So much depends….
I have just been reflecting upon and writing about a wonderful recent experience I had with a group of colleagues from the Education Department at the University of Sussex as part of a collaboration with Nigerian Higher Education colleagues in Abuja, Nigeria in September. The focus of the week-long engagement with HE teachers from across Nigeria had been on ‘transformative pedagogies and practices’. Specifically this meant conceptualising ideas of ‘high quality’ in both; the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of assessment; digital technologies – their capabilities and their applicability; ensuring participation and inclusion of diverse groups of students; and on reflection. This included thinking about the themes we explored together during the week more formally, and much more discussed in our more informal encounters, especially the challenge of finding the time to reflect on the demands of the complex role of the HE academic in today’s teaching and research-intensive universities with their global reach. This is a challenge for all teaching colleagues, of course, regardless of whether the context be that of the pre-school nursery, mainstream school or HE institution.
One of the activities that we shared towards the end of the week was to do with writing. The point of this was not to focus specifically on one type of writing, whether for an academic paper, book chapter, professional journal, blog or information bulletin, but rather to reflect upon how we might just ‘do it’. In order to undertake some individual writing, but altogether in our shared lecture hall space, we participated in a short burst of ‘Free Writing’. As the link to the hand-out suggests, ‘Free Writing’ involves either just picking up a pen or tapping on the keyboard for a short period of time without any particular pre-conception of what might emerge. It does also presume that – for just a short length of time at least – we take ourselves into a space of ‘slower time’ of kindness to ourselves in order to relax into the task to give it our undivided attention without interruption and to be open to what might happen. Crucially, it requires that the writing should be continuous regardless of what emerges onto the page in the process. A focus on the action rather than the outcome is an integral commitment to this seemingly simple task. In so doing, this might mean – of course – the repeating a word or phrase before something comes. It also means the suspension of judgement or expectation by way of ‘quality’: these are emerging thoughts and tentative ideas perhaps. They may/may not be ‘nonsense’. It is an uncertain process. What struck me particularly as colleagues commented upon their brief experience of Free Writing engagement on this occasion in Abuja was a focus on feelings: how the experience of writing in this way had made them feel. A couple of colleagues spoke about their sense of a suspension of anxiety (so often associated with writing and the pressures of imagining the perfecting of a text and of the angst of ‘getting started’). They also touched upon ‘being surprised’ by the emergence of ideas that they may have been bandying about for some time in the busyness of the ‘fast time’ thinking of Getting Things Done that excited them. It made them feel that they wanted to keep writing….
In my latest blog on the Writing Into Meaning site I share with colleagues, Emily Danvers and Tamsin Hinton-Smith, I have reflected further on the productiveness and possibilities of writing techniques that allow us to open up spaces to find things out without being sure what they might be. These are approaches that Laurel Richardson1 has termed ‘writing as a method of inquiry’. In the Writing into Meaning blog, I expand further on this idea of promoting writing as a way of finding out – a process - of what it might be possible to write and think so as to be a little uncertain and surprised by what emerges from the pen as it scribbles, or from the keyboard as it is tapped.
On National Poetry Day earlier in the month, a brief excerpt on the ‘Today’ programme of the BBC Radio 4, took the listener to surprising territory which has resonated with me since as Perpetua and I have discussed our thoughts on the place of ‘uncertainty’ in our schools and colleges, our curricula and our pedagogies and practices and ‘what is to be done’. Lieutenant David Boyles focused on the educational institution of the army and of soldiering and of the place of poetry in it. He spoke of the huge complexity ‘of the modern environment’ and the ambiguous nature of so many encounters that we are required to make with it, and the need, therefore, for soldiers’ exposure to texts that ‘educate [them] for uncertainty’. He read aloud, with clarity and erudition, a short poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963):
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
The power of ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ lies in the first line of ‘so much depends’ and the possibilities this allows for discussion and inter-relational social engagement with interpretations of what this might mean, in what contexts and for whom, and in what ways: all crucial to the ‘being’ of thinking for Lieutenant Boyles.
On the face of it, the connections between the palpable, quiet, hot intensity of a closing reflective writing session in one lecture hall in Abuja in September, a Radio 4 interview about soldiering in October, and ways in which we may or may not encounter children or adults as teachers and learners in multiple spaces of education in the next few weeks, may seem tenuous. But there are integral links in my view. We should grasp the significance of opening up spaces to contest the certainties of so much of the knowledge we are required to both assert and embody on a day-to-day basis, to allow ourselves – and others – to do and be just a little bit more about ‘so much depends’...
1 Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: a method of inquiry. In Handbook of Qualitative Research,
‘I don’t know’, was my initial response to the first question following my presentation at the recent British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference. I had been talking about my doctoral research highlighting Year One children’s anxiety when they do not-know expected answers. Children must deal alone with their ‘emergency’ feelings, with schools instead stressing they be Resilient and Aim High. Such character education can encourage children to try harder but it can also be felt as a pressure. It demands children concentrate for long periods and constantly challenge themselves; they become responsible for their successes but also their failures. Five year old Amelie tells me resilience means ‘learning hard. . . trying again, again and again’. Staff are also expected to be resilient to meet changing government demands, but similarly feel the pressure that they are not doing their ‘best’ for the children. Male and middle class children are those most often rewarded and encouraged for their resilience and for aiming high, which serves to reinforce existing hierarchies rather than challenge structural barriers to education. Frances Howard identified something similar in her conference presentation on the Young People’s Arts Award. Working class or ‘dis-engaged’ young people are more likely to receive a didactic and tightly controlled model of teaching, what she calls a ‘pedagogy of poverty’, compared with the ‘pedagogy of possibilities’ available to other young people that includes real life engagement and open-ended tasks offering the affordances of being like an artist. The latter offers a vision of an education that is broader than resiliently adapting to existing conditions. It offers the possibility to challenge accepted wisdom and the taken-for-granted so that students might become something different as well as contribute to a more just society. It is a vision taken up by Paul Miller, in his keynote speech, in which he sounded the pressing need to tackle racism in educational leadership, with the call to move from ‘conformity, to conviction to change’.
The dominant classroom emphasis on learning what has been tightly defined, limits opportunities to move into areas where the answer is uncertain and open to different interpretations and possibilities. Becoming a doctoral student, I realise my previous education had not prepared me well for not-knowing, so that I feel my vulnerability when not-knowing the meaning of difficult academic papers, not-knowing what to make of my classroom observations and interviews, not-knowing how to consolidate a mass of research data into a thesis that contributes something of value. Slowly I begin to allow doubt and uncertainty to exist, so that I no longer aim to know too quickly or narrowly when deciding how to respond at each stage of the research. This is more about patience than perseverance or resilience; I take more time to meander in the classroom and my analysis. I began to shift from wanting to grasp the meaning of everything I read to experiencing the thrill of seeing how I might use a text to help me think more deeply about my own work. Tara Westover writes about such a shift in her recent memoir, Educated, in which she eloquently and disturbingly traces her upbringing in a fundamentalist Mormon family in the United States, one including physical abuse and neglect, and her move from being mostly self-educated at home to achieving a doctorate at the University of Cambridge. She discusses how at first her approach to reading Mormon texts was ‘to learn what to think, not how to think for myself’, and how she begins ‘to read books differently, without giving myself over to either fear or adoration’. There is a pivotal moment in the book, when Westover tentatively questions her brother’s assertion that she is responsible for her repeated abuse; writing in her diary she asks, ‘Could he not tell he was hurting me? I don’t know. I don’t know’. This moment of doubt signals the possibility for what Westover suggests some might call her ‘transformation’, but what she calls ‘an education’: ‘Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs’.
The woman who asked me the question at BERA, a teacher educator, wanted to know what could be done to stop teachers putting stress onto children, adding that her own child had begun pulling out his hair a week before entering Year Six. She identifies an important challenge. Teacher performance has always been entangled with that of their students, but is felt acutely under the demanding accountability framework including the publication of SAT results, school league tables and Ofsted inspections. Addressing issues such as these requires on-going supportive discussions between policy makers, educators, parents and children, as well as researchers. My paper provided no definitive answers; it narrates important aspects of contemporary Year One classroom life that invites others to see what they might make of it.
Perpetua Kirby & Rebecca Webb