Unteachable kids Part 4: Planning the reading

piles-of-books-in-a-private-college-library_www-luxurywallpapers-net_-960x540In response to my last post, Lady Magpie wrote

I’d be curious about how the readings would work – how much choice there would be, how I’d be introduced to different reading options, how the readings would be “paced”, and what incentives would be in place to keep me reading (i.e. how the readings would be used in the course. I hate when readings are either completely ignored OR completely rehashed in the lectures, making me feel like reading them was a waste of time in either case).

I’ve been playing with this for the past hour or so. I want there to be some compulsory readings, to give us some common language and specific ideas to discuss, but also lots of choice so that the students are able to explore the Central Provocation and their thoughts about their chosen subject X in ways that make sense to them. I know how flat I feel as a student when someone tells me to explore an interesting idea but then tell me I must follow a pre-determined path. It doesn’t feel like an exploration at all;  just a dutiful trudging down a known and over-used path.

Deciding on the compulsory readings  is something of a challenge though. The students will be asked to buy a number of textbooks for their whole M.Teach course, and given that they will have forked out lots of dollars for these textbooks, I feel obliged to use them. This is a problem for a unit constructed along the lines I’ve outlined, because the tone in the both of the textbooks is of the research-informed expert telling us how things are. I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a big fan of this tone. The tone is meant to instil confidence in the reader (‘Wow, here is some evidenced-based scholarship that is giving me grounded advice on what works in teaching?’). It doesn’t have that effect on me. These textbooks (and one of them in particular) present the (often sound) ideas as unquestionable truths, shutting down inquiry rather than opening it up. For example, at the beginning of a chapter on the learning styles, the authors say that ‘there is not any recognised evidence suggesting that knowing or diagnosing learning styles will help you to teach your students any better’. They dismiss the idea rather than invite us to think about it critically.

Nevertheless, I’m obliged to use the textbooks in some way. So here’s what I’m thinking (and it’s a modification of what I wrote in Part 3).

I’ve abandoned, by the way, my original idea that I’d have specific readings for specific topics/learning outcomes. The mandated topics (classroom management, social/physical/intellectual development, literacy & numeracy, effective feedback etc) are all so interconnected that none of the readings looks at just one; each reading covers a number of them.

Compulsory readings

(each to be followed by an online quiz (rather than test) which requires students to demonstrate that they understand what they’ve read, that they’ve critically thought about it in relation to the Central Provocation and their project with chosen student X)

Week 2: Hattie & Yates Visible learning and the science of how we learn, chapters 1,3,&13 (about 30 pages altogether) – 4 marks

Week 3: Krause Ch 12 ‘Managing behaviour and  classrooms’ in Educational psychology for learning and teaching. – 4 marks

Week 4 Chapter 2 Killen Effective Teaching Strategies – 4 marks

Week 5: Chapter 6 Tovani Do I really have to teach reading? – 4 marks

Week 6: Comber and Kamler ‘Getting out of deficit: pedagogies of reconnection’

Student choice readings

(At least 5 need to be chosen and explicitly drawn on for the later assessments – which I want to rename –  in 11 and 15)

My e-reserve folder on classroom management, with 30 or more articles on various aspects of what Krause calls the the interventionist, the inter-activist and the non-interventionist models of classroom management.

Other parts of the Tovani book, which I’ll encourage students to buy, borrow or download)

Killen Effective Teaching Strategies Chapters 6-14

Relevant resources that the students find themselves

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So ends my preliminary planning. I have a meeting next week where I’ll find out how much of this I’ll be allowed to do. In the meantime, can I say again what a pleasure, and how useful, it has been to be getting so much feedback on Facebook.

Unteachable Kids Part 3: A possible unit structure

disengaged studentSo Step 2 was having a series of imagined scenes playing out in my mind of the students wrestling with the Central Provocation: There are some kids who are plain unteachable. (This imagining/visualising is similar, isn’t it, to the high jumper imagining, even befroe she sets offf on her approach to the bar, the spring in her step at take-off, the arching of her back, the upward thrust of her arms to gain more height, the smooth glide over the bar?)

