Available at above link. Completed and passed, August 2017.
It’s an odd metaphor that repeating something results in improvements, yet paradoxically the re-sit in FE of English and Maths seems to – arguably – cause more problems than solutions. For repetition to yield improvements, the conditions need to be appropriate, and in education, least of all FE, conditions are far from appropriate and the numerous variables are complex and messy, which is why educational research is so awkward.
I’m interested in project-based learning as a pedagogical vehicle, so read Tom Bennett’s blog post on it with an open-mind. His is an admirable reputation in education at the moment: informed critique of dubious ideas with guile and intellect. I’m glad there’s a Tom Bennett: it’s entirely necessary to shoot down dodgy knowledge in our age and whenever I’ve read him, he does so with aplomb and humour. He seems like a good bloke and all that.
My view of project-based learning is of its capacity to represent an alternative framework of provision in FE to the English GCSE.
To my understanding, project-based learning (PBL) has the hypothetical capacity to
- drive content of personal interest to the individual
- allow for investigative, discovery-based approaches
- promote the creation of products over the consumption of them
- be multimodal in the presentation of work
- be organised as portfolio, allowing for the creation of artefacts
- allow for technologically-supporting and disseminating approaches
- complement vocational courses of study
- enable a mastery-based approach to process and content, aligned to vocational models
- be evaluated in different ways than standard exam-based, summative assessment
In an ideal world, students are motivated and curious, which may well be necessary mechanisms to PBL (if not all pedagogical strategies). I’ve attempted PBL approaches before with students, with mixed responses that I’ll elucidate on shortly. However, a few things first about PBL.
Organised inappropriately, PBL can centre around a premise of highly student-centred activity based on conditions that are likely to fail. Mitra’s SOLE approach is confused as PBL, where students are given a central question, some resources (‘the internet’) and are let loose like eager beavers to find the answers. Mitra’s studies of kids in the Indian slums given access to computers and the internet (‘Hole in the Wall’) remind me of when people say “x is the fastest growing economy in the world”, where x is a recently emergent industrial society that’s recently discovered oil, so is bound to be fastest growing from a position of 0.
“Kids in the slums learned quickly from the internet and were self-directed. Much more than…” What? Having no access to any education?
Our students (in FE) are stuffed from learning in school: crammed full of it, institutionalised upto their ears, assessment-fatigued and textually-jaded. Many are academically celibate. Opportunities for new paradigms of learning may well enthral them, but left to their own devices many will flounder because of these reasons, rather than fly with the wings of opportunity.
Anyway, I’ve always have difficulty with some research report which says ‘you learn a lot more…[ this way, or that]’ as if ‘learning’ was a countable noun that was so easily measured. This is the basis of much research, including the EEF report that Bennett criticises. You can tell early on in his blog that he’s not a fan, because his approach is to treat pbl to a line in hilariously snarc-astic language that assuages me to agree with him. Fair enough.
The EEF report was centred on Year 7 students and schools placed under strict research guidelines in order to control the comparisons, including time-apportioned to the study. A key thing here: the definition of PBL, drawn by literature review, is thus set in stone (rather than fluid and responsive) as it needs to be for the purpose of the study. PBL in my mind is more adaptable to a teacher’s personal approach and knowledge of their students. Tom criticises PBL entirely based on the report, because it is not structured around delivery by a subject specialist.
But hang on, why shouldn’t it be, even if the EEF say it’s so? My approach to PBL would have drafting, focused feedback on improving literacy and reviewed feedback ascertaining changes shared with students to gauge their own improved quality. There would be loads of subject specialism, thank you.
This would hinge on the initial input of a teacher-specialist delivering conventional grammar lessons, before students take to projects in lessons (with the expectation of those grammatical structures as implemented). This isn’t so different to reading Steinbeck and writing an essay on it, where the text (and the questions) is the vehicle for the training of communication skills.
The EEF report based its study on school-contexts and Year 7. There is an entirely separate argument here about whether PBL is more appropriate to one age group or context than another. I think it’s a strategy that requires intrinsic motivation, for sure, and Year 7 students may well have that more than post-16 students (or not).
What is reasonable to assert is that different aged students in different contexts require different models of learning. PBL may be more akin to HE study, making it a pedagogy fit for the FE transitional context.
I have no particular gripe with chalk-and-talk knowledge transmission. But I know it has its’ limits with re-sit students arriving (apprehensively) to a classroom from a studio or workshop. Being a compulsory re-sit in a post-compulsory sector, can students be given some license to engage with curricula content (‘vehicle’) of whatever shape, as long as there is a literacy development programme in place? ‘Independent study time’ is routinely in place in FE colleges everywhere.
