Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Cultivating a Climate for Contagious Pedagogy

I'm writing this post as Renata (@renniesherrie) an I are on our way up to the SSAT National Conference in Liverpool on this wonderful Pendolino train - not feeling at all seasick until I started typing this post. Tomorrow we are presenting our work during the rondeval sessions that start at 11.30 and I wanted to go through the process of designing our presentation, partly to help me work throught the ideas in preparation, but also partly for the sake of posterity (maybe even to an audience that includes some of the people who will be coming to our session: wouldn't that be nice and circular.

The first thing we had to do was to come up with a snappy and intriguing title and, being the people we are at Canons, we elected to go with a metaphor and actually to return to the metaphor that kick-started this blogsite off: the metaphor of cultivation and growth. Having been thoroughly chastised in the past for my use of the well-worn and perhaps patronising verb 'facilitate' this seemed far more fluid a term, far more natural a term and far more potent a term for the work we do. Very quickly we realised that we were conceptualising a noun of culture as well as a verb of cultivating. We had our hook, but we had no idea how rich our metaphor would be.

The next step in our planning for this mini-presentation (we have five minutes to share our work then ten minutes to discuss it with three repetitions of the rondeval rotation) was to make more sense of our metaphor and to make it live and breathe and resonate with the work we have done. With this in mind, and given my penchant for a phenomenological approach to things, we used a dictionary to explore the meanings behind the verb 'cultivate' and noun 'culture'. In doing so we identified seven interpretations of the word that we felt chimed perfectly with what our Outstanding Pedagogy Project has been all about an what it has to recommend its to others.

We were struck in particular by the natural imagery that is brought forth by the word 'cultivate' and its definitions. Since the very start of the project I have been beyond keen to use the term 'organic' to describe how it should progress and how it should be measured. To some this may be seen as a rather blind leap into the unknown, but all of those that have worked on the project have come to understand that it is not about route maps or plans or success criteria (except for the big one of making pedagogy at Canons beyond outstanding) but about the journey itself, something very much demonstrated in a number of the posts on this blogsite.

The next part of planning for our presentation was in selecting images that reflected the metaphoric nature of our thinking about the CanonsOPP project. We spent a great deal of time finding rich, dense images that best reflected the significance of the dictionary definitions we had identified because we want our audience to be able to see the depth of thinking underpinning our actions in the past three years; to see how well we are living the metaphor, not just talking it. Without that sense of genuine cultivation, CanonsOPP would not have engaged a fraction of the people it has. We are creating a genuinely bottom-up pedagogy, rooted in class practice.

But as Renata and I explored the metaphororic significance of 'cultivation' and 'culture' further we began to see that as well as horticultural imagery, there was a scientific imagery running through the notions of 'culture'. We began to see that as well as playing the role of gardener (primarily Renata's domain) there was also the element of mad scientist to our work (primarily my domain) and that the two were wonderfully complimentary in nature. The 'contagious' of our presentation's title reflects this, and reflects the freedom that many of our staff, and particularly our Ped Leaders, feel in trying out new ideas and learning from each other informally.

This sense of the scientific - of disciplined innovation and experimental curiosity - is a new strand to our thinking about the Canons Pedagogy that we are developing, but it is a powerful one. We are not seeking to impose a new style of teaching on any of our teachers but are instead looking to tap into the Canons DNA and to understand it better. No school culture can be brought in through the books and writings of others outside of that institution. Each school is a unique place with its own chromosomal combinations, and that should be the starting point for all pedagogic development activities.

But as we considered our journey in the structuring of our presentation we felt the need to return to the natural and horticultural imagery with which we started our presentation. Our cultivation is all for nought if it doesn't actually lead to anything beautiful and if its product is something that is unsustainable. The contagiousness of our pedagogy (by no means a given at this point in time) is about pollen-spreading as much as it is about viral infectiousness. It is about successful flowering of one teacher leading consecutively to the successful flowering of others as much as it is about joint planning and development leading to simultaneous improvement.

And of course, we wanted to convey in our presentation the sense of development beyond Canons both across time and across space. The sense that we contribute through our OPP project to the work of teachers in other schools via our networks on twitter, via this blog and in person through face to face contact is of huge importance to us as we plan for a potential future as a Teaching School. But there is also the sense that we are investing in the future staff and children of Canons by investing in the present staff and children of Canons: that the establishment of a coherent pedagogic approach today will ensure a better chance of a coherent pedagogic approach tomorrow.

As always with this kind of presentation we wanted to finish with a bang and not a whimper: with a meaningful statement that would stay with our audience members. To do this we looked to famous quotations about the word 'culture' in order to top and tail our presentation. The first of these, from Matthew Arnold, demonstrates how seeking to embed a culture (pedagogic or otherwise) is about striving for a perfection that helps us to become something special, not have something special. The second, concluding the presentation, reinforces the interdependent nature of any culture, with each component reliant upon all other components in turn.

And it is these two features of the Canons Pedagogy that we want to communicate most emphatically to whoever comes to see us tomorrow. We want to show that CanonsOPP is all about striving for perfection, even when that perfection may seem to be unattainable at times. We also want to show that fundamentally CanonsOPP is about creating an ecosystem not unlike a coral reef: a system where teachers, students, school leaders, parents and the wider community are enmeshed in mutually supporting and reinforcing networks. And that by strengthening the quality of teaching, we are strengthening the whole ecosystem for the benefit of all who are part of its culture.


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