What did you expect?

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:

  1. I expect lessons above all to be fun;
  2. This subject is difficult;
  3. Therefore it is not fun;
  4. Therefore I don’t like it;
  5. 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.

Putting the shine on it Part Two: the God of Small Things.

I’ve always viewed my own professional practice as discrete from the work I do for my school. This is, of course, to some extent a conceit but it serves to remind me about the locus of responsibility for my teaching – and also my reasonable right to develop that practice as I choose, independent of the ideological impositions from outside.

Nearing the end of year 28, I am in the generally pleasant (when unwelcome reality doesn’t intrude) position of having the basics under my belt, of being able to concentrate on and enjoy refining the niceties of my technique. Having said that, something big and totally unexpected will probably creep up and mug me next week…

My card-writing student had just completed a module of A2 work that I consider to be the pinnacle of both my students’ school geography careers, and also of my teaching. It means preparing them for a ninety-minute paper that effectively involves writing a mini-thesis in response to a previously unseen question; there is of course a steering brief from which we work. This brings the students close to undergraduate level, and involves them in individual research, with my role restricted to an amount of factual information-giving and then a great deal of chewing the philosophical cud with them. It is the nearest I get to seeing the ‘finished product’ of my efforts with them, and mighty satisfying it is too, with those who take the bait, when the thinking genuinely does start flowing in both directions. I reckon if they can do this, they have become pretty good thinkers for their age. And if I can do this, I must know my subject pretty well.

I’m certainly not complacent enough to claim I have nothing more to learn – even a time-served teacher can still have an off day, and that’s without the vagaries of the kids. This is why ‘outstanding’ is such nonsense – most of us probably are some of the time – and all of us probably aren’t some of it too. But nonetheless, I am generally enjoying my time controlling the job (relatively speaking), after the many years when to a greater or lesser extent, it controlled me – and before what I suppose will be the likely decline in energy as I approach my sixties and retirement.

I’m not sure my employers, with their different concerns, would agree, but I feel secure in my own mind that I now have a significant understanding of the complex phenomenon that is education, and that I can apply it in practice. The more things progress, the more convinced I am that the arguments presently being advanced for traditional teaching are broadly correct, and that the assumptions underpinning the progressive movement have been one huge intellectual and behavioural wrong turning.

I am equally certain that the present climate of narrow and unrealistic accountability, the targets culture and the general view of teaching as a merely technical procedure is equally misguided – which may well continue to do more to impair the quality of real teaching in this country than its proponents ever even realise.

The best analogy I can find for what I have found is with my other learning experiences in practical and creative fields, the end result of which is closer to that of a skilled artisan than a technician. The learning process has been one of honing skills, of learning from my mistakes and the inspiration of others, of giving meaning to day-to-day experiences by investigating the theoretical underpinnings. It is all far more human – and humane – than the present system seems to realise or want. And the key elements, dare I suggest, are well-judged wisdom and an ongoing conscience, not the ticking of boxes in a technical manual.

Again, my findings are far closer to the traditional interpretation of education than anything else, and I am also increasingly convinced that the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and philosophy can inform our practice as much as any more specifically pedagogic manuals – provided that they are not overdrawn in the way so many ‘new’ silver bullets are.

The key experiences of being at this stage are being able to  teach without even having to think about it. I’m sure that is not what Oftsed or my employers would want to hear, and I don’t mean that I never plan – far from it – but being in front of a class or dealing with individual students is now so instinctive that it is like breathing. I think you need to get to this stage before children take you fully seriously; inexperience always shows, no matter how promising the practitioner, whereas the quiet confidence of experience is such that there is no question in pupils’ minds as to who you are or what you do – even if they still don’t always play ball. This is far more effective than any gimmick.

There is almost no situation that arises of which I have not seen at least a variant before; the response is just there waiting, almost without thought: it’s just the stuff I do. Likewise the ‘pat’ comments just trip off the tongue, and the lesson character that is uniquely, quirkily mine is established enough that most pupils accept it without a second thought.

