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.

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.)


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.


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.

Research and the reflective practitioner

In response to a blog post of mine about reading academic journals, a former student wrote this:

I rarely had the patience with journal articles as a student, and had I realised back then that I wouldn’t be expected to read widely as a practitioner I would possibly have used that as an excuse to not plough through.

Why do we ask our students to read journal articles? What does ‘keeping up with the research’ offer the practising teacher?

Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson, author of The Geek Manifesto, has little doubt about the importance of ‘keeping up with the research’. Speaking on Radio National’s ‘The Science Show’ yesterday (July 21st) , he said:

… there’s little thinking about how [a] scientific approach could contribute to creating better policy, producing evidence through some of the tools of science, randomized controlled trials, for example…, to really show whether different interventions work or not, and we don’t do that … I might highlight an example of where we might use a more evidence-based approach, and that’s the teaching of reading. … If we were to do a proper randomized control trial of phonics versus other forms of teaching children to read, we would be able to actually answer that question [of what works in the teaching of reading].

Wouldn’t it be grand if the tools of science could tell us what works and what doesn’t in the classroom!

I don’t think they can, though.

Last week, I had conversations with two pre-service teachers who, co-incidentially, had had the same English teacher when they were in Year 7. Each described to me the no-nonsense approach of the teacher, someone with high standards and an intolerance of any excuse offered when a student wasn’t able to finish the assigned reading. One of the pre-service teachers told me how that teacher had turned around his whole attitude towards reading, and how by the end of the year he was reading novels at the rate of one a fortnight. The other described how he spent the year refining his strategies of disguising his inability to finish a book.

Schon's bookDonald Schon tackles this issue in his book Educating the Reflective Practitioner.

The professional schools of the modern research university are premised on technical rationality. Their normative curriculum, first adopted in the early decades of the twentieth century as the professions sought to gain prestige by establishing their schools in universities, still embodies the idea that practical competence becomes professional when its instrumental problem solving is grounded in systematic, preferably scientific knowledge.

Because the unique case falls outside the categories of existing theory and technique, the practitioner cannot treat it as an instrumental problem to be solved by applying one of the rules in her store of professional knowledge.

The student cannot be taught what he needs to know, but he can be coached.

If Schon is right (and I think he is), what then is the purpose of asking our students to read academic journal articles? And is my former student right when he says that he’s not expected to read widely as a practitioner?

I suspect that my former student probably is right, despite the moves currently being made to mandate ongoing professional development for teachers. But I wish he were wrong. While journal articles will never tell us the answers to questions like ‘what is the best method for teaching reading?’ or ‘how can I best control my classroom so that my students learn?’, they will help the practising teacher in other, deeply important, ways.

First of all, the best of them will help a practising teacher to see more.  The ideas he or she finds in good journal articles help make visible what the day-to-day, externally-generated pressures of the moment can hide. The complex and often challenging world of the classroom can seem, especially to the beginning teacher, a place beyond comprehension, an unnatural world where motivations are malevolent or mysterious, confusions are obstacles, and where ideals are luxuries best quickly abandoned. Talk in the staffroom tends to re-inforce this unhelpful view of things. ‘The students don’t want to learn. They’re just hedonists. There’s no point in trying to teach them anything.’ Good educational ideas help us to see a bigger, more encouraging, picture.

Secondly, journal articles (the useful ones) help us to act. They give us access to potentials and agency without which we can feel buffeted around by forces beyond our control. When we see more about the reality of what’s in front of us, we’re more likely to have more useful  ideas about what to do in what Schon calls ‘the indeterminate zones of practice [which] escape the canons of technical rationality‘.

And thirdly, reading good journal articles helps us to connect. Through reading, we become joined to a community of thinkers; we are encouraged (given courage) through the knowledge that others have insights about our predicaments and challenges.


Donald A. Schon  Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions (Higher Education Series) Kindle edition

On reading academic journal articles

I’m teaching secondary preservice teachers a unit on literacy. Our textbook is Cris Tovani’s Do I really have to teach reading?, a book that most of the students enjoy for its readability and relevance.

We also ask the students to read journal articles, and there’s always some resistance. Some students complain (sometimes quite justifiably, in my view) about the language; others find the ideas impenetrable or irrelevant.

It’s interesting to be grappling with this resistance while at the same time doing a unit all about literacy. Tovani suggests many ways we teachers can help our secondary students with their reading of difficult texts. Would these same techniques work for our preservice teachers when faced with an apparently impenetrable journal article?

