I had to change a fuse today; what tool did you think I used? If you imagined something shaped like a screwdriver, then award yourself a pre-decimal BTEC (worth five A-levels in old money), and proceed directly to Oxford. If you thought instead of something like a lawnmower, then thanks for your interest, and we’ll get back to you. Have you thought of Bangor?
What if I wanted to change a fuse on the Mir Space Station. Could I use the same screwdriver? I imagine not; I fancy that NASA have designed something with a torch and a magnetic strap. The concept of using different tools for different situations is not, I hope, a controversial one, although anything’s possible on Twitter, I suppose (WHY YOU HATERZ HATIN ON SCREWDRIVERZ? etc)
Yet in the world of teaching, this concept is apparently inconceivable to many. I know this because the last twenty or so years in education have seen tighter and tighter screws turned on exactly how we teach and how we should be measured. It’s a topic I return to like day follows night- the idea that there is a centrally prescribed ‘best’ way to teach, and that teachers must follow these methods or be sacrificed on the altar of Cerunnos, the Horned One. These methods, usually generated in the minds of theorists and speculative educational scientists/ homoeopaths become best practise, and we, the teaching community, brace ourselves for another drenching in slurry. Wellies on, umbrellas UP, everyone.
But I have never found teaching to be like this. While I instinctively reject any reference to tool kits and workshops that don’t involve Castrol GTX and circular saws, I do like the analogy of teaching strategies as being like tools in a box; the hammer hammers, the spirit levels, the screw drives, the crow bars etc (that might not have worked. Keep writing, they might not notice). The point is that one uses what is required at the time, in that peculiar, particular circumstance. This proposition I hold to be self-evident. It leads to the following consequences:
1. My methods might not work for you
This sounds like career suicide for a man who devotes 1/3 of his waking hours to being an educational rentagob, but, with important provisos that I will detail later, it is true. My teaching style suits me; and because I am not entirely shit at my job, I know what works with my classes. I know what works for me, with my classes. Example: when I first started to not drown in classes, I realised that one of my most effective strategies with tough classes was to tell them stories. Worked a charm, and helped me build up relationships. Now that is not a strategy I advise to everyone, because not everyone can tell stories, nor could I do what they can.
We play to our skills, and to what works in the specific chemistry of the moment, of the relationship you have with your class. Remember ‘Clear off scumbags’ from Educating Essex? Course you do. Would you recommend that as a coda to every lesson in the UK? Of course you wouldn’t. Was it appropriate for him at that time? Of course it was. That was the point the Daily Hate and others missed. He knew what he was doing.
There are some kids you’ll teach who respect nothing but strength, who will punish you for any drop of kindness; there are other kids whom, offered an abstract hankie of concern, will drop and give you twenty. You learn which approach to take with which kid, and you use what works. What you don’t do is stick with a one-size-fits-all strategy you expect everyone to love. People aren’t like that. Students, I infer, are people.
|And THAT’S the Gospel Truth|
There is an important exception to make: human nature. People are identical in many respects; they must be, otherwise they would completely defy taxonomic circumscription. People, I argue tautologically, are people. That’s why I (returning to my career-bothering suicide note, above) still believe I can advise and help others; because people do respond in broadly similar ways to each other. For example; we avoid what we dislike, we attend to what we enjoy- in that way I can comfortably recommend that you sanction against people who behave badly and reward those who do not. On that level, there can be very, very broad consensus. What I’m talking about is the finer detail of the student teacher relationships, and how people should learn, and how they should teach.
So, for example, sometimes in a class the teacher will enjoy thrilling levels of trust, and can comfortably send the class out to wander the streets with clipboards and machetes. Other classes need to be set in rows and columns, given short tasks and monitored like Alcatraz. Some classes can be trusted with the keys to your Jag; others need watchtowers and snipers.
That’s why I think that a large amount of the debate in education, and over education is witless and meaningless. I remember reading the NME when I was a teen, and marvelling at how vicious the letters pages would get about the relative merits of The Smiths over, say, Duran Duran. They weren’t really arguing about facts, but preferences. Similarly, when I hear teachers arguing that ‘their’ method is better than someone else’s, and that all unbelievers must perish, I despair. What many people in this situation are actually arguing is that with their kids, in their classes, with their skill sets, such-and-such a strategy works. The correspondents should listen to each other, try to work out if there is anything transferable between their experiences, and then move on, safe in the knowledge that there may be no definitive, universal panacea to every classroom, every student.
2. International comparisons may be less useful than people hope.
|Here come the educational consultants!|
I know this may crush the ambitions of politicians everywhere when I say- and I feel comfortable saying this, because I’m a teacher and not some hard-on who worked in PR for a few years before becoming a minister for education- that what works in one school might not work in another school, because of the enormous amount of variables dividing them. So how much less comparable might the education systems of two different countries be? I know that the Scandinavian Tiger is currently getting more attention than Lady Gaga’s knickers, but do you remember when Ireland was seen as the economic tiger, and a model which we should emulate? Or Poland? Or Japan? Tigers have a tendency to turn into scrawny Toms after a time. Perhaps they were on the upswing of a normal fluctuation model? Perhaps they’re just different. Perhaps, perhaps. We don’t know. If I hear one more ‘We should be like the Finns because they [fill in the social blank]’ then I’ll chin someone. Maybe they do well because they like licorice?
I know schools where kids are allowed to come in on flexitime. Some schools let kids out at lunch. Some seal them in like a space station. Some have uniforms; some do not. Some of them are run badly, and some well. Some could do better by imitating others, and some have the balance right.
Hitting the right note at the right time is a craft and an art, for a teacher and for a school. What works at one point, with one class, with one school, might not work another day, with another cohort, in another area- or even over time. That’s why teaching is hard- rewarding, but hard. There is no formula that we can all work towards; children- people- defy moronically precise classification and compartmentalisation. It’s one thing that’s so glorious about being human; our variability, our potential, our almost mystical levels of indeterminism. I call it free will.
What’s the formula for a relationship, exact to three decimal places? Until someone can tell me that, every teacher has the right to their own methods. We are not reagents in a test tube, nor are we blocks in a Rubik’s Cube. We are humans. Some of us are teachers. And teaching is not a science.