Roberta Thompson

What’s happening in the collaboratories?

Emergent Publics Through Research Symposium 

Organisers: Parlo Singh and Stephen Heimans

Presenters: Parlo Singh, Henry Kwok, Carla Tapia Parada & Sue Whatman (Griffith University), Stephen Heimans (UQ) & Andrew Barnes (DET QLD)

All authors: Parlo Singh, Stephen Heimans, Henry Kwok, Andrew Barnes, Gabrielle Ivinson, Roberta Thompson, Carla Tapia Parada, Debbie Bargallie

The four presentations in this AARE symposium explored ways in which research collaboratories can be designed and enacted to help disrupt cycles of educational disadvantage. This symposium brought together papers from an ARC funded project and PhD study at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

So, what are research collaboratories? These are designed to create distinctive moments where epistemological “business as usual” is put into question and where researchers have to earn their place at the knowledge generation table. We ask how researchers are relevant and to whom they are responsible. This is because the emphasis moves to trying to think through and work with the entanglements (where causal links between entities and events are not straightforwardly clear) between the ethics of research (in the strong sense of the word as concerning the taking of responsibility for the outcomes and impacts of the work), the ontological aspects of the research (what realities are being performed here that might not have existed before?) and the knowledge processes. 

Complex models of teaching, particularly in public schools servicing high poverty communities, are being displaced by learning and measurement discourses, overrun by “norms”, with a logic that has generated a marketplace for commercial providers promoting testing instruments, accountability schedules, scripted or teacher-proof lessons and curriculum packages. Similarly, complex models of research are being displaced by narrow definitions of ‘evidence’, ‘data’, and ‘learning gains’. Randomised control experiments are heralded as the gold standard of research. 

We make the case for thinking differently about teaching and research – not as an intervention (cause and effect), but as encounters for understanding, sense-making and wise judgements that promote human flourishing in open, uncertain, and complex schooling systems. Such an invitation requires a re-thinking of the resources deployed collectively by school leaders, teachers, researchers to generate educational-research practices.

The first presentation of the symposium was presented by Dr Henry Kwok on behalf of co-authors Stephen Heimans and Parlo Singh, on Standards, Normalisation, or Normativity? Re-imagining Teacher Professionalism in the Age of Performativity

Kwok set the scene that, over the past few decades and in the wake of ‘crisis’, global educational policy movements have converged upon standards-based reforms. Public statements about performance expectations, such as the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APSTs), are expected to cure all social and educational ills spontaneously. 

But, is it the reality? What is a teaching standard? Does it exist? 

Drawing on a collaborative ARC-funded research project with public schools serving high-poverty communities in Queensland, Australia, Kwok asked the audience to re-think teaching standards, drawing upon the distinctions made between ‘normalisation’ and ‘normativity’ by the French philosopher of medicine, Georges Canguilhem. 

Kwok presented a compelling argument that while teacher standards may share some features of ‘social norms’ and shed light on the direction of quality teaching, the challenges in the lived reality of education are more important than measurement and cannot be redeemed by the inscription of ‘standards’ alone, especially in communities experiencing historical, structural inequalities and complex intergenerational traumas. 

Kwok on behalf of his co-authors implored us to reimagine ‘teacher professionalism’ differently, noting that pedagogic practices can be envisaged in multiple ways, which should be more than performativity, beyond the policy speak of ‘excellence’, in order to reclaim the space for social justice and democratic professionality.

A question asked from the audience was how do schools, such as those in high poverty communities, escape the need to be compared to “norms”? Kwok and Singh asked in reply, why can’t schools generate their own unique norms, that make sense to the members of that school community? And articulate how they are “doing” against meaningful norms. It was a thought-provoking start to the symposium.

The second paper, led by Stephen Heimans from the University of Queensland and Andrew Barnes, a school Principal from one of the collaboratory sites, on behalf of co-authors Parlo Singh and Gabrielle Ivinson. They outlined what they meant by 

Play for Play’s Sake in Primary Schools: Exploring playfulness as educational subjectivity. 

