About TeachDifferent – Social Purpose Education

If TeachNorthern is our programme and personification, TeachDifferent is how we go about it and the Community of Praxis is the framework on which everything hangs.  Our guiding philosophy is that we teach for a social purpose, exemplified in the four cornerstones of social purpose teaching:

A model of Social Purpose Education
A model of Social Purpose Education

Teaching Your Values

TeachDifferent is about first of all getting in touch with our values as teachers.  This is the first exercise on the first day of a PTLLS programme, revisited unapologetically at regular intervals through reflexion, feedback and discussion to keep it fresh.  We deliberately make no attempt to disaggregate personal and professional values; teaching for a social purpose is about being authentic as human beings and enlightened citizens of the world.  On the first day that any group begins to form, this work leads directly into the formation of a Manifesto of Practice Principles (yes, a group agreement by any other name), which guides and boundaries our time together.

Values work is the cornerstone of any transformational education programme, such as the Thinking Environment (Kline, 2009), Training for Transformation (Hope and Timmel, 1995 and 1999), and Freirean based education (see, for example, the Paolo Freire Institute and Highlander Center).  If, as we assume, self-awareness is the key skill of any teacher –  never mind any ‘social purpose’ teacher – developing discipline around identifying which values are at play in any teaching intervention feeds a genuinely balanced reflexive practice.

The purpose of all of this is to develop a teaching identity, which is both congruent with personal identities, and boundaried for personal and professional safety.  In 2013, in a Community of Praxis, we engage as teachers, students, researchers, colleagues, peers…and in an educational hierarchy that would be disingenuous to deny.  Social networking brings an added potential for identities to bleed into one another and so consistent and vigilant mindfulness is key.  Who are we as teachers?  How can we be authentic?  Who is Teacher Lou, connected to her values and at the same time projecting a teaching persona which puts the cares, stresses and joys of personal life to one side when she enters the classroom, real or virtual?  Navigating our way through all of this, even learning to define the work we do as ‘teaching’, is a lifetime’s work.

2.  Reflexive Practice

Reflexion is about developing an awareness of why we do what we do, as teachers.  It’s deeper than reflection.  Reflection says, “I did this…this happened…I’ll do this next.”  Reflexion replies, “I did this because (this is how my values played out, this theory did, or didn’t, hold true, my students and colleagues told me)…this happened…I’ll do this next.”  Reflexion goes to places that reflection can’t, because once you have figured out what you did on a meaningful level (eg harmony/equality/freedom is an important value to me), you won’t do it again.  So reflexion can only happen once you’ve connected with your own values and figured out which practice principles they drive.

The other thing about reflexion is that it can’t just happen in your own head, you’d disappear into a vacuum, it needs diverse perspectives to bounce and energise against in a sort of Brownian motion.  Stephen Brookfield (1995) is our portal into reflexive practice, whether he uses the ‘x’ version or not.  His ‘Four Lenses’ model demands that educators listen to feedback from colleagues and peers, as well as being mindful of their own feeling and thinking.  It makes an undeniable connection between theory and practice, startling even experienced higher education students into abandoning the ‘bacon tongs’ method of dropping bits of theory into essays to support a pre-identified hypothesis.  With Brookfield’s guidance, we can develop confidence to be open-minded in our reading, allowing the perspectives of others to challenge and shape our own thinking, taking courage from our own theories of learning as we grow in criticality.  And of course, once that reflexive connection is made, it only needs the beating of a social purpose heart to create ‘praxis’, famously defined by Paolo Freire (1970) as “action and reflection upon the world in order to change it.”

3.  Win/Win/Win

Inspired by Nigel Cutts’s handbook for ‘Love at Work’ (Cutts, 2010), which is in turn inspired by the Thinking Environment (Kline, 2009), the cornerstone of Win/Win/Win encapsulates the social purpose heart of the educator.  Everybody wins.  The educator has the deep satisfaction of teaching to their values; their needs are met.  The student is given the opportunity to learn in an environment which respects and values them, which keeps them safe, which challenges them to think for themselves; their needs are met, too.  And the world benefits – ‘communities’, however they are defined.

