Beyond fear and loathing in the classroom: Participation, innovation and teaching like a pirate

JA at Vivid2Over the last few weeks I have delivered six keynote presentations looking at teaching in the contemporary university.


It all started when the amazing Michelle Williams organised an event at Vivid – an ideas, music and light festival that has become one of the real highlights on Sydney’s cultural calendar (see attached photo with the wonderful Institute for Culture and Society researcher and colleague, Ingrid Matthews).  The focus of the event was the ‘participatory revolution’ – how we are no longer passive consumers, but are now active participants in many of the processes (see my guest blog here…). For example, we are no longer simply satisfied to consumer the nightly news broadcasts, but want to participate. This has seen the rise of citizen journalism, community media and the active use of social media. This explains the popularity of television programs such as the ABC’s QandA – we do not just watch, but set the tone for debates.


This need for participation is particularly the case in education.

While I had never framed being an educator in Michelle’s terms of the ‘participatory revolution’, one of my underlying philosophies has been that students are not passive recipients of knowledge. If we treat students as empty vessels waiting to be filled by academic wisdom, then all that will happen is that they will learn a minimum amount to pass the exams and will be done.


If, however, students are treated as active learners that can take knowledge, develop it, enhance it and apply it to their experiences, then the spark of inquiry is ignited. What follows is active participation in the education journey.


In addition to Vivid, I have delivered various keynotes at James Cook University (launching the Teaching and Learning Week), spoke at the University of Western Sydney staff development conference, launched RMIT’s Inclusive Teaching and Assessment Practices Project (which the Teaching TomTom has an excellent blog about) and been a guest at Victoria University. I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by a community of scholars who have the same passion for education and share this underlying philosophy.


A number of the keynotes have been filmed and I will add links on to these pages when they become available.


Though each keynote has been tailored to ensure I meet the themes of the event, I tend to end with a slide focussing on how the changes in tertiary education are creating ‘Fear and Loathing’ in the classroom for many educators. Many see the traditional model as the ideal that needs to be protected (and in some ways reified).


My argument is that universities have often been seen as a site for the privileged few and the teaching methods have simply exasperated a sense of exclusion. I am excited about seeing universities being made available for many who would traditionally be excluded. This is a social justice project and should be embraced.


I have supported the federal government’s moves to open universities up – but such moves need to be resourced appropriately. To sacrifice university funding for secondary school education reform (or the Gonksi reforms) as the Gillard Government is currently proposing is like getting a new engine by selling off your gear box: you need both to promote excellence and economic prosperity in Australia after the mining boom.


This is not radical stuff: the retiring chief executive of CSL, Brian McNamee, one of Australia’s most successful corporate leaders has been publicly stating for quite some time.


Regardless of what happens funding wise, we as educators need to promote innovative and inclusive pedagogies encouraging students to see the world for what it is: something enchanting confronting many complex challenges – challenges that can only be solved be promoting an active, engaged and empowered citizenry.

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