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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004

Supervision of learning: The new panopticon

by Pat Clarke

Panopticon: A building in which a lone guard can supervise a large number of prisoners (or workers) without their knowing they are being observed at a given time.

Panopticon, if you look that word up in a standard dictionary such as the Gage Canadian, you won’t find it. That is probably because it is a word so old and so seldom used that it has entirely fallen from even occasional usage. But in keeping with our so-called education leaders’ rushing headlong into making every discredited, unproved, and generally dubious neo-conservative fad a part of the foundation of our public education system, we teachers are about to be placed in a metaphoric panopticon.

The panopticon was an idea of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the early 19th century. He believed schools could be well served by the same principle of supervision as that offered from the panopticon, that is, "constant and universal inspection."

Bentham went on to describe an approach to education that fixated on standards, information gathering, and recordkeeping. These were to be monitored by a system of "hierarchical observation" and "normalizing judgment." He coined these terms and the panopticon concept in 1816, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Isn’t it remarkable that while all of the most nefarious features of that time, child labour (except for B.C.), company stores, and indentured labour have been assigned to history’s dust bin, the language and mechanisms of hierarchical control still have credibility in some places. Some people still believe those things work, and, astonishingly enough, a good number of those people live here and work as administrators and bureaucrats in the B.C. public school system.

Our evidence that this vestige of the Industrial Revolution has found a home here in B.C. is coyly named the "Supervision for Learning" project currently being shopped around the province by a team from the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association funded by a grant from the Ministry of Education. It is, metaphorically speaking, a panopticon, an instrument for surveillance.

There is an important difference, however, between the blunt instruments of the Industrial Revolution and the modern-day mechanisms of control with which our education leaders are so besotted. In our times, we have what is known as manufactured consent. Under a shroud of marketing babble, just the right turns of phrase, those being controlled, in this case teachers, become convinced that they actually have some status in the whole scheme. So the control of our professional lives that naturally follows from industrial-style supervision is made palatable by compelling descriptors like "a spirit of inquiry" and "reflective dialogue." We are not ordered to comply, but our consent is managed, and we become unwitting victims of management by slogan.

The challenge for us is that the slogans are beguiling. At first glance, the Supervision of Learning project has a certain appeal. It looks as if it could be a genuine effort to support us in our ongoing interest in improving our teaching. There are, for example, references to giving teachers opportunities to "dialogue about teaching and learning." The problem is that the velvet glove of a professed interest in supporting teachers has iron digits poking out. Those digits point away from supporting teachers and toward surveillance and evaluation.

A closer reading of the documents being used in promoting the project reveals that the authors’ idea of supervision of learning is really about intimidating teachers into supporting an accountability strait jacket that has more to do with administrative empire building than improving student learning. A great deal of the language reveals a deep distrust of teachers and an attitude that sees teachers as widgets to be fixed rather than professionals to be supported. Some examples: "the spectre of teacher autonomy is in decline," "supervision is a part of the accountability framework and now someone is minding the store again," and perhaps most demeaning of all, "by focusing on learning and results teachers have been forced to come to terms with the fact they are not self employed."

Spirit of inquiry? Reflective dialogue? This conveys the mind set of a small plant middle manager not a so-called education leader. The plant-manager mentality is further revealed in one of the practices the principals’ road show is promoting. It is called the five-minute walk or walkabout. (Perhaps small plant manager is the wrong comparison, how about Prince Philip?) The apparent purpose of the five-minute walkabout is to reveal "a strategic plan of scheduled observation of student learning" and to make "regular purposeful visits to classrooms to gather explicit data on learning and teaching." In five minutes? Why not just settle for checking out the room temperature and the state of the waste baskets. This is not about supporting teachers; it is about hierarchical observation and managing minutia.

The BCTF has for more than 15 years had a Program for Quality Teaching. It is a teacher-developed, collegial approach to improving teaching. It recognizes that practising teachers are more than able to identify issues and problems in teaching and work together to resolve them, supporting one another in the process. Two years ago, ministry officials and representatives of the principals and vice-principals’ association wanted to discuss with us the whole matter of improving teaching. We offered the Program for Quality Teaching. They went away and never came back. Some months later, they launched Supervision of Learning. It is clear that they never were interested in improving teaching—only in coming up with a surveillance instrument that would grease the wheels of the accountability pie wagon.

The Supervision of Learning project is a regressive, unnecessary, and unhelpful nuisance. It will not improve teaching any more than any other of the many poorly planned, autocratically implemented fix-the-teacher schemes. The modern language of "dialogue," and "rich and deep discussions on teaching and learning" cannot mask the fact that this is regurgitated pablum. Any project that is so blatantly committed to control more than support is doomed to fail. It won’t work because most teachers won’t let it work and we won’t let it work, because it won’t help us with the two really important questions: Why should we teach this? and What is the best way to teach this child? So go ahead and mind the store. We have something more important to do.

Pat Clarke is director of the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.