Educational Enquiry 3 – April 2008 (4313 words)
How am I integrating my educational theorizing with the educational responsibility I express in my educational relationships with the children in my class and in my school and wider society?
What does my question mean?
In this assignment I will demonstrate how I believe I am creating my living educational theory (Whitehead, 1999, p. 76) through researching questions of the kind “How can I improve what I am doing?” I will then reflect on these questions in my own practice, using entries from my educational diary, photographs and video footage to help me consider the meanings of my theorizing using my own values as living standards of judgment. As part of the research process I will also examine the living contradictions (Whitehead) and tensions that I experience between my educational relationships with the children and my complex understandings of my educational responsibility towards them. Finally I will consider the above in the light of what I also consider to be my educational responsibility towards others in my school and wider society. In using video and digital camera in the classroom and including it in this assignment I have followed BERA guidelines and written to parents about my research. I have their full permission and cooperation.
What are the values that shape my teaching?
As a teenager studying for English ‘A’ level in the mid 1970’s, I was introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a depressive Jesuit teacher and priest, by my English literature teacher, whose name I only ever knew as “Mr Sherlock”. I loved the passion and emotion in the writing. The following words, from one of Hopkin’s six sonnets of desolation, have stayed with me for thirty years:
No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring …….
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed ……….. (Phillips, 1986, p. 167)
The power in those words was communicated to me in part through the gentle learning style cultivated by my teacher who gave us the freedom to be creative in a safe environment (2007, Hannah, Tuesday group). Undoubtedly I have forgotten much of what I was taught about inscape and instress, used by Hopkins in his poetry, but what I do remember is how Mr Sherlock unlocked the door to poetry for me, how he instilled in me a love of learning with his enthusiasm and passion for his subject, but most of all I remember how he was able to bridge the gap between himself, as teacher and me, his student, in a relationship which gave me a feeling of excitement, self belief and security. Tillich writes that Joy is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes (sic) to one’s own true being. (Tillich, 1952, p. 14). I think that a learner can only say yes to his own true being in an educational relationship of trust, in which he feels affirmed by the other and is therefore able to offer that learning to share with others. I remember Mr Sherlock and that experience so well now, because in it there is a resonance with my own values today.
Why have I chosen this question as the basis for my enquiry?
As I reflect on and enquire into my educational practice I know afresh each time that:
At the heart of the practice of education lies the relationship between teacher and pupil. It is in the enactment of this relationship that education succeeds or fails. (Bonnett, 1996, p. 28)
In his article in the British Journal of Educational Studies eleven years ago, Bonnett questioned the then establishment’s underlying conception of education at a time when a new, more prescriptive curriculum was being introduced. He expressed concerns about children being seen as consumers, the curriculum being seen as something to be delivered and then tested against in a standardized way at prescribed intervals with no thought for children and teacher’s varied circumstances. That concern is as relevant now as it was then and that picture of education seems cold and clinical to me.
I prefer the image given by Hector, the “old-fashioned” teacher in the film of The History Boys, when he tells his students that:
…. Learning is like Pass the Parcel boys, that’s all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on, pass it on boys.
At the end of the film, Irwin, the new teacher brought into the school specifically to tutor the boys for the Oxford University entrance exams says:
I don’t think there’s time for his kind of teaching any more …….
And Dorothy replies:
It’s the only kind of teaching worth having.
It’s not that I see myself as an “old-fashioned” teacher – I joined the profession at the same time as the Primary Literacy and Numeracy Strategies! For a teacher who might see the curriculum as something to be delivered to consumers I can understand that there is a certain security in a prescriptive curriculum, but I question whether that kind of teaching encourages in others creativity, understanding of oneself and pleasure in learning. In the film, Hector is seen giving his students time, going off at a tangent to develop and follow their learning, building relationships with them (admittedly somewhat inappropriate ones at times!). Under pressure to meet targets, the headteacher comments:
Yes, Hector gets results sometimes, but they are unquantifiable – not acceptable in the current climate.
