Scared Crows in the Panopticon

Posted on February 23, 2014

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I love the notion of the panopticon as a metaphor for contemporary society. Or rather, I hate the notion of the panopticon as a metaphor for contemporary society, but love teaching it to my Y13 Sociology students and am utterly fascinated by it.

For the uninitiated, the panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late-1700s, which is described by Wikipedia thus:

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And thus:

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The building’s design looks like this:

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And how this looks in reality can be seen here:

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The reason why I teach it as part of the AQA Crime & Deviance module is in relation to the work of Foucault, who says:

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If you’re interested in more the full article can be found here.

But this post isn’t intended to be a philosophical musing upon the nature of contemporary society, nor is it intended to be a sociology lesson. Instead, following a series of tweets with a number of people this morning, it is intended as a reflection upon where we are as teachers, school leaders and a school system with regard to inspection and accountability on the one hand, and professional development and autonomy on the other.

You see, in Foucault’s words, I think we have rather become the “principals of our own subjection” and have “assumed responsibility for the constraints of power”. School leaders too often see themselves as the cell-dwellers subject to the visibly invisible scrutiny of the (ivory) tower-dwellers of Ofsted. In an ironic twist though, classroom teachers too often see themselves as the cell-dwellers subject to the visibly invisible scrutiny of the (ivory) tower-dwellers of school leaders.

And what is it that keeps both of us, school leaders and classroom teachers, in our metaphoric cells? The fear of disapproval and its consequences (‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ judgments) for ourselves or for our schools. And indeed things seem to have got worse, not better, on that front under the current Govean administration: forced academisation at an institutional level and performance-related pay at an individual level to name but two recent changes. Maybe we are right to seek the approval that is conferred upon us in the event of being perceived by our captors as ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ in our teaching and/or leadership.

My fear is that we have become the scared crows in relation to scarecrow leadership at a school or system level, flying away from what sustains and nourishes us at the merest flap of the ragged arms from the slightest of breezes.

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Thus teachers steer clear of what they know works (for them and their students) in their classrooms if they fear that it doesn’t merit outstandingness in the eyes of their ever-observant SLTs – not just in terms of formal observations, but through the sometimes endless rounds of ‘learning walks’, ‘student voice’ and ‘book scrutinies’. And thus leaders steer clear of what they know works (for them and their teachers) in their schools if they feel that it doesn’t merit outstandingness in the eyes of ever-observant Ofsted.

We scared crows have become so ingrained in this mentality that, just like the prisoners in the panopticon, we have taken to watching the scarecrows constantly for any sign that they can give us about their intentions. We peck furtively, always hyper-aware and hyper-alert for the slightest sign of danger. As a result we have reified them out of all proportion (I feel like linking the opening to Manhattan here) and recast them as mythical beings whose power over us is absolute.

But times are a-changing and we need to respond to them with all our agency. Under Gove and Wilshaw at the DfE and Ofsted respectively we are hearing the mantra of “autonomy and accountability” over and over again. Rather than paying attention only to the latter of these concepts we need to seize the agenda with regard the former. Since his first report on the teaching of English Wilshaw has consistently said that inspectors should not judge lessons according to their own preferred pedagogies and, following a meeting this week with prominent education bloggers, Mike Cladingbowl issued the following statements about Ofsted and lesson observation. For teachers, he had this message:

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In other words, don’t be scared crows in the panopticon assuming that there is a right or wrong way of teaching. Do what you see fit in your context, so long as it is successful for you and your students.

And for school leaders he posed this subtle challenge:

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In other words, don’t be scared crows and stop scaring your crows by deploying unthinkingly a methodology for teacher development that even we don’t seek to endorse.

Of course this doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges to be overcome in the world of educational autonomy and accountability: I’m an optimist but not entirely naive. Hélène Galdin-O’Shea and I blogged collaboratively about this and presented this message at #TMLabour last year, recognising that without support for “informed autonomy” and recognition for “authentic accountability” there is still too much of the gaoler/gaoled in our education system.

But, and this is a big but, unless we refuse to be scared crows any more then we better get comfy in our cells and continue to lead or teach like there’s somebody watching.

Instead, we need to remember that there are more of us than there are of them. We need to remember that our eyes see more clearly the needs of our students and our teachers than any external observer. We need to believe in whatever form of teaching or leadership gets results than be slavish to the whims of those who teach less than us or have led schools less recently than us. We need to challenge ourselves to be better teachers or leaders in ways that we know we need to improve, rather than wait to be told so by others who will invariably impose a one-size-fits-all model garnered from another context upon us.

But most of all, we need to reverse our positions with those who ‘lead’ us in our own minds. School leaders need to occupy the tower of the panopticon and place Ofsted under constant scrutiny, watching their every move and challenging them when they get things wrong until they get things right. Similarly, classroom teachers need to occupy the tower of their own panopticon and place school leaders under constant scrutiny, watching their every move and challenging them when they get things wrong until they get things right. In both cases, though, we need to be benevolent gaolers – cognisant of our recent experiences as the gaoled – and recognise when they get things right, even when they challenge us to be more than we are: we need to recognise their surpluses as much, if not more, than their deficits.

In doing so we will become the scarecrows rather than the scared crows, masters of our own patches to ensure that the crops we watch over – our students and our teachers – grow healthily and successfully to their full ripeness. And as these scarecrows, rather than seeking to be ‘outstanding’ according to the terms and conditions imposed on us by others, we can strive to be (in the words of the old scarecrow joke) “out standing in our own field”.

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