Education is like religion

The_Tower_of_BabelOrganised religion and education

I went to an all boys Catholic school in Australia. I was Catholic. There was little chance of anything else. At certain times I was reasonably devout: sometimes using chapel services seriously; careful not to blaspheme; even being passionately reflective when seeing a storm brewing on Good Friday. I knew the entire mass word for word (and still do having attended a funeral recently), and I knew a great deal about religious studies securing A’s every year. But I hated going to mass. I especially hated the bit when you had to turn around and say “peace be with you” to strangers; it always seemed contrived. Of course, I was never encouraged to question the brand I was absorbed in, never encouraged to even consider the possibilities of other faiths: they were all simply incorrect. It took a great deal of courage to finally remove myself from the Catholic Church, and I remember the moment vividly, a moment wild with fear as I contemplated whether I was then going to hell.

I understand the reasons for organised religion. I understand the need for people to discipline their lives to remain on track. I understand the need for people to share a common goal and congregate and get energised from the collective aspiration. But it’s when organised religion decides to take that extra step further and insist that amongst the chaos, in fact because of the chaos, there is an absolute, a definitive God, where I feel potentially more harm than good is done: people become disempowered; they are discouraged from following their intuition; they become dependent. My letting go of the Catholic Church stemmed from this realisation, but also from the understanding that I didn’t need an organised religion to help me be a decent person. Kindness and compassion to me seem to be have always been innate. I think they are within everybody. I’m not saying that you don’t need to work on them; in modern times it seems you need to more than ever with so much corruption about, and you certainly need others around you who are like-minded to make it easier, but to not own my own thoughts about being a better person seems counterintuitive, and to continually offer myself to hierarchy simply feeds into potential corruption. It is when organised religions halt believers from leading their own journeys that they become less about prophecy, and more about self-fulfilling prophecy.

Religion’s main weapon is the certainly of God. I’m not saying there isn’t a god, but I also cannot be certain there is. One thing I can be sure of is that the scriptures were written by men. For devotees to then resolutely defend and uphold dogmatic instruction within individual religions based on scripture seems illogical, and to take it to the point of waging war in the religion’s name is more likely to be a projection of a mental disorder rather than nobility personified.

Education is a lot like religion. There are certain faiths within the general field, faiths that can be supportive and instructional, but also faiths that can be dogmatic, restrictive, and ignorant. Lots of teachers look to the higher powers for guidance on practice and often deny their training, experience and intuition to be able to effectively teach and continue to learn from their own contexts. Of course CPD is essential; it is how teachers (and all humans) learn quickly. But sometimes caliphates and archbishops, demigods and the like stand on high and preach to the masses, (because that is their reach), that their way is the only way to teach, and even if you prescribe to all that is implored of you, just when you think you might be getting close to the enlightened state, they crash the tower, because it’s not in their best interest for you to become independent.

I think there are certain things in education that are innate, or reasonably obvious as to be standard. Ask any experienced teachers what constitutes good practice, and you will notice that, regardless of the country they teach in, they usually sing from the same hymn sheet.

  • Standing in front of a group of children and realising that you need to be assertive but ultimately kind is standard;
  • Knowing your subject thoroughly is standard;
  • Moving students towards independence in their learning is standard;
  • Assessing for learning and providing quality feedback is standard;
  • Differentiating work when a student is struggling is standard.

It is of course within some of these standards where best practice debates ensue. But I certainly don’t need to be following a specific pedagogical ideology, and by default refuse to investigate anything outside of that narrow space, to drive my desire to improve in these areas. I will read as much as I can, from multiple perspectives, all the while considering my context for teaching. I will try new things in the classroom having thought a great deal about what that “new” thing is. I will be open to new discoveries. I will be willing to let go of old practice if it is redundant. I will be humble enough to know that what I know now is probably nothing compared to what I’ll know tomorrow, and I certainly won’t be unkind in discussing any of it.

I’ve still got lots of questions about my teaching practice, but I won’t bow down to the loudest voice simply because it’s the loudest voice:

  • I am extremely interested in cognitive science, but am aware that presently it is certainly in its infancy in terms of the amount of research conducted and specifically, the very limited contexts that the research has been carried out in.
  • I am extremely interested in cooperative learning, but I am aware that presently it is certainly in its infancy in terms of understanding how to get the most out of it; does it need to be an explicitly taught skill throughout school; how could the cultural phenomenon that is social media not have a place in learning; have there been any longitudinal studies suggesting cooperative learning is effective, and if not, does that prevent theorising on it?
  • I am extremely interested in knowing where the line is between directed knowledge and problem-solving, but I am aware that presently it is certainly in its infancy in terms of successful implementation in the classroom; is there a threshold of knowledge which once achieved easily leads to wasted opportunity if transfer of knowledge into new contexts is not a priority, and more and more information is just delivered due to demanding curriculum; moving students towards independence isn’t only reserved for those who have left school is it, and if so, has there been any research carried out to ascertain whether knowledge automatically transfers into problem-solving once students have left?
  • I am also extremely interested in the affective domain in my classroom, particularly in how to move learning from being extrinsically motivated to intrinsically motivated, and the extent to which relationships in learning impact on progress, but I am aware that the pressures of teaching can easily move teachers towards exhorting a no excuses style policy, a direction that has little known about it in terms of any positive effects on long-term emotional wellbeing, and consequently, long-term learning.

