December 17, 2009

ES to ALeC Dec 17th 09

Follow-up to ALeC to ES Dec 15th 09 from Alison's blog

Dear Alison,

Many thanks for your recent e-mail. It was nice to hear from you.

First, and in reply to your question, I confirm that you are welcome to quote me in your blog. That comment also holds for this email if you so wish.

Second, your e-mail puts me into a dilemma. On the one hand, I warm to your candid and open manner. But, on the other hand, your manner tends to encourage a more than usually honest response, and I fear that you might find my response annoying, condescending, offensive, upsetting or absurd. On reflection - or perhaps it is something else - I think I will choose the latter option, because I sense that you may well find my response absurd.

I have read your email several times, and it strengthens my impression that you are deeply and honestly concerned with your teaching, and its effects on your students. But I believe that there is also a fundamental and very common error in the position that you take. Perhaps I might be permitted to try to convey what I have in mind with an analogy. I believe that the approach that you - and, in my experience, most educationalists - take, is like a person who wishes to understand the movement of tides and does so by measuring the salinity of the water.

I write like this because it appears from almost everything you have written that your focus is on teaching, and I believe that such a focus is at best on a secondary matter, and more often than not deeply misleading. I believe that the latter is the case because only a moment of reflection indicates that teaching has the aim of fostering learning; and, if that is the case, teaching is merely a tool towards encouraging a far larger aim, namely, learning. And if that is the case, it follows that a teacher’s focus should be on learning. It then further follows that a focus on teaching - understandable in egocentric terms - tends to blind a teacher to implications of the foregoing simple facts.

I have also found that when teachers begin to focus on learning, many of their concerns about their teaching diminish. It is as if, when one focuses on learning, teaching takes care of itself. Or I could say that I have found that, when teachers focus on learning, their concerns tend to change almost radically.

For example, as there is no serious difference between studying learning and studying physiology - or any other mental process, and indeed any other subject - concerns about not being condescending tend to be no stronger in the teaching of teaching that in the teaching of any other discipline. In the same way, the problem of imparting knowledge in a non-didactic manner becomes a problem in the teaching of all disciplines, especially factual ones. And perhaps most important of all, one's focus shifts from what one is doing, to what one's students are doing; and when that happens, one begins to see that much of the talk about being a reflective practitioner is generated by what happens to be fashionable, - as is so often the case in education.

At risk of sounding fanciful, I'll add that I believe that a preoccupation with being ‘a reflective practitioner’ is also, to a considerable extent, one more manifestation of the cult of the individual that is endemic in the West. From such a perspective, one might also see that a concern with being a reflective practitioner can slide very easily and very often into self-indulgence.

I've done my best to express my position as briefly and simply as I can, and past experience suggests that I am very unlikely to have been persuasive. And it is of course also the case that I may well be wrong.

Lastly, I very much hope that you sense that I do not write in order to criticise you. That is not remotely my intention. On the contrary. As I've noted, I much admire your candour, and I have largely written as I have in response to this.

   With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,


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