In my forthcoming book Teacher education reform as political theater: Policy dramas in global contexts, I analyze how in 2014 a small group of Russian reformers enacted teacher education modernization reform despite great opposition from educators and the public. Using rich ethnographic material, the book captures how the official story of improving education obscures a radical change in purposes of schooling, in constructions of teachers’ work, and in teacher education designs. Ultimately, despite the official rhetoric, modernization reforms normalize social inequality, introduce a conservative social change, and position Russian education at the service of global corporations.
“Masks and Guises” is the second chapter from this book and uses the concept of masks to analyze the Concept of Support for the Development of Pedagogical Education. Even though most educators believed it was designed by the Russian Ministry of Education (MOE), it was written by a small group of reformers (Anton Mikhailovich , Joseph Abramovich, Maksim Davydovich, Vadim Alekseyevich, Oleg Victorovich, and their colleagues), most of whom were affiliated with Lyutvino Economics University (LEU). This group prepared the initial text of the policy (the LEU version); subsequently, the MOE distributed a slightly modified version for public discussion.
 All personal and geographic names are pseudonyms to protect participants’ anonymity and confidentiality.
One way to view educational reform as political theater is from the perspective of theatrics of politics – or observing reformers’ proposals for educational change as a type of dramatic performances, in which reformers as actors (or even directors) attempt to create an illusionary world wrought with problems for which they allegedly identified solutions. Viewing educational reforms and policies from this perspective opens up opportunities for two ways of critically engaging with them. First, in theater, dramatic performances are based on the implicit assumption that they should communicate the truth, yet as theater-goers or spectators in general, we all know that this is not the case. In the theater of politics, however, this implicit assumption is often hard to navigate – we all suspect that politicians lie but are often uncertain about where to draw the line between truth and fiction. In proposing to view educational reform as political theater, I invite us all to start from the assumption that what is presented to us is fictions and then work our way through these fictions to separate that which can be plausible or worth more serious attention.
Second, it is worth remembering that in order to accomplish their intellectual and emotional purposes, dramatic performances utilize dramaturgical techniques that draw the audience in and allow them to experience events onstage in a particular way. Consider, for example, how light is used in theater. When an intense beam is focused on one character, that character is both seen and heard. Moreover, the character’s appearance is completely transformed to match director’s intentions for that character. Thus, what the audience sees is far from “the truth,” rather it is a construction that is intentionally set up to elicit a particular reaction from the audience. Apart from that, a focused beam of light also creates shadows – the areas of the stage that become invisible to the audience. The darkness that shrouds these areas conceals a lot of activity– stage crew might be changing sets or new characters step onstage but wait for their turn to step into the limelight. Yet again, this is all part of dramaturgical techniques deployed to elicit a particular response from the audience. This time it is the response of inattention: because those areas are covered by darkness, the audience most often ignores what is happening there. Consider how in policy debates some problems receive so much attention that it distorts our perception of the object that our attention is drawn to. The failure of public schools and university-based teacher education that politicians and reformers often bring up is a great example of such a distortion. Yet, the focused attention on these problems obscures how new actors enter policy conversations or grab a share of the teacher education market. In the field of teacher education policy, this becomes most clearly seen with the emergence of privately-run teacher academies or initial teacher preparation offered by corporate entities, such as Pearson. The growing role of non-profit and philanthropic organizations tied to the billionaire class in setting educational policy agendas in the US and internationally is similarly obscured by the intense focus on failing public institutions.
There are plenty of other examples of dramaturgical techniques that are applicable to educational policies and reforms. Some of those have already been explored in political science and in educational policy. A reasonable question to ask here is what we as educators, researchers, and citizens can do about this theatricality of politics.
