Thursday, April 13, 2006

Education as 'Conversation'

Peace, one and all...
Here are some more ramblings on education...
Education as 'Conversation'
In recent months, I have increasingly come to see education in terms of conversation. That is, effective education can be seen as a dialogue between both teacher and student. Society at large also has a very important role to play (and thus our dialogue becomes a trialogue). In this current journal, I would like to explore another important aspect of this conversational relationship. In particular, I want to discuss my thoughts and observations relating to my role as a Personal Tutor.

Before we can begin our exploration, I feel it is important that we first establish our context appropriately. One of my main educational roles is that of Year 1 Personal Tutor. Although other aspects of my work involve student support in a broad sense (especially in what might be labelled a ‘pastoral’ setting), here my role is more strictly related to academic support. It is, therefore, my role to offer help and advice on my students’ academic development (in terms of ‘study skills’ for example), as well as on their educational plans (in terms of helping them to decide which courses they would like to take).

This role also exists within a wider University framework. As a formal Personal Tutor, I am obliged to follow specific guidelines relating to practice and conduct. Thus although I am required to meet my tutees at least three times during the year, I also see them regularly on a more informal basis.

Reflections on Dialogue
As a Personal Tutor, it is my responsibility to help my students develop and thus direct their studies themselves. In order for me to help them do this, I need to develop skills in three distinct areas:

Listening Skills

Although listening skills may seem an obvious choice in such a list, I think it is important to underline its significance. On reflection, listening seems to break down into two distinct categories – the physical skill of listening and the skill of actually hearing what the other person is saying. Both require effort to master properly. The physical skill consists of hearing the other person’s voice. In other words, as a tutor, I need to listen carefully to what my tutees are actually saying; I need to ‘hear’ them. Hearing, in this sense, takes a lot of practice and involves a number of sub-disciplines. Of particular significance, I feel, is letting the person speak themselves. There are times when we try to finish other people’s sentences. Whilst this might appear to be a very natural thing to do, it can also be very harmful. The point of dialogue is to bring the views, ideas and beliefs of two people into correspondence. And, whilst our own ‘voices’ may be well developed and sufficiently ‘loud’ to engage in such dialogue, we are trying to help others develop their own abilities. We cannot achieve this by putting our words into the mouths of others.

Trying to hear what the other person is really saying is not easy. It is, however, the only way to achieve effective communication. Here, I feel the skill of listening leads into other inter-connected areas. My aim as a tutor is to help the individual student to develop confidence in their own ability to make choices. Or, in other words, the tutor is there to help students understand the choices before them so that they can make informed decisions for themselves.

As such the role of tutor demands from me an understanding of my own hidden motivations. In offering to my tutees my own insights (such as they are), I have to constantly avoid leading them; I have to find ways to help them make their own choices. On one level this is relatively straightforward. They must choose their own path and so they alone bear ultimate responsibility. On a deeper level, though, this is extremely complex. Everything I say and everything I do has an effect on my tutees. How, therefore, can I avoid leading them in some way, even though I may not be conscious of it? How can I avoid indirectly leading someone where I want them to go?

Once again, as is often the case, I have no clear answers to offer. It seems to me that I cannot offer a truly objective service because I cannot myself be truly objective. Reflecting on this fact for a moment, however, does seem to provide some help. If I cannot offer objectivity to my tutees then I will have to offer them my very subjectivity. In other words, I think that my own personal insights and experiences are useful in themselves. Although I am certainly not special in any sense, I can remember benefiting from the insights of others. Necessarily, therefore, others should be able to draw on my experiences for their own benefit. Perhaps, then, this is the whole point? Well, at the very least, this seems a good place from which to start.

In order to move forward, I also believe that I need to develop skill in dealing with difficult issues. As I have discovered, the learning process is deeply affected by external pressures. Financial difficulties, emotional problems and family troubles all impact on a student’s engagement with learning. Although I have no magic wand with which to address these issues, I do have to deal with them on a regular basis. How then should I react in such circumstances? How can I deal sensitively with deeply rooted personal problems, whilst also maintaining sufficient professional distance?

It is at this point that the role of the tutor blurs to some extent with that of counsellor. Although there is a clear boundary in some senses, it is not always to determine where it actually lies. I am also still not clear on how to approach such situations. My natural inclination is to offer an emotional response. Because I am very interested in the idea of redemption, my first thought always seems to be to offer reassurance and support. But, is this always the appropriate response? Are there times when a less personal method (for want of a better description) is required? From my own personal experience, I am aware that sometimes we need to feel the consequences of our actions (and those of others). At the very least, I realise that developing these skills will take time and effort.

The Tutor as Guide
Given these reflections, I have come to understand my role to be that of a guide. Upon reflection, the idea of a guide seems to suit this kind of role and thus seems particularly appropriate to me. A guide is someone who has already made a journey of their own (in this case an educational one). This need not be the same journey (which is in any case impossible). A guide (or traveller) has explored learning themselves and can then pass on the insights they have gained to the tutee. Because each journey is individual and hence different from all others, the guide is not an impartial expert offering mere technical competence. In this model, the guide thus offers the tutee their experiences of travelling – their highs and lows, their successes and failures. As I have discovered during the course of the PGCE, one of the hallmarks of adult education is its emphasis upon developing the student’s awareness of their own life experiences. In other words, an adult’s previous experiences form a valuable resource in more formal ‘learning’.

As I think about these points, the spiritual dimension of teaching comes into increasing focus. ‘Education’, as I have used the term here, could equally be described as ‘transformation’ or ‘spiritual growth’. Although I have my own peculiar views and beliefs, I am not (consciously) referring to a particular belief system. Indeed, there seem to be two broadly different ideas at work here. The first could be called ‘understanding reality’. By that, I mean the ultimate nature of things, the ultimate reality of existence (however so conceived). There are, of course, many different understandings of ‘reality’ – some religious, some philosophical. Necessarily, however, understanding ‘reality’, if indeed possible, is certainly a long-term project. As such, this is perhaps less important here. Of arguably more significance is what might be termed the ‘human response’. By this, I mean the developmental response to ‘reality’. That is, how we as people grow and develop as we come to understand more about ourselves and our perspective on life. This point appears to be the essence behind such spiritual insights as ‘Know Thyself’ and ‘Physician Heal Thyself’ in that they do not refer to ‘God’ (or an outside reality) but rather to the required personal response.

Concluding Reflections
As a teacher, I am helping my students to develop their critical and analytical faculties so that they can then use them during their studies and then in later life. In that sense, a modern education in the humanities (principally history and religious studies in my case) represents a piece of the wider puzzle. What students choose to make of their learning is up to them; indeed, this is the whole point.


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