Disobedient Teaching: Surviving and Creating Change in Education
Otago University Press, $35.00,
One of the marvellous inventions found in my favourite libraries is the software that locates the book you are looking for and shows you the other books sitting on either side on the shelf. The notion of every book having its companions is a compelling one for the reader who enjoys building a “string” of connected and related books. Welby Ings’s Disobedient Teaching certainly caught my attention with its provocative title, and I was promptly on a hunt for books that were in its lineage.
My at-home version of the smart software is a lot less clever than the library version, but possibly more adventurous. My book collection meanders around the house with unmatched bookshelves leaning against any wall that doesn’t have a window to hinder. There is an order that may not qualify as Dewey, but which makes sense to me. The antique books tend to occupy the upper shelves, the floor level shelves have been taken over by the resident four-year-old, and the rest are in related clumps with some small deference to publication date. So, to find companion books for Disobedient Teaching meant a contortion into a small space where two sets of shelves overlap. Lined in a dusty row (and that is not a metaphor) sit Sylvia Ashton-Warner, George Dennison, The School of Barbiana, Ivan Illich, Michael Apple, A S Neil, and recent additions including Michael Fullan, Ken Robinson and Diane Ravich. This is a mix from the radical 1970s and from those who currently write about future learning. What they have in common is that they identify critical flaws in education systems and propose ways to create change: everything from Illich dismantling the entire school system, through to Dennison setting up his own school, and on to Ravich berating presidents of the United States.
Where, then, will Ings sit on my shelves?
He proposes that “you can change things from the inside”, that a flawed system can be changed by small acts of defiance carried out by individual teachers. He presents his argument in six sections covering “Change-ability”, “Creativity”, “Assessment”, “Passion”, “The Business of Success” and “Influencing Change”. Each section includes brief stories from the author’s teaching experience, commentary linking the stories to the premise, and some reference to other works. There is also a prologue, notes and a bibliography. The prologue provides a brief argument for the notion of disobedient teaching tied to Ings’s personal history. Disobedient Teaching is incredibly readable; the style is compelling and forceful. It does not hold back on expressing the emotion of the author’s personal experiences and commitment: he is certainly a great storyteller.
Disobedient Teaching has some commonality with recent works that have considered the need for education systems to address change. Ings’s focus on self-assessment, creativity and collaboration as mechanisms for change echo the work of writers and speakers such as Fullan and Robinson. They tell their stories of flawed education with eloquence. They believe that change can happen. Of course, the researcher in me wants more data, more analysis and more theory but, like Ings and co, I can see that does not always sway individual teachers, ministries of education, or governments.
I turn to my collection of 1970s influencers. These authors wrote optimistically, believing that their voices would penetrate, and change could occur. They had yet to experience the 1980s and its educational disillusionment. Where does Ings fit in this company? Disobedient Teaching is certainly not as radical as Deschooling Society, but then, is any book? Illich has held his left-end position on the shelf since purchase. Looking to the right of Illich, Ings shares the emotional commitment of Ashton-Warner, but not the detail of teaching method. Neil (remember Summerhill School?) comes to mind, with his neatly designed slips into memoir, and here Ings excels. While he is convincing in his commitment to change and his target is the teacher, he does not build the critical argument found in Letter to a Teacher by The School of Barbiana, with its naïve but accurate graphical representations of data. “School is a war against the poor” is an unforgiving and entirely shocking thesis; Ings makes his case more gently.
Does it need more theorising or analysis to be compelling, or can the stories and discussions carry the day and inspire? I hope they do. Teaching needs all the fire that can be generated to counter the bloodless cool of a neo-liberal system in which people have been diminished to “learners”, and the joy of achievement has become a measurable outcome. In spite of this, great teaching still occurs. Disobedient Teaching supports the irrepressible force that is great teachers making it possible for their students to be full of curiosity and to learn without end.
Reading Disobedient Teaching is a pleasure; it adds to the line of writers who challenge and battle for better education at all levels. Where, then, does it sit on my bookshelf? It has certainly caused some dust to be unsettled and, as both memoir and treatise, it will hold a place near at hand, so I can pass it on to teachers who want to foster the best possible learning experiences for their students.
Helen Anderson is an educator, researcher and writer.