What’s a Tiger For?


“Tigers are the creature you would design if you were more skilful and more knowledgeable than you could ever be, to do the sorts of things tigers do. But that is not how tigers came into existence. Tigers are good at being tigers because adaptation has honed them to be well-adapted to the daily life of tigerdom. There is neither more nor less to it than that.”¹

I suppose I’m on a bit of a minor roll at present, at least in one respect. I have taught a particularly demanding module of our ‘A’ Level course single-handed to some classes for a number of years now, and the results for the last three have been very good. The upshot of this is that one of my professional development targets for the new academic year is now to write a new scheme of work for it. This is welcome recognition, in a school where my methods tend not to gain much favour or acknowledgement.

The clear expectation is that I am going to set on paper, and thereby share, my trade secrets. But there’s a problem: I don’t know what they are. At no point have I sat down and devised a revolutionary new teaching programme for the module; I have no world-beating new resources, no new techniques, and I am as surprised by the favourable results as anyone else. In fact, somewhat worried as well because each passing year is going to make it harder to maintain the unasked-for reputation I seem to have gained for this.

I have recently been re-reading Obliquity by John Kay, a book that will stand multiple readings if only for its deeply therapeutic value as an escape from the pressure caused by such excessive accountability and micro-management of my working life. The tiger discussion is his. Kay’s message is that human beings know little about the real workings of the world – and can control even less – certainly much less than we like to think. Through a combination of case studies, philosophy and psychology, Kay mounts the argument that believing we can control ever more of the world around us is  fundamentally futile. We would be much better off accepting that the world is just too complex ever to know sufficiently well to produce reliable outcomes, and we would do even better to accept that many of the best outcomes come about, if not by chance, then by processes too complex to know. Then we could just celebrate them for what they are, fortunate products of Chance, as and when they happen. Our delusion tends to come from our conquest of mechanical processes – but achieving a degree of control over inert materials is a relatively simple thing compared with the world of behavioural phenomena. In fact, we can even only control relatively simple, isolated aspects of the physical world too, as any environmental scientist will tell you.

Kay develops many threads, all of which lead to the conclusion that we would should accept that we don’t and can’t understand much of what we do, and that attempts to the contrary are most often delusions. He makes much use of Franklin’s Gambit, which states that rationales for decisions are very often created retrospectively using evidence selected (consciously or otherwise) simply to justify decisions that we have already made in our minds by altogether more oblique ways. Interestingly, he insists that obliquity is not the same as intuition, which can indeed lead in dangerous directions, as David Didau and others have been arguing. Obliquity is the acceptance that experience and expertise often work in indirect, invisible and sometimes inexplicable ways, that we are unlikely ever to fathom, let alone bottle and sell to new teachers. It also accepts that the inability to provide reasoned explanation is not a sign that things do not work.

In how many ways does this apply to education! One might argue that it was the basis of all the now-discredited educational policy of the past few decades – people being directed to follow certain procedures and disregard others simply on the whim of those with other agendas, who quite possibly had retrospectively selected the evidence that supported their pre-existing agendas.

Unfortunately, the pendulum-swing against such ideologies seems to be relying on the same assumption – that if only we can find sufficient evidence, we will be able to prove our case. Well, the news is, that just isn’t going to happen, as a few workers seem to be starting to realise.

When I write up my scheme of work, I expect it to be a triumph of predictability and tedium, for I have nothing new to say in it. The only way in which I appear to have succeeded with those students has been by transmitting my genuine fascination with the topic, spending some time looking at its philosophical underpinnings as opposed to cramming them full of exam-ready facts – and emphasising the fact that with much of the preparation they are pretty much on their own. Well, they have to be, given that the exam consists of a single ninety-minute thesis-style report, for which their own individual research is mandatory.

Oh, and I think that by the time the students reach the later stages of year 13 I have generally established very good working relationships with them, such that they take on trust my advice and do what I bid them do. Nothing that is going to give any succour or silver bullets to those who don’t value such matters.

In my view, one sign that modern teaching remains a much less mature profession that it would like to be is its apparent inability simply to accept that it is what it is. It is still trying to pretend that it can employ the methods of science or medicine or business to arrive at regular, predictable outcomes. Becoming educated (as opposed to merely qualified) simply isn’t like that. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to learn more about the mechanisms of learning, but expecting to find anything that will be of direct use in each and every one of the world’s classrooms is worse delusion than the quest for the Holy Grail. Whatever cognitive science and the rest may deliver us, it is still going to have to be delivered by fools like me, whose input alone is enough to torpedo any amount of rigorous control.

It would be more honest and more productive to accept that a teacher is simply the creature that you would design if you were more skilful and more knowledgeable than you could ever be, to do the sorts of things teachers do. But that is not how teachers came into existence. Teachers are good at being teachers because adaptation has honed them to be well-adapted to the daily life of teacherdom. There is neither more nor less to it than that.

That is where real educational and pedagogic success comes from, and writing a new scheme of work is not about to change that.


¹ Obliquity by John Kay, Profile Books 2012, page 134.


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