The Only Truth is Narrative Truth

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Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.

 

 

 

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Learning. It’s Complicated.

I read and follow many educational writers, bloggers and theorists in an attempt to understand how learning works, and, by implication or association, what makes for good teaching and an effective education system. However, not everything about education is to be learned in educational texts. A good example of this is to be found in reading ‘River of Consciousness‘, a collection of essays and the last publication of the English-born neurologist and polymath Oliver Sacks. Here, in the course of a few relatively short pieces, the author of such works as ‘Awakenings‘ and ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat‘ takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience and the arts, as he searches for an understanding of the conscious mind and what it is that makes us human. In doing so, he touches on subjects which I see ‘debated’ on eduTwitter on a daily basis. On the importance of Play, for example, especially in young children, he has this to say:

‘All children indulge in play, at once repetitive and imitative and, equally, exploratory and innovative.They are drawn both to the familiar and the unusual – grounding and anchoring themselves in what is known and secure, and exploring what is new and has never been experienced. Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or “motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.’

Which begs the question, if children have an ‘elemental hunger for knowledge’, why do so many children stop engaging with school? I suspect the answer may have something to do with who determines the knowledge which is on the menu, and the extent to which the consumers have a choice. A very important element of play of course is the storytelling element, and Sacks has an observation on that which touches on one of our favourite themes here at The Literacy Adviser:

‘Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating them themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

Put very simply, storytelling should be at the heart of any education programme, at all ages and in all subject or topic contexts. And speaking of educational contexts, here is what Sacks has to contribute on the nature of schooling, and the perennial debates about ‘skills v knowledge’ or ‘progression v tradition’ or ‘freedom v structure’:

‘Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. Education has to achieve a balance between structure and freedom, and each child’s needs may be extremely variable. Some young minds expand and blossom with good teaching. Other children (including some of the most creative) may be resistant to formal teaching ; they are essentially autodidacts, voracious to learn and explore on their own. Most children will go through many stages in this process, needing more or less structure, more or less freedom at different periods.’

So there you have it. It’s complicated! Schools and education systems have to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all learners, which incidentally are not fixed, even within an individual. You begin to see why there is no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect school, and why as long as we have formal schooling, everything within it is a compromise of ideas and ideals.

Next time I will be sharing what Sacks has to say about the nature of memory and conscious thought.

 

The Inestimable Dr Memes

There is much talk about leadership in education these days, and there isn’t a day goes by without the publication of a book or a paper, or a tweet or a blogpost on how it should be ‘done’, or how it should be ‘done better’. It was quite refreshingly amusing therefore to come across the following description of a school ‘leader’ from an earlier age, the inestimable Dr J.S. Memes, rector of Ayr Academy from 1826-1844. If leading by example is the best form of leadership, I don’t think you could find a better example than this.

Dr John Smythe Memes, LL.D., came from Brechin, and had distinguished himself as a student at Aberdeen University, taking Latin, Greek and Divinity classes, to which he added Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, as well as Botany and Anatomy. Initially finding employment as a tutor, he travelled during 1821 and the next two years on the continent, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German, and picking up a knowledge of several unspecified ‘Oriental languages’. He lectured to the Philosophical Society of London,contributed to the proceedings of the Astronomical Society, and interested himself also in literature and art. And so it was that this ‘gentleman of varied and elegant accomplishments’ took over as rector of Ayr Academy in February 1826 just after his 31st birthday. The Academy itself was enjoying a growing reputation, having re-fashioned itself in 1796 from the old Ayr Grammar Schule, famously attended by a young Robert Burns for a very brief period in his fourteenth year.

JDDr Memes flung himself into the work with enthusiasm. He took over classes in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He added History, Botany and English Composition with Rhetoric and Logic. He applied his skills as a draughtsman to preparing a series of large wall maps for his geography classes. He persuaded the directors to erect scaffolding so that he could personally paint two large terrestrial spheres on the ceiling of the school hall. In 1837 he introduced geographical ‘excursions into the country’. To extend the study of Natural History he acquired botanical specimens and created a botanical garden. He inspired the pupils of his senior English class to original composition and had printed two collections of their poems.

When, in 1838, the Classics and Modern Languages post became vacant, Memes convinced the directors that the remaining masters could easily cope if they ‘devote their individual attention to their classes’. In the summer of 1840 he spent six weeks in Paris, visiting six colleges, twenty-four municipal schools, the military academy and a college of education, ‘to acquire the most perfect methods of teaching the French language’. In the meantime, he was producing books on a number of subjects: A Memoir of Canova and Modern Sculpture (1828) and A History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (1837); Works of William Cowper (1834) and A Life of Cowper (1837); Memoirs of Josephine (1832) and a translation of Memoirs of Bonaparte (1836); with one of the earliest books on photography, Daguerre’s History and Practice of Photogenic Drawing (1839).

His enormous energies were recalled by staff and pupils alike – he was known on occasion to take extra classes as early as 6 a.m., teach for twelve hours with ‘trifling intervals’, sketch large maps for his geography classes till eight in the evening, meet with the Library Society to superintend their arrangements, and dismiss them at ten or eleven o’clock. Next morning, as early as four o’clock, he could be found working with his mathematics class, making plans of the town harbour to be exhibited at the annual examination.

