I think the three ‘Rs’ of Reading wRiting and aRithmetic should be expanded to the four Rs and include Rhetoric or oRacy, in other words: talk should be an essential core component of a good education. Schools should do their utmost to ensure children read well, write well, do their sums well and talk well.
The EEF reported this week that modest gains in English, science and maths can be made in upper primary school if pupils are taught in a way that uses the dialogic teaching methods as proposed by Robin Alexander. As it puts it, in the interim report, ‘Changing Talk, Changing Thinking‘, the approach to classroom talk is a specific method:
defined and developed by Robin Alexander, [which is] in contrast with some other approaches to oracy…
So this is not just about talk in the classroom, nor about just any method of approaching talk, it is specific to Alexander’s version of dialogic teaching. His approach:
attends as closely to the talk of the teacher as to that of the pupil, because it is through the teacher’s talk that the pupil’s talk is either confined within the tightly controlled boundaries of recitation or encouraged through discussion and dialogue to enlarge its discursive and semantic repertoire and hence its cognitive power. Hence the focus… on the balance of closed and open questions, recitation and dialogue, and brief and extended pupil contributions. For while dialogic teaching, again unlike some other approaches, accepts the need in certain circumstances for closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions, it also affirms that unless the quantity and quality of pupil talk is extended well beyond these traditional patterns of exchange into a much more extensive interactive repertoire the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk will remain largely unrealised. In the end, therefore, it is the pupil’s talk that matters most, and it is to the teacher’s agency in securing the enhancement of pupil talk that dialogic teaching is directed…
Alexander’s 11 categories of ‘learning talk’ (narrate, explain, analyse, speculate, imagine, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue, justify, question)… were modified for coding purposes as 12 sub-types of extended pupil contributions which also include pupil responses to some of the key teacher talk moves. The modified coding categories for pupil learning talk were: expand/add, connect, explain/analyse, rephrase, narrate, evaluate, argue, justify, speculate, challenge, imagine, shift position. These were applied… to video transcript samples from both the intervention and the control groups at the mid-point of phase 2.
…the differences by that stage of the intervention were striking. Intervention group pupils were markedly more expansive in their contributions and exhibited much higher levels of explanation, analysis, argumentation, challenge and justification. Their talk, then, was clearly much more dialogic than that of their control group peers. Though there were between-subject differences, the overall pattern of intervention/control contrast obtained across all three subjects tested…
the intervention impacted positively on teacher questioning, teacher talk moves for probing pupil responses, the balance of recitation and discussion/dialogue, the length of pupil contributions and – critically for the quality of pupil thinking, understanding and learning – the pupils’ repertoire of what Alexander defines as ‘learning talk’.
Because the interventions were so wide ranging and the results so modest it is difficult to come to any conclusion about dialogic teaching as an approach to teaching and learning. There are also many imponderables, including the age of the children involved in the study. If they were older would the results have been more or less impressive? If the pupils were more secure in their subject knowledge, more expert, would they have gained more or less from Alexander’s methods?
The EEF report states that:
The approach, termed ‘dialogic teaching’, emphasises dialogue through which pupils learn to reason, discuss, argue, and explain in order to develop their higher order thinking as well as their articulacy.
When people talk about ‘higher order thinking’ I assume they are referring to some sort of taxonomy where ‘knowing stuff’ is at the bottom and ‘analysing or arguing about stuff’ is nearer the top. If so, is it then possible for teachers and pupils to move onto arguing about stuff too quickly and give the impression that ‘higher order thinking’ is being engaged, when in fact it isn’t? Can pupils ‘talk the talk’ but not ‘walk the walk’? A rejoinder to this might be but that is what the higher order thinking is for: to secure the knowledge. But, instead, could we be securing a method, beloved of some politicians, that of avoiding deep analysis because they want to avoid exposing a level of ignorance? I haven’t seen the videos and would love to see how probing the questioning was, how analytical the pupils were, how well constructed the arguing was, and also how all this talk reflected the quality of their ‘knowing their stuff’.
