Teaching or preaching?

17th February 2012 at 00:00

I have sometimes cast myself in the role of Winston Churchill. I don't mean old, fat and bald. Rather, it was his oratorical powers that I aspired to imitate. My students were all ranged before me on their first day at college and there I was telling them that they were embarking on a life-changing experience. I didn't promise them blood, sweat and tears - just a whole new way of looking at the world.

Little did I know as I employed my ersatz rhetoric that I was engaging in Transformational Teaching. The concept has been around for years, but it has only recently impinged upon me.

It was at one of those Inset days that all teachers find themselves subjected to. You know the sort of thing, where someone with a PowerPoint gets paid a grand to tell you the bleedin' obvious. This time the topic was "Transformational Teaching (capital T, capital T) in Further Education".

It's a bold and ambitious project, this TT. Indeed, one of the first things we were told was: "In a transformational classroom, tutors are expected to be charismatic." That's not surprising, given that your aim is not just the transfer of knowledge, but the transformation of everyone in your charge.

In particular you must change what Mezirow - one of the gurus of the TT movement - calls the student "frame of reference". Old habits of mind must be challenged and assumptions and beliefs examined critically, thus leading the individual to become more open and willing to change.

In actual fact, none of this is very new. Critical reflection - central to Mezirow's transformative learning - is something I was attempting to foster in the first class I ever taught. And, going back further than the late 1970s, aren't Mezirow's "questioning and examining assumptions" what Socrates was attempting to draw out of those impressionable young men in sandals he so loved to bamboozle with his surgical questioning?

What is new, though, about the TT concept is its evangelical zeal. Tony Ryan, an Australian educationalist and another prophet of the movement, is strong on "inspiration". In his online slide show, teachers are encouraged to be "energy creators". One slide depicts - in glorious Tony-colour - a group of keen people standing with arms raised on the sea shore at dawn. "How do you inspire yourself at the start of the day?" asks the caption.

The other aspect of the TT movement that strikes me as different is its ardent desire to do good. Ryan is strong on teachers promoting what he calls "social justice". Apparently they should also be all for housing the homeless.

One can't help but think that this smacks of political correctness. I'm happy to declare that I, too, am against people sleeping on the streets. I also abhor racism and would rather have a whale in the Atlantic than on my plate. But I'm not sure that it's my job as a teacher with a syllabus to follow to foist these preferences on to my students.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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