A mockup of the book’s front and back cover

Here’s the latest version of the cover. Soon, I’ll write something about the image (it’s from a painting by Rembrandt), and why we chose it for the cover.

To see it properly, click on the image.

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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.

An idea that feeds the mind wholly with joy

My writing has copped its fair share of tough critiques. I’ve told the story elsewhere of the reader who confronted me at a conference, suggesting at one point that I wouldn’t know if my arse was on fire. A highly respected book publisher (it was Hilary McPhee) once wrote in the margin of one of my paragraphs, ‘This is embarrassing to read’. Colleagues and reviewers often give me feedback which falls distressingly short of the uncritical adulation I’d felt sure the writing deserved.

Then, last week, I received a reviewer’s response to an article I’d submitted to a journal:

… the approach appears innovative but the article lacks substance. .. there is very little analysis here … There are also far too many rhetorical claims … The teacher’s role here needs to be given far more detailed treatment … [Ideas tend] to be unproblematically and somewhat naively dealt with.

I’ve been wrestling, since receiving this feedback, with two opposing tendencies.

The first is to worry that I don’t know enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t understood things deeply enough. The danger here is that I end either being frozen into inactivity or setting on the impossible quest to know everything before I write another word. The article under review at the moment is about Spinoza’s ideas and their applicability to education. I have read a fair bit of Spinoza’s work and many commentaries; I intuitively sense Spinoza’s grasp of something deeply true, and his ideas illuminate my experience. But there are parts of his writing I don’t understand, and no doubt there are important commentaries I haven’t read. There is an internal voice saying that I won’t be ready to say anything until I’ve understood everything.

The second tendency is to go in the opposite direction. I catch myself becoming too superficially accommodating. Because my job depends on me being published, the temptation is to pacify the reviewer in whatever way will get the article past the gatekeepers. I imagine that this is what students in my classes are tempted to do when I critique their work; if that’s what Dr Shann wants, well, I want to pass this unit, so that’s what I’ll give him!

But I’m 65, have read and taught and lived a bit, and I know from experience that resisting these temptations and taking the critiques seriously always improves my writing. (I rewrote the paragraph that Hilary found embarrassing, and many of the other paragraphs in that draft as well, and she published a book that we all, I think, felt reasonably pleased with.)

Usually an unfavourable comment is the result of flaws in my writing that have led to misreadings and misunderstandings.

In the case of last week’s reviewer’s comment, I’m guessing that the critic has misunderstood what I’m trying to do, and that’s probably because I haven’t been clear enough myself about what it is about Spinoza’s ideas that I think are so useful for classroom teachers struggling with the complex world of the classroom.

Spinoza

What is it that Spinoza’s worldview offers the teacher? I think it’s his idea that everything is a part of nature.

Most who have written on the emotions, the manner of human life, seem to have dealt not with natural things which follow the general laws of nature, but with things which are outside the sphere of nature: they seem to have conceived man in nature as a kingdom within a kingdom. But they believe that man disturbs rather than follows the course of nature …[But] nothing happens in nature which can be attributed to a defect in it; for nature is always the same and one everywhere …

Spinoza Ethics Third Part

The complex and often challenging world of the classroom seem, especially to the beginning teacher, a place beyond comprehension, an unnatural world where motivations are malevolent or mysterious, and where ideals are luxuries best quickly abandoned. Talk in the staffroom tends to re-inforce this unhelpful view of things. ‘They don’t want to learn. They’re just hedonists. There’s no point in trying to teach them anything.’

I struggled with this during my early years as a secondary teacher. My aims, I was sure, were noble, my methods were raw but on the right track, my subject-matter was relevant and intrinsically interesting. So why did some of the students resist?

Over time, and with the help of writers like John Holt, George Dennison, A.S.Neill, Michael Armstrong, Rudolf Dreikurs, R.F. Mackenzie, Virginia Axline and many others (all of whom encouraged me to understand the lived life of actual children, and to see that their actions, including their resistances, made sense if we took the effort to observe and think), my experience of the classroom shifted. I became more able to work with what was there.

