A herd of elephants: Paradigm, ontology, epistemology, pedagogy


I’ve just read a blog by a teacher working in a Pupil Referral Unit, for 12 students, with several teachers and teaching assistants. It provides for primary aged students with behaviour problems and secondary aged students with conditions that apparently make them medically unfit to stay in school. This little school could be seen as markedly different from mainstream school; it’s a temporary school – students are only supposed to stay for a short while and yet quickly establish a working relationship with the community there; there is an intensity about it, very few students all with some high profile problem and a relatively large number of adults around; students are expected to quickly change their behaviour, in a way that will mean them leaving this little school where they feel they belong and returning to their mainstream where they’ve already failed or to another school where they have to start off being new to the community, all over again.

I’ve worked in a PRU. Before I applied for the job there I didn’t know such places existed. It was for secondary students, permanently excluded and not statemented, for 42 children, although we had students with statements and 24 desks and chairs. Like the rest of us going into this area of work I wasn’t specially trained to do this rather different work. It puzzled me that in the PRU we were supposed to do something that had proved impossible in these student’s home schools and do it in quickly and in a specified time. In staffroom language, we had to ‘make them school-shaped’ in two terms for their ‘return to mainstream’.  Exactly how were we to do this ‘reshaping’? When I started at the PRU the new head there was a teacher of dance who had worked in a secondary school and drifted into working with the ‘special ed.’ classes. She’d come to the PRU just before its first OFSTED inspection, the first PRU inspection in the County. She had to get it into shape fast. She told me she was a behaviourist and that was how we were going to work. We passed the inspection. All the new paintwork and carpets and the new indoor toilets probably helped, replacing the extremely worn out and battered stuff that was there on my first day. She told me that some of the staff resisted the idea of behaviourism, but she was the Head and we’d do as she said.

Behaviourist. Why? Were we supposed to be psychologists applying psychological theory? If so, why didn’t the authority staff the PRU with psychologists or train us – we didn’t get training. This was the nineteen nineties and Jerome Bruner had proposed that cognitive psychology should replace behaviourism in the nineteen forties and this had largely happened. But not apparently in the PRU I worked in. Our new PRU head was a qualified teacher but how much specialist training had she received in working with this group of students, somehow identified as requiring separation from their mainstream communities? As I set up my science room, walling it in a space with cupboards in part of the existing woodwork room in the Victorian primary school that housed the PRU, I set off on my Ph.D. research. I was interested in the history of the PRU, what had lead it to its present state and me to my pedagogy as a specialist Behaviour Support Teacher.

Meanwhile in the day job in the PRU, we mostly just made it up as we went along. We had a token economy, rewarding students for good behaviour with food vouchers. We recorded bad behaviour in class and had sitting in the hall and exclusion from the PRU as punishments. If the students behaved very well for several weeks they could return to their mainstream school, if they hadn’t been already permanently excluded. Most of them had been, didn’t and weren’t. We had a visit from the Director of Education for the County; he was a chemist by training. He asked me how I was supposed to teach science with no laboratory and no gas taps. I said I thought it was a good question. He said he’d do something about it. He didn’t.

As well as teaching in the PRU I was a support teacher in mainstream and special schools, advising everyone on behaviour. I’d turned into a behaviour expert. It’s a straightforward process; you do a bit of work, untrained, with students who’ve got into trouble because of their behaviour and you can call yourself a behaviour expert. Simple.

I could begin to see fragments of psychological theory emerging as practice in the way people were working in schools. Teaching seen as a practical activity has no need of grand theory. Other people could do the theorising. Psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, psychoanalysts had that job. In Universities people were developing systematic theory about teaching but their work didn’t seem to penetrate to the classroom level, unless the classroom practitioner studied for a higher degree maybe. Certainly my experience had been that as a working teacher I could pick and choose the bits of theory that suited me and I knew I would never be asked to justify what I was doing, because no-one else in teaching had much theoretical know-how either.

So what? It’s suggested that the relationship between teacher and student is an important factor in learning, maybe even the most important. How you think about another person, whether you think they justify your investment in making a relationship with them at all, student to teacher, teacher to student, seems to make a difference.

This is where having some idea about ‘What is your paradigm?’ might be important.

