No guru, no method, no teacher

The following comment was awaiting my approval when I logged on the other day, and I promptly relegated it to the spam heap:

But then I started to think about its precepts regarding ‘Teachers’ and ‘Leaders’, and about some of the trends we’ve been discussing in education. I’ve made an odd sort of link between this and a small religious group…

The above verse was often used by a fundamentalist Christian faction known as the Plymouth Brethren to argue against the hierarchical structures of most other Christian denominations. They didn’t have priests, bishops, cardinals or even ‘pastors’. The minimised the use of symbols, imagery and ceremony. Their Sunday meetings involved sitting silently in a room until a congregation member decided to say, pray, read or sing something. This was all with the loftiest egalitarian aims, rooted in revulsion against the ecclesial aristocracy of the 19th century Church of England in particular (but obviously other denominations as well).

Anyone with a cynical bone in their body will probably know how this group progressed since its inception:

  • While arguing that everyone should interpret scripture themselves rather than listening to ‘teachers’ or ‘leaders’, John Nelson Darby‘s writings themselves became ‘scriptures’ (and he a revered figure) even outside of the Brethren.
  •  The meetings (not ‘communion services/eucharists’) were not as egalitarian as they may appear–only adult males who were members of the group (not ‘church’) were allowed to say anything. Women were silent had kept their heads covered.
  • Outside of these Sunday morning meetings, people (men) did give talks (not ‘sermons’). Women taught Sunday School and other women.
  • A great quantity of unwritten laws arose through practice (such as how to carry Bibles and hymnals, what types of prayers to offer when in the course of a meeting, women could not wear trousers to meeting–even in the mini-skirt era, etc.).

Why am I going on (and on and on) about this? Well, it seems to me that often educators can get stuck in the same muddle as the Brethren did. Wanting to make education as egalitarian as possible, and as organic as possible, we try to sidestep traditional educational pitfalls such as hierarchical structures, but oftentimes end up back where we started. I’ll give a few examples…

  • No teacher. The Brethren eschewed ‘priests’ (and the Roman Catholic ‘Father’), but had ‘Travelling Brothers’ who were funded by the Brethren to spend their lives speaking at different meetings, writing articles and books, etc… It doesn’t seem a million miles away from the ‘sage on the stage’ rebranding into ‘guide on the side’ (or ‘meddler in the middle’?!). I’m going to be rather traditionalist here and suggest that, while I think this is pertinent to how students learn (by doing rather than being talked at, for example), the who they are learning from is still important. They are a guide; they are there (ideally!) because they‘ve walked a road similar to this before. They’re not afraid of learning something new from the students, but in this context they do have a certain role.
  • No method. I don’t know much about psychology, but I think it’s safe to say that people like a degree of routine–especially in social situations. They generally feel more comfortable with norms of behaviour, whether their personal rituals or those of a group or society. Thus the many unwritten rules that arose to fill in the gaps in the early days of the Brethren (who had plenty of written rules to go on already) were never overthrown but became part of the culture. Likewise, I think educators sometimes take the rules away in order to give students more freedom, only to find that the students are constantly asking for boundaries to be set, or have misinterpreted a task in an unforeseeable way, or become frustrated by having to ‘guess’ at what they’re supposed to be doing. Not that this isn’t a very difficult balance to achieve–it takes experience and an understanding of a group of students. I guess the important part of this is that ‘open’ does not equal ‘unstructured’.
  • No guru. Another danger of letting students experiment, experience or interpret is that they will do so in a vacuum. In addition to an expert of some kind and a structure, students need to know the broader context–they need the object to be re-solidified. The Brethren, while claiming to rely on the bible alone, actually based their beliefs on other people’s interpretations of it; the most dangerous thing about this was that it was almost always unconscious: people actually thought that such-and-such a doctrine had come from their objective reading of scripture (not from Darby or Brother Smith or from what so-and-so said last week at meeting). The context existed, but was not recognised. I’d like to argue that this can happen in education as well (it was certainly apparent when I was studying literature as an undergrad): students can only form understanding based on the resources available to them–I could read TS Eliot with understanding, but how would this compare to my understanding after some historical background, reading contemporary and modern criticism, reading other poetry of the same era, discussing Eliot with people with different points of view and understandings… These resources existed, but it was seldom explicitly suggested that I go looking for them, that they would broaden my understanding, etc.

This is still all getting away from abstraction, categorisation and the subjective human (which is why I’m blogging about it now!) and I think shows in a different way how the teacher, while their role might have changed in the evolution of educational theory, still has an important (and certainly more nuanced, changeable and demanding) part to play in the student-inquiry-object-rhizome morphology.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, though, we may (like Edwards?) then ask what education is for anyway. But…that’s for another module.

Thanks to Van Morrison for the title.

