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.
In May 2013, I travelled north to Lancaster, in the north of England, to a conference at which a senior civil servant from the National College for Teaching and Leadership was scheduled to speak. Like most civil servants at his level of seniority, he had been around the block a few times and carried both the world-weariness and brittle charm necessary to survive at length in that environment. Faced with the (what was then) new-ish policy of School Direct and the general uncertainty around higher education’s involvement in initial teacher education, I took the opportunity to ask what seemed like a pertinent question: does the National College or the Government have a view as to whether a PGCE (or other academic award) is a desirable qualification for new teachers or is the license to teach (QTS) sufficient?
Clearly irritated by a question so clearly emanating from the despised ‘Blob’, his lip curled and he spat the answer back: ‘The market will decide’.
Over two years later and with the days of Coalition government well behind us, the answer now, of course, is that the market will not be allowed to decide. The reform philosophy of Michael Gove – and Gove advisors and hangers-on – has prevailed and, albeit channelled through the weaker medium of Nick Gibb, we are experiencing a concerted attempt at the deliberate destruction of some of England’s national educational infrastructure – its highly effective and successful (at least according to the OECD) system of initial teacher education .
Educational reform as disruptive innovation
In a speech on 26 June 2012, Michael Gove (rhapsodising about Tony Blair and Blair’s views on public sector reform) talked about ‘learning from other nations like Sweden which have pioneered disruptive innovation’. Disruptive innovation is a concept developed by Clayton M. Christensen. While Christensen was talking of business and technology, it was surely not coincidental that Gove referred to these ideas in connection with education reform. It is useful to look more closely at what is involved in this concept: the Christensen Institute explains that:
The theory explains the phenomenon by which an innovation transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.www.christenseninstitute.org/key-concepts/disruptive-innovation-2/#sthash.dzJwR4jm.dpuf (my italics).
At the same time, the Coalition government introduced many radical reform ideas across both schools and higher education, often on the basis of the supposedly necessary austerity following the 2008 global economic crisis. One of the most significant reforms in the arena of initial teacher education was the abolition or contraction of many of the regulatory agencies that had accompanied the developments of quasi-markets in education (quasi-markets being a consistent feature of the social welfare policy landscape in England since Margaret Thatcher). In what became known as ‘the bonfire of the quangos’, the successor body to the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA; formerly the TTA) was abolished and merged with another to become the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and a programme of redundancies implemented at the organisation as well as within the Department for Education (DfE) itself. One of the key functions that was lost in this process was the national workforce modelling that the TDA had conducted in order to inform the allocation of places to teacher education providers on a regional basis to ensure stability in teacher supply. Teacher recruitment and supply was one of the key regulatory functions of the TDA and a means by which some control over the quasi-market of providers was ensured.
At the same time, following the Browne review of higher education (2010), the Coalition changed the funding model for higher education by increasing the maximum tuition fee chargeable to £9000 and removing all direct state funding to courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences (including teacher education). Additionally, Coalition policy supported new private providers of higher education in order to ‘stimulate’ the market. One such new private provider of initial teacher education was Hibernia College UK, an off-shoot of a private college in the Republic of Ireland, based in Weybridge, Surrey and led by a former employee of the TDA, Jeremy Coninx. Overall, these changes introduced by the Coalition transferred the funding of initial teacher education to students’ loan debt, debt necessary to pay the increased tuition fee. Although significant financial support was provided for student teachers with first class degrees in some shortage subjects such as Mathematics and Physics, the majority of student teachers had to take out loans in order to pay their tuition fees and living expenses.
School Direct emerged in this highly complex situation where fundamental changes to the funding regimes were taking place, where the strong regulatory agencies that had emerged to monitor welfare quasi-markets in England were being abolished or contracted and where, for the first time, state funding could ‘escape to the private sector’ (as Glennerster put it). School Direct therefore represented a challenge both to the principles of welfare quasi-markets that had dominated neoliberal education policy in England since the late 1980s but also a challenge to the Secretary of State’s espoused commitment to ‘disruptive innovation’. The introduction of School Direct did not simplify, make things more convenient, affordable or accessible. On the contrary, the disruption caused by School Direct and subsequent policies might be more properly understood as a case of ‘creative destruction’.
‘Creative destruction’ as an experiment in radical reform
Christensen had developed his theory of disruptive innovation in relation to digital technology entrepreneurship and a theory of change premised on rational choice. Technological innovations that make technology-mediated human interaction simpler, more convenient, cheaper and more affordable will displace earlier (more complicated, less convenient and more expensive) forms of technology and disrupt existing value systems. A key example is that of media storage devices where history shows us how Betamax, VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray disks have each made their predecessors obsolete and are now being challenged by the Cloud and streaming technologies. Although Christensen, writing first in the 1990s, was aware of the idea of ‘creative destruction’, disruptive innovation and creative destruction are somewhat different concepts.
Creative destruction received significant attention from Marx in Volume IV of Capital. Creative destruction was the signature characteristic of capitalist free-markets – an inevitable and necessary strategy for capitalism to attempt to thrive: ‘the destruction of capital through crises means the depreciation of values which prevents them from later renewing their reproduction process as capital on the same scale’ (Marx 1863/1969)
The effect of continuous innovation […] is to devalue, if not destroy, past investments and labour skills. Creative destruction is embedded within the circulation of capital itself. Innovation exacerbates instability, insecurity, and in the end, becomes the prime force pushing capitalism into periodic paroxysms of crisis. (David Harvey)
In other words, in the end, consumers become so confused and worn down by continual change they put their collective foot down and stop consuming (or stop spending their loans on teacher education). Rather than a technological innovation that makes consumers’ lives simpler and more convenient (Christensen’s disruptive innovation), creative destruction involves a continual revolution in structural values and a continual challenge to stability and, therefore, a continual challenge to the efficient operation of any market. For Marx, the point would come where society would see capitalism for what it was and would actively choose socialism.
The idea was taken up in the 1940s by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter with whom the concept of creative destruction is now most closely associated in economics. Schumpeter talked about creative destruction as a ‘perennial gale’, one that ‘incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one’. Although Schumpeter originally theorised it in the context of a discussion of capitalist business cycles, he nonetheless was broadly sympathetic to Marx’s view that creative destruction would lead to a crisis of capitalism and the advance of socialism.
