Once upon a time…

…there was a boy called John. He grew up in a fairly unremarkable town in the West Country. His parents, who were teachers, went to great lengths to develop the young lad and expose him to new experiences. Every day, before he could have his afternoon sweets, he had to perform some small thinking task, with the result that he knew his alphabet and early times-tables, was able to read well, even before he went to primary school. Each summer holiday, the family travelled widely around Europe with their caravan. John showed early promise, his reading age already off the scale by the time he was eight years old; he greatly enjoyed doing well, often undertaking ‘research projects’ just for the sake of it.  One of his fondest memories of upper primary school is of doing ‘DD’ – a weekly knowledge-research quiz set by his kindly old class teacher, Mr. Clifton.

He took the Eleven Plus (having reluctantly gone through a degree of prepping by his mother), and achieved amongst the highest scores in the town, thus entering the local boys’ grammar school, where he proceeded to compete vigorously with two or three other lads for the prime places in the top stream at the end of each half-term’s Marks Period.

Much to his surprise, at the end of his first year exams, he came second-highest in the year, having been given structured revision by his mother in the preceding weeks. But by the second year, his enthusiasm was waning for such a study-intense regime, and he gradually worked less and less hard. His parents became increasingly concerned, but the harder they pushed, the more John felt trapped in a corner and unable to comply. At the same time, his lifelong passion for railways was growing; he had never been particularly gregarious, and he spent much of his time reading railway books and building a succession of models, which he shared with a few like-minded friends. He developed an interest in the practical skills associated with model-making, encouraged by his father who had always been a skilled craftsman, but one who would never accept second-best work. Somewhere in John’s mind a rather obsessive streak of perfectionism took root…

As he entered his mid-teens, John’s early musical failure on the piano reversed, as he discovered the guitar. He worked hard at it, eventually forming a small folk group with some friends, which became his overwhelming passion during his late teenage years.

Meanwhile, his parents increasingly despaired at his disinclination to study hard; he eventually obtained a mixed bag of ‘O’ Levels, respectable enough, but not as good as those of the boys he had competed with a few years before. After showing some initial interest in Science, he eventually settled on the humanities, again ‘prodded’ by his parents. He was able enough in these subjects, but never felt great passion for them. Nonetheless, he was an enterprising and determined boy when motivated, and he achieved high standards and much satisfaction from his hobbies, even as his academic performance paled.

He took his ‘A’ Levels with much the same outlook; his efforts were increasingly focused on his personal interests, with school work taking a back seat. He began to fear academic failure, and aided by his parents’ continuing despair, increasingly began think of himself more generally as a failure. An emergent ability in French was stifled when he compared himself with some extremely talented girls in the same class at what was by now a co-educational sixth form college. A number of his friends were busy applying to the best universities, and while a couple of his teachers suggested he should do the same, he lacked the self-belief to follow-through. In any case he was by now too academically-unfocussed to stand a chance. But on results day, much to his surprise, he had achieved a set of grades good enough to get into a red-brick university.

University followed a similar pattern: much of his time was spent ‘growing up’ free from the constraints of the home environment for the first time. He was much-preoccupied by his abject failure to secure the attention of the opposite sex, and he diverted a lot of effort into his interests – which still didn’t really include the subject he was supposedly studying. His tutors seemed singularly uninterested in the travails of an anonymous undergraduate, and semi-knowingly, he drifted still further. When it came to his dissertation however, he chose a transport-related topic, and eventually produced a document that bucked his academic record by scoring a First. In the process, he also discovered a huge store of transport literature in the stack of the university library and immersed himself in it.

Growing fear of failure led to a last-ditch effort to save his degree, which he eventually managed to do, achieving a lower second. After graduating, John didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He applied unsuccessfully for a management job on the railways, and several other commercial opportunities, but he then took a gap year, working in a psychiatric hospital. Stuck in a dreary job, he increasingly yearned for his university life and (much to his surprise) his former subject. He finally took the decision to go into teaching.