If we look at extracts from the ‘Coding Frame’ for analysis of video data we can see what was being measured. As far as I can ascertain it was the style of talk that was being analysed and not whether the talk was ‘correct’:
The analysis of the evidence seems to be of the talk and not its explicit connection to content. It is thus possible to suggest that whilst much of the talk might have been qualitative in terms of its performative nature, it might not be so in terms of the knowledge being discussed. Whilst the teacher asking ‘where’s your evidence?’ etc. might elicit the correct response, it might also elicit one that is completely wrong. Of course, this might not be the remit of the study, but it should be of crucial concern to the quality of teaching and learning. Data that connects talk to the knowledge being discussed might help us evaluate what type of talk is helping or, maybe, hindering understanding. Or it might be too difficult to compile.
In which case, I put my finger in the air and say that clearly classroom talk is a good thing but, there could be superior methods of classroom talk especially for children of upper primary age where garnering a level of knowledge might be more important than being able to argue about it straight away. What if the
closed questions, recitation and brief pupil contributions
were helping pupils make more substantial gains in their learning than the use of a:
much more extensive interactive repertoire [using] the full communicative and cognitive potential of classroom talk ?
I don’t know.
I just think sometimes I, and maybe other teachers, like to get on to the arguing, analysing and all the ‘fun’ stuff before enough knowledge has been secured. This can result in pupil confusion. In trivium terms I think of this as trying to get through the grammar quickly so that we can get onto the dialectic where the engaging stuff might be. Yet it’s not so engaging to discuss things that you don’t know anything about, and it’s better to listen a bit more to an expert talking about it, in other words, the teacher, or read a bit more about it in a book before one gets involved in a debate.
Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College on 22nd June 2017:
Here are the slides in PDF format from my talk at ResearchEd Rugby on July 1st 2017:
Perhaps I had a bit of sunstroke but it seemed to me that what the new OFSTED supremo, Amanda Spielman had to say was a ‘game’ changer. In her gloriously uplifting speech at the, equally gloriously uplifting, Wellington Festival of Education she said that:
One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.
To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.
Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:
“Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”
Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?
I think the reason that some leaders might have overlooked this question is due to a number of reasons, for example, it might be assumed that the body of knowledge is down to individual teachers or departments; leaders might assume that the national curriculum and exam rubrics ‘are’ the curriculum; and in our recent obsession with ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning leaders might have focused on the ‘performativity’ of teaching rather than the substance, the script*, that is being ‘performed’. Learning walks, lesson observations, CPD focused on ‘pedagogical’ gimmicks and tricks have all added to the impression that teaching is a performance accompanied by engaging activities through which children are entertained or kept busy. I have argued for a long time that pedagogy is not separate to curriculum, the two are intertwined, and if you focus merely on pedagogy then you are neglecting the most important of the two. Curriculum must come first.
Spielman went on to say:
I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.
For many teachers this is not a surprise at all, in fact for a lot of us in the classroom this has become the dominant mode of ‘efficient’ teaching, soundly teaching to the test to deliver results. This is inevitable in a high stakes culture and though for many it is the high stakes nature that causes this problem, I wonder that without that culture richer curricula would be the order of the day? I doubt it. For a number of teachers teaching has become a short term exercise where the lesson plan, scheme of work/topic and ‘getting them through the test’ approach has become the norm and the slow unfolding of the narrative of a rich curriculum has become a lost art.
And make no mistake, it is an art.
A great curriculum not only unfolds within subjects it occurs across subjects too. Spielman recognises this:
All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.
A rich, broad, curriculum, experienced by children, giving them a variety of knowledge and experiences to enrich their lives is a precious thing and it is the primary reason for a school to exist.
How to ensure this happens?
