Kate Tempest’s Brand New Ancients: Small heroics, everyday epics

Brand New Ancients – I think now approaching the end of its tour – is a very unusual, ambitious and startling piece. Kate Tempest has put together a long, performed poem, set to music, partly social commentary and satire but with a narrative arc that aspires to epic. Having seen it – and thoroughly enjoyed it – I feel I now need to read it (it was published by Picador last year). Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013.

Kate Tempest: inspiratio
Kate Tempest: inspiratio

The overwhelming power of Brand New Ancients comes from its call not to lose our histories and not to settle for the present. We are at risk of forgetting our myths, says Tempest, not in the sense of grand narratives, as such, but in the sense of losing grand patterns in ordinary narratives. We are making the mistake of believing that ‘the present is all that there is’. The story of the poem concerns two families, the friendship between two boys as they grow up in south-east London, where Tempest herself grew up. The families and friendship have quirks and twists and, at times, there were echoes of Achilles and Patroclus (but that might have just been me). We hear them talk; Tempest has a good ear for dialogue; there are some shocks; plenty of jokes, some nicely filthy. There are other characters and other rhythms. And then at times, we hear a chorus-like voice, more Tempest-as-poet or storyteller but also commenting on the action and urging us to see, in the small details, the mini-triumphs and little tragedies, the underlying dignity and ordinary heroism of the human species. It was, as I said, an extraordinary and ambitious project quite unlike anything I have seen. Sometimes Tempest is referred to as a performance poet (rather like John Hegley or Attila the Stockbroker); Brand New Ancients is in an entirely different genre. Perhaps it creates one.

It’s also a tour-de-force by Tempest herself. She not only delivers a strong, passionately performed reading of her text but manages to subvert the performer-audience barrier at several points in the show. Whether or not she is actually comfortable on stage, she certainly gives the impression she is and manages to combine intimate, apparently improvised conversation with the audience with the epic storytelling of everyday heroics underscored by violin, cello, tuba (yes tuba, wonderfully played) and drums. The extract below is so worth your while clicking on.

Brand New Ancients is brilliant and I am sure it will live its own life beyond Tempest’s performance. Kate Tempest has huge amount to offer poetry in the years ahead – not in the trivial sense of ‘making poetry cool’ or appropriately regionally accented but in coming up with new genres and forms of poetry that fuse classical and contemporary modes and speak to a wide audience. Brand new and ancient, indeed.

 

John Harris’s ‘Inside the A* Factory’

A feature in the Guardian on the 15th March, by left-wing journalist John Harris, aroused a good deal of interest among teachers (still going if last Saturday’s letters page is anything to go by). But ‘Inside the A* Factory’ received little coverage elsewhere in the media and the underlying issues (teacher workload, teacher morale and the factory model of schooling) also continue to be ignored by the press and broadcasters. There is a national teacher strike this coming week and a lay reader would be hard-pressed to know it was happening let alone why it was happening.

The article was essentially a collection of stories of different teachers’ experiences of working in schools over the last 20 years or so. The age of the teachers reflected that but the majority of Harris’s sample seemed to be 30 or under and talking about the last five or six years.  The picture, as presented, was one of relentlessly intense pressure from school management (and in turn from Ofsted) that required teachers to work increasingly long hours, be subject to increasingly bureaucratic monitoring and accountability processes, and to be complicit in a narrowing of the curriculum to ‘test-teaching’ and the narrowing of the school to an exam factory, with kids becoming specks of data to be manipulated.

I thought it was an excellent article for non-teachers who need to know what it is like to work in one of the great public services now and one well worth reading by everyone. But it raised two questions for me that were only partly addressed in the piece itself. First, as Harris said:

Much of the way state education now works is traceable to the last government, and a succession of Labour education secretaries who left teachers punch-drunk. But Michael Gove, secretary of state for education since 2010, is in a different league, and is using the machinery bequeathed to him to drive through a real revolution and defeat and educational ‘establishment’ he calls ‘the blob’.

So what hope is there for the future if neither Conservative or Labour offer substantially different policies? My sense is that similar questions arose in the US after the election of Obama: following however-many years of George W. Bush and ‘No child left behind’,  President Obama gave them …. Arne Duncan, the increasing privatisation of public education, the ‘common core’ and experiments in inspection borrowed from Ofsted in England by way of contracts with dear old Tribal. I have become increasingly frustrated here over the last couple of months with the Twitterati who bleat on about Tristram Hunt (the Labour education spokesman and shadow secretary of state for education) not committing to reversing all of Mr Gove’s policies. Duh. How likely is that given his party started most of them off?!

