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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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.

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.

Contemplation and human rights?

We have a wonderful new museum in Canada – The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is remarkable in content and resources, but also remarkable in architecture. I had the opportunity of learning more about this museum today and was struck by the intentionality of the created space in particular. Every single aspect of the building, along with every single display, artifact and interactive media center, carries layers of meaning and shapes the experience, and therefore the learning, of each person entering. The design illustrates so profoundly the interaction between learning and space or form and inspired all of us present with regard to considering how stronger elements of design could be present in our teacher education programs and our learning spaces.

There was one aspect of the architecture that particularly intrigued me. At the heart of the museum you will find a Garden of Contemplation, a beautiful and peaceful and seemingly empty space. What intrigued me was that all of the other images of spaces in the museum were filled with people busy doing and interacting. In fact the museum is highly interactive, incorporating innovative and cutting edge technology. Our presenter spoke at length about how the museum visitors are encouraged to personally engage, explore, discover, transform and then respond with action and commitment. But the contemplative space was empty and only briefly mentioned.

This emptiness didn’t surprise me – I wouldn’t naturally put together contemplative practices with human rights activism. I think that I would also be more drawn to the stories and images and interactive opportunities in the rest of the museum. But as I pondered this emptiness, I began to think about how it was representative of our lives beyond this museum and human rights. We all seem to know that contemplative space, either physical places or internal practices, is necessary, and many of us even long for it. However, when given the option to interact, to do, to be active, or to make what looks like a heroic difference, that space is so often left empty. We are not quite sure why it is even necessary – it seems somewhat wasteful and useless. This uselessness was further illustrated in our conversations around some of the difficult stories told in a museum for human rights and their impact on visiting children and adults. The response to the possible trauma and despair was ensuring they could respond with concrete action. No one suggested a visit to the contemplative garden…

St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to know about this human tendency when he said that we should ‘love stillness more than feeding the hungry and giving alms to the poor’, therefore more than activism for any kind of human right, more than changing the world for what we think might be better even though we never really know and are often wrong. He didn’t say not to love these things – we should love to offer ourselves in life-giving ways to others in whatever places of offering we find ourselves. We should just love stillness more.

I am a stillness beginner, but I am starting to understand why it is so important and to value it in my life. I have found that stillness leads us on a different journey, a slower and more patient journey. Stillness orients us to our absolute contingency and corrects our ego’s self-serving and self-protective tendencies. Stillness reminds us we are not God and helps us come to know God and all that is Other than us. Stillness can even convict us that we are complicit in the situation requiring change leading us to a more compassionate rather than judging regard for a situation. Stillness helps us attend/pay attention to reality and others in a way that precludes the possibility of entering into action that is inherently violent in its imposition and carelessness. So often our helping hurts. Stillness brings us quite easily into a place of gratitude and awareness of greater goodness, truth and beauty. Stillness moves us into creative and meaningful responses that are often far more democratic, helpful, meaningful and lasting than the responses that emerge from living our lives as if we are ‘thrown stones’ frantic to rearrange the world. (Lees, 2012)

I am grateful our human rights museum has this place of contemplation and that it is found in the center or heart of the space. May this visible, beautiful and invitational space grow in its presence and impact. I believe it can because I know that stillness creates more longing for stillness. May this contemplative space also grow in the lives of all of us who care about human rights and want to teach others to care.

Lees, H. E. (2012). Silence in schools. London, UK: Institute of Education Press.

http://www.humanrights.ca Canadian Museum for Human Rights Website

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