I teach Year 2 and there are times when I feel more like Irwin than Hector in the sense that by May of each year I have to give every child an assessed level in reading, writing, speaking & listening, mathematics and science and I am obliged to use statutory tests as part of this assessment process. Therefore, there has to be an element of teaching to the test – I have to play this game by someone else’s rules. Last year I wrote in my Educational Enquiry 2:
At times I feel under such pressure to meet targets, deadlines and to cover the curriculum that I almost forget my relationship with the children. (2007, Formby, p. 1)
As part of my research into this area of tension, I continually ask myself the question “How can I improve my practice?” and I have recognized:
….. that 'I' contained two mutually exclusive opposites, the experience of holding educational values and the experience of their negation. (Whitehead 1989)
This can be explained as my experiencing a living contradiction between the values I seek to live with the children and the whole process of assessment I have to conform to. Yet in my heart I know that my own anxiety is the root cause of this tension because to an extent I put this pressure on myself. I feel a great educational responsibility towards the children, for their social, emotional, spiritual and academic development and I really do want to make a difference to them while they are in my class. As Tillich reminds me:
…anxiety is the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing (Tillich, 1952, p. 35) and for me, read failure for nonbeing. I don’t want to let the children or myself down. As Tillich also describes though, courage can enable positive thought and action. I feel reassured and encouraged as I read:
Courage does not remove anxiety. Since anxiety is existential, it cannot be removed. But courage takes the anxiety of nonbeing into itself. Courage is self-affirmation “in spite of,” namely in spite of nonbeing. (p.66)
I certainly don’t see myself as courageous, preferring to use the definition of courage taken from the French translation “of the heart,” because it connects with the recognition of my need for a loving receptive spirit to our lives. (Rayner, 2007, p.2). This suggests empathy and enables the development of receptively responsive relationships with others.
The Educational Responsibility I feel towards the wider school community
In addition to the clear educational responsibility I have towards each child in my class, I also feel that I have an educational responsibility in my role within the school team – I do not work in isolation but as part of and in relationship with many colleagues. I feel a responsibility towards them at different levels; for example, as a Year 2 teacher, preparing children for KS2 and also as a subject coordinator providing guidance where I can and practical help also.
Biesta writes about schools being places of both rational community (Biesta, 2006, p. 67) in which learning is seen as something to be acquired by students, yet also as being the community of those who have nothing in common (p.68) which is an exciting place to be, where learning takes place as a response to the different, to the unexpected, where neither teacher nor learner knows the outcome. If I see myself as learner as well as teacher within the wider school community, and my colleagues also as learners, do I not then have an educational responsibility within my school team to raise these fundamental issues about learning, in addition to my own research and reflection on them in my practice in the classroom? For example, I have felt frustrated at times by the difficulty of introducing positive new ideas into my school but I have persevered and was recently able to suggest the TASC (Thinking Actively in a Social Context) wheel (Wallace, 2000) to Foundation Stage colleagues as a child/learning centred way forward for them to plan and carry out their topic based curriculum. A few days later, I was delighted when one of them commented:
I really like that TASC wheel – what a good idea.
at myself as both teacher and learner I connect with Biesta’s point when he
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. (p. 69) I wonder if it could be the point at which teachers may also find their own responsive and responsible voice.
How do I express my values in my educational relationships with the children?
Our relationships offer us the very context in which we understand our progress and realize the usefulness of what we’re learning. (Goleman, 2002, p. 209)
Recently I watched the following video clip from my Yr 2 class of myself with a little boy, J, who asked to wear a Samuel Pepys’ wig, a history resource we had been using in a “hotseating” session to bring The Great Fire of London to life. I knew immediately that the video clip said something significant about me and about my relationships with the children in my class. At the time, I wrote in my diary:
I love this video clip – I keep playing it over and over, enjoying the children’s laughter and delight, J’s enjoyment at being the centre of attention and my own relaxed enjoyment of the moment too. (December 2008)
So on reflection, why do I feel that the film clip is so special? Firstly I need to put it in context. The short clip came after a fairly serious 15 minute hotseating session with a different child in the hotseat, who was pretending to be Samuel Pepys. The aim of the session was to help the children get under the skin of Samuel Pepys by asking him questions, in preparation for writing their own diary extracts as someone writing in 1666. J is a happy little boy who sometimes finds concentrating difficult but who had been very excited by his learning about the Great Fire of London. When we had finished the more serious hotseating session he asked again if he could try on the wig and be Samuel Pepys. I was so pleased that he wanted to do this that I immediately agreed and we turned on the video camera. Having watched it a number of times and having shared it with my colleagues at the Tuesday MA group, I am beginning to understand how it helps me to connect the values I strive to embody in my teaching, with my living and developing theories about educational relationships and learning. There are two distinct parts to the video.
Firstly at the beginning I enjoy seeing myself encouraging and affirming J’s decision to try on the wig. Next I share the laughter and delight with all the children as J looks so different with long curly hair, yet I notice too how I begin to check with J that he is okay with the laughter, that he is also laughing and not feeling uncomfortable that others my be laughing at him, rather than with him. Throughout those first two or three minutes I look so relaxed and happy - I really wish that I could hold onto that feeling in more of my teaching – I just look like I’m being the real me!
