Theoretically

go-your-own-road
Go our own road by erikjohanssonphoto.com

I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend – to grasp what was happening around and within me [1]

Being a teacher in public education, I have an uneasy relationship with educational theory. On the one hand, I have a need to make sense of my teaching experiences, yet on the other hand, so much of theory is utterly alien to what is possible and probable in classrooms. There are many theoretical maps of education and schooling that bear no resemblance to the territory of my quotidian teaching practice. Inextricably wound through this dis-ease are feelings of deep satisfaction when I encounter theories that account for, albeit approximately, the activities and interactions in my classroom. However, I cannot deny that I would probably have not felt so isolated and alone if I had been armed with the liberatory concepts in Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed while teaching in Apartheid-era South Africa, as I struggled to find the antithesis to the normative discourse in schools.

Back then, I did not have a clear understanding of my compulsion to find ways to help students see through the racist labels ascribed to us and to try to recognize the commonality of our human condition. However, long before I read Freire, I knew that there was much I could learn from my students, and I also realized that they were better than me at many tasks.

Before I read Noddings, I tried to find ways to teach caring and to create community in my classroom. And long before I knew about the engaged pedagogy of bell hooks, and the critical pedagogy of Giroux, I knew that what I was taught to teach in schools in South Africa had nothing to do with helping my students to grow into the fullness of their humanity.

This “knowing” was of course my own personal theory of education, rooted in my personal epistemology, since we humans are meaning makers and our lives are in some sense a practice of theories we hold about life, our world and each other. And yet somehow I experience these as intuition, as hunch, and as hope, not as “legitimate” as the theories that emerge from the academy.

Even though my interpretation of the theories of relational and critical pedagogy have validated my hunch that my work as a teacher involves the dissolution of the borders and boundaries in schools that enclose and separate, I have yet to discover theories that encompasses all that happens in my classroom. And so I continuously search for theoretical lenses with which I can interpret what happens in my classroom. Recently this search took on a sense of desperation when I integrated a web-based simulation into my teaching program.

The integration had resulted in learning experiences unbounded by space, time or curricula. Students excitedly engaged in philosophical debates and wrestled with ethical dilemmas. But while students were energized about what was happening in the classroom, I became quite confused and perplexed about my role and identity as a teacher. While their learning and enquiries expanded far beyond traditional curricula, I felt my role contracting. I yearned for a language, a theory, to which I could refer, a conversation I could join.

At this point, eight weeks have passed since those experiences and I am now beginning to see that what my integration of the simulation into a traditional classroom had inadvertently created was a postmodern learning environment with all the attendant ambiguity that that entailed. And as a child of modernity, more accustomed to the strictures and structures of traditional schooling, I found myself floundering in the fluidity of it all. This essay is my contribution to the conversation about what comprises and guides a postmodern pedagogy from the perspective of a teacher who arrived at it after traversing uncharted waters.

A Perpetual Migration

How do we know where we are going?

How do we know where we are headed

till we in fact or hope or hunch

arrive? You can only criticize,

the comfortable say, you don’t know

what you want. Ah, but we do.

 

…Navigating by chart and chance

and passion I will know the shape

of the mountains of freedom, I will know.  [2]

 Although Marge Piercy’s poem is a reflection on the “perpetual” work for social justice, as a teacher, I resonate with her confidence that multiple modes, “chart and chance and passion” will guide the journey to transformative educational experiences, our educational “mountains of freedom”.   Over my twenty-year teaching journey, I have relied on few charts, have often been astounded by instances of serendipity and have felt compelled by a passion to multiply those magical moments within our classroom community that reveal the truth of our interdependence.   So much of what happens in the classroom is not on the “chart”, not on any of the academy’s maps of what should happen. And though, as Alfred Korzybski pointed out, the map is not the territory, the territory is where I teach.

I have travelled this territory guided by the belief that, unless we can realize our utter interdependence and the critical power of relationality, it will not matter how much rational knowledge and empiricism reveals about the world if we cannot speak to each other about our different perspectives on religion, the environment, peace and social justice. And I also believe that we cannot speak to each other unless and until we can see the other subjectively, as I later learned from Buber, if we cannot enter into an I-thou dialogue with each other. This is my “mountain of freedom”, when students see themselves in each other. In my teaching practice, I have had many instances when I have seen these mountains. Here is one example:

Before going into [this class] I saw people very differently. I never wanted to talk to people who were classified as the “freaks” or even the “geeks”. I always thought they were different than me and I didn’t want to interact with them. The first month of school was an introduction to a new perspective. Seeing how the “freaks” and “geeks” were didn’t bother me. At first it was different because they weren’t like me, but that doesn’t mean anything – no one will be like me. Just because they didn’t do the girlie things that I do, I thought that they were different.

On the field trip I got to interact with a lot of my peers that I most likely would have never talked to in such depth with when I was in school. I learnt a lot more about who they were and how they saw aspects differently from me, and to my surprise they weren’t any different than me. Some girls on the field trip couldn’t eat beef because of their religion so I asked them questions on it and learnt a lot more about their religion. Before the field I would have thought that was stupid, but since I took the time out to ask and learnt how to listen to other peoples views, I learnt the respect that they have for themselves and their background.

My twenty-year journey through the territory of teaching wends through diverse pedagogical spaces and places ranging from the restricted and restrictive classrooms of the Apartheid-era education systems in from South Africa, to natural places visited on field trips, and the traditional space I occupy as a secondary school teacher in a Humanities co-op program. Within this program I host field trips, prepare students for work experience and conduct the traditional activities associated with schooling. The structural framework that supports the Humanities co-op program was pioneered in the Surrey School District in the 1976 and I serendipitously discovered it on a TOC assignment three years before I was hired into a position as a co-op teacher.

In a co-op model, Grade 11 or 12 students have all their courses for one semester with the same teacher who is responsible for teaching all their academic courses for one semester and also for monitoring students when they are out in the community on six weeks of work experience. The model, ironically first designed as a pre-employment program consistent with the ‘education for human capital’ goal, quite easily accommodates non-traditional teaching as it allows teachers to work outside of the traditional restrictions in schools.

In any modernist school, there are several structural frames that exert pressure on what is possible in a classroom. The timetable, separate curricula, age categorization of students, grading requirements and the hidden curriculum that rewards punctuality and constant busyness, all individually and in combination severely restrict innovation and alternative narratives in classrooms. The co-op classroom structure makes it possible to circumvent some of these restrictions. Because no one else’s schedule in the school is affected by our activities, we can organize our days outside of the bell schedule and take breaks when we choose within the framework of a regular school day. The basic co-op model is interpreted by co-op teachers in different ways. I have used its partial liberation from the time-table to integrate less traditional learning experiences such as Project Based Learning, Situated Learning and Experiential Education.

Also, the model allows for our experiences as a class to be distributed over different spaces and places. Even though we spend the entirety of each school day for one semester in the same traditional classroom space, there are extended periods when all students are not at school but in the community on work experience. And, in the first fortnight of the semester, we spend 72 hours together on an experiential education field trip. So the students’ learning environment is sometimes situated in a physical classroom space, occasionally it is in a natural setting, and at other times it’s at a workplace in the community.

Regardless of where the learning environment is, the structure of all activities is biased toward collaboration and co-operation. I spend significant time in the first six weeks of each semester, structuring activities so that students can get to know each other and have experiences as described in the reflection above. I have also tried to weave more democracy into our interactions by having co-facilitators, students who meet with me weekly to discuss any concerns and to negotiate for changes to assignments or activities. The co-op structure has also provided a space for teaching themes instead of subjects. In other words, instead of treating English, Socials Studies, Career Education and Media Literacy as four separate subjects, I use them as different perspectives when looking at a particular theme. For example, the concept of conflict as it occurs in literature, society, workplaces, and the media. And finally, desks are arranged in pods with my desk in a back corner of the room. This non-traditional arrangement means that students can work and socialize with each other and are not primarily focussed on a central point in the front of the classroom.