I don’t consider PBL as ‘independent’, but the concept of taking some tools (grammar constructs) and completing work to a deadline, furnished with supporting instruction of research and presentation skills (how to use technological tools to search, select and share, i.e. video, powerpoint, textual formats) and tailored to individual choice (personal choice of subject matter), with a dialogue that helps guide the entire process (‘Can you tell me why you have included that detail? How about using x to fit with the narrative of your study? Is there an alternative view of this subject? You might want to look again at the section on…&etc’).
Sounds a lot like FE-styled approaches (except the re-sit ones). It’s called Heutagogy in some areas and – while an iffy word to some – represents a plausible direction of travel for Tertiary Education.
So, we know the EEF has fairly narrow defined prescriptions of what PBL is.
Let me conclude by discussing the pbl approach I tried with my FE students. I’ll be honest, the way I’ve presented it here didn’t work well. Tom suspects that “the least able lose out the most” (don’t they nearly always?). Tom also suggests an “enormous upheaval” in terms of curriculum cost.
So, in my case I arranged our 35 week re-sit to be organised as two separate 90 minute classes, instead of one three hour intensive lesson (standard in some FE colleges). One of those 90 minute lessons would focus on syllabus, with the other focused on PBL, particularly with technological support, alongside grammar drills and sessions.
I explained the aims of the year to students in September, that each week we would meet in the computer suite once, where there would be grammar sessions and project time. I invited them to consider their projects and how these would or could be presented, so in varying sessions I introduced them to Padlet, Twitter, Prezi, WordPress, Glogster, Book Creator apps, Explain Everything, Evernote, Wix and Dropbox. Students could work individually or in collaboration, but the condition was focused development towards targeted outcomes – integrating formulated language structures, meeting deadlines, drafting, being responsive to feedback, taking ownership of language mistakes where identified.
One student started on her own company website as her project, modelled on professional ones but with input augmented from her course and small-scale own business practice, with another student electing to support her. In terms of content, it stretched the project a bit, but their enthusiasm was notable and paid dividends to the main syllabus.
Two other students wanted to investigate Gun Crime (as there had been a mass shooting in America at that time). Rather than the free rein of PBL set out by the EEF, I gave guiding questions continually to frame and shape the process, inviting statistical representation, supplementing the research with a news article, presenting different attitudes about the issue, arguments from pressure groups and lobbying organisations, organised and challenged by their own views.
Another pair of motor maintenance students investigated the Volkswagen emissions controversy that was in the media spotlight then. Another student, lost for an option, explored a career path of his choice, researching opportunities, identifying and explaining routes into it; imagining himself an employer, he wrote a mock-interview script with a potential candidate, which he presented in roleplay with a peer and left to the group to decide the employers decision.
Of course, not all students were so ‘engaged’ and some spent the time perfecting thrilling spinning movements on desktop chairs. Herein a problem with flexibility, but it’s certainly not a problem exclusive to pbl.
Despite lessons being workshop-like and supported with starting drills and resources based on straightforward grammar and vocabulary activities, they lost shape and structure after about two months, but this wasn’t really due to pbl.
With a typical mixed cohort, typical re-sit FE problems arose: namely, attendance and workload-pressures of the students’ main vocational courses. Splitting the course across two days meant students had double opportunities for absence and took the choice of which lesson to attend. We ended up, sometime down the path, using the pbl-based lesson to consolidate the lost time on the syllabus lessons to ensure readiness for controlled assessments. However, I would stress that this was always a fail-safe mechanism in my planning from the start.
Students who felt prepared for the assessment through good attendance had the freedom, then, to personalise the curriculum time with their projects.
This is by no means an illustration of the perfect project-based curricula, but I’m lead to write about it because of the EEF report, which fixes it to defining constraints that I consider unhelpful to its potential.
If the PBL products my students made could be accredited, they could result – I believe –in work akin to the level of essays on Of Mice and Men, but richer, more dynamic. Why not? Isn’t it better than repeating a formula that hasn’t worked, despite repetition being a route to mastery. Re-sit students deserve the opportunity for differentiated practice. With the appropriate conditions (clear outcomes and experienced guidance) PBL can represent that.
Sciolism (noun): superificial knowledge or show of learning.
In my last post, I described the re-sit GCSE phenomenon, which seemed to resonate with people who teach it. I also made claim to some success over years of teaching it, which was asking for trouble. I’ve tried to reflect on some of the things I do and hope they may help others, though the more I drew on my thoughts, the less this seemed exclusive to re-sits. Therefore, I don’t claim that these approaches are in any way a sure thing (or even original).
