Teachers and the art of surfing

This post is a response to a discussion on David Didau’s blog, which is rather similar in content to that of my own previous post. I am posting it here rather than occupying David’s own comments board. The original post can be found here. I am also including David’s response to my contribution for the sake of context.

“That, I think, is the problem: people doing stuff because it’s ‘obviously right’ and because they believe they have insight into the human condition. Better, I think, to test these insights in well designed trials which we can then use to predict how our pupils will behave. If there isn’t a well designed trial we can use to make these predictions then that’s a problem: we may well be left with our hunches. But it there is, surely it’s irresponsible to ignore it?” (David Didau)

Learning to surf sea waves involves a degree of technical acquisition, not least in knowing how to swim and balance on a board. But the theory can only take you so far: while they do have broadly common characteristics, in small but critical ways each wave is different, and the only way to ride it is to take it as it comes, making decisions in real time. Everything happens so fast that there is little time for rational thought: true mastery is intuitive. Read Flow! But that intuition is derived – albeit obliquely – from the automatic application of the technical learning that went before, coupled with huge amounts of empirical experience of riding other waves.

I sympathise with those who crave ‘evidence’– there’s been too much harm  done in education in the past by those who had none when promoting their great ideas. And it would of course be irresponsible to ignore the possibility of knowing more than we currently do, even if we then rejected the findings. We should also be open to the possibilities of change: J.M. Keynes made a perceptive comment about what one should do when the facts change, and he was absolutely right.  I would certainly agree that the individual who acts on the hoof, on a whim, with no consideration or understanding behind his actions is being reckless. It is a professional duty to reflect and develop – but it can’t be done to order, or in a behavioural laboratory.

It would in some ways be very convenient if we could anticipate precisely how every pupil will react to our teaching in advance – although it would also give me sleepless nights on account of fearing that we were turning people into robots. There is also the rather inconvenient problem that in reality human behaviour just ain’t like that – and there’s no great gain in pretending otherwise. So I have difficulty with the phrase “which we can then use to predict how our pupils will behave”. I might be somewhat more comfortable with “might (in certain circumstances) behave” but anything more is, I’m afraid flying in compete denial of the realities of human psychology. And that’s without the ethical implications of such potentially-extreme forms of mind-control.

The problem with research is that at heart it sees teaching as a technical activity – as I think David’s comment betrays – whereas it is in fact a behavioural one. In that sense it is true that we can act on our “insight into human behaviour”. In my view, that is precisely what we should act upon, and it’s odd to suggest that human beings don’t have such insight – after all, we are humans and all human relationships – including teaching ones – depend on it. The trick as a teacher is to be expertly-empathic to it, and opportunistically turn it to advantage. This is not just mumbo-jumbo – check my reading page to see where it derives from.

I agree with David that in an ideal world, one would be able to test teachers’ intuitions for efficacy – just show me how to replicate the same lesson time after time in controlled laboratory conditions and we could perhaps try it. It is fair to say that research can reveal some insight into generalised human behaviour – but are the findings anything that any competent long-standing teacher will not have found empirically?  I’m in my 27th year of teaching, and I have always reflected long and hard on what I experience; being what I am, if anything I took my sometimes -hard learning curve too much to heart – but at least I learned big lessons from it. And the biggest of all has been what happens when you get so darned practiced at something that it does indeed become intuitive. You become more effective – when judged in behavioural terms. And behaviour includes learning behaviour.

It depends not on premeditated narratives but the ability to construct hyper-effective real-life, real-time relationships that are then used to get the best from pupils. The techno-fix approach is also given away by the amount of time being spent on what teachers do; very little seems to be said about why the pupils act as they do. Just because that may be beyond our control does not diminish its importance. I think the profession risks delusion if we really think we can (and should) have that degree of control over other people’s behaviour. In some ways  it would indeed be very useful to know in advance specifically what would work with the less enthusiastic members  of Year 9 on a Friday afternoon, but I fear that the answer is nothing more certain than patience, firmness, good resources, knowledge  and a degree of humour. And in fact were it not thus, we would risk dehumanising ourselves.

I suspect David has a more focused interpretation of what he considers to be learning outcomes than this, but I refer to my previous point: the actual outcomes of education (as opposed to individual lessons) are so disparate and amorphous that they simply are not measurable; this may be inconvenient but that does not stop it being so. Are we interested in genuine education – or just supposedly successful lessons? Getting kids to learn on a Friday afternoon does indeed depend more on empathy than anything else. The skill is reading the situation and ‘surfing the present’. Just as with surfing waves, the theory can only take you so far because each wave, each class and each Friday is different.

I think this (wider) discussion risks splitting hairs. My reservations about the value of research are not ideological, but simply based on the reality of the situation – we deal with autonomous (if immature) human beings, not programmable machines. I think that the suggestion that ‘mere’ experience isn’t enough is not correct – what we are disputing is actually the definition of that word. To me, ‘experience’ includes everything that David advocates – with the exception of the belief it can all be identified and acquired in an abstract, technical sense rather than over time, on the job.

The other thing that concerns me is that like many previous ‘great ideas’, there is a lot of theoretical discussion going on – but precious little yet to show how it actually works week in week out with Year 9’s on a Friday afternoon. We need the evidence that evidence works! So please excuse my reservations  – I’ve been here many times before!

There is indeed a problem with not knowing what we don’t know – but that is inherent in any activity that effectively tries to second-guess people’s futures – there is simply no way of knowing whether what we are doing is for the best at the time when it is done. It is one thing trying to ensure we don’t make unnecessary errors of judgment – and quite another claiming we can or should predict the future!

I’m afraid we can only rely on our (well-informed) ‘hunches’ not because there is anything wrong with the idea of research – but simply because reality doesn’t allow it to be otherwise.

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