An Interview with Jill Blackmore on space, learning, feminism and the politics of education

Jill Blackmore is Professor of Education and former Director of the Centre for Research in Educational Futures and Innovation at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia.

She has published widely in education and sociology with a longstanding interest in issues of equity, feminism, teachers’ work and classroom practice. Recently she has led teams studying school learning environments leading to an extremely useful literature review, Research into the connection between built learning spaces and student outcomes (PDF, 3MB) as well as the Innovative Learning Environments Research Study (PDF, 1MB) (See also Jill also advises the OECD on their Learning Environments Evaluation Programme.

This interview crosses a lot of ground – from her recent work exploring teachers’ use of space to her own teaching in Victoria schools in the 1970s, feminism, the realities of doing research, and recent challenges to an equitable educational entitlement. The interview took place in May 2016 following a talk organised by Dr Ruth McGinity and Professor Helen Gunter at Manchester University where Jill spoke about her recent research on space, pedagogy and teachers.

Thank you for your talk earlier, Jill. Such a close focus on teachers’ work in and with space is vital but sometimes overlooked. When teachers are training in Australia, is an explicit focus on space part of their mandatory courses?

No, there’s nothing at all about the spatial aspects of teaching – what I call spatialised pedagogies. I think they are becoming more recognised because of this sudden surge of interest cross-nationally around the notion of the 21st century learner. That and a sudden realisation that during the 1980s and 90s there was a lack of investment in school buildings due to privatisation, a lack of public funds and a more competitive situation in most Anglophone countries. But this real increase in interest is also happening across Italy, Mexico and where there’s been natural disasters such as New Zealand and Japan.

As I said, it’s closely connected to the notion of the 21st century learner who they believe has to be able to work in teams, in groups… There’s interdisciplinarity, intercultural competences, critical thinking skills, being flexible and being able to work and learn in different ways.

The argument is that we need new types of curricula which reflect many of these issues and that this can’t be done in a classroom with desks in rows. That’s the background but there’s a lot of different things happening at the same time. In Australia, for example, with the Building the Education Revolution now that was an economic move, it was nothing to do with education really, it was to keep our economy going and it did. $6.7 billion dollars helped reduce the impact of the economic crisis in 2007 as well as provide new buildings to both public and private schools.

It’s interesting that a focus on young people and their educational spaces has come about for such different reasons – in that case economics, in others natural disasters – education can be incidental…

There’s a global policy forum so an opportunity is seized for a variety of reasons. The OECD has been working on this for some time and I’m involved with this project looking at innovative learning environments. They been looking at this since the mid-1990s and the OECD is very powerful, informing what governments think and they’ve been promoting the whole stuff about the 21st century learner and what constitutes an innovative learning environment.

Their work in learning environments and school buildings comes together in a project I’m doing with the OECD called LEEP (Learning Environments Education Programme). It’s about trying to link school improvement and the process of that with space.

Can I just ask – when we’re talking about school improvement, we’re talking presumably about some kind of outputs that they’re interested in measuring? What are they?

Well, there’s school improvement and effectiveness literature and they are the mainstream. They are the things that inform all kinds of policy, they are the paradigm, the dominant, global paradigm in education research. I do think the notion of continuous improvement is ridiculous but we do obviously want to improve what we do in schools.

Now those of us who come from a critical perspective might say ‘Of course we want things to get better, but we’d do it through much more participatory action research and teacher knowledge’, in that way, rather than the imposition of pre-specified outcomes and outputs. This is what we now call the Transnational Leadership Package which we study in a Routledge series of books drawing on critical perspectives on educational leadership that Helen Gunter (2014), Pat Thomson (2016) and I (Blackmore 2016) have written with others. So we have a different way of thinking about what to do in schools and how to make things better for teachers and students which address context and the situatedness of ethical practices of leadership.

Within that paradigm, how do you negotiate your space to be able to say, ‘Hold on, things need to be thought of broadly here…’? How do you do that?

As academics? Well, for example, Pat Thomson’s done a fantastic project on creative partnerships and done fantastic work too in arts education and space in the arts. Helen does it through critical analysis of what’s going on policy-wise, I’ve done it through getting involved with things I really don’t like.