School Direct was distinctive as a policy intervention in the historical struggle for control of teacher education in England in that it attempted to introduce free market principles into an environment shaped by nearly thirty years of quasi-market principles. In practice, this meant creating more freedom on the supply side of teacher education programmes by encouraging schools and private organisations to offer provision and, on the demand side, by making the student a genuine consumer with choice among a diversity of providers and also a choice whether that provision led to an academic award or the professional accreditation of QTS only. These changes, in theory at least, created opportunities for price differentials to grow between the various providers as competition for students/consumers increased. At the same time, the strong regulatory agencies that once intervened and managed the quasi-markets in schools and initial teacher education over the last three decades have been abolished, merged and contracted with the aim of encouraging new entrants to the market and re-organising the market along consumer-led lines. Hence, when asked about the relationship between academic award and professional accreditation, the senior civil servant from the NCTL understandably replied, ‘the market will decide.’ Overall, School Direct was intended to destroy the old economic order underlying teacher education in England and replace it with a new, market-based one.
However, as Stephen Ball and colleagues remind us, policy enactments are never simple and linear and are instead mediated by complex, historically-evolving, cultural and economic structures. The creatively destructive intent of School Direct was confounded by several factors, not the least of which is that when individuals are made ‘real’ consumers and the transaction is genuinely one of purchasing a service, they will make that choice tactically and, usually, on a well-informed and cautious financial basis. So when School Direct did not have a mass appeal to prospective teachers, the government intervened in the market to encourage applicants for university-based courses to switch to School Direct with a somewhat controversial email campaign to prospective teachers registered on the NCTL recruitment advice website as well as a well-funded national advertising campaign. The underlying issue is that when the state is no longer the main funder of teacher education (or indeed of higher education generally), it cannot guarantee the success of its policies in that arena without direct intervention in the market of purchasers.
Second, although there was increased freedom on the supply side, control of the numbers of students permitted to study and train through each provider was still controlled by the state through its residual regulatory functions. So choice between higher education-led provision and School Direct was only permitted among those providers who met the NCTL’s quality threshold. While this might be seen as a sensible constraint, it nonetheless limited the numbers of student teachers allowed at providers to the extent that their provision might become financially unviable and some providers would withdraw from the market. Withdrawals of this kind were routinely made by schools leading School Direct salaried schemes for other reasons – for example when they realised that the salaried route required an investment of around £10,000 from the school’s budget for each trainee (unrealistic for most primary and small schools) or when the administrative burden of operating the recruitment and selection process for very small numbers of places became apparent. School Direct as an idea did not consider the operation of the market in relation both to economies of scale and brand prestige that privilege the more established and larger providers of teacher education (i.e. the universities).
Third, although student teachers through their loan debt now directly fund teacher education courses in general, in School Direct this funding was channelled through the schools who had been awarded places through the NCTL allocation mechanism. These schools then had to make a choice with which university they work with and whether this partnership would lead to an academic award (the PGCE) or not. As many headteachers recognised that the PGCE and the accompanying Master’s level credits are recruitment incentives to prospective students and teachers, many opt for the PGCE route and end up transferring the majority of the fee they are paid by the student to their university partner to offer the training and supervision that leads to the academic award. Participation in School Direct is not a form of income generation for schools but is now being recognised more as a commitment to developing the profession. The possibility for a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of both fees and quality of provision persists but genuine consumers with graduate-level qualifications tend to make careful choices.
Finally, the significant reduction in regulatory oversight that accompanied the introduction of School Direct meant that the careful modelling of future teaching workforce requirements did not take place in the way that it once did and that regional disparities in teacher education provision became marked. So, for example, few secondary English teachers were prepared in South Yorkshire, Humberside and London while very many indeed were being prepared in the North West. There were (and still are) school-level consequences for teacher recruitment in these regional disparities, especially in shortage subjects where it is hard to recruit teachers.
The ‘non-allocations’ allocations methodology: creative destruction takes one step forward
School Direct on its own did not deliver the expected outcomes for what were now Tory Education ministers, for the reasons I’ve outlined above. Freed of Liberal Democrat constraining influences and emboldened by a five year fixed-term parliament, the Conservative government pushed forward with a new intervention into the supply-side of the market: limit the availability of options that are attractive in a genuinely free market (the established brands of university-led provision) and continue to expand apparently school-led provision. For entry to teacher education programmes in England in September 2016, the National College implemented a new methodology for awarding places and therefore channelling income to providers with funding (prospective student fees) separated into different ‘pots’ so that apparently non-university-led provision was more plentifully available (I say apparently non-university led as School Direct and, indeed, Teach First are delivered by universities but behind a convenient curtain).
Under this ‘non-allocation allocation methodology’, providers would be allowed to ‘express their capacity’ and, under certain conditions, be allowed to recruit up to that capacity. Significantly, however, all providers within their particular funding pot (university-led and school-led, basically) would be competing against each other and as soon as the national pot was consumed, all recruitment activity would have to stop. Chaos was predicted and has indeed ensued. There have been some skirmishes around the right of certain elite universities to retain small, high quality courses and these skirmishes (due to some useful connections, as you might expect, with the Department for Education) have led to some changes and revisions to the model. Depending on where you sit and how you recruited in 2015 – 2016, you may think some stability has been put into the system. But the reality is that the late changes further complicate a destructive model, one that will undermine this and any future government’s attempts to have sufficient teachers standing up in front of classes never mind of sufficient quality. It will be particularly interesting to look at the quality of the 2016 – 2017 cohort recruited to postgraduate courses if the anecdotal evidence (clearly believed by the NCTL given their now regular warnings to the sector) is true of providers gaming the system.
In the October 2nd-8th edition of the New Statesman (2015), Ian Leslie presented a careful analysis of Gove as an education reformer, an analysis unusually sensitive to nuance. But Leslie’s argument about Gove, key advisors (or ‘daemons‘ – Gove’s word) such as Dominic Cummings and those that have followed him is that the driving belief is that real education reform (the kind that Tony Blair, by his own admission never achieved) is messy and leads to damage and destruction (in the short-term and perhaps medium-term, at least). As Leslie put it, the view is: ‘revolutions are messy, and mistakes are inevitable: the radical accepts this as the price of speed’. The radical right does not plan for coherence; it does not design a system; it actively destroys what it sees as ‘vested interests’ and believes that – as in the case of the media storage device business – amidst the chaos and confusion, someone will invent a new product that will attract private capital (and/or in teacher education’s case, student loan debt) and create its own market. We would be quite wrong to view the chaos and destruction in the arena of teacher education policy now simply as ‘mistakes’ along the way or unintended consequences of a grand and laudable, designed plan. Leslie quotes an unnamed advisor to Gove who described the work of education reform as ‘walking along the cliff edge and stamping their [the Blob’s, the vested interests’] fingers off’. Destruction is the thing.
Or at least it would be if the business of teacher education was like the business of media storage devices. But it isn’t. Or not as like it as Mr Gibb and others have been led to believe. By destroying the infrastructure, you damage the overall provision of education to the population, presenting serious risks to the quantity of new teachers being prepared as well as the quality. Ultimately, by destroying public service infrastructure, you damage society. The political challenge for the radical right is how close to the edge they will allow the reform to go – will they stamp on everyone’s hands and watch the whole edifice fall into the ravine? Will they then blame the catastrophe on the vested interests themselves (‘unwilling to reform to the will of a democratically elected government’, blah blah)? Will they resort to direct tenders for all initial teacher education provision – a national franchise bestowed by Mr Gibb and monitored not by Ofsted (far too impartial however wonky) but by battalions of Gove-ian edutwitterati? How many voters will they need to keep on side for 2020? That is perhaps the key calculation; it a calculation that saw the end of Gove, for sure.
Universities have not acquitted themselves with much honour throughout this destructive reform process. On the whole, they have been defensive of their position; leaders of Education departments have not usually seen initial teacher education as important, other than in terms of income; the Russell Group has made cringeworthy pleadings to the NCTL to be made a ‘special case’. A few university people have tagged along or been co-opted with the Tory reforms believing, as many good people have done in the past, that by ‘staying in’ it is better (to use a rather horrible phrase) to be ‘inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.’ Too often, good people get damaged by this approach and just end up covered in piss. They become convenient but torn window-dressing for a political class that is primarily interested in the election cycle and having demonstrable ‘achievements’ to tout in future campaigns, no matter how fragile or even false.
Likewise, bodies funded by and supposedly representing the interests of universities in teacher education have been too self-satisfied with small wins over tactics in conversations with DfE and the NCTL and have failed to develop and advocate for a strategy for the importance of higher education in the preparation process on revised and reconfigured lines. (Just for the record, I am not and have never argued for the status quo – it doesn’t work for anyone. See my book with Jane McNicholl, Transforming Teacher Education, for why). It simply isn’t good enough to advise that universities should start up SCITTs (school-centred schemes in which universities take the Ofsted risk) or that we should ‘hoover up’ School Direct places. Vice Chancellors (with some notable exceptions) and sector bodies have maintained a position that deliberately puts universities behind a curtain, preferably invisible to government but nonetheless useful in delivering the teacher education system. Children, parents, schools and teachers deserve better than that. One problem with this approach is that being behind the curtain and advised to be silent on matters of principle, it is easy to replace universities with much cheaper private providers (like Hibernia College, UK) without the general public knowing or, for that matter, caring.
The job for universities and sector bodies such as BERA and UCET, it seems to me, is to start to make the arguments about why it is important to have universities involved and to make those arguments in the public sphere and not only in negotiations with the Conservatives; to argue why it is important to plan the preparation of teachers properly and with due care taking into account regional workforce needs; why pretending universities don’t exist or are just interested in returning to the past is just plain wrong; to show how successful school systems around the world rely on higher education and the teaching profession to work together on teacher development; to argue that we are the only developed country in the world that is wilfully destroying its national teacher education infrastructure for plainly ideological reasons; to argue that it is the Conservatives and their radical right cronies and fellow-travellers who are the real enemies of promise.
The challenge for any government in having a world-class education system is to challenge universities to do what they do better and to reward them for innovations that put research-led collaborations with the teaching profession and with schools as community organisations front and centre. We need creative reinvention – transformation – not destruction of England’s teacher education system. Gove’s advisor Cummings was apparently fond of the Facebook motto ‘Move fast and break things’. We probably have about eighteen months to come up with an alternative to the creative destruction of teacher education in England. It is not only Mr Gibb that needs to move fast.
This post is extracted from a forthcoming book on leadership and the global teacher education reform movement to be published in 2016. Please reference this page if quoting.
I will be talking about these issues (among others) at the TEAN conference in Birmingham in May and at the Comparative and International Education Society conference in Vancouver in March.
Prof Valsa Koshy and I will be at the annual Mayor of London’s Education Conference at City Hall on 27th November this year. Valsa will be presenting the findings of our two-year ‘Enhancing Mathematical Learning at Key Stage 1′ research project. We worked with 31 primary schools in London, 31 teachers and around 800 KS1 pupils, alongside the quite brilliant Davina Salmon from Wandsworth LA. In an eight-month intervention period, we focused on developing teachers’ knowledge of and confidence with mathematical concepts and also their knowledge and confidence in developing powerful classroom interaction, particularly mathematical reasoning but not necessarily in abstract, argumentative mode.
We have just concluded the statistical analysis of the pre- and post-intervention measures. Not only has teachers’ knowledge and confidence increased, so has the attainment of the 800 children according to pre- and post-intervention measures and at statistically significant levels compared to the control group. This is fantastic news for those kids and their teachers and schools. Valsa and I will be drawing out the key messages of this research for policy and practice at the Mayor’s conference.
I’ll be talking about the integration of higher education- and school-based work in pre-service teacher education at an exciting event at the Literature House in Oslo on 22nd September.
The Knowledge Center for Education in Norway and ProTed, the Centre of Excellence in Education (University of Oslo and University of Tromsø), have asked Norwegian universities to describe their teacher education programmes and how they are organised. Data from these explorations will be summarized, presented and discussed at the event. The event is free and open to all.
I’ve been invited to talk about Transforming Teacher Education – particularly the principles and actions developed at the end of the book – and to respond to the Norwegian data.