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Schools encouraged to take more risks in the classroom

What I found interesting here was the way in which ‘risk’ was described. It was clear that the students were engaged in a problem-based learning kind of exercise, but the benefits of risk were singled out and described in a circuitous way, as a tack-on to the ‘real’ learning, a trick that would make it more fun. (Which, BTW, would suggest that traditional methods like exams and singling out in class, as high-risk, would be highly beneficial.) Was this just BBC Breakfast Soft Piece shorthand, or is stuff like PBL so outside public consciousness that most people just don’t get it?

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week 10 readings

Another collection of thoughts on the readings…hopefully toward informing my assignment!

has no subject

As I was reading Edwards and Pedersen, and trying to connect them to the week 9 readings as well, I got in a bit of a muddle. Edwards seems to want to envision a ‘thing’ without a subject. I could think of three possible interpretations: 1) I could be a Montessori student and pursue an interest and let it lead in all different rhizomic directions involving other people, objects, ideas, information, etc.; but then I would still be the centre–I’m pursuing what I find (subjectively) interesting to me and following those tracks. 2) We could have a group of interested people pursuing something, but then the group (or perhaps its convener) would be the central subject, following their collective and/or diversified interests. 3) We could look at these two scenarios another way, and suggest that the individual or group could be de-centred in favour of the interest/topic–this is the central ‘thing’, because it’s not really a thing, but an amalgam of the people, information, locations, objects, times, ideas that go into its thing-ness.

But how does this change what we do? This is where I got stuck because it seemed to me that, if you try to bring down subjectivity (which Edwards does grammatically as well as philosophically throughout his article), you’re bringing down agency as well. To me it seemed that, to not act as a subject, I couldn’t be consciously pursuing anything. I can’t escape my own subjectivity.

Clearly this isn’t Edwards’ goal. What I assume he (and Pedersen as well) mean is that we need to revolutionise our perception of our subjectivity by acknowledging both total inter-relatedness and the false dichotomy between meaning and matter.

Okay, so I can go pursuing my interests and ‘experimenting’ as Edwards says, I’ve just got to be constantly aware of the never-ending network to which my experimental topic is attached, and to avoid trying to disentangle abstractions from objects…

becomes the object

What annoyed me about Edwards was that, apart from the grammatical gymnastics, the whole article was (as far as I could tell) a total abstraction. There was not a single example of what he was talking about, not one tentative application to real life, not even a ‘this is what not to do’ scenario. I could guess what he was getting at, but this mostly came from prior knowledge of other educational theories–and not terribly new ones; was his idea so radical that it couldn’t be described in any way other than abstraction? (Pedersen, on the other hand, was the perfect foil–taking time to tell two stories that informed the later abstractions.)

So, while my concern about individual/group agency, as far as interest-pursuit, was put to rest, I was still not clear on what this would look like on the ground for learning. I could imagine Edwards abolishing all universities and putting public funds towards everyone making their interest-pursuit experiments public. Or I could imagine him making employers give their workers weekly times to learn something new related to their jobs. Somehow, though, I couldn’t shoehorn his ideas into a more traditional classroom.

Even Angus et al, while a good example of teaching students how to perceive the world in this way, were still instructors of a certain course at a university. If their subject was American literature 1700-1850…or nuclear physics…they might have struggled more to follow the rhizomes and cover the topic as their department expected and relinquish the authority of the instructor…all of which they had to contend with as it was. The context itself dictates that one person(s) tells other people what kinds of things they need to engage with.

tyranny of self?

This brings me back to the question of agency. But the problem now is: how do we justify pursuing one interest over another? I would argue that it isn’t problematic that Angus et al decided that students who had chosen to take their course (or chosen a path of study for which is was compulsory) should engage with this topic. They had the experience to tell them that this was a beneficial thing to do; the students might not have been equipped to make such a decision themselves, or could have followed unproductive or skewed pathways; they might have wasted a lot of time looking for resources that the instructors knew of or might have gotten hold of something incorrect and continued on with misinformation…most importantly, though, is that we don’t know what we don’t know. That, to me, is what experts are for.

On the other hand, I don’t think this necessarily goes against the arguments we’ve encountered over the last couple weeks. In fact, I think this kind of group situation, where there are acknowledged experts who structure but do not lead, and where the non-experts are responsible to themselves and each other, has the potential to reduce subject-centrality both in an individual’s worldview and in their ‘experiments’. The problem with the interest-pursuit model remains that, as much as one person can attempt to let a topic guide them and de-centre themselves, they are always going to be a subjective self. A group, on the other hand, and especially one with members who have both ‘done it before’ and realised the uniqueness and value of every subsequent ‘doing it again’, is more likely to keep taking its focus away from the self and putting it on the common area of inquiry.

parting shot

In academia, of course, as well as in many other arenas, a good portion of this inquiry is going to lead to…

abstract ideas

very narrowly defined research

rehashings of power relationships

retellings of dichotomied meta-narratives



Song Meanings

Found this site while looking for ‘Splitting the atom’ lyrics. I like the uneasiness around discussing lyrics versus getting the ‘right answer’, i.e. the meaning. It’s more the social construction of information than the social construction of knowledge (or meaning!). But then again to see the wiki I would have had to create an account…

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