Yesterday I wrote about how my students would be writing, chatting, moving around the room, speculating, reading, analysing, and so on. I realised, when I re-read this, that I’d left out at least two elements in my imagined scenes.

First of all, I implied but did not explicitly mention the sense of play. I want my students to feel that they’re able to explore as freely (and as pleasurably) as little children in a sandpit, trying things out, trying on personas, taking some risks, having some purposeful fun, sometimes on their own and sometimes with others.

Nor, paradoxically, did I didn’t mention the inevitable anxiety. There’d be moments, maybe even extended periods, when the students would find themselves asking uncomfortable questions. Why was there not a more defined and predictable syllabus that we were following? Was this unit giving them the knowledge, strategies and guidance they needed? Would they be properly prepared when it came their turn in front of a class? Student anxiety is uncomfortable for the teacher as well as the student. There’s a temptation to rush in, to make things prematurely safe and comfortable. But teacher education students need to become conscious of the gaps in their current ways of thinking about the lifeworlds of classrooms. The provocation is going to inevitably lead to an awareness of gaps. The trick will be how to allow room for this anxiety to manifest itself without it becoming overwhelming.

This leads to Step 3 in my designing of the unit: structuring the sessions and the assessments so that exploring the complex world opened up by the Central Provocation becomes manageable as well as unavoidable.

How would something like this work?

The Central Provocation: There are some kids who are just plain unteachable.

Week 1

Session 1 (4 hours): Exploring the Central Provocation: collaborative sharing of stories and first thoughts, and exploration of way(s) we might usefully come to understand the underlying issues better. Action Research Project explained, students decide who their chosen subject will be. HBDI profiles explored and discussed.

Session 2 (4 hours): Is X (the subject of my Action Research Project) a challenge because of a physical, social or intellectual deficit? Lecture, group work, readings, activities.

Week 2

School visits

Quiz 1a (10%). Combination of multi-choice & short answer questions, based on selected textbook chapters, and requiring making explicit speculative connections to chosen subject X.

Week 3

Session 3 (4 hours): Is there a way of organising the classroom that would make a difference to my chosen subject X? This would be a session around Krause’s three models of classroom management.

Session 4 (4 hours): What do those at the chalkface have to say about our Central Provocation? Stories from practising teachers, and in panel and small groups.

Week 4

Professional Learning Week (organised by others, on things like safe use of ICT, classroom management, including school visits)

Week 5

Beginning of placements?

Week 6

Placements.

Week 7

Placements

Week 8

Placements

Week 9

Quiz 1b (10%). Combination of multi-choice & short answer questions, based on selected textbook chapters, and requiring the making explicit speculative connections to chosen subject X.

Session 5 (4 hours): Is my chosen subject X unteachable because he/she is illiterate/innumerate? Session around Tovani approaches & activities.

Session 6 (4 hours): Sharing of ideas about, and discussion of, the Take Home Test in Week 11 and the Professional Knowledge Bank in Week 15.

Week 10

Placements

Week 11

Take home test (30%): Written response to the following: In what specific ways has your reading (mandated and self-selected) contributed to your understanding of, and modified your thinking about, the Central Provocation?

Week 12

Placements

Week 13

Placements

Week 14

Placements

Week 15

Submit Professional Knowledge Bank (50%). A Mahara page organised around the following:

In this Unit you have explored the Central Provocation by learning about

a. Approaches to organising classroom activities

b. Literacy and numeracy strategies

c. Strategies for safely using ICTs to expand the curriculum

d. Approaches to managing challenging behaviour

e. Effective feedback

f. physical, social and intellectual development

Which of these six do you need to find out most about (either because it’s particularly interesting to you, or because it’s especially relevant to your chosen subject X? Research it. Prepare a Mahara page which reports on your research (readings, conversations, activities, UC sessions, observations). Discuss its relevance to the Central Provocation.

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If you’ve got this far, thank you!

I’d love some feedback, particularly on the following:

If you were an M.Teach student and you saw this plan, what thoughts and/or feelings would you have? What would work for you, and what wouldn’t?

Also, let me know if you’re interested in being a part of Session 4.

