(Not) Starting from experience

Once again I find myself planning for a new year, looking back to courses I taught when I was new to higher education last year, and reflecting on whether they need to be updated, and how they could be done differently to maximise the learning for students. I have learned so much in the last year, from colleagues, from reading, from experience and from consideration. I may have been ‘fresh’ to HE last year, but I find myself thinking about my teaching in a much fresher way as a result of the thinking I have been able to do in this role.

One of the first modules I am teaching is a very short course on teaching Personal, Social and Health Education in primary schools with our 4th year BEd students. Last year I approached this from a very ‘school based’ point of view, and discussed with the students the various issues that might come up in schools, and how to deal with both the formal PSHE curriculum and the ad hoc ‘hidden curriculum’ of support in this area that is so intertwined with primary teaching. Since then, my reading and experience have exposed me to different points of view on PSHE, most notably the work of Ecclestone and Hayes (2008) on ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education‘, and I am keen to move the dialogue up a notch with the students from purely practice to deeper implications.

Last year I began the module, as I often do, by spending some time discussing the students’ experiences of PSHE teaching in school, both as part of their own schooling and what they had observed and experienced on teaching practice. My thinking was that we would start with where they were at, what they had done and build from there. This is a pretty classic move; get students to observe or reflect on good practice they have seen, assimilate the good practice and develop.

This year I want to do things differently.

It has struck me that whilst for much learning this might be a great structure, I am not sure that it is in this case. Asking students to begin by reflecting in this way frames all of the resulting discussion and work around their previous experiences, which is often very polarising. Ask teachers to reflect in this way, particularly about personal and social issues, and the response is often heart wrenching stories of amazing practice and support, or equally heart breaking stories of what they perceive to be poor practice and children who have been let down.

When you ask teachers to start from experience, the result you often get is thoughts of ‘lets emulate‘, or ‘lets deride‘; reactions to heroes and disappointments focused far more on the teacher and their practice (or persona) than on the children and their learning. 

I don’t think this is as useful as teacher education should be; I don’t want to send new teachers out into schools with thinking based around total emulation or rejection. Particularly in this area, I want them to go in ready to respond to children, to help them build what they need, not with a focus on ‘how things happen in school’.

So, this time I am going to start with some blue sky thinking; ‘what do we need children to achieve in this area?‘, better still ‘what do you think the children and their friends and families would want to achieve in this area?‘. I’m going to tinge this with a healthy does of criticism; ‘are Ecclestone & Hayes right in saying this entire subject disempowered whilst trying to empower?‘. Then I want them to build what emerged as the next practice for them from these debates and this thinking.

Certainly, in school many of the students will be required to teach the SEAL curriculum and not their own ‘blue sky’ ideas, but having truly considered the subject will hopefully result in a much more nuanced view, and a better job being done as a result. So often I find it is not the content, but the perspective from which it is delivered that makes the difference; the medium is the message. It strikes me that many areas might benefit from a fresh look in this sense, rather than starting from experience, going back to basics and questioning what the subject is about and what the learners need rather than concentrating on what teachers are already doing.



Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D. (2008) The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.


Photo: CC BY NC Craft*ology on Flickr


5 responses to “(Not) Starting from experience”

  1. Jo Badge Avatar

    The best teaching we had on the PGCE was when the lecturer ‘taught’ on every level : using questioning techniques to unpick our thoughts, plenaries to draw out learning, content to challenge our preconceptions or make us check misconceptions of our own.

  2. Rob O'Brien Avatar
    Rob O’Brien

    Oliver, you’re making makes me think of andragogy (adult leaning), aspects of which need to sit beside pedagogical practices – yes, even in primary classrooms. Social Ecology (moved from Social Sciences to Education at UWS http://www.zulenet.com/see/chair.html and http://www.uws.edu.au/future-students/postgraduate/postgraduate/postgraduate_courses/social_science_courses/arts_social_ecology) speaks of the same issues in our education systems.

    I like you’re thinking and focus move.

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