The Pedagogical Dance

This September marks the full implementation of the new BC Curriculum K-9, the BCEd Plan. This plan has some laudable goals and is, on the whole, well-supported by educators. Its main focus is to create space within the curriculum for learners to be personally engaged, allowing them to identify and pursue their own learning interests through an emphasis on competencies (core and content) and skill outcomes, as well as, big ideas that enable learners to connect isolated information into meaningful patterns and concepts. The full details of the plan are easily found online.

This post is not a critique or analysis of the new plan. I appreciate that it will bring new energy and like most new initiatives, a correcting of imbalance. It may also create some new imbalances that will then need to be corrected in the future.

Instead I want to think more generally about decision making in the classroom around issues of pedagogy and curriculum. You don’t need to be around education very long without hearing some cynicism expressed about the pendulum swings that seem to be inevitable. What’s new is often simply a new expression of what has been previously important to educators and our society. The swings attempt to correct a perceived imbalance, and while on paper (or on the screen, which is where you will find the new curriculum) the correction appears in black and white, what happens in the classroom is much more fluid, dynamic and rhythmic. Good teachers know about the pedagogical dance and do all they can to hold together unnaturally dichotomized poles in that dance, poles that actually rely on one another and make the dance even more beautiful.

Good teachers have always known that learning to read requires immersion in powerful literature experiences and explicit contextualized understanding of how language works.

Good teachers have always understood that active learning requires opportunities for students to do their own thinking in quiet reflection.

Good teachers have always understood that Math understanding is built through both conceptual development and accurate practice.

Good teachers have always understood that facts, in order to be recalled and applied, need conceptual frameworks.

Good teachers have always understood that the wisdom of elders inspires the next generations, that this wisdom illumines new discoveries and provides an ethical grounding for their use.

How is it that they have known this? Maybe it’s because they understand the dynamic always evolving nature of the learning process, and because they understand the relational aspect of the dance. Good teachers are paying attention and responding to their partners, their students. They are aware when they are stepping on toes and interfering with the flow of learning, they know when to lead and when to let the students lead, they are thinking about the kind of learning dance their students most need and can participate in. They know that balance is a moving target and that what is in balance for one, may not be for the other. But they are good at balancing, because they’re good at the dance.

Max Van Manen (1986) called this dance a ‘pedagogical seeing’.

The teacher has a pedagogic interest in the life of the child. He stands in pedagogical relationship to her, and he cannot help but see the child as a whole human being involved in self-formative growth….the teacher is a child-watcher. That does not mean a teacher can see a child ‘purely’ without being influenced by the philosophic view that teacher holds of what it means to be human. One cannot adequately observe children without reflecting on the way one looks at them. All I am saying here is that a teacher must observe a child not as a passerby might, or a policeman, or a friend. A teacher must observe a child pedagogically. That means being a child-watcher who keeps in view the total existence of the developing child. (p. 18)

Van Manen calls this act of decision making in the classroom a ‘pedagogical seeing’, I am using the metaphor of dancing, but we are essentially saying the same thing about good teaching. Good teaching is a living tradition, a social practice, a moral craft. Good teachers are not just passing by with the latest, newest curriculum or fad. The principles of good teaching don’t change much, and the prescribed curriculum will change much, but what matters most is that both of these aspects are enlivened by unique teachers who dance the tradition with their unique students in the many unique contexts in which they teach.

Welcome back to the dance.

Van Manen, M. (1986) The tone of teaching. Scholastic: Richmond Hill, ON.

Walking lightly back to school

This summer I spent some time in the light filled province of Andalucia, Spain.  I was intrigued by the name since I knew that ‘lucia’ meant ‘light’, and was even more intrigued when I discovered that Andalucia can mean ‘walking lightly’.  The idea of being in the land of ‘walking lightly’ was quite a wonderful thing to contemplate and I took this thought to the next part of my journey, a small pilgrimage in the Hebrides Islands, Scotland.  I wanted to think more about what it might mean to ‘walk lightly’ or live in a land of ‘walking lightly’.  The metaphor has stayed with me and continues to inspire.  I am hopeful that it may inspire all of my colleagues who are walking back into schools this week and next.

We walk lightly out of consideration for others, a sleeping child, or a person needing healing rest.  There is an inherent stilling of our own agenda in walking lightly, the ability to attend to the needs of others and respond appropriately.  Teachers need this attention to the particular. Techniques, ideas, policies and principles are important, but we hold them lightly against the greater horizon of the particular needs of our students.

