Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield is widely respected as a leading contemporary thinker in adult education. His academic research and writing is informed by his experience of teaching adults in England, Australia, Canada and the USA. Born in Liverpool in 1949, he has written extensively on adult learning, critical thinking, discussion and critical pedagogy. His work should be on the reading lists of all adult educators who are committed to reflective practice and critical pedagogy.

Stephen Brookfield

Stephen Brookfield

His personal website gives more information: http://stephenbrookfield.com/Dr._Stephen_D._Brookfield/Home.html

He is probably best known for the concept of ‘Brookfield’s lenses’, which describes four perspectives that teachers can consider in their critical reflection. He identifies these as:

  1. the autobiographical, (the teacher’s own view)
  2. the students’ eyes (the students’ views)
  3. our colleagues’ experiences (fellow professionals’ views)
  4. theoretical literature.

These four lenses bring together the processes of self-reflection, student feedback, peer assessment and consideration of relevant academic literature. They sum up various elements of critical thinking that reflective practitioners bring to their teaching with adult learners.

Giulia Forsythe, who tweets as @giuliaforsythe, has produced this wonderful visual summary of Brookfield’s 1995 book, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education). It would make a fantastic poster and is shared with Giulia’s kind permission.

Giulia Forsythe's visual summary of Brookfield's, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher"

Giulia Forsythe’s visual summary of Brookfield’s, “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher”

This blog scratches the surface of Brookfield’s work. Have you got any comments or observations about the impact of his work on your professional practice, your experience as a student, or pointers to other relevant resources?

What will people think?

Thinking about what other people think can be a sign of inhibition or empathy. It can be timid and constraining or open-minded with active curiosity about other people’s perceptions, leading to deeper understanding and intellectual growth.

The “Three Rs” have been with us for a very long time and are the accepted basics of education. Technological and social changes mean that they are no longer enough to prepare us for a productive life.

The “Four Cs” of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity are now described as key twenty-first century skills. They are essential elements of teaching and learning as we encourage students to be curious, aware and open to learning from different viewpoints. They are integral to education for social purpose.   empathy This simple illustration can prompt a lot more thinking. It shows why dialogue is important.

We can explore the “Four Cs” in terms of teaching and learning, lesson planning and curriculum development. Adult educators might also think outside the confines of our own experience and enthusiasm to think about how others feel about the prospects and potential of adult learning. Do they see what we see?

What do you think?

Lev Vygotsky – in tweets

Twitter isn’t all about what people had for their lunch. This week Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) tweeted his summary of a book on Lev Vygotsky’s work. Although the focus is on children’s education, the Russian psychologist and educational thinker’s work is relevant in adult learning too.

Vygotsky suggests that the experience of learning on an individual basis is not as rich or deep as learning alongside someone who is more knowledgeable about a subject and that learning should have a social context. It’s interesting to think about how online learning might be designed in response to this and how children’s experience of school-based education might affect their later attitude towards learning as adults.

Summarising a book in fewer than 20 tweets is quite a challenge but Tim conveys some quick basics about Vygotsky, giving a brief but useful taster. For non-tweeters and members of TLATLA (The League Against Three Letter Acronyms), the abbreviations are:

ATM = at the moment

ch = children

Ed = education (obviously!)

ZPD = Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Thanks to Tim for his generosity in sharing the notes from his reading and for introducing others to Vygotsky’s work or providing a refresher.

There is a range of opinion about Vytgotsky’s views and his theoretical work is often compared and contrasted to that of Jean Piaget.

Do you have any further thoughts about Vygotsky’s ideas or links to other resources?

Teaching for Understanding

Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding.

From ‘What is Understanding’ 

Teaching for knowledge or teaching for understanding? This is a hot topic for some educators who use social media. It can become a rather abstract and artificial debate at times but it’s important to think about how ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ influence curriculum design and day-to-day practice in teaching, learning and assessment.

Is the curriculum relevant to the students?

Can students use the knowledge being taught?

Do students understand the knowledge being learnt?

