What’s the purpose? What are our values?

I was delighted to discover Pedagoo. Scotland badly needs a dose of teacher activism. CfE is a golden opportunity to transform classroom practices in Scotland’s schools, but it is threatening to become a damp squib, as many teachers worry about the risks of innovation and play safe. Developing more active forms of pedagogy is a major part of CfE, and it is really good to see teachers seizing the initiative and helping each other to develop and share new practices.

However, I also worry slightly about the potential for narrowness – a reduction of education to pedagogical techniques. History shows us that great ideas can quickly become reduced to formulaic practices. AifL is a case in point. The early work of this programme was about process – teachers working together with key principles to produce new practices. A lot of the practices that emerged from AifL and its counterpart south of the border (e.g. sharing intentions, traffic lighting, show me boards) started life as techniques designed to achieve particular purposes. In phase two of AifL (the national roll out), they morphed into ‘required’ techniques to be utilised in every lesson. In the process they became disconnected from purpose.

So my view is that Pedagoo is a really worthwhile initiative – it is great that pedagogy is at the heart of new educational practices. But let us also keep in mind a number of associated issues:

  • First, pedagogy should always serve an educational purpose – a key criterion should always be fitness for purpose. Thus, for example while cooperative learning might be excellent for sense-making and developing social skills, it is perhaps less well suited for getting over new concepts. Here, didactic teaching may be better suited.
  • Too much of the modern discourse about learning – what my colleague Gert Biesta calls the ‘learnification of education’ – focuses on learning in a decontextualized way. We also need to ask ‘what are we learning?’ and ‘why are we learning it?’. Pedagogical techniques may be useful for developing skills, but knowledge – what the educational sociologist Michael Young calls ‘powerful knowledge’ – remains important. We need to be clear about what knowledge young people will need to become effective citizens in a complex world, and make sure that we teach it.
  • Let us not forget values here. Education is a value ridden enterprise. My view is that teacher activism should be firmly underpinned by a strong sense of values. My own preference (and this is of course contestable) is for values based upon social justice (e.g. closing the achievement gap in secondary school identified by the 2007 OECD report on Scottish education) and democracy. The adoption of such values will determine how we develop pedagogy – for example, a desire to enhance democratic participation by young people will inevitably involve pedagogy that encourages genuine decision-making by students. It will preclude classroom practices based upon authoritarian power by teachers.

It is my firm view that, by articulating clear values about education and by having a good sense of educational purpose, organisations like Pedagoo will be well placed to challenge predominant and narrow discourses based upon attainment, effectiveness and accountability – discourses that are currently proving to be so damaging to education in the UK and elsewhere.

So let’s keep the focus on pedagogy, but strengthen the message through clarity of value and purpose. Let’s have a debate about these issues. And let’s position Pedagoo as a Scottish equivalent of the influential US group, Rethinking Schools (http://www.rethinkingschools.org).

10 thoughts on “What’s the purpose? What are our values?

  1. George McKinlay

    Thanks Mark, there’s a lot I can agree with here: the importance of knowledge without which we can end up with a vacuous, but perhaps emotionally satisfying learning experience; teacher activism – yep, but are the structures there to enable it? I know there’s a lot out there regarding being leaders, DSM etc, but how much is CFE being driven from the chalkface. Pedagoo has to be more than a good practice community…… is this possible? I certainly think the narrative opportunities it offers are the way ahead

    Values is a tricky, but essential concept. Are values to be considered the core of identity?……. who we are as teachers?, how do we reconcile National Standards (gtcs SFL etc) with personal values. It’s interesting that you justify your preference for social justice by referring us to OECD research. I think there has to be some balance between personal values & wider society.


  2. Fearghal

    This post is such a fantastic contribution to the ongoing debate over what exactly Pedagoo is, and how it can be most effective at doing what’s trying to do (whatever that is!) You’re comment George is also very helpful. I think you capture the issue particularly well when you ask: “Pedagoo has to be more than a good practice community…… is this possible?”

    I agree that we need to avoid this occurring, and I think it is possible for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think Pedagoo is already not a “good practice community”, but a “practice community”. I think there is a key difference here. Teachers are already posting examples of “work in progress” which they themselves are unsure of. They’re posting not to place themselves on the pedestal of “good”, but rather to share what they’re trying at the draft stage in the hope that by thinking out loud others will be able to collaborate with them in the design of the intervention and make it better.

    I think the issues of purpose and values are more challenging to bring out, but I agree we must try and encourage this. However, we do need to ensure that we try to keep at least a foot in the classroom experience and not descend too far into navel gazing. I think we need to try to encourage contributors to make explicit the purpose and values which underpin the pedagogy they are developing and sharing. How do we do this? I’m not sure. Those of us running the site have been discussing recently the need for us to try and lead by example by sharing the sorts of things from our own classrooms which we would hope others to post on the site. Perhaps this might help? Perhaps we should also be considering some sort of page which includes suggestions/guidelines for posters – but I would fear that this might put people off or narrow what we get.

    I think also that the PedagooJournal idea might really help with some of this. There could be much clearer expectations for contributions to this which explicitly state that articles need to blend practice, theory and values. I have this idea that we could end up with a sort of Pedagoo ladder for contributors to work up when becoming involved in the site…a PedagooFriday tweet could be developed into a blog post, which could then be developed into an article for the journal…and at each stage the process would become more demanding and therefore more rewarding for the contributor, and the rest of the community.

