A Story of Learning in a Study Group

Máirín Glenn (info@inver.org)

University of Limerick

A paper for the symposium

‘The transformative potentials of our self-studies for a new epistemology of educational enquiry in our university’

at the Educational Studies Association of Ireland Conference, Cork, March 2005

 

(This paper may downloaded in Word format by clicking here)

In this paper, I wish to outline some new and exciting forms of practice which are part of the scholarly activities which shape my research as a doctoral candidate. I would like to outline how I perceive that the educative influence of my colleagues has enhanced my learning. I will support this claim with descriptions and explanations of my practice and with the use of multimedia. My research has taken the form of a learning journey (Clandinin and Connelly, 1995), which is continuously being moulded and shaped by each learning experience. This journey has been enhanced not only from the learning I have encountered in the investigations I have undertaken during my research, but from my conversations (Baker et al., 2002) and interactions with my research colleagues also.

My living educational theory

I am developing a theory of practice that is based on the belief that learning can take place in the relationships that we nurture with one another. I am drawing here on O’Donohue’s (2003) ideas around the ‘web of betweenness’, whereby he suggests that the relationships that exists between people form the very essence of how people complement and sustain one another. O’Donohue states that this ‘web of betweenness’ needs to be ‘invoked’ or nurtured. I have seen in my classroom how children can learn in a creative and enlightened manner through the connections they make with other children through e-mail and through internet based projects. I have come to perceive that learning for me exists in the relationships I have with my class and with other members of my study group also. This is not to discount or diminish traditional rational forms of theorising, but it does highlight the importance of the relationality of people in learning situations. I do not believe that my claim to knowledge is part of a fixed body of knowledge, which will be replicable in other classrooms, or that my theory can be generalisable as a theory for teaching for all teachers. I am inviting those involved in education to listen and to reflect on these ideas and to use them as they see fit.

In creating my living theory (Whitehead, 1989) I attempt to give life to my embodied values, as outlined above, in my work. This theory is ever unfolding and emergent and based on my learning as I ask ‘How do I improve my understanding of what I am doing?’ and has been derived in part from the educative influence of my colleagues and students.

I look to my practice to find examples of good practice that can be articulated as living standards of judgement that support my claim (McNiff and Whitehead, 2005; Whitehead, 2004). Because these standards are drawn from my values, I search for examples of practice that show that I am developing caring relationships and nurturing socially constructed ways of knowing and the relationality of education to present-day life processes. I believe that the following example, which can be accessed at http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets, highlights how I am transferring my learning to school based pedagogical practices.

This example is part of the East/West partnership programme, under the auspices of Comenius, which is part of the European Socrates programme (see http://www.leargas.ie). My class’s partnership was with a school in Prescot, near Liverpool, and the theme for the year’s work was History. This involvement was ongoing for some years and was based on my own belief that gaining insight and understanding into other cultures is an important aspect of education.

In the attempt to live out my embodied values in my practice, I invited my students to choose their own topic for the project and to then work as a reporter and interview an older person from the area about their chosen topic. I suggested that students chose their own interview method ( tape, videotape, notebook and pencil) and to prepare carefully for the interview. I hoped that this project would address the individual learning needs and desires of each of the students and that I would acknowledge the wholeness of their being in my work with them.

As the contributions to the project began to take shape, I became aware of a new and deeper dimension to the project. Go to http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets/starai for live examples of these interviews. Taking one example from the project at a practical level, one of my students, Patty, interviewed her neighbour Mary, so as to glean information about life in the past. As I examined my own learning here, I could see a higher level of engagement: the interview was a connecting link between the past and present, between the classroom and the community, between the real story of someone’s life and learning, between the young voice of Patty and the more mature reminiscent voice of Mary. Listening to the two voices weaving a braid of learning between them, I became aware of a sense of magic and of something wonderful but not quite definable that was created between these two people. For me, it was something akin to seeing the magic of a flame being lit by the striking of a seemingly inanimate match against an equally inanimate matchbox. The fire in this learning situation lay in the interconnectedness that manifested itself in the interview. In the journey of my own learning, I came to see that practical work is spiritually rooted and that learning is not only about information but about our development and growth in a holistic way as human beings (Kane 2002).

This example highlights my emergent understanding of my work. I have journeyed to this current stage of my learning with help from many sources; from the literature, from my students at school but mostly from my research colleagues.

The beginning of the journey

As a novice practitioner researcher, I began my learning journey some years ago with a desire to seek some insights into my work as a primary school teacher. Specifically, I wished to investigate my use of ICT with my class. I knew innately (Polanyi, 1958) that my way of working, and that my use of technology with my class, was somehow different (Lucas, 2001). The following is an example of how I worked with my class:

Some years ago, I watched my class of six year olds share and experience the excitement of learning about other cultures, and reflected on it. I learned much from their learning. They were partaking in a Travel Buddy exchange wherein they exchanged a soft toy such as a teddy with a class in a school in another country. The soft toy was to be shown around his host country and they (the pupil or their parent) filled in a diary and took some photographs of the experience. The students then exchanged e-mail messages to update their partners on the latest adventures of the soft toy. At the end of the exchange, the cuddly toy returned to his or her own classroom with a diary full of interesting entries and photographs.

Because I am aware of the need to produce evidence in order to critically examine my claims (McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead, 2003), online examples of extracts from my students’ Travel Buddy exchanges can be accessed at http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets/patty.html. Through such conversations via e-mail and through reading diary entries, my class learned that when it is Spring in Ireland, it is Autumn in Australia. They learned about killer box-jellyfish, lemon trees and the need for sun hats in the schoolyard. They learned how in France, people sometimes eat frogs legs and the grapes grown in vineyards are then made into wine. They ‘taught’ their partners by bringing their Travel Buddy to their farmyards, to milk cows and to see the new born lambs. One Travel Buddy got a beautiful golden cloak hand-stitched for him to ward off the chilly winter winds, while another went to a wedding and yet another was brought on a trip to the Aran Islands.

The practical knowledge I accumulated at this time was manifold. The children became ‘virtual’ travellers to these other communities. The children commented on this: Rose (3/11/99) said, ’It’s like they’re really there with you, like on the phone to you.’ Leo replied, ’It’s better than the phone. You’ll know that they’ll remember what you said because they can keep it and read it later’. The sense of geographical isolation (we live in a remote part of Mayo, on the Atlantic coast of Ireland) that was a feature of our school became less important. Susie commented on 26/01/00: 'In our learning circles we get to know things about the world'. Ann Marie's comment (26/01/00) was ' It's good to tell other children what films we watch. Then we can compare the things we are interested in with what they are interested in.' Parents, grandparents and other members of the community took part in making the project a success. These young children were excited about literacy through the reading and writing of their e-mail messages. The children began to show signs of being easily motivated also. They often pleaded for a 'go' at writing their e-mail, or writing up their Learning Circle project. They would never before have pleaded for an opportunity to hand-write their news, or stories. Norah, whose handwriting would not be as neat as her friend Susie's, also commented to me that she loved writing on the computer, because it always came out neatly.

As the children unravelled the stories and gained insight into their partner school’s culture, I became aware of the power of dialogue and conversation as a means of learning. Shulman’s (1999) ideas around the dialectical process of knowledge generation are pertinent here, as are the principles of learning as outlined by the Primary School Curriculum (Government of Ireland, 1999). In its ‘Introduction’ (Government of Ireland, 1999, p17), it suggests how ‘children are stimulated by hearing the ideas and opinions of others, and by having the opportunity to react to them’. In my class, the children were learning through dialogue and I too was beginning to take my first steps in the field of engaging in educational dialogue (see below). The published samples of the children’s work are available online at http://www.iol.ie/~bmullets .

Making Connections

This practice of seeking to create links between the classroom and the outside world seemed to be reflected in many other aspects of my life. As I embarked on my doctoral research in the University of Limerick, a study group was established. This group, which still continues to meet was convened by our tutor Jean, some of the staff of the Department of Educational and Professional Studies, and ourselves, the doctoral candidates. These meetings were characterised by the mutual respect with which we engaged with one another, by critical engagement and by an ethic of care. Noddings (1992) suggests that caring is the ‘very bedrock of all successful education’ (1992, p27). In the early stages of the life of our study group, it became apparent to me that we did not have enough time to engage with the various issues adequately and that further opportunities for in-depth engagement and mutual debate would probably be beneficial. As a result I established a private website for the group where we could continue our conversations, publish our own papers and chat about our work. It was important at that time for us to have a forum in which our emergent thinking would not be ridiculed or diminished by others because of the vulnerable nature of our emergent thinking.

The following excerpts from the site outline the tone of the conversations we had. Our educational conversations can be seen as not only my own critical engagement through dialogue but that of my research colleagues also:

(09/04/03)

Mary: I'd be curious, Mairin, to see what people think about our teaching obligations....good idea for a discussion!

Mairin: I wonder if we're all tweaking within our systems. You remember D. talked about Huberman and 'professional tinkering' within the curriculum..remember his ideas about the oval circuit being the curriculum and maybe the best we can do is professionally tinker with what's there?

Mary: Good point Mairin. I think we are very fortunate to be in such a relatively free situation too! Tinkering with the curriculum would have you fired in Texas.

Máirín: Maybe if people didn't do some professional tinkering we'd never move on in our thinking. How about this Mary? I'm reading Holt (1971) at the moment and he talks about walls in education and says if we don't push the walls out they will push us in. If we do not try to improve our life space with more freedom of choice and action then we will surely end up with less. I believe that this is what is happening with the new curriculum as well. We're given huge freedom but we don’t use it. We're looking for the text books and the work books and so on.’

Developing learning spaces such as this reflected that I was engaging in similar practices as those at my workplace. I was creating opportunities for people to learn through their connections with others. Yet I was unable to explain such behaviour. At a meeting with a colleague from our study group, this complacency in my knowledge was shaken to such an extent that I knew that I had to question my own values very seriously. The question ‘Why do you feel you have to work with multimedia and technology? What is it that makes you do this?’ was posed by P., a member of our study group. I could not provide her with an adequate response. Initially I responded by explaining how I knew that involvement in internet based collaborative projects proved to be a vehicle for reducing the sense of isolation and social disadvantage that my students experienced and that such projects also gave the students a sense of writing for a real audience. I believed at that time that this was an adequate response, but I soon came to realise that I was able to share my ideas around my work in a descriptive manner but could not offer satisfactory explanations for it. This was important not only because I was unable to answer P’s questions adequately, but I was also aware of the importance of explanations in the creation of a theory in order to make sense of it (McNiff, 2002).

Turmoil and angst

There followed a period of turmoil in my thinking while I came to realise that the question ‘Why am I working in the way that I am working?’ was a very serious question which called for critical thought. I wrestled with various descriptions of my work and struggled to articulate an explanation for my work. Mellor’s comments (1998), as I reflect on that time now, prove to be quite insightful as he talks about the difficulties he experienced in undertaking his research. He describes how he came to accept that his struggle in the swamp was the method of his research: ‘I know I have a goal, which is that I want to look at my job but I don’t know what the questions are to ask but I will know when I get there…It is only by getting stuck in and ..being confused and asking questions: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? that it becomes clear’ (1998, p454).

Jean, my tutor, encouraged me with questions like: ’What is the benefit of locating communities in cyberspace? Why do you want to want to encourage people to share their ideas? This is very important, and central to what you are trying to do. Let’s try and work out why you want to encourage people to share their knowledge and how technology can do that.’ ( E-mail 29/8/2001) My responses were confused and clouded. I ‘knew’ and ‘felt’ that my work was good, and that it was somewhat different to how many of my colleagues worked, but I experienced difficulties in explaining why I believed it was good. Clandinin and Connelly (1995, p15) talk about teachers who experience the ‘theory-practice dilemma’ and how they frequently are portrayed as ‘uncertain, tentative and non-expert’. Demonstrations of my work to my research colleagues and at technology in education conferences and as a tutor in professional development seminars were met with positive feedback but I still was unable to answer the question: ’Why am I working in this way?’

In an attempt to respond to my colleagues’ queries around why I needed to work in this way, I found that my reading of Polanyi’s (1958) ideas around personal or tacit knowledge enlightened my thinking about my personal knowledge. I came to acknowledge the validity of my tacit or embodied knowledge, that by ‘knowing’ and ‘feeling’ that my way of working was good was acknowledged by Polanyi as being a valid form of knowledge and I realised the importance of making one’s claim to personal knowledge while acknowledging the difficulty of articulating the claim. Clandinin and Connelly(1995, p6) describe practice in education as ‘personal knowledge at work’.

However my inability to articulate this personal knowledge continued to frustrate me. I eventually gained some clarity into my difficulties on reading Chomsky’s ideas around education systems: (2000, p16) ‘schools ..are institutions for indoctrination and for imposing obedience. Far from creating independent thinkers, schools have always throughout history, played an institutional role in a system of control and coercion.’ Initially I understood Chomsky to be speaking about other teachers in other countries. After reflection, the possibility that Chomsky’s words might refer to me specifically alarmed me. Chomsky’s words caused me to pause and led me to question my ability to think independently. They shook me out of my complacency and through conversations with our study group and engagement with the writings of critical thinkers in education, I came to realise that I was bound within my own obedience and that even though my own personal knowledge was being realised in my practice, as yet I was unable to offer any explanations for it. This was important for me because it encouraged me to think critically and now I was beginning to understand why I was unable to explain. This was to provide me with my initial theorising of my work in the form of descriptions and explanations. I now understood why my attempt to offer explanations of my practice was being thwarted as I struggled with my emergent theory of practice. This new understanding proved to be a powerful catalyst in helping me on my learning journey.

Seeing the light

At one of our group meetings, over three years ago, we were having a conversation around what we perceived the focus of our research to be. I spoke about how I was looking at ideas around the connections people make with others as being kernel to my work. C., one the members of our group, expressed surprise at this aspect of my work. She had perceived that I was focussing on creating supportive learning environments for my students and asked why I had changed the focus of my work. My response was one of surprise because I had assumed that it was clear that the creating of supportive learning spaces and the relationality of people in learning environments were closely related. I had failed to express this thinking prior to this meeting and therefore the connections between two different ideas were unclear. This experience has stayed with me and I believe I will always be thankful to C. for awaking the need for clarifying my thinking before assuming that others will understand me. I learned that unless one can theorise one’s practice through clear description and explanation, then the theory remains at the level of dormant thoughts. I hope that this forum of this symposium will be yet another opportunity to explicate my meanings and to refine my own process of theorising.

Having journeyed through many difficult stages since then, I now know that I do not perceive knowledge from a technicist perspective such that it involves ‘categorisation, crystallisation, codification, making things clear…developing constructs through which the world can be viewed that are logical, clear ,tidy, parsimonious, rational and consistent’ as described by Thomas (1998, p 142).Instead I see knowledge as something quite different. I see knowledge creation as a process, an unfolding and emergent progression although I am aware that knowledge can be generated in other ways too. It draws on the human senses, on the relationships between people and their environment; it is within people in an embodied way and is often unfinished. My forthcoming thesis will be an example of my understanding of such knowledge creation, as is the knowledge creation that frequently occurs in my classroom and with my colleagues.

References

Baker, A., Jensen, P.J. and Kolb, D.A., (2002), Conversational Learning: An Experiential Approach to Knowledge Creation. Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books

Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., and Tarule, J., (1986), Women’s ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books.

Chomsky, N., (2000), Chomsky on Miseducation, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield  

Clandinin, D.J., and Connelly, M.F. (1995) Teachers’ Professional Knowledge Landscapes, : New York: Teachers College Press

Government of Ireland, (1999), Primary School Curriculum: Introduction. Dublin: Stationery Office.

Kane, J. (2001), Waldorf Education, Reflections on the Essentials in: Nurturing our Wholeness: Perspectives on Spirituality in Education, J. Miller and Y. Nakagawa, Ed., Brandon, Vermont: Foundation for Educational Renewal

Lucas, B., (2001) Creative Teaching, Teaching Creatively and Creative Learning in: Creativity in Education, A. Craft, B. Jeffrey and M. Leibling, Ed., London: Continuum

McNiff, J., Whitehead, J. and Lomax, P., (2003), You and Your Action Research Project, London: Routledge

McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J., (2002), Action Research and Principles, London: Routledge Falmer

McNiff, J. and Whitehead, J., (2005), Action Research for Teachers. London, David Fulton.

Mellor, N. (1998) ‘Notes from a method’, Educational Action Research, 6(3): 453-70

Noddings, N., (1992), The Challenge to Care in Schools: an Alternative Approach to Education, New York: Teachers College Press

O’Donohue, J., (2003), Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, London: Transworld Publishers

Polyani, M., (1958), Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, London: Routledge

Shulman, L.S., (1999), ‘Taking Learning Seriously’, Change July/August Vol 31 No. 4

Thomas, G., (1998), ‘The Myth of Rational Research’, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2.

Whitehead, J., (1989), ‘Creating a Living Educational Theory from Questions of the Kind, “How do I improve my Practice?”’ Cambridge Journal of Education Vol.19, No.1, pp137-153

Whitehead, Jack (2004) ‘What counts as evidence in the self-studies of teacher education practices?’ in J.J. Loughran, M.L. Hamilton, V.K. LaBoskey and T. Russell (eds) (2004) International Handbook of Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices. Dordrecht; Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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