Voice Protection and Projection for Teachers (and for Theresa)…

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I felt sorry for Theresa May. Coughing, spluttering, losing your voice whilst trying to retain a semblance of dignity during a speech must have been quite a trial. It is a trial many teachers have been through and will go through. A teacher’s voice is the most important tool in his or her armoury, lose it and it is difficult to teach.

Some of the reactions to Theresa’s performance are typical of any group of children when faced with a teacher who has struggled to retain authority over the class finding herself with a bad cold and a voice that is slowly but determinedly giving up the ghost. For any teacher it would be a trial, for a struggling teacher it is far worse. Yet there are things a teacher can do to stop the situation from getting to that point, a ten point plan for keeping your voice (except in the most extreme circumstances).

I have been giving voice projection and protection classes for teachers for over twenty five years now, a popular day course that can really help teachers be heard and be understood in the biggest classrooms with even the most ‘enthusiastically rowdy’ of classes; these, in no particular order, are my tips for teachers and Theresa for keeping that voice in a better shape.

  1. Speak from the gut, the ‘diaphragm’, breathe deeply, use a lot of air so that the throat doesn’t take the strain. Ensure you take a deep breath before you speak, don’t be afraid of the pause. This should be your normal mode of delivery.
  2. If you have a ‘frog in your throat’ try not to clear your throat, instead put your head back and gulp some air. If May had done this she might have not gone into the spiral of difficulty she went into. Saying that, people would’ve wondered what on earth she was doing…
  3. Open the mouth wide enough to allow yourself to be heard, shaping each word deliberately enjoying both the consonants and the vowels.
  4. If your voice is feeling strained try not to speak too much, maybe set tasks that involve the class in more silent work than usual.
  5. Don’t drink too many caffeine drinks or much alcohol… and don’t smoke…
  6. Do drink water.
  7. Take up singing, especially on the way to work (Hi Ho!) or in the shower. Warms up the voice.
  8. Speak to the person furthest away from you or to an object that is far away at the other side of the room.
  9. Don’t try lots of cough sweets and medicines, some, if used a lot, can make your throat drier.
  10. Stand or sit positively, not slouched and use gestures and facial expressions to emphasise what you’re saying.

oh and make sure any display work is firmly attached to the walls.

Good luck!

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Knowledge Belongs to the Many, Not the Few

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Angela Rayner’s speech to the Labour Party conference contained many interesting ideas. The National Education Service, of course, echoes the UK’s beloved NHS:

The next Labour Government will create a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave system supporting everyone throughout their lives. It would start in the early years, where we know it has the most impact in changing people’s lives – just like my life was changed by a Labour Government.

And Rayner’s backstory is an important one, secondary modern, left school at sixteen, is as much a part of our school experience as left school at 18 with three A levels to go to Russell Group Uni.

The idea of education starting through Sure Start centres – maybe helping children to read and write and do number early on is a pertinent one.

To never give up on children, on people, is also important, again Rayner refers to her own experiences:

Workplace education meant we had the chance to learn more and earn more. Other people need that chance. So, our National Education Service will be lifelong, providing for people at every stage of their life.

This idea of lifelong learning is a vital one. I think every business and industry should either provide training or give employees the time and the wherewithal to study. Rayner wishes to start the conversation about what a National Education Service would be like:

I look forward to that conversation, to visiting schools, colleges, and universities, to talking to pupils, parents, teachers, and businesses, so we can truly build a National Education Service for the many, and not just the few.

This brought her to the strongest part of her speech:

The Labour Party was founded to ensure that the workers earned the full fruit of their labour.  Well, the sum of human knowledge is the fruit of thousands of years of human labour. The discoveries of maths and science; the great works of literature and art; the arc of human and natural history itself; and so much more that there is to learn. All of it should be our common inheritance. Because knowledge belongs to the many, not the few.

This is our historic purpose as a movement. Not just to be a voice for the voiceless.

But to give them a voice of their own. That is the challenge we face. And it is what we will do, together.

