Without mistakes, we’d still be amoebas…and there would be no music

…or something like that.  I’m misquoting from the biologist Lewis Thomas, talking about DNA changes and how they create the richness and diversity all around us on this planet. Yesterday was the first of the Diversity Programme study days, a strand of our EDIFund action research project.  Fifteen educators, drawn from all manner of backgrounds, joined me at The Northern College to explore new models of diversity and differentiation, and how we could strengthen our practice as educators.

Image of DNA
Image of DNA

It was an education in humility.

Much of the past three months has been spent planning, discussing and thinking about this piece of work.  Not alone – I blogged recently about how joyous it’s been to think and plan online with collegiate friends.  But yesterday proved that, despite all of this rigorous brainwork, I was still making some significant pedagogical assumptions which did not, in fact, hold true.

Assumption One That I could not have as high an expectation of self-directed learning, with a group of students who came together for just one day, as I could of longer-term students.  Well, “Da doi!“, as Britta would say to Jeff on ‘Community’, the adult-ed based comedy show which, just sometimes, has a flavour of Northern College.  Despite riding a wave of adrenaline for several days, my energy seeped away at lunchtime, simply because my plan for the afternoon was downright dull. Luckily, a group of strong-minded individuals had the measure of my lack of ambition and the response when I suggested a nice bit of action planning told me we needed to go in a different direction, I was just at a loss to figure out where.  I was rescued by a plea for more time to talk (and why not?) and within ten minutes we had begun two hours of critical friendship groups, fuelled by Open Space questions, in the squashy Blue Room Cafe chairs. By the evidence of the closing round, this fulfilled everything participants had wanted to get from the day.  And good coffee too!

Learning Curve:  don’t underestimate your students.

Assumption Two That I couldn’t trust my instincts.   When do I ever not trust my pedagogical instincts?!  I’m virtually famous for it, in my own head at least.  But something about this day caused me to veer from my original thinking which had, in fact, been to have critical friendship groups in the afternoon.  Afterwards, I apologised to the group for my lack of conviction and was blown away by a comment from @jfletchersaxon, who with kindness and great grace pointed out that I hadn’t been true to the Be Yourself model.  I hadn’t, in fact, been true to myself.  Wow.  And what was I assuming that stopped me being myself?  Ridiculously, it came back to that old chestnut, Impostor Syndrome, suddenly rearing its head…

Learning Curve:  if you want your students to be themselves, you have to be yourself too.

Assumption Three  That I am an Impostor and I am going to be found out.  Oh please.  I thought I’d dealt with all of this years ago.  Something about yesterday brought it all back again and led to my temporary loss of faith.  As I write this, I’m still in two minds about whether the trigger was the external funding context (some internalised capitalist tosh about providing value for money leading to me focusing on teaching, rather than learning), or whether I still feel unstable around the subject of diversity.  A mini-Thinking session suggests that it’s the former.  That, despite clear evidence that the Community of Praxis approach works, I took refuge in teacher education hegemony, that educators would rather be given ‘stuff’ than discuss pedagogy.  No doubt that’s sometimes true (though luckily yesterday it wasn’t).  But it’s not like me to buy into it.

Learning Curve:  CPD is about creating the right conditions for educators to explore pedagogy for themselves.  Believe it.

And what are the right conditions?  Yesterday reminded me that these could well be the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment.  We experienced EASE once we were discussing pedagogical questions in the squashy chairs, and PLACE too.  We gave one another ATTENTION and built APPRECIATION into the day.  We provided INFORMATION as stimulus, without letting it dominate.  We built a manifesto based on values, to allow FEELINGS to be safely expressed.  We created ENCOURAGEMENT for one another.  We discussed DIVERSITY and allowed one another to be ourselves.  We preserved EQUALITY in our respect for one another’s right to air time.  And we unlocked all of this via a series of INCISIVE QUESTIONS, the most implicitly central of all being this:

If you knew that being here today would make a difference, what would change for you?  And what would change for the world?


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.

11 thoughts on “Without mistakes, we’d still be amoebas…and there would be no music”

  1. It’s really surprising to read that stuff about ‘imposter syndrome’ because i was there and I witnessed a very confidently and intelligently delivered programme with fluid segue into the critical friendships group discussions , which was superb. I got so many answers and ideas to develop coping strategies and most was in discussion. Once the NKROE (see if you can work that out) are pinned down, what follows is respectful discourse. As for your perception of yourself, I think you might have a crooked mirror in there somewhere because it was brilliant and I’d be surprised if anyone disagreed.

    1. D’you know what I think, Tom? I’m reading back through the blog and I’m reading your comment and I think I’ve really come on as an educator, because (despite this being an entirely public forum), within the Community of Praxis I am in a safe space to say, I got it wrong. I’m not reproaching myself here, I guess I’m understanding myself and this humility will power me on, it really will. Those Critical Friendship Groups were amazing and I know that they happened because of a) the people who were there, b) the stimulus of earlier input and activities and c) the Nancy Kline Rules of Engagement (????) 🙂

      1. NKROE. – spot on! Your humility is humbling, it demonstrates an open mind towards change and improvement. As the thinker Frank Zappa said, ‘if you can’t change your mind, are you sure you still have one?’

  2. I am thinking about our autobiographies as learners and how they can unknowingly affect our practice, and our sense of identity, and their role is fostering imposter syndrome. It’s really hard to overcome. But you’ve been reflexive and responsive here, Lou. That’s teaching for me. And it takes courage. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Jane. We never stop learning, do we? I might get in a bit of a flap in the moment, but afterwards I have come to absolutely love those times where something shifts and I can see where I’ve been going wrong. Teaching is subtle and complex. It’s about creating the conditions for learning. And, suddenly, a little bit of early-morning Ivan Illich comes to mind: “…unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.”

      1. We are always learning, never finished articles, never complete. Just when you think you have reached the summit and had a moment of transfiguration, you see another path downwards, and a higher summit to climb. It takes humility to admit that change needs to begin with us (good ol’ Marx there), however far on we have come. Mistakes happen, they are the inevitable concomitant of taking risks, and risks are the precursor to growth. Pushing the envelope,till we hear a sonic boom, but we still can go further and faster, and return to where we started a different person. It’s frustrating to travel so far and recognise the place where we started as the place we finished, yet it is not the same me that looks at it, and we see it through different eyes, and it seems to have changed. But not it, we have changed.

        Got a bit carried away there…

      2. Yes I heard something on the radio the other day, which said that we probably can step in the same river twice, but the water is different and so are we I guess 🙂

  3. I enjoyed reading your philosophical ramblings and I agree; Jane was using the image of a Mobius strip in her teaching yesterday and that essential journey round the loop, re-learning but never going back, has resonance here too I think.

  4. I love this blog – as well as the fantastic messages within it, the way you have used it as a reflexive tool. It takes courage, as Jane says, to change the direction of a day like this and it also shows how difficult one-day learning events like this can be. A question – if the group had not had the capacity for self-directed learning – would the plan still have been ‘wrong’? I guess what I’m asking is, unless you know the learners reasonably well before the day, can you ever anticipate exactly how a day like this would and should pan out? Differentiation and diversity, again – and the ability – which you showed here – to reflect-in-action and respond to the needs and wants of the group as learners.

    1. You are right, Kay, it’s possible that with less self- responsible people in the group, Plan A May have worked. I needed the prompt to change direction, but I had seen that Plan A hadn’t been received with enthusiasm, even if I couldn’t then figure out what to do. Maybe there’s something to be learned about planning more options when the group is relatively ‘unknown’?

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