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The death of critical pedagogy?

It starts in Harrogate (not the death, but the thinking)

On Wednesday afternoon, we sit and we listen to a talk that questions some of the basic foundations of our profession. The status quo, as it is on many initial teacher training courses and stated in continuing professional development guidelines, is put under scrutiny. Fundamental questions are asked of the audience: what is it that qualifies someone to teach? what evidences that someone who is teaching is maintaining their professional capability in developing him or herself? If it is just a box to tick and say it is done, whether something like ‘can drill effectively in the classroom’ or ‘has completed 30 hours of CPD this academic year’, then this is not enough. As Willy and Divya explained in their IATEFL presentation, how we currently seem to measure professionalism in ELT focuses on visible behaviours as being evidence of a teacher’s professional knowledge, changes in these indicating change in the teacher’s cognition, and that this leads to creation of lists of the qualities of good teaching (i.e. the boxes that need to be ticked to prove you are or can be a teacher). The talk goes through various phases, questioning what we value in teacher education, how we measure it, how a whole load of value-judgements are bound up in the current systems within which we operate, and with which we have to fall in line to a large extent, to get on professionally. Questions about the power-hierarchy this engenders, about the true, messy nature of teaching (messy doesn’t tick boxes) are posed. I’m left thinking. (I seriously recommend reading Willy and Divya’s summary of their talk, as that would be much better than any of my attempts to paraphrase it here).

It started before Harrogate (the death, not the thinking)

Every so often, if you hang around on Twitter and blogs, you’ll come across one thing for sure. And that is Bloom’s Taxonomy. Oh people love Bloom, who in case you didn’t know is the person droves of educators, as they would call themselve, love to quote. Bloom’s work is notable for classifying a whole range of different objectives and associated questions into a systematic whole picture, often represented in the form of a wheel or pyramid diagram with the associated ‘domains of thinking’. You can see a couple of examples on the Wikipedia entry here.

The mythology of Bloom lies in the fact that it is considered so central to the learning of teaching as to be undeniable. And yet, many people only learn about it, Bloom being ‘one of the most widely cited yet least read in American education’ (1). The (mis)appropriating of Bloom into different levels of engagement, and related value or worth in spending time on them in the classroom, is one of the biggest worries I have about education. I just question the value in doing this. I question it even more when doing so (i.e. using a version of Bloom’s taxonomy) in preparing your teaching is labelled as covering ‘critical thinking’ with students. I have serious doubts in the worth of this endeavour when I see lists and lists of apps and programs pasted on to a diagram of the taxonomy. This is covering critical thinking?

Back to Harrogate

Sugata Mitra gives the plenary on the morning of the last day of the IATEFL conference in Harrogate. The grand idea, one that garnered him a $1 million prize from TED, is that groups of learners can be given a question and are told they can ‘use their brain, another person’s brain, or the internet’ (2) to answer the question. They are encouraged to work in groups, and there is social interaction of a kind, but ultimately the focus is on a device and the ‘learning’ appears to be evidenced by reading out loud from whatever has been googled. Where does this come from? Mitra argues that there are places where good teachers will not go, whether the reasons for doing this are economic or socio-cultural deprivation, and the environment he suggests, while maybe not removing them entirely from the picture, boils the idea of what a teacher is to merely a content provider, or an enthusiatic granny.

‘If this lack of critical reflection that a box-ticking culture promotes continues, we’ll have a future where the possibility of grannies in the cloud will justifiably take over teachers’ jobs … and teachers will applaud the innovation.’

Willy Cardoso, Box-ticking or mind-mapping, IATEFL Annual conference, Harrogate, 2 April 2014

‘Saying teachers are obsolete is the ultimate technical reduction of our humanity and our educational heritage that has given birth to so much good alongside its failures. Stop calling it broken. Stop calling it outdated. Stop saying when teachers can be replaced by computers they should be. We cannot afford to wipe the slate clean. We’re talking about the lives and jobs and stories of billions of people and I refuse the idea that technology should pave the way for leaving further billions behind.’

Divya Madhavan, (ibid.)

(Note – quotes taken from photos shared on Facebook by Luke Meddings)

There is a worrying factor behind the hype that surrounds Mitra – those who support what he says, and there is something small of note in it, are roundly dismissive and even rude about anyone who dares to criticise his idea of SOLEs and grannies in the cloud. A selection of tweets from these supporters in response to some of the the negative reactions to Mitra’s plenary follow.

viva_elaine: “@Sugatam: I seemed to have annoyed some people” Only those who were self-referentially focused on themselves rather than the students. Tweet

pchastain1: @Sugatam You only annoy people who are unable to change and have no desire to listen Tweet

MsDianeJackson: @Sugatam They are too easily annoyed. Instead of searching for the truth they look for faults. Give them time to fully understand. Tweet

eugenia_coy: @Sugatam Don’t fret, change and innovation always scares those who are overly conformist. Thank you for all your research. Tweet

I don’t know about you, but I find those comments in support of Mitra to be really quite patronising. Such uncritical support needs to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Later on, in an IATEFL webinar Q and A session arranged in response to members’ wishes to quiz the man who claims to have the educational pill to cure all, Mitra will respond to questions about his project, people asking about the reasons why this has been championed as a solution to the socio-cultural problems that have caused a situation where good teachers won’t stay in bad areas. He will say that setting up ‘schools in the cloud’ and using this SOLE approach to group work is ‘better than nothing’ (3). I think that before investing millions into the development of computer labs, that will probably be obsolete in a few years, resources should be devoted to sorting out the problems that lead to economic and socio-cultural deprivation. When quizzed as to potential drawbacks to his computer- and technology-based alternative to the traditional schooling environment, he will only mention that perhaps power cuts will be a problem. Seriously? This is the setting of a neoliberal solution to a very real problem. But it may be a solution that suits those parties with vested interests before those that really need help.

Some hope

There are projects out there that focus on the human touch, and on real socialisation to help those that need it, without recourse to technology or investors with their own interests. This video was shared on a friend’s Facebook Wall today, and I think it truly demonstrates what is possible when people are involved working on something creative together. Not only that though, it also shows how charitable organisations can work together with creative individuals involved in the participatory arts to deliver something that is truly transformed from the traditional educational system, and give children from low-income communities opportunities they wouldn’t have had before. It’s similar to what I’ve already seen here in London, with the work Rewrite does in engaging children who don’t have English as a first language in learning, both of language and more generally. This is recommended viewing, and hopefully it will encourage you to donate (4)



Further information on organisations involved in The Maya Musical