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.

Story as agitator

 The issue of impact has been troubling me. My kind of writing is unlikely to have the kind of impact that shows up on citation indexes. Perhaps I can strategically place my articles in high-ranking journals but that’s not the kind of impact my kind of writing is really after.

What am I after?

I want to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. When I write those words, who am I thinking of as the audience? Who am I wanting to agitate, unsettle, induct and animate?

It’s teachers and education students, people in the field, rather than the readers of journals (though, that’s not entirely true; I do want to find and involve myself in an academic community discussing the kind of methodology I’ve been exploring here). But essentially the audience I’m wanting to reach are the teachers who come to my workshops, my students here at UC, my past students.

A former student responded, last month, to one of my stories in a way that has become familiar to me.

Oh my god, Steve [she wrote in an email]. Your story. Just finished it. I am left feeling… feelings. …  I read the first half of the story, then I had a break for a few days, came back and started again from the beginning and [scribbled] comments as I read … questions and thoughts and connections. It started to feel like a conversation between the margin and the story because everything I commented on somehow came up later in the story, and a couple of times I just had to write “yes!” … [It] is so heartbreaking and raw… raw like a nerve.

I said this response was familiar to me. It reminds me of the teacher who threw my book, School Portrait, across the room after reading the opening chapter, then finished it and needed to get in touch with me. Or the person who moved house to live in Canberra after reading it, because she wanted her children to attend the school I’d been writing about.

Impact. I know my stories, my scholarship, my writing, can have impact; it’s a very different kind of impact from the one valued by universities.

But is it?

One of the things I’ve come to know about myself is that people value the way I sit quietly in a conversation until something emerges. This is connected to Somerville’s ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’, and what I’m calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’m imagining myself in a bigger research team, investigating (to use the example I’ve been using in these last posts) the tension between professional learning, higher standards and greater accountability, and making a contribution to the team’s understanding of the issues by drawing attention, in a number of ways, to the lived lives of actual teachers. One of the main ways I’d do this would be to write fiction, to tell stories concocted in my imagination but sourced from my (and other teachers’) experience, and told in such a way that certain issues or factors sitting partly in the background, factors rendered invisible by the garish bright light of the rational intellect, might come into view.

A means of knowing and a way of telling

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

For months, maybe years, I’ve been wrestling with how my love of story (telling them, reading them, writing them) can be reconciled with the serious research/scholarship world I find myself in. Can a story be considered scholarship? I’ve asked myself (out loud, often on this blog). I’ve hacked my way (it’s not been unpleasant) through journal articles, and I’ve been connecting all this with things I’ve learned during my years as a teacher and a therapist, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that, yes, writing fiction can be considered scholarly, both because writers are involved in a scholarly search when they’re trying to write a particular kind of fiction, and the act of publishing the resultant story is a scholarly act in itself, because it’s a powerful way of communicating insights; I’ve suggested, in my writing and in a recent seminar, that a certain kind of fictional writing is both a scholarly method and a scholarly form.

If you’ve hacked your way through that last sentence, you’ll understand better my uncertainty about whether to laugh or cry. I’ve been trying to find the words to say what I’m thinking, my phrases are often frustratingly convoluted and unnecessarily wordy … and yesterday I picked up an article by Art Bochner who said all I’ve been trying to say in a simple, clear sentence.

Stories, he said, are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world.’ (Bochner, 2012, p. 155)

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Bochner, A. P. (2012). Autoethnography as acts of meaning. Narrative Inquiry, 22(1), 155-164.

The ethnographic challenge

Of his paintings, Picasso famously said: ‘the artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies’ (1923:7). This is what I am seeking to do with the stories in this section, to use literary techniques and the sources of research data to create the truths of professional and personal lives. Thus the purpose of the book is identical with the central backbone of any art/istic endeavor, which is to tell the truth as one sees it. (p17 of Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

I’ve been reading more of Peter Clough’s book, which is centred around five fictional short stories, each set in a school and each deeply unsettling (to me, at least).

