Thinkers are our Friends

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.

Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

7 thoughts on “Thinkers are our Friends”

  1. Just like any friend we need to be free to question what they do or say. As a science student theorists become part of every day life and helped shape wht you did. But alsways at the back of your mind was the power to question.

    As good educators we instill the idea of indenpent learning allowing students at any point to question and think , oh I see or why is it like that ect. So why do some eductours hold on for dear life to the theory of x. As you have said if you start to think x’s work is rubbish than the chance is that is true.

    Theory once chained and bond to pagers of a book is now thanks to technology free and open to all. How many of us get to the end of a course and look back on the shelve full of book’s and think right eBay here we come.

    Just like our learners we too need to free our mind’s , think and to question our once cherished friends.

  2. As a English Lit student at university (too long ago to mention!) I was so in awe of the writers we studied and the lecturers that all I could do was regurgitate the thoughts and comments of others. Sadly I dont think I had many original thoughts of my own, which is probably why I don’t remember much about what I studied (ok and maybe the alcohol!)
    I am enjoying my pgce so much more – and this article has helped me realise why. Being encouraged to think for myself and challenge what im reading is giving me a thirst for study again. I do think students generally are sometimes made to feel that a lack of general life experience somehow makes them less equipped to think in an original way! I often accepted whatever I read without question. But I don’t think I will anymore. Perhaps it’s time to revisit those poems and novels with an open mind, knowing that whatever I think of them is valid?

  3. I think everyone has questions… whether they vocalise them or not.
    Part of the challenge of schooling is that curricula can give the impression to teachers and students that there are ‘right’ answers. Kay puts her finger on the difference between completing courses and learning. Can you tell I have been reading Ivan Illich? So much information-gathering does not involve learning, even if it does mean passing assignments or exams and being awarded qualifications.
    Part of the unlearning on the PGCE course is to revisit the issue of the objectivity of knowledge, and whether there really is a body of right answers waiting to be transmitted from teacher to student to paper bypassing their brains and any learning on the way through.
    Much of our education system is neo-Platonist in form (two jokes in one phrase there), even if the knowledge that is transmitted is not necessarily ‘correct’ – it is the correct answer for the syllabus and level of learning.
    But if it is not out there waiting to be discovered – ET phone home – then it is to be discovered either in internal reflection, or in relationship to others.
    Theorists are absent identities, but they may be more present than present identities, and so they become friends who guide our thoughts and allow us space to think for ourselves. And that is the paradox – theorists do not give us the right answers in social sciences, but they ask us testing questions, and if we live with them they are ever living presences.
    The transition is, arguably, from ‘giving the right answers’ to ‘asking the right questions’.

    1. It was so liberating to say to the Year 1s the other day, what I’m going to be teaching you is not lots of stuff. I do know stuff, and I love sharing what I know, but what I love even more is teaching people how to go and find out their own stuff. To do that is a gift and a joy.

      1. Great post Louise, this is exactly how I feel about teaching too and I think I’ve become increasingly conscious of this this year as I’ve delivered the Tech For Learning course for the first time. If there is one thing I am proud of, it’s that all the tutors found their own path & explored technology relevant for themselves, their students, their subject specialisms and their settings. With this in mind I’m still trying to articulate where that positions me as ‘teacher’.

  4. I love the journey we take as teachers, Cathy, figuring and reconfiguring our identities. I’d love to come and spend some time with you and the Tech for Learning guys next year, if that’s possible?

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