November 3, 2011

I have been working my way through all the various aims of education that are apparently academic, but, nevertheless, manage to devalue subject content.

The last of these is the idea that education should inspire. This seems to be another case of confusing virtues and purposes. The best teaching is inspirational, but teaching that doesn’t inspire has not necessarily failed. It can be that the students were not capable of being inspired. It could be that knowledge that is useful and valuable is not always inspirational. It could be that in order to learn something inspiring in the future, it is necessary to learn something drier and technical now. It is far from obvious that inspiration should be a regular occurrence in lessons. There may be only a certain amount of inspiring lessons a person can take before even the inspiring becomes normal, and the normal becomes tedious.

Of course, that still leaves open the idea that education as a whole should be inspirational. I really don’t want to reject this idea outright, as I do feel that something may have been missed in an education that, while apparently successful, leaves one bored by the prospect of future learning. However, I think there are better and worse ways to address this. I would hope that the best way to become inspired by learning is by feeling the satisfaction of learning a lot. If learning becomes a habit, then it should be something that continues. Inspiration should be a by-product of good education, achieved without actually explicitly aiming to inspire.


The destructive version of inspiration, however, is the one that seeks to create motivation to learn in the absence of actual learning. At heart it is another variant of education aimed at improving the emotional well-being of children rather than educating them, the only difference is that in this case the concept of emotional health includes the disposition to learn.  Inevitably we have all the same issues outlined before when talking about emotional well-being. It distorts the relationship between teacher and student. In effect the teacher ceases to be a teacher and becomes a motivational speaker concerned more with feelings than learning. It is intrusive and patronising, making children’s feelings  a matter of public property and is likely to be based on superficial pop psychology. It makes the manipulation of emotions acceptable and even desirable and enforces an “emotional orthodoxy” on children. It will undermine actual academic learning by suggesting that a requirement for hard work, pressure to achieve, or an awareness of one’s own ignorance might create negative attitudes to learning. It will encourage an emphasis on engagement and pleasure in learning that will inevitably result in a focus on the superficially interesting, or worse, the supposedly “relevant” rather than the best of what has been thought or known and an emphasis on “fun” teaching methods rather than effective ones. Finally, it will buy into the destructive contemporary idea that feeling positive is, in itself, a means to achieving ends, which undermines the need to work to bring about change.

To really see the harm that focusing on inspiration does though, you need to look at what is considered to be an “inspiring lesson” to managers. It is always the gimmick lesson, the lesson based on stunts and games and a memorable performance by teachers. It is being made to laugh or gasp or get over-excited; it is not being made to learn or to think. Ask to see “an inspiring teacher” and you be presented with an amateur comedian or conjurer. You will get to see the science teacher who sets things on fire, or the maths teacher who plays games. You will get to see the illusionist who has established “great relationships” with a difficult class by indulging them and never pushing them to work hard. You will get to see new toys and, no doubt, new software for the interactive whiteboard. You will not get to see the passionate academic who loves their subject and gets children from deprived backgrounds to go to university to study it. You will not get to see the bottom set teacher who turns around classes who have never learnt much in the subject before. You will not get to see the teachers whose students always make progress.

It should be a great compliment to be told you have inspired a student, but it is never good to be called an inspirational teacher. Because when it comes down to it, there are no short cuts and success is more about perspiration than inspiration. If you get your classes to work hard, inspiration will strike when it needs to. Those who seek to inspire all the time, have usually lost sight of what it is that needs to be inspired.




  1. For me this is the crux of it: “I would hope that the best way to become inspired by learning is by feeling the satisfaction of learning a lot.”
    It is always obvious that when students see that they have mastered something that was at first frustrating, or when they can help their peers by explaining something in their own words, then they truly feel inspired by their learning. More importantly, what they learn about themselves by doing so is more powerful than any pop psychology and builds up the skills they’ll need for a successful and fulfilling life.
    Love your writing!

  2. Excellent. Our new HT is conducting a series of Learning Walks in order to establish that best practice is being errrr…. practised. I am confident that “inspiring lessons” as you describe them will abound.

  3. Yet another excellent and ‘inspirational’ article. I always thought that it was just me who thought this; the only sane person in an insane world. I often say to students ‘if you want to do something fun, or be entertained, then hire a clown. You are here to do the hard yards and study’. They don’t know what that means however.
    Thank you for this site at it has been a revelation and helped me keep my head above water whilst teaching. Keep it up.

  4. Good grief.

    I find myself in agreement. Whatever can the world be coming to? This is reasoned and measured and not at all contentious.

    One note: it is, I think, possible to be an ‘inspirational’ teacher without completely giving up on exam success. In fact it can actually help. I realise of course that there’s plenty of folk who get seduced by being providers of ‘awe and wonder’ and this is not entirely their own fault: there is often pressure to do this.

    The mistake, if we can call it that, is to suppose that fun and well being automatically preclude academic rigour. They may well, but they don’t have to.

    Can one eat one’s cake and eat it? Perhaps.

    • I don’t think anyone has made the assumption that fun and well being automatically preclude academic rigour.

      That said, hard work is a prerequisite for effective learning and only a fool or a charlatan would claim that hard work can be expected to be fun for everyone.

