One of this summer’s great pleasures has been getting some road time on the motorbike. It’s neither the flashest nor largest bike I’ve ever owned but it’s great for getting about in town. It’s a Suzuki Inazuma 250, since you ask (means ‘thunder’ in Japanese, I believe. Here me roar!…). Anyway, it does the job.
Whether you are four years old with trainer wheels, or are hurling yourself through London traffic on a Honda CB500 (yes, ’twas I), one vital skill you learn is that the bike goes where you look. If there’s a gap in the traffic, and if you are looking at that gap, you’ll drive through it. If there’s a gap and a pedestrian crossing the road, and you stare at that hapless passer-by, then, well, it’s not a pretty site.
It’s a great metaphor for the way we think about education.
One way to think about it is that whatever you look at and focus on is where you will direct your practice. There are plenty of improvement programmes and initiatives that encourage us to make improvements by filing the gaps, looking for those students who are failing – or who are borderline C/D or Pass/Fail and focus our energies there. Many a desperate league table has driven that approach to learning. While this might help finetune a particular puzzle of practice for a particular group of students, there is always the risk that others may pass by, unobserved and unaffected by the programme design.
Perhaps, instead, we might think of the metaphor thus: that the way I look at things influences my direction in the way I design learning. It’s vital as an educator to appreciate that our beliefs, our values, our experiences formed by many years in education and society at large shape the way we think about teaching. These are variously described as ‘theories of practice’ or theories in use’ (Argyris, Putnam, and Smith, 1985; Argyris and Schön, 1974):
“[These theories] include their personal theories – the judgments and evaluations that they make about themselves, others, and the world around them – and their understanding of general theories. They are the lens through which educators view their practice, guiding the decisions they make about the actions they will take, the ways in which they make sense of new information, and what they view as useful knowledge.” [INSTEP, 2008]
Just as a bike rider needs to consciously understand that the way we look at the road influences our direction, so too must educator be aware that they bring personal interpretations to their work, in-built theories that need to be held up to the light, questioned and compared to others’ approaches. These beliefs can unconsciously direct the way we design whole programmes, and think about the young people and colleagues with who we work.
It’s a worthwhile task discussing the ‘why’ behind our actions – why we tried one particular activity, why we think of a certain student in the way we do – and to have a critical and supportive culture in which to have these challenging conversations.
We go where we look. So it’s vital to know where we are looking. And why. As these helpful folks prove so much better than I can (or wish to;):
More on this, I hope, later in the month.