Learning from experience?

Doug has an interesting story to tell.
The theme of “learning from experience” (or not) is timely for me as I’m reading Deborah Britzman’s Practice Makes Practice. The bulk of the book is an ethnographic study of 2 trainee teachers doing their practicum in highschools. Britzman interviews them and their principals and surrounding characters, and attempts to deconstruct their experience in terms of power differentials, and also in terms of discourses. It’s a little hard to read for me as I’m not so familiar with this kind of discourse (critical pedagogy), but I find it fascinating.  A key theme that Britzman highlights, both in the practicum and in her analysis before and after, is the role of experience: both the student teachers and their surrounding actors/actresses often repeat the idea (which Britzman calls a myth and a mantra) that “one learns from experience”: she questions experience and whether we learn from it. She raises the ugly head of interpretation, as well as personal biography, which also affects interpretation of experience.

In the idealized story of learning to teach [“we learn from experience” and “practice makes perfect”], classroom experience guarantees the teacher’s continuity and progress. And while, of course, familiarity with the teacher’s work does matter, it is not a direct line to insight. For the newcomer, more is at stake because he or she already feels the teacher’s work is uncannily familiar and utterly strange. In the daily work of learning to teach, experience in education feels discontinuous, disjointed, fragmented, and alienating…

Despite the persistency of cultural myths that position the teacher as expert, as self made, as sole bearer of power, and as a product of experience, those learning to teach feel a rupture between the ethic and the experience, because learning to teach constitutes a time of biographical crisis as it simultaneously invokes one’s autiobiography. That is, learning to teach is not a mere matter of applying decontextualized skills or of mirroring predetermined images; it is time when one’s past, present, and future are set in dynamic tension. Learning to teach – like teaching itself – is always the process of becoming: a time of formation and transformation, of scrutiny into what one is doing, and who one can become.

Doug’s story is one close to life and death. It is very different from classroom experience because of the political overtones in that latter environment. When veteran teachers say “learn from experience” they may mean “learn to suppress your own voice and learn to speak with the voice of authority; use the authoritative discourse, and take on the mantle of maintaining the status quo. Do not allow your own personal feelings to take control.”

The rather difficult theoretical passages at the beginning and end of the book make more sense after one reads the trainee-teacher stories. There, thanks to Britzman’s theoretical perspectives, the banal experiences take on a near-tragic dimension. 

Here’s Britzman later, talking about one trainee teacher’s experience in particular:

Like his cooperating teacher, Roy Hobbs, Jack believed experience was a problem of already possessing knowledge, not the process by which this knowledge is constructed, interpreted, and transformed. Jack could not conceive of how one comes to know. So while he maintained that experience makes the teacher, he could not account for how that process occurs or how knowledge positions experience. The problem was that Jack had borrowed a discourse that was incapable of doing anything other than positioning experience as the ground of knowledge. Such a discourse would not help him with the complications he lived. At this point, all Jack was learning from his experience was that simply being there was no guarantee of pedagogy.

There is a further link between Britzman’s analysis and Doug’s story: Doug tells what happens but not how he felt. The reader is left to infer this from phrases like

I stopped with barely a wheel’s width between the ravine and my right rear tire.

One of the trainee-teachers is suddenly ordered, as he arrives at school, to drop the regular syllabus for the day in exchange for a “discussion” about a powerful TV-movie shown the previous evening called “The Day After”. Jack, the trainee, works evenings so didn’t actually see it, but his ass is saved thanks to video. He just has time to see the program before class. His cooperating teacher (the one who normally teaches the class) is there in the classroom: after a few chaotic attempts to get a discussion going by Jack, Roy, the cooperating teacher, speaks –

For the next twenty minutes, no student speaks. Roy Hobbs has the floor. He recounts the horrors of nuclear winter, describes the four ways nuclear war kills, compares historical devastations, and discusses the technical features of nuclear weapons. Finally, Jack regains the floor.

Britzman’s analysis:

It may well be that the discursive practices of gender identity thwarted Roy and Jack’s attempts to explore the human issues of nuclear war. Rather than discuss the depression, fears, and vulnerability – the subtext of the film – Roy and Jack distanced their emotional response with an excessive focus on the instrumental features of nuclear war. ..  Both men  appeared to overcompensate for their felt powerlessness by stressing the destructive power of nuclear weapons.

Altho not an easy book to read, I am finding it rich and full of potential. While reading it, I could feel things shifting in the deep, like psychological tectonic plates. It brings to the fore such questions as why I teach, what my model or image of a “teacher” is, what it is I’m trying to achieve, and whether it is possible within the system I’m working in. Disturbing, in some ways. Are “my” ideas really my own? Or am I playing out someone else’s script? Or (more likely), MANY people’s different scripts?

I’ll need to read the stories again, but the impression I received was a depressing one: as children we enter school with high hopes and expectations, and all too often those hopes and expectations are slowly crushed as we discover that a) school isn’t fun (after a certain age), and b) it’s not INTENDED to be fun, in other words, our teachers do not necessarily have our best interests at heart; there’s another agenda going on. And in a way which Britzman examines, trainee teachers re-enact this when they enter the classroom again as teachers. Another key theme of the book is the split between the official discourse and the private one. This is highlighted most poignantly in one teacher’s experience. Jamie Owl undergoes a gruelling, soul-searching and emotionally difficult few weeks, during which she at one point decided to give up the whole thing:

A few days after her internship ended, Jamie was required to attend a two-day debriefing workshop for student teachers at State University School of Education. There, she filled out the remaining certification forms, attended a series of workshops ranging from how to prepare for job interviews to sexual harrassment at the workplace, and was confronted with a workshop that required reflection on the student teaching experience. But Jamie deeply resented the workshop’s underlying assumption that student teaching had been a good time for all and now that it was over, everyone would naturally enter the teaching profession. She felt the workshop’s tone invalidated her entire experience. As a last form of protest, Jamie walked out of this last workshop session.

I remember sitting in the final workshop and everyone was saying it was wonderful. Student teaching was wonderful. And it was like, what is wrong with me and what are they looking at? What’s happening here? And is it so wrong to see these things and question these things and not have a happy time?

Many of the questions Britzman and her narrative raise, resonate with me. I’ve been purging my bloglines subs because reading blogs is taking up too much time. But it’s not just blogging that’s robbing me of my God-given hours: my job and related responsibilities are taking up far too much of my time. And when I examine it, it’s not “the job” alone, but my image of the job, my image of what a teacher does (and does not do).

I’ve moaned about Moodle on this blog before, and while it has been a “learning experience”, I probably won’t use Moodle next semester. Trying to track students’ homework for the purposes of final grades has been a horrendous task. I’m not the world’s most organized person and simple things knock me of course – after bringing up several assignments on Moodle and checking off students who completed them, I then take a break. When I return to my screen, I realize I haven’t fixed on a system to tell me which assignments I’ve checked and which I have not. On my screen is an assignment with names of students who completed it. On my printed-out Excel chart is a list of my students with check marks by the names that completed the assignment. When did I make these check marks? Has anyone added their assignment to the Moodle since I made my list?

All these myriad details that just take up too much time. I’m going back to paper and pencil from next semester.

By a mysterious combination of exterior and interior forces, I find myself living a lifestyle that I did not imagine, and that I don’t like. My aggregator lists are just the first to go. I need to redesign my whole existence.

One thought on “Learning from experience?”

  1. I interpret your dissatisfaction with Moodle and too many feeds as bad “experiences” from which you “learned” not to spend so much time with these endeavors. Perhaps you could explain more how using the phrase “process of becoming” informs your personal pedagogy more than the word “experience.”

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