All these approaches were born from a combination of “chart and chance and passion”: interpretations of the work of Noddings and hooks and Freire, the fortune of having a structure so amenable to adaptation and my desire to have meaningful experiences guide my teaching practice.

After developing my Humanities co op program over ten years, I had a hunch that it was time to incorporate yet another learning environment into my program. Cognizant that the students I was teaching, born in the 1990’s, had never known a world without the Internet and the whole universe of digital technology, I decided to integrate a web-based simulation called The Civic Mirror into my Humanities co-op program. As all teachers know, there is no way to accurately predict the outcomes of any planned teaching activity. I had expected that students would be excited about the simulation and that they would be deeply engaged in it what I did not expect was my own reactions.

 

The Civic Mirror

[The Civic Mirror] has given me new faith in the socials studies unit. It has given me an easier way to learn all about government and politics which are my bad subjects. This pushes the boundaries of how people are taught in schools. …All-in-all I have had a very wonderful time playing this game and I’ve only played it for a few days and I’m already in love with it and cannot keep my eyes off of it…. It provides both educational value and real life values.  (A, Humanities Co-op student)

Through online and face-to-face interactions, the simulation provides a space for students to grapple with political, economic and social issues. Students “live” in a simulated country in which they elect a government, trade goods and services and perform many roles of citizens in the real world. They each have 7 family members for whom they have to provide food, shelter, education and health care as well as a good standard of living. Their simulated country is divided into 36 property units called hexes. There are wilderness hexes, business hexes and housing hexes. As in the real world, there is scarcity within the simulated country and so the student/citizens have to compete for certain resources. Because everyone is affected by the decisions of the owners of the farm, energy, security and insurance hexes/properties, conflict arises as citizens debate over how these owners should manage their property and assets. Citizens may appeal to the government for changes to legislation or they may take each other to the National Court.   These are the issues that provide fuel for the debates and discussions on an online discussion forum, a space that in some sense can be seen as a classroom in cyberspace.

Throughout the semester I had several taxing experiences in this classroom in cyberspace. For one thing, my role was not always clear. When the scene was the online ‘classroom’, students were in charge of the ‘curriculum’ and they wrestled with its direction and I was left to follow along, offering advice from the sidelines or more often from the back. I felt out of my depth when the merits of mercantilism and Machiavellian politics arose as themes in both the traditional classroom and the cyberspace classroom. I tried to just hang on and go with the flow as I had never seen students so absolutely engaged in learning. But when the scene changed to the traditional classroom, I was on familiar ground and my role was clear, as was the direction we would go: I was teacher, charged with delivering a synthetic set of information, the approved curriculum until once again fluidity would enter the classroom when students set up and ran a Town Hall discussion or processed cases in a National Court.     Although it was deeply satisfying to watch them passionately debate, discuss, and dissect many contentious issues, it was a challenge to keep up as the theatre of learning was in constant scene-change mode and my role was constantly shifting. Sometimes I was an onlooker, wondering whether to intervene or not, resisting the temptation to “play god” when ethical questions arose, such as this one, posted by R in the discussion forum:

What should I do? Use information that may hurt someone to get more money or think of another way to make money? I can’t make a decision. As you can see, I have no way of income, and no hexes,[ property within the simulated country] and not very much money at all. However, I do have a way of getting some money to help for next year. The problem I am having is it may hurt a relationship irl [in real life] or at least cause a disturbance. So I’m not sure if I should be a jerk and get some money, or just don’t worry about my income right now and hope it will get better.

I was not sure how I should have responded to R. Should I have given him a Coles Notes version of the study of ethics? Should I have told him what to do? Should I have watched to see the consequences of his decision even if that entailed watching another student get emotionally hurt? What is my role when my students grapple with these dilemmas? Is there a theory that could have guided me with this? My hunch was that I should not interfere but that I should make sure that I was available to help if that was needed.

An online incident that occurred at midnight on a Saturday highlighted the fact that my teaching practice had taken on a whole new dimension when I found myself debating economic theory with a student. I do not teach economics and know very little about the discipline. There was nothing in the curricula of the courses that I taught that would provide adequate responses to his questions. And I was left scrambling to find information, engaged in “just-in-time” learning, accessing the same websites that my students were accessing.

That was when I realized that my traditional role as information deliverer was defunct. It did not matter how much information I knew about any number of topics, I could not compete with the instantaneously available oceans of information on the Internet. This was a sobering realization. If information was so readily accessible, what was my role as a teacher of students who have never known a world without Wikipedia?

At the time of the midnight epiphany, there was a raging online debate on the merits of communism, socialism and capitalism. According to the curriculum, all students needed to know were the definitions of the different ideologies and the “advantages and disadvantages” of each. The curriculum did not require them to do what they were in fact doing, applying the ideologies to the situations in their simulated country. The elected government was socialist and the capitalist opposition was accusing them of being communist. I had entered the debate to try to clarify some of the positions that students were taking.

I wonder if it would it have been helpful to have some theoretical lenses through which I could view what was happening. Perhaps theory would have helped me to understand why I often felt that things were ‘out of control’, as though I was in the middle of a windstorm being blown one way and then another.

One would think that having grown up entrapped within Apartheid’s categories that I would welcome the openness of the decentred, collaborative, fluid and integrated spaces of this postmodern learning environment, but the challenges to my roles and identity in this space were often disconcerting and unsettling. Paradoxically, this openness and freedom was the goal of all my teaching transgressions of the frames that enclose pedagogical spaces and yet the displacement of my central role in the classroom is not only accompanied by new challenges to my internalized modernist fears about the consequences of a lack of control and enclosure, but it also renders obsolete many of my “domains of knowledge” (Shulman, 1986).

When Lee Shulman lead a research study into the changes in the expectations of teachers’ knowledge between the 1880’s and the 1980’s, he concluded that teachers at the end of the 20th century had to have competence in three domains of knowledge: content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and curricular content knowledge.[3] He further divided these domains into forms of knowledge (propositional knowledge, case knowledge and strategic knowledge) and then subdivided once again into knowledge principles ( principles, maxims and norms). The overall purpose of all this knowledge was that teachers would be competent delivers of the content of curricula. But what is the purpose of these domains of knowledge in a world where postmodern analysis problematizes all the grand narratives of modernity and the faults in yesterday’s “truths” are continually announced on 24 hour news networks, and where limitless libraries of information are easily accessible?

During the simulation the Kant’s Categorical Imperative, restorative justice, Keynesian economics, the seduction of fascism, and the concept of egalitarianism, were just a few of the themes that arose. My domains of knowledge in all of these is severely limited. Should I know more about them? What if they do not arise in the next simulation? How should I prepare for the questions that will arise? How much is enough knowledge in a postmodern learning environment?

The Centrifugal Classroom

In a purely pedagogical sense, decentred teaching is hard, much harder than an old-style dictatorial lecture. …[It} hard because a truly open discussion is unpredictable in its direction. If a teacher is to give shape by gently leading, nudging, making connections between ideas advanced by different speakers, she must constantly be on her toes, living by her wits, rather than dragging the conversation safely back to the points she has planned to cover that day and set down firmly in her notes. [4]

In my search for a lenses through which I could view what was happening in my classroom, I discovered Linda Woodbridge’s concept of the “centrifugal classroom”, a postmodern learning environment which is “a decentred world where hierarchical, central authority yields to the power of the people, where the official feast succumbs to the anarchic, centrifugal forces of carnival.”[5] Woodbridge describes the centrifugal classroom as having a sense of feminist community where collaboration and decentred teaching hosts cross-genre explorations of the curriculum.

In her teaching of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at the University of Alberta, Woodbridge spends the first few weeks helping students to get to know each other. Like me, she arranges classroom furniture so that she creates “thirty-five ‘centers’ in the classroom, not just one. As she guides students through the course, she has them debate different interpretations of the same texts, act out scenes from plays and integrate elements of popular culture into their exploration of the texts. All her activities are designed to decentre classroom activities so that she only spends a fraction of the time in the traditional role of lecturer.