Second, teacher retention – or teacher attrition, depending on the way you look at it – is a problem in many countries that have never heard of Gove, Ofsted, academies or Tribal. In Norway, for example, 85% of trainee teachers at one major university drop out before they finish their course. And many more do so in the first three years of work. So what is it about teaching in some developed countries that seems to lead so many young teachers drop out or change careers. The sad fact is that so many teachers leave before they achieve their peak effectiveness after around 8 years. As a society we seem to accept this fact nonchalantly as do our policy makers. But it is both incredibly wasteful in terms of resources and very short-sighted in terms of policy.

So, who will try to set a new direction for education policy where schools are not just exam factories and teachers are supported to develop to their full potential?

Image by Steve Caplin for The Guardian.

‘The Teacher as Sisyphus’ – essay by David C. Berliner

David Berliner is a distinguished educational psychologist and dean, now emeritus at Arizona State University. He has become well known again recently because of an article he wrote in Teachers College Record that analysed the effects of poverty on the outcomes of the American school system. US public (or state) schools are often held to be ineffective and a brake on American economic competitiveness. This is the standard US reformist position and leads to arguments about  the deregulation and privatisation of schools.

In the article – reproduced online here (scroll down) -Berliner showed how, if you removed the 25% of American school children who live in poverty from the statistics, the US would have one of the most effective and successful school systems in the word. At a time when reformers insist on teaching being the over-riding factor in pupil outcomes, Berliner showed how an out-of-school factor such as poverty was, in fact, determining. Uncomfortable for politicians, that. Especially in the US.

Now, on the website of his colleague Gene Glass, Berliner has posted an essay first given at an honorary graduation ceremony in New York. Entitled (by Glass) ‘The Teacher as Sisyphus’, Berliner  eloquently summarises what makes teaching such a complex activity, one located in specific social and material circumstances:

Four variables: some one, teaching some thing, to someone else, in some setting.

There are only four variables for schools and teachers and school administrators to control, so the general public thinks that teaching seems easy. It certainly sounds easy, until you remember that four is exactly the same number of variables that make up our DNA. And just as those four nucleotides result in billions of different people, and great variation even within the same family, those four educational variables result in no two classrooms ever being alike. Class-to-class and year-to-year variations, even in the same schools, end up requiring remarkably different skills to teach and to administer well. Teaching and schooling is hard work because you cannot ever be sure of what you will draw as a class or what the dynamics will be at a school.

To read the essay, click here. It’s a good, short statement of the futility of trying to understand teaching on the basis of inputs and outputs, effect size and simple causality. And while the quality of teaching may be the most important in-school factor associated with improved pupil outcomes, Berliner’s analysis should focus politicians’ attention on wider social inequalities, economic disadvantage, the gap between rich (or super-rich) and poor rather than misleading the public into thinking one type of school, one type of teaching or one type of teacher preparation will have real impact on some deeply entrenched problems in society.

Poetry: Perception, Patterning and Symbol

This post arises from some thinking I’ve been doing for the ‘Uses of Poetry’ AHRC project.  It will be greatly enhanced by my colleague Dr Karen Simecek who will be incorporating complimentary ideas from philosophy and aesthetics. But this is where I have started….

In a project titled ‘The Uses of Poetry’, it is probably a good idea to have a working definition of what we mean by ‘poetry’. That doesn’t mean we need to have to pin it down precisely because one of the outcomes of the project and our exploratory attempts at measurement of poetry’s ‘effects’ may be to come up with a better idea of what we mean. Nonetheless, it might be useful to have some provisional definition or categorization to inform our activities and to make explicit understandings that have so far remained tacit. It is possible that discussion over such an attempt at definition may have a positive impact on what we are planning and may also take us off in some surprising new directions. Or not. Either way, it’s probably worth doing.

Poetry as 'Howl'
Patterning ….but symbolisatiom?

 ‘Poetry is whatever you think it is’?

