Bucking bronco

I was alerted to a lengthy comment by ‘egg’ on the blog Filling the Pail. The gist of the message is that far too many teachers exhibit undue confidence in their classroom abilities, and too much resistance to reasoned analysis of their performance. The criticism was also made that such teachers are often uninterested in self-improvement. And another point was challenging: the writer claims that teachers undergo a shift of attitude after they qualify, with the ‘natural’ doubts and reservations replaced by unbreakable confidence and large egos, typified not by any particular approach to education but simply the attitude that they “think they are right all the time”.

Egg does, to be fair, offer more reasoned analysis of possible explanations for this experience, but while reading it I could not help but scrutinise my own approach. After all, the whole process of blog writing implies opinionated views, though whether blogging attracts certain types or vice versa is less clear.

It is tempting to dismiss such comments out of hand – but to do so would be to risk affirming them. And I am genuinely interested in the claims and their possible provenance, not least because they have so many implications for professional conduct within the teaching profession. I do wonder, however, how much of this perceived trait really is brazenness and how much simply a reaction to circumstances.

I started by examining my own experience. It is certainly true that I lacked confidence as a trainee, and it took a good number of years in the classroom before I had really resolved this. I remember a number of more senior colleagues reassuring me that I was better than I felt. I have written before about the time required for real mastery of this job, and I think it took a good ten years before I really felt I was getting on top of it. And even today, on a bad day it can still feel unnervingly easy to be thrown off the bucking bronco…

But as I hope regular readers of this blog would agree, I don’t think complacency comes into it – indeed one might equally see the blog-writer as someone who is more than typically willing to reflect and ponder the issues. More of a problem, I would say, are those teachers who brim with such self-confidence that they never go near anything that challenges their views.

But here is a contradiction: that is how modern schools have encouraged their teachers to be. In my experience, they have felt that high-energy, self-assured team-leaders are what young people need, rather than those who exhibit more hesitation and self-doubt. I’m not even going to say they were wrong, because while the passage of further time has convinced me that quieter individuals still have a valuable role to play, the over-exuberance of many modern young people does make it hard to get the quiet message across. But extrovert people are perhaps not themselves greatly disposed toward introspection.

As time has progressed, I have indeed developed a view of education that I am increasingly prepared to defend. However, I do not think that this is the result of complacency: the fact that I regularly worry about becoming complacent is probably the best proof that I am not!

My view of education has been formed by three decades of day-on-day experience of the classroom. It is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not had that what it does to one’s perspective. While my views have in some ways crystallised, I won’t even claim that it has made me more certain about what I am there for. The more I teach, the more imponderable the fundamental assumptions behind it seem to become. I take comfort from the fact that this may well be another sign of growing insight rather than the opposite…

But I am still faced by one towering problem: each day when I enter the classroom, I can have little certainty of how successful my endeavours are going to be. I long ago learned the perils of not having a clear goal in mind, but for all the drilling we have had in lesson preparation, there is still no guarantee that even the best-prepared lesson is going to be successful. I simply don’t have the required level of control over a bunch of adolescent brains.

Sometimes a technique that I have used many times before inexplicably fails; sometimes the most random of events is what makes a lesson succeed. And even then, I have no real recourse other than my own judgement as to whether I am right or not. As Didau, Bjork and others have argued, the real argument-sinker is the fact that learning is invisible. I simply can’t see it happening – or failing to. Because it is invisible, frankly I can do little more in the classroom than have a stab at some things that thought and experience show might have the desired effect.

And even if they do, I still cannot be sure that real, genuine learning has taken place. Again, Bjork argues that being able to ‘perform’ something that happened in a lesson under controlled conditions is no guarantee whatsoever that real long-term retention has occurred. I have witnessed far too many times when short-term ‘progress’ has failed to translate to long-term retention for me ever to have any faith in a direct relationship there – and indeed too many times where learning did, to my surprise apparently occur from something I had deemed a failure. So I have developed a healthy scepticism for all those who claim to be able to measure ‘progress’ and identify clear methods for guaranteeing it lesson after lesson. And yes, this is a position I am prepared to defend in the light of my experience, for the simple reason that I have never come across anything (not for the want of searching) that gives me reason to think otherwise.

But as ‘egg’ suggests, somewhere down this path, it is necessary for teachers to develop some kind of belief in the fruitfulness of their daily labours: without that, I think we would all give up hope. How many people can work with such intensity for so long without any sensation of purpose or success? In the absence of any more reliable measures, I suggest that teachers simply come up with their own.

As for the degree to which teachers will defend their positions, I suggest this is not so much a product of intransigence, so much as working in an environment that steadfastly denies all of the above because it needs to deal in Certainty. And in the absence of such, it too has created its own – the whole edifice of the educational establishment that now believes that educational processes and outcomes are no different from churning out oven-ready meals on a production line.

Teachers meanwhile are caught in the middle – between a machine that demands they operate with certainty, confidence and extroversion – and the inward knowledge that much of what goes on in the classroom is still basically guesswork, for the simple reason it can never be otherwise.

I don’t even think this matters: the longer one does this job the more one realises that it is the long-game that is important. Indeed, I am not even unduly concerned any more if children don’t learn in my lessons every specific thing which I wanted them to learn. What is more important is that they learn something – and that those somethings add up to a greater whole that will serve them well in all aspects of their later lives.  Some of that will indeed be what I wanted them to learn – but the only people who really need to worry about whether specific facts have ‘gone in’ and stayed are the bean-counters whose reputation rests on such things.

Most of the teachers I know are in fact not very confident at all; indeed many remain eternally insecure about the effect that they have. Those who claim to have cast-iron routes to effective learning are either incredibly talented – or incredibly deluded. Again, time teaches you that this is the only way a teacher can be, given the uncertainties of what they do.

But to the outsider, this need to find some certainly amongst so many imponderables could, I suppose come across as arrogance.

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3 thoughts on “Bucking bronco

  1. As ever there are multiple layers of wisdom within here.

    What I particularly like is that you disprove the contention of ‘egg’ – not by crudely showing that you have an endlessly open mind – yours of course is always tempered by a strong sense into which direction the truth lies, but through both the subtle nature of the ideas you propagate, and through the equally subtle and gentle ways in which you propogate them.

    I hope that this makes sense!

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