This much I know…

… that you know nothing, Jon Snow.

My head is full of whirling nonsense at the moment. Knowledge-based curricula. Skills. Transferable skills. Teaching. Learning. Knowledge. Because I subscribe to several noisy teachers on Twitter, my Twitter feed is alive with shoutiness and anger about one thing.

How we teach.

Well, one thing I know – that’s a silly argument unless we understand how we learn. This much I know: you can be doing all the right things and there’s STILL no learning. I know because I’ve been doing all the ‘right’ things with Heston (a dog) to teach him not to chase crows, and  he still chases crows.

But then again, what are ‘the right things’?

Should I bully him and make him submit, because I am his pack leader and he must obey me at all costs? Should I trick him with operant conditioning like Pavlov’s dogs to accept a treat instead of blithely chasing flying things across fields? There are studies to show both methods ‘work’…

And yet a part of me thinks Heston should be free to chase a crow across a field. It’s his business. He’s a dog who likes to chase birds. He doesn’t do any damage, he never catches a crow and he enjoys it. He gets lost from time to time, but it’s more out of social nicety and fear of farmers that I try so desperately to stop him chasing the damn things.

And is that why we strive for learning, out of social nicety and fear of inspectors, the media and government fly-by-nights who are here today and gone tomorrow?

In all of this arguing about HOW we learn, we forget lots of things.

One of those things is that we don’t actually know. We suspect. We suspect phonics works. We suspect we embed things into long-term memory by a process of stimuli-review-review-review. We suspect there are things we can do to make something more ‘sticky’. We conveniently forget the mahoosive great evolutionary elephant in the room because it’s philosophically unpleasant.

That’s the elephant about natural ability.

After all, there are studies these days that show we can be no more funny than our parents were funny.

But again, it’s a suspicion, not a provable fact. If our funniness is determined by genetics, is our intelligence too? And that’s too controversial to consider. We’re one step away from Gattaca. Also, it’s only one side of an argument.

And biology can be shaped by experience, we suspect. Nurture is vital, we think. But Nature is fundamental, too, men say. This is why we can never settle the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument. I suspect it is both. We have the capabilities we are dealt and we have the experiences that guide us. However, it’s unpleasant to think that we are limited, that we are mortal, that we cannot all be 4-minute milers or Einsteins. In fact, that goes against MY nuturing experience, for I have been told since I was tiny that “there is no such thing as can’t” and that I can be what I want to be. I’d like to believe I am infinitely capable of whatever I choose to be.

Yet that’s partly a big crock of shit and partly true. I could not be a sub-10-second 100 metre runner. I could not be a catwalk model. We accept we are physically limited. But accepting we are intellectually limited too, well, that’s a little less pleasant a pill to swallow. However, it’s BECAUSE I was brought up in a home where all things were possible that I believe I can do anything I want to and because I went to a school that didn’t accept the tail-end of limitations for women. If we wanted to become a physicist, well, we could.

So it always bugs me that we talk about teaching as if it is the be-all and end-all to intellectual capability, when I suspect we come a whole lot too late to do much meaningful stuff. We are but a part of it. I’d like to think, for example, that I have had a lot of success teaching some children to read.

Yesterday, for example, when reading The Princess and The Frog with a smart-as-a-whip seven-year-old, she said:

“Do you know what? It’s all about promises this book… the Queen promises the princess she can have a gold ball, and then the princess promises the frog she will kiss him, and then they promise to love each other forever.”

Totally unprompted.

Then, we came across a word in italics. She read the sentence, emphasising the word anyway (“What do you want to do?”) and then said “Why’s that word like that?”.

Later, she said “made for gold” and before I could correct her, she said “made OF gold” and then said, “I get of and for mixed up. The letters go wrong.”

Finally, the story calls the Frog ‘Frog’ and at one point, it says “Frog came into the room.” So she said “Why does it say ‘Frog’ and not ‘A frog?'”

I think that revealed a lot.

First, I think I’m stealing a living, because she’s obviously teaching herself. She just needs me for answers. Second, she knows A LOT of stuff already and I didn’t have to tell her the things I thought she might need to know. Third, this is a relationship, not a one-way process. It’s neither about me, nor about her. I was pleased to see that the combination of synthetic phonics and whole-word work is working. She can decode the story. But I realise a lot of her ability is about her home. Her parents value reading. They are literate, intelligent people themselves. She reads lots of stories at home. She has a great library. She has a universal grammar and an innate ability to understand how language works (with ‘Frog’ and ‘a frog’)

And she hit the nail on the head with of and for. 

Some things are just not sticky. Take the words bougie de prechauffage. This is a glowplug for a diesel engine in French. I have never used that expression. It is never likely to be useful, yet it is stuck in my head with the glue of permanence. Then take the word cependant. Now I can NEVER remember what that means. I recognise the word. I can read it. It has pendant in it. I see that word all the time. Yet even now I had to look it up. It’s really annoying, because it’s just not sticky. I put that word on a flashcard. I added it to memrise. I put it on a post-it. I looked at that word every day. And it’s like that word has no desire to be in my head.

Partly, I get that. It’s about usage. I use pourtant or néanmoins instead if I want to say however. But I still see it all the time. I just ignore it, I think. I skip over it. So the jury is still out on why certain things are hard to do. We apportion blame. It’s the word’s fault for not being memorable enough or having something noticeable about it. It’s my fault for not yet having found the method to get that word in my head.

But no scientist, psychologist or other has put forward a convincing argument as to why this is hard to learn for me (when it isn’t for other people) and proposed a method of getting it to stick in my head. We suspect things about learning that defy logic and real life.

This is why I believe education should be divorced from politics. Learning is a complex process that we are only just beginning to understand and most of what there is is theory. This much I know: there is one useful way to navigate the theories. Experience, open-mindedness and wise consideration about what is relevant and useful for the children in your class. When English teachers compare themselves to Finnish education (which is a pointless comparison if you ask me) what I like about Finnish education is how empowered the teacher is to pick out what works for their groups.

I also believe the direction in which education is heading in England is flawed and narrow, because it is based on the whims of a small group of middle-aged white men. It has no room for music, no room for sport, no room for art, no room for textiles or food tech.

For many of us, these are the pleasurable things that make school worthwhile and actually lead to a fruitful job and/or life after school.

But schools cannot be responsible for everything.

There is a lot of hoo-ha about whether children should be able to read broadsheets.

Of course, we would like their reading to be at a level where they can if they like.

But why broadsheets?

I had an argument with a guy about Oliver Twist. He thought that Oliver Twist is a cultural must. I think it is a poor story written early in Dickens’ career (his first big book, really), that the characters are shallow and the story is lacking in the richness that you find in David Copperfield. I prefer David Copperfield as it is much more real. It’s also a coming-of-age story which might be more relevant to teens, were I to teach it. However, I accept that Oliver Twist is better known and the characters more familiar and useful if we’re talking about Fagin and the Artful Dodger. But then is English Literature just about having some kind of key to other cultural understanding? Is it just a glorified way to understand England? Should that be an English teacher’s job, to force study of things that someone has decided have cultural merit?

This opens up a massive debate about what we should teach and what English teaching should be. And that’s a toughie.

On the one hand you think, yes, it’s useful to read Oliver Twist, but it’s bloody long. I can’t trust the kids to take the books home and read at home and so I have to study most in class, if not all. And if I study ‘most’, aren’t I just going with edited highlights? If I want them to get the story, why don’t I just watch the film? What do I want? My kids to know the story? My kids to appreciate the literature?

Well, I’m sorry, but the last bit – how do you MAKE people appreciate a cultural thing?

And how have we arrived at the fact that this cultural thing is more worthy to know about than, say, the works of Beethoven or the art of Van Gogh?

And who decided that Beethoven is in the canon and The Beatles are not? And why The Beatles? Why not the Rolling Stones or The Who? And if we take The Rolling Stones as part of English cultural heritage, then does it spoil your pleasure if you don’t know the music of Chuck Berry or Jerry Lee Lewis? And if you listen to Chuck Berry, shouldn’t you really also listen to Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker? Blind Lemon Jefferson?

I don’t agree with prescription over what is in the magical ‘canon’, because if you ask me, I think film, modern fiction, music, pop culture, television, video games… they’re all as important keys to understanding the world around us. I don’t agree that the ‘canon’ of knowledge should be some kind of elitist wet dream of some middle-aged white men, telling us we are culturally impoverished and have no ambition if we haven’t read Dickens.

It implies that – heaven forfend – we aren’t ‘worthy’ individuals if we haven’t read Dickens or listened to Mozart. Heaven help most of my friends.

Should we all have the reading ability to access Dickens if we like?

Of course.

Should we all read Dickens instead of Game of Thrones?

This much I know… if you think so, you know nothing, Jon Snow*.

*I will accept this Jo(h)n Snow could refer to the epidemiology guy, the newsreader, the cricketer, the US Secretary of the Treasury or the character from the popular televisual series.

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2 thoughts on “This much I know…

  1. I’m always amazed at how certain of things some people are. I am rarely certain. Having said that though, I think it is worth sometimes acting as if certain in order to take a stand on a belief, but in the back of the mind, there always has to be an awareness of other possibilities. A tricky line to walk well.

    1. It’s true. I am more certain of many things and am not afraid to take a stance. It’s important, I think, never to become militant about stuff that is just a belief, because then there’s no room for manoeuver. Very tricky. If I succeed in walking that thin line, ever, I’ll be sure to share!

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