If Only They Didn’t Have to LearnApril 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.“
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.
Oakeshott, Micheal, Education: The Engagement and its Frustration, 1972