Here, for example, is how the story ‘Rob’ begins:

When Rob Joynson was 43 he came into school on a Tuesday morning much as usual; and passing at 10.40 by a maths class taken by Michelle G. – a probationer of 23 – and hearing terrible noise; and seeing through the window a boy at the back fetch a fat gob on Michelle’s back as she walked down the aisle smiling, smiling too, too nervously, her hands doing ‘Down, please: down, down’ at the noise; seeing this marbled yellow gob on Michelle’s ordinary blouse on her decent body, Rob Joynson rushed into the room and to the back and took the boy – Mark something – by the ears, both ears, and pulled him up out of – through almost – his desk and repeatedly smashed his head against a chart of tessellations on the wall. And Michelle pulled at him from behind and screamed, and he twisted the boy down by his ears and pushed at him with his foot, kicking until he was quite under the desk. Then Rob started to cry and there was a terrible silence … (37)

They are complex stories, and full of tensions and ethical challenges. There are no simple truths about either the issues or the characters.* These are ‘ethnographic operas’ that I imagine Deborah Britzman applauding, where characters negotiate (always problematically, often unconsciously and inarticulately) competing worlds.

To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible. Within any given culture, there exists a multiplicity of realities – both given and possible – that form competing ideologies, discourses, and the discursive practices that are made available because of them. It is within our subjectivities that we can make sense of these competing conditions even as these competing conditions ‘condition’ our subjectivity in contradictory ways. (Britzman 2003, 71)

Peter Clough’s stories are clearly evidence-based. In his book, he is explicit about where the evidence came from, and how he used the evidence to create these fictional short stories. But the evidence isn’t drawn upon to prove anything. He argues that narratives and fictions seek to evoke rather than to explain (73) and need to be judged according to their verisimilitude rather than their verifiability (15).

When I reflect on the impact his stories have on me as a reader, I can see how this kind of educational writing achieves something that more conventional research or scholarship cannot do. It takes me behind the scenes, into the lived lives of people involved in educational settings. It troubles any superficial notion I might have that solutions to difficult policy issues is simple, because lives are at stake, and lives are complex. Conflict in real life is not only between generations, classes, ethnic groups or economic interests; conflicts in real life are also internal to individuals. Outcomes (tragic or otherwise, though all of Clough’s stories have tragic outcomes) are not just the result of one group having more power than another, but of one set of an individual’s inclinations proving too strong for another set.  The ethnographic opera is played out on many different levels, within and between characters, within and between groups.

Translating life’s realities as lived by men and women into story, and doing it in such a way as still to be believed, is the  ethnographic challenge. (64)

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Clough quotes Stronach & MacLure 1998:57 as follows: “One goal [of educational research] must be to produce accounts which deny the reader [the] comfort of a shared ground with the author, foreground ambivalence and undermine the authority fo their own assertions.”

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

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

Opening ourselves up to the eye of the Other

Our reluctance to surrender teacher education to the myth of experience  …  is founded on a view that experience in the professional arena is only useful in terms of promoting more effective teaching and learning if it is appropriately informed (i.e. by a constructively critical orientation and by the application and interrogation of educational theory) and only as long as its reification is carefully avoided. (That is to say, the important thing is not to see experience as something that ‘lies ahead’ and ‘outside’ of us, waiting for us to learn or not to learn from it, and possessing some kind of inherent value; but rather to concentrate on understanding how and why we experience things the way we do).

Moore, A. and Ash A.(12-14 September 2002 ). Reflective practice in beginning teachers: helps, hindrances and the role of the critical other Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association. University of Exeter, England, , Institute of Education, University of London.

Moore and Ash studied two sets of preservice teachers, first a group who were struggling (the subject of an earlier paper), and then a group doing well both at university and on their prac (the subject of this talk).

They expected to find that professional teacher standards and ingrained assumptions formed from prior experience of schooling, together with the distracting busyness of a preservice teacher’s life, would result in the ten students they studied quickly abandoning deep reflection and falling back on prior beliefs and perceptions about students and teaching. In fact they were surprised by their results.

In the event, we were surprised to discover … [that]  although each of the students interviewed was very aware of the impact of previous school and home experience on their current professional perspectives and responses, that awareness was such that it could be critically evaluated and drawn upon constructively by the student rather than having an inhibitory effect.

The students studied struggled to find the time for ongoing reflection, and many of them found mandated reflective tasks became exercises in compliance rather than authentic and useful analysis. But they all valued and practised it to such an extent that the authors concluded:

The levels of self-awareness, adaptability and willingness on these students’ parts to challenge previously held assumptions have led us to hypothesise that such qualities were a major contributory factor to their success in the classroom and that, conversely, the lack of such qualities was a major contributory factor in the difficulties experienced by some of the ‘failing students’ in the previous study.

It was important to these students that their reflections were not done in isolation.

All of our respondents were agreed that much of their most useful reflection was carried out not on their own but in the company of and with the active support of others. To quote Johnston S. (1994, p.46), who effectively links reflective practice with research on and into one’s practice, they found a particular value in ‘formal or informal collaborative groups or networks’ (see also Kemmis & McTaggart 1988).

Most respondents, however, particularly valued discussions with other students on their course and the ‘safe’, supportive environment (Zeichner & Liston 1987) that such meetings provided, regretting that this site was too rarely available to them given the amount of time spent in school and the amount of work to be got through on the college-based part of the course.

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This willingness to reflect with peers sat side-by-side with a disquiet that even these successful students felt about certain kinds of authentic reflection opening themselves up to a feeling of being exposed. It seemed that either previous persecutory experiences, or just normal human feelings of vulnerability, made a certain level of openness problematic.

What we did find, however, was that even with these successful students previous experience did act in the same inhibitory ways – albeit to a far less influential extent – as with the failing students we had considered in our previous study: specifically, in the various manifestations of uncomfortable feelings of ‘exposure’ described by the students, whereby someone or something – either a tangible, ‘external’ presence or a voice or voices that had become internalised by them – operated in a disquieting and not always helpful way in the reflective process. While all the students valued the voices of the critical friends and support networks they had chosen – the need for ‘someone else’s eye’, referred to by one student – not all were, by an means, as comfortable with these other uninvited, often invasive critics, whose eyes and voices often produced uncomfortable, negative and unconstructive feelings and whose origins they were typically unwilling or unable to discuss.

This rings true for me. I sense, even in our most successful students, an underlying concern that in talking with me about what most unsettles them,  they are opening themselves up to appearing foolish in the eyes of the Other, whether that other is literally me or an internalised persecutory one.

Carl Rogers on teaching another how to teach

Carl Rogers

I’m currently wrestling with the question of how pre-service teachers learn to teach. I’m wanting to understand better the part research plays in this learning. Do new ideas come through what is read (or heard)? Does a teacher have to experience a gap – usually distressing – before she is able to reach out and take in what research (or teacher education) has to offer? Is some of our students’ resistance to reading to do with their not having yet had the experience that makes reading urgent? (And do we press on with ‘required reading lists’ at university, even when we know they’re not being used effectively, only because we know it will be too late if the reading is left until after a pre-service has joined the too-busy world of fulltime teaching?)

For the past weeks I’ve been slowly reading Donald Schon’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Schon tells the story of Carl Rogers (an early educational hero of mine) giving a talk to teachers at Harvard University in 1952. This is what Rogers told his audience:

a. My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach. To attempt it is for me, in the long run, futile.

b. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior. That sounds so ridiculous that I can’t help but question it at the same time I present it.

c. I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior. Quite possibly this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy.

d. I have come to feel that only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

e. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another. As soon as an individual tries to communicate such experience directly, often with a quite natural enthusiasm, it becomes teaching, and its results are inconsequential. It was some relief recently to discover that Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, has found this, too, in his own experience, and stated it very clearly a century ago. It made it seem less absurd.

f. As a consequence of the above, I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.

g. When I try to teach, as I do sometimes, I am appalled by the results, which seem a little more than inconsequential, because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens, I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience and to stifle significant learning. Hence I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.

h. When I look back at the results of my past teaching, the real results seem the same-either damage was done, or nothing significant occurred. This is frankly troubling.

 i. As a consequence, I realize that I am only interested in being a learner, preferably learning things that matter, that have some significant influence on my own behavior.

j. I find it very rewarding to learn, in groups, in relationship with one person as in therapy, or by myself.

k. I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which this experience seems and feels to the other person.

1. I find that another way of learning for me is to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlement, and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have.

m. The whole train of experiencing, and the meanings that I have thus far discovered in it, seem to have launched me on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening. It seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality [Rogers, 1969, p. 277].

I respond to these words, as I’ve always responded to Rogers’ writing, on many different levels.

They help to make sense of students’ resistance to our teaching and our reading lists: only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

They help to make sense of the importance of listening: to try to understand the way in which this experience seems and feels to the other person.

