Still Curious S1E8 - Thoughts on care

Danu Poyner00:00

We may care deeply, but we move within systems and structures that don't. Social systems in the end are just people and the patterns that play out in the millions of tiny interactions between them. The way we live our lives and the actions we take each day, are our lived experience of what we have learned about the world. No matter what the world believed it was teaching us, the lives we lead are the learning outcomes.

You're listening to the Still Curious podcast with me, Danu Poyner. At this point, I'm now six conversations into this podcast series, so I thought it would be a good moment to take a break from the usual interview format and instead to slide into your DMS for a bit to reflect on what's happened so far and to notice some of the themes that are already emerging.

Right at the outset, I observed that it's quite an achievement to make it through life with your curiosity intact, given most of us tend to lose it or have it suffocated along the way for one reason or another, just as part of life's daily grind. So I'm curious about people who do still have their curiosity intact.

I'm keen to understand how they move through life, what connects the various experiences they've had, and perhaps what we can learn from that. And perhaps most of all, for me, curiosity is a way of exploring the other preoccupation of this podcast series, which is about education, how we learn and in particular about the nature of life changing learning experiences that quicken our hearts, light our souls on fire and send us hurtling down new and unfamiliar paths.

I'm of the view there should be a lot more of that sort of thing. I've spent a fair bit of my life so far trying to understand why there isn't and now I'm really trying to focus on what I can do about it. One of the great things about a podcast series is that you can pick away at these things one little piece at a time and then hopefully over time accumulate something that's more than the sum of its parts.

So in this episode, I'd like to pick away a little at one piece in particular, which is about the connection between curiosity, learning and care. I'll offer some reflections on this, share another personal story and recap some of my guests insights, all with the usual sprinkling of quotes. For all of that, join me on the other side of the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious podcast.

Last time I did a solo episode, I shared a story from my freelance tutoring days about Jenny, who just wanted someone to show her how to use a computer. That story was really about the importance of care in the learning situation and that, as the tutor, the real breakthrough moment came when I dropped my assumptions about what I was going to teach Jenny and focused instead on being curious about what was going on for her. And you can listen to that story in Episode One. It's quite difficult often in life to find someone who cares. For a lot of my early working life I was in retail and customer service, and one of the many short-lived jobs I had was at the Optus shop, signing people up to mobile phone contracts.

People used to come in with all kinds of weird and wonderful questions and problems, most of which weren't about them buying a phone or a contract. One of my colleagues made a little box to put behind the counter and in it he put lots of handout cards with different phone numbers on for technical support, insurance manufacturer warranty, and so on. As the customer started to ask him a question, he'd reach into the box and hand them the relevant card before they finished their sentence and on the front of the box facing the staff, but away from the customer, he'd written in marker pen TSWC, tell someone who cares. It's quite clever to know what the outcome of a conversation is going to be before you've had it, and we're all familiar with those conversations. In focusing on the outcome, my colleague thought he was being efficient and he was. On the other hand, if you want to make absolutely sure that you'd kill any chance for curiosity, focusing on the outcome in advance is one of the very best ways to do it. So with that in mind, let's talk about school. Perhaps you remember the old Soviet joke, we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. The classroom teaching ritual is a lot like that. We pretend to learn and they pretend to teach us. If, as we tend to assume, knowledge is some kind of capital T thing that you can count measure or otherwise pile up or dispense out, there's probably some kind of intuitive sense to the way most education is designed. At its most basic it works like this. We think the teacher has a stockpile of knowledge. There's some kind of rationing process by which this pile of knowledge is doled out to students in lumps over a set period, call it curriculum if you like. And then at the end of a set period through the alchemy of teaching, the students are now also supposed to possess the agreed upon knowledge.

And thus the overall stockpile of knowledge in the world has multiplied. To demonstrate that this exchange of knowledge has been successful, the students undergo a series of spot checks along the way where they are required to hold up certain bits of the knowledge at short notice for inspection, call that assessment.

