Thursday 29 November 2012

Theory into practice

I am currently working towards a teaching qualification - and as a result, much of my present thinking involves essays, theorists, deadlines and the thrill (if that is the right word!) of teaching observations.  Much of my learning also takes place through social media, and thanks to its power (and the sharing done by wonderful teacher-educators such as Louise Mycroft and Steve Wheeler) I have come across the powerful quote below:

“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting”.   Ivan Illich

This concept resonates with me on a number of levels, so via this blog I want to examine the ideas further in relation to my own teaching practice.

‘Unhampered participation’ 

What exactly does Illich mean here by participation?  I interpret it as the process of interacting and sharing in a learning environment. Working with a group of learners who all participate actively is a nirvana for teachers, but notoriously hard to achieve. Yet equality in participation is vital to ensure that every learner feels valued and contributes to their full capacity. Nancy Kline’s ‘Thinking Rounds’, during which each participant is asked a question and given unconditional attention during their thinking, is one way to achieve 'unhampered participation'. It relieves the pressure to contribute faced by some learners ('passing' on a question is fine) and also encourages better attention:

'Even in a hierarchy people can be equal as thinkers. Knowing you will have your turn improves the quality of your listening'.

Of course, there are numerous reasons why learners don’t participate in learning, and no amount of 'thinking rounds' will help this. Perhaps it is worth remembering at this point that some of these factors will be outside the control of the teacher. Barriers to learning, such as poor experience of education previously; issues around confidence and wider cultural issues may all affect the extent to which learners participate.  Some individuals have a tendency to introversion, or may simply need time to digest ideas and reflect individually.  Perhaps then, participation does not necessarily come from being vocal – sharing ideas, asking or answering questions - but is more about being actively engaged with the learning. Efforts could be made to give learners the opportunity to participate in ways that suit them; perhaps by setting up on-line space for them to share their thoughts after the formal learning has finished, encouraging learners to write reflective journals and share these with others; allowing a group to decide themselves how they want to participate in tasks and activities. The PGCE course that I study on at Northern College does this brilliantly.   

'A meaningful setting' 

I found this statement interesting and again it reminded me of one of Nancy Kline’s principles around place.  Kline's view is that setting and location are not particularly important; but that what is important is to be in a space that says to people 'you matter'. I am fortunate enough to study at Northern College, which bases its principles around ‘teaching for a social purpose' and brings these principles to life not only through the open and inspiring roles of its teachers but also by embedding the values throughout the organisation, in the inclusive attitudes of non-teaching staff, the nurturing food in the canteen and the posters in the classrooms.  Truly a meaningful setting!  

As teachers we are often limited in our choice of setting but we can still work within the physical space we have to reflect our purpose and values.  Simple techniques like how we arrange the seating, whether or not we agree ‘ground rules’ about how learners interact with each other and the setting can help to create meaning and shared values.

So what does all of this thinking mean for my practice?  It has reminded me about the importance of taking into account individual needs and addressing any barriers to learning that affect how people participate and engage.  Where I can, I will influence the learning environment I have to ensure that the setting is inclusive and reflects the nature of what is being learnt. 

Thanks to Louise Mycroft, Steve Wheeler, Nancy Kline and of course the late Ivan Illich for inspiring my thinking.

Illich, Ivan (1970), Deschooling Society
Kline, Nancy (1999)  Time to Think


  1. Awesome. What you said about participation really reminded me of something bell hooks wrote about in Teaching Critical Thinking. I don't have the book with me right now, but I have a quote that I picked out: “honour all capabilities, not just the ability to speak” on page 22. The chapter is great, I definitely recommend it.

  2. Thanks for that Ellie, funnily enough I have just started reading bell hooks but a different book, so will look at the Critical Thinking one next!