Reflections of a reluctant university student

Having started the university part of my Schools Direct teacher training – we had two full university days this week – I have had cause for new reflection. For the first time, it was clear to me just how wide a gulf there is between me and my fellow new teachers in terms of our values and ideas about teaching. For so long, I have been shielded by my echo chamber on Twitter, where I tend to follow teachers whose views resemble mine (not all but most). My colleagues at work are also quite supportive and sympathetic. So it was a shock to the system to find myself well outside the general consensus of opinion. I’m going to use this blog to try to unpack some of the issues that have surfaced.

There was, of course, the sinking heart realisation that I was old enough to be all of their mums. But also, if we take their median age to be about 25, these are people who grew up and went to school at the height of child-centred, progressive education. And like it or not, they have been inculcated to view progressive education as the norm, and anything else as authoritarian and oppressive. Naturally, lessons must be fun and engaging. Perish the thought that a lesson could be dull and boring! Naturally there must be group work and hands on activities. Children must find things out for themselves. The teacher’s role is not to give them the facts. They must be discovered in order to be meaningful and for the children to feel a sense of ownership and self-agency. Differentiation featured very strongly in the conversations. And yes, I heard the dreaded phrases of visual learners and kinaesthetic ones. Above all, I got the sense that individualism was key.

Now before I go on, a caveat. There were some interesting outliers in the group – I hope to get to know them a bit better as the year goes on.

My first day started with a rather uncomfortable experience. We were shown a video of David Starkey and Richard Evans debating a knowledge curriculum on the Daily Politics. As a preamble before the video, the tutor made it clear to all and sundry that she didn’t particularly like David Starkey – already skewing the debate somewhat. After the video, we were asked to visualise the room as an arc, with one end being the David Starkey knowledge side and the other end the Richard Evans skills side. We had to go and stand where we thought we were on that arc and, practically herd-like, most of the room went to the skills side, some went to the middle and just myself and one other person ventured into the knowledge side. What was perhaps an innocent activity, trying to help us gauge our stance on this issue, turned out not to be quite so innocent. It set me up against the rest of the group, which as an ice-breaker activity at the very start of the university course, was rather unhelpful. I have noticed that, as a result, I have been subject to some barely hidden hostility from one or two of the other trainee teachers. I had to do a group task with one of them today, and she looked at me with barely concealed distaste, and vetoed my suggestions. For some, just saying you believe in a knowledge curriculum is tantamount to being some kind of fringe, loony right reactionary.

I’m not the only person this kind of thing is happening to. A fellow ‘mature’ trainee shared this thread (I won’t screenshot it as it doesn’t display in the right order but here is what it said):

“We were presented with some guff the other day about how it’s better to give pupils more choice and autonomy. We were then told to discuss ‘in pairs’ how we might introduce more pupil choice in our classrooms. I said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. Trainee with whom I was discussing suggested that I was like Margaret Thatcher for not negotiating with terrorists. Truly I was lost for words. And that doesn’t happen very often!”

This ties in with another observation I have made. There seems to be a strong element of social justice, ethics and morality in the approach taken to history by my fellow trainees. In one of our many group tasks, we were shown lots of historical pictures and asked to pick 6 that we thought were the most important pieces of source evidence to build a lesson around. We then had to stand in front of the class and explain our choices. One group chose a picture of military helicopters flying over Vietnam, and the rationale for choosing this picture was that we always think of ourselves as the good guys, so it’s important to look at this and understand that we can be the bad guys too. A worthy sentiment but, is that the point of teaching history?

I have already touched on the issue of using empathy in history in this blog and I have (part) followed the long discussions on Twitter between Michael Fordham and Lindsay Gibson on whether we should use ethical questions in history. My position at the moment is this. Our task as historians is to try to understand, not pass judgement. Approaches to history may differ over time, as our different interests and priorities direct us to investigate new and different aspects of history. So for example, I loved reading Helen Castor’s ‘She-wolves’ in which she looked at women who ruled England before Elizabeth I. The decision to research these women is a result of modern sensibilities where issues of gender and feminism are very much at the forefront of our thinking. But once the decision is taken to research and write about these significant women in history, the process should not be guided by a need to celebrate or denigrate these women but to try to gain more understanding of what challenges they faced and investigate how they reacted in order to build a picture of how much and what type of power they yielded. The end result is, hopefully, that we gain fresh insights and understanding. I know I’ve probably oversimplified this issue but my bottom line is: understand, don’t moralise.

And here I link back to that opening task we did about deciding where we were on the knowledge/skills debate. How much did the trainee teachers actually understand about this debate? What was interesting to me, is that, when asked to explain their position, many of them seemed to conflate a knowledge curriculum with rote learning. The message conveyed was, we don’t want students to be force-fed knowledge without understanding. Well, neither do I. But that’s not what a knowledge curriculum is about. But if most of your schooling has involved group work, discovery learning, lots of focus on skills and very little didactic, teacher-led lessons, then what do you actually know about the other side? As humans, we are prone to making value judgements about strangers and foreigners, which we tend to revise once we have close contact with them and get to know them better. I think the same applies in education. How much do the detractors of explicit instruction, teacher authority and knowledge curricula actually understand about them? These modes of instruction, contrary to popular opinion, do not necessarily produce brainwashed students who become disempowered conformists.

And also, how much is really understood about the impact of too much focus on skills, student autonomy and group work? My anecdotal evidence points to three things: poor behaviour, opportunity cost and dumbing down. When you focus on giving your pupils autonomy, you inevitably reduce the authority of the teacher. If the teacher is not someone who is seen to have lots of knowledge to impart but just a fellow learner and facilitator sending the pupils to find things out for themselves, then you reduce the value and respect afforded to that teacher. Poor behaviour very often ensues. In this context, my pet peeve is when I see teachers make spelling mistakes when writing something on the board and then making some self-deprecating remark about how bad they are at spelling. What kind of message is that to send to your pupils?

When you include sources in your lesson plan just for the sake of teaching the generic skill of analysing sources, there is an opportunity cost. Instead, you could be teaching what actually happened, explicitly and clearly, and then discussing with your class why these events or developments happened and what their consequences were. Use sources by all means, but use them sparingly and only in contexts where they aid the understanding of the topic being taught – the most glaring example would the Bayeux Tapestry when discussing the Battle of Hastings. It’s also that focus on skills which I think creates the chronology framework problem (where pupils are totally confused about what came before what), by making history into an abstract exercise in source analysis rather than a process by which our students gain more understanding of vital periods and developments in our history.

When group work tasks are set to learn about a particular topic, how much simpler and quicker would it be to just tell your class and explain it to them? Will pupils learn better about life in medieval villages by setting the inquiry question “what would make a good medieval role play?” and spending several lessons preparing pupils to play their role in a mock medieval trial? Sure, it sounds fun and engaging, but it takes a lot of time to do, time which I think could be more productively spent elsewhere. Here’s a radical thought. Explain the different social groups. Illustrate this with some judicious reading and class discussion. As an extension, find some good novels set in the historical period you are studying and provide them to your pupils in a reading corner.

Now I’ve got this all off my chest. Let me repeat my new mantra again a few times. I am a teacher, not a facilitator. I am a teacher, not a facilitator. I am a teacher, not a facilitator.

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Comments

  1. I once got a grade one in an observation where the kids performed a news report in small groups about Henry VIII complete with role plays of the key events. (I taught history once upon a time!) They loved it, my mentor loved it, I felt like I was doing a great job. It took us two hour long lesssons to prep and perform. I’m not sure they learnt any more than what I could have told them in the space of five minutes.

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