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Monday, 17 March 2014

St Patrick's Guide to Learning

Since it is St Patrick's Day, I thought I would offer an irish-themed blog.  And since, mixed in with my mongrel ancestry is a large element of Irishness, I feel able to start with an Irish joke.

A tourist in Ireland is lost and asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies: ‘Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here’.

In my last blog entry, I suggested that creativity is a habit. It is learned by doing it.  Exactly the same could be said of skill: skilful performance is acquired, developed, and improved by performing skilfully.  And, as the great coach educator Geof Gleeson used to say, a successful skill has a successful outcome.  Learners who can appear technically outstanding, but you cannot actually put those techniques into practice are not skilful in any meaningful sense of that word.

This might seem so obvious as to hardly bare mentioning.  But I think it is worth stressing because of the fact that will be obvious to anyone who has spent any time observing teaching or coaching sessions, as many seem to be concerned with the development of different qualities than the coach or teacher claims to be the aim.

Let me give you a few examples: two from sport, and one (very topical example) from school education

A sports coach who claims to want his players to be creative, but who fills each session with predictable, dull drills and practices will create players who are predictable and dull.

A martial arts instructor who wants her fighters to develop explosiveness and sharp timing, but who mainly asks students to punch air and repeat pretty punches and kicks in the air will produce dancers not fighters.

To paraphrase the Irish joke, if you want students to be creative or explosive, I wouldn't start with this!

And perhaps the most stark illustration of a disconnection between intention and preparation is the enforcement on teachers of young children to teach reading through the use of synthetic phonics.   As you may be aware, this is the approach that is insisted upon by The English government; the only approach that should be used, according to some agencies.  It teaches the phonemes (sounds) associated with the graphemes (letters), and the sounds are taught in isolation then blended together.  In fact, synthetic phonics can form one among a number of effective strategies for teaching reading. But the evidence base behind the government assertion that it is the most effective and should be taught alone is simply non-existent.

But this is not help people read. Understanding the constituent sales of words is a very useful strategy in case of complex words, but effective reading takes place at a number of levels, from the phoneme, to the graphemes, to the sentence, paragraph, and story.  Evangelists insist that children should be withheld real books until they understand the elements of words. And this is simply nonsensical.  It is also not supported by the research evidence.

What is the consequence of an approach like synthetic phonics? My worry is that it will produce a generation of learners who have detailed understanding of the elements of reading and writing, but will have nothing of interest to read or write about.

Lá Fhéile Pádraig Sona Daoibh!
Risteárd Mac an Breitheamh

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Anarchism and Creativity: first break the rules

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Vienna, in Austria.  It was a great opportunity for me to experience living in a new city, and to acquire at least a basic ability to speak German.  Since that time, I have stayed in many other foreign cities, and in each case I have been struck by a small differences and idiosyncrasies. Ways of behaving that I had always thought to be "normal"or even "natural" quickly turned out to be simply local traditions.

In some cases, I have abandoned my good old British ways in favour of the foreign alternative (for example, I now believe that food should have flavour and texture, that it is perfectly acceptable for a man to dance, and that coffee should taste of coffee). I have also come to the conclusion that there are many aspects of Britishness that deserve keeping, and even promoting (queueing, the BBC, driving on the left hand side of the road - a subject to which I will return in another blog entry).

Anyway, back in Vienna, I once found myself in the wee small hours waiting to cross a road, alongside about 20 other people. We were returning from a festival, and were the only humans to be seen.  Despite the evident fact that the road was entirely empty, my fellow pedestrians stood on the pavement, waiting for a signal to cross.  I felt a little impatient, and motion to go forwards, only to be greeted by a murmur of 'ssssssss'.  So, social pressures kicked in, and I waited with everybody else, although this obedience to the diktat of a traffic-light made no sense to me at all.

I was reminded of this event whilst reading 'Two Cheers for Anarchism' by the political scientist James C. Scott.  In fact, Scott found himself in an almost identical situation to me, but this time in Neubrandenburg, Germany (and, unlike me, he managed to extract an important lesson from the experience).  He visited this small town once every week while working on a nearby farm, traveling there and back by rail. And every week, while waiting for his train back, he would spend some time watching people at the nearby intersection.