Sven-Erik Hansén, a professor at Åbo Akademi in Finland, is the other international guest. Sven-Erik has published many books and articles about teacher education and has a good knowledge of Norwegian teacher training – both as a member of the Norwegian funding council committee that reviewed the sector in 2005, and as a key contributor to ‘Pilot of the North’ at the University of Tromsø. Hansén will contribute experiences from Finland when it comes to the design of integrated professional learning for teachers, pre-service (or initial) and continuing).
The Norwegian Knowledge Parliament is a forum for practitioners, policymakers and researchers in the field of education. The aim of each of their events is to discuss topics of general interest for all stakeholders in the education system. Invitations are open and non-exclusive. Oh, how I wish we had such an organisation in England! And what a refreshing change from government patronage!
The first fruits of my British Academy-funded project have finally appeared in the form of an article now published in the Journal of Education Policy. ‘Teaching other people’s children, elsewhere, for a while: The rhetoric of a travelling educational reform’ was co-written with Meg Maguire (King’s College, London), Tom Are Trippestad (Bergen University College, Norway), Xiaowei Yang and Yunqiu Liu (East China Normal University, Shanghai) and Ken Zeichner (University of Washington, Seattle). The paper is available to download from the Articles page on this website and is Open Access so can also be downloaded freely from the journal web page.
The article provides a rhetorical analysis of the Teach for All movement, focusing specifically on Teach for America, Teach First, Teach First Norway and Teach for China. Teach for All is the umbrella organisation for around 36 Teach First-like project around the world and what we were interested in was the way in which this globally travelling teacher ed reform idea ‘touches down’ (to use a phrase used by Terri Seddon and Jenny Ozga) in different places around the world and then grows within the local culture. So Teach for All does not look, feel or do the same thing in its 36 different localizations even though they all strategically appropriate and playfully adapt the same rhetoric. Although the article could be read as a critique of Teach for All, an equally open reading would be that we show just how effective Teach for All and its different projects have been in persuading multiple constituencies that they have the right ideas. And, by implication, how strikingly ineffective universities have been at persuading people about theirs.
However, the implicit critique within the rhetorical analysis is that Teach for All presents a challenge to the various national cultures of teaching as a profession on the basis of evidence that is, at best, contentious. Further, by turning school-teaching into a short-term missionary activity in the communities of non-dominant and subjugated populations in order to develop the leadership potential of the ‘elite’ individuals selected as participants, the Teach for All idea does not provide the children and the schools within those communities with what is likely to be more effective in helping them to transform the life chances of those children – high-quality, well-prepared, culturally-literate teachers who are prepared to stick around and build long-term relationships with young people, their families and communities – as well as their colleagues within schools. By sticking around, the evidence suggests, teachers are more likely to be truly effective and expert.
In the US, a backlash against Teach for America led by some its former participants has been long underway. In part, former Teach for America participants are protesting against what they see as the organisation’s role in the privatisation of public (state) education, but they also draw attention to what they see as inadequate preparation for the settings in which they were sent to teach. Articles about this movement and their criticism are available here and here. So it is not just academics who are drawing attention to the problems inherent within the design. That said, Teach for America is on the wane with policy-makers in the US too and there are other, more worrying challenges to an adequate preparation for new teachers emerging through private providers who mimic university structures while providing a deeply ideological, reformist alternative. But that’s a story for another day.
Last week saw the annual summer angst-fest that is A-level results day in England and Wales. At a slow time for news, you can guarantee TV news crews will be asking kids to jump up in the air holding slips of paper. Every year, the images and the quotes are pretty much the same with the occasional outburst of ‘standards are falling/exams are getting easier’ from the anxious middle class when working class kids and their teachers really work hard.
In New York State last week came the results of this year’s common core standardised tests. Common core is a federal initiative from the Obama administration, the aims of which are consistent with an essentially shared Democrat/Republican national educational reform agenda. As with all U.S. educational reform policies, although nominally national, the national, federal dimension is one of influence, with the more or less subtle threat of being denied federal grant funding if the states don’t comply. The actual implementation is at state level and, in New York, the implementation has run into trouble with a movement of parents, teachers and activists who have drawn attention to the poor quality of the tests (compared to the tests in other states, for example) and the time taken out of children’s education through test preparation and taking the tests themselves. Click here for a Wall Street Journal blog post on the topic by an award-winning New York school principal.
The most startling feature of the results of this year’s common core tests in New York was that 20% of eligible children were ‘opted out’ by their parents or carers. I believe that is over 200,000 children, children whose parents decided that they did not wish them to become ‘guinea pigs’ for the testing industry (lovely old Pearson runs the NY tests, of course) nor did they wish their children to become data in someone else’s battle.
According to figures put together by the New York Times, the parents doing the withdrawing or ‘opting out’ of their kids were not just those from the wealthiest sections of society. If you take free school lunches as a proxy for poverty, there were significant levels of withdrawal across most social groups. The exception was schools serving the very poorest communities where opt-outs went as low as 2%. As one member of such a community put it, there isn’t a lot of time to debate test design and the ethics of participation if you don’t know from day-to-day whether you can feed your children. Once again, then, the education of the very poorest children in society differed.
As did the relationship between them, their parents and carers, and the state.
For the poorest children and their families, there were fewer opportunities to debate the appropriateness and value of the tests and a greater acceptance of the right of the state to determine the kind of education provided to them. In effect, the state compels these parents and their children to participate in public education on terms decided only by the state. Hardline ‘reformers’ will naively insist that such parents have the opportunity to vote for their representatives – conveniently ignoring the fact that many of the poorest parents don’t register to vote and also missing the point that a democratic society isn’t about donating absolute power over all aspects of public life to a small elite.
It would be hard to conceive of a situation in England where 20% of parents withdrew their children from public examinations or national tests or screening tests. The only recent precedence we have for non-participation in the examination and testing system comes from the private sector – from schools like Summerhill, for example, where participation is a choice or other schools like the one set up by actor Tilda Swinton. So, again, it is the well-off who get to choose.
But it does make one reflect on the fact that we have had resistance to state compulsion from parents in England – when a favoured local school is forced to become an academy, for example, and removed from local democratic oversight. Parents who protested against such forced academisation were often positioned as dangerous radicals by the last government, neglectful of their children’s education and mere ideological puppets of ‘the blob’. They may be the children’s parents but they don’t know what’s good for them, the argument went. So they can be declassified as parents and denied the right to choose. Because they will make the wrong choice. And the state knows best.
Educational reform in the U.S. and in England has raised important and difficult questions about who decides how our children are educated. Although it is true that neoliberalism as a constellation of ideas about the efficiency of markets has taken hold over much of the public services, in education and in terms of schooling, in particular, the market (‘consumers’ of public services, the people) will not be allowed to decide if the choice is to abandon markets, to deny Pearson and others the opportunity to create new income streams and to dismantle democratic oversight of one of society’s great public duties. In England and the U.S., over the next few years, it will be interesting to watch how politicians negotiate this particular minefield.
CHAT is, at its core, as with the psychology of Vygotsky that underpins it, a methodological project; it is about seeing the world and acting on it in specific ways. For Vygotsky, this meant challenging the scientistic and even inhumane version of psychology that prevailed at the time of his writing. Simultaneously, he was (perhaps unsurprisingly given the political culture at that time) committed to a socialist ideal of progress – a modernist commitment to development through ‘properly’ scientific means. The tradition of activity-theoretical work that has grown up around intervention research has continued this commitment to progress and, indeed, the commitment to theory – specifically the potential power of theory to move people and practices on.
In a recent article on teacher rounds I co-wrote with Gower, Frederick and Childs, we explored the CHAT tradition of formative intervention in connection with the rounds idea and addressed three methodological issues about all types of formative intervention:
What is the role of theory?
What is the relationship between the individual and the collective when developing practice (which is, by definition, collective)?
What is the meaning of collaboration in this type of intervention focused on the development of practice?
For me, those are the key questions to ask of the formative intervention approach that has become known as Developmental Work Research (DWR). DWR certainly has a strong faith in the power of theoretical mediation to bring about change; it brings individuals together to work on a shared practice for which they may not have the same engaging motive; there is an assumption that their deliberations in collaborating will be rational and evidence-based. They may be. But these assumptions do lead to questions that are essential to ask.
In the section below, I provide an extract from my chapter in Cultural-Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development: Learning Teaching, a book I edited a few years ago with Peter Smagorinsky and Anne Edwards. In my chapter, I focused on the methodological side of the Vygotskian project and the DWR approach to intervention research with particular reference to teacher education. Specifically, I focus on what Vygotsky called (usually, according to one translation) the ‘double stimulation strategy’ – basically an approach to research where a problem is set for research participants to work on and you also give them tools to work on it and observe how they do. Double stimulation – the problem and the tools. Now stop giggling.
If you would like to cite this extract, please refer to:
Ellis, V. (2010) ‘Studying the Process of Change: The Double Stimulation Strategy in Research on Teacher Learning’, in Ellis, V., Edwards, A. & Smagorinsky, P. eds. Cultural Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development: Learning Teaching, London & New York: Routledge.
The methodological foundations of the CHAT formative intervention approach (an extract from Cultural Historical Perspectives on Teacher Education and Development)
This chapter focuses on one of Vygotsky’s key methodological concepts: the double stimulation strategy (Vygotsky 1978, 1987, 1999), a radical re-conceptualization of the behaviourist experimental method that makes the unit of analysis the process or activity of engaging with a task rather than merely the outcome or product. In such a re-conceptualization, the researcher’s analytic gaze is directed at the mediation of the subject’s or participant’s activity by physical or psychological tools (see Cole 1996 for what he refers to as Vygotsky’s ‘basic mediational triangle’). For Vygotsky, the psychological tool of principal interest was speech, principally spoken but also written (Vygotsky 1986), although his work is characterised by attention at different times to social as well as semiotic mediation and the associated concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (Moll 1990, Vygotsky 1978). Moreover, this re-conceptualization challenges the researcher to see psychological processes as historical and dynamic, ‘undergoing changes right before one’s eyes’ (Vygotsky 1978: 61) and, further still, capable of being provoked by the researcher.
In illustrating the significance of this methodological concept in researching teacher education and development, I will refer to two examples of my own work: first, a study of beginning English teachers’ concept formation and conceptual development (Ellis 2007a, 2007b); and second, a formative intervention into the organizational learning of a school-university teacher education partnership (Ellis 2008, 2007c). The argument of the chapter is that the double stimulation strategy is useful and productive in conceptualizing and designing research into teacher learning that seeks to explain its complexity and to trace the history of its development. The two illustrations will also reflect the different emphases and shifts in Vygotsky’s work from semiotic to social processes of mediation and the potential of the research method itself to stimulate positive change.
THE POWER OF STIMULUS-MEANS TO ORGANISE AND REVEAL
In Vygotsky’s texts, the double stimulation strategy (Vygotsky 1978) is variously referred to as ‘the functional method of dual stimulation’ (e.g. Vygotsky 1987), ‘the instrumental method’ (e.g. Vygotsky 1978, 1999) and by other formulations (see Engeström 2007: 364). For consistency’s sake, I will use the phrase ‘double stimulation strategy’ throughout this chapter to represent the way in which researchers give their research participants a means of working on a problem or engaging in a task. The task or problem Vygotsky referred to as the ‘stimulus-end’ (1978) and the potentially problem-solving tools donated as the ‘stimulus-means’. In his own experiments, he used the double stimulation strategy to reveal the ways in which children made sense of the worlds they were acting in:
We simultaneously offer a second series of stimuli that have a special function. In this way, we are able to study the process of accomplishing a task by the aid of specific auxiliary means: thus we are able to discover the inner structure and development of higher mental processes (Vygotsky 1978: 74).
The ways in which the research subjects use the ‘second-series of stimuli’ or ‘auxiliary means’ to work on the object or problem-space – the ‘first’ stimuli or stimulus-end – revealed for Vygotsky the subjects’ ‘higher mental functions’ (Vygotsky 1987, 1997), how they construct and reconstruct the object of activity and the culturally and historically mediating function of the stimulus-means. The researcher’s interest is in how they use the donated tools, the sense they make of them, the ways in which their activity is shaped by the tool-use and, potentially, the ways in which subjects re-shape the meaning of the tools – all of which is studied in relation to how the subjects perceive and are motivated by the object. An example relevant to the study of teacher learning might be a researcher’s introduction of an unfamiliar lesson-planning template as a ‘second series of stimuli’ into the planning processes of teachers in order to reveal how they understand the concept of curriculum or the materiality of the students they are teaching.
