F is for Fun – but also False and Farce

I spent two hours earlier this evening in a web seminar delivered by one of the major exam boards, whose specification my department is thinking of adopting. The session was ostensibly about teaching outstanding lessons; it served to remind me just how polarised the profession still is. The session began with a reference to Ofsted’s guidance that there is no preferred teaching style, though this was not drawn from the latest statements regarding the acceptability of formal teaching, teacher exposition and ‘passive’ learning.

There followed an undiluted diet of progressive methodology, including the view that 14-16 geography can be taught through baking cakes, carving jelly and playing in sand trays. The emphasis at all times was on Fun, learning through play, and ‘learning without even realising it’. There was quite a lot about moving bits of card around and making models. Peer assessment featured quite strongly as it is important to give learners ownership of the process – even if it is the teachers who are the subject experts. There was nothing about promoting inherent subject interest, but a lot about how to ‘snag’ pupils via lesson starter gimmicks such as using pop songs to define a topic. (Hint: not all teachers – or pupils – should be assumed to value or know about pop music, let alone whether it needs further endorsement in the classroom).

Assessment for Learning also featured strongly, with no apparent awareness that this too has come under sharp criticism from some quarters. The overall message was explicit: “This is what Ofsted wants to see in outstanding lessons” – even though this is patently no longer true.

I’m not going to criticise the teacher who delivered the session: in a free world we would all be at liberty to choose the methods that worked best for us. His own school would appear to be very successful, and its take-up rates for his subject higher than ours. Quite what to make of this last point, I don’t know – unless it is that a lot of pupils like playing with Play-Dough, or they actually do a lot of more formal teaching alongside. (They did mention doing past-question practice, though whether this constitutes learning as opposed to exam drilling is a moot point in my mind). What we were presented with did not, in my own mind, amount to a rigorous approach to developing older pupils’ intellects and preparedness for higher study.

However, one teacher’s personal preferences are one thing, and wheeling them out under the official auspices of an exam board is another. The message that came across was clearly that this exam board considers its course should be taught by progressive methods – and by extension was perhaps prepared with them in mind. There was not even passing recognition that there clearly exists (at least) a large minority of teachers that still prefers more traditional methods, and that there is a strong intellectual case being made for their validity. For example, there was no awareness shown that many progressive activities simply divert pupils’ attention away from the content towards the transient process of what they are doing.

I ended up feeling extremely disenfranchised by the experience, and left wondering whether we are doing the right thing to adopt a specification that takes such an unbalanced approach. It would seem that this Board has yet to incorporate the latest views from the inspectorate its training, and accommodate the rehabilitated traditional wing of the profession.

For all the high-profile blogs by various traditionalists, the progressive wing still commands the majority of our institutions and does not seem to think that it even needs to make passing acknowledgement that there are those who do not subscribe to this sort of orthodoxy.

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9 thoughts on “F is for Fun – but also False and Farce

  1. It’s funny (no pun intended) just how much this kind of thing starts to appear as anathema once you’ve seen through the implications of progressive ideologies such as these. This post cuts through to the very heart of what I dislike in the dominant teaching methods of our time, and you know I’ve written about them elsewhere. “Learning without even realising it” – just what insights can we gain if we stop to analyse for a moment what we’re saying with such a statement? Implicitly we are stating our belief that learning itself isn’t naturally something that people should want to do. This just shows a hugely impoverished, mutated vision of what learning is, and the place it does actually hold in our experience of what it is to be human.

    Similarly, gimmicks to make learning ‘fun’ – ‘spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down’ – which actually mask the rich taste of worthwhile endeavour… What deep, habitual, unsustainable behavioural patterns are we engraining in the minds of our pupils with this? What world of human existence do we think this represents? Do we not sense the lasting effect on expectations that we create by such conditioning?

    And what the heck do we actually mean by ‘fun’ anyway? Something that makes us smile? Something that sets off the dopamine sensors in the brain? Something we were glad we did and would do again…? People do desert marathons and want to do them again. Is this because they were ‘fun’? Or is it something slightly richer – something where they do indeed gain pleasure from the event when looked at in perspective? (Yes, ok, some people actually love the pain and thrive on the endorphins etc).

    Most kids would say that they find digital gaming ‘fun’. But watch them – they get perplexed and frustrated as part of the process of playing these things, and they have to concentrate. Why should this be ‘fun’ if learning isn’t? (and it isn’t simply that they have chosen to do it – order your class to play computer games for an hour, and they will lap it up – it’s challenge and achievement – or ‘flow’ if you like)

    Humans thrive on the rush of challenge and the buzz of achievement – teachers should be flooding their pupils with the awareness and experience of how they can get these things from any kind of endeavour – yes, both learning and work – if only they can realise it.

    • Chrisw, I think this is driven by very long-standing cultural and societal issues. In particular, the desire of some on the old left, who dominated teaching for years, to see it as a form of soft social revolution. The aim may(?) be worthy, but it also embodied a condescending view that ‘people like them’ can’t be expected to cope with high standards – and not only in educational terms. This, in my view, is the source of the view that everything has to be ‘accessible’ – in other words dumbed down. And as others have since said, that is in fact a form of discrimination by closing doors for those supposedly not suited to higher things.

      Unfortunately, that has since been magnified by the marketisation of education that sees it as a service-provider, where the customer is always right and we have to offer whatever they think they want. So we have ended up with a patronising, watered-down version of education on the grounds that that is supposedly what people want/need/can cope with.

