Thursday 9 December 2010

Let Teachers Teach

Some of the most avidly commented articles on this blog have concerned the educational perils encountered by the little Ps (examples here - one, two, three). Most probably because they strike a chord with people whose own school experience was a system which wasn't so heavily state-manipulated as it is now.

Which is the very same reason why Katherine Birbalsingh's latest article has resonated so very much at Puddlecote Towers. You see, I recognise this from both their respective schools.

Stand in front of your class for more than 10 minutes and the inspector will tell you that you’re only ‘satisfactory’ because learning is no longer about the teacher teaching: it is about the teacher ‘facilitating’ learning. All inspectors want to see is children working in groups, ‘discovering’ learning as opposed to being taught anything at all. And some subjects lend themselves well to this new regime, like English or History. Others, like Languages or Physics, do not. And even in the well-suited subjects, should one really be doing group work all of the time? Ask any child what they do when put in groups and they’ll tell you it amounts to very little.
Group work is probably great fun for the kids (although I've had to complain before now when the boy was grouped with a rat-faced kid who, at 8, was still watching Teletubbies and thinking it funny to wreck the computer they were 'working' on), kinda like a Build a Bear party staggered into different elements, but hardly constitutes 'teaching' IMO.

The subject of schooling crops up quite a bit amongst parents, as you can imagine, and one of the first questions I always ask of those who I find to be well-adjusted and educated is which of their school teachers did they find most inspirational. Just as an interesting aside, more often than not they plump for a primary level one.

To follow, I ask why they made their choice(s). The answer is always - and I really mean always - that the teacher(s) not only taught them the curriculum, but also engaged them by going off at a tangent and imparting knowledge, wisdom and life experiences ... and not necessarily all in the subject which they were teaching. They were the ones who gave them an all-round education; the ones who cared more for the future life chances of their charges than those who just crammed the required knowledge in before clocking off.

My two were an English teacher who seemed (in hindsight) to be making lessons up on the fly, and a History teacher who could reduce the entire class into fits of giggles with a few seconds of wit. Looking back, I'm pretty sure neither followed any kind of curriculum, but they held their scholarly court in an atmosphere of consummate attention.

We hung on their every word as they injected their wisdom without our even feeling we were being taught. I was around 11 years old, yet these guys were using the same tactics as a university lecturer ... and we lapped it up simply because they were as inspiring as their targeted anecdotes were unmissable. The teachers who stuck to their notes I barely remember, and have had little noticeable impact on my adult life.

It's the same with those acquaintances I question as to their educational background. The teachers they respected - the ones who could impart knowledge without stiffly relying on text books - have sometimes become later life friends, with respect still at an elevated level. Those who weren't able to do so have been almost forgotten (the clicking of the fingers as they struggle to recall names is a regular response).

Kids need to be taught. Not just curriculum, but also a general way of getting through life. If it takes tales of cockroaches dropping into an omelette whilst in the United Arab Emirates (a long story) or playing the latest chart hit and then getting them to write an essay about what they were thinking, then so be it.

Inspiration is everything in education, not just sticking to the syllabus.

Now, I know some may be ready to leap at me after previous mutterings about the paucity of instilling times tables and spelling into the kids, but if so you've missed the point.

Getting away from the drudge of education cramming is vital in teaching kids, especially at the primary school stage. But the tangential education has now been taken over by government. Where once it was up to teachers what they could teach outside the core elements of the subject, it has now been replaced with a plethora of state-sanctioned life lessons which I'm sure you don't need me to enlarge upon.

The role of teachers used to be to ram home the basics and then drop in some life education as they saw fit. Now, politicians and education authorities have decided what is to be considered as 'approved', thereby binding teachers to a strict set of state-dictated life lessons to promote to their pupils.

The inspirational tutor has not only been hog-tied by all of it, but increasingly marginalised for going off-script.

Not only that, state-sanctioned mantras seem to be nudging core education more and more into the sidelines (see again my examples above).

