On dressage and teaching.

During my adolescence I was a horse enthusiast. I read, thought, daydreamed, imagined and played at being with horses and learning about horses. Naturally, I wanted to ride horses, and, eventually, have a horse of my own. Both of these wishes came true, thanks to my parents, who first sent me to riding lessons provided by Miss Tunbridge, and then stumped up the cash for a near-retirement galloway (14 – 15 hands) that an American friend who was moving back overseas had to sell. Before she returned to the U.S. this friend also introduced me to the world of riding that extended beyond the offerings of Miss Tunbridge’s classes. My friend competed in gymkhanas and one day events and her bedroom was festooned with ribbons and sashes from her victories. Sometimes I would go with her to these all-day affairs that began the day before with washing and preparing the horse, and went from pre-dawn dark to dusk the following day. Through her I was introduced to dressage.

Dressage has a certain beauty to it. The horse and rider work together to perform a routine in which increasingly difficult moves are completed with the maximum elegance and finesse. I learnt that the routine was set out beforehand and judges assessed each horse and rider on how closely they approximated a ‘perfect’ rendering of this sequence of moves. Many of the manoeuvres originated from warfare in which horses were required to act with dexterity and grace and sometimes with deadly precision on the battlefield. But in the dressage ring, these moves had become abstracted from these muddy and bloody origins to become a performed dictionary of all the movements a horse and rider can do in a ring. It is perhaps as close as horse riding gets to ballet.

I liked dressage – to a point. I would practice the moves on my friend’s horse in her home’s training area. I learnt a lot about riding by submitting to the discipline of dressage. She would teach me the moves and then I would do them over and over and over again. For hours. It was like practising a difficult bar in music.

Sometimes I would join my friend at her pony club (I did not belong). On these days, my friend would kindly loan me her horse so that I could compete in some events and have the experience of being part of that world.

But there was something about dressage that, over the years since, has come to emblematise for me a certain approach to other endeavours quite unrelated to equestrian sports. It is a world that proposes perfection as something to strive for and something that is pre-determined and defined in advance, existing in the abstract. The job of the horse and rider is to match this glinting and distant vision of a perfect performance with their own iteration of the routine. I never rode long or seriously enough to go beyond my initial experiences, (university and a move to more urban climes intervened). On the whole, I preferred cross-country and trail riding. But during those gymkhanas and one day events, I would linger, propped against the wood or steel of a fence or gate, and watch with curiosity as the senior riders competed in their elaborate routines. That there was skill and discipline and grace was unarguable. And yet I also saw something else. It was the idea of perfection, the pre-determined moves and routines, the judges with their score sheets, the stylised moves of the horse, the way in which actions once integrated into a purpose and context had been recontextualised in the show ring, performed for the sake of being judged. And so, when I watched the senior riders I saw what it takes to formalise a field into a discipline that can be worked up into a high degree of skill, taught, and passed on; but I also saw the potential tyranny of such an approach.

This double sidedness of dressage in my youth I have seen again in recent debates about teaching, particularly ‘quality teaching’. Dressage is fine — as dressage. But there are other ways to ride, situations in which to apply the criteria and judgements of the scoring sheet would be wrong and beside the point.

Similarly, when we talk, as we seem to be doing so much nowadays, about ‘quality teaching’, there is a sense that some of us have a score card, and a bunch of routines they would like to see performed. Such a vision of teaching breaks it up into a series of discrete, highly specialised ‘moves’ that can be abstracted from their origins or any messy situation in which they might be used for any real purpose. Hence we have efforts to mandate the same basic lesson plan, with the same opening moves, development moves, and concluding moves across entire schools. Hence, we have this idea that teaching is ‘perfectible’ and that if teachers only learned to finesse their routines enough, student learning would suddenly take a great leap forward. And hence, we have the logical extension of this outlook, in scripted lessons, and ‘teacher-proof’ curriculum that positions teachers as ciphers for knowledge and pedagogy developed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, actual classrooms full of actual kids present a densely textured, constantly emerging situation to which a teacher must respond with empathy, flexibility, imagination, inventiveness, tact and will. Nothing conjures the phrase, ‘heaving with humanity’ quite like a Year 8 class on a Friday afternoon.

My feeling is that these actualities are not amenable to the logic of ‘perfection’ that holds (or, to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to hold) in a white sandy equestrian arena. Teaching is riding in rugged terrain, with unpredictable weather, tight rations, and, for many, antique equipment. Doing dressage may help you learn the moves, it may help you develop skills and some insight into techniques you might deploy in certain situations. Dressage can be good. It has its beauty and its art. But knowing how to use which move when in authentic situations? Putting it all together? Doing what the moment demands? That is where professional judgement kicks in – where the accrued knowledge and insight of past teaching and learning experiences becomes a repertoire, a deepened practice. And, alas, sometimes professional judgement commits an error. But would an off-the-rack lesson plan be any better?

How else, beyond the language of performance and standards, might we talk about the development of teachers’ expertise? Where is the role of reflection and reflexive inquiry into practice? What part do imagination and creativity play? Is teaching just doing a standardised series of things defined by the role – or does specialised knowledge contribute something crucial? How do we mediate between routines and standards on the one hand, and the need for teachers to have enough professional autonomy to be inventive and responsive to the needs of their particular students on the other?

These are some of the questions I have been prompted to ask and explore in my initial foray into teacher education. My mentors have done a good job of prompting and prodding me, but like all really rich questions, things now seem even more complicated than they did before. Teachers work in a policy environment that, increasingly, seems to be using the logic of the dressage score sheet. But, as any of us knows, the irreducible complexity and realness of classrooms, students, teachers, and schools, offer a ready resistance to reductive scripts for teaching practice. They exceed all boundaries laid down in neat little routines. For this very reason they also, potentially, offer fertile ground for other accounts of teaching, other ways of shaping the role and our imagination of it.

Reflection on seeing Maria Popova, the woman behind Brain Pickings.