Unteachable kids: Part 2

active studentsThe provocation ‘There are some students who are just plain unteachable’ seems to work, judging by the response when I posted a Facebook link to my last blog post. It was a lot of fun to be thinking along with a number of my past teacher education students, all of whom are now in schools and whose thoughts are therefore especially useful as I plan this new unit. In fact, as I gardened this morning (I’m still on leave, but like most teachers I mull), I thought it might be interesting to plan this unit ‘out loud’ on this blog.

Yesterday I wrote ‘provocation first, not outcomes or standards’. So, is Step 2 about weaving the mandated outcomes and Standards into the plan?

Nope. Not for me. Not yet, anyway.

I’ve got the outcomes at the back of my mind, of course. The seven learning outcomes for this unit are understanding the following:

  1. approaches to organising classroom activities,
  2. literacy and numeracy strategies,
  3. the safe and effective use of ICT,
  4. managing challenging behaviour,
  5. giving effective feedback,
  6. knowing about physical, social and intellectual development that affects learning and
  7. the implication of research on teaching practice.

So, as I said, these seven are at the back of my mind, but my next step isn’t to take each of these in turn and work out how I might structure the unit around each of them in turn. I find (is it just me?) that when I design a unit by breaking it down into its individual components that a number of things happen.

  • I find myself ‘filling pots rather than lighting fires’, and I definitely don’t want to be doing that, given that the provocation has this potential to light fires. I don’t want to position myself as the person who knows, the teller, rather (as I think works best) as the (albeit more experienced) co-researcher, discovering things about this complex world of teaching along with my students (all of whom come to the course with relevant experience and many thoughts).
  • When I position myself as the teller, the expert, the one who imparts his wisdom and experience, I end up putting theory first and practice second, as if (as the 7th learning outcome implies) you become a good teacher if first you have been told what has been found to work. I want my learners to be more active researchers.
  • When I design sub-units for each of the seven outcomes, I (and the students) end up missing the connections, the inter-relationships. Literacy strategies are largely about giving effective feedback. So is managing challenging behaviour, as well as knowing about social and intellectual development. These things are all mixed up, intertwined. Deleuze and Guattari once said something about always beginning in the middle, never at the beginning, that there is no beginning or rational order or unconnected phenomena in a complex ecosystem. And the classroom is a very complex ecosystem.
  • A good provocation produces a varied and rich mix of evolving responses. Things emerge and unfold. Treating learning outcomes separately takes students down predetermined paths; it limits their freedom to explore deeply and passionately

So my Step 2 is not to treat the outcomes separately, Nor do I yet ‘begin with the end’, as the Understanding by Design folk advocate. Perversely (given the widespread acceptance of the UbD wisdom), I don’t start by asking what I want my students to be able to do, or to understand. Often, I don’t know exactly what I want them to be able to do or understand. That’s why I like being in the classroom. It’s potentially unpredictable, chaotic, alive, generative. So I’m not yet ready to think too concretely about the assessments.

So what is my Step 2? (I’ve never thought like this before, by the way. I’ve never thought that I design a unit in steps.)

In Step 2, I play around with what I want my students to do. I try to imagine how I’d like them to be active. I form a picture in my mind of their faces, their expressions, their movements, their trajectories.

In this case, with these students, I know that I’ll be seeing them just six times, for four hours at a time. I know that they’ll be required to attend to this unit outside of those hours.

As I think about these sessions and about their time on their own, a picture begins to form in my mind.  I imagine them thinking about the provocation, of course, but not just thinking. Actively exploring it, both on their own and with others. I imagine each of them choosing an actual secondary student – it could be a student they have worked with in the past,  or someone they observe when they go into a school to observe, or even the self they remember being when they were in secondary school. This student would be someone who is (or was) difficult in class, a challenge to his/her teachers. My teacher education students write about the student. They speculate. They observe and discuss. They read. They come to tentative conclusions, which they refine after further observations, discussions, analyses and reading. They’re on the move, intellectually and physically.

So Step 2 in my unit design has been to imagine a project that will serve as a way for my teacher education students to know more about difficult students, and to explore the idea that some students are plain unteachable. In the process, I’m imagining, they’ll begin to see the connections to those seven learning outcomes.

