Powerful knowledge · Progressivism · Teaching and Learning

On “powerful”progressive teaching: creating the discourse of the subject

Josh Skillern street dancing and “breaking the laws of gravity”

Recently I was talking to a group of friends, not high achievers in the conventional sense but well educated. Okay they were teachers. Somehow the conversation got around to the most pointless things we had ever learned at school.

Universally it was Math at secondary school. We could all remember the words: sin, cosine and the quadratic… erm… thingy  etc. but no one could recall the purpose or, well, anything really. There are those that say we should seek knowledge as a “thing in itself” however it seems to me that knowledge gets it’s essential meaning, , in relation to other knowledge. Its purpose in the world.

I think what education needs is powerful knowledge not just subject specific knowledge. Powerful knowledge is the knowledge, which transforms everyday knowing into pedagogic knowledge. We all know that if you drop a ball, it will fall to the floor. It is the everyday knowing of the experienced world but knowledge of the laws of gravity turns it into pedagogic knowledge. We can answer the “why” question: a ball drops to the floor because……!

The argument I want to put forward is that every subject has a discourse of the everyday. A conversation that makes the everyday more meaningful. If it doesn’t then I wonder about its worth in 11 – 16 secondary education.  After secondary education the discourse becomes more abstract, that of the singular or the knowledge of the academic subject, but at secondary school the object should be to teach the knowledge that creates powerful discourse.

For example, Newton’s Laws are part of the physics curriculum they are also part of everyday conversation. People who are not physicists know and discuss Newton’s Law’s when talking about science, philosophy or religion.

Let me be clear I distinguish between powerful knowledge and simply co-opting young people into cultural traditions or the “best that has been thought and said”. One is not the same as the other. Powerful knowledge is not the knowledge of the powerful. Newton’s laws have the power of explanation regardless of cultural tradition.

So why base teaching on the everyday? It is a pragmatist, progressive idea but that’s not enough of a reason. The simple fact is that the everyday re-enforces learning. The more a teacher can infuse theoretical propositions into everyday events the more likely that those theoretical propositions will be recalled and contextualised. A child may ask why a ball drops to the floor in general conversation they are less likely to ask about the laws of gravity.

I would suggest that the best thinkers restlessly frame and re-frame how the world is viewed, within an on-going conversation of mind and society. It is how vocabulary is maintained and then developed. It also provides useful conceptual tools.

Of course there are pitfalls. You could frame the discourse of a subject or other on Hip Hop street culture. Why not? I suppose one reason not to do it is that the student learns more about Hip Hop than whatever it is that is being taught.

Those who seek to leverage memory do so by associating a new object to be learned with some pre-existing and accessible memorised object and then create a relationship between the two. Hop Hop is as good as anything else as long as the the learning itself transcends the subject of Hip Hop

So three questions to ask at the start of a new academic year:

1) why does my subject matter

2) what is the discourse of the subject

3) how can it transcend the knowledge of the everyday?

That way when old friends meet over a beer many years after leaving your classroom they will have a better chance of remembering whatever it is that you taught them.

 

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5 thoughts on “On “powerful”progressive teaching: creating the discourse of the subject

  1. I’ve a feeling I wrote an essay about this once. Students/pupils seem to be able to understand & retain more if they can fit what you teach them into their experience of the real world. It’s easy to try to use examples far outside children’s experience, if you do that, they might not understand. I get the impression this is discouraged now having read dismissive articles about how it isn’t necessary to make the work “relevant”, they just need to learn stuff.

    It can be easy & obvious. Some subjects do have immediate real world application. Physics is a good one. When driving I so often wish more people understood at least a tiny bit about momentum. If they did, they might not pull out into tiny gaps in front of enormous lorries.

    1. lol lorries and tiny gaps indeed. Agree totally. There is a general move away from making learning relevant, which I think is a bit sad. It shows very little understanding of cognition. Thanks for the comment as ever

  2. It is one of the greatest losses to educational debate that those of us who advocate progressive education are so easily rubbished by those who hark back to traditional education as if it offers a return to some magical golden era of learning and achievement.

    There are so many pedagogic and curricular approaches that can be taken to achieve learning which has relevance and allows learners to frame and reframe their own world on a life-long basis. Discursive approaches also open up that space where we can start to contemplate the world we have less direct experience of.

    1. Agreed and thank you for the comment. I would say that not only is progressivism relevant but its the only way to secure real long term learning and conceptual development. Transmission based approaches using re-iteration to secure short term memory may work well in cog psy experiments but in the real world it is really little more than spoon feeding to a test that has little purpose.

      I think practice is not research literate, which is a problem. The issue is complexity and the simply fact is that engaging with the certainly of positivism even if it is methodologically flawed is tempting because it offers pedagogic solutions in terms of months; the EEF toolkit is a case in point. It could hardly be described as methodologically sound. Another is John Hattie.

      The really interesting Ed’ Research is complex, theory driven and discursively a long way from that of practice and policy. I think its possible as the edu debate continues the gap may close but politicians and policy makers are a bit of a lost cause at the moment. which is a shame. Perhaps at the point where education has been traduced to facts and multiple choice questions some will stop and think. Time will tell I suppose.

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