High-level cohesion, pulling values from the vacuum, or simply “Why Tertiary should pick up on child-centred learning”.
Yesterday Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University, presented her talk Learning Wisely, Living Virtuously: the challenge of Modern Education at the Thomas Paine Study Center, University of East Anglia. A big thank you to the Keswick trust for making this event available at no cost.
Those familiar with Professor Siddiqui’s BBC4 programmes will recognise many of the themes. It thrilled me that she opened with the issue of teaching values in a society without authoritative meta-narratives. This lead to a critique of the atomisation of education, its focus on the quantifiable over qualitative, as well as the narcissistic self-feeding-frenzy of contemporary consumer culture, which never stops to ask the question “Why?”
Treading carefully, Professor Siddiqui even managed to subtly juxtapose this lack of critical questioning with modernity’s all-pervading question-everything anti-authoritarian ethos, which today makes any discussion of solutions from a religious perspective difficult, if not impossible.
But distrust of authority, however, goes far beyond religion; She described a session where the question “What are your values?” had drawn blank stares from a lecture hall of university students. After coping with this novel concept, it finally transpired that they got their values not from their parents or teachers, but from their peers.
All in all, the Professor echoed my own reflections on this blog, tying together cultivation of values, engagement in deep and meaningful relationships, and the support this would offer community building and cohesion.
Given the title of the talk and the Professor’s engagement, intelligence and scholarship, I was genuinely interested in her ideas about how to translate this into a classroom experience – getting the sage down into the valley, so to speak. Therefore, in the following Q&A, I asked how such demanding human skills (including “humility, respect for hard work, thankfulness”) were to be taught in this context of narcissism, void of narrative and common reference points beyond the latest viral fad.
Alas, the answer here stayed on high ground, circling around the importance of adult role models, balancing the individual vs. community and semantics of values and morals when positioned to children. All highly intelligent and insightful, but nebulous nonetheless. After a few tries, I let it go.
This is in no way a critique of Professor Siddiqui, rather a realisation that she is as much a victim of the atomisation of the education system as the students. It is just not embedded day-to-day practice for researchers and philosophers to sit down with teachers and heads to operationalise ideal education, in spite of teachers actually having a lot of quite amazing solutions, but no theoretical framework with which to describe them and develop them.
Caught in the revolving doors?
In reality, the most enlightening part of the evening took place later: Before I had even risen from my seat, I was whirled up in conversation with a 22-year-old MA student at the UEA and a local Primary teacher in her 50s. Between myself and these two women, one in the spring and one at in autumn of life, choice, consequence, internalisation of learning, caring control versus freedom to fail, experience, art, expressiveness, identity; it all ignited.
On the way out, outlining my own work in relation to these topics, I had only to say the word Cooperative Learning, and the MA student burst out with “Oh, I’d love to have some of that. That’s exactly what we need at university!”
It just so happened that a gatekeeping member of UEA staff stood only eight feet away, and I jokingly suggested she present her ideas to someone who actually had the power to do something, which I suppose is frightfully Scandinavian of me. Unfortunately, said academic needed to escort Professor Siddiqui from the centre, so this opportunity to cross-fertilize between a live student, a decision-maker, two practitioners and a government level philosopher was lost in a revolving door.
With staff and guests gone, the three of us continued the chat in the empty hall of the Thomas Paine Centre, doing what in Danish is referred to as “redde verden”; i.e. “saving the world” – vernacular for solving universal problems over a cuppa.
The hip bone’s connected to …
I realised in all this the underlying importance of the educators’ workshop Healing Fractures II: Aside from hopefully inspiring and enlightening all participants on the subject, I wish to find a model in which stakeholders in any area may meet in something that is at once a chit-chat cafe and a ground-breaking, result-oriented down-to-business meeting – both of the highest caliber.
I was very generously offered a proper panel speech by one of the participants, Dr Lee Jarvis, who could easily have filled the Thomas Paine Center by himself. It was very tempting for a host of reasons, but in the end, I feel the format of panel-question/answer is not the answer here, even by a Senior Lecturer in International Security or a Professor in Islamic and Interreligious Studies:
Healing Fractures II is first and foremost about looking at information and information processing in another way and harnessing the power of didactic strategies to let a wide variation of stakeholders construct and funnel knowledge through highly complex networks – and secondly to capture that processing as clear, effective, next-action steps. The atomised take on knowledge is not an option in the 21st century.
And it is about equality, it is about exploring with genuine interest (facilitated by the format of Cooperative Learning) other people’s reflections, negotiating meanings and reality-checking ideas. And, in that, perhaps discovering that while we may think ourselves mountains of knowledge, we may be someone else’s valley floor. Whether this is wisdom is hard to say, but I remember when I was taught the Islamic sciences at the hand of a traditional Moroccan teacher: “Knowledge always flows downwards.”
Professor Siddiqui’s most important statement came as an afterthought, reflecting on our questions at the very end of the Q&A:
“…I don’t know how we can get out of this,
except to re-analyse the purpose of education.”
First thing to do on a Monday morning, 16 March 2015, in the beautiful rooms of the Norwich Wellbeing Centre.
“OK – Wow, I really am lost.”
This small clay figure is the handy-work of said primary school teacher,
scanned from her business card.