Indeed, Step 3 of my unit design will be structuring the sessions and the assessments so that seeking out those connections becomes unavoidable. I’ll write about this tomorrow.

There are some kids who are plain unteachable

a-clockwork-orange-004I’m designing a teacher education unit I’ll be teaching in the new academic year, and it’s not easy to locate (amidst the seven pre-determined learning outcome, the seven mandated Graduate Teacher Standards, and the three compulsory textbooks) its beating heart, the thing that will determine whether or not the unit will have enough spirit and spunk to provoke, in useful ways, the students who will be here in just over a month.  Learning outcomes and Graduate Standards don’t provoke; they’re more like the sides of a cattle pen, making sure we go where those in charge want us to go. Textbooks rarely stimulate, telling us how things are rather than  inviting us to think, explore and create.

The unit is called ‘Teaching strategies and learning theories’. Yuck. The title implies that becoming a teacher is all about being told how research by theoreticians has led us to strategies that work. That’s crap. Thoughtful and resilient practitioners, wrestling with actual problems and drawing intelligently on useful philosophies and theories, have led us to strategies that work sometimes with some kids. There’s always more to find out.

I will require my new students to be thoughtful and resilient practitioners. Few of them will have had any teaching experience, many of them will be feeling unsure, and a few of them will be angry when they discover either that there are no simple answers. To survive in teaching, they’ll need to observe, experiment, analyse, adapt and persist. That’s what I want them to experience in this unit.

So I want to start not with the Learning Outcomes, the Graduate Standards or the textbooks, but with a Provocation, one that requires them to explore the territory described by the outcomes, standards and textbooks. Provocation first, not outcomes or standards or some author setting out the territory before the pre-service teacher has been thrown in the deep end.

But what Provocation?

There are some kids who are just plain unteachable.

That might do it.

The lifecycle of a thought

I’ve been thinking recently about how thoughts are formed, how they move from something vaguely intuited or perceived to being more clearly understood and articulated.

I think about this quite a lot these days. I watch myself, I observe my teacher education students, and I think back to the secondary classrooms I taught in.

The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a slow process. At least it’s slow for me, and I know it’s been slow for many of my students (university and school). Insights or understandings rarely arrive fully formed. For example, as my last few blog posts have documented, my understanding of what Deleuze and Guattari meant by the term ‘body without organs’ kept shifting (and indeed it’s shifted a lot since I wrote those last posts). I’ve had to read and re-read sections of their books. I’ve needed to write the blog posts, in order to allow my emerging thinking to become worded, so that I could sit with it for a bit. I’ve gone through gloomy times when I thought it was too complicated a concept for my brain. I’ve read commentaries and watched some online lectures about Deleuze. I’ve let things percolate. I’ve gone back and adjusted my provisional understanding of the ‘body without organs’. I’ve (finally) written a fictional story about someone wrestling with, and then applying, the concept. It’s been a slow process, never linear, constantly looping back on itself.

It’s made me think about the lifecycle of a thought.

alch3

The alchemist at work: sourced from http://bit.ly/1phHuBA

Jung once compared (in The Psychology of the Transference) the psychoanalytic encounter between doctor and patient to an alchemical process: encounter, mixing of the raw materials, blackening (and seeming death), emergence of the elixir (new life). Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ has a similar pattern to it. Perhaps the lifecycle of a thought is similar: encounter, confusion, despair, emergent new form. Something like that.

The image that comes to mind (perhaps only because Deleuze and Guattari at one point liken the body without organs to an egg) is of the slow process as the matter within an egg takes shape over time, and only emerges into the fresh air once it has gone though countless changes.

It is for this very reason that too much of school- and university-based learning is, for many students, not real learning at all. There’s so little time for that slow, hesitant, sometimes distressing (but perhaps telelogically driven) process to take place. There’s a reading and then a quiz, and then the students are moved on to something else. Even the idea of a cumulative curriculum (‘In week 1 we do x, in week 2 we build on x by doing x+1) doesn’t fit what I’m describing here as the more chaotic but still patterned lifecycle of a thought.

