#CharacterEducation and #SelfWriting

I’ve been tweeting a bit lately about Character Education and what I’m calling Being-Centred Education. In my mind, these are merging with ideas that I’m formulating around Foucault’s Self Writing. So I guess it’s time for me to try and put some of these thoughts together and put them out there for correspondence.

During the course of my doctoral research into EduTwitter, I’ve been reading a bit of Foucault. I’ve been drawn, though, not to his big theme stuff on things like power or Panopticism, but rather towards some of his lesser-known ideas. I shall write more about these once I’ve completed my thesis, but the one that has really caught my imagination is a little essay he wrote titled Self Writing. I don’t intend to give a detailed exploration of that essay here, but I will endeavour to give a summary (I managed to do a three minute summary at #TMBrownhills with which I was reasonably pleased!).

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Foucault looks to two concepts from the Greco-Roman past: the hupomnemata and correspondence. The former is what Foucault describes as an “experience book”:

“a material record of things read, heard, or thought, thus offering them up as a kind of accumulated treasure for subsequent rereading and meditation” (Foucault, 1997, p.210),

Through this activity, these snippets are incorporated into the subject’s Self. This act of consuming the already-said and representing it enables the material to become part of the fabric of the subject’s being.

The second element, correspondence, is the act of offering up one’s writing to the critique of another. This creates a cycle of feedback and discussion which further develops the very being of the subject engaged in the process.

Foucault suggests that Self Writing exists somewhere between and outside of these two elements. A combination of the experience book and correspondence with a critical other.

For me, it seems quite obvious that engaging in EduTwitter is itself an act of Self Writing and I’d encourage more teachers to do it! Furthermore, I think that blogging is an ultimate expression of this kind of Self formation and re-formation.

I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Birmingham’s Philosophy of Education conference Thinking About Teaching in October 2017 where I was inspired by Gert Biesta as he spoke about his conception of the Three Domains of Educational Purpose. Biesta (Biesta, 2015b, 2015a, 2007) points out that schools generally tend to be pretty good at qualification and socialisation; they are perhaps not so good at subjectification:

“which has to do with the ways in which education ‘impacts’ on the personhood of the child or student, promoting such qualities as, for example, autonomy, criticality, independence, compassion, or grown-upness” (Biesta, 2015b).

This is what I mean by Being-Centred Education: a deliberate focus on how to be in the world, inspired by Biesta but also by other ideas about what education – or more precisely, schooling – should be for. I’m a keen advocate for improving the effectiveness of classroom teaching in order to help pupils gain good exam grades; I have been attempting to incorporate what I’ve learnt (so far!) about Cognitive Load Theory into my own pedagogical practices. However, it concerns me if schools have too heavy a focus on these aspects.

My current school has a strong ethos that I would argue sits within Biesta’s domain of subjectification. As a result, I believe that our pupils hold excellent attitudes towards their communities and towards society in general, and that they develop a strong sense of ethical leadership as they go out into the world.

For me, this is the essence of Character Education – Education with a clear moral purpose to help children and young people to grow in their knowledge about themselves and their place in the world and, bit by bit, to change the world for the better.

But it isn’t only our pupils who should be encouraged to reflect upon their own sense of Self and how they wish to nurture and cultivate it. For me, this is the best way to shape effective staff development. Teachers, and school leaders, should be encouraged to actively and continually reflect on their own practice. They should be encouraged, also, to expose themselves to the gaze and critique of others; not through the patently redundant and fruitless trauma of top-down, high-stakes lesson observations, but through a carefully considered narrative account of themselves as teacher.

So, get your colleagues to sign up to Twitter. Get them to blog. And, most importantly, Tweet like you’re Foucault.

References

Biesta, G. (2007) WHY ‘‘ WHAT WORKS ’’ WON ’ T WORK : EVIDENCE-BASED PRACTICE AND THE DEMOCRATIC DEFICIT IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH that teaching should be or become an evidence-based profession has recently come tional research that were commissioned by the Department for Ed. Educational Theory, 57 (1): 1–22

Biesta, G. (2015a) Improving education through research? From effectiveness, causality and technology to purpose, complexity and culture. Policy Futures in Education, 14 (2): 194–210

Biesta, G. (2015b) Teaching, Teacher Education, and the Humanities: Reconsidering Education as a Geisteswissenschaft. Educational Theory, 65 (6): 665–679

Foucault, M. (1997) “Self Writing.” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) Ethics, subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 1. New York: The New Press. pp. 207–222

 

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What is a Tweacher?

In this blog post, I attempt to summarise a section of my EdD thesis which explores the ways in which participants in #EduTwitter and members of the Tweacher Society construct an identity in their exchanges online. This exploration is viewed through a Foucauldian lens, taking as a theoretical framework Foucault’s What is an Author (Foucault, 1991).