Vygotsky distinguished between degrees of ‘ready-made’-ness in stimulus-means and explained the distinction thus:
we do not necessarily have to present to the subject a prepared external means with which we might solve the proposed problem . . . . In not giving the child a ready symbol, we could trace the way all the essential mechanisms of the complex symbolic activity of the child develop during the spontaneous expanding of the devices he used.’ (Vygotsky 1999: 60)
In other words, Vygotsky left open the possibility, taken up by Wertsch in his distinction between explicit and implicit mediation (Wertsch 2007), that less prepared or ‘ready-made’ means might be particularly effective in enabling the researcher to trace ‘complex symbolic activity’ by opening up more space for subjects’ agency and providing greater opportunities for engaging in difficult but generative problem-solving activities.
DEVELOPMENTAL WORK RESEARCH: THEORISING PRACTICE – IN ORDER TO CHANGE IT
… Engeström describes DWR as an explicit application of Vygotsky’s double stimulation strategy where the stimulus-means of the conceptual tools of activity theory are donated to participants in order to help them work on a problem of practice (Engeström 2007).
The claims for DWR as a formative methodology are that it enables participants to do more than simply work on improving their own performance through action research methods or through participation in a researcher-led design experiment (ibid). DWR claims to develop understanding among participants of how their existing practices and discourses have been shaped culturally and historically so that they might be worked on and developed at the level of the social system. This critical understanding, it is claimed, is stimulated by the power of the conceptual tools of activity theory (represented by the triangular image of the activity system) in helping participants analyse how the object of their collective activity is constructed, how rules and a division of labour have emerged historically within a community of practitioners, and how cultural tools are appropriated by members of that community – and how these might be changed for the better. Engeström has recently written for the first time at length about the methodology of DWR and readers are encouraged to turn to his authoritative account for detailed procedures (ibid: 370 – 382).
Again, if you would like the references to the works cited in this extract, the book is available from your library (through inter-library loan, perhaps) or from your friendly, local bookseller.
In my previous post, I mentioned that I would be writing some stuff on here about cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT, for short) and specifically in connection with teacher education. I think it’s a particularly fertile field for exploration and the theoretical tool-kit that CHAT provides is rich with possibilities for both analysing the complex and political practice of teacher education and for doing something about the problems such an analysis can surface! And don’t just take my word for it: in the Education panel report from the last REF (Research Excellence Framework) audit in the UK (2014), CHAT-informed research into teacher ed was identified as one of a few successful areas of work in the field. And there has just been the first ever CHAT and Teacher Education winter/summer school for researchers in Melbourne (about more of which later).
In some respects, you’re on to a loser with CHAT, though. For a start, it is very theoretical (as theories are meant to be, I suppose); it has diagrams in it (‘ouch’, if you don’t like geometry particularly); it is derived from Vygotsky (‘yeuch’, we are supposed to say; ‘Vygotsky is so passé, irrelevant, stupid, etc etc’. If this is what you believe, this blog isn’t for you! Go and read blogs by the latest set of government lackeys. At least they might make you laugh. Before they fall out of the sky, their wings having melted ….
But if you’e interested in finding out a bit more about this approach and evaluating it for yourself, I am going to write 3 or 4 posts over the next couple of months with ‘CHAT blog’ in the title that are intended to be introductory to the theory and also try to show their relevance to the fields of teacher education, teacher development and professional learning.
In this post, below, I provide an extract from the introduction to Learning and Collective Creativity – a book I edited with Annalisa Sannino – that is now out in paperback. The section below is a sort of glossary of key terms that I wrote for the introduction and that passed muster with Annalisa (!) and a few more besides. Of course they are our interpretations of the terms and not ‘definitions’ per se. But if you are interested in finding out more about this theory, it might be a start. If you decide you want to quote any of these, please reference:
Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. (2013) ‘Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies of learning and collective creativity: An introduction’, in Sannino, A. & Ellis, V. eds. Learning and Collective Creativity: Activity-theoretical and sociocultural studies, London & New York: Routledge.
But first, part of the problem, as I have seen it above. A triangle – a graphical representation of a human activity system.
The diagram is intended to show how some key concepts work together or against each other in order to explain how human activities (collective endeavours that have a cultural meaning in which individuals participate) evolve and change. Subjects are those individuals who are brought together to work on the same activity by potentially seeing and sharing the same object, an aspect of the social world that draws them in and motivates them (see below). Tools are the physical or symbolic resources those subjects/people to work on the object – or towards it. Their work together is governed by a division of labour – or the way in which the work is divided up and who gets to do which bit if it. Rules suggests that there are norms (which are value-laden) which influence how the members of the community (the collective of individual subjects) get their labour divided up. And if we substitute the straight lines of this triangle with double-headed arrows (something you will often see), that is to acknowledge that there are multi-level relationships between each of these concepts and they may be in contradiction.
Some of the key terms in depth, going back to Vygotsky and Leont’ev (an extract from Learning and Collective Creativity)
Zone of Proximal Development
The zone of proximal development is one of the most known concepts derived from Vygotsky’s work, usually referenced to the collection of papers published as Mind in Society in 1978 (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky defines the zone of proximal development as:
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)
From this definition, the distance between these levels is the “zone” or social space within which human development can be stimulated through collaboration. It was this distance that, for Vygotsky, constituted a more reliable and holistic assessment of the child’s development than the single measurement of an outcome. Vygotsky pointed out also that “with collaboration, direction, or some kind of help the child is always able to do more and solve more difficult tasks than he can independently” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 209). In these texts, Vygotsky’s interest was in development (rather than in the learning of specific skills or concepts) and in collaboration within collective, social situations (rather than prioritizing the influence of an expert or instructor). But whereas Vygotsky’s emphasis was on the development of the individual child in his or her social situation, more recent extensions of Vygotsky’s ideas (Engeström, 1987) have emphasized the development of the collective and the role of education in leading that development. These recent advances in sociocultural and activity theory have led to methodological innovations discussed in the chapters of this volume that demonstrate the potential of educational or formative interventions in collective activities through the creation of zones of proximal development.
