Steve Brookfield recommends we reflect on our “autobiographies as learners” to reveal our deepest assumptions and influences as teachers (Brookfield 1995: 31). Drawing on our experiential knowledge of being learners can explain a lot about our teaching practice. These experiences are emotional and real to us, in a way something we just read in a book or was told by a teacher educator can never be. Despite our best efforts to learn teaching as a craft in an open minded fashion, we will often respond to “crisis or ambiguities” based on our own education history (Brookfield 1995: 31).
This was an idea I first came across on my level 3 course. We discussed the idea and although I could see it had merit, I struggled to properly engage. Other students in the room connected their experiences of didactic teaching methods to simultaneously making them want to embrace and fear more active ways of learning. For many, you could almost see the cartoon lightbulb above their heads.
For me, I felt nothing. I felt no connection to the idea that my experience of schooling shaped in any way the methods through which I taught. There were takeaway lessons from my comprehensive education about not judging people and treating people with equal regard. I did well at school and had fun so I have always viewed education in a positive light. But in terms of actually how I plan a lesson, I could see no connection.
In fact, even trying to remember how I was taught was a struggle. I could see the classrooms, I could see my teachers, I could see in all of that. But what we actually did was a blank. I remembered the odd project title but nothing more. This void of awareness perplexed and unsettled me. How could I analyse my own teaching methods through the lens of my autobiography as a student if I couldn’t really remember what happened?
Teacher talk isn’t something I remember a lot of. Sitting listening and scribbling notes didn’t seem too familiar at secondary school. New ideas were filtering into classrooms about group work, differentiation and learning styles by 1997. Yet thinking about the activities I use and have read about and seen others use, none of them really fitted how we were taught day in day out. Group work to make a poster was usually a treat at the end of term.
With only a vague idea of what we didn’t do, rather than a concrete idea of what we did do, I put the question to one side. What I was sure about was that education held only positive memories and associations for me. There was never any pain. I was immensely fortunate. As a white student I could avoid the explicit racist sentiments made on a daily basis to my Asian classmates, but I could choose to (and usually did) intervene. As a bright student with a bit of cultural capital I could navigate my way through the hidden curriculum and impress my teachers, never being made to feel a fool. Growing up on a council estate quipped me with enough social smarts not to get my head kicked in. I had enough self-confidence to laugh at name calling and the bullies got bored before they even got started. So I proceeded with the understanding that my whole teaching practice rests on one giant assumption: that education is a positive force for good.
It was only when I started reading Stephen Brookfield’s work on critical reflection that the issue came up again. I almost skimmed over it, feeling I had pretty much done my thinking on my emotional relationship with school. After switching off the light and trying to fall asleep, the lure of the puzzle got the better of me and I began to really examine my memories of actual teaching at school. Slowly, very slowly, I wondered if any teaching or learning had actually taken place. I tried to remember my favourite teachers but my good memories of them were based on their kindness to us rather than pedagogical method.
I tried a different tack, thinking about any lessons or topics that particularly stand out. We once made a board game about a book we were reading in English, we did project about Roman villas in history and there were a few science experiments. Again, these were one off events and from my first year in senior school. Thinking to my final years I recalled being fascinated at studying the American West and the history of the native American peoples in GCSE history. I loved the way the course took the world of the Western and turned it on its head, looking at it from the perspective of the “other” and the manipulation of history by culture.
I enjoyed it so much I could see the pages of the textbook nearly fifteen years later. Bam! That was it, I realised I had been taught day in day out using textbooks. In almost every subject the textbook was the universal method of teaching. Read the double page spread and answer the comprehension pages at the end. As I started thinking about other subjects the memories came back. I could suddenly see all the text books we used for our final years. I could see the style of the graphics and the front covers and pick out the typeface of the text inside.
Did I like this way of learning: yes, it probably suited me as a self-directed student who understood how to go through the motions correctly. I can’t complain too hard, I did very well in my GCSEs and my A-levels subsequently. Do I use it; no. Working in FE has created a deep distrust of textbooks as a thing, indeed I do not see textbooks as a neutral object benevolently saving teachers from deforesting half the Amazon through photocopying. Rather I have come to view the textbook as a phenomenon, almost a cultural harbinger of doom.
I remember at A-level some of our subjects having a textbook and others forcing us to read and discover more widely. As a librarian and information literacy practitioner I know the value of these skills. As a university student I remember lamenting my abrupt divorce from the textbook, a nice colourful well laid out aide collating all of the information in one safe place with a bow on top, erasing difference and diversity and jagged edges of the information/academic/educational world. Without one I had to work to find information, I had to discern the quality and credibility of sources, I had to think about where to look and scan and skim and select. But in doing so I developed vital skills and information seeking behaviours. My worry is that textbooks foster dependence and Google (when used without discrimination) is just the next information fix.
I wondered what Geoff Petty (my go-to guy on active learning methods) has to say about textbooks. Crucially Petty affirms the value of the type of skills I have discussed above provided by instructor librarians, so bonus points for that (Petty 2014)! Yet Petty isn’t as dismissive of reading as I expect him to be. He places “reading for learning” into the section t the start of his section on Student Centred Methods and I can see why (Petty 2014: 269). For me, reading was an easy way to control my own learning, especially using a provided textbook, as it only depended on me. I could go as fast as I liked, no one could hold me up and spare time at the end could be used to daydream (stretch targets weren’t really a thing until after I left school).
Petty also makes it clear that for reading to be effective and create learning, it has to involve deep level processing, whereas reading can often only necessitate “zero-level processing” with students assuming that understanding will occur through “some osmosis-like process” (Petty 2014: 270). You have to do something with what your reading, something active. Petty makes a variety of suggestions mainly involving mandating outputs from the information to show it has been read and understood. Petty also hints at the concept of the flipped classroom, suggesting reading and comprehension activities can be best deployed as homework or preparation where it can act as a springboard for more active learning in class (Petty 2014).
When used as one method among many and with sensible outcomes, I’m sure reading is a very valid learning method and I believe it is one I enjoyed as a student. I do wonder however how helpful it was to my classmates. My suspicion is that spending each lesson reading and answering a set of comprehension questions was probably boring and difficult, with no real learning taking place.
Is reading something I am going to introduce into my sessions? I may give it a go with my HE students in a flipped classroom approach, partly to address issues of content overload in the short sessions I am given to teach the skills they need. Will I be looking to textbooks as part of this? Probably not!
Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Fran Cisco: Jossey-Bass.
Petty, G. (2014). Teaching today: a practical guide. Oxford: Oxford university Press.