One perspective that has been informing our project’s discussions is derived from ecological psychology and the work of James Gibson (1966). Gibson used the word ‘affordances’ to suggest that the meaning-making potential of any artifact arises in the interaction between human subject and that artifact. Affordances are a matter of perception. Both ‘perception’ and ‘interaction’ are important in this account of meaning-making in that artifacts are not held to have intrinsic, universal or transcendent meanings that can be uniformly decoded. The artifact itself is a product of a specific cultural system that has evolved historically; the artifact is also perceived by an individual who, in turn, is embedded in a particular sociocultural context, at a particular point in time.

 Such a view of meaning-making allows for the affordances of the particular artifact to change within the lifecycle of the individual perceiver as well as over longer historical cycles. Understanding particular kinds of texts as having certain affordances (or as having greater affordances than other kinds of texts) allows us to make some categorisations that are based on their potential for certain kinds of meaning-making (the uses of poetry) rather than based on a text’s correspondence to any list of formal features or generic characteristics.

It is important to note that such an approach to categorizing poetry is not inevitably a relativistic one. Although there are no absolute rules that would allow for the historically unqualified determination of a text as ‘poetry’, the perception and evaluation of that text by language-users would inevitably draw on culturally and historically contingent criteria in the same way that is true of perception in the visual arts. So, words spoken by a US Secretary of State for Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) in a press conference six months after the September 11th attack on New York in 2001 were seen to have some poetic affordances at the time even if their affordances in the longer-term have diminished. We don’t regard Rumsfeld as a poet and the utterance is now seen more as a realistic comment on the limitations of intelligence gathering:

 there are known knowns;

there are things we know we know.

We also know there are known unknowns;

that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

But there are also unknown unknowns

— the ones we don’t know we don’t know. [i]

Such a view of the properties, potential or affordances of particular kinds of language-use can also be informed by a more broadly cultural psychology of the kind elaborated by Michael Cole (1996), by training a cognitive anthropologist of literacy. From this perspective, a poem would be regarded as a cultural artifact of a symbolic kind that is used to mediate the individual perceiver-subject’s activity in the social world. Again, the artifact does not have intrinsic meaning in and of itself but becomes the site for meaning-making as the person uses/reads/writes the poem in the process of acting on the world. The object or goal of the subject’s activity is a driving factor from this perspective – why is the artifact being used and for what ends? Used for the purposes of stimulating recall of food items during a visit to the supermarket, a poem is probably not as useful as a short list. But a poem would probably hit the spot more effectively if directed at a lover on Valentine’s day than a short list of the lover’s notable features. Again, the affordances of the text are related to the ways in which that text is perceived and used. The cultural psychological perspective also helps to understand the relationship between individual perception and the more public phenomenon of meaning-making – the semiotic heritage that enables individuals in similar cultural-historical contexts to share meanings. Seeing a poem as a mediating (between the person and an aspect of the world they seek to work on) artifact rather than an exhibit in the ‘canon of literature’ is a profoundly different understanding of the uses of poetry in any setting whether educational, therapeutic or literary. None of which is to say that meaning is determined by the single interaction of perceiver and artifact but that the affordances for meaning-making evolve historically as the perceiver-subject develops and as the collective, social evaluation of the artifact-in-use develops too.

Poetry as a mode of language use

Although we might say that anything that is recognized as poetry (on the basis of its meaning-making potential) is probably poetry, it is also worthwhile to try to account for differences in the language of texts recognized as poetry from language in other types of texts that usually are not. To address this question, the work of Britton (1972, 1982, etc.) is useful.

James Britton worked at the University of London Institute of Education and then Goldsmiths’ College until the early 1980s. He was writing about poetry and the teaching of poetry from as early as the 1950s but his later work became informed by various empirical projects (such as the study of the development of children’s writing abilities) as well as by long-standing philosophical interests (Langer, Polanyi, Rorty, etc.) and by the arrival, in 1962, of the first English translation of Russian psychologist Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. Vygotsky offered Britton a theory of mind itself derived from the empirical study of human development as well as the study of philosophy and literature. And Vygotsky was also to influence the work of Cole and his form of cultural psychology mentioned earlier. But Britton’s interests and resources were wider and more eclectic while at the same time being interested in improving educational practice.