My father is a radio ham. He uses Morse code, mainly, and designs and constructs various instruments for the generating and processing of radio signals. His shed is a classic “Men’s’ shed”, complete with a shadow board, with each tool in its place, soldering iron, work bench, and rows and rows of jars filled with resistors, capacitors, and the equipment of his hobby. It smells of old steel, oil, solder flux, and wood dust. As far as I can tell, one of the centrepieces of a radio ham’s life is an instrument called a transmitter-receiver. The best transmitter-receivers eliminate noise and boost the signal, making sure that whatever is being communicated can cross the globe, dancing on the rhythm of those dots and dashes.

A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver. Image credit: Henke Tobbe. https://www.flickr.com/photos/vk2gwk/4705522931/in/photolist-8aP32H-dMchC-9LSfmx-67rjM7-pD9KA-bzkkkF-7hSpv2-8a85GM-etBjL-7zMoA1-d6CYW5-9uRBSN-pj8wU-8a866T-7Mvye3-7MrzUc-7MrA3F-7MrzX4-7Mvya1-7MrA2g-7MvywG-7Mvycj-7MvyoS-7MvyuE-7MvyfQ-7MrzVF-8axZfm-4oiMrb-ds856S-4R5Lh7-4k5YKD-nfoeCB-cXJpZ1-7iZCUr-5Yv7mg-4meFxq-4mv1Dx-9WukAx-nHcec2-aqfNtu-5zsiFZ-7S3jq9-fuQDHZ-f6Uz3N-7UiUAe-5Cd6UB-aCFcXf-bnhmoj-26a8n-bnSy3C
A 1970s classic transmitter-receiver.
Image credit: Henke Tobbe. 

For a long time now, I have pondered the significance of that transmitter-receiver. In my father’s world, passing on a signal with the minimum of interference is the goal. But for me it is suggestive as a metaphor of the kind of subjectivity our culture and economy seems to prefer – – each of us just nodes on a grid, seamlessly passing on money, goods, services, messages, and received ideas in a well-oiled way with the minimum of interference, or input, from the individual. Meanings and money are fixed, known quantities. Learning and education is geared towards fitting each student with the skills to slide into this network, another node for the better functioning and flow of messages and money and productivity. Interpretation, questioning, or dissent are treated as ‘noise’ – interference that slows down the smooth transmission of the signal.

There are, of course, other, alternative models out there that see each of us as participants, co-creators of a world. This model welcomes ‘noise’ as creative dissent, interpretation, or individual and collaborative meaning-making. One of the proponents of these ideas is blogger Maria Popova, who spoke at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Thursday.

Popova’s blog, Brain Pickings, is a friend in your in-box – a weekly compendium of readings about thinking, reading, creating, and the process of making a meaningful life. Popova’s blog has more than 7 million readers, an indicator of the value people find in the weekly musings that she says are primarily a document of the evolution of her thinking. In our current secular age, the thirst for meaning and purpose has not gone away; instead, we look for other methods by which to explore and arrive at a core ethical stance on our experience and a language for constructing a story of what we are trying to do with our lives. Popova’s work points up an interesting paradox – by writing about her own personal journey of sense-making, she has addressed a felt need in millions of readers.

In this way, Brain Pickings can be seen as part of a cluster of developments. There is The School of Life, with its newsletter The Philosopher’s Mail. The work of Alain De Botton and John Armstrong similarly tries to ground philosophy in considerations of everyday life and its predicaments. De Botton’s writings and television series are well known and loved, while his collaborator, Armstrong, has transferred his work from a philosophy department to schools of business and civil society. Both Armstrong and De Botton also contribute to The School of Life. In a lighter way, the work of Gretchen Rubin also highlights the search for meaning in a late-capitalist world, what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualisation’ that had a great deal to do with social contribution and higher purpose. Meanwhile, the biting work of Oliver James grapples with the darker sides of late capitalist meaninglessness and aimlessness. All of this and more indicates how the web is offering a home to many people’s attempts to bridge the gap between the recherché areas of academic philosophy and psychology and the ‘common reader’ – that person who is not necessarily working in an academic department, but who thirsts for reading and discussion and reflection about life in a way denied by much workplace culture and the culture of consumption. (Feeling depressed? Here, buy this car. Now work to pay it off.)

 

In her talk Popova explained how her blog got started: she was working in a design firm and noticed that her co-workers tended to get ideas only from other designers. She was dissatisfied with this and wanted to source ideas from beyond the boundaries of design. This laid the groundwork for her syncretic approach whereby writings about science, illustration, design, architecture, fine art, travel, and poetry sit side by side, often setting up conversations between the different disciplines and their ways of knowing. Apparently, once a week, she would send a little email out to a circle of friends with links to interesting and inspiring things to read. Little by little, this newsletter gained a second-hand following, as her friends forwarded it to more and more people. With the development of blogging, Popova had a platform to write and share her musings to whomever wanted to subscribe. Now she has a full-time job managing it and doing off-line work that emerges from it, such as judging at literary festivals and, of course, presenting at book and writers’ festivals.

So what were the main insights that Popova wanted to share with us that night? Many of them were close to my heart, as she emphasised, in various ways, the necessity for all of us to undertake the work of developing our knowledge and using that knowledge to develop an ethic and wisdom that is individual to us. As an educator, too, a lot of what she said chimed in to a constructivist approach to learning; even though she did not mention this philosophy by name, a great deal of her project relates to the learning theories of Jean Piaget and George Kelly that have heavily influenced contemporary education practice, but which, in their world view, are resistant to the ‘transmitter-receiver’ subject presumed by much reductive political discourse about the role of schools and universities.

Here are some of her insights that resonated with me:

  1. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.

Popova spoke to our current tendency to think that we know more simply by virtue of having access to huge amounts of information. However, as anyone with a grandparent can tell you, there are types of knowledge and ways of knowing that are actually being lost. What’s more, just having access to information does not mean you know how to use it.