This is exactly what education is for. I heard no-one shout Rayner down with calls of: ‘Whose knowledge? Whose inheritance?’ In these concluding remarks she embodied all that is best in the great liberal arts tradition, the great works, knowledge for the many and giving them a voice of their own.

And yet later that same day in Tom Watson’s speech we heard a call for a very different kind of education:

In an age when every child has access to all the knowledge that has ever existed on a device that fits in the palm of their hand, just teaching them to memorise thousands of facts is missing the point. Michael Gove’s curriculum reforms were a useless return to the past – obsessed by what children can remember, instead of how they use the knowledge they have.

The confusion here seems to be about memory and ‘having’ knowledge. Having a device in one’s pocket doesn’t mean ‘having’ that knowledge, just as sleeping with a dictionary under your pillow doesn’t mean you’ll become highly articulate overnight. A child, indeed an adult, does have to learn something and this means committing learning to memory – Gove notwithstanding.

We don’t yet know what the jobs of the future will be, so we’ve got to teach children not just what to learn but how to learn. And how to be. Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning. Transferable skills they can adapt as the new world swirls around them.

In this part of his speech Watson reminds us of the problematic 2007 National Curriculum, where skills and the unlikely nature of their easy transferability is to be suddenly absorbed by children who will, no doubt, ‘have’ these skills in a downloadable form from their phones.

Watson wants our kids to be educated for the unknown:

economy of the future.

Where… Angela Rayner… will lead an education system that prepares our young people for a world we can’t yet see.

A utopian hope built through utilitarian means.

The next Labour Government will educate and train a nation of workers that are the most creative and adaptive on the planet. We’ll give working people the tools to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than restricting them to a digital elite.

The digital economy succeeds only when it gives each of us the means to realise our true potential. Which doesn’t stop in our schools. It must be threaded throughout our economy, throughout our lives.

This is not education, it is training. It is an apprenticeship in becoming working fodder for the needs of business. But business should be providing this. Training for jobs that do or don’t exist should be provided by companies throughout a person’s life, training and retraining them. Yes Government can help with this – it might be a National Training Service – but it’s not a national education service.

Education is about the quality of a human life, it examines what it is to be human in this world. It teaches knowledge that should belong to the many and not the few, this is truly a great hope but if Labour are to return to Government I worry that instead of teaching the great books and thoughts they will, instead, insist on a second rate diet of scientism in which:

Self-awareness, emotional intelligence, social skills, creativity and collaborative learning

take the place of

the sum of human knowledge [from] the fruit of thousands of years of human labour

Please don’t let this be so.

Views.

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An innocent tweet? Apparently, for some, it was all too much. Comments about rows instead of groups, chairs facing one way and not the other followed… and ‘seating plans’ it became a proxy battleground for traditional and progressive minded teachers to make their points. Our tweeter even got called an abuser and a probable victim of abuse… I kid you not…

anyway, my view:

The first classroom I taught in was, actually, a school hall. Through the windows was a view of a tower block. I was told to teach the class away from the windows because the ‘bullet’ holes in the windows were caused by a disgruntled ex-pupil who lived in the flats and was taking pot shots at the school with whatever calibre of BB gun he possessed.

The last classroom I taught in was a ‘black box’ where the entire room was painted black and heavy black curtains covered the windows which, in any case were over six foot off the ground. So ‘views’ were not really my thing, most of the time.

As for chairs and tables…

I didn’t have them. A seating plan was an odd thing in my mind. Chairs and tables were scary enough, when I had to teach a cover lesson in a classroom I was struck by how little freedom the teacher had to move around and how easy it was for pupils to ‘hide’ what they were doing.

Teachers who explain the seating plan is so they can get to know the names of the children might have a point, it was always a struggle to get to know everyone’s name, especially as, in the drama room, the little actors were always changing their names – to fit with the character they were playing. Nightmare. But getting to know the name isn’t about them sitting in the same place and reading it off a plan pinned to a teacher’s desk – it is about remembering who they are… making an effort. Difficult, much easier to call every kid ‘darling’ but that was a step too ‘dramary’ for me… so i’d just point and shout: “You…!” Although I would alternate between choosing groups and pairs and allowing friendship groups and pairs mostly it was done by chance – who was near who after another activity. Final groups for a long term group project were always done in negotiation between the pupils and me.

Later I purchased some ‘seminar chairs’ for moments of writing and a white board on wheels; I positioned both the chairs and white board in different areas of the room depending on whim. In the end, habit meant this became a usual place. And in our sixth form ‘seminar’ room, the seats faced a board with the students backs to the windows. Made sense in so many ways.

It is interesting how our views are shaped and exposed in such unguarded moments as planning a classroom layout and/or writing a seating plan. The teacher who tweeted the ‘view’ from her classroom is most probably an excellent teacher, with a fixed whiteboard, with an excellent point of view, and her classroom layout might express her darker purpose… teaching and learning are important acts that need focus and concentration… on the subject being taught.

 

The Need for a Progressive Attitude

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In her thoughtful essay ‘The Crisis in Education’, Hannah Arendt addresses the difficulty of teaching in the modern world. If you go into teaching with the sole purpose of making a real difference, changing the world one child at a time, you might end up doing nothing of the sort.

A revolutionary or radical attitude is needed in the adult realm because we always need to remake our world. The world is always on the verge of ruin and a traditionalist conservative view where one stands and merely ‘admires the ruins’ will do nothing to make the world a great inheritance for our children.

We should try to make the world a better place than it is. Always. This doesn’t mean an unalloyed progressive mindset is a good thing. It does mean that our arguments are continual, our disagreements fundamental and our need to work together essential. Education has an important role in this, we need to prepare children to take part in the conversations, the arguments and help them develop the wherewithal to do, to contribute and to make change.

In order to do this one can imagine the unthinking classroom being full of novelty, in which the ruins are not examined and the future is always in sight. A classroom that shapes the new utopia and children practice the skills with which they will actively make their contribution. A room where their will is the authority and in which the teacher has the role of guiding them, responding to their playful desires and wishes. This world, shaped by the teacher’s idealism, and the burgeoning youthful enthusiasm will not be tainted by the old.

Here then is the paradox, this world that comes into being will not be radical, as it will have no root. Shaped by a tyranny of the present, it won’t understand the ruins it knocks down to build its gleaming new pathways and concrete blocks – or even the blocks it is cladding. Arendt sees the role of the teacher as a difficult one for an idealist, for the teacher’s job is to bring the past into the realm of the young:

To avoid misunderstanding: it seems to me that conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity… But this holds good only for the realm of education, or rather for the relations between grown-ups and children, and not for the realm of politics, where we act among and with adults and equals. In politics this conservative attitude–which accepts the world as it is, striving only to preserve the status quo–can only lead to destruction, because the world, in gross and in detail, is irrevocably delivered up to the ruin of time unless human beings are determined to intervene, to alter, to create what is new…

Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation… Because the world is made by mortals it wears out… The problem is simply to educate in such a way that a setting–right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured. Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old, can dictate how it will look. Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world, which, however revolutionary its actions may be, is always, from the standpoint of the next generation, superannuated and close to destruction…

the modern crisis is especially hard for the educator to bear, because it is his task to mediate between the old and the new, so that his very profession requires of him an extraordinary respect for the past. 

If, however the teacher is determined to make the child make the future in a certain way by dictating the terms of the newness of the world that they make we defeat our darker purpose. The child cannot be told how to draw the new world, they can however be painted pictures of the old one, and these pictures must be painted with warts and all. Cromwell is a great example, hugely important figure, hugely flawed and the English Civil War and its ramifications painted in as many shades of grey one can muster.

As the past isn’t one story but a continuation of one damn argument after another, children should be made aware of these arguments, that we admire ruins but the reason that they are ruins might be this… or this… we conserve in order to learn. We treat the pupil as a stranger to these facts and fictions we teach and by presenting arguments, dialectic, we give them the old world to ensure they will be able to intervene, alter and create the new.