If it seems enough of the knowledge has made it across, then we give them a certificate. Teaching in this sense is essentially an authoritarian exercise while learning effectively amounts to a process of becoming disciplined to the mold set by the curriculum. And this power relationship is neatly encapsulated within the innocent sounding phrase, learning outcomes.

Some version of this is more or less the model that has served us for hundreds of years and upon which almost all school type interactions are still built. It's a nice model. Like most models, it bears little actual resemblance to anyone's real lived experience, but that's not what models are for.

Peter Gilderdale06:51

Then the dreaded learning outcomes thing came in and you ha you have to look and figure out what it is that you want students to get at the end of it so you can measure it. And that is not my experience of learning. My experience of learning comes from getting people excited about things, and then waving goodbye as they go sailing off into whatever it is they're interested in.

Danu Poyner07:14

That was Peter in Episode Six, and he has a point. When it comes to lived experience what I think I am teaching needn't bear any relationship to what you end up learning. When I teach you that your writing needs to sound more scholarly, for instance, what you may actually learn is that you'll never again come to me for writing advice. When I teach you that these are the company values, and this is the process for making a complaint about bullying, you may learn instead that HR is a tool of management, which exists to protect the company's reputation and not your wellbeing. So it's not a safe place for you to go with your troubles. You may learn how to pass my tests and win my approval or do the minimum you need to appear plausible to me so I'll leave you alone.

These are all things my teaching may have helped you to learn. So whatever I may intend through my teaching, what gets learned is up to the learner. This is the truth of learning outcomes. Knowledge isn't a thing. It isn't the content. Knowledge is action. It's something you do. This is why we say by a person's actions shall we know them? Think about how children learn from their parents. What did you learn from yours, really?

Children are learning all the time, regardless of whether there's any teaching happening. If we wish to teach our children well, we'll probably make a concerted and multi-pronged effort to influence them into being a certain kind of person, a good person in whatever sense we understand that to mean. We'll do our best to create an environment where that can happen.

We will hold their hand while we walk them around the world, pointing out important things to notice. We'll yell encouragement from the sidelines and we'll pick them up and dry their tears when they fall. We will beam with pride when they succeed, and when they venture off on their own, we'll worry about them and keep them constantly in our thoughts. When they no longer need us or when finally we're gone, we hope they will remember what we did and know why we did it.

Most of all, we pray it will have been enough. That's how education works in lived experience in the home. So too in the classroom and in the workplace. To teach, if it means anything, means to care. Here's Gail from Episode Five, talking about taking care as a facilitator.

Gail Reichert09:58

A lot of what we say to ourselves is just repetitive dramatic story and it's bullshit. It keeps us safe. And so we've got to be careful as facilitators that we don't dismantle stuff that keeps people safe because that belief, that rule for them might keep them safe outside of the room.

Danu Poyner10:23

There are of course, many professional teachers who care for a living.

If you were lucky, perhaps you met some of them along the way. They're the ones you remember with fondness.

Kathryn Harris10:35

Cathy Burgess. Uh, she was amazing and I've sometimes thought I should look her up and just let her know, you know, how, influential she was on me because she was really just such a caring person. And I often reflect, you know, how I would like to be more caring and kind like she was.

Danu Poyner11:00

And you can always tell within minutes, if not seconds, who cares and who doesn't. That was Kathryn from episode seven before and here she is talking about a different experience.

Kathryn Harris11:12

I'd imagined that it would be this very nurturing atmosphere where everybody was supportive of each other and encouraging, and it was far from that. I found it very, very competitive. I found the teachers there really couldn't care less personally about you. And it just really struck a blow for me and so I only stayed there for six months. Really hit a bit of a low point in my life.

Danu Poyner11:40

Of course, we need to distinguish too between caring people and caring systems.

