Can my history and culture provide me with a model to develop a new history and culture?
When I compare my practice in school with my practice as a member of the Young Christian Workers (YCW) group I find my practice within the YCW honours my values more than my practice as a teacher or administrator. Let me give an example to help explain the difference between the activities of the YCW group and much of what occurs in my classroom.
Many years ago, a friend, let me call her Mary, of one of the members of the group, whom I will call Paul, was dismissed from her job in the local grocers shop for being absent from work due to illness. Mary told her story to Paul who recounted it to the group. This was not recounted as a simple tale of woe but in the context of the ‘Fact of the Week’, where members of the group told of their experiences during their working week. These experiences were discussed by the group in the context of their values base and the group decided if action could be taken. In this instance Paul undertook to pursue action on behalf of his friend. Over a number of months Paul acquainted himself with various elements of labour law and discovered there could be a basis for an unfair dismissals case. He took this case, without legal or trades union representation, to an unfair dismissals tribunal and won the case. Mary was compensated for her unfair dismissal. Following this success, the YCW group undertook the establishment of a ‘school-to-work’ programme. The aim of the programme was to enable young people in schools to become aware of their rights and responsibilities as they moved from full-time schooling into the world of work. Such school-to-work links have since become a feature of many school programmes like Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) and Transition Year Programme (TYP).
A key question for me is whether there are aspects of Paul’s action that could provide me with a model for working as a teacher and administrator that would allow me to move away from the ‘traditional model’, ‘the banking model’, the ‘transmission metaphor’ and the ‘closed society’ that I work within. Are there opportunities within my ‘closed society’ to form a democratic enclave, where dialogue could occur and could a space be created for ‘critical enquiry’ (ibid: 45)? How would such a model work within the classroom and could it work among colleagues?
Could a change of subjects provide a change of approach?
For the first few years of my teaching career I taught Science, Biology and Physics. After a time an opportunity arose to become involved with a new school subject called ‘Technology’. Technology is referred to as Craft, Design, Technology elsewhere. Technology attracted me because it focused on students undertaking project work and provided considerable opportunities for students to take control of their own learning.
Teaching Technology was providing me with a new approach that was participatory for the students and collaborative for both teacher and students. However, after teaching the Technology course for a couple of years I was experiencing some concerns here also. By December 1994 I had undertaken an action research study into ‘Motivating Junior Certificate Technology Students’ (O’Neill 1994a). The initial attraction of Technology was waning.
It was clear to me at this point that the students must hold the answer to my classroom difficulties; however my tendency to turn a concrete problem into an abstraction was getting in the way of my learning.
This account shows the development of my own understanding and my learning by engaging with my students in dialogue. As a result of engaging my students in dialogue the power relationships within my classroom were changing. We were moving from the traditional didactic relationship to one of collaboration on common tasks. In this way practice within my classroom was changing and indeed a new pedagogy was developing. There was the possibility of reconceptualising curriculum as an articulation of conversations of communities of practice.
From this work it was becoming clear that in order to improve the quality of the work taking place within our classroom I needed the participation of students in deciding what was worthwhile work. The students were more than capable of telling me what worked for them. If I wished to support them in ‘being the best that they could be’ I needed to listen to them and support them in choosing the best ways for them to learn.
“You talk too much”, “We have too much writing to do”, “We want to make more things”, are clear statements. However my first inclination was to go into expert mode: ‘But I know what is on the curriculum.’ ‘I know what the examiner expects.’ ‘I know…I know…I know…’ But do I know how each of these individual students learns best?
NCVA – could changing the model of practice provide a more life-affirming approach to administering certification?