He secured a place on a P.G.C.E. course, and eventually employment in a large secondary school. He struggled with teaching to begin with – the workload came as a culture shock for a start, as did finding himself in charge for the first time in his life. However, he resolved not to make his earlier mistakes again, and started to make progress. At some point, he realised that he needed to take charge of his life, and increasingly found that he could do so. He worked hard at his chosen career, though finding it difficult to resolve his own grammar school experiences with those of the comprehensive sector he was working in. He dutifully followed the expected pattern and applied for promotion, even though he inwardly lacked the conviction to follow through.

Over time, he developed a distinctive approach to teaching, and began increasingly to use his wider interests to broaden what he could offer his pupils. He also began to make up for lost time with his own education, deepening his command of his subject, reading widely in others and actively capitalising on what he discovered were latent skills he had perhaps had all along. His practical and musical skills appeared to have sharpened his mind more than he realised, and his experience of academic near-failure galvanised him. Over time, he found that his pupils began to respond positively to the quirky, somewhat eccentric but thoughtful teacher in front of them…

Question: was John’s education ‘successful’ or not?  Choose from:

A) John’s education was pretty much a failure, as has been much of his life since. His teachers failed to inspire him, and any success he achieved was largely a result of untapped and rather untamed innate ability. He achieved qualifications well below those he could have, and his life since (including his earning potential) has been blighted by that fact. His story is all the justification needed for the more interventionist approach that education has nowadays.

B) John’s education had some limited impact on a contrary and independent-minded individual. He should have been channelled in other directions that made better use of his apparent interests, despite the fact that that might have ‘wasted’ his academic ability. His parents were unwise to have pushed him and were probably counter-productive in their concern. His life could probably have been made better if his teachers had intervened more.

C) John’s education was a clear success. He exhibited fairly typical boyish dislike for formal structure, and it was unfortunate that the system reinforced some unnecessarily negative self-perceptions as a result. Nonetheless, his education clearly sowed the seeds for his later flourishing, both in terms of the necessary skills and the attitudes which only made sense much later in his life.  When he escaped the normal uncertainties of young-adult life he found himself equipped to make up for his earlier shortcomings. John’s teachers could have done little more to anticipate the future direction of his life, but succeeded in equipping him with core values, knowledge and role-models that emerged and served him well in later life.

‘John’ now has a life that pleases him greatly:

He and his wife earn enough to support themselves to a comfortable standard of living with which they are very largely satisfied. They have found an architecturally-distinctive home in a delightful small town in south eastern England, and have furnished it (using John’s practical skills) in their preferred modernist style.

John works in a profession which provides him with daily challenges and an enduring sense of purpose, even if his still-unruly mind is frustrated at the unnecessary constraints its hierarchy places on his ability to maximise his effectiveness.

He has a rich personal life, speaks two languages well and self-taught two others badly, has found his (highly erudite) soul-mate and enjoys a wonderful marriage. He has travelled widely and has friends in several countries.

He has achieved high degrees of competence within his still-active hobby fields, including having broadcast and published in one of them. These remain among the key elements of his life. He is active in those interest-communities, promoting in a small way the advancement of their activities.

Many of John’s youthful acquaintances (even though who made better use of their school days) seem to have had similarly unpredictable stories, but most are now living ‘ordinary’ but seemingly content lives, with secure relationships and variable career success.

He is now trying to use his experiences for the greater good of his profession and its clients, despite the fact that the great and good would probably dismiss him as a mere minnow who knows nothing.

When John reads the vast quantities of literature produced by the movers and shakers of the education world discussing how they can ‘make education better’, how the whole thing can be effectively managed as some kind of behavioural monolith, and how they can specify the behaviours that teachers should adopt in order to ‘deliver better outcomes’, he smiles inwardly at the chaos his own experience would cause in their perfect worlds.

He also wonders whether they would choose option A, B or C above – and whether that really matters so long as he – and those around him – are content.

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