George Variyan

COP this right now: why the next generation can’t make miracles on its own

Climate change education is becoming increasingly prominent both as a research focus and a teaching focus, with young people often being the target of climate change education initiatives. However, while efforts to build critical climate literacies with young people are important, care must be taken not to perpetuate the idea that today’s young people will miraculously solve a crisis brewing for centuries. 

Everyone has a role to play in thinking about and acting on climate change because no single group of people or technological advancement is going to save us.

The science is clear. The world is burning, quite literally. But as the world media turns its attention to COP27, icons like Greta Thunberg have argued that these conversations are ‘not working’. The future of the planet appears to be decided in ethically questionable and far-away places, often behind closed doors. Closer to home, we can feel excluded and unheard. If expectations are already low for COP27, it may be that the path to a sustainable future can only be found from the ground up. For each of us, this starts with reaching out, turning up, and getting involved. 

What might happen if those who are often left out of the debates and conversations such as artists, educators, social scientists and humanities researchers came together to talk, activate, play, create and discuss for 3 days post-COP. What might they achieve? Could their playful and artful responses lead to change? 

  • Conversations also need to be creative, artful, playful even, and include knowledges and ways of being and seeing the world that have so far been ignored.
  • even if the change is getting to grips with our anxieties over the future and helping us re-engage with this dire ecological moment.

To create space and flip the narrative on its head, we co-designed The Climate, Art, and Digital Activisms 4-day Festival of Ideas. The festival program will be held over 3 days (21-23 November) at studioFive (UNITWIN partner and UNESCO Observatory of the Arts Education) in Melbourne, with the fourth day (27 November) to be held at the University of South Australia (preceding the AARE 2022 Conference) in Adelaide. 

The festival program consists of 12 carefully curated acts which bring invited keynote speakers and practice-based facilitators into conversation with each other. Invited keynotes are purposefully paired and discussion will be facilitated by the convenors as a decolonising act. ECR and HDR are welcomed into the conversation via Pecha Kucha sessions.

We know that taking action is better than giving in to the polarising morass of misinformation and disinformation on social media.

Reports ahead of COP27 have made it clear that we are on the path to 1.5°C or worse. Pledges backed up specious action, or worse, contradictory actions, add up to political theatre, no more, no less. These faux struggles keep us hoping that our leaders will save us, or that the political class can be shamed into action, but they also leave ordinary people feeling disconnected and disenchanted. Yet, if some doors are closed, there are others open, right under our noses, where conversations can lead to change, even if the change is getting to grips with our anxieties over the future. If there is one thing that works, it’s getting in the game. So, instead of feeling sidelined by COP27, simply reaching out, turning up, and getting involved will put you on the path to something better. 

Acknowledgement: The festival is made possible by a University of Melbourne Dyason Fellowship, competitive SIG funding from Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) and Partnership Development Grant from The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). 

From left to right: Kathryn Coleman is a neurodivergent, feminist, artist, researcher and teacher who lives and works in Kulin Nation. Her work focuses on the integration of digital pedagogies and digital portfolios for sustained creative practice, assessment and warranting of evidence across education sectors. Kate’s praxis includes taking aspects of her theoretical and practical work as a/r/tographer to consider how artists, artist-teachers and artist-students use site to create place in digital and physical practice. Sarah Healy is committed to inter and intra-generational justice and is concerned with creating the conditions for reparative futures to take place. In her role as Melbourne Postdoctoral Fellow, Sarah is actively engaged in research located at the intersection of affect theory, digital childhoods, creative methods and a/r/tographic approaches to metho-pedagogy. Sarah’s expertise is underpinned by a background in art education and keen interest in close-to-practice research and teaching. George Variyan is the Course Leader for the Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critical sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational leadership, boys’ masculinities, climate activism and social justice, and ethics. Brad Gobby is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Curtin University. His research is widely published and includes critical inquiry into education policy, educational subjectivities, and politics. Brad is co-editor of Powers of Curriculum: Sociological Aspects of Education.

Do elite private boys’ school alumni have justice politics?

