Saturday, March 13, 2010

Towards a Philosophy of Education

Having been a teacher for some 30 years now, it is good to look back on one's career and ask questions like:  (i) What of worth did I really achieve for my pupils? (ii) What of worth did I achieve for myself? (iii) What now do I see as the goal of education, and how does that now differ from what I thought all those years ago when I set out on this career? (iv) What is education all about, anyway?  (v) where am I going from here in my career, given what I believe education to really be?  I am sure there are many other questions worth asking, too, questions which have not yet occurred to me.  However, these are my reflections at the age of 52 years with some thirty years teaching experience under my belt.


They say that a good starting point is always to define your terms.  I have often heard it said that philosophy begins in wonder and ends in wisdom.  It is surely one of the most important of human characteristics that we possess in our ability to reflect upon our own very nature, to question our very own presuppositions and hopefully prejudices.  In such a way we grow not alone in self-knowledge but in knowledge of others and of their presuppositions and prejudices, and in our knowledge of the world and all it entails.  In such a way we approach what all knowledge and wisdom must surely be about - a gaining of shared truth and wisdom as we travel along through life with our fellow human creatures, and, indeed, in these greener and more ecological times, with all our fellow creatures - animate and inanimate.

Philosophy of Education:

Years ago as a little boy of seven I was overwhelmed literally by the world of knowledge and all the wonder that it opened up to my little mind.  I can remember kneeling at a wooden chair with my textbooks open thereon and reading the magical words before me.  Then, once, I remember my mother asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I instantly replied that I wanted to be a teacher.  Somehow the wonder of knowledge had captivated my young mind.  I was always a very imaginative kid who lived very much in my imagination.  I was also very lucky to have had several wonderful primary school teachers like Mr. Murray anbd Mr Seán O'Shea in St Canice's C.B.S. on North Circular Road, Dublin, 1.  These two teachers inspired all the poor boys whom they taught.  I owe them a lot, even if they were only doing their jobs and getting by in the world, because they were superb teachers who loved both their charges and what they were doing.  To teach another human being is an act of liberation, of liberating the mind to fly in the boundless space of promise, in the boundless skies of imagination which place no hindrances or obstacles to whatever human potential should be the lot of any one individual.

Back then, my understanding of what I would be was simple, and perhaps naive, that I would be able to pass on this wonderful world of knowledge to other young minds.  And so, with such great teachers as the above two in the back of my mind, and also the wonderful secondary teachers like Br Martin Collins (Latin and Maths), Br Phil Russell (Maths), Mr Enda Kavanagh (Science), Mr Gerard Hogan (French), Mr Michael McLoughlin (English) and Mr Pat Sullivan (Irish), I went on to become a teacher.  I studied a lot of educationalists and pedagogues (the good sense of that term, not the pejorative one) at college such as Friedrich Fröbel (1782–1852, founder of the kindergarten movement) Maria Montessori (1870-1952, the first woman medical Doctor in Italy who started out to educate the "special needs" or "unhappy little ones" and the "uneducatable" in Rome. In 1896, she gave a lecture at the Educational Congress in Torino about the training of the disabled.  The promotion of education open to all, no matter what their ability or disability, became her life's task.) , Jean Piaget (1896-1980, best known to generations of teachers for his theory of cognitive development divided into respective stages and who said famously that "only education is capable of saving our societies from possible collapse, whether violent, or gradual."), Jerome Bruner ( 1915- , founder of learning by discovery) and, my favourite for a long period of my life, Paulo Friere (1921-97, with his emphasis on education as empowering, liberating, "conscientizing" ("conscientization"), as being collaborative, his twin notions of the teacher-student (a teacher who learns) and the student-teacher (a learner who teaches) being quite a radical one which stood traditional roles on their head.)

So back to the four questions that I asked in my first paragraph.  (i) What of worth did I really achieve for my pupils?  Well as a teacher of Irish, I taught them the language and its structure and helped them prepare for their exams.  Many of them achieved very well in this subject and their grades in it helped them to go on to university.  A lot of them are now professionals in different callings and fields.  But, always, I believed that education was more than the mere imparting of knowledge or the filling of empty vessels.  I had always gone along with my professor of philosophy, Rev Patrick Carmody's interpretation and correct understanding of the philosophy of Paulo Freire in his attack on what he called the "banking concept of education," in which the student was viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher - an equivalent metaphor to the empty vessel concept.  I believe I achieved other things for my students outside the mere communication of knowledge.  I believe that I taught them to think for themselves, to believe in themselves, to grow in self-confidence and competence, to believe that they were the shapers of the world as well asw being shaped by it.  I alsao believe that I encouraged them to be critical questioners of what they were told were the age-old truths, not mere unthinking knockers of commonly accepted methods or truths.  I also hope that I taught them to be respecters of others and of this wonderful, if at times very sad, world in which we live.

