Opening up thinking about education today for tomorrow - Imagining possibilities and solutions

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Some challenges in being a learning profession

I thought I might be a little provocative in my thinking in this entry. Over the last few weeks I have had some interesting conversations with people about conferences and research.

A couple of things have struck me from the conversations; and I’d like to offer a couple of challenges as much for myself as for others.

1. There is a tendency for educators to attend conferences and expect to get something from them.
Often I hear attendees express disappointment that they have got nothing new from the conference. This may well be so. It seems to be an extension of the pragmatic approach I often experience of teachers: give me something I can do tomorrow that will be useful. Often this response is from the sheer business of teaching.

The challenge:
I do think that it is important to gain something from the conferences attended. I also believe that it is important to be active in building the knowledge across the profession.

At one level I find it affirming that what I hear is what I believe I already know and do.The challenge for me is to build on the knowledge. The focus I believe needs to be very much one of “so what?” “where to next?

This also challenges me to think about what I can contribute to the thinking either as a presenter or as a participant to engage in the professional discourse beyond my own site of involvement.

The networking of people, ideas and practice is central for me.

2. There is a tendency to disregard or "reactively challenge" the best available research, evidence and thinking at a superficial level.
I often experience a tendency at the local level (school and/or district) to often disregard or challenge evidence and emerging concepts when the evidence or concept challenges the status quo. This seems to often be done from a defensive and personal stance.

This is expressed in a number of ways:

  1. Picking of the eyes out of what is presented: "I like this part but don’t like that – so I’ll take the part I like."
  2. Blocking: "Well that won’t work here." Or, "They got it wrong."
  3. Comfort in the belief that it is already happening: “We’re already doing that. There’s nothing new here.”
The challenge
I believe that it is important to bring a critically reflective eye to the research. New research and thinking, that is recognised as the best or most significant available, should challenge my view of the world.

Significant professional learning doesn’t happen by accommodating the new thinking into my framework and theories, disregarding the pieces I don’t like or ignoring it (maybe hoping it will go away!).

The significant learning happens in the dissonance, when our safe theoretical and experiential frames are rattled and we are invited to see things differently and to re-frame our theories and make sense of the experiences from another perspective.

Depersonalising teaching
Recently I was part of a discussion about the need to not only deprivatise teaching but also to depersonalise teaching if we are improve the quality of teaching and build professional knowledge across the profession. This is not about removing or denying the relational aspect that is an important part of teaching; but rather to separate the person as teacher from the act of teaching.

The focus should be on improving the act of teaching.

In a conversation I had with Tom Bentley (former director of DEMOS - a British think tank), we talked about teaching being a Community of Practice (rather than a Community of Learners) whereby teachers:

- focused on their professional activities - what they do
- engaged in mutually supportive forms of professional exchange.

Such Communities can serve to reinforce our bounded professional identities as teachers and as a profession.

There is a danger of these communities of practice following the existing institutional contours (the way things are done) rather than trying to break out of these. We continue to keep doing things in pretty much the same way rather than exploring new ways.

Of course we can’t constantly be involved in deep or significant learning. But I fear that too often the opportunity to learn as teachers can be prematurely shut down in the name of pragmatism and a belief that it is a comment about me as a teacher, rather than about teaching.

Maybe teachers are just suspicious of research and new thinking that challenges the status quo. Maybe this has always been the case; but maybe the accountability and merit pay agendas have heightened the suspicion. Maybe increased external accountability and rewards such as merit pay get in the way of learning as a profession.

What do you think?

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