InspirationNovember 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.