Then suddenly there is a change when the class begins to lose control and I have to draw them back. I raise a hand in the air to ask for quiet but several children continue to talk and I hear some unkind comments about J in the wig from one or two children. While I continue to smile at and encourage J, I also speak to those children calling out, reminding them of what was said in that morning’s assembly and making it clear that I expect better behaviour from them. In the meantime I have taken the wig off J’s head but I don’t notice that he has made a moustache from one of the curls and continued to amuse the class while I am talking! J seems absolutely unfazed by any comments he may have heard and he continues to smile throughout.
Although it is difficult to watch myself in the second part of the video when I start to look and sound tighter and less spontaneous, there is a moment of exquisite connectivity (Scholes-Rhodes, PhD Abstract) between J and myself as we look at each other
that speaks of the love I feel for the children. Maybe the video clip gives a glimpse of the teacher I want to be and as Wink suggests :
The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. (Wink, J. 2007, p.11)
Perhaps Lewis’s thoughts about divine gift love also help me to explain the significance of the short video. He thinks that gift love encompasses joy, energy, patience, readiness to forgive and desire for the good of the beloved (Lewis, 1960, p. 13). Those values inspire me in my teaching and learning, and maybe I glimpse them in that moment.
My own values as living standards of judgement
I seek therefore to be conscious of the implications of my values and beliefs in my work with children as part of my educational responsibility towards them and to take opportunities to observe and reflect on this in their learning as part of my research. In Scholes-Rhodes’ evocative words, I would like to:
…… create an intricate patterning of personal stories and dialogic inquiry (Scholes-Rhodes, 2002)
Appendices 1, 2 and 3 quote a series of extracts from my reflective diary which help to tell my story and which give examples of the different educational responsibilities I feel towards both the children in my class and towards their parents. I believe they show how I try to use my own values as living standards of judgment. I will add my own commentary and analysis of their significance and will also engage with some of the ideas put forward within the recent Primary Review Reports as an even wider form of my educational responsibility.
Reflections on Diary Extract 1 (Appendix 1)
In Diary Extract 1 I explain how I was surprised at the way a child solved a particular maths problem – I had not anticipated that he would think that way.
What happened is important to me on two different levels. Academically, F’s higher level thinking skills point towards a level 3 end of year assessment and encourage me to help him achieve that level in mathematics.
Secondly however, I am also encouraged in my desire to continue to build relationships with children in my class where we can co-create and experience the pleasure together of life-affirming energy… in an educational space where the power relations are open to such possibilities (Whitehead, 2008, email). I hope that in those relationships the teacher/pupil boundary can fade as I give the children the …freedom to be creative in a safe environment (2007, Hannah, Tuesday group) and we share learning with one another.
The Primary Education Review, Report 1/1 (Aims as Policy in English Primary Education), outlines a new set of aims proposed by QCA for all English maintained schools. They will be statutory and on the face of it appear to open up possibilities for making value-filled judgments in a very different way. The aims are for all young people to become:
As I said, the aims appear laudable and many of my values could be embodied within them, but the author makes the point slightly earlier in the report that those aims should have been decided first and the National Curriculum would then have become
… a vehicle for achieving certain purposes. (p.7).
It should mean that a school’s success is to be judged not primarily in terms of test and exam results but by how far it meets the person-centred requirements embodied in the aims. (p.12)
The implication of the word “should” means that in reality the way schools are judged will not change and hence, there will continue to be tension between how schools and teachers are judged to be meeting the aims and how they are judged to be meeting academic standards because:
…the subjects are the fixed point and everything else must fit round them (p.12).
What a missed opportunity to bring the recognition of the importance of real values into the statutory aims of primary education.
Reflections on Diary Extract 2 (Appendix 2)
I wrote this diary entry in response to a father’s reaction to me and to his son after a performance of the school Christmas play.
I have thought about why the incident seemed so significant – clearly I was happy for all the children in my class who had enjoyed feelings of success and pride in their achievements in the Christmas play. It was not an academic situation such as the one described first with F and his problem solving. Yet I saw J’s achievement through his father’s eyes and that gave me another perspective which resonated with my values. As Wink says:
The face of love in the classroom can be a deep and abiding respect for people and for learning; it can demonstrate safety. It can radiate a freedom to think, to grow, to question … Love in the classroom is as diverse and complex as the learners and their needs and the perspectives, experiences and philosophies of the instructor. (p.8)
At the beginning of the Primary Review Reports 1/1, 1/2, 1/3 and 1/4, the authors state that their aim is to stimulate debate about three fundamental questions:
· what is primary education for?
