Pointless teaching?

“But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” 

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire.


Influence of computer games.

I read an article in The New Yorker (Nov 6th 2006) on Will Wright, the video game creator of SIM
City, the SIMs etc.  Part of the article touched on the influence of computer games on education.

Will Wright had received an email from Lara M. Brown, a professor of political sciences at California
State University.  She’d said that the influence is negative.  Computer games create children who are reactive instead of active.  Who can’t formulate hypothesise or lead off a debate because they want to see ‘what comes at them’.  They lack imagination because games provide all images, sounds and possible outcomes.  They have difficulty imagining worlds (places/historical times) without pictures and sounds.  They can’t visualise.

Wright responded that games teach children how to learn.  Current teaching, he said, is narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian.  It isn’t designed, and by implication games are designed, for experimenting with complex systems and navigating them in an intuitive way.  It isn’t designed for failure.  Games require trial and error; reverse engineering in your mind.  ‘Teachers are entering into the system who grew up playing games.  They’re going to want to engage with the kids using games.’

I am excited by the place of technology in education.  I think schools should be far more at the cutting edge, product testing end of IT development, rather than the uninspired recipients.  (Although I’m told interactive whiteboards, conceived for education, are finding their way into the boardroom.)  The New Yorker article convincingly puts the case for SIM City’s immense influence on urban planning.  And the complex systems created for games such as Spore and ‘Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games’ no more constrain possible outcomes than a scheme of work and marking criteria.  Indeed online collaboration, I think, is massively under-utilised in education.  As is the potential to draw on, and need to verify, unlimited information through the internet.

I would still hold to, and maintain as a core component of the curriculum, the practice of essay writing.  It is, I think, unrivalled in its fortifying of communication and structured thinking.

Entrepreneurial literacy?

I was reminded of the importance of ‘literacy’.  I don’t mean specifically written/read English, but literacy in the way it has come to be used in Education, as ‘competency’ in whatever subject or field.  I was working with a colleague in Malawi who had no literacy in using Excel.  What struck me wasn’t that he was struggling with various functions, formulas etc. – I was too.  But that he simply was not familiar with the basic operations underlying the use of Excel.  He struggled with highlighting cells, copying and pasting etc.etc.  In fact, he was having real difficulty with the kind of basic operating procedures that are essential to use Microsoft Office.  How to save files, what to click to minimize etc.  Why?  He’s a bit slow, yes!  But, he was learning from scratch something that most of us under a certain age in the UK have learned almost implicitly through exposure.  I don’t remember many specifics of my IT education. I’ve always had to learn or relearn processes whenever I’ve done anything substantial on the computer.  However, what my IT education has provided me with implicitly is the underlying familiarity, competency or literacy.

What then are the essential literacies of the C21st?  The question has something of a tired, clichéd ring about it, but is nevertheless pretty important.  I’ve suggested ‘literacy’ in citizenship and entrepreneurship is important for citizens.

‘Literacy’, I suppose, consists of a body of knowledge and the competent application of that knowledge.  It doesn’t mean knowing everything, but, crucially, knowing how to approach problems in a specific field (knowing what the paradigm is?).  There is ‘literacy’ in citizenship.  Is there literacy in entrepreneurship?  Perhaps it’s in a familiarity with acting on initiative, risk, and capitalising on the future?

I read something by Anita Roddick questioning the value of MBAs for entrepreneurs.  She was suggesting that entrepreneurship is about risk and obsession (I think she used the word obsession, it might have been dedication), and that these are qualities that can’t be taught.  Perhaps you’re even just born with them.  Certainly she suggested they’re not best taught by business schools which are bastions of stats quo.

I think I would caution Roddick’s fatalism.  Business schools may not best teach entrepreneurship, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create conditions in which entrepreneurship can flourish.  Although how to teach literacy in entrepreneurship is a slightly different question to how to teach the equally important literacy in IT (or just plain literacy), I suggest the clue to the answer is in implicit learning (see also previous posts) and in the value of experiential learning. 

What is potential?

When we say that we want every child to achieve their potential, what do we mean? Do all pupils have inherent potentials – some things they may be able to do or become as opposed to other things they never will? If a teacher’s job is to unlock potential, what if the pupil’s potential is to become a burglar?!

I don’t think we can really ever measure or categorise meaningfully the positive potential for anything. We can maybe measure potential negatively and for easily definable achievements – a man with no legs probably doesn’t have the potential to be the fastest man on the day and win the Olympic Hundred Metres in 2012. But what positive criteria would we use to measure whether a pupil has the potential to become, say, Prime Minister? Would we give it a score? So that pupil X, in the debating team and developing his empathy skills well, has a Prime Ministerial potential score of 50%, possibly alongside a CEO of middle-sized corporation potential of 85%? More importantly, if we could find such a measure, what use would it be?