We walk lightly when we are aware of the sacred, when we take off our shoes and turn towards the Holy.  In fact it is quite difficult to stomp around without shoes.  Stomping brings to mind the little toddlers in my parish whose parents take their shoes off so that their movements are more appropriate for a sacred space.  Teachers take off their shoes when they realize that their calling is to ‘turn souls’, to see those souls as sacred ground, to evoke a heart and mind response to the beautiful, the good and the true, to help others see and hear within and beyond themselves.

We walk lightly when we hold means and ends together.  Walking lightly is a way of being, of knowing that it is just as important how we walk as it is to get to the destination.  The being is the end, the inn on the road and the inn at end of the road. Teachers hold means and ends together when they care about the kind of existence they create for their students and when they push back on paradigms that harm their students:  punishment and reward paradigms, consumer paradigms, individualism paradigms, disenchanted paradigms…to name just a few.

We walk lightly when we are aware of our own brokenness.  Our pain causes us to limp, and to refrain from putting too much pressure on the painful limb. Teachers walk lightly when they remember that they, too, need healing and help, that their brokenness has an impact on their students.  Watchfulness, guarding your heart to minimize the spilling out of your pain, is only possible when walking lightly.

We walk lightly when we are on treacherous ground, knowing we might slip over the edge of a cliff, knowing the ground might open in front of us, knowing we might trigger an unexpected explosion.  Teachers walk lightly because they know that they don’t have all of the answers and that there is much hidden in the contexts of their work.  There is especially much hidden in their students, hiddenness that causes unexpected reactions flowing from trauma below the behaviour. Teachers consider their steps carefully in building relationships with their students and school communities and seek fruitful, life-giving paths around barriers and dangers.

We walk lightly when we are more interested in being acted upon than acting on, when we gaze rather than glance, when we seek to love a place rather than tour a place, when we are a guest rather than an owner, when we seek encounter rather than control.  Teachers walk lightly when they walk with patience, humility, openness and care.  Lightness brings stillness, stillness brings transformation and revelation.

We walk lightly when we want to leave a place more beautiful than we found it.

We walk lightly when we walk with others as companions, helpers, supporters, encouragers.  We aren’t running so far ahead that we can’t be present, we aren’t stamping our feet with impatience when others are not where we think they should be.

We walk lightly when we create space for detours of delight and rest, when we are walking with joy and gratitude. It is not possible to walk lightly without a lightness of spirit.

We walk lightly when the only way to deeper water is over rocky stones and barnacles.  Teachers accept the difficulty of the journey and keep their vision renewed. They also help their students capture a vision of the deep water.

We walk lightly when we are on our knees, the place where we can see and hear best.

Most of all, we walk lightly when we walk in faith with Christ, the one who makes it possible for us to walk lightly, to stop our ego-stomping all over the world.  He is the one who walked so lightly He walked on water, the one whose feet did not even touch the ground when He gave His life for the world.  We are His light fragrance, the ones who also walk lightly in love. (Eph. 5:2)

Walk lightly, walk in the land of Andalucia, walk in the light, walk with the light, back to school, towards your students.  Help them walk lightly.   May God bless your walking.







Remember what it’s like to be a learner

It is the end of semester and I am thinking about comments from students made to me in the past couple of weeks, comments frequently made at the end of a semester.

“I didn’t know how all of this was going to come together, but now it all fits and every piece was necessary.”
“I understand why __________ was important now.”
“I was a very grumpy student when you said we were doing ________, but now I am so grateful and it taught me more than I could have ever imagined.”

The comments reveal an important aspect of learning – that there is often a period of darkness or fogginess or incoherence followed by a seeing or illumination that comes only at the end, after an opportunity to look back.

The comments remind me that it is difficult for learners to understand what exactly will help them learn. They can certainly provide a great deal of information about what has worked for them in the past when learning, or what their preferences are for learning (and their input along these lines should be invited and valued), but when faced with a completely new conceptual framework and practice, their knowledge of the learning path is limited. They need a trusted teacher, a teacher with a method to her ‘madness’, a teacher who has gone before them and can now lead and guide others along the way. That’s why they’re here.

It is difficult to be a learner, difficult to not see the path ahead, to know there is a mountain to be climbed, but to not be sure of the path or how long it will take or even if they will have the strength to climb. It is a humility. It requires patience and perseverance.