‘If you can’t actually take an idea outside the classroom and use it, you don’t really get it. But once you use it on your own, its yours forever.’

Robert H Frank, economist

Teachers and researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education, including Howard Gardner*, David Perkins, Vito Perrone, Rebecca Simmons and Martha Stone Wiske, have put some of their thinking into action and worked collaboratively for several years to develop a “Teaching for Understanding Framework” based on four main ideas:
  1. Generative Topics: These topics are connected to students’ interests and experiences. They can be learned in many different ways and build on previous topics.
  2. Understanding Goals: These are statements or questions describing what students should aim to understand during a course.
  3. Performances of Understanding: These are activities that require students to apply their knowledge in new ways to show their progress and their grasp of the Understanding Goals.
  4. Ongoing Assessment: This is the process of continual feedback to students about their Performances of Understanding in order to improve them.

The framework goes beyond “show and tell” and encourages students to “grow and show” their understanding and application of knowledge.

There’s more information about the Teaching for Understanding project here and you can find some practical workshop resources here.

How does this framework fit with practice in adult learning? Where does ‘knowledge’ fit in? Thoughts?

(* There’s more on Howard Gardner in an earlier guest blog by Mary Hunter here.)

What’s the point of reflective practice?

As educators we put a lot into what we do. We think, we question, we plan, we learn, we teach and we reflect. Praxis, the cycle of reflection, practice, reflection and improved practice is fundamental to good teaching, learning and assessment and most outstanding teachers are expert learners who continue to develop their subject expertise and their professional practice.

So far, so good, but the big question is, “What difference does all this make to students?” In other words, “What’s the point?”

The WEA context

The Workers’ Educational Association works exclusively with adult learners so we have to consider all sorts of starting points, personal circumstances, educational experiences, barriers and motivations and to tailor our practice so that they can have the best possible learning experiences. Our professional development is about our learning to improve their learning through our teaching and planning.

The WEA’s teaching, learning and assessment happens in a complex networked organisation supported by many volunteers, with a democratic membership structure and elected governance. We work at community levels across England and Scotland, as part of a wider international family of Workers’ Educational Associations. We run part-time courses, working flexibly and adapting to locally identified situations and partnerships. Without campuses and with very few of our own learning centres, we’re very mobile and adaptable. We try to turn the ‘hard to reach’ cliché on its head by recognising that most educational opportunities for adults are hard to reach and so taking our courses to them.

Our dispersed model of working brings advantages and challenges as we work to bring our vision and values to life through our classroom practice, which is rarely in dedicated WEA classrooms and more usually in hired rooms in community-based venues where people can feel more at home.

Proof of the pudding

The logistics alone give us a lot to think about, but the practicalities are ‘backroom’ issues. What matters most is the difference that we make to our students and the difference that their learning makes to their lives. That’s where reflective practice is essential and where we have to balance our thinking about what we put into teaching, learning and assessment with the crucial matter of what our students gain from it. As we’re committed to education for social purpose, we’re also interested in the wider effects on their friends, families and communities.

This short film shows the impact of WEA learning and our tutors’ expertise:

WEA leaders and managers use data to help us to reflect, shape and improve what we do, but we’re a ‘head and heart’ organisation that combines our use of statistics with a constant stream of students’ stories that inspire and motivate us.

Here are 2 short films of students telling their stories about family learning.

These are examples of what drives us and our professional practice in teaching and learning.

and

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Sir Ken Robinson

Sir Ken Robinson divides opinion. His stint as a castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week prompted a wave of responses from educators. You can hear the broadcast online here or download a podcast here.

As a contemporary thinker and communicator, Sir Ken has a comprehensive website here. His biography says that:

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD is an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. He is also one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere.

You can get a flavour of his thinking in this RSA video.

RSA animate

Some commentators claim that he’s an ego-driven self publicist, popularising his arguments through charm and persuasion. Others see him as a brilliant creative visionary who can save education from a system that isn’t working for far too many people. Of course, neither of these extremes of opinion is mutually exclusive and both are simplistic. One is about assumed motivation – and it can only ever be assumed – and personality and the other is about promoting a single approach to teaching and learning.