During the initial COVID lockdown, the school, which serves a low socio-economic, culturally and linguistically diverse community, had to remain open for students who were deemed vulnerable and at risk. These students also had limited opportunities to engage with ‘online pedagogies’ as many homes relied on smart phones for internet connection rather than tablets and computers. The school day for these ‘most-at-risk’ students contained many opportunities for play. 

Staff noticed something transpiring through play: increased play seemed to equate with improvement in academic results, and reduction in behaviour incidents. The school took this experience of play and built a ‘loose parts playground’ based on the philosophy of ‘playwork’, a child-centred approach to thinking about education. 

In attempting to understand this ‘play work’, the presenters theorised different dimensions of child-initiated and led play in relation to emerging playful educational subjectivities as ‘minor’, ‘ludic’ and ‘speculative’ (drawing on process philosophical research). Multiple examples were provided by the team, such as how one child buried an old sewing machine deep in the playground, for someone else to ‘discover in the future’, and another play café offering a space for social and emotional care of peers. 

This collaboratory suggests that rethinking playfulness as a core educational ethic can be a way forward for schooling, a way which also delivers other educational priorities, particularly for students who live with intergenerational trauma, violence and the other enduring and daily situations of poverty.

Audience members commented on how this paper resonated pure joy, another commenting that they desperately wanted to play in the loose parts playground themselves.

Parlo Singh and Andrew Barnes presented on behalf of co-author Roberta Thompson Framing and Reframing Positive Behaviour Policies, using the lens of Goffman to explore how student behaviour is constructed in official policies. Against a context of increasing incidents of ‘behaviour problems’ and student suspension, and the increasingly younger age of those suspended, the research collaborators asked ‘What are students trying to communicate? Why are they using these ways of communicating? How might we teach children to communicate in alternative ways?’ 

Singh and Barnes also explored how this school used play or playwork in the loose-parts playground to encourage students to remake and reclaim the space of schooling. Is it possible that different kinds of play spaces that might be created as alternatives to marketized models of play which can provide children with opportunities for enhanced participation in school life? 

The final paper in the symposium was from Carla Tapia Parada and Sue Whatman, presenting on behalf of their colleagues, Parlo Singh and Debbie Bargallie, on  ‘Teacher Activism: Struggles Over Public Education in Chile’. A PhD project of Carla’s, there were highly interested audience members present who also have worked in Chile’s education sector and were keen to hear Carla’s insights as a Chilean Mestiza researcher and the interpretations of her co-theorist participants, following Bargallie (2020) via testimonio, photo-story and yarning.

Carla noted that while much has been written about student movements against the neoliberal privatizing of education in Chile, less attention has been given to teacher activism around educational matters. Drawing on these yarning stories from teacher activists in Chile and thinking together with them about what and who is engaged in these struggles over public education. The research sought to understand (1) what is entailed in strengthening public education? (2) what is the conception of the public in education? (3) how can covert or endo-privatization be undone?, and (4) can public education be strengthened by increasing individual rights and regulating the function of private institutions? 

Whatman introduced the concept of pedagogic rights from Basil Bernstein, a concept which developed out of little-known work he conducted and co-published in Spanish in Chile in the 1980s. This theoretical work on pedagogic rights and emergent publics is used to think with and about the yarning stories of teacher activists. Examples of enhancement, inclusion and participation were interpreted from the co-theorist teacher activists, further suggested as possibilities for democracy, where which teachers pedagogised their activism into their everyday teaching practices.

Each of the papers served the purpose of the symposium well to illustrate how research collaboratories can disrupt educational inequalities and disadvantage.

Girls ask friends for help first: a need to redesign online safety protocols

“put on some clothes and stop posting slutty photos”

Year 7 girl commenting about other girls her age on social media

Being a girl aged 12 to 14 is a risk factor for cyberbullying and sexting, however gender and age-specific protocols are not being explicitly promoted in online safety programs or anti-bullying campaigns. Instead, for more than a decade, Australian online safety programs have focused on generic strategies that encourage all young people to adhere to first responder rules which include blocking and reporting. The general assumption is that young people are ready and willing to step forward, that they have the courage and confidence to speak up against others.

