h1

If Only They Didn’t Have to Learn

April 1, 2007

“Further, the idea ‘School’ is that of a personal transaction between a ‘teacher and a ‘learner’, the only indispensable equipment of ‘School’ is teachers: the current emphasis on apparatus of all sorts (not merely ‘teaching’ apparatus) is almost wholly destructive of ‘School’. A teacher is one in whom some part or aspect or passage of this inheritance is alive. He has something of which he is a master to impart (an ignorant teacher is a contradiction) and he has deliberated its worth and the manner in which he is to impart it to a learner whom he knows. He is himself the custodian of that ‘practice’ in which an inheritance of human understanding survives and is perpetually renewed in being imparted to newcomers. To teach is to bring it about that, somehow, something of worth intended by a teacher is learned, understood and remembered by a learner.“

Oakeshott (1972)

If I couldn’t teach, and by that I mean if I couldn’t explain my subject to students in a way that helps them to learn it, but I still wanted to be employed as a teacher then I’d have just a few excuses to fall back on.

I could argue that I shouldn’t be judged by whether my students know anything. After all being able to recite cold, dry facts doesn’t show any deeper level of understanding. My students might not know much, but perhaps they have a really deep conceptual understanding of the little they do know. Of course, understanding (unlike knowledge) is highly subjective so it’s hardly my fault that they can’t demonstrate that understanding. In fact it is unreasonable that the educational system in Britain dictates what should or shouldn’t be taught rather than leaving me to do whatever I like.

Then I could suggest that at no point should any students I teach be tested. Tests aren’t fair, they are just a snap-shot that will miss their true level of learning. If they must be assessed then the only assessment that counts should be one that I come up with myself based largely on my own judgements. After all, I’m a teacher, so I must have at least a couple of grade D A-levels and a degree from a former polytechnic, and therefore I must be far more able to assess ability than any examiner who doesn’t even know the students. Moreover students who do badly in tests are emotionally scarred by the experience and will become disillusioned with their education and have poor self-esteem. For their own emotional well-being we must stop them discovering how little they know. It’s the kind thing to do.

If I was in any danger of feeling guilty about having achieved nothing with my students then I could, of course, reassure myself that school isn’t about learning academic disciplines. It’s about the social experience. I may not have affected their ability to get into university or get a job, but I may well have taught them respect for something, and enthusiasm for something else. Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t mean I should be that concerned about teaching them, what matters is that I’ve inspired them. I’ve been their friend. I’ve talked to them about growing up, their problems at home and the football. It’s far more important that teenagers, particularly those from deprived backgrounds, have the experience of having a positive relationship with a middle class person, than that they get a good job or go into further or higher education. A friend of mine who teaches English was told, while training, that just speaking to kids using Received Pronunciation was “doing the job”.

If I wanted to achieve the next level of self-delusion I could then get quite irate and ideological at the politicians and parents who insist that we put so much effort into teaching students and assessing what they’ve learnt. I would also get upset at a system that allows parents to choose between schools and get their kids into the school where they have the best chance of learning. Moreover I could rail against a society which is so concerned with material things that we care more about whether school leavers can read, write and add up well enough to be employable rather than whether they feel good about themselves. I could even join a trade union which would back me in opposing all this emphasis on learning .

Now I might get to hear that there are other problems in the educational system. Poor behaviour, bullying or truancy might come to my attention. I might discover that lots of teachers who are good at their subject leave within in a year or two, and that for difficult subjects it’s hard to recruit anyone to teach them at all. However as a fully paid up educational radical I can declare that all these problems are a symptom of a system that hasn’t followed my priorities. In particular any problem related to the attitude of the students is down to reactionaries hassling them with all this academic stuff. Just as all of society’s problems will be solved after the Revolution, all of the problems of secondary education will be solved after we stop the tyranny of requiring the kids to learn.

Of course I can actually teach, and students learn in all of my classes. So as far as I’m concerned the fact that children are tested is to my distinct advantage. The pay-off from the effort I put in is that they have learnt and can be shown to have learnt. Every time I hear a colleague (or more likely an educationalist or union leader) complain about the pressures of testing or the unfairness of having to teach according to a curriculum, rather than according to whim, I do feel like asking “Do you actually teach?” or even “Do your students actually learn?” The problem in our schools is not that children are expected to learn, it’s that they aren’t expected to behave.

References:

Oakeshott, Micheal, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972

About these ads

8 comments

  1. “Or as a fully paid up educational conservative you can declare that these problems are a symptom of a system that hasn’t follow your priorities.”


