Encouraging a critical dialogue and defining meaning and purpose for our children

Encouraging a critical dialogue

To encourage a critical discussion about the current concerns that teachers within the public education system are dealing is of profound importance. Any discussion about education and attempting to define its meaning and purpose for our children and society proposes the need to provide an analysis of our society. That we live in an age of mass production and culture should be a given but what then are the implications for our educations within a mass-culture? Presumably we must also talk about education generally as mass-education for the masses. My idea is that an educator’s aim should be to encourage each other to be autodidacts. Where we are able to learn for ourselves and learn from each other. Such an idea partly addresses the question, who educates the educator?

My assumptions are those that argue that the primary objective of public education is to promote and foster wholistic human development of the individual with the understanding that human beings are fundamentally social animals. ‘Life long learning’ is an essential characteristic of human beings’ development; therefore Education should be directed toward developing our capacities to educate each other and ourselves in the manner of the autodidact. It should not be seen in the negative sense of constant retraining to meet the changing demands of the corporate economic and political system.

There should be a constant focus on understanding how we learn. How we learn is a question we should always keep asking and attempting to define. In this regard we need to ask who is asking and for whom? We know something about human cognition from a scientific point of view but there is increased interest in a holistic understanding of learning and teaching, and consequently that good personal relationships make a significant contribution to effective teaching and learning.

Is the role of the teacher is then not to reproduce the next generation of ‘wage slaves’ ready to provide their labour power for the benefit of the capitalist economic system and their ‘enterprises’? We need to be able to critically appraise the prevailing industrial model and the corresponding transference of its ‘values’ into the public education system. Standardisation through systemetised outcomes and testing; terms such as value adding; line managers; classroom management are contrary to the previously stated aims of education in that they are management tools which have little to contribute to teachers’ pedagogical concerns or the social and emotional development of children in the positive sense. Education is overtly about building cooperative caring teams as communities of inquirers.

The purpose of a curriculum

A curriculum provides the framework for effective teachers, and pedagogy. A curriculum should support integrated and inquiry approaches that supports this holistic understanding of learning, education, and our purpose as teachers. Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate, are useful reminders of the understanding that we learn best when we are allowed to work out explanations for ourselves over time, through a variety of learning experiences structured by both learners and the teacher. Making sense and meaning of our experiences and connections between new information and our prior knowledge in relation to the natural and cultural worlds should be the intent of a curriculum framework.

Teaching is most rewarding when there are opportunities to provide for, and participate in learning experiences with students. Younger children particularly enjoy time in the garden when they are digging, collecting and sharing their observations with their peers and teachers. Older students can be more difficult to engage when they have not had the opportunity of these early playful foundational experiences.

My observations and experiences with children in such learning environments convince me that when we allow possibilities for exploration, experiment, observation and questions students generally become, and are, actively engaged in learning. A young third grade boy, unsettled and made anxious by his first two years of ‘schooling’ elsewhere, remarked to his mother, “It doesn’t feel like work because it is fun”. Described as experiential learning, this approach provides the means for serious but ‘playful’ engagement in the learning process and the childrens’ self-development and self-understanding as active learners with an emphasis on their social context. Emergent and integrated inquiry learning and teaching relies on an ongoing, evolving dialogue, a narrative constructed over time by the community of students and their teachers.

The pursuit of knowledge

Accepting that knowledge is socially constructed means that purposeful, and meaningful engagement with ideas and concepts is only possible when they connected to, and are built out of our own experiences. If we accept that learning is the struggle for knowledge then we need to then accept that teachers need to provide a learning environment and situations that provide students’ with the possibilities, and the means, to construct knowledge for themselves. Because knowledge is socially produced childrens’ ideas become particularly meaningful when they are shared with others and have arisen out of common events and shared experiences.

As knowledge is socially constructed and reconstructed then the way we learn, and thereby gain knowledge of the world does not change fundamentally as we progress from infant to adult. What does change is the degree of sophistication of our understanding of elements, processes, and the complexity of our conceptual descriptions. Our subjective commonsense, everyday beliefs and opinions are invalidated or validated as we seek to discriminate by finding evidence for objective judgments.

This is also the case for teachers’ professional development. Leading the evolution of a program that provided for students’ participation in a kitchen garden, and developed their appreciation and involvement in the surrounding natural environment, was key to fruitful and meaningful engagement with these learning process precisely because they were central and common experiences for both students and teachers.

Implications for educators and learners

Understanding teaching practice as an imagined continuum, as an evolving project, benefits from being alert to opportunities provided by our collective experiences. Through an inquiry approach allows for the evolution of a child-centred, emergent, and integrated curriculum. Given the many demands of teachers’ time and other issues around ‘covering the curriculum’, careful attention must be given to building connections between concepts and activity in all these areas by demonstrating how they can be developed in an integrated way.

An example of this was the evolution of my students’ mould project. During one of our forays into the garden we had plucked from it a very large squash. The children were amazed by its size and we set to weighing, measuring, drawing and writing about it. We had also noticed that the skin had been punctured. Over the following weeks we observed that mould had begun to grow over the puncture mark. The children continued to observe and record the changes that were taking place over time. Many weeks later our large squash had been reduced to a small, hard, and unrecognisable disc about the size of a fifty-cent piece. These observations provided no end of discussion and speculation

Questions and hypotheses abounded as we struggled for plausible explanations. This all lead to further mould experiments and back into the garden of course to discover even more about life within a compost bin. For teachers’ creating interest in the mundane, everyday world, could at first appear uninteresting. However this story alerts us to what it actually means to ‘localise’ the curriculum, and as well provide meaningful learning that connects to, and builds on childrens’ experiences. The complexity of any curriculum framework can be made manageable by uncovering the interrelationship of knowledge. It is critical to appreciate that the development of any program that involves cultural change within a community takes time. It requires bringing everyone involved on the journey with you.

Localising the curriculum

Understanding the intention of any curriculum framework as defined by education departments is an absolute given, but the significant challenge is the interpretation of that ‘abstract’ framework into one that is localised and gives meaning to the term authentic learning and teaching for both students and teachers.

A ‘localised curriculum’ must meet both the education department’s and the school community’s expectations. It is necessary to continually remind ourselves that the purpose of the teacher, and teaching, is primarily to provide opportunities for meaningful experiences, and carefully introduce and develop substantive content in an engaging way for students. It is difficult to improve teaching practice personally and generally when it is compromised by misinformed parental expectations, and demands to satisfy political and commercial agendas that have little to do with the welfare and education of students.

Negotiating the daily demands of creating a productive and engaging classroom program with the students’ involvement provides the educator with rich learning experiences too. My ongoing participation in subject associations, the Teacher Environment Network and the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools have all reinforced for me the evolving nature of the educational process for both students and educators, and as well, the importance of collegiate teams and peer-to-peer learning.

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