One could do worse than begin with the recommendations made by Amanda Spielman’s colleague at Ofsted, Sean Harford. He recommended that:
Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding, ‘need for numbers’? that’s up to the school, best way of ‘knowing’ (not ‘demonstrating’) the above.
This is something I have been working on for sometime, I would argue that a ‘trivium’ curriculum approach ensures that schools can provide a broad, rich curriculum with a focused design and intent with a variety of ways to know the impact that it’s having. To this end Tom Sherrington and I have, somewhat fortuitously, put together a ‘powerful curriculum’ day course in London on July 7th. Planned before the Spielman speech, this day will nevertheless look at its potential implications for schools. If you are interested in attending click here for the link.
If you are unable to make it and there are only a few places left we hope to do more in the future.
It is heartening to see that OFSTED ‘s explicit recognition of curriculum breadth and education for the sake of the knowledge learnt and its importance might help counteract the damaging effects of narrowing teaching and learning to ‘gaming’ the accountability system. That Ofsted has been part of the problem in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution in the future. I hope that Spielman’s speech will turn out to be a significant step in the right direction in which all children are able to access a broad rich curriculum that will help them live interested and interesting lives.
*NB, I am not advocating the scripting of lessons here.
German players seemed to have more to draw on as people than English counterparts; greater all round resources that helped them navigate tournaments and pressure points
Jonathan Northcroft: interview with Frank Lampard, Sunday Times, May 28th 2017
In our great debates about education: vocational vs grammar, 21st Century skills for the jobs that don’t yet exist vs academic education, something always seems to be missed and that is an academic education is good for all.
As Frank Lampard explains in the interview:
You’ll benefit if you bring through players who are intelligent. The best players in the world are smart and clever on the pitch and you can’t tell me that’s not a well rounded thing.
Lampard, educated at Brentwood Independent school, feels he was fortunate to have had a good education:
…not just maths and science, but life education – and these are big things that relate on the pitch. You see it how certain players hold themselves…
He sees it as a responsibility for all football clubs to cover – educate the youngsters especially those you pull out of school at 15/16… For those that don’t make it need a good education to fall back on and those that do make it need it to fall back on too. Part of Lampard’s history is his time at West Ham Football Club.
The academy of football set up by Ted Fenton at West Ham as the ‘Cafe Cassettari’ club, where social aspects such as welcoming and providing warm food, were expanded by Malcolm Allison:
…players would exchange views on the game and make tactical plans around the dinner table, illustrating their ideas with the use of salt and pepper pots. The culmination of those years of hard work, on and off the field, was the Second Division championship in 1958 – the springboard to great cup successes at a much higher level in the mid-60s … no one should underestimate the positive influence of Malcolm Allison’s earlier role in Hammers’ history
West Ham Club History: John Hellier
This idea should be taken further. We should realise the benefit of players and trainees knowing about Shakespeare, Goethe, Germaine Greer, Beethoven, CLR James, Brendan Behan, Gaugin, Virginia Woolf, Boadicea, Euclid, Euripides, St Augustine and Confucius; the poetry of life gives backbone to the poetry on the pitch.
Whether you are an academy of football or an ‘ordinary’ academy or school, an academic education should be for all. We are all children of a sacred olive grove (Hekademia (Ἑκαδήμεια)) dedicated to the Athena, goddess of wisdom, that gave rise to our word academia and to Plato’s famous academy.
And our children should benefit from a life dedicated to Athena too.
Whether they are to be footballers or scientists, leaders or followers, down on their luck or lucky, an academic education will enrich all their lives.
Traditional education is problematic. If it was perfect then there would be no cogent arguments against it. As Dewey made clear, what he termed as progressive education was a reaction due to “discontent with traditional education.” This discontent is based on important ideas. Dewey described traditional education being, “…in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside.” Even though: “…good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.”
the very situation [of traditional education] forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do—and learn… Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught… is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.
Instead he posits a progressive education that, instead of imposing an education from above, develops
expression and cultivation of individuality;
He sets up his progressive education in opposition to traditional modes:
to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.
