Some words are high frequency words in our public discourse about change in education, and change in teacher education, particularly. But the frequency of word-use alone does not necessarily tell us much about the speaker’s or writer’s position on the issues. The fact that they are used frequently is important but it is their function as ‘key words’ that is significant in the arguments. ‘Key words’ as an idea comes from the work of British cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams – he published a book of that name in 1976 – and he used the term to represent those words that bind us together in conversations and help to establish a very basic level of communication but the diverse and even contradictory meanings of which represent significant fractures in the culture. Philosophers sometimes use the term ‘essentially contested concepts’ to represent a similar phenomenon but Williams’s cultural perspective placed greater emphasis on the relationship between history, politics and meaning.
You can probably think of a bunch of words that crop up all the time in debates about change in teacher education. I would say that reform, evidence and innovation are three key words in our vocabulary of change and that concepts or values such as social justice and equity figure strongly in how the meanings of these key words are established.
Understanding key words like these not only helps us to understand the different frames of reference and values embedded in other people’s arguments about justice, equity and educational change; developing this understanding also helps us to establish our own frames of reference more clearly and more effectively design our own actions for change.
I’ll be talking about Innovation, evidence and reform as key words in our vocabulary of change in teacher education at the second in a series of seminars called ‘Educating Teachers Matters’ at the UCL Institute of Education on Wednesday 15th November from 2 – 4pm.
You can download the flyer for the seminar by clicking here; you can access the pre-reading by registering and emailing the convenor at the email address provided.
But there come times – perhaps this is one of them
Following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in June this year, King’s College London and Teachers College, Columbia University are steaming ahead with the development of a new joint Centre for Innovation in Teacher Education and Development – CITED. You can read about the institutional commitment to the aims – and the values – underlying this new initiative here (in terms of Teachers College) and here (in terms of King’s College). What is clear is that the Presidential leadership of both institutions recognises and understands the necessary contribution that research-led, outward-looking universities like TC and King’s can make to the preparation, support and development of the school-teaching profession. And why it is so important right now, at this time, as TC President Susan Fuhrman has put it, when ‘the highly divisive political and social climates in both the U.S. and U.K. make clear that our education systems must do more to keep the path to social justice clear and accessible.’
Our new Centre (or Center, depending on where the keyboard is situated) will support positive change in the way that universities contribute to teacher education and development whilst also studying these processes and providing educational and professional development opportunities for those who do this important and often under-estimated work. Underlying the entire CITED project will be a commitment to working towards educational and social justice in ways that recognise structural, societal inequalities whilst at the same time seeking ways to transform the opportunities and outcomes for all students within the education system. A broader commitment to civic education, the promotion of public dialogue and (President Fuhrman again) ‘an unshakeable commitment to confront prejudice and discrimination’ underpins all our plans.
Co-directed by TC Professor Mariana Souto-Manning and myself, CITED will be launched in the Spring next year and our programme will begin in earnest in September 2018. We will be working on-line as well as face-to-face in London and in New York and, eventually, our plans reach right up to the doctoral level. We are planning for bursaries and scholarships to support students and colleagues who need them. Much more information will be available in the next couple of months. Watch this space – and other ones too!
I’ll be talking at the 2017 SCOTENS conference in Dundalk in a few weeks, on the conference theme of Educational innovation – the challenge of evidence-informed change.
SCOTENS – the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South – is a network of 37 college and university education departments, teaching councils, curriculum councils, trade unions and other organisations in Ireland established in 2003 and administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh. It’s a unique educational network of committed organisations across a contested border, in my experience, and I’ve really enjoyed attending their conference in previous years (the last time being in Limerick in 2015).
Here’s the conference theme description:
As teacher educators we are conscious of the contested discourse around evidence-informed change, whether in school classrooms or in terms of teacher education itself, and we feel that there is an important debate to be had around the role of evidence in driving innovation: what sort of evidence is needed? Who is producing it? Is it adequate? Are policy makers listening? What are the consequences of not listening? Are there tensions around values and evidence, and if so, how do we reconcile them? How do we address the tendency to have ‘one size fits all’ innovation? How do we obtain the best balance among decision makers: policy makers, researchers, professional educators?
