As teachers we are taught and then managed to devote almost all of our time and effort to deliver the explicit curriculum. By that I refer to the planned experiences that we want our pupils to engage with, in the hope that they will make progress as a result. And this seems right, as anything less could appear haphazard or chaotic. Furthermore the machinery of the national education service exhorts us to continually review, refresh and revise our plans, to ensure not one drop of resource or one single moment of a child’s time is wasted.
And yet sometimes the weight of pressure to serve that machine can feel over-bearing. So much time is spent feeding the system that we can afford it too much respect and start to measure our success in terms of management tasks ticked of its list. The danger is that we start to value students’ achievements in our classrooms simply by the contribution they make to these management tasks. Let me elaborate.
Johnny is struggling to make progress in his mathematics and quite rightly his teacher tailors her teaching to accommodate his learning needs. Eventually she decides that additional support and supplementary exercises should also be provided so that, in time, Johnny’s progress will accelerate and he achieves more of his expected maths milestones. Fantastic!
And then the machine will gobble this all up: One more child closer to age-related expectations. One more percentage on the maths attainment record card. One more contribution to the teacher’s performance management target. One more justification to the school administration about the deployment of resources for additional support. One more piece of portfolio evidence to convince governors and inspectors of the efficacy of school policy. One more example that might prove the school to be good or better. Fantastic!
And yet at what point does the machine take proper look at Johnny? It is his life we are talking about. It is his experience that is at the heart of this narrative. Who is asking how this was for him? This whole experience has the potential for the making or the breaking of him. I have recently seen two Johnny instances.
Johnny 1: He went in to the experience feeling a failure and came out little different. The messages he heard were about him being a problem because his maths difficulty was consuming valuable time and resources. He saw it as if he was given a sentence to be served that deprived of some favourite activities and spending extra time in solitary confinement to serve a maths punishment. Johnny’s adult ‘warders’ supervised the completion of repetitive tasks that seemed to him mysterious at best and mostly unintelligible. But eventually he learned to follow their routines, without any real understanding, and the adults seemed to accept his efforts and they eventually released him. None the wiser, but definitely more oppressed, embattled and switched off to learning, especially maths!
Johnny 2: This teacher took Johnny aside to discuss the maths challenge she was facing to provide appropriate learning experiences for him. She described it as her difficulty and asked that they might work together to address it and to find a way of helping. The teacher agreed to allocate his preferred adult to meet at a time and place of his choosing. The sessions were interactive, full of practical activity and full of conversation. Within these special relationship moments he seemed to be doing some maths, but mostly it seemed fun. Some of the games were so good that Johnny borrowed them to play with Dad. All too soon the review meeting with the teacher came around, in which both were surprised at the progress that was made. How had that happened? Johnny came out of the experience enthused, engaged and affirmed in his self-image as an achiever and ready for the next challenge.
These Johnny moments are happening daily in every school. Not always major interventions, but in the nature of the interaction between students and teachers. Teachers should never under-estimate the importance of the methods by which they plan to achieve things with their pupils. The messages and methods of the implicit curriculum, the way we behave with each other in schools, can endure for a lifetime as characters are shaped by how successful you make them feel.
If we really do need to have a machine that drives our education system, then we need it to emphasise the processes by which outcomes are achieved just as much, if not more than the outcome itself.. For Johnny 1, maths and probably the rest of his schooling has become a chore to be endured. Johnny 1’s teacher shouldn’t receive any plaudits from the system.
As Johnny 2 was set alight for learning and affirmed as a worthwhile individual through positive relationships, so his teacher demonstrated how the learning of that piece of maths was simply the vehicle on that occasion for her to exercise her caring profession. She teaches us all that teaching shapes characters for life and truly can be the best job in the world.
by Peter Chilvers, SDSA