Experience as a Classroom Resource
Amidst all the uncertainties in the world of education, there is, what John Dewey calls, ‘one permanent frame of reference’. He describes this frame of reference as “the organic connection between education and personal experience” (1935:25). Experience is a good starting point for any critical conversation on education because experience is a resource that is so full of life and engagement, and it’s a resource which, when shared, only creates more engagement. Human beings are storying beings. Experience, you might agree, is something that is always changing. For example, have you ever gone back and read something you wrote a few years ago and thought ‘I would never have written it like that now!’?
I think there is a real tension between voices of experience and voices of authority. In teaching, and in ELT especially, we tend to structure our professional development events around sages on stages, albeit sages who have both followers and naysayers. One of the most common criticisms of our ‘sages’ is the thorny issue of the chalkface- or as some depressingly call ‘frontline’ teaching (as if a war analogy somehow makes a classroom more powerful). The idea is if you want to say something about education, you need to say it from the classroom. Now, I’m all for this but I am also all for bridging the theory-practice divide in education. I have championed practitioner voices for years through my work in action research and teacher development. But my question here is; what constitutes ‘chalkface’ experience, and thus authority?
Some of you may remember Tom Bennet’s review in the Times Education Supplement in May 2015 ‘Man who doesn’t teach kids or run schools tells us how to teach kids and run schools’, referring to Ken Robinson. I was very interested in this debate because, like so many of us, I loved all Ken Robinson’s TED talks. Were they fads? Maybe. But I felt that they were full of charisma and wisdom, even if they didn’t impact my actual teaching practice all that much. I thought he was very brave to ‘take on the system’ the way he did. And I know they did impact my thinking quite deeply even if I didn’t feel any ‘practical’ need for them. I must say I also felt excited as a Warwick alumna because Ken Robinson used to teach there…oh hang on…’man who doesn’t teach’…used to teach.
I don’t think the divide between those who are in classrooms and those who feel passionate about what happens in classrooms is all that big or bad. And I would argue that anyone who reads, references, writes, dialogues and speaks about education deserves a place in the education debate. I don’t think that politicians who don’t do any of this reading, researching, understanding or dialoguing with teachers should have a voice in the education debate, and yet they have such enormous decision power.
I think the question worth asking is are we conditioned according the the principles of what other belief systems or do we engage with ideas according to our own system of beliefs? And, after asking this question, to work hard on understanding, sharpening our own principles regarding education. How do we engage with knowledge? Are we knowledge seekers, empowered by our understanding and ability to critically analyze that which which we are presented? Are we knowledge consumers, who passively receive all that is fed to us?