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.
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.