Teaching: A Tale of Two Universes

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When I teach, it sometimes feels as if I have developed the ability to step between dimensions.
How else to explain the feelings of disorientation?
I work with some of the most talented, thoughtful, well-read and intelligent people I have ever met, in a stimulating, fascinating and enriching environment.
I have the very good fortune to be surrounded by people who are interested in how best to move teaching and learning forward in the 21st Century. We really are living and working in one of the most interesting times there has ever been. We are learning more and more about the brain through neuroscience. We are learning more and more about the psychology of learning. We have so many resources that we can pool and it has become much easier to collaborate and gather all the people and disciplines with an interest in education together.
We are on the cusp of a massive paradigm shift in education and the lives of our students will be different to ours in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. It is our job to help them into a future we really can’t see. We should be teaching them to adapt, to work with whatever happens and to be tenacious, resilient and adaptable.
We have to teach them how to learn and to go on with their lives without us.
So we read and meet and talk. We have long, interesting discussions and compare research data. We are passionately committed to changing education for the better.
Then, I go back to the classroom and I am swiftly buried beneath an unsustainable workload. Like all teachers, I am working obscenely long hours. I have to work long past the point where I am able to think clearly and creatively. The workload is guaranteed to put me on my knees by the time the next “holiday” (Ha!) rolls around.
I will end up in tears. I will fail to do everything I am supposed to do. I will make stupid mistakes. I will feel horribly guilty and I will doubt whether I can carry on being a teacher at all. Every term.
Every term starts with me having access to clear thinking, fresh ideas and energy. It is even likely that I will experience the “flow” state, which comes from doing something that I am good at and which offers high challenge and the knowledge that I am doing something worthwhile.
The last few weeks of every term are a different story; it becomes more like clinging to a storm-lashed cliff – face, hoping I can hang on until the “break” and will have time to make up for what I haven’t been able to do.
The really sad part of this? We know better. We are educators. We work with human minds every day. We are perfectly aware that stress, insomnia, anxiety, exhaustion; all the myriad symptoms of a human being in a state of long drawn-out emergency, (which we are not evolved to cope with,) are not only unlikely to result in a brain that functions well, but are in fact extremely unhealthy and will result in burn-out and damage for teachers and pupils alike.
I wouldn’t want anyone reading this to think that I consider my various bosses to be a bunch of sadists, intent on ruining the mental, physical and emotional health of everyone in the school. They are decent, caring and professional people.
But they are in an impossible position: While we have the government threatening to close schools and sack educators, if the people in charge of those schools don’t jump through the prescribed hoops, and force the teachers to do the same, it is impossible not to meet their demands, regardless of how ill-thought out and counter-productive they may be. To take the time and energy to try and persuade them to change has often proved too difficult and could bring on more unwanted attention-they are at breaking point too.
There will, of course, always be a few people who can handle, or even thrive on, the huge expenditure of energy that the current teaching culture requires. These people are often awesome to behold and the system would have collapsed long ago without them. The problem, though, is that this type of person is both rare and fairly likely to end up in charge, in whatever field they work. Secretaries of State and those in positions of authority are all more likely than the rest of the population to be the sort of people who have difficulty understanding when those who, however talented they may be in other areas, simply cannot cope with working at a pace and for an amount of time that precludes any semblance of a work/life balance.
That is most of us, by the way.
To blame it all on “Time-Management” is disingenuous to say the least. Of course, there is often scope for improvement in this area, but you can’t keep piling on the work without any regard for how long it all takes to do. The same goes for frequent changes, which are often implemented without any consultation with the people who have to make them work. Besides, once somebody is exhausted and stressed, they lose the ability to make decisions properly, prevent procrastination and to simply keep driving themselves forward. They may find themselves unable to get out of bed or so much as look at the word, “Education” on a website-both reactions I have experienced. We are not machines and neither are our students. Yet both they and we are just told to “Work harder; be more productive; give up on your own life” in order to succeed, or be labelled as lazy and selfish.
The politicians may not be best placed to understand, but people in education, even those who are able to handle a huge workload themselves, know all this is true. We have to argue our case and win the argument, because we know better and if we don’t do something about it, we are in danger of wrecking our education system altogether.
Educators themselves are the people who are best qualified to decide how best to educate. Learning is not a smooth, upward trajectory. To insist that a pupil makes a certain number of prescribed upward steps each year or term is to misunderstand the nature of learning. We have ended up in a situation where pupils are “not allowed” to fail. At anything. Ever. The pupils know this and many of them have internalised what we already know to be true; the idea that it is their teachers’ responsibility to ensure that they pass, regardless of the efforts they make themselves. Teachers’ progression up the pay scale is dependent on every pupil making this measurable progress. A pupil’s progress, therefore, is not just a measure of the pupil, but of the teacher. This is a huge mistake.
Of course we need accountability in education, but this is a crude and hopelessly inadequate measure of the teaching and learning that is taking place. Ofsted have said that they are looking for “progress over time”, but this is being interpreted as meaning that all our books need to be marked to within an inch of their (and our) lives. It may look like a pupil is not making “enough” progress, but what if the measuring tool does not take account of progress made in an area that is beyond the scope of whatever stage you happen to be measuring? Learning is messy and is sometimes not as easy to measure as all that. Often, learning has to be refined and it has to be revisited regularly. Sometimes, the most valuable lesson a student can learn is what happens when they don’t put in the effort: Failure.
We need failure. It is how we learn what not to do. It is an important driver of success. Handled properly- with the right balance of challenge and motivation, so that it doesn’t result in a permanent despondency and in giving up- it is what we use to learn and do better next time.
