What I bring to the table

Beginnings matter. They shape unconscious habits and compose hidden biases. If you are ever going to take my word for anything, it’s fair you know where I am coming from.

First, I believe that inclusive education, where all students find joy in learning and a sense of belonging in school life, remains a far too distant ideal. Why that’s the case has been my life’s pursuit.

You could say, I have been a forever teacher – beginning in Grade 6, when I had the neighbourhood young’uns come round my place every July afternoon for “school.” I soon graduated to playground supervisor and swimming instructor, and from there to 25 years a school teacher (spanning a variety of schooling situations and grades, K through 12), and finally 15 years in university settings, studying and researching essential questions about teaching and learning, while teaching (and so learning from) new and practicing educators. Through it all, dedicated to listening to the truth in everyone’s story, while scouring all that has been said of schooling relationships and the nature of learning, I came to a deeper understanding of what works in schools, what doesn’t, and why.

As it turns out, the once-elusive mysteries of life, mind, learning, and learning systems now yield better answers to why, individually and collectively, we do what we do, how we are who we are, and what – as parents, teachers, and mentors – we pass on, mostly inadvertently, to each next generation. But the power of 21st century understandings has a down side: It leans on specialization and, these days, to live as an expert usually means sacrificing going wide for going deep. We teachers have all seen the results: massive texts and unwieldy websites brimming with the endorsed perspectives and theories of learning that have accumulated over the years in educational psychology and, more recently, the learning sciences. Sections on topics spanning motivation, cognition, diversity, affect-regulation, positive behavioural supports, special needs, theories of learning, and so forth reflect the often disconnected fields of educational research. This not only lends to unwieldy collections; it also pulls us to tunnel vision, people in camps, and opinions at odds with each other. Who to believe? What to pay attention to?

My extensive 25-year background in school-teaching made me an unusual kind of doctoral student – who became an unusual kind of academic. It heightened my stubbornness in searching through hype for the nuggets of truth and for pursuing far, wide, and from different angles and depths those things that could make better sense of and for schooling experiences. The journey not only made me versant across the different sectors of educational research, it also led me to contemporary work in such fields as neuroscience, dynamic systems, relational psychoanalysis, and early attachment and its later reverberations.

“Your playing small does not serve the world.”

Nelson Mandela

Then, at 65, it was time to step up and speak out. The good news is that you won’t have to be a brain scientist, a systems theorist, an analyst, or an attachment specialist to understand, appreciate, recognise and put to good use what I have embedded in a simple model intended to basically make life in teaching and learning easier, more understandable, not more labour-intensive. We already have enough of that.

To be clear, I am not talking about a special technique or quick fix. Yes, in the immediacy of classroom life, these have their place too. But, I am focused on the long game – how, for example, the things that work in the early years can end up laying a foundation that backfires for some learners a little further down the road.

There are indeed underlying forces at play in producing untenable schooling situations and these have a nasty habit of continuing their destructive work, long after any immediate crisis has passed. Unchecked they can settle into individuals and groups. Today’s unprecedented rates of student anxiety and depression are but one example.

With me, you can expect a different approach. Its power comes from a meeting of perspectives on teaching and learning – where conscious thought (cognition), unconscious motivation (emotions), and nonconscious habit (behaviour) are not separate, but fully integrated. Though readily applicable and relevant to everyday schooling circumstances, it is an approach whose value is in promoting the enduring shifts we desperately need to address systemic problems compromising our world today.

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