I met at length recently with some education entrepreneurs about what I do and why l do it.
We spoke about the benefits of the British education system, and its aspiration to encourage thinking about knowledge. While very right, it made me consider a few points I’ve struck upon in my old age:
1) There are brilliant teachers in the state system in Britain. It is almost a given that some of the sharpest pedagogy and the most diligent commitment is to be found in our army of state school teachers. But there are, by personal experience and external reading, pressures that preclude universal excellence in the British state system, as verified by PISA.
2) These pressures are out of the control of schools (and even local government), yet schools are judged emphatically on how students are socialised. Attitudes towards homophobia, for example, have affected Ofsted reports.
3) Thinking is learning. Thinking is difficult: people don’t it easily. To think requires the allocation of time and energy (emotional as well as cognitive) into something that may not have a useful (or even tangible) outcome. The heart of teaching is getting students to think.
4) Teaching and learning has been judged on performance for an age. Performance can be measured, and people can be held accountable. But the inner life should be where our focus is most strongly cast. By this, we should talk about the inner life, and of its complexities and magnitude. Especially when learning literature, we should place revelation as our ideal expectation, and enthusiasm (rather than consent and compliance) as our minimum.
5) It is easy for the experienced teacher to create impressions of progress amongst students. Such progress appears tangible: numbers are achieved on a test; a worksheet is completed; years of bums on seats are racked up. But how much thinking has actually occurred?
6) Such thinking can be deemed as higher level of deep learning, and marked at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. When I first started teaching, I prioritised this kind of evaluative thinking (as so praised) under the auspices that it would lead to better learning. However, evaluative thinking is not necessarily more difficult thinking. Identifying the final answers in Who Wants to be a Millionaire is harder than having an evaluative opinion about chocolate. So, forget Google: knowledge about concepts needs to be harvested and nurtured before evaluative opinions can have veracity. Learners teaching each other from the start is romantic and powerful, but also leads to a glib justification of half-thought misconceptions.
Given current cultural climates, this doesn’t necessary make you unemployable. It does make you unable to improve the human condition. There would be no lower ambition for all of us.
7) With this in mind (the need to reprioritise knowledge in our thinking curriculum), another step we need is to teach (in the secondary school) at a high, conceptual level, and to differentiate down for inclusion. Students of low academic ability are done no favours when allocated very easy work. While ZPD discussion suggests a progression from scaffolded work to freer efforts, in practice this leap, and it is a leap, is not scheduled. In a great school, I would observe a lesson and seek to draw attention if aspects are beneath some students. Boredom through no purpose is true, abject, debilitating boredom. In a weak, fearful, embattled school, I would expect lesson observation feedback to be focused on whether the weakest students were able to do the expected performance of work. In all, this leads to a kind of middling average atmosphere of thinking that benefits none, not least the thinkers.
I should qualify that every student needs an entrance into the lesson: however, students who are developing academically expect lessons to be hard, and will have no chance of thinking to standard if not continually in an atmosphere of doing so.
I would also qualify that, give particular SEN, some of the weakest academic performances (schools achieving 3% pass rates for example) are down to emotional and social responses.
I also need to say that tremendous ‘improved’ results in certain chain academies have been shown to lead to massive C grade gluts, and a minimal trickle of As. While an incredible and admirable improvement, it is also one that is rooted in performance rather than thinking.
8) Part of the issue of the performance vs thinking debate stems from the behaviour of a British students. I have taught in a range of schools: the job and experience was entirely different, just in the same way that playing for Barcelona is different from playing for Wolves l – they both have easier and more difficult aspects of the job.
What is undeniable is that there are a great many schools where getting students to even perform requires a daily emotional commitment and professional expertise. Like with Covey’s purpose metaphor (where the teams working in the wrong forest are satisfied with their expertise and effort in doing so), so many teachers must necessarily be satisfied with their students performing because just to reach that stage can be nothing short of a small miracle (like Wolves finishing in the play-off places in any given football season!).
Yet performance without thinking is not enough. Especially not for my students.
This leads to issues, though, where students who are entirely antithetical to thinking and reading can be managed to physically sit quietly with a book (where before the was outright refusal, or even just defiant apathy), and yet the teacher needs to push them further – and in doing so requires more time and investment (and therefore deprioritisation of other students).
Therefore, if behaviour is errant, and if students do not have a healthy relationship with authority, then performance is the likely outcome for some in the school experience.
9) To this end, for some students with cultural issues when thinking and leading, the best a teacher might achieve is to sow seeds of ambition and thinking. That is, should a student come upon a desire to improve and think, they are conscious of the diet of thinking and culture that they experienced in their English classroom.
10) ultimately, a student will buy a teacher and what they represent along with the subject. The advent of radio, television and the Internet have brought expert content more erudite than almost every classroom teacher. All are available now on your phone. Yet what do we often use our phones for? To look at funny cat pictures.
Remember: thinking is difficult. Learning is an act of character as much it is an act of intellect. You need a teacher to inspire students to want to think, and you need wider social connections and communities to encourage this too. Performance without thinking leads to good internal exam results (both in an institution and nationally), but also leads to mediocre results via PISA.
An afterthought: that I have had to pay to train to be a teacher, and that I have to personally fund my MA to better myself is telling. Both these things should be supported by our country if we want our teachers to be inspired. Without this competitive, academic excellence of subject knowledge, teachers of state schools increasingly fight the fires of social ills with pop culture psychology and massively, redundancy-threatening cuts to budgets.
In lieu of this, we have to ride the vocational motivation of our teachers, wherever and however that may come.