Monday, March 24, 2008

Deschooling the Dialogue

I regularly work with small groups of teachers who are willing to question their teaching style in order to enhance the quality of learning, to increase the teaching outcomes and to enrich their relationship with their students and thus improve the social climate in their classrooms and schools.

We usually spent a lot of time together negotiating how learning could be more meaningful to students, more self-directed and less determined by instruction according to textbooks which are seen as the abstract of the obligatory curriculum.

But we also spent a lot of time reflecting on the constraints which teachers perceive as being imposed to them like the curriculum, the marks, the expectations of the teachers taking over their class in the next grade, the expectations of parents who want their children to be well prepared for secondary school or higher education and for a society where competition rules.

An alternative to closed curriculum base instruction is self-directed learning organized around authentic text productions ("free texts" as Freinet calls it) and meaningful content brought up by the students themselves. This approach "values the unpredictable outcome of self-chosen personal encounter above the certified quality of professional instruction" as Ivan Illich puts it.

Of course this presupposes that teachers are partly convinced that learning can be more self-motivated and self-directed, that children need, that they like and that they want to express themselves and that they are willing to learn by themselves and for themselves.

If so, teachers can be fascinated by the motivation of their students and the quality of their reflections but also chocked and confused by their sincerity, especially when they use writing to communicate their personal state of mind, their current emotional disruption, their problems as adolescents, their conflicts with their family, their negative self-image mostly constructed through humiliating experiences in school, their dreams or their sometimes apocalyptical expectations regarding their future.

At the same time through authentic text productions teachers usually make the disillusioning discovery how ineffective their teaching was regarding spelling, grammar and vocabulary. They inevitably have to face their students' incapacity to use in real what they, as teachers, thought they had administered so well to them.

Out of this discovery they not seldom draw the conclusion that they haven't done enough instruction reinforcing their teaching style more than questioning it. (Illich speaks of the "manipulative institutions" (...) which "are either socially or psychologically addictive" where "social addiction, or escalation, consists in the tendency to prescribe increased treatment if smaller quantities have not yielded the desired results." An the students, confronted with their poor spelling usually have adopted the same logic and react in the way that the institution expects them to do - by acknowledging that they should practice more - meaning that they should do more exercises. In Illich's words, students demonstrate already their "Psychological addiction, or habituation, results when consumers become hooked on the need for more and more of the process or product."

In teachertraining teachers have been taught how to organize school around an obligatory curriculum, how to package instruction and certification which means how to do short term testing of instructional outcomes and to validate students work on the percentage of conformity to specific norms.

How should they deal with authentic text productions armed with such teaching concepts and skills, and with textbooks full of pre-constructed content and knowledge? How should they find the time to engage in high quality conversations with their students with all the institutional constraints? How should they organize language learning, mathematics, science, art or any other subject around authentic productions based on self-interest, when these productions are unpredictable, extremely complex, heterogeneous, sometimes provoking, often questioning and demanding?

These are challenging questions, I know. And as a teacher you might want me to give you the answers to those questions. So, what are the answers? Do I have any?
My response as a coach is this:
  • First, it is already an achievement to find questions that really matter and that you share with other teachers.
  • Second, if the answers are not close at hand, that's no reason to abandon the search but on the contrary to pursue the inquiry.
  • And third, if there are any answers, you will probably find them if you share the same questions with your students.
Again, thanks to the teachers I work with and special thanks to Marco and Martine for raising some important issues during our last meeting. Thanks also to Sanela, Claudine and Joël for sharing their concerns and reflections with me.

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

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