Using the analogy of Lego bricks, Popova argued that if we know very little, we have few Lego bricks with which to build our understanding of our life and the world. You can build something, but without a range of colours and shapes, and without very many bricks, you are very limited in what you can build. What’s more, you also need to develop a sense for yourself about what you are trying to build, how to select information and how to apply knowledge to the various situations and dilemmas of life. This accumulation, sifting, and application of knowledge, with reflection, develops wisdom.

This links to my ongoing thinking about why we teach imaginative and long-form literature to students, despite their increasing facility with accessing information on the web. Literature is ‘information’ but in a very specialised sense, and not in the same sense as a manual about how to operate some software, or a map of a city. Literature is information that must be interpreted by the reader by bringing with them all that they already know and their imagination. And, that active practice of interpretation, or making meaning from the text, is collaborative and reflective, adding a few more ‘Lego Bricks’ to the student’s collection. What’s more, the elaboration of ideas and versions of life that comes from studying literature provides the thoughtful individual with a wider range of reference and meaning with which to approach their own life. We have greater choice over the narratives we tell ourselves and each other and hence are less susceptible to uniform, standardised, limiting versions of who we are and who we should try to be.

This is why, in short, the current idea that we do not need to teach content, but just teach students how to find information does not quite add up. The greater the scope of our knowledge and the wider our horizons, the better able we are to assimilate and make use of new information. Content and information savvy go together. I can access a Chinese manuscript – but I cannot read and make sense of it. That is because I do not know Chinese. We need both knowledge and wisdom to make use of information deeply, ethically, and imaginatively.

  1. We need to be open to ideas beyond our specialisation, but also selective and discerning users of new ideas.

This was a less emphasised idea in Popova’s talk, that really only came through during the Q & A session. What she seemed to be getting at is, in a world of information deluge, we do need to be open and not close ourselves off into a disciplinary cul-de-sac. However, we are also charged with developing our own sense of what is meaningful to us, and attend to our own cultivation and ethic that helps us select and make sense of the new ideas we encounter. What Popova is talking about here is a kind of Web 2.0 version of the psychological concept of individuation – in order for us not to become mass-produced, standardised beings, we need to create our own unique constellation of meanings and reference points. These will still converse with those shared by the community and wider world, but they are our unique ‘playlist’.

  1. Writing is not ‘content’.

This was another issue that emerged only fully during the Q & A session. A question was posed about how Popova went about generating the ‘content’ for her site. She critiqued the idea of ‘content’, saying writing for the web is like writing for the page – – to think of the words you write as ‘content’ is to think of your work as just some inert stuff that fills up an empty or blank space. Thinking of writing as ‘content’ also does not pay respect to the reader, who is not just there to have inane, worthless verbal garbage dumped into their in-box, the habits of many media outlets notwithstanding. Popova pointed out that her research found that over time, some of the writers who have received the most high-prestige awards for their work were not necessarily the most productive, in terms of just churning out a lot of written verbiage. It was those who resisted the cult of productivity for its own sake that tended to their work with the most care and art.

  1. Most things that are worthwhile take a long time.

This was one of the main ‘learnings’ that Popova has taken away from seven years of working on Brain Pickings. She said that in our endless rush to be productive, we can forget the value of giving space and time to our thoughts – and “thoughts need space.” This is yet another voice in resistance to the cult of mindless busyness that seems to have taken root in almost every nook and cranny of our culture. Take time to reflect, wander, read purely for pleasure, read slowly, and go off the well-planned and programmed track.

Apart from a bit of TED-talk style walking to and fro, which had me watching the Auslan interpreter to prevent myself from becoming dizzy, I enjoyed Popova’s talk. She is not an literary artist in the traditional sense of the word, and, indeed, a great deal of what she does is summarising and curating (a word she bristled at when someone used it of her work). However, Popova’s project is nourishing and enabling in the style of a good teacher – – I walked out of her talk feeling more than ever energised to pursue my own work.

Image Credit: IDS Photos
Image Credit: IDS Photos

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Links:

The Philosophers’ Mail: http://thephilosophersmail.com/

Brain Pickings: http://www.brainpickings.org/

The School of Life: http://www.theschooloflife.com/

The School of Life Melbourne Campus: http://www.theschooloflife.com/melbourne/

John Armstrong: http://www.johnarmstrong.com.au/

John Armstrong at the University of Tasmania: http://www.utas.edu.au/provost/inglis-clark-centre/people/honorary-positions

Alain De Botton: http://alaindebotton.com/

Melbourne Writers’ Festival 2014: http://www.mwf.com.au/

Interview with Maria Popova for Dumbo Feather: http://www.dumbofeather.com/conversation/maria-popova-is-a-brain-picker/

Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project: http://www.gretchenrubin.com/

Oliver James: http://www.selfishcapitalist.com/

Abraham Maslow: http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/tp/self-actualized-characteristic.htm

Piaget and schema theory: http://www.etsu.edu/fsi/learning/schematheory.aspx

George Kelly and Constructivist Psychology: http://www.goodtherapy.org/constructivism.html#

Constructivism in education: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(psychological_school)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yagelski, Writing, and the Lego Movie

One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.

The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:

–          That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.

–          That writing is a way of reflecting and also reflecting on the process of writing.

–          That this reflection and process is a powerful tool in helping students and teachers see themselves in more authentic (less alienated) ways and;

–          Writing that connects directly with personal experiences and our situatedness in the world taps into a less product-driven model of thinking.

–          That this (in some way) links to efforts to construct a more ecologically and socially sustainable future.