A. N. Leont’ev, Vygotsky’s student and colleague, shifted analytic focus in studying human development from the individual to the collective. Leont’ev distinguished between the automatic operations of the individual subject, the individual’s or group’s goal-oriented actions, and the level of activity that was given cultural and historical meaning and significance by a shared object—its object-orientedness. Leont’ev’s interest was in human activity, and he was a major contributor to the Soviet line of activity theory, arguing that, as Stetsenko puts it, “human psychological processes . . . are object-related in opposition to conceptualizing them as a solipsistic mental realm” (Stetsenko, 2005, p. 75). For Leont’ev, the object of activity was actually its “object-motive,” and he explained it as follows:
The main thing which distinguishes one activity from another, however, is the difference in their objects. It is exactly the object of an activity that gives it a predetermined direction. According to the terminology I have proposed, the object of the activity is its true motive. (Leont’ev, 1978, p. 62)
The importance of the object in activity theory derives from the interrelatedness of the two concepts, object and activity. Following Leont’ev, culturally or societally significant practices that have historically been undertaken by collectives and have a potentially shared object may be defined as activities. The object is both what engages and motivates the intentional participation of groups of people and what is fashioned and potentially transformed through their participation. As Kaptelinin points out, “the object of activity has a dual status; it is both a projection of the human mind onto the objective world and a projection of the world onto human mind” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5). For researchers, as Kaptelinin also suggests, “the object of activity is a promising analytic tool providing the possibility of understanding not only what people are doing, but also why they are doing it” (Kaptelinin, 2005, p. 5).
This engagement of subjects by an object is what is referred to as object-orientation or object-relatedness. Object-orientation is a dialectical relationship through which both the subjects and the activity change. Davydov, Zinchenko, and Talyzina (1983) point out that “human activity is always directed towards the transformation of an object that is able to satisfy some specific need” (p. 32).
Expansive learning is essentially learning something that is not yet there. This goes beyond the acquisition of already well-established sets of knowledge and the participation in relatively stable practices. This is a creative type of learning in which learners join their forces to literally create something new. The metaphor of expansion depicts the multidirectional movement of learners constructing and implementing a new, wider, and more complex object for their activity. In expansive learning, the object of the activity is reconceptualized and transformed with the help of the mediating means employed and built throughout the process.
The theory of expansive learning is epistemologically grounded in the dialectics of ascending from the abstract to the concrete (Davydov, 1990; Il’enkov, 1977). At the beginning of a process of expansive learning, the object is only abstractly mastered as a partial entity, separated from the functionally interconnected system of the collective activity. By ascending to the concrete, an abstract object is progressively cultivated into concrete systemic manifestations and transformed into a material object that resonates with the needs of other human beings as well. These phases often require the subject to struggle and break out of previously acquired conceptions in conflict with new emerging ones (Sannino, 2010). This process opens up multiple possibilities for the learner to creatively experiment with new solutions and innovative ideas.
Expansive learning manifests itself in changes in the object of an activity. This can lead to qualitative transformations both at the level of individual actions and at the level of the collective activity and its broader context (Engeström & Sannino, 2010, p. 8). When human beings pursue and grasp the object of their activities, their long-term devoted engagement with the object can not only fulfill their lives, it can also have a significant societal impact.
From the perspective of activity theory, the prime unit of analysis is the activity system. The model of an activity system is a representation of the social and historical organization of the concept of “object-orientated, collective, and culturally-mediated human activity” (Engeström & Miettinen, 1999, p. 9). “Culturally-mediated” refers to the role of artifacts—semiotic and material—in the participating subjects’ joint work on the object of their activity. The basic components of an activity system, therefore, include the subject, the object, mediating artifacts, the rules of participation, the specific community, and the division of labor among participants (Engeström, 1987).
Modeling the activity system in interventionist efforts reveals the potential of the internal tensions and contradictions as motives for change and transformation. And, as participants are never in the subject position in only one activity system at any one time, their participation in multiple and intersecting activity systems increases the potential for generative contradictions to be experienced, surfaced, and examined both between and within activity systems. The relationship between multiple activity systems and their outcomes (and their multiple perspectives and voices) is presented as the foundation of what is known as the “third generation” of activity theory (Engeström, 1996).
Vygotsky’s search for new methodological instruments led him to elaborate what he referred to as the principle of double stimulation (Vygotsky, 1987, 1997c). His aim in undertaking this approach to experimental methods in psychology was to challenge the researcher to see psychological processes as dynamic and historical, “undertaking changes right before one’s eyes” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 61). Appropriating the language of behaviorism, Vygotsky described the researcher-set problem as the “stimulus-end” and the potentially helpful tools as the “stimulus-means” or “auxiliary means.” By studying the ways in which subjects appropriate these tools in their work on the problem—the object of their activity—Vygotsky argued that it was possible to reveal the ways in which those subjects made sense of the worlds they were acting in:
We simultaneously offer a second series of stimuli that have a special function. In this way, we are able to study the process of accomplishing a task by aid of the specific auxiliary means: Thus we are able to discover the inner structure and development of higher mental processes. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 74)
In recent activity-theoretical research, double stimulation is at the core of intervention methods such as the Change Laboratories (Engeström, 2007; Sannino, 2011). In a Change Laboratory intervention, the “auxiliary means” is often a model of the activity system, represented diagrammatically and used with participants in a joint analysis of data generated from the current practices.
In an activity-theoretical analysis of change, the concept of contradiction is of great importance. Although sometimes sociocultural and other analyses refer to “tensions” much more loosely, contradictions in activity-theoretical terms are not only personally experienced, ontological dilemmas but also systemic and structural constraints that need to be overcome and broken away from in order for human agency to be exercised and new forms of activity to emerge. The importance of contradiction as a concept reveals the influence of Marxian historical analysis in the elaboration of activity theory. Vygotsky’s analysis of human development draws on Marx’s (e.g., Marx & Engels, 1964) dialectical materialism and understanding of historical change as the sublation of simultaneously ideal and material oppositions by a synthesis that both supersedes and contains them.