Scott observed that the timing of the traffic lights in the evenings - presumably not adjusted to reflect the reduced car traffic and increased number of pedestrians - meant that they would regularly be 50 or 60 people waiting to cross the intersection.  Again and again, these groups would wait patiently at the corner for the light to change in their favour, whether or not their was any traffic in sight.  Sometimes this meant waiting for four or five minutes or more.

Observing this repeated scenario, Scott thought the behaviour ridiculous and irrational.  And considering the country in which this was taking place (and, of course, precisely the same applies to my experience in Vienna), such unquestioning obedience seemed highly dangerous.

"You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready."

He advocates "anarchist calisthenics": "Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready."

Personally, I find this argument completely convincing, and not just for those who live in countries with a legacy of tyranny.

The freedoms most of us take for granted have been hard-won, and can easily be lost again.  Obedience to every law, instruction and directive, no matter how stupid or unreasonable, is not just dumb, it is irresponsible.  And to paraphrase the great libertine Quentin Crisp, if the time does ever come when you need to stand up and fight, obedience will have become your style.

It seems to me that the same logic can be applied to creativity.

The great dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote that, "Creativity is an act of defiance".  It is about changing and breaking the rules. It is about abandoning the established way of things, and stepping bravely towards the new.

I doubt that there is any teacher or coach who would say that they were not interested in promoting creativity among their learners.  In the case of sport, creativity would seem to be absolutely essential, as the novelty and innovation are distinctively powerful weapons in a competitive environment.  An elite rugby union coach once said to me: "I assume technical expertise and extreme fitness of all players at the top level. What I'm really looking for are creative players. They are the ones who do things differently. They are the ones who give the team an edge."

In practice, it seems to me, the frequently expressed desire to develop creative players and learners is rarely matched by a pedagogy aimed at such an outcome.  As I have observed elsewhere in this blog, a certain style of the lesson continues to dominate, and it is as antithetical to creativity as it is to learning, in general:

- An emphasis on correct technique
- Highly structured, repetitive drills and practices
- An assumption that "the basics" have to be mastered before they can be employed in real settings
- A view of learning in which knowledge is passed from the expert teacher to be ignorant learner

We have absolutely no reason for believing that any of this is true or valid.

Drills and repetitive practices enforce conformity.  Lessons that place the teacher or coach as the fount of all knowledge lead to passivity. An emphasis on correctness results in obedience.  And none of this is likely to result in the development of creative learners.

Creativity is a habit. It is learned and developed through practice and experience.

There are lots of ways in which this habit can be encouraged and nurtured. And I will consider some of them in future articles. For now, though, I will suggest just one idea, and it is inspired by Scott's suggestion:

CREATIVE CALISTHENICS: Encourage learners to break a rule or principal or norm every lesson!

I am not, of course, encouraging the abandonment of the rule of law. I'm not suggesting that teachers of young children allowed them to run into the streets, Or steal. I'm simply suggesting that, as a matter of course, they are encouraged to think for themselves. More than this, they are required to think for themselves.  Every lesson. And that they recognise that most of the things they are taught in sport are really just rules of thumb or generalisations.  They can be broken with no harm done, and if they are broken strategically, they can offer an immediate competitive advantage over an opponent.

In case you think I have lost my mind, let me give you a couple of concrete suggestions:

A basic strategic principle of all invasion games (football, rugby, hockey, basketball) is to attack wide, and defend narrow.  This makes perfect sense in most cases, as it stretches and weakens the opposition defence and aims to strengthen your own.  BUT the competitive advantage of this ploy is undermined by the fact that everybody is trying to do the same thing!  So a judicious and occasional reversal might, at least, unnerve The opposition: attack narrow and defend wide.
A very basic rule of many fighting sports is to maintain a strong guard (for example, in boxing, Thai boxing, and mixed martial arts, fighters routinely hold both hands high in front of their head and upper body).  Again, this makes perfect sense, as the arms protect many of the major targets that an opponent is trying to hit.  BUT a long lineage of fighters from Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee to Floyd Mayweather and the Gracie clan of Brazilian Ju Jitsu have found that deliberately lowering one's guard (called "drawing") can be a highly effective way of forcing the opponent to act in a predictable and consequently stupid way.

It could be argued that both of these strategies could be trained in an authoritarian and traditional way, and that is true. But their real value comes when they are initiated as a response to an active, changing, and unpredictable opponent. And that cannot be drilled or rehearsed; it requires a creative response. And, I have argued, a creative response requires a teaching or coaching environment in which breaking the rules is not just tolerated but positively encouraged.