Whether we consciously admit it or not, we are, as teachers, in the dominant position in the classroom: we are the ‘master’ or ‘mistress’. Do we accept this responsibility?
This is the first paragraph taken from A teacher's questions by R M Fyfe (Mathematics Teaching 6, 1958). This fascinating article raises more questions than it asks, some of which I would like to explore.
How much do we ‘consciously admit’ in our teaching? How much do we unconsciously admit? How much do we suppress? How much should we explore the psychology of our classroom, of our relationships with our students?
Whether we seek to take a less ‘dominant position’ in the classroom or not, do we, or can we, ever really achieve it? Should we aim to seek a (less) dominant position? What are the implications of a more or less dominant position?
Perhaps I am not the only one who feels as though there are (unnerving?) sexual overtones to the phrase ‘dominant position’?
The word ‘master’ is an old word for male teacher, and is little used today. However, its variant ‘mastery’ is alive and well in (Mathematics) education at the moment; what are the implications of this?
In my current role as teacher in a sixth form, we use first name terms. It was, and perhaps still is, strange to be called ‘Danny’ after 10 years of being called ‘Sir’ in secondary school. Some students still use Sir, perhaps because they are used to it, but perhaps because they view me as being in the ‘dominant position’? I think like 'first name terms', although (perhaps because) it feels palpably less authoritative.
Why am I so reticent to be in a position of authority?
The last sentence is interesting: “Do we accept this responsibility?” What does it mean to accept the responsibility of being (in the dominant position of) the teacher?
The word ‘responsibility’ brings to mind something from John Mason around re-sponding, not re-acting. Re-sponse from the Latin re- and -spondere meaning ‘to offer in return’, as opposed to re-acting, doing something again, thus being more reciprocal in nature. Is this relevant here?
2. Start of the lesson
Later in the article, Fyfe describes the start of a lesson:
We meet the children and present our ‘situation’ and watch their reactions. In conceiving it, we could see only what our conditioned, adult minds enabled us to see. The children will see it differently and they will see more.
We meet the children and present our ‘situation’ and watch their reactions. I like the idea of presenting a situation and watching reactions, perhaps suggesting in-the-moment pedagogy , a less authoritarian approach, more open to student responses. Fyfe elaborates on this point later in the article:
Developments which arise during the lesson may well be worth pursuing. We should be ready and willing, if it seems desirable, to change direction immediately, either to deal with a point we had supposed known, but which proves to be obscure, or to explore a new avenue which we perhaps did not suspect existed, or did not dream would arise in this connection. Ability to achieve a successful volte face shows that we have accepted that teaching is an art.
There are numerous metaphors here: of teaching as a journey, of finding something, of planning as dreaming, and finally a direct comparison to art. To what extent is desire present in teaching? In which ways is teaching an art? In which ways is teaching all of these things? In which ways do metaphors about teaching affect our thinking and what we do?
We could only see what our conditioned adult minds enabled us to see. How are our adult minds ‘conditioned’? What are the consequences of our conditioning on our teaching? On our lives? How could we see things differently?
The children will see it differently and they will see more. What will the children attend to? How will we know? There are many children in a class – can we ever predict what they will all attend to? How can we attune ourselves to what they might attend to? Is this what Freud talks about when he describes the ‘impossibility of teaching’ ?
Thoughts around attention bring to mind John Mason again :
What is attention? I have struggled with this question on and off for some time, and have been unable to answer it. Attention is a veritable "will o' the wisp". I become aware that my attention has been drawn to a sudden sound, to a movement, or to an old problem, which has been sitting at the back of my mind. In each of these cases it seems that attention, whatever it is, is drawn or attracted. It does not seem to be under my control.
What are the implications of uncontrollable attention for teaching? Can we expect students to attend to that we wish them to attend to? For how long? How can we motivate their attention towards that we wish them to attend to?
Thoughts spring to mind of variation theory, for example this from Ference Marton :
What you can possibly do in a certain situation, how you can possibly solve a certain problem reflects how the situation appears to you – what you notice, what you attend to. How you handle a phenomenon depends on what you see it as, what it means to you and what it appears to be.
This passage is in some respects self-evident, but the conclusions for teaching are less so. Marton (and Mason) argue that we should carefully consider (limit?) the possible 'dimensions of variation' when designing activities if we wish to motivate attention towards a particular feature. But should we not also allow students the time to develop the ability to discern what might be important for themselves by opening a number of dimensions of variation?
3. After the lesson
The bell rings: the class departs. Now, or hereafter, we relive the experience of the lesson in our minds. What happened? Where are we? … Where do we go from here?
What happened? Where are we? There is a sense of dis-orientation here. Can we really ‘relive the experience’? Can we remember what really happened? We can only recount what we attended to, but did we attend to what was really important? Did all of the children get the attention that they required? How can we ever know? What did they really learn?
Where do we go from here? For me, this phrase has connotations with a question you might ask yourself or your partner in a difficult relationship. As Tamara Bibby explains , learning takes places in relationships, some of which are not always ‘plain sailing’ (for want of a better metaphor).
In its single page, this article raises some profound questions about teaching. What questions does this raise for you?
 John Mason, Brent Davis: The Importance of teachers' Mathematical awareness for in-the-moment pedagogy
 Sigmund Freud: Analysis Terminable and Interminable. In: Strachey, J. (ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 23
 John Mason: Attention, from For the Learning of Mathematics Vol 2, Num 3
 Ference Marton: The Necessary Conditions of Learning
 Tamara Bibby: The experience of learning in classrooms. In: Brown, T. (ed.) The Psychology of Mathematics Education