Such as?

Well, the notion of effectiveness as used in the OECD LEEP project is in some forms is totally contrary to what I believe. But being involved it gives me the opportunity to sit down and talk to 23 countries, to talk to people about how to think about this differently in ways that address complexity and context. I’ve done this three or four times now and the framework we developed out of the Innovative Learning Environment in Victoria project which I talked about earlier informed the LEEP project.

It’s an opportunity to actually inform the people who do the work on the ground, to say ‘There’s a different way of viewing the world and this is the way to go.’ So I see that as an opportunity with some costs too. Systems have to make decisions and the reality of life is that systems of schooling have to do the best with what they know. So I see my role is to broaden their understanding.

Ok, so things spin off from what you do?

Yes. I think people see we have to put teachers first, get teachers to think about their practice, give them opportunities, give them support. They’ll change their practice if they understand the warrant, the reasons why they need to change it. Most of the time. Sometimes it’s too hard but most of them will try. And you’ve got to give them the opportunity – the current system doesn’t give any teacher any opportunity at all to do anything. We’re not in the straight jacket quite so much in Australia but here in England it’s devastating.

So making sure that the people who are in the buildings, using the spaces in their teaching – they need to be connected more closely to what policy-makers do and those doing the more arm’s length, big systems work?

Well one of the notions that Pat Thomson and I use is ‘redesign’ which came out of the New London Group and Multiliteracies. The notion of redesign implies that, as practitioners, there’s no such thing as innovation in the sense of experimenting, bringing it into a technical manual and then you just do it. With redesign in education we’re trying to change the very thing that we have to keep on going and maintain. In a sense you’re trying to rebuild the plane as it’s flying – you can’t stop it at any time because you’re constantly having to meet certain outcomes at the very time you’re trying to change practice. It’s really hard for teachers to balance that. So it is how teachers try to manage that constant tension, to do the things that they think will really make a difference to their kids and still keep things going. We talk about the various elements of redesign: the aesthetic, the cultural, the spatial, the emotional and affective as well as all the other dimensions that school improvement always talks about.

So you seem committed to recognising the complexity of this…

Because that’s how it is – it is complex.

Of course, but this is a problem isn’t it when people want simple solutions?

Yes, simple solutions to complex problems and they just don’t exist.

Has this always been a problem?

It’s always been a problem except there hasn’t always been the research around to point it out. And I do think that things are far more complex than they’ve ever been before. The digital revolution is changing the relationship between the individual and society and education – radically.

On top of that you’ve got neoliberal policies permeating every aspect of our lives, making promises that can’t be fulfilled and so you’ve got education unable to fulfil its promise of social mobility for anybody anymore. Middle class anxieties are now blossoming in every country with the internationalisation of education and a rising middle class in China and India who seek comparative advantage for their kids. In Australia you’ve got increases in private schooling because people think they can buy their way into a good career but even that’s not necessarily happening anymore. And education itself is now under threat because it cannot fulfil its promise. University education can no longer fulfil the old promise – you get a good degree, you get a good job…

A promise made by earlier generations…

We made the promise! We believed in education and we got it! Our generation is the only one that has really achieved those benefits.

I’d like to move then to this more personal side of things if that’s ok. Do your experiences of school shape what you think of school now? How?

Well I’m from a family of teachers, my mother was the first female principal of a coeducational school, she helped to get equal pay for women teachers, she was active in the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association. My dad was a teacher and my brother, my partners…!

I joke about my vintage but I think education was our religion, it really was. For the baby boomers it was a religion – we saw feminism, we saw a capacity for social change, to change the world, we educated women. Well, where are we now? Education’s totally feminised and it hasn’t changed the world at all because it’s moved on, it’s moved out of education to somewhere else. Educapitalism at a global level basically!

But yes, I was educated in a government secondary school where and when only 8-10% went on to university and we were in hugely crowded classes: 40 or 50 in one higher certificate Maths class with a first year teacher who was teaching Maths and Science had failed these subjects at second year University because they didn’t have enough trained teachers then. So the union goes into action. In the 60s and 70s it was the teachers’ union promoting the registration of teachers.

