A cultural historian’s approach to learning / By way of homework

The following is produced for ‘What future for Education’ (2018, Institute of Education, University of London on Coursera)

week 5: In an ideal world, how do you think education should be organised? What priorities do you think it should reflect? And who should be responsible for ensuring that it is of a good quality? Is there anything from the padlet wall that has informed your position?

A bittersweet fantasy

I would argue that education must remain a stronghold of the state to the greatest possible extent, and I would like it to open-mindedly and flexibly reflect the needs of communities on a local level (I remember reading about Spyridakis’ role in tying the Cypriot education system with the Greek one, thus choosing to invest in the education of more teachers of Greek / ‘teachers of the nation’, rather than doctors, nurses, and engineers. The dangers of this kind of approach strike me as tremendous, and I admit to pessimism about the inflexibility of the educational system which perpetuates it.) I don’t know where the line might be between reasonable compartmentalisation of labour (as in the case of having the school grounds seen to by gardening experts) and dangerous privatisation that imposes a managerial culture turning education into an abusive / disconnected industry and the school into a business. Perhaps the line should be as radical as considering the keeping the school gardens as part of the work of education itself, and not as something distinct that could be delegated to an external contractor.

I am impressed by Sandra Leaton Gray’s suggestions about ways to empower teachers in the community, and I would argue that ensuring quality must be up to them, beyond the seemingly inevitably party-political focus of most unions.

If I must connect my answers above to the padlet wall, then this would have to be with regard to how grim this week’s contributions have turned out, to the extend of making me rather eager for a less pessimistic approach: a beautifully green school that embeds gardening and the cheerful maintenance of its grounds and buildings into the curriculum is my bittersweet fantasy in response.

week 4: How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult? In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?

Towards a de-futuring of schooling

I see my home’s approach to schooling, or my family’s single-minded prioritisation of achievement in formal education as the most pervasive influence on my personality and life choices. I would say that this unwavering and uncritical ideology, this inarticulate focus on the significance of schooling was regrettable in that it de-prioritised emotional and physical well-being. Like many of my generation I would have benefited from schooling that placed emotional and physical well-being closer to the centre of experience. Following this train of thought, however, I wonder whether emotional well-being is the kind of thing that should be a priority for schools. I wonder how the school system might try to achieve such a thing on a mass scale. I would certainly advocate for emotionally sensitive approaches to teaching/learning, but I would feel better if emotional well-being remains something that the school system (in its current form) doesn’t try to target! What I would like for the school system to do, would be to reinforce and integrate initiatives that contribute to the deconstruction of the more problematic boxes schooling has traditionally been made up of, by blending more closely with the rest of life. I would like schooling to reconnect learning with the community, re-conceive the school as integrating rather than isolating, to blend learning across ages rather than segregate childhood, to take down gates and fences and connect or break down its ‘outside’, to work towards learning as less distinct from family and community. I would have it focus on respecting the present (invaluable) realities it creates, and be less focused on creating supposed (‘successful’) futures.

week 3: Reflect back on the teachers you considered in the first reflection task at the start of this week. Reconsider what it was about them that made you consider them to be so good. Would others that were taught by them have the same conclusions?

On discipline and passion

I don’t believe I ever really had a clear sense of this thing, the good teacher. My mind goes straight to my 5th grade teacher in primary school. The only one I remember. She was big and seemed warm and kind, however strict. I remember my parents had a tip that she was ‘the best’ in the school by some account, and I suppose this represents what a ‘good teacher’ really is, as A. Moore explains: a rather elusive top-down category. I respected and feared her, and I realise through this week’s reading and reflection how I am suddenly able to sort through my memories and focus on my sense of the kind of authority she exercised (not so much a companion, more like a commander, effortlessly disciplinarian). I realise that I am suddenly able to assess the successes and limitations of her teaching in connection to this particular style of authority. And I also realise how specific and very much hers were the pedagogic / epistemological realities she was able to construct day after day.

