How ‘old school’ can it get? A text on the table and a small group of people around it. All have read the text, and gather to discuss it together. That’s the setting of a reading seminar. The format has been around for ages. But in these times of unlimited information available just a few mouse-clicks away, flashy ICT-applications in teaching, and learning environments contaminated by edutainment (Reyniers, Verstraete, Van Ruyskensvelde, & Kelchtermans, 2018), it may seem outdated. Like a pedagogical dinosaur that forgot to become extinct…
However, recent work with the reading seminar in professional development for teacher educators convinced me that the dinosaur still deserves to be around, and even embraced as a pathway to a much needed slow pedagogy. Slow as in ‘slow food’.
Selecting the text
Texts need to be complex, challenging, maybe even somewhat daunting to read individually. They should represent an original stance by the author(s) that is systematically argued. Texts should hold the promise of offering more in-depth understanding and new insights on issues that matter to the participants. Even if the text itself is not recent. We all talk easily about the crucial role of reflection, but who has actually read Schön’s seminal The Reflective Practitioner?
Roles and script
The text is the purpose of the meeting. It literally and symbolically brings participants together and makes them equals: readers of the same text, meeting to discuss it. So switch off those smartphones and disconnect from the internet. Practice ‘presence’ (Rodgers & Raider-Roth, 2006), engage with the text and each-other.
Two different roles need to be taken up, preferably in turns by all participants. Firstly the meeting chair, who ensures time-keeping, safeguards the process and focus on the text, and facilitates the discussion. Secondly, each seminar requires a text introducer. S/he talks the group through the text, paraphrasing it, following its chronology, summarising key messages and arguments. In this paraphrasing – expressing what was ‘said’ in the text using different words – the introducer should stay close to the text, phrase carefully and precisely, and use text citations to justify his/her reading. In addition to this balancing of paraphrasing and quoting, the introducer shares what remained unclear to him/her, points out possible inconsistencies and raises questions for discussion. Once the introducer has finished, other participants are invited to complement the inventory of discussion issues.
Engaging with this inventory is the next step. The same rules apply to the discussion: keep the text front and center, paraphrasing and quoting to argue one’s point. ‘I think the answer to that issue can be found on page X, where it says:…’. This requires self-discipline and keen leadership by the chair.
Only after having spent enough time on understanding the text, and the questions it raises, can the conversation be widened and linked to one’s practice. This may constitute a challenge, as teachers and teacher educators are often inclined to immediately look for instrumental conclusions, driven by an impatience to apply ideas to improve their practice, and to dismiss anything else as less worthwhile or even just a waste of time.
‘The reading seminar is a powerful format for what I would call slow pedagogy. It literally slows one down, requires concentration, diligence, focus and precision in one’s thinking and talking.’
Other than this self-discipline, the reading seminar requires courage. It is, in fact, also a pedagogy of discomfort. Going public with one’s reading of the text inevitably implies sharing one’s interpretations, one’s professional beliefs and normative stances. This exposure can be uncomfortable, as one might find one’s views questioned or contradicted. It requires enduring the vulnerability and the risk of having it wrong. Therefore, a culture of acceptance and respectful interaction (which doesn’t exclude being critical, confronting or disagreeing!), is a crucial condition.
Finally, the reading seminar is a powerful format for what I would call slow pedagogy. It literally slows one down, requires concentration, diligence, focus and precision in one’s thinking and talking, carefully and thoughtfully ‘zipping’ new theoretical insights and one’s practices (Kelchtermans, 2018). Refusing the ‘quick fix’ and ‘one size fits all’ and other fast-food-like solutions. It helps to postpone the false urgency of hasty judgment, seeking relevance, efficiency and effectiveness. It opens up the unexpected and unforeseen, which is essential for education as an open relationship between human beings in which there is always both more and less happening than one plans and strives for (Kelchtermans,2009; Masschelein & Simons, 2013).
Kelchtermans, G. (2009). Who I am in how I teach is the message: Self-understanding, vulnerability and reflection. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 15(2), 257–272.
Kelchtermans, G. (2018, February 7). Zipping as professional learning [blog post]. Retrieved from http://info-ted.eu/zipping-as-professional-learning/.
Masschelein, J. & Simons, M. (2013). In defence of the school: A public. Leuven: E-ducation, Culture & Society Publishers.
Reyniers, N., Verstraete, P., Van Ruyskensvelde, S. & Kelchtermans, G. (2018). Let us entertain you: An exploratory study on the beliefs and practices of teaching history of education in the 21st century. Paedagogica Historica, 54, 837–845.
Rodgers, C. & Raider-Roth, M. (2006). Presence in teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and practice, 12(3), 265–287.
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. London: Temple Smith.