Are you sure? Are you really sure?

“Why do you stay in education when you seem so sceptical of it?” a well-meaning colleague asked the other day.

Well, I suppose the short answer (idealistic, but none the less sincere for that) is that I believe in the power of education to enhance people’s lives; it’s the system I doubt, not the education. I know about real education’s transformative power from the experience of my own family as it shifted from Midlands mining community to the ‘professional classes’. And a second answer (pragmatic, but nonetheless relevant for that) is that at the age of fifty, it’s where my experience lies – and to be blunt, the chances of finding equivalent work elsewhere are diminishing all the time…

But there’s another answer too: why wouldn’t you be sceptical of what you know or are told?

The point of being educated oneself is surely to be able use one’s critical faculties to scrutinise the world in such a way as hopefully to arrive at a more accurate, informed, or at least considered understanding of it. Why would one adopt a certain course of action without a reasonable degree of confidence in it? It is the ability at least to feel that one can do this – and thus influence the world around – that brings the confidence that education can confer, even if in reality our ability to anticipate our real effect is more limited. That said, the real voice of experience is, I think, not the one that speaks with the most certainty, but the one that recognises the limitations of its own knowledge.

As I wrote a short time ago, time delivers such perspectives that nothing else can. As I enter the final quarter of my career, I find myself in the bemusing situation of being confident that I know (as opposed to suspect) less and less. Things that seemed entirely obvious and beyond doubt twenty years ago seem to be increasingly matters for conjecture. John Tomsett, who is about my age, wrote something similar a few months ago when he commented that the more he teaches, the less he feels he knows about learning. I would imagine we’re not alone: this is simply the deep and subtle appreciation that comes with approaching mastery of anything.

I think this is a good thing: it is a sign of the continuing refinement of my understanding of my profession. While it may be entirely possible to go through one’s entire career without asking a single searching question about what one is doing, this has never been my way. The fact that things are becoming less substantial may actually be a mark of maturing of an understanding of the education process that has been gestating for the past quarter-century. I can pretty-much take the mechanics of the work as instinct; what become ever more fascinating are its philosophical and existential underpinnings – and I can increasingly easily dismiss the occasionally-sardonic comments of the less-travelled for whom everything is still solid.

As a consequence, I find myself questioning more and more of the established ways of doing things: undertaking such a journey does not guarantee that the destination will necessarily be the ‘approved’ one. Aided by my recent discussion with Ian Lynch, I have found myself this week wondering whether all the ‘normal assumptions’ about the way we organise and run schools and education actually have any substantial foundation at all. If you were starting from scratch, would you really design it to be the way it is?

For instance, is it really true that a few individuals can effectively co-ordinate the doings of a couple of thousand others – or is the order seen in most schools more insubstantial than it seems? Is the faith we are expected to place in management justified or not? We might want to believe that our world is totally under control, but is it really? As with all power, the ability to control people is more illusory than real – it relies a lot more on the complicity of the supposedly-controlled than it might seem. One might extract a single desired action from someone – but the unseen consequences may spread much further. Yet management persists with the myth that all bounty descends from on high. It’s not so much the people who are bad (although they can be), as the flawed system that they are trying to implement. There is, however, no virtue in defending the indefensible. And when one observes the way the education system in Britain is treating many of its practitioners, one really does wonder what the hell it thinks it is doing.

In his comments last week, I’m afraid that Ian Lynch betrayed some of the hubris that for my money is more indicative of the problem than the solution. It seems all too easy to assume airs and graces, the power of professional life and death over others, the illusion that one has the power to run the entire world just as one pleases, with no consequences.

But it doesn’t work: people ultimately work to their own agendas, outlooks and abilities, no matter that they may not be publicly seen. I am not, and will never be, a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Most teachers I know find all the motivation and energy they need internally; there really is no need for the stick. Even when things go wrong, the internal beating-up they give themselves is far greater than anything that can be imposed – or needs to be.

Much better to free those people to find their own solutions wherever possible, in my experience, than supposedly to manage them ‘better’ – whatever that means. A system that expends so much energy pursuing its own simply in the name of imposing some kind of questionable uniformity really has lost the plot. As the former D-G of MI5, Jonathan Evans writes in this month’s Prospect, better an untidy system that works than a tidy one that doesn’t.

Prompted further by ‘Icing on the Cake’ I have also wondered at the supposedly universal truth that there are good teachers and bad teachers, to which we might add good managers and bad managers. Why do we persist in applying such simplistic and meaningless labels to people – and then treating them accordingly? Given that there is so little consensus over what we are trying to achieve, the criteria used to judge such things are – and can never be  anything other than – utterly subjective. This need to assign to people their ‘due’ place is one thing that I have noticed by its absence in the continental systems; I have a nasty suspicion that the shadow of centuries of endemic deference within British society still stalks our professions.

