It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)
As teachers, we have a tendency to be on a ‘Grail Quest’. One approach or activity that will make such a difference that it everyone else will think, ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ when they see it (or hear about it). A new spin on analysing sources. A novel approach to significance. Technology as the saviour. The forces pushing and prompting us to go searching are immense, and the appeal is great, yet in our pursuit of teaching and learning salvation we can forget what caused us to start the search in the first place – our students and our context – and focus instead on the quest itself.
The latest ‘Grail Quest’ in education is the role of research and how it can guide us to the most efficient and effective practises. John Hattie’s analysis of educational research has gathered a lot of attention in part due to the emphasis on feedback in lessons and also because of his advocacy of ‘visible learning’. Psychologists such Carol Dweck on ‘Growth Mindsets’ and Cognitive Psychologists such as Robert Bjork on ‘Desirable Difficulties’ have indicated new ways to think about learning and student motivation. Other educators are focusing on the role of knowledge and using the work of E D Hirsch to justify a particular style of teaching (and sometimes to show that other forms are really damaging to our students).
Using these authors and the wealth of research is undoubtedly useful. It makes you reflect carefully on your own assumptions and what you are doing with your Y9 lesson on the Corn Laws on a Thursday morning. The danger however, with drawing upon these sources is that many of us appear to become nothing more than advocates for a particular approach. Armed with this new knowledge and the courage of our convictions, there is a danger of falling into the trap that the particular adopted approach is now the answer for all historical learning and educational problems. We seem to forget that it was a particular contextual problem that led us to wondering (and wandering).
One way to avoid the practise of groping around, seizing what is in front of you and using it as the basis for claims about teaching and learning is to do some research yourself. The academic Stuart Hall talks about comprehending the complexity of a situation so that you can make an effective change, and it is this desire for wisdom, rather than knowledge, that has made me by become a MSc student again (part-time). The desire for wisdom is practical (phronesis); comprehending the issue at stake will allow me to make an effective change for my students and the school. This is rather different to the argument that knowledge by itself can make a difference because as we can see form the blind men, poor choices can be made when based on (limited) knowledge.
Aside from all the reading, the best part of this process is getting to really think about Learning and Teaching with a group of other History teachers. The fact that we all come from different types of school and face unique challenges is fascinating and humbling at the same time. It offers a clear reminder that a particular approach is just that and does not speak truth to all contexts.
This post in its original form was on the ThinkingHistory site in January but commitments over the year meant that the following posts I hoped to write did not materialise. However, I’ll be picking up issues of research sporadically over the next academic year as I complete my fieldwork. I hope you’ll join me as I study my elephant carefully and deliberately.
The MSc in Learning and Teaching at the University of Oxford is designed for currently serving teachers. For more information about the course and how you can apply, please click the link: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/courses/msc-learning-teaching/