I am interested in these things because I want my students to become as strong as possible, so that when they leave my classroom to live their lives, they are confident and skilled. And because I am interested, I will research, I will ask questions, I will watch teaching, and I will iterate on my own teaching, but if I am lucky enough to stumble across something that proves to be working, I won’t stand on the pulpit and berate others for failing to have had such epiphanies, or for challenging my newfound understandings; after all, that would break the first standard of teaching: assertiveness but with kindness. Finally I won’t be naive enough to think that any epiphany is absolute, the silver bullet, the only enlightened path.

And so i offer this idea: if you are vehemently prescribing a particular pedagogy or ideology of teaching, can you be 100% sure you are right, and if you are challenged, are you going about the argument with kindness? If not, then it may be that you have become less the teacher, and more the preacher.

I’m @edmerger

Restoring the Love of English

words titleFor me, one of the most powerful strategies in the English classroom is getting students to write. Analysing texts is extremely important, but getting students to experiment with words themselves seems to enhance their ability to analyse other peoples’ writing.

There are numerous activities included in the resource below that can be used as starters or in fact anywhere inside a lesson. They are not exclusively set for the English classroom either, and can be used for any age (with some adjustment to some sections). Most are designed to allow students to explore the way words change in meaning depending on how they are arranged or communicated. There are a wide range of activities connected to the mechanics of language, and others more reliant on creativity.

The rationale is that by continually experimenting with words in these short engaging activities, students attain a better appreciation of their use, and become better at using written language in general. Teachers are encouraged to alter the activities to suit a relevant theme or topic of a lesson.

Click here for the PPT: WORD CHALLENGES

Rarely have these activities not resulted in the entire class absorbed in learning.

A big thanks goes to Maria Freestone (@incathecat) for her activities on memory, and Jamie Clark (@jamieclark85) for his ideas about using vocab (Star Words) and his amazing connectives Underground Map. Also to @heymrshallahan

I would love your thoughts on these resources, and if you have anything you use that works, I would love to know about it.

I’m @edmerger

The Great SATS Dilemma

SATS dilemmaMy third and final daughter is about to begin her Yr 6 SATS tomorrow. And I’m really wondering whether or not she should even try to do as well as I know she wants to. That may seem like a ridiculous thing to say, and of course it is, but I only say it because I am aware of what implications a strong score in the SATS will have on her for the reminder of her secondary schooling: Perennial pressure of reaching expected targets; absolutely zero tolerance for wavering off the path; continuous intervention should any personal or developmental change impede expected progress; continuous intervention should any emotional issues impede expected progress; subtle (or maybe not so) psychological damage caused by disappointment in teachers’ faces.

It seems it would be counterintuitive for her to be highly successful in these exams. It’s not going to affect her placement in secondary school, but will certainly affect expectations of her performance for the next five years. I am expecting her to do really well, as her English and maths are both very good, but I worry that she may be setting herself up for psychological warfare, with the high expectations that will inevitably be placed on her always used against her, rather than trust being placed in her own desire and motivation is to be successful.

“For a great number of secondary students, the sword is in fact mightier than the pen.”

This is an important consideration, when we realise just how much change and how much context affects students going through secondary school. For a great number of secondary students, the sword is in fact mightier than the pen. Ask anybody who has taught in a reasonably challenging socio-economic area and they will agree: despite every best intention and intervention, context often wins. I may be wrong, and I certainly don’t claim to be certain of it, but it seems that for most primary aged students, contextual considerations can be more easily mitigated compared with their secondary counterparts, possibly because students go through puberty and possibly experience far greater exposure and understanding of the contextual situations they find their lives in. They tend to react more to the situation, begin to have more voice, more angst, and become more aware of their plight; they become more affected by difficult home lives or friendship or emotional issues, or parental breakups, and schooling can often take a back seat. Yet the pressures that we as teachers maintain on the students having observed their SATS performance and consequently their expected targets for the end of year 11, remain.

Such pressures though are not confined to those from low socio-economic backgrounds. One of the problems with flying high, is that there is little room to play with. Any deviation from the path can be accompanied by extreme amounts of pressure, sometimes applied by the students themselves as they look to their target grade.
I’ve got no problems at all with my daughter doing exams. She is actually semi looking forward to them because she likes learning, knows that exams will be testing her learning, and she’s up for the challenge. But I don’t think that her performance now in grade 6 should really determine her life for the next five years.

I’m @edmerger.