Last week in Copenhagen, at an academic seminar organised by the Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University, I find myself laughing, along with other participants, at a poster drawing of the ideal listening pupil. It is one that will be familiar to many working in English primary schools: the child sits upright, facing forward, eyes looking ahead, hands folded nearly in the lap, feet together facing forward. I saw a similar poster during my research in Year One classrooms, along with the teacher’s rallying call ‘Remember good sitting and listening means good learning’. During a maths lesson, I observe two girls leaning forward and towards each other, resting their forearms on the carpet as they write answers to questions on whiteboards placed on the floor, when suddenly the teacher calls out: ‘Roz and Yaz, you’re not at home, you should not be lying down’. The logic that children should be sitting rather than inclining extends beyond learning in any simple pedagogical sense. The implied superiority of the vertical includes the moral reprimand to become upright, alone, independent, and excludes other possibilities. Virginia Wolf, in A Room of One’s Own, warned against ‘the dominance of the letter ‘I’ and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.’
Sitting in the seminar, reminded of my own research, I begin to feel slightly uncomfortable laughing at the poster image, which sounds a critique of the representation of the ‘ready to learn’ child. I am alerted to the irony that we, the assembled seminar participants, are engaged in a similar pedagogy: sitting upright while listening attentively to Maggie Maclure’s fascinating presentation about early years literacy within a forest school setting. The irony is felt more acutely because the theme of the seminar is how to move away from critique as something negative - one that emphasises errors, according to pre-existing ideas of what is true - to one engaged in creative experimentation offering possibilities for change. Maclure acknowledges the on-going challenge for us researchers to adopt an affirmative critique given a long academic tradition of standing at a distance and casting judgement.
This shift is something I grappled with during my doctorate. My supervisors commented that an early draft chapter showed a lack of redemption for the research schools. I felt shame, provoked by my display of ignorance, and the sense that I was an imposter in the academy. During a later writing retreat, I dipped into a copy of Moby Dick. There I discovered the Catskill eagle, ‘that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces’. This is a metaphor for those who can rise and profit from moments of suffering, rather than avoiding them as most of us so frequently do, ‘even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar’(ibid.). Even shame, in all its misery, can be productive (see Elizabeth Probyn). My partner’s family are from South Africa, where ‘Shame!’ is colloquially used to imply ‘cuteness’ and to demonstrate sympathy, as in ‘you poor thing’, but overused it whitewashes feeling. My shame became a wrenching out of myself; it demands a more ethical sensibility, alerting me to difficult feelings about my own and my children’s education, evident when I stand and write knowingly at a distance, rather than inclining, sensing and revealing my proximity to the school research participants. This includes recognising how I am entangled in the education system that I am attempting to critique. To shift my understanding of the classroom means not having the answers in advance; it means engaging in the sort of listening that Les Back described as recognising ‘the importance of doubts’ more than certainties.
At the seminar, Dorthe Staunæs talked of another ugly feeling, envy, as the ‘shadow side’ of the use of data in education, including performance data. She beautifully illustrated with her own academic data – including graphs comparing numbers of academic publications – that invokes a desire of others and a fear of being left behind, while at the same time it motivates. The critique is felt in the intense envious ache of the belly, rather than imposed from outside. Staunæs suggested the need for careful curiosity in exploring the use of performance data, opening the possibility for doing things differently, rather than simply debunking its use.
Children’s critique of the demand to learn mostly while sitting upright and still is felt in their aching and longing bodies. In my research, they repeatedly tell me they do not like sitting quietly and still for long periods on the hard floor: listening to things they do not understand or else already know. Their young bodies frequently cannot help but move and mingle with the human and inanimate, even when expected to sit still. Children look around, stretch arms and legs, twiddle fingers, rub limbs, pick scabs and noses, hold hands and move up close, braid hair and fiddle with clothing, run a hand along the smooth box of books or stroke the soft lion at the edge of the carpet, repeatedly replace a sticker, jiggle a leg or bounce a hair band. Bodies occasionally find a way to squat, kneel, lie down or even stand when expected to be seated. My field notebook sketches (see above) show Julia lying down during phonics, lunging on the carpet while the teacher explains an activity, and balancing her legs on the back of a chair during a table activity. In these moments of movement, children are looking after themselves, wrestling with their bodies, generally careful not to disturb the class or attract the attention of the teacher, demanding a ‘wisdom’ that Janusz Korczak observed in a 1930s Polish classroom.
In her presentation, Maclure did not aim to challenge the dominant teaching of reading and phonics, which she suggests has a place in today’s classrooms. Instead, she explores how literacy in an outdoor tipi allows for a different kind of multisensory event, including sounds and bodies, offering something different to that achieved when sitting quietly in the classroom, where sounds are muffled and bodies stilled, aimed at ensuring children concentrate on listening for meaning. There is a value in learning to sit quietly – it is helpful, for example, when grappling with the complex theoretical and empirical ideas discussed during an academic research seminar – but what is needed, and what Maclure offers, are additional images of readiness for being taught, and an understanding of what each may offer and deny.
Despite having made steps towards a more affirmative critique, I retain an uneasy sense of voyeurism at commenting on others’ education practices. There remains a space for a more detached critical voice, but more a need for researchers to work together with others involved in education. Staunæs runs workshops with teachers on how ‘data do more than they show,’ to identify ways to take care of teachers and students when using data. Maclure writes with early years practitioners to explore the possibilities of co-construction. The forthcoming TRANSFORM-iN EDUCATION launch event, on 10th December, aims to open up a space for conversations between educators, researchers, parents and others on how to foster the conditions to achieve the balance of conformity and transformation in education. We hope you will join us, in person or via live stream. There will be moments to sit and listen as well as to move and talk.
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.
