John Shotter: a belated thank you

jsIt has been several months since the death of John Shotter and I thought I would reflect on his impact on me and implications for those of us in education. I’m not going to describe John’s achievements, I’ll leave that to his friend Michael Billig – click here. And I’m certainly not going to summarise his work and its impact on practice – that will have to speak for itself, at this point I can hear John reaching for Wittgenstein (probably On Certainty, p210, para 139-140).

I first met John in 2008 mid way through my doctorate. We met via a mutual friend, Patricia Shaw, in the Bunch of Grapes pub near London Bridge station. I remember being enthusiastic about my line of research on knowledge. John listened and seem to absorb and reflect my enthusiasm. Thereafter our paths crossed every few months. I last met John with his wife at his home in Cambridgeshire with some good friends sharing readings, writings and understandings of our various interests and projects.

But what was it about John that I came to value? Many people would point to his encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin and his ability to pull a quote from thin air. In addition to his focused understanding on these writers and more it was also his knowledge of a wider terrain of culture and that seem to connect people together in a shared experience and understanding. And of course, there was his enthusiasm for learning and knowledge tinged with sadness of our entrenched views and the political games we play in academia.

For me there was something more important that I try to take forward in my own developing practice as an academic. He would get to a nub of something that I was struggling with, drawing a few threads together that I had not noticed. And from this (and with a pile of reading) the world become a little clearer, or usefully unclear, and a small step would have been made. His impact at the time was subtle but when I look back the effect was substantial and deep. In short, he had the knack of pointing me to new avenues at just the right time: Gilbert Ryle, Raymond Williams, Henri Bortoft to name a few.

I came to wish that I had recognised his contribution in the acknowledgements of my thesis and in some respects this posting makes up for my omission.

And here are the paragraphs I mentioned:

  1. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.
  2. We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. The totality of judgements is made plausible to us.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969), On Certainty, (Anscombe, G. and von Wright, G.,Eds.), Harper Torchbooks, New York.

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Pedagogy of the Oppressed – a lesson of policymakers, politicians and strategists alike

I have just come across this great little book – Pedagogy of the Oppressed by PO the OPaulo Freire. It is one of those books that I feel instantly connected with but at the same time rather daft that it has taken me all these years to find it. Freire was a South American educationalist who was heavily influenced by Marx. He wrote this book in the late 1960s, translated into English a few years later. His point is that education must lead to some positive social change, in other words it is more than just filling people’s heads with knowledge – it has to achieve something.

To do this he explains that education must be about us in the context in which we find ourselves and the problems we face on a day to day basis. It is always unfinished, requires dialogue between educators and those being educated (in fact he is sceptical of this distinction) and there are no fixed answers. To be effective we need to be aware of what is around us and to react into these changing situations. This combination of dealing with real life practical issues, being more aware of how we are with people and the situations we find ourselves and this overriding drive for social good are to me vital cornerstones of becoming more conscious and to effect positive ethical change.

However, there is a dilemma for those who set policy and strategy. For there to be effective change those who set policy and strategy need to recognise that there power is limited. It is not about ‘doing to people’ it is about providing them with the freedom, resources and support for them to tackle their own problems. This very much chimed with my research on policymaking and how this comes to affect frontline healthcare practice. However, it seems all too common (at least here in the UK) those politicians will seek to make clear promises for which ‘quantified outcomes’ are set. Politicians, strategists and policy makers have a lot to learn from this little book. And in doing so they might find some uncomfortable truths.