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.

Seeing multiplicities and assemblages

I was a school teacher for thirty years, a psychotherapist for ten, and for the last four years have been an academic. These last four years have partly been about trying to understand, more deeply, the experience of the previous forty.

During these four years I’ve been searching for a methodology; I’ve now settled on what I’ve been calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’ve been searching, too, for a writing genre or form that works for me; writing fiction is increasingly my thing.  I’ve also been casting around for some theoretical lens that might help provide the language for what I see though a dark glass darkly; the strange, tangled and complex language of Deleuze and Guattari continues to illuminate.

I want to bring this D&G lens into my current project, which is to write a short story about a small group of teachers attempting to manage within a problematic structure.

In my story, these three or four teachers are trying to manage their own individual and collective desires to do work which is in accord with their values and their needs (both of which are complex). And these values and needs sit in some kind of tension with the values and needs of the structures within which the teachers work. The story is therefore going to be about power, agency and motivation. This is just another way of saying that it’s going to be about libido.

There are a number of D&G concepts which I think are going to be useful (though it’s something of a challenge to think of ways I can employ concepts like these in a short story).

The body without organs

This is a wonderfully slippery and rich concept.

I’m imagining a teacher as a body without organs, ‘a body populated by multiplicities’ (Thousand Plateaus p34), animated by ‘forces at work within them’(p. 35). ‘A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs … is distributed according to crowd phenomena’ (p.34) 

I’m also imagining the hierarchical structure within which the teacher works as a Body without Organs.  This hierarchical BoW reacts to the ‘forces at work within them’, to the the libidinal flows and intensities in the following way:

An apparent conflict arises between desiring-machines and the body without organs. Every coupling of machines, every production of a machine, every sound of a machine running, becomes unbearable to the body without organs. Beneath its organs it senses there are larvae and loathsome worms, and a God at work messing it all up or strangling it by organizing it. “The body is the body/it is all by itself/and has no need of organs/the body is never an organism/ organisms are the enemies of the body.”* Merely so many nails piercing the flesh, so many forms of torture. In order to resist organ-machines, the body without organs presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier. In order to resist linked, connected, and interrupted flows, it sets up a counterflow of amorphous, undifferentiated fluid. In order to resist using words composed of articulated phonetic units, it utters only gasps and cries that are sheer unarticulated blocks of sound. We are of the opinion that what is ordinarily referred to as “primary repression” means precisely that: it is not a “countercathexis,” but rather this repulsion of desiring-machines by the body without organs. (Anti-Oedipus p9) [Thanks Greg Thompson for pointing me to this passage.]

 None of this makes logical sense. How can a teacher be both a BwO in conflict with desiring-machines and at the same time a libidinal-charged desiring machine? That’s what I’m enjoying about D&G; they seem to be pushing into rich territory that lies beyond that which can be explored through logic.   

Exterior masses and internal aggregates

A valued colleague and I had conversations last year about the intrapsychic. Does it deserve our scholarly attention? Or should we instead be focussing our attention on the ways in which identity and agency is energetically brought into being by social context and relations? Post-Freudian psychoanalytical theory has wanted to emphasise  the interpersonal and social at the expense of the intrapsychic.

I like the way D&G restore a balance. When they write ‘ There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages … [Thousand Plateaus p41], they’re not just talking about external assemblages. In their preceding paragraph they write:

Above all, it should not be thought that it suffices to distinguish the masses and exterior groups someone belongs to or participates in from the internal aggregates that person envelops in himself or herself. They are always relative, changing, and reversible, but between different types of multiplicities that coexist, interpenetrate, and change places—machines, cogs, motors, and elements that are set in motion at a given moment, forming an assemblage productive of statements: ‘I love you’ (or whatever) …  [Thousand Plateaus p41]

So, when I’m writing my story, I’m wanting the writing to come from (even if it never mentions) an awareness of these teachers as ‘statement-producing mechanic assemblages’, populated and animated by by libidinal flows and intensities between the different kinds of multiplicities that co-exist, interpenetrate and change places’.

Gently tipping through a meticulous relation with the strata

I love this much quoted and rich passage from A Thousand Plateaus.

