Little boxes

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.25, 3 July 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

Containers have a fascination for us from a very young age. There is no need for Fisher Price toys when you have the pot cupboard handy. Put a little one in a sand pit with a few containers and they will immediately fill them.

It seems to meet some urge in us to be tidy.

I have sometimes in an idle moment wondered if there were not some parallels between the way we organise education and the way we run a container port.

If you think of the age cohort basis on which we assign students to classes and then the inexorable application of age-based promotion there are some similarities. Ah, here is a container full of Year X children delivered on schedule at the port and the straddle carrier will be back to shift them around the port at the end of the year. There is little qualitative assessment made of what is in the container at the end of that year when, sure enough, the straddle carrier arrives to whisk them all off to another part of the complex.

After a few shifts around the place the container is shipped off to another port somewhere else. I wonder if when the students who leave to go to secondary school they are primary exports? Of course the containers are sorted with increasing frequency as the years roll by.

It might be a tidy way of running education systems, but in terms of individual students there is an element of hit and miss about it.

If a student has not achieved at one level, to ship them off to another level is simply an arbitrary decision. They take with them gaps in knowledge and skills which start to place extraordinary pressure on teachers as those gaps accumulate into significant unpreparedness for learning at that next level.

As pathways have got narrower and fewer for young people, it is not surprising that, like the Telecom woman, they are perched on the outside of the container rather than inside where all the action is. And as the seas of economic pressures, of employment, of further education and training get choppier the risk of falling off completely becomes very real.

Change requires us to be less tidy, to be less concerned about the containers of our thinking to this point and to learn to live with some spills for a time. The whole notion of paradigm shifts advanced by Thomas Kuhn requires us to periodically live with untidiness as one container of our world view is replaced by another. However it is not a tidy process. We have to move away from one container with which we have developed some comfort before the new container starts to take shape. So periods of great uncertainty are critical to any significant change.

And where have this occurred in education? Well perhaps not very often. The shift from norm-referenced assessment to one more aligned to achievement / performance based assessment might be a key one and we are having great difficulty in coping with the uncertainty of that change.

I personally think that somewhere up ahead lies another significant paradigm shift in education as the model of education sectors adapts to new and different demands.

It could be that as we moved away from a heavy emphasis on workplace learning up until the 1980’s to see it replaced by institution-based learning across both the conventional academic and the conventional non-academic areas of learning we were in fact taking part in a paradigm shift of some significance. But we are certainly now struggling to fit what is happening into the containers of the education system’s containers. You see, if the greatest part of learning is now to take place in institutions, then perhaps such a shift requires us to consider the nature of those institutions. And certainly the nature of the relationship between industry, business and the wider world of work and educational settings is challenged.

We glibly use phrases like “think outside the square” to capture the process of questioning the containers. But it could be that the notion that there is a square to think outside of is in itself a false assumption.

But events of this week have entirely ripped the notion of containers away from my grasp as they are now to be firmly embedded in the thinking of the Department of Corrections. And why didn’t I see it coming? The issue is not that the image of schools I started out with was based on containers but that they were shipping containers.

The use of containers as cells for convicts returns incarceration back to its roots as the Australian relationship with the shipping of convicts receives its modern expression through this innovation. It is one small step, having decided to containerise prisoners to then actually load them onto ships.

Could not these containerised prisons be loaded on to super-large megastructure ships that could cruise around New Zealand giving all communities a chance to take their share of the burden of caring for those who transgress?

Actually once the ships are at sea it could be that Australia beckons?

You can just imagine the folk songs!

Farewell to New Zealand forever
Farewell to my old pals as well
Farewell to the well known High Court
Where I once used to be such a swell
Where I once used to be such a swell

Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ay,
Singing too-rall, li-oo-rall, li-ad-di-ty
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay
Oh we are bound for Botany Bay.

Do we see a connection between the containerisation of young learners and the containerisation of criminals much later on? If we could get those young learners out of the container and onto a route that reflects their personal and individual needs then perhaps we could empty the prisons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *