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Opinion

Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach

In Praise of Context

We live in a period where a scientific perspective on school reform has come to dominate the education discourse in this country. You know the drill: find the best research-based knowledge about teaching and learning and work to move it into the practice of each and every teacher. After all, if it works, it works!  

It’s this perspective that has grounded and inspired much of the work with which most school districts across Canada have busied themselves over the past decade or more. It’s not necessarily wrong; in fact, its a very hopeful step to developing a more enhanced sense of professionalism. But, as a perspective, it’s incomplete. I fear that, in an effort to get to what is knowable, usable, and replicable about teaching and learning, we’ve pushed to the side the fact that schools exist in a highly nuanced and richly woven context where goals, interests and measures of quality collide on a daily basis. Some of these conflicts are very recognizable, but others are hidden deep in the DNA of this place we call school. 

There is a sense in which Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach: Now and In the Future is an attempt to explore more deeply what has been sidelined by our love affair with the rational. The stories of excellence and hope that we heard as we moved across the country did not, in any way, discount the importance of trying to discover what could be known and shared about teaching and learning. What we did discover, however, was a strong understanding among Canadian educators that their professional lives were more than a collection of replicable bits and pieces that could be amalgamated into something called teaching.

Most teachers will tell you that the approaches and strategies that have worked with one group of students may not have worked as well with another group. Heck, I have even found that things that have been pure magic in September have fallen flat with the same group in November. 

And that’s precisely the point! Effective teaching practice is not something that can be extracted from one context, packaged and easily inserted into another. Unless we’re willing to acknowledge that the context is just as important as the strategy, we’re missing a incredibly powerful opportunity.

It is my hope that Teaching the Way We Aspire to Teach will open up a whole new set of conversations across the country. In shifting some of the focus away from effective practice as a finished product, I hope that we can shine light on the conditions that support and contribute to good teaching and learning.

But it’s challenging work. On the one hand, it’s not always easy to get a handle on context. I believe that the commitment we made to begin with personal stories of excellence set us on the right track, but we may need other tools to help us better understand those stories.

On the other hand, this work may not sit well with those who are equally committed to viewing education as a type of rational system that is primarily known and explained through a set of scientific tools and methods. 

To say that there is middle ground is not a negative thing. It is an acknowledgement of the fact that, while we will never get it totally right, a multi-facted perspective is the best way to come closer to the teachers we aspire to be, and the system that we aspire to have.

Meet the Expert

Stephen Hurley

Stephen Hurley

Education Consultant, Catalyst, voicED Radio

Stephen Hurley is a recently retired teacher from the Dufferin Peel District School Board in Ontario. Stephen continues to work to open up public spaces for vibrant conversations about transformation of education systems across Canada.

Stephen Hurley est un enseignant récemment retraité de la Dufferin Peel District School Board en Ontario. Stephen continue de travailler à ouvrir des espaces publics pour des conversations dynamiques sur la transformation des systèmes éducatifs partout au Canada.

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