Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talking of teachers

Teaching is one of the oldest professions on Earth. (Well, one of the oldest legal professions.)  Western education can trace its origins back to such notables as Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. Although in those days the curriculum was less crowded, less rigidly defined and not subject to national testing these men were teachers,  albeit non-accredited ones.

In the years since then education has gradually become a universal experience, at least in developed countries, and “schooling” has become synonymous with “education”.  The difference, according to George Savile, is clear. “Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.

Is he dead... or teaching school?
Since everyone receives an education of some kind or other, everyone has an opinion about education in general, and about their own teachers in particular.  Often these opinions are far from flattering. But then, holding teaching in low esteem has a long history.  A hundred years before Christ, Zenobius dismissed an inquiry about a colleague with the words, “He is either dead or teaching school.

More recently, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw used his literary prowess to the full when he coined the expression, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  (Those who can’t think for themselves now quote George Bernard Shaw.)

I’m sure Shaw taught himself to read and write, as did the people who read his workd. Showing similar disdain for teachers, Author J. D. Salinger said “You don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher.” (It is unlikely he meant that teachers are articulate, make their meaning clear and are therefore easy to understand.)

Perhaps the most sobering observation about teachers was made by Henry Adams, one of the framers of the Constitution of the USA: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”  Whether you think this thought is valid or not will probably depend on whether a future Mother Teresa or a Charles Manson passes through your class.

Not all political leaders have held education so highly. When former US President Ronald Reagan was desperate to find funds to support his pet Star Wars project he suggested taking funds from other areas, such as education, asking “Why should we subsidise intellectual curiosity?”  Another former governor of California, Jerry Brown,  wondered about the priorities of educational leaders: “I question whether we can afford to teach mother macrame when Johnny still can’t read.” But Brown would have won a few friends in the educational fraternity with this observation: “Why in the world are salaries higher for administrators when the basic mission is teaching?

Just the facts?
The debate over what to teach in schools comes a close second to scandals in the House of Windsor for tabloid newspaper copy. There is seemingly endless criticism of current teaching methods and curriculum. Schools are expected to teach everything from sign language to cosines.  This debate also has a long history.

Charles Dickens, expressing an opinion not necessarily his own, had one of his characters - the odious Gragrind, in Hard Times, say, “Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else...This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!” Samuel Crothers highlighted the flaw in this approach when he said, “The trouble with facts is that there are so many of them.

This begs the question - which facts do we teach? And that is where the debate branches. Russell Green summed up well the choice between the process versus product, personal growth versus utilitarian function argument: “The advantage of a classical education is that it enables you to despise the wealth which it prevents you from achieving.

Perhaps the best thing for primary teachers to do is treat knowledge like grass seed - spread appropriately, cover a wide area, and be prepared to do a lot of follow-up work.

A little learning may be a dangerous thing - but a lot of ignorance is far worse.  Teachers try to reduce this ignorance a little - which is not always and easy task. Fortunately, there is no shortage of advice from past pupils on how to improve our teaching.

Albert Einstein, who is often portrayed as a “struggling student” despite report comments to the contrary, thought that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” This is sound advice, but relatively lacking in detail. William Ward went a little further, and told teachers how to do it: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”    Unfortunately, Ward stopped short of telling teachers precisely how to be be inspirational. This literary observation contrasted with the homespun advice of Austin O’Malley: “When you are dealing with a child, keep all your wits about you, and sit on the floor.”

A Japanese proverb, true to the Japanese tradition of stylistic simplicity, said “To teach is to learn”.  No doubt this is a worthy sentiment, but it is also rather vague on how to go about the actual task of teaching.  However, an ancient Chinese adage gives clear advice on how to do it. This maxim is probably the earliest known reference to hands-on, child-centred teaching: “What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand.”

These words of wisdom take the emphasis off the teacher and place it where it belongs - on the student. What teachers teach is not the central aspect of education. The truly significant aspect is what students learn.

The human factor
How do teachers know when their students have learnt? There is a bewildering array of tests, check lists and performance criteria by which we assess our students. Usually the instruction manuals are thicker than War and Peace, and read as if they were written by the same person who writes the handbooks for electrical appliances.

Sir Richard Livingstone had a more humanistic method: “If the school sends out children with a desire for knowledge and some idea of how to acquire and use it, it will have done its work.

When people talk of education systems they forget that schools are people places. A school building has exactly the same material and equipment in it over a holiday period as it does during a term. Yet a school without students is a barren place, devoid of life. It takes people to  make a school - or, for that matter, an education system.

Sidney Hook high-lighted the significance of teachers in the system: “Everyone who remembers his own educational experiences remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the kingpin of the educational situation. He makes and breaks programs.

And that just about says it all.

This piece first appeared in Classroom - the magazine for teachers, vol. 8, 1993.

The story behind the story...

I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and never really had serious thoughts of becoming anything else. Hence, at the tender age of 17, I began my training and have been involved with education ever since. Yet, I was aware that, for many people, school was not the generally happy place that it was for me.  For some people schools, and by extension,  teachers, were not held in high esteem.  Others felt the job itself was distasteful - a pretend profession with a modest pay cheque but major work requirements.   This attitude was incomprehensible to me.  True, the pay was (and remains) modest - but the privilege of working with developing minds and seeing the smile on a face of a student as a concept is mastered is priceless - literally beyond price.

Hence this piece.

Best teacher graphic::

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