One of the joys of my #rhizo14 ‘uncourse’ experience was its unexpected alleyways. I did not anticipate that my weekend would begin by listening to a BBC podcast about Louise Michel, heroine of the 1871 Paris Commune, but I’m very glad it did (thanks @fredgarnett) . Michel was referred to as an iconoclast and the broadcaster amplified this by describing how she took her teaching back to first principles, unwilling to accept the norms of education in that time and place.
Are we iconoclasts? Unwilling to accept the norms of education at this time and in this place? Peeling education hegemonies back to first principles? I would like to think so.
This metaphor of iconoclasm fits well with one of the #rhizo14 themes of embracing uncertainty. When we strip away received thinking around teaching and learning ‘norms’ we become like tiny new-born thinking chicks, exposing the essential idea to fresh perspectives. What is differentiation, for example? What does it mean? Why is it important? As I’ve written elsewhere, theorists might be our friends but other thinkers’ views are ultimately only as important as our own and, early on, they can cloud independent thinking. It’s challenging and exposing work to think of our own ideas. It makes us feel vulnerable. It brings the lurking Impostor out from under the bed. We are not quite sure what we’ll find out – about the concept or about ourselves. Uncertainty unsettles us.
So it goes in teaching and in learning. It seems to me that the more formal the interface, the more those norms and assumptions are invoked. Here at The Northern College, we’ve spent several months exploring the lives and thoughts of transformational educators with TeachNorthern students, using Thinking Environment and other techniques to create conditions on- and off-line which we empirically know strengthen independent thinking. We’ve brought our Thinker friends to the party every which way we can – bell, Paolo, Ken, Stephen, plus some new mates such as David Price and the gorgeous bloggers of #rhizo14. We’re not resting on laurels, there will be more that we can do (more podcasts, animations, activities, Tweets), but the response from this yammering bunch of brilliant, open-minded thinkers has been superb…
…we just didn’t expect the gatecrashers.
You will always find them, in the kitchen, at parties. Somehow, in the space between the glorious thinking and the determined academic writing, they have wrinkled their way in to a significant number of assignments. Names familiar from my own (underwhelming) PGCE, a dozen years ago now. BF Skinner. Malcolm Knowles. PAVLOV. Where did they come from? Surely, they are far too dusty and respectable to have invited themselves?
Well yes. I think in a sense they were here all the time. The old guard. The Establishment. The hegemony. The ghosts of teaching past, so spectral that we didn’t even notice they were there. Never spoken about, but seeping into our enjoyment and somehow managing to be more present than the writer’s own thoughts. The very embodiment of the party pooper.
The dictionary definition of ‘iconoclasm’ is the destruction of idols and the time has come to hand out the party bags and kick these guys down the road. Thanks, BF Skinner, for your contribution to our understanding of the power of appreciation. Shout out to Malcolm Knowles for fighting the good fight, when the teaching of adults was literally invisible in the canon. Pavlov, we are not dogs (Sorry. I accept all accusations of unsophistication and I won’t be putting up a fight if you want to knock me down). Because of you, we got to here, I get that. But not just you. Where are all the other voices, that challenge your dominance and have always challenged it? Couldn’t get heard – literally, couldn’t get published. Exiled like Louise Michel, untranslated like Lev Vygotsky. And that’s the greatest iconoclasm of all, the thing that’s really opening us up – the challenge to academic houses posed by social media, blogging, self- and e-publishing and the flow of energetic voices liberated to express their own truths.
The iconoclastic rhizome is the curriculum making this possible. The community as curriculum. Boundaried by context – I’ve no objection to that. In my ADHD world, freedom needs boundaries or the uncertainty gets way too scary, like thinking about space. I like curriculum and accreditation frameworks, even those as simple as the six-session layout of #rhizo14, where the focus of each new week was determined on the day…I just don’t think it’s the job of the awarding body to determine how to get from A to Z. Going back to first principles means to me that the educator’s role is to strip down the curriculum and present it, naked, for students to build up their own learning and contextualised understanding, so that every sculpture layers organically on the same basic skeleton: a clay Goddess here, a scrapyard abstract there, here a bronze horse. Each student stretching their own skills and knowledge, coming to believe in their own creativity.
I spent International Women’s Day in the company of 14 strong, intelligent, iconoclastic women educators and, amidst the inescapable joy of this third EDIF fundedTeachDifferent Diversity day, was the presence of the emotional labour it takes to disrupt the stale and obedient groupthink of organisations. We who do not fit graft for every victory, a story which echoed the week’s earlier experience of hearing trainee educators talk and share images of how they teach for a social purpose (check out #TDdiversity and #TDPSP14 for highlights of these events). So fired up was @carolineLDlees that she took her superb practice to a meeting of learning disability co-ordinators the following day and courageously blew away some norms…we punch above our weight when the scene is set for a major confrontation, but settling back into the everyday grind of working life is harder.
What sustains our iconoclasm? ‘Knowing’ we’re right (in our quest for democratic education to be the norm) is too easy to doubt when faced with the indifferent boss, the inflexible paperwork, the negative and de-professionalising media coverage, the dependent students, the jaded colleagues. There’s a hangover from provocative actions which, it its worst, can make the working world seem a very unsafe place to be. The company of fellow misfits may well be what re-stocks our reserves of courage and disruptive intent.
Time and time again I hear from Community of Praxis participants the following metaphor: “I was refreshed…regenerated”, “I drank from the well”, “I came here to be renewed,” phrases almost biblical in their implied invocation of water to slake a parched thirst. Phrases from the desert, where that desert is the wasteland of education – primary, secondary, adult, higher – in this country. “They make a desert and call it peace,” Tacitus famously wrote of the Roman legions and this would be true of the last two Governments’ tidying-up of education too, marching to the banner of Ofsted or PISA. I’m reminded of my friend @ajwright69 wondering how often we give thanks for the water we take for granted and I’m mindful that we should be appreciative of what refreshes us now and seek to extend it further, before it’s taken away forever.
The Community of Praxis operates online, via Yammer, Facebook, Twitter, this blog. But there are opportunities to physically be together too, preferably in squashy comfortable chairs. This matters. The effectiveness of online learning spaces seems to depend on the quality of connections already established by being physically present with one another; and the spaces become more richly diverse when physical groupings mix across cohorts. These are assumptions, based on observation, and we hope to test them further thanks to a small research grant from the Education and Training Foundation. But experience suggests that intensive study days, facilitated in a Thinking Environment to quickly develop a culture of rapport and mutual trust, accelerate and deepen the online experience, so that participants not only quickly buy-into the digital environment, they develop self-reliant and mutually supportive momentum once they are there. The emotional labour of teaching for a social purpose in challenging or hostile environments is soothed by online engagement, which in turn is fed by the ultra-nutritious experience of spending a few hours together every now and then, thinking well in beautiful surroundings.
Testing all of this out is the work of the next few months and it needs to be done. Social purpose education has caught the zeitgeist and this moment won’t last forever. We need to understand exactly how to support the army of iconoclasts and misfits who are going out to destroy false idols in the name of emancipatory and democratic transformation.
Watch out Pavlov. Los Misfitos are on their way.