Thursday, October 12, 2017

Blinkered

I mean what are we paying attention to?

I was quite proud of my newly acquired skill of focussed listening.

I sat quietly, I turn my head to the group to my left.

One is speaking French.



"Oh your French is excellent."

I compliment.

The student smiles.

He speaks English.

He notices my attention elsewhere, he speaks French.

I turn my head to the group on the right.

"I did went to the park."

"I'm sorry, what did you say?"

The student looks confused.

"Er.....you er....to the park? 
(teacherly rising intonation)"

The student looks even more confused.

"Er....to the park?"

"I go to the park."

"Yes, you.....to the park" 
(accompanied by hand gesture to indicate past.

The student looks even more bloody confused.

He is now concentrating on interpreting my illegible hand gesture.

The other students are getting frustrated, tapping their fingers.

Three minutes of embarassed silence.

I give up.

This elicitation nonsense is lost in the park.

"You went to the park."

"Yes, I went to the park."

The student looks non-plussed.

I feel him shrugging his shoulders.

He continues trying to perform.

Who is he performing for?

Taking off the blinkers.

What was I trained to do?

How are we having our attention directed?

Who is directing our attention thus, for what, and for whose purposes?

How is such training making teachers ignorant of what is essential?

Blinkered.

"He is dead," said Boxer sorrowfully. "I had no intention of doing that. I forgot that I was wearing iron shoes. Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?"

George Orwell.

"He's so lazy," my colleague said to me of one student.

"He's so lazy," I said to myself of another student.

How do we know what harm we do with our iron shoes?

This year, I decided to reassess all my previous judgements.

Those students are not "lazy" this year.

They may not have done any "observable work" or shown any "observable learning" but "lazy" is not a useful lens through which to view people.

I thought I might question my judgements, my practices, my certainties, my perceptions.

I thought I might learn, really learn.

I thought I might go about analysing things more systematically.

What does learning really look like?

What does learning really feel like?

Where do we really need to be directing our attention, our efforts?

Seeing with new eyes.

I had to open my eyes differently, I had to experiment with shifting my attention.

I had to deliberately and continuously test my assumptions even more often than usual.

To what extent are we basing our judgements, our attitudes, our behaviour from positions of ignorance?

Blinkered.

"Our sense of how the world works is often vastly cruder than we think."  Keil

(quoted from "Want a Deep Understanding? First, Know How Little You Know." Winston Sieck).

A student is holding his head in his hands.

"Is he disinterested?"

"Is he bored?"

"Are you OK?" I ask.

"How do you say malade?" He asks.

"Er ill or sick."

"I am sick." He says.

He goes on holding his head in his hands.

Taking off the blinkers.

I started writing this having just read Terry Elliott's piece entitled:

Epiphany: C. Wright Mills Sociological Imagination Is Also a Pedagogical One

In it he writes:

"More and more I feel like an anthropologist in my classroom.
For example, having read 54 summaries over a very challenging article by Jonathan Haidt, I had one extremely powerful insight.  And I only had that insight because I had a set of 30 minute conferences as well.
I am so lacking in sociological and pedagogical imagination that it only became clear to me after the dust settled that students ignore what they don’t understand."
This reflection connects with my current research.
I could echo Terry:
"More and more I feel like an anthropologist in my classroom.

Taking off the blinkers.

This reflection reminds me of conversations with Terry about grass...of how he, as a farmer with a close relationship with sheep, is able to read stories in grass which appear here in "Spring Flowers."

I am grass illiterate.

This reflection reminds me of the work of Gee and his "Critique of Traditional Schooling." and a quote of Kramsch:

"Context is not a backdrop to learning the language, it is the very object of learning. Thus we need to study context itself and its relation to the texts that both structure and are structured by it." 


It is only through ongoing dialogue that one can hope to partially understand what is going on within the boundaries of the class.

It is only through ongoing questioning of the structure of the boundaries which give context to our activities that we can begin to understand what is going on within our classes.

I notice a major difference between a group of students being integrated by teachers into a professional community of ergonomists, whose work uses scientific articles as support to their work, and students of teachers in other disciplines who use academic texts as hammers to beat the students into submission to underline power differentials.

Are we reading so as not to understand or so as to understand?

Blinkers.

"Have you read Foucault?" I asked enthusistically.

My question was met with disgust from a student whose teacher had had her read Foucault.

Should I be surprised?

"Context is not a backdrop to learning the language, it is the very object of learning." Kramsch

Taking off the blinkers.

Asking the students to systematically provide language learning biographies has given me the means to focus my attention on certain students who were simply lacking attention, to help them analyse their own stories in relation to others and to question a system which leaves young adults feeling like failures.

Asking the students to systematically share their interests, passions, ambitions, opens up opportunities to connect them to documents, people, communities with whom they may be able to relate.

If I am doing such a bad job, maybe others younger than myself, closer to the students can be enlisted to act as more effective mediators?

I start to see the class not as a homogenous group but as an ecology of inter-twining networks with potential for more imaginative, perhaps more distant connections.

I have to get the students to share their own visions, their own feelings, their own perceptions of what is happening in the classroom and outside it.

In this way we can gain an insight into what is not observable.

One pair of eyes and ears become twenty pairs of eyes and ears.

At the same time I am looking to associate them to, or to co-imagine research projects concerning their own learning.

Student ergonomists' analysis of work situations becomes transferrable to our English classroom situation which has moved outdoors for the day.





Transferring a blackboard from the classroom to the space outside the building becomes an opportunity for these ergonomists to put into practice their developing competences.

How do they feel in this new environment?

Is their attention awakened?

Is their attention distracted? (interesting idea in itself)

Is this an "official" or an "unofficial" class?

Where are the boundaries?

Where are the emergent boundaries which shift according the ambient noise level with people having to move closer to be heard or closer to the board to read?

What happens when other people join the group sitting in the grass?

How does it affect relationships between the students and between the students and the teacher.

Do they feel more able to be themselves, or more at ease?

How does a passing plane or ambient nature affect their focus?

What happens when one student isolates himself from the class because he is suffering from allergies to the newly cut grass?

Should one simply exclude the student, go back in the classroom, ignore the student?

What should we think about "democratic" decisions when the majority decides that the minority should shut up and suffer?

I pick up the "grass" identifying three sorts of unnameable (by me) green plants and we speak about how blinkered we are when it comes to knowledge.

We think about how the green green grass of our home is a threat to others.

Indeed what is knowledge if it is not associated to our context...to our community?

This becomes a source for a discussion with students who take on different identities those of co-learners.

How does a classroom box induce ritual, learnt behaviour, phobic behaviour?

How does the conversation or the learning or the relationships become...in the words of the students:

"real conversation, real language, real learning."?

I am multiplying my efforts to enable student led activities to emerge in the classroom.

Whether that be training session led my students in adapted physical activity.




Or reflections on our own cultural barriers to eating insects.

Or the art of the artisan chocolate maker.

Or the relationship between the cocoa and the colony....





I am multiplying my efforts to enable student led activities to emerge outside the classroom.

A group of students link up with a foreign student to go rock-climbing in English.

Another Facebook group emerges around the idea of running in English.

Another ex-student pops up on a smartphone from Lima in Peru to speak to students inside the classroom about concepts and experiences of freedom.

Another musician pops up from the ranks of the unknown.

Another ex-student friend pops up to animate a personal development session with those wanting to understand the nature of travel.

I take a photograph of them to see what attentive learning looks like.


I see them stretching forward to listen.

I find myself being aware that my position of teacher has become that of the observer, the witness.

I come back to Terry's thoughts

"More and more I feel like an anthropologist in my classroom.

I find myself sharing a quote of Proust again.


“Le véritable voyage de découverte ne consiste pas à chercher de nouveaux paysages, mais à avoir de nouveaux yeux. ”

I share with the students the joy for me of teaching through learning, of learning through dialogue.

I spend some time after the lesson talking with the students about the importance for me of their observations, their analysis of the moments that we have spent together so that I may, with their help learn to read this our context(s).