Dr. Judith M. Newman



Some Critical Incidents

[ Journal Entry ]

A number of things caught my attention while I was reading your reflections that I want to share.

Claire shared a wonderful incident regarding taking her grade ones to the park. She describes how Brandan and Adam ask for a push and how she announces “I don’t push.” As she explains

I WANT those kids to make decisions on their own, and look after themselves, in situations where this would be appropriate.

So she didn’t push them, although she did show them what to do and offered lots of encouragement.

Another child had been on the monkey bars and had wanted to be lifted off. Again, Claire explained “I don’t lift kids off the bars.” Another “park” rule, as she put it.

She then thinks about Katelyn and her writing. Katelyn has just begun putting her thoughts on paper. Claire had helped her “edit” a piece and had attempted to have Katelyn flesh her latest story out a bit. She got nowhere herself so suggested Katelyn ask Amy to read it, hoping Amy might persuade her to include more details. No luck; Katelyn insists “I don’t wan to do that.”

Claire wonders about the two episodes.

I asked myself why I wouldn’t push the swing.…The second story, I think, tells me that although I am willing to let kids…make their own decisions, I do feel I need to guide them.…The story about writing and Katelyn, I think, shows I was willing to let Katelyn ignore the advice of her friend…but I still felt that she needed to make some additions to her story before it could be published.…(Sometimes I DO push.)

Yes, we all PUSH. What was interesting for me was Claire’s analysis that one of the pressures affecting her are the parents’ and other teachers’ expectations about what counts as acceptable ‘instruction.’ It had been reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s piece that offered her this “Conroy” moment.

Beth explored her feelings of disorientation.

I have really felt this past two weeks that I have pulled the rug out from under myself. I feel as if everything I do in the classroom sits in a pile of ashes. Some things I suspect, I will resurrect from the ashes but with a different understanding or reason for doing them. Some parts of my practice will probably remain in the ash pile.…

Her comment promptly put me in touch with a piece written by Michael Coghlan—“A Belief System Under Siege.” In it he describes

The first shock was that I really had some underlying theory lurking around in my head, affecting the way I functioned in my classroom. Yes, I possessed a theory of learning—every teacher does. I had come to university to acquire one, and had found my own-home-grown version fully developed within me; adopted unconsciously, unwittingly over the years in the classroom. Not me, you say, I don’t pay any attention to that theoretical nonsense. Well, I discovered that I had indeed functioned with a very definite theory of learning, although I had not put much of it into words before. But actions speak louder than words, especially when dealing with students (in, Judith M. Newman (Ed.) Meaning in the Making. 1985 Mount Saint Vincent University; Centre for Reading and Language Education; p 33-34).

Part of our activity is intended to help you discover what your action-theory (as Donald Schön and Chris Argyris refer to it) is. Until we can name the metaphors we live by we can’t do much to change them. So a big part of any teacher/action research agenda is to use critical incidents, or whatever other evidence we’re gathering, to help us describe our action beliefs. As Mike Coghlan discovered, he didn’t need to jettison his entire scaffolding. He was able to reconfigure his edifice, using old bricks for new purposes. Beth, too, will find the same thing.

Rhonda related a powerful critical incident involving her horse (no name!). She described a training session with a visiting clinician. It didn’t go well for the horse. The clinician was too aggressive—at one point the horse attempted to bolt. Tethered, however, she reared and then fell back unable to recover her footing, so she hurt herself quite badly.

Rhonda reflects

Of course the parallels to the classroom are many. The subsequent events have been educational as well. The difficulties of time management, of negotiating curriculum, of the need to understand the causes of refusal and failure, of how difficult it can be to work as a team when the team members do not share some common philosophies. These are some of the issues which have arisen. As curriculum leader, this incident so closely parallels some of my experiences this year….

This is a wonderful instance of a non-school situation turning our gaze on our work. Critical incidents don’t happen only in the classroom or the school. Lots of what goes on in our lives can afford us reflective moments. Often they help us see the tensions with new eyes.

Nan explored her learning during a computer workshop.

I am surrounded by serious technophiles, the monitors are flashing madly, the language is strange and intimidating and I have chosen to go to someplace …familiar—ClarisWorks (for dummies like me). This scenario is speaking volumes to me about myself as a learner. I am feeling uncomfortable about my neophyte status. I am also working hard to quell my anxiety. One of the strategies I am using is to tune out that which is way beyond my ken…and tune in to the sounds that have some meaning for me. Aha, that is why my students and my kids tune me out!

We’ve talked about this in class a bit—how observing ourselves learning can offer import insight into our students’ behaviour and help us think about teaching that supports learning as opposed to teaching that interferes.

One last sharing for today. Kim raised a critical tension she is coping with.

For my whole teaching career I’ve been struggling with doing what I’ve been taught to do (cover curriculum) and doing what I believe teaching and learning to be. …It’s been a constant tug of war between these two pedagogies.…If I teach traditionally, I don’t see the students learning anything of value. I hate what I am doing. I am bored and the drills drive me crazy. If I teach with an open curriculum, the room is active and exciting. However, there is a constant nag over me about “getting the students ready for next year’s teacher,” “making sure they have the skills they need for next year,”…. I believe that some of my dilemmas would be resolved if I had ‘permission’ from the system to be someone other than the ‘trained professional’ who implements programs.

What Kim’s really addressing are her feelings of guilt about not meeting external expectations. One of the objectives of engaging in teacher/action research is to strengthen our professional knowledge so that we’re in a position to explain and argue for what we do. Some A teacher/action research stance allows us to enter the professional discourse and to amass evidence that strengthens our understanding of what we’re attempting to do.

In the end, the ‘permission’ Kim seeks will have to come from within; she has to read widely to become familiar with the debates in the professional literature at the same time as she gathers evidence from her work which allows her to see what’s really going on, what’s allowing her students to connect, and what isn’t. That’s what teacher/action research is all about.