Scott Thornbury recently published a blog post calling for a different learning metaphor to the tired old transmission theories where we are all closed systems beaming out messages to each other and receiving what gets sent. One wonders how simplistic life was in the fifties when this kind of thinking was considered revolutionary. After all, they’d already come up with atomic genocide, communism, fascism, Albert Einstein was dating Marilyn Monroe and the like. You would have thought that they could have tried harder.
The responses to Scott’s post featured the inevitable sowing metaphor with the teacher being the well-meaning agriculturalist who scatters seeds and then nurtures them to glorious and resplendent crops. Builders and architects were also there. As was the recognition that we are well served by a variety of metaphors.
I struggled to get a metaphor that made more sense to me. Then, I don’t know how, the idea of the atom struck me. I think it was probably because I was trying to get a grip on the scale of our sheer insignificance as teachers. Unfortunately, I spent far too much time in my schooldays being a horrible little sh*t in Physics and am left with a rather weak grasp of scientific concepts.
I have vowed to go away and read a little to try and set this right. But until then, allow me to put forward the hatchlings of an idea.
The world of learning for each individual is massive. And the individual is entirely dependent upon all of the other individuals who are knocking around. Without those individuals, our individual does not exist. She is as accurately defined by who she is not as she is defined by who she is. She is not Margaret Thatcher; she is not Aung Sang Lee. She is not Imelda Marcos and she is not Lady Gaga. Those who have played the parlour game “Give Us a Clue” or Twenty Questions will be aware of this at some primal level.
We are wrong therefore to consider learning from the actions of the individual. When we are trying to understand learning, we need to consider the whole context in which it emerges. Let us think about this metaphorically and say that the classroom therefore may be represented by the metaphor of the universe. In fact, for the sake of scale, let us bring it down to the planet level. For us as teachers, and for our learners, our classroom might best be thought of as Planet Earth. It might just as easily have been Uranus, but it is this sort of thinking that kept seeing me expelled from my Physics lessons all those years ago.
Within the world are many, many things that we are taught to regard as different despite what I understand is the scientific claim that we are all composed of the same minerals and elements. In that regard, it doesn’t seem to be very different from Legoland – it all looks different but essentially the whole thing is made out of…well…Lego. What enables us to differentiate between things made up of the same Stuff? I suppose by defining boundaries and limits. These are inevitably artificial: unless you believe in thinking Creators who spend the first day making the seas and all that is in them and then the second day making the earth and all that on it resides. Mind you, if we’re still talking about Legoland, that belief is hardly outlandish. But this is Planet Earth. Or, in some classrooms, after lunch and towards the end of the week, Planet Dearth.
We throw up some artificial boundaries: we create the concept of teachers and learners and we decide that these boundaries mean that they are all engaged in different pursuits: sowing, building, transmitting, gardening etc for one bunch; ummm…making seeds germinate and grow, being built on, receiving, being gardened for another. I don’t think that I am doing the proponents of these metaphors much justice.
Let us scale it down even further. The classroom is only one tiny, tiny part of the world of the people in it. Think: a given individual might be a picker, a grinner, a lover, a sinner; they might be a player of music in the sun; or even a joker, a smoker, a mid-night toker. They might possibly get their lovin’ on the run. Truly, Trudy, an individual is a microcosmos in him or herself. There is scope for an argument that we are everyone that we have ever met and then everyone that they have ever met as well. So, if we assume that there is some truth in the idea that the classroom roles of teacher and learner are just minutiae in the vast gamut of identities that these individuals inhabit, we abandon the idea of the classroom as the world and we embrace the idea that perhaps the classroom is just a place which goes towards creating a tiny, tiny part of the world. Things that are tiny, tiny and seem to build the world are, if my limited scientific understanding serves, also known as atoms. We have now shrunk the whole world into the size of an atom. Let us pause to get a grip on what has happened here.
Here is a full stop. How small would you have to become in order to be able to stand in the middle of that full stop? We are talking some serious size reduction here, baby. Now, imagine that you made yourself so small that the full stop stretched a full one hundred metres across in diameter. That is, the full stop is now so big that it would take Usain Bolt up to ten seconds to sprint across it. Now look back at how big the full stop really is. A scientist has told me that if we were to take this full stop and magnify it to the extent that it was 100m across, we could see the atoms. Up until now, my post has suggested that we shrink the world into an atom. I would suggest that this is something so massive that we probably can’t even begin to conceptualise it.
That teaching and learning are only fractions of the activity that goes on within this tiny, tiny place should help us begin to get a grip on just how insignificant we are. We are not major players who cast the seed and nurture it. We have no way of knowing how to nurture the seed of learning. We have no way of controlling the forces that act upon it and make it do its thang. We aren’t builders who can study how to put brick A on top of brick B until a palace of knowledge is raised on the banks of the Tiber. We have no way of scoping the land to ensure that all the conditions for successful construction are met.
We are all bound inside a system that is infinitesimally small. Within that system, we are only two of the manifold forces that are at play. As teachers we are buffeted around by the forces that are smashing us around and we are ourselves forces that smash other things around. We are bound together in a mad, fizzing, orbit around a solid force: that of learning. If this metaphor holds, we are like electrons which bound around the solid force of the proton. It sits there, all positive, while we go berserk around it in our negativity. Between the proton (learning) and the electrons (people) arises a whole array of forcefields and electromagnetic fields that are very, very solid and stop collisions or any other sort of tangible contact. Within the protons, there are quarks that need to be explained. Within the quarks may or may not lie the strings that constitute the most basic construction material of all.
Perhaps before I get any more tangled, it is time to stop. It’s certainly time for a shower.
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