The case for reflection…

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I was really inspired last night by a post from @headguruteacher on twitter about the importance of agility in the classroom – the ability to respond in the moment and to move a lesson forward, sideways, backwards if necessary, in order to be effective. It was a great post. I’d add to this idea of agility, the importance of an agile identity – switching between teacher and researcher; actor and thinker. We are, too often, as teachers, stung and wounded and it is all to easy to sting back. It is time, there has never been a more important time, to use all the small acts of subversion we can muster in order to ensure that we, as a profession, reclaim the reflective responsibility to act on behalf of the children we teach. Not on behalf of our own careers and reputations; not on behalf of the survival of our school; not for Ofted; not for government, but on behalf of the children. To do this, we need to reclaim our identities as academics – as researcher-teacher; as agile thinkers. To lick our wounds and better understand how they were inflicted and why. This is our professional responsibility and it is why I was so heartened to read @headguruteacher and @kevbartle and why the work of @headsroundtable is so important.

Below is a little extract from my doctorate – it asks whether or not the pressure to conform in education is inhibiting our ability as teachers to truly reflect and to build positive relationships with children. It’s just a little snapshot of how I responded to possibly one of the worst lessons I ever taught. If nothing else, it will make you think ‘there but for the grace of God…’

Extract:

In the Year 9 options handbook at our school, there is the following statement:-
“Do not make choices based on whether or not you like or dislike your current teacher. You may well have a different teacher next year.’

There is an assumption, based on many years of anecdotal evidence, according to the senior management team, that children make important life choices based on their emotional responses to relationships in the classroom. Yet in the criteria for observation, there is nothing said about the relationships in the room. This, asserts the headteacher, is ‘inferred’ throughout, which it is, when you think about it, but it’s never expressly said. And I think it should be.

Elsewhere in school, conversations are sometimes overheard in which children speak of teachers and teachers speak of children:-

‘They’re little shits’ says one experienced teacher…
‘I hate her lesson – she’s a bitch’ says one child of a different, unknown teacher as I pass in the corridor…I hope it’s not me.

Such language is usually formed by a wound – it is a bleed from a cut made when one felt ones efforts were not recognised or appreciated or when a child feels they have been belittled or slighted. It is tempting to pick at the wound; to allow it to fester, but instead, it is healthier to examine the conditions that led to it being inflicted in the first place. Otherwise we become defined by our wounds and begin to believe that the only way to survive is to defend. But sometimes we need to simply look again and re-examine the relationships, expectations and assumptions that create the contexts in which we are working.

Relationships form the cornerstones of classroom interaction, but they are fraught with emotional tensions. In 2012, I returned to teaching full time and have been grappling with maintaining the thinking and beliefs I developed while working in Higher Education as a lecturer/researcher. One event from my past life returns to me often in the early hours of the morning. Often accompanied by a cold sweat:-

It is 2010. I have been asked to help a school develop a new curriculum and so for some months I have been a regular visitor, teaching children, training staff and co-writing a more contextualised and active curriculum model. In italics, below, are notes from my field journal taken from moments in school. In bold are notes after a day trip to Eyam in Derbyshire.

Monday morning. An inner city academy. I get out of my car and a group of boys strut towards me. From behind – the angle they can be viewed by their peers – they look threatening. But they are grinning.

‘Who are you going to be today Miss?’

I shrug and smile back at them.

‘It must be great being you. Do you wake up and think ‘Ooh who shall I be today?’ You can be anything you want can’t you?’

‘Can’t we all if we’re just pretending?’

‘I am sitting on a lawn beside some stocks in the plague village of Eyam with a Year 7 class. We’re sort of in a circle which keeps shifting its shape as the children shove and shuffle, pinch and wriggle away from/closer to each other. On a bench about ten feet away are four elderly people – day visitors to the village, clutching their leaflets and watching with interest a real, live lesson taking place outdoors…..’

‘They are very excited. There are lots of wows. Some girls slip out of role to clap their hands like seals. ‘Cool’ say the boys as I play our time travel commercials.’

‘So…we’re going to put all that preparation you’ve been doing into action today…we’re going to create our own living museum, here by the information centre called ‘Footsteps through time’

/’Can we go to the sweet shop/
/Miss what are them camel things up there/
/Fuck off Connor, you dick/
/Miss they’re spoiling it/
/Shut up we’re supposed to be learning/
/ Miss are you married?/
/Do you live here Miss/
/I’m freezing/
/Leo, Shannon fancies you/
/I found this in the paper today Miss, look/
/Don’t make us do work Miss, we’re on a trip/
/Can we just go to the park?

‘The starter takes an hour. When I say it is time to go to the graveyard, they whoop and cheer and rush off….Their form teacher hands me back the video camera. She can’t meet my eye.

‘You’re really engaging them’ says the deputy head as I’m leaving – ‘that was brilliant.’ I smile and shrug but I feel smug.
‘It’s all about the context’, I say.

The same children, with the same teacher, on two different days. One in school, one out of school. As a teacher I am crushed. In the car, on the way home, between blinking back little prickles of tears, I think angrily ‘the little shits’. But all this studying has not been for nothing – my interest as a researcher is piqued. A disaster becomes data. I transcribe the video:-

‘Miss what are them camel things?’
‘What’s this bumpy writing?’
‘Are you married?’

Later, back in school, a teacher comments wearily ‘they just weren’t interested’, but the fact was that they WERE interested, just not necessarily in the things we wanted them to be interested in. Whose learning needs had most value? There was a disconnect between what I wanted them to learn and what they wanted to know. There was a disconnect between what they expected and wanted from the trip and what I wanted them to want. In school, it seemed, an exciting context was enough to lure their attention, perhaps partly because the environment around them held little to distract or stimulate them away from the purpose of learning. In Eyam, however, there was a whole new world competing for attention. The children lived in and around a large council estate in Bradford. I knew that many of them had never been out of the city, but I didn’t consider their need to just absorb the new environment. I wanted to guide them through it – to signpost what I had decided was important about being there. We were on different tracks and neither took notice of the other’s signals. We crashed. An earlier version of myself might have chalked the experience up to a ‘bad’ day and discarded it as ‘anomolous’ data since the vast majority of the empirical data being collected by the school on these children showed improvements in engagement and achievement. But this was not anomalous, it was interesting – an opportunity. And an amorphic researcher is nothing if not opportunistic.

‘When we take on the deconstructed researcher identity, we are transformed into tricksters who dandle about, questioning, playing, toying with any formulation of reality that stands as the paramount reality.’ (Ronai, 1998:419)

At that moment, I faced uncertainty – the possibility (or reality) of failure. But later I am reminded of Atkinson’s discussion of how ‘… not knowing who I am, rather than being an admission of failure, might constitute a new recognition of the multiplicities of self … a position where multiple identities may speak more clearly in multiple contexts …’ (2001: 307). She refers to Patti Lather’s ideas around how ‘being lost’ could be re-framed positively as a ‘… stammering knowing …’ (Lather 1997, 299).

The problem for teachers living in the day-to-day experience of school, is that there is little time for being lost and little tolerance of error. ‘Stammering knowings’ have no place in education despite the rhetoric for reflective practice. The model of reflection in school offers limited scope for questioning the structures in place – the emphasis is merely on the actions the teacher will take within the dominant model to meet the expectations of the dominant model. Questioning the premise on which the model is constructed is not an option open to teachers outside of social network sites, which may explain a huge expansion of the use of twitter and blogging as a tool for subversion among the teaching profession (see Chapter 7). As the stakes of accountability rise – in 2012, Ofsted raised the stadards by which teachers would be judged to be good or outstanding and changed the term ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requiring improvement’ (Ofsted 2012) – the sense of blame and culture of attack and counterattack grows. Those disconnects I describe above are not interesting to a teacher working under this pressure, they are a threat. A threat to the results, to the perceptions of SMT and Ofsted, to a sense of professional pride, to a sense of self worth. The emphasis on responsibility ratchets up the pressure to be perfect – outstanding – and anything that falls short is an emotional wound.

A researcher, on the other hand, can capitalise on such moments and become engrossed in them. In one role, responsibility restricts freedom; in the other, it demands freedom. So, in researcher mode, while I am troubled, I am stimulated into new thinking – thinking that doesn’t come without it’s own problems. The new possibility brings forward a new fear – of ‘dandling about’ in my researcher world and saying ‘ooh how interesting’ while the educational or pedagogical point is suppressed. It makes me feel better about myself, but I remain troubled that out there these children are being seen as a disgrace. I am troubled that they cheerfully recount their identities, like they’re playing answer phone messages from the past and that this self image is overwhelmingly negative. Half way through the lesson in Eyam, I say, in exasperation…

‘You’re behaving disgracefully right now! (and then, because I’m never one to miss a learning opportunity) What do you think that means, disgraceful?’