Experiential, ‘free’ learning, in the here and now, with texts and teachers taking on a different role, to support the pupil in what is vitally appealing through an acquaintance with our current world and how it is changing.
This is all very exciting. Traditional teaching and texts are set up in opposition to our current, changing times.
Freire considered Dewey to be a key philosopher of education and they have ideas in common but Freire goes further than Dewey. Instead of a ‘democratic’ education Freire’s vision is revolutionary. He saw traditional education as brutal, he used the term ‘ideology of oppression’ to clarify the relationship between the traditional teacher and the pupil:
Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry…
…one does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation-the process of humanization-is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.
Here we have two of the greatest ‘progressive’ thinkers in education theory making important points about the limitations of traditional education.
These progressive arguments show great concern for the child, they argue that harm is being done to children, that they are being oppressed and they are not being introduced into our ever changing world.
The opposite of this would be unpalatable. Harming children by oppressing them is not a way to make them ‘truly human’. If that is the best the ‘at best, misguided’ approach of ‘oppressive’ education can do, then who wants to have any part in it?
Praxis is ‘active’ rather than passive and, for a Marxist like Freire, praxis has a revolutionary intent. It demands creative action in the present to remake and obtain the future. It requires children to be aware of the realities of life, to be critical of these realities and then go about changing them. This can only happen by freeing people. By freeing children. Not by oppressing them.
The argument is that children should not be passive receptors of handed down discriminatory, artificial, arbitrary knowledge. They should be the makers of their future. In order for this to occur they need to be impatient and restless and want to invent and reinvent the world. This means that education is a creative and political act. Whether it is democratic or revolutionary the progressive challenge to traditional education is one of power. From teacher to pupil.
Whether through revolution or democracy, power and status is firmly established as being an important part of education, texts of the past and teachers as all-knowing ‘depositors’ of static knowledge are to be resisted. Tradition is stasis, progress is movement. Authority is challenged: ‘Why are you teaching me this? Whose knowledge? Whose history? Whose science? In order to make the future we have to be critical of the present. ‘My interests are the following… this is what I want to know about’. ‘I need to get by in today’s world, and I need to build a future for myself and my comrades.’
Who wants to stand in the way of democratic rights?
GK Chesterton articulated tradition’s refusal to give up in the face of the forces of the present taking democratic control of the future:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
The fact that this is heavily ‘masculinised’ language might make it easy to scoff at, but let us look beyond that and at what is being said. Tradition, the voices of the past, should not be neglected just because they are dead. Do we forget our father’s words as soon as he takes his last breath? Do we celebrate when we are rid of our grandmothers and their stifling oppression of us? Do we rejoice when the modern crushes the historical?
I think we sometimes do and sometimes we don’t, it depends very much on the quality of the relationships and the way that their wisdom and their foolishness is passed onto us.
I think Dewey and Freire have important things to say about education, I would be wrong to reject them because they are dead men. They are part of the history of education and as an educator I should make sense of the past and the present in order to critique it. As Freire would have wanted.
It is political. The left wing voice of Freire, the more liberal voice of Dewey, represent a challenge to the conserving voices of tradition. The challenge is to an idea of sanctity, of the need for authority, and a loyalty to our forbears; three ideas that the progressive mindset doesn’t tend to hold dear. But the conservative voice is important. In a truly democratic arrangement no voices should be extinguished. The great ‘conservative’ philosopher, Edmund Burke talked of society being a contract:
It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
This idea is an essential one in education. Dewey neglects the importance of this by dismissing it: cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, but should the past be an irrelevance for the political progressive?
The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
The voices of the past far from being inactive are anything but. These voices are not extolling an ideology of oppression but are, instead, as human as our present and our future. It is these voices that become authoritative through time and are, indeed, sometimes idiotic and oppressive. But we need the traditional voice:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
And even if we see everything as ultimately futile, we are comforted or challenged, but ultimately made wiser and better by these voices.
