A Call for an Increase in Considering Conventions and Richness in Educational Forms to Enhance Pedagogical Experimentation

By Dr Carol Webb. Follow Carol on Twitter @cazzwebbo

How many education secretaries does it take to change a lightbulb? As many as you like but they’ll probably have to do it in their own sweet way, without asking the people who normally use the room that lightbulb is supposed to enlighten for advice, and they won’t seem to care who they blind in the process. There’ll probably be a few people suffering injuries along the way, incurred while some lightbulbs get put in badly, fall out, and smash and hurt unwitting victims – standing in the wrong place at the wrong time – quite deeply.

Tell me another. Ok. How many free schools does it take to change a lightbulb? If you find a free school that stays in an unfailing category and keeps its head long enough you might get lucky, but the person who changes the lightbulb probably won’t be qualified, so the risk is yours.

But here’s one more: how many good ideas does it take to change a lightbulb? I don’t know. Who cares about lightbulbs? And maybe a really good idea would negate the need for a lightbulb in the first place. After all, that’s what really great innovations do, don’t they? They just waltz right in, usurp everything we ever did, and before you realise it, life is never the same again.

I’ve got nothing against lightbulbs though. In fact I’m quite looking forward to having a gander at Rachel Jones’ forthcoming edited book, Don’t Change the Lightbulbs, coming soon! See her blog via her twitter feed at @rlj1981 for more info.

But was this introduction setting you up for a magnificent innovative idea? Hmmm… Not sure really. I’ll let you be the judge. I personally don’t think the ideas I’m going to put forward are either that new or innovative anymore. But I’m going to share them anyway and hopefully open up a bit of debate and discussion around them. I do believe that although the essence of what I’m going to propose isn’t revolutionary anymore, there could be nuggets of wisdom and gems of brilliance just waiting for up to the minute reinterpretation and ready to emerge elsewhere as something entirely fabulous and worthy of putting into practice. So, here goes…

An openness towards the increase in conventions and richness of educational forms might create an environment that will be available for and receptive to pedagogic experimentation, where a rapid explosion of new ideas could emerge. Not all would be successful, and many would become quickly extinct, perhaps only to be found traces of in the fossil record of education within a very short timeframe. But imagine a situation where such explosion of novelty was occurring on such a regular basis that it was like living on the brim of an active volcano; a volcano of pedagogic delight.

If you’ve been to a good teachmeet, you’ll have glimpsed a couple of hours of something coming close. But teachmeets don’t get attended by all teachers everywhere, do they? And not all teachers everywhere are on Twitter either, are they? How might all teachers everywhere be part of a rich movement of professionals regularly engaging in and witnessing rapid explosions of pedagogic experimentation? Perhaps this does just come down to encouraging a mindset prepared for and accepting of trial and error. Whose mindset?

This has to come from the top down, led by example, and nurtured and encouraged simutaneously from the bottom-up. Apply this thinking to your school, now. Who would that involve? How? What tweaks and changes could be made to encourage this? There would also be a mindset change needed to foster and enable lots of interactions on a regular basis between a diversity of people. This shouldn’t be rocket science. Surely it should be normal, good practice, perhaps evidenced through regular CPD and a good school team. But there are some schools where many teachers ferret themselves away in their own classrooms, rarely coming into a healthy and vibrantly buzzing staffroom, if one exists.

Space to interact is needed, but also with a mix of structured, semi-structured and even unstructured purpose and reason to interact. Random interactions are the more unstructured, like brief encounters by the coffee machine or water cooler. Staff meetings and briefings are heavily structured. Semi-structured might have a looser agenda but allow freer verbal interaction from all staff present. What might constitute semi-structured? I’ve personally blogged about Knowledge-Cafés, but the Open Space Event concept is another good social format. Basically, any get together that allows high interaction producing a lot of diverse and novel outcomes will, if facilitated well, enable a whole new level of emergent order to be created. Maybe not immediately, but over time if such interactions are a normal way of life. What might a new level of emergent order look like? New conventions and richness in educational forms creating an environment available for and receptive to pedagogic experimentation.

Experienced and qualified teachers, unqualified and newly qualified are all part of a rich complex system. We aren’t machines isolated and insulated from the environment. We impact on it and it impacts on us. We also impact on each other and have agency to make an impact. We grasp fundamental truths about what makes teaching work or not. There’s almost even an Adam Smith-like ‘invisible hand’ at play when you see the macro level of patterns that ebb, flow and ripple through pedagogy over time, as there is through any living, breathing ecosystem. These patterns aren’t really being controlled by any singular organisation, person or regime, and that’s what makes it interesting, because it means we can do more than we think we can. If we think, imagine and play with the idea that no-one is controlling pedagogy, and that really pedagogy is decentralised, then our mindset is a little bit more ready than it might have been.

You can read about these liberating ideas and others in the 1992 book by Lewin, on “Complexity: Life at the edge of chaos,” published by the University of Chicago Press: Chicago

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