The balance between presenting the old and the arguments within is a careful act. This includes, for example, what should be read and how it should be read. These questions are vital when considering the design of a curriculum and if we listen to the words of Arendt we are helped in our choices.

The trivium curriculum gives shape to these choices – the grammar – ‘the structures, the ‘ruins’ of the past, are examined in context, and, later, examined when the arguments of the past and the present are brought to bear, and, finally, the pupil, with this knowledge, is given the wherewithal, the ‘voice’ with which to express herself. She expresses herself freely within the constraints offered, by accepting or rejecting these chains (or degrees thereof) and offers herself up to the criticism of her teacher and, eventually, her peers. This is a truly progressive approach, rooted in the past.

The Post-Modern Classroom.

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I asked Terry Eagleton what he thought the difference between modernism and post-modernism might be. He suggested that in modernism God was not quite out of the picture, he was just around the corner. In the post-modern, however, God had gone, He was never there.

What on earth would a post-modern classroom be like?

Lyotard refers to the post modern collapse of the grand narratives – the stories that kept us going, that told us of our world had been found to be untrue, all that is left is scrambling around on a rubbish heap. He wrote:

Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.

Unwilling or unable to believe, the teacher in the post-modern classroom would want his charges to be equally incredulous. This post-modernism would be a disaster for a classroom. Reading stories would become difficult: ‘This morning’s grand narrative is where the self identified ‘wild thing’ ‘Max’ – a name chosen for him by his oppressive mother who sent him to ‘his’ bedroom without supper – but who gave her this power? A hegemonic power that merely rests on birth order… like Alice in Wonderland another escapist fantasy fiction in which a dream-like stupor is an excuse for creating multiple fictions, factions, here the, whom I label as a boy, and who am I to label him? Merely a teller of this story. The writer of which is a dead white male, which renders this whole narrative problematic…’

is postmodernity the pastime of an old man who scrounges in the garbage-heap of finality looking for leftovers, who brandishes unconsciousnesses, lapses, limits, confines, goulags, parataxes, non-senses, or paradoxes, and who turns this into the glory of his novelty, into his promise of change? (Lyotard asks)

We all make mischief of one kind or another.

From a Marxist perspective the Post-Modern shift was one that signified a change in the relationship between the person and the economic system. As jobs change, as the grand narratives of ‘class’ become more splintered and continue to do so due to mechanisation people identify less with what they do and more with what they buy.

I shop, therefore I am

Still related to the economic system but less as producers and more as consumers – identity becomes all important. I buy my identity through clothes, other paraphernalia, cultural goods become my domain. I am what I decide to say I am.

Instead of a revolutionary class, we have battles for ‘power’ waged in the cultural arena. Fashion and identity politics, inextricably linked with desperate attempts to create new narratives before they become unfashionable and collapse under the weight of their own incredulity. For a cultural relativism in which everything has equal ‘truth’ to everything else is constantly under threat. If my truth is to hate you for what you are and your truth is to be what you are at what point do I stop from murdering you? What grand-narrative is there to stop me?

Freely being what we want – all diverse – equally accepted – our utopia – no place – is actually a very dangerous place indeed. We have no argument in this place against the forces who believe in darker grand narratives, all we can say is – hey we believe you have a right to believe what you want to believe, but we don’t actually because, well… If the material, natural and spiritual are merely stories then these stories can’t half jolt us out of our complacency.

If fashion and change are fetishised, if one day I think this, am this, but today I’m not… if we all scrabble around on rubbish heaps picking up on ideas and it’s just cultural shifts, like turtles, all the way down then what world are we passing on to our children? Meaningless.

A child needs grand narratives. Needs something to hold onto. Needs stability. Needs stories, fictions, factions. Identity needs moments of fixedness, routines and rituals. We all do. A classroom that deliberately sets out to unfix and disorientate the child is one where a child’s unhappiness is of no concern.

