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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

What I have Learned About Education from Teaching: DAY 67

In the last post I talked about the past year where I have been teaching and I looked at the point of going to work every day and the experiences that come up within that of how we often drag ourselves to work in the morning only to find a brief relief for a short moment during weekends.

In this post I am going to review the last year I have worked as a teacher in terms of what I have learned from teaching.

Because as I looked back upon the last year I realized that I have learned more about education in this short time than in all my years of higher education.  I’ve worked with education for more than ten years, first as a teacher’s aid in various facilities such as kindergartens, after school programs and care homes for disabled people.

My first degree was a professional bachelor (undergraduate) degree in pedagogy which in a Danish context means that I would be schooled to take care of human beings both within the child care system, but for example also addicts or mentally disabled people. So it is a very broad education. But during the years where I studied I was continuously surprised at how academic this education was. We learned very little about how to care for children or people with mental illnesses. Instead we learned about the history of pedagogy and took lessons in theater and music. We did have 2 x 6 months of practical internship, which is where I realized that I wasn’t going to work as a social worker or preschool teacher because I was so unsatisfied with the current care facilities and this actually brought me to go to the next step of going for a master degree with the intend of eventually working with changing the educational systems.

So I went to university to study educational sociology, a term that I find quite misrepresentative as what I have studied is not an educational form of sociology or how to teach sociology but rather the sociology of education and thus education systems, philosophies and principles within society. We would read all the classics, which is actually what we would do throughout the two years where I studied. A lot of it was fascinating and it certainly wasn’t boring but I kept asking myself (as well as the professors) what the point with all of this was. To me it was just a lot of mudding around in knowledge and information – because a lot of the theorists had cool thoughts on how to change reality, but then another theorist would come and counter argue and many years of intellectual battles would ensue leading nowhere in practical reality. I spent my final year as an exchange student at Stockholm University in Sweden and there I for the first time experienced a significant benefit of higher education. Ironically it was through a course on gender and feminist theory and not education and one of the reasons why I learned so much was because we had guest lecturers by Ph.D. graduates who had been in the field and done actual research. They connected theory to practicality and this gave the theories a backbone that I hadn’t experienced before.

Now – last year I started teaching. In many ways I am not qualified to this job because as you can see, most of my training has been strictly academic. I guess you could say that I am educated more to theorizing, to researching and thinking than to actually spend time in practical reality and effectively direct points in the real world. Like I mentioned in the last blog-post, when I came there were no material or curriculum and I had never before stood before a class. So everything was completely and absolutely new and I had a lot to learn. Furthermore I am the only teacher within my language group so although I can rely on my colleagues for points that has to do with general stuff around teaching, a lot of times I have to work things out for myself. So every day is filled with learning new and practical things, like how to communicate with children, parents and school employees, how to teach, how to create a curriculum, how to schedule my time effectively and how the school system works. And in many respects I have learned more about education in this year than in all my years studying education as a theoretical subject.

A lot of times we see people who have been academically schooled, like politicians and various consultants come in and write proposals for changes within a field or working environment and often these proposals seem so utterly out of touch with reality for the people who actually work ‘on the floor’.  It is thus no wonder that a lot of highly educated people have trouble finding jobs in the current system because many of these educations, especially within the humanities does not gear the students to a practical working life, and so we learn a lot about thinking, analyzing and philosophizing, but very little about placing those theories into a practical context.

Plato thought that it was the philosophers of society who were meant to be rulers and leaders because they had the capacity to reflect objectively on reality and thus were able to see what would be best for society as a whole, but what I have found is that it is the people who are in the thick of it every day who has the most commonsensical ideas for how to change the system.

I would go as far as saying that in many respects we don’t need to keep philosophizing and producing knowledge, because within the fields of knowledge-production there is a lot of repetition and regurgitation where it seems as though knowledge is produced for no other sake than producing knowledge – it is an inflation. What we need, especially in these times are innovative and transparent ideas that can be practically implemented and that are based, not only on theoretical reflections but also on practical experience. Obviously one can also get so caught up in practicing in one’s field that one starts growing blind to new possibilities and ways of looking at things. And this is where theoretical reflection becomes applicable and useful. But knowledge without a practical dimension is useless.

Of everything that I have learned in the last year one of the primary points has been to remain open, flexible and humble towards the children and teachers and environments that I meet on a daily basis. This learning process has primarily come from a point of slowly building up reactions of resistance, reluctance and irritation for example towards specific children who might not be as enthusiastic towards learning as others. It will show itself in thoughts where I would project myself in to the future in my mind and think: “oh god, now I’m going to that child, that’s not going to be fun, he’s always so resistant.” The consequence of this approach to my work is that I will literally encase and limit myself to specific expectations and experiences and will plainly speaking get into a ‘bad mood’. And it is certainly not fair or respectful towards the children – no matter the demeanor they meet me with – because I decide before hand ‘who’ they are and within that do not allow for any other expression to open up. So as I have explained in previous blogs, what I have done to stop this from escalating is to firstly stop the thoughts when I see them ‘pop up’ in my mind, but to also place myself in a stance of unconditionally embracing the uniqueness of the moment that I am walking into. And this has assisted the point of humbleness to develop within my work, which in turn has allowed me to discover new and unknown dimensions, not only of the children but also of the teachers, the school environment and of myself.

Today I attended a mandatory course in pedagogical documentation in preschools. It is basically about using various forms of documentation and observation like video and audio recording to expand oneself in one’s work as a teacher. There was within this an example from a Canadian preschool where a researcher and preschool teacher spontaneously had started a project with a group of children within which she took their interests and from there lifted these into an educational process of development. One of the things they did for example was to discuss and investigate McDonalds and their happy meal boxes, something that often catches the attention of children. They did so in a way where they eventually were able to discuss pricing, salaries, gender discrimination and nutrition – and this was a group of three to five year olds. This example showed me yet again how much I still have to learn and how important it is to learn from the people that have gone before us, who can give practical examples and provide learning-by-doing guidelines for how to approach a certain topic. Because within my work I often see that there is more to it, like a deeper meaning or the possibility to take the project to another level of development – but I have not had the practical tools to do so. Here theories are cool to assist oneself in reflecting, but what is needed most of all are practical suggestions and ways of working with the material.

What I want to say with all of this is that this entire point and what I have realized about my learning process can be transferred into a larger societal context in looking at how much we preoccupy ourselves with virtual realities and abstract knowledge, thinking and believing that this is what is needed to transform ourselves, the systems we live in or even the world as a whole.

One day I came to a preschool where the children (ages 0-3) were sitting around a table with containers filled with dry chickpeas, rice and other grainy products. Each of them would have two containers, one filled, the other one empty and perhaps a spoon or a whisk. The children were completely immersed within the activity, which basically consisted of sticking their hands into the containers and taking rice or seeds from one container to another or whisking it around. I sat down and participated and enjoyed the exploration of chickpeas together with my two-year old student. Later I discussed the activity with one of the older teachers at the preschool and she explained to me how she had made it a priority to use materials from real life rather than plastic imitations in her work. This makes complete sense to be, because we are so fascinated by imitative products that we quite often forget the wonders of actual reality – the reality that we’re supposed to grow up and participate in, but that we are taught to remain completely disconnected from.

Conclusively I will say that all of us, no matter where we are in life or what kind of work we do, need to get back to physical reality, because this is where our attention is required considering the conditions of the current world-system. And within turning our focus and attention back to reality, to nature, to animals, to our bodies, to practical living – we might discover new and unseen dimensions that give us the opportunity to look at ourselves in a new way.

Investigate the Proposal for a Guaranteed Living Income System – a proposal for a system that has the potential to fundamentally change the concept of ‘work’ from something that we do to survive to something that we do to support and expand ourselves to thrive and LIVE.

I also recommend reading the following blogs:

Natural Learning Abilities blog series – a MUST READ!

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