Car mechanics or driving instructors?

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We took fifty of our Year 8 pupils to Lille in France yesterday, as we have each year for the past six or seven. A four o’clock start from home was distinctly beyond the call of duty, and the fifteen hour working day was as much of a marathon as always, but most involved seemed to enjoy the experience, despite the rain that awaited us. Even the thirty-mile drive to work was actually quite pleasant at the break of a warm summer day, with little traffic on the road.

Many of the pupils had not been on Eurostar before, and fewer realised how short the journey is (one hour) from Ebbsfleet to Lille. Many, too, had not previously experienced a major continental-European city either, for all their holidays in exotic resorts. Their reactions were interesting to watch – from enthrallment with the superbly-creative window displays in Lille’s many chic boutiques to apprehension at some of the more ‘colourful’ street-characters. (Lille still has a serious unemployment problem). I should add that we do conduct a programme of proper geographical fieldwork while there as well.

Pleasingly, some did try to speak French when purchasing things – and quite a few were left silent by the unexpected interior drama of Lille’s outwardly-dour cathedral. For all that modern children seem self-obsessed and incurious, we proved that it is still possible to ‘cut through’ in a way that does make some kind of impression.

But had we needed to know precisely what Effect Size such a visit would have before we organised it, I suspect it would never have happened.  I expect the answer is very little in terms of the attainment that John Hattie measures in his widely-discussed research.  Were we to attempt to anticipate the impact the trip had on each student using the latest research, I’m not sure we would arrive at any kind of sense there either.

I have very little firm knowledge of how the trip affected the children who took part. In fact there were probably as many different effects as there were participants – each will have got their own unique experience from it. But their faces and voices showed that an impact it WAS having, even if we can’t pin it down. I know from past years that many pupils will remember the trip for some time, and the greater educational effects will continue to bed down in their knowledge and memories for quite a while, in ways that even the individuals concerned are not fully aware of. Somewhere in their awareness, a perception has been changed – we just can’t be sure how.

Next Sunday, I fly to Switzerland with our sixth form for a week at our partner school; even by the standards of yesterday’s trip, the impact is huge, and potentially life-changing. Several  participants from previous years are still exchanging with their opposite numbers.

For me, such experiences are the true expression of real learning, even more – perhaps I should say far more – than what happens in even the best-run classroom. There is simply no need to know precisely what effect the experience had – or how ‘successful’ it was. Such concepts are meaningless when it comes to things that really teach children valuable lessons.

As I drove the final thirty miles home yesterday evening (as I have been doing every day for twenty years), it  occurred to me  that in order to find driving both useful and enjoyable, it really isn’t necessary to understand how or why the engine works, simply that it does. In that respect, my driving instructor was more useful than my mechanic – it was he who showed me how to put the car to good use.

Learning is pretty similar – so why are we insisting on turning teachers into mind-mechanics, when as in Lille, most people experience the significant lessons at the affective level? Surely we would be better acting as driving instructors, for all that the skills are rather softer?

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