Saturday, March 29, 2008

I don't know what I think until I see what I say

This title is a declaration by the novelist Edward Morgan Forster (maybe known through some films based on his novels like A Passage to India, A Room with a View or Howards End).
I found the quote in the book "You Won't Remember Me - The Schoolboys of Barbiana Speak to Today" written by Marvin Hoffman in which he comments on "Letter to a Teacher" and reports how he was influenced in the beginning of his teaching career by the writing of the schoolboys of Barbiana.
When coaching teachers I regularly experience their resistance to writing when I suggest that they should try to write down their thoughts or to make short transcripts of classroom dialogue. Most of the teachers I meet have no confidence in their writing skills or feel that they have nothing valuable to write about. I can easily understand these feelings as I used to react in the same way and because I know what a poor and slow writer I am - which doesn't stop me from writing as you can see.
I think that you don't have to be a gifted writer if you have something to say and to share. We all know gifted writers and speakers who most of the time use their talent to demonstrate their superiority or to manipulate and to intimidate their audience or their readers.
Unfortunately most of us - teachers included - have not acquired writing and reading skills as means of self-expression and reflexion. In school we have been trained to think carefully before opening our mouth or before using a pen.
Nobody told us that writing is a way of thinking and that thoughts take shape during the act of speaking (cf. Heinrich Kleist famous essay he wrote in 1805 "On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking". ("Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden").

Teachers in the same way as their students need to take "courage to do without knowing yet how to do it" (P. Meirieu). Only then will they be prepared to be conscientious objectors to textbooks and to a rigidification of a curriculum which both are meant to enable a better transmission of reading and writing skills but too often leave students and teachers voiceless.


  1. For sure you are right pointing out that teachers too have to be taught skills they have not acquired. Unfortunately as long as their studies are overloaded with many things which rather remind me of occupational therapy than useful skills and knowledge there will be missing the most important resource: time. Just like teachers face boredom in their classroom because curricula hardly match today's students' needs or interests, they risk to blunt in their practice realising how inefficiently authorities react to their problems.

    Blogs (they do not necessarily have to be public) could contribute to reflecting processes among teachers by writing down thoughts and discussing them online the same way. These virtual life discussions could then (or should I write "should"?) lead to deeper discussions in real life to solve problems together. In times where you can find many teachers in social network communities with ever more to join I think that there could be a disposition for such a medium, but still you have to spread the word and - most importantly - communicate that it does make sense.

  2. Hallo,
    Wir sind auch der selben Meinung, dass die Leute sich viel zu viele Gedanken machen wie sie etwas auf Papier bringen. Doch wir finden, dass der Inhalt viel wichtiger ist als der Stil des Schreibens. Leider wird uns in der Schule von klein auf eingebläut, dass man keine Fehler schreiben darf und dass man immer sorgfältig auf den Schreibstil achten soll. Wenn man dies in der Schule nicht tut, kommt man nicht weiter und so kommt es, dass man sich der Institution Schule versucht von Anfang an anzupassen und ihr zu folgen um erfolgreich zu sein. Wir glauben, dass so die Kinder sich nicht mehr trauen einfach frei etwas zu schreiben. Diese Angst begleitet sie den Rest ihrer Schulkarriere bis zum erwachsenen Dasein. Als Erwachsene ist es dann schwer diese Prägung zu bekämpfen und aus sich heraus zu gehen. So fragen wir uns, wie man bereits in der Grundschule den Kindern vermittelt, dass sie keine Angst haben sollen sich auf dem Papier auszudrücken, trotz den bevorstehenden Tests wo sie dann leider laut System keine Fehler schreiben dürfen?

  3. My experience tells me that first it is a question of balance.
    Do more of the things that make sense, where content matters more than form.
    Second, it is a question of consideration. Value authentic production and authorship more than reproduction.
    Third, be honest and interested in what children have to say, what they think and in their multiple points of viewing things.
    Fourth, correcting spelling and grammar is not a bad thing - but it is not the first thing that matters. Correction is the last step before a text goes to print.
    Before that, correction is important if spelling, grammar and the chosen words and expressions interfere with understanding.
    Fifth, correcting is accepted and sometimes challenging if it is embedded in a meaningful task, if it is is coupled with mutual consideration of personal works and if it is rooted in a shared responsibility to help everyone to deliver a good job and to learn.

  4. pino: I entirely agree with your points because I think that a teacher who is able to fulfil every single one of them does a good job. However the most difficult to realise is point number three.

    You simply cannot play being "honest and interested in what children have to say, what they think and in their multiple points of viewing things" because children's nonverbal communication skills always excel those of adults (especially for very young children).

