The boy was confident; despite his mere twelve years, he betrayed no sense that he might need to moderate what he said to an adult more than four times his age, and one of his teachers at that.
“I don’t concentrate because Geography’s hard. It’s not fun and I don’t like it”.
My heart sank a little; whatever our views on teaching, this is not really what we want to hear. But the reasoning is worth exploring further:
- I expect lessons above all to be fun;
- This subject is difficult;
- Therefore it is not fun;
- Therefore I don’t like it;
- Therefore I am justified in not engaging with it.
I had held him back after a lesson because he has been presenting low-level issues with poor attention and work-rate. He is something of an attention-seeker and one of the many children I encounter who, I would consider, have a self-confidence vastly inflated beyond the normal egocentrism of childhood.
But my teaching has clearly not engaged this pupil, and that gives cause for reflection. Needless to say, my reading of the situation was different. Consistent with the views of colleagues who also teach him, the lad’s reasoning needs to be reversed: being an attention-seeker, he tends to ignore the rules of the classroom, and he needs regular steering in order to keep him on task. He tends to shrug off gentle reprimand and needs firm treatment before he begins to take notice. He is of moderate ability and has struggled to understand the work as a result of his inattention. His need for instant gratification means he lacks the tenacity when the going gets difficult. In short, he is not equipped for the secondary-school classroom.
There is a clash of expectations here that says much about the central conflict within education.
Given that the pupil concerned has been in this school for less than a year, much of his outlook has probably carried over from his earlier experiences. Whether the attention-seeking is simply temperament, the effects of over-indulgent parenting or a sign of something more complex is not yet clear. Whatever, this boy clearly perceives his schooling as something where his response and effort are conditional, rather than – as I would prefer – an opportunity at which he has a duty to try his hardest. How to turn this round?
He appears not to distinguish between himself and adults in terms of knowledge or authority; while not disrespectful, he shows no embarrassment when reprimanded, and considers it acceptable to respond with his own view. This may be part of regular childish immaturity, but the over-assurance of the response perhaps is not. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of his home.
No matter how unacceptable I find this boy’s attitude, I am nonetheless required to address it. Indeed, it is going to be necessary to break through it before it is possible to educate him effectively. By the age of twelve, it may already be too late, and the degree of progress possible is unclear, for all that I will continue to correct his behaviour. Maybe the lad will find the teacher who ignites him, but I’m not holding my breath. Any change is more likely to be gradual and partly a matter of how he matures. We cannot claim sole credit for that…
The progressive movement correctly identified this problem: we cannot, ultimately, control the autonomous actions of our pupils – only influence them (however strongly). But it arrived at precisely the worst conclusion – that therefore we need to curry our pupils’ favour by making school ‘fun’. The problem with this is its denial of the conditions necessary for learning. Most subjects vary internally in their appeal, but learning is also matter of hard work. Then there is the historic fact that children have disliked school throughout the ages – probably because of the loss of freedom that it represents as much as anything more specific. Believing that one can address this by changing the nature of lessons is a step too far.
Failure to face the difficulty of learning causes avoidance of precisely those elements essential to advance it. This is not the approach advocated in other fields – for example it is accepted that prowess at sport requires graft, and musicianship likewise. So why does collective wisdom insist that academic learning must primarily be ‘fun’? We should be showing children that it’s more important than that.
I’m not sure that Geography is inherently ‘fun’ anyway. It has its appealing topics – but in the final reckoning, it is what it is – the rational study of the complex world around us. Developing an awareness and understanding of that is a profoundly important activity – but in my experience, the only way to make it self-consciously ‘fun’ is by using activities that distract from the content by masking it with trivia. Real interest requires a mindset that is prepared to find the world interesting, and which enjoys challenge. It is not something that can be generated by jelly-carving or puppet shows, and I suspect that the same is actually true of most subjects. By the time children arrive at my door, they need at least an implicit acceptance of that.
Interest (rather than ‘fun’) comes from the role- and knowledge-model that I present to my pupils. One can sometimes ‘hook’ children by reference to prior experiences – but this is restricted to things they already know about. Formalising our ‘study’ is just as good – and there are other ways: my classroom persona and wit are helpful tools for engagement, as is narrative, as is my ‘desk-side manner’ – all parts of the teacher-craft that conventional performance measures tend to diminish. Communicating the importance and ‘bigger picture’ of education plays a part too.
But what are we to do about pupils who are already lost to this? While much of the problem may come from beyond school, we do need to examine the expectations that the school system itself is creating. Children’s expectations of school inevitably come principally from what they encounter there, both formally and through peer contact. I suspect that the call for ‘fun’ comes largely from unstructured primary school experiences, which may explain the difficulty some children find in coping with more formal situations.
In secondary schools, we should be careful with the messages we send: if we create specific expectations regarding teachers’ methods, it is hardly surprising if pupils respond accordingly. Almost as bad is the emphasis on engagement over all else; by highlighting this, we are all but legitimising disengagement. This also affects how teachers decide to teach. If enough opt for the high fun/low learning approach because that is what has been stipulated, then it is hardly surprising if pupils struggle when they encounter a teacher who makes more formal demands. It is hardly fair to judge the teacher alone on the consequences.
I am not suggesting that teachers should give no consideration to how they present their subject – but we need greater realism about the purpose of secondary education, and it is essential that pupils are equipped to cope with it. It is of course incumbent on teachers to teach as well as they can – though what that means and how it is defined is much wider than the mechanics of what happens in a specific lesson. But how, and to what extent they can be deemed responsible for the learning that results is another matter, especially when they are facing ill-prepared pupils. Neither am I convinced that less able pupils need ‘more fun’ in the name of differentiation – I have seen plenty of children of modest ability who coped perfectly well with formal learning; what makes all the difference is the expectation.
I was satisfied with one comment from my pupil: he is finding the subject difficult. Were that not the case, then I could stand guilty of pitching my lessons too low. But how we change the highly limiting perceptions he expressed is much less obvious. He needs to work harder and concentrate more – but how to ‘persuade’ him when that is not already engrained belief is much harder. It is not, I think, a bone of contention between traditionalists and progressives that the most effective learning requires intrinsic motivation; the problem is what to do where that does not already exist.
I may be required to address the situation as I find it – but what success might reasonably be expected for issues that range wider than – and possibly predate – my intervention is far from clear.