Consultation is key

Increasingly, we’re told, we live in a surveillance society. Our purchases are monitored, our political activity is watched, our bank accounts and gas connections are linked to a universal identification number that is validated by biometrics, our traversal through shops and stations is recorded on video cameras, and our travels through the Internet are watched and often analyzed by both the state and commercial interests.

Not to speak of closed circuit television cameras that exist in many work environments.

Our cover story this time explores – admittedly briefly – the idea of school surveillance. It asks the question: what do teachers think about being watched? Does it lead to a sense of paranoia or does it make one more conscientious and accountable? Does it make teaching a performance rather than an intuitive and reflective practice? Does it shift the control of classroom conversation to those outside it? Does it give parents and school administrations undue and unnecessary authority over what is essentially a bilateral relationship between the teacher and the child? Or does it just provide a safety net for children who are too often victims of an uncaring system, and a tool of oversight for members of the teaching community who may step a bit too far from their role as caregivers?

Clearly, the questions are many, and the answers always complicated and incomplete.

The problem, really, is that these questions are rarely even debated before an action is taken. Teachers are almost never taken into confidence when such system-wide changes are implemented. So the installation of video cameras in the classroom becomes one more thing that they simply have to live with and adapt to, just like so much else in our school environment.

Video cameras – or any other form of monitoring – are double-edged, of course. Video footage can provide useful information for teachers looking to improve their classroom practice, and it can offer a view of the classroom that they may not have access to. It can be a deterrent to those who might abuse their power in the classroom, and a source of confidence for anxious parents. But whether it is viewed as a feedback mechanism for everyone in the system or an ever watchful eye of the administration depends largely on the wider climate in a school. When a change is implemented or introduced into a school after consultation with all stakeholders, it is likely to be taken on board with a higher level of acceptance. People may recognize both the advantages and the disadvantages and decide for themselves how to rearrange their practice around it.

In sum, the argument is not for or against any tool per se, but is about the ways in which such adoption decisions are made. As we have repeatedly emphasized in these pages, teachers are an important – even key – part of the education system, and any decision that affects the system must involve them and their ideas. Before, and not after it is made.