Being pragmatic about teaching


Two responses to my last Elephantological posting: Neil Gilbride (@nmgilbride) “Aw, no Pragmatic Realism in that piece, such is life” and Karl Bentley (@bentleykarl) “amazing blog post re pedagogy – hell to pragmatism, why what we do is equally, if not more, important”.  Thanks Neil and Karl.

I set out with this series of Elephantology blogs with the hope that we could have a conversation about what lies at the heart of our passion, to get to know each other better as teachers and do something more productive than insulting each other from positions of ignorance. That’s not to say I see myself as the expert here. More the irritant in the oyster.

Good point Neil. I’ll try again. Let me know what you think please?

I’d like to acknowledge LeoNora M. Cohen (1999) Ontario State University, School of Education before I start. OSU have got good materials online

In teaching, our stock in trade is reality and knowledge about reality. Of course there’s no right or wrong about what reality and truth might be. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. Teachers are assumed to have beliefs that are generally virtuous as are other professionals, but outside this limitation teachers are entitled to believe as they see fit. Which of these fits your belief system best?

Idealism: ideas are reality. Truth is established through conscious reasoning. The idealistic curriculum is literature, history, philosophy and religion. Idealistic pedagogy embraces lectures, discussion and dialogue and developing introspection, intuition, and insight and building character through the imitation of heroes.

Realism: reality is in physical objects. Truth is what can be observed. The realist curriculum is standardised and focuses science and mathematics. The pedagogy of realism organises and presents content systematically to master basic facts and skills through demonstration and recitation, within the boundary of a discipline with students showing they can think scientifically and critically. Training of students in the rules of conduct develops their character.

Pragmatism: (experientialism): reality is those things that can be experienced or observed. Truth is what works and it’s always changing. All learning depends on context, of place, time and circumstance. Pragmatic pedagogy blurs the lines between disciplines, students often working in groups, focusing on problem solving and experimentation with social experience in the foreground. Students apply their knowledge to real situations. Character development comes through making group decisions informed by the process of inquiry.

Existentialism:  reality is subjective and individual; the physical world has no inherent meaning. Existentialists do not accept any other person’s predetermined view of realty, but focus on freedom and individual meaning making. The teacher provides opportunities for self-direction and self-actualisation, with the subject matter agreed through personal choice, starting with the student rather than with the curriculum. The teacher opposes the tracking, measurement and standardisation of students. Character development emphasises personal responsibility in decision-making.

The point of all this is to enable me to be reflective about what I’m doing. My best hope is that it could enable us to be reflective.

My particular interest is what has come to be known as behaviour with capital B. If what I do is all attributable all to my own experience, as a research biologist, a tree feller, a boy in private primary school, a welder of smashed cars, a teacher, a pharmaceutical researcher, a cabbage picker,  a chickens farmer, am I an existentialist pedagogue? Maybe. But do I believe that all reality is subjective and of my own making? No. I’m closer to pragmatism and I know I’m not a realist.

I’m having this conversation with you as reader as if you were there in the other chair. If you were and we shared an understanding of both what is possible and the pedagogical consequences of our positioning, we’re off to a flying start when we come to discuss how to approach students learning about themselves. Those who position them selves as realists, training students in the rules of conduct as the way to develop their character could join the conversation in a rational way. If realist training means that a large and relatively stable number of children and young people are dismissed, removed, segregated from a full and fruitful education, that needs some rational justification. That would be better than blundering about in dark rooms, I think.

If we started the conversation with the question: “Supposing when you’re teaching you’re operating within a particular paradigm – what might that be?” or “What’s your paradigm?”  that could be interesting.

What do you think?


2 responses to “Being pragmatic about teaching”

  1. Neil says:

    Hi! I think you reversed our tweets, it was me (@nmgilbride) that said
    ““amazing blog post re pedagogy – hell to pragmatism, why what we do is equally, if not more, important”.

    I totally agree with the idea of approaching teachers with paradigms – everyone has a view of how the world works, we all have our biases based on our experiences and perspectives. I think this is why working with others teachers is so critically y as we need to be continually challenging our biases.

    During my Masters, I heard the best introduce speech from this guy whilst he was at Cambridge

    “And challenge your lecturers – it is your challenge which keeps us on our toes. We are colleagues, we all need to be pushed. Your challenge encourages us to think again about our ideas and push ourselves even further”.

    I think this is equally applicable to teaching.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks so much for your comment Neil – sorry about the transposition, I’m capable of Tweet-reversal. I’m very happy to hear of your agreement – my next post (on the site now) and the following one have been prompted by other’s comments and yours. Push and challenge and why some people are strengthened and others weakened by it …… I’ll read your link next… and then get writing.

    very best wishes, Geoff

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