I heard a nice definition of potential the other day. ‘Potential’ simply recognises that given motivating circumstances pupils do better. Achieving their potential really means providing the most motivating circumstances. This is useful. It means we can start to describe motivating circumstances. We can take two groups of pupils, with intelligence as the constant, observe which group performs better and begin to define what ‘motivating circumstances’ are.

It is, of course, the motivating circumstances that explain the stories behind the statistic that says the biggest determinant of success at GCSE is socio-economic status. And those motivating circumstances include the physical, social and emotional prerequisites mentioned in the previous post on social work.

Teachers as social workers? Good.

There’s a bit of a hoo-ha about Every Child Matters turning every teacher into a social worker.  Good.  All teachers should be social workers.

Is the following not an absolute first principle of education?  The obvious metaphor is a journey.  The teacher knows how to get somewhere.  The pupil doesn’t.  Otherwise he wouldn’t be a pupil.  The pupil might know half of the route – he might have travelled half of the route already, he might even have travelled half of the route already in half the time the teacher took.  Or he might know the whole route, but in vague terms. Or he might not have started and have no idea what the route might be.  But the teacher knows the route.  So the teacher looks at where the pupil is, meets him there, and takes him on to the end of the journey.

The point is that you have to know where a pupil is, in order to move him on.  For some kids the principal barrier to learning about the French Revolution is the conceptual problem of absolute monarchy, for others it is poor literacy preventing them from reading the textbook, for others it is the fact that they are conditioned to use avoidance tactics, like anger, whenever they come up against a challenge.  As a teacher we have to overcome each of these barriers and many more.

I don’t understand the argument that refuses to accept that there are some emotional, or social, or physical prerequisites to education.  Yes, some people have tough lives and learn anyway.  But for most of us, if we are too cold or too hungry or too angry we don’t learn particularly well.  A teacher’s job is to teach something.  If there are barriers to teaching something, we work out how to overcome them.

The Every Child Matters agenda may be emblematic of a bureaucratised formalisation of professional relationships; but in rejecting it on the grounds that it introduces ‘social work’ into the job description of a teacher, we are in danger of ourselves denying the essential humanity, and unique importance of holistic relationships, of teaching as a profession.

Why Teaching is Art

I found some notes I’d made when two years ago I heard Tim Brighouse (I think Chief Advisor for London schools) speak.  He gave some advice for new teachers in the form of a list.  It is beautiful in its simplicity, humanity and effectiveness.  I thought I would reproduce it here.

Notice, Listen, Create a past, Laugh, Remember, Admire, Praise, Respect, Share, Steal, Promote, Acknowledge, Recognise, ‘I saw this and thought of you…’, Collect, Contribute, Mark, Find, Confess

I have been pondering the importance of humanity/the human element in teaching.  By that I think I mean the extent to which our interactions with our pupils, whilst professional and backed by theory, are essentially, and perhaps most importantly, human relationships.

I want to say something more about this in a future post.  For the moment I want to add something I said as an introduction to a debate with the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.  That is the importance of narrative in teaching.

I believe teaching is like art in that it is revelatory and has transformative potential.

When art moves us, it is often because what we see or hear is something that we recognise or acknowledge in humanity, and perhaps hadn’t noticed before.  Of course a certain kind of loneliness feels just as Hopper painted. Oasis’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Star captures exactly the adrenalined optimism we’ve all felt.  The skill of the Artist is perhaps to reveal what we knew but could not express, or to reveal a part of the world we thought we knew in a completely new light.  This is I think, what we all hope to do as teachers.  To give something that transforms the way our pupils see the world.

One of the ways we do this, which acts as a mechanism for transmitting another force of transformation – pure knowledge, is in constructing a ‘story’.  As teachers we tell a story with our classes.  The story is to be found in the creating of a past; the ‘remember when we did this…’ or the ‘this is how we do things in this class’ dialogues.  Perhaps all human relationships are like this, but it can be particularly useful in teaching to create a past of shared experiences, which, crucially, over time include certain norms of behaviour, methods of enquiry and ways of reacting and treating people.  We hope the shared past created might help our pupils view the world differently; recognise, maybe, that you can finds things frustrating but not give up or admit mistakes without losing face.  Just like art, a teacher’s relationship with his pupils, through this ‘story’, is able to reveal and transform.

The aim of this comparison of teaching with art is only to offer a couple of thoughts for discussion.  1) The importance of the relationships, or the humanity, in teaching.  2) The power of not what you teach, but how you teach it: the strength and utility of  a culture or ethos within a classroom or school.

Implicit and Experiential Learning.