She warns however that if teachers “simply abdicate sovereignty without having something in its place, the classroom will be like a country that has had a revolution but has no democratic structures in its place.” She insists that “a teacher must forge such institutions”.   When she says that the “postmodern classroom experience is often uncomfortable and taxing” and that it can also be “as exhilarating as it is unsettling”, she may as well have been in my classroom during the simulation. She speaks my mind when she says that to “believe in postmodern pedagogy is by no means as hard as to practice it”.

Although there is much of Woodbridge’s experiences that mirror my own, apart from our students’ ages, there are a few important differences between her experiences and mine. Her interactions with students were contained within university lecture periods and were based solely in a traditional classroom. Technology played only a supporting role in her classroom whereas in our simulation, technology was the frame for the cyber-classroom. She teaches one subject to her students, I integrate four “subjects” into lessons. Nevertheless, my awareness that my experiences in a postmodern learning environment are not unique, is quite comforting. It also confirms for me that teaching is like a “perpetual migration”, a journey that is sometimes guided by the charts of theory and sometimes by what arises from the organic, dynamic juggling of an irreproducible combination of a diverse range of elements.   It is a journey on a road that is “made by walking”.

Making the Road by Walking

Wanderer, your footsteps are

the road, and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

By walking one makes the road

and upon glancing behind

one sees the path … [6]

Freire’s observation, while “speaking a book” with Myles Horton about education and social change, that “even though we may need to have some outline, … we make the road by walking”,[7] is now what guides me as I venture deeper into the unknown spaces of a postmodern pedagogy. I realize that even if I had an “outline”, a chart or a theory, each moment along the way will be unique, and the result of a multitude of complexities, none of which I can totally control. The only aspect of the journey that is mine to control is the choice to keep moving forward and yet looking back at the path I have just made.

When I look back on it, I realize that my postmodern classroom experiences were a natural evolution of my teaching practice focused on building community in the classroom. A strong community is one with distributed authority, where no one person is sovereign and where chaos can be contained by the networks of relationships within. During The Civic Mirror simulation, relationships were tested and yet never broken, despite all my anxiety. Students who vehemently disagreed with each other on political or economic philosophy on the online discussion forum, spent their lunchtimes together, still the best of friends. Some students deliberately surrendered some advantage that they had so that other students would benefit.

Something else I realize is that the traditional “domains of knowledge” as framed by Shulman are inadequate. Teachers in the postmodern classroom need new domains of knowledge that focus on interdependence, integration of knowledge, decentred authority and the centrality of relationality. They will need to know how to teach in learning environments where collaboration, relationships, and new ways of showing what you know, are key and where the teacher is no longer centripetal. In its demand for the abdication of sovereignty, the postmodern classroom displaces control and certainty and opens a space for dialogue in the place of lectures, collaboration in the place of individualism and fluidity in the place of fixed borders and boundaries.

References

Bell, Brenda, John Gaventa, and John Peters, eds. 1990. We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change/ myles horton and paulo freire. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to transgress. New York: Routledge.

Jacobs-Stewart, Therese. 2003. Paths are made by walking. New York: Warner Books.

Piercy, Marge. 2001. The moon is always female. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Shulman, L. S. 2004. Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. In , ed. Suzanne M. Wilson, 187-215. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Woodbridge, Linda. 1994. The centrifugal classroom. In Gender and academe., eds. Sara Munson Deats, Lagretta Tallent Lenker, 133-151. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[1] (hooks 1994), page 59

[2] (Piercy 2001), page 114

[3] (Shulman 2004, 187-215)

[4] (Woodbridge 1994, 133-151)

[5] (Woodbridge 1994, 133-151)

[6] (Jacobs-Stewart 2003)

[7] (Bell, Gaventa, and Peters 1990) page 6

2 thoughts on “Theoretically”

    1. Thanks Bev. Do you mean in academic journals? No…. I dropped my PhD studies when I was just about to start work on a thesis and dissertation. This piece, Theoretically, was a piece written during my graduate studies.

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