However, my research demonstrates that when girls aged 12 to 14 experience stressful online situations with peers, they do not use these strategies. Time and again, girls in my research wanted to find their own way of dealing with online problems. Typically, they did not want to report the problem. Usually they asked friends for help and support. As one young girl said, “I’m not a snitch, I’d rather just put up with it”.

In their talk about online safety, the girls raise some key points.

Key findings from my research

Girls don’t want to tell their parents

First, telling parents is “social suicide”. Banning and punishment are two reasons given. Friends stand with you and support you, but adults blame you, punish you, and take away your phone. “They think you’ve done the wrong thing and they punish you.”

These outcomes explain, at least to some extent, why girls prefer to talk to friends about online problems not parents. This arrangement should come as no surprise given mainstream online safety messages are almost always framed in consequential terms and typical parent reaction is to restrict and monitor.

Girls look to friends for help first

Second, girls say the go-to, talk-it-out contacts are friends. Girls ask friends for help because they are supportive, trustworthy, and loyal. Girls want to be believed. They want someone to support them during their trauma, someone to be shocked over the incident, and someone to deny their personal culpability. They want things to get better and believe friends can help with that.

Likewise, girls want to help friends who are in trouble. As one said

I had a friend who was getting bullied. I tried to help her. I’d try to make her happy and get her away from all the bad stuff that was happening. In the end, I went and talked to the person who was bothering her.

But the ‘helpers’ also need help

Girls say supporting friends is not without concern. Indeed, support practices often place them in a position of pronounced vulnerability. They often feel worried and anxious about their friend’s wellbeing because the bullied girl is frequently very distressed, experiencing anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and/or the beginnings of self-harm. As one helper put it,

… (crying) I had to tell someone, I sent her messages and a letter to tell her she would be okay. I thought it was helping but then she started posting messages that sounded like she was going to do something like hurt herself. I feel bad I couldn’t help her. Now her mum is coming to school. I think she’ll be mad at me. I was only trying to help.

Support strategies also place the helper in morally challenging situations. On the one hand, she is bound by unspoken friendship obligations to be loyal and trustworthy. On the other hand, she has an ethical responsibility to report online problems to an adult. Neither position is without consequence, but most girls choose to support and comfort friends rather than report problems to adults.

One of my friends posts some really racy pictures and guys are always asking her for nudes. I tell her that she should tell someone, but she says her parents will take it away. I am concerned about her because she is always getting pervs messaging her.

It is different with bullying from people outside life at school

In contrast, the girls were quick to report online problems when the instigator was a stranger or someone who could not affect their life at school. This point demonstrates that girls deal with online bullying in different ways depending on who the bully is (i.e., peer or stranger). This distinction is significant and needs to be explicitly addressed in online safety programs because “a lot can happen” before girls report problems to adults.

My findings may seem strangely out of place next to research reports which indicate girls do report online problems to parents and do use social media reporting tools. In my research, the girls were no different in that most of them say they report online problems to parents and use reporting tools when needed. However, the girls seek friendship support first and only report problems to adults if this support is not effective, or the bullying escalates, and/or the situation becomes critical (e.g. suicidal thoughts).

A need to redesign online safety protocols

My research highlights critical trends in young teenage girls’ online safety and help-seeking approaches. Girls aged 12 to 14 clearly want to manage and self-censor their online life but these experiences are not straightforward. The securities of belonging and fitting in overlap with adult monitoring and protection and girls need to make choices that are not necessarily optimal. Online safety protocols should be redesigned so they complement both the realities of girls’ friendship practice and the nature of adult censorship.

Roberta Thompson is a Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.  She is a sociocultural anthropologist interested in teenage girls’ everyday experience in and out of school, both on and offline. Her research explores the interplay between teenage girls’ everyday interactions with friends, gendered discourses, social media practice, identity construction, and online safety agendas.

Roberta Thompson is presenting on “I’m not a snitch”: Teenage girls, friendship and online safety and on Design-based methods for qualitative research with teenage girls at the AARE 2019 Conference.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here