographic and communal position it was created in, the extent to which it had passed on and enriched its founding values (and found those reflected in the life stories of teachers, governors and leaders), and how it had embedded them into its administrative processes and curriculum.

A great day all told. I felt like a fish out of water, in some respects, being from a different sector completely, but already I have incorporated some of the insights into my writing, whilst the vistas opened up by Lou and Kay in particular have made me begin to think differently about the purpose of learning in schools.

About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher by profession, now working as an educational researcher, in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011. My work looks to make education effective for the whole child and keeps a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, amateur printmaker, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for children. The views on this blog are all my own.

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