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Are we hard wired for self reflection? October 21, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Dr Carol Birrell, Social Ecologist.

The practice of self reflection has had considerable attention and application in educational pedagogies (Bengtsson, 1995)[1]. The teacher as a ‘reflective practitioner’ is a model that has informed many subject areas across interdisciplinary divides, as has related research on the role of empathy in education (Arnold, 2005)[2]. The area in which I teach and research, Social Ecology, sees a central role for self reflection, wherein a self referential perspective is crucial to an ecological and experiential understanding of life.

Likewise, developing empathic education is an important part of pre-service teachers’ education from a Social Ecological lens. To bring these aspects to bear on what goes on in the classroom, immediately provokes an engaged pedagogy- not only awareness of self within the classroom, but also awareness of others and the dynamics of the whole group.

Most people have some sort of an inner conscious process of which they are aware and a much greater unconscious level of mental activity which is below awareness. In the university classroom, it is my experience that it is generally females who are most at ease with learning and practising reflection as a pedagogical tool. It is more of a challenge to get male students involved.

Why would this be so? Brain research has highlighted the differences between males and females and the way they learn and experience the world differently (Hines, 2003)[3], but sometimes simple causal factors are implicated. Many girls from a young age keep personal diaries. Of course, this is a gendered stereotype, similar to the one that ‘girls love horses’ but there is a widespread recognition of the accuracy here of a leaning towards ‘dear Diary…’ as an important part of normal everyday life for females.

I have observed that females take to more easily, ‘like a duck to water’, the practice of introspection as a pedagogical tool, whereas many males have to be coaxed and encouraged to first of all recognize, then articulate what goes on in their inner process.

Recent brain research provides another take on this interesting area and highlights our still forming knowledge on what exactly is consciousness and how human consciousness may be alike or distinctive from other species. A recent edition of New Scientist (New Scientist 21 July, 2012) pinpoints an area of the brain that may be linked with our inner life, regardless of gender. There are distinctive neurons called VENs (Von Economo neurons) found in the frontal areas of the brain, far larger than typical neurons and with a different shape. There is evidence to suggest that VENs are part of our inner lives, with an important role in detecting emotions in self and others: ‘Both areas kick into action when we see socially relevant cues, be it a frowning face, a grimace of pain, or simply the voice of someone we love.

When a mother hears a baby crying, both regions respond strongly. They also light up when we experience such emotions as love, lust, anger and grief’. As such, they may be interpreted as functioning like a ‘social monitoring network’ (p33).

In Social Ecology, this is referred to as a feedback loop, common to all ecological systems, which then allows us to adjust our behaviour to the circumstances. The body and its sensations, responding unconsciously to those events that are deemed to be the most ‘pressing’, and working through these VENs, may be all enlisted to respond to changes. This suggests that VENs are a key to a ‘sense of self’, a sense of our own identity, as well as a means of assessing ‘a continually updated sense of “how I feel now” (p34)’.

As a classroom teacher, we need to be constantly alert to the changing dynamics of our class/classes and the learning ecology that emerges. Our inner experience, once recognized and reinforced through an ongoing practice of reflection, alerts us to the interchange, the shifting flux within self, within a student, between students, and between teachers and students in that environment. This is highly sophisticated and complex work. I, for one, am glad to know that some very sophisticated and complex neurons are there to help the process!

References:     [1] Bengtsson, J. 1995, Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, vo1,no1.     [2] Arnold, R. 2005, Empathic Intelligence, UNSW Press, Sydney, NSW.    [3] Hines, M. 2003, Brain Sex, Oxford UniversityPress, USA.

Carol Birrell is a Social Ecologist and Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She teaches in the areas of learning and creativity and education for sustainability in our Education Studies Major, and also in our Master of Education (Social Ecology) program.

Teaching Chinese with Australian characteristics October 7, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Professor Michael Singh

In 2012 it is Chinese-Australians – teachers and students – in senior secondary schools across the country who are now making a substantial contribution to securing Australia’s linguistic and intellectual engagements with speakers of Chinese (Mandarin or Han Yu) within Australia and around the world.

Clearly, Australia’s non-discriminatory immigration program is very effective in building this nation’s multilingual assets and providing Australians with the basis for connecting with a world in which multilingualism is the norm.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott recognise the importance of having second language learners in Australia to study Chinese, Indonesian, Korean and Japanese. Both leaders see it as important for the prospects of Australia in what is called the ”Asian Century.”

Wisely, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) guidelines for developing the Australian Languages Curriculum make provision for first, background and second language learners. As an important policy framework, this gives all Australian students a chance to do well.

The Western Sydney Region of the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities is successfully stimulating the learning of Chinese among some five thousand primary and second school students who are learning it as a second language.

Volunteer university graduates from Ningbo (China) work with classroom teachers as teacher-researchers to investigate ways to make Chinese learnable for second language learners in Australia.

The Ningbo Volunteers are also studying research degrees in the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney. Through these studies they are investigating a number of intractable educational problems.

Sino-Australian teacher - researcher education: Networking   international learning & bilingual communicative capabilities

Sino-Australian teacher – researcher education: Networking  
international learning & bilingual communicative capabilities

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is studying ways of making Chinese learnable for second language learners in Australia, rather than insisting that it is difficult for second language learners to acquire Chinese. So, the Volunteers are studying ways of teaching Chinese with Australian characteristics to children just beginning to learn this second language.

They have shown that second language learners need programs and pedagogies that stimulate their interests, engage their enthusiasms, and reward them with successful language learning experiences.

Likewise, their research findings indicate that children, parents and teachers must recognise that second language education is about learners, parents and teachers, and that they must have their reasons for learning a second language recognised and directly engaged within the teaching/learning process.

A key finding from their studies is that for beginners, a focus on the social and linguistic similarities between English and Chinese is more successful and rewarding than a focus on linguistics and emphasising differences. This has led the Volunteers to engage in the research-based development of pedagogies that work to reduce the ‘cost’ for beginners of learning Chinese as a second language; not making it a difficult and unrewarding experience.

Second languages education is being further stimulated through research into the formal recognition of the Ningbo Volunteers’ bilingual communicative competence in the University of Western Sydney.

With some 150 languages spoken by Australia’s university students, formal acknowledgement of student-teachers’ linguistic capabilities as part of Australian teacher education programs would provide an added stimulus to second language learning.

This research is also contributing to a better understanding of the historical alternations that have affected the local/global flows of languages and knowledge. Such knowledge is necessary for explaining the renaissance of China as a global centre for knowledge production – knowledge that is being produced in Han zi.

Together this teacher-research is providing a firm base for second language education in Australian schools and is inspiring much confidence.

Over the past three years this research has contributed original knowledge about the characteristics of programs and pedagogies that make Chinese learnable, and provided really useful ideas to help schools and universities to collaborate in delivering on the large-scale, long-term investment policy-makers promise to provide.

Michael Singh is a Professor of Education in the School of Education’s Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

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