Hard Sums, Flying Pigs and other Tails – A Reflective Practice Odyssey!

This is the follow-up course to last year’s “Smuggling Donkeys – A Reflective Practice Journey”, both of which were offered by Marino Institute of Education and facilitated by Gerry O’Connell and Michael Hayes. On the surface of it, one would wonder what it will be about and by the last day, one is still wondering about it but in a more meaningful way!

Here’s what I got from this year’s course. The key point throughout is that the questions are more important than the answers.

Day 1: What do we really teach children? Can we teach others to teach? Can we call ourselves teachers? Does teaching something devoid it of meaning? Is a child’s learning best placed when it’s through his own experiences and on his own terms? Why is there such a focus on the end-product as opposed to the experience or the process? We discussed Carl Rogers, read an extract from James Rebanks’s book “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” and were provided with an extract of Ken Robinson’s “Finding Your Element”. In this Robinson doesn’t discuss education directly but when he does, he needs to be approached with caution, further views on this here and here.

Day 2: We started off the day with a discussion on learning objectives and learning outcomes. Are teachers expected to be able to see into the future? When we are dealing with a group of people, even with one person, their responses cannot be accurately predicted. Therefore so-called learning outcomes should not be unmovable targets. The learning outcome is in flux, and will depend on the interactions and relationships between the learners and the teacher. Often times, a lesson will end up in a completely different place than was expected, but this should be accepted and is ok. Learning is experiential! We then did a twenty-minute meditation exercise, where some of us took to the giant bean bags to participate in this activity. What followed was a mindful walk from the Marino campus to The Yacht pub in Dollymount. We stopped just before we arrived at our destination for an activity, something called ‘The Complexity Game’ which involved picking two people from the group, assigning them the letters A and B and positioning yourself so that A is always between you and B. Then the rule changes, you have to position yourself between A and B. I won’t say what happens because it is best to experience this for oneself. The thought that emerged from this is that “complex, unscripted behaviour can emerge from simple rules” (course slides). We then had tea and sandwiches before mindfully walking back to Marino. We took home some more handouts – another from Carl Rogers concerning core conditions and education and one from Pamela Bradshaw entitled “What about Sharing?”.

Day 3: After an introduction which reflected on yesterday’s activities, we meditated for 10 minutes. We engaged in various discussions regarding homework and its values (or lack of), the perceptions others have about teachers, the value of what we do and whether or not what is of value in teaching can be measured – equally is what’s currently measured of any value? We looked briefly at Aidan Seery’s views on the competing voices in Irish education. We were provided with an extract from Seán Delaney’s book which focussed on homework. During the afternoon, we discussed data and how it can be manipulated to suit a certain agenda or outlook. This led on to a discussion on standardised testing and the way in which it’s viewed by teachers, principals, parents and policy-makers. A reading of a W. James Popham offering informed this discussion.

Day 4: We met in Howth and had a mindful walk around the cliffs. When we reached the end of our route, the majority of the group doubled back to see things from a different perspective, while four of us took a shortcut back past the summit and along a different walking route, cutting through the middle of Howth. Our day concluded in O’Connell’s Pub for lunch. Relaxed conversations filled the day.

Day 5: We began with meditation. We moved on to a general discussion about the course and the ideas behind this year’s course. We were visited by Gene Mehigan who gave a guest presentation on the topic of spelling – we shouldn’t be teaching how to strictly spell correctly, we should be teaching how to spell. Children will go through transitional phases in their journey to be good at spelling, it is up to us to meet their needs at the various junctures. We don’t tell children not to speak until they’re four years old just because they’re not able to do it perfectly, the same should be applied to spelling. As it happened, during a dictation exercise with our group, none of us spelled all ten target words correctly. This provided me with an opportunity to empathise with the struggling or transitional speller. We finished the course with a mindful dance together, with actions. We then parted ways.

Reflective practice was the main theme of the course and was present to various extents during each discussion. That said, what was the outcome of the course? It depended on the individual. There was no compulsion for one strict type of engagement throughout the week. Each individual interaction or reaction provided the course participants with something unpredictable. There were starting points each day but it was up to the group what direction it took. For this type of course, I would say that the process is more important than the product. It is a course where you are treated as a professional and you are acknowledged as an expert at what you do. It’s not a course where you are given a list of ideas for use in the classroom, rather it is a course that reminds you to think about what you do (and what you have done) and to do it meaningfully and mindfully.

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