bad/
/like chavs
/idiots
We’re bad/
/ We’re evil, us, you can’t take us anywhere

I’m both appalled and intrigued at the fact that they seem to be embracing this negative identity (which has almost certainly been thrust upon them by adults in the past), and using that very language with cheerfulness, perhaps as a form of reclamation, certainly as a form of peer acceptance. What happens, I wonder, to a young mind who has so absolutely accepted the fact that they are a ‘chav’ or that they are ‘bad’ and how does this impact on their views of a future? On their aspirations? Is it this, rather than the content of the curriculum that we should be focusing on? Is it possible to do both? I re-view the data again and again and the implications seem numerous. Should we, the real teachers, me the visiting teacher/researcher, the school, focus on their sense of self, their behaviours, their learning? Should they be punished? Should I?

I re-read sometime later, no longer stung by falure and I look at my writing again. A plethora of definite articles – ‘the’ children and collective pronouns ‘they’. When things go wrong, I very quickly drop the ‘we’ and a line is drawn between me and them. I distance in defence. Even later, trying to rationalise and empathise, they are they and I am me. Wounded, I have separated myself from them. And I begin to wonder, when did that happen and how did it manifest itself? What impact was my shifting and distancing self having on the children in the moment of encounter and in what ways was that pulling back being communicated? These are important questions – they sit at the heart of a truly reflective process because they look for nuance and subtlety. But nuance and subtlety are not present in the structures through which teachers are held accountable. And I would argue that this leads to a sense that it is to the structure and the architect that the teachers feel most responsible and not to the children. Not because they don’t care, but because the policy makers and inspectors lay claim to knowing what is best for children and anyone who disagrees with their view is labelled in strong terms. Either they are politically deviant – ‘enemies of promise’ (Gove 2011) or ‘inadequate’ (Ofsted 2012). Instead we need to examine what can be done to shift the burden of responsibility back to where it might reasonably sit – a responsibility for the well being and human growth of children.

Putting the Heart Back into Learning

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I held a naughty child back last week for detention. He’d been shouting out and generally being annoying and so I kept him back. I know that the point of a detention is supposed to be a punishment, but for me, it’s a chance to get to know this person a little better. Why, I wonder does he demand so much attention? Well why not talk to him? He is in a very excited mood, despite being kept back. He’s going to see his Dad tonight – for the first time in 9 years. The last time he saw him, he tells me cheerfully, he was three years old and clinging to the leg of a police officer screaming as they arrested his father. He remembers it clearly. He says, “I’ve missed him every day.” So today, he found it hard to concentrate. Who can blame him? But then he says something that proves he had been absorbing the learning nonetheless.

“He wouldn’t be up there, Miss, on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but I still love him.”

We’ve been looking at Maslow as part of our exploration of The Switch, by Anthony Horowitz. Our key question (a lens through which the novel of the half term is viewed) is ‘To what extent am I a product of my environment?’ The sub questions the children have generated have included:-

‘If a child is raised by poor parents, can they still do well?’ (Hence we used Maslow as a basis for exploring what good parenting might look like).

‘Does a good education guarantee you happiness?’

‘Does being poor affect how you learn?’ (We watched the BBC documentary Poor Kids, examined some of the statistics and they developed action plans for improving the lives of those children living in relative poverty)

‘Is the world a fair place?’

‘Can empathy make the world fairer?’

The questions were all generated by the children in response to the key question and we used them as a basis for developing the curriculum. This kind of autonomy would make many traditionalists shiver, but fear not. We read a new book every half term, including some classic literature. The children have,  through these books, developed some key vocabulary which would impress the most die-hard knowledge addict – inflation, hyper-inflation, population growth, emigration, immigration, asylum, free markets, globalisation, polytheistic and monotheistic belief systems, eco systems, sanctity and sanctuary… and others. They’re thirsty for new words, ideas and knowledge. But not because it is the knowledge itself that they desire, but because the need to know it is rooted in an emotional centre.

The language they learn is remembered because it is critical to the role they are playing, or the character they are developing in and out of the central fiction. In their exploration of The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, it became critical in choosing a destination for the character fleeing from an oppressive regime, to know which kinds of society would welcome him. What the values, tolerances and immigration policies of that particular society might be. They researched and learned not because our topic was ‘Migration’ but because they were emotionally invested in the life of someone they were learning to care about.

If we genuinely want children to love learning and to remember it, we need to ensure that their hearts and minds are locked into enquiry. Facts without feeling are meaningless. I haven’t had to point to the work of Antonio Damasio and other neuroscientists for the children to understand that. They feel it.