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.

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