13 SES 05 A, Political Expediency, social control, and the affective dimension of knowledge
The typical adolescent student experience is marked by intense emotional turbulence linked to academic and social pressures that can impact heavily on their self-confidence and sense of wellbeing. These feelings may be mitigated by supportive relationships with teachers and friends or alternatively, find expression in conflict and the need to challenge authority. Psychoanalytic writers describe this as a ‘bothered’ experience (Britzman, 2015), reminding us of the intensity of character formation in the adolescent phase. Anna Freud (1969, p.143) described the emotional state of adolescence as: ‘the height of elation or depth of despair, the quickly rising enthusiasm, the utter hopelessness, the burning – or at times sterile – intellectual and philosophical preoccupations, the yearning for freedom, the sense of loneliness, the feeling of oppression by the parents, the impotent rages or active hates directed against the adult world’. This paper contends that current English education policies such as ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘off-rolling’ of students owe more to political expediency and societal demands than to understanding and educational practice that enhances the wellbeing of adolescent children.
For example, the prescriptions for discipline and behaviour in English schools enshrined in recent education policies and frameworks for school inspection (Ofsted, 2019) have contributed to what the House of Commons Education Committee (EC, 2018) referred to as the ‘scandal’ of increasing exclusions of school students, first from the classroom, then from the school. The first phenomenon is the increasing use of ‘isolation booths’, confined spaces where children are placed in isolation for long periods of the school day for consecutive days. The second refers to a policy of exclusion, popularly referred to as ‘off-rolling’, whereby the child is permanently excluded from their school and must wait for reallocation to another school. The EC (2018) has expressed growing concern that almost 20,000 students had not been reallocated to another school and become lost in the system in 2017. Research on school exclusions has identified a direct link to widespread student failure to gain academic qualifications leading to future unemployment, poverty, ill-health and crime (Gill, 2017). These phenomena represent the tip of an iceberg of widespread adolescent unhappiness, as evidenced for example by the UK’s fifteen-year-olds reporting the lowest levels of life satisfaction compared to students in other European countries (The Children’s Society 2020).
This paper explores the ideas of Merleau-Ponty found in his Lectures on Child Psychology and Pedagogy to focus on two questions:
1. Which sources of ‘knowledge’ underpinning the dominant approaches to teaching adolescent students in the English education system contributed to the current crisis?
2. How can teachers draw on psychoanalytic and philosophical understandings of the complexities of ‘adolescence’ to develop more humane pedagogies?
Merleau-Ponty’s Lectures on Child Psychology and Pedagogy, delivered between 1949 and 1952, foreground his phenomenological theses of intersubjectivity, embodiment and ambivalence, in alignment with much of psychoanalytic thinking prevalent at the time. Similar to the psychoanalyst, the teacher effects change in her students: ‘the teacher modifies the subject’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2010, p.69). Therefore, faced with a classroom of adolescents, the teacher needs to remember that, at the same time as learning different school subjects, her students are also living through the process of individuation. This process is characterised by the physical changes of puberty and ‘psychic disruptions’, conflicts, ambivalence (Waddell, 2018; Blos, 1967). Adolescents’ expressions of non-compliance to adult authority (Fromm, 1949) may be manifesting both ‘awkward’ oppositional adolescent behaviour and the growing capability to think for themselves.
To address the two questions above, this paper will examine recent UK government education policies as part of a ‘genre chain’ (Fairclough, 2003), a network of texts linking together different prescriptions for school practice, in this case connecting national, international and local policy texts which promote political expediency and social control over pedagogical concerns. The analysis will focus on the connections between the English framework for school inspection (Ofsted, 2019), individual school policies and the expectations of adolescent students contained in international policy recommendations (OECD 2015). A case in point is the widespread application of the UK government’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach by ‘academy schools’ which operate a scale of punishment for bad behaviour based on an escalation of sanctions against non-compliant students. Sanctions can be escalated from ‘prior to formal consequences’ to a ‘system’ that includes: detention, being sent to a ‘Reflection Room’ (an ‘isolation booth’), temporary suspension and finally ‘permanent’ exclusion. To support the ‘consequences system’, students are presented with a hierarchy of recommended personal goals which have little in common with the lived experience of adolescence: • I want to avoid appearing on the consequences board, getting detention, being in the Reflection Room, and being caught doing wrong • I want to get praised for doing the right thing • I want adults to always think positively of me • I want to have a great future • It’s who I am (Outwood Grange Academies Trust, 2020, p.3) The antecedents of this kind of thinking can be found in the United States (Saltman, 2016), as well as in the guidance by the OECD (2017). For example, according to the OECD (2017, pp.8-9) students’ ‘well-being, connectedness and success’ is predicated on such behaviours and skills as ‘getting along with people’, being ‘always busy; work[ing] long hours’ and striving to reach a ‘high level of mastery’ in all their activities. This paper will juxtapose this prescriptive, ‘authoritarian’ approach underpinned by the paradigm of a hard-working, compliant workforce, with person-centred approaches that foreground emotional wellbeing and call teachers to support students in working through the conflicts of adolescence with sensitivity and care.
