The other morning my friend and colleague @alisoniredale introduced me to Helene Ahl’s powerful critique of motivation theory (and much more), via Twitter. Alison was tweeting a challenge to our collective Certs students to take a critical look at Maslow, post-PTLLS.
Maslow is a tricky one. We know the dominance of the hierarchy of needs has been extensively contested, because Jim Atherton and Geoff Petty tell us so, but on closer inspection most critiques are pretty functional, focusing on developing, rearranging or challenging the ‘truth’ of the taxonomy. Realistically, twenty minutes classroom discussion would dig plenty of holes in the plot with Maslow, but the basic structure is sensible enough to have stood firm all these years. Maslow works most of the time and rightly maintains its place on the nursery slopes of educational theory. It provides a useful, understandable ‘in’ for students who are beginning their studies, even if it does sometimes warp their understanding of what theory is: that theory always has to be a pictorial model (and one that’s been around the block, has probably been designed by a man etc etc).
But when I’m talking about developing criticality, I’m looking for something that goes deeper than a rearrangement of Maslow’s famous model. I’m wanting us – a genuine, collective ‘us’ – to tangle with the roots of what we read, and with our own thinking.
Helene Ahl encourages the reader to do this, but I nearly miss my chance. I download the article, then perform my usual trick of scrolling straight to the conclusion (don’t try this with a Miss Marple, you’ll spoil it for yourself). What I read there brings out all my academic self-esteem jackals:
This article has reviewed motivation theory and found it to be not only a hypothetical construct with questionable empirical support, but also a body of knowledge which privileges a Western, individualistic and androcentric view of humanity, and which marginalises community, social values and women.
(Ahl, 2006 p.402)
Hmmm. There are a lot of big words in there and I don’t immediately know what some of them mean. My choices are: mine down into them, mindlessly dismiss them or run away from them, listening to those untrue limiting assumptions that still hang about in my bones somewhere, frightened of engaging but not understanding. Luckily, I’ve learned that if I put my mind to unpicking the language of something that looks like a key paragraph, I can usually get to what I’m meant to understand.
I think of this key paragraph (usually in the conclusion and/or the abstract) as the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the meaning of the piece for me. Sometimes what it reveals is nothing – an Emperor’s New Clothes. Those articles go straight in the trash. But Helene Ahl’s work here is a gem; an angry polemic which uncovers a profound challenge to diversity in adult education. I appreciate that Ahls could not articulate such complex ideas using simple language. My only barrier to understanding is that for all sorts of socialised reasons, the vocabulary of Yorkshire Lou does not match the ease and precision of Swedish Helene.
But what of my barrier to criticality? I understand now what Helene Ahl is saying, but do I agree with it? Firstly, I need to get over the idea that what Ahl thinks is cleverer than what I think. I know from studying Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment that Helene Ahl and I are equals, as thinkers. I know from my own practice that theorists are our friends. I google Helene. She’s a professor at the University of Jonkoping in Sweden. I don’t even know where to put the umlauts in ‘Jonkoping’. She’s got a fearsomely long and impressive CV. She’s wearing a suit. She looks really nice. I’m sitting at my kitchen table in my nightie, my tea’s gone cold and the cat is on my lap. Helene probably lives in one of those effortlessly stylish houses I envy so much when I’m watching Wallander. At the other side of my table is a fearsomely tall and impressive ironing pile. The cat whines to go out…
You get the picture.
All these assumptions – and more! – are what stop me from thinking that I have the right to disagree with what Helene Ahl has to say here. I also have a strong cultural resistance to disagreeing with anyone at all, which might surprise those who’ve seen me shouting the odds at a football match. This is ingrained in British culture, even before internalised oppressions on the grounds of class, gender etc start layering on. Learning to disagree has got to be part of any academic programme of study.
That’s why a trained colleague, Angela Wright, is coming in to do a session with the TeachNorthern Year 1 Certs students on Philosophy 4 Children, or P4C. Don’t feel immediately patronised! P4C is a powerful process, based on Socratic questioning, which sadly didn’t thrive in its grown-up incarnation of Philosophy 4 Communities (makes me wonder why in our either/or society). One of the many advantages of P4C is that it teaches you to have the confidence to disagree. Despite, “disagree with the statement, not the person” appearing parrot-like on many group agreements, I’ve yet to find many adults who ARE confident in disagreeing assertively and empathically, from an open-minded viewpoint. When I do find those individuals, they immediately become role models for me.
I teach or support the teaching of more than 200 students a year. Over a thirteen year career that’s…lots. Most of these students go on to teach others – that was the point of becoming a teacher educator for me, the sustainability of teaching teachers to ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People’, as the poster by Anthony Burrill famously says. For me, that slogan is short for work hard, think for yourself, learn to challenge (yourself too), become self-aware, be mindful…and be nice to people; all the personal qualities of the outstanding teacher. Figuring out how to assimilate what you read (and what its agendas and biases are) with what you think, about your own context and practice, is one of the toughest asks of all.
And as for Helene Ahl’s article? I had an emotional response to it which combined denial, connection, fear, recognition, anger…a whole bag of feelings, but I still don’t know what I think. Sometimes, finding out what you think takes time. And that – really – is OK too.
Ahl, Helene (2006) Motivation in Adult Education: a problem solver or a euphemism for direction and control? International Journal of Lifelong Education 25:5 385-405 (journal article, via Summon)