Last week, a teacher asked me what concerns me most about education in New Zealand. My answer, the increasing polarisation, and more precisely, the growing inability of many people involved in education to listen to, or constructively engage with and discuss competing ideas or approaches.
I have seen this borne out in recent weeks in the reactions we have had to our upcoming webinar – the first in our Big Ideas series, which has the explicit aim of opening up constructive and informed dialogue about important and contentious ideas in education – on indigenisation in education. I also experience it in the ways some people react when particular individuals or schools are mentioned. My concern here is not that people have differing views on education or what schools should look like (I am an ardent believer in pluralism in education). My concern is that people are immediately and vehemently ruling out ideas or perspectives from particular ideological positions without first taking the time to engage with the ideas or thinking behind them.
This polarisation is not limited to education or New Zealand. We are seeing it across many areas and sectors around the world. But given the role that education plays in shaping our future, at both an individual and societal level, I find it deeply troubling.
One of the roles of teachers and education is to open students up to new perspectives, new ways of being, and new ways of knowing. As the great curriculum theorist Jerome Bruner once wrote, Education must be not only a transmission of culture but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them. However, I worry that if educators are struggling to do this themselves, are they able to support their students to do this across the curriculum?
I also can’t help but think that while there undeniably are very different approaches and perspectives currently informing education in New Zealand (and internationally), despite these differences, points of connection or agreement could be identified. However, if we do not take the time to truly listen to people with different perspectives and approaches, we will never have the opportunity to identify where these might be or have the opportunity to come together around a common goal.
By not having these conversations, we are also limiting opportunities to sharpen our own thinking. For, it is often those conversations where we have our thinking probed and challenged (in a constructive and non-threatening way that is seeking to better understand) that help us to clarify ideas, identify potential issues or areas for improvement, and deepen our understanding.
The growing polarisation also runs the risk of limiting our ability to have the big conversations that we really need to be having in education about the purpose of education, what it means to be educated in what is an increasingly uncertain world, and how to accordingly structure our education system.
Our big ideas webinar series was created to promote discussion on important, complex and, at times, competing ideas that are relevant to the future of New Zealand’s education system. It recognises that addressing the challenges facing education will require diverse, informed, and courageous thinking. It is not intended that everyone will agree with everything that is shared during the webinars. However, we believe that it is essential that people listen to and engage with the ideas and perspectives shared and use these as the basis for constructive dialogue.
For me, the prospect of facilitating the discussion during each webinar is both daunting – because many of the guests are people I have looked up to, been provoked, challenged and inspired by – and exciting, because it provides me with an opportunity to step out of the day-to-day, and to question and grapple with important and complex ideas. I hope that others involved in education will embrace the spirit of the Big Ideas series and feed into the ongoing conversations that we hope the webinars will inspire.