Engeström’s theory of expansive learning (1987) poses contradictions as the generators of change in the development of activity systems. Historically new forms of activity emerge when internal contradictions within the activity system are resolved. Participants in activity systems, upon recognizing the constraints of their situation (sometimes expressed as a “double-bind” or a situation characterized by conflicting demands), appropriate available cultural tools in order to break away from that situation and to transform it. Engeström (1987) identified four types of contradictions within activity systems beginning with the primary contradiction (under capitalist conditions) between use value and exchange value, most importantly with reference to the shared object. Secondary contradictions emerge between components of the activity system. Tertiary contradictions arise from the introduction of qualitatively new forms of the activity that are resisted by deep-seated old dynamics in the system. And quaternary contradictions emerge between interacting activity systems that need to reorganize their relations.
The Russian philosopher Il’enkov noted that historically new modes of action and production, “before becoming generally accepted and recognized, first emerge[s] as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms” (Il’enkov, 1982, pp. 83–84). Such historically new forms of activity across various social worlds, emerging as Il’enkov suggested out of contradictions, as exceptions from the rule, may be regarded as history-making creative endeavors.
In the next post, I’ll focus more on the methodology of CHAT and link it to a specific project and publication that will be available to download. And if you would like a reference list for the citations in the text above, well ……
Teacher rounds, education rounds, instructional rounds – whichever variety you choose, the word ’rounds’ points to an origin in medical education. Senior and more expert doctors gather together a group of less experienced and expert doctors around a particular case – a patient. The purpose of the round (or ward round) is to lead the development of a collective understanding of the case, to form a shared diagnosis and to design a treatment plan (an intervention). Rounds in medical education have somewhat fallen out of favour but the concept of a ’round’ in school education has started to take hold in various forms.
Instructional rounds are associated with school improvement and school effectiveness. Associated with an approach to network- or system-wide improvement developed at Harvard University (City et al 2009), the impetus for improvement is driven by school or district management and the aim is a development in some aspect of professional practice across the network.
Teacher rounds were developed by Tom del Prete at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Himself a graduate of the Harvard School of Education, del Prete has made the model more bottom-up, teacher-driven and focused on self-directed collaborative learning (del Prete 2013). Del Prete has pioneered the use of rounds in pre-service or initial teacher education at Clark and in the Worceseter public (i.e. state) schools.
Colleagues at Teachers College in New York and elsewhere and a small team of us at Brunel are exploring the use of rounds and we, at Brunel, have been theorising it using CHAT. ‘Formative interventions and practice-development: A methodological perspective on teacher rounds’ has just been published by the International Journal of Educational Research (on an open access basis so free for anyone to download). In fact, it is available to download in the Articles section of this website. The authors are Cathy Gower, Kenny Frederick, Ann Childs and myself.
Our article explores this tradition of formative intervention in connection with teacher rounds and asks three methodological issues about all types of formative intervention:
What is the role of theory?
What is the relationship between the individual and the collective when developing practice (which is, by definition, collective)?
What is the meaning of collaboration in this type of intervention focused on the development of practice?
Enjoy! Or hate! Let us know.
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S. & Teitel, L. (2009) Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
del Prete, T. (2013) Teacher Rounds: A Guide to Collaborative Learning in and from Practice. San Francisco: Corwin Press.
The ‘Stuck’ project is well underway, with four schools in the west of England taking part, funded by a US charitable foundation, and part of a collaboration with the British theatre company Peepolykus. The research team consists of Paula Zwozdiak-Myers, Kenny Frederick and myself (based at Brunel in London) and we are working with John Nicholson, Mark Bishop and Toby Hulse (from Peepolykus, based in Bristol), steered by the venerable Kim Lawrence, the Peepolykus administrator and sage.
The overarching aim of the research is to discover whether training in improvisation techniques derived from theatre and comedy helps children get ‘unstuck’ when they freeze and can’t work out what to do next – or how to do it. As the research goes on, we are increasingly interested in whether the teachers themselves benefit from the training also. It is a small project – a pilot – and we are working out what kinds of evidence might help us answer our questions.
We began in February, in a rehearsal room in Bristol, with a diverse group of teachers, actors and interested others, trying out games and activities we thought might promote the sort of improvisational agency that would be of benefit to students of various ages. Lots of laughter, crisps and fizzy drink. We drew a little on the published work of The Second City, the legendary impro theatre in Chicago and a book (written for teachers) about the power of improvisation, as well as the professional expertise of John, Mark and Toby.
I followed up on the Second City connection in Chicago in April (during the American Educational Research Association conference) and visited the theatre and the ‘training center’ and met with Jeff Gandy, Head of Education and Youth. Jeff showed me the extensive and highly impressive programme of activities they offer – everything from workshops for teachers, business people, after-school activities for children and young people, credit-bearing courses in comedy, improvisation, writing and acting. I also saw a show by the teen and youth groups and marveled at the photos of alumni lining the walls of the building. As well as being a pipeline of talent for Saturday Night Live, Second City has also trained many of the leading film and TV actors of the last few decades.
Two things stood out for me during my visit: first, the consistent emphasis in every workshop space and theatre on ‘Yes, and’ as both mantra and tool for improvisational work, stressing the non-judgmental and combinative approach to creativity they seek to foster among young people and performers alike. You take what the previous person has said, accept it and build on it. Second, the importance of ensemble as a concept: the collective is what’s important in this form of improvisation. Jeff and others distinguished between improvisation and stand-up along these lines: improvisation can’t work in the individualistic way that stand-up comedy does. In both senses, the approach to improvisation they take chimes with a broader approach to what is sometimes called ‘democratic classroom cultures’ in the US – an approach that values equal participation rights in classrooms, with all participants accorded respect and dignity. In a book co-authored with Second City, McKnight and Scruggs (2008) make this connection in a powerful way.
One of the key figures behind the early development of The Second City was Viola Spolin (1906 – 1994), author of the ‘bible’ Improvisation for Theater and leading exponent of the ‘theater games’ ideas – tools it was claimed could unleash anyone’s creativity. Spolin’s background was in social group work and as a settlement worker during the Great Depression. Spolin also taught at Jane Addams’ Hull House on the near west side of Chicago and, as with so much that has come out of that setting, was influenced by the pragmatism (and feminism) of the Chicago School. In this sense, ‘theater games’ were never only for the theatre. They were ways of channeling the human creativity that was a force for good in society and a means of resisting the oppression of instrumentalism. In her own words:
Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, and transformation can take place.
McKnight, K. & Scruggs, M. (2008) The Second City Guide to Improvisation in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass