I'm very disappointed that nobody responded to my eloquent post in the #change11 Facebook group about International Talk Like A Pirate Day. So I thought I'd up the ante by blogging about teaching like a pirate. I don't mean charging into the room shouting "'Zwounds", and "Harrrr", and "Shiver me timbers", complimenting all the women on their buxom figures, and crossing swords with all the men. Though that has a certain appeal compared to some tutorials I've been involved in....
I just wondered how far we might get by looking at piracy as a metaphor for teaching. First of all, piracy is a subversive activity, and a lot of teaching nowadays is subversive. Is that a good or a bad thing? I'm sorry to say that in most circumstances it is a thoroughly good thing. Sorry because I wish it didn't have to be. But we live in a world where more and more people seem to be concerned to tell people what to think rather than telling them how to think. For me the essence of teaching and learning is that the learner ends up with their own view of the world and the mental equipment to analyse and evaluate any situation they are faced with. It doesn't matter how many A stars you get; if you can't do that, the learning has failed.
Pirates live by their own rules. There are many examples of pirate codes. And teaching nowadays involves many collaborative activities, and many classrooms, particularly online ones, in which the rules are negotiated rather than laid down by a person in charge, thus this part of the method seems to fit quite aptly.
Anyone can be a pirate. You just need to know how to buckle a swash. And anyone can be a teacher. Not all are called teachers by any means, and not many go through the qualification process to get a certificate that says you know how to teach, but we now demand a lot more from our students in terms of being teachers as well as learners. Two sides of the same coin, and for far too long we've only let students be one side of the coin.
Pirates like dressing up in funny costumes and blowing things up. Well, OK, not all teachers would go that far, but we do stretch the boundaries of what's expected from time to time. Actually some of my best teaching has involved dressing up. That's part of transporting the students into a situation where they live the history they're learning. (As for blowing things up, I took a science course a couple of years ago, at the age of fifty-ahem, to fill in some of the gaps left by my lamentable approach to science when I was at school. It was the OU's S104 Exploring Science, and I loved every minute of it. I have only one regret about it, which is that we didn't get to blow anything up, though I very nearly did with my potato in the microwave experiment.)
Pirates don't flinch from a challenge. Teaching is a profession of being constantly challenged. Oh, yes, those long holidays, the easy life, regurgitating the same lecture every year..... If only. Our own learning is a constant challenge, and every bunch of new students is a new challenge as to how to get the message across, how to get them learning and being responsible for their own learning in their own way.
Pirates never known where they're going to be tomorrow. Nor do teachers. Any class you start may take you in an entirely different direction to the one you intended. Sometimes you have to bring the class back to the learning outcomes, but even so the way you get there can be astonishingly varied.
So, are teachers like pirates? We are quietly subversive, and, more and more, we make our own spaces in the world. Rather as there is a public sphere and a private sphere, perhaps what we have, or can occasionally create, as we do with this MOOC, is a collaborative sphere, in which we agree our own rules, make up our own journeys, and have a jolly good time.
I am a teacher and a lifelong learner. I learn when I teach. I learn sometimes in the interstices of teaching. Sometimes I learn for teaching. Sometimes I learn just for the sake of it. I've signed up for #change11, the MOOC to end all MOOCs. Though I shall be disappointed if there are no more MOOCs.
I still have no idea what I'll be focussing on when the MOOC happens. I've been thinking about my academic priorities for this year (apart from making sure all the students pass...). Here's a short list:
To enable students to be proficient learners whenever and wherever is appropriate
To change their view if the world, to include critical questioning of the taken for granted
To enable students to communicate clearly and purposefully
To link the purposes of education - work and citizenship
Surrounding all these ideas is the issue that technology is changing the way we learn and teach, and shifting us towards more co-operative, more collaborative ways of working with a much more nuanced attitude towards knowledge and authority. These inevitably change people's reactions to the authority and knowledge found in the workplace and in the political sphere. So I want to examine what difference that makes.
I think my third and fourth points will be priorities for the MOOC. Enabling students to communicate is for me about academic voice, finding their own way to communicate with academic language rather than just taking on the words and producing alien writing - how to be themselves as academics. (While refusing to contemplate the horrors I just visited on the English language in that last phrase.) Working online gives learners more and different ways of expressing themselves, and thus changes the way in which learners develop their voice.