They help re-inforce my yearning for more face-to-face time with my students, more time sequestered away from a too-busy outer world: I find it very rewarding to learn, in groups, in relationship with one person as in therapy, or by myself.

They make sense of this my decision to share this blog with my students as I try to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlement, and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have.

They help make sense of our work at UC to have the students’ experience at the centre of their academic study, drawing on course material (in all its forms) to help them make sense of what they’ve believed (Assignment 1), what they’ve observed (Assignment 2) and what they’ve tried on prac (Assignment 3).

Unlike Rogers, I haven’t lost interest in being a teacher. (Nor do I believe that he ever did.) Rogers helps me think more clearly about the kind of teacher I want to be.  I’m 65, have been teaching for 40 years, but being a teacher – in the Rogerian sense – keeps me looking to the future. It seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that [which] I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality.

Goethe on theory’s relationship to experience

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

One outstanding problem Goethe identifies is the dependence we come to have on ‘theory’ – and here he might well be talking not about science but about literature or political history or moral philosophy. When we get excited too quickly, too early, by a theory it stops being merely that – a provisional attempt to codify and explain experience. Instead it becomes a substitute for – and ultimately a bar to – experience. So that someone in the grip of a theory cannot really recognize what is before their eyes.

This isn’t ultimately to say that there is no place for theory –and, in any case, Goethe has plenty of theories of his own. The distinction he is trying to draw – and it is a highly pertinent one – is to do with the stage at which you apply the theory, and what role it plays in your experience.

 [John Armstrong Love, Life, Goethe Penguin Books, 2007, p317]

I am currently trying to understand better the resistance open-minded and conscientious students have to certain kinds of theory. I’m interested in this for both personal and professional reasons.

The personal reason is to do with my own schooling. I was a curious child. I wanted to learn about the way the world worked, but I found theories to be a terrible barrier. Theories were presented to me as keys to unlock the way the world was; messy experience and independent thought were seen as much less dependable. There are others, the implication was, much better schooled and heaps more intelligent and perceptive than you. Learn what they thought; don’t waste time thinking it all through for yourself. I found it alienating and confusing. I wanted to try to make sense of my own experience. Sure, once I’d got my head around the problem and begun to see that some of my own thinking wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be, then it was helpful to turn to others for their help in getting me out of tangles. But not straight away, not before I’d at least had a go myself. I remember, though it’s 50 years ago, sitting in a history class learning about the French Revolution. It was interesting, this event where suddenly a kind of out-of-control blood-letting was released, a kind of unfeeling cruelty became the way to be. I had been reading ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, and wanted time to think about why Madame Dufarge was such a fascinating and popular figure, sitting there knitting at the foot of the guillotine, passing her acerbic comments as another head rolled. What was all this saying about people? What was it saying about some of cruelty I’d seen in my own school playground? But there wasn’t much time for this thinking; there was a test soon, on the causes of the Reign of Terror, and these causes were neatly summarized in our textbook. I remember trying to memorise the textbook’s summary by making a mnemonic out of the first letters of each ‘cause’.  The pace and the pedagogy were anathema to my slow way of thinking. Approaches to history teaching have advanced way beyond what I experienced in the 1960s, but the scars remain. I resented, and still resent, not being given the time to think for myself.

That’s the personal reason. The professional reason is the resistance some of my students have to theory. Armstrong, in the quote above, suggests that the resistance might have something to do with timing. Introduce theory too soon, and it becomes a substitute for experience. Some of my students have probably had a gutful of this kind of premature theorising, and have developed a resistance.

In a lecture earlier this year, I suggested that our relationship to theory could be thought about diagrammatically as follows:

First we experience something. It leads to some kind of affect, often unsettling, and further reflection reveals the existence of a gap: there’s something useful we don’t know, or some skill we lack. We then ‘think powerfully’, which often involves finding out what others have discovered; this is where theory comes into its own. We then act in the light of our new knowledge or perspective or skill, and we see what happens. Experience leads us to theory, which leads us to action. Goethe himself put it provocatively like this:

I hate everything I’ve merely learned – learning which doesn’t immediately enliven my thinking or enhance by capacity for action.

We’re grappling with this whole issue in our current secondary teacher education program here at the University of Canberra.  We begin many of our units with an invitation to our students to engage with nine Provocations which we’ve garnered from the fertile questions (Harpaz 2005) we find our students most often ask.