I heard him talk to a comparatively small audience several years ago. There was no doubting his charisma but his arguments, to educators and policy makers, were also very compelling. The quote below is typical and especially relevant to adult and community learning, where we often work with people who didn’t flourish or find their skills and confidence before they left school.

“We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”

How do we decide on the validity of his theses and respond to the counter claims of his critics?

I’m with John Dewey on this. We all filter evidence through the lens of our personal experience. I’ve read and listened to some of the pros and cons relating to Sir Ken’s approaches and tried to be objective but personal experience of learning and teaching tells me that he talks good sense. Are people suspicious because he does so with such panache? Being a good communicator isn’t the same as dumbing down.

What do you think about the RSA video and Sir Ken’s vision for creativity in education?

Knud Illeris and learning theorists… in their own words

Knud Illeris, the Danish educational theorist and professor of lifelong learning, has a reputation that earns him a place in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame. I found this link to a wonderful and completely free online publication on contemporary theories of learning, edited by the man himself, so this is more of a link than a blog.

Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists… in their own words

Illeris’s most noted contributions as an educational thinker have been about how adults learn and continue to do so. He explains what he calls, ‘A comprehensive understanding of human learning’ in Chapter 1 of the book.

Knud Illeris

Knud Illeris

As well as Illeris, the ‘who’s who’ of modern theorists who have contributed articles about their own work includes Peter Jarvis, Robert Egan, Yrjo Engestrom, Benet Elkjaer, Jack Mezirow, Howard Gardner, Peter Alheit, John Heron, Mark Tennant, Jerome Bruner, Robert Usher, Thomas Ziehe, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, Danny Wildemeersch and Veerle Stroobants.

It’s good to find such a rich range of resources so freely available for those who are interested.

Any thoughts on their writing or links to other similar resources?

10 quick lessons from educational thinkers

Praxis, the combination of theory, reflection and practice is precious – as in ‘valuable’ – but it’s not something to be precious or pretentious about. Educational theory is of real use when we reflect on it and apply it in practice. The list below features 10 quick lessons drawn from some of the people featured so far in this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Number 10 is specifically about the WEA but has wider application in adult education.

  1. Socrates – Active learning through questioning and discovery leads to deeper understanding of a subject.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft – Prejudice leads to ill-informed and unfair assumptions about people’s academic potential.
  3. John Dewey – Previous experiences of life and education shape individual students’ personal responses to learning activities.
  4. Benjamin Bloom – Learning can take place at many levels ranging from ‘rote’ learning to active creativity.
  5. Paolo Freire – Education shouldn’t be based on a ‘banking’ system that attempts to deposit knowledge in students’ minds.
  6. Robert Gagne – ‘Teachers have three primary functions: to be a designer, manager and evaluator of learning.’
  7. Jack Mezirow – Transformative education has the potential to set people free from their limitations.
  8. Carol Dweck – The language we use as educators can reinforce the development of ‘fixed mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’
  9. John Hattie – Teacher credibility is important in promoting ‘visible learning’ through feedback about students’ progress.
  10. R H Tawney – The purpose of the association [the WEA] is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his (or her) business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.

This blog complements others that I follow, including Pete Caldwell’s at wp.me/p1ynaa-a1 and several others. I’ll list a few in the next blog.

What snippets would you have chosen from any of these or other thinkers to inform practice in adult education?

Praxis

“Thinkers think and doers do. But until the thinkers do and the doers think, progress will be just another word in the already overburdened vocabulary of the talkers who talk.”

Anonymous

This quotation is a reminder that there can sometimes be a gap between theory and practice in adult and community learning. Of course there are theorists who are teachers – and teachers who are theorists – but theory is sometimes remote from practice, where there is a rich experience of tutors intuitively developing creative and successful strategies for teaching, learning and assessment, often working collaboratively. It’s interesting that Twitter and social media are providing means to open up exchanges of ideas and debate, prompting wider professional dialogue on these matters.