The 2017 Annual SCoTENS conference theme aims to encourage speakers, panel members and delegates to consider these kinds of questions in a way that prompts reflection, discussion and debate.
I’ll be talking about my recent study of historical cases of innovation in initial teacher education in England and the particular contribution of joint curriculum work with schools. And, arising out of this research, proposing a different meaning for ‘innovation’ to one focused on technical ‘efficiency’ and cost-cutting. I’m looking forward to it.
InF0-TED is an emerging European (and increasingly international) cooperation between teacher educators interested in the improvement of their field, particularly in relation to the induction of and continuing professional development for the large number of school teachers who, in so many countries, begin second careers in higher education settings to work on pre-service or initial teacher education programmes. You can find the InFO-TED website with information and resources if you click here.
The three papers to which I responded at the BERA conference were all based on an initial questionnaire survey across teacher educator populations in the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Norway and England and then, specifically for these papers, follow-up interviews with smaller samples in Ireland, Scotland and England. These samples of teacher educators were essentially self-selecting but, given the alignment of the findings with previous research, I think the papers gave a reliable sense of how teacher educators generally can talk about their work and their situations as academics. Each paper presented rich data about these teacher educators’ feelings about their positioning in universities. There was some variation in their perspectives on this positioning – for example the overwhelming majority of the Irish sample (83%) had their doctorates whereas the majority of the Scottish and English samples didn’t – but mostly, these interviewees reported a lack of a sense of direction; felt more or less inadequate in relation to some unarticulated idealised norm; also sometimes expressed guilt that they were not research active with some, implicitly perhaps, regarding this as a personal failing rather than as a consequence of structural constraints. These perspectives were advanced to varying but fairly consistent degrees across the three papers with the overall implication – and one that drove the symposium – that better induction and professional development will improve the teacher educators’ lot. This seems to be the aim of InFo-TED as a movement and InFo-TED will be offering such induction and CPD opportunities across Europe in summer schools and through other means, funded in part by the EU’s Erasmus + programme.
Together, these papers – and the InFo-TED idea as a whole – raised some really interesting questions for me which I tried to articulate in my contribution to the discussion. Here they are:
First, teacher educators are a heterogeneous group of academic workers even within the same country – actually, even within the same institution, in my experience. So, I’m wondering whether the InFo-TED project as a project inevitably has to assume a homogeneous group whose professional development can be planned for across not only a single country but across Europe? Or not? Do the arguments of these papers lead, for example, to proposals for a set of professional standards for teacher educators, a move that has been apparent in some countries like the Netherlands? Is the implication that there is a single, transferable ‘skill-set’ for teacher educators that can be generalised and planned for transnationally? Does attention to teacher educator development necessarily require a degree of standardisation that people would feel very uncomfortable about in other parts of the university, and across professional schools particularly? I’m reminded of the introduction to AERA’s report Studying Teacher Education (that huge door-stop from 2005) in which the editors suggested this idea even while they noted that no other professional school (law, accountancy, etc) was going down this route. Their suggestion at the time – I think their opinions might have changed on this – is that developing common standards and expectations around the essential ‘knowledge-base’ for ‘effective’ teacher educators would address and perhaps fend off the challenges of unwanted politically-driven reforms. So standards for teacher educators become a protective or defensive measure in high-accountability regimes.
You can also argue for greater standardisation and for having common expectations for reasons of equity and social justice and I have heard Professor Etta Hollins from the University of Missouri – Kansas City and a former AERA Division K Vice-President make just this argument at this year’s conference. Preparing teachers for racially and culturally diverse schools, so the argument goes, requires essential content and skills and – vitally – dispositions such as racial self-awareness that nice, privileged, white people (still the majority of the teaching profession) generally don’t have when they arrive in Ed school. “So my goodness, you student teachers are all going to have to meet this basic threshold level of competence before you might be regarded as ‘safe’ to teach in racially diverse, sometimes but not always ‘high-needs’, schools. And you, the teacher educators, are all required to be able to deliver that. Period”. This is a slightly different argument to the standardisation argument in the face of accountability pressures but, again, one worth considering for good reasons of justice – social and educational – that I see as related to InFo-TED’s broader aspirations.
