“The dialectic of possible worlds”


I felt enormously privileged today to be able to attend the Tapestry Conference in Glasgow to hear Jerome Bruner give a spellbinding performance.

For a man born in 1915 (93 years ago) he displayed humour, warmth and humility which would bely most men half his age – quite aside from his iconic intellect. In what was a wide ranging personal perspective on “A Curriculum for Excellence” he flitted through the decades, continents and historical fugures which whom he has engaged.

The strand to which he kept returning throughout his 50 minutes was the need for teachers to engage children in real thought by encouraging them to challenge and ask the tough questions – not just those which are part of the agreed syllabus.

He urged us to reflect upon controversy through a dialectic:

Dialectic (Greek) is controversy: the exchange of arguments and counter-arguments respectively advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of the exercise might not simply be the refutation of one of the relevant points of view, but a synthesis or combination of the opposing assertions, or at least a qualitative transformation in the direction of the dialogue.

In contrast to Piaget, Bruner has always fought shy of the stages of development and believes that children of any age can participate in such dialogue to make meaning of their world.

However, it was his phrase “The dialectic of the possible worlds” which struck such a chord with me.  I suppose in my own small way I am trying through this Learning Log to explore opposite worlds.  Through the power of the web it can become a dialectic which leads – at the very least – to a transformation in the direction of my own dialogue.

Given my last post about the Dark Forces – I think it’s vitally important that we encourage and support teachers to explore opposite worlds in terms of their own practice and the nature of the curriculum and then participate in a professional dialogue about these possibilities. Without such a dialogue we are trapped by dependency culture created by centralised teaching programmes of study and curricular materials.

Attachment Theory

 I’ll not kid on here – I first heard about attachment theory just a few months ago and then followed this up with a concrete example of it being put into practice at Lothian Villa.  What follows is my layman’s understanding of what it means and how we might benefit from it in East Lothian.

Ask a teacher or a school which learning theory governs their practice and they will be hard put to give a coherent reply.  Yet reflect upon the observable practice and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones, where we believe that we can influence a child’s behaviour through the consistent aplication of rewards and sanctions. Through this process we can make children reflect upon their behaviour with a view to them developing an understanding of what constitutes good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised we can see such a model permeating our practice.

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

It is suggested that up to 40% of the adult population have a level of insecure attachment and the associuated diifculties which go with that.

So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as a secure attachment environment, e.g. emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy – all the things that parents are naturally teaching their children aged 0 – 4. The most important thing for insecure children are relationships – therefore schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).

Yet what do we often do with such children? – we apply our sanctions with no reference to the kind of parenting they have had and apply our sanctions – fairly – often resulting in exclusion (exactly the opposite treatment that the child requires).

For me this is not “fair” it is discrimatory  – yet the logic of treating everyone the same and application of sanctions in schools is so dominant in our schools it is almost beyond critique. So what do we do? For me the answer lies in training and education of all in our schools.  Recent evidence from those schools who have undertaken such training is very exciting and the change apparent in children who were previously deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques have been spellbinding.

The premise here is that it’s too late by the time we get to secondary school – we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit.  We need to CLAIM these children as ours and treat them with unconditonal positive regard.  Asssociated with this strategy we need to proactively and unashamedly teach and support parenting skills which will transform the lives of their children.

Disciplinary learning – straightjacket or cornerstone?

 In my last post  I was reflecting upon what Professor Lindsay Paterson had to say about the importance of disciplinary learning.

A Curriculum for Excellence sets out the place of Disciplinary (subject learning) within the curriculum:

It defines the scope of the curriculum as extending beyond subjects to include:

  • the ethos and life of the school as a community
  • curriculum areas and subjects
  • interdisciplinary projects and studies
  • opportunities for wider achievement.

 It goes onto state:

Because the curriculum is much more than the sum of individual curriculum areas, this material is the first of a series. To support planning for the curriculum as a whole we will be producing further Building the Curriculum papers which will include cross-cutting themes including literacy and numeracy, and interdisciplinary studies and projects.

The dominant structure in Scottish secondary education is the notion of the curriculum as curriculum areas and subjects. Within ACfE these are:  

Each curricular area or subject will then reflect identify the experiences and outcomes in relation to particular content e.g. in science, within the unit relating to Planet Earth where experiences and outcomes have been identified for Biodiversity as illustrative exemplars.

The challenge for schools is going to be whether or not they step beyond the accepted way of delivering the curriculum in units of study dedicated to each of the curricular areas (subjects) e.g. 3 periods of Social Studies; 5 periods of Maths, 2 periods of Expressive Arts, etc.

There are those who fear that we water down these areas into experiences which are taught by non-specialists in an inter-disciplinary manner which do not require the services of a specialist teacher in that subject area.

The difference between secondary schools and primary schools is that the Scottish secondary system has specialist subject teachers – usually only qualified to teach in one curricular area – who have typically undergone a degree in that discipline and also undergone a one post graduate certificate/diploma in teaching. That unique resource becomes both a strength and weakness of any system which seeks to explore the notion of inter-disciplinary work – who will do it?; does it make the most of our specialist teachers?; will inter-disciplinary work undermine the outcomes in disciplinary work?; how will we fit inter-disciplinary work into the curriculum without it taking time away from disciplinary work?

The more I think about this, the more I am attracted to the idea of the early years in secondary school being taught by teams of teachers – as was suggested by most of the Depute Head Teacher Groups at their recent conference. Such a team of teachers could still deliver their own specialisms but work together to create a learning environment which enabled the learners to see and create the links between the subjects.

In my next post I’ll consider some of the recent neuro-scientific research into the brain and the learning process, with a view to trying to understand how the brain sees all disciplines in an inter-disciplinary manner.