· what aims should it pursue?
· by what values should it be underpinned?
The Primary Review report 1/3 (major economic and social trends in Britain in relation to the aims & curriculum of primary education) also states:
A good primary education is important not only for imparting knowledge of basic skills to
the next generation but also for enabling pupils to learn faster and more effectively as they go through the education system (p.3) and a few pages later the authors go on to say:
Primary education has an important potential role to play … both in equipping pupils with basic skills and in facilitating their progression to higher levels of education (p.7)
Reading the whole report, I am saddened not to find one mention of the loving, relational, and exciting values that should underpin primary education. The above quotations imply that primary education is about basic learning, to enable children to get through the school system and into university. Once again, what a missed opportunity to bring the recognition of the importance of real values into the debate about what primary education is for and what aims it should pursue.
Reflections on Diary Extracts 3 and 4 (Appendix 3)
Much as I believe in and seek to develop positive and affirming educational relationships with all the children I teach, I recognize the difficulty of that task with particular children. I recently felt frustrated at my perceived inability to develop an educational relationship with one boy, R, in my class to the point where he felt ready to respond to the learning opportunities given to him. My diary entry 3 shows the tension I experienced in a Science lesson when the gap between my values and my teaching seemed to widen. After the lesson I felt frustrated because I had planned an interesting lesson and I was disappointed that the learning of the majority could have suffered as a result of the behaviour of a small number of boys. I also remembered what had happened during the previous week when, once again I had written in my diary of my concerns about the same children’s behaviour in a Music lesson with a specialist teacher, (referred to in Appendix 3)
Biesta makes it clear that it is not acceptable for a learner to respond in any way he wishes because … it is about entering the social fabric and is therefore thoroughly relational (Biesta, 2005, p.27). I was determined to continue to open up opportunities for children such as R to practice their developing skills as learners and social beings and I continued to believe that by building relationships and a sense of supportive community within the class all children would respond to the learning opportunities offered. Part of our school Mission Statement resonates with my own values when it says:
I am of the world,
With the seeds of excellence
Encouraged to grow and flourish
To a spiritual fulfillment.
(St John’s Mission Statement)
I was delighted therefore a week later, when R amazed me by responding really well to produce his best piece of writing yet. English is a second language for him but the traditional tale of Rumplestiltskin engaged him and he responded as a learner, (see Appendix 4). He concentrated on his writing, was able to tell me exactly what he had written and planned to write next and it was indeed a celebration when he received a certificate in assembly in recognition of his efforts!
How is it that I can combine such feelings of exceptional fallibility and prowess? Surely these feelings are mutually contradictory? Or do they in some strange way derive from the same root? (Rayner, 2007)
Rayner’s words strike a chord deep within me because I see my role as an educator very much in terms of fallibility and yet prowess. On the one hand I feel the joy in relationship with the children in the Samuel Pepys video clip when, as I wrote earlier:
Throughout those first two or three minutes I look so relaxed and happy - I really wish that I could hold onto that feeling in more of my teaching – I just look like I’m being the real me!
I also recognize the pleasure in educational responsibility shown by my interaction with F in Appendix 1 when:
All around him was noise and bustle as the busy day came to a close, yet he was completely unaware of any of it in his desire to solve the problem. I barely had time to say “Great thinking! Well done.”
Yet my feelings of fallibility are all too apparent when, as I explained in Appendix 3:
I felt very frustrated at some of the behaviour that had prevented the children from really using this game to practice their use of “properties of materials” word skills.
In terms of the educational responsibility I feel towards a wider society, I know that the aims and values of primary education must not be:
expressed primarily in terms of economic and social goals. (2008, Report 1/2, p.25)
Rather, I hold onto White’s words when he writes:
…… a school’s success is to be judged not primarily in terms of test and exam results but by how far it meets the person-centred requirements embodied in the aims. (2008, Report 1/1, p.12)
On the best days, I really feel that being a teacher is about:
Vocation…… privelege….. and passion (2007, The Grapevine, p.7)
I will continue to try to integrate my educational theorizing with the educational responsibility I express in my educational relationships with the children in my class because I believe in the value of what I am doing for the development of the children in my class and in my school. I am …at the edge of my own knowing (Scholes-Rhodes, 2002) and it is a good place to be, especially:
…. if it is conceded that education is not just about the transmission of knowledge, skills and values, but is concerned with the individuality, subjectivity, or personhood of the student, with their “coming into the the world” as unique, singular beings. (Biesta, 2006, p. 27)
Diary Extract 1
This afternoon, on a wet Tuesday after PE, the children were practising their developing skills of multiplication in a range of contexts. I was sitting with a group of children who were choosing a word problem to solve, gluing it in their book then selecting a method that worked for them to work out the answer. Previously and as a whole class we had used drawing, repeated addition and some formal multiplication methods to answer questions such as these. I was enjoying watching the children really engaging with their learning, concentrating, checking out ideas with one another & occasionally with me. I was aware of a strong feeling of community, their developing confidence, an emotional connection with them and a sort of satisfaction at seeing them so absorbed in their learning as a pleasurable and worthwhile activity.