The first distinction Britton made was between literary and non-literary discourse and in doing so he drew on linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson and semiotician Thomas Seboek. From Jakobson, Britton drew the different functions of language in speech situations and writing: expressive (or emotive); referential; poetic; phatic; metalingual; conative (related to action). The poetic function in this taxonomy was equivalent to ‘verbal arts’ and Britton followed Jakobson in insisting that one could only talk about or categorize on the basis of ‘dominant function’; all utterances and texts are informed by and characterized by structures from other functions. From Sebeok in particular, Britton took the position that the poetic function of language went wider than that deemed to be poetry:

Any attempt to reduce the sphere of poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to poetic function would be a delusive over-simplification. Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent (Sebeok 1960; cited in Britton 1982, p. 62)

So how can we understand the ‘poetic function’ of language?

One of Britton’s earliest distinctions was between language in the spectator role and language in the participant role (1963). Participant role was characterized by language intended to recount or describe an event or past experience in order to get the listener/reader to do something or to change their opinion. Spectator role was characterized by language intended purely to interest or excite the listener/reader, re-presenting events or past experiences in language for their own sake. Britton argued that spectator role was not only confined to self-consciously literary discourse but also featured in non-literary discourse such as anecdote.  At the time of making this distinction, Britton cited Suzanne Langer’s work on symbolization but he later found (retrospective) support in the work of British psychologist D.W. Harding (1937) who had already distinguished between the onlooker role and the participant role. Harding prompted Britton to consider the role of attention and evaluation in the listener/reader’s perception of language-in-use.

Britton related the spectator role to the findings of the empirical study he made of children’s writing. Examination of the writing samples produced three main categories: transactional (getting things done, in the participant role); expressive (articulation of emotion and first-hand experience, where the participant and spectator roles are mixed); and poetic (where, to use his formulation, we are ‘making something with language rather than doing something with it’; it was poetic discourse that met the demands of the spectator role).

The intention of making something with language suggested to Britton that the use of language would become more ‘organised’, more crafted to be complex (at a symbolic level) and it was from this interest in the organization of language that he came to the stylistics of Henry Widdowson (1975). Widdowson identified three organizational patterns at work in texts that set out to be literary: phonological (e.g. metre and rhyme); syntactic (e.g. parallel structures); and ‘patterns formed by semantic links between individual lexical items’ (e.g. puns). Britton, after Widdowson, suggested that the patterning created in self-consciously poetic language use (patterning of sound, syntax and meaning) went ‘over and above’ the everyday pattern of communication. Use of the systems of patterning drew attention to the language as a kind of invitation to take up the spectator role. Britton suggested (perhaps playfully) that poetry could therefore be considered ‘deviant discourse’ in that it drew attention, stylistically, to how it differs from non-literary discourse. Its deviancy, for Britton, was that poetry draws attention to how it works as communication and ‘drawing-attention-to-itself’ was a characteristic of language in the poetic mode.

Again, Britton comes back to Langer (1967) and her distinction between discursive and presentational symbolism, between a ‘message encoded in a symbol system’ and a message encoded in a unique complex symbol’ (p. 65) to illustrate the different ways in which language is used in the poetic function, the ‘deviant’ display of the symbol system as symbol; the self-conscious patterning to draw attention to its difference from everyday discourse as well as encoding meaning.

Patterning and meaning

The relationship between organizational patterning in language and the meaning-making affordances of a text can be illustrated by the quotation from Donald Rumsfeld’s press conference provided above. In the original transcript on the US Department of Defense website, the utterance is presented in continuous prose; a lengthy and somewhat tortuous answer to a journalist’s question. In making the quotation, I selected a stretch of the utterance and then edited it by changing the layout – creating separate lines and varying the length of lines in order to emphasise the three assertions (known knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns) and the repetition of key words to create assonance and consonance and some sense of internal rhyme. As I did so, I also recalled, probably unconsciously at first, my own reading of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in particular, and its ethos of existential questioning. Overall, the aim was to focus attention on the use of language – to invite the reader to take up the spectator role. My attempt was self-conscious and related to my aim of helping to contribute to our definition of poetry – or categorization of poetic functions of language – in our project.

But as poetry, the Rumsfeld quotation probably has limited affordances. Not only is it still strongly tied to another context and another mode of language use (press conferences, political justification) but it makes quite a limited and instrumental distinction between categories of knowledge, albeit in a repetitive way. The short stretch of Rumsfeld’s utterance doesn’t have much potential for meaning-making outside of a very specific set of circumstances. To use Langer’s formulation, it is a message encoded in a symbol system but it is not encoded as a unique complex symbol. None of which is to say that it is not poetic at all; like many utterances it has characteristics of the poetic function but I would argue that the poetic function does not dominate.

There are many examples of the poetic function in everyday utterances wider than poetry per se. Football songs and some stand-up comedy use language characteristic of the poetic function. Carol Fox (1993), in her landmark study of young children’s oral storytelling, argued that the poetic (metaphoric) was a major part of their language right from the start and, in doing so, she argued with Halliday (1973) who did not assign much importance to the poetic function in the process of developing adult language. Fox’s study raises the very important question as to why children seem to have such a strong need for the poetic right from the start, at the inception of language itself. Her argument, somewhat similar to Langer’s, was that the poetic function, rather than being the icing on the cake, is the cake itself. The poetic function of language meets the human need to symbolize.

Concluding remarks

The two perspectives discussed here can help us develop a working definition of poetry in ‘The Uses of Poetry’ project although they are clearly not the whole story. What they can help us to capture are the uses of speech and writing regarded as poetic; Gibson’s, Cole’s and Britton’s work encourage us to move away from an understanding of the poetic as a transcendental category of language and they can liberate us (if we need liberating) from a view of poetry as a cultural judgment passed down from on high. Instead, they can help us focus on the potential or the affordances of a text for meaning-making and on the relationship between meaning-making and the self-conscious organizational patterning of language. At the heart of this relationship is the role the reader/listener is invited to take up in perceiving and apprehending the poem as a cultural artifact – the spectator role. The deviance of poetic discourse derives from its self-conscious drawing-attention-to-itself in the course of communicating. The poetic function of language is ubiquitous in human communication but the category of language-use we describe as poetry is defined by its self-conscious effort to draw attention (through sound, syntax and patterns of meaning) to its symbolic nature.

References

Britton, J.N. (1963) The Arts and Current Tendencies in Education, London: Evans

Britton, J.N. (1982) Spectator role and the beginnings of writing. In Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton, edited by G.M. Pradl, London: Heineman

Cole, M. (1996) Cultural Psychology: the Once and Future Discipline, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Fox, C. (1993) At the Very Edge of the Forest: The Influence of Literature on Storytelling by Children, London: Cassell

Gibson, J.J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, Boston, Ma: Houghton Mifflin

Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language, London: Edward Arnold

Harding, D.W. (1937) The Role of the Onlooker, Scrutiny 6: 247 – 258

Langer, S.K. (1967) Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Sebeok, T. (1960) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Widdowson, H.G. (1975) Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, London: Longman

Who needs Pädagogik? A reflection on whether we do

The Luxembourg conversation was an interesting one. Posing the question from a continental European perspective, we were asked whether we needed an Education discipline, one focused on the academic study of education as a cultural and historical phenomenon but a discipline nonetheless committed to the improvement of educational practices. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, this discipline might be named Pädagogik. In those countries, the general feeling in the room was that Pädagogik was becoming ‘marginalised’; new, more ‘psychological’ or ‘sociological’ perspectives were coming to dominate and a more instrumental subject was emerging that might be named, in some contexts, ‘learning sciences’.

I use quotation marks around psychology and sociology as there seem to be a widespread understanding in the room of both as positivist and scientistic: either behaviouralist experimentalism or political arithmetic. More critical views of both psychology and sociology were not apparent and psychology, in particular, was often used as the whipping boy. Philosophy, albeit of different colours, dominated the discussion. Key references throughout the two days were Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 – 1841), whose Allgemeine Pädagogik was probably the most cited text, and Kant, Hegel, Hume and Leibniz. Allgemeine Pädagogik is still being studied in European university courses and not only those intended for student teachers. Herbart, whether he was loved or loathed, was one of the  centres of the debate.

I was the only UK academic in the discussion and I tried to show how pedagogy has existed as an academic interest in England, despite Brian Simon’s book chapter that famously asserted otherwise. I discussed the work of the English teacher educators at the University of London Institute of Education in the 1960s and ’70s who studied key educational concepts but were simultaneously interested in improving educational practices. I referred particularly to the work of James Britton and Harold Rosen whose work was deeply informed by contemporary and classical philosophy, new Vygotskian psychology, literary theory and emerging fields such as sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication. Their work was with pupils and teachers in schools and committed to improving school as a context for pupils’ and teachers’ learning. Both Britton and Rosen not only raised educational questions and defined educational arguments, they also sought to address those questions and materialise those arguments in ways that were not only comprehensible to teachers but presented in such a way that teachers could take the ideas forward themselves, developing the theory as well as their practice. I tried to argue that this sort of work, exemplified by Britton, Rosen and their colleagues, instantiated pedagogy or Pädagogik as a discipline in the way my European colleagues were elaborating as an ideal.