The body without organs

 

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

Giles Deleuze, a rhyzomatic body without organs

This morning I started reading Chapter 2 of A Thousand Plateaus. It’s called ‘1914: One or several wolves?’

I read the first few pages and had no fricking idea what was being said.

This was frustrating, given that I’d been reading Chapter 1 and thinking that I was beginning to get some of this. But it the fog descended again. It was as if D&G were making sure no reader reached a premature and superficial conclusion about what was being said, so started to mess with minds again.

(It’s been so reassuring to listen to some podcasts by very intelligent and well-read philosophers and to hear them saying, in the middle of an otherwise animated conversation: ‘… but this bit makes absolutely no sense to me’. Do we teachers do enough of this in the classroom?)

D&G were getting in a lather about Freud, and his Wolfman case. Freud was, they were saying (I could tell this much) completely missing the point.

They seemed to be particularly upset that Freud felt the need to continually reduce the richness of the Wolfman’s unconscious to a single Oedipal cause. Freud kept asking the question ‘What does the wolf represent?’, ignoring the fact that the Wolfman himself described a dream with many wolves in it, a pack of them. Freud wanted to identify a singularity when it was multiplicities that were present.

This was helping to regain some sense of connection to what they were saying. I understand multiplicities and the shallowness of explanations that imagine a singularity. A classroom for example. I cringe when I hear someone (and sometimes that someone is me) talking about a ‘receptive’ or an ‘unmotivated’ class, as if it were a single organism. Even talking about a student as ‘switched on’ or ‘unengaged’ doesn’t sit well, especially when I remember the number of times I’ve sat in an audience and been switched on by one speaker and utterly unengaged by the next. These seem properties to do with some other entity, something composed of multiplicities.

And all of that is helping me make more sense of D&G’s concept of ‘the body without organs’. A classroom is a body without organs, made up of multiplicities with their different flows and intensities, and being plugged into (or disconnected from) other bodies without organs (the students), similarly made up of multiplicities.

This seems to be what they’re saying in the following two passages:

A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena … Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organisation of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organisation. Lice hopping on the beach. Skin colonies. The full body without organs is a body populated by multiplicities. (34)

The metrical principle of these multiplicities is not to be found in a homogenous milieu but resides elsewhere, in forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido, which constitutes them from within, and in constituting them necessarily divides into distinct qualitative and variable flows. (35)

I’m trying to push myself to see what follows from all this. What is it that this way of thinking is helping me to do (rather than explain – see last post)? What is the affect?

I think it’s helping me see that the importance of lesson planning (the subject of one of the units I’m teaching) is less to do with creating a structure for a singularity (the class) and more to do with unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (the teacher-planner) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (the students) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways, into ‘forces at work within them, in physical phenomena inhabiting them, precisely in the libido’.

It’s helping me to see the ways in which a group of us working together on e-Portfolios which tell our academic stories is less to do with finding a way to tick the boxes when it comes to our annual performance review and more to do with … ‘unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (each of us as individual academics) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, and also colleagues and structures with whom we share our work) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

It’s helping me to see that student motivation is much more than a function of the fixed attributes  (the socio-economic background, the intelligence, the existence of ambitions and fears) of singularities (the individual students) and more to do with … ”unblocking or stimulating flows and intensities within the body without organs (me as teacher, the class, each of the students) which then get plugged into other bodies without organs (each other, the curriculum, the school, the community) in unpredictable but (with any luck) animating ways.

The ‘helping to see’ in itself is an unblocking and stimulating. So the seeing is more than just an interpretation, a way of understanding or theorising. It’s a way of acting.

[The source of the image of Deleuze is here.)

 

Bobby McFerrin: master teacher and model

It seemed like such a good lesson plan as I sat at my desk in the quiet hours late last night. But within minutes of the class starting, the inadequacies of the plan had been exposed. Over the course of that hour (which felt as though it would never end), I discovered that two of the girls were in the middle of a feud, several students found it constitutionally impossible to sit still, some resisted when I tried (unsuccessfully) to organize some group work, a boy spent the entire lesson asking those around him for something to eat (it turned out he hadn’t eaten all day), a sizeable group ignored or complained about anything that involved reading or writing, one girl looked deeply sad or even depressed, some students down the front kept complaining that they couldn’t work because of all the noise, and an obviously popular boy kept diverting the attention of half the class away from me and onto him. I spent my time suppressing my anger at their ingratitude and rudeness (I’d spent hours on the lesson plan), and the other half thinking that I just wasn’t cut out for this job.

