Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

Learning: what is it all about?

I thought this would be a straightforward blog post to write. I recently stumbled across a reflection I’d written during my PGCE that I wanted to share; all I had to do was type it here.

Then this week happened and as I was typing, my thoughts muddled and this post became an altogether more philosophical beast. It became the attempt to answer the question:

”Is the role of ‘teacher’ essential to the process of learning?” or ‘Why are we here?’

Just as the books I read with students are affected by the lives of their authors, so is this writing.

This week, I was coming down with a cold, the weather had changed and I was feeling nervous. Over the last three weeks, I’ve been assaulted from all angles; new students, new courses, new CPD responsibilities. I haven’t coped properly with any of it; most has felt like some kind of blurred out-of-body experience. Granted, not nearly as blurred as my first year of teaching, or my start at Reading last year but the last few weeks have been fuzzy all the same.

It is a year when I feel a lot more positive about many elements of my teaching:

  • Fabulous feedback guidelines and video feedback is improving students’ work. It is a catalyst for me improving marking and feedback no end and I couldn’t be happier about that.
  • My higher expectations and stricter persona has lead to AS students respecting me far more than last year. They know I mean business as all rules have been successfully followed through.
  • I have integrated use of technology, Google in particular, in order to engage students with the wider world, collaboration, learning and research. So far, it seems to be working.
  • A great deal of thought has been put into my questioning techniques and I’m trying it all out to stretch my students.

Don’t be fooled into believing that all of the above makes me a good teacher and that this a good year. I am nervous. Reading my other posts, you’ll probably have guessed this about me already but this ‘nervous’ is different. I’ve a niggling, nervous feeling that I’m having a crisis. One of confidence? Always. On of my late 20s? Perhaps. One of whether I’m doing enough, in the right places, at the right times and whether it even has an impact? Most definitely.

I’m still creative, I still love working with young people and I’m still addicted to the challenge of teaching.

The problem is that the question hanging over the importance of my role has, in the last week, been impatiently demanding an answer. It’s not a deafening shout. It’s not a commanding bellow. It is in fact a spoilt child who is whinging incessantly and needs to be silenced. I assumed I’d be able to reach an easy answer; a definite yes or a certain no. Unfortunately, like so many of life’s big questions; it has proved much harder to answer. I have settled on being able to offer a few perspectives that might appease the child for now.

Learning out of necessity

A fact that must concern teachers is that the majority of what humans learn happens outside of the classroom. It should be of comfort that some of this learning still has a teacher attached: dancing, decoupage, driving.

But what of the rest of life? Parenting, cooking and dating are all lead by the individuals involved, with perhaps a little friendly advice from others. Much of this is learning through trial and error. You cook something, it doesn’t taste nice, you try it again differently next time. You date someone , it doesn’t work out, you go for something or someone different the next time. Parenting holds more risk but the principle is just the same.

Sure, we can try to replicate such processes of learning from failure in the classroom but it feels like running on an endless treadmill. What’s the real point? Where are we going?

We can try to persuade ourselves there’s a necessity to what goes on in our classrooms and we can attempt to impress this on students who appear not to recognise the need. It just can’t rival the necessity of learning from our failures in the rest of life:

  • The need to parent better is lead by an awaiting child who needs your help.
  • The need to cook better is lead by your own or others’ grumbling stomachs.
  • The need to date better is lead by love or something else just as necessary!

The need to do well in A level English is lead by the need for a career or a university place that could, in some cases, be realised by another means anyway. What of those students who haven’t yet decided what they want their future to look like? Well, that necessity doesn’t yet exist for them. For the students who have realised the necessity, my belief is that they’ll find a way to it, regardless of me or others in their way.

My actions as a teacher seem futile in the face of ‘necessity.’ My role is nothing close to ‘essential.’

Learning out of interest

I have spoken to many of my friends and family about their learning experiences in order to understand the process of learning more fully.

For my partner, the subject he knows most about is cars. His first word was ‘car’ and now he runs a car related business, works for a car magazine, drives for fun, is part of a karting team and is competing in a car race this very weekend. His passion wasn’t taught. His knowledge wasn’t taught. He has an inherent love for cars and the vast knowledge bank he has is from showing an interest and learning from magazines and books for pleasure. There was no teacher to inspire him. There was no pivotal figure to stretch, challenge and assess him. No-one measured his progress or questioned him. It happened without a teacher. Perhaps there are instances of people who have developed such strong passions with teachers as a central factor but I’m yet to meet one.

My personal interest is books and always has been. It is something I picked up at an early age and has lead the direction of my life ever since. Maths on the other hand is a subject that has never made sense to me. I can apply it to get me by… just… but I have never fully ‘understood’ numbers.

Can I not get my head around it because I’m not interested? Or am I not interested because I can’t get my head around it? Either way, anyone trying to to teach me maths would be in with a loss.

Does this match with my teaching of English now? If the students in my room are not interested then how far will I be able to teach them anything? Is it the case that students cannot learn anything really well unless they have a genuine interest in it already? For the rest of the people in the room, are we just getting by? Teaching to the test? This thought is bitterly disappointing.

If I have some interested parties then I can perhaps pique their interest further so my role becomes semi-‘essential.’

Learning in relation to experience

I tell my students that books are great because each of us approaches them differently. Every individual applies their own personalities, past experiences and expectations to each word they read.

If students were left to study A level English alone then they could only ever approach it with their own experiences; through the eyes of the textbook they read and the online articles they interacted with. They would come up with the same answers each time. If placed in A level English class, their peers can offer alternatives and challenge their perceptions; thus gaining a more rounded knowledge of the subject.

I could get involved in such challenging of perceptions and therefore my role becomes a bit more semi-‘essential.’

So, there are elements of students’ learning that I could, technically, have an impact on. That all depends on me being a damn good teacher though.

  • An enthusiastic and passionate teacher can inspire and generate interest (on a very good day this is me).
  • A knowledgeable teacher could challenge learners’ past experiences of the subject (very rarely is this me).
  • An authoritative teacher could impress some necessity on the situation (this is never me).

Clearly, there are a number of challenges to deal with here. I know I need to develop my subject knowledge, become more authoritative and be a better teacher in general but it all seems futile unless it’s going to have a positive impact on student outcomes.

The main challenge I face is knowing how essential my role is. If my students succeed, how much have I influenced that? Perhaps they recognised the need to learn? Perhaps they had an interest in English already? Perhaps they were challenged by their peers to think differently? Until I can resolve the conflict of whether I have an impact on learning, I can’t take any credit for their success. I have succeeded in posing more questions than answers. My mind is in turmoil and I can probably expect to feel nervous and blurry until this question can be answered. If you can help, I’d be appreciative.

Why are we here?

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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