The path to being a teacher educator is littered with lightbulb moments and often students switch these on for me. Last night, I got a text from a student who had been reflecting on her Northern College Cert Ed/PGCE experience against the backdrop of Subject Specialist conference at the University of Huddersfield.
The text said:
“…(if) others (were) feeling alone, that’s cos they don’t have Kolb or diClemente or Brookfield or Maslow or Coffield or Kline or Freire, they are our friends in Year 2.”
I’m sensing with growing unease that knowledge transmission is becoming king again in discourses around further and higher education, and that constructivist and humanist approaches are being overlooked and even mocked. I’ve no problem with knowledge transmission being part of the package – but why waste the opportunity of students being taught the skills and confidence to find out their own knowledge? Then you can be absolutely sure that a) it’s the knowledge that’s right for them and b) they can keep on finding knowledge! Long after you’ve stopped teaching them!! And they’ll feel great about themselves for doing so!!!
Sorry for the slight hysteria there. Like so much else, I’m struggling with how obvious this all seems.
As a rookie teacher educator, I fell hungrily on Stephen Brookfield’s ‘Four Lenses’ theory of reflection (edging towards reflexion), published in ‘Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher’ in 1995. Making the connection between practice and theory seemed to be key and I was – still am – deeply committed to the notion of ‘praxis’, that point where the two meet and share their energies, tipping into professional confidence and social impact. At first, when this didn’t seem to happen naturally either for my students or myself, I blamed the theorists themselves. Surely I wasn’t the only person to feel uneasy around Skinner in the 21st century? I began to gather writers of transformational education onto a Social Purpose Resource List (attached here), a process accelerated by the joys of Twitter. But it still wasn’t enough. I was finding praxis points now and again, but my students all too often were still labouring.
Then I had a lightbulb moment so intense that when I think back I can still see myself, standing in the Arched Barn of Northern College with a PTLLS group whose faces and names are fixed in my memory. It was last year, I was talking through the ‘Teaching for a Social Purpose’ model we’d designed to articulate our philosophy and a student said, “How do I reference that?” In an instant, I realised what I’d been missing. That ‘public theory’ was only further along a continuum from ‘private theory’, and that ‘private theory’ displayed in a classroom was no longer private. Closing the circle, I also realised that I’d found my own way back to social learning.
So, from then on, we stepped up as equals and thinkers became our friends. Drawing up the continuum had the effect of placing ‘thinkers’ (rather than ‘theorists’) relationally to one another. Students began to at first identify, then explicitly create, their own theories of learning. ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ was revisited as a metaphor to honour thinkers without being overly deferential to them. Our language changed: ‘Freire’ became ‘Paulo’ (“What about those conversations he had with Myles?”), ‘Wenger’ became ‘Etienne’, ‘hooks’ became ‘bell’. We began to access blogs and videos (“Ken!”). Students developed the courage and confidence to reference those thinkers that resonated with their own work, stepping free of the chains of academic propriety without breaking any of its rules, because those rules were finally understood. Yes, Nancy Kline is a theorist. No, it’s not OK to reference Wikipedia but it’s a great place to start your research. Yes, there’s something to learn from everyone, even if it’s that you don’t agree. Justify why you don’t agree!
Not everyone buys into this but that’s OK, I won’t stop trying. It’s scary to think of yourself as a thinker (it took me 40 years). It’s much easier to regurgitate stuff from books and probably really irritating to have a tutor who keeps asking in all sorts of polite, roundabout ways, “What are you assuming that’s stopping you thinking for yourself?” I see my role now as a connector, a Cilla Black of learning theory who brings together likely candidates (“Have you read…?”) until that spark ignites and reading takes off as a joyous, integrated, reflexive activity. And I’m hoping that social media will allow at least some of us to continue as a community of practice long after each individual’s course officially ends.
So, we are not alone. Theorists are our friends and we are theorists, connected virtually and equally as thinkers. Inspiration is only a smartphone away.