Featured Symposium at AARE 2021: Elite private boys’ schooling, feminism and gender justice: reimagining research in a post #me too world

On November 30 2021, while many of us were in paper sessions at the annual AARE conference, the findings of a review of workplace culture in parliament house were released. The review, led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, was sparked by rape allegations made earlier this year by Brittany Higgins. The findings indicated that one in three people working in federal parliament has experienced some kind of sexual harassment there (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2021). What is also true is that a large number of MPs in the current parliament attended boys’ only schools, and recent revelations about the conduct of some boys in high fee-paying private boys’ schools have shone a negative light on them.

In September 2020, a year 12 muck-up day challenge at Sydney’s Shore school was made public which included such challenges as “spit on a homeless man”, “deck a stranger”, “sack whack a complete random walking past”, “get with someone below (age) 15”, and “get with an Asian chick”. In February 2021 Ms Chanel Contos, a former student at Kambala – an elite private girls’ school in Sydney – commenced a petition on social media for consent education to be taught earlier. This also attracted many testimonies from young women across the country regarding sexual assault from young men, many of whom attended elite private boys’ schools. 

A spotlight has therefore been focused on private boys’ schools and the male leaders they produce. All but two of Australia’s post war Prime Ministers (Bob Hawke and Julia Gillard) attended boys’ only schools, as did many men in the current parliamentary cabinet. Many of the men who attend boys’ only schools will come to occupy positions of significant privilege and power. There are crucial questions to be asked about the gender, class and race lessons being learnt by the young men attending such schools, and the way these travel with them as they come to occupy positions of influence in post-school life. Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway calls this the ‘misogyny pipeline’.

Published research shows us that such schools can be environments that are toxic for women teachers (Higham, 2018; Variyan, 2021) and indicates the sense of entitlement that can be fostered in such schools (Gaztambide-Fernández, Cairns & Desai, 2013). However it also indicates they are institutions that frequently engage in practices that are ostensibly about improving society and ameliorating justice (Kenway & Fahey, 2015). Indeed, how might these schools and their current and former students contribute to social justice rather than reproduce virulent forms of misogyny, classism and racism?

In response to such questions, AARE featured the research symposium Elite private boys’ schooling, feminism and gender justice: reimagining research in a post #me too world, at its annual conference. The symposium involved Drs Claire Charles and Lucinda McKnight, and Professor Amanda Keddie (Deakin University); Dr George Variyan (Monash University); Emeritus Professor Jane Kenway (Melbourne University); Professor Adam Howard (Colby College, USA), and Leanne Higham (LaTrobe University).

The symposium identified a range of challenges and opportunities for understanding questions of gender, class and race in elite private boys’ education both in Australia and the USA. A particular challenge identified was the ‘rules of entitlement’ that such schools implicitly teach their boys (Kenway). One such rule is that boys must know how to stay on top of all the hierarchies that matter. Given how strongly invested such schools, and their clients, are in hierarchies it was asked is it even possible to challenge this rule?

A key theme, in line with the conference title, was how we might re-imagine research in politically charged spaces, and in particular in/with elite private school boys and such schools’ alumni. Access to elite schooling for the purposes of research can be difficult. The symposium explored some different approaches to gaining insight into a culture where ‘what is part of the family stays with the family’. The schools were likened to a ‘secret brotherhood’ (Howard) where unsavoury are kept under a code of silence, although can sometimes be revealed to ‘insider’ researchers such as men who also attended elite boys’ schools, or by alumni who actively take up a more progressive justice politics. As part of re-imagining research in this space, the symposium also explored how researchers need to acknowledge their own positioning and investments (Charles, McKnight & Variyan).

A second theme was around how the schools themselves typically respond to revelations about their misogynistic cultures when they hit the media. Their crisis management techniques were identified. For example, they often respond by suggesting that such events are the result of a few ‘bad apples’ and are not representative of the broader culture or values of the school. A further strategy was their ‘dignified determination’ to address the issues. These defensive responses were described as a form of ‘misogyny masking’ (Kenway).

