What if …

Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’

Yesterday an English-teacher colleague told me she’d read a couple of my recent posts (Spatial Delight and What is) and couldn’t work out what on earth they were all about! So I thought here I would have a go at explaining them, and in particular what I see as their possible connection to our work as English teachers. I do this with some nervousness, as I know from past experience that there are things I think I know in my bones that somehow don’t make their way out from the inside when I try to put them into words.

Much of our educational practice is based on the premise that people’s actions are dictated, and their future constructed, through individual mental effort around objectives. Student A makes it her objective to become a better reader, or to lead a more disciplined and productive school life, or to get on top of a particular skill or topic. She then makes certain adjustments to her daily life in order to bring this about. Her clear focus on an articulated objective leads to a certain outcome, or set of outcomes. A teacher’s job, then, becomes partly to do with motivation, with making the outcomes seem both desirable and achievable. Explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi, etc are all natural and logical implications of such a premise.

There is, of course, a certain truth here. Our imagined futures, desired outcomes, do influence our behavior. It often works when we are clear about what we want to achieve, and then make adjustments so that we can achieve our goals.

But the problem (in education) comes when we take this too far, when we think that this is the only thing that dictates behaviour and constructs futures.  There is a whole area of life that is ignored when we focus exclusively on educational outcomes, as if they were the only motivators, the only means by which to construct a useful curriculum.

What is missing from this view?

I want to approach the missing part from another direction, by describing my secondary students’ reactions, year-after-year, to their experience of ‘doing English’ from Years 7 to 12. It’s something along these lines:

I used to love reading, and I enjoyed it at primary school when we were given an opportunity to write creatively. So I thought I’d really enjoy English, I was actually looking forward to it. But it hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would. There was something about the way we had to read, and the way we had to write, that turned me off reading and writing. I found myself finishing fewer and fewer books on my own, and enjoying writing much less. Because I wanted to do well at school, and in English, I paid careful attention to what got me the best marks. I learnt the game, I guess. And I’ve done OK. But I haven’t enjoyed it. I really look forward to the holiday when I can read for my own pleasure. And writing? I don’t know. Will I ever get a chance to write about what I read in a way that actually takes me deeper into the book, that increases my appreciation of it? The writing I do at school gets me good marks, but that’s all.

[See also a blog post I wrote – Play the game – after one of my Year 11 classes.]

There are English teachers  in every school who manage to transcend this tendency, who manage to build on students love of stories and words and ideas so that they come out of English classrooms more knowledgeable, more stimulated, more deeply aware of dimensions of texts or possibilities in their writing. But these teachers, I’m wanting to contend, work beyond the influence of explicit outcomes, rubrics outlining criteria, detailed lesson plans, scope-and-sequence syllabi.

It’s something to do with how we conceive of the space in which learning takes place.

To imagine that learning comes about as a result of explicit and focused attention on outcomes is to imagine space as a closed system, where behaviours are shaped by a student’s relationship to defined endpoints. Student X succeeds because he is motivated to achieve Outcome B; Student Y fails because she either cannot or will not submit. The teacher’s plans are predicated on this notion of a closed system which she can, to a large extent, control. The teacher succeeds when she gets all or most of the students in the class to Outcome C; she fails when she cannot.

This is an outdated view of what is. We live not in closed and controlled systems, but in open, dynamic, unpredictable and messy ones. Spinoza painted a picture of the world as being made up of desiring body/minds affecting other body/minds as they bumped into each other, an idea which found its echoes in chaos theory and was given 20th century currency in the humanities by intellectuals such as Giles Deleuze. This is a world of interactions, of relationships, of animated bodies affecting unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes, or, more accurately, where there are no fixed outcomes but just more unfoldings of inter-relational processes. It is what is brought to the classroom – through the body/minds of interacting teachers and students – that determines what happens there, not single-minded adherence to a particular set of explicit outcomes.

When, in an earlier post, I quoted Doreen Massey about the nature of space, what I was trying to say was that if we conceive of the space which is the English classroom in the same way as Massey describes all space, then we see beyond the superficiality of outcomes, rubrics, scope-and-sequences, lesson plans (necessary parts of the picture though these might be). I’m stimulated by the following paragraph because of it describes so much more fully what actually goes on in an enlivened English classroom.

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished. Here, then, space is indeed a product of relations …, and for that to be so there must be multiplicity … However, these are not the relations of a coherent, closed system within which, as they say, everything is (already) related to everything else. Space can never be that completed simultaneity in which all interconnections have been established, and in which everywhere is already linked with everywhere else. A space, then, which is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too. (Massey For Space 11-12)

I called an earlier blog post What is, and I did this because I think Massey is trying to describe space in a way that helps us to see more clearly ‘what is’. Her description of space is closer to the way the world is than some previous descriptions, including the way classrooms have been conceived.

I’ve called this one ‘What if?’, because I’m wanting to explore the following question:

What if we thought about classrooms, about English teaching, about learning as an open interactional space in the way Doreen Massey describes it?

2 thoughts on “What if …

  1. Pingback: Last Day of Floriade « ilovenewbies

  2. Pingback: Preliminary planning for Indo unit: Big Ideas « ilovenewbies

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