Sunday, September 16, 2007

Noel Pearson's "radical centre" concept applied to education

Noel Pearson, The Urgent Quest for a Radical Political Centre:

Noel Pearson understands dialectics and has a philosophical perspective as well as a pragmatic position on aboriginal policy:
The "radical centre" in politics may be defined as the intense resolution of the tensions between opposing principles, a resolution that produces the synthesis of optimum policy. The radical centre is not to be found in simply splitting the difference between the stark and weak tensions from either side of popularly conceived discourse, but rather where the dialectical tension is most intense and the policy positions much closer than most people imagine.

We are prisoners of our metaphors: by thinking of realism/pragmatism and idealism as opposite ends of a two-dimensional plane, we see leaders inclining to one side or the other. Those who harbour ideals but who need to work within the parameters of real power (as opposed to simply cloaking lazy capitulation under the easy mantle of righteous impotence) end up splitting the difference somewhere between ideals and reality. This is called compromise. And it is all too often of a low denominator.

I prefer a pyramid metaphor of leadership, with one side being realism and the other idealism, and the quality of leadership dependent on how closely the two sides are brought together. The apex of leadership is the point where the two sides meet. The highest ideals in the affairs of humans on earth are realised when leadership strives to secure them through close attention to reality.

The best leadership occurs at the point of highest tension between ideals and reality ...

Hence, in Australia what is known as the "Right" promotes indigenous responsibility. What is known as the "Left" promotes indigenous rights. Usually, the "Right" and the "Left" righteously denounce each other. The "Left" (eg. the Greens) says that the Howard government is "callous', "brutal", "lacking compassion". The "Right" says to the "Left" - you are not facing reality, drug abuse, welfare dependency and child abuse in aboriginal communities are realities that simply have do be dealt with.

Read the whole Pearson article. For example:
When I decided that we could no longer go on without saying that our people held responsibilities as well as rights, it was not a repudiation of rights. It was just that all the talk, all the advocacy, all the analysis, all the leadership, and all the policy and politics was about rights. There was no talk about responsibility.
Pearson had to take up the indigenous responsibility agenda because no one else was doing it effectively. Now Pearson is accused of no longer supporting indigenous rights by those who don't understand his real position.

I support Pearson, for the first time in many years Australia now has a genuine insightful political leader, the real thing.

I'm also wondering if the general analytical approach from Pearson here could be more consciously and beneficially applied to other areas of discourse: education, OLPC, global warming, Iraq war etc.

What it presupposes is that the elements of good policy are already there on the stage and have been taken up in varying degrees in different mixes by established large political parties. And then by doing the hard work of dialectical analysis those bits and pieces can be put back together in such a way that perhaps can develop mass appeal.

Certainly, I can see that applies to education policy, to recycle something I said from the wellington grey physics curriculum reform debacle:
Science and maths education seems to be polarising between a back to basics movement and soft sociological reform, often ineffectual "discovery learning". I believe there is a third way, that traditional science education can be reformed and still remain real science. Student designed computer simulations using software such as Etoys / Squeak could play an important role here.
Summarising some of the issues:
  • watering down, diluting, trivializing science and maths curriculum
  • converting science / maths content into sociological content
  • using discovery or inquiry based learning as a substitute for hard facts
This time, I make a connection here between Pearson's dialectic of the radical centre and my analysis of the polarising between a back to basics movement (what the "Right" says) and soft sociological reform, often ineffectual "discovery learning" (what the "Left" says). Both sides are shouting past each other and no progress is being made.

The resolution of this problem comes about through Papert's concept of "hard fun" and Kay's identification of "non universals". First identify the important concepts and then find an engaging and realistic way to teach them to children.

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