A key question, therefore, is how research, and the schools themselves, might address these problems. In particular, how research and teaching in elite private boys’ schools might seek to involve boys and men in working toward social justice. It is well established in research that involving men and boys in feminist projects can be a challenge yet one that is necessary if we are to change the status quo (Messner, Greenberg & Peretz, 2015). The symposium explored the discomfort and emotional intensities that boys and men often experience when they are invited to reflect on their complicity in perpetuating gender injustice (Keddie). It found that while such discomfort can be difficult, it is a necessary part of gender transformative work because you are dealing with personal violation. Such discomfort and emotions can be channelled in productive was for gender justice (Keddie). The role of researchers’ own relationships and emotions with regard to these schools was also explored (Charles, McKnight & Variyan).

In summary, recommendations arising from the symposium include the following:

·       That researchers continue to work with alumni from these schools to identify and further understand the factors that might assist some men to develop progressive justice politics both at school and later in life;

·       That further research is conducted into what may make elite private boys’ schools different from other elite schools that are co-educational or girls’ only schools, when it comes to addressing the problems outlined above;

·       That research and pedagogy continue to engage boys in working toward gender justice – including boys attending elite private boys’ schools.

Dr Claire Charles is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Deakin University. Her research advances understanding of the justice politics of privileged young people in an unfair world.

Dr Charles pulled together this overview of research, including her own, presented at AARE201. The other authors are: Dr Lucinda McKnight is a senior lecturer in pedagogy and curriculum at Deakin University. She conducts award-winning research into curriculum design’s role in teacher identity, autonomy and professionalism, especially in English.  Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Amanda Keddie is a Professor of Education at Deakin University. She leads the program: Children, Young People and their Communities within the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre. Her research interests and publications are in the broad field of social justice and schooling. Professor Jane Kenway is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences; Australia, Emeritus Professor at Monash University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. Her research expertise is in educational sociology.  Adam Howard, Ed.D., is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Education and Chair of Education Program at Colby College, USA. Professor Howard’s research explores social class issues in education with a particular focus on privilege and elite education. Leanne Higham is a Lecturer in the School of Education at La Trobe University. A former secondary teacher, she is interested in the everyday practices of schooling and how these increase and enhance the capacities of those within schools, and/or limit and constrain them.

Learning is not a race but politicians think it is. Now wellbeing is in peril.

Pasi Salhberg is right, we need to prioritise wellbeing during the endless lockdowns many of us are enduring. But this message is only partially right, because wellbeing isn’t just what’s important ‘right now’, it should always be the most important thing in learning. Unfortunately, our schooling systems have never understood this. In fact, mass schooling systems have their roots in nation-building imperatives that had, and continue to have, little to do with individual flourishing.

You only have to listen to politicians crooning about NAPLAN results improving during lockdown to know what’s important to our leaders. There is a relentless focus on student achievement rather than wellbeing. Luckily though, not all educators think this way, probably not even many of them. Yet, we all seem to be caught in the groupthink of policy by the numbers in education, while anchored to industrial-era thinking about the role of education while lip service is paid to the young human beings effaced by the numbers.

Wellbeing has always been a lesser priority for policy-makers, rather than the core focus. They seem to love to talk like it’s important, but when it comes down to it, academic success, measured by numbers, is always first. Even the latest Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO), from the Department of Education and Training Education Victoria, bundles “whole school approach to health, wellbeing, inclusion and engagement” down the bottom of their list of eight pre-conditions for school improvement. It is quite literally at the end of the list, and oddly, what looks like wellbeing seems to be more about building the capacity of children to cope with the system rather than policy attempts at transforming it. 

What’s really odd is that for things that should be a race, like vaccination rates, politicians are inclined to think they’re not, and for things that shouldn’t be a race, like learning, they are only ever conceived as precisely that. No one is allowed to fall off the pace, lest, heaven forbid, the NAPLAN numbers turn sour, or the ‘Olympics’ of PISA ratings have us slipping down the medal tally. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in the last 40 years especially, we’ve turned our schooling system into an individualist zero-sum game of mass-produced insecurity. 

