Sunday 19 February 2012

School, Family and Online Domains of Meaning

(and meaningful domains)

In the list of things children worry about, I might modestly suggest (with some experience!)

  • school
  • friendships (particularly as they are maintained through mobile phones and social networks)
  • maintaining space and security in the family
  • being creative and having ambition (making things)
  • emerging political consciousness around global warming, terrorism, etc
  • fears of crime and insecurity

.. generally this boils down to fear of loss of attachments brought about in a variety of ways, including 'looking stupid' or 'being embarrassing' (loss of friends) to loss of parents, or environment or ability to express oneself.

Because of the importance of each of these domains, each one can be said to be 'meaningful' to the child. Each domain of meaning carries risks which affect other domains of meaning. Looking stupid in school has a knock-on effect on maintaining friendships, relationship with parents, online behaviour, etc. Sometimes, activities which occur in one domain of meaning (say school) can directly conflict or threaten others.

I want to suggest that whilst we think of the problem of learning as being one of 'acquiring knowledge and skill', the real concern of children is how to join up and manage the different domains of meaning which they engage in. Seen in this way, performing an acquisition of sufficient knowledge and skill in school has to be reconciled with the online domain, the family domain and the domain of the self in the wider social environment.

Some domains are richer than others in terms of providing a caring environment. Family and School are top of the list here. The online domain can feed both of these and must be managed, but in itself does not provide care.

Having started to identify these different domains, it is worth thinking about how the provision of care in schools and families works. In families, care is provided on the basis of mutual inter-dependence. Within the family, as long as one member is unhappy, all are unhappy. Families struggle to deal with this aspect of their condition.. sometimes leading inevitably to pathology - which of course has knock-on effects on the child's ability to reconcile meanings.

But the rule in school is different. The school community doesn't demand that everyone is happy; it instead demands that everyone is concernfully engaged in learning activity. The organisational situation in school is not the natural self-organisation of families, but an organisation based around the effective coordination of learning activities by teachers. The good teacher will do this well, and in the good teacher's class, all children will find a level of activity with each other which they may or may not enjoy, but which nevertheless the child can find a place for themselves where they can feel relatively safe. In the bad class, this will not be managed well (although it may not be the teacher's fault... problems with the curriculum are more often to blame!!) and many children will be left confused or wondering what they are meant to be doing. In such situations, the meaningfulness of the activity in school is compromised. As with the pathology of the bad family, this has knock-on effects.

The tricky thing (which education ministers never seem to understand, despite the fact that they will themselves have experienced it) is that not all bad families, or bad schools necessarily have bad results for the children. Indeed, they may even help them establish strong and positive identities later in life. But to understand this is to understand the priority of establishing a coordination between the different domains of meaning that children experience. For example, a bad lesson will leave the entire class with much to talk about in the playground.. and, when they get home, online. Thus meaninglessness in one domain fuels meaningful engagement in another. The net result can be a strengthened sense of identity. Indeed, just like the kids, teachers often learn most from bad lessons!

This is important, because it means that politically-driven attempts to 'weed-out' bad teachers are probably misguided insofar as they seek to establish standards of practice which are believed to work in 'coordinating learning' but which ultimately decrease the flexibility teachers have for experimenting and responding to the needs of the children for integrating meanings.

But the most worrying recent development is the reaction of schools to the online world. Recognising that the online world is an important domain of meaning to the children, schools are currently attempting to integrate social networking practices within lessons. This is well-intentioned, but probably flawed. The problem for the children is that they themselves have to coordinate their domains of meaning: it can't be done by anyone else. Bringing Facebook into the classroom is like bringing all the family feuds of each child into the classroom. Domains of meaning collide and the knock-on effect risks being chaotic and confusing, thus compromising not only the meaningfulness of the classroom itself (because the learning activity is harder to manage  for the teacher), but also (for the children) a real threat to other domains of meaning involving their friends outside school and their families.

Part of the blame for getting the integration of technology and education wrong in this case must lie with woolly thinking about 'community', and a naive notion that communities can combine: so the school community can combine with the online community, or the home community. I suspect it is in fact seeing the community of the school, and the family community through the lens of what is popularly believed (but mistakenly) to be the 'online community'.

I think the challenge of education for children is the integration and coordination of domains of meaning. Only they can do this; and if anyone else tries to do it, it ultimately only gives the children a bigger problem.


Paul Hollins said...

You are prolific Mark and I I'm struggling to keep pace with ...

Love to talk about "domains on meaning " when we have some time ...

Simon Grant said...

Hmm, very interesting.

Sure, increasingly taking responsibility for integrating different communities, different domains of meaning, is a task that is an essential part of growing into adolescence, though I think not really in primary school, as developmentally children are rarely ready to do that at this stage.

However, some do this better than others, and though, yes, I'd like to see the primary responsibility clearly with the young people, I also think we need to provide support, coaching, whatever, to make sure that the less socially capable aren't left behind; just as we should be providing what Michael Argyle and others headed "social skills training".

It's that soft skills thing again, in another of its familiar guises...