This paper will suggest educational responses that counter the damaging consequences of the prescriptive, ‘authoritarian’ approaches to educating adolescent students. Firstly, based on the work of Merleau-Ponty (2010) and others, the paper will summarise the key challenges arising from the process of individuation that adolescent students bring into the secondary classroom. To support this process with sensitivity and care, the teacher needs to carefully balance actively directing her students with respecting their experience and trying to understand the challenges they face. Secondly, given the ‘genre chain’ (Fairclough, 2003) of prescriptive, ‘authoritarian’ policies, teachers need to approach with caution the recommended policies and practices that set rigid expectations of ‘Who I am’, prescribe excessive sanctions and exclude students who do not fit within the mould. Emotional and mental maturation is not so much about compliance or ‘mastering’ ambivalent relationships with others but ‘an increase of capacity to bear reality and a decrease in the obstructive force of illusions’ (Bion 1963: 51). The process of individuation involves the discomfort of integrating the less successful aspects of one’s personality rather than suppressing them in order to gain the praise of adults or avoid sanctions. Ultimately, the psychoanalytically-inspired insights offered by Merleau-Ponty (2010), Freud (1969), Fromm (1949) and Bion (1963) point to pedagogical responses that are not just based on objective social science constructs and privileged adult understandings. Pedagogy is a complex phenomenon which requires of teachers to respond to the students in their classroom with sensitivity and care, underpinned by the recognition that the outcomes of teachers’ actions are uncertain and emerge in the students’ responses.
Bion, W. 1963. Elements of psychoanalysis. London: Heinemann. Blos, P. 1967. The Second Individuation Process of Adolescence, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 27: 162-186. Britzman, D.P. 2015. A Psychoanalyst in the Classroom: On the Human Condition of Education. Albany: State University of New York Press. Fairclough, N. 2003. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge. Freud, A. 1935. Psychoanalysis for Teachers and Parents. Boston: Emerson Books, Inc. Freud, A. 1969. ‘Adolescence.’ In The Writings of Anna Freud: Research at the Hampstead Child- Therapy Clinic, and other papers 1956-1965. (Vol. 5), pp.136-166. New York: International Universities Press, Inc. Fromm, E. 1949. Man for Himself: An Enquiry into the Psychology of Ethics. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. Gill, K. 2017. Making the Difference: Breaking the link between school exclusion and social exclusion. London: IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research). Available at: https://www.ippr.org/publications/making-the-difference. House of Commons Education Committee. 2018. Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions. London: House of Commons. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmeduc/342/34202.htm. Merleau-Ponty, M. 2010. Child Psychology and Pedagogy: The Sorbonne Lectures 1949-1952. (trans. T. Welsh). Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press. OECD. 2017. Social and Emotional Skills: Well-being, connectedness and success. Paris: OECD. Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education). 2019. School Inspection Handbook. Manchester: Crown copyright. Outwood Grange Academies Trust. 2020. Behaviour Policy. Available at: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b3cc2548f5130df897ee8b8/t/5edf6cdb0706ce30d2a9e348/1591700700129/Behaviour+Policy+Final+Version+V2.pdf. Saltman, K.J. 2016. Corporate schooling meets corporate media: Standards, testing and Technophilia, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 38(2): 105-123. The Children’s Society. 2020. The Good Childhood Report 2020. Available at: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/resources-and-publications/good-childhood- report-2020. Waddell, M. 2018. On Adolescence: Inside Stories. Abingdon: Routledge.
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