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


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


Week 7


Week 8


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


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


Week 13


Week 14


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.


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.

Six aphorisms

The unexpected objects you find when wandering in a labyrinth!

 The labyrinth I’m talking about is the one I described in my last post, where I’m lost in passageways trying to understand Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

The ‘found objects’ include a book that arrived in the mail at the end of last week (Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects) and something I wrote about 15 years ago. Both seemed surprisingly connected to the D&G concept I’m trying to understand at the moment: the three syntheses or functions of part-objects as desiring-machines.

So far I’ve been writing about the first two, the conjunctive synthesis of production (the instinctual and libidinal) and the disjunctive synthesis of recording (something to do with consciousness, I think, manifested in memory, dream, noticing). This second synthesis is disjunctive in that it blocks or redirects flows, it pushes the flows back on itself, and therefore accounts for difference. I’m getting a vague sense that the third synthesis (the conjunctive synthesis of consummation/consumption) has something to do with the formation of a sense of shifting identity, but I’ll come back to that later; that’s still in another passageway in this labyrinth and I haven’t got there yet.

Instead, I’ve ‘found’ some objects.

Kathleen Stewart’s book is surprisingly welcome. D&G are so theoretical, so conceptual, and I struggle to bring it down to a level where I can really get my head around it. This is what Stewart’s book seems to do. It talks about the ways in which flows and energies are made visible in recognisable moments, in everyday events, in ordinary affects. It has some theoretical positioning, but much of it is made up of description of scenes: two bikies come into a restaurant, their presence has an immediate affect, stories are told, life’s flows and energies take on new directions. It all seems like an earthed commentary or illustration of sections of Anti-Oedipus.

So that was the first ‘found object’.

Then, yesterday, I came across a bundle of notes from my PhD days; I must have written these notes in around 1998. Amongst them are 17 aphorisms I wrote while trying to distil what I felt I was learning from my psychotherapeutic encounters with a client I called Peter. Again, the shadow of D&G seemed to hover over these aphorisms, though I was only vaguely aware of who Deleuze was at the time.

Here are the first six:


A metaphysical distraction: Too much concentrated searching for the ‘thing-in-itself’, the reality behind the appearance, leads away from what is, from life.


Working with the dreams: Trusting that a dream expresses an essence or aspect of a person’s current state, appreciating the dream for its aesthetic beauty and symbolic aptness, and being prepared to speak out of this trust and appreciation are all possible and helpful; revealing to the dreamer the dream’s meaning is neither.


Play: To much earnestness, too great an iron focus on getting to the essential meaning of things, gets in the way of the most important therapeutic activity, which is play.


Awareness of the hidden: Knowing that there is something hidden is more important than knowing what it is: being restlessly aware that all is not being revealed allows an energetic encounter and the possibility of an animating outcome whereas a belief that the truth has been fully (or even essentially) revealed and described drains the life out of the therapeutic encounter.


Sitting with the tension: My uncertainty, the necessary ambivalence I feel towards Peter’s impulses, moods and reticences, contributes to a developing tension which threatens the efficacy of the therapy and at the same time gives it a potential life which the two of us can share and make something of.


Aspects and essences: Aspects and essences of a person reveal themselves in anecdotes, body language, voice inflexions, facial expressions, dreams, fantasies, pauses and play, and above all in the interactions with the social world, in the points of contact which are the successful and failed attempts at relationship with people and other objects.

On playing and starting a PhD


Beginning a Masters or a PhD is meant to be a deadly serious business, and in obvious ways it is. It will be a major preoccupation and devourer of time. It has implications for how one lives one’s life (for a while, at least), and therefore has implications for living standards, work-life balance and important relationships. It inevitably will involve significant sacrifice, struggle and uncertainty. So one had better be sure before one begins. It’s a serious business.

But the necessary sense of seriousness can be taken too far, especially if it circumvents play.

Play, we know, is an essential part of all significant learning. We have to muck about with ideas, try things on for size, imagine possibilities, experiment and take risks, even pretend. My daughter once wrote scores of pages in ‘fairy writing’ before she knew what the letters were (and is now a lawyer involved in deadly serious trials).

