Friday, 14 February 2014

On Education

I watched the BBC Three series of Tough Young Teachers where the trainees go through the Teach First route, that is the training is 6 weeks and then the deep end practice-wise. The University approach is little different these days - much is practical. I notice that one of the teachers was a magician-entertainer, and that background does create a connection that works for teaching. Yes, there is 'entertainment' in the classroom, sometimes called 'interesting', but the serious point is that an entertainer knows how to connect.

I actually did teacher training twice. The first time was after failure with Unitarian College and the intention to be a minister, where I also did a university Psychology of Learning course (rather than repeat what was in my PhD in a Social Theology MA course). I went for a PGCE via Sheffield City Polytechnic, as was, and being Business Studies we had the option of teaching one practice in Further Education. Much of the course was teaching theory, and the tutors were generally opposed to the introduction of the National Curriculum because they thought it would deskill teaching. My mistake was to do FE first and then come a cropper with the school practice, and it was clear I wasn't going to get a PGCE. I did some RE teaching in the school, and learnt a lot rapidly about how it is a spare lesson, one in which to waste time, where the pupils had the freedom to take on the teacher. In the rest of it, I didn't engage enough with the students and I didn't like the battle.

The second time I did it at the University of Hull, and discovered that a lot of the theory of teaching had been thrown out. Now the National Curriculum was embedded and teachers did as they were told. To be professional was to fit in and (of course) follow senior colleagues. There was a great emphasis on neutrality of personality, to present a bland front to pupils as a means to gain discipline, but if you were 'singled out' as a teacher at least you would be remembered as making a difference (somehow). The first practice was in a school where everything was regimented, and I followed on, and so they thought I did well. (In fact I did so well I never issued one detention, but then I never did anywhere.) But towards the end I was seen to be 'slipping' and I knew the truth was that I was doing as well as the regimentation. In the second school, the posh kids cruised along but the RE class was badly managed. I wanted all pupils to face me but the teacher wanted them around tables, so always 25% couldn't see me. The teacher was known for classes of bad behaviour, but it was a 'good school' because they were almost all from well off families. The fact is I had no authority over the students, and an interest in the subject is the least important aspect of teaching. I passed this time but was deeply dissatisfied.

The only advantage I can see with the Teach First approach is that if a school finds a good teacher then there is a real chance of continuity, simply because you can stay at that school. I might have done better had I stayed at the one school for both practices.

I am rather dubious about the 'outstanding', 'good' and 'satisfactory' labels for the trainees. It strikes me as being as dishonest as many of the exam grades and school league table statistics. One of the trainees who struggled was given 'outstanding'. If you're not, it will catch up with you.

However, what makes a good teacher from who isn't to be a thin line of division. If you set off with poor authority over classes and you've 'lost it' early it becomes very difficult to claw authority back. The only way it seems to be able to 'succeed' is also if you throw the whole of your life into the job, and in the programme a student teacher did this while constantly on the edge of being told she wasn't good enough. She managed to get over the line and did it while flogging her guts out. There are some people to whom it all comes more naturally, because they are able to make relationships. I can't remember individual names, so I don't even get going. The first thing to do is remember names and call people individually, but actually you have to develop knowledge of the people being taught.

When I taught at sixth form I had hoped that there might be more emphasis on the subject from students choosing the academic route and who had passed five GCSEs at A to C including English and Maths. However, I realised that many of them had been processed through these exams and lacked both literacy and abstract thought. The head of department's solution was writing and memorising passages that would be placed into essays and presumably exams, and we taught the essay plan each time for the slotting in. Teachers elsewhere leant on the text books, and all I could see was lessons that in schools would be boring and lead to disruption. Indeed I knew the students were bored. The subject could have been anything and they were starting to be disruptive, even at sixth form.

I could see why exam results were getting better and better and yet universities were holding remedial and study skills classes at the same time. When I left I said to the students that I tried to treat them like students going to university, but they needed to be taught (as by the head of department) more like as at school.

I don't believe any of the school statistics these days, either getting better and better or made to get worse. I don't believe in the inspection regimes, either as has been or the new ones that will allow more didactic teaching - a move away from student centred learning (which wasn't anyway - as the student in my class said, "Adrian, will you spoonfeed us?" after I said I wouldn't do this). Each insitution is involved in a statistics race, and it was and remains thoroughly dishonest. It doesn't measure learning. The big hope now is that making schools more 'corporate' and shiny with their own management teams will add to the push to improve results. The Blair years started this, where what glitters is reported to be gold.

After school, employment programmes repeat again and again literacy, numeracy and ICT to young adults who, one would assume, have never been to school, when they went for years and achieved actual exam results. It's a condition of national deception. Oh and I don't believe the unemployment statistics either: they are no measure of economic inactivity, and definitely no measure of productivity over activity.

American (United States) education is also failing because of actual public squalour and the deindustralised economy where social mobility is falling. There's a great deal of underemployment in a more savage market system.

In my view there has to be a complete reverse around for education to succeed. The National Curriculum ought to be scrapped, and teachers given the professional ability to design curriculum as well as schemes of work and lessons. There ought not to be an objectives to assessment quantitative approach (must be 'demonstrable' - when was learning in the round so 'demonstrable'? There's got to be more emphasis on learning to learn and getting abstraction into teenage years. Becoming an adult is a qualitative process, and we should stop confusing education with training. If a pupil is bored with education then there is every reason to say go and get training in something and come under the disciplines of working - why faff about for yet another year in school? Let the others learn to learn more. Schools should be communities but not corporately competitive: rather, they should find and support one another with the practices that fulfill.

Channel Four's Educating Yorkshire showed a group of senior teachers and staff interacting with difficult and needy students, and generally turning them around. But we saw how they did it. Two of them had no relationships at home, and simply slogged their guts out at school. They knew their pupils and thought about them morning, noon and night. One wondered if the Head Teacher ever really switched off for maybe three weeks of holiday. Well, he was like a Chief Executive, but again knew key pupils. Those still teaching sweated out their classrooms as hives of activity driving lessons forward. That's the price.

It's no wonder that when a good potential teacher leaves the authorities in situ get angry - "betrayal" was used - and also no wonder that some 50% of teachers leave the profession within a few years. Plus there is a movement to remove crap ones like me, if they can be spared. It simply doesn't work, because it is all about a person's charisma and ability to have authority against disruption in the pursuit of statistical displays. It's time to get counterintuitive and scrap the whole statistical show and return to more practical and profession driven approaches. Give some an early leave and get training and working, and allow schools to be really autonomous when it comes to the knowledge of education.

1 comment:

Fred Garvin said...

I thought education in the developed world was failing because it was having to pay for increasing numbers (and a much higher percentage than even 20 years ago)of the children of the poor world, who somehow seem to think that sending their kids to school constitutes educating them. But the one thing the poor never seem to run out of is more poor. And so fewer and fewer middle-class families want to "leaven" the public education system with their own children-and the divide widens more and more.