Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Childism at the Tate

I sat waiting downstairs in the Tate Gallery whilst my friend deposited our coats in the cloakroom. A teacher was supervising a group of about 18 children between 8-9 years old. The children were standing in line wearing a uniform that identified them as private school children: green tartan pleated skirts and green Blazers. As I watched the teacher directed half of the children to move in single file up the escalator and I overheard the following, which was delivered in a loud, cross and authoritative voice with accompanying hand gesticulation.

Teacher to the first group who were already on the escalator:

What did I say?
Already you're not listening
WAIT at the top of the stairs

Turning to the second group

Next group (loud voice)
(Pointing) Go, GO!

I wrote what she said down so I could think about it. As a researcher interested in discourse I see this extract of dialogue between a teacher and her pupils as indicative of wider social and cultural processes at play. Power is being exercised here. The words and the authoritative tone of voice reveal the power relations between the teacher and the children. There is an asymmetrical distribution of the right to talk and to direct behaviour.

In the context of a public space, her voice has an audience apart from the children. The teacher is performing authority for other adults in the Tate gallery who might witness the event. It says, ‘I am a good teacher. I can manage the behaviour of these children’. The space is important to the children as well; they are expected to perform the role of ‘good pupil’ through listening to and following the teacher’s instructions.

The words of the teacher indicate expectation of compliance and obedience, but I also detect fear that they won't comply and cause public humiliation. Her words have to be seen in this context, she is not just directing the children and ensuring they are safe, she is also producing social relationships and social identities.

This interaction between a teacher and her pupils is a situation I am very familiar with. Her talk was 'teacher talk' and monologic in that her charges were not expected to respond verbally, but only to indicate by their movements their compliance. Teacher talk is a particular way of using language designed to position children as pupils. By calling it 'teacher-talk' I see it as an example of the kind of discursive practice that goes on in schools, a practice that most people who have been pupils in the UK (and almost certainly elsewhere) would recognise. It is an example of a strategic use of language to get the children to behave in certain kinds of ways. It is also ideological as it seeks to maintain accepted social structures and relations between teacher and pupils.

This kind of talk disturbs me. I see this discursive exercise of power as an example of childism. The teacher is exercising structural power that comes from the way society is organized. She possesses power in virtue of her place in a wider network of institutional power held by schools. And with this power comes an expectation that she will use it to effect social control of the children in her care. So the structural power of educational institutions controls the actions of teachers and the teacher in turn exercises power over the child.

When the teacher asks the question, ‘What did I say?’ we know it is rhetorical. No one is expected to answer, it is an assertion of her right to be listened to and obeyed. When she says, ‘Already you're not listening’ she implies her right to be listened to. She would be unlikely to say this to a group of adults. It is the teacher who has the right to be listened to and to be treated with respect because she is a teacher. I suspect that few adults overhearing this discursive event would find any problem with it. Our society’s conception of children’s social identity as subordinate to adults is so widespread as to be almost invisible; it is part of the social imagination. Unless we can change the social imagination with regard to adult and child an event such as this one passes as unremarkable or may even attract praise for its success in controlling and managing the children ­– here is a ‘good teacher’ in action.

A key instrument to change the social imagination is legislation. We know that changes in attitudes are possible, consider how attitudes towards women, people of colour, homosexuality, disability and many other things have changed in the last few decades. It is clear that legislation to outlaw discrimination has been a necessary lever to change the lives of many men and women, but it is not sufficient. The instrument of change we have with regard to children is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). The UNCRC is expected to be a catalyst for changes in the organisation and culture of schools that is expected to lead to social and cultural change in the relationship between adult and child. Over time we might expect to see profound differences in the social relations and professional identities of teachers and adults working with children. New discourse practices that reflect respect for the child and values its voice should become evident and the authoritarian and punitive disposition of our teacher in the Tate should disappear.

Such change will not happen unless we promote awareness of how current teacher/pupil discourse is a barrier to promoting children's rights. We need to raise critical awareness among teachers of how their current discourse practices impact on children's rights and seek to change them. Legislation alone is not enough.

This leads me to wonder, if we could change discourse practices between adults and children would it contribute to a change in their social relationship? Could such a change impact on adults’ beliefs and understanding of children and vice versa that could lead to a change in the wider social imagination of what is child?

What about the teacher in the Tate? I doubt she would see the relationship between discursive, social and cultural change that I have read into her words. My analysis seeks to uncover the function of her words and show its dissonance as we consider it in the context of the UNCRC. Is the teacher even aware of the changes in her discourse that is required if we are to take children's rights seriously?

The teacher is enacting a discourse that is part of the wider society’s processes of producing social life, social relationships and social identities. If this is to change, we need to pay greater attention to how we speak to each other and seek to find, rights-respecting ways of managing the relationships between adults and children.