At least as important is knowing what not to do – and having the self-restraint not to do it anyway. There is, for example, a subtle art in judging precisely at what point a particular verbal intervention is needed: when to say something – and when to stay quiet and let matters roll. There is a subtle art in knowing what will energise – no, wind up – pupils: choosing when to let something lie, or when, deliberately, to say something that gets them going. There is a subtle art in sensing when a miscreant requires serious admonition and when a quiet word will do, when a detention needs to be set, when to let the matter lie with less. There is a quiet art in hitting just the right degree of long-suffering humour that can defuse a situation, or address a problem without escalating it. All of these things are the nuances of teaching that only come, I have found, after many years of effort; many of them, though, just seem to develop of their own accord. It’s akin to a sense of the theatrical

Finally I can do the job like those of my own teachers whom I most admired. I can choose exactly when and where to bring things to a high shine. I can savour the hidden nuances of a good wine.

I cannot finish this post, though, without expressing regret that little of this is what those who judge teachers seem to think is important. Maybe it is just taken for granted – but I think it should not be.  Little of what I have talked about here is visible in a formal lesson observation; indeed the circumstances are more likely to make it all evaporate. It is quite possible that no one ever notices the subtleties other than the individual themself. That shouldn’t matter – they are still highly valuable elements of how teachers teach.

That is why I consider my own practice as separate from my institutional role: at least I know that this is happening, even if no one else does. I know, and am finally reasonably happy with my own brand of teaching. But the fact that such experiences seem ignored, whereas those who are best at jumping through the hoops and then shouting about it are hailed as the best teachers – may partly account for the continuing turbulence within this profession. We need to let all teachers work towards finding their own high shine.

Eyeore 0 – Tigger 1

I think one mark of truly reflective practice is a preparedness to seek and find solutions wherever they may lie. This is not always easy, as it can involve going well beyond one’s comfort zone and maintaining an open mind with regard to whatever one finds.

Last winter, I was caught by a particularly nasty infection that not only laid me very low for the entire Christmas holiday, but also lingered several months into the New Year. Indeed, I am not fully free of the after-effects even now. While I was able to stagger into school for the new January term, there is no doubt that my teaching was affected over a period of months, and this naturally led to anxiety. To compound the matter,  I have a tendency to be one of life’s Eyeores, my sometimes over-analytical mind all-too-easily seeing the problems before the benefits. As the months wore on, I also began to wonder whether there was something more profoundly wrong, health-wise.

During my searches for antidotes, I came across several websites that recommended meditation for such situations. Visions of incense and yellow robes spun before my eyes – and that is not an identity that sits easily with my self-perception, to say the least. But in said spirit of open-mindedness, I looked further, until I came across a website recommended by a number of august institutions including the BBC, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times: www.getsomeheadspace.com/

This claims to offer a modern, secular approach to meditation based around the benefits of mindfulness to modern life. The co-founder, Andy Puddicombe has since given a TED talk, which can be seen here. Sceptical to say the least, I decided to give the free trial a go, and was highly surprised to find that the basic relaxation exercises therein brought an immediate and noticeable sense of stress-relief. Consequently, I decided to explore further, and after eight months of rather up-and-down progress, I have begun to suspect there really is something in it – and not only for moments of extremis.

My wife says she has noticed a shift towards a more positive ‘centre of gravity’ – more Tigger and less Eyeore. I would add to that a noticeable change in my professional disposition: I feel less stressed in the classroom, more patient with my pupils, and more resilient when dealing with the trying ones. I think it has also improved my relationships with those around me – a major emphasis of the programme. What’s more, my current programme focuses on creativity, and I am left wondering whether this is partly responsible for the burst of creative thinking that has resulted in this blog.

Ever the sceptic, and aware of the perils of auto-suggestion, I am reluctant to say the word ‘definitely’; I certainly didn’t have any kind of transformative experience, more a gradual shift in my mental centre of gravity. That said, the effects feel quite tangible. Some months ago, BBC Horizon’s Michael Mosely explored the issue in the programme The Truth About Personality that included Puddicombe. Analysis of his brain activity appeared to suggest that practising mindfulness, amongst other things, could have an effect.

As Kate Mather wrote recently in The Guardian, sometimes extreme events make you re-examine the balance of life. In the case of teaching, anything that might offer a means of managing the sometimes extreme stresses has to be worth consideration.  If nothing else, Mindfulness provides a welcome technique for de-stressing at the end of a busy day.

An amount has also been written about using it as a technique with children, something I am curious about but have not yet had the chance to try.

Autumn and the joys of teaching.

I was in an exceptionally good mood today. Nothing to do with the approaching weekend, I’m sure, nor the fact that we have finally had a little of the mellow September weather that I really like…

At this time of the year, teachers are fresh, the honeymoon period with new classes hasn’t really worn off, and the pressure of exams still seems a long way away. It’s a pleasant way to spend a day – and what a difference it makes, to feel relatively relaxed with the pupils, to have the time to respond to one or two of their off-topic but interesting questions and to pull someone’s leg a bit; it’s all good humoured and the kids enjoy it, none more so than some of the less-than-angelic ones, who often have come to expect rather different treatment.

I’m more than ever convinced that successful teaching is about relationships. My good humour rubbed off on the whole proceedings all day long. This does not mean falling over oneself to curry favour with the pupils, and certainly not trying to be their ‘mate’ – there will always be times when some steel is needed, but good relationship-building can help avoid serious breakdowns. It’s a bit like a bank account – there are times when you pay in, and times when you need to draw on your capital.

The personal relationship one develops with one’s classes counts far more in my experience than any number of gimmicky activities. Children are not circus animals, to be made to perform novelty tricks; what they seem to appreciate is someone who openly likes them, has time for them – and if this is right, pretty much anything is possible. Even those who make you tear your hair are often more easily managed by disarming their misdemeanours with humour. And it’s not only the pupils’ stress that is defused by this approach… I have observed this in Switzerland, where relaxed, cordial relations between teacher and pupil seem to be cultivated more actively then in the U.K., where the pressure is on to perform.

It seems to me that children crave knowing that their teachers are human; natural nosiness accounts for some of it, and one’s privacy is important – but judiciously tapped, even one’s own foibles can be excused by self-deprecating humour; they’ll forgive a lot! So – albeit with care – I have been prepared to share a little of my personal thoughts and interests with certain classes. I can sense some frowns appearing at this point. True, one must indeed be careful, but the authenticity gained by showing children that you practice what you preach is a winner.

It seems to me that modern life is depriving many children of really warm relationships; even caring parents can so easily end up hovering anxiously, helicopter-like over their offspring, which in my view is actually rather vicarious. I suspect it can even kill the warmth in those relationships – parents should be very careful indeed about sending their relationships down the contingent, aspirational route. Children need space to be (or find) themselves too.

Education now takes itself so seriously that relaxing in this way is not the done thing. Despite some over-the-top pallyness, teachers have in some ways become more distant, more manipulative, less authentic. The system is so focused on results that wider personal interaction is not really approved of; have a chat with your pupils and your lesson will be criticised for ‘lacking pace’. But the investment in building relationships is more than worth it, and will pay dividends if and when the going perhaps gets more difficult. This is more easily done when people feel contented: things that please teachers will have a good effect on their students; things that don’t, won’t. Yes, we should try to rise above this – but we’re only human.

It’s also true, this does not work in every case – judging when to adopt a certain approach is part of the teacher’s skill – but for all I sometimes hark back to traditional teaching, I for one am not afraid to adopt a much more approachable and personable stance with my pupils than in the old days. Building those relationships makes the job more pleasant for all concerned.