This was the scenario I presented to our Grad Dip students last Tuesday afternoon, and I asked them to reconsider lesson plans they’d created in the light of the likelihood, indeed the inevitability, that they’d teach classes with this kind of mix of students. How could they modify their lesson plans to avoid such an outcome? Or were some classes just impossible to teach, no matter how resourceful the teacher?

It’s this question that is keeping some of our pre-service teachers awake at nights: can good preparation help us avoid this kind of hellish lesson?

So, last Tuesday, the Grad Dip students worked (on their own, or in pairs, or in small groups), discussing the question and modifying their lesson plans.

Some tried to take explicit account of each of the individuals or sub-groups I’d described: the feuding girls, the hungry student, the attention-seeker, the restless ones, and so on. A few discovered that this approach meant that their lesson plans soon became bogged down in contingency plans to take care of every conceivable possibility.

What’s the way out of this thicket? How can we plan a lesson, knowing that there are so many different (and often unpredictable) student needs and dispositions?

Take some time to enjoy the following video of the musician, Bobby McFerrin, working with a group of amateur singers.

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Have close look at the the people in this group. They’re a very ordinary looking crowd. A typical, every day group. It’s not inconceivable that there is someone in that group who is depressed, another who is hungry, a couple who hate each other, some who normally can’t sit still, a few who usually need silence in order to concentrate, some who think they can’t sing or have no sense of rhythm, and so on. But Bobby Ferrin has managed to transcend these possible barriers to learning.

Bobby McFerrin

How has he done it?

Well, first of all he is a genius. That has to be acknowledged!

But there’s also a great deal in common between what Bobby McFerrin has done here and what good teachers (like Courtney) do all the time.

First of all, he knows his stuff. He’s in charge of his material. He’s highly skilled. If you’re teaching something, being a specialist in your subject is important.

But there’s more to it than just that. Bobby McFerrin’s ‘lessons’ work because he follows some basic pedagogical principles, all of which can be worked into a lesson plan.

He makes sure that his ‘students’ are active. He doesn’t just talk to them. He doesn’t just demonstrate and get his students to discuss his demonstration. He doesn’t just signal out the ones who can do it. He gets everyone actively involved in the experience.

Secondly, he gets his students working together in groups, supporting each other. There’s collaboration. Singers are bunched up close together, so that the less confident can feed off the more confident. One singer might be particularly good at keeping the beat, another the melody. They rely on each other.

Thirdly, there is a balance between helpful repetition and momentum. He tries not to move on before everyone has had a chance to get the parts. And yet, at the same time, there’s a real sense of momentum. The group is working together to produce something that is growing, deepening, becoming more and more musical. There’s a sense of the group becoming more adept as musicians as the ‘lesson’ progresses.

Fourthly, the work is challenging. It’s not easy. The ‘students’ have to work hard. (Research and our own experience both tell us that we like to be challenged, that we misbehave when we’re bored.)

Fifthly, the experience is tightly structured. For all its wonderful creativity, you can see the way Bobby Ferrin has broken the complex task down into manageable and achievable chunks. Yet the relationship between the chunks and the big picture is always visible (or at least felt) by the students.

And finally, the activity is obviously connected to these people’s interests. In a way, this is easier for Bobby McFerrin than it is for us. They chose to come to his concert! But it’s a reminder of the importance of establishing a connection for our students between what genuinely matters to them and what we are going to teach them. Students behave well when they perceive that the lesson is worthwhile. And it’s connected in another sense, too; every new skill or melody he teaches is connected to what they can already do. There are no insurmountable gaps.

The learning is active, collaborative and is moving somewhere.

The teaching is challenging, structured and connected.