Teachers are now not only not allowed to be individual and inspirational, but also must adhere to rules laid down by government as to what kind of life should be taught, at the expense of what taxpayers think their contribution is paying for.

To learn that Ofsted are ticking boxes in promotion of such a bland and counter-productive regime - as described by Birbalsingh - doesn't come as too much of a surprise, but it is still deeply saddening.

Again, though, we see unintended consequences not just seeping into the equation, but fairly flooding in through a massive hole in state thinking. In pursuit of a 'comprehensive' education, legislators have tied the hands of inspirational teachers so much that only kids who are either very bright, or have a handy extra resource at home - well-educated parents - will be adequately prepared for properly succeeding once outside of school.

Politics used to be anathema for schooling in those of my age group. Its latent use in the 21st century education system is not only producing many quite useless finished articles, but is also playing into the hands of the more wealthy and - hate to say it boys and girls of the Spirit Level persuasion - increasing income inequality for the future.

Of course, as a working class boy made good by liberated teaching, I live in hope that others may be allowed to be as lucky in the future, but with the increasing homogenisation of education and the daft state conditioning now required to go with it, it's not with any realistic optimism.

Let teachers teach, we'll see results. Let government dictate too much how or what they teach, and the only result - as is always the case when state pokes its nose in - will be mediocrity.


PT Barnum said...

My pair of teachers would be (both from grammar school) my Latin teacher who taught me as much philosophy and history as Latin and one English teacher who was sacked for telling us about his experiences of teaching Black townships in Apartheid South Africa.

I only became a teacher myself by accident. I knew exactly how I didn't want to do - humiliation tactics, indifference, arrogance, all the hallmarks of the bad teacher - but it was those two I had to draw on to work out to be a good teacher. And the solution is actually very simple. If you take as read subject expertise, the teacher should be themselves and always remember that everyone in front of them is an individual with all that involves.

And teaching from the front of the room is never in itself a bad thing. It's how you do it.

Dick Puddlecote said...

PT Barnum: I had a good Latin teacher too, but he used to give me philospohical stuff while walking past my home with me. Sure that wouldn't be allowed now which is why I didn't mention it. Despite the friendly after-school chats, he was a bastard disciplinarian in class - no favours.

Teaching from the front of the room, exactly. Not just the university approach, but also always the portrayal of inspirational teachers in films. It's obviously the experience which successful people identify with, so why the urgency to get rid of the practice?

Dr. Brian Oblivion said...

What the expectation is by breaking children into groups to somehow discover learning and gain knowledge in terms of education is not obvious to me. If there's a social element, to instill a reliance on and comfort with peers, then this might be a means to increase the effectiveness of denormalisation as a strategy for a more stable and homogenous 'public health.'

It's probably a bit paranoid to go down that road. So what's the rationale?

My own limited experience with study groups (for group reports and debate prep) didn't suggest that groups were much competition for a personable teacher interested in the subject being taught in my school's class size of 20-30 students each.

Interesting topic, Dick, and a natural area to manipulate for any up and coming friendly fascism.

Paranoid nightmares of the communists infiltrating and taking over from within have always struck me as implausible -- how do THEY get US to hand everything over. How do they poison opinion against tradition. Denormalisation might be a good tool, but it would have to be introduced and left simmering over fair period without notice. Not believable. But an existing subgroup, fanatical and funded could certainly have some level of impact. But over an entire society. Still not believable.

Denormalising the traditional single teacher, unique syllabus, many students paradigm? How hard could that be? But to what end? And how would it differ from state control over the educators? No idea.

I'd like to know why and what's the rush as well. Can you have that ready by Monday, Dick? Homework. :-/

what's behind the effort and the urgency

Anonymous said...


I was blessed with a small handful of teachers throughout my educations who not only had the skills and personalities to make lessons interesting but actively encouraged pupils to question.

