What kind of a teacher do you wish to be for your pupils? The kind who will only teach them what you’ve mastered, or the kind who equips them to outstrip your own achievements and make you proud? Do you want to clone yourself dozens of times each year of your career across every new cohort, or would you rather your pupils become original thinkers? Are you fundamentally conservative, fearing change, or are you prepared to live with the consequences of educating the next generation to make their own decisions and take their own directions?
I won’t tell you how to teach because different contexts require different approaches but I will say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be flattered into assuming ours or others’ infallibility or heroic status in matters of the classroom or anything else.
People newly exposed to & impressed by domain-powerful ideas sometimes mistake their apprehension of these for their comprehension of everything else. Having spent much time getting to grips with a particular section of a certain field in a given domain they proceed to pontificate upon any given point in the grand sweep of history & human thought. This phenomenon could not be better summarised than it was by the opening line of Terry Eagleton’s review of The God Delusion:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
Whether you accept any particular teacher of children as your guru, tsar or prophet in matters educational, philosophical & social in your own life is entirely your business but I urge temperance & reflection upon your own capabilities. You’re as clever as most people with access to most or more of the same information and may legitimately be sceptical of what you are told. Do not outsource your thinking to social media “thought leaders“. Do your own research if you wish, it’s all the rage.
There is no shortage of earnest, sometimes angry prophets in educational social media. They post blogs with the frequency of their farts, each inflated with parables, cautionary tales, commandments & tenets. Consider Greg Ashman’s recent post 5 principles of education.
Ashman is a clever chap, a PhD candidate with an undoubted grasp of particular forms of didacticism but whose blog has an unfortunate tendency to sermonising of the kind described above. In this he is cheered along by an echo chamber of wannabe academicians and thwarted managers, as well as many other fine people captivated by these cheers who, cheery, cheer the cheerers in their turn. This is an example of what I call Ulam’s Pyramid of Cheer-Leading.
Most posts cascading down Ashman’s own Ulam Pyramid are exhortations to engage with the educational research which, like Moses on Mount Sinai, he tabulates but much of that, like much of Mosaic law to current civilisation, is irrelevant to most classrooms most of the time.
If Ashman’s blog did not assert its arguments as though it were declaiming from a manifesto then it might prove an intricate & sturdy edifice, a cathedral of evidence, but more often it’s a ring of badly balanced assertions e.g. “5 principles“, “5 educational ideas“. Expect “5 fingers of pedagogical fudge” any day now, but take the time to push any one of his monolithic tablets against any other and you’ll see that they all topple. The objective observer might suppose their author felt it were more important just to get anything blogged & cheered than to say something coherent & secure. As an example let’s look at two assertions from the blog post mentioned above:
1. Civilisation is fragile and education sustains it
We live in a unique period of human history where large numbers of people are able to live relatively safe and healthy lives, free from a daily battle for survival. Yet civilisation is constantly under threat from climate change, extreme ideologies and war. Education is the means by which we sustain civilisation and so it is the highest possible calling. Without it, there would be no doctors, no lawyers and no written constitutions to hold despots in check.
This argument’s essence is that the world is held aloft by the nationally mandated & funded activities executed by modern teachers who, it would seem, mill out doctors, lawyers &c. Ashman, then, casts himself and his cheer-leading chums in the role of Atlas but this argument is incompatible with another he expresses several lines later:
3. Education is not utilitarian, it is emancipatory
I don’t teach children the fruits of our civilisation so that they can get a good job. That is a happy by-product. I teach so that they can stand on the shoulders of giants and see further than they otherwise would have seen.
If education is not utilitarian, if it is unnecessary to the sustenance of civilisation then point 1 is mere fart. By points 1 & 3 education either produces middle class professionals who sustain civilisation or it simply provides them a nice plinth from which they might survey & rule a civilisation which just sort of magically organises itself around them, this scribe caste, via some kind of natural law or divine providence. Which are we to believe when both are stated with such solemnity?
You might dismiss this contradiction as trivial yet this echo chamber of Atlases increasingly & internationally push these errors (some might call them by another word) at in-service teachers & NQTs. Their content speaks significantly to the assumption of hard-won privileges as rights. It tells of an unconscious disregard for those women & men who may not have been reported in history as the giants upon whose shoulders Ashman is content to stand yet without whom our present form of civilisation could not have been established and could not now be maintained.
You’re the top
Ashman tells his readers that education is “the highest possible calling” but this egocentric view is an appeal to vanity. Which player in a team thinks their contribution less important than any other? Which nation thinks themselves inferior to their neighbours? If we are to rank people by the contribution they make to civilisation, as Ashman implies by Whiggishly placing the role of teacher at the top of the civilizational pyramid, then we can make a more justified argument that higher ranks must be occupied by those whose past & present works are fundamental to our lives. I won’t actually attempt to rank these but if we look around ourselves then a number of questions occur:
- Where would we teach if nobody had put one brick atop another in the walls of our classrooms?
- Where would we get the power to turn on our lights & heating, never mind our IWBs, if nobody had dug up coal and drilled for oil & gas?
- What would we eat and what would be the content of school meals without agricultural workers, fishermen, butchers, hauliers & shelf-stackers?
- Who would clean up our shit and keep our water free from disease if we were without sanitation engineers?
The above is not an exhaustive list (I’m minded to give a shout out to hospital porters, many of them voluntary, and firefighters, having recently witnessed a neighbourhood house fire at 3:00 a.m.) but it is worth considering which workers traditionally & currently are of more radical import to civilisation than teachers. Ashmanites may attempt the defence that because each of the people in these roles may be expected to have received schooling prior to their professional activities then their roles rely upon teachers, but this is as empty an argument as that of a doorman taking credit for a company’s profits. As teachers we do important work and yes, we are often taken for granted, but hubris is a thing best avoided, especially when it’s someone else’s we’re invited to cheer.
Despite his blog motto, Ashmanites are not Prometheans of modernity bringing the heat & light of research to cold, huddled masses of teachers & pupils oppressed by ITT. These social media slebs aren’t Titans, holding our world aloft and imparting the pedagogy of the Gods. Teaching is hard work, there is no special ritual which will meet the needs of all your pupils all of the time. These bloggers are just people, like you & me, and if we want heat & light then we’ll have to keep banging the rocks together as teachers have always done.
The next time you read a blog post which purports to tell you how to teach then do yourself the favour of asking whether it coheres not only within itself, as this one does not, and with the posts alongside it but also whether the author is trying to flatter you, anger you or evoke any emotion from you. Does the post you’re reading tell you that your job is “the highest possible calling” or some such? Does it honour you as the bringer & sustainer of civilisation? If it does then remember that this is one of the oldest tricks in the book, that of the tailors in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Don’t buy the nothing that flatterers would sell you and don’t sell it to your friends by sharing it on your social media. You risk looking foolish, making fools of your friends and, worst of all, failing your pupils by inflicting on your classes the latest fad claiming, falsely, to be scientifically proven to brainify them all the way to Oxbridge.
Thanks for reading, I hope you continue to enjoy teaching for as long as you practice it. Peace.