Spinoza, when I discovered him while working as a psychotherapist, helped make sense of all this. Spinoza reminds us that all creatures in nature are intent on persevering in their own being, that all of nature is working towards increasing its own potency. When we know this in our bones, we experience the classroom differently. We’re less likely to be discouraged by the student who is challenging, and more likely to wonder how we might reach his natural urge to become a more powerful and successful adult. We assume that powerful positive natural processes are present, that these include doubts, resistances, uncertainty and instability, and that understanding and working with these is possible, healthy and likely to lead to greater teacher effectiveness.

All of this is linked with having some adequate understanding of the nature of things. Spinoza begins his unfinished work ‘On the improvement of the understanding’ (1677) with these thoughts:

… seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else (3)

love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength. (5)

The chief good is … the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature. (6)

A story that a former student of mine, Aaron Kingma, tells about one of his earliest teaching experiences illustrates this very well. He’d been assigned to a very tough class of Year 8s.

There were ten boys, all of whom had been placed in the class due to some combination of behavioural and learning difficulties … The boys “fed” off each other, and I was informed in no uncertain terms that it was an administrator and not a teacher who decided that it was a good idea to put them in class together; I heard quite a few jokes about teaching them being an extreme sport!

The first few lessons were a trying time for myself as a young teacher …

Midway through my second week with the boys, I had arrived early at school, was the only one there and had forgotten my key to the science block. I was sitting on the back of my car and trying to prolong the remnants of my morning coffee because I had nothing better to do than wait for my colleagues to arrive. “Jake”, something of a ringleader among the year 8 boys, shuffled past me saying “mornin’ Sir” in the gruff manner of a year eight boy. I watched him sit down on the steps of the science block, where to my amazement, he pulled out a dirt bike magazine and began reading it. This was a boy who claimed to hate reading, and vocalised his objections forcefully when someone tried to make him.

After a couple of minutes, I went over and joined him. I managed to strike up a conversation with him about riding, and he seemed to know everything about every bike on the market. I joked that I was looking forward to next year so that I could afford a new one, and much to my amusement he was quick to offer his opinions about which one it should be. I ventured a bit further and asked him where he had learned all of this, and he held up his magazine and said “from these”. Another teacher arrived at that moment, and I went into the staffroom with a new perspective on not just Jake, but his classmates as well.

Has this student read Spinoza? I don’t know, and that’s not the point. It’s more that Spinoza’s view of things helps us to understand our experience. Student behavior makes sense. There’s a reason why some students resist. Students want to learn. Our students are potentially teachable if we work intelligently and courageously to improve our understanding.

These are offshoots of an eternal and infinite truth ‘which feeds the mind wholly with joy’.

Models of classroom management: a misleading objectifying of experience?

Professor Kerri-Lee Krause

‘To survive in the classroom, every teacher needs to have a clear, well-thought-out plan that provides an effective framework for maintaining discipline’ (Krause, 2006, p. 458)

Every year, my education students ask for classroom management skills to put in their toolboxes. ‘Please show us what works, what’s tried and tested and can help me survive the challenges of difficult students,’ they say. I remember feeling the same myself when I first started teaching in the early 70s, and the awful feeling of being in a classroom and feeling totally unprepared to deal with what was happening.

So, to help alleviate the students’ anxiety, I have in the past used Professor Krause’s three models of classroom management in my unit, and earlier this week, as part of my preparing for the new year, I drew up the following mindmap to share with the students.

Models of classroom management (Krause)

But how useful are models like these? Do they help student teachers begin the process of gaining the pedagogical skills and knowledge that will help them run their classrooms? Or is the claim that every teacher needs a well-thought out plan in order to survive misleading?

Professor Deborah Britzman

A second teacher education Professor, Deborah Britzman, seems to think it’s the latter.