The fourth has been a bother to me for a long time. On issues like this I often find myself to be an uneasy liberal. I much prefer people to learn because they want to, not because they have to. And because it improves them, not because it improves somebody else's profit margins. Apart from anything else, it's more effective. But I have no problem teaching people to be good workers. I concede there may be a difference between what I mean by a good worker (thoughtful, critical, purposeful) and what governments and employers mean by a good worker (skilful, compliant). If I'm teaching someone to use their brain, their critical faculties, I'm teaching them to be a better worker, whether their boss likes it or not.
I also think that learning in formal and semi formal settings must usually have some purpose beyond the student. It can be very satisfying to learn something for my own sake, but given that we are usually spending someone else's money, I don't find it sufficient to say that learning for its own sake is justifiable. (or if the learner is a net tax payer, then a lot of other people are spending their money.) I like the idea of learning for citizenship. People who hone their brains become better citizens, because they can better judge the options before them and their governments, question more cogently the evidence put before them by experts (and by charlatans posing as experts), and arrive more conclusively at decisions that need to be made. (again probably less to the liking of the powers that be than to me.)
So the two purposes amount to the same conclusion about what and how to teach and how people should learn. There's no contradiction, but rather a unity between the purposes. That sounds very nice as a statement, but I want to be able to back it up with better evidence and argument. So that's what I think I'll be focussing on in this MOOC: a small sector of how technology affects the methods and the purposes of learning.
This is a splendid example of the force of water in action. The place is Crackington Haven in Cornwall, where a very small river runs down a steep valley and into a pool near the beach. The water in the pool seeps through a bank of sand and pebbles, and trickles out onto gently sloping sand which stretches seawards several hundred yards when the tide is out. It faces west so low tide on a sunny evening is the essence of holiday.
In October 2010, after some steady rain, the pool filled and burst through the pebble bank. On the first night it cut a channel about two feet deep through the top of the beach. By the next day it was three feet.
Here is the pool at the bottom right and the new river flowing upwards to the left.
This and the last shot show the river flowing. It's not very fast which makes the shifting of sand and gravel even more impressive
These two shots show the river at about three feet deep 24 hours after the breakthrough
And on the next day the depth of the channel is six feet. So it's taken a not very fast flowing river 48 hours to cut a six foot channel through some pretty hefty building aggregate. (note: the people in the shots make it look a lot more than that – they are out of proportion. I didn't have a friendly victim with me who was prepared to stand in the river to give a proper impression of the scale.)
It didn't take the sea long to put it back together over the winter though. Here is the beach today, once again filled in.
And to finish some rock formations with a difference.
And another, particularly appealing, rock from a few miles up the coast at Widemouth Bay.
Early in the nineteenth century some more enlightened business owners started funding teaching for their workers. They realised that workers were more productive if they understood what they were doing. This was the beginning of things like the Mechanics' Institutes, and the knowledge that men learned there - maths, physics, engineering - was called "useful knowledge". It had to be "useful" of course or there was no reason to pay for it.
Later in the nineteenth century the workers began to demand a different kind of learning. They wanted to know about why it was that businesses worked the way they did. They wanted to know about their place in the world. They wanted to know about their relations to other peoples and about the human condition. They wanted politics, economics, philosophy. This was the birthplace of organisations like the Workers' Educational Association, which still carries on that philosophy today, both nationally and internationally. And ultimately they were ancestors of the Open University and its open admissions policy.
To distinguish this knowledge from the knowledge they learned on their bosses' behalf, they called it "really useful knowledge".
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. They are completely wrong. We all have only a little knowledge. The dangerous thing is being satisfied with that.
I am now retired after teaching online with the OU since 2000. I now have more time for useful things like sorting my stamp collection. I do bits and pieces of work for the Liberal Democrats. I still mourn the loss of Lewes's best ever MP, Norman Baker. I am usually online for about ten hours a day, living in my airing cupboard much of the time. Despite this I have a healthy skin colour and do not lack for company.