Disobedient teaching: a review

June 2017


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JUDE BARBACK believes it is the rich, personal experience interwoven with big-picture thinking that sets Disobedient Teaching: Surviving and creating change in education by Welby Ings apart from other books of its ilk.

welby ingsI delayed writing this book review. ‘Write review on Disobedient Teaching’ headed up my to-do list for weeks, yet I found other articles to write, other editorial matters to which to attend. The truth behind my procrastination was simply that I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to do this remarkable book justice.

The gist of Disobedient Teaching is this: sometimes you have to rock the boat in order to escape dissatisfaction with the status quo.

I’m not really a boat rocker, but I aspire to be one and I admire those who are.

Welby Ings, the author, is a boat rocker – or as he describes it, productively and professionally disobedient. And the book takes on another layer of authenticity as the reader learns more about its author.

Ings couldn’t read or write until he was 14 years old. He was expelled from high school. He was suspended from teacher training. After his probation year of teaching he was refused certification and resigned. Yet he returned to teaching and went on to receive the inaugural Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for Teaching Excellence. He became one of the architects of the New Zealand technology curriculum. He has created short films that have been shortlisted for the Oscars and screened at Cannes. He was awarded New Zealand’s first PhD in creative practice. He is a professor of graphic design at AUT.

The book is split into six parts – change-ability, creativity, assessment, passion, the business of success, and influencing change – and in each of these, Ings inspires educators to push against the boundaries of the system in order to enable real change. As he states, “The premise of this book is that you can change things from the inside. If a whole system can’t be reformed, infect what you can with positive initiatives.”

But actually, Disobedient Teaching does more than just inspire – although I think this is the book’s strength – additionally it looks at the doing, providing tools for teachers’ toolkits, and countless examples that teachers could adapt to their own practice.

Yet it is not a how-to book, either. Discussions around educational research, political ideologies, education policies and hierarchical structures within schools are interwoven into its pages.

Take his treatment of assessment, for example. Drawing on international and national evidence and his personal experience, Ings has much to say on the subject – mainly how damaging the effects of over-testing can be. He describes how at one end of the spectrum “unfaltering excellence” can prevent students from learning beyond a certain point, while at the other, years of “not achieved” grades can cause students to disengage from learning altogether.

Many of the arguments he makes will provoke nods of agreement among educators. But the book does more than just affirm popular criticisms – it arms teachers with tools to make a difference in their own sphere of influence. It discusses the importance of self-evaluation, of how to reduce the impact of marking, and the need for quality reporting as ways to be effective within a system that pays homage to assessment.

Ings describes his frustration at the small rectangle on the school report template for comment as insufficient for truly communicating a child’s progress and aspirations. He would therefore send a handwritten letter home with each child, focusing on their quirks and progress and how they were learning. It was these letters that parents would bring with them to report evenings, proud that someone had noticed their child’s acerbic wit or their creative excuse making or their kindness. As Ings points out, “Marks and grade point averages do not engender such things. What matters is the care one human being takes to talk about another.”

Throughout the book, he illustrates his points with examples from his own experience, either as a student or a teacher. They are sure to resonate with anyone who has been either – which is us all.

Take the part, for example, where Ings discusses how his English teacher, Miss Jull, demonstrated such passion in teaching poetry that she left lasting impressions on her students. My seventh form English teacher, Mr Harris, was made in the same mould; I can well remember walking into a pitch black classroom with stormy thunder noises blasting, and him screaming “gothic” in an effort to illustrate the blustery moors of Wuthering Heights.

“The wonderful thing is her passion still exists,” states Ings of Miss Jull. “She is replicated in schools up and down the country. She is the music teacher who turns up to discuss the compositions of Rimsky-Korsakov in a bumblebee suit, or the guy who jumps on science desks to demonstrate nuclear reaction… these are the teachers who leave the marks… and they are the most valuable and untrusted resource in the education system.”

Ings clearly rates caring and passion highly when it comes to teaching and these traits shine through every chapter in some guise.

In another passage that captivated me, he describes another teacher, Miss Bavine, who showed great compassion. Being openly gay at Te Awamutu College in the early 1970s meant Ings was sadly and inevitably a victim of bullying. Sensing the hard time he was having, Miss Bavine went out of her way to protect him and reassure him that it was okay to be different and that “it will be okay”. Ings describes her as “the essence of what we must always enable and believe in”.

It is clear he has gone on to embody these traits as a teacher himself, going to huge lengths for his students. In one example, he gets a class of 12-year-olds to write letters to their future selves, and then eight years later tracks down every student all over the world to deliver their letters. In another, he describes how he helped hide Pacific Island students in a space beneath a trapdoor in the woodwork room during the immigration crack down in the 1980s.

Ings maintains that for learning to be truly transformative, it needs to be experienced emotionally as well as intellectually. He shares the story of how he taught his intermediate social studies class about prejudice. Ings felt the provided resources on the Jews in Warsaw and the blacks in America were a world away from the kids’ world, aka 1980s Hamilton.

So, using the newly popular term ‘nerd’ as a starting point, he arranged for the class to have a ‘nerd party’. Dressed in ridiculous outfits (think underpants over jeans, socks and sandals, bow ties and running shorts), the kids turned up at school, only to be told that instead of a party they would be walking the length of the main street, on their own, dressed in their nerdy attire. The stares, insults and abuse the kids received left them with a profound understanding of what prejudice really felt like – and the historical experiences they studied thereafter took on a much deeper meaning.

It is hard to pigeonhole Disobedient Teaching. By Ings’ admission, it isn’t intended to be a teaching manual or a self-help book or a treatise on New Zealand education, yet it is all these things. As Ings states, “Perhaps you might describe it as an arm around the shoulder of people who try to change things for the better. Perhaps someone like you.”

‘Disobedient Teaching: Surviving and creating change in education’ by Welby Ings is published by Otago University Press and can be ordered from Nationwide Book Distributors www.nationwidebooks.co.nz

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