So spare a thought for the tragic fate of professional teachers who care, but have to do so in a system that doesn't. They're a bit like the child who grows up wanting to be a vet because they love animals only to discover that the reality of being a professional vet actually means you spend a lot of your time euthanizing the animals you love. Be humbled that they do it anyway. It's through the daily struggle and suffering of people such as they, that the world we live in really turns at all. We know each of us intrinsically what good learning looks like. And we know how to instantly recognize the people who make it possible. It's most often a million miles from what happens in a classroom, but no further than the distance between two hearts that are connected.

One of the most pernicious effects of the particular social and political times we live in is the sense we all have that there's nothing we can do about the way things are and that there are no alternatives. For many of us, it may actually be easier to imagine the extinction of our entire species and the death of the planet than it is to imagine an alternative to the way we conduct our social economic and political affairs.

We may care deeply, but we move within systems and structures that don't. That's why almost all of us eventually in some, or even most parts of our lives end up creating our own version of a box on which we have scribbled, tell someone who cares. Otherwise, how would we make it through the day? Social systems in the end are just people and the patterns that play out in the millions of tiny interactions between them. The way we live our lives and the actions we take each day, are our lived experience of what we have learned about the world. No matter what the world believed it was teaching us, the lives we lead are the learning outcomes.

Many of these ideas are drawn from a tradition called virtue ethics. We can talk about that more, another time, but suffice to say ethics is an absolutely critical theme in this podcast series. Ethics is what we need to imagine the alternatives that many of us so desperately wish to exist. If curiosity is to mean something beyond following our own individual interests in a floaty detached kind of way, that is to say, if our curiosity is to connect us to the world, then we need not just an imagination, but an ethical imagination. People want to talk about this. Listening to my curious guests, the mention of ethics melts the conversation like a nice hot shower at the end of a long and difficult day. Here's Peter again.

Peter Gilderdale15:00

How can you keep the university system happy while not losing your soul?

Danu Poyner15:06

Yeah, well, there's the tagline right there. It is an ethical skill to navigate that space, I think on

Peter Gilderdale15:15

I mean everything's ethics. I mean, really in the end, I'm much more interested in, are the people coming out of university going to be good people. The sort of culture that you create and the sort of people that come out of it, are you turning out good people who know how to be curious, creative, excited, you know, all of that. That's what you want. What you don't want is people who just want to tick boxes.

Danu Poyner15:48

And here's Myles from Episode Two making a similar point.

Myles Tankle15:52

Ultimately it's, you know, what are you designing for? Are you designing for people to go into the workplace? You want them to have concrete skills so that they can perform a task, or are you wanting people to be critical self thinkers and self motivated, um, and can, can pull information in and analyze it and then make a decision and be rational about it, or are you wanting people to understand ,you know, that your attitudes between mind and heart and how those things interact. Like what are you ultimately designing for?

Danu Poyner16:19

In particular, in education, as in so many other parts of life, we would do well to think about what it would look like to redesign our social systems away from an ethics of efficiency and instead to an ethics of care.

This is something my guest Eleanor brought up in Episode Three:

Eleanor Colla16:40

but just reading really, really widely. Like, obviously there's some pretty clear themes, really big at the moment on ethics of care.

Danu Poyner16:48

So I asked her about it.

The university that you've been a little critical of, what would happen if that were based on an ethic of care instead, do you think?

Eleanor Colla16:58

I think it would be fantastic to like, just set the scene. It would be deeper. It would be more reflective. It would be more curiosity driven. A lot more what people outside of the university probably think the university still is. I think it would be great. Um, yeah, but it's also, we're trying to do this in small ways. I use the term researcher development very specifically instead of research development. And there's a lot that sits in that ER of researcher. And I think ethics of care sits in that. We are developing whole people. We are developing them with care and ways of supporting them and the broader context of which they are working in need that support.

Danu Poyner17:48

Well, let me finish today with a quote from another of my favorite philosophers, Dr. Seuss's the Lorax who says, "unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." That's us for today. Thanks for joining me. I have been your host, Danu Poyner, and I'll be back next time for more curious conversation with another interesting guest. Until then take care and I'll see you on the next episode of the Still Curious podcast.

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