I want to try to pursue a theme I touched on as comments to the post on accountability, simpler timetabling etc.

That is that there is a beneficial kind of learning that we could call implicit or contextual. I have struggled to try to define what I mean by this, but I think the most recognisable way to explain the kind of learning I am here concerned with is that it is the education received by the comfortably well off, with books in their homes and trips to theatres and galleries etc. It is the kind of learning extra to ‘class learning objectives’ or ‘desired outcomes’. It is often found in the anecdotal, the details or the artistic. It acknowledges that far more is learnt implicitly and through experiences than explicitly through a classroom learning objective. I gave an example in previous comments of implicit learning. When I first started learning History at school, I already had a sense of historical time periods. I had learnt this implicitly through stories and art. When learning about the medieval period, for example, I had a decent sense that we would be talking about those things associated with Knights in Armour, not Cowboys. Much implicit learning is learnt through experiences. By experiences I mean explicitly learning other than in a formal classroom setting. For example, I remember clearly as an eleven year old in a music lesson listening to music to identify the instruments, I gained a considerable advantage because I had been to concerts and could remember seeing and hearing musicians playing. To recognize the importance of this kind of learning is not to deny the importance of a focused lesson, but to attempt to multiply opportunities to learn implicitly and to learn experientially.

Let me try to explain what I mean by this. I once observed a fantastic year 6 lesson on the Second World War. The teacher had constructed a narrative about a German soldier. I watched one installment of this story, in which the soldier was, I think, returning on leave from
France. The teacher dressed in an old German army greatcoat to tell the story. It was delivered mostly orally with great attention to detail and description. (Incidentally, this episode included the discovery of a new character, the soldier’s girlfriend – for the 10 and 11 year olds a remarkably subtle and appropriate introduction to relationships.) The additions to the oral story-telling were period music, a film clip and several props. Noticeable in their absence were explicit lesson objectives, vocabulary lists etc. With the episode concluded pupils were asked to write a letter home from the soldier. The quality of the detail of many pupils’ letters was outstanding, with accurate references to period details and appropriate use of relatively technical vocabulary that hadn’t been specifically explained. This, I think, is illustrative of the kind of implicit, contextual, often (although perhaps not really in this case) experiential, learning that I am advocating.

Practically this kind of learning requires a number of things. Illustration and art are fundamental for the providing of context. If learning about the Tsunami’s effects in
Thailand, illustrations can implicitly reveal the vegetation or architecture. Illustrated timelines should probably be an essential feature in almost every classroom. Great works of art can offer starters and ‘hooks’ to all manner of subjects. As can music. More fundamentally, there must be a culture both in and out of the classroom that values knowledge and open-mindedness. Music played in class can be more trouble than it’s worth when anything composed before 1990 is met with unanimous derision as ‘classical sh*t’. School trips, as I have mentioned in previous comments, must be ‘normalised’ to remove the distorting hysteria. Teachers must be excellent. They must be ready sometimes to go off-topic, on a tangent, to discuss and debate, preferably with reference books and Wikipedia to hand.

This is not impossible fantasy. It requires actively attempting to ‘multiply everything’. That is provide as much to stimulate implicit learning as possible. It would be helped by more potential in schools for cross-curricular work. It certainly requires more school trips, although normalised into the curriculum perhaps they wouldn’t even be called ‘trips’ but ‘out of school lessons’! It requires solid basics.
Reading, writing, numeracy, research skills take on their proper function when they are instinctive tools not difficulties in their own right as learning problems. It requires a strong culture of valuing knowledge that can be achieved in schools. Despite evidence to the contrary in many state schools it is of course possible to create an environment in which pupils ‘work hard and be nice’. (This is one of the mottos of the KIPP schools I visited in Washington DC and
New York City, models, in many ways, of creating a positive school culture).

I would like to pursue a number of concepts that, I think, link to this kind of implicit and experiential learning. I think there are links to coaching as an important teaching technique. In that through coaching, the trial-error-correction process, a teacher is uniquely able to respond to the individuality of implictl learning. There are links also to the need for teachers accountable not only to externally administered national exams, but, in their responsibility for a small number of pupils, to the pupils themselves, parents, the school and their colleagues. Whilst standardised tests may fail to take into account, or impede, this kind of implicit learning, it can nevertheless be accountable. In this respect there are links to the need for smaller schools, a unit size of, say, 200-300 being able to offer accountability without standardisation. I think the importance of ‘experiences’ might make for an interesting basis to think about introducing certain rites of passage into a school curriculum. Certain experiences might be considered part of a particular progression and so become elements of a graduation or rite of passage. There may also be links between implict and experiential learning and the benefits of an apprenticeship or work based education.