Yagelski’s vision is that, against the standards-based, “No-Child-Left-Behind” context of education in the United States, teachers can help students see writing as a way of constructing a sense of their own being. Yagelski’s hope is that writing becomes something in which there is a personal stake in literacy and the act of putting pen to page, rather than as an activity entirely mediated by standards and expectations set by policy. There was an element of phenomenology (via Merleau-Ponty) in the argument, in that the experience of writing as a process and practice, rather than the production of a standards-based written product, was put to the fore. Yagelski states, “writing as an activity matters, separate from any text that is produced” (7) and “Writing in the moment … has the capacity to change us” (7). An awareness of the writing as experience is offered as a way of off-setting the narrow focus on producing ‘correct’ texts.

These are challenging ideas for those of us working within the limitations and practicalities of the English classroom in Australia. The political discourse about English education has become almost exclusively framed in terms of ‘standards’ and achievement as benchmarked by such things as NAPLAN results and ATAR scores. If you teach in the VCE, there is also the added dimension of having to explicitly scaffold and teach forms such as the text response essay or the persuasive text.

On the one hand, as an English teacher, I do believe that helping students master certain ‘rules’ about standard English composition and expression does help them go on to occupy a more-empowered place in their life. Times when I have taught this concept I have used the scene from the Australian film The Castle where the characters first put their case to the courts in terms of the “vibe” of Mabo and the Constitution. It is only when they get a QC lawyer who can argue within the discourse of law that the heroes can hope to gain traction for their case.

On the other hand, my own writing and literacy journey is one in which the process of writing and the experience of writing – -seeing myself as someone who writes — has been utterly central. For me, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are an essential facet of learning, because that is often how I formalise the learning in my own mind. I write about it and compose some ideas on the page outside the flurry of my own thoughts, where reflections on Yagelski, for example, sit alongside plans for a year 11 lesson and wondering what my six year old son is up to. Writing (and reading) are activities that have long felt like they ‘belong’ to me. Since childhood I have felt an immense sense of personal ownership of reading and writing – they matter. One of the reasons they matter is that they make a third space between the utterly shared world of sociality and the private world of thought. In this third space I can interpret ideas, critically evaluate the ideas that have been passed down to me, and, most importantly, come up with a personal synthesis that I can then share with others. Writing, for me, even when it has occurred in an academic context, has been about an experience of being, it is about composing myself on the page.

It is this idea that writing and reading matter at a personal level that I hope to foster and encourage in my students. I know that they cannot have this personal investment in their own literacy if they see it as only an exercise in compliance.

Nonetheless, I think it is inaccurate to say the ‘rules’ or standards are entirely or straightforwardly oppressive. As the first person in my family to gain a degree I have observed the ways in which people with uncertain skills in standard text production spend a lot of time simply avoiding situations in which they might have to use them. My husband has part of a law degree. Some years ago he wrote a letter for a member of my family who was negotiating with a technical education institute and felt themselves without the necessary words and literacy skills to self-advocate in a discourse the institution would recognise. I have seen first-hand how weak skills in standardised text production can harm and limit power. To be able to text and Tweet and update Facebook, but to not be able to write anything longer than that, is inadequate and damaging. Explicit scaffolding into the forms and styles of ‘standard’ texts is for me a democratising exercise.

So where is the line crossed? Where does cultural capital – in the form of certain forms of academic literacy – become oppressive? How do standards situate the student writer as merely a producer of pre-determined texts and how do they actually enable a more fluent production of a self-in-the-world?

For me the crux of the matter is Yagelski’s observation that “writing [is] an act of meaning making” (9). His vision of writing, however, seems to oppose the authentic process of making meaning through writing to the business of producing academic, standard texts. He argues that students are fed a line that drives a wedge between the aim of producing texts in ‘standard’ academic forms, and a personally meaningful experience of writing:

“Writing, they are being told, isn’t about making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living; rather, it is about following rules and creating ‘good’ texts, about conforming to conventions and demonstrating a narrow kind of literate proficiency” (19).

But does this opposition always hold? Ultimately, what I want for my students is a technology and fluency in written and spoken discourse so that they can work out what they think and engage the world with their ideas. They need to be able to interpret and form their own reading of the texts and narratives that circulate in our culture, and they need to be able to formulate personally significant yet intelligible meanings of their own. Is this always opposed to growing fluency in academic literacy?

This is where I started to think about the Lego Movie. At the risk of sounding undertheorised, Yagelski’s article made me think of the film I took my son to see earlier in the break. Yagelski seems to pose division between ‘standard’ literacy and writing for “making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living”. Emett, the protagonist of the Lego Movie, is a totally standardised being. He follows the instruction manuals for every moment of his day, following each guide to the letter. He strives to avoid deviation and eccentricity in a world where taste, thought and creativity have been outsourced. The villain of this world, President Business, aims to eliminate all personal creativity and reflection. The heroes of this dystopian Lego-verse are “master builders”, characters who have passed through the manual-following stage and have come out the other side able to cobble together any structure they desire from the bits available to them. In one scene of the film, the thoughts and imagination of the master builders appear as serial numbers and visual memories of the various Lego bits at their disposal. They run through them like an internal catalogue, out of which they assemble a prodigious variety of machines.

Now this is a version of creative production that suggests several things:

–          That fluency and creativity in a certain medium comes via increasing mastery of the basics;

–          That knowing the language or grammar of your medium allows you to negotiate new meanings and forms.

–          That any medium is plastic, with an inherent tension between pattern and surprise.

–          That the creative process is open-ended and that while there are forms, they are unfinished.

–          All meaning-making is dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. That is, we absorb the forms and utterances of others, but we rather than simply recite them, we can add our own interpretations and variations to the language.

To come back to the teaching of writing, I feel that our current political atmosphere does seem to promulgate a view of writing that is like following an instruction manual. As in a lot of areas of life, there seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate the need for a person to have expertise and the powers of observation and interpretation. However, despite the attractiveness of Yagelski’s focus on writing as an experience, in practice I am not sure I can divorce the teaching of writing from the written product students are being asked to produce. What I would prefer is an approach that seeks to draw students through the process of writing that, while giving them the tools to write in academic forms, also helps them develop a personal stake in writing as meaning making. After all, the most tantalising writing assignment is, perhaps, one mentioned by Yagelski: “What matters to you?”