I’ve persuaded the college where I teach that resits should be two classes of 90 minutes, rather than one 2 or 3 hour session. This has held for the last two years and appears to improve concentration and achievement in lessons. My argument was that little learning was taking place in concentrated classes. What I mean by this is…
Almost all resit students need grammar embedded into the course. This is too often overlooked in time-intensive courses, where we teach to the next controlled assessment. What is the point of a resit? To improve ability or to get a C? Certainly the former.
With two 90-min sessions, one lesson focuses solely on writing ability and control, the other on curriculum. Grammar can be embedded in more ‘engaging’ (said it) ways than the syllabus. If the GCSE should be reformed for FE it must focus on mastery, rather than teach-to-the-test. Judith Hochman‘s ‘connectives’ sentence expansion activities is an effective method of developing written ability. We have also practised a ‘slow-writing’ approach, with a set of prompts from lessons giving students a methodical process for adjusting writing style deliberately and considering what they are about to write in advance, i.e. ‘Use a subordinating conjunction in the next sentence to add more information’.
To focus on improvement and mastery, ‘slow-editing’ guidance is introduced after writing drills, to ensure students review their work. This may be simple, i.e. ‘count the number of sentences in each paragraph‘ (to improve checks on punctuating control), or more complex, ‘include decalarative statements‘, but is designed to support checking.
GCSE resits should revisit prior knowledge formulaically. Don’t assume students know nothing and show them their gains, as it’s advantageous as a building block and to revisit as more knowledge is accrued. I invite students to organise their prior knowledge on poster paper or Padlet if we have computer access and return to it to add more in plenaries.
Even though they may have much (or little) prior knowledge, introduce something new in every session – ideally something that would never have been done in school.
Although this is very difficult to ascertain, I at least aim to address my 16-19 students as adults in a level-fashion, rather than get some weird group-speak repeating going on (like in Machaela schools). Communication is vital in FE. A resit teacher should speak with:
- a touch of pressure
And often very directly. Though not always motivational, it’s important to be blunt sometimes, to show where expectations have not been met and that the maturity with which your students are treated (in how you communicate to them) has been let down. This is hard to explain without sounding like either a military officer or a feeble teacher whose feelings are easily hurt, but if the rapport is established then students will perform better – and they can hear from your tone where they may lose your respect, if not your confidence.
We’re often confronted by deep existential questions: ‘what’s the point of this?’ The answers can become a bit ‘ventriloquistic‘. Some stock responses:
- ‘You’ll be ahead of the next person in competition for a job.’
- ‘It’s important to know your language.’
- ‘Don’t you find it enjoyable?’
- ‘The Government says so.’
- ‘Low literacy is a form of poverty.’
- ‘You failed at school.’
I might not always use all of those, but think I have at some point where students have been persistently listless. I’ve also given out letters from previously jaded students who succeeded, but some resit students are so negative or have such low confidence in themselves that in truth, I’d advise avoiding that conversation altogether (or it will go on and on). Instead:
Challenge students to see the value in it at the end of May. Promise them if they keep an open-mind the course will be stimulating and transformative. Guarantee them that the more open they are to the lessons, the easier the year will be. Assure them that the easier the year will be, the better the odds of success and (quid pro quo) the more enjoyable it will be.
If students are really inquisitive about ‘the point‘, a microistic level can help, e.g.
Targets and goals.
These are crucial for students to see the bigger picture. I routinely reference dates on the calendar to improve self-preparation, goal-orientated behaviour and organisation.
‘Why are we doing this?’
‘If you understand the terms (knowledge), you can include them in your essay points. If you include them in your essays, your essay has more cohesion and is more informed. This is part of the mark scheme of what to include. Do so and you stand a better chance at qualifying.’
At some point, you can turn this round to ask the students the point in learning activities. If they’ve bought in, the plenary of a lesson is half-written for you.
Argyris talks of Double-loop learning, which is an excellent way to view the re-sitters experience and our obligation to help them. In this model, reflection is critical in order to improve decision-making. I ensure that I have 1-to-1s as quickly as I can to build rapport with students and try to stem any funny business from them. During these meetings, however short they are, I try to broach some analysis of why the student hasn’t passed before. There are countless acceptable explanations: dyslexia, poor teaching at school, lack of interest, poor confidence, long-term illness absences, lost coursework. I try to get students to regard these past experiences as ‘reasons’, rather than excuses. This allows us to establish a contract for improved success opportunities based on personalised targets (ILPs) and gives me a prompt for that student if they’re acting-up or falling-behind.