… normative notions collapse the distinction between acquiring pedagogical skills and becoming a teacher by objectifying experience as a map. In this discourse, everything is already organised and complete; all that is left to do is to follow preordained paths. (Britzman, 2003, p. 30)

My own experience as a teacher tells me that following preordained paths does not work. It didn’t work if I decided that I’d ‘just be myself’ in the classroom (the ‘self’ I thought I knew suddenly felt unknown and unstable once I found myself in unfamiliar territory); it didn’t work if I tried to be someone else either. What worked with one group of students would fail utterly with a second; what worked one day in first period fell flat the next day in the last period of the day.

John Holt, author and teacher

I remember John Holt (an early educational hero of mine) writing in one of his books that teaching was like batting in baseball; you could count yourself a success if one in five attempts produced a ‘home run’.

Krause’s approach reduces an enormously complex field into something graspable. It’s an approach that has the potential to reduce anxiety by naming different ways of being in the classroom. It gives preservice teachers the opportunity to ask important questions as they prepare for their careers. Is there just one way to teach, the way I experienced as a student? What teaching styles best accord with my values? What are my aims as a teacher, and what models might best support those aims? Can I learn from many models so that I have the capacity to adapt in different contexts?

Britzman’s approach, though, is radically different. Where Krause seeks to to simplify (and therefore reduce anxiety),Britzman wants to complexify and problematize (26).

For those who … enter teacher education, their first culture shock may well occur with the realization of the overwhelming complexity of the teacher’s work and the myriad ways this complexity is masked and misunderstood (p. 27) … learning to teach is not a mere matter of applying decontextualized skills or of mirroring predetermined images; it is time when one’s past, present, and future are set in dynamic tension. Learning to teach – like teaching itself – is always the process of becoming: a time of formation and transformation, of scrutiny into what one is doing, and who one can become (p. 31).

I agree with Britzman. Krause’s models, it seems to me, take us into territory full of  unsupportable generalisations and over-simplifications.

So why do I continue to include them as part of my unit? It’s true that the discussions we have about them in tutorials, and the questions they raise, seem helpful. But could it be that the real reason is that I’m trying to reduce anxiety (my own and my students’) by teaching something concrete, whether or not it’s actually useful?

 

I’m hoping that some of my former students will read this blog post and comment on their experience of the Krause models.

***

Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Krause, K. (2006). Managing behaviour and classrooms Educational psychology: for learning and teaching (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Victoria: Thomson.

Degrees of fiction

Earlier this week, I read on Clare O’Farrell’s blog a post (called ‘Foucault: truth, language and philosophy’) which talked about ‘degrees of fiction,’ and I’ve pilfered the phrase as the title of my new blog.

I’ve always been interested in stories, their effect, function and relationship to the real world, ever since I discovered as an unhappy 11 year old, separated from my parents and at boarding school, that a story could be both a consolation and a lifebuoy. Then, as a young teacher, I soon realized that a story could both settle a difficult class and be a teaching tool. In my Masters thesis, written during a period in my professional life when I was a psychotherapist, I argued that story can ‘transform the leaden sense of fruitless struggle’, and my PhD was about the ways in which the sharing of stories links both teller and listener to desired and animating worlds. A central idea, through all of this, has been John Holt’s suggesting that the imagination is more a reaching out towards reality, rather than an attempt to escape from it.

Clare’s post explores this connection between words and phrases and their relationship with truth or reality. She writes: ‘We are always faced with degrees of fiction: human culture, language and thought are fabrications from the very outset’.

I’m imagining that I’ll be using this blog to continue my exploration of these ‘fabrications’.

Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653

As I write this, I’m suddenly reminded of a painting I saw recently. It’s by Rembrandt, and shows the philosopher Aristotle deep in thought as he rests his hand on a bust of Homer, the story-teller, the inventor of fabrications. I like to imagine that Aristotle’s deep thoughts are born out of his respect for, or love of, the mythopoetic.