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A much needed kick in the pedagogicals

August 19, 2010

This is an introduction to a series of posts I plan to write about what has shaped my recent thinking about education and learning starting with a reflection on the workshop that made me realise I had been resting on my educational laurels for too long. A short summary and a few thoughts you might want to respond to are provided at the end.

About four years ago I shuffled into the back of our school auditorium for the start of a weekend worth of professional development with a cup of tea and relatively low expectations. I had been on a bad run of PD events at that stage, too much worthiness, too much preciousness not enough substance.

“What do you want to talk about?”  said our speaker who had left his podium and was looking accusingly at us from the centre of the room. “No really, where do we want to go with this?”. He waited for an answer but it wasn’t forthcoming so he offered some possibilities; The nature of curriculum? What is literacy? What are the difficult questions that we need to ask our students? Then he announced “The most important thing I learnt in college, never take a class or attend a lecture led by with anyone with a ponytail”. His ponytail was just visible as he turned back towards the podium. I sat up in my seat, my tea was going cold.

His name was Professor Allan Luke and he kept my full attention for two and a half days of talks and workshops. It was not so much that he was telling me radically new things but by articulating his views so forcefully and pulling so originally from the traditions of educational theory he pushed me out of the complacency I realised I had fallen into. He had me retracing my pedagogical steps and imagining the paths that I might take. He talked about learning as productive activity, about the need for rich tasks and freeing the curriculum up of content to go deeper and focus on critical literacies. He supported his ideas with references from Bladerunner to Vygotsky, from Dewey on education to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, he led us learnedly from the past to the future of learning and I was completely enthralled.

What distinguished Luke from so many other educationalists that I have met or heard speak was his blend of the progressive with the pragmatic, his respect for the traditions in pedagogy and the desperate need to disrupt them. He returned again and again to the need for teachers to ‘weave’ and switch between different modes of teaching, to blend direct teaching with more observational and responsive constructivist practice. More importantly was that there were clearly core values and principles about the role of the educator in society, about social justice and equality that led him to be standing in front of another group of teachers, hanging on his every word.

Luke helped to galvanise my thinking and also bring out the radical in me. In the plenary session at the end of the workshops for example he reminded the assembled faculty that the most significant factor in the education of a child is the economic background of the family they are born into. Therefore, he asked as educators in a fee paying schools how much of what happens to our students is down to us? Should we not be wary to rely on exam results and successful university applications as our stamp of success? I paraphrase here slightly, and you could perhaps accuse Luke here of being on slightly shaky ground as he was happy to take a sizeable fee from the “private school” he was lecturing within but I enjoyed his mischievousness, his willingness to challenge and provoke his hosts with one of those difficult and troubling questions. His point was not to undermine his audience but to push us to reflect on what the real test of the effectiveness of an educational institution really is.

Main points I wanted to make

Good educators blend and weave different modes of learning into their practice

Our roles as educators is to ask difficult and troubling questions both of ourselves and of our students

We should be wary of lecturers with ponytails unless they make self-depricating remarks about said ponytail

Thoughts you might want to respond to?

Who or what has made you rethink your approach to what you do and why?

How do we judge our effectiveness as educators?

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