It became clear to me that the progress we were making and the learning we were undergoing was not enough to keep pace with the pace of change that we were facing in NCVA. There was an urgent need for us to change models. It was not enough for us to examine and correct the way we were doing things; our underlying assumptions needed to be challenged and modified if necessary. Clearly the problems we faced were not the administrators’ problems but problems for the entire organisation. It was in this context that I realised that a process to support organisational learning and organisational change was required. It seemed that establishing a process of organisational learning within NCVA required the same sort of philosophy of learning that informed the work in school. It was into this context that the idea of forming an ‘action learning group’ was formed. Such a group would bring together ‘people who are interested in critically examining their own work with a view to improving practice’ as I stated in the project proposal (O’Neill 1998b: 1).
Do the ways I prefer working suggest how I could bring my practice into line with my values?
I have for some time been teaching Science and Technology. A relevant question for me in the light of my experiences is which would I rather be teaching with a class right now? I would say Technology. If I look at a look at my relationship with a class in Technology and in Science in general it is different. The technology class is more fulfilling for both teacher and students. When I asked my students which they preferred almost all answered the Technology class. The reason is that Technology is not about the content it is about how things are done. Activity in the Technology class is not centred on the teacher. It is centred on the students. It is about the students working, they set the pace, get things going and make things happen. I, as teacher, am no longer ‘in front’ of the class. I prefer this class because I am more comfortable supporting the students as they take control of their lives and this provides me with a more satisfying and rewarding environment to work in. In the Science class the focus is on the teacher. The Science class is more authoritarian and demanding. Technology class is more collaborative and enabling. I do things every day in my Science class that I do not want to do. Activity is too much about controlling the students. In Technology there is no need to control them. They are controlling themselves. The students are liberated, they are given responsibility and they are finding out for themselves.
Can I develop my own living theory of learning?
During my early attempts at improving my practice I began to theorise my own learning in terms of developing a personal living theory of learning. Among the ideas I was formulating at that time was that education was not so much about teaching as about learning. So I began to doubt the central role of the teacher as the possessor of knowledge which was to be imparted to passive, empty minds and began to see a process of collaborative learning where students and teacher were learning together. My learning was concerned with how to support my students in their learning. Their learning was substantially concerned with how to take control of their own learning. This reconceptualisation of learning necessitated a democratic approach to school work where learners became central. Underpinning this reconceptualisation were Arendt’s ideas of natality and plurality (Arendt 1958). My students with their wide diversity of skills, talents, abilities and interests are not better than each other – just different. Each and every one has the capability to start something new – what Arendt calls natality. It is my belief that ICT has the transformative generative potential capacity to support that natality.
Are there ways that I can ‘thicken’ democracy?
In my work context I find myself working within authoritarian systems. Within such systems many of the aims and purposes pursued by teachers are not so much the result of conscious choice as the constraints contained in a social structure over which they have little if any control (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 130). Despite my gloomy assessment I still ask myself are there ways that I could work in a more participatory manner? I find myself attempting to move from a position where participation is ‘thin’ to the point of non-existence towards ‘thicker’ democracy (Apple 2003: 12). It has been suggested that the solution lies in the ‘ Total School’ (Fullan and Hargreaves 1992). ‘The premise is that teachers and heads should ultimately make it happen.’ (ibid: 2).
Developing more participatory forms of learning require a fundamental shift in how we view learning. Learners need to be allowed to place themselves at the centre of their own learning. Cook-Sather has commented that every reform in education has been premised on adults’ notions of how education should be conceptualised and practised. She says ‘…there is something fundamentally amiss about building and rebuilding an entire system without consulting at any point those it is ostensibly designed to serve’ (Cook-Sather 2002: 3).
In search of a method
My approach to action research follows that set out by Whitehead (1989; 1993) and I follow the key steps that he uses. In my case the steps may appear more complicated than usual. This is in keeping with the dynamic web-like nature of my life experience and as a result my concerns and my approach to them are not linear and closed but dynamic and open-ended and the apparently unconnected are connected. I have experienced a range of ‘living contradictions’ in my work, as follows:
I experience a concern where some of my educational values are being denied in practice:
I believe that every person has a unique place in the world and has the potential to make new beginnings. I work within a highly authoritarian environment. My students, my colleagues and I suffer within that environment. Our lives are affected by the logics of domination that are the dominant practice.