I am not sure whether I convinced many in the seminar but was impressed by the thoughtful articulation of a new perspective on pedagogy as an integration of theoretical and empirical interests by Johannes Bellman from the University of Münster. Unusually, I found myself wanting more account taken of the American contributions to pedagogy, of the critical variety, whether influenced by Freire, Gramsci, Marx, Butler, Warner, Fanon, Giroux, Shor and so on. An ‘international’ conversation would have looked west a little and drawn its resources from wider cultural and intellectual resources. And I would also like to have seen further exploration of how an academic discipline, practised in universities and colleges by all these Professor Drs, might make a positive difference to educational practice without just expecting teachers to listen to or read what we say or write.

Learning from Experience: Elskov og Teknikk

Discovered in Bergen, during the Learning Teaching from Experience seminar: a book from 1965 entitled Elskov og Teknikk, which roughly translates as ‘Lovemaking and Technique’.

When one thinks of the kinds of things we usually or even ‘normally’ learn from experience, lovemaking is probably a good example. Desire coupled within (pardon the pun) active experimentation followed by post-coital reflection is usually how a person learns how to be a sexual being, probably influenced by cultural representations that suggest emotional frames of reference as well as physical possibilities. But here, in Elskov og Teknikk, is the most wonderful combination of Nordic rationalism and socially democratic openness but represented in the most detached, technicist way. Those little artist’s mannequins you thought were useful just to practice line drawings of human subjects instead are put to work  and ‘on the job’, showing the positions and the consequent alignment of limbs and torsos of the penetrator and penetrated.

Mannequins at work
Mannequins at work

In a valiant attempt at demonstrating a liberal attitude to male homosexuality, there is a small section on effective angles of penetration and also what you should do with your legs while other parts of the body are busy.

Angles of penetration: advised and recommended
Angles of penetration: advised and recommended

The book was found at Bergen University College during a set of office moves. One academic there remembered being given it as a boy and being asked to study it seriously. In the context of academic discussions about learning from experience, the discovery of this book raised some important questions for me about when and when not explicit instruction is either necessary or advised. And when, for want of a better way of putting it, you just do it.

Yet another photo of a tasty Norwegian treat
Yet another photo of a tasty Norwegian treat

‘Teacher Education in the Public University’ published

My chapter in Gordon Wells and Anne Edward’s book Pedagogy in Higher Education: A Cultural-Historical Approach (Cambridge University Press) is now available in the Chapters section. The book was published recently in the CUP Psychology list.

In the chapter, I make an argument for the importance of teacher education within what are often known as ‘public universities’, that is, those with a public mission to educate, conduct research and contribute to a democratic society. (Sometimes they are distinguished from private colleges and research institutes but the main criterion, for me, is their public function and their role in advancing an open society). The book as a whole is written from a cultural-historical perspective but in my chapter I try to integrate work in critical sociology with activity theory and draw on the work of Michael Burawoy and Yrjö Engeström as well as recent arguments about higher education and public universities from the likes of John Holmwood, Stefan Collini and Amy Gutmann.

Other contributors to the book include Michael Cole, Honorine Nocon, David Russell and Monica Nilsson.

Learning Teaching from Experience: Multiple Perspectives, International Contexts

Learning Teaching from Experience is published by Bloomsbury today! The book came out of a Society for Educational Studies seminar I organised with Janet Orchard in Oxford. It includes chapters by many leading researchers in the field, including Ken Zeichner, Madeleine Grumet, Daniel Muijs and Anne Edwards, as well as newer scholars such as Lauren Gatti (winner of the AERA Division K best dissertation award 2012) and California school teachers Torie Weiston-Serdan and Sheri-Dorn Giamoleo.

Ltfe

The book will be launched at a seminar in Bergen on Thursday 23rd January and then again (!) in London on Friday 21st February, both followed by drinks receptions. And then probably in Bristol. And perhaps again at AERA….. Further details to follow.

