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.
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
After a really, really rapid turnaround in Bloomsbury’s production department, Transforming Teacher Education is now published and on sale in good bookstores everywhere (OK, UK bookstores now; Europe in a few weeks; rest of the world in a month). Discount coupons for different markets are available here for the USA and here for everywhere else. Today we noticed that amazon.co.uk had sold out of paperback copies on day one. Kerching? Probably not but promising nonetheless.
Although Jane and I knew that the book addressed a key topic, we didn’t realise that it would be quite so topical given the recent publication of the government’s Carter Review of ITT and the chaotic destabilization of the system that took place under Michael Gove and his allies. Now, in England, we are facing shortages of primary school teachers and specialist STEM teachers; regional teacher shortages; several universities have withdrawn from initial teacher education with others considering their own future; we’re seeing probably the greatest risk to quality in the last 30 years consequent to the fragmentation of provision and the largely failed experiment of School Direct (if it worked, it worked because the universities baled it out behind the scenes, snaffling most of the £9K fee). In sum, teacher education in England is now heading in the opposite direction to that taken in countries whose schools systems we seek to emulate (e.g. those in east Asia and Finland), led by a neo-Victorian rhetoric of pupil apprenticeship and missionary work.
I’ll be posting something about the argument of the book in the next few weeks, prior to the launch seminar on 16th March in London. The preface and Introduction will soon be available to download in the Chapters section on this site. But, in essence, Jane and I are arguing that while teacher education certainly does need to change, reformers’ ideas have not achieved and will not achieve the kind of systemic change in relationships between higher education and the profession that we need. We need to transform teacher education – not ‘reform’ it; not defend it. Transformation means changing the basis on which we understand the activity; changing the frames and terms of reference, the values as well as the rhetoric.
We were absolutely thrilled to get the following endorsements from many of the key thinkers in the field. I think Bloomsbury were thrilled also and they decided to print a selection on the back cover and all of them on the inside front pages. Jane and I are honoured. Thank you.
‘This book is an insightful and highly readable analysis of the work of
teacher educators in England, but its value extends far beyond that
setting. Combining original studies of teacher educators with trenchant
critique of education policy trends in England and elsewhere, this book is a
must-read for those who reject the “defend or reform” dichotomy and instead
want genuine transformation of teacher education.’
Marilyn Cochran-Smith, Cawthorne Professor of Teacher Education for Urban Schools, Lynch School of Education, Boston College, USA
‘This excellent book is a very timely and insightful analysis of some of
the consequences – both intended and unintended – arising out of a time
of unprecedented change in the teacher education sector.’
Samantha Twiselton, Director of Sheffield Institute of Education, UK
‘In this thoughtful volume, Viv Ellis and Jane McNicholl offer a deliberate
plan for the transformation of initial teacher education. Transforming
Teacher Education represents a vision that neither defends nor reforms but
uncompromisingly takes bold steps towards collaboration and collective
creativity, a vision for remaking initial teacher education such that another
future for our work is possible – not just in England but elsewhere in the world
A Lin Goodwin, Vice Dean and Evenden Professor of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, USA
‘The politics of teacher education have been destabilized in most countries,
often resulting in derisory discussion of both teachers and teacher educators.
This book provides a helpful framework to think pro-actively about teacher
education as a field and offers a seriously challenging agenda for transforming
that field of practice. It considers the much neglected daily work of teacher
educators and their positioning in higher education institutions and comes
up with an important agenda in which public universities and the profession
might better work together to develop and change the practices of teacher
education. Such a provocative agenda offers the potential for researchers and
practitioners in many countries to build both scholarship and practice in ways
that invite multilateral international networks to develop.’
Marie Brennan, Professor of Education, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia
‘Written by authors with a deep understanding of developments in teacher
education, Transforming Teacher Education is a timely and important book that
captures the complexity of the work of teacher educators. Based on their
extensive research and offering a transformative agenda, it is an important
source for practitioners, managers and policymakers who are dedicated to
transform teacher education and improve the work and academic status
of all those who work within the field.’