It was 2.45 pm and some children on other tables were finishing work and tidying up, beginning to get things ready to go home at 3pm. I moved around the table to see who had nearly finished and F said:
“Mrs Formby this one’s hard – it’s counting in fours.”
I asked him to show me the question which asked
There are 4 leaves on each plant. How many leaves are there on 10 plants?
As I paused to think about how best to encourage him without giving away the answer he suddenly exclaimed
“I know, 20 2’s (20 x 2)!”
I watched, delightedly as he counted quickly in 2’s, using his fingers to check
“2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32 34 36 38 40”
All around him was noise and bustle as the busy day came to a close, yet he was completely unaware of any of it in his desire to solve the problem. I barely had time to say
“Great thinking! Well done.”
before I had to leave F to quieten the rest of the class into their seats ready for home time.
What was going on in F’s mind when he worked out that 10 x 4 gives the same answer as 20 x 2? He didn’t doubt it for a second – he knew it but how?
The next morning I was interested to find out how F’s mind had been working when he solved the problem but by then, when I was able to speak to him about it, he could only say:
“I don’t know why I thought that way really, I just did it.”
Diary Extract 2 - A different kind of educational responsibility
Something happened today that touched me, made me feel uplifted and at the same time made me consider what educational responsibility also means to me. Let me explain…..
Today is Tuesday 11th December and this afternoon we, the Infant Department, performed our Christmas play, “Come to the Manger”, to parents, families and friends. It was a real success – proud parents, happy children and relieved teachers. As a Year 2 teacher, many of my children were narrators as well as playing other parts on the stage and I chose the readers based on their reading ability plus having the confidence to stand up and read into the microphone in front of a large audience. It was their choice to be a narrator and nobody had to read – there were plenty of other roles.
I asked one quiet little boy, J, to be a narrator and although slower in his reading out loud than some of the others, I knew he was delighted to be asked, was reliable and I had confidence in him. Sure enough, he read slowly but clearly at all three performances.
So it was with some surprise and absolute delight that as I led the children back to class after the play I saw J’s dad snapping lots of photos and grinning from ear to ear. When I encouraged him to come into the class to take more photos he repeated over and over to me:
“I can’t believe it, I never thought he’d do it, I really never thought he’d do it.”
Later when everyone had gone I realized that J’s dad’s comments had made my day. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I felt that in some small way I had begun to fulfill my educational responsibility towards J and his dad. I had never doubted that J would read his words well. I based my optimism on what I knew of J and on the educational relationship that I had begun to develop with him. What a great day!
Diary Extract 3
I am feeling low today about my inability to get through to a handful of children in the class who persist in being as disruptive as possible, demanding my attention, not appearing to be ready to learn and frequently upsetting other children’s learning as a result. For example, today in Science the children were working in pairs, each with a sticky label on their back with the name of a material, eg. wood, plastic, metal. Each child took turns to ask questions about properties of their material - is it soft, stretchy, waterproof etc? The object of the game was to guess the name of their material but I was also interested in assessing the children’s questioning skills using “properties of materials” words.
One of the “disruptive” children (R), had to be sat to one side almost immediately when he and another boy read everyone’s labels out loud – much to the annoyance of those children enjoying the game! Others just couldn’t calm down for long enough to play the game properly and although I persevered for long enough to enable some children to finish, I felt very frustrated at some of the behaviour that had prevented the children from really using this game to practice their “properties of materials” word skills.
Diary Extract 4
I feel cross and upset today after being told at the end of the day about the behaviour of a group of children, including R, by the music specialist who teaches music to my class once a week. I decided to speak to the whole class about this problem. First thing the next morning when all was calm I asked if they had enjoyed music the previous day – sheepish glances all around! I asked if anyone could explain why they hadn’t – I told them to be honest. They were. They knew why they hadn’t learned, giving reasons such as “we kept laughing, we weren’t listening, we were noisy.” I explained that the music teacher had been very upset, that I had been sad and cross to hear about their bad behaviour and that they had let each other down. They really were sorry. I’ll try to be positive and hopeful!
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