By teaching Dewey, Freire, Shelley and Shakespeare we have an inheritance to pass on. And if the children in front of us see no purpose, are bored by this, do not want to learn it, we have a duty to the voices of the past to ensure that their voices are still heard and also to the children of the children in front of us, for they should bear the imprint of the past too.
In the past we have voices of oppression and voices of revolution. If, in the future, anyone is going to rise up, it is the voices of the past that will inspire them.
The problem with traditional education occurs when it forgets that it has a contract with the present and the future. The problem with progressive education is when it forgets the loyalty to the authority and sanctity of the voices of the past.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
As we admire the ruins of the past, we learn about our present and begin to make our futures.
A liberal arts education has this relationship at its core. A true education tradition that stretches back over the centuries, has the often contradictory tension between past, present and future to contend with. And this is what truly liberates the child. The liberal arts teacher doesn’t see this as problematic, they are not ‘oppressing’ children or ‘banking’ deposits of knowledge nor are they teaching ‘finished’ products of a fixed world. The liberal arts tradition is an ongoing dialogue throughout all time; a continuing conversation of humankind.
This is truly democratic. Indeed, revolutionary.
Parents who have children at independent school must wonder what the fuss is about, what with their two week half term break in October, their three week holiday at Easter and eight week summer break, they are used to being able to get good deals from holiday companies.
Children at independent schools have more time on holiday, excepting those who board, this can mean more time on family jaunts than the average state educated child. Does this ‘missed education’ (in comparison with state educated pupils) mean they are educationally neglected?
If a parent of a state educated child were to take said child out of school one or two weeks earlier at, say, the end of the summer term, would it mean missed opportunities? Would it mean essential learning forever lost? Would it mean a backward step in a child’s potential earning power?
They might miss out on end of term word searches and half watched videos, cake, fizzy pop, and a visit from a local dignitary or assorted enthusiasts for some thing or other. They might miss out on an end of term goodbye to a supply teacher, a retiree, or young teacher who has a future somewhere else, or some despondent member of staff who has got out of the game. They might miss some fun…
And, in some lessons, they will miss out on vital up to the wire education that…
…they were always likely to forget due to the impending long summer break.
And if it’s that important it will be repeated anyway, but they might miss homework, though anything really important shouldn’t be left for homework tasks, although we can if we have to post homework tasks on the school web pages in a ‘parent’ or ‘pupil’ portal.
How much of the education pupils receive in private and state schools is so necessary that they can’t miss it? Blink, sneeze, have flu, compassionate leave, or ‘whatevs’ and your education is ruined?
Some times in school are more important and vital than others but I don’t believe that the week before the end of the summer term is always that special. Of course some schools might do some very valuable work at that time that might beat a week or two at DisneyLand, but what if the child was embarking on a grand tour of classical Greece and Italy with their family and/or friends?
Perhaps judgements as to time off from school to take a holiday should take into account two pieces of evidence:
And if 2 is higher than 1 then no fine should be levied.
This would be fairer than just tarring all with the same brush.
Oh, and it has great cultural snob value, which can only be a good thing… Cheaper holiday in the Peloponnese anyone?
Here are the slides from my talk at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday 1st April, at the University Examination Schools:
A jaunt through some essential drama teaching
I presented a session on the ‘rules’ needed to make a play work in the classroom or on the stage. These ‘rules’ are the rules that repertory theatre companies used to put on a new play, every week, without the need of a director. Answering questions such as: Where should Macbeth enter from? How about the three witches? Where on the stage should Hamlet do a soliloquy? How do you make iambic pentameter sound interesting even if you’ve no idea what the hell is being said? How does an actor tell the audience all they need to know about a character in the first ten seconds of their performance? Otherwise known as:
Proper acting for proper teachers.
Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.
The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our, humanity.
Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.
It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.
For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.
There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.