I believe that knowledge of ICT is important for all students. Many of our students leave school without any ICT experience because of difficulties in fitting it into an already crowded curriculum.
- Many of our teachers are ‘missing out’ on the advantages that ICT can offer to teaching and learning because they do not have the skills to use them or sufficient access to them
The changing nature of scientific processes
During the twentieth century a clear theme appeared throughout the literature of the philosophy of science regarding the changing nature of scientific processes (see for example Coveney and Highfield 1995; Woodhouse 1996). A new body of literature, popularly termed ‘the new science’, has transformed not only how science is understood but also how scientific knowledge is created and disseminated. Old paradigms which value concepts such as certainty, objectivity and the deterministic nature of cause and effect processes have been transformed by scientists working in a variety of disciplines, who suggest that scientific enquiry needs to embrace the ideas of uncertainty and unpredictability in natural processes. These evolutionary trends have been well described by, among others, Bohm (1992; 1995), Capra (1983; 1992), Gleick (1994) and Peat (1996).
The metaphors of the new science transfer to how the practices of social scientific and educational enquiry are conceptualised. New paradigm research in education embraces newer forms of enquiry such as action research. These newer forms also emphasise uncertainty and the need to embrace contradiction. The ideas of the new science also travel to how organisation is conceptualised. Reconceptualisation of organisation suggests a form of practice that relies more on a participation metaphor, where learning takes place by becoming a member of a community or culture and where participants take the perspectives of others into account (Lomax 1998).
I imagine a solution to that concern:
- If we could devise a way for teachers and students to work collaboratively a democratic enclave could be formed within an authoritarian system.
- If we could devise a system for enabling teachers to use ICT in teaching their subjects then the educational experience of teachers and students could be improved.
I act in the direction of the proposed solution:
- I collaborate with colleagues to devise ways of working with each other and with students that emphasise the logics of relation rather than the logics of control.
- An infrastructure is put in place to enable a school-based intranet to be developed.
- I put a proposal to fellow teachers regarding developing content for an intranet
- I support teachers and students to develop content for the intranet.
I evaluate the outcome of the solution:
- Teachers and students were interviewed about their experience of the development.
- I studied students and teachers reports of their actions
- I examine my reflective journal.
- I modify my practice, plans and ideas in the light of the evaluation:
- I develop the infrastructure to extend the Intranet throughout the school.
- Additional subject material is added to the intranet.
- I encourage additional teachers and students to participate.
- I devise projects that support collaborative learning
I believe the brief outline given here indicates the methodological framework I have followed in carrying out this study. I hope that this framework is obvious throughout this paper
Purposes for the research
Personal purposes – Improving my own learning
For me, the key purpose in carrying out research is to improve my own learning and by improving my own learning to improve my practice. The improvement of my learning is based on my identification of a gap between my values and my practice (Whitehead 1989; 1993). I need to learn how to close that gap and bring my practice into line with my values.
Knowledge purposes – Contributing to the knowledge base of education.
In her presidential address to the America Educational Research Association in 2001 Catherine Snow, while supporting the wealth of knowledge possessed by teachers, called for that knowledge to be ‘systematized so that personal knowledge can become publicly accessible and subject to analysis’ (Snow 2001: 3). One of my purposes in carrying out this research is to respond to Snow’s call.
Social purposes – contributing to a good social order
A key value within my work is recognition of the uniqueness and diversity of individuals. I theorise this in terms of Arendt’s (1958) concepts of natality and plurality. Recognising individuals’ natality provides an impetus to contribute to the development of a good social order which will support individuals and groups in realising their natality.
Can I reconceptualise ICT to support my students and colleagues in improving their own learning by exercising their autonomy?
I find my school environment has suffered from congealed thinking – with a lack of receptiveness to new ideas. Within such an environment ICT has a transformational quality that can assist change.