Rather than nag, we recall what has previously gone wrong and focus on correcting the behaviour by doing something different. If, for instance, the problem is continued attendance issues (and we all have those students who keep apologising and assuring you they’ll be fine), intervene early – the course is short. Ask them how they will remedy the absence with extra work outside lessons.
Put the responsibility for problems on the student. This is not always the case. Some resit students have incredible challenges and we are not always equipped with LSAs to support us. Bitesizing the curriculum is paramount, which is again linked to…
…Targets, because I aim to create a thread-like narrative throughout the course, treating specific and core ‘threshold knowledge’ aspects as key in certain lessons (i.e. the imperative aspects of a unit – for instance the prosodic features for the Spoken Language unit). Threshold knowledge act as knots to help students pull themselves towards those targeted controlled assessment dates. The thread is ‘double-looped’ and requires continual joining-up.
What becomes integral to lessons is a continual internal referencing – looking back and forwards to train the mind on reflection and targets, knowledge learned and the point of it. Using social learning technologies is helpful to self-organising, with a spare use of push-notifications assisting with…
Re-sit students can have very poor memories, studentship qualities (attitudes) and organisation skills. Twice weekly lessons can help with constant consolidation of knowledge (if attendance is secure), but also may improve an overall ‘horizon-scanning‘ approach, treating all targets as achievements towards goals. Currently, on the old spec, the CAs helpfully designate progress in per centages, so after each unit is rushed through (and they are), I over-do the accomplishment with congratulations and ‘what a relief…never again…’, before hoodwinking them into a new challenge: ‘Right. next unit.’ Higlighting where targets have been reached is a good negotiation strategy for sustained endeavour: ‘You’re 3/4 of the way there now. Just the exam left. You’ve done the hard part. Keep going. I can see daylight’ &etc.
This post is dragging on, like most of mine. Clearly to cut-corners and deal with attendance issues, students can be helped enormously with the right resources that can almost guarantee a C for an essay, no?
- Quote-matching activities to language features
- true or false questions to create personalised responses summarising opions about a text
- a ‘sparkling vocabulary’ list
- a template of suggested phrasing, and finally
- a clear skeletal plan of an essay
Obviously this is sciolisitic; it’s far better that students are perpetually writing draft paragraphs with frequent intensive grammar drills and tasks for long-term improvement, but…well, we’re expected to cut-corners and get kids through a 2 year course in 32 weeks, so we cut corners pretty efficiently. However, I’ll be frank: if students miss by a few marks, give them another go at it – even if they are a pain in the arse all year and your marking is piled sky high. Indeed, I would go further and show the student exactly what to include to get the assessment up to a C. If they’re a pain in the arse, I want to give them every opportunity to never have to do English with me again. ‘Controlled’ assessment, I ask you! My arse. AQA, if you’re reading, this is FE. We do things by mastery.
Also, students will always do things half-heartedly. I train focus on the controlled assessment dates by saying in the build-up (with a wee touch of anger in my voice) that it’s down to them to be sure they’re ready. At the start of lessons I measure confidence of writing the assessment based out of 10. This is reviewed at the end of lessons to gauge rough improvements and remind them of their obligations.
I also check in with them: ‘What else do you need to cover. We have two more lessons. What do you want to know?’ Then we do it. And if they don’t say ‘owt, then they must be ready : )
We achieved about 50% in the last year of A-C English resits, not bad for an FE college as national average is reported at around 9%. I hope we improve every year and this year has already started well in terms of attendance, mainly due to improved buy-in from Vocational staff nagging about English and Maths in all sessions and a concerted emphasis of it at induction. This emphasis on the importance of literacy across college is really important, but it still doesn’t help that half the students who passed in school disappear at those times. A reformed FE qualification would see all students take some sort of class. I’ll write on proposals for this later.
Image Creative Commons courtesy: © Tomas Castelazo, http://www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
When I was a kid certain things were not to my liking: liver, for one. Good god. That lasts to this day. It was usually dished up with onions under some dubious gravy, to disguise the grey organ of some unknown and unfortunate creature that once opened revealed a ventricle or five. Far too cultured a taste for my palette. Many times I’d get the ‘sit-at-the-table-’til-it’s-gone’ treatment, but I could play that game and I’d sit for hours doodling games and stories in my imagination in a battle of will against my poor Mum. Sometimes she’d return and find the plate clean. How my old spaniel Sheba ate well back then.
Other things became staple in adult life: brocolli, wholegrain bread, tofu. We develop culinary tastes, but not always.
I’ve been teaching this resit English for several years now, before it became policy. I’ve got quite good at the corner-cutting needed for the time-intensive course and having based my PhD research with the resit demographic in FE, I have some insight into students’ behaviours, attitudes and challenges. I am fairly effective at what I do and our college results far exceed the poor statistical success nationally in FE to reach the golden C of a pass. I’ll follow this post with others highlighting strategies and approaches, but this post is designed to describe the situations and challenges and call for a rethink.
Many FE teachers around the country report the same issues: attendance, resistance, a ‘turn-up’ attitude that doesn’t translate to actually being productive, low confidence and self-belief. Those last are paramount to improving both mindsets and behaviour and can see increased engagement, but it’s not easy. Sometimes even making a breakthrough and establishing a rapport with a school-leaving student is lost in subsequent lessons when attendance again diminishes.
And it’s not just resistant attitudes by capable students that makes it challenging; students with low-literacy levels, who may overcome the thresholds of antipathy outlined, but who are still unable to write a compound sentence clearly given the limited time to properly develop. It’s heart-breaking to observe the ‘types’ who are bright-eyed and polite, but whose self-esteem is shot through from years of failed schooling. Many have already been stigmatised and many just go through the motions.We risk compounding failure.
I suppose I’m describing typical experiences, not just associated with resits. The challenge to FE and its staff is clear: the headlines of low success in resits does little for the image of a sector already tarnished and chronically underfunded.
The damage of consolidating failure with bad practice is potentially disastrous to students. I would like to see a research project that tracks reasons for leaving FE, as I suspect the resit may contribute to an inability to retain students on vocational courses.
Sure, this is second-guessing things, but FE students are exceptional because they commonly have realities that school students don’t have: jobs, children, being carers to others, from low-income families and deprived areas: students at an age and significant crossroads in their lives. Migrant students. Homeless students. Adults in groups with 16 year olds. Students who work at the college. Students with emotional difficulties. Home-taught students. High-ability students. All clustered together – and we get to brand them all with a shiny General Certificate of Secondary Education in Level 2 literacy.
Colleges are supportive and inclusive environments – beacons of opportunity in socially deprived areas. I bet every college has those few characters in circular motion who seem to be there for years. Is it because they keep failing a year, keep coming back, are on “the wrong course” again, is it because the world outside is devoid of opportunities, or because they have nowhere else to go.
‘Reciting Donne will help’, some crony says, who knows nothing about struggle.
But they cannot read or see the point. They are in a deep-seated existental crisis.
‘They’ll have to learn to like liver. I ate it three times a day at Harrow.’
Despite best intentions, this menu doesn’t help where they are in the present moment. I’m not decrying literacy development. It’s clearly necessary and while I love literature, it’s only one aspect of how to improve standards. Literacy is everything, so why present it as a GCSE? To a selective few who happened to ‘fail’ it at school (for whatever reason)?
A familiar refrain in college corridors: “I’ve got to go to English/Maths.” Music to your ears, despite the compulsive modal verb, because – yes, they’re going to attend! While one goes off to the chippy or to smoke in the car park, the other one turns up, like a somnambulist, refusing to take off his coat or communicate.
Get them in, close the door, pick up from last week, except…you have half a dozen new students who have swerved the course since September. In February. You have 6-7 students with high levels of learning difficulties and no LSA funding because funding cuts means no money for vital support. You have students with anxiety who can’t speak publically. You have students who can’t afford a pen. You have students who plagiarise and believe it’s their work; students with anger management issues; students with authority issues, framed as teachers, because schooling humiliated them. You have students who are passionate and practical, innovative and creative and who excel in workshops, but who loathe the written word and classrooms and who refuse to lift a finger. You have three students determined to pass. You have one who is realistically capable. You have 13 weeks until the exam and your agency staff teacher just quit and your colleague is an NQT delivering one of the hardest courses going to students on the periphery of being NEET.
We must do everything we can to retain our students, because FE is cohesive to communities. While it may sound dramatic, the GCSE resit may detrimentally impact on that if students leave us because of it. It is an ineffective method of educational development where conventional contexts have failed.
Hattie shows the negation to success of retention (holding back a student for a year) – and not only success, but the long-term damage to self-esteem. While FE re-sitting is different to holding students back a year, I would claim a correlation is plausible. I am not suggesting for a second that we disregard students numeracy and literacy skills, but the re-sit policy needs to be reviewed – with empathy in mind. A dignified approach needs to be presented, for staff and students, in order that our colleges remain cherished places – not least for those scarred by schooling.