The temptation, starting out on a higher research degree, is that a candidate skips the playing stage. An impressive application to a university is followed by a serious meeting with supervisors where topic, theoretical lens and methodology are discussed and a timeline is proposed. The pressure is on to finish within a certain timeframe, so there’s no time to waste. (See for example, How I broke up with my supervisor)

Too often, this leads to tension, stuckness and a deadend.


Because the candidate never had the chance to play.

What does play mean in this context? Lots of anxiety-free conversations and writing about possibilities. Lots of thinking about what the candidate loves and fears, what moves and disturbs the candidate, and what might be fuelling the impulse to become a scholar. Permission to imagine, and experiment, and to wonder aloud without the candidate worrying that he/she is revealing his/her knowledge gaps or indulging in foolish fantasies. Time. Lack of pressure. Play.

These things are not easy to make space for, given the pressures. But it’s out of this space that the really serious work can grow.

When I did my Masters, and then my PhD, I had no idea really why I was wanting to spend all that time ‘away from the real world’. I knew there was some unconscious impulse, that it felt right in some hard-to-define-or-justify way. My supervisors, all of them, were happy to give me time, and I took it. I mucked around in the world of ideas, I let one idea or author lead me to another, I meandered for a long time. When it was time, my supervisors asked me to think about refining my research question, about being explicit about a theoretical lens and an emerging methodology. But they didn’t rush this.

I finished both Masters and PhD in the required time frames, without a sense of undue haste or of avoiding the inevitable complexities.

I was given time to play.

iPads, Winnicott and transitional spaces

D.W. Winnicott

It is creative apperception  more than anything else that makes the individual feel that life is worth living. Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognised but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation …

This second way of living in the world is recognised as illness in psychiatric terms.

Donald Winnicott Playing and Reality, 1971 p65

I got an iPad for Christmas and have spent the past couple of weeks playing with it.

Just mucking around, really.

I’ve downloaded dozens of apps, some of which I think will be useful (iThoughts, Evernote) some of which are just beautiful (Flipboard), and others which will sit unused until I get round to deleting them.  I’ve played table tennis with my son and chess with my nephew, then watched two of my family members play digitized Monopoly. I’ve created an iThoughts mindmap of some of the characters of the novel I’m reading (War and Peace), and then a second to organize my thoughts about work for 2012. I got carried away, for several hours, by my discovery that I could import images into iThoughts, and so imported scores of them, some of which were simply aesthetically pleasing and a few which actually conveyed something of the concept or task I was trying to illustrate. I’ve been begun to populate my new Evernote account with websites and documents, and covered a Goodreader documents with dozens of meaningless annotations, just to see what can be done. I keep discovering stuff I want to tell my family about; occasionally they’re infected by my enthusiasm but usually they’re mildly amused.

I’ve been like a little boy in a sandpit.


For Donald Winnicott, British psychoanalyst and writer, play mattered.

Play, said Winnicott, is the process whereby we learn, and where the self is formed. It’s where the inner world of a person is brought into healthy relationship with the outer world of external reality.

… on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s [sic] experiential existence. … We experience life in the area of transitional phenomena, in the exciting interweave of subjectivity and objective observation, and in an area that is intermediate between the inner reality of the individual and the shared reality of the world that is external to individuals. (p64)

This describes very nicely the playspace created by my engagement with the iPad: transitional, exciting, experimental, connecting inner preoccupations and interests with outer possibilities and affordances.


The therapist’s task, said Winnicott, was to help the patient to play. We might extrapolate and say that this is also the teacher’s task: to create the space where the student can make connections between the emotion-charged and highly significant inner world and the realities of the external world.

In three weeks, our students will arrive at university for their 2012 teacher education units. This year, some of the classes will take place in our media-rich Inspire Centre.

As teachers, we will have pressures to ‘deliver’, and the students will feel the pressure to comply. Will we have time to play?

I hope so.