Professional Conversations: Resilient Education Discourses and Teacher Positioning Through a Wittgensteinian Lens
Alford, Leslie Maurice
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In this thesis I examine teacher collegial conversations through the lens of Wittgenstein's philosophy of language that locates individual thinking and meaning-making in social agreement. My focus is on the connectedness of individuals, and on professional conversations as positioning the participants in the discursive fabric of the teacher community. The theoretical basis for this thesis locates teacher beliefs, values and practice in community understandings and agreements, where language is an evolving social construction continually being adapted to the context, and where meaning in dialogue is dynamically co-constructed within a discursive framework of beliefs and ideas. The research questions I explore in the study ask what perspectives the construct of community provides on teacher practice and education policy; what effects collegial conversations have on teacher positioning; and how such conversations reveal the prevailing discourses of schooling. These questions challenge both the assumption that teachers are independent agents, and the idea that existing discourses can be displaced with the adoption of new policy settings. In my analysis of the conversation excerpts I focus on three related aspects. Firstly, the notion of being, individuality constructed within community, is used to highlight both atomistic understandings and social connectedness. My second focus is the issue of fairness, examining individual privilege and social equity in the provision of schooling. The third is the cultural context, exploring how tikanga Māori might enhance Pākehā perspectives. In describing and analysing the language dynamics of the interactions I uncover how the participants influence each other. What is revealed is an inducement to conform to community norms, including developmental models and beliefs about the impact of early experiences in shaping teacher practice. Discourses of personal responsibility, a cornerstone of economic rationalism, are deeply embedded, positioning teachers as individually accountable and at the same time opening a space for resistance to external pressures on the basis of professional experience. Shared reflections reveal that traditions of schooling are long-lasting, with progressive education discourses continuing to influence teachers in support of social integration and equity even as ideas of deservingness continue to promote competition. Education policy changes and professional learning offerings for teachers can fail to change teacher practice or perspectives: the prevailing discourses of schooling retain their influence because they are constantly reinvigorated by the interactions between individuals within the teacher community. Teachers do not work in isolation from their peers, just as schools are not autarkic institutions. Addressing the current and projected challenges for secondary education requires acknowledging connectedness between individuals, departments, and schools and their collective influence on each other. Therefore, labelling any of these as 'failures' is in effect an indictment of the values and beliefs that infuse the education system as a whole. This thesis is based on the conviction that schools serve a social purpose as they instil community values, and that teachers are participants in that mechanism. If?it serves to draw attention towards collaboration and a view of co-constructed realities, then it will have communicated what I have learned in the process of writing it. I hope my colleagues in the teacher community find something of themselves in the dialogues, and that the participants recognise the value of the contributions they've made to this work.