Guest Article:Conor Galvin:Re-imagined spaces for teaching & learning in these times

This article was edited especially for It encapsulates the words Conor imparted at the recent Second-Level Re-imaging learning conference.
Conor Galvin is a  Lecturer and Researcher at UCD College of Human Sciences where he works on various education,  development practice, ICT ,and research training programmes. He speaks regularly at conferences and events (nationally and initernationally) on education policy, the politics of education, new literacies, and technology enhanced learning.  Conor describes himself as digital journeyman and loves technology. It is however a one-way relationship…
Re-imagined spaces for teaching & learning in these times; the rough magic of a better second-level experience.
Shaping and being shaped
The idea that there can be ‘good’ spaces for living has always been, for me, an interesting one. Particularly given that so many spaces fail to make the category. The best spaces are fluid and malleable  – we design them, we shape them to personal need, we furnish them, arrange and rearrange them to match times and taste.  With thought and effort we ‘make’ spaces that accommodate the range of our being and activities. We customise and personalise endlessly. Elements can be shifted and rearranged. Lines and gradations can be revised. Most importantly; these spaces are ‘ours’ and we can be content there. Or at least reasonably content.
However, this also leads to an interesting dilemma about spaces or buildings, well articulated by Stuart Brand when he wrote;  First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again – ad infinitum.  Just as spaces can placate so too can they unsettle.
Experience should presumably play the greater part in this shaping and reshaping. But the more I thought about it the more it became clear that it doesn’t – that memory does. And especially the way that memory plays on our understandings of lived spaces and distanced events. Rememberings can be a powerful force in human action. So unfortunately can misrememberings. The thing here, of course, is that we probably misremember more than we recall in true detail. And the more I thought about schools and learning the more I came to the view that much of what goes on in the design and resourcing of education is, tragically, about making futures on the basis of badly known and / or misremembered pasts. And given the shaky nature of their grip on any understanding of the teaching reality that extends beyond an A4 policy brief, I came inexorably to the conclusion that those who for years have ‘governed’ and ‘managed’ the provision of public education in this country would seem quite probably among the most badly-equipped to do so.
That’s why when the opportunity presented itself to think a bit about and speak at a sizable national conference on reimagining learning – so central a feature of living – I found myself thinking about spaces and rememberings. These formed the basis of my presentation to the Limerick event This short and rough-cut piece is another result – the product of time poverty and pent-up frustrations with a system that forever seems determined to be its own worst enemy.
The underscoring concern
The salience of re-imagination to these times is fairly obvious – we are in a place where a lot of our certainties have falling away, where ‘truths’ have proved brittle and crumble in our hands. These include some that relate to the value and nature of the act of learning – certainly if public discourse around ‘the problem’ is to be believed.  And so, as I read and thought more into the project, I found myself centring in on some ‘spaces’ which I think are particularly useful. The term is used in a generous and even metaphorical sense but it is helpful as a way of lining up and opening-up some issues and practices that comprise the substance and architectures of learning. There are five in all that seem to me of some value to re/examine for what they might yield-up about doing differently what – until recently, at least – most in this country remember or misremember as being done reasonably well; the practice of early secondary schooling.
These are:  pedagogy, curriculum, (physical) facility, ethos, and – the most unmitigatable space of all when lost – the public good.
In the next week or so, I’m told, the contribution I assembled around these will be available on the Educate Together Re-imagining Education conference website. I’ll leave it to people to make up their own minds whether what I said to the conference stands up as a critique of current realities.
What I think may be more worthwhile here is to try to say something about the specific reasons this topic of re-imagining education simply had to be engaged: what I would describe as the deeply plutocratic nature of arguments being advanced by an advocacy coalition gathering around the education reform agenda in this country, and the unnervingly proto-fascist tenor of the new hegemony that feeds and drives that agenda.
Advocacy and coalition
Let me say first what I mean when I suggest that there is a discernible advocacy coalition building around the education reform agenda in this country and why this is important.
In simple terms an advocacy coalition is a coming together of disparate individuals and organisations who sometimes can hold to radically different ideologies but can find enough common ground to join with others to advance a common agenda to some mutual benefit. We have seen such coalitions operate with incredible effect worldwide to drive the neoliberal project on marketisation, workplace conformity and compliance, privatisation, deregulation and public sector reform over the past thirty odd years. A whole slew of interrelated and overlapping repositioning of the social contract have their origins in this and are illustrated in a fundamental turn in public discourse. This rationale infuses terms such as transparency, accountability, regulation and public management – the most visible markers of the new hegemony.