I think I sometimes forget how difficult it is for my students. I get so caught up in how exciting I think the journey is and what they are going to see over the next hill or around the next corner that I forget to be present with them where they are, in their blindness and at my mercy. Learners need to know I’m there, to know their peers are there, and that we’re all in this together. Learners also need a lot of feedback or at least a lot of encouragement and support to keep going when they are stumbling and the ground is moving beneath them…a hand to hold.

As I think ahead to a new semester and new classes, I am reminding myself…

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Remember to ‘foreshadow’, to say this is why we are doing _____, this is how it’s going to fit, this is important because ______. Foreshadowing raises ‘assignments’ out of the mindlessness of hoop-jumping, and into a meaningful learning journey.

Remember to take opportunities to ‘connect back’ so that coherence is found and meaning is illuminated. Every student needs a ‘road to Emmaus’ companion, who helps them see what couldn’t be seen in the midst of the learning.

Remember to build trust through ongoing formative feedback that honours and provides time for the steep learning curve and risk taking all learners must take. This trust will make dialogue possible so that timing can be adjusted, re-teaching can happen, and incorrect assumptions are avoided or corrected.

Remember to let them try and fail and then have the opportunity to try again – to revise, redo and retake…and then to innovate!

Remember to care, to intentionally connect with them, to listen well, to pay attention and then respond. You have all the power to develop and maintain relational trust with your students.

Remember to let your students teach you how to teach them. What works for one, doesn’t always work for the other. They need to know you see their uniqueness.

Remember what it is like to be a learner.

Listening to others like you listen to music

I recently read an account of a man on his way to his execution. When given the opportunity to express his last words, he simply said, “I am more than my life.”

This is a profound truth. We are all more than what is visible, more than our actions, more than what has happened to us. Our identities are never captured in a single event, a single descriptor, or a single characteristic. We know this because we automatically rebel a little inside when someone tries to put us in a box, even if the box is a good box. We want to say, “Yes, that’s true, but I’m also _____!” or “Sometimes I am ____________, sometimes I’m not.” or “I did do __________, but this is why and I meant to ________.” Teachers are notorious for putting students in boxes.

We are so quick to judge, to see others in narrow, confined ways, to categorize and then move on. Our hearing of the stories of others is broken. Our own brokenness arises from the way others listen to us because even though we know we are more, we start thinking of ourselves in these categories as well. We are more than the boxes, we are becoming more, we want to be more and we are called to be more.

Anthony Bloom, in his book, Encounter, gives us another way to listen, a way to “consent to the contents of what the other person says becoming part of us without picking and choosing: to listen to a person without discarding what is not congenial to oneself, or what is offensive or difficult to accept…to accept into oneself everything that that person will pour out, and to live through a shared experience in a kind of communion.” (p. 13) He says we know how to do this already.

We can listen to others the way we listen to music.

Think about that for a moment, think about how differently your mind and heart function when you listen to music. Music is never just one note. Unless we are music critics, we don’t approach it technically or objectively, instead we allow it to flood our minds and our heart. We relax and open, we give ourselves over to music, and even when the music is familiar we hear it a little differently each time with fresh ears and appreciation.

How would we listen differently to others if we listened to them like music?

We would not be in a hurry.
We would hear their beauty and experience the complexity of their whole being.
We would listen for the delight in each person and discover in their depths even more delight.
We would be listening in anticipation for the next part of their song rather than critiquing what we already heard.
We would be listening with enjoyment and appreciation and gratitude for their unique unrepeatable song.
We would create conditions to encourage them to keep singing.
We would hear how their song in intertwined with ours.  We could tune our songs to them and offer them opportunities to harmonize with us and others.
We would develop policies and practices that are hopeful, life-giving, growth oriented and extravagantly spacious.
We would rebuke others when they forget to hear the music.  We would say, “Maybe that is true, but they are more than that!”

Listening this way would heal us as teachers and make us the kind of teachers we want to be.   Listening this way would teach our students to listen this way.

We are all more.  We are all singing.

Bloom, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (1999).  Encounter.  Oxford, UK: St. Stephen’s Press.

Holding together as a way of knowing

For many us us, education has been a process of pulling apart concepts and reality…breaking things down into steps, pieces or manageable chunks, differentiating, analyzing, categorizing. We have come to believe at a deep level, despite some rhetoric to the contrary, that this is the best way to come to know and show you know – to own the facts, a piece of reality all figured out to the smallest particle, reality as real estate that can be traded for position and advantage or packaged in a tidy theoretical framework that can be used to explain other aspects of reality. To know is to know parts and structure and formulae. And of course this is part of knowing, an important part.

