All this from a small dog?

Doodles the therapy dog whom Cherryl Drabble has introduced to her school and written about has been much in my thoughts, and was the subject of a blog post at the start of this academic year, when I asked this strings of questions:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?
  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

That’s a lot of questions to lay at the door of one writer and her dog, and maybe a lot to ask of first year undergraduates, too. What I suppose I’m getting at – and thinking about as I gear up for the marking of their essays – is the stuff at the heart of this document, Be More Critical from Oxford Brookes’ Upgrade service.

As a student in higher education, you need to weigh up the strengths and limitations, the values or merits of what you read, see and hear. You can then justify your own conclusions.

Much of your learning at university is designed to enable you to develop the skills you need for life and work. A questioning, ‘critical’ approach is fundamental to everything. You are not simply a ‘sponge’, soaking up information, and repeating it in your assignments to prove you ‘know’ it. Your course is designed to help you develop a critical approach to evidence so you can apply it in your future practice…

And so here we are, faced with a multi-headed task around choosing an essay that is

  • going to exercise and develop a student’s critical skills
  • going to be big enough to be interesting and yet feasible in about four weeks
  • going to have an accessible amount of relevant sources.

Let’s look at Doodles.

Cherryl Drabble’s book is friendly, chatty and anecdotal. It allows a school to ponder some of the pros and cons of getting, training, managing and, well, using a dog in therapy.  I think it has come as a surprise to some of the students that policy and practice can be presented and discussed in this voice -but of course this is the voice of education as it is spoken in staff rooms.  Is it, maybe, the voice of the educator as opposed to the educationalist? In some ways, perhaps: but here is  another critical question, and one that trails around education very often (this clip provides a nice metaphor): how does someone who thinks and writes about education differ from someone who works with learners on a daily basis? What should the new consumer (and replicator?) if academic style make of Drabble’s warm reportage?

When Levi, a boy with ADHD (p100) readies himself for learning by playing with Doodles, and perhaps more particularly by taking charge of the dog, a number of things are in play.

We as readers are aware of Drabble’s astonishment at this turn of events; she is showing a key (but sometimes overlooked) element in reflective practice in that she reports on her emotional responses.

We are also aware of how her report is couched in conversational language: a student-critic will notice the turns of phrase that are suited to spoken language (“No, that wasn’t his intention at all.”) and reflect on the way in which academic language, while useful when it makes meaning clear, can also distance the reader… What are the choices for the young writer?

It’s actually quite complex – and the deeper we go, the more there is to see:

Why is Levi “running off some energy?” and what is the role of a TA with a child who has needs similar to Levi? What role does conformity play in a learner’s experience? What might boundaries do – impair Levi’s learning or give him a structure? How does the student in Higher Education explore the big questions around educational “therapeutic spaces”?

And then I might ask the student reader to look again at Levi, to see how these “sensory breaks” allow him to succeed in class. Might Levi’s teacher really be looking at good practice for any learner – and how does learning at University take into account ideas of what makes an enabling learning environment? Or does it simply replicate historical precedents with a liberal (or “customer-first” neoliberal?) veneer of conversation, group tasks and chatty tutors? Should we have sensory breaks? How do we make a case – weighing up evidence, seeing arguments in context? If pace is self-chosen for Levi, if compassion and belonging underpin his learning experience, what about in Higher Ed?

From Levi and Cherryl on the playground we are on task in “developing students’ critical skills” as well as looking at the questions this post started from.

Wow. Yes, all this from a small dog.  

 

 

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