A t approximately 3:45 pm on Thursday, May 27, 2011, the traffic lights fail at a busy interchange in Rochdale, England. This is bad news.
By 4:25 pm it is chaos, a grid-lock of vehicles and ire, an absolute impasse. My colleague, Leanne, is stuck in the midst of this in her car, trying to pick her way through and get home. Stationary, stuck, cars nose to nose at all angles in a tense stand-off in front of her.
And then, Zahir, a 16 year old walking home from school, does something breathtaking. He walks to the middle of the junction, to the epicentre of the jam. An achingly awful moment ensues. Will he get run-over? Punched? He then calmly walks to the front of one of the vehicles, taps the hood and gestures to the driver to back-up. Which… the driver calmly does. Other vehicles comply with Zahir’s measured assertions and within two minutes a flow is established. Our intrepid hero, positioned in the middle of the junction, halting one stream before beckoning another through. Other students walking home decide to assist, forming pairs and taking up position at each of the entrances to the interchange. And off they go in harmony, watching each other, anticipating, judging, managing the traffic flow from each direction with remarkable effectiveness.
Motorists applaud. Drivers call the school to tell us about this impressive show of initiative by the students. A fire engine passes through, the driver giving a thumbs-up of appreciation to the lads. A truck driver, returning to his transport depot, reports on arrival that he would not have returned in time if it weren’t for the students’ actions. He describes seeing a police officer giving the lads a thumbs-up from a patrol car. And he talks of a crew of builders in a van slowing, as they crossed the junction, to wind down windows and throw high-visibility vests to the lads to keep them safe.
As the stories unfold about the incident, the whole event becomes more powerful as an expression of what an effective society should be like. True, after about 30 minutes, another police officer passing in a patrol car told the students that they would have to stop or he would arrest them. So they left and he left and the mayhem re-established itself again for several hours. Within this story there are points of view about the students’ safety and police under-staffing as well, so we shouldn’t be too hard on the officer whose abruptness was probably due to a shortage of time. I’d driven down to the junction too, to tell the lads that they had done a brilliant job but that they couldn’t do it indefinitely due to the safety risks. I had to walk the last half-mile through the traffic to see if they were still there, but they had been sent on their way by then.
However, it remains a vision of something special, these young impromptu public servants and the contribution they made to their society that afternoon. And all this really happened: the Rochdale Observer ran the story and the event is remembered fondly in the local community.
What is the link with schooling? Well, if we want to create a society in which we all take responsibility for the good of the whole, then how we educate our young people is of absolute significance. Moreover, where learners are situated politically within their school, specifically with regard to issues of shared ownership and the quality of discourse, is critically important? So what was the school experience for the traffic cop students like? How were their conversations with teachers? What was their experience of learning?
Their school values “adult” to “adult” discourse between staff and learners and the pedagogies of Project Based-Learning. Neither, clearly, is unique to this school and practice is never perfect. What might be significant, however, is the enmeshing of these two strands of discourse and Project-Based Learning in the practice of learner/teacher co-construction and collaboration across the school.
“Teaching isn’t about paper and pencils: teaching is about relationships.”–Berger, 2003, p124
The young traffic cops’ school values high-quality discourse and does not approve of verbal aggression. A young and talented teacher joined the school a few years ago and had an altercation with a student that led to the teacher shouting. Students gathered to see what on earth was happening. Later, a senior colleague took the teacher aside to explain that shouting didn’t happen in this school. He got it. He was a decent man. He had merely been habituated to this mode of interaction in his previous schools.
But how we talk with learners really is that important. It is a crystal-clear indicator of whether we are situating ourselves on a level with them. Or not. This is not new knowledge, as any number of axioms demonstrate: “Respect everyone, fear no-one,” “What goes around comes around,” and “If you want respect, give it.”
An adult to adult relationship—not the parent to child dynamic of “Sit down!” or “Yes Sir!” but the equality of “How should we learn about this?” and “What is best?”—affords young people a meaningful stake in their community. They are being consulted. They are part of it. They belong. Their education is not done to them but in partnership with them. We all fret in schools (and rightly) about establishing stronger partnerships with business and parents, but often overlook the immense reciprocal value of real partnership with the most powerful stakeholder group of all: the learners side by side with us every hour of our school day.
Transactional Analysis theory illuminates this further by describing three mind states operating within us all. Crudely, they are “Parent” (rules and regulations), “Adult” (reason and enquiry) and “Child” (feeling and emotions), which operate independently of age. A three year old saying “Grandma! You should not be smoking!” is active in “Parent.” A 63-year-old throwing a snowball is in “Child.” A teenager discussing how best to manage the breakdown of her parents’ relationship is in “Adult.”
Level “Adult” to “Adult” discourse is, clearly, where the reflection that facilitates learning happens. It is the shared space of reason and enquiry. How counter-productive, then, that “Parent” to “Child” is the default setting of traditional teacher-learner interactions. This gradient has a formative impact on young people as they shape their relationship with society. They are not equal partners so it is not really their school and therefore not really their society. They get the message: that it all really belongs to older others. In one sense the UK riots of 2011 were a terrible expression of this collective self-image of successive cohorts taught, spoken to (rather than with) and managed in ways that perpetuate a mean mindset which asks: “What can we get away with when teacher isn’t around?” And becoming habituated to being at the lower end of this gradient further limits personal development for learners by making them dependant on the direction and permission of the “Parent” to make decisions and take positive action.
Thomas A. Harris develops “Adult” to “Adult” discourse into a life position, which is expressed by a sense of “I’m OK. You’re OK, ” the ultimate evolution of the three, more limited states. He writes:
There is a fourth position, wherein lies our hope. It is the I’m OK, You’re OK position. The first three positions are based on feelings. The fourth is based on thought, faith and the wager of action. The first three have to do with why. The fourth has to do with why not?” (1995, p. 48)
So why not step up and do something to help everyone stuck in the traffic jam?
Both students and staff at the young traffic cops’ school are introduced to the language of Transactional Analysis and the insights it brings. This is part of the school’s ongoing mission to maintain and improve the quality of “Adult” to “Adult” discourse and promote an “I’m OK, You’re OK” life position for its students and faculty. When individuals encounter a social problem, we hope they will have the dispositions to be thoughtful, have faith in themselves and take the wager of positive action.
If we want the collective benefit of young people taking positive action of social value, then schools must allow them the freedom to act authentically, rather than merely listen and follow instruction. Predominantly, however, it is the non-compliant learner who gets to exercise personal agency by operating in spite of the institution. They get the practice of taking control whilst those more tolerant of pedagogies requiring passivity get practiced in just that. Indeed the degradation of the educational experience over the years from ‘hands-on apprentices to hands-off pupils’ has been well-described (Abbott with MacTaggart, 2010).
Initially, more strange and difficult for both learners and teachers than the traditional paradigm of listen-ingest-regurgitate transmission teaching, Project-Based Learning grows learners with real strength, who can cooperate, think for themselves, organize and assess, of their own volition. This is of massively greater social value than training learners to memorize. Indeed, the most high-stakes learning within our developed world, the training of doctors, is enacted through project-based learning: a patient is presented with a set of symptoms, medical students form groups, learn collaboratively and then present their diagnoses for assessment. And this is a highly transferable model. Here’s a project for learners on their way home from school: all the traffic is helplessly stuck at a busy intersection, so think what to do, form teams and work together to get everything moving again.
Project-Based Learning is a significant part of the young traffic cops’ school culture. The youngest group devotes a quarter of their time to “My World,” a section of the curriculum with no prescribed content. The narrative is that the learners have been stranded on a desert island and have to survive without adults. In groups they pursue projects, sometimes defined (make a model of your island; devise a constitution; manage an election process) and sometimes entirely learner-devised and led (Why does a fire steel produce sparks? What effect do chord progressions have on mood and morale? Learn to speak Tongan). Critically, their experience involves leading projects, as opposed to always being led through them by the teacher.