Secondly, if InFo-TED’s interest is in teacher educators’ induction and CPD, what are these people being inducted into and to what ends are they being offered development activities? There are two aspects to this question. First, fundamentally, they are being inducted into a job, into work, work that is at least nominally academic work (only the Irish paper really gets at this key issue in reporting on a strike by teacher educators over their conditions of service when their college was being amalgamated with the National University of Ireland). Where in these papers overall is the sense of what these people are doing, will be doing, or should be doing in their job of preparing teachers? What does the work of educating beginning teachers involve but more importantly what should it involve? Because what it currently involves might not be very good; it might be silent or worse about issues of ‘race’, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religious faith and so on. Why would we want to build a professional development structure that had an inherent conservatism built into its architecture? What if, as many of us increasingly believe, teacher education is overwhelmingly implicated in the maintenance of White privilege, an activity in which teachers of colour have to leave their identities, languages and indigenous knowledges at the classroom door alongside those of the young people they are there to teach?
So the question of what should the work that teacher educators do becomes really important and it’s then not only the teacher educators in universities who should be consulted about what that is. Who else has the right to contribute to a vision for what kind of work teacher educators should do and to what ends and therefore the work that an organisation such as InFo-TED is supporting them into and helping them to become more advanced in skills and also more critical? One would hope that the teaching profession is involved, simultaneously helping to make some useful distinctions between the work of a school-based teacher educator and that of a university-based one. But I’d hope it went wider than that and that teacher educators were accountable, albeit indirectly, to communities in local contexts, taking the democratic responsibilities of what is still a programme of higher education more seriously.
But the second aspect of this question is related to the job as a university-based one: what should teacher education as academic work look like? And why, if indeed it is, is it important that teacher education remains at least in part university-based or university-partnered? What’s the ‘higher’ part of the education? Some of the usual arguments are that university-based teacher educators get teachers to reflect – which I’ve always found incredibly patronising. Another argument is that teachers come into contact with cutting edge researchers if they do a university-partnered programme. When Jane McNicholl and I studied the work of teacher educators in England and Scotland – published as Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work (2015) – we found that the defining characteristic of their work was what we called ‘relationship maintenance’ – making complex, multi-levelled, high accountability and distributed partnerships with schools work relationally rather than producing research of any type, never mind ‘cutting edge’ work. In terms of research and how they are valued in the academy we described teacher educators as proletarianised – by which we meant that as a class of worker, they were denied the opportunity to accumulate academic capital (publications, grants, fellowships, promotions, prizes) etc. within the academic staffing system. This phenomenon has been observed in many countries including Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, where the New Zealand Research Council funded a national replication of Jane’s and my study led by Prof. Alex Gunn from Otago University.
So if we want to induct and develop teacher educators into a form of academic work and design a system in which they might thrive, we could perhaps follow the Norwegian example of a National Graduate School for Teacher Education (NAFOL, currently led by InFo-TED Council chair Prof. Kari Smith) through which over 150 university-based teacher educators in several cohort groups have been supported on a fully-funded basis to do their PhDs with expert supervision from successful Norwegian teacher education academics and regular summer and winter school workshops featuring international researchers. I think this is a fantastic initiative and one to which I have been fortunate to contribute. But research production by teacher educators is not the whole story about the job of preparing teachers in the university setting.