Pre-publication reviews were stunning and exceptionally generous. Thank you to all the reviewers from us both:

“At last, a book which combines a breadth of cross-disciplinary education scholarship, a breadth of focus – across North America and Europe – and accounts of practice in a range of contexts. This is book goes beyond factional rhetoric while demonstrating passionate commitment to the education of our young people. It addresses the deepest questions of education for what purposes, for whom, how, and in what conditions teachers learn from their experiences. Read the book to understand the complexities underlying that widely used phrase ‘learn from experience’. Fascinating and enlightening.” – Morwenna Griffiths, Professor of Education, University of Edinburgh, UK.

“This book should be required reading for courses of teacher education, particularly in the current context in which ‘learning on the job’ and the craft idea of a teacher is increasingly the norm. In this context, the rhetoric of ‘learning from experience’ is frequently invoked. But what does it mean to learn from experience? Is understanding theory not experiential? The contributions in the book approach these questions with a wealth of research and applied knowledge, which at times challenge orthodoxy on learning theories and policy. The diversity of approaches, as well as the detail and exemplification they give provide a highly informative account of aspects of learning from experience from multiple perspectives, and give us pause for thought that there can be ‘a science of education’, a formulaic application of research data and policy borrowing. The book’s chapters invite us to think carefully about the best way to develop teachers. It provides a rich account of why ‘formation’ is required, not some kind of technical ‘training’.” –  Dr. Ruth Heilbronn, Institute of Education, University of London, UK.

“An important, timely and challenging book; an essential resource for everyone interested in the future of teacher education.” –  John Furlong, Emeritus Professor of Education, University of Oxford, UK.

A sample chapter (our introduction) is available in the Chapters section.

Given that Tough Young Teachers is now showing on BBC3, this is an even more topical book than we expected.

The Uses of Poetry: New AHRC Project

The Uses of Poetry: Measuring the Value of Engaging with Poetry in Lifelong Learning and Development (Arts and Humanities Research Council; Cultural Value project)

With the wonderful Kate Rumbold (PI, Birmingham University) and Tricia Riddell (Reading University), I have started work on a new interdisciplinary research project that will bring together literary, psychological and educational interests to focus on the ‘uses of’, meanings and definitions of poetry – or the poetic mode. The research is part of the AHRC’s major Cultural Value project and will include public events for both data generation and dissemination purposes. Our guiding questions are:

What are the perceived benefits of poetry to people’s learning and development at all stages of their lives? How do researchers and practitioners in literature, education and psychology currently express the value of poetry in their separate spheres? How can we best combine those insights into a rigorous interdisciplinary approach that will more effectively measure and evaluate the value of engaging with poetry?

And our research will address the following questions:

  • What research exists across our disciplines about the value of engaging with poetry?
  • What constitutes ‘evidence’ in our respective fields?
  • What is the assumed value of poetry in our fields, and how can we test that assumption? How is ‘value’ defined?
  • Which of our approaches, from e.g. subjective well-being analysis to reader response, comes closest to being able to measure, evaluate and articulate people’s actual experiences of engaging with poetry? Can existing research techniques transcend individual experiences without simply aggregating them?
  • On what forms of measurement do we currently rely, quantitative or qualitative? How could these be combined?
  • Does our disciplinary approach tend towards understanding the affective, cognitive or aesthetic role of poetry? How could we better understand these from an interdisciplinary perspective?
  • How can we optimise the strengths of our approaches to pilot a new, truly interdisciplinary valuation of the benefits of engaging with poetry?

I will post about future seminars and related events about the next six months. I am particularly keen that we try to offer practical educational alternatives for working in the poetic mode that go beyond ‘feature-spotting’ and have the potential to transform young people’s engagement with the spoken and written word inside schools (just as so many things have outside).

‘So Much More Than Decoding’: Booklet to download

A practitioner guide to working with adolescents with reading difficulties – arising out of my recent Higher Education Academy funded project – is now available to download here.

The guide reviews the current state of research on adolescents with reading difficulties (sometimes known as Adolescent Struggling Readers – ASRs) and provides research-based recommendations for successful interventions at whole-school, subject and classroom levels.

The booklet was written with Henrietta Dombey, Professor Emerita at the University of Brighton, and Hannah Grainger Clemson, a former doctoral student currently a post-doc at Warwick University’s Institute for Advanced Studies.