One secondary school maths teacher recognised in my questions that I needed proofs and practical use examples and therefore he would work with me after class teaching proofs that normally would not be taught until 6th form or even 1st year university and demonstrating engineering applications. That made maths much more relevant for me, I will be forever grateful to him.

I also had 1 English and 1 History teacher who encouraged personal research, critical thought and would happily engage in debate. I learned that there were often alternative truths. I was a regular at the local reference library (no computers in those days).

My tertiary education unfortunately did not provide any lecturers as inspirational.

However most thanks go to my late father, a very intelligent well read man. We would have debates over history, politics and philosophy. Some of these debates lasted weeks and a lot of research was required if I wanted to hold my own.

PS my latin teacher made ancient Rome very interesting and the ancient language very dull. As a consequence I remember a lot about Roman history and virtually nothing of the language.

PT Barnum said...

Dr. Brian Oblivion said 'Denormalising the traditional single teacher, unique syllabus, many students paradigm? How hard could that be? But to what end? And how would it differ from state control over the educators? No idea.'

There is a non-sinister explanation for altering the paradigm (but not abandoning it). A vindictive, malevolent or plain useless teacher or an intelligent but painfully shy pupil/student are mitigated by an externally monitored curriculum and group work respectively.

In my classrooms at the half dozen universities I worked in I used group work as a part of most sessions. It did two useful things. It gave a place for the shy and retiring to voice their ideas and have them heard and responded to. And it did much to deal with the parasites who relied upon sucking in other people's ideas and never engaging their own brains. It was, therefore, a pedagogic tool, one amongst many, but not a pedagogic theory.

Bill said...

Number 2 son was six at the time and was placed in a 'group' to design and build something or other (sorry foggy brain this morning can't remember the detail) which had to provide weather protection and safety for the animals that were going to use the structure. It could have been a stable it could have been a pig pen, as I say I cannot recall and my wife is out so there it is...

Anyway. Number 2 got so pissed off with two bossy girls who were arguing over colours he went off and did his own thing. He figured out quickly what was required and cared not a jot about the colour of the thing. Best of all his teacher, one who used to design her own curriculum before the Big Book Of The National Curriculum was written by Liebore, let him get on with it.

He had his structure finished and presented to the teacher by the end of the day whilst his group were still arguing over every ickle bit, at least the two girls were. Every other kid just sat around pretending to do whatever the two bossy girls told them to.

His teacher was well impressed with him as we could tell when she told us the story.
Sadly this was his 'quality teaching' highlight and it was all slowly but surely downhill from there as more and more PC bollocks entered his school day so we now home educate him. I have to say one of the best decisions of my life.

Dick Puddlecote said...

I would too if I had the time, Bill. All power to you.

Anonymous said...

On a positive note, it seems that with free schools and academies, there is also a big push to go back to knowledge based teaching and abandoning the "skills" concept.

Which made our teachers at the last governor's meeting comment that they would have to redo their class plans.

It seems changes are afoot.

Willie said...

I think it boils down to the use of time. Teaching is meant to shorten the acquisition of knowledge, which otherwise comes from "discovery" or experience. To me this explains why my privately educated children know precious little in real and firmly attached detail and I (and my classmates at a private prep school)could have taken history O level at 13.
Teachers must teach. To be merely "Facilitators of Learning" is a cop out by the left wing educational establishment compounded by dumbing down and the lie of entitlement to further education. Further education should not be necessary except for the very gifted or for vocational purposes.
My further belief is that factually based education ought to continue up to the age of about 13. Only then can critical argument be applied with the basis of factual knowledge.
It is all about inserting facts; the more the better in the time available. There is a whole lifetime thereafter to express opinion.
Reactionary? Of course but it makes sense on every level most importantly in clearing out 40 years of politically influenced teaching. And saving money.

Anonymous said...

i remember the sense of wonder, when the the teacher told me ,that the moon controlled the tides, and that the earth didnt gain or lose a drop of water, closed loop system, it kindled a life long interest in science, didnt like the random teacher violence though