Which brings me to my final question: if we think the induction and professional development of teacher educators are important activities and that it’s also important to study this phenomenon, why? Who gains? I’m assuming the teacher educators do – but who else? And to what ends – who else’s benefit? Because as much as it is a worthwhile aim to improve the opportunities and job satisfaction of people who work in higher education, I think there needs to be stronger arguments about why policy makers, tax-payers, university and school leaders and others should make this investment – and arguments that go beyond the flourishing of the teacher educator as an individual academic. I don’t want teacher educators to be unhappy or feel unfulfilled. But who are the eventual beneficiaries of this increased attention to teacher educator professional development. I don’t think it can be just teacher educators alone if we describe them as professionals nor, indeed, if we want to win the argument. Professions have relations of both trust and responsibility to the wider society for a start.
In fact, the new private teacher education outfits in the US and the UK take this question of teacher educator development very seriously because they see the ultimate beneficiaries as the students in schools and, particularly, whatever we may make of the connection, their ‘social mobility’. In both the US and the UK they have prepared (or are preparing) certificate courses for intending teacher educators and they are recruiting these people now in relatively large numbers. I would disagree with the easy link these start-ups often promote between training people to train intending teachers in easy moves (on the Doug Lemov model) or even in using ‘high-leverage instructional practices’ (on the Deborah Ball model) and social justice. Ripping practices out of their sociocultural and historical contexts as tips or ‘things to do’ without them being embedded in what Schwab called, in another context, the ‘syntactic structure’ of the professional knowledge of teacher education short-circuits something that can’t be short-circuited if the activity is going to be sustainable at any level of quality over time. I also think, ultimately, these approaches are both anti- and de-professionalising in terms of both the work of the teacher educator and the job of being a teacher. But these private, self-styled ‘reforming’ teacher educator organisations have nonetheless argued the link between inducting and developing teacher educators and improving teaching and improving schools in a way that I think any organisation interested, like InFo-TED, in teacher educator induction and development needs to. And it probably has to do so on the basis of having a worked-out view of what the job of preparing teachers in a university should involve and also acknowledge that the job and its demands have probably changed enormously in the last twenty years – even if we don’t always acknowledge this fact.
So I am looking forward to what’s next for InFo-TED because, together, I think these papers identify amongst the teacher educators interviewed what is sometimes called, in social psychology, a ‘need-state’, a felt need that something has to change, that things need to be done differently, even if the direction of that transformation isn’t yet clear. A need-state is an indicator of emerging change conditions and endogenous innovation. So, recognising that teacher educators are a heterogeneous group, how will InFo-TED respond to this need-state among a highly distributed and diverse occupational group? Not just across Europe but within countries and within the different sectors of higher education; in the distance between Sligo and Galway, for example?
The Sage Handbook of Research on Teacher Education edited by D. Jean Clandinin and Jukka Husu has finally been published – and what a beautiful monster! Two volumes and so many authors I lost count. It is one of those research handbooks which will become a standard desktop reference but also a publication that not many people (myself included) will own a hard copy of. With an ‘educator’ discount it retails at £265 in print; and there is an e-book at around £150, depending on seller. So it is one that should be recommended to librarians in colleges and universities (done for KCL and HVL); and one for inter-library loan requests if you use a public library.
Jean and Jukka have done a fabulous job in organising such comprehensive coverage of research topics across the two volumes and combined this design with their meticulous editing. My favourite sections so far are the introductory section which sets out to ‘map the landscape’ of research in the field and then a later section about learning to teach ‘content’ (North American usage meaning, in the UK context, something like ‘subject knowledge’).
My chapter, with KCL colleague Meg Maguire, is about critical approaches to teacher education. It begins by discussing the sociological literature on critical pedagogy in teacher education (and does so critically, drawing on Elizabeth Ellsworth’s important essay ‘Why doesn’t this feel empowering?’) before looking at two traditions of critical pedagogy R&D in teacher ed: socioculturally-informed practice developing research; and anti-homophobia/queer pedagogy research. In 7000 words. It was tough.
As the title suggests, this isn’t a book for the bedside table nor is it one that you would necessarily plough through from page one to the end. But over two volumes, it does offer a wealth of entries on key research topics in the field. It’s a brilliant effort and wonderfully executed.