Where education is concerned, one doesn’t have to look too far to see the emergent coalition partners. Front and centre is the ‘global Ireland’ business sector – predominantly FDI and IT sector interests such as INTEL and Microsoft. Crucially as the business elite, these are well-supported by the political class – predominantly the centre right, including both government partners and the major opposition groupings. The technical reach of the coalition is provided by a (for once) enthusiastic and appropriately re-branded Department for Education & Skills, along with its necessarily compliant agencies; the NCCA and NCTE. Economic credibility for ‘urgently needed reform’ is derived from the seemingly interminable stream of Reports and crisis papers issuing from the Department of Finance and ESRI – Bord Snip Nua, Croke Park agreement actions, The Hunt Report, bank Stress tests…
This is the context against which we find ourselves being challenged to re-imagine education – not just for secondary level but across the primary and third level sectors also. To my mind, the discourse around a failing education system that we have seen and heard so stridently and frequently of late, is as much an instrument of shock & awe intended to force neoliberal infused change as any serious attempt to assess or communicate where we really are and what substantive education issues we truly face.
That Educate Together should find itself in such company is to say the least interesting.
It is useful at this point perhaps to turn to the nature of the assertions being advanced by this coalition.
The resurgent dark
Essentially, the reform coalition motif comes down to change advocated on the assertion of failure on the part of the current system to adequately address a perceived economic imperative; the system is presented as ‘failing’ the smart economy.
Whether this is a failure of will or of capacity is irrelevant to the discourse. The alternative being constructed in the public mind matches well what Mike Kelly  described as a stripped-out, global economy service trope. It also resonates uncomfortable with Ron Barnett’s warning – posed in the context of HE reform in the UK but equally applicable to this jurisdiction  – about the profound implications for educators’ professional identity raised when fundamental changes in education practice are driven primarily by national strategies rather than academic values. In fact, it may even sit better in the Ireland context.
What is perhaps most interesting in all of this is the way the change imperative has been and is being marketed to a largely unsuspecting public.  In a classic advocacy coalition approach we are being ‘sold’ both the message that education has an essentially economic purpose and that the existing system is in crisis.
We are faced with the relentless marketing of the idea that our secondary  school system is a total basket case. Day on day newspaper coverage and self-serving ‘high-level’ conferences – Farmleigh, Smart Futures Seminar and so on – add legitimation to the agenda. This gives currency to ideas and sound-bites about schools ‘Not fit for purpose’, our ‘broken’ education system etc. These pass into conventional usage and so towards unquestioning public acceptance.
The dictums of success in a globalised, technological, and materialistic world are similarly drilled home; it’s all about offering value to potential investors- we need competitively priced flexible labour, the ability to learn and ‘unlearn’, tolerance of churn, acceptance of relentless cycles of obsolescence, role compliance and entrepreneurial orientation. 21st century ‘life skills’ and ‘work skills’ are trumpeted. And the line is advanced bit by bit until there is no sympathy for or acceptance of any alternative.
This is not to deny that the Irish education system has difficulties and failings. It has – though, in my view, not on the scale purported. Nor is it to place Educate Together in some sort of Machiavellian role in the undermining of the current arrangements – secondary or primary!  The intentions of the organisation are honourable and represent a welcome breath of fresh air throughout the system.
We do however need to ask some serious questions about the changes that are coming and the deeper implications for  public policy they intimate. Yesterday’s announcement that the company can also begin to act as patron to  secondary provision is broadly to be welcomed. It raises the interesting prospect that in time a considerable section of secondary provision in this country will in fact rest in the hands of a private sector organisation – albeit an educational and charitable one. Current patterning would suggest that the business world will take more than a passing interest in this development for many reasons openly evident and others less so.
On a personal level I would be less concerned about the very slim possibility of failures of integrity on the part of Educate Together than about the much more likely infiltration of their curriculum by corporate and commercialising influences. That an Irish government would collude with an alliance of business world interests to radically reposition the state in relation to providing secondary education and effectively to cede leadership over central aspect of the curriculum to that alliance, would have been unthinkable in the past. Now it seems a real and chilling possibility.  The last time Europe saw abrogation of the public education spaces in such a way was during the rise of fascism in the early part of the 20th century when business interests and populist politics came together to plunge the continent into a darkness that still in part endures.
The proto-fascist tenor of the new hegemony that seems to be feeding and driving the education reform agenda can have only one logical intention; the subjugation of education effort to the will of the elite coupled with the habilitation of a compliant and docile workforce to serve its purposes. It must be seen for what it is and contested strongly. This last part is the rough magic of what needs to be done. And I would be confident that Educate Together can carry it off – as long as the organisation stays close to its guiding values and listens to those who support it and its work. Even when they have reservations. Indeed, especially then.
Barnett, Ron (2008) “Re-thinking ‘academic community’: reflections on the NDLR”. NDLR Annual Symposium 2008, Tuesday 2nd December 2008, Health Sciences Building, UCD
Brand, Stuart (1994) How Buildings Learn, what happens to them when they are built, Viking.
Peters, Michael (2007) Higher Education Globalization and the Knowledge Economy; reclaiming the cultural mission. Ubiquity, Volume 8, Issue 18 (May 8, 2007 – May 14, 2007).

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