      I am also going to make myself *really* unpopular and suggest that another part of the problem is that for far too long teaching was not a career of choice for the most educated people in this country, so there may be an issue within the profession itself…

      All of the above, I conclude with reference to my extended experiences of Swiss schools and teachers (and also the French and German systems) which seem to have few of the social-educational hang-ups that we do – and generally a lot better-educated people in teaching. Maybe that’s because they are still allowed to be academic and relatively autonomous? And because education is still widely seen as a socio-cultural process rather than merely an economic tool. If you missed it, I wrote about this at length some time ago.

      I was trying to avoid discussing what ‘fun’ means (or at least saving it for another post 😉 ). I don’t have an issue with learning being enjoyable – but that is different from something so trite. I would rather promote longer-term enjoyment for which the words ‘interesting’, ‘rewarding’ or ‘satisfying’ might be better. Do read what I have scrawled about Czikszentmihalyi’ s work on Flow. It chimes completely with your final point.

  2. Chrisw, I think it all goes back to the fundamental misconception that all learning can/should be “natural” in the way that preschooler’s learning is natural and largely effortless. So, for example, because children can effortlessly learn to talk, they should be able to effortlessly learn to read. But that ignores the fact that reading isn’t actually natural: if it was, all cultures would do it. The same applies in spades to maths and science. Like so much in the eduworld, this is based on ignorance – often determined ignorance – of basic knowledge about the human mind that even psychology undergraduates learn.

    An example of this can be found in the transcript of the investigative sessions that produced the Rose Report: a lecturer specialising in the psychology of reading, hugely knowledgeable about the 30 years of research that had led her profession to a concensus about the importance of phonics, was asked why her colleagues in her university’s Education department had never consulted her about how reading should be taught. The frustration in her reply was palpable.

    I believe that if trainee teachers were taught the psychology of learning, and developmental psychology, by actual psychology lecturers, it would go a long way toward insulating the profession from this kind of nonsense.

    • Chrisn, I too am astounded as to why psychology has disappeared from teacher training. I caught the tail end of it myself and it was both interesting and useful. However, some of it was dilute and docrinaire, so your idea of making it a full-blown psychology course is, in my opinion a good one.

      In the time since I started reading psychology books, my understanding of and approach to classroom practice has developed significantly. Much more useful than all the books of classroom tricks and gimmicks, most of which are, in my view driven by the target culture.

  3. Thanks very much indeed ij and Chrisn for your insightful extensions to this area. As someone who formally studied psychology before coming into teaching, I think you’re spot-on that it’s time for it to make a forthright return to teacher training – particularly the findings of cognitive neuropsychology as opposed to the more speculative and less rigorous developmental forms which have left their after-images in progressive schooling.

    Ij – I’m going to have a good dig through your back-catalogue next week!

    Thanks again – Chris P

    • Chris, perhaps you might have a view on one thing that troubles me about cog. neuropsychology? That is that it can show us *what* is happening but not *why* – and it is the latter that would be of most use to teachers… Also, even if we did know why, there would still remain a gap between the physical process and the affective way it is experienced – and again it is surely the latter that is important in respect to what happens in classrooms?

      Thanks, TP

  4. Hi again ij – or TP (as it seems easier to call you!) – sorry for the delay in getting back to you – I’ve had a ‘dramatic’ end to the term (directing our school musical) and it’s waylaid me a bit!

    I’ve been pondering how best to answer your query and will go for a short answer here, as my ‘blog post-after-next’ is pretty much lined-up to give the long answer. I would also – if you don’t mind – like to email you directly at some point over the next couple of days to give a bit more background to myself, as I feel we have a fertile mixing of perspectives, although it seems a bit inappropriate for me to go into too much detail here 🙂

    My short answer is that I’m referring to what is maybe a personally defined area with regard to cognitive neuropsychology. Essentially, I’m talking about the areas of cognitive psychology which are becoming definitively grounded enough to have correlates in neurology, and the areas of neuropsychology which are becoming ‘linked enough to real world experience’ through mapping onto cognitive psychology findings.

    Now (as will be expanded upon in my email to you) – like yourself I have a keen awareness of the limits of where these areas can lead in practice, and I think we both have recently shared a belief that there are fundamental intangibles in education which are, at the very least, hard to root in scientifically observable truths, and are possibly beyond the reach of any objective measurement – full stop.

    Nevertheless, my desire expressed above that psychology is more formally taught in teacher training comes from two roots: One – there is plenty of pseudo-psychology out there which needs to be cleaned out. Secondly, I do believe that cog-neuropsychology has a key difference to the developmental psychology theories which have had the limelight in teacher training manuals, and which have gradually been watered down to pretty much useless levels: Essentially, the problem with the great developmental theories of say – Piaget and Kohlberg – is the same as those of Social Psychology. They seem to scientifically identify genuine global patterns in human functioning (much as stereotypes do at every level of human culture – they are there for a reason). However they can never be used to accurately predict the particular from the general – individual differences are always going to be outside our range of prediction and control (which was fundamentally at the heart of my problems with differentiation in my recent post).

    The difference then is that – although the scope of cognitive neuropsychology is limited – its findings nevertheless hold fast for all humans at all ages (in personalised degrees of course). Findings on the limits of how working memory and attentional focus work for example seem to be universal. As you say though – it only gives us a partial (if rock-solid) picture of the whole enterprise of human experience and functioning, and therefore also education.

    Like I say, I’ll try to really map my thoughts about this area out in my blog a couple of weeks down the line!

    Thanks again – and I’ll contact you directly (unless you tell me not to bother) over the next few days – just to fill-in a bit of background for you 🙂

    Chris

    • Thanks for that Chris – interesting reading. I’ll look forward to the longer version.

      By all means email me, though I’m away for the next few days.
      Regards
      TP

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