  3. karen doherty

    I’m following this with interest.
    For me, part of the appeal of Pedagoo was the informality, the light touch, the focus on the positive.
    My worry is that in trying to sculpt Pedagoo and its purpose/direction/actions we risk diminishing the very elements which fed its growth.
    I like the suggestion that there could be a stepped progression of engagement because many people have neither the time nor inclination to produce more than a tweet or two. Others however may well jump at the chance!

    Pedagoo has the capacity to accommodate all tastes and all I’m suggesting is that we ca’ canny in this next evolutionary phase. I really like Pedagoo as it is and would hate to see it mutate into some quango-esque husk of its former glory. (Jeez, I sound like Fraser from Dad’s Army. This is intended to be a helpful, constructive post!)

  4. Fearghal

    Cheers Karen, that’s a really helpful reply! I decided that a “page which includes suggestions/guidelines for posters” was a bad idea as I was typing, but decided in the spirit of openness to leave it in to be shot down!

    I agree that Pedagoo is good in its undefined current state and we need to be very careful not to break it! I think though that it is very healthy to be a) having this discussion and b) thinking of ways of moving forward and improving without destroying what we’ve achieved together so far…

  5. Mark Priestley Post author

    It’s good to see my post has stimulated some debate. When one tosses a stone into a pool it is good to see ripples. There are some interesting perspectives here, and I thought that I should take the time to respond.

    First, let me say that it is great that Pedagoo is focused on practice – the messy, gooey world of practice that is nicely encapsulated in the name Pedagoo. It is through practice that Scottish schools will be changed for the better, and it is through practice that CfE will realise its considerable potential. However, it is in this complex terrain where the challenge lies. I think George McKinlay has hit the nail on the head when he says that ‘Pedagoo has to be more than a good practice community’. We know from years of being told by HMIe to do best practice that the model is problematic. Practices are context-bound – what works in one context may well fall flat in another. The hard medical model of practice/research may work well in a clinical setting (although even there that is debatable). However, in the messy social settings that constitute schools, ideas from research and other people’s practice can only ever be cognitive resources for thinking practitioners.

    For me, this is why the application of practices must be driven by careful consideration of why we are doing them. Purposes can be short term and instrumental – for example we may choose a classroom strategy to tick a box, to keep the inspector happy, or keep the pedantic depute off our back. And believe me, I see a lot of this on my travels. Or we may do them for more worthy, but still limited purposes – for example edutainment, keeping the class happy and on-task. Books have been written about this – most notablly Sue Cowley’s ‘Getting the buggers to behave’. Such purposes are still relatively short term and instrumental. They may indeed be important, but they are insufficient on their own to develop a good education. Better in my view is when we also pay some consideration to the longer term goals of education – for example, to develop inquiring minds, and to promote the faculty to critically reason. Neil Postman’s classic masterpiece at http://criticalsnips.wordpress.com/2007/07/22/neil-postman-bullshit-and-the-art-of-crap-detection/ is about just this. We need to be mindful of the need to develop a democratic disposition in our students, because while individual capacities are great, the future social health of our communities is also a vital goal of education systems – and as one of the better tweets I have seen this week said, ‘Young people cannot be expected to be active citizens if we train them to be inactive in schools’. And we cannot expect society to become fairer and more socially just by magic. Instead we have to encourage young people to become capable of critically examining their own and other people’s values – so then we have a fighting chance of our students making a better society tomorrow than the one we live in today. That is not to say, of course, that Pedagoo should only be for those who wish to engage at a deep philosophical level. As Karen pointed out, many do not have the time of inclination to do this. However, a vibrant community should function at lots of different levels, and Pedagoo should allow for and encourage all manner of contributions.

    My encounters with Pedagoo, and my wider work with teachers suggest strongly to me that Scotland’s schools are staffed by highly professional and thoughtful people. Pedagoo has the potential to make a real difference, but this will be greatly boosted by serious consideration to the sorts of questions about purpose and value that I have outlined above – so that Pedagoo does not simply become a forum for swapping classroom tips.

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  8. George McKinlay

    Again I find myself in agreement with all the points but I suspect that present educational structure is having a effect on teacher activism. There are lots of activist teachers out here who perhaps see sharing of practice as an activist activity. No problem with that – if this is to work as a community we have to accept people where and how they are. This stems from a value I have: I believe the only person in the class I have a RIGHT to change is myself.

    The question seems to be how to go further than sharing good practice & perhaps so to influence. What level are we looking to influence at? National policy, LA level, school level? All require different tools of activism.

    I found one of the greatest frustrations of the Chartered teacher (remember that?) was getting an opportunity to share research with a wider audience. You have to become pretty resilient to persevere sometimes when agendas from above are valued more than the agendas from the classroom.

    On a positive note – I have persevered with basing things on research &, every now and again, people around (& above) are beginning to see something that seems to be making them interested

  9. Mark Priestley

    Of course there is a continuum of activism, and we need all sorts. It strikes me that the Chartered Teacher scheme was an ideal springboard for teacher activism. It has of course been discontinued on the grounds of cost – however, an uncharitable and cynical person might add that an activist teaching profession could be seen as threatening in some quarters. I have heard your experience as a CT repeated in many places!

    Nevertheless, Scotland needs an activist teaching profession and it is great to see debate of the type engendered by Pedagoo. I think Pedagoo needs to be able to operate at all of the levels you mention, and I suspect then diverse range of people now contributing is capable of doing this. So keep it coming, everyone. Keep making a noise and keep making waves!

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