The Craft of Teaching

Brokering Learning; reflections for #fslt MOOC

Overview; This third reflective blog post on my learning and teaching is about how I developed my professionalism as a teacher in the After Math of beginning to teach computing in a UK college instead of politics in a USA University; it’s how the light gets in. I think I eventually developed a craft of teaching which, as Malcolm Gladwell and Richard Sennett argue, takes 10,000 hours.

Getting by on teaching alone; Intrigued by my Greek friend Eli Georgeadou’s suggestion that my teaching skills alone enabled me to teach Computing, and also being unemployed with a baby on the way, I decided to take up her offer. Unsurprisingly I got Mathematics (Numeracy Skills), Organisational Theory and English (the Americans had failed to overthrow English), on Computer Studies and Systems Analysis courses. That year was more terrifying than delivering my first class with my arm in a sling after a car crash as I KNEW NUFFINK! No back-up, de nada. I did learn to be completely honest and absolutely transparent with my students; and they trusted me. If I didnt know something I promised to look it up. I became the learners delegate back into the accreditation system. At the end of that blizzard of a year I asked myself what was the difference between rich kids in an American University and poor kids in an FE College. In my opinion; nothing in terms of capability, everything in terms of confidence. The trick was to work on their motivation. In fact I developed a mantra; if I could only work on either developing learner motivation or providing subject information then developing learner motivation without providing subject info would transform their learning. I built on that.

Getting ahead of pedagogy; You might notice a pattern here, dive right in, get out of my depth, look around or call for help and then *start solving the problems that emerge* This requires several characteristics, a kind of dumb fearlessness, resilience, creative problem-solving and the kindness of others. Whilst I “act on my own recognisance” I’ve learnt most from my colleagues, even when I move on from what they have taught me. I decided that I was personally more motivated to teach poor kids in Lewisham and started acting on my insights and experience. The first of which was to get control of the curriculum of any subject I was delivering. I have always been happy to be on course review & redesign teams; I’d done this as a student rep on my politics degree. Second of which was to examine if there was any overlap between computing and politics. I decided it was on the social impact of technology and wrote a unit called Information, Technology and Society in 1984, which accidentally prepared me for the Internet. The third was to teach any unit for three years so I could use my playwrighting development strategy of repeat, modify, then redesign pretty much everything I did, which I think is a key craft of teaching skill.

Working with my students; After four years of teaching I finally got to post-grad teacher-training (Garnett) College only to be told that they couldn’t teach me anything as I was so experienced! Big disappointment! So I just continued being curious, but now I made things up with confidence. I also worked with great course teams at Lewisham, especially Janet Posner and Richard Jones, with whom I helped redesigned some courses and was part of the Associate College submission to Greenwich University (always do the dirty work, it pays off later with your freedom); and embrace serendipity. I was Mr Yeah Sure; doing lots of subjects no one else wanted to, such as accountancy, but like a good chef nothing you do is wasted if you want to improve your teaching; push yourself and taste it all, even ladysfinger. Most of all you throw yourselves on the patience of learners. However you teach students will cut you some slack if you have something to offer; they trust you to teach them. You lose students, not the other way round. I also loved the casual equality of the American model; first name terms, chatting in the corridor and especially treating students as equals. Whatever you give out you get back big time.

10,000 hours; So having finally got ahead of the jargon in my given subject I had enough experience, expertise, resources and strategies to make good on my promise to motivate students by getting them to think for themselves. I gave them freedom AND started playing with them (you’ve still got to push). You’ve got to treat the class as an entity with shared goals and EVERYONE as an individuals full of differences. I think Cristina Costa calls it embracing diversity with passion. I gave them freedom by letting them decide what assignments they could do, I would provide assessment frameworks up front and we would negotiate the work. We made all coursework meaningfully related to the real world. I minimised lectures and mixed up my sessions. In the end I would do a cycle of workshop, seminar and then lecture. If you’ve played a game that te lecture is based on you get the abstract ideas straight away as you are drawing on your own experience, not a text book. Most of all I always built a supportive learning community first in any of my classes and then threw the workload at them, which was always a stretch. I also said I would take as long as it took to get anyone through a class; the deal was my classes are hard but I’ll make sure you understand them. This was part of a technique I developed called “front-loading” in which I spent the start of a course building my students ability to manage their own learning. Exam-based learning is “end-loaded” the longer it goes on the more intense it becomes and everyone is manic; front-loading becomes ever more serene as students “own” their learning. In ITS I even developed a technique of deconstructing the learning material so that the students could see how the “learning objectives” emerged. They knew exactly why I assessed them as it was a flipped curriculum with self-defined learning objectives that they had worked. Demystify the assessment process and students work really hard; most of all they hate being cheated in the assessment process. I always said work more and you’ll be rewarded more, and showed them why and how. Together this represents a craft that I call brokering learning.

1989; Luckily for me I had this all in place by 1989 before the Internet impacted on learning. By 1988 I had developed a synthesised model of socio-technical change that I called NSU; Networks Services Users that tried to envision what 2021 might look like. I liked my students to finish thoughts off for themselves, often in lectures I would refuse to answer various question and would reply that they were smart enough to work out the answer by the next class, which they were, but I always checked. That’s how you design for “ah-hah” or Eureka moments; do less – takes nerve. However the NSU model was a bit complicated to extrapolate from so I wrote a story called Homi & the NeXT One for a Masters paper to indicate my interpretation. As I had been kicked off a Bachelors, a Masters and a Ph.D I actually finished this Masters in Information Technology; eight years after I started teaching it. The story is here and gives you an idea of how I thought the future of Internet-based learning might look back in 1989.

On reflection – books;  I’ve realised that unlike others on #fslt12 (hi Eleni!) I havent talked about books and pedagogy (that’s next). Having been involved in political activity the corollary of that is *endless* theorising; I’ve done theory. Actually I am a big fan of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Kropotkin was also a respected scientist, invited to join the Royal Society, and he “corrects” Darwin’s simplistic view of competition in nature with processes of mutual co-operation. He moved his ideas into Fields Factories & Workshops, inspiring Ebenezer Howard & Garden Cities; Welwyn Garden CIty and Hampstead Garden Suburb. I also had a scholarship to do Town Planning at UCL researching “Advocacy Planning” where experts are socially responsible, but Colorado got me. At the Anarchist Symposium were Murray Bookchin, his Urbanisation without Cities updates Kropotkin, and the wonderful Ursula Le Guin, whose novel The Dispossessed became a set text on my course; as did Aldous Huxley’s Island. You’ll have will heard of his dystopian Brave New World, but Island is his utopia and is built around a theory of education. Written in 1962 this includes a model of completely socially responsable learning by doing and reflecting which also rethinks families, relationships, responsibilities and rights. Together they inspired my own unfinished novel Nestor; Material Detective which continues to inspire me! As I also taught constitutional politics and the Federalist Papers in the USA, which are about how you pull a constitution together, my thinking on education has always been you need to design learning for the society you want to live in. I’m with Freire, and even Dewey, on that. Identify what society you want to live in; then build the education system that will realise it.


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