Staying stratified—organized, signified, subjected— is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever. This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times. It is through a meticulous relation with the strata that one succeeds in freeing lines of flight, causing conjugated flows to pass and escape and bring forth continuous intensities for a BwO. Connect, conjugate, continue: a whole ‘diagram,’ as opposed to still signifying and subjective programs. We are in a social formation: first see how it is stratified for us and in us and at the place where we are; then descend from the strata to the deeper assemblage within which we are held; gently tip the assemblage, making it pass over to the side of the plane of consistency. It is only there that the BwO reveals itself for what it is: connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities. You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines. (Thousand Plateaus p187 )

I want its spirit to infuse my story, a story of a group of teachers trying to find a way of gently tipping an assemblage to mark out a small plot of land.

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.)


On being made dizzy and earnest by Deleuze and Guattari

When Deleuze and Guattari are writing Anti-Oedipus, and writing about these dynamics (desiring machines, the body-without-organs, the three syntheses), at what were they looking? About what were they writing? Where might I observe a body-without-organs? Where might I look to see a desiring machine? What’s the unit they’re imagining? I can see that I haven’t got a clear grip on this. I keep wondering where I might see these processes in action, but I struggle. So, maybe if I become a bit clearer about what D&G were looking at when they were writing, what it was that they were picturing, maybe it would become clearer to me.

The title, Anti-Oedipus, should help. Freud, in writing about Oedipus, was writing about patterns and processes of the unconscious, patterns which influenced (determined?) behaviour and formed a sense of self. D&G think that Freud’s psychology is narrowly deterministic, bleak and inward-looking. Narrowly intrapsychic, perhaps. Like Klein and Winnicott, and in a way like Jung too, D&G are wanting to shift the focus to a more inter-relational place: desiring machines coupling, channeling flows, experiencing blocks and so on, as different couplings take place. These are body/minds, not just unconscious psychological processes. And these organisms, these body/minds, are not just a single entity in a human individual (an individual unconscious); the human body itself (is it a body-without-organs, in the sense that D&G use this slippery concept?) is made up of lots of desiring machines coupling and uncoupling, driven/animated by desire and whose dynamics are described (say D&G) by the three synthesis. Everywhere there is life there is production, recording and consumption; everywhere there is creating, frustration, repetition and difference.

Everywhere. This process that animates is present not only within individuals but also within the socius, the social body. Anti-Oedipus is also a response to Marx. I’m even less clear about exactly what D&G are objecting to with Marx; I’m clearer (I think) about why they employ (but play with) Marxist concepts: production, machines, surplus, capitalism. D&G are wanting to say that the processes which drive the individual body/mind are the processes that drive the social body/mind as well.

So, as I read and try to make sense of what they’re writing, one moment the body-without-organs seems to be the individual’s body (I’m not sure about this), the next it’s (in historical order) the gods, the despot, capitalism. And, as I read, I keep imagining the body-without-organs as the school, the university, any institution (socius?) that appropriates the productive capacities of the part-objects (the people whose labour fuels these bodies-without-organs): recording, appropriating, directing, blocking and bestowing a sense of identity upon the desiring machines (in this case people) who make up its engine.

So maybe D&G are elusive in all of this because they’re wanting to conceptualise something that’s elusive but omnipresent. The book is like a big, rambling, complicated poem, full of allusions, metaphor, shifting images, unconscious shifts, aiming to make an impression, have an effect and create a felt response rather than the kind of thinky one I’m attempting here.

I’m reading Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects at the same time as reading Anti-Oedipus. Stewart’s book is obviously in the D&G tradition: desire, flow, affect, event, interruption, trajectory are ideas she keeps returning to. But it’s so different from Anti-Oedipus! It’s so concrete, so set in actual human lives.

I suspect that part of my struggle is my age and background. Some of my younger colleagues and some of my students are at home with postmodern texts in a way that doesn’t come so easily to me.

As I was about to post this, I noticed one of my six aphorisms from my last post, aphorisms I wrote roughly 20 years ago:

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


Six aphorisms

The unexpected objects you find when wandering in a labyrinth!

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

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

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

Instead, I’ve ‘found’ some objects.

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

So that was the first ‘found object’.

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

Here are the first six:


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


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


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


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


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


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

The Queen’s Journey: Meditation 3 + segue

To segue, my dictionary tells me, is to move smoothly, and I’m not sure that this segue is going to be all that smooth. But here goes anyway.