An educator that strongly influenced the rest of my academic decisions was the late Frances Stracey (Art History, UCL). I can recall her seminars in astounding detail, I remember my awe and that I felt unable to participate in the discussion at the time. When I feel insecure or unprepared about my own teaching, I remember how well she communicated the material she shared, simply because she loved it, and so I remember that all I have to do is communicate what I’m excited about. I imagine that most who took her classes must have been amazed by her, certainly at that particular stage of her career. She was enthralling, as was her scholarship.

week 2: During your own education, how has your “intelligence” been assessed? How has this affected the educational opportunities you have been given? What judgments have people made about you that have been affected by an assessment of your “intelligence”? Do you consider yourself to be a “learner”? why?

On the illusions of intelligence as identity

I can see how a particular view of intelligence, a particular pursuit of excellence, became a big part of my identity / defensive skill-set early on in my childhood. I found myself in casting as the “clever child”. I looked the part, with spectacles introduced in early elementary school (I’ve been preoccupied by questions around the necessity and the effect of spectacles on children for a while, and this post has kicked me into research). I had stretches of unobserved time in two wonderful book collections. My mother enjoyed writing with me, composing funny stories, which means I had delightful tutoring in the written word. I was made fun of for preferring books and TV over group play during holidays in the village with the extended family. Adult encouragement of a certain kind of learning was a point of difference between me and the other children in the extended family. The others were, in turn, designated as beautiful, fast, strong, and so on. I was bookish, cast as always potentially excellent, a cooperative student, and presumed to prefer presents in the form of books. I remember experiencing a sense of injustice about this last thing, but I did enjoy the upsides of it: books -or the solitary consumption of media that this intelligence gave me unsupervised access to- were a sanctioned type of escapism within which I could enjoy full freedom. I stumbled with math at some point, quite early on, and it became the crux of my impostor syndrome for the rest of my school years: I pretended to be OK at it and even got OK marks, but I felt as if I was faking it: a terrible secret (this week’s course reading, or course, resonates tremendously). Fear of mathematics, fear of the limits of my projected ‘intelligence’ and what this reveals has marked my academic and life choices tremendously. I think I came to deal with this fear (circumstantially, as part of a different project) by sitting through a mathematics exam, solving it, and then not handing it in (https://allonan.com/2018/02/24/police-exam-fail/).  I suppose that it’s to my relationship with mathematics that I owe an embedded distrust towards the dominant views and projections of intelligence. I suppose this awareness of my limitations, along with my need to come to terms with the limitations of my memory as a historian, helped me position myself academically as a researcher rather than a learner. I don’t try to retain information or skills, I find what I need, put it to work, and move on.  I am, however aware of my active learning at the prodding of this particular course, and I am delighted by it. It feels like a cathartic clicking-in of puzzles one had previously given up on. And the process of reflecting and responding in journal form feels like a soothing, beneficial re-encoding.

week 1: Based on your experience as a learner, what do you think you will be able to get out of this course? And what ideas do you already have about the future of education?

Upgrading a cultural historian’s approach to learning: starting places and shortcuts

I’m looking for ways to upgrade my teaching. I’m looking for support and confidence in my use of progressive methods in conservative settings. I realise, already, how this course is helping me articulate some of my troubles around learning more clearly. This is especially to do with a Cultural and Critical Studies course, part of a Fine Arts BA, that I’ve been teaching for three or so years. Here are my starting places:
– How do I address the fact that some students find my style of teaching stressful or chaotic? That is, my encouragement of independent research, my use of online live documents, my resistance to the lecture format, my requirement that they share/address their responses to their class and not just me, and my expectation that they rewrite their final assignments at  least once. –
-How do I find a better balance, or perhaps how do I better navigate the fact that my way of being in the classroom encourages familiarity (and thus occasionally brings up issues of boundaries) in order to open up and build a rapport that encourages students to use my courses and our time together to develop their interests in a way that is crucially embedded in their practice and their everyday lives.
– How do I avoid finding myself in a defensive position in relation to colleagues who consider these ways of teaching utopian or naive and question their efficacy, let alone their necessity (I was delighted by Fiona’s discussion of how progressive methods can be thought of as sub par or lazy, because they are more pleasant and less difficult).

I’m aware of how I am processing not just the content of the course, but its structure and its use of various tools, and I am delighted to be here.


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