I always get the same visceral queasiness at this time of year, something between excitement, expectation and terror for all that lies ahead…I’ve metaphorically sharpened the pencils and honed reading lists, course outlines, learning objectives and dotted some ‘I’s and crossed some ‘T’s of sessions I must teach. I go through the same steps as I did last year (and the year before, and before, before, before) of purchasing a hefty paper diary and filling it in, despite so much of my calendar being, necessarily, online. I’m a little shamed by the pleasure I take in completing my details and marking commitments, despite this being clear duplication and apparent ‘time-wasting’. It is all part of my disciplined ritual for holding onto some sense of who I am (pretty much the same as last year…bit more frayed around the edges…) and my ‘worth’ as set out in terms of what is required of me and what I have signed up to deliver in my role as education lecturer. So, there are some things that appear as – de facto – certain, in the months that lie ahead. And yet, this is illusory. Of course, I have no plans for changing my name, or disguising my date of birth, but beyond that, pretty much everything inscribed on the currently pristine pages may adapt, reconfigure, reposition or fall by the wayside, so that those, oh so certain, commitments may be rubbed or scrubbed away.
Despite my need to control, Perpetua and I have become excited by allowing ourselves the possibilities of embracing wholeheartedly the merits of being ‘uncertain’. That is one of the motivations for our setting up of this website. We want to make it a platform for engaging with those of you for whom this ignites some excitement and interest (even allowing for it to also challenge the apparent certainty of our uncertainty!) Being uncertain, is a not a command to be less organized, or to know less or ‘nothing’, but rather it is a rallying cry to consider differently (and more humbly) the possibilities of what might be produced when we allow ourselves to venture into a terrain of ‘not knowing’ (so certainly) in aspects of our daily rituals and our practices and pedagogies. I have recently read the introduction to a prose sort of poem about the First World War (published in 1937), entitled, ‘In Parenthesis’ in which the author tells his readers about the title: ‘I have written it in a kind of space between – I don’t know between quite what…the war was a kind of parenthesis…and also our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis’ We hope this blog space gives you permission to explore the in-between of similar productive uncertainty and experience it as emotionally and intellectually engaging, affecting, curiosity-inducing, dynamic and enjoyable.
Fostering a sensibility towards uncertainty has been necessary for both Perpetua and I as we have written our ethnographic research about schools and aspects of schooling over the last few years. This has become especially important to us as we have tried to capture our research in words on the page in ways that do justice to what we have noticed. We have had to will ourselves to remain open to ‘troubling’ things that may hold the illusory quality of seeming ’bleeding obvious’ (to us and to others) in some ways, in order to hear and engage with different ways of seeing things, and alternative versions of making sense of things to produce richness, depth, and contingency in what we have to say about our research experiences. This is our way of contributing to ongoing ‘research conversations’ in our educational fields of study.
Our research has given us the privilege of being with, and participating in lives of, children and adults in very hardworking schools where pupils, teachers, administrators, parents/carers navigate the complex, multi-faceted and the demanding space of school where they are asked to conform in their garnering of garbs of assuredness. These garbs are alluring. They suggests that – as long as we all try hard enough – we can all be taught to know what it is we ought to know to, in order to not need to be uncertain and to be controllers of our destinies and to do things ‘right’ now and in the future. We live in a period of the supremacy of the ‘knowledge curriculum’ and of ‘mastery’ of aspects of the curriculum (for teachers and children especially) as proof of individual and collective worth and of the point of going to school and becoming educated. So much of the knowledge curriculum and of mastery is enabling (we gain necessary qualifications), encouraging (we get praised for getting things correct), comforting (we know what to expect), and testament to the subject knowledge and skill of teachers and pupils alike. But it is not all that can or, indeed, should, be known in school. There can – and should be – space for the parenthesis. It is this possibility that we want to explore through this website by engaging with readers and contributors in different ways.
Finally, in my looking forward to a new academic year, I want to cast a glance back to the football World Cup in June and the excitements generated by the unexpected success of the English football team. In a Radio 4 interview with a sports educator, Matthew Syed, was asked about why the team seemed to be doing so well and playing with a renewed sense of self-belief. Matthew Syed noted: ‘The sort of dominant model in football is to position the manager as the boss and the players as like mute labourers who unthinkingly carry out his instructions. But I think the problem with that, and we saw it against Iceland a couple of years ago, when something unexpected happens, the opposition score, the players panic and they’re looking to the bench for new instructions….’
So I won’t be ditching my paper diary (yet). It holds reminders within it of things I need to know and that will be highly detrimental to me and others if I forget. I like both the comfort of conforming and following instructions like the ‘mute labourer’ described by Syed, (and also of the possibility of controlling things and giving instructions). However, I know, too, that I must rub things out and re-work things, and embrace uncertainty to challenge only forever being the ‘mute labourer’ who follows instructions and nothing else. This applies in everyday matters and in aspects of my ‘knowing’, and in my practice and pedagogy as a teacher and researcher, because – as Éamonn Dunne & Michael O’Rourke suggest - in their work on ‘The Pedagogics of Unlearning’, ‘if the system is too tight, too ordered, nothing new can happen’. As researchers and educators, we are all concerned with generating the possibility of new things happening both now and in the future for children and those who teach and guide them. Let’s embrace the possibilities of uncertainty in this academic year.
 David Jones wrote this ‘war poem’ in 1937 and it was published in 2014 by Faber and Faber
 Ethnographic research is research that means that the researcher is immersed in a place or environment for a long period of time in order to gain a myriad of insights into what might be going on
 Dunne, E., and M O’ Rourke. 2014. “A Pedagogics of Unlearning.” In The Para-academic Handbook, edited by A. Wardrop and D. Withers, 61–70. Bristol: HammerOn Press.