CPD Question Time

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I attended an event at LT Scotland’s Glasgow office last week (yes, in my holidays) which proved to be a stimulating event.

I can’t better the summary posted by Nick Hood.

 My question to the panel quoted from Fullan and Hargreaves’ ‘What’s Worth Fighting for in your School?’. I was about to ask it when I realised I was doing exactly what I was complaining about: using language that excludes those ‘not in the know’. Luckily I realised this in time and reframed the question. Here it is:

How do we mitigate against a ‘Balkanised culture’ in which separate factions reflect and reinforce very different group outlooks on learning and teaching, the curriculum, and 21st century education?

I had in mind not just those who sit at training or staff meetings with arms crossed and ‘lips pursed like a dog’s bottom’ but also those whose passion for the next new gadget or idea imbue them with a sense of virtue and superiority.

I’m afraid I fall into both categories at times.

Nick has a more complete summary of the thoughts of the panel. I was so worried about what I would say if the chair asked for my opinion that I fear I didn’t pay the fullest attention.

My feeling is that it is essential for a common understanding to be thrashed out prior to real change occurring. Shared meanings must not be assumed. Some consensus about definitions of such terms as self-directed learning, readiness and interest grouping, locus of control, multi-modal resources, authentic assessment, divergent thinking, is essential. Most importantly the notion that societal transformation is happening now and that the current way of doing things is untenable in the 21st century needs to be grasped by all concerned in education. Such radical reframing takes time and support.

 It is impossible to mitigate entirely against diverse clusters forming – that’s how people are – but open discussion about the philosophy of change and the impact this has on us all is one way to promote an ethos that is moving towards re-conceiving the culture, structure and processes in which we all learn.

‘He who has a why can endure any how’ Nietzsche

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The reasonable man accommodates himself to the world as it is. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. G. B. Shaw.

The beginning of wisdom starts with asking two questions: Why do we believe what we believe? and How do we know what we know?

These should be stamped on every school book, in every home where independence of mind and free thinking are advocated.

The children’s game where a child asks ‘Why?’ to every answer that an adult offers often ends with the adult becoming exasperated and perhaps even dismissive of the child’s quest for enlightenment (or attention). We only progress by learning things we don’t know. If we wish to learn more we need to take comfort from questions rather than fearing them. Ignorance is not dangerous if we admit to it. What a great message to convey to our children.

Without questions we can’t discover the hidden constrictions imposed upon us in order for us to fit in.

To be a free thinker means forever challenging assumptions; whether it’s those we’ve made or have been given to us, and to work towards beliefs and ideas of our own choosing. Freedom of thought means a perennial willingness to discover better ideas, smarter opinions, more worthy faiths, more honest feelings, a willingness not only to abandon ideas we’ve held dearly, but to actively seek moments of discovery, moments when we’ve learnt that we’ve adhered to a belief for the wrong reasons. Many rules and customs we preserve are arbitrary and nonsensical.

 One inhibition to free thinking is the fear of being wrong.

But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be.

 ~ Bertrand Russell (Principles of Social Reconstruction)

However, we are wrong. We are wrong much of the time. Much of what I write here will be wrong (except for this sentence). Even if we are brilliant, successful, happy and loved, we are wrong and uninformed much of the time. This is not our fault. None of our theories about the world are entirely true and that’s okay. If we had perfect answers for things, progress would be impossible, as to believe in the idea of progress requires belief in the many misunderstandings of the present.

It’s okay to be wrong if we learn something and grow from it. In fact, there’s no way to learn without making mistakes.

We must ‘cast a cold eye’ (as Yeats wrote) on everything we read and hear. Question it and look for other sources that can authenticate or corroborate what we find. We must learn to be sceptical and then learn to trust our instincts.

Other people can also hinder the development of independent minds.

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, to who has said it, even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your reason and your own common sense.

Buddha’s saying is the opposite of what children are told by most adults in their lives. Schools often teach them specific answers, many teachers test and judge them on their ability to memorise and internalise those answers, and parents define rules that control children’s lives in spite of their clear desires. We treat children as if they have no common sense – and sometimes for good reason. They need protection; they don’t understanding what is safe and what is not.

 Children survive only through conformity. It’s by recognising the behaviour of adults and adjusting to it, fitting in, that they’re able to survive. We are designed from birth for survival more than for freedom.

But unless and until they test the boundaries, both physical and intellectual, then they will not become autonomous.

Stories are the currency of human contact. R McKee


I was startled to have my pre-conceptions about the importance of narrative as a teaching tool challenged by a re-reading of Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed‘. Here Freire states that ‘Education is suffering from narration sickness’.

I have long believed that the most effective teachers are those who can tell a good story. Embedding complex ideas and concepts into a narrative framework enables youngsters to contextualise and move from situated to symbolic learning.

Everything is a tale: what we believe, what we know, what we remember, even what we dream. Everything is a story, a narrative, a sequence of events with characters communicating an emotional content. We only accept as true what can be narrated.

