Redundant Adjectives

This post is my contribution to a collaborative project initiated by Sonya Van Schaijik that aimed to unpack and question the various ‘buzzwords’ currently in use in education. This collaborative book was launched at the end of Connected Educator Month. I am proud to have taken part in this challenge, and am grateful to and appreciative of the warm but demanding support of Kathy Scott who was my critical friend.

Redundant Adjectives: Pedagogy’s built-in understanding of being future-focused

To all intents and purposes, the New Zealand Curriculum’s opening words are those of the overarching vision for the document: “Young people who will be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.” Note the use of the future tense. This verb tense continues over the page where the stated vision is fleshed out into five bullet points including: “Our vision is for young people who will be creative, energetic, and enterprising”. Thus, the intention of the curriculum document is to “set the direction for student learning” and that direction is one pointing firmly into the future.

A further way that the New Zealand Curriculum explicitly sets its direction as being future-focused is through its principles which, “embody beliefs about what is important and desirable in school curriculum – nationally and locally.” One of these principles is that, “the curriculum encourages students to look to the future by exploring such future-focused issues as sustainability, citizenship, enterprise, and globalisation.” It is clear then that the New Zealand Curriculum is an aspirational document and one which seeks to address the future needs of Kiwi kids.

Pedagogy, while a separate concept to ‘curriculum’, is similarly forward-facing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as, “The art, occupation, or practice of teaching. Also: the theory or principles of education; a method of teaching based on such a theory.” If you like, curriculum is the ‘what’ of teaching, and pedagogy is the ‘how’. Generally speaking, the meeting point of the two is schools and the main medium for delivery is teachers. Therefore, while not synonymous, the two concepts have the same basis of intention: to shape young people into the kind of adults a society deems desirable.

Thus, in my opinion, the phrase ‘future-focused pedagogy’ is redundant because the future is already inherently implied and understood in the use of the word ‘pedagogy’: schools and teachers are naturally focused on developing students’ capacities and capabilities. And these are the capacities and capabilities that will best serve them as adults and future citizens in society. Needless to say there are considerable value-laden assumptions behind what kind of adults and future citizens are seen to be necessary by curriculum writers and the research they draw upon. But all of this, in my opinion, begs an important question to explore: what kind of future is implied by our pedagogy?

One of these visions for the future is an industrial, production-based model. Most recently Sugata Mitra has argued that our current school system was designed with elegant efficiency by the Victorians who wanted to produce future workers for their industrial age factories. Students in this era experienced a factory-style pedagogy appropriate for molding factory-style workers. Young people were viewed as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge they would require when they needed it. Curricula prescribed the knowledge that young people ought to know, and, to some degree, ought to be able to do with that knowledge. All students learnt the same thing in the same way for the same kind of future.

But we are no longer in the Industrial Age. We are now in the Knowledge Age where “knowledge and ideas are the main source of economic growth”. This change also signals a shift in what ‘knowledge’ is. We also understand a lot more about how learning occurs. Students no longer need a sole diet of ‘just in case’ learning but rather need ‘just in time’ learning: knowing how to learn when learning is required; how to critically navigate a glut of information. This is an entirely different vision of the future. Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert talk about knowledge as having metaphorically shifted from a noun to a verb: “as a resource to do things with, not an object to be mastered.” Students need to know how to interact with, and build knowledge. And the pedagogy needed to empower this capacity in students is fundamentally different.

The 2007 New Zealand Curriculum document reflects this difference. While, as already noted, curriculum is not pedagogy as it is not a description or formula for how to teach, there is substantial overlap between the two. The focus in the New Zealand Curriculum on the five Key Competencies of managing self, understanding language, symbols and text, participating and contributing, relating to others, and thinking, implicitly requires a different pedagogy from that operating in an Industrial Age model. I urge New Zealand educators to concentrate their focus on this ‘front half’ of the document as a signal to shift attention away from content and instead onto skills and dispositions.

But let us now return to the question posed at the beginning: What kind of future is implied by our pedagogy? While the very nature of the future is that it is definitively unknowable until it is the present, we tell stories of what the future is ‘likely’ to be all the time: hover cars, robot overlords, post-apocalyptic wasteland, living on Mars under a great glass dome… Keri Facer, in her important book Learning Futures, explores some of these potential futures ahead of us. In doing so, she emphasises that these stories of potential futures are precisely that: narratives. And the nature of narratives is that they can be manipulated and changed, that they are not set in concrete. The future is the consequence of a whole series of decisions that are made right now. As Facer says, “The future is not something that is done to us, but an ongoing process in which we can intervene.”

Pedagogy, with its in-built understanding of being future-focused, is one of those intervention methods. We don’t know what kind of future lies ahead of us, but we are pretty sure of what it isn’t likely to be: a Victorian manufacturing plant. Therefore we must ensure that our pedagogy is future building, a term that, “implies we have power and agency to create the future we want.” Certainly the intention behind the New Zealand Curriculum, and its Key Competencies in particular, reflects this.

I believe that teaching is an expression of hope for the future. That our learners not only become “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners”, but adopt this vision as part of their current identity. That our learners do not become citizens, but see themselves as citizens already. Thus, while the adjectival phrase ‘future-focused’ is indeed redundant to qualify the noun ‘pedagogy’, we must make sure that our pedagogy is an expression of this hope. Bibliography (To access a version of this blogpost with footnotes, please click here.)

  • Claire Amos, “Futures Thinking and the Future of Education.” Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert et al, “Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching – a New Zealand perspective”, NZCER, 2012
  • Rachel Bolstad and Jane Gilbert, Disciplining and drafting, or 21st century learning? Rethinking the New Zealand senior secondary curriculum for the future, NZCER, 2008
  • Keri Facer, Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change, Routledge, 2011
  • Rosemary Hipkins, Rachel Bolstad, Sally Boyd, and Sue McDowall, Key Competencies for the Future, NZCER, 2014
  • The New Zealand Curriculum, Ministry of Education, 2007. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • Sugata Mitra, “We Need Schools…Not Factories“. Accessed online 20/9/14
  • OED, Accessed online 20/9/14

Want to read more? The other chapters of the collaborative book are here:

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7 thoughts on “Redundant Adjectives

  1. steph campbell October 18, 2014 / 5:16 pm

    Fabulous read Phillipa, thanks for your concise reflection.

  2. Tony Cairns October 18, 2014 / 10:27 pm

    this is wonderful – so clear concise hopeful thoughtful positive critical analytic – i am in awe of your blog and your thinking – i am sifting through my own memories of a hundred honeyed thoughts to realize the hive analogies of modern humans bound by technology and freed from the Net – but first alas as always marking awaits

  3. ulimasao November 8, 2014 / 5:24 am

    Philippa a fabulous post and thanks for the mention. I loved the way you took on the challenge as I am aware how passionate you are about future focussed pedagogy. I look forward to more collaborations with you in 2015. The three initiatives we have worked together on in 2014 have been incredible and the twitter conversations even better.

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