Anja Swennen, Researcher and Teacher Educator, Faculty of Psychology and Pedagogy, VU UniversityAmsterdam, The Netherlands
‘This is an important book. The authors offer a rich, complex and detailed
approach to an alternative “transforming” perspective, drawing upon a
wide range of theory and research which they link to practical outcomes.
They have put forward versions of this analysis at conferences in different
countries – notably the USA and the UK where the neoliberal alternative to
“transformation” has been prominent – but now the publication of the book
can provide teachers and scholars with a substantial basis that will enable
them to review and build on these constructive ideas in their own work.’
Brian Street, Professor Emeritus of Language and Education, King’s College London, UK
A huge amount has been written over the last few months about alleged religious extremism among a group of schools in Birmingham – much of it nonsense, some of it deranged, very little that is insightful. And it is no surprise given that the whole affair played into the dispute between the Department for Education and the Home Office about the prevention of radicalisation; the turf wars between Mr Gove and Home Secretary Mrs May (it’s now clear who won that one); the volatile situation that Ofsted finds itself in after political briefings against it and as it fights for survival; the underlying Islamophobia in parts of British society; the attack on local authorities and their role in supporting and advising local school systems (a move that was really entrenched by New Labour); and on and on. And on.
I have no inside knowledge of what went on in those schools regarding extremism. I have no basis on which to know whether these schools’ managements overall were as they were painted in the Ofsted report and in the report from the former Met anti-terrorism police chief, Peter Clarke. That said, on the face of it, transcripts of postings to web sites do appear to support the Clarke report’s central claim that some senior staff at the schools expressed racist, misogynistic, homophobic and hateful views online.
But I do know that something quite special had been going on for years at Park View Academy, the main secondary school in the Park View Educational Trust. Something associated with the school’s excellent examination results which, even though the school’s critics and conspiracy theorists might try to undermine them, are quite robust and not connected to cheating or teaching to the test, as some reports have implied.
For several years, teachers across the school have been working with a form of language study called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a kind associated with British-born, Australian-based linguist Michael (M.A.K) Halliday and what became known as the ‘Sydney school’ of language and literacy teaching. In the UK, it was appropriated in part by the National Strategies in a somewhat vulgarised version and became associated with ‘genre theory’ and the teaching of writing based on ‘text types’. But SFL was far more than that, more sophisticated in its view of language and literacy and much more useful. When I helped to prepare English teachers at Oxford, I asked them to work a little with a brilliant multimedia package called Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching (BUILT), developed by Kristina Love at the University of Melbourne. My students often told me they learned more about language and teaching by engaging with BUILT than they did with any of the National Strategy documents. (A paper by Kristina about the use of BUILT in teacher education is available here).
SFL offers a social view of language as a system of meaning-making in context. It is often organised around three key concepts: field (basically the stock of words available in a given situation); tenor (the relationship between the producer of an utterance or a text and the receiver); and mode (the specific channel of communication – at a fundamental level, for example, speech or writing; or within writing, specific genres). SFL regards genres as recognisable patterns of interaction rather than recipes. The word recognisable is important because it emphasises that it is a social process in which people see what other people mean.
Teachers at Park View have been learning about SFL for years (and not just the English teachers). They have incorporated the core ideas in their planning and have also taught some of the key concepts to their students. Teachers’ work with SFL at Park View has been recognised nationally and internationally, including at a conference earlier this year organised in collaboration with researchers at Aston University. A poster for one of these conferences is here.
Students’ levels of attainment at Park View have been consistently high for years. This situation was recognised in the current, post-controversy Ofsted report; given the strength of their results, it couldn’t be otherwise. It also led to the school being graded as outstanding in their previous Ofsted report. The school isn’t in an affluent area; most children have the advantage of being at least bilingual; most don’t have much money in their families. So the usual indicators (which of course we might question) suggest a school that might be doing much less well in purely academic terms.
There is huge expertise among teachers at Park View that has served its students well for many years. Whether it is a question of poor leadership, a real culture of hate and extremism or a set-up job by a compliant inspectorate or a hatchet-job by a former copper who never actually visited the school, it would a tragedy if the momentum of good work in language and literacy teaching was lost at Park View. As far as I know, it was more advanced here than anywhere else in the UK. And it has – and still does – make a difference.
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 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.
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.
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.
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