Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Pedagogies of Surprise - The joy and art of teaching

This lecture by Professor Peter O'Connor had a room full of educators hanging on every word this afternoon.
The moment we walked into the theatre there was a whiteboard with these questions:

When did you last experience **JOY** and **ART** in teaching?
Who has influenced your practise?

These immediately started me thinking and I know that I have always found joy and art in my teaching, but it was a little harder to think about who influenced me. I think my influences have come from the reading I have done, but also from my own children. Having to be an advocate for them has made me think about how I teach and what I would like for others as well as my own. I also think that the students I teach influence my practise as I work to provide them with what they need. It was interesting this afternoon to chat to the woman next to us as we tried to explain about Haeata and how our way of teaching was not going to be the same as other schools. Very exciting. Anyway, I digress...

The talk began with a background in Peter's own schooling which was with a Sister in a Catholic school. He loved the rituals but also loved the time he was given just to play and explore. He talked about being given time to listen to radio plays and songs, play games about fighting on the beaches of Normandy and games of rugby. Exploring meant that anything could be found and his teacher always said to tell her if they found anything. He always wondered how things got there and thought maybe she had been out there first thing in the morning placing the bugs and twigs for them to find. The joy of lying down and listening to Classical music was also a highlight.

In his teenage years he discovered poetry and decided he wanted to make art and trouble the world. He was introduced to "Three Looms" by Dorothy Heathcote and rediscovered the joy of learning.
I watched the video, after this lecture, of her talking about her work and one quote stuck out for me "to do with teaching teachers to receive, to structure so things flow from children". This is such an empowering statement and one that she made 45 years ago!

Teacher's College was a disappointment and he found it quite conservative. After he left started teaching English at a school that didn't appreciate him taking them out to the riverbank to plant trees and to talk about books and life in a different setting. He then became a teacher in a secure unit where he chose to do some pub drama where he set their work in a pub so they could relate. He enjoyed setting work where no-one knew where it began and where it ended.

I really enjoyed how he told us a lot of stories about his work and what he had achieved and one particular story I liked was about killing monsters. This is a great drama question "Do you want to kill monsters?" The class created a whole village that worked together and tried to kill the monster. He had sound recordings, newspaper articles and all sorts of ideas to make the monster seem real. Then a messenger came from the monster to say the monster demanded a girl under the age of 5. This led to negotiations, bribes and discussion. In every culture that he has worked in, the child is given up. The monster then pays the village in deceit and goes back on it's word. Who is the real monster? The village for giving up the girl? Some real learning happens in this situation. During the drama we start to believe we live the drama. This is the improvisational teaching of the Pedagogy of Surprise.

He then went to work with a Special Needs class and had a scenario of a person called Roger who lived in a cave and couldn't come out. His story around this was very moving and sad, as one of his students was diagnosed with cancer and he used Roger as a learning tool, where the students had to say goodbye to Roger. The student reacted in different ways, some thinking it was a good tool, others feeling they had to say goodbye twice. In school, we are lucky if we can touch on these special moments. Teaching can be a touching encounter.

Two initiatives Peter has been involved with are research into the Theatre of Social Change and the Teaspoon of Light company, which has this amazing video, the Teaspoon of Light where students use drama to make sense of the earthquakes of Christchurch in 2011. Well worth watching as well as is the second one featuring dance.
This really was about teaching as an improvised art form. To say you are not sure what you are going to teach, or where it might lead requires enormous courage. Conversations you create on a riverbank may create great learning and he suggests you "Spend your time on what you are going to start with, not what you finish with". He was lucky to have plenty of time to practise improvised teaching and felt the key was about teaching as a whole person. We need to be teaching for the present not for the future.
Life, death and love are what we need to talk about. Not everything has to be done about learning. We need to learn how to notice things. We should be trained to notice the extraordinary in the everyday world. His classroom was driven by mutual curiosity. we need serendipity - finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for. Pleasant surprise.

His final words of advice:
Don't miss the moments of joy and beauty. To be a better teacher, go for a long walk. Retrain your self to notice.


  1. This sounds like it would have added more questions into the designing learning debate for Haeata, Sue. Great timing for you and others

  2. Thank you so much for writing this and putting in the links. I was deeply touched by this talk. It is lovely to engage my heart as well as my head. Always makes learning powerful.