George Variyan

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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