Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Education of Human Dimension.

Tardis - "Doctor Who" BBC.
“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Sherlock Holmes - “A Case of Identity”.

A recent “Doctor Who” fiction proved, for me, unwittingly metaphoric. “Flatline” (deliciously clever this) imagined two-dimensional beings making first contact in normal, everyday Bristol. ‘Dimensionally leached’, Joe and Jane Public are ‘flattened’ beyond General Zog’s worst nightmares in Superman’s Phantom Zone. As a diminutive Tardis goes into ‘siege mode’ the shapeless ones aspire to dimensions beyond their nature. The whole thing is, of course, sorted as usual in 40-odd very enjoyable minutes.  

Like the Bristol depicted in ‘Flatline’, schools seem pretty ordinary, predictable places. In fact, I sometimes played on this very perception in class by asking for suggestions of the smallest indication students could imagine that would change our reassuringly familiar room into a fearful place. ‘An HB pencil levitates, Sir!’ ‘A tiny tear opens in the universe, just in front of Nigel’s nose!’ Dramatic pause...we all look at Nigel’s nose. If he’s witty, Nigel ‘zips’ the imaginary tear and we cheer SuperNige to the rafters. Saved. Dorothy’s home in Kansas.

What such little fantasy excursions do is to affirm the classroom as a second home with human dimensions. If children feel ‘at home’ at school, they are more inclined to venture and explore dimensions as yet unknown, both outside and within. The classroom is a foyer; it’s where we meet to go somewhere else in good company. And, yes, at peak power, it’s the threshold of a living Tardis - academy box from the outside; mind-blowing within.

I am speaking not of science-fiction or the fifth dimension of supernatural fiction. I speak in metaphor of realms of knowing, appreciation, values, culture, experience, discovery and imagination  which constitute the natural human dimension. As such, we are blessed as human beings and therefore the trick every teacher who ever lived has to pull off is to educate without ‘dimensional leaching’, without restricting or reducing horizons.

That this is no easy matter, (that we are all Claras with no magic Doctor Who) is a part of the human condition. Vigilance is essential. Rivers silt up if dredging is neglected. Shipping lanes narrow and close. Rock-solid marriages founder in weeks, drifting to sand. Whole nations sleepwalk from the sunlit uplands of tolerance into the dark ravines of extremism in a blink of Time.. Schools too may lose their way. Because the commonplace is composed of the extraordinary, we take it for granted at our peril.

Real life needs no CGI special effects nor alien invention: here, we are our own worst enemy.

The most bizarre happenings  - beyond anyone’s pale or prediction - can render a school surreal any ordinary day -

. I smile now (but I didn’t at the time) at:
  1. The morning break when I was on playground duty in 1976 when a parent came through the gates (at the behest of his son, a pupil) to show everyone his two young lions on leashes.
  2. The day I visited another school in my authority on CSE business and had the (locked) school library pointed out: “We don’t open it. The kids would wreck it.”
  3. My first visit as new HOD to a (timetabled) CSE English class where the girls (wearing Domestic Science aprons) were sandpapering the desks and the boys ( in Woodwork aprons) were nailing down desk lids. “It’s our Clean-Up-The-Classroom” period - we do it every Friday”, explained my colleague. Not after that they didn’t.

You couldn’t make it up. (If you’re wondering, nailing down the lids stopped the packed-lunch pupils dumping litter there.)

These were isolated, innocently eccentric breaches in the fabric of normality. That’s why we can afford to be amused. Somehow the unjustifiable seemed quite okay. Wrong time. Wrong place. Wrong dimension. Ludicrous.

OK for Ginger Rogers but don't try this at School.

It is less of a laughing matter when the systems devised by humans are misapplied, with all the power of official sanction, beyond their native dimensions.

Don’t we just love system? We’d be fools not to. Order, organization, predictable, replicable method, guide-line, timetable, map, rulebook...I’d not be sending these electronic blog-pulses without the complex algorithms that guarantee OK when I type OK.