    So, even if you respect the other four points the nearest you can get to point three is showing a minimum of respect for the pupils' interests. Although I lack the experience with younger students I guess that this minimum should be maximal for them although I do not mean that for older children a teacher might automatically be excused if he/she shows little respect/tolerance regarding individual interests amongst the students.


Some Reading Milestones

  • Towards reflexive method in archaeology : the example at Çatalhöyük (edited by Ian Hodder) 2000

  • The Book of Learning and Forgetting (Frank Smith) 1998

  • Points of Viewing Children's Thinking: A Digital Ethnographer's Journey (Ricki Goldman-Segall) 1997

  • Verstehen lehren (Martin Wagenschein) 1997

  • Computer im Schreibatelier (Gérard Gretsch) 1992

  • The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Vivian Gussin Paley) 1991

  • La cause des adolescents (Françoise Dolto) 1988

  • Scuola di Barbiana. Die Schülerschule. Brief an eine Lehrerin. (Edition of 1980) / read in German 1982
    Letter to Teacher by the Schoolboys of Barbiana (1970)
    Lettre à une maîtresse de'école, par les enfants de Barbiana (1968)
    Lettera à una professoressa (Original Edition) 1967

  • Vers une pédagogie institutionnelle (Aïda Vasquez, Fernand Oury) 1967

Documentary Films on Education

  • Eine Schule, die gelingt (by Reinhard Kahl) 2008

  • Les temps des enfants (Jacques Duez) 2007

  • Klassenleben (by Bernd Friedmann und Hubertus Siegert) 2006

  • Lernen - Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen
    (Ein Vortrag von Manfred Spitzer) 2006

  • Die Entdeckung der frühen Jahre
    Die Initiative "McKinsey bildet" zur frühkindlichen Bildung (by Reinhard Kahl) 2006

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft - Wie in Deutschland Schulen gelingen (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Treibhäuser der Zukunft / Incubators of the future / Les serres de l'avenir; International Edition (by Reinhard Kahl) 2004

  • Journal de classe, 1ères audaces (1), Les échappés (2), Sexe, amour et vidéo (3), L'enfant nomade (4), Remue-méninges (5) (by Wilbur Leguebe, Jacques Duez, Agnès Lejeune) 2004

  • Spitze - Schulen am Wendekreis der Pädagogik (by Reinhard Kahl) 2003

  • Journal de classe, (by Wilbur Leguebe and Agnès Lejeune; Jacques Duez) 2002

  • Etre et Avoir (by Nicolas Philibert) 2002

  • The Stolen Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2002

  • The Angry Eye (by Jane Elliott) 2001

  • A l'école de la providence (by Gérard Preszow) 2000

  • Blue-Eyed (by Jane Elliott) 1996

  • A Class Divided (by Jane Elliott) 1984

  • Eye of The Storm (with Jane Elliott) 1970

Past quotes of the day

For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong. Henry Louis Mencken

Traveler, there is no path. Paths are made by walking.
Antonio Machado

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Immanuel Kant

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. Albert Einstein

To paraphrase a famous quotation, all that is necessary for the triumph of damaging educational policies is that good educators keep silent. Alfie Kohn

We used to have lots of questions to which there were no answers. Now, with the computer, there are lots of answers to which we haven't thought up the questions. Peter Ustinov

I had a terrible education. I attended a school for emotionally disturbed teachers. Woody Allen

A professor is someone who talks in someone else's sleep. W. H. Auden

When I was an inspector of schools I visited one classroom and looked at a boys book. He'd written, 'Yesterday, Yesterday, Yesterday, Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Love, Love, Love.' I said, 'That's a lovely poem.' He said, 'Those are my spelling corrections.' Gervase Phinn

Real thinking never starts until the learner fails. Roger Schank

If what is wanted is a reexamination of schooling in terms of purpose, structure and process, then testing programmes are the wrong vehicle (...) Caroline V. Gipps

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. Albert Einstein

Act always so as to increase the number of choices. Heinz von Foerster

Another way of avoiding teaching is by relying exclusively on a textbook, workbooks, and other commercially packaged learning materials. Teaching is reduced to administering a set curriculum without giving any thought to the substance of what the students area learning or to their particular needs. H. Kohl

The right to ignore anything that doesn't make sense is a crucial element of any child's learning - and the first right children are likely to lose when they get to the controlled learning environment of school. F. Smith

Learning is the human activity which least needs manipulation by others. Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful activity. - Ivan Illich

Too often we give our children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. - Roger Lewin

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. - Mark Twain