Foucault essentially presents the author function as being a separate entity to the subject behind it. For example, our cultural representation of the author figure of Shakespeare has been constructed over the centuries such that it may or may not hold very much resemblance to the subject – the man who penned the plays and sonnets. Furthermore, how might our perception of the author be affected by a new discovery?

For example, should we discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house with which he is associated, it might alter our understanding of the life of the man, but it would not change the nature of our relationship with the text of Hamlet. “But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions” (Foucault, 1991, p.106). The words would remain the same, the iambic pentameter would be intact, and a quatrain would still be a quatrain. But our relationship with the Statement would be fundamentally altered. And what if we were to learn that Shakespeare had actually written a work which we had previously ascribed to a different author? How might our relationship with that work be affected?

And what if the writer uses a pseudonym? In what way then do we related to the author and is this different from how we might relate to the subject behind it? It is easy enough to point to examples in literature and popular culture where pseudonyms are employed for different reasons, from George Eliot to Mark Twain; from Vic Reeves to Keith Lemon. To what extent is our relationship to the what-said affected by our conception of the who-said? Does the quality a ‘debut’ detective novel suddenly improve when we learn that it is written by J.K. Rowling? Or is its quality diminished by a perceived association with ‘children’s books’?

This plays out daily on #EduTwitter, where the what-said is overshadowed by responses that focus upon, or are influenced by feelings towards, the who-said. There are a number of high profile tweachers who, it seems, are likely to receive negative or hostile responses purely because of who they are and not because of what they have said. Perhaps I’ve been guilty of such responses myself. Perhaps there’s a certain inevitability about this. My own animosity towards certain national newspapers is likely to taint my personal reaction to anything they may publish. Similarly, anything that Gove says is likely to upset people just because it is Gove saying it. So there is nothing new or surprising about this, perhaps.

On #EduTwitter, we see some figures who quite deliberately and consciously construct a presentation of Self which, perhaps, they wish to market. Those with a consultancy to promote, or a book to sell. There is, of course, nothing wrong in this per se.

But I think to some extent we all do this, whether consciously or not. We all play games of identity construction and identity presentation on Twitter. And it is possible to have some fun with those games. Equally, it is possible to make a deliberate effort to shape the Self, through the articulation of ideas, views or beliefs, or through the questioning and interrogation of the ideas, views or beliefs of others; the interrogation of Statements. And, through our use of Twitter, to open up that Self in turn for interrogation bringing about the constant feedback loop to enable on-going formation and re-formation of the Self.

 

Reference

Foucault, M. (1991) “What Is an Author?” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought. [online]. New York: Penguin. pp. 101–120. Available from: https://monoskop.org/images/f/f6/Rabinow_Paul_ed_The_Foucault_Reader_1984.pdf

Research? I’m just a blogger.

It’s been a busy few weeks for me with work stuff, so it’s taken me longer to write this post than I’d hoped.

In recent weeks, the ResearchED conferences have come under some scrutiny, with critiques and accusations ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. I don’t intend to engage with the latter, but would like to explore a particular facet of some of the discourse that has emerged in these critiques.

I must confess at this point some inevitable bias. Having attended a rED conference for the first time last September, I was impressed by the willingness of people from a range of education practice, theory and positioning to spend their time sharing and discussing an even wider range of topics. Some of these people are university based academics, others are classroom teachers, and others still are members of the inspectorate, consultants, politicians, academy chain employers and so on.

A further aspect of my own bias is that I’m honoured to be speaking at two forthcoming rED events. So I accept that some of this response is likely to be influenced by some personal attachment to rED and what I believe it can achieve.

So, the two main criticisms of rED that I took particular notice of were aimed at the rED Rugby event and can be summarised as follows:

  1. Speakers have been drawn from the ‘trad’ side of the great educational debate, or from the ‘trad’ group of teachers on EduTwitter who maintain the false trad/prog dichotomy.
  2. Speakers are not engaged in research; they’re just bloggers.

A quick glance at the line-up of #rEDRugby should be enough to reveal to anyone that neither of these arguments is accurate. The first argument is baffling since it has been put forward by the same people who argue that the trad/prog thing is a false dichotomy, and that ‘trads’ are the ones who maintain this false dichotomy. But, even we if are to accept that there is some ideological battleground (and I strongly suspect that there is, even if some don’t wish to fight on it), it’s hard to see how the #rEDRugby line-up consists of predominantly ‘trad’ voices, unless we are using the term ‘trad’ to denote something other than “traditional” in its, um, traditional sense. Perhaps ‘trad’ is now being used to refer to teaching practices which aim to be informed by, or even grounded in, a certain kind of evidence. I’ve also seen some recent concerns expressed about a perceived reliance on cognitive psychology, suggesting it is being used as a kind of crutch for arguments being put forward by people who don’t know about cognitive psychology. Indeed, this particular branch of science is being critiqued on EduTwitter as somewhat unreliable. Now, I’m not an expert in cogpsy, so I’m not going to comment on the efficacy of it as a science. However, it does seem to me that an approach to teaching which attempts to make use of the latest findings from scientific investigation into learning can hardly be labelled as harking back to some imagined Gradgrindian past – which, despite being a stale cliche, is still the image that is often used to portray the ‘trad’ teacher.

[I do have my concerns about this sort of approach to evidence, though. I’m not all for a complete turn to scientism, or for the apparent push for empiricism that seems to be driving some thinking in the call for research informed education. But that’s for another time.]

The point is, that seeing these speakers as being dominated by a ‘trad’ voice is, to put it gently, odd and somewhat misleading. It only serves to enforce the very divisions that these same commentators bemoan in the discourse of EduTwitter.

The second criticism of #rEDRugby, that its speakers are not researchers, is a far more interesting one as it raises the question of what constitutes research and who can conduct it. For example, one term that came up was “serious academics”. This seemed to be offered in contrast to the kind of people that speak about research at events like researchED. 

This view has echoes of the notion that research shouldn’t be attempted by school teachers, as apparently espoused by Professor John Hattie amongst others. Indeed, the debate over whether teachers should be involved in research, or the extent to which they can be involved, was explored by Tom McAleavy in his report for the Education Development Trust.

The NFER is quite clear that “anyone can do research” and I would argue that anyone who actively reflects on their own practice in a systematic way, making informed decisions about their strategies and methods, is involved in research. ResearchED exists as a platform for people to come together to immerse themselves, and actively participate, in a culture of informed practice. This may lead, ultimately, to publication in peer-reviewed journals, but that shouldn’t be a necessary prerequisite or even the goal. (It’s also worth noting that the state of education research published in peer-reviewed journals can be described as wanting; ask Stephen Gorard (@sgorard) for his views on this.)

Ironically, this criticism is more aligned with the kind of scientism of which I am so wary, promoting a certain kind of research which not only leans toward empiricism, but also maintains traditional structures of power. Meanwhile, many of the voices across the various #researchED events problematise and interrogate some of this hard-science way of thinking; see Martin Robinson (@trivium21c) for a good example. My own presentations will be very much grounded in a theoretical positioning – the empirical stuff is interesting and important, but it’s for other people to do.

The second criticism of #rEDRugby is also echoed in some of the wider criticism of #researchED more generally – that some of its big names may claim to be involved in research, but are merely curating and reheating the work of others. And yet, these acts of curation and dissemination are a fundamental aspect of discourse; indeed, as Foucault explores in his essay on ‘Self-Writing’ (1), the act of reading and synthesising that reading in our own writing is an important act in the forming of the Self. By bringing together various snippets and doing something with them, we internalise them, we consume them, and they become part of our being. A further element that Foucault pursues is that of “correspondence”. Here, by sharing our writing with others, we open ourselves up to scrutiny, to interrogation, and to challenge. These in turn help to form us. Education blogging – and tweeting – is a modern extension of Foucault’s self-writing; his hupomnemata and his correspondence.

A book like What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong by David Didau (@daviddidau) (2) serves two principle purposes. Firstly, it reveals Didau’s own acts of self-writing. It is the culmination of hours’ spent reading and questioning material from a range of sources. It documents his own shifts in understanding, how his own shibboleths have been shaken. And it presents a moment in Didau’s own journey; he may well revisit some of the ideas presented in it, he may even abandon some of them. Didau’s blog, www.learningspy.co.uk is a fascinating map of the progress in his thinking; just look at how his views about SOLO taxonomy have shifted.

Secondly, Didau’s book provides a prompt for our own building of Self, as it challenges our thinking. Whilst we may not be able to argue with the pages before us, this is none-the-less a form of correspondence as we turn those pages and offer ourselves up to its challenges.

And so, the criticism that #researchED hosts speakers who are not really researchers, but are just bloggers, is flawed. It is flawed because many of the speakers clearly are researchers in the academic sense. But it is flawed too at a more fundamental level. It ignores what research actually is and what it can be. It denies that research can be – and often is – the process of identity formation. It pretends that curation isn’t a kind of research in and of itself. It fails to see that research is the critical ontology of the self.

And as I come to the end of this blog post, whilst I acknowledge the potential of my paranoia, I strongly suspect that these criticisms are a carefully constructed ad hom.

 

References

(1) Foucault, M. (1997) “Self Writing.” In Rabinow, P. (ed.) Ethics, subjectivity and truth. The essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 1. New York: The New Press. pp. 207–222

(2) Didau, D. (2016) What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? Carmarthen: Crown House