We  have been half in love with the linear for centuries. Why not? It serves us well. We bemoan its absence keenly when that Swedish flat-pack wardrobe arrives without clear instructions. Armies (always a good guide to what works) swear by “the chain of command”. And we queue. Do we queue! Those Italian grapes we scan at the supermarket are the precise, known, tracked, expected triumph of layers and layers, chains and chains of linear processes as elegantly and perfectly executed as the delicate ultrafine touch of a robot arm shaping a car. You know where you are with a system and you know where you’re going. Procedures oil our daily transactions with the world and each other and we mostly submit to, comply with them voluntarily because they are of clear benefit. You don’t get far with a job application if you don’t follow the procedure.

We are thus inclined to self-limitation when it suits us. A trainee London cabbie will assiduously apply all attention to learning “the knowledge”, blocking out any notion of nipping into The Tate to enjoy the paintings. Trust is placed in the predetermined. And a driving course is just that - you anticipate that every action taken, every word of advice has restricted, focused relevance to becoming a driver.

In terms of my Tardis image, a system looks like a police box on the outside and proves to be exactly and only a police box on entry and exit. We need police boxes; they have their proper place but that’s not on every corner. A society so systematised may maintain a wholesome perspective only through familiarity with experiences in the human dimension beyond systems. This is the proper role of a general education.

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci.

When I consider what justification may legitimate universal compulsion to a period of general education I conclude government and society must have in mind an unwritten contract framed as it were in loco infantis on behalf of the adult every child taught will become. That contract promises to educate in the whole human dimension without restricting or reducing horizons. 

A suitable teacher will be wise enough to know that a pupil has possibilities, insights, talents and dimensions as yet unknown not what these mysteries are or should be. There will be an appreciation (shared & inherited) that systematised knowledge has its place but lacks the dimensions to presume to nurture all we are and may be. 

Such a teacher, however clever and learned, will have the modest wisdom to resist every proprietary impulse in education, knowing that knowledge, experience, insight and imagination are common pasture. And that teacher shall possess a perspective on the uses, abuses, strengths and limitations of systems deployed on behalf of children.

Patronising  drip-feeding of a narrow curricular content will be anathema and such a teacher will be so observant of and attuned to children, so aware of the artificial boundaries of subject disciplines that individual, unique connections arising in the course of a lesson will be privately hoped for and explicitly valued.

In my own subject, English, metaphor is the Antipodes of the linear (as, I understand, is the neural network of the brain). While the linear is a timetabled rail journey on irrevocable tracks from A through B to C, metaphor flies cross-country leaping hedgerows from P to D. A class in metaphor that does not value and nurture a child’s own capacity for imagery is no education at all. This is what systematic training in metaphor looks like: a Tardis flattened to two dimensions.

In fact, this is largely what certain stretches of the prevailing landscape of education look like. And it’s what happens when you commit inordinate faith and energy to inappropriate vehicles. The elegant, orderly precision of business and commercial systems has proved an irresistibly tempting template for those who would account for and measure teaching and learning. Closed, finite training schedules masquerade as liberal curriculum. Schools lay undue emphasis on children looking and acting like scholars. Teachers diminished to instructors and administrators service a national wall display that’s paper thin and an insult to them and their children.

How easily can we slip from the real to the surreal!

Image by Igor Morski.

My perception is that is how teachers feel right now. Workload is surreal in Technicolour. Marking tries to address multiple audiences. Nothing is deemed to happen or have happened of value without evidence. Compliance squats at the dark end of this unlit cul-de-sac.

What a job teaching has become! What a treadmill learning! For how long may a man or woman operate on such disparate levels - educate in the true sense of the word AND service a chimera?

There is a generation (of new teachers, of parents, of politicians and streams of children) for whom the chimerical, the two-dimensional may come to seem (if we’re not careful) all there is or could be.   

Looks like there’s plenty of work for teachers to do.

Just keep your Tardis bigger on the inside and all will be well.

Note from Ray: I speak in images as the only language I know that guarantees free thinking and an honourable model for an education of human dimension.

“Listen, It is like that. Stars and stars.
And behind them more stars.
And then more stars still”.
                                     ( from “I Sphinx” by P K Page).

Image courtesy Idomusis Mokslas.

© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved

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