References:

Yagelski, Robert P. (2009). “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being”. English Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 2009), pp. 6 – 28.

You and me and ASD: On the Question of Labels

One of the things I have taken time to reflect on over the summer period is the six months that have elapsed since our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/High Functioning Autism/Autism Spectrum Disorder (take your pick). Last year proved to be a big one in many unexpected ways for us, but the ASD diagnosis was definitely the biggest change we saw.

Twelve months ago we sought help from health professionals thinking our son had an anxiety disorder. Six months after that, in June, we were told that the consensus among a psychologist, speech pathologist and a paediatrician was that the best explanation for his difficulties was ASD. I remember my concern about ‘labels’ during the initial phase of diagnosis. However, this concern very quickly melted into the background once it became apparent that a diagnosis could set a whole lot of things moving that would ultimately help everyone.

The questions are:

Are we better off since the diagnosis? Are we parenting our son with more clues? Is he happier? Are we?

Yes to all of the above.

Do we think of him as only his diagnosis?

No, of course not.

So what has changed, and how is it for the better?

Firstly, we are parenting him differently and the changes in our son are very evident. He is happier, more relaxed and more able to make sense of each day. He still has trouble with some things but we have much more of an insight into why that is and what we can do about it. The specialists we have been working with – psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and a paediatrician – have provided us with lots of useful strategies to support our son and make our family life run more smoothly. It is not perfect, but no family is. We use visual schedules and social stories to help our son plan his time and organise himself. We use prompts and questions to help him learn the reciprocity that underlies conversation, and we have done lots of work on his motor organisation and skills for pre-writing to prepare him for school. What’s more, the school he is going to knows of his particular needs and will take extra care of him because of this.

In short, we do things slightly differently and it works. He is happier because he feels better understood and we are no longer trying to parent him as if he is someone else. Instead, we have got a better idea about the ‘operating system’ or ‘frequency’ his brain runs on and so we no longer experience the mutual frustration that comes from behaving as if the more common rules apply.

Which brings me to the main insight that this experience has given me. This concerns the issue of ‘labels’ and the reservations we and others have had about the whole issue of ‘labelling’ a child.  Six months into this new version of normal life I have come to the conclusion that concerns about ‘labelling’ might actually be a bit of a furphy.

I have learnt that the decision to go for a diagnosis in and of itself does not necessarily mean you are ‘labelling’ your child. People tend to use this idea of labelling to signal a concern that a diagnosis means that you are stigmatising your child, or putting an arbitrary limit on who they are, or reducing their human liveliness and complexity to a blurb in a diagnostic manual. These concerns would be valid – if they were true.

In our experience, a diagnosis has had the opposite effect – it has opened up our child to us as we can now understand him better and, in his case, his flourishing and growth has only increased since we decided to have him formally assessed for ASD.

To be sure, medical labels have been used to disempower and limit people. They can be terribly reductive when misused or used to replace actual engagement with the person and life’s irreducible complexity.

I see this mirrored in my life as an English teacher. My heart always sinks when students decide to diagnose a character, as if that explains them. As if a diagnosis, once made, means there is nothing more that needs to be said and no further thinking is required.

Yeah, Hamlet, he was like, a depressive, right? He just needed to get over it? Or Emma Bovary? You know, she was like a shopping addict? What she needed was a divorce and a good SSRI. Imagine if all of literature treated human experience in this way. Macbeth? Neurotic pride in achievement and power. Anti-social personality. Emily Dickinson? Agoraphobic. Social anxiety disorder. And don’t even get us started on those Brontë sisters.

The image purveyed by the popular media is of gung-ho psychologists busily diagnosing every socially awkward and brainy kid as ‘on the spectrum’ and press-ganging parents into pursuing expensive treatment. From the waiting times for each appointment it was clear to us that the last thing some of these clinics need is more patients.

Our experience contrasted this popular image. At every stage in the diagnostic process the professionals we were dealing with left it entirely up to us whether or not we proceeded with a formal assessment. At several junctures we were given explicit feedback that we did not have to proceed. The entire process was very respectful and we were assured repeatedly that we should continue to value our son in all his complexity and brilliance and quirks and that he is still an individual. Yes. Of course.

Years ago, I was one of the ‘don’t label him’ people. Back when our son was 2 going on 3, the staff at the early learning centre he was enrolled in expressed ‘concerns’ about his development. I had many meetings and conversations with them about his ‘progress’ and it was clear to me that they were dissatisfied.

At the time, and at the request of the early learning centre, we took our son to a paediatrician. This guy said he saw nothing amiss and it was probably ‘just temperament’. We, of course, were delighted to hear this and the whole episode was buried in my consciousness; that is, until we were part-way through the diagnostic process this second time around. During the diagnostic process those memories surfaced again – and this time I had a different take on my then-resistance to what I saw as normative standards being used to construe my son as a ‘concern’. He only wants to play with one type of toy? So what? Focus is good. He doesn’t draw representations of people? Well, neither do a whole bunch of adult artists. He has not moved beyond parallel play? Well, he comes from a family of people who like solitude. And that hand-flapping gesture he does? It’s just excitement.

I did not understand what the childhood educators were getting at. But I knew that I was always going to bristle at any hint of people trying to funnel him into a narrow, normative box.

I feel the same now about norms that are cultural rather than medical as I did then. But I feel differently about worrying about ‘labelling’.

The litmus test is this – he and we were having a hard time. Now, we are having a better time. What have we told him? That he had a lot of worries and that we are helping him with that. He seems satisfied with this explanation and it has the added benefit of being true.

Japanese ASD expert Yuko Yoshida in her delightful book Raising Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome: Championing the Individual, says it all in her title. Her argument about the ‘don’t label’ view is that to not diagnose and recognise your child’s distinct reality and difficulties is also, in a way, a failure to respect them as individuals. To simply avoid dealing with a child’s difference, to not engage with their specific needs and learn what best supports them is to abandon them. The ‘don’t label’ stance can inadvertently throw a child back on their own limited resources for trying to make their way in what is for them a confusing world. Done right, diagnosis is actually recognising difference.