Assumptions about the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, underpin our views on what our core activity, teaching and learning actually is too. But how can we be so arrogantly, unshakeably sure we are right? It certainly seems that the relationship between what someone ‘teaches’, by whatever means, and what someone else ‘learns’, is not the direct and controllable process that the education system wants to believe. Is this just another professional fiction?

The only way to understand learning is not by watching others, but by doing it oneself. The only thing that really matters in education is what happens inside the head of the pupil, and only by being inside the head concerned has one any chance at all of appreciating what is happening. We can only do that for ourselves, of course. From my own school days, I don’t think I remember ever being self-consciously aware that I was learning, in the way we expect current pupils to be; so far as we were concerned, I think we were just ‘doing stuff’ – some of which somehow, mysteriously went in, stuck and gradually accumulated into something called an ‘education’. I don’t even remember being consciously aware for the most part that the teachers were actually teaching, either, in the equally self-conscious way we mean today. Certainly, information was conveyed, skills learned, but it was all just what you did, what we all did… Are we really any better off for looking so hard, and fretting when we fail to find, something invisible?

That might be easily dismissed as the faulty memories of a (moderately) oldie, or perhaps the failings of a previous education system, were it not for the fact that I have had the same experience within the last couple of years. While I was taking violin lessons, at no point was I self-consciously aware of learning, or even becoming ‘better’, except in the most generalised of long-term senses. The Flow experience that I have discussed before was all. Again, techniques and approaches were discussed and rehearsed, and knowledge imparted – but I am still darned if I can capture the experience in anything that bears relation to how we currently talk about the matter. What’s more, I wonder whether the teacher was consciously aware of teaching; given that the lessons were recorded and delivered online, I think there is reasonable doubt that the teacher knew what – or even if – she was successfully teaching. Yet she was – as defined by me, the pupil. (The nice thing about traditional music is that it is all much less formal and self-conscious than that – which is fine, and it clearly worked. Learn I did – but quite how that process worked, I am still not fully sure).

I am much more certain that rendering the whole process utterly self-conscious as it is today, does little to help, but perhaps much to hinder. Not only is the process of learning removed from the control of the learner, and deposited firmly in the coercive control of the ‘learning provider’, but the attempt deliberately to manipulate that process may actually make it harder. I am sure that the many learning and teaching sessions that I have attended, the many hours of CPD, the endless meetings and more were all perfectly well-intentioned to ‘develop’ me as a teacher – but I regret to say that the vast majority of the process of professional development and the managerially-approved practices that it was designed to embed – to say nothing of being ‘managed’ on a day-to-day basis – have done little except make my job harder. One should of course resist the arrogance that says one can never learn from others, and yes, I now know about Hattie – but what if (as seems possible) he’s wrong? Many have wondered that – but the issue has never been addressed; we are just expected to ‘believe’. His base(!) assumptions certainly don’t square with my own reasons for being a teacher.

The vast majority of development I have done has been internal, as a result of the process of self-scrutiny, self-criticism and reflection that I would argue should be an automatic part of any professional’s practice. By doing this, I have gradually refined what I do, experimented, learned lessons and adapted. Except in the most general terms of wanting to be a successful teacher, I had no real idea of where that journey was leading me: it was a true voyage of discovery. The only outside influences of any impact were things begged, borrowed and stolen from colleagues whose ideas appealed to me, whose style I liked, and whose experience I valued  – and the books I have read: mostly not educational manuals, but books about psychology and human behaviour, the insights from which have been deeply thought-provoking. I am afraid to say, however, that in many cases, they only served to increase my scepticism about the whole edifice of the educational establishment and the claims it makes for itself, whether with respect to its clients or its practitioners.

I think the key element here is autonomy. All of the most valuable learning experiences I have had have been those which were undertaken voluntarily, as an expression of my own aspirations or curiosity. Advice that was willingly sought from sources of my own choosing was much more useful than all those who sought to impose ‘approved practice’ on me. The journey was essentially my own, and nothing else has come close in terms of effect.

(Part Two of two will follow tomorrow).

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4 thoughts on “Are you sure? Are you really sure?

  1. I could have written that myself – except my version might have been angrier. You may have a few years on me (not that many, though), but I couldn’t agree more. Ten years ago, I was so sure I knew how it all worked and what I should be doing. Now I accept I don’t really know, I just appreciate the magic of it. If a few more people stopped trying to theorize everything, record everything, conform to everything, dictate everything and pretend that everything is knowable, then I’d be amazed if the outcomes were any worse, and would expect them to be rather better.

    But then. as you say, coming to a genuine awareness of how little we can truly know about how this intensely human interaction works, takes experience and a questioning, sceptical mind; assets which are increasingly seen as negatives in the schools system.

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