How about a three year literacy course for ALL FE students, so we don’t have the divisive turn in the corridor that reinforces ‘English’ with negativity? How about a personalised course, in shorter lesson units, which see grammatical instruction support credit-attained project-based learning approaches that can be accomplised in mutlimodal forms throughout a year and presented as portfolio? How about more freedom from timetables, so this doesn’t impact negatively on vocational courses? How about assessment not preciated on examination, but as formative and mastery (in keeping with proper literacy development and the mastery approaches of vocational training). How about aligning content less to the pallete of those who know, but give a wider choice of menu? How about we stop using words like ‘got to’, which is pejorative and demeaning.
‘I’m sorry Mrs Cameron, but Michael has not been attending his vocational classes. In order to continue doing Latin he has to complete Plumbing Level 2.’
‘But Michael doesn’t like lasagne, he only eats liver.’
Link to my article for the Mobile Learning journal I edited last year, for archive and CMALT accreditation purposes.
In some microscopic detail of my days, you contributed to my present.
Though I rarely knew you, two years at best, memory transported me through time today when, this morning, I discovered you gone. Not only gone, but dust now. Dust, our days long dutiful destiny, but not for you, smashed to ash in the fastest moment. Your words, your work, your honour, your research, all smote in a second in a thoughtless chess move by some blind hand brushing at your wing.
And a baby boy, a year old. And a sister. And 295 nameless others, whose faces wakened the world on forgotten front pages. To no consequence, save lives left behind shattered in the mirrors of memory.
At Hogmanay we drank, danced, laughed. I lead you all through the dark mazes as a crazed native. In my mind I recall you singing Auld Lang Syne, holding your man, whose loss I cannot understand. You knew all the words, you always knew all the words from a foreign script, just as you adored the world and all its people and all its life, you gave everything to know and to share the song. Fireworks blighted the sky in a terrible trembling premonition we were never to know. The next day we scaled Arthur’s Seat and you studied the city, full of yourself as you had earned. And you scanned the land, and planned to give it back.
And you stayed with us in London, and we shared you our city, and you sent me invulnerable words, but they couldn’t be bulletproof.
I wish I’d cradled you when I knew you and coaxed your light. You invented your own magic. You gave your light away for others to carry and someone, some political pawn, stole it, exploded and extinguished it out of the sky. I can only wish that some divine intervention, some mystical palm, would have cradled you down to safety then.
How do we consolidate the fallen? In memory, your glory burns, but fades. In your home land, they believe the soul persists as a ghost if the shell perishes far from its territory. Then I pray, though I pray, that the winds carried you all carefully, gently, that your spirit still warms his heart and strengthens him on. We hold the dust, we won’t let it go.
Two years too late, today, I couldn’t share your welcome home, like your global family did. Though headlined words imprint you more than many, they, the people you touched, carry your name and hold it from fading. They posted condolences to the wall as ‘Welcome Home’, but it took RIP for me to see, to realise JC, it took that for me to see that you are in peace. I hope your husband has also become there. Peace. “May you stay forever young.”
31 degree heat, and suncream and sweat sting your eye blind. A fairly inopportune moment to become more disorientated.
I’m, say, 7500ft up in the Tyrolean Alps, my heel is at 90 degrees to a 300ft drop. I’m squatted, moving backwards, hand over hand, foot by foot; my neck twists back to check that the corner I’m edging towards is closer.
My palms, sweat-greased and copper-stained, grip a horizontal 50metre long cable hammered into the wall of Ellmauer Halt, the highest peak in the Wilder Kaisser range.
I’ve no karabiner or other equipment, I’m nauseous, and giving myself a profanity-loaded pep talk constantly and I’m heading down, alone, because I already lost my head to vertigo 300ft from the summit. My brother and nephew are up near the top, some place where you scale huge slabs of limestone rock to ascend to 2344m, which we’d decided, impulsively, to climb when at the col below.
To compound the drastic situation I’m in, as I wriggle backwards across a cliff face along this dangerously narrow fissure, others – coming up – wait at the far side for me. They’re a patient, calm Austrian team, bedecked in the full catalogue and – when I reach the relative safety of their slightly wider ledge – they chide my lack of a helmet.
“You may be hit by a rolling stone.”
I’m too breathless to laugh at the idea of getting jumped by Charlie Watts. I move on down, exhausted and shaking.
Besides Alpine anxiety at dizzying heights, in this last week my mind has mainly been trained on two things:
1. Notions of thresholds, momentum and purposeful motivation
2. Intrinsic pleasures.
I draw on these in this post about my experiences on this trip.
