School and Ritual – A Critical Approach

My initial interest in rituals in education was triggered when I was working as an educator in Germany. In many situations colleagues requested from children that they form a line of pairs, that they come into line, that they stay in line. I found that the reasons given by these colleagues for lining up the children often did not carry a lot of substance. The rationale given was usually that it was done for safety purposes. And yet, the arguments often made little sense.

The same children who are walking through Circular Road, Queens Avenue to Edward Street at 2 p.m. in a line of pairs, supervised to prevent damage of persons or goods are walking at 3 p.m. from Edward Street through Queens Avenue to Circular Road, unsupervised and not in a line of pairs, on their way home now that school is over, and this: every day (!) without leaving a trace of damage and chaos behind them.

At some stage I decided to take the phenomenon of lining up in pairs as a topic for a detailed analysis. By using the toolbox of Michel Foucault together with material from a psychoanalytic background it was possible to explain the dynamics within educational institutional contexts that lead to the implementation of the practice of lining children up. I found that this activity is best understood as a ritualised activity. As such it is essentially linked to the generation, up-keeping, challenging, reforming, hence the negotiation of power relations. The study is still available (in German) here

However lining up is not the only ritualised activity that happens in educational institutions. On a closer look it becomes obvious that in these places an incredible amount of ritualised activities are observable.

For years I tried to bring up these issues in reflection settings with colleagues. This proved to be difficult. The particular problem of reflection on rituals stayed with me also when I settled in Ireland in 2000. Similar to Germany, I found that in Irish schools there were numerous ritualised activities. And similar also to Germany I found that it was difficult to discuss these activities with teachers. This led to the development of a concept for a research project about reflection processes of teachers on rituals in school. This study was carried out between 2010 and 2013 with primary school teachers in Ireland and Germany. As a result of the study a book was published: Negotiating Legitimacy – Rituals and Reflection in School.


January 2014, Robert Hamm

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