Posts Tagged ‘teaching and learning’

Knowledge and the marketplace

August 25, 2020

Some of what I’m going to say will probably seem blindingly obvious, but my recent reflections on testing, and the astonishing farce that has been the government’s recent attempts to manipulate public exam results in this country, have led me to realise how my feelings about learning have changed as I’ve aged, and how these changes are probably inevitable.

The later stages of my teaching career marked a sea-change in attitudes to education, with most students deciding to study not subjects they necessarily liked or loved, but those they felt would guarantee them a career and decent salary: this wasn’t the way my generation had considered study and learning. Of course, if you wanted to be a dentist or doctor or a vet, say, then you obviously had to follow a particular course for a specific qualification. Otherwise you chose to study what genuinely interested you; this was a motivational factor in pursuing those studies, and you graduated a more developed person, of interest to a range of employers because of the higher level skills you had acquired. I accept that such a choice was rather perhaps rather easier in the days of student grants and free university education.

I always chose to study what interested me, and the testing and examinations were in many ways a minor hindrance that I had to put up with; the exception was training to become a teacher, which had specific aims and objectives as well as necessary theoretical and practical assessment. So my studies of languages began at school and worked towards a degree in English and French. I loved French, felt empowered by being able to communicate in another language, proud of being able to be taken for a native after I’d done my year in France and still pretty chuffed that although many French people now know I’m a foreigner, they can’t tell where I’m from… when in France I just ‘do French’, it comes naturally. It’s not quite so straightforward in Germany as my level of competence isn’t that high – I was taken for a Swede once – but my interest in and fascination by communication and language has never waned, and it’s over 40 years since I graduated.

I read Literature for my first, second and third degrees. What this meant was I could indulge my love of lying on a bed or a couch and reading, but I also acquired what I now realise was a toolkit for exploring what I was reading, setting it in contexts and exploring how it worked and achieved its effects; this toolkit was my vademecum throughout an entire teaching career – the qualifications enabled the access to the career, but the heightened and enriched love of reading has been my lifelong companion, and I like to think I have passed on some of this love and enthusiasm to some of my students over the years.

I could say similar things about other subjects I studied and was tested on: there was a qualification and often a subsequent and lasting interest. And the testing was also temporary, I understood quite early on: once I passed my A-Levels I knew that the O-Levels I’d been so proud of two years earlier were fading into not quite insignificance, but certainly the past. Ditto when I came to take my degree… one level replaced the next, in some way denoting that I’d extended a certain set of skills to another level.

What I have come to realise, and to enjoy, is the feeling that learning has been a lifelong activity, achievement and pleasure; I cannot now imagine it being or having been anything otherwise. I have no real idea whether this is a common feeling, but I am convinced it sprang originally from being able to follow what I liked and enjoyed, rather than feeling obliged to study something for my own good, like a dose of cod liver oil. I’m saddened that many of today’s students seem to feel they do not have the freedom to make such a choice. I’m also conscious that many of the things which have fascinated me – books, reading, languages, history, philosophy – are not regarded as worthwhile because their monetary and economic value cannot be computed, and yet I also know that such subjects create values and cultures…

I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned nothing about the world of maths and science, and this is not because I dismiss or belittle it; it just isn’t my world. Maths I always found hard, though I loved arithmetic and playing with numbers, calculating things in my head, and I still derive much pleasure from it today. I passed the necessary examinations at the time and moved on; most of the science and maths has faded and atrophied from lack of use, though it’s still there somewhere on my personal hard-drive. When I became a vegetarian some forty years or so ago, I read and studied a good deal about nutrition and healthy eating, and I have kept up with this, and manage to understand a good deal of the science involved: what I learned all those years ago has come in useful in an unexpected way…

In a decent world, in a wealthy country like ours, I feel that study should be available to anyone, at any time and in any field, if they have the required time and effort to commit to it. Many people, myself included, discover long after the age of formal education, that there are new things they wish to learn…

In the end, I suppose that my experience does demonstrate that indirectly education serves ‘the market’ in that it enabled me to work and have a career; what seems so wrong to me now is to expect the entire education and qualification system to be reduced to a mere function of the market in every aspect, with the state and the market expecting to produce students to fit certain slots, like widgets, whilst making a profit from them all along the way. Just look at all the money made out of examining students, and all the money made out of student accommodation in university towns…

A teacher’s teachers…

August 13, 2016

In some of my recent posts I’ve been reflecting on the five years since I left the teaching profession, and on my career. Sometimes, a comment from a reader has made me wish I was still in the classroom, by indirectly reminding me of something I used to enjoy, or felt I did quite well. And, as a consequence, I’ve ended up thinking about my own education and my teachers, some of whom clearly must have had an influence on the teacher I went on to become.

For a year at primary school we had Mrs Dixon as class teacher. Her husband was in the RAF so they had travelled widely, and she used to tell us tales of the different countries where they had lived. You can bet I was curious and very interested. Somewhere, in a dusty box, I think I still have a small pebble she brought me back from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

My secondary schooling was rather non-standard. I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school, but only for two years. As a good young Catholic my parish priest had marked me down as a potential priest (!) so I was despatched at diocesan expense to a junior seminary where I enjoyed an education of very variable quality, but in rather small classes, and came under the influence of three teachers who I still remember very vividly.

George (his actual name was Bernard Shaw!) was aloof and patrician, regarding us students as peasants hardly worthy of the crumbs he threw our way. But he succeeded with me at Latin and Ancient History, because he saw I liked the subjects and had some aptitude. However, it was his love of J S Bach, his cello and organ-playing that impressed me. He refused to play us any of his collection of Bach’s cantatas, because we would not appreciate them; the cello we heard because his study window was open when he played; the organ he played in the school chapel, and he couldn’t resist playing the good stuff. End of term was always ‘Nun danket’: Now thank we all our God. With fervour from him and us.

J.O, our French teacher, was a wonder. A member of a minor religious order, and from the Basque country originally, he spoke English (curiously), French, German, Spanish, Basque, Italian, Latin, Classical Greek, and was learning Russian, which he used to enjoy trying out on my father. He taught us French using textbooks from French schools – so no English explanations – and there were endless and repetitive grammar drills. But, most amazingly in those days, because it wasn’t generally done, he had us speaking the language regularly and worked very hard on our pronunciation. When we were in the sixth form, he’d record the news off French radio and use that as the basis for our lesson. He helped set me up with a pen friend and thus I got my first two visits to France. In short, he convinced me that French was a language to be spoken first of all, and that I could speak it. And I could: I set off to university to read French as part of my joint honours degree.

Joe, my English teacher, was young, recently ordained, sporting longish hair for a priest. He made Chaucer and Shakespeare work for me, another two languages I could access, if you like. At A level, he was wonderful. He chose – from the relatively limited selection – texts he liked and could enthuse about. Again, we benefitted from the teaching group being very small: he asked questions and you couldn’t hide, you had to think: later I came to realise how important this was. He questioned very well: open-ended questions, encouraging us to explore. And he knew the importance of what is now called ‘wider reading’. He encouraged us to read anything and everything; he had a huge and eclectic library from which he would lend us anything, sometimes what we chose and sometimes things he felt we ‘ought’ to read. To be handed Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen by a Catholic priest seems curious, to say the least, but what it taught me was that the teacher and the classroom shouldn’t censor anything.

All these teachers were very definitely individuals, characters who weren’t ashamed to be themselves, and let their students see them, warts and all. I left school with a love of reading which I’ve never lost, an enthusiasm for languages which sustains me now, and great curiosity about the world. I didn’t, however, go off to become a priest, but that’s another story.

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