We Need New Stories in Education

The Seven Basic Plots is an interesting book by Christopher Booker, the main argument is clear from the title; we have a limited number of story lines and regardless of context or medium, we like the familiar, predictable and comforting. Fairytale, folklore, epic novels and modern film scripts all use variations of basic narrative structures; resilience in the face of onslaught, heroic journeys, monsters and dragons and of course, the struggles of good and evil. The argument is not unique, many thinkers have pointed to a form of collective intellectual comfort blanket. We welcome stories that reinforce pre-existing assumptions and avoid those that challenge our biased views and require re-jigging our model of the world. The ‘basic plots’ phenomenon is much in evidence when we talk about education. Whether it is media reporting, policy discourse or public commentary, we return time and again to the familiar blandness of the comfort blanket. I’m tired of hearing about the epic journey of the Leaving Certificate, I’m done with the struggles of the science and engineering to attract and charm the young people of today, I no longer need the wisdom of employers, I’m fed up with tales of cash strapped colleges, disgruntled Read More …

Ready to Learn – Taking the First Step

‘Oh I was just wondering have you got a moment, I just want to ask you about something‘ she had arrived at NCI reception and they suggested I might meet with her. ‘No problem at all‘ I assured her while thinking how much I had to do that afternoon. Five minutes later she sat in my office. She was very nervous and I thought I noticed a slight trembling in her voice. Her name was Susan. ‘It’s like this‘ she said ‘I was thinking of doing a course here but I am not sure if I’d be able for it‘. She went on to tell me her story. She left school at sixteen without a Leaving Cert. She worked in the retail sector for the last twenty five years and now she is a manager. She is married with three kids and two of them are in college. She reads a lot and is well liked by her colleagues. Generally, she’s happy. But there’s always been a niggle. An unease and sense of being often left out, ignored and taken-for-granted. ‘Sure what would Susan know‘ she once overheard a younger colleague remark. Susan explained that she has been thinking about Read More …

Learning, Participation and After Virtue

What makes a good person? This is an old and important question.  Philosophers and theologians through the years have sought an answer including Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, Kierkegaard, Newman, Nietzsche and others. Alasdair MacIntyre provides a useful analysis of the history of thinking on this question and the current state of moral philosophy in his books After Virtue (1984) and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988). MacIntyre argues that a full understanding of moral philosophy today is constrained by failure to appreciate historical context. He proposes a disquieting scenario to illustrate what he deems the state of affairs today. Imagine, he suggests, through some terrible catastrophe all the scientists in the world were wiped out and with them the thinking and practice they engaged in. Some time later, when people seek to revive science they would only be partly successful; they would have to rely on clues from remnants of documentation, pieces of laboratory apparatus and a scattering of folk ideas. The practice of science would be gone. Although MacIntyre uses this vista to illustrate how, he believes, we have lost the way (and means) of moral philosophy, he is also making a point about ‘practice’. Human activities directed and sustained toward Read More …

Reflection and Practice

What is reflection? Adult educators like to use the term “reflection”. In class you are likely to be invited to “reflect on your own experiences” or, when tasked with an assignment, you are just as likely to be invited to reflect as discuss, debate, argue or critique. I admit that I also like the term and find myself encouraging others and often myself, to reflect on a particular issue or problem. What does it mean to reflect? And how does reflection differ from “thinking about”, “recalling” or just simply “lulling over” a situation? Useful insight comes from the work of Donald Schön (best known for his book The Reflective Practitioner) who discusses the distinction between “reflection-in-action” and reflection-on-action”. My picture from New Year’s Day 2010 Reflection in ActionThis is reflection on-the-run so to speak.  It is a form of self-awareness that is brought into play as we engage expert activities.  For example, a teacher may use reflection-in-action during a class to try out, monitor, evaluate and moderate various instructional strategies.  As Schön puts it: “The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, Read More …

“Christ Deliver Us”

A  new play at the Abbey Theatre written by Thomas Kilroy inspired by Inspired by German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 masterpiece Spring Awakening. There is an archetypal story that can be found in folklore, fairytales and mythology and it recurs again and again.  It is the ‘coming of age’ narrative whereby the young gain wisdom, overcome adversity and become adults.  Thus, each culture reproduces.  The young learn and adapt, society is newly interpreted and modified and each generation inherits and subsequently passes on the values and norms of their parents.  This process of ‘take-over’ from generation to generation is fundamental to the survival of a culture.  Hence so many stories and the high value placed on the wisdom therein. We see this in The Godfather, Harry Potter and even the story of Moses – the storyline is similar in each case – an alternative life beckons for a short while but eventually one’s true nature wins out and the inherited core values are embraced. There is a particular variation of this theme which we all find disturbing and is at the root of Kilroy’s new play.  What if “there’s something rotten” in society?  What if it’s a monster?  Who will Read More …

Top Ten Insights on Learning

It’s the time of year for reviews.  I call it the season of the “top tens”: we have the top ten songs of 2009, the top ten sporting moments, the top ten films and so on. I have decided to step on the band wagon and am now pleased to present my Top Ten Insights on Learning. Here we go: Learning is constructed People are curious We learn best in social settings Much adult learning is child’s play We have a Learning Identity Meet the Digital World Adults learn what they want to learn Learning can be additive or transformative We learn throughout life We strive to be all that we can be  1 Learning is constructed  The best analogy is that of a tree with many branches. We learn through the integration of present and past experiences.  As we experience the world we connect new experiences with our past – in other words we construct knowledge. Learning has nothing to do with transmission of knowledge – it about personal construction. Educators who recognise this focus on process rather than output and encourage students to make their own meaning rather than reproduce the work of others.  2 People are curiousWe Read More …