Norms and Teachers

In response to a short twitter conversation, that required a fuller explanation.

When I first started teaching in the 1980s I was assigned to a school with declining enrolments but good infrastructure. In particular there was a large ‘open span’ classroom for over 100 students, the legacy of a group of innovative team-teaching maths teachers from the seventies. When I started these teachers had left, and the school had reverted to a one teacher, one class, one room setup. I have since observed several cycles between open plan including team teaching and regular classrooms, a norm to which it always seems to revert.  This scenario is emblematic; however an increasing urgency is developing around norms in education.

What norms can do – the heyday!

Norms come from practical and social influences and we may not always recognise them. After World War 2, and arising from a practical economic imperative, many Victorian children were taught in grey Light Timber Construction Schools.  In hindsight these were drab, but their standardisation allowed them to be quickly built across the state.  We also have educational content norms such as curriculum and the common books we read. There are also social norms related to what culture we consume such the films we watch and bands we listen to.  These norms provided for a social cohesive and prosperous post war generation.

One norm that I would like to focus on a bit more is the humble A4 paper.  Some like myself still remember foolscap, but the A4 standard won the day. This allowed printers, paper suppliers, photocopy manufacturers and a range of distributors to streamline operations. It also gave us a common understanding of fairness on exams and NAPLAN tests that are in standard white A4 for all students, other than perhaps for special supplements.

The norms we once took for granted are becoming less relevant, and new norms need to be created. Over the decades, educational norms have been challenged by developments such as feminist theory and minority discourses.  Norms are also being challenged in a massive way by technology, from the way that classrooms are physically organised to the way that educational content is delivered.  But required new norms are not being created or manifest as proprietary patents or trade secrets.  There is a wild west in technology towards norms and standards.

When norms fail

Some spectacular examples of failures in norms include technology problems with the GSCE exams in the UK, the Apple-Pearson curriculum in the US, and the Utranet in Australia. All these projects involved achievable technology, but I contend failed due a lack of appropriate norms.

A more spectacular example include the difficulty of getting high stakes exams on computers.  Exams such as the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) are massive logistic exercises requiring coordination across all VCE teachers and schools, central offices, printers, and related stakeholders and suppliers.  There are established norms for the size of paper and how to behave in terms of seating and not copying.  These established norms do not apply to computer-based exams, and new ones need to be created. How will fairness be managed with NAPLAN on BYOD where students with better computers may be at an advantage. Time will tell, whenever computer-based NAPLAN is implemented.

But these are small examples of a massive range of new norms that need to be developed for technology-based education. In particular new norms for how we manage space and time in education.

The Role of Teachers

Drawing on the work of R.S Peters, a key purpose of education is initiation into society that involves both cultural transmission and cultural regeneration. Teachers are central to this process of shaping, moulding and growing.  To abrogate this responsibility is to leave students in a technological ‘Lord of the Flies’ limbo, we cannot leave this to students to decide. No matter how complex this task, this moment in history requires teachers to be particularly involved in creating the environment for students to be socialised into broader society so that they can live happy and fulfilled lives.

How to Create Norms

Norms are about broad agreement and common understanding, they cannot be imposed. Wherever teachers withdraw their participation coteries of experts and commercial interests are more than happy to step in. However, these groups are not as well placed to inform the development of norms as teachers. Teachers know how students work, teachers are aware of antecedent norms and their workings, teachers know what’s practical, and teachers tend to better clued in to society including what business wants.  So teachers are well placed.

Teachers therefore need to make greater demands for the establishment of, and participation in, government-based working groups and committees to establish new norms. These norms need to address new usages of technology including general specifications for new learning spaces and technology-based curriculum. This may be expensive, but it is likely to be more effective than clueless expert coteries and solo innovators.

I have been involved in a small number of successful innovative projects from the classroom through to the international level. In hindsight, the success of each of these projects rested on the establishment of agreed norms across participants. Norms are as important as facts.