The union was doing that?

Oh yes, it was the union we would look to for ideas about curriculum. In the 70s there was a real blossoming of increasingly interesting ideas. We chose to do General Studies, much of which is what they talk about in 21st Century Learning. That’s what we were doing then – we knocked down the walls of classrooms, we built outdoor classrooms, we had group work, we had teams of teachers working together so none of that was new to us, it just wasn’t out there in the literature – we just knew it was a good thing to do. And we read. We read Illich, we read the Little Red Book and of course we read feminist literature. It was a time of blossoming, a time of fantastic activism, a time of feminism…

And you weren’t constrained by assessment systems?

We had school assessment, we had exams. The union threatened to boycott the Year 12 exam because it reproduced inequality. I was president of the Staff Association and Union Branch in the particular school where I was teaching – there was so much going on. After my first year teaching I was thrown into a role of looking after 200 students. I was a careers advisor, I’d take them to the doctor’s around the corner when they got pregnant – we did everything! I was in charge of a mini school by the end of my first year of teaching.

It sounds like your vision of education as complex is directly because of your experience?

Well it was complicated. In Victoria we had an interesting case. My first published academic paper was written about it: school-based decision-making. The unions were quite powerful so we got rid of inspections, we had committees in schools to help principals make decisions, we had an agreement with the unions that every school would have an equal opportunities person and there was someone to promote gender equity for girls. I remember bringing action research into the school. In Australia then you had a very critical edge and that was developing particularly in Deakin University. You had a women’s movement – our first female premier in Victoria came out of the women’s movement – you had a strong parents’ movement. I’ve written about that and now what I’m writing about is much more corporate managerialism. I look at it now and think those 20 years were an aberration, those 20 years teaching and being an activist feminist academic.

And in terms of space – learning spaces – in the 70s?

Well we made a case then for why we needed a big space in General Studies, we needed flexibility, we needed the capacity to move the tables around. We’d do drama so we needed to change things – we don’t have that now. We’ve got technology, we’ve got computers now but…

Sorry, you mentioned flexibility there and one of the things that I find most difficult things in reading about learning spaces in academic literature and outside it, is the incredible lack of ‘What are we talking about here?’ Is your flexibility the same as mine? So a real lack of preciseness about these terms.

Yes, is it flexibility about the space? Is it flexibility about the furniture? Is it multi-purpose-ness? Or is it flexibility arising from the technologies being used? Is it flexibility about what you do?

Exactly. How do you conceive of it?

I see it as all of those things but each of them is different and they don’t necessarily converge. In the classroom, flexibility of furniture requires a whole lot of organisational things to be happening with the teaching – it does take more time. And it changes the temporality of everything. When you change the spatial dimensions you change temporality because often, ironically, you can’t have movement in the same way especially if you have really big spaces as some schools do – everyone has to know what everybody else is doing. In other words, there needs to be synchronicity between activities because of the noise that’s being made.

So it requires a huge amount of planning on the part of teachers and that requires dedicated time for teachers to plan. You can’t have, I think, good pedagogies in an open space without dedicated time for teachers to plan. And it changes if you go to block timetabling because you can’t have too much movement all the time. Time changes things. The divisions of time change according to the space: smaller slots, bigger blocks or the idea of time out.

To wrap up then. A café somewhere, and an architect and an educationalist sitting down together. What would you want them to talk about or what principles might guide their conversation?

Well this happens quite a lot, I do it a lot, and we normally agree on many things. But really they should be looking to come up with some key pedagogical principles of design. You then carry these basic principles of learning into what kind of spaces you need – it starts with pedagogy and works backwards to the space.

And that’s often the problem isn’t it, it happens the wrong way round… space is seen to be an agent of change…

Well space doesn’t do it. You’ve got to work with people and change their practices. There’s an interaction obviously but I would argue that there’s an interaction in any space, one that doesn’t have a particular purpose. But we have purposes. That’s the thing with education – there’s a purpose.



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