Win/Win/Win is about praxis, in its Freirean sense; that tipping point when reflexion and practice synergise to have an impact on the world.  Hannah Arendt (1958) called this the ‘vita activa‘, or active life; without exception, the connection that holds the Community of Praxis together is this shared common purpose, shared social purpose heart.

A social purpose aim can’t always be SMART and shouldn’t be quantified.  We call it an ‘aspiration’ and every session plan has one; a little check in, to see what’s making the heart beat faster (in a good way).   To express the aspiration as a learning outcome makes us hostages to fortune and keeping it separate keeps it in mind.  I sometimes think, if one student in one teaching lifetime goes out there and makes a difference in the world, what I’ve done has been worth it.  After all, for Myles Horton at the Highlander Center, that student was Rosa Parks.

4.  Embedding Diversity

The Teaching for a Social Purpose model is based on one huge, confidently made, assumption:  that the world is an unfair place, where prejudice dominates and social purpose education has a responsibility to challenge the status quo.  Gramsci and others (see, for example, Burke, 1999, 2005) wrote about ‘hegemony’ – a difficult word to say, spell or understand but one which has no equal in explicating the cultural blindness of contexts and organisations which, without even realising, can exclude diversity by assuming we are all the same.  Perhaps the Macpherson Report (see The Stationery Office, 2009) came closest to exemplifying hegemony in recent years, in its identification of ‘instutional racism’ as a key element at play in the aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder.

If it’s our job to challenge the hegemony of prejudice, we need to be embedding diversity in our teaching:  and being mindful of equalities legislation is just a part of it.  Embedding diversity goes further, and it starts with really sharp planning.  Diversity has three aspects:  diversity of opinion (often overlooked in a literature which focuses on huge, unchewable concepts), resonating with those identities present (on which most writing around diversity and education focuses), and bringing in perspectives from absent identities.  This final aspect is often dismissed as tokenism, and it can be clumsily done (does that matter if it’s sincerely meant?), but there is huge power in using names and contexts and images which open the classroom up to the world.

Sharp planning means planning for differentiation.  If each student feels welcomed and recognised as an individual, in every aspect of their identity, and can speak with their own voice, then that’s two-thirds of embedding diversity cracked.  Planning for differentiation doesn’t have to mean having a session plan with everyone’s name on it (though I’ve seen that work well when the breadth of capability in the room is particularly huge).  What it means is having a strategy, whereby each individual can choose for themselves how far they want to take their learning.  They might select from a range of choices, or they might be offered free rein to figure out their goals for themselves – the judgement is the educator’s, as long as that educator is willing to be surprised by the limitless potential of the human mind.  This blog article outlines a process for individualised differentiation, which takes a fresh approach to individual planning, and shifts the teacher’s role along the continuum towards a coaching approach.

Freedom needs boundaries:  one of the paradoxes of the Thinking Environment, on which much of our work is based (Kline, 2009).  After all these massive concepts, how we do TeachDifferent comes down to thinking and planning, in a framework which allows us to express our biggest hopes alongside our smallest actions.

Arendt, H (1958) The Human Condition Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Brookfield, S (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass

Burke, B. (1999, 2005) ‘Antonio Gramsci, schooling and education’, the encyclopedia of informal education (online) www.infed.org/thinkers/et-gram.htm Accessed 30.6.13

Cutts, N (2010) Love at Work Burley in Wharfedale, Fisher King

Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed Harmondsworth, Penguin

Hope, A and Timmel, S (1995 and 1999) Training for Transformation Vols 1-4  Rugby, Practical Action Publishing

Kline, N (2009) More Time to Think Burley-in-Wharfedale, Fisher King

The Stationery Office (2009)  The Macpherson Report – Ten Years On (online) http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmhaff/427/427.pdf Accessed 30.6.13

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