And in order to alleviate meaningless we give kids loads of stuff. Products to consume. We replace the void with the a-void. Avoid all the important ‘truthful’ things, because they don’t exist, instead all is the same… day to day gimmickry to keep the market going.

If we take away universal truths, if these aren’t even waiting patiently around the corner to be ‘found’, we cease to care about the things that truly matter. We are buffeted by the present and never have time to contemplate.

Children are born, unable to survive. We have to care for them, love them, feed them, protect them. We have to show them a world not of fear around every corner, or tell them just before they sleep that the sun may not rise in the morning and your father might die in the night they need to know that things will be mainly the same. Instead of trying to make them adapt to uncertainty and change, where everything is relative, by taking away the necessary narratives by which we can grow strong, we need grand stories. Taking them away won’t make our children strong, it will make them paranoid.

Thank goodness it doesn’t exist, (not forgetting it can’t exist because the classroom is, itself, a grand narrative) for the post-modern classroom would be a sad place. At one point we might feel emancipated and free but this would soon descend into rootlessness and a desire to return home – to that grand narrative of the nest – where our supper its waiting for us, and it’s still warm.

 

The Dangers of a Personalised Curriculum

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Trying to fit a personalised curriculum around the desires of a child is a dangerous idea. If we only ever follow the extreme individualisation where the child’s own innate tastes are paramount we might never move out of McDonalds.

The argument for personalisation goes hand in hand with the idea that much that is studied is of equal value. As long as they’re reading something it doesn’t matter what it is. Why not let a child pursue their own interests? Well, because sometimes those interests might not be in their own best interests. Great Art teaches us truths, just as much as science can. Just not the same ‘type’ of truth.

In a conversation with a science teacher about ‘why we teach Shakespeare’ I suggested it’s because his message is universal, a great expression of the human condition, and exactly the sort of thing that a great education should be focused upon. Absorb a child in the words of Shakespeare and she has a companion for life.

‘It’s all subjective,’ was the reply…

And I tried to reply: yes we are talking about the ‘subjective’ but some things are better than other things and, as teachers, we need to teach children how to make the right choices – how to discern quality in all the arts, how to develop taste, how to open one’s heart to beauty and how to get involved in the conversation. It is important that the teacher opens the world of the subjective so that it becomes a place in which a child can traverse confidently.

For Kierkegaard it was the subjective truth that mattered. For him:

The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.

It is the passionate embrace with this ‘subjective’ truth, which is a constant striving towards something, knowing it has depth, knowing it has infinite engagement and argument at its core which works like Shakespeare continue to have for us that make them great.

‘I’m a relativist.’ Said the science teacher. ‘There are objective truths which is the realm of science and everything else is relative.’

For Kierkegaard objective truth suffers for once known it no longer needs us to engage with it deeply. For some this is why they miss Shakespeare’s importance, because they switch off when they are told he is ‘good’.

But the scientist who is striving, wanting to know more, engaged in a struggle to find out is on a similar trajectory to those trying to find the truth in the subjective realm. This, not quite known, quest – keeps us involved. This is the realm in which science and art can come together.

Shakespeare is great, but how great? Shakespeare tells us truths but how true?

The need to teach a pupil about quality is a central tenet when creating a curriculum for them. The alternative to quality driving our decisions, perhaps pandering to what we think they might like, is relativism – where everything has equal value, no truth, this just opens us up to a vile petulant cynicism. And instead of the engagement with great art we have personalisation of the worst sort. Whatever you think is good, is good. Not about truth, just individual gratification. The ‘well, it’s my opinion’ argument gets us into dangerous areas. The  inability to grasp the importance of subjective truths changes the centre of gravity from a relationship with great works into a full focus on one’s own self:

From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable

Mussolini (talking about his ‘relativism by intuition’)

Shoot the Target Grade

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Despite the person, who came to my school talking about how they arrived at estimated grades, saying that they should never be used as ‘target grades’, the school informed us that the data generated was to be used as a target grade for every pupil.

A grade set by English, maths results at key stage 2 will be used to create an aim for a pupil in year 10, a ‘minimum’ expectation in the GCSE exam…

in drama.

This was not all. I was then instructed to not only inform my pupils but to get them to write the grade on the front of their books so that they would remember it when ‘OfSTED’ came in. In order to ensure this was happening some SLT came into classes and asked a pupil or two: ‘What’s your target grade?’ If they didn’t know, they’d get told off. If they didn’t know, the teacher would get told off.

When I refused to get my pupils to put their grades on their books I got told off. I kept not doing it. After a threat of disciplinary procedures I eventually got my pupils to write the grades inside the books, whilst telling them they were nonsense, that in the drama room we didn’t care about the grade we just cared about the quality of the work. I was also expected to ‘grade them’ accurately every fortnight to see if they were ‘on’ target. This, again was ludicrous. Nigh on impossible in a drama class, well, at least, in my drama class I argued. And as for a one sentence improvement comment, a ridiculous waste of time. Feedback is verbal, I argued, in situ, to the child and is far more than a glib comment. None of this ingratiated me with my line manager.

All we needed, I told my pupils, was to make great work and maybe you’ll get a great grade… if the examiner is good enough.

I remember going through the ‘target’ grades with a class and a girl who loved drama, who was very enthusiastic and new to the school; I called her name, she came up to me to get her target grade…

‘E’.

She had tears in her eyes. I told her it was ludicrous. That I didn’t think it mattered, that tests in English and maths had no bearing on how good she was. She was to become such a great student, producing memorable work and was an extremely important member of the class.

I can’t recollect what grade she got in the end, it was either a B or an A, no matter. The other day I saw her on a terrestrial TV channel acting in a drama serial and acting superbly.

Whether her target grade had been an E or a B, it wouldn’t matter. The grade is a distraction. What the aim should be is not a grade but a profound engagement with the subject.

Yes we might need to get grades as currency but if we make this currency the be all and end all of our learning we cease to focus on the subject and instead see it as little more than the means to get a job or place in a college. Or just a fifth GCSE. Or Eighth. Cynical instrumentalism. The emphasis becomes less about the fascination with a body of knowledge and more about grade capital.

Estimated grades might have a purpose in the back office of a school, but they should not be shared as target grades with individual students. Especially outside of the subjects that were graded at key stage 2. Even in these subjects I think the sharing of the grade might be of little benefit. The focus in the classroom should be in the learning of the material, the knowledge needed, not ‘what do I need to do to get a C or a 4 or a 5…’

This is why I’d like to see us shoot the target grade…

dead.

Creating a Classroom Culture: The ‘Centre’

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Every subject is different, it has its own rhythms and constraints around which a positive classroom culture can be created. Getting changed for PE, putting on lab coats, getting out exercise books and pens, all these seemingly mundane rituals are an essential part of creating a positive working atmosphere.

In the drama room I have no chairs, there are no ‘set’ places for a child to sit, they can run free, make a lot of noise and get away with doing anything they want because, if challenged, they can say: ‘But, we was only acting sir…!’

The drama classroom is thus a terrifying place for the non-specialist cover teacher to venture into and deliver a lesson because all the more usual paraphernalia of the classroom culture are missing. Chaos, far from being hidden away, is in the ascendancy.

This is why, to me, discipline is an essential component of a classroom culture. It’s the same in every class, of course, and the discipline that works best for me is that which is drawn from and refers to the nature of the subject being taught as well as that of the class being taught, the school in which the lesson takes place and the character of the teacher teaching it.

As a drama teacher, the first concept I teach a class is ‘how to centre’. Specifically, how to be quiet, how to be still, and how to obey commands. This, I suggest, is the most important state to conquer. Students have to stand in a space, equidistant from each other, from walls etc. with their arms by their side, feet shoulder-width apart, back, neck, head straight and eyes closed. And, before you ask, this is adapted for individual students who are physically unable to do it. They breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. I then do some other physical exercises and when I say ‘centre’ they have to adopt the ‘centred’ position within 10, 5, then 3 seconds.

This physical focal point is the heart of the classroom culture. Once mastered they learn how to move into other states, how a slight change of the foot or arm, a change in where the ‘centre of gravity in a character’ might be. They see how important the neutral position is, in order ‘to act’, ‘to do’, they need to start from neutral.

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In other lessons I teach in classrooms, I use the same idea, to create pause, focus, reflection. An expectation of individual attention to themselves, I call it ‘sit down, shut up, eyes down, read…’ (or write). It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The point is to have a place where all know there is silence, stillness, reflection, and it feels calmer. This can be the normal state for most of the work in a classroom, but, importantly, it is not a punishment state. This is an essential part of the ritual and discipline of the teaching of the subject and it is present from day one. ‘When I say: ‘——————‘, you do ‘———————-‘. And, later, once mastered, I pick up on their reading or writing. They get to learn that it is important that they do it, because I will question them on it; if writing, it is important they do it, because I will read out what they’ve written. (Not all, of course, but always one, two or more.)

If it takes a minute, five minutes, a whole lesson or term, this is the most important lesson to get across, because from here all other positive elements of a flourishing classroom culture can flow.

Of course, it’s not the only part. It’s, literally, just the start.

A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!

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A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrate the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only a few months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

Nature or Nurture? Free Will and Education.

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If everyone smoked twenty cigarettes a day the difference between those who got lung cancer and those who didn’t would be almost 100% heritable, even though the cause would be almost 100% environmental. Heritability depends on our environment.

It is believed that IQ is around 70% heritable, if all children were to have an educationally rich environment in which to grow then, due to this environment, the effect of heritability on IQ would increase. If children were brought up in an educationally damaging environment the effects of heritability on IQ would reduce dramatically.

Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London, says that: “Any change in environment has a much greater effect on IQ than genes.”

Twin Studies are often used to justify arguments around genetic determinism. Spector, who has been studying identical twins for over twenty years, believes that when it comes to commenting on their similarities: “We put much more importance on these things than we should,” he thinks their differences are just as important, though not often commented upon in studies. Genes are possibilities, not a story of what we will become. Our environments help write the stories.

Nature and nurture both have roles to play.

But what of free will? If we are a product of genes and of our environment do we have much of a say in what we do? Who is this ‘I’ whom we refer to? Buffeted by both, it seems we have little to do but blame or thank history, geography and biology.

This is what it comes down to at the moment of choice about something, are we responsible for what we choose to do? You might say you are guided by values, beliefs, by ‘who you are’ and yet people do change their mind about quite fundamental things. Renouncing a religion or political affiliation for example… would this be due to a change in the environment, to what you are reading or who is convincing you? Would you be different if you were born in North Korea rather than South London? Or Hampshire?

If we accept biases we are born with, are we more free to reject them? Are we more open to the feelings and beliefs of others? Or do we hate them for it?

Is freedom of will completely without constraints? What would a person be like who was not in some way a servant of his or her environment and biology? Someone completely free would probably have to be locked up for his or her own good. One minute they would murder, the next they would laugh and cry and compose a symphony, and play it loud at 1 am.

Yet, we know, when we do something that it is the ‘I’ that does it. I am a product of my environment and genes, that I might be a servant to them is one thing. It doesn’t mean I’m a slave.

Do we need schools? Yes. To create a positive environment in which all can flourish, and in which they can realise their freedom. This freedom involves constraints and becoming aware of their importance. That everyone’s environment is different makes a difference, this is where our lived humanity comes into play. In the end a society in which everyone has to smoke twenty a day is, of course, inhuman, but we should aim for everyone to have an education, and a good one. However, were we to receive exactly the same education worldwide that would be inhuman too, although our differences in IQ would be  more heritable, what would we have lost?

So teach, learn, and not worry too much about our genes… they make a difference but if you want to make a large difference teach great stuff and teach it well. It can be life-changing and life affirming.

 

NB: In writing this post I am indebted to the book Freedom Regained by Julian Baggini it is also the source of the quotes.