Theory and practice come together in the concept of ‘praxis’.

What is praxis in education?

A simple explanation is that praxis is a cycle of theory and purposeful action that incorporates reflection. It helps us to analyse our efforts so that we can develop and improve our thinking, doing and effectiveness as educators.

Praxis2

There are other interpretations and this doesn’t capture the additional elements of informed moral commitment and critical thinking that are commonly associated with praxis. Paulo Freire’s definition of praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed was, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”  Praxis is reflective, active, creative, contextual and has social purpose.

Centuries ago the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle categorised three disciplines of knowledge: the theoretical, the productive and the practical and some educators see praxis as one of four ways of approaching curriculum theory and practice, based on these three disciplines:

Praxiscurric

  • The syllabus approach can be seen as transmitting a body of knowledge .
  • The product approach assumes an attempt for students to achieve specified outcomes.
  • Learning to learn is the main focus of a process driven approach.
  • Praxis can be seen as an extension of the process approach, where the curriculum is put together through planning, acting and evaluating as in the cycle described above.

Is this model too simplistic? Are the four approaches mutually exclusive?

These are very basic and introductory interpretations of praxis. Although they refer to education as being contextualised, they can imply that the relationship between tutors and students is not shaped or constrained by policy and, in many organisations, by management and governance decisions.

What issues does this raise?

Some organisations are taking imaginative and very distinctive approaches. For example, Louise Mycroft (@TeachNorthern on Twitter) and others have developed a ‘Community of Praxis’ based on Northern College’s teacher education programmes.

As ever, I’d appreciate comments, development of arguments, disagreements, other ideas or links. There is a great deal of expertise on this subject and many people who can add deeper (or different?) perspectives about praxis in education.

What do you think?

Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – What about Socrates?

The best education encourages students to ask questions rather than to accept someone else’s answers in a mechanical transfer of assumed ‘knowledge’. Questioning steers intellectual curiosity and active learning. It’s especially effective in adult education in engaging students as partners with their tutors and with other students in shared learning processes. It should be integral to the WEA’s practice as we aim to, ‘challenge and inspire individuals, communities and society’. Do you agree?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioning

Many questions lead to more questions. They develop threads of learning that continue to play out and lead to a more considered understanding of subjects. Learning through discovery is a much deeper process than the simple acquisition of information. The art of critical inquiry is a precious skill in all aspects of life as we try to make sense of the world around us, especially in an ‘information age’ where we are spoon-fed ‘facts’ via mass media. Questioning trains our minds to engage with and to analyse information, to check facts, to consider other viewpoints and to become more inventive and adaptable when we try to deal with new challenges.

Socrates and Socratic questioning
Socrates, the Greek philosopher, was born in Athens around 470 BC and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning in 399 BC after a trial on charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His alleged crimes had been the posing of philosophical questions about Athenians’ commonly acknowledged gods.

Socrates

Socrates

He accepted his fate with dignity and was said to have been humble about his own perceived lack of knowledge.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realise how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

Socrates

His students, most notably Plato, wrote about his life and work including the concept of Socratic questioning. The Socratic method still forms a sound basis for an inquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment and Socrates’ ideas have influenced many subsequent educational theories, including Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. They support the notion of teachers as intellectuals who continue to learn and of students who are active, critical thinkers.

The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think – rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.

John Dewey

There’s more detail on ‘The Role of Socratic Questioning in Thinking, Teaching and Learning’ on the Critical Thinking Community’s website at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/the-role-of-socratic-questioning-in-thinking-teaching-learning/52 and more on Socratic Dialogue at: http://www.socraticdialogue.be/socrates.html.

I can also recommend the Critical Thinking Community’s ‘Begin here” pages at: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-where-to-begin/796

What do you think about integrating Socratic questioning in teaching, learning, assessment and in everyday life? What are the pros and cons?

Any other good resources, examples, ideas or comments to share?