For us, undergoing the quite arduous process of a formal diagnosis engaged our minds and focus. We were prompted to learn about ASD and our son’s particular ‘presentation’ and his particular needs. And it is the particularity that counts. A diagnosis is not a person, any more than a map is a place. But, if you want to know a place, in all is glorious particularity, you are going to need a map to get there.

Yuko Yoshida ASD book

“Talking in a dream”: thoughts on teaching Death of a Salesman.

Last term I taught Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949). Each time I teach it, I see something different; some unexpected facet of it comes to light. This time round, I realised that almost all of the texts in our school’s IB English course deal with failure. Madame Bovary? Washed-up adulteress commits suicide. Macbeth? A man becomes king after murdering his ruler and his best friend, and then dies a friendless tyrant. The Cherry Orchard? Hopelessly inept aristocratic family lose their land. A Streetcar Named Desire? Aging Southern Belle fails to get a beau, is assaulted by her brother-in-law and goes mad.

This has prompted me to wonder at the prevalence of failure in literature. As a culture, we laud success, televise it, award it laurels. We exhort our young people (and ourselves) to ‘follow the dream’. But even as these words are on our lips, we know that life is not that simple, nor should it be reduced to a single idea. Self-help books teach us how to succeed – but is it possible we learn at least as much about how to live from the literature of failure?

As it happened, our class was studying Salesman at about the same time as my students had to submit their preferences for university courses to the relevant authorities. While we were immersed in the awful dramas of the Loman household, my students were having to examine what ideals they had about their lives and what model of ‘success’ they were going to adopt as they make the journey into adulthood. This became a topic of class discussion. Study to qualify at a preferred profession figured high on their list. Some also listed marriage and having a family as something important that they aspired to. Still others talked about having special kinds of experiences such as travel. A minority mentioned what might be termed more ‘spiritual’ aspects of life – attaining happiness or learning to ‘live in the moment’.

For most young people, their ideas about success will be interim measures: as life takes hold and increases its demands, they will probably modify their measures of success as, at best, misrepresentations of life’s complexity. Chances are they will succeed at the tasks currently set out for them – to sit their exams and get a series of marks that will allow them to take on further study. And this is important, because it gives them opportunities to pursue some of life’s more interesting paths.

But is success the same as the ‘good life’? Teaching Death of a Salesman has made me wonder about the double-edged nature of dreams and how their mesmerising power can lead us to confuse a good life with rather simplistic measures of achievement. When we construct criteria for success, we also, inadvertently, develop the criteria for failure. When we talk so much about dreams and goals, how are we preparing ourselves to absorb and honour the lessons of failure?

Willy Loman and his family have something to teach us about the nature of dreams. Despite the sixty years that separate the play’s first performance and our time, we have a lot in common with Willy and his boys. Between Miller’s peak-capitalist context to our own late-capitalist lives, there is still the common element of individual freedom in a largely secular society; hence each of us is required to come up with a sense of narrative or purpose with which to organise our lives. Without this, we can end up feeling that there is just random, arbitrary experience without any sense of meaning.

Willy’s son, Biff, expresses this, when he says that life as a ranch-hand is not enough for him, despite his joy in its day-to-day pleasures: “whenever spring comes to where I am, I suddenly get the feeling, my God, I’m not getting anywhere. What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week!” Biff actually enjoys his life as a ranch-hand, but he disparages it because it does not meet the criteria for achievement he has in mind. Miller’s play is rich in ideas and cannot be reduced to a single message. However, this year the play seems to pose a particularly pertinent question: Are dreams necessary?

For our ancestors, religion and its goals provided a framework for meaning that meant there was less pressure on the individual to provide it out of the raw stuff of their lives. Or, rather, the raw stuff was woven into the larger shared story of religious faith. Through daily life, each person was working towards salvation – and salvation was available to all, noble and humble commoner alike.

But in our pluralist, mass society, even if we do subscribe to a religious creed, we are essentially individualist. The onus is on us, as individuals, to make a ‘success’ of our lives and to decide what it all means. In a commercial, consumerist society, this mostly translates into material success and status, or, as Willy says, “a man has got to add up to something.”

In Miller’s play, Biff’s anxiety about his shapeless life suggests that dreams are, in a way, necessary. As Charley says in the play’s “Requiem”, “a salesman is got to dream … it comes with the territory”. We are all, in a way, ‘salesmen’; compelled to sell our labour, time, attention, skills, and ideas to make a living. To give all this selling value and shape, we construct goals and ideas of success towards which we work. But does success, construed as realising our dreams, actually deliver the meaning we think it will? Early in the play Biff’s younger brother Happy expresses this doubt, “I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. … it’s what I always wanted. My own apartment, a car, plenty of women. And still, goddammit, I’m lonely.”

Perhaps it is the nature of the Loman family’s dreams that are the problem, or a misunderstanding of what dreams can do for them. Miller’s play suggests, through the voice of Biff, that some dreams are “wrong” and “phony”. By contrast, Happy argues that “the only dream you can have” is to “come out number-one man”, a disheartening view of life that demands that one person’s success depends on a host of others enduring failure. Happy, it is suggested, has not learned from his loneliness at the end of each day as he sits in his apartment. His answer to the emptiness he feels is that he simply has not yet accrued enough of the simple signs of success his culture promotes.

Yet, Biff’s answer – a rejection of dreams altogether – is also unsatisfactory. The closest he comes to articulating a view of the good life brims with an existential appreciation of impressions and experiences, “I stopped in the middle of that building and I saw – the sky. I saw the things that I love in this world. The work and the food and time to sit and smoke.” Nonetheless, Willy’s older son remains haunted by a sense of failure and aimlessness.

