Bread and butter

“….and what do you write about?” asked the pleasant lady from Ofqual. “Erm…erm…well, educational matters actually”, I mumbled. She seemed to lose interest.

For the second time in one evening, I had struggled to explain what my blog is about. And with it, my approach to teaching. I wasn’t able to mention discussions of classroom technique, specific educational research, the latest initiatives or the benefits of hard data. (“If you can handle data, then you can sock it to Ofsted by playing them at their own game”, I was told).

All evening long, the education conversation flowed; this is what Andrew Old’s blog-meets thrive upon. While there seems to be a general presumption in favour of more traditional teaching, the spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps once again giving the lie to the them-and-us view of the divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The age-profile of the attendees is predominantly young, though there were a few greying heads in the crowd. I don’t for one moment blame ambitious young teachers for being excitable about what they do, and for being highly engaged with the policy and technical debate; I was once, too…

But time has, I must admit, wearied me of such matters. I’ve come to see it as marginal to the real, everyday business of dispelling young people’s ignorance. That’s not a criticism of those who enjoy it, but it does seem to me that the bread-and-butter of teaching is so easily marginalised these days in the wider politicised, technical-ised discussion within the profession.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I’m of an age with even older pupils’ parents these days, rather than their older siblings, but the personal impacts of education seem to matter more and more, and the policy less and less. I know some would argue that the two are inseparable, but I’m not so sure.

I very much doubt (in hope) that John Hattie goes home each evening and runs his family the same way he would have us running education. “Hmm, must buy the wife some flowers; perhaps she’ll cook dinner then. (Effect size 0.7). Won’t bother talking to the kids – they only ignore me anyway. (Effect size 0.2)…” I don’t operate like, that, and I sincerely hope that others don’t either.

For my money, teaching remains a simple human interaction, not so different from any other. Granted, the classroom demands a certain protocol – but then so do many other social situations. But while we all have a broad understanding of the dynamics of social psychology, across wider society, I genuinely hope that effect sizes are not overtly the reasons for people’s actions. We would all be the poorer for living in societies that operated on such mercenary lines.

People’s needs are just as holistic, irrational, conflicting – and ultimately humane – as they have ever been. It is not our ability to be rational that defines our humanity, but our ability to go beyond that into the fields of empathy and originality. Our growing understanding of the workings of the human brain may be showing us how it works – but not why. It would be a tragedy if this insight were to reduce the human experience to that of biological-economic machinery. Neither will it explain the subjective experience of being human, any more than Hattie’s effect sizes explain the subjective experience of learning.

So for all the techno-talk, my blog remains resolutely low-tech. I am really not especially interested in the machinations of the professional educational world. I am, however, greatly interested in how people’s minds and personalities develop, of how they know what they know and do what they do, and how they come to form part of the wider groupings we call society.

I’m not sure how that can be adequately expressed in technical terms. Authentic human lives and societies are a matter of narratives, and wide-ranging ones at that. For this reason, I believe that education is best discussed in such terms. Despite the data we deal with, much of teaching and education is still experienced as a narrative (just listen to the dominant conversation in any staffroom), and I don’t think this is a weakness. For all its lack of technicality, there is much the teacher can learn from the insights obtained in this way.

That (I hope) is where my distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined blog comes in.

With thanks to Andrew Old for organising another stimulating evening.


3 thoughts on “Bread and butter

  1. I’m tending to see your ‘distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined’ blog a bit of a role model for my own at the moment. Certainly in the sense that it’s grasping for the essence behind the shenanigans, and I too tend to favour writing without pictures! (No time for that, but I might polish my presentation). I’d value your thoughts on my most recent posts (I’ve had a productive week) if you find a minute at some point. Only the first one has popped-up onto the Echo Chamber so far.

    Thanks as ever.

    • I’m flattered – thank you very much. I think grasping is probably all we can do with the wordy and ill-defined thing that is teaching. Maybe that’s why people struggle so much to define it any more clearly?

      I’ll gladly give your posts a look – may not be today though as time is rather lacking….

      best wishes,

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