I’ve been writing about The Queen’s Journey story. In one of my meditations, I played with the idea that stories like this say something about the drives that are built into our DNA, or into our systems. It’s something along the lines (I think) of what Spinoza was meaning by the term conatus, or Schopenhauer meant by the term will, or Nietzsche was thinking when he talked about the ‘will to overcome’. It’s what I’ve called, in other posts (following folk like Freud and Jung) unconscious desires and fears that animate.

Well, I’ve recently been trying to get my head around the writings of Deleuze and Guattari. At the moment I’m slowly reading Anti-Oedipus, and at the same time I’ve reading a commentary on the book, as well as a book on Deleuze and educational methodology. It’s slow, slow work. A colleague once told me that you’re meant to read Deleuze like you read mythology or poetry, not trying to pin down the meaning but letting the prose have an affect, letting it do its work. I guess that’s what I’m experiencing, though this doesn’t mean just opening myself up to it. Like some poetry, it means really working hard. I’m not sure exactly how this work should be done, but I’m guessing that the reading (and re-reading) that I’m doing, the highlighting (and the continual going back to the highlights to try to see threads) and the thinking I’m trying to do, are all a part of ‘letting the prose have an effect’.

I’m also thinking that writing something might help, even if I risk exposing my inability to grasp essential Deleuzian concepts. So I’m going to try here, and I’m going to try by relating what I’m reading to what I was writing about ‘the drives that are inbuilt into our DNA’.

Not all that smooth a segue, I suspect, but it was an attempt!


Deleuze and Guattari write about desiring machines, part objects that (I think I am right) are formed or characterized by three functions (which they call synthesis, a term I’m assuming they use because the functions are a collection of drives brought together to form a recognizable single function or process). First there is the connective synthesis of production. Then there is the disjunctive synthesis of recording. (There is a third – the conjunctive synthesis of consumption/consummation, which I’ve yet to get my head even close to being around, so I’ll leave that out here.)

Here’s the leap I’m making: I’m assuming that these two functions or characteristics of part objects (a cell, a mouth, a leaf, even a person, a forest) are related to what I’ve called above ‘the unconscious desires and fears that animate’. If I’m understanding D & G correctly (or even roughly), they’re saying that what animates a part object (an organism, but ‘part’ because it’s always needing to be joined up to another organ or organ-ism) has three stages, the first two being (1) the drive to produce (to create or direct flows of energy by joining up with other organs/organisms), and (2) the business of recording (or registering, thinking about, noticing, having the drive somehow imprinted). They are saying (I think) that each of these stages (and presumably the third as well, but perhaps I’ll get to that in another post) are beyond the control of the subject, and that indeed they create the subject (rather than the subject creating, for example, the recording). The subject does not create the syntheses and a sense of identity; the syntheses create the subject and the identity.

I know that what D&G are saying is much more complex and subtle than this, but I’m trying to relate it to things I’ve thought and things I’ve experienced. I’m hoping that my reading and my understanding will become more refined from this attempt.

Before finishing, though, I want to try to relate this to what I think happens in a classroom. A part-object (a student) is animated by the part objects of which he/she is made. These part-objects of which the student is made animate the student, produce in the student flows  which the student part-object then unconsciously directs as it comes into contact with other part-objects (words, teachers, other students, ideas). As these flows of energy are produced, and as they come into contact with other part-objects involved in the business of production (they are all, after all, desiring machines attempting to channel their desires in pleasurable ways) the impulses/experiences are recorded in some way, and the recording has an effect or effects: flows are redirected, shut off, increased, provided with connections which are excited, rebuffed, ignored or whatever.

I’m struggling to see what this theoretical lens offers me, though I’m sure it is offering me something important. Obviously I must first become clearer about what D&G are actually saying.

I’ll keep reading & thinking & writing.

Mythopoetic knowing

How do I come to know anything? How do I know that what I think I have come to know has any kind of validity or usefulness? Are ‘usefulness’ and ‘validity’ two quite distinct things?

These seem, suddenly, quite pressing questions. My workplace is moving towards a more collaborative approach to research. I’ve already begun work in a small research collective, and the signs are that I’ll soon be working in a much bigger one.  The bigger collective will be working on projects of ‘national and international significance’. I know that I’ve been moving, in recent years, to a more consciously articulated ‘way of knowing’, which I’ve been calling here (following Macdonald) mythopoetics. In my bigger research team, I’ll need to be able to speak about what I think I can offer, as (for example) a research team investigates something like the connection between a nation’s desire to raise standards of professionalism and the introduction of accountability measures.

