Tag Archives: Tony Wilson

Activities: the devil will find work for idle hands to do

Some years ago, when I was still held firmly within the gravitational pull of my initial teacher training, I wrote a blog about praxis.

Not praxis as seen through the work of Paulo Freire. Rather, I came to praxis through the words of Anthony H. Wilson. That’s Tony Wilson to you and I: former TV presenter and record label impresario. As co-founder of the legendary Factory Records in Manchester, Wilson nurtured pioneering bands such as Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays; he also gave the world the fabled Haçienda nightclub –  the spiritual home of rave culture in the late 80s and early 90s. Oh, and he lost lots of money doing all of these things. Whenever he is asked about the reasoning behind these creative pursuits, he always referred to praxis. Here’s what the had to say about it:

So praxis for Wilson was post-rationalisation: he did things that he wanted to, and then he decided on the reasons for doing them afterwards.

In my rookie blogpost on the subject, I advocated this form of praxis to underpin classroom teaching. I was foolish. I thought that getting children to do activities in the classroom and then finding out what was learned afterwards was actually a reasonable idea. But then so did many other people: the post was rather well received.

The reason it was well received is because it followed a creed that was certainly dominant at the time of my training, and is still prevalent now: it prioritised the ‘how’ before the ‘what’. In essence, this is the approach of putting the designing of an activity before the most important thing: deciding what it is that we actually want children to learn.

Some time after I wrote about praxis, I read (and rather enjoyed) Phil Beadle’s book ‘Dancing About Architecture’. Like Tony Wilson, Beadle advocated this post-rationalisation:

“What fascinates me here is the infinity of potential in having the outcome completely led by process. If we take Gardner’s intelligences as being a guiding structure and run them back to front, the lesson outcome would be a thought: a thought about speech about an image of a piece of music, which is written about numbers that have been obtained by a literary text.”

Whilst this resonated with me at the time, I find myself opposed to it as an idea now. However, Beadle’s prophecy was fulfilled this week when David Didau tweeted an image of a grid that used Gardner’s multiple intelligences and Bloom’s taxonomy to suggest lesson activities:

Like praxis, this grid prioritises the undertaking of activities over why they are doing them. There seem to be no discernible objectives behind these tasks: what specifically is it that the teacher wants pupils to learn?

I have a similar issue with ‘takeaway homework’ menus. Both the Bloom’s/MI grid and takeaway homeworks seem to suffer under the same premise: pupils can choose what they want to do and that will differ in both activity and outcome for each pupil. And that is where I see problems: if pupils can undertake just one task from a choice of, say, 9 tasks, how valuable and purposeful are those tasks if pupils don’t have to do 8 of them? If the tasks have different learning outcomes, are teachers saying that 8 of those outcomes are unnecessary? Because if they are saying 8 of them are unnecessary, it means that all 9 of them are. This criticism may seem harsh, but such approaches have an underlying, unspoken principle: it doesn’t matter what the pupil does as long as they are doing something.

This is the cult of activity: an unconscious belief that occupying pupils with something is the most important part of lesson or homework planning, over and above deciding what it is that we want pupils to learn.

I say that it is an unconscious belief, because it really is for the majority of us. Most of us that have been in its thrall were indoctrinated by teacher training or by observation cultures that prioritise activities as the first concern.

Of course, whilst it’s true that faith in the cult of activity has been unconscious for most of us, some were knowingly performing and promoting its rituals. And those people should be utterly ashamed of themselves. Who are these contemptible, immoral people? I’ll tell you: they were the sort of people who were writing blogposts advocating praxis as an approach to teaching, that’s who. I hope they are suitably embarrassed.