Having said several times recently that I haven’t done research in English Education/language/literacy for a while, I am reminded that, in fact, I have by the publication of two new journal articles on poetry. The articles arose out of the Arts and Humanities Research Council project I was CI on during my time at Brunel. Given how busy I was there, I don’t think that’s surprising. But it was interesting that, although I knew I had these two pieces coming out, I hadn’t connected them to English Education. Maybe here’s why.
In the article for the Journal of Aesthetic Education, ‘The Uses of Poetry: Renewing an Educational Understanding of a Language Art’, the brilliant philosopher Karen Simecek and I explore the various definitions of poetry or poetic modes of language use that have been dominant over the last thousand years or so in connection with formal education and human development. This paper also helped us elaborate a working definition of poetry that we could operationalize in our project. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we returned to the work of James Britton and some of the extraordinary work he was producing in the 1960s drawing on the philosophy of Langer and Rorty. Britton drew attention to the self-conscious ‘deviance’ (his word) of poetry in drawing attention to itself and its symbolic work.
For Changing English: Studies in Reading and Culture, Brunel’s Andrew Green, Karen and I replicated the experiment conducted by Jerome Bruner for Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. With a twist. In ‘Actual texts, possible meanings: The uses of poetry and the subjunctification of experience’, we compare the responses of a small sample of university students to hearing a poem, a literary short story and a newspaper report. We note, as Bruner did, the greater number of syntactic transformations the students made in their retellings of the short story compared to the news report. But we also noted a qualitative difference between their processing of the poem and the short story with the poem being more likely to produce expressions of contingency and complexity and even greater affordances of subjunctification than the short story. This was what we hoped to add to Bruner’s research.
These two papers are available to download from the Articles section of this website.
Both articles connect to my recent and current interests in the pedagogies of teacher education in that poetry presents a good example of a kind of knowledge that, in its true sense of being poetry (poetry as poetry), is deeply resistant to the commodification that is so prevalent in the GERM-infected education reform movement. Rather than teaching and learning how to deal with indeterminacy and uncertainty in meaning-making, reform tends to pin poetry down into the lowest-level things that can be easily ‘spotted’ and counted. So poetry is a good example of the kind of knowledge that has to be marginalized when short-term, easily-measurable gains in learning are prioritised. Poetry, as such a culturally significant mode of language use, presents considerable problems for reformist notions of teacher development and school improvement. As well as being deviant, it is highly disruptive.
I am currently working through a weighty archive of documents and interview transcripts about the development of the Oxford Internship Scheme from 1973 to 1987. My friend and colleague Ann Childs and I have been doing this, on and off, for over three years now since we first talked about it at the BERA conference in 2013. It is utterly engrossing and has generated some surprising ideas about how we have come to be where we are now in initial teacher education in England. But more on that later….
One document has stuck in my memory more than many others – and it has resurfaced again this week as most English universities are thinking about the latest ‘Buster Keaton rides again’ dictat from government about the allocation of student teacher numbers from 2017. It is a paper from 1979 written by Harry Judge entitled ‘Teaching and Professionalism. An Essay in Ambiguity’.
Harry had been Director of the University of Oxford Department of Educational Studies for nearly six years when he wrote this paper. He had arrived at the department in 1973, fresh from headship at Banbury School, then a large and pioneering comprehensive in north Oxfordshire. He was keen to change the department and he led the development of the then highly innovative Internship Scheme which started in 1987. The years between Harry’s arrival (and the arrival of another colleague, Peter Benton) and the Internship Scheme starting in ’87 are the focus of Ann’s and my research.
The paper shows both the depth of professional experience Harry brought to the role of Director and his scholarly approach to the study of teacher education. The paper (circulated as so many others were in mimeographed form to his academic colleagues, friends and supporters in schools and the LEA (led at that time by Tim Brighouse)) is informed by a recent trip to the USA to look at successful Schools of Education there and was written as a contribution to an American yearbook.