However, this way of knowing doesn’t always serve us well when it becomes the main focus of education. It tends to divorce us from the way we really experience reality – held together, whole, greater than the sum of its parts, and deludes us into thinking we actually can control and own reality rather than participate in it with wonder and the humility of absolute interdependence. Our focus on parts and steps and structures blinds us to the whole and even to other parts of the whole. We lose touch with mystery, respect, gratitude, care – responses only the whole or holding together parts with the whole can elicit.

What if, instead, our main job as learners was to learn to hold things together? What if our main job as teachers was to help learners learn to hold things together?  For example, can we hold together an analysis of a rock into its type with the way it feels in our hand and its intricate markings and the diversity of living things that surrounds where it was found and its story of coming to be on this beach and what it can speak to us about stability and fragility and change?

I wonder what would happen in education if teachers and school systems were all more intentional about holding together, about seeing learning as an encounter with the real rather than just a dissection of it.  After all, isn’t this what our best teachers do? They are the ones who know the holding together secrets – relationship, story, sensory experience, poetry, ritual, symbol (which means to throw together), metaphor and all of the arts.  And then there is stillness which also seems to naturally lead to a deep communion, every moment a chalice of holding together.

Maybe learners who have been taught to hold together would start to participate in the world in a more integral way. Maybe they would also learn how to hold together with inner strength, because much of growing spiritually is learning to hold together what seems impossible to hold together – sadness and joy, suffering and consolation, contrition and forgiveness, strength and weakness, life and death, hope and loss, fear and faith and love, the one with with many.  What we find in the inner life is that holding together is the only life giving way to come to know, in fact we cannot really know what is true any other way. To find the unity and to stay steadfast in the midst of that unity is our greatest haven against the distraction of our spiritual enemies who seek to pull apart and force us to turn away to the parts. Light is in the unity, reality is in the unity, peace is in the unity, the kingdom of God is within.

In holding together, we learn we are held.

A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

Putting a ‘breath in the box’

I sometimes watch a cooking competition that provides participants with a box of four surprise ingredients and then asks them to create something tasty, beautiful and creative in 30 minutes. I am always amazed at what they are able to do in such a short time with such random ingredients. Recently, however, there was one competitor who was quite frantic throughout the thirty minutes, changing his mind, unsure about sequence, unable to sort through his many ideas and obviously quite anxious. When it came time for the judging, the judge commented on his state of mind while working and said, “We should have put a breath in the box.” He then went on to comment about how his state of mind, or inability to breathe, interfered with his ability to create something that was focused and coherent.

I’ve been thinking about this phrase quite a bit and how it applies so well to educational contexts. We don’t breathe very well in education, we don’t intentionally ‘put a breath in the box’. The tyranny of the urgent, the complexity of the many decisions we are making as teachers, the comprehensiveness of curriculum, and the pressure we put on students to quickly perform and produce with the ingredients we give them can all work against breathing. And what was clear in the competition results is also clear in educational settings. When students aren’t breathing, they aren’t learning, and they aren’t able to accurately represent what they know.

So I am starting to ask myself these questions…Is there a breath in the box for me and my students? Am I aware of my breathing and my students’ breathing? What kinds of breathing are present? Are we breathing deeply in appreciation for all that is possible and present or is our breath more indicative of exhaustion, anxiety and fear? Are there ways we can breathe better throughout the day or semester and not just when the bell goes at the end of the day, or when spring break arrives?

I am convinced that teachers have a lot of control over the breathing in their classrooms. Students usually breathe the way we do. They need us to practice better breathing, model better breathing, create space for better breathing. Mindfulness practices from all wisdom traditions teach us the importance of breath to help us self-regulate or achieve stillness in the midst of chaos, to bring us back to ourselves (because when we are not breathing well we are usually disembodied), to stabilize or anchor our minds, and to become aware of our thoughts while not being caught by our thoughts. This kind of focus is absolutely necessary for deep, focused, meaningful and responsive learning. We may not be able to control many of the conditions that surround us, but we can, with practice and awareness, control our breathing and help our students breathe.

This is the kind of breathing I would hope for my students…

Breaths of stillness and presence, to bring us back to ourselves and our learning.
Breaths of fresh air and anticipation when learning is foreshadowed.
Breaths of exhalation when a need has been met or a challenge is realized.
Breaths that are shared when we realize that some of us are having a harder time breathing.
Breaths of relaxation and quiet after times of intensity.
Breaths of inspiration arising from stillness.
Breaths of excitement and celebration when learning is accomplished.

Breathing is good. Be inspirited.

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