Tuesday, December 21, 2004

"...don't think he'd mind..."

This is one entry in the teaching journal of NewsIsGood. I found it excellent and don't think he'd mind me posting it here for him. Sorry about the dreadful spacing/paragraphing, it's blogger's stupidity. [Fixed by NewsIsGood, sorry for altering your work. And revengeful actions ARE equal to the sensation of sweet!]

Learning Journal 9
8th December

 I was observed two days ago, by my college mentor, and mostly everything was A-OK.  The only problem - other than some piggledy boardwork, which will take me a while to perfect - was the classroom management, as before in my first observation.
 I'm not sure what to think about this.  I am in conflict over this issue.
 It has not been long since I myself were a student, so I can recall what it was like to take an A-Level.  And it was rather frustrating - being presented with a load of information to remember that meant nothing.  In chemistry, I understood that sunlight had something to do with vitamin d, but not why or how.  In biology, I understood that lipids did this and DNA was that, but not why or how.  What use is knowledge when it is nothing but a fact?  To make facts from knowledge is to make a factory of it, processing dead things to make a homogenised sausage fit only for the poorest to live on.
 At this point, an astute reader such as yourself might observe that I am somewhat opposed to this.
 When I was an A-Level student, I felt almost honour bound to not do much work.  The teachers rushed around balming away confusion and worry with remarks such as "just revise and you'll do fine", and we slowly came to realise that achievement meant getting marks, which meant answering questions, which meant memorising the textbooks and guessing what the markers wanted.  After every modular exam, condolences would be issued from the teachers - oh, I can see how you didn't understand how to answer this question, what they actually wanted was...
 It seemed that what the markers always wanted was for us to have read the mark scheme beforehand.
 Of course, amongst the academic teenagers - the males cross-browed persons playing RPG games on their PCs, discussing university placements and ever-smelling of a mild unwashedness; or their female counterparts the ones who dressed about ten years above their age, always looking slightly out of place and having a more girlishly trilling giggle - this came naturally.  What was knowledge but pebbles to swallow and then regurgitate in shiny polished form?  But others rebelled, tired and angry and scared of a world which didn't explain itself, a hall of mirrored secrets.  How could we get into the minds of the examiners and figure out what they wanted us to say?  How did the questions exactly specify the answers they apparently wanted?
 As a teacher now marking mock exams, I can see it all relies on remembering everything exactly.  When asked for a THEORY one must say THIS.  When asked for a STUDY one must say THIS.  It is not a test of being intelligent and linking things cleverly, or thinking creatively, or arguing a point, or studying psychological phenomena (the sort of thing, for example, a psychologist might do).  It is remembering Who, What, When about dead people.  Each course is the same, for all intents and purposes, except for the dead people studied.
 And so, our observable and accountable teaching leads to observable and accountable students taking their observable and accountable exams, and we all breathe a sigh of relief as that tricky concept of education is ignored.
 Considering this, I don't mind if my students talk, or play with mobile phones, or listen to music in lesson.  I don't mind if they don't know what they're doing, and don't want to ask.  They don't know why they're doing it anymore.  They came to college wanting to pass courses but two years of it stretch ahead - a foreverish time - and it is still a scary and alien and strange place.  Michel Foucault wrote about the French schooling system seeming to always point forward, saying that the mystery would be solved at the next stage, at the next stage, and then they would understand what they were doing and why.  But he wrote his dissertation and was ejected from the system, realising that the system had never had anything to give him, that he had been lied to.  It is fine if the real point is the development of the student within, and towards a realisation of whatever intellectual and social processes can be fermented - yet why must we lie about it, and explain to each pupil they are reaching towards some far off star and must grow upwards to catch it?
 Many students realise that things aren't turning out as they were promised, that the secrets are not being solved, that they are getting no closer to this inner circle of knowledges.  The cult of education is not letting them in.  Some will turn away forever, despising the whole stupid thing - and one wonders if this is a cause of the pervading culture of anti-intellectualism.  Some will succeed in some way, herded into pleasantly simple vocational courses where every single aim is obvious and close and near and tickable (although the why's of the process are even less tangible, in many cases).  And some will fit in with the open spirit of university, where questions had many answers and meaning can be found.  But none of it will make sense of what's gone before.  Maybe it makes no sense.
 So, we come into college today, and it tired us that we have to chomp through masses of facts, and even the teachers turn off, tired and bemused and not understanding the why's and the how's, not able to answer such questions from the students, feeling the questions in exams unfair, and not entirely teaching anything at all.  We dress up in the clothes of a teacher, but perhaps we are just instructing dogs to beg for scraps.  No wonder they sniff each other and woof and play little doggy games and don't listen to us.  We're demeaning every subject we teach, and abusing the intellects of our students, not giving them a choice or recognising the abilities they have.  And so they turn away from us and don't give us the attention we are required to wield.
 I don't want to be required to take command of anybody or anything.  It would make me part of the massive chain which shackles us all.  I believe that, unless we free each student and give them the responsibility to learn, to nurture the desire to understand, we are not doing anything of use.  Nor do I mean the more subtle power relations of a Rogerian 'humanist' classroom.  I mean something else, which would have the capacity to breed those thoughts which question everything, and thinkers which understand ideology and its constraints, rather than submitting to its comfort gladly.
 And, until then, I don't want to tell my students what to do if they're merely amusing themselves.  I can't ask them to listen to what not even I have any respect for.  The things I can make mine, the things I can truly teach, aspects of the curriculum I have wrestled from EdExcel and made something else, these would be things I could expect, in my enthusiasm, all to listen to.  But this is not classroom management, it is engaging interest of all parties with something wholesome and worthwhile.  I cannot force others to consume what is just dead sausagemeat.


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