Reading the paper now, it is notable for the way that Harry identified an enduring tension in the way that university Schools of Education work, a tension that has perhaps reached yet another peak of volatility today. He says:
The tension is increased when forces outside the Universities, or outside the whole teacher training world or even outside the educational establishment itself, call for a return to basics, emphasise the importance of competency in some practical and measurable sense, show clear signs of anti-intellectualism, and seek to impart a sharp note of accountability into the training as into the employment and promotion of teachers. At the same time, professional associations of teachers claim that they – and not the Universities – know how to specify the knowledge and skills required by teachers, and moreover know how in a context of school-based training to impart them. (Judge 1979, 12)
I sat up when I first read that!
In the final part of the paper, Harry puts forward his view about how university Schools of Education should be organized and what their purposes should be. He rejects Education as an undergraduate discipline and is sceptical of what was then called the BEd. He says ‘Schools of Education should seek rather than fear smallness’ since they can never hope to ‘dominate’ the professional concerns of teachers. Schools of Education should choose their place in the system ‘with particular care and discrimination’. It is clear that Harry was writing before the expansion of higher education in the 1990s but the argument (whether you agree with him or not) that Education should be studied in Graduate Schools of Education only is an argument that is very much alive in many Russell Group universities.
The future of Education in universities was therefore in small Graduate Schools that gave a ‘high priority to research and to the training of research workers’. But at the same time, they needed to ‘seek urgently and continuously for ways to demonstrate that they take seriously the practice of education and respect the practitioner’. A ‘strong’, research-based version of graduate teacher training was, for Harry, one way of doing that. Some 8 years later, the Internship Scheme materialised, in large part as the realisation of that aim.
It’s a fascinating and in some senses timeless paper. It is, however, full of gendered language so be prepared for talk of ‘able men’ and hearty back-slaps! Harry is nearly 88 and lives in north Oxford where he still takes a keen interest in education and cares about the future of teaching. You can download the paper to read it for yourself by clicking here.
‘Reforming’ teacher education is the go-to policy area in many countries around the world. You can have a bash at teachers (they’re not good enough) and university lecturers (they’re why teachers are not good enough) and also that ‘out-dated’ model of the welfare state where general taxation provides basic services for the general population in a relationship of democratic accountability and for the public good (‘how old-fashioned!’). You need some private providers who will do some ‘disruptive innovation’ (for which read ‘high risk codswallop that will, in the final analysis, be financially underwritten by the state when it inevitably goes south’). And while what I’ve just written may be mildly sarcastic in tone, it is undeniably the basis on which English governments have operated for at least 17 years.
But ‘reform’ means many different things. Norway is one of those countries also deeply interested in reform, especially with that highly successful Finnish neighbour. Norway has a dose of PISA envy like many countries but how they are choosing to reform teacher education (and under what, for them, is a right-wing government) stands in stark contrast to the unholy clusterfuck that is the recent White Paper in England. Far from trying to dismantle a system of public or community schools, abolish teaching qualifications, reduce university involvement, generally foul things up and fall over into a ditch, the Norwegian reforms – first mooted in 2010 and announced in 2014 to be implemented in 2017 (now that’s a difference too) – entrench and enhance the university contribution, challenge the universities to do better, reorganise and restructure parts of the higher education system and put practitioner research at the heart of professional preparation.
Yet, after over five years of working in the Norwegian system, I think they and us (here in England) suffer from the same problem: we haven’t worked out the relationship between the teaching profession and a bunch of academics in universities (teacher educators) who have an important relationship to that profession but are not it. In large part, I think it is a knowledge problem in that the knowledge that tends to get people from schools work in the university is not, in the end, valued by the higher education system (as useful as it is in the preparation of teachers) and the knowledge that is valued within the university rewards system is often assumed to be capable of being simply transferred or, at best, translated into schools. And when that doesn’t work, it is usually schools and teachers (who, remember, haven’t been prepared well by the universities in the first place, so the argument goes) that get the blame. The university researchers go all hoity-toity and remind us that the effect size was significant and it was just those pesky teachers’ lack of fidelity to the design that was the problem.
