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Finding Voice

“The problem with the other community, however, is that it cannot be brought into existence in any deliberate or technical way.  The other community is not the result of work, it doesn’t come into existence through the application of a technique or technology.  In this respect the other community can never become a new educational tool or a new educational program.  We cannot make or force our students to expose themselves to what is other and different and strange.  The only thing we can do is to make sure that there are at least opportunities within education to meet and encounter what is different, strange, and other, and also that there are opportunities for our students to really respond, to find their own voice, their own way of speaking.  We, as teachers and educators, should be aware that what disrupts the smooth operation of the rational community is not necessarily a disturbance of the educational process, but might well be the very point at which students begin to find their own, responsive and responsible voice.”
– Biesta (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic Education for a Human Future, p. 69

In reading Gert Biesta’s book I came across this passage that was of particular interest.  My reading notes mark this quote as a ‘critical’ idea for my doctoral studies.  It portrays two integral concepts for teaching aspects of morals, ethics and personal development within educational institutions.   The first is the presence of community as a means to understanding ones own identity.  Previous to this quote Biesta explores the notion of community in Chapter Two titled “Coming into Presence: Education after the death of the subject”.  Biesta’s concept of ‘coming into presence’ is defined as being “about beginning in a world full of other beginners in such a way that the opportunities for others to begin are not obstructed.” (Biesta, 2006, p.49)  Following on from Michel Foucault’s postmodern discussions of the death of the subject and need for a new “approach to the question of human subjectivity” Biesta suggests that we should consider a new question – “Where [does] the subject, as a unique, singular being, come into presence”? (Biesta, 2006, p.41)  By investigating different conceptions of space Biesta proposes that in order to achieve the 4th conception of space, the ‘ethical space’ in line with Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas, one has to be with others in order to achieve an understanding of oneself.

Biesta notes that Levinas’ is “in agreement with Arendt’s contention that our primordial being is a being-with-others — we are with others before we are with ourselves; we are for the other before we are a oneself” but Levinas also “introduces a refinement or, better, a radicalization in stressing that being-with-others that is characterized by a primordial responsibility. In this respect we might say that the space where the subject comes into presence is an ethical space. ” (Biesta, 2006, p.51).  Ultimately there is the suggestion that without a community and a space to be with others one cannot develop an understanding of the self. Biesta goes on to build this idea through Bauman’s discussion of the ‘stranger’.  Bauman argues that interaction with ‘strangers’ and ‘acting in public spaces’ is a way of cultivating and protecting difference that leads toward the “genuine emancipatory chance of postmodernism” (Biesta, 2006, p.61).  Therefore, it seems that emancipation is dependent on an understanding of difference that is created through our interaction with others.  One can not gain an understanding of themselves without acting within a community that fosters difference.

The second concept is that this type of teaching can not be overt or as Biesta notes ‘deliberate or technical’.  This is one aspect that has always been present in my teaching practice and it is refreshing to see a more detailed discussion.  Biesta comes about it through a philosophical approach whereas my original intentions were more practical; however, they both seem to address a common thought.  When teaching I have always presented project briefs that are open-ended.  This has come under criticism from other teachers because of the variety of outcomes that are produced from one project.  The fault, as considered by others, is that it is more difficult to control the outcomes and, as such, predict your students’ overall achievement.  But my aim is not just achievement!  Achievement is only part of the equation.  Another part, and in my eyes more important element, is allowing students to develop their own voice.  I do not deliberately explain this to the students however, by structuring a project brief to allow for independent thought and different outcomes I feel that I am providing each class (group) with the opportunity “to meet and encounter what is different, strange, and other, and also that there are opportunities for our students to really respond, to find their own voice, their own way of speaking.” (Biesta, 2006, p.69)  Yes, it requires me as a teacher to have a wider breadth of subject knowledge because one student may take a completely different path to another.  It also requires me, as the teacher, to release control and provide a space for negotiation between teacher and student.  However, these challenges are far out weighed by the potential for individual development, confidence and respect for others that is displayed in the class.   In the end, the students end up with not only their achievement but also begin to improve their understanding of themselves as unique individuals.

I have found Biesta’s book refreshing and as I continue reading I know that there will be other points for discussion.  Another entry about the difference between ’empathy’ and ‘visiting’ is already bubbling in my mind so stay tuned!

As Gadgets Take Over …

When I first developed this site I became instantly obsessed and distracted with its look, information, tidbits of knowledge and potential interactive options.  The reality was I was suppose to be reading! However, the computer and watching my information load, visitor statistics rise was more enticing.  The paper bound entertainment quickly became second choice.

A recent article in the New York Times section of the Observer (Sunday, June 13, 2010) titled “As Gadgets Take Over, Focus Falters,” by Matt Richtel, explores this exact idea with a focus on the potential detriment of multitasking.  It is classic that we associate multitasking with high levels of productivity; but researchers at Stanford University have noted that the heavier the multitasker the less productive they can be.  The larger the number of distractions, means a heavy multitasker is less likely to be able to perform tasks effectively.  “When multiple distractions are present, the difference in performance between light and heavy multitaskers is statistically significant” notes Ophir and Nass from Stanford.  Other important features highlighted about multitaskers include the fact that “multitaskers tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work”; and that there are “a growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip.  They can’t ignore it.”  As a teacher, this is one of my personal challenges – continually reminding my students that the world is not going to pass them by if they don’t answer the text message instantaneously, or tweet back how boring (let’s hope it is exciting!) my lesson is at the moment.

