We don’t need no education!

A classroom?
A classroom? Most UK secondary classrooms still look like this.

Teachers are often told that we have a ‘very demanding job,’ (as if we needed to be told) but as the years go by I’m beginning to understand why  teachers have so much stacked against them, and why often it feels like an uphill struggle to feel good about the job.

The greatest of the burdens upon us though is simply history, for teachers must teach under the weight of their own, their leaders’ and pupils’ parents’ own experiences of education. In this way, we are literally set up to fail because (and this is a very sad fact) most people didn’t enjoy their education and didn’t like their teachers. Ouch!

Then what we are faced with is the task of turning all that history around and convincing a generation (or two) that education can and should be the centre of everyone’s life and above all be (wait for it)…enjoyable!

David Spendlove claimed there are only two questions needed to be asked of pupils:

1) Have you enjoyed your education so far?

2) Do you want to carry on learning when you leave school?

It saddens me (very deeply in fact) that if you stopped any child in the street today most children, and especially the 11-16 year olds, would give you an emphatic NO! to both questions. This is terrible. This is actually a national disaster for us as a country and more importantly for us as human beings. Life is pretty empty without learning. Human beings are by nature learners, the greatest learners on earth in fact.

The trouble is that many of the people who would have angrily answered no to these questions say twenty years ago, now consider these questions as being the province of wet liberals who want to let the ‘chimps take over the zoo.’ I mean, enjoy education? What are you thinking? That’s not the point is it? Enjoy? See, people view education and enjoyment as the antithesis of each other. You are not supposed to enjoy education, if you do, then it’s not really authentic. ‘You’re not here to enjoy yourself, you’re here to learn!’

Herein lies the vicious cycle: pupils will learn twice as much, twice as fast if they enjoy, and therefore are engaged in, their learning. But establishing this kind of learning, consistently and routinely, means many of the old ways of teaching that teachers, senior leaders, parents and policy makers hang on to need be hung out to dry once and for all. Silent classrooms, books and books of ticked, graded work with no hint of how to improve, children who know the answers being heard, those who don’t falling silent, children with high marks getting the stars, clever children leading, not so clever children feeling not so clever, teacher knowing everything, children waiting to be told and teacher being the one and only source of knowledge…all this needs to be made into a pyre and set light to. It’s time teachers danced around this pile of rotten wood and started over. Some are, some have been trying to, but some cling on to this antiquated pedagogy because there’s no one to show them anything else, and fear of the ogre OFSTED makes them hold tighter to the things they think teachers ‘should’ be doing rather what will actually create an effective learning environment. Ironically, OFSTED don’t want to see this dusty old style of teaching either because at last they know it doesn’t work, but the system of inspection is about catching us out isn’t it, not helping us out.

Contrary to popular belief the alternative to traditional teaching does not mean pupils running wild, hurling things around the classroom and an ‘anything goes’ anarchy enfolding before open mouthed on lookers. What it does mean is all children feeling part of something, being worth something because their teacher has cultivated a learning environment where learning and dialogue are clearly on the table, if not exuding from the walls and dripping off the ceiling. And this is nothing like the education any of us had ourselves or recognises, so it feels wrong, and it feels like it might go wrong too and that’s why so many of us hang on to the old ways that caused most of us to dislike learning, school and teachers. Sit, down, shut up, listen and learn!

Teachers and schools should be inspiring, they should inspire children to learn, to wonder, to be curious and want to talk about…everything. Classrooms should be places where it’s OK to be wrong and talk about it, it’s OK not to understand at first, but be guided towards understanding with your peers and by your peers too. Pupils are one of the greatest sources of learning for each other, but no one likes to say it, because then the spotlight might come off the teacher for a while, and we can’t have that! That’s the problem you see, we all look at the teacher, we watch every move they make and read every piece of paper they fill in, but the very best evidence of good teaching comes by watching the children and watching them learn and how they show they have learned.  Really, a classroom can no longer be a place where it’s OK for any pupil to get by being silently confused and stifled by immanent failure. Teachers and schools should be the very last people and places on earth to cause children to withdraw from learning and harbour a lifelong dislike of education. How long would we accept the same from any other profession? How long would we allow most sick people to walk away from hospitals saying ‘I don’t want to feel well and I hate doctors.’ How long before everything would start to fall to pieces?

So this is why the job is so demanding now, more than it’s ever been. We have to undo history, throw out the dark sarcasm and stop education being another brick in the wall for so many young people. Who were the teachers you remember? The ones who weren’t like all the other teachers, right? They ones who listened to you? The ones who made you feel like you had something worth saying? It takes more than a smart piece of paper to be a teacher, more than a smooth talking graduate or a city high flyer wanting ‘a change of scene.’ It takes someone who understands learning and understands that the ‘sit, down shut up,’ method of teaching never worked and still doesn’t work.  The brain isn’t an empty cup waiting to be filled, it’s a communication device and needs connecting to experiences and engage in dialogue in order to make meaning out of all those inputs.

About a quarter of pupils can bear the old, one dimensional, transmission style teaching and manage to sit down and shut up quite well, but the other three-quarters either switch off and slip into being passive observers (and then passive adults) or they find other avenues of stimulation by behaving like bored chimps at a zoo…because it is boring having to ‘sit down and shut up’…most adults still can’t or won’t do that for long either. So 25% do pretty well with the system, some get creamed off into selective education or put into the ‘top stream,’ but 75% don’t do as well as they could at all, even that top 25% would have had a better time, may have reached even greater heights if it hadn’t all been  so dull.  The truth is, we don’t need this kind of education and we innately don’t want it either. Homo sapiens is a species defined by collaboration and communication, that’s how we thrive, that’s how we reach our full potential.

It’s time for teachers to be cleverer than at any other time in the history of education. We need to rediscover the teacher, and the authentic teacher, and not the impostor who has been hiding for too long behind those lonely monologues, wretched power points and endless ticks and crosses. Ironically, the authentic teacher should by nature be hard to identify and  hard to define in any detail,  but their presence will be obvious in the sparkling eyes of the pupils they teach, in the way they own their own learning, in their thirst to know and go forward and learn.

What must be forgotten for good.