I teach a graduate class on instructional supervision where I have the privilege of watching educational administrators squirm as they attempt to observe and make sense of what teachers do in the classroom. My amusement grows as I have them watch a novice teacher instructing a group of inner city kids in a lesson that is, well, disastrous. All the while they are collecting data from the observation – furiously making notes while their heads pivot up and down from the video. Then we process the event to see what they found out. I simply ask, ‘What did you see?’ and then ‘Talk to me about how you would interact with this teacher.’
Radical eclecticism overcomes common sense at this point. Here are a range of comments:
‘She should be fired.’
‘Did you see the boy in the red jacket? He played the entire time.’
‘I am not quite sure she understood the idea of emancipation.’
‘The lesson just ended with no follow-up.’
‘I wasn’t sure just what to take down. There was so much going on.’
I surmise that many administrators do not know what to look for in terms of effective instructional practice in the classroom. They simply cannot make the data fit formal categories of what real instructional practice looks like – or not. Often they are not clear on what the categories of effective teaching look like. Distance from the classroom makes them ignorant. No one asked for context. This novice instructor had only been in the classroom one week and she was a student teacher in her first placement.
What I have really done is immerse them in a philosophical puzzle which challenges our traditional view of reality. You know the one. We live in an objective universe in which we are capable of directly accessing that objectivity and then reporting it back unalloyed or negatively influenced by insidious subjectivity. In fact subjectivity is the enemy. If this is so, then why so many varying ideas about the observation event? Why didn’t everyone simply report the same thing? Thus our puzzle (Thank you Wittgenstein…). Why is the ‘fusion of horizons’ between real time events and our comprehension of them so fraught with epistemological peril? Is reality so slippery that it cannot be described or captured?
Part of my course project is to help them through a hurdle which hampers the ability of understanding events in real time by developing categories of effective teaching which serve as lenses describing a shared understanding of ‘best practice’: content knowledge, instructional strategies, assessment, management, etc. This becomes the informational side of our work together. However the real work is in challenging the philosophical puzzle. And it is Mason who has helped me through this problematic.
The idea of narrating becomes a personal narrative of ‘knowledge touched by imagination’. It is not merely speaking anything you want, but as Ricoeur has said ‘saying something about something’. It is the dialog of a reader/listener with a text or spoken word. The [objective] text is interpreted by the [subjective] person. This word interpreted is a key. As persons we inhabit an objective reality filled with law and meaning as a function of God’s creation mandate, and yet we do not always get it right. As fallen subjective beings who interpret the world around us, there are numerous pitfalls to our apprehension of that reality. Thus ten different views of the same event, each describing the same thing, but from a varying viewpoint (see note below). Neither objectivity nor subjectivity are abrogated, but each takes its place in a ‘both/and’ stance. We indeed interpret an objective reality. Narration brilliantly captures the personal knowledge aspect of being human. As we engage the world and explore its meaning, knowledge becomes ours in a very relational and personal way.
Okay, what about that Postmodern  thingy above? All I can say is that the stereotypical view of the Postmodern project that no absolutes exist, reality is all internal, and that truth is a relative affair, does not fit the ‘both/and’ position above. A Postmodern  stance allows for the person as fallible subject and objective reality to co-exist in a meaningful way.
So as with narration, so too, with my students – we discuss the components of a Postmodern  understanding. Several things press into our understanding about reality:
1. It is perspectival – My personal stance and understanding shape how I view things
2. It is dialogic – I interpret in my subjective experience an external objective reality
3. It is relational/personal – In my dealings with the created order, I learn what is meaningful to me
4. It is context sensitive – Life is extremely multifaceted and complex and often has contours outside of the obvious
5. It is risky – My fallen-ness shapes both my view of the world and my understanding of it, thus I must remain humble in my offerings to others – I might be wrong
Unlike Enlightenment’s scientism, where the person falls to the sword of radical and reductionist objectivity, Postmodernism  turns us to a different understanding of our relationship with the world around us and the way in which we make sense of it.
The next time you observe in a classroom or narrate back a living book text, reflect on how you are created as an interpreting being moved to understanding as personal knowledge.
Note: Take the example of a car accident witnessed by ten persons and the potential multi-narratives given to the police about the same event.
© Dr. Jack Beckman 2010