  2. I think this is a theory of education that many of my former lower set English groups would happily subscribe to. One of them once said to me, ” You know Miss it’s a pity we have to work because you’re a really interesting person to talk to unless you’re going on about English and books.”

    When I first began teaching in the late 70’s there was a great deal more latitude about how and what we taught. From time to time I’d have a group where even in those days if I’d had to do the NC with them there’s have been a riot. But they did actually benefit from being in the company of a middle class person who didn’t share many of their values & I know from meeting some of them when they were grown up that I actually inspired many of them. They went on to learn when they were ready for it which wasn’t always when they were teenagers.

    You’ve made me all nostalgic for the old days oldandrew. Life really was good when we weren’t expected to teach ALL of them!


  3. “Or as a fully paid up educational conservative you can declare that these problems are a symptom of a system that hasn’t follow your priorities.”

    You appear to have missed my point. I believe that the problems we have with behaviour in our schools are caused by the schools attitude to behaviour. Not by the content of the curriculum, teaching methodology, ideology or school structure.

    I am deeply sceptical of any suggestion that behaviour problems can be solved by indirect methods (which usually seem to consist of dumbing down the curriculum, making lessons entertaining rather than educational, or trying to make the least able do valueless vocational qualifications).


    • “I am deeply sceptical of any suggestion that behaviour problems can be solved by indirect methods (which usually seem to consist of dumbing down the curriculum, making lessons entertaining rather than educational, or trying to make the least able do valueless vocational qualifications).”

      I was beginning to feel like I was the only one who thought like this. Apparently it is unacceptable to view myself as an educator rather than a stand-up comedian. And even more unacceptable is it to feel that it might be of benefit for 16 year olds to sit still and write for half an hour; when they go to work their employers will no doubt go to extreme lengths to make sure they are fully entertained and able to perform their job in bite-size chunks with regular opportunities to work out their thoughts through the medium of drama whilst simultaneously assessing themselves and their peers.

      Good teachers make the subject entertaining by virtue of itself, by revealing its intricacies and their own interests.

      In addition we do not give students enough credit. Too often are they given poor, simple texts in place of proper, meaty, meaningful literature (I teach English) and told what to write in each section of their essay. They have no ownership of their work andthey are constantly given the message that these texts are ‘too difficult’ ‘too challenging’ ‘too boring’. We do them a disservice by so doing and perpetuate social divisions between those who have access to higher level study and those who do not.


  4. “You appear to have missed my point. I believe that the problems we have with behaviour in our schools are caused by the schools attitude to behaviour. Not by the content of the curriculum, teaching methodology, ideology or school structure.”

    The schools attitude to behaviour is entirely comprised of:
    curriculum
    teaching methodology
    ideology
    school structure

    These are not separate ‘units’ of pedagogical practise that you can change one at a time to ascertain the best combination. A certain ideology entails a certain method entails a certain structure. A certain curriculum entails a certain method entails a certain ideology. A certain method entails a certain curriculum… and so on.

    How you treat behaviour is based on the curriculum and teaching you accept, etc. If you accept a certain “teaching method X”, it would seem to you absolutely unreasonable to a certain “behaviour strategy Y”, as they are incompatible. You cannot assume that you are simply arguing for common sense in managing behaviour – you are also arguing for common sense in conceptualising (for want of a better term) what a student is and can be, and how they are caused and affect each other, and so on. And common sense is an ideology too – isn’t it?


  5. “The schools attitude to behaviour is entirely comprised of:
    curriculum
    teaching methodology
    ideology
    school structure”

    No, it isn’t.

    The school’s attitude to behaviour is comprised of what it is or isn’t prepared to tolerate and what resources it brings to bear to deal with behaviour.

    “If you accept a certain “teaching method X”, it would seem to you absolutely unreasonable to a certain “behaviour strategy Y”, as they are incompatible.”

    I’m not talking about classroom management, I’m talking about whole school behaviour. There is not a teaching method or curriculum content that necessitates truancy, disobedience, verbal abuse or violence. It’s a cop-out for people to claim that these things are explained by the content of the curriculum or the teaching methodology.


  6. That’s very interesting, but since you just throw out “understanding” with no hint of what you mean, I suspect this is yet one more whine about testing. Testing has worked quite well since Aristotle, and it still works–just not for “teachers” who don’t do their jobs.


  7. “Testing has worked quite well since Aristotle, and it still works–just not for “teachers” who don’t do their jobs.”

    Isn’t that what I was saying?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,913 other followers

%d bloggers like this: