From problems to mysteries…

Munday, I. (2012) The classroom: a problem or a mystery? Paper presented at the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain annual conference, New College, Oxford, 30 March – 1 April.

Ian Munday’s paper poses a heartfelt challenge to technological or problem-based approaches to teaching development, and suggests that we may better serve ourselves and our students by abandoning classroom research altogether. While this is quite a shocker to be presented with in the first year of a professional doctorate, the obvious parallels to be drawn between Munday’s acknowledgement of mystery and Van Manen’s phenomenology of practice are presumably why David suggested we read them both 😉

Munday’s disenchantment with the problem-solving model of teaching development stems from its association with possession (of control, a desired state, etc). He draws heavily on the work of the existential philosopher Gabriel Marcel in explaining what is wrong with ‘having’ in this context; for example, covetousness, enslavement, the anxiety of ‘not having’, and the necessitation of the object’s independence from the subject in order to be possessed. Control is often an illusion, and our desire to possess it may take us over. I never made it through to the end of Lord of the Rings, but Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is incredibly rich in this area, very clear on what exactly is desirable about the things being coveted, and has a kick-ass lead character to boot.

How I laughed at Munday’s description of the text chat for one of his online seminars as reminiscent of ‘a rather boring Beckett play’… I can definitely relate to this! And also to the ‘solution’ he found of sticking to simple, clear questions to elicit simple, clear answers… hence turning the virtual classroom into a bland, rigid space I guess… but – yes – with that lovely illusion of control 😉

Munday asks why we desire to posses things, and comments – as if in response to this question – on our lack of connection with each other. Perhaps it is connection that we desire, and when we fail to achieve the degree of connection we seek with our fellow humans, we connect with stuff instead – by trying to possess it.

So how do we move on from this relentless fight to control and possess? Munday suggests that one way is to view the object or situation as an instrument of creation; in viewing and using it as such, ‘having’ becomes ‘being’. From having a garden we become gardeners, from having a piano we become pianists, etc.

Munday also presents Marcel’s concept of mystery as a possible alternative to the problem. Now, mystery is a funny old concept that – by definition – defies definition. So why use it? Presumably because it emphasises the things we do not/cannot fully understand or know. While ‘unknowable’ implies a barrier that causes a problem, Marcel and Munday both see ‘mysterious’ as a more neutral term, and a concept that acknowledges our own immersion. Many would perceive a ‘mystery’ as something that needed solving. I’m not sure about the words themselves, but I do appreciate the general idea.

Where I see this connecting to our pathic writing task – and to Van Manen’s paper – is in the distinction between problematising teaching practice and grasping the experience where it touches us. These points of contact and connection are of utmost importance; the classroom is not something separate from us that can be contained.

cat on towelIn terms of my own practice and general way of thinking about life, I’ve been wavering between total agreement and total skepticism since Saturday morning when I finished reading Munday’s paper. I was shocked at his argument that ‘we do not, on the whole, order and contain our living rooms’. Does he live in chaos?!! The ordering of my living room is all about controlling the behaviour of others… my Macbook is open, fully charged, on the other table so that my boyfriend is channelled to (silently) fiddle with Facebook or email rather than turning on the TV or the radio while I read and write (with my earplugs in as a contingency plan). There is an old folded towel next to my left elbow to persuade the cat against sitting on my notepad or my keyboard (this really works – the @CatsOnLaptops twitter account is furious with me). My chair faces away from the rest of the room so that I am not distracted by what else is going on. My phone is deposited as far away as possible so that I am less likely to fiddle with Facebook. I order and contain my living room as I do my classroom, and my students tell me they learn a lot from me about behaviour modification and nudging and the setting of ‘good defaults’. However, Munday’s point here is to question why we approach interactions with our friends and family differently than those with our students, and my point is that I don’t think I do… I manipulate everyone, especially those I really care about, and most of all myself 😉

I loved Ian Munday’s article – I loved the way it pulled the tablecloth out from one of the most distinctive aspects of my own teaching practice (my use of structure to control), and made me consider how things might be different. It is incredibly pertinent to what I’m doing at the moment with the Teaching Development Project (TDP) unit that is part of our PG Cert Academic Practice course. Up until now, the projects have been problem-based. Participants had to identify a problem or issue in their teaching practice and then design, execute and evaluate an intervention to address that problem. While this has yielded some interesting and creative projects which look great in our annual report, it has also – let’s be honest – produced some mediocre ones, and the reported outcomes have often been predictable and/or under-explored. I’ve recently tweaked the assignment brief so that the project itself can simply be an evaluation or exploration of practice. This is already opening up the field for the kinds of approaches to development described by Van Manen and promoted by Munday, and seems to resonate with the creative arts educators on my course more than the problem-based approaches; previously the first question I was often asked on the TDP unit is ‘what do you mean – a problem? Like what…?’

One of Munday’s final points was about the importance of the communality of goals over their definition, which you can’t argue with… if the community is happy with a lack of definition, who needs definition?!

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1 Response to From problems to mysteries…

  1. Pingback: Being in teaching: a little transformation | Doctored

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