If you are a behaviourist, you’ll know that the only things of interest are publicly exhibited behaviours. You’ll know that behaviourism began its battle with mentalism in psychology 130 years ago in what William Uttall (2000) called ‘The war between mentalism and behaviourism: on the accessibility of mental processes’. The person generating the behaviour is of not significant within this paradigm. I hear someone say in school “I like you but I don’t like your behaviour – and it’s your behaviour that’s got you a two hour Saturday detention a next weekend.” Is that the kind of relationship that you want with your student – actually not a relationship with them as a person but only as a container of behaviour, conditioned responses and the rest. Is this a relationship that will lead to improved learning? Maybe.

If you’re a mentalist you’ll be with the cognitive psychologists with their paradigm. Both sides agree ontologically that mind exists. After all if we do not accept that personally experienced awareness is a reality we talk ourselves into non-existence. What they don’t agree about is the accessibility of mind and to what extent it can be analysed. The recent development of neuropsychology and brain imaging can be seen as an extension of mentalism, fully maintaining the concept  of the brain as a physical structure understandable by the process of reducing it to its component parts: reductionism.

As a teacher reading this are you feeling fully engaged in this psychologists war? As a teacher writing this, I’m not.

I am interested in Carl Rogers, who studied individuals in his research and focused on the individual’s direct reports of experience. Ontologically; a realist, mind exists. Epistemologically; knowledge is subjective, known indirectly by the observer who is part of the knowledge being investigated. Methodologically; phenomenological and idiographic. Pedagogically; humanist. Carl Rogers’ approach is claimed psychologists, psychotherapists and educationalists. It didn’t interest him at the time. He wasn’t prepared to be incorporated in any way whilst he lived. The PRU blogger mentioned unconditional positive regard, Rogers’ concept, as a fundamental in his PRU..

As for me, I am interested in what effect my understanding about paradigm can have on the learning and development of students. How does Rogers’ humanist paradigm fit together with behaviourist punishment and reward?

If I stand in the student’s shoes and experience what paradigmatic uncertainty looks like from their perspective…..,

Teacher: ‘About balancing on the back legs of your chair, Jack. You know this is a fair rule. It’d be good if you remembered it. Thanks.’

Student: ‘Mmm.’ (You’re telling me again. Of course I know about the rule. I was just leaning back to ask Joel if he needed help with this one – he’s rubbish at Maths)

Teacher: ‘Fair rule Jack? Thanks.’

Student: ‘Mmm. (Joel’s really stuck and all you’re worried about is the stupid chair.)

Teacher: ‘Third reminder Jack. Thanks.’

Student: (Or what? You still haven’t asked my why I’m leaning back – so I can fall on my head ….  I don’t think so.)

Teacher: ‘OK everyone, looking at the whiteboard, thanks. Jack, it seems to me that you’ve got this calculation sorted…. I looked over your work just now and you’ve made sense of it. Good job. Can you show us how you did that?’

Student: ‘Uh?’ (So you think I can stand up without falling off my chair? Now you want me to be the teacher? You do it. Thanks)

Teacher: ‘Jack. Fourth reminder. Five minutes at break. Thanks.’

Paradigmatic flip-flop: student as a rule-breaker, incompetent failure/competent, successful/back to the start. At one moment the student is treated as a source of exhibited behaviour, learning and applying external rules, at the next as an individual with agency, and back again. I think it might explain why some students give up – the whole thing is too confusing, ‘I don’t know who I’m supposed to be. What do you want?’ It felt like that to me when I was at school.

Or certainty……

Teacher: ‘Jack. Just me wondering…..  How’s rocking back good for you at the moment?

Student: ‘What? Oh, Joel’s really stuck with his and I was just telling him how to get started.’ (He’s always saying we should work together when we can. And I know the rocking rule, we’ve had it since primary school, duh.)

Teacher: ‘OK. What are you hoping to do now?

Student: ‘I’ll just turn around to work together for a bit OK? Then I can get on with mine.’ (I can see how to do this problem, so I want to get it finished my way.)

Teacher: ‘Joel, I’ll pop back to see if you need anything else in a couple of minutes. And thanks Jack. Maybe you can help us all out…. can I ask you to explain to us what you’re doing… in a bit?’

Student: ‘Mmm.’(Yeah maybe I could …. I really know this stuff!)

Paradigmatic certainty: The student as agent, competent, resourceful, successful. Pedagogically: inquiry = the solution focused approach. Change by choice, no flip-flop = Less confusing.

What do you think?

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