Relevance

The George Monbiot article in the Guardian today argues for a relevant curriculum to the 21st century that’s against routine tasks and favours exploration rather than indoctrination. It’s factual inaccuracies on the state of education and it’s solutions are something more articulate and knowledgeable minds can hash out more clearly, as the comments on it attest.

Has anyone actually had an education like it’s described there? All factory (eh?) and everyone getting the same thing? I certainly didn’t in the mid-noughties at school.

But I did at Taekwondo.

As a fat gobshite nerd, I definitely had no business being there. It was utterly irrelevant to me, my life and my background.

I began learning Taekwondo because our posh neighbours went and it meant I had to stop playing out three times in the week while they put on their white suits and hit things. I wanted to go because I thought I’d become a power ranger without the zords.

When I got there, it was walking up and down a room doing the same thing for a lot of the lessons. Literally marching up and down a hallway doing kick after kick. Make it better. Make it more precise. Make it faster. Make it sharper. You can’t learn that fancy spinning kick until the simple kick is perfect. Not good. Perfect.

I think about it a lot when I’m in the classroom. “They’ve got it move on.” No, that’s not enough. Have they got it well enough to underpin what comes next? “If they can do three they understand.” I don’t consider three a warm-up.

I did this for eight years, and passed my black belt exams at 18. I am fiercely proud of that, more so than any academic qualifications. The black belt was harder. Academic stuff? Well, I’d be reading anyway so I might as well get something out of it. The black belt? Discipline, focus and challenge.

If I were to spend my teenage years following my dreams I’d have still gone, but I would have stopped pretty quickly. If I had someone telling me repeated practice was damaging, or saying I ought to be learning something more relevant, I wouldn’t have stayed there.

Why does it have to be a traditional Korean martial art? What use is that? What situation in life calls for a perfectly executed ap chagi?

Did it lead to a crushing of my precious adolescent creativity? I don’t know. Every person I know seems to have a different understanding of what creativity actually is, but I managed to do alright in fights, even without my glasses on. When someone’s foot is launching itself at your head, you’re grateful for the practice. I’m not sure if not getting battered is seen as applying a set of techniques in a new context ‘creatively’ or not, but it was the most formative experience of my adolescence.

As a child, my curriculum would have been pogs and Pokemon cards if I’d have had anything to do with it. If I’d had a ‘relevant curriculum’ I might have agreed with my parents who said ‘people like us don’t go to university’, but I had teachers and instructors who were too busy teaching their subjects to worry about their relevance. We were taught about Balinese dance, why Hemingway’s short stories are so effective and universal truths about triangles. We were given cultural capital.

Students are in about five hours of lessons a day. The rest can be used to learn things that are relevant. For those five, students should be learning things they won’t get anywhere else.

Any call for a ‘relevant’ education that students can be ‘engaged’ with is a call for our kids to know their place and accept the limits of their worldview.

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Hey Teacher, Leave Them Kids Alone

Induction’s been officially passed, new term INSETs are done and dusted, and it feels like the holidays were an age away already. September’s here, and it’s time to get back into the swing of teaching. The timetable’s somewhat fuller, and there are less names to learn this time round, but it’s still equally nerve-wracking and exciting to be back at school.

When it comes to new year resolutions, mine are to stop over-planning, calming down a bit with marking and then making sure I leave work earlier than last year.

It seems counter-productive to actively try and do less this year, but it’s not. Last year, there were lessons where I was doing more maths than my students. That’s definitely counter-productive.

My new year 9 class were in their third lesson with me last week, (multiplying fractions) and I set them a textbook exercise. They were working in silence, and I gave them the chance to get their teeth into it, to focus. Not having some gre’t lummox faffing about asking you questions and confusing you for 15 minutes whilst you got to get your head down and practised meant that when we stopped, I could really start to question what they had understood.

“Why was question 4 different to question 5?”, “Which question was harder, question 8 or question 14? Why?”, “Write a question you don’t think you could solve this way, and suggest why not.”

If you’ve got no hook to hang your hat on, you’re just chucking questions around.

The breathing space for them allowed them to focus on what they were doing instead of what I was doing. The atmosphere was calm and the students were really proud with what they had achieved, which in terms of building confidence might allow them the security to attempt more involved problems applying their skills.

When it comes to building in routines and getting students to really hone a skill, unsolicited silence as they concentrated on getting through the task was a wonderful surprise.

If students aren’t working on a task long enough to run into a problem, they certainly aren’t going to have the time to dig themselves out of it.

I don’t need to micro-manage my students every second in my classroom and write it down, I don’t need to slave over every single thing my students write in their books either.

This year, I’m going big on routines, and sometimes that routine will involve doing a lot of similar questions quietly.

Minding My Mindset

I love learning stuff. It doesn’t really matter what it is either, I just enjoy the act of learning.

When I was at school I had an extra-curricular timetable that would make a tiger mother wince.

A general week would include the following: learning how to kick people in the face on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at Taekwondo and Kickboxing; Wednesday was learning how to start fires, read maps, iron and cook at Scouts; and then I was also learning the piano and finding time to be in a (pitiful) ABBA covers band. I was the luckiest fifteen year old there’s been.

Teaching is the best job for someone who loves learning. It never stops. Each lesson is a chance to learn more about your practice, your subject and how to best teach it, but I miss directed learning. I miss being told things.

So, I decided to start evening language classes in Swedish.

I reckon I can translate 'Textbok' already.

I reckon I can translate ‘Textbok’ already.

Now, I’d tried learning Mandarin when I was working in China, but after I learnt how to ask for beer that was it. I also tried teaching myself German, but I just didn’t have the motivation to do it in my own time.

No more excuses, I thought. Get yourself told, and get enrolled; which is how I ended up spending two hours on Monday back in a classroom, at the back instead of at the front.

I felt really nervous. A different kind of nervous to when you wait inside your own room for a class.

“So then, let’s go around the room and share why we wanted to learn Swedish.”

Confession time. I hate ‘going round the room and sharing something about yourself’. It’s an ice-breaker that leaves me cold.

I felt myself clam up. Every time someone spoke I found myself thinking I shouldn’t be there. I have no business learning Swedish. I have no Swedish partner, I am not in charge of the Scandinavian accounts in my company, and I don’t have any Nordic ancestry. There was also no chance I was saying anything about the aforementioned ABBA covers band.

I just fancied it. I thought ‘where am I going next for a jaunt? I’ll learn that so I can have a go when I get there’.

Then we jumped in to reading aloud to the whole class, something I hadn’t done since lower sixth English. I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

It was the personification of a fixed mindset, being more bothered about looking stupid than actually getting on and making the mistakes. You know, doing the actual learning bit.

I’d turned into a completely different person to the one trying to get students to take risks in their maths, so we can unpick their mistakes to help them learn.

You’ll never get better at those vowel sounds/fractions/whatever without having a go and giving it some gusto, and lo and behold, after a bit of proper practising, I was praised for my ‘y’ sound, even if I had to hold my face to do it.

Next goal? Answer at least one of the dozen questions I have about this:

It’s great being back in a classroom learning something for its own sake. It’s also got the added benefit of putting me in the place of my students. To feel what it’s like to be put on the spot and expected to answer instantly and to have a go even if you’re uncertain.

I’m hoping as I learn more and start to encounter sticking points, not only will I enjoy having something forcing me out of work for an evening, I’ll also gain a deeper understanding of what it actually feels like to struggle in a classroom environment again; to relish that challenge, and translate that into more effective teaching.

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