Criticality: learning to disagree

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)

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Author: Alison Longden

Hard working educator with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything I've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. I 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.

9 thoughts on “Criticality: learning to disagree”

  1. I was interested in your points about learning to disagree, and barriers to criticality. I read a book which changed the way I thought about my permission to engage in academic argument. As a secondary modern girl I wear my chips rather than eat them, so when Miranda Fricker wrote about epistemic injustice I raised at least one shoulder as I found that it is not always what someone has to say, but whether they are considered a legitimate source. How we judge who or what is legitimate can be bounded in prejudice, snobbery and cultural bigotry, rather than reasoned argument. Gaining the skills of socratic questioning is a great way forward Lou.

    Miranda Fricker – Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Epistemic-Injustice-Power-Ethics-Knowing/dp/0199570523/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349720112&sr=8-1

    For a short introduction to the concept try this podcast:
    http://philosophybites.libsyn.com/miranda_fricker_on_epistemic_injustice
    I subscribe to all the @philosophybites podcasts and they offer a great inroad into complex philosophical questions.
    Enjoy.

  2. Thanks Alison, I am really excited to read this and I’m going to order it right now for the Northern College library. I appreciate the @philosophybites link too and I know that it will help me find my way in.

    I have noticed before that you are a ‘philosophy junkie’ and have had to bite back that inevitable, ‘too clever for me’ thought. Funnily enough, my sixteen year old son is considering a philosophy A-level. He’s as working-class as I am so that tells me some good things about how I’ve raised him.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

  3. Great piece Lou, and I share your instant recoil at such multi-syllablically (sp) constructed paragraphs (it’s one of the things I’m struggling with as I try to put Hawkings and Penrose theorems in my 50 year horizon book without soundling like I’m a clone of both, lol). The conclusion about delayed conclusive thinking (is that a new term I just coined???) is spot on. One of the tricks I’ve learned over the years when I’m frustrated at not being able to understand or make my mind up is to just let my unconscious (or subconscious, I always mix up the two!) self handle it and present the answer later. Never fails and let’s me get on with other things on the meantime.

    More please!!

  4. If we understand something well we should be able to explain it well enough without using jargon for anyone to understand the argument and be able to make an initial judgement about its validity. The value in academic writing is, I think, to save space, and to allude to links to other thinkers and theories. What I have seen, and deplore, is the use of transliterated words from German, Italian, Greek or Russian to convey a concept which can be equally well communicated in English. “Sitz-im-leben” for “context” for example, or “Maskirovska” for “Deception” or even “Agonistics” instead of “Market”. In that case the language may be used to exclude, and to delineate membership of an academic club, and it about power and abuse of power rather than precision in writing or speech.
    Learners may use the technical vocabulary as well sometimes: though this is more than likely to do with the books that serve as role models. I would love to argue with Fisher about epistemology – he uses it is AFT and I presume he does so because he understands the concept and has an opinion of where knowledge comes from. Does it have objective existence, or is it a social product or construct? Marxism has a technical theory of the relationship between subject and object, and the need to overcome that gap or alienation, and arguments that he might field about subjectivity versus objectivity or even inter-subjective objectivity can have a Marxist analysis of alienation applied to them. You can even argue that the feeling of alienation caused by the use of technical philosophical language is itself a valid argument for not using it. (That feelings of disgust or repugnance are a valid intellectual argument in themselves and do not need justification to be valid).
    A different tack would be to call out the Red Guard, hang a placard round their necks and denounce them as counter-revolutionaries and capitalist roadsters, as in the Cultural Revolution.
    It takes a level of confidence to challenge academics on their own territory, but you teach students the tools to use to do so, so it’s a matter of confidence in using Freire and naming the oppressors as such, or even calling someone’s bluff.
    It could all be BS, just like it smells to your instincts.

  5. Hi technorthern
    I enjoyed reading this because it showed an unravelling of your thought processes. Do you find blogging quite cathartic? I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to your post on criticality on my own blog at: http://blogging4education.wordpress.com/author/blogging4education/#Blogosphere
    I am introducing the concept of blogging as part of a blended learning programme for my organisation and it seems your post hits just the right note. I think anyone can blog and it doesn’t have to reach the lofty heights of academic prose or intellectual ping-pong to be effective. Thank you.

    1. Hi and thank you for your comment. I’m really glad you liked the blog. I don’t know if I’d describe blogging as cathartic (I think of that as being quite a deep, emotional process) but it really does help me untangle my thoughts and I know that I teach concepts much more clearly as a consequence of being able to unravel things in this way.

      I’m really chuffed about the link to your blog and I am going right away to check it out. I agree with you that anyone can blog and that we can learn so much about what we think by engaging with the thoughts of others. I’m very much in favour of using blogging to find your own voice and confidence. I dream of a world where academic writing is accessibly precise and nuanced.

      Big thanks and I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts too!

  6. We are lucky to have such a reflective teacher who lives her professional life considering her values and her action. Gramsci might even have called her a philosopher of praxis if he were alive today.

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