Putting students at the centre

I had a bit of an epiphany last Friday.

I had spent the day with seven of last year’s Grad Dip cohort. I had just said something to the group about my attempts to use the thinking (the theories) of various writers – living and dead – to help me understand more about their experiences as first-year-out teachers, and one of the seven responded roughly as follows:

You’re putting us and our experiences in the centre. That’s really interesting. I’ve always thought of those writers as being at the centre, with us trying to understand their thoughts, their perspectives. The focus is usually on them. But you’re putting the focus on us. You’re reading the theory to better understand what’s going on for us.

For some reason, this was an important revelation for me. Looking back, I can see how this has been my preoccupation and focus for some time, but until this teacher said it like this, in this semi-public forum, it hadn’t quite registered.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve tinkered with representing this visually.

At the centre of my current research interest are the experiences of my current and past students, as the former go out on their pracs and the latter begin their teaching careers.


The red circles represent their experiences, often unsettling and sometimes distressing. In our Grad Dip course, we help our students make sense of an unsettling experience by making it the focus of a major assignment; they describe the event and then draw on what they’ve been learning on our course to delve more deeply into it, to see beyond appearances to what might have been going on beneath the surface. We ask them, in other words, to explore the relevance of theory.

We don’t ask them to do this on their own, either when at uni doing our course or in their first years as beginning teachers. Conversations with mentors – university staff, mentor teachers in their schools and other colleagues –  are a part of the process.

I am one of those mentors, and a part of my project is working with living scholars – occasionally directly, and mainly through their writing – to deepen my own thinking about what these students are experiencing.

I encourage my students to read many of these writers, and will continue to do this. But I realized, as I was doing this part of the drawing, how it was more important to me that I read these writers, that my thinking is animated by the ideas of these scholars, that it is me that is publicly and tentatively exploring these theories to understand what is going on.

I am reminded here of Donald Schon’s response to the Carl Rogers extract I quoted in my last blog post:

From the evidence of this example, I would say, not that Rogers has lost all interest in being a teacher, but that he has reframed teaching in a way that gives central importance to his own role as a learner. He elicits self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections (however absurd they may seem) and then, when others criticize him, by refusing to become defensive. As he expresses his own uncertainties and convictions, emphasizes the “merely personal” nature of his views, and invites and listens to the reactions of others, he seeks to be literally thought-provoking. He believes that the very expression of thoughts and feelings usually withheld, manifestly divergent from one another, has the potential to promote self-discovery.

So, I read the contemporary writers listed in the image above to help me to think. But it’s not just them that I read. Philosophers,  particularly some of the greats who have written about epistemology and ontology, are a part of the pantheon that I keep returning to.


So that is a visual representation of the kind of thinking that my former student’s response has stimulated. In a sense, nothing new has emerged from it; however, the beginnings of some order seem to be emerging out of the rather chaotic thinking of the past months.

Thank you, Libby, for your observation on Friday.

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