Politicians seem to be more interested in getting our kids vaccinated just to get them back in class, to get them back to their ATARs, and the schools back to their competition for academic achievement and climbing league tables. Yet, COVID-19 is a disaster that doesn’t seem to want to go away. Teachers have been reporting ‘shattering’ work pressure, and things aren’t letting up with so many still under lockdown. Mental health issues amongst our young has doubled during the pandemic. And, as has been pointed out, “children and young people can be particularly vulnerable to the emotional impact  of disasters and they look to the adults around them for reassurance and protection”. This isn’t going to be easy, when there are many adults who are barely coping themselves and seeking help in record numbers. 

Educators are well aware of the wellbeing issues that are on the rise. But they are caught between parent anxiety, the need for someone to keep the kids occupied while parents struggle with working from home, and the structures of schooling and assessment that are unrelenting in its focus. There are a number of ‘elephants in the room’, but parents’ longer term anxiety about their children’s futures can be eased by a fundamental restructuring of education away from the hyper-competition it has become. As some are already suggesting, it’s time to abandon the ATAR factory and start thinking about alternatives. We should have been doing this all along, but the ATAR ‘perfect score’ has long dominated the media imagination. If we can head off these obsessions, just maybe, wellbeing could then be front and centre ahead of other curriculum priorities rather than an afterthought. If we get wellbeing right, we just might find ourselves on the path to the optimal environment for learning rather than the hypercompetitive one that we have.

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.

How it feels to slay the dragon: handing in my PhD thesis

As I come to the end of my doctoral journey, having recently submitted my thesis, I have been asked a number of times by well-meaning friends and family about how it feels. I must confess that I have often wondered what it would feel like to finally ‘slay the dragon’ as my supervisor euphemistically put it. When I was finishing my Masters degree just a few years prior, it certainly felt a little like such a finality, much like the end of a relationship minus the tears and anguish. The conclusion of my Masters degree, for me at least, meant that the joy of writing, the creative thinking and the discussions that I had so valued had seemingly come to an end.

It is perhaps no surprise that it would only take a little prodding by one of my course coordinators that led me to abandon my sensible and permanent teaching position to pursue a doctorate. In retrospect, this reminds me of Steve Jobs salutary advice during a commencement speech at Stanford University, when he was reputed to have said, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. In Jobs’ reckoning, it was crucial to follow one’s heart and intuition if one desired to be truly successful. It was perhaps not so much pursuit of success that drove me, but an itch I couldn’t quite scratch. I am driven by the need to deeply understand my world and my place in it.

I was simply hungry to know more.

Almost four years have passed since that beginning. It has been a time to savour in many ways, not the least because of the manifold joys of intellectual pursuit just for the sake of it. It has been a luxury in this sense, but it has also been a time full of challenge and struggle. A time of personal growth and also a time of foolish abandon. Foolish because no sane person at the age of 43 with family-in-tow should ever reasonably contemplate fulltime study to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Even early on this foolishness was clear to me. I distinctly recall listening to a colleague who was also contemplating a PhD, but was pointedly pragmatic in wanting his work to be of ‘strategic’ value to his career. I am the type of person that likes to think they could eschew such pragmatisms. However, there is perhaps little profit in being otherwise, as conversations with seemingly vulnerable early-career and even more experienced academics have reminded me along the way. Even now, facing the job market again, perhaps I should have been more tactical at each and every turn, or at the very least more tactful.

I have perhaps been too provocative and even a little foolish.

When I first began this mischief of scholarly work, I stumbled across Lincoln and Denzin’s powerful argument that truly revolutionary work involved being brave enough to write ‘messy’ and ‘vulnerable’ texts that remained open to usurpation and openly conscious of its immanent contradictions. But as any well-seasoned academic would know, that’s simply not the point of the PhD. The discipline of the doctoral thesis necessarily effaces these slippages and ambivalences, which squeezes out the passionate voice of the neophyte idealist, insinuating instead the authorial voice of a freshly disciplined academic-in-waiting as sole conduit to the truths of our social reality. However, all is not so gloomy or final. It stands to reason that the disciplines of academic work cannot achieve full closure over all reckonings, or as Foucault suggests, a permanent provocation always remains.

