Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Professional learning by deliberately cultivating the unexpected

“He that confines himself to one book at a time, may be amused, but is no student.  In order to study, I must sit in some measure in the middle of a library.”

William Godwin, The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, Vol 81, 1818

I take this to suggest that 'students' need to do more than focus on and work directly at the subject of their studies; they must enrich this direct approach with other ideas, stimuli, experiences, so as to allow and encourage surprises, unexpected insights; in short, serendipity.  This might be boringly described as 'reading around your subject', but I think Godwin means something much more than that: something more like Rimbaud's 'systematic derangement of the senses', so as to try to be jolted out of one's preconceptions. 

I am pleased with this idea, as it aligns well with something I wrote recently about the messiness of real teaching and learning (Derrick 2010):

In the dominant model of public sector professionalism today, accidents are seen as prima facie evidence of failure: if unexpected events do occur, it must be due to inadequate preparation or human error. This view of practice assumes that in principle the job and skills of a teacher, social worker, parent, etc, can be defined in detail, without ambiguity, and therefore codified precisely. Regulation and quality assurance of these roles, it follows, is a straightforward process of checking that there is no variation from the code. The training of such professionals is also seen as straightforward, based on a well-defined, unproblematic body of knowledge and an accompanying skill-set that hardly changes over time. This positivist view of practice derives from a positivist view of learning, in some versions almost identical to behaviourism, in which the individual learner is seen as a passive recipient of pre-defined knowledge and skills, which are acquired usually through processes of memorisation and repetitive practice....

There is little room in the positivist view of practice for the idea of teaching as an art, or as a craft, something honed and fashioned over time in the context of a ‘community of practice’, and which takes for granted that changing circumstances and new learners will produce new problems for the teacher, who therefore needs the capacity to respond to new and unexpected situations.  Recent research shows clearly that teachers need to be ready at times to abandon their detailed plans and ‘go with the teachable moment’, not just as a response to difficult situations, but as an optimal strategy when things are anyway going well. Nor can the positivist view encompass the idea of the learning process as active, combining research, creation and re-creation by groups as well as by individuals, with a range of possible outcomes and wider benefits at the level of the individual learner, the group, the community and society in general . It does emphasise the role of the learner in choosing programmes of learning to enrol on, just as a shopper chooses products from the shelves of a supermarket, but this can only be equated with active learning from a reductionist, behaviourist viewpoint....[This] echoes Donald Schön’s famous distinction between different types of professional problem:
In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is the swampy lowland where situations are confusing ‘messes’ incapable of technical solution. The difficulty is that problems of high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant to clients or the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern.  (Schön 1983)
This view suggests that a crudely positivist philosophy and policy of learning, teaching, and teacher development, whatever its intentions, will be damaging both to society and to individuals. In particular, it will lead to deskilling: it nurtures in professionals a passive, bureaucratic and parochial version of their work, which over time leads to diminishing interest in, curiosity about, and capacity to deal with unexpected situations, or even to imagine crisis scenarios so as to prepare for them. Specifically it leads to diminution in preparedness and of the capacity to make judgements about the best course of action in the difficult, complex situations to be found in classrooms everywhere.
Richard Sennett (1970) argues that everyone needs to experience living and coping with the uncertain and the unfamiliar, of managing and dealing with life in complex and unpredictable situations without being in control of them, in order to reach full psychological maturity. If state-supported education seeks to eliminate the uncertain, the debatable, the unexpected, he suggests that it is condemning people to a kind of passive and frustrating adolescence, whatever their biological age.
Avoiding these problems, and harvesting the full potential of learners and teachers to enrich their practice for the economic, social and cultural benefit of society in general, will mean taking a quite different approach to learning in general, and following its implications through in terms of curriculum, the organisation, funding and accountability systems for state-supported learning, and of course to the formation and ongoing development of teachers.

Derrick J (2010) The messiness of real teaching and learning, in Derrick J, Howard U, Field J, Lavender P, Meyer S, von Rein EN, and Schuller T (eds, 2010) Remaking Adult Learning: Essays on adult education in honour of Alan Tuckett.  London: Institute of Education
Schön D (1983) The reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Maurice Temple Smith
Sennett R (1970 - 2008 edition) The uses of disorder – personal identity and city life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

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