I've been following Jamie Oliver's 'Dream School' programme to see what kind of conclusions he reaches. At first I was sceptical: would this be simply another TV personality telling us how simple it was to engage young people, if only you tried a bit harder or had an inspirational personality? But to give Jamie his due, he understands and acknowledges the complexities of good teaching, and just how complicated handling damaged young people can be. He's also commented several times about how much he admires regular teachers for what they do. Equally, he's been clear that this kind of experiment is simply not possible in mainstream schools because of all the constraints that teachers are under. Of course, it's all a bit unreal, in that made for TV, emphasise the dramatic potential, kind of way. But despite all the usual TV fluff, there are some valid points being made and some interesting questions being asked.
In last week's show, the financial guru Alvin Hall was brought in to teach Maths. His take on the situation was rational, dry, droll, and, at times, very insightful. He was clear that one key skill most of these students lacked was that of self discipline. They were (a wonderful phrase) 'emotionally incontinent'. They simply could not hold their emotional reactions in check, or see the point of pushing themselves merely for their own satisfaction and success. Everything had to be reduced until it was about them and satisfying their immediate needs; nothing could be about the wider context or to do with contributing to a larger society.
From my perspective as a teacher trainer, the most interesting thing of all was when Alvin Hall worked out how to engage these students with his maths lesson. If everything has to be about them, he figured, then show them how maths is indeed all about them. He was teaching percentages, and he started by showing them how he spent each day - this percentage asleep, this percentage working, this percentage eating, plus 1% for his 'dirty little secret' (they especially liked that idea!) Having told them his story, he then asked them to tell him their story, using a pie chart of percentages - how much time did they spend sleeping and working, and so on. Through modelling the learning by relating it to his own life, he encouraged them to apply the mathematical technique to theirs.
I've never set it out for myself consciously before, but this is exactly what I do at my training days in schools. I take an observation I've made about my teaching, or about how I relate to young people, or how my emotions take over when I'm in class, or how frustrated I get about this or that aspect of teaching. And then I find a way for other teachers to place their own stories within a similar framework, in the hope that this will illuminate some key aspect of teaching for them.
To give one example: when we're exploring how sanctions work, I ask the teachers about themselves as drivers. 'You're driving along the motorway - how fast are you going?' 'Now you spot a police car, what happens to your behaviour?' 'Now it's started to pour with rain, do you slow down at all?' 'And finally, you're driving past a primary school, children spilling onto the pavements on all sides. What happens to your behaviour now?' They soon realise that they are just as likely to break the rules as their students. Working out why that might be is key to understanding how sanctions really work.
Make it real. Make it relevant. Make it topical. And bring it to life for your students.
First, let me make a confession. Whilst I'm not a complete technophobe, I do have my limitations when it comes to new technology. After all, when I left school many years ago at the age of 16, the 'personal computer' as we now know it had not even come onto the mass market. I'm old enough to be able to tell my children about when 'playing a computer game' meant moving two blips backwards and forwards on a screen. Having said that, over the years I've got to grips with quite a few bits and pieces of ICT - I've created several websites, including this one you're looking at right now.
In the past I've had my concerns about the over use of technology in education - where the teacher relies too heavily on that electronic whiteboard, and forgets to get the children hands on with actual, living things. Equally, I've wondered how schools are going to come to terms with the dilemma of the mobile phone. That is to say: your school policy says confiscate the evil items on sight, but actually if you do that, you're denying the huge potential for learning that these new web enabled gadgets offer.
Well, this week I've been convinced of the educational merits of one particular technological advance - the one with which I'm talking to you right now - yes, the humble Blog. It makes sense, really - as a writer, the Blog offers a whole new way of communicating with readers. Anyway, I was doing some training last week for some new teachers, and one of them got in touch with me afterwards, and said 'do look at our class blog, to see how we've been using some of your techniques'. Well, knock me down with a feather - it was wonderful! There were photos, film clips, writing, examples of the children's work. And all there, for the parents to see (and indeed the world to see, as well).
So it was that I created a Blog in a similar vein for our little village preschool, to counter parent comments about 'not knowing what my child does while he is at preschool'. That Blog will let us communicate, instantly, with any parent who has access to the internet. What a wonderful web indeed!
Elephants in the Classroom
You know that saying, about there being an 'elephant in the room': something everyone knows is there, but no one wants to mention? In teaching, there isn't just one elephant in the classroom, there's a whole herd of them, rampaging through the room. In this blog I plan to turn a spotlight on some of the unspoken and sometimes unpalatable truths about our noble profession (and the good stuff too). Because if we can't be honest about what makes a good learning experience, an effective school, or a good teacher, and equally what makes a bad one, then everyone loses.