  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 stubjects?
  8. To what extent is teaching an intellectual pursuit?
  9. How will I control my students?

We then ask our students, in their major assessment pieces, to explore these questions through deep, research-informed, reflection on their experiences while out in the schools.

By the end of our course, most students seem more comfortable with their relationship to theory. It has become an aid to their attempts to address an experienced gap, not a substitute or diversion or an irrelevance.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway! This is the field of some of our research.

 *****

Armstrong, John (2007) Love, life, Goethe, Penguin Books

Harpaz, Y. (2005). “Teaching and Learning in a Community of Thinking.” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 20(2): 136-157.

Can a short story be a valid form of research or scholarship?

Distinguished Professor Art Bochner

I’ve just finished reading an article in an academic journal that was more like a good short story (Bochner 2012). The characters were engaging, there was a coherent and intriguing plot, and the themes (the significance of the dream world,  living life with authenticity, fears associated with moving beyond the familiar) are relevant for us teachers.

Furthermore, the article was written by a scholar. I discovered, when I searched for Arthur Bochner on the web, that he has written four books, scores of articles, won numerous awards, and is currently Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida. There’s no question that the article has been written by someone who has been deeply involved in scholarship for many, many years.

But is the article itself scholarly?

It tells the story of Art (the author) seeking the help of a therapist to make sense of a gnawing feeling that his successful career as a quantitative researcher is leading him to live an inauthentic life.  It begins:

I walk swiftly through the open door of my therapist’s office and take my usual position on the soft, black leather couch sitting against the windowless wall. For a client like me, a therapist’s couch is a significant symbol drenched in meaning, carrying the weight of history. True to form, this one is no ordinary couch. You don’t sit on it, you sit in it. The couch prompts a memory of the bean-bag chairs of the 1960’s—a prominent hippy symbol of freedom. Bean bags looked cushy and comfortable but turned out to make your butt sore and your back stiff, a reminder that freedom comes at a price. I can’t help wondering why Dr. Milton chose this couch. Shouldn’t a therapist’s couch provide something more than an illusion of freedom?

Can something which reads like a short story, which in many ways is a short story, be itself scholarly? Is this research?

I’m particularly interested in these questions because I’ve been experimenting with ways of writing about educational issues which might find some kind of home in the academic world. I enjoy writing. I like to use some of the techniques of what Tom Barone has called ‘literary non-fiction’ (Barone 2000). I want to find ways of including, in what I write about teachers and students,

actual felt process of life, the tensions interwoven and shifting from moment to moment, the flowing and slowing, the drive and directedness of desires, above all the rhythmic continuity of our own selfhood … (Susanne Langer, quoted in Barone 2000).

And this is what Art Bochner’s story does.

But is this research? Or  scholarship? Doesn’t an article like this belong in a literary journal rather than in an academic journal?

These are important questions for me, not only because of my own desire to write in ways which convey the ‘actual felt process of life’. They are also connected to my students’ questions about whether their own experience and thoughts can be expressed in their assignments, or whether these need to be ‘backed up by the research’. If Art’s story is ‘backed up’ by research (and his CV would imply that it is), there’s no direct evidence of it in the article itself.

If his article is the result of the creation of knowledge (Professor Kyd’s definition of research), then what evidence is there that we can trust this knowledge?

If the article is the result of a search for knowledge (Professor Kyd’s definition of scholarship), what evidence is there that this search has been informed by a scholarly community?

If we accept that Professor Bochner’s personal experience is valid research or scholarship, on what grounds do we reject our students’ personal experience if it’s not explicitly informed by research or scholarship?

My own tentative answer to these questions is something like this: This article is a short story, and is neither scholarship or research (though it’s almost certainly informed by both, and it’s clear that Professor Bochner’s other writing is research-rich and scholarly). We should continue to insist that our students show that their reflections on their experience are informed by communities of research and scholarship.

But I say this while at the same time remembering that I’ve argued in favour of giving a student a High Distinction for a story that read very much like Art Bochner’s.

Tentative answers. I’d welcome some discussion.

***

Barone, T. (2000). Aesthetics, politics, and educational inquiry. New York, Peter Lang.

Bochner, A. P. (2012). “Between Obligation and Inspiration : Choosing Qualitative Inquiry.” Qualitative Inquiry 18 (7): 535-543.