If our pupils never fail, they have no need for grit, resilience, a growth mind-set or intrinsic motivation; not coincidentally all the qualities our government and Ofsted complain that our young people lack and want them (us) to develop (in them). By denying failure to our students, we have also denied them the chance to develop these crucial character traits. If we don’t let them ever fail, they completely lose the link between their own efforts and success. They will have no reason at all to be proud of themselves, either.
What did we expect? Combine this with the facts that we have all outsourced an awful lot of what we previously used our brains for to the internet and other technological innovations, and that parents are all working so much that they find themselves with no time to teach life-skills and independence to their offspring, and the economic situation which means there is a very real possibility that they will have to live with their parents for far longer than the generation before them, and we have a perfect storm of learned helplessness.
We did it. It is our fault: Teachers, parents and the whole of our society. We have “helped” our children so much that they are now pathetically ill-equipped for living independently, well into what used to be adulthood.
Well done us.
If we do not learn to do something for ourselves and then keep doing it past the point of simply “knowing” and into the realm of automaticity, we will simply never have it at our disposal. Just as we of generation X and older have all pretty much forgotten how to memorise phone numbers, so the next generation has never really learnt how to remember and use huge chunks of what we teach them. For an example from my own subject, they don’t see the point of learning punctuation, because either the computer does it for them, or what they write is so short that it is often unnecessary. So they never really learn why we use punctuation and how it contributes to meaning and become that little bit more helpless…I’m sure you can think of other examples without breaking much of a sweat. Also, if they do not understand how the brain works, they will not see the value of making the learning automatic, which requires continuously repeated effort. Effort is exhausting, learning is difficult- Why would you do it if it does not seem necessary? If they cannot fail, they are much less likely to put the effort into succeeding.
I have actually had students ask me variations on the question: “Why learn anything when the internet exists?” They don’t really realise that their brain is so much more than a giant information repository- that looking something up is not the same as understanding or manipulating information to create something new. As long as they are told the answer, that is all they think they need. They actually think of their teachers as sophisticated search-engines. How many times has a student become exasperated when their teacher won’t “help” them by simply telling them how to spell something, or even telling them exactly what to write?
Another side-effect of our results-driven system (and I do appreciate that qualifications are important- but they become useless unless the student is capable of applying that learning to new situations), is that we have all but destroyed any hope of our pupils developing intrinsic motivation without our intervening to make sure they do. The irony here, of course, is that the intrinsically-motivated pupil is more likely to see the point of making sure that they are understood and accurate when they produce the work needed to meet their goals, so the technical skills they need are more likely to be used and to “stick” in their memories.
The Achievement Point/ Behaviour Point culture involves only extrinsic motivation and we give next to no thought to any other kind. We think that offering prizes such as day-trips and ipads underline the importance of the achievement. Students see us bribing them to do well and conclude that it can’t be that good or important, or we wouldn’t need to resort to paying them to do it. We all know that desperation is a very unattractive quality. Would you date someone who offered to pay you to do so? Why are we so unable to share our enthusiasm for learning for its own sake? Could it be that we simply are desperate, knowing that our careers are on the line? Or are we so exhausted and stressed out with trying to meet impossible deadlines and goals that we find ourselves resorting to giving our students “help” so that we can move on before they are actually ready? The students end up “learning” for our sake, because we make them do it, and make sure they pass, but they are not doing it for themselves, so the learning is not valued and is very soon forgotten.
We are teaching them that only the exams matter and that it is we who must make sure they get the qualifications. So: No learning for the sheer pleasure of it; no learning because the world is simply amazing; no emotional involvement in the learning, which is one of the most valuable ingredients if that learning is to become stored in the long-term memory. I don’t mean to suggest that this never happens, but it is very much a happy accident, rather than something that is sought out and treasured. How I would love to let a pupil take their learning down an exciting and inspirational path, but even when this does start happening, I usually have to guide them back to make sure that I stick to our extremely tight termly schedule. My dream that the learning of punctuation, grammar and the rest will be much easier if it is tied to something that they really care about and want to get right, seems to be the ravings of a woefully naive recent recruit, even to myself at times.
I want to work in education for the rest of my life.
I really, really care about passing on a love of learning and the tools which make it not only possible, but enjoyable and actually inevitable. We should be transforming education using all the latest knowledge. There is so much good we should be doing: The work load and the way we are forced to behave as though we know nothing about the way the brain works or the psychological effects of appalling working practices are what will make it impossible to continue.
I believe that I have an awful lot to give, but I fear that unless I am able to find a way to reconcile the two universes that I am currently obliged to navigate between, I will soon have no choice but to give up.
We are clever and creative, and we are learning more and more about learning, teaching and education all the time. Many of the answers are with us already, if we can only be brave enough to insist on taking control.
We need to:
• Give our students back the ownership of their own learning. Doing everything for them is simply indefensible.
• Learn and teach about how the brain learns
• Learn and teach about the future our students will inhabit; how they will live and how they will work.
• Teach about how the internet and other technology has changed our brains
• Decide what we will not lose to the internet: It has rather taken us all by surprise, so we’d better decide quickly, because much has already been lost, or will be by the time the digital generation grows up.
• Develop intrinsic motivation.
• Give students a reason to develop the character traits that we have removed the need for, such as grit, resilience, determination and the ability to defer gratification.
• Teach them the value of failure and the wherewithal to use it to succeed.
If we are given the time, space and sanity to create a new paradigm of learning, we will do it. How does that sound?

Melinda Bower