Teaching Death of a Salesman has prompted me to think about whether we need to dream with more imagination and with a little scepticism about what our dreams can reasonably do for us. Willy’s dreams for Biff seem both wildly unrealistic and vague – something to do with the trappings of success, rather the content of the work. He brings his boys up to be “rugged, well-liked, all-around” and “big in no time”, but the precise life he hopes for Biff beyond a college football scholarship is left undefined. He just wants Biff to realise the “all kinds a greatness” in him. Such wild demands ensure that dreams are standardised and tyrannous – such dreams do not come from Biff and what he truly loves, but are informed by anxieties about money and status. They also imply that reaching a dream sweeps away all of life’s difficulty and inherent lack. Most destructively, they set up Biff for failure, for no actual life could reach this father’s dreams of permanent transcendence – the star that “can never really fade away.”

Our fixation on dreams of success can, rather than freeing us to imagine and respond to life as it is, deaden us. In his essays “On Success” and “Futures” British psychoanalyst Adam Philips invites us to consider the ‘good life’ as an ever-widening repertoire of stories and ways of being. He also asks us to entertain the possibility that dreams are not entirely useful. As limiting theories about the criteria of ‘success’, dreams can inhibit our ability to live gracefully. Perhaps it is just as well that so much of our literature is about failure – studying it provides one of the few avenues in which we can consider its value. Perhaps we need to admit that we cannot replace that lost world of religious faith with an idol of personal success – life is too big a burden for such a puny god to carry.

References:

Miller, Arthur. (1949). Death of a Salesman. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Phillips, Adam. (1994). “On Success” and “Futures” in On Flirtation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Why be an English teacher in the digital age?

This is a question that has been with me for some time now. Really – why be a High School English teacher in a culture where even ‘educated’ adults rarely read in any linear, sustained way and technology increasingly takes the labour out of literacy?

In ever more strident tones, I am being exhorted to ‘go digital’ in my teaching and texts and be ‘relevant’ and ‘engaging’ to my digital native students. Time after time I go to professional development where the argument is more or less, “The kids are digital, so should you be.”

A colleague recently returned from some professional development to tell me that the latest research suggests that the average number of hours teenagers are spending online is 85 per week and that their favourite search engine is no longer Google, but YouTube. In other words, information that cannot be rendered in a visual format is becoming invisible to this generation. Again, the message to educators was, ‘Adapt or die – you must digitise your teaching.”

But I think there has to be more to it than that. It is more than simply a question of being where they are – online, skipping and clicking amongst the info-bits. Sure, I use a computer all day long in my work. I manage a class wiki for curriculum content for each of my classes and get students to use video and graphics in their work. I use a variety of media in my teaching and include visual literacy in activities and assessment. I have even learned how to podcast. Since embarking on a Master’s degree in Teacher Librarianship I have begun teaching how to research using online sources – how to get good results with carefully framed search terms and how to use subscription-only services that deliver quality content.

But there is a sensation of standing on a cliff-edge while the tide of change slowly erodes the ground beneath my feet. It feels as if, sooner or later, the very foundations of the discipline I teach will crumble into the sea: careful deep reading; devoting attention to a single text and allowing oneself to be absorbed in it; working to construe meaning beyond the surface information given; grappling with the complexities of human existence as explored in complex texts; a focus on craft and art in language to convey subtle and multi-layered ideas; coming up with your own ‘take’ on the information, and developing an individuated, inquiring and well-rounded mind fed from great literature both from the past and contemporary writers. Already, these ideals sound quaint, particularly to my students, for many of whom the only question is, “How can I get this task done quickly?”

I recognise the need to incorporate new, digital literacies into the English (and other) curriculums. We cannot tell ourselves, as educators, that we are preparing students well if we ignore the fundamental shifts in the way we read, communicate and manage our work in an interconnected, online world.

And yet there seems to be an assumption in much of the discussion about technology in the classroom that this is an ‘add-on’ – that we are simply finding more relevant, engaging ways of delivering the same content and conveying the same habits of mind that have been inherent in our discipline. I think this is fundamentally untrue. I think the challenges go deeper than this – they go to the very heart of what it is, wrapped up inside our subject’s content, that we are trying to teach.

Reading Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (2010) clarified for me the source of my unease, my sense that most of the discussion around technology in the classroom was avoiding confronting some of the main issues. It’s not enough to say, “The kids are digital, so should you be.” We need to discuss what lies at the heart of our academic disciplines as their ‘intellectual ethic’, “a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work” (Carr, 45). Academic and technical disciplines have evolved to codify and organise existing human knowledge as well as the maintenance and growth of that knowledge. They put a premium on certain ways of knowing – reasoning, evidence, language, problem solving, creativity, practical ‘know how’ – and they institute teaching practices that convey, often implicitly, this valuing of certain ways of thinking.

We need discuss our subject’s ‘intellectual ethic’ because in changing the media we use in the classroom, we are not just switching to a newer, more relevant, more engaging way of teaching the same stuff. As Carr points out, from Marshall McLuhan onwards, media theorists have been emphasising that when you change the medium, you change the content. What’s more, you change the very parameters of what it’s possible to focus on, what kinds of thought are encouraged, what kinds of messages and information can be conveyed, and what kinds of subjectivity and identity are produced.

Studies in brain plasticity have found that the technologies we use inevitably have an impact on our own ‘intellectual ethic’. What Carr found, and what both scientific research and anecdotal evidence suggests, is that by engaging with new communications and information technologies, we are not just handling the same content as we did when we just read books or studied rhetoric. We train our brains to adopt a style of thinking that mimics the technologies we use, “Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster the better” (Carr, 10).

When I teach English Literature using new communications technologies, or when I train to be a twenty-first century librarian, what intellectual ethic am I embodying – and is this ethic compatible with the aims and objectives of what we think of as an educated mind? Or do our definitions of literacy and being educated need to be revised to address current conditions?

