I remember speaking some years back with a great leader about what it was to teach students ideas at a time when their minds were not ready to learn them. Being defiantly apathetic is the students most effective resistance to absorbing an idea (although connotative marketing might disagree as far as influence purchase choices…). Even if a student is resistant, such an idea can compel reaction: thinking is learning (academically, of course) – perhaps for students for whom a foundation of literacy and cultural capital has already been achieved, just being made to think on a constant basis is desired.

Such a conceptual classroom curriculum may not sit well. The desire to produce stuff is strong – a session of thinking is profoundly abstract. Thinking much, too, may not lead to clarity. Indeed, a profusion of thinking might not even lead to good exam answers (I am writing a lecture at the moment on how to achieve success in a timed 45 minute piece of creative writing, and that is very much in mind). A quick search of almost any PowerPoint on TES is the fostering of tasks that focus on achieving an outcome, usually against vaguely set criteria.

Thinking is social, especially in a classroom. It is the negotiation of meaning, on a daily basis, with its incremental movements influenced by all manner of things, and not always political. The management of thinking requires not only a distinct awareness of the social rhythms of a class, but also the emotional energy and psychic awareness (i.e. just read their body language, and the room) to shape such thought.

That shaping cannot necessary be measured, or even observed quantifiably. But it can be sensed.

I covered a geography lesson last week. In it we spoke about volcanoes, a topic that (sometimes like alliteration) students are taught on a cyclical basis (sometimes, presumably, as if they have been taught it for the first time). The conversation deepened into discussion of science, and belief, and on what things we might believe now that will be mocked in the future. We spoke of the mocked beliefs of scientists in the past, such as Semmelweis who believed that germs caused illness and died in an asylum. We spoke of Persian folk lore, and on the nature of a thought that might be believed for all time. We questioned how we might understand what is at the centre of the earth and (as Baudrillard would contest), how we might similar accept (and perhaps eventually question) the methods by which we measure and conceive of the inner parts of our planet, or indeed any other. We questioned how the light from the stars reaches us very many light years after occuring, and about how our brains construct the world around us through the stimulus converted from the independent world around us. We discussed the Victorian mindset in relation to technology and aspiration, and Steam Punk literature, as well as the usual classics. We ended on how science relies upon metaphors for understanding, with a playing of the (somewhat discounted, but still stimulating) video on the quantum physics slit experiment. 

After this we copied a diagram of the earth and labelled it.

Such conceptual discussions seemed to sow some seeds amongst these students: there was a narrative to the lesson interspersed with questions and responses from the students to me, and to each other. Curiosity of the world, and how we are to understanding it, and how our understanding might change the world, was demanded by that conversation: the body language and energy suggested that it was.

It was a lesson that reminded me that one purpose of teacher that I hold high is to sow seeds: to combat anti-intellectualism, and to (sometimes through sheer force of will and the avatar of personality) cultivate a culture of earnest curiosity into the minds of students, and hopefully the classroom at large. That sometimes the response to troublesome acronym-based issues I have experienced in the past (ESB students) have ‘required’ task-based, business-like approaches on recommendation vindicates how I wish to approach teaching in a way that my being seems to strive.

Despite having taught for thirteen years, each lesson I teach still seems to take on a distinct importance – the way I speak demands that each idea has an understated potency that must be celebrated.

I am distinctly an English teacher. Of that, I teach distinctly literature. Of that, I distinctly believe that a cultural foregrounding of ideas is necessary for students to write and experience and sense well.

And, especially now, with the cultural and background of how I have approached the first half of my life, I feel that that reading and writing is one way to sow seeds for myself: not just ticking boxes.