This is not just an afliction that our young are experiencing.  The article mentions that we now understand that our “neural networks continue to develop, influenced by things like learning skills.”  This was one of the concepts that made Ophir wonder how the characteristics of the brain might be influenced by multitasking.  The main protagonist in the article Mr. Campbell is not unlike my own husband who is keenly anticipating the release of the new iPhone and who likes to check the mobile phone coverage of the area in which we will be holiday-ing.  I too have felt the draw to the ping of my own blackberry and have had to be diligent about silencing it when reading books and having conversations.  Is all of this attention to our technology worth the increase in stress? and increase in isolation?  Perhaps the most relevant point made in relation to my doctoral research is in the final stages of the article when it is noted that “the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.”  As I complete this sentence, I think it is about time I log off and go out for a walk with my husband and the dogs.

Developing Minds & Imagination

On April 14th, I drove down the windy corridor of the M5 to Exeter to attend a lecture by Dr. Kieran Egan, a professor at Simon Fraser University and Canadian Research Chair in Cognitive Development and the Curriculum.  As an aspiring doctoral student, I was hoping not only to hear some familiar Canadian vocabulary but also some exciting new insight in to the relevance of imagination in the curriculum.  Introduced by Prof. Anna Craft, Dr. Egan immediately launched in to the different kinds of understandings associated with his IE (imaginative education).  He exudes the ideas and references by talking through stories that encapsulate both his own passion for education but also the excitement of learning through oral traditions.  As he moved through the different ‘kinds of understanding’ (somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic) that were intrinsic to his imaginative strategies we were also entertained by his subtle sounds sporadically inserted in to the lecture.

The first ‘kind of understanding’ – somatic – includes tapping in to our physical attributes with sensory experiences, emotion, humour, rhythm, gesture and intentionality (referred to as the body’s toolkit).  His particular interest in this lecture was in portraying the importance of these tools as a means of developing and exciting a child’s imagination.

Secondly, mythic understanding builds on the body’s toolkit by providing an oral language through which children begin to gain an understanding of metaphor, fantasy, opposites and images generated from words.  By using oral traditions and telling stories these attributes are brought to life creating an effective way to connect with students.  Egan believes that humour is an important element of education, a few minutes of joke telling goes a long way to helping engage learners. What do you call a bear with no ear?

A ‘b’, started our reference to the alphabet, (answered our joke!) and the romantic understanding.  As Phaedrus noted “the discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness …”.  It was evident throughout the lecture that Dr. Egan had an interest in classics with his numerous references to Plato, Socrates and Roman soldiers.  Not only was he embedding the ideas associated with romantic knowledge but also displaying his own factual collection.  As students grow and gain greater awareness of their written abilities they begin to encounter literary culture and are caused to reconfigure reality.  As a result, teachers are guided towards connecting with the heroic as it humanized the portrayal of knowledge, ultimately making it more accessible.  By assigning a hero to any topic you can engage your learners in an adventure that helps them retain knowledge on any subject.

The final two kinds of understanding, philosophic and ironic, were passed through quickly.  However, by spending time on the initial three it was evident how each built on one another culminating in students (of an older age) being able to begin to analyse and identify anomalies in their fantasies and bring them closer to reality, cultural awareness and further growth as individual learners.

During the final minutes of his talk, Dr. Egan also introduced the research project titled ‘Learning in Depth’ (LiD).  Through curiosity and individual development of young learners engage in long-term research based on randomly assigned topics such as apples, dust, cats, etc.  Starting at entry in to school (approx. ages 5- 6) the idea is that students develop an individual interest and become an expert on their own topic across a number of years.  The concept is heavily reliant on the students’ personal motivation.  More information and resources are available on the IERG (Imaginative Education Research Group) website

As I drove home, northbound on the M5, I couldn’t help but think a new adventure was starting and that soon I would have more stories to tell inspired by a series of magical thinkers.  Thank you for the brief escape back to Canada Dr. Egan, even if it did have a bit of those dulcet Irish tones.

Additional information on Dr. Kieran Egan’s ideas can be found in his books The Educated Mind (1997) and The Future of Education: Reimagining our Schools from the Ground Up (2008).  Further information on the LiD programme can be found on the website or in their upcoming book published by the University of Chicago Press.

Gardner in Somerset

Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, visited Millfield School on the 12th of March to present the ideas in his new book Five Minds for the Future, as well as review his thoughts on multiple intelligences.

In reference to Five Minds for the Future, Gardner outlined the five minds (disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical).  He noted how the first three minds were mainly centred on cognitive attributes that helped to add depth, increase breadth and help stretch us as individuals.  The other two, respectful and ethical, were seen as essential qualities for the 21st century.  With the increase in globalisation and diversity it is essential that we learn to develop gratiousness and forgiveness in order to develop a respectful mind.  The ethical mind is more complex, but important in order to develop an understanding of how we need to “behave in roles that are not historically founded.”

In a second lecture Gardner enjoyed dispelling some of the myths about multiple intelligences such as its associations with learning styles, and the true meaning of ‘kinaesthetic’ learning.  One key point was his comparison to the intelligences as computers with different strengths which are not connected to the sensory systems.  Another was his insistence that multiple intelligences was not about curriculum, but rather a way of thinking.

In a later conversation with Gardner he recommended a recent article from the NY Times by Elizabeth Green titled ‘Building a Better Teacher’.  If you have a few minutes it is a nice read:

An inspiring day.