(ii) What of worth did I achieve for myself?  Well I also grew in self-knowledge as I grew in knowledge.  I remember an old Christian Brother once telling me that the best way to learn something was to teach it.  I have long believed that.  For some two years I taught French even though I had never strudied it at College.  Gerard Hogan my old French teacher suggested to the headmaster that I should teach it as I had been very good at this subject at school.  I went on later to study for a postgraduate diploma in Italian, and have become quite a resonable good language teacher.  However, the role of teacher as I have said is more than the mere imparter of knowledge.  He is also a receiver par excellence as the students over the years have taught me a lot - sheer humanity, a sense of humour, a sense of the joy in living, a sense of the glorious possibilities of the human being and above all respect, loyalty, care and love and a deep belief in the wonderful nature of human life in all its diversity.  Many of the less academically able pupils had and have wonderful outlooks on life, wonderful senses of humour and sheer love of life.

(iii) What now do I see as the goal of education, and how does that now differ from what I thought all those years ago when I set out on this career? (iv) What is education all about, anyway? (v) where am I going from here in my career, given what I believe education to really be? Well I no longer am as naive to believe that teaching is about imparting knowledge in any or all of its many dimensions.  For me it is very much about empowerment, about empowering and liberating the other, namely the pupils in our case here, to achieve their potential as human beings.  That is why I could never teach in grind schools even if they do achieve many "products" who achieve 600 points.  To my mind this is not education, just mere memory work, just techniques and strategies to remember correctly.  No, education is truly more.  It is about the formation of the human being as well as about the imparting of information. 

These thoughts were occasioned by my spending a week teaching the seriously and profoundly physically handicapped in St Michael's House school in Baldoyle.  For me this was simply mind-blowing.  Having spend 28 years in a mainstream secondary school teaching such subjects as Irish, RE, CSPE, Mathematics, French and Italian, Life Skills and some two years in Special Education teaching students on the ASD spectrum and students with Mild General Learning Disabilities I now had sampled what it is like to teach the serious and profound group of SEN children.  This was an eye-opener as this was the first time I had ever attempted to teach those who simply had no language, who were simply unspeaking and practically all wheelchair-bound.  And to think that it is only in the last 10 to 20 years trhat such children are being taught in a classroom.  Prior to this they were all in a care environment, not in an educational environment.  Now hospitals and care-institutions are giving way to special schools and a truly more enriching educational environment.

Teaching these children is education at its most powerful and liberating, both for the pupil and teacher.  That the least of human creatures should be taught is truly ennobling, is truly wonderful, is truly beautiful in the tough-love sense of thes words.  To see little children, suffering and struggling to be, struggling to learn, to reach out, to make some sense-for-them of what their twisted-body-existence is all about is nothing short of moving.  It is the assumption of Special Education that no child is uneducatable or unteachable and that despite all the limitations of our classrooms or indeed of the Educational or Health Systems that it is the teacher who makes the differencve in the tercahing situation.  That is why these least of our brothers and sisters, to use those words of Christ, are so richly deserving of our efforts and time in teaching.  Obviously, this is in no way to lessen the equally important roles of health and caring staffs such as doctors, nurses, OTs, STs, physiotherapists and a legion of ancillary care workers.  I saw all of these work as a team when helping these very special children.  To teach these children is to say: you are worthy of great respect, your feelings count, your knowledge counts even if you cannot tell me in your own words, you can learn much through all the senses, not just through speech or sight.  To sit here holding your little fingers as they attempt to count up to ten, or to form the shapes of circle, semicircle, square, reactangle or triangle is for me such a privilege.  You are teaching me humility, care and love.  It is a hard objective love, not a soft subjective squishy squashy thing that flits from here to there at whim.  No this is hard, hard, hard love that knows the pain of existence, that knows incontinence in its messiness, that knows humanity at its messiest, at its ugliest, but yet at its most sublime, at its potential to be deemed as true and real and valuable because it is the way life is, but more again, that this messiness can be and will be transformed through love and care.

My philosophy of education, like my epistemology, begins always in wonder.  To enthrall the students with the wonder of knowledge has always been one of my strategies as a teacher.  Hence, no teacher, I believe, can truly perform his/her task without enthusiasm which is essentially a state of being enraptured by wonder.  However, what my thirty years teaching has truly taught me is that to remain young is to continue to teach with enthusiasm, but that such can only be humanly possible if and only if one remains humble and open to wisdom, even the wisdom of the weakest of our charges whom it is our privilege to teach.

Above, yet another photograph I took in the Musei Vaticani, this time of The Wave (L'Onda), by the Italian artist and sculptor Sinisca, born 1929.

1 comment:

Noel said...

Well Tim it is great to see you putting so much into the Job.