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Starting Over

September 11, 2011

wpid-genimagecairo-1-2011-09-11-11-46.jpegI’ve been taking a bit of a break from the blog over the past year. Not because I haven’t had anything to say, but because I’d not really been reading other’s blogs. The key to good blogging is, after all, engagement, That insubstantial, ephemeral thing that we try so hard to grow in the learners we teach every day… but what happens when, as happened to me, other aspects of your life take priority? How do you engage when every fibre of your body just cannot be bothered? And finally, translate that into the classroom… how do you encourage learners to engage when they have absolutely no interest in your subject or even in learning? (1)

My own journey is ongoing, and this is neither the time nor place to give you the rather boring details, but I can’t help but think about how we should seek to engage learners in our classes. As a busy Principal Teacher, I have to deal with the fallout from learners who are not ‘getting it’. These are not stupid children, but in some cases, they have horrendous home backgrounds that mean they simply see no value in school. Others have been brought up by parental units who hated school themselves and have steadfastly undermined any perceived ‘authority’ that a school claims to hold. Some have a very clear idea of what they want to do, and how they are going to do so… for these learners, the academic emphasis of most schools — caused by STACs and CATs and exam results and all the other paraphernalia by which a school is judged a ‘success’ — is pointless and irrelevant.

I look at Close Reading, an integral part of the exam process for my own subject, and can’t help but think that it has very little value in the real world. I get the point that the passages are taken from sources with a suitably sophisticated level of written English, and I even see the point in seeing how well learners can dissect the passage to see how it was put together, but just as when you dissect anything else of value — a flower, or a frog, or a poem — how easy is it to put the parts back together and enjoy it for what it was? A flower will always look better in a garden, a frog will always be more entertaining in a pond, and a poem will always be more beautiful when you respond to it on an emotional level… something which only happens before tearing it apart.

Incidentally, I am acutely aware of the irony in commenting on the ‘value’ of my subject given the context for the word! 😉

In our quest to measure and assess and know the cost of things, we have forgotten their true value. We do not have time to stop and think and appreciate. Our subjects have become joyless because every time we try and share what we love, we are aware that someone somewhere is waiting to measure how effectively we have ripped it apart and passed that destruction on to a learner who probably didn’t appreciate it in the first place. We are teaching, not because we love our subject, but because we are being judged on the results that come from our teaching.

Engagement comes when we move away from the antiquated notion that we have all the answers (We don’t — that rather dubious honour lies with Google, or Khan Academy, or Wikipedia, or Twitter, or The British Museum, or…), and begin to meet learners on their own terms. Find out what excites them. Find out how they can bring their own knowledge into the school. Find out what engages them in the first place, and then look for the learning opportunities. Don’t patronise them, don’t make them feel as if their own passions have no value, recognise that they probably know more than I do about so many things… and don’t make spurious connections so you can hijack their engagement for your own end of year figures. In short: accept that there is no such thing as the “one size fits all education”. But also recognise that it is genuinely impossible to provide a truly personalised education for every learner… if it was , we would have no disengaged learners…

This is a post that doesn’t set out to answer any questions, merely raise them. Engagement matters, but achieving it for every learner. That, that is a truly mighty ambition.

(1) I know that everyone can learn… and that to say anyone has no interest in learning is a sweeping generalisation, but the reality is that many of our ‘learners’ are too busy trying to make sense of their lives to have any time left to apply to learning as we practice it in mainstream schools.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Dotcoe permalink
    September 11, 2011 12:15 pm

    Once again. Nail. Head. Hit.

  2. Lorna Murray permalink
    September 11, 2011 12:30 pm

    Spot on!

  3. September 11, 2011 3:18 pm

    Thanks both… I’ve since found this rather good post about the related ‘conflict’ between skills and/or knowledge:

    Worth thinking about.

  4. October 7, 2011 11:03 pm

    Completely irrelevant (sorry!) – but was it you who once upon a time recommended an app for making your photos look like a Van Gogh painting? My iMac has had a brain transplant and I’ve lost it – and can’t remember its name. I’m going to ask one or two similarly exploratious people …and then get back to setting close reading for an authority who shall be nameless!

    • October 9, 2011 7:17 pm

      Knowing how eclectic my brain is, and my delight in finding pointless things, there is every chance that it was me… But I can’t think which programme it was…

      That said, there is a very sweet little programme called Autopaintet Express that may fit the bill. It needs 10.6 so I can’t try it… But there is a ‘Lite’ [sic] version here:

      Sorry for not noticing your comment(s) sooner. My mail is filling up with hundreds of updates from the eduscotict wiki!

      Reply 2 coming up 😉

  5. October 8, 2011 12:01 pm

    And now I find I need to come back on the Close Reading thing. I have to disagree, I think, not because (or not just because) I’m a grumpy old fossil, but because I now have to sit on various committees and suffer the inability of people to read what is in front of them. Last week I had to point out what was actually being said in a letter, the results of which actually had far-reaching implications, both financial and environmental, for a great many people. I suspect the person who was all for rushing into precipitate action was keen to gloss over the point from the letter that I then went on to extract and extrapolate – but once I’d finished with it the ahs and oh well thens that came from several of the committee showed that they simply hadn’t bothered to read it carefully.

    I think that close reading does in fact have an element of training in it that seems to sit ill with current educational thinking, but I would argue that anyone needs to be armed with the skills to dissect various forms of writing before they hit the rest of their adult lives, and that this could be incorporated into a less hidebound way of class teaching than I was used to. (I’ve been speaking to the #2 son on this!)

    Sorry. Rant over. And I’ve just finished that first close reading paper I’m employed to create! 🙂

    • October 9, 2011 7:28 pm

      Hi again!

      I know where you’re coming from, but I still stand by my original point with the following clarification…

      I think the point you are making is so true, but is related to the Understanding style questions. I suppose the obvious parallel is with the old Arithmetic/Maths split. Understanding is the Arithmetic of English. The practical ‘ability to read/comprehend’ bit. I would contend that for many, the need to analyse as we teach it for the Close Reading exam is an alien skill that is not as important as the ability to understand and read and write!

      Having said that… I am aware of the contradictions in what I’m saying. I think my discomfort is not so much with the skills as it is with the unreality of the assessment as it currently stands. It is too bitty and as such, lots of low mark questions in the exam. It’s easier to teach how to answer these questions as they are so specialised… But the knock-on is that the learners are no wiser as to the content of the passage(s) by the time they’ve answered the questions.

      I don’t know if that is a response to your point or not… But hopefully it doesn’t muddy my thoughts irretrievably! 😉

  6. October 9, 2011 9:38 pm

    I always aimed at the understanding of the different genres of question: the realisation of why a particular question was asked, what precisely was being looked for/at. Sometimes the pupils set the questions instead, perhaps to examine the point of a bit of punctuation or something. I don’t believe the skills can really be split off without detriment -English as a mixture rather than a colloid? Emotional understanding inextricably linked to mastery of the vehicle – whether writing or reading.

    I’m slightly hampered by doing this on my IPad – the comment box obliterates your original, so I’m remembering! I’m a tad passionate about this … 😉

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