Metaphors & Learning: A response to “Stop Teaching and Let Them Learn”

The recent post by aileenkelly and response raise, I was going to say, several trains of thought. However, perhaps a better metaphor is that it prompts a walk in a jungle with only several partial views to clearings. Education is a complex process.

Yes, I agree, part of the problem is the ‘factory metaphor’, as well as the ‘teacher as technician’ metaphor that accompanies it . Not only do these metaphors not do justice to the complexity of education, they are also demeaning to both pupils and teachers. They treat the former as objects and the latter as less than concerned professionals. They probably also devalue the forms of understanding that develop through education. I am old enough to remember a time when the metaphor behind practice (deriving from R.S. Peters and the like) which teacher educators tried to impart to us was ‘education as initiation into worthwhile activities.’ I am not sure if returning to that metaphor solves all the concerns raised here but it may help. Certainly, learning is not the neatly ordered process that the factory/technician metaphors imply. One thought that did occur to me is that it is ironic that the introduction of Grade Related Criteria which were sold to us as allowing students to show what they know and can do, rather than be simply rank ordered, actually facilitated the move from the initiation metaphor to the factory one. We were suddenly, during the eighties, using a new language of ‘lesson specifications”, ‘audits’, ‘indicators,’and quality control.’ The language of factory and technician has permeated our thinking. How many times have you found yourself talking about, say, “Developing my pupils’ thinking,” instead of “Supporting my pupils in developing their thinking?” I know I was guilty when I was teaching and I still need to be careful even now when talking or writing about education. And I don’t like the metaphors! Yes, so that is one issue. Find a new metaphor that encourages joy in learning and supports, rather than seeks to control, development in thinking and understanding. Perhaps, teachers need to involve themselves in finding that metaphor, rather than leave it only to philosophers, politicians, and so on.

Or is it even more complex? Initiation into worthwhile activities, for example, implies some direction is required in the educational process. Perhaps, this is only a partial view of one of the clearings in the jungle. Education’s purpose may be to support learning that would not otherwise happen, or which would be much more difficult to achieve. If not that, I have difficulty imagining why we would want it at all. Do Curriculum designers, not the students, then decide what is worthwhile? Are the capacities in CfE a sufficient guide to choosing worthwhile activities? How do we sell the activities in schools to the pupils as being worthwhile? The engagement problem.

Is there a single metaphor that encourages joy in learning, supports, rather than seeks to control, thinking and understanding and simultaneously encourages acceptance of what we want our young people to learn as being worthwhile? Seems unlikely (is that a challenge?), so education depends on positive relationships and trust between pupils and teachers as well. Something else the factory/technician metaphors hinder. It is encouraging, and a reason for commending teachers, that positive relations and trust do exist. How much easier though would it be for them to dominate in the right context?

There are other points though. Can we assume that the type of learning that has been commented on within, and around this post inTwitter, is the same as occurs in our schools. Just because we have one word, ‘learning’ for the processes observed in our own kids at home, in sports and music settings, it does not mean that the same word has the same meaning in (all?) our classrooms – even those that deal with sport, music, etc. There is, perhaps, a difference between ‘learning as initiation’ and ‘learning as my initial process of making sense of the world.’ Learning disciplines (the sciences, history, geography, and so on) for example, requires learning shared concepts and theories that do not always come easily or intuitively, and learning accepted ways of discussing, evaluating and using them. There is a social side to learning and we are, sometimes at least, dependent on others (teachers and peers) to help us to master it. Something that complicates supporting independence in learning.

And this leads us to one certain, if not necessarily constant, difference between early childhood learning and school learning. In early childhood learning, as noted above, there is a process of initial meaning making going on. During this process, children develop theories about the physical, biological and social worlds (for names on this, try Attran, Driver, Hatano and Ignaki). These theories are variously referred to as naive theories, misconceptions, everyday theories, and common dense theories. The point is, that whatever we call them,they by and large work in everyday contexts. Also, some of the time anyway, these theories are being systematically challenged in our schools. Piaget argued that this challenge leads to disequilibrium which is experienced as unpleasant and this leads to accommodating our way of thinking to deal with this challenge -implying here changing to the ‘superior’ theories of the disciplines. One possible outcome. However, another is to ‘mentally run’ from the issue and to resist or ignore the challenge. So another engagement problem for teachers. Engaging young people in challenges to the theories they have already developed. How do they respond and how do I deal with variety of responses I am likely to get?

One final point regarding this early learning from this longer than intended jungle walk. The delight that you note that your children take when they learn something new may be due to you, as well as having an intrinsic aspect. You are teachers and you value learning- do you value learning because you are teachers or are you teachers because you value learning may be another question. The delight evidenced by you in the delight of your children is probably being communicated to them, resulting in a positive feedback loop leading to still further engagement and delight. Not all the children that come to you will be so fortunate. It is not difficult to imagine every scenario between the sort of delight that you show in your children.’s learning to complete indifference, or even antagonism. Another complex problem for teachers.

So do not be too quick to use ‘we’, as in ‘When do we…’. Education is far too complex for the dedicated teachers that participate here even to look to those that think it is much simpler as if they are taking the blame. Responsibility for thinking about it, yes, blame, not on your life.

So a complex profession. Plenty of questions. I have the luxury of sitting in my garden on this sunny day, just thinking about them in an abstract way. I no longer have to live the problems, as you do. You have my admiration for the way that you are supporting each other through pedagoo. Education is in good hands. Good luck.

1 thought on “Metaphors & Learning: A response to “Stop Teaching and Let Them Learn”

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