  5. “The mistake, if we can call it that, is to suppose that fun and well being automatically preclude academic rigour. They may well, but they don’t have to. ”

    I have to agree David. I think it is a mistake to think that we have a choice between making learning interesting/fun and sacificing our educational principles and making learning a really serious business with no fun as only in this way can be maintain any academic rigour.

    I have never seen any evidence that this is a necessary choice but the potential fo fun will vary depending on the learning transaction and may be minimal in some instances.

    I do however see, and in this I believe I am agreeing with all here, that many SMT, many politicians and most Ofsted people I have met beleiev that fun is a pre-requisite of humane, effective and entitled learning. This is simply daft and very damaging and disruptive to the educational system in the state sector.

  6. The children seem to have an expectation that lessons will be easy and fun. Few children derive a sense of satisfaction from becoming stuck on a difficult problem and eventually solving it. The “inspiration problem” is pervasive in schools and exacerbated during teacher training which places too much emphasis on delivering gimmick lessons to keep children entertained and spare them from actually having to think. In many schools the day starts with disco music in assembly or some form of pointless tutor time activity which has no educational value.

  7. The malaise goes much father than the education world, as the Dilbert principle implies. The Dilbert principle is more pervasive in troubled institutions than where projects are humming along nicely, or that is my experience.
    One day in the late 80s I was wandering around my local shopping centre when I ran into an old acquaintance who taught at the local comp, he was looking fit with a spring in his step and a healthy glow about him, he had lost his slumped shoulders and haunted look: “how are things these days, still teaching?” I said. He looked horrified “oh no, I’m a management consultant”. He explained that he was teaching “matrix management” to the management at a medium sized local company. He momentarily went into presentation mode, crossed his hands and said “matrix management is a very powerful tool,,,,,,,,,” I resisted the impulse to ask what he knew about management and to tell him he was talking bollocks, but it all chimed with a recent experience with Total Quality Management or TQM as it was known. I also knew that he would be on serious money, my outfit would pay £120 an hour for professional consultants like, perhaps, a structural engineer for a few days work. He had work for months.
    Throughout the 70s and 80s manufacturing and engineering had been in decline and, and in my engineering management job days passed with a background of cuts, usually announced in much the same way as the changes to the chocolate ration in Orwell’s 1984. We were also seriously losing the turf war with HR, we had already lost control over training content and disciplinary matters except for an informal verbal warning.
    Then one day our senior manager dropped by with the news that the company was going to “roll out” (his language had become peppered with this sort of jargon, almost up to the point of incomprehensibility) TQM, it will be “best practice”, it will have an adequate budget. It transpired that the budget was indeed more than adequate with the inauguration of TQM for managers by HR at an expensive hotel on Brighton sea front: sauternes with the pate and burgundy with the beef; bizarre in the extreme when I think of the cuts that were then being applied to our department. The whole thing was being implemented under the stewardship of HR. Everyone else was bussed out to theatres for a day of TQM presented by the HR team.
    The management event itself took part over an afternoon, patronising lectures on the inventors of TQM with little homilies like ” don’t try and boil the ocean”, the evening after dinner the revelation that all managers would hold team meetings that would be recorded and action points taken. The high point here was when our building services manager pointed out that his men were barely literate and completely unable to take notes or action points. The reply was – “there is no such thing as problems only opportunities”. Someone else asked how would we know if TQM was a success or how much of a success it was at any given point. The answer being that there was no way of measuring it but it was vital to the company’s survival. The following morning we were split up into syndicates with each an HR manager for “brainstorming”, I sent up a silent prayer to God to give me strength to get through this nonsense.
    Not long after all this I received an office circular notifying me that all international dialling facilities were to be withdrawn and anyone wishing to make an international call must apply in writing to the office services manager, an indolent and evasive woman, giving a previously nominated extension number and the exact time required. At the time I was supplying a spec for some test equipment that we were buying from a Strasbourg company. After a period of receiving “she isn’t available” or “she’s working from home ” (???) I escalated the problem via the TQM team meeting action point process. The response I received was akin to the reports emanating from soviet Russia on tractor production accompanied by a declaration that the office services manager was “a valued member of the team”
    This was the last straw for me, I stated the job search, and after a glimpse into the surreal world of the VSO found another engineering manager job on increased money.

  8. Thought you might enjoy linking some of your posts to this project http://thefischbowl.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-should-be-purpose-of-school.html

  9. Quite simple really. Plan quality learning first and *then* work out the level of engagement needed to drive the learning forward. The amount of engagement, if I may be allowed to pretend it can be quantified, will be affected by factors such as content and learner attitude. If it is possible to inspire while keeping the learning quality high, then go ahead and inspire. Teaching should always be passionate, even if the current content is a little routine.

    • Could you try that again without using the word “engagement”?


      • I could but why would I? Because some folk don’t know how to use it, or define it effectively for learning? I could argue against the use of any word. Do you have a preference for a synonym?

        • The issue (as you’d know if you’d read the link) is its ambiguity. I wonder if your argument still works if you say what you mean clearly and precisely rather than leaving us to guess which meaning of engagement you were referring to.

  10. […] it even more if you just showed them cartoons”. I do object to being told that our job is to inspire students as if nobody ever learned as a result of anything but the most passionate enthusiasm. As […]

  11. […] basis? I’ve written before about the misuse of engagement (as have many other bloggers) and inspiration. These terms have been used to condemn teachers for not being entertaining […]

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: