[as published in Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection, by Judith M. Newman. vii-xii. Toronto: OISE Press; Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1991.]
Since teaching is something we always do with other people, we don't often think of how isolated and lonely a profession it is. But anyone who has tried to explain to someone else a particular teaching situation, to make clear and understandable some specific incident, has encountered the radical isolation of the teacher. The words we use to describe the acts of teaching are all understood in different ways according to our own backgrounds.
When I use the word "teach" to one of my colleagues a few doors away, for example, I know very well that the image in her mind is one of me standing at the front of a class, probably behind a lectern, possibly reading from notes, but certainly producing oral language addressed to a group of perhaps twenty or thirty listeners. If I go a few doors down the hall in the other direction, the image would be of me seated on a desk conducting a discussion, acknowledging students with a nod or a gesture, and trying to get students to address each others' concerns rather than directing each contribution to me.
I would have to go all the way down the hall to find someone whose image was a little closer to my reality -- which might involve my leaving the room to go to the photocopier while the students, in groups, argued out, in written conversations, strategies for library research. And even he understands only a small portion of the specific circumstances of any teaching situation.
To some extent, this isolation is true of everything we do, of course; it's not just a problem for teachers. But it's particularly important to remember it when we're thinking about teaching, because we spend so much time talking across this isolation, pretending it doesn't exist, assuming that a "common curriculum," for example, means that in some fundamental way what happens in different classrooms is similar because we use the same words to describe it.
This is one of the fundamental dilemmas of all writing about teaching and of all research into teaching. It is also a central factor in the tension in educational research between the empiricists on the one hand, interested in statistical generalizations, replicable situations, and testable results, and, on the other hand, the naturalists, interested in the uniqueness of particular situations, the concrete, specific story of one person's learning, one class's achievement, one teacher's brilliant capitalizing on one unique teachable moment.
Every teacher knows the feeling of reading a traditional research report, based on the conventional psychological methods of statistical generalization, and realizing that it seems to be talking about a world she doesn't even recognize. Or reporting as a triumphant" discovery" an observation phrased in such general terms that she and all her colleagues since the dawn of time have known it.
Why does this happen? In every teaching situation there are so many unique, imponderable, and imperceptible variables that traditional research strategies are only of limited use. The process of learning from teaching experience, like that of learning from most experience, is one which often involves learning from contingencies, accidents, peculiarities, and entails learning things we can't quite state, or can only state partially and inadequately. That's why apprenticeship is so important in learning to teach; it's why reflection on our practice is so important.
To say that reflecting on practice is a powerful learning tool is to say that we learn from experience, to say that some things are almost impossible to learn any other way. But, of course, this is not to say that such things can only be learned by experience, that there's no way to learn from the experience of others. We can learn from each other. We learn, for example, from the experiences of fiction; we learn from the kind of reportage which gives us the tools to construct our own experiences of other places, other people, other situations. In such cases, we experience not only the convenient and the congenial, the predictable and the generalizable, but we also encounter noise, contingency, and chaos; the resilience of reality, the continual surprise that dealing with the wealth of the world affords.
What Judith Newman does in this book represents, in my view, a courageous move into a territory which those of us interested in teaching and how teaching happens have not dealt with very much, or very well. Many teachers and teacher educators concerned with meaning-centred education -- with the set of understandings and assumptions which we've been calling "whole language," with moving toward making learning more a matter of transactions and less a matter of transmission -- have written very well about learning. There are many valuable, energizing descriptions and theories of learning available. But I do not know of many similarly powerful theories of teaching. Most really good teachers seem to attend primarily (as, perhaps, as teachers, they ought) to what their students are doing and to what kinds of learning are occurring; and not so much or so attentively to what they themselves are doing (and, equally important, to why they're doing it).
This is probably because so many of the traditional teacher-centred theories of education, against which current writers are often reacting, have tended to ignore or marginalize the learner, treating instead "content" and strategies, tips, and lesson plans. As a consequence of attempting to avoid those emphases, we concentrate on the learner.
Often, in fact, we phrase this contrast as an opposition between "student-centred" learning and more traditional "subject-centred" or "teacher-centred" modes. This has the frequent consequence for descriptions of "student-centred" approaches that it seems as if there's no real role for the teacher: if the teacher simply gets back out of the way, learning will occur. Students want to write, we're told; they want to learn; learning is what human beings are about, so all we have to do is stop doing the bad or dysfunctional things we're doing now and everything will get better.
Of course, it turns out not to be so easy. I have known teachers inspired by whole-language or other meaning-centred approaches to be disillusioned by this discovery, and to go back to more traditional methods.
What this book offers, it seems to me, is a model of what a teacher might do and think that doesn't entail that too-easy opposition. In order to give us this model, Newman has to pay a great deal of attention to herself. Indeed, the "conversations" of the title are as much within herself as with others (Vygotsky would suggest it's pretty difficult to make a clear distinction, in any case). Thus the "others" in the book (whether the participants in the workshop she describes, or the other voices which appear in the margins), though they seem in some ways to be introduced as fictional characters might be, remain quite deliberately very much shadow figures. They're out there, all right, but what we're attending to in this book are the shadows they cast in the teacher's mind, as she struggles with her own role in this complex situation. It may seem from time to time that the book is self-absorbed, but it seems to me to be so in the sense that a writer like Annie Dillard or Henry Thoreau is "self-absorbed": the idea is that by coming to understand how this particular person sees the world, we learn something about the possibilities of seeing.
This book, then, seems to me an attempt to enact, as a teacher, the kind of reflection on practice that Donald Schön has recommended. Here it is the author's own teaching practice which comes under scrutiny (as we might expect at a time when in our culture generally we are tending to focus rather on the nature of the observer's gaze than on what is being observed).
One of the things which becomes clearest through the author's practice as presented and reflected upon in this book is what it entails to be theory-driven as a teacher. Perhaps most clearly the book dramatizes that the good teacher is an improviser: that overall goals are stated (if at all) only in the most general terms -- in terms of growth, awareness, and reflection, of commitment and engagement. More specific plans are tentative at best, subject to revision and negotiation and recasting on the fly, in the light of general goals and fundamental theoretical conceptions (often tacit) about how learning occurs.
An instance of this is the way the book treats "teachable moments. " Such moments, Newman shows us, are always unplanned, improvisatory. The problem with planful teaching-by-telling is that the listeners don't automatically have the proper schemata activated to build the incoming ideas and connection into when they come in. What activates those schemata are questions (actually, the question is a signal that the schemata are active) or a skilled ability to assume a questioning posture. But most listeners or students aren't so skilled; we don't have easy control over such mechanisms. That's why it's important that, in Newman's words, "a teachable moment lesson is volunteered in response to students' questions." The teacher's job is to see what questions are really being asked, and find ways, on the fly, to help students get answers.
This is why Newman insists, and our instincts agree, that "information may come from sources other than the teacher or the textbook." Steering the student toward a source of information rather than offering the answer or handing her a textbook ensures (or at least makes more probable) that the question was authentic, and that answers thus will encounter an active reception: will BE answers. If the student puts forth effort to find the answer, either she does so because it was a real question, or it becomes a real question as she invests the effort in answering it But of course the creation of situations in which this occurs are not plannable, not easily constructed, never sure-fire.
This kind of teaching is, in other words, not a neat process. Another element of the teaching situation which Newman foregrounds is the sheer mess involved. Often our best teachers, writing about teaching, create the impression that things usually go in orderly and neat ways toward foreseeable goals, that learners learn pretty much what we expect them to learn, and that they do so fairly continuously and willingly. Teachers who want to change their own practice are often disillusioned at how unpredictable, sporadic, and chaotic learning seems to be. One power of this book is that it gives the teacher who expects to reexamine or change his practice a clear sense of the different kind of order (coherence) he's going to have to be prepared to see, and how much of his traditional notions of order (neatness) in education will have to be jettisoned. Good teaching is not, in other words, done by superhumanly organized planners: it's more likely to occur as the result of inspired and thoroughly theory-driven and reflective improvisations.
And many of them won't work, as the book makes clear. Newman prepares the reader for the discovery that education is not only not neat, it's not efficient. Much of what any teacher does doesn't work. Like communication generally, it's an imprecise, organic, chaotic process, full of noise and interference and misunderstandings.
Perhaps the most important thing this book achieves is the production of a language for talking about teaching which is not reductive. Avoiding the kinds of generalizations we all use in talking about teaching, Newman offers us not conclusions, not statistical averages, not even abstract statements of her principles: rather, she invites us into the mess, the contingencies, the rich chaos of a complex teaching and learning experience. The summer institute she presents here -- or, rather, which she presents her experience of -- can become a learning experience for us as well, precisely because she does include so much of the texture of this teaching situation -- the second thoughts, the missed opportunities, the irrelevant considerations which somehow have relevance, the difficult holding back while learning happens (or doesn't), the planning of the unplannable, the risk taking. And as she reflects on her practice herself, asking the wonderful question, "What's been going on here?", we're invited to reflect too, to do the kinds of learning that we might have done on the basis of our own experience.
It's no accident that this language is achieved through so adventurous a use of dialogic devices, either. (Many readers, I suspect, will find the book's multi-voicedness its central achievement.) That the truth of any situation -- teaching, perhaps, especially -- is to be found through the interweaving of many voices and many perspectives, that it is socially constructed, is a view which is at the leading edge of theoretical reflection at this moment. I would call the book overtly Bakhtinian and dialogical, except that I think the author has arrived at the position not so much through theoretical reflection about the nature of language and epistemology as through practical reflection on the concrete situation at hand.
What can we learn from this book? I can't say, of course, exactly. As
you might expect, much of what I learn is the kind of understanding that
doesn't easily translate into general propositions about the world. But
I know I'm a different teacher for having read it. And I know that one
way I'm different is that I have more confidence that the mess, chaos,
and risk involved in my own teaching is okay, that it's shared, that it's
known -- and that it's part of what I do, and ought to do.