If we can build these qualities into our lesson plans, we’re less likely to have lessons that go pear-shaped.

Alfie Kohn puts it this way:

Alfie Kohn

One of my own major (albeit belated) revelations as a teacher was that behavior problems in my classroom were not due to students’ unnatural need for attention or power. The students were acting up mostly to make the time pass faster. And given the skills-based, decontextualized tasks I was assigning, who could blame them? Back then, I was thinking about a new approach to discipline. What I really needed was a new curriculum. (Alfie Kohn Beyond Discipline: from compliance to community, Virginia, 1996, p19)

Or, perhaps, a new way of teaching it. Bobby McFerrin is not a bad model to learn from.

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.

Fear, drive my feet: managing pre-course anxiety

I’m standing in front of a class of secondary students, sensing their restlessness and desperately trying to hold their attention. I’m pulling out every trick I’ve learned: cajoling one sub-group, trying to beguile a second with a story or an interesting fact, and threatening a third. But I feel weak and dreadfully underprepared; I don’t really know the content or where the lesson should be heading, and I can sense the students seeing through my bluff and bluster. They’re about to walk out, I’m convinced, or give up, or maybe even riot. I redouble my efforts, but I can see that I’m losing them and that nothing will rescue this hopeless situation.

[My dream last week.]

I’m now nearly 65 and have been working with students for over 40 years now. I’ve loved teaching and the academic job I’ve got at the moment. Yet I still have anxious nightmares before the beginning of every teaching year.

This underlying anxiety used to feel neurotic. Why would I have these dreams unless, underneath the surface, I felt insecure and unstable. I’ve come to think more recently that the dreams are healthy  and help motivate me so that I prepare well.

Because it’s fear rather than logic that’s driving my feet, my anxiety dreams trigger a process that is idiosyncratic and, in its early stages, not as immediately productive as it might be!

I can illustrate this by describing the five stages – familiar to me now – that I’ll go through between now and early February, when I meet the 200 students doing my Teacher Education unit on managing classroom.

Stage 1: Collecting resources

The logical place to begin would be to think about the purpose of the unit. What am I trying to achieve?

But that’s not where my underlying anxiety takes me.

Instead, with a kind of unconscious desperation, I collect my resources, scores of them, as if the more resources I have to throw at the students, the more prepared I’ll feel. I’m a bit like the warrior my son creates in his online game Skyrem. Before he goes into battle with an unknown enemy, he first gathers together an ebony dagger, an orcish battle axe, a dwarvish sword, full battle dress (including an invisibility shield) and various spells and potions. The more he collects, the more confident he feels.

I’ve taught this unit before, so I’ve already collected a fair few weapons. I revisited them this morning, and, like the pre-battle soldier polishing his weapons, I made a mindmap of them, trying (unsuccessfully) to resist the urge to keep adding to them as I went.

2. Imagining the resistances

The relief from my anxiety which this manic collecting affords is temporary.

I'd like to say that this is me, at my writing desk while I imagine Janine, Greg and my other future students. In fact it's a drawing of my hero Charles Dickens, imagining his various characters.

After making this mindmap this morning, I began to imagine characters, some of my future students, responding to the resources very much like the students in my nightmares. I could see  (for example) Janine, the student whose hard work and ability to play the game had got her top marks, being angry at the lack of guidance, at the assumption that she would have the time to wade through the resources and make independent decisions about which were relevant to her and which were not. I could see Greg, the practical down-to-earth student who had already decided that university learning was unconnected with the real world, and that he’d learn the job once he got into a classroom rather than by wading through an old man’s reading list. I could imagine conscientious Elizabeth, full of zeal and idealism about a new teaching career, quickly becoming overwhelmed with the mountain of stuff being thrown at her. And finally I could see Allan, happy to take seriously anything which immediately appealed to him as being interesting or useful, but more interested in talking about teaching than in reading about it. What would I say to them? How would I keep them engaged?

 Stage 3 Revisiting the aims of the unit

I hate Learning Outcomes and include them in my unit outlines only because they are compulsory. Here are the official Learning Outcomes for the unit I’m about to teach.

