Discourse, Power, Resistance: Challenging the Rhetoric of Contemporary Education

Author(s) Satterthwaite, Jerome; Atkinson, Elizabeth and Gale, Ken
Publisher Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books
Price 18.99
ISBN 1858562996
Reviewed by Dr Stephen Bigger
University College Worcester
Review published 1 December 2004

This group of essays was produced by staff in the University of Plymouth around the three themes given in the title. It is a welcome backlash, or should we say, counter-voice, to the official rhetoric in teacher education of compliance and enhancing effectiveness. It describes itself as "a call…to resist"; it is in addition and more importantly a call to promote empowerment of teachers, teacher educators and learners. Its blurb hopes that "those in positions of power will be led to question…": that much I doubt. In production terms, it is marred by an error on the title page giving the editors as Atkinson and Satterthwaite -corrected by a sticker.

Atkinson playfully asks serious questions about teacher education and the rule of inspection, compliance and approved teaching methods such as the literacy hour. This gives her an opportunity to apply aspects of deconstruction from postmodern and feminist texts. She reveals a Grand Narrative constructed by political orthodoxy in which many questions are not asked, and assumptions are made about progress relying on both teachers and pupils doing as they are told in a compliance culture. She ends with significant questions which open up the debate about what education should be and who owns it.

Rowland focuses on the dialogue between learner and teacher, resisting the notion that teachers give knowledge to empty vessels, to one in which learners are actively involved in and responsible for their own progress, just as readers as the audience of writing are an essential part of the literary process. He ends with interdisciplinarity as the informed contesting of agendas and concepts, enriching our understanding, and public understanding, with a debate that confidently exposes itself to a wide range of opinion and method.

I think also we should follow Atkinson's dictum (p.7): "And I like it because it is fun": let's be open about what we believe in, and enjoy our research. And encourage the 'learners' in dialogue with us to enjoy and be empowered by their research also.

Dennis Hayes rails, in a context of post-compulsory education (FE) against the 'therapeutic model' of education where lack of confidence and self esteem are viewed as illness to be cured. He points to therapeutic imagery in which he includes guidance and counselling. As examples he cites placing pastoral care at the heart of the curriculum, allowing students to control the curriculum, postmodernism's playful rebellion and Habermas's critical political self-reflection. All aim to change or transform individuals; but it assumes original incompetence and need. It results in dependence rather than independence, with people needing education to point out their weaknesses. Therapy encourages further therapy and leads to addiction. He contrasts the 'therapist' with the 'educator' and complains that the curriculum is becoming "all process and no content" (p.41). His own view of education is therefore content based: educators know things which students need to know, and therefore need to be transmitted. The problem about demonising one extreme is that you push yourself to the other. No content is unproblematic, and educators, as well as students, need the skills to unravel the problems. These skills are developed through a process of interaction with the 'knowledge' with an explicit examination of how we know it is true. The traditional process is to tell pupils the information as true first, and introduce the critical questions in the higher levels of education. Therefore even A levels require more memorising of 'facts' than critical discussion. Unfortunately the student has not developed critical habits from childhood, and finds this difficult. For education to aim to produce critical students is not therapeutic, but it does see education as a process rather than a transmission of information. In this information age, even young children need to be sceptical and on their guard, and have the tools to decide the level of trustworthiness of the material. Equally, educational progress is linked with personal confidence and with under-confident pupils and students there may be need for encouragement which may be seen as therapeutic: the object however should be to lead the student to independence. So whilst agreeing that replacing 'education' with "navel-gazing forms of therapy disguised as education" (p.37) is not helpful, seeing education as potentially a personally transforming experience for both students and education professionals is a different thing, with the aim being not therapeutic but critical, leading to new understandings and ultimately new knowledge. Gale ends the book with the image of the flaneur which exemplifies this, by "constantly addressing and readdressing learning and knowledge in the encounter with new, different and frequently divergent experiences. As a practice flanerie possesses aspirations of openness, never closure, and it is through this resistance to closure through close attention to the unknown and the unexpected, and through the re-envisioning of the terrain of teaching and learning that creative pedagogies of resistance can emerge" (p.174).

Because these articles are deliberately provocative, each could stimulate a long response. Suffice to say here that the theme is extended by Helen Colley's attack on mentoring ("producing docility and devotion in engagement mentoring with 'disaffected youth" (p.85), with its "discourse of reform for 'employability'", encouraged by the "self-sacrificing devotion of mentors through its discourse of feminine nurture". Satterthwaite addresses academic inclusion and exclusion by language and allusions; Burn and Finnegan explore academic language ("I've made it more academic, by adding some snob words from the Thesaurus") and Nichols on the iproblem' of international students ("They just won't critique anything".

I can recommend this as a most stimulating read and highly commend the subversive idea that lies behind it. But it is, I fear, not the kind of research which will inform government policy.