Two anecdotes:

 

Earlier this year I took a middle years class to the school library reading room. This has been a core feature of being an English teacher since year dot – you take your class to the library and provide opportunities for free voluntary reading and choice in text selection. You do this because one of the greatest predictors of a child’s success at acquiring higher level literacy is whether or not they engage in free voluntary reading in a regular, sustained way and this is linked to their exposure to books. Just exposure to books makes a difference. So it’s part of your job – you take them, you set them loose among the shelves to browse, they find books to borrow and meanwhile you supervise and model silent, sustained reading yourself by having taken a book you are reading with you.

For the ten years I have been teaching High School English most students take a long while to settle to the library environment, to commit to browsing and find a book that interests them. About a quarter bring a book with them and settle to reading fairly quickly, and a small minority dodge the reading thing altogether, at best sitting with a magazine and pretending to read. However, the last ten or fifteen minutes were, in the past, characterised by a quiet hush as, finally, a critical mass of students in the class commit their attention to the text in front of them and let the spell be cast.

This happens less and less. There is still the ‘hardcore’ minority of readers who come armed with the novel they have on the go, or who browse purposefully and find something that interests them. But a gulf now lies between them and everyone else. And everyone else, as far as I can see, cannot read in the linear, literary sense of that word.

I watched my class – any thought of having time to model silent reading abandoned – as all but the half dozen ‘hardcore’ readers cast their eyes cursorily over some pages, started a conversation, fiddled with the furnishings, wandered aimlessly among the shelves, went to the toilet, came back, picked up a magazine, turned a few pages, tossed it aside, sighed, and then asked to use their computer. They never make it to the point where they can read for fifteen minutes.

And here is my dilemma – there is enough research to suggest that their constant use of computers and smart phones is precisely what is eroding their ability to commit their attention to a single page of text. The hyper-linked environment of the online world with its endless stream of text-snippets excites our love of novelty and is very convenient; but, used as much as it is by many young people, it eats into the ability to sustain attention, work through a line of thought to its end, to enjoy and savour complexity in language and ideas. But in asking them to leave their computers behind when we go to the reading room, am I condemning the reading program to irrelevancy?

Books such as that by Nicholas Carr and Maggie Jackson’s Distracted (2009) have given us a comprehensive survey of the neuropsychological research into how our brains and attention are being rewired by the cognitive hyperactivity of new media. While watching these kids there is the distinct feeling that this is a change that it is futile to resist. And yet, in an educational environment where being digital has become a pedagogical imperative – including in the library — where is the space and time to counter-balance these distracted tendencies? Even if we ‘go digital’ in our teaching and learning, from where have students developed the methods of focus, attentiveness, and top-down executive cognitive control to develop their own interpretation and synthesis of information, digital or otherwise? From where do these ultimate aims of information literacy come from, if not from these more traditional literacy forms?

As far as I could tell, my students were, on the whole, not avoiding reading simply out of resistance to the institutional practices they associate it with (although there are always a few for whom reading is uncool). They simply could not settle their minds to the page and the quiet required to read deeply. They could not do it then, and, if their writing and vocabulary are any indication of their exposure to more than the text-snippets of the online world, they do not do it ever.

The question is – does it matter?

Another anecdote:

I also teach a Year 12 International Baccalaureate class in English. Some weeks ago we were closely analysing the ‘Banquet Scene’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the scene in which Banquo’s ghost appears to an appalled Macbeth, who has ordered his best friend’s murder. We had an amazing discussion – -students posed ideas such as that Banquo was representative of Macbeth’s conscience and that the tragic hero has tried to ‘murder’ his conscience, his friendship, and hence his older, better self in order to pursue power. We talked about how this sets up Macbeth as a tragic hero, despite his being a monster, and how this scene linked to the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ soliloquy near the play’s close as Macbeth realises the futility of his actions and how, in the pursuit of power, he has lost everything actually worth having in life, such as true friendship.

Towards the end of the class, one of the students looked up at me and said, “I feel so lucky, that we get to study this. I feel so sad for the students who don’t get to do this.” We talked about the ‘information’ we get from studying Macbeth and other works of literature. ‘Not everything is in books,’ quipped one student, to which I could not but agree. She is right. But there is something, some knowledge that is developed in the students as they grapple with such a dark and resonant text.

This knowledge, and the ‘intellectual ethic’ built into its slow, arduous acquisition, is something very nourishing; I even believe that it helps us live a better, more meaningful life. I think this was what my student was getting at when she said she felt ‘lucky’ to be studying it. Was this student a bookish recluse? Hardly. She, and her peers in the class, all use smartphones and the internet a great deal – including in class. But they use it somewhat differently to many of their easily distractible peers. They use ICTs purposefully, combined with stretches of committing their attention to a single text or task. Are students like these the key to showing us how to retain the heritage of the linear, print-culture mind while adopting new technologies and new ways of thinking? And yet, why are they so in the minority, and will even students like them disappear? And again, will that even matter?

I think it does – something is lost if we lose the capacities and knowledge built by the study of texts like Macbeth. The tragedy and significance that burnishes human life in Shakespeare conveys to students that individuals matter, but that life is irresolvably complicated. It also states that we are not free of our human predicaments, but we are compelled to try to solve them nonetheless, sometimes erring in our efforts, and therein lies the meaning of existence.

I have to ask if it is possible to infuse this old ‘intellectual ethic’ of deep reading and an individually constructed interpretation of the text in a classroom increasingly shaped by a digital ethic of speed, interconnectivity, multitasking, and shallow, bricolage learning. If I repackage the text in new ways to compensate for the fact that many students can no longer read it, what of its original content remains, and what is utterly changed by the shift in medium? One can be an English teacher in the digital age, but what does this mean now? What intellectual ethic are we really able to impart?

References:

Carr, Nicholas. (2010). The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic Books.

Jackson, Maggie. (2009). Distracted: The erosion of attention and the coming dark age. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.