Frederik Herman

“New things faded while good things endured”: Primary school teachers’ reflections on the changing material landscapes of education

Educational systems and organisations have always been subject to all kinds of reform initiatives; these innovations were often instigated by societal challenges (e.g. industrialisation, migration), shaped by ideological and political agendas and inspired by techno-mechanical and scientific evolutions. By the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century – a period of tremendous industrial expansion in an increasingly ‘globalising’ world – the rationalisation and standardisation of educational organisations gathered speed and were further pushed forward during the twentieth century, not least by the developing sciences such as psychology, labour sciences and educational sciences. It was believed that objective research-based methods (measuring, quantifying and comparing) would allow changing education for the better. A “hectoring machismo” of school improvement and “delivery” gradually came to flourish (Fielding, as cited in Burke & Grosvenor, 2015, p. ix). This canon of progress, spread by all kinds of experts in education, was picked up by (local) governments and became the backbone for their education policies. The ever-growing body of instructional research further fuelled the need for permanent (radical) change and urged governments to re-examine their policies time and again and to pressure schools constantly to adopt the ‘best’ pedagogical methodologies, the ‘newest’ educational approaches, the ‘most modern’ educational tools and technologies.

Given these tendencies, David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1995) proclaimed the last century one of “public school reform”, while simultaneously referring to the failure of many of these reforms. The ‘clock of school reform’ clearly ticked differently for policy-makers, administrators and practitioners (Cuban, 1995), and some of the top-down innovations alienated practitioners bit by bit from their local traditions, informal folkways and cultural roots and as such were rejected by existing school cultures or were moulded until they fitted into the existing structures. Over the course of the last two decades, the theory of the ‘grammar of schooling’ has very much taken root in our discipline (see Depaepe et al., 2000, 2008; Fend, 2007; Deal & Peterson, 2009; Herman, 2010). Ironically enough, in its battle against the supra-historical idea of progress, this kind of historicism risks putting in place a new supra-historical idea of continuity, overlooking discontinuities and ruptures (Herman, 2010, p. 158). This conceals the risk that school culture is identified with and understood as rigid and thus reduced to a passive, conservative ‘sameness’ displaying little if any willingness to change (ibid.). I would like to argue in favour of a more nuanced approach – a cultural approach that maps the rich variety of classroom and school life and provides us with ‘thick descriptions’ of what actually went on in the classrooms and schools.

This paper tries to do so by writing and analysing ‘biographies of different classrooms’.[1] More concretely, it considers whether and how the “hardware” and “software” of different classrooms have changed during the career of nine primary school teachers in Flanders between 1960 and 2015 (Lawn, 1999, pp. 77-78). The paper thus seeks (1) to gain insight into the developing ‘materialities of schooling’ (material and architectural structures such as spaces, walls, furniture, tools, arrangements or settings), (2) to map the working procedures and teaching/learning processes that occurred in these changing landscapes of education, and (3) to reveal how the educational praxis changed in relation to the material structure of the classroom. Furthermore, it aims to (4) identify catalysts and barriers of change (e.g. social, economic, ideological and technological factors) which initiated, reinforced, obstructed or altered behavioural changes and/or material, infrastructural, architectural modifications. These general themes are translated into a number of concrete sub-questions such as: How did teachers respond to the introduction of new material objects such as new furniture or new teaching tools? How did teachers deal with new regulations, and how did they translate (materially, spatially, behaviourally) the imposed directives into their everyday practice?

To this end, nine in-depth interviews were conducted in Flanders (Belgium) with primary school teachers having at least twenty-five years of teaching experience. They were asked beforehand to recall how their classroom(s) have changed over time, to sketch annotated floor plans of the different situations, and to collect documentary sources (such as photographs and pupils’ drawings) which could also serve as memory triggers and touchstones for the oral testimonies. During the actual interviews, the teachers were asked to speak freely about the changes in classroom “hardware” and “software” they remembered and to draw these material, architectural, organisational and behavioural changes on a big floor plan. These illustrations, the transcriptions of their oral explanations, and other data sources were combined and analysed thematically. This yielded nine evolutionary classroom plans and several distinct classroom life stories, which shed light on the symbiosis and changes within the biotope of the classroom and provide us with thick descriptions of the school and classroom cultures, all of which helps us better understand why certain practices ‘faded’ or ‘endured’ (Lehmann & Chase, 2015, p. 23).

Frederik Herman is a research associate at the Institute of Education and Society (InES) at the University of Luxembourg. His research interests and publications are in the field of history of education, with a strong emphasis on (material) school culture and cultural learning/literacy and associated processes of heritage making, identity construction and community/nation building. He is presently preparing a special issue for Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education entitled ‘Adventures in Cultural Learning’, co-edited with Sian Roberts. His other research work concerns the socio-material entanglements of bodies, objects and spaces within classrooms (primary education) and workshops (vocational training). He is a member of the editorial board of the journal Espacio, Tiempo y Educación.