A special issue of the Norwegian journal Acta Didactica Norge has just been published on teacher education and teacher education reform with a range of fantastic articles by leading Norwegian researchers. There are analyses of pilots of the 2017 reforms and the development of the new five year Master’s degree for all primary school teachers. There is a great historical analysis of Norwegian teacher education curricula from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century that shows how control of the curriculum was lost by the profession to a point in 1965 when it was just one university (Oslo) that determined what teachers were taught (and not much about teaching, it seems). There are some very interesting papers on digital tools creating new dialogic spaces for teacher development. And also reports from projects led by ProTed, the Norwegian national centre of excellence in teacher development led by Andreas Lund. I was asked to write an epilogue for the special issue that responded to the articles and drew, briefly, on the international comparison.
In making the argument I do in the article (which you can download for free from the Acta Didactica Norge website and also from the Articles section of this site), I draw on the work of Paul Carlile who works in organisational theory and his ideas about the complex processes that are required when different actors have to work together across complex boundaries. So far, I argue, we have managed to get new teachers to do some pretty difficult translation work quite successfully and the risk of the Norwegian reforms is that this situation will continue, with the struggle to translate now encoded in a Masters’ thesis. But the potential for genuine transformation is a challenge for both Norway and England and requires us to work through that question about the relationship between one of the largest and most important professions in society and a group of academics in the increasingly specialised and competitive environment of universities.
There are many different Vygotskies. There is the Vygotsky whose theoretical speculations on the relationship between thinking and speech have sometimes become barely recognizable justifications for ‘group work’ in schools. There is the Vygotsky whose experiments with stroke patients, among others, paved the way for a new methodology in psychology. There is the Vygotsky associated with the Russian field of ‘defectology’; the Vygotsky introduced to English teachers in England by James Britton; the Vygotsky wrongly accredited with term ‘scaffolding’. And the Vygotsky whose work was selected, translated and assembled in an idiosyncratic order by American cognitive psychologists in the 1970s, four decades after the man himself had died. Oh, and the philosopher’s Vygotsky, the one spoken about in connection with Hegel and Kant and, more recently, Brandom and McDowell.
But what of the Vygotsky who was, first, a humanities scholar, closely involved in his local theatre? The same Vygotsky who studied Hamlet for his doctorate and who borrowed concepts from the great Russian director Stanislavsky? It falls to a fascinating new volume edited by Davis, Fertholt, Grainger Clemson, Jansson and Marjanovic-Shane – Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research – to show the life-long importance of drama and theatre in Lev Vygotsky’s work. The book’s great achievement over its 14 chapters is to show how the early interest in theatre set the ground for Vygotsky’s major theoretical and empirical studies of human development. And then how, in his final years (although still a young man: he died at 37) he turned once again to the drama of development and the importance of creativity and play throughout life. And, just for the purposes of full disclosure, Hannah Grainger Clemson (one of the editors and authors) was a doctoral student of mine and did a fascinating study in this area.
Vygotsky’s approach to human development is characterized by some particularly ‘dramatic’ dynamics. A key characteristic is the importance placed on social interaction and the ‘lending’ of consciousness between individuals in what he described as a ‘zone of proximal development’. ‘We become ourselves through others’ captures some of this dynamic between the inner self and the outer realm of shared experience. The role of artifacts in creating this dynamic is also key: a stick can prop open a door or it can become a horse or, for that matter, a light sabre. In other words, ‘things’ can have functional or symbolic meanings and symbolic meanings can open doors to new ideas and new ways of doing things. And in this process, imagination is central and exercised in the agentic engagement of people both with things and other people as they work together to solve problems or overcome crises. Thinking – cognitive activity, if you like – has a social and material basis for Vygotsky: it is a living and embodied performance that relies on people’s wants, needs and desires as motives. The drama of learning, then, is the drama of human development.