My unit's official Learning Outcomes

The spectre of the four resistant students forces me to think about purpose. What am I wanting to achieve in our 10 short weeks together?I understand the thinking behind Learning Outcomes (make the purpose explicit so students know what’s expected), but always find them lifeless and limiting, like trying to package a mystery in a formula. In this case I find them particularly useless because these Learning Outcomes spring out of a view about teaching as performance that tells only part of the story. Clear verbal and non-verbal directions and generic practical approaches and strategies are important, but they’re a fraction of what I’d want this unit to be about.

Here’s my list:

  1. Tolerating complexity: I want the students to know that there isn’t a single box of tricks, or a failsafe method of classroom management. There are different approaches that work with different teachers, different students and in different contexts.
  2. Embracing critical analysis and self-reflexivity: I want the students to examine their own assumptions about what works. The research says that many young teachers, once they get into the classroom, quickly revert to teaching styles that are familiar to them, based on the teaching styles of their former teachers and parents, and that these often result in the repetition of ineffective teaching practices. I want my students to understand and critically examine what comes naturally to them, and to begin the work of shaping a teacher-identity that is both authentic and effective. I want them to think about what they want to achieve in their classrooms. Is it just about control? How central is learning? What implications flow from what they value? What kind of a teacher do they aspire to be?
  3. Thinking holistically: I want them to see the important links between pedagogy, content knowledge and classroom management, rather than see these as unconnected components which need individual and separate attention and skills.
  4. Becoming creative and informed makers of meaning: I want them to notice the way our unit assumes that the learner (which is them!) is an active inquirer and meaning-maker rather than a passive recipient of the teacher’s wisdom and knowledge, and how this inquirer’s stance stimulates motivation and creativity … and then to reflect on what this means for the way they are going to run their classrooms. I want them to know that our profession requires this inquirer’s mentality for the whole of their professional lives.

Stage 4: Basing the unit around fertile questions

Yoram Harpaz

Yoram Harpaz suggests that our classrooms should become places of where communities of thinkers research fertile questions together. They define a fertile question as having six main characteristics:

  1. Open – there are several different or competing answers.
  2. Undermining – makes the learner question their basic assumptions.
  3. Rich – cannot be answered without careful and lengthy research. Usually able to be broken into subsidiary questions.
  4. Connected – relevant to the learners.
  5. Charged – has an ethical dimension
  6. Practical -is able to be researched given the available resources.

Here the work has been done for me, as last year our teaching team came up with the following fertile questions or Nine Provocations. These provocations form the basis of the teaching course within which my unit is situated.

  1. What kind of a teacher do I want to be?
  2. Will I be allowed to be the teacher I want to be?
  3. To whom am I accountable?
  4. Am I ready to teach?
  5. Is teaching a profession or a trade?
  6. What will students want and need from me?
  7. Should we teach students or subjects?
  8. To what extent is teaching an intellectual pursuit?
  9. How will I control my students?

Once I get to this fourth stage of articulating the central research questions, I begin to feel some of the anxious impulse to do all the work beginning to dissipate. I no longer feel I need to understand all the material, have all the answers, or accumulate a mountain of resources; I’m going to be guiding a community of researchers, not force-feeding my students with my own knowledge and experience. It’s not that I imagine that there will be no moments of challenge or discomfort with Janine, Greg, Elizabeth or  Allan. But I see my role more clearly now. The ground feels more secure.

Stage 5: Checking the alignment of assessment and objectives

Will my assessments give my students opportunities to show that they have tolerated complexity, embraced critical analysis and self-reflexivity, thought holistically, and become creative & informed makers of meaning?

I think so. We’re asking them to explore some of the Nine Provocations and to share the results of their explorations with us, using a number of different media. We’re requiring them to build their understanding on their critical analyses of their own and others’ experience and assumptions, gleaned from conversations, course work and time spent in the classroom. There are no short answer questions, no single mandated texts that they must study and master: they’re to pursue the questions that matter to them and to map the way their thinking evolves as a result of their labours.

My job, between now and the first class, is to make possible resources available, and to structure week-by-week events that will stimulate research and collaboration.

Perhaps, tonight, I’ll sleep more peacefully.