Teaching – the great(est) challenge

By October 14, 2015 Education, Writing One Comment

Unfortunately, I am off work at present (due to an operation) and so have had some time to consider this piece. I had numerous ideas (which I may still write about) regarding what I have ‘learned’ from watching and listening to the recent party conferences. However, after a recent follow on Twitter by Future Exploration, where I found  this amazing video https://youtu.be/4uo1FlcQENk I changed my mind (watch it, it’s only 3 minutes long!)

Once again – amidst the planning for my class’s next topic of the Tudors, considering potential trip venues, ensuring cross-curricular themed learning, I have been reminded of the true importance of what I do.  To echo this famous quote:





Now, this may seem trite to some, but having watched the video I hope you see where I am going with this.

In fact, I probably have confess at this juncture, I am one of those irritating teachers who, when asked, “What do you teach?” I reply, “Children.” This is not because I am (now) a primary teacher, I used to say this when I worked in secondary schools. No, it’s because I have always considered that it is impossible to bottle up into one word what it is teachers do – regardless of subject. Clearly, the expected response is supposed to reflect the subject or age group, but let’s look at one example, which, whilst fictitious, proves the point:

Q. “So, what do you teach?” (Delivered nervously, either expecting a lecture on education, or because – regardless of the answer, it’s swiftly to be followed by the questioner saying, “I wouldn’t want to do that!”)

A. “It’s hard to boil it down simply, but I would say I teach about the agony and ecstasy of both the human spirit and the human body, the emotional condition we experience – real and imagined and the hope for something better, the ability to look at myself. “

Q. “Oh, er, RE?”

A. “No, I teach the value of learning from past mistakes, how to use previous failures and triumphs and how to consider all evidence before making decision.”

Q. “Oh, right, History – yes I see that now.”

A. “No, not at all I …” I could go on, but (hopefully) you get the point. **

And this is the thing, we cannot explain what it is we teach, because much of what we do deliver cannot be measured or explained, because it will be things that we will probably never see or hear about as we influence the future. The greatest achievements of teachers will never be witnessed in their classrooms, perhaps even in their lifetimes. For example, think of the teacher of just 2 famous people; did Alexander Graham Bell’s teachers know his simple three words, “Watson, come here.” let alone that they would result in the phones we have today – when more people use them for photos or messaging (of one sort or another) than spoken communication?

Smartphones as predicted in the 1930s

Smartphones as predicted in the 1930s

Similarly, could Auguste and Louis Lumber mentor have forecast the revolution in home entertainment that we now see when they first showed Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon, especially given the shocked reaction of many people at the time!

Home entertainment for the millennium, predicted in 1910

Home entertainment for the millennium, predicted in 1910

Of course, many people will criticise the central point I make here – fundamentally, that preparing children for the here and now is not what teaching, or rather education, should be about. Of course, tests and grades do, very much occur in the here and now – though have a huge impact on the future. In fact, one example where the importance of teaching for the future was cited, Shift Happens is now frequently derided, with people looking at the erroneous predictions. This, to me, misses the point (maybe deliberately) that, as Bob Dylan said some 50 years ago, The times they are a changin’ which is well exemplified in the updated Shift Happens 2015.

And this is our challenge as educators, a group self-evidently interested and invested in the future. As it says in the video at the start of this blog, “Humanity is changing more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”, which given that my class of 10/11 year olds will still be 10 years younger than I am now in that time, means a lot to me.

This has all made me realise how vital my job is – not that I had really doubted it. However, coupled with my recent reading and viewing of the work of Hans Rosling, including a BBC2 programme last Sunday – buried away at 6:10pm! The programme can be viewed on YouTube here and is well worth an hour of anyone’s time. Hans Rosling explains the major changes we are undergoing and the dramatic (potential) effects we will see in the coming years, especially the very fact that there is so much commonality across continents for different peoples.

The work of Rosling and Leonhard have pricked, prodded and fundamentally provoked my consciousness.

What, in fact, do I teach? Do I teach the right things? Am I failing my class? You see, with these films, Christa McAuliffe’s quote and a backdrop memory of the remarkable 2Million Minutes Project (documentary trailer) and the writing of Thomas L. Friedman, I have used my time recuperating from surgery to reflect and remind myself that, whatever we do in class, it’s about the children’s future. And by that, I don’t mean May’s SATs! (Or GCSEs, A Levels, etc, etc.) No, my work is far more important.

The children I work with need to, in fact MUST leave me; equipped for the stormy seas they will undoubtedly encounter, have experiences that allow them to reflect on past successes and failures, have open (Growth) minds to be able to adapt and to do so in a compassionate and humane way. To do this they must remember:

Change - Irrelevance

Of course, exam passes are important, they’re just not the be all and end all of life. Perhaps, of greater import – especially with the new style KS2 SATs, will be supporting those children who miss the expected grade (more about all of that another time!) But, surely the even greater responsibility I have, is to teach my class humanity and to understand their responsibilities within the world they are to inhabit. Recently Bank of England Governor Mark Carney recognised the challenges facing future generations, where climate change and the hunt for and securing of limited resources will be what our children have to battle – perhaps literally! But, and I don’t want to be too melodramatic here, if the planet is to survive for future generations, then developing and securing a global awareness for children and teaching classes through the prism of humanity is (in my view) vital. Of course, unless I’ve missed it, this isn’t covered in the new KS2 SATs, but as is said often, and accurately, about education,

Too often we do not measure what we value,

we value what we can measure easily. 

Perhaps, this is all summed up in another favourite video of mine, The Greatest Speech Ever Made – using Charlie Chaplin’s speech from the Great Dictator. This is, a mission call for all teachers and so, amongst; the subjects, the tests, the assessment points, the progress, the clubs, the social, the extra-curricular, the lunches, the other staff and anything else which may get in the way of true education, remember that at the heart of it all is the need to cultivate Humanity. I don’t mean to insist on, create or even [worse] impose; rather allow children to explore, discuss, debate, argue, develop and grow in their own (as I’ve written previously, the Values based education at LPS under Julie Rees is a great way to cement this.) To emphasise the importance of all of this, I leave it to 2 men – far wiser than I am:

Humanity - Gandhi

Humanity - Einstein

** By the way, the teacher in question in the example was a PE teacher!


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