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.

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.

As much my students’ as mine

I had the joy of reading one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales over the Christmas holiday,  At the back of the north wind.   The main character of the tale, Diamond, is an extraordinarily pure of heart child whose loving simplicity brings healing, light and love to everyone he encounters.  He has a baby brother who he loves to bounce on his knee and while doing so he makes up silly songs to entertain him.  One of his friends, an author, asks him to sing one of the songs he created.  But Diamond says it is not possible.

“No sir.  I couldn’t.  I forget them as soon as I’ve done with them.  Besides I couldn’t make a line without baby on my knee.  We make them together, you know.  They’re as much the baby’s as mine.  It’s he that pulls them out of me.”   

This little interaction made me think about the relationship between teachers, students and curriculum planning, and I have to say that this is one of the best descriptions of curriculum planning I’ve come across in a long time.  I have never been a teacher who has been able to teach the same thing twice in the same way.  Even when I have planned the same class for two different sections back to back, the conversation is different, the interaction is different, the learning is different.  My students pull out of me and I’m sure I pull out of them in ways that can’t be duplicated.   And then there are the many ways students pull out of each other.

I love this dynamic of the classroom, it’s why I love being a teacher.  It’s also why teaching is so complex and challenging, yet filled with sacred, joyful and delightful moments.

I can’t say that what is pulled out of me and us is always beautifully in tune, my heart isn’t as pure as Diamond’s and sometimes I am distracted or weighed down.  Sometimes, I am trying too hard to sing another person’s song, or not really paying close enough attention to my students to see what would delight them and invite them into learning.

But there is always the next class, always a new song to sing, as long as I stay convinced that the words and music are as much my students’ as mine.


The hope of glory

I’ve written previously about the dangers of being an idealist, but today I want to focus on a related illness – that of being a perfectionist.  I write as someone who is still recovering from this illness and as someone who has great concern for the way this illness is developed (often unintentionally) and manifested in educational settings.  My hope is that these words will somehow break through the perception that perfectionism is an any way good for educators or for students.  I have heard too many beginning teachers say, “I’m a perfectionist“, with the assumption that this is good news to me, that I somehow hope that they are perfectionists.   I don’t.   Instead, I want to do all I can to interrupt this discourse because these words can reveal a hope that outer light/glory will conceal inner darkness and can become a road that is eventually very damaging.

My experience as a perfectionist has taught me the following:

Perfectionists come to believe in their own capabilities.  They are so strong in themselves, they have no need of God.  If they are Christians, they are Christian atheists.

Perfectionists are preoccupied with their own glory and crave recognition for that glory.  Their greed for glory is never satiated.

Perfectionists think about their own accomplishments – a lot!  They dwell/live in their accomplishments.

Perfectionists hate hearing about any glory given to another (although they would never admit this).

Perfectionists are irritated by imperfection and those less perfect than them.  That irritation can easily explode into anger.

Perfectionists are usually not content or grateful or joyful or peaceful or gentle…They don’t have the fruit of the spirit because they haven’t actually recognized their need for the Holy Spirit.  They may be good at pretending these things in order to preserve an image they have of themselves, but their mask keeps slipping.

Perfectionists see only what is imperfect in others or in circumstances.  They obsess about fixing things.  Their lives are full of ‘picture frames that need straightening‘.

Perfectionists are frustrated with any ambiguity or complexity that prevents them from getting the right answer quickly and then getting recognition for having gotten the right answer quickly.  They want to know what and how more than what if or why.

Perfectionists use others to make themselves look more perfect.  They are the opposite of relational and personal human beings.  They are atomistic, fragmented, self-centered individuals.

Perfectionists crumble when they are shaken by circumstances beyond their control.  They have no inner strength, no unity between their inner and outer lives, no way of reaching beyond themselves.  They are often deeply sad.

Perfectionists don’t teach, they impose, control and manipulate and then produce mini-perfectionists.  We always offer who we are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are confused about the aims of education.  We confuse learning to live well with God and all others, with correctness and rewards.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we start to view them as ‘pictures needing straightening‘.

We teach people to be perfectionists when education becomes more about individual hoop jumping and rule following than a shared, joyful and challenging journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them that their only hope of glory is to win a competition, to be the best.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them salvation is an event rather than a journey.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we praise them with too many words that they come to understand as defining them – words that eventually enslave them with the pressure to continue to be what others think they are.

We teach people to be perfectionists when we are cruel and merciless, rather than gentle and patient.

We teach people to be perfectionists by immersing them in a culture that focuses on image and presentation of image.  Facebook was made for perfectionists.

Perfectionism can become a serious illness, one that is easily caught and taught, but also one that can be healed – with time and help.  Healing usually requires significant shaking – especially if you’ve been a perfectionist for a long time, and your mask has hardened.  It requires turning away from yourself and towards others.  It requires learning to let go of….well…almost everything.  It requires coming to the end of yourself (and you will) and seeing the abyss in front of you, within you.  It requires a ‘cat’ that will turn your most beautiful piece of ‘furniture’ into its scratching post. It requires recognition of the quality of spirit that is infecting all of the ‘good‘ you do.  It requires seeing how little true life you have to offer others.  It requires gratefulness for your contingency, for your complete reliance on God and others for any good that is given to you to do.  It requires teaching yourself to forget any good you do immediately after you do it.   It requires understanding that the only hope of glory you have is Christ in you, transforming you, helping you become like Him, helping you become human.

To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a good thing to want.  It is not wrong to have a telos, it is wrong to have an idol.  Perfectionists eventually turn themselves into idols.  Our Father is perfect in love, perfect in goodness, perfect in mercy, perfect in peace.  We are judged by His absolute strength, but saved by His willingness to share His perfect life with us.  God is the one who perfects ( 1 Peter 5:10).  To be perfect like our Father, is simply an invitation to keep ourselves in the love of God, before His face, looking for His mercy (Jude, v. 20).

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