In their second year, My World students are lead through a project in which they research their family tree and family history, and move to self-directed projects where learners find community issues that engage them and devise ways to make a difference. Examples include awareness and fund-raising in support of the homeless and helping with the design of a new sports centre.
Within these examples begins to emerge the practice of learner/teacher co-construction which was so much a part of the young traffic cops’ school experience. Such active involvement in their schooling is vital to the development of empowered and motivated learners and citizens. As Alfie Kohn notes:
Behaviourism is consistent not only with a particular kind of pedagogy (“Take out your worksheets boys and girls”) but also with a situation where the curriculum is fixed and the students have little to say about the process or content.” (2000, p. 65)
As teachers, we need to involve students in co-constructing the design of their own learning.
The focus on “Adult” to “Adult” discourse and a growing expertise in Project-Based Learning results in an untypically strong culture of learner/teacher co-construction. Over time it is becoming clear that the value of this partnership between students and staff is not only ethical, but includes increased efficiency and innovation. Dr. W. E. Deming, the American statistician and business leader, advised, “Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job” (1986, p. 24).
We have learned that student/teacher co-construction is actually more efficient than much existing practice, which can work to both exhaust teachers and disenfranchise students. For instance, when my colleague began planning a module on Gothic Fiction, she stopped and instead waited for the first week of the new term to construct the scheme with the learners in her class. They wanted to watch films, find out about Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, write stories of their own and design a display area for their work. This planning was done without reference to the curriculum standards the class had to meet. And there was no reason to cross-reference all these ideas with the bullet-points of the prescribed curriculum: that was Sarah’s job. The finished scheme was excellent. It was more creative than one teacher’s mind would have constructed. And it was more engaging for the learners because they owned it, and understood its rationale and where it was going. Moreover, it covered 60% of the prescribed curriculum for the year within a half-term.
A science colleague went a step closer to high-stakes testing and the prescribed curriculum in his practice, but he still invested the time to co-construct an approach to learning with his students. He showed them a section of the exam they would all need to pass six weeks later and asked them questions. Which sequence is best? In what ways should we engage with the differing areas of content? What assessments do you want to have to ensure you have learned deeply and securely? A high quality scheme emerged that was varied and rigorous.
If the best way to learn something is to teach it, then it follows we should share the teaching. This is not being a lazy teacher, but becoming a different kind of teacher, one who provides students with opportunities to stretch themselves and build their dignity, confidence and agency as learners.
Indeed, the boys’ school where I work is so authentically committed to exploiting the reciprocal benefits of learner/teacher collaboration, that it regularly shares the responsibility for resource management with students. For instance, one group needed raw materials for their soap-manufacturing project. They were directed to the Business Manager’s office for a requisition form and an explanation of the principles of Best Value, by which their order would be considered when submitted. How important it is for our global future that young people have experience of the responsibilities involved in managing shared, finite resources. How dangerous that they get so little real experience of this within schooling. And what a path to a heightened sense of civic duty this was for the young traffic cops.
The link between the positive actions of the boys in the traffic jam and their schooling is about how they were spoken with, how they learned, how they were consulted and collaborated with by staff and how, through all this, they came to see themselves.
Young people cannot be expected to be active citizens if we train them to be inactive in schools. They cannot be expected to make good and ethical choices if, day after day, within their compulsory education, we allow them few opportunities to make real decisions of any import. They cannot be expected to operate as confident and effective citizens within our society if they have had an education that trains them, during their formative years, to be dutifully passive receivers of instruction.
If we really want a better society, then schooling must develop in young people a sense of agency and strong dispositions to make decisions and to act. In doing, we give them the means to live a life both valid and satisfying to themselves and of significant value to society.
Abbott, J with MacTaggart, H. (2010) Over Schooled but Under Educated. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Berger, R. (2003) An Ethic of Excellence. Portsmouth: Heinnemann.
Deming, W. E. (1986) Out of the Crisis. Cambridge: MIT, Center for Advanced Engineering Study.
Harris, T.A. (1995) I’M OK – YOU’RE OK. London: Arrow Books.
Kohn, A. (2000) The Schools Our Children Deserve. New York: Houghton Mifflin.