The book’s chapters are organized in four sections. The first takes a generally historical approach to Vygotsky’s life and influences, insofar as they show a relationship between the ‘problem of the actor’ and the problem of the learner’s work. A central concept is that of perezivhanie, a concept Vygotsky appropriated from Stanislavsky, meaning the frame of emotional experience through which we perceive our environments and their opportunities for our development. As with many chapters throughout the book, the contribution by Fertholt in this section draws on empirical research, in this case, an early childhood education setting. Section 2 consists of three chapters reporting on the transformative potential of classroom drama, particularly in connection to motivation and identity formation. The third section continues the emphasis on classroom studies of drama in education, across secondary education generally and with particular attention to second-language learning, multicultural classrooms and the use of new technologies. Section three is generally more successful than section two in integrating the Vygotskian theory with data analysis and Chapter 7 (by Ewing), in particular, offers a good example of how data can be used to illustrate and develop readers’ understandings of these theories. The final section includes two chapters by Jansson that bring together Vygotskian interests in the ‘drama of learning’ and development with the neo-Vygotskian, activity theoretical approach to intervention research in workplace settings, known as Developmental Work Research (DWR). Other chapters in this section (by Franks and Sawyer) draw on theories of multimodality and group creativity.
As an edited collection of 14 chapters, the editors have generally done a good job of building coherence across the whole book as well as within the four sections. This is particularly true of the first section and it is probably one of the reasons why it is so successful. There are one or two referencing issues that should have been picked up during production (missing or incomplete references, for example), especially for an academic book at this price. Personally, I would also have appreciated a final chapter (even if presented simply as an epilogue or ‘afterword’) that brought the whole book together and synthesized what the editors believed to be the key messages: how might we define specifically Vygotskian and sociocultural approaches to drama education and drama education research? These are small quibbles with what is an excellent book, however. It merits serious attention as a scholarly collection dedicated to revealing and explaining the Vygotsky for whom an early interest in theatre provided many of the concepts and underlying social dynamics of his later psychology, a psychology that – for all its limits – has become so influential in education.
A version of this post will appear as a review in Research in Drama Education this year.
Dramatic Interaction in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research
Edited by Susan Davis, Beth Fertholt, Hannah Grainger Clemson, Satu-Mari Jansson & Ana Marjanovic-Shame
If you were a newly-qualified teacher of English today, would you know who James Britton was? If you had done a PGCE, it is an interesting question. As an English graduate, it would have been unlikely for you to have encountered Britton in your EngLit course. But would your PGCE tutor, at any stage, have made you aware of Britton’s contribution to English and literacy teaching (a truly worldwide contribution, at that)? Would you have looked at the Bullock Report, for example, even just Chapter 4? Or Language and Learning? Or would you have read his piece ‘Vygotsky’s Contribution to Pedagogical Theory’? For it was Britton, perhaps above all others, who first made the teaching profession in England aware of Vygotsky’s work, soon after the first English translation of Thought and Language in 1962.
Britton was more than a populariser of Vygotsky, however, if indeed he was that. Britton was then and now, in my opinion, the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); intellectually ambitious in ways that crossed the academic humanities and social sciences – in today’s grotesque parlance, a writer of ‘four star’ papers; and a researcher with huge impact, both in today’s reduced ‘REF-compliant’ terms but also over longer timescales and across continents and disciplines. Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense. It’s an aspiration many of us struggle with and fail at – but it’s worth the struggle nonetheless. It is ‘the Blob’, otherwise
The London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE), the longest-standing subject association for primary and secondary English teachers, is organising a day conference on Saturday 12th March at the Institute of Education in Bedford Way to look at the legacy of Britton’s work and what it means for the teaching profession today. A flyer for the event is available here. The organisers of the event – Tony Burgess and Myra Barrs (themselves highly distinguished teachers and researchers in the same mould) – have also produced a really lovely anthology of extended quotations of Britton’s work which they will introduce at the conference. The selection gives you some real insights into the depth and reach of Britton’s thinking.
If you are interested in finding out more about James Britton in the context of teacher education and the HE discipline of Education, he features prominently in an article I wrote called ‘Disciplines as Ghosts’ which is available to download from the Articles page of this site. Karen Simecek and I have also drawn substantially on Britton’s work about the poetic mode of language use in an article that will be published shortly in the Journal of Aesthetic Education.