Two new articles on ‘The Uses of Poetry’

Having said several times recently that I haven’t done research in English Education/language/literacy for a while, I am reminded that, in fact, I have by the publication of two new journal articles on poetry. The articles arose out of the Arts and Humanities Research Council project I was CI on during my time at Brunel. Given how busy I was there, I don’t think that’s surprising. But it was interesting that, although I knew I had these two pieces coming out, I hadn’t connected them to English Education. Maybe here’s why.

In the article for the Journal of Aesthetic Education, ‘The Uses of Poetry: Renewing an Educational Understanding of a Language Art’, the brilliant philosopher Karen Simecek and I explore the various definitions of poetry or poetic modes of language use that have been dominant over the last thousand years or so in connection with formal education and human development. This paper also helped us elaborate a working definition of poetry that we could operationalize in our project. It shouldn’t be a surprise that we returned to the work of James Britton and some of the extraordinary work he was producing in the 1960s drawing on the philosophy of Langer and Rorty. Britton drew attention to the self-conscious ‘deviance’ (his word) of poetry in drawing attention to itself and its symbolic work.

For Changing English: Studies in Reading and Culture, Brunel’s Andrew Green, Karen and I replicated the experiment conducted by Jerome Bruner for Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. With a twist. In ‘Actual texts, possible meanings: The uses of poetry and the subjunctification of experience’, we compare the responses of a small sample of university students to hearing a poem, a literary short story and a newspaper report. We note, as Bruner did, the greater number of syntactic transformations the students made in their retellings of the short story compared to the news report. But we also noted a qualitative difference between their processing of the poem and the short story with the poem being more likely to produce expressions of contingency and complexity and even greater affordances of subjunctification than the short story. This was what we hoped to add to Bruner’s research.

These two papers are available to download from the Articles section of this website.

Both articles connect to my recent and current interests in the pedagogies of teacher education in that poetry presents a good example of a kind of knowledge that, in its true sense of being poetry (poetry as poetry), is deeply resistant to the commodification that is so prevalent in the GERM-infected education reform movement. Rather than teaching and learning how to deal with indeterminacy and uncertainty in meaning-making, reform tends to pin poetry down into the lowest-level things that can be easily ‘spotted’ and counted. So poetry is a good example of the kind of knowledge that has to be marginalized when short-term, easily-measurable gains in learning are prioritised. Poetry, as such a culturally significant mode of language use, presents considerable problems for reformist notions of teacher development and school improvement. As well as being deviant, it is highly disruptive.

Bloomsbury commissions new book series: Re-inventing Teacher Education

Bloomsbury have commissioned a new series of books on teacher education to be edited by Marie Brennan, Meg Maguire, Peter Smagorinsky and myself. Entitled Re-inventing Teacher Education, the series will publish books that have the potential to change the way we do teacher education, from initial preparation through continuing professional development. We are not looking for the ‘same old, same old’; we are looking for the kinds of books that will startle, infuriate, challenge, provoke and lead to a combination of ‘here, here’ and ‘how dare you’! Books you’ll want to read, throw at the wall or cuddle – perhaps all at once.

The first titles will see the light of day, we hope, in 2015 and we are working with potential authors now to identify topics and timescales. The series description is below. If you are interested in proposing a book in the series, please get in touch.

Bloomsbury award

Bloomsbury have once again won the trade’s own ‘Publisher of the Year 2014’ for its academic, educational and professional list.

Re-inventing Teacher Education

Series editors: Viv Ellis, Marie Brennan, Meg Maguire and Peter Smagorinsky

The series aims to present robust, critical research studies in the broad field of teacher education, including initial or pre-service preparation, in-service and continuing professional development, from diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives. The series will become known both for its innovative approach to research in the field and for its underlying commitment to transforming the education of teachers.

Teacher education is currently one of the most pressing and topical issues in the field of educational research. Around the world, in a range of countries, there is strong interest in how teachers are prepared, the content of their education and training programmes, measurements of their effectiveness and, fundamentally, the role and function of the ‘good’ or successful teacher in society, either as a professional or, more recently, as a social entrepreneur or ‘leader’. The associated question of whether and how teachers should be developed professionally is also high on policy agendas around the world as teaching comes to be seen, in some jurisdictions, as a short-term mission rather than as a professional career.

In some countries, teacher education is seen as a vital tool in the building of national educational, scientific, cultural, technological and economic infrastructures. In others, teacher education has become a means by which those countries’ human capital can be improved, economic competitiveness leveraged and status as knowledge economies ensured. International educational ‘league tables’ such as PISA and TIMMS become strong drivers of teacher education policy and practice in national contexts. Across countries, private philanthropy takes its place alongside the resources of the state in funding and influencing the direction of policy.

While many of the drivers are common across these contexts, the direction of policy and how policies are enacted in practice varies considerably and the role of higher education in teacher preparation is often a significant variable. In many successful schools systems in east Asia and northern Europe (successful in terms of PISA ranking as well as other outcomes), universities play an important role in preparing teachers with up to five years’ study needed to qualify, and with a strong theoretical and research component. Meanwhile, in other countries, policy-makers seek to emulate the PISA success of, for example, Shanghai and Finland, by diminishing the role of universities, shrinking the attention to theory and research and, as in England, abandoning the requirement that teachers need to be qualified altogether. Contradictions in policy, practice and curriculum design are increasingly apparent and are, in part, related to the underlying cultural identity of teaching (as a profession, for example) as well as the distribution of wealth across those societies.

At the same time, renewed attention is being given to how teachers learn and where they learn most productively. Sociocultural theories of learning derived from psychology and cognitive anthropology have come to influence teacher education programme design as well as studies of workplace learning and from the field of organizational science. Increasingly (although still fairly rarely), consideration is given to the link between the development of teachers (individually) and the development or improvement of the school (collectively). Movements such as the Professional Development Schools in the US are one such example of attempts to bridge individual and collective development. Similarly, interest in Lesson Study, a model of teacher and school development popular in Japan since the nineteenth century, has taken off in many countries in the west. The same is true of Education Rounds, or Instructional Rounds, in Scotland and the United States – another means of stimulating individual teacher and school development by promoting opportunities for collaborative learning in schools. In China, Teacher Research Groups (a 1950s Soviet import) are common in schools with the purpose of stimulating collaborative inquiry with the support of external experts.

Books in the series will address the following key areas among others:

  • Teacher learning and development;
  • The idea of the ‘good’ teacher and teaching as a profession or craft;
  • Teacher education programme design, pedagogy and content, including the relationships and division of labour between schools and universities;
  • Teacher education policy in local, national and global contexts, including ‘travelling ideas’;
  • Reform in teacher education – the meaning of reform as a concept in the field and its connection to broader political issues;
  • Histories of teacher education and of teaching;
  • Teacher education as a form of global higher education.

The series seeks authored books as well as coherent edited collections that address these key areas . It will publish mixed methods as well as quantitative and qualitative research but each book will have to demonstrate both the rigour of the research reported as well as its critical and original stance.

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.

‘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.