You’re training, physically, for Kilimanjaro in December. It’s alarming, then, to discover that your mental capacity needs more training. I grew up climbing mountains and have been up them all over the world. Whence this new vertigo, then? Suddenly spontaneous, unexpected and shatteringly terrifying.
It happened three times inside a four-day hike. The first you overcame with calm deep breaths and approaching the 90 degree ladder disappearing into the clouds with some kind of steeled determination before the panic could really stick. The second was just sheer panic for about thirty minutes, up and down Ellmauer.
You endured it. The hyperventilating. The choked sobs. Your brain floating and careering in a dizzying spin, vision unable to fix on detail, thumping headaches, nerves crumbling. A perpetually nauseating compulsion to look down. Horrific.
Amidst this turmoil, like a nut, your mind flips to educational theory, to research, to students’ experiences. Some reflexive engineering.
Meyer and Land’s proposal is of problematic knowledge and overcoming liminal thresholds to emerge anew. There’s little grounding of this empirically; it appears phenomenological, but it resonates.
At the bottom of Ellmauer Halt was a plateau of boulders, basic obstacles to get to the ascent. The plateau is used as a metaphor for progress flatlining.
You see symbols in everything. Navigation, contours, landscape. Inner psychology mirrored to the map, or the lack of one.
Since attitude is socially effected by the affective, how can you manipulate student mindset to encourage determination? I’m not sure you can. In your third bout of vertigo you uncovered a new low: a horrible rage at other people, a blame game, that others had misled you about the height, the danger, the landscape. You projected your lack of confidence onto others. If there had been a team, some support, some encouragement, this may not have happened.
You must learn to scan the horizon, to anticipate challenges, to draw strategies from what you already know. But vertigo is irrational, so logic like this goes absent.
You thought about how you may need to get some counselling to handle if this happens in Tanzania, but you don’t want to ‘learn to cope’ with vertigo. You don’t want it at all. The worry is that you have created new physiological memories from failing to achieve the summit, and of the anxious experience of vertigo. Will you look for the symptoms next time you climb? Will you imagine them, confuse adrenaline with panic? How do you approach a problem with different methods? It requires much confidence. How do I convince next years resit students to try a new approach, to keep an open mind, to avoid repeating mistakes?
Meyer and Land was like alchemy when I first read it. They describe overcoming thresholds as epistemologically transformative, as ontological integration, that it is irreversible. Learning theory framed like music.
My notion is that momentum (purposeful actions) occurs when motivation is intrinsically situated through visible objectives. The culture is vital to this: an accessible community, a range of means to communicate, a continual network in which to distribute these expressions, perpetual challenges and opportunities to create momentum. Without these elements, fatigue sets in. Fatigue is engagement atrophied.
While in Austria, you overcame thresholds. So why the repetitive vertigo? Because you had no choice but to carry on? The third vertigo was sustained, going unexpectedly higher and higher when you expected to descend. The way took in a prolonged ridge, dramatic drops, sudden ledges. No goals or end in sight. Without targets, progress can’t be tracked. You’d reached the saturation point of panic.
The abyss stared back at you.
And then I suddenly became weary of vertigo. I’d simply had enough of feeling anxious. It was as if I’d made a choice. I sat down among some trees and reflected. I listened to the perfect stillness you receive at altitude. A silence in which my fears had screamed. The silence is a void. There’s nothing there. We feel compelled to fill it with noise, because the emptiness is profound and terrifying. I started noticing details again: a leaf quivering of its own accord studied closer revealed an ant, struggling to cope with the load, but persisting, getting it to the nest, past a train of marching brothers all moving intently. I noticed my breathing had regulated, my heart had slowed. The sun’s warmth poured into me.
Ascension used to be a high. Now it’s a bind. What’s the pleasure in this? Gruelling heat, lightning and downpours, heart smashing at my rib cage.
What is it for?
What is the intrinsic value of enduring this?
People talk about overcoming fears, but I feel I’ve embodied them, and ultimately accepted them, because when there’s only one direction to go – onward, upward – you just have to keep going.
Slides from my Presentation on Adult learners at the ARPCE Conference in FE situating literacy practices in online communities of practice available here
It was good to meet people from the sector, sadly cut short by having to return north, so I missed some fascinating presentations but this was tempered by having a drink post-conference with a few notable figures and hearing about their work, with many cross-overs between theories and practice emerging.
If I had one criticism of the conference it was the lack of unifying sub-themes to the array of subjects clustered to the ‘adult learning’ flag. Themes are useful signposts for focused organisation.
I’m still a bit bewildered thinking about the picture I found in an Oxford window on my way there, which so symbolically represented an attitudinal barrier of education to the adults I teach, who cross thresholds and develop with increased confidence. Picture below – note condescensing caption. This coupled with the plethora of university colleges, neatly walled behind ‘private property’ and ‘no visitor’ signs was a curious manifest of ideas represented in my research. Makes me think of Blake’s Garden of Love poem.
Well Oxford, as quaint as your dreaming spires are, let me tell you that your ring road is terrible. A really beautiful setting, anyway.
At the start of the week I also presented at the APT Conference at Greenwich through the LSE, which explored a different strand of results from my doctorate research in terms of the deficit of Momentum – Social Media Fatigue, which I’ll be talking more and more about in future, much to everyone’s delight chagrin.
What is the normal disposition of people in regard to their social circumstance? Elie Wisel Holocaust survivor, writer and political campaigner, who died yesterday, commented that indifference is a trait worse than either hate or anger, which – as John Lydon reminds us – is an energy, a productive one. An activist such as Wiesel will no doubt think of people’s disposition as naturally ‘active’. My feeling is that anaesthetised by our consumer lifestyle and saturated by media channels, we become adrift from things: lethargic . Our normal disposition is complacent apathy. We act when we have to, and it’s usually reactive rather than proactive, but I hope I’m wrong. As an educator, we seek to initiate ‘agency’ among students – an action on the world. This is never straightforward.
My standard leap of association now begins to other matters.
Walking on the moors today, I realise everday I’m becoming more like my Dad: fascinated by maps, landscape, local history.
This is the Basin Stone. It sits above the town where I live, like a throne of ascension.
There’s nothing on the moors. Literal silence in fields of emptiness, scored by sheep hunger. Here and there a crop of rock, a breeding lapwing or two and overall bogland. It’s redundant space; a thinking place of tranquility and reflection. The wind carouses your thoughts. It’s a good place to wander. Somehow my mind flits back to the past so often, transcends the reality of now: how did people use the moors in the past? For leisure, I wonder, as fell runners strut past.
This Basin Stone was, according to local signage, a place where the Chartists met and others before them who aren’t named, which is a travesty to me as I immediately train my eye on that obscurity. I feel like the character in Sartre’s Nausea sometimes, who was obsessed with printed texts and read every scrap of paper he found discarded on the street. A need to know basis.
Fading memories, dying nouns. The moor is image as metaphor of what you take there. I find a weather-beaten signpost and read it as symbolic of a dialect that has no relevance today, which strikes me as tragic.
There’s scant language on the Moors. A QR code for heritage piques me, but digitally I’m sound when abandoned to the moor and look only for words within to transcend from my steps.
Instead, a rock holds a narrative, like the dream of a sleeping giant stilled to stone.
In discovering the existence of the Basin Stone this weekend, this ice age relic of atrophied time, I became fixated with finding something out. It’s quite high up – what, a 1,000 ft above sea level? A steep climb from town. Fairly remote. Why would the Communists, who held an early address there, and the Chartists and the mysterious ‘others’ mentioned on a dilapidated tourist sign gather at some random feature? Sure: safe, perhaps clandestine…obvious answers. How can we ever know the detail of such obscure past histories?
“Where to for the meeting this Wednesday neet, pal?”
“Up on t’Walsden Moo’. At t’Basin Stone.”
“What, beyond that bog all t’way up thur? Eee, bugger that laddy. I don’t think so. Corrie’s on at the ‘Drome.”
Or was it something else? A landmark, not physically, but a metaphorical one, of membership and congregation – a medieval Twitter. If you want to join in the cause, you have to make a commitment to action: to walk up onto the moors in, what – the dead of night? Not a particularly formidable challenge, but a simple normative gesture, a symbolic pledge. If you’re in, show it – do it. The agency of the ages: a commitment to self-determinism, symbolised by that rugged, indominitable granite pulpit.
Later, after a little snooping on Google, I learn that there was an exotic weirdness associated with the rock, as somehow I’d expected there would be.
How spirited the energy of people once was, in comparison to our busy modern lives where little of any social value is so honourably accomplished. I hate to think like this. I think of how rich our lives are and how impoverished our relationship to nature has become.
It seems to me that, like a degrading language, our memory of heritage becomes endangered when we neglect to explore the story of places. It is imperative to be active, to be like verbs, to search what is around is, to record discovery, to create new identities to maps that give our landscapes a dignified, vivid typology. We are afforded all this by mobility and knowledge and it only needs our action to disturb its dormancy.
What a way to situate literacy – in the stories of our landscape.