Now that I have almost arrived at this so-called pinnacle of the academic journey (handing in my PhD thesis), it doesn’t feel much like an ending or even a pause. Nor does it feel like an achievement, where one simply needs to plant the flag atop the pile of rewrites, edits and the fragments of text that seemed to have swirled around in my head endlessly over these last years. Instead, the text that I wrote seems to have instead written me. I have not so much written a thesis, but become its product. In the end I did not so much write that messy and vulnerable text, but instead became myself what I intended for my work. I became that messy and vulnerable text. I can no longer leave behind this experience any more than I can leave behind my self. It is simply under my skin.

So where to now? And what have I learned, or what advice would I give? I have come to understand that one does not simply ‘pursue a doctorate’. I have learned that the task was not to slay some proverbial dragon or climb some lofty pinnacle. The task instead was to become; to become that messy and vulnerable thing I had hoped would carry my ideas. The task is to remain reflexively aware of one’s own contradictions and qualifiers, yet to also stay hopeful, hungry and foolishly curious about the world. This is a gift and a challenge in equal measures. Something I hope I can live up to in the years to come.

 

George Variyan is a doctoral student with Charles Sturt University working in the sociology of teaching, looking at teachers in elite private schools in Australia. George is also a Maths and Science teacher himself, and has worked in diverse school settings such as independent schools dealing with students at-risk, the elite private school sector as well as further afield in international schools. George currently lives in Perth with his young family, enjoying the warm climate and extended family nearby.

 

I was excited to be interviewed for a permanent lecturing job and then this happened

As a doctoral candidate coming to the end of my journey, the ever present need to find a job post studies is a challenging position to be in, as many before me can no doubt attest to. Talking to fellow participants at the 2017 Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference it would seem that insecure work arrangements and opportunism is the only pathway to the ultimate role of a tenured position lecturing. Nevertheless I was filled with quite a bit of excitement at my good fortune last week when I secured a job interview for a permanent lecturing position – a bit of foraging for a job certainly seemed fruitful.

The interview proceeded with the usual back and forth about practice, my experiences and perspectives on educational issues. I was suitably charming and energetic, while the panel played their role in the to and fro of interviewing that we all have had to perform at one time or another. However, when it got to my turn to ask questions, I simply wanted to ask, as any keen AARE conference attendee would want to, about the research component of the position. Curiously, I was told that there was no research role whatsoever.

Considering I had been just asked about how I stayed up to date as an educator, to which I had replied that it was research and links with the academy that gave me a broader perspective on my practice, I wonder how a ‘teaching focussed’ academic is expected to stay abreast of developments in the field if they aren’t ‘in the field’ themselves. I also wonder why early career researchers would take these roles on other than out of desperation, underpaid as they are considering a standard teaching position in a school would offer me $15,000 more than a starting academic. Perhaps more importantly my question is why would incumbent academics actively position their future co-workers in these less than agreeable roles? Not only less agreeable, but I would argue that these role definitions imply, one would think, that research doesn’t matter. One would think this would be anathema to the spirit of the academy itself and importance of research to academic teaching.

In the spirit of the conference (Education: What’s politics got to do with it?) and in sight of the wider unrest of the current moment in Australian politics here in Canberra, one surely has to ask the question, how are we as intellectuals, or at least in my case a ‘wannabe’ intellectual, becoming complicit in our own demise? When do we speak truth to power instead of just writing about it? When do we stay the pen and pick up the pitchfork?

 

George Variyan is a doctoral student with Charles Sturt University working in the sociology of teaching, looking at teachers in elite private schools in Australia. George is also a Maths and Science teacher himself, and has worked in diverse school settings such as independent schools dealing with students at-risk, the elite private school sector as well as further afield in international schools. George currently lives in Perth with his young family, enjoying the warm climate and extended family nearby.

 

 

George is one of the hundreds of educational researchers who attended the 2017 AARE Conference in Canberra all this week.

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