Theater studies provide us with another way to approach political theater and suggest a possible answer to the question of what can be done about theatricality of politics. Throughout the twentieth century, there have been multiple efforts to reform theater and create a new form of aesthetics. Among many other innovators, Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are most relevant for this conversation. Influenced by the Russian and European socialist movements of the 20th century, Brecht was invested in creating a new form of theater – a political theater that educates the public about the social problems around them. Brecht was concerned about the effects of traditional theater that creates the illusion of social well-being and lulls audience into the position of inaction. To address this concern, he was interested in creating the types of performances that would push the audience to think, to question, to reflect, and to consider what actions can be undertaken to address the injustices around them. To achieve this goal, Brecht worked on what he called the A-effect – or alienation effect. Traditional theater is based on the principle of empathy and proximity – the actors’ goal is to get the audience to feel close to the characters they are portraying and to emphasize with their emotions and experiences. Brecht denounced the principle of empathy and proximity. Instead, he urged the actors to create the type of performances that will preserve the distance between the audience and their characters, inviting the audience to remain critical of what is happening onstage. The ultimate goal of the alienation effect is to get the audience to see the familiar world as something strange. Only this experience of strangeness can help the audience to see how social problems can be addressed. Building on Brecht’s work, Boal proposed to completely reconceptualize the role of the audience. Instead of remaining passive observers of what is happening onstage, the audience members are now invited to enter the performance to re-think and re-imagine the struggle, the conflict, and the outcome of the play. This, in a nutshell, is what came to be known as political theater in the twentieth century – theater that exposes social problems and subjects them to critical analysis, so that the audience would actively engage in pursuing solutions to these social problems.
Brecht’s and Boal’s writing helps us engage with educational reform as political theater, so that we as educators, researchers, or citizens can re-think our own roles in the performances that we observe and re-imagine alternatives set before us. Instead of accepting illusions of well-being or crisis presented to us on stages of media outlets or political campaigns, we need to pursue opportunities to distance ourselves from seductive rhetoric set before us and actively engage in reshaping the narratives of reform.
In the last twenty years, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of educational reforms around the world that more often than not bear heavy resemblances to each other. Pasi Sahlberg refers to these reforms as GERM – or Global Educational Reform Movement. Governments embark on transforming national education systems to allegedly improve quality and ultimately guarantee their country’s competitiveness in the knowledge economy. In my travels between China, the UAE, Russia, and the US, I have observed how governments were introducing various reforms to modernize educational systems, improve accountability, and prepare children for the 21st century. These reforms are getting increasingly more attention in educational research. Scholars, activists, and practitioners have begun to pay attention to the issues that these reforms created across a variety of international contexts – from privatization and marketization of public education to demonization and demoralization of the teaching force.
I want to push the conversation about these reforms further by exploring how various policy actors manufacture consensus or accomplish acceptance of the globally-circulated reforms that they propose, at least initially. My interest in these processes stems from a simple observation – if we as members of the public or members of professional communities possessed the tools for assessing, evaluating, and critically responding to policy proposals that come to define our experiences and shape our lives, we would be better equipped to contest them before they come to define our existence. I also wonder what it would take for us to consider ourselves members of a larger body – not disjointed individuals whose voices do not matter and whose choices do not affect others – but rather as a planetary community, members of which recognize that well-being of others has bearing on well-being of all. This recognition is particularly important given the fact that educational policies can target those members of the society who have school-aged children, or whose children don’t speak English as their first language, or whose children are learning to be productive members of society as they learn to operate within the confines and affordances of their disabilities. If we disassociate ourselves from the problems that plague members of particular communities to which we allegedly do not belong because those policies, measures, and reforms affect “those” people and children that are not our own, we will not be effective in mounting a creative and generative critique that can have the potential to improve all of our lives.
The questions that I am grappling with brought me into closer contact with the writings of Bertolt Brecht, Augusto Boal, and Jacques Ranciere that explore the interaction between politics and aesthetics. These thinkers attempt to disentangle the issues of politics, social change, and fragmentation of our experiences in the age of spectacle – where we live entertained and controlled by images, distracted from bigger issues that shape our lives. In subsequent posts, I will share what I am learning through the work of these thinkers. I will also describe how their theories can be helpful for exploring educational reforms as political theater – or a process in which policy-makers, educational reformers, or edupreneurs engage in performances meant to distract the audience from bigger issues, lull them into accepting their construction of the problem, and disguise other activities that accompany these reforms. The purpose of this writing is to explore ways in which the processes of educational policy-making can be demystified and the sense of shared responsibility for our collective future can be restored. More on that next time.