We’ve been exploring this idea in our weekly afternoon Voluntary Reading Group. Every Thursday, between 10 and 15 of us gather for an hour or so to use some of Tovani’s approaches to help us get into one of the prescribed journal articles. It’s been working well.

This afternoon we’re going to be looking at an article by Wilson and I’Anson called ‘Reframing the practicum’ (Wilson 2006). I re-read it yesterday, and was interested to observe how I went about it.

First of all, it made me mad. This is not atypical for me; it often happens, when I’m being forced to enter into an author’s world, to get attuned to the author’s concerns and language. I am gripped by a strong resistance. It’s rare (but wonderful!) when a journal article draws me in, like a good short story; usually I have to force my way through my initial resistance and irritation.

The irritation this time was around the language. The opening paragraph is made up of six complex sentences, many of them riddled with the off-putting passive voice: ‘is usually regarded’ … ‘has been regarded’‘is seen as desirable’ … ‘it has been claimed …’ Where are the people in this story? Who is doing the regarding? Who is seeing things as desirable? Who is making the claims? George Orwell suggested we should never use the passive voice when the active will do. I agree. The overuse of the passive in educational articles is, in my view, a hangover from a misguided attempt to speak with the voice of an objective expert reporting on what the data has unambiguously revealed.

Then there is the language, in particular the unnecessary jargon:  ‘the nature and implications of the practicum setting need to be thematised’ [354] (jargon + passive). Here are two other examples:

Fundamental to this vision of the practicum, and inherent in the operationalisation of the complementary practicum outlined in this paper, is the dialogical relationship that obtains between the student and coach. [355]

The production of this performative text in turn enables a distanciation in which problematics can emerge and become the focus of subsequent reframing of practice. [359]

So I hack my way through these irritations, because I know they’re partly (though only partly) the result of my natural resistance to what is new and unfamiliar.  Tovani suggests that it helps if we trust the author. If we trust the author, she says, we’re more likely to open ourselves up to a fruitful search for meaning.

But there’s another concern I find I’m having, as I puzzle my way through the beginnings of this article. There’s lots of talk about Schon, and while I know who Schon is and have a good-enough knowledge of what his book on the reflective practitioner was about, I wonder whether my students will have this necessary background knowledge.

Schon’s work was about the relationship of theory to practice. He wrote:

…as we have come to see with increasing clarity over the last twenty or so years, the problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations …

These indeterminate zones of practice – uncertainty, uniqueness, and value conflict – escape the canons of technical rationality. When a problematic situation is uncertain, technical problem solving depends on prior construction of a well-formed problem – which is not itself a technical task. When a practitioner recognizes a situation as unique, she cannot handle it solely by applying theories or techniques derived from her store of professional knowledge. And in situations of value conflict, there are no clear and self-consistent ends to guide the technical selection of means.

It is just these indeterminate zones of practice, however, that practitioners and critical observers of the professions have come to see with increasing clarity over the past two decades as central to professional practice. (Schon Educating the Reflective Practitioner 1988, pp4-7)

Schon was especially interested in the kind of learning that takes place when coaches train athletes, or in a musical master class, or in an artist’s studio when an apprentice is learning from a master. Knowing something about Shon’s work and the questions he was grappling with helps make sense of the Wilson article. Perhaps it would help my students if they knew more of this context before reading the article.

And there’s another worry that I have to resolve before I can settle into a more productive reading. Is this an article for teacher educators (like me), or for preservice teachers? What value will our preservice teachers get from reading it? How will it help them either in developing their own teacher knowledge or skills, or in understanding the rationale behind the way we do things in our course and with our assessments? I’ll just ask my students this question at our next Reading Group.

Having vented some of my irritations and aired some of my questions, I’m now feeling ready to mine the article for what it might offer up to me.  And I discover quite a bit.

The article makes me think about the difference between being a teacher in your own classroom (with all the complex and sometimes competing demands) and the kind of simplified and supported experience we want our preservice teachers to have. It gives me ideas about the relationship between the university and the schools, and how recent changes in our Faculty policy around professional experience are consistent with what Wilson and l’Anson are lauding. It provokes me to think of ways in which I might rejig some of my units next year so that my students have more of an experience  of microteaching in the ways that the authors describe.

That’s what the article offers me.

What does it offer my students? I’m not sure. Maybe they come to understand better why we’re asking them to reflect on, and analyse, their Assignment 3 event? Maybe they become more aware of the importance of bridging the theory-practice divide? Maybe. I’ll ask them.


Wilson (2006). “Reframing the practicum: Constructing performative space in initial teacher education.” Teaching and Teacher Education 22: 353–361.