What contribution might mythopoetics make?

(I’ve picked this example because it was the question addressed in an excellent seminar at my university given by a visiting scholar last month.)

If I try to imagine a research team working on such a project, it’s easy to see how more traditional researchers might employ their methodologies to help come up with knowledge that is both useful and valid.

The statistician would look (as the visiting scholar did) at a wide range of national and international data to tell us something about student achievement, levels of teacher education, professional development trends, accountability measures and so on. The emphasis would be on the longitudinal and the big picture.

The sociologists and the critical theorists would contribute knowledge about societal dynamics and differences, and about the nature of the discourses operating (and their tensions), and about power differentials; we’d end up knowing more about the worlds in which policy makers, administrators and practitioners talk and think about their work, and about societal pressures that shaped certain decisions and outcomes.

What would mythopoetics contribute? As a mythopoetic scholar, what might I come to know about professionalism and accountability? How could I be confident that what I might know could be either valid or useful?

The mythopoetic approach seems to sit on very shaky ground. It rests on the belief that the unconscious is real, that it knows things, and that there are ways to access that knowledge. A mythopoetic methodology, then, is a communication between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Its sources are intuition and the imagination. It is, as Margaret Somerville has called it, a methodology of emergence. It involves patiently sitting with a question or an issue and allowing meaning to surface, then wrestling with what emerges in order to put it through some kind of refiner’s fire to test its validity and usefulness.

It is the methodology of the novelist and the poet, confronted with the blank page and guided by what emerges through the rigorous and disciplined attention given to the craft of creating an object that approximates, as closely as possible, a sense of the real, the authentic.

It is Proust coming to understand family, love and memory; Tolstoy making sense of war; Rilke opening our eyes to the invisible and numinous.

Creating accessible texts for our students

The great majority of my students complain that the literature we ask them to read in our courses, the literature we require them to reference in their assessment tasks, is dry, inaccessible and unhelpful. A few persist and find (as I do) a community of scholars which connects and extends. The majority do what is needed to pass, forget what they’ve read, and are then easy prey for the staffroom cynics who tell them that academic learning is useless.

Art Bochner (Bochner, 2012)has some sympathy with this majority. Writing about the kind of research literature which dominates our courses, he remarks

Readers are not encouraged to see and feel the struggles and emotions of the research participants. Normally, we deprive them of an opportunity to care about the particular people whose struggles nourish the researcher’s hunger for truth. Thus, narrative inquiry has evolved as largely a cognitive activity in which investigators present themselves as disinterested spectators, surveying, watching, analyzing, and reporting at a distance about people’s personal, institutional and cultural lives. Although contradictions, emotions, and subjectivities may be recognized as concrete lived experiences, they usually are expressed in forms of writing that dissolve concrete events in solutions of abstract analysis. The reader is left to look through a stained glass window, to use Edith Turner’s (1993) apt analogy, seeing only murky and featureless profiles. The concrete details of sensual, emotional, and embodied experience are replaced by typologies and abstractions that remove events from their context, distancing readers from the actions and feelings of particular human beings engaged in the joint action of evolving relationships. 159

He concludes

If our research is to mean something to our readers — to be acts of meaning — our writing needs to attract, awaken, and arouse them, inviting readers into conversation with the incidents, feelings, contingencies, contradictions, memories, and desires that our research stories depict. 158

I agree. That’s why I’m drawn to what Bochner calls ‘fictionalised ethnography’ and what I’ve been calling ‘mythopoetic scholarship’.

At the same time, though, there’s an inherent danger in this move to create accessible texts. The challenge is to resist the lazy or over-committed student’s demand that everything be made easy, the growing tendency in the current competitive higher education environment to sacrifice rigour for instant gratification. Fictionalised ethnography could easily slip down this slope. We need to write stories that unsettle as well as attract.

If, as Bochner says in this article (and I love the way he says it!), ethnographic fictions are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world’, then significant struggle needs to have given birth to the knowing and be a consequence of the telling.

I’m pretty sure Bochner would agree.  He sees these kinds of stories as being ‘a material intervention into people’s lives, one that not only represents but also creates experience, putting meanings in motion’.  157


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



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.