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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Learning to Teach by Uncovering Our Assumptions Part 4

by Judith M. Newman

Making Meaning

Gordon Wells (1986) succinctly describes the problem of students constructing meaning. He argues:

Meaning making in conversation should be a collaborative activity. But where there is a considerable disparity between the participants in their mental models and their linguistic resources, the more mature participant has to make adjustments in order to make collaboration possible. Unfortunately, teachers often forget how different from their child's is their own model of the world. ... Their goal is, rightly, that children should come to see the world from a similarly mature perspective but, in the way that they engage in conversation, they fail to recognize that their perspective cannot be transmitted directly but must be constructed by children for themselves, through a process of building on what they already know and gradually elaborating the framework within which they know it (p.89).

This is the perennial problem I face as a teacher. How do I set up a context so there is a gradual movement toward a consensus of interpretation that approximates what I and some of my colleagues currently understand, How do I let teachers in on what I believe without giving it the weight of authority? Row do I help them explore the contradictions between the beliefs underlying what they do in such a way that they can deal with the discomfort of having to change some of those beliefs? And all of this at the same time as we're trying to make sense of a complex body of research information; trying to make connections between what prominent researchers believe and what we are trying to do as teachers. My problem is the same as other classroom teachers. How do we create a learning context that supports what we want our students to explore in such a way that they are able to create a meaning of their own which comes close to that of the larger interpretive community?

Surrender and Acceptance

Then there's the problem of what to do when everything I try seems to have little impact. Not long ago I was brought face-to-face with the issue of who really controls learning.

I recall the time we were writing "learning stories" and everyone was struggling to get a handle on revising. The others were trying to capture some striking personal incident. But not David. In fact, he'd described an interesting learning experience in a recent journal but saw no connection between what he'd written there and what we were trying to write just now. I mentioned his journal to him when he contended he had no learning stories to tell. Next class he had a piece with him but he'd done little with it beyond what he'd written in his journal. The conference began with him thrusting his paper at me. I slid it back toward him, asking him to describe the point of what he'd written. He recounted the story. I asked him what ii was he wanted his readers to understand. He seemed perplexed and didn't answer. I attempted a different tack; how had he tried crafting his piece of writing? Had he worked at making it amusing or serious? He couldn't say. Well, perhaps he might want to think about the point of the story and how he was trying to relate it. "But it's finished," he contended. "Doesn't feel like it," I commented. "But I'm not going to work on it any more," he said.

I had expected that a teacher who enrolled in a graduate course would be prepared to be a participant. I was thrown by David behaving like a reluctant ten or twelve year old, refusing every invitation. There were many times that year when I had to fight the temptation to explode at him. Instead, I tried being supportive, encouraging, and helpful, but in the end he had to decide whether to engage or not. He chose not to. I ask myself if I could have done anything differently. Was there some way I could have drawn him in? I tried a variety of tactics—I shuffled groups to no avail, I tried to help him freewrite, to conference with other students, but his participation was always half-hearted.

I came to appreciate that no matter how much I might want to teach, the students control what they learn. Although I have a responsibility for setting up inviting situations, in the end they determine just what risks they're willing to take. If they reject my invitations I have to dream up new ones, but ultimately the decision to learn is theirs, not mine. I had to accept that David had made his decision.

Teaching as "Research"

Glenda Bissex (1986), in her exploration of teaching as research, attempts to dispel some assumptions about the meaning of "research" and how it relates to classroom teachers. She points out that a teacher-researcher is an observer, a questioner, a learner. Teacher-researchers focus on what is happening at hand; they try to understand the ongoing events of their classrooms: I wonder how much students think about reading outside of class? Teacher-researchers question their educational assumptions; they're continually trying to make sense of their students' interpretation of the tasks and activities they set them: I wonder if children really have to learn to read before they can begin writing? Problems become questions to investigate; new ways of teaching become opportunities for learning: what would happen if I shared my writing with my students? Teacher-researchers are learners; they don't make a separation between those who "know" and those who "do"; they begin to trust their own ability to find out.

What Bissex doesn't mention is the role of "surprise" in uncovering our assumptions. It seems to me the switch into "researcher" occurs at those moments when the unexpected occurs, when things haven't gone as we thought they should, or when our predictions are disconfirmed and we're forced to see a familiar situation with new eyes. It's generally when I'm unsettled about something that's happened, and reflect on it, that I become aware of another critical incident. The trick is to become adept at noticing those moments and doing something about them. June McConaghy (1986), in her discussion of research as a way of knowing, offers one useful technique for capturing a few such incidents. She suggests we keep a running daily log or journal in which to record brief sketches of the stories as well as our thoughts about what these incidents might reveal. Take the following excerpt from one teacher's journal:

When I sat down and examined what my actions were really doing, I was very upset. I took a long and hard look at what my original goals were and how I could achieve them more effectively. The problem was with the hidden messages which I did not intend to send.

How does a teacher allow students to make their own choices about their learning and still have an accurate view of their literacy development? I find the first step is to have more trust and faith in them. ... My problem is that most of my controlling is very low key and at times unconscious on my part.

This is what scares me the most. It is much easier to correct or change things which are obvious and out in the open. If the problem lies in the hidden messages, that takes a great deal more thought. The biggest problem lies in the fact that you must be aware of the problem before you can begin to deal with it.

I have found that reading and writing have helped me go beyond, or should I say, beneath the surface of my beliefs and actions. Sometimes the picture which is exposed is not one I'm comfortable with. ... In essence, the journals and the readings are acting like a camera—a camera with double capabilities: it takes photos as well as X-rays helping me see beneath the surface of what I do.

Rebecca has definitely become a teacher-researcher. She's become an observer and a questioner. She has a much clearer picture of what she believes both about literacy and about herself as a learner. She's now examining not only her classroom practices but also the beliefs which underlie those practices.

Changing what we do in the classroom in any meaningful way involves changing attitudes and beliefs, but before we can change our attitudes and beliefs we have to know what they are. The only route I know to uncovering our instructional assumptions is to delve beneath the surface of what we are currently doing. Critical incidents offer us one powerful way of doing just that.

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