Dr Memes became recognised and respected in the wider community of Ayr, and his polymathic powers were widely appreciated. He conducted evening classes in Astronomy, and gave free instruction to the  Ayr Mechanics’ Institute. When he delivered a series of Sunday evening lectures on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ in Wallacetown chapel, all 900 seats were occupied, and people had to be turned away. He provided evidence to be presented in parliament on behalf of the Glasgow and Ayr Railway Company. His knowledge of anatomy was recognised by the Ayrshire Medico-Chirurgical Association. With a party of senior pupils he made a survey and prepared a report on the feasibility of bringing piped water from the Carrick Hills into Ayr – for which he was rewarded with a public dinner in his honour. He assisted the Sheriff of Ayr by calculating the trajectory of a bullet from an air gun. When Ayr Town Hall was struck by lightning in January 1838, Memes ‘quieted public alarm’ and earned the gratitude of the town council by climbing the steeple and assessing that the structure was safe.

Under his leadership the school continued to make steady progress, but an outbreak of cholera in 1832 meant a declining roll, and by the time he left the Academy in 1844 to take up a role as minister in Hamilton parish church, his boundless energy seemed also to be in decline. One pupil recalled how in the senior Geography class, which was held daily in the hour before lunch, Dr Memes would have a glass of wine and a biscuit brought to his room to sustain him, after which he would frequently nod off to sleep.

At this point it would be easy for me to apply the usual clichés – they don’t make them like that any more, what happened to all the ‘characters’ in education, and so on. However, it’s probably best just to read all that again, take a deep intake of breath, and say, ‘Wow!’

Source: 750 Years of a Scottish School – Ayr Academy 1233-1983 by John Strawhorn

You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!

Speaking:

  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.

Reading:

  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.

Writing:

  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes

 

 

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

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David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

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Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

Are Literacy And Learning the Same Thing?

There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.

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Curriculum for Integrity

This blogpost is re-published with kind permission from its author, Matthew Boyle. The original can be found on his own blog, Each and Every Dog. Well worth a visit for anyone with an interest in learning and teaching.

commonweal1 I had the great pleasure of attending a “thinking and creating” day organised by the Common Weal, “think and do tank” and chaired by the very engaging and upbeat Katie Gallogly-Swan. They described the day as a “policy lab” with the explicit aim of connecting academics and experts in education with “interested citizens” to “ask some of the big questions” and to help shape policy for Scotland going forward.

The day began with us considering the questions that mattered most to us and which we felt were fundamental to improving education. The central chosen question, underpinning it all was “what is the purpose of education for the nation?” The other popular questions were:

  • How can the final qualifications system be made to better serve the needs of all?
  • How can equality for all be more clearly baked-in to everything that we do?
  • What should be done to help the system realise its ambition to implement the Curriculum for Excellence?

I am sure everyone took their own strong conclusions and learning from the very rich and open plenary that knitted up the day’s discussion, but I left further reinforced in my view that what is needed is a “strategy for integrity” to ensure that the “Curriculum for Excellence (CfE)” means more in practice than at present! The day coalesced around an early proposition by Bill Boyd (Literacy Adviser), that CfE was already an excellent and well-consulted plan for an egalitarian, effective and individualised education experience; Bill simultaneously conceded that our implementation has left much to be desired, with the model being hindered by traditional forces such as SQA examinations which seem to pay little heed to the aspirations of the new curriculum, or inspection which seemed to hold back innovation.

The new curriculum is based to a significant degree on “The Treasure Within (UNESCO)” with its four pillars of learning:

Learning to know: to provide the cognitive tools required to better comprehend the world and its complexities, and to provide an appropriate and adequate foundation for future learning.

Learning to do: to provide the skills that would enable individuals to effectively participate in the global economy and society.

Learning to be: to provide self analytical and social skills to enable individuals to develop to their fullest potential psycho-socially, affectively as well as physically, for a all-round ‘complete person.

Learning to live together: to expose individuals to the values implicit within human rights, democratic principles, intercultural understanding and respect and peace at all levels of society and human relationships to enable individuals and societies to live in peace and harmony.

This has been translated and modernised by our own curriculum which clearly targets the following (among other outcomes):

  • personalisation and choice, although you could argue that that is only a limited version where the factory model of schooling allows.
  • Interdisciplinary learning (IDL), although ten years on, strong examples of this “real application of learning” are in only the minority of schools.
  • Breadth and depth of learning, which are quite untestable and a bit “mom’s apple pie” in scope and ambition anyway, so what they have led to is no change.
  • An exam system to declutter the curriculum and to reflect the more joined-up learning that young people are now undertaking, which teachers are preparing learners for by cutting up old, pre CfE papers, since much of what is in the new exams is similar to the old!

I largely agree with Bill that CfE contains good things, largely agreed on by teachers and society, some of it clearly too woolly and contradictory, but that we are simply not delivering it in the way it’s authors and contributors intended. Perhaps now, as a possible conclusion from the policy lab, it is time for us to refocus on delivery, not rewrites, and attempt to deliver a Curriculum with Integrity! If we believe the examination tail has too long wagged the learning dog, then we must redesign the exams to reflect that belief. If we believe IDL is a major delivery mode of our curriculum then we must break down some of the subject silos at all levels and deliver integrated project-based learning. If we believe individualisation matters, then we must have personal choices available throughout regardless of the inconvenience to our current models.

A delivery strategy to do what we say we value might just be the saving of a good curriculum that we are failing to deliver; CfI instead of CfE anyone?