Fables teach us that human beings can absorb ideas and concepts through narrative, through stories, not through lessons or theoretical speeches. Characters must confront life and overcome obstacles, figures setting off on a journey of enrichment through exploits and revelations.

However, Freire claims that the story-teller is taking control and encouraging passivity in her listeners. The fundamentally narrative character of the teacher-student relationship ‘involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening Objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified’.

If ‘the teacher’s task is to “fill” the students with the contents of his narration — contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance’ then of course this eminent commentator is right. But I disagree that ‘the outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power’.

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) does not have to

lead the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content’ turning them ‘into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teacher.

This is the “banking” concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.

Freire’s book was published in 1968 and it describes education as it was then. Freire goes on to say that ‘knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry, human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other’. I vividly recall the excitement with which we read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ as student teachers soon after it was translated into English and the attempts we made to make learning more relevant, contextualised and fun for our pupils than it had been for us.

And how much better we have become since then. And I still believe that narrative is the basis of most good teaching.

The case for story-telling in education is powerfully made by Pat Kane in his report of a visit to a school in New York where computer games form the basis of everything that’s taught. He describes the school’s response to ’20 years of debate about how educators should respond to the gaming revolution’ where “highly immersive” learning experiences are created.

The pupils move through the curriculum by means of 10-week “missions” – scenarios in which they have a problem to solve, and take on dramatic roles (explorer, scientist, investigator, for example) to do so. .. Pupils here are “finding relevant resources, doing mathematical calculations, reading and analysing texts, designing tools, repairing broken systems, creating models, doing scientific experiments, building games, or a host of other activities”.

These missions are richly narrated and imagined. In The Way Things Work – a science-maths curriculum “domain” (a themed area of the curriculum), a video will be disrupted by the appearance of the Troggles, small creatures which like to invent things (but are terrible at it), and who leave mysterious packages of materials and messages around the school that the pupils have to piece together.

Thus, ‘the solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.”’

A recent example appears in LTS’ Connected magazine (not online yet): Science being taught through an interdisciplinary approach with a project based in the study of castles. The emphasis was on alchemy in the Dark Ages:

With the teacher writing letters from the King of the castle and setting the children a series of science-based challenges, including cleaning old coins in different liquids and examining tooth enamel erosion and blood types of mythical creatures, it’s little wonder that the pupils were fully engaged.

These examples beautifully illustrate Freire’s point that,

liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. .. Here, no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world …

Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation.

Problem-posing education affirms [learners] as beings in the process of becoming.

So the narrative becomes a point of departure, affirming learners as ‘beings who transcend themselves, who move forward and look ahead, for whom immobility represents a fatal threat, for whom looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future’.

I’ll continue to tell my stories and try not to let my own interpretations get in the way of real learning.

To be of importance to others is to be alive. T S Eliot

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I wrote here about the debilitating effects of a set mindset; one that ensures that learners ultimately become paralysed by the need to ‘be clever’ at all costs. People with fixed beliefs in their own abilities can all too easily become stuck in rigid patterns of behaviour as a result of too much emphasis on attainment rather than achievement. An incremental notion of intelligence, on the other hand, allows for – necessitates –  making mistakes as starting points for development. Our view of ourselves as worthwhile beings and our health and well-being are in large part dependent on our perception of our place in society. The biological is correlated with the sociological.

If we feel that we can only belong, that we only matter if we act in certain prescribed ways; if we are given generalised praise or blame for being ‘good’ or ‘poor’ (academically, socially) rather than for specific actions; if our being is witnessed as complete and immutable, then we will suffer.

A powerful book about depression notes the debilitating effect on animals of stressful envionments:

Animals can hurt themselves deliberately, and they frequently do if subject to excessive vicissitudes. Rats kept crowded together will chew off their own tails. Rhesus monkeys reared without mothers begin self-injuring actions at about 5 months; this behaviour continues throughout life even when the monkeys are placed in a social group. These monkeys appear to have lower than normal levels of serotonin in crucial areas of the brain.

The author tells the distresing story of a creature with whom, before I read this, I could never have envisaged correlating with any human experience:

I was fascinated to hear of the suicide of an octopus, trained for a circus, which had been accustomed to do tricks for rewards of food. When the circus was disbanded, the octopus was kept in a tank and no one paid any attention to his tricks. He gradually lost colour (octopuses’ states of mind are expressed in their shifting hues) and finally went through his tricks a last time, failed to be rewarded, and used his beak to stab himself so badly that he died.

How many of our children are rewarded, positively or negatively,  for their tricks? How many youngsters damage themeselves psychologically or physically because they feel they are only noticed for set attributes (good girl, clever boy, at foundation level, a Level B reader...) rather than for the unique individuals they are?

It is our communal responsibility to ensure that no child  subjects her or himself to such acts of self destruction.


Dr Seuss says it all

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This is what it\'s all about!Oh, The Places You\'ll Go!            

The quote on my header illustrates my aim for this blog: to explore what I have ‘read’ so as to think about what it means to be literate in the 21st century, and how I as a teacher can best help children and young people to discover the excitement of learning – in whatever style suits them best.