Words And Pictures

At primary school I remember the teachers who told me off.

 

At high school I remember the teachers who believed in me.

 

At college I remember the teachers who inspired me.

 

At university I remember the teachers who taught me how to teach myself.

 

These sentences crossed my mind randomly the other day and it made me wonder why I remember my educational upbringing in this particular way.

Is it that I was mischievous at primary school but got better as I matured? Is it a map of my educational self? Is it an image of my schooling history from my point of view? Or is it environmental? Is it psychological? Is it the same for everyone else? A reflection of the stages of learning that we all go through? Does it shed some light as to what we are capable of and at what age we are capable of it? How do we perceive ourselves as we start and continue to learn?

 

“At primary school I remember the teachers who told me off.”

 

I was a good kid. A bit cheeky with the odd pretend loud fart noise here and there but I listened. I thought hard, daydreamed harder and I practised the things I was told to practise. I have a vague pleasant memory of Mr Latham. He was the geography teacher who took us to a Chinese restaurant when I was 9 years old. We had spent a whole term studying Chinese culture and had to make a huge poster (about A3 – I was LITTLE!) about its history and culture and its food! He was a lovely man, but I only remember images of a big moustache, and sitting round a red table with a spinney middle that entertained me for the whole meal. It was a fabulous way to finish the project and I remember having sweet and sour chicken and lot sand lots of fried rice.

 

At the age of 9 I was an average achieving student. I was often discovered gazing wistfully out of the window. My picture of the world then was safety based. Am I wrapped up enough? Can I get home without being seen so that “Greenie” doesn’t beat me up again? I learned all the secret ways home. My cognitive thinking was developing nicely but I was better at working out how the black and decker drill worked than I was at reading roger red hat.

The learning I did at primary school was helpful but not ground-breaking. This was 1986. Teaching then was at the height of its standing at the front talking stage. It lasted too long. My head was in the clouds though and the concept that I was there to learn was irrelevant and unimportant to me. I didn’t know what the word “learn” meant. Back then proof-of-learning was non-existent.

 

“Do you know what the word learn means?”

 

“Yes.”

 

*tick*

 

I find it hard to believe how old-fashioned it was even in the open-minded eighties. I would love to write that I don’t have any regrets about primary school and all the incidents that occurred there, but I do. I regret that teaching and learning were simply not co-existing in the same classroom, indeed, the same county. There was no proof of learning and the teaching methods were simply talk at the students for most of the lesson and force them to be quiet or else. This meant I was totally unprepared when I got to high school to understand Maths and English at the level I should have been able to.

 

It seems to me that this is all the wrong way round. If primary schools focussed on teaching you how to teach yourself like Universities do, then I believe my education would have been *much* more productive for the rest of my learning career. It felt like someone gave me google on the last day of my education.

What actually happened though was that I was given a fish when I needed a fishing rod. The teacher kept their fishing rod to themselves and kept telling me how they thought I should use it without actually letting me have a go on it.

 

I remember some things infinitely better than others. How is it I ask myself, that my memories of a simple TV show, that was designed to make me do things without even being in the same room, managed to teach me how to write neatly and to be proud of trying to make things look nice and neat?

Words & Pictures was an eighties children’s learning show. It was a spin off from its older cousin Look and Read. The difference was that Words and Pictures used puppets to tell the stories instead of famous grown-ups. It focused on storytelling, and on phonetics, and on the building blocks of letters. It applied cognitive thinking to problems and invited you to want to solve them. It invited you to ask questions, and then answered those questions without you having to have asked them out loud. Amazing. Truly. It was aimed at younger children than Look and Read and even now stands out as one of the most viewed children’s TV shows of all time.

For a learning TV show like that to achieve that impact was amazing but very simple. Back then, it wasn’t as important to justify creative ideas. Someone just came up with a good idea for a show, and then someone took a chance on it. Risk-taking. The legacy of the best learning there is.

 

“At high school I remember the teachers who believed in me.”

 

When a high flying senior leader comes along and starts saying “take risks in the classroom!” I get all excited and think “Yes! Finally!” but then I quickly realise that there is a sub-text and that what is actually meant is “do what you’re told and do not make any mistakes under any circumstances.” Leaders want to stand at the front of their staff and sound positive, to look like they are open minded and that they are not hindering you and they want to look like they encourage you to do things your own way because they want to come across as popular and free thinking. But the second you go into the classroom you get an email that says completely the opposite of what the leader just said and it all comes crashing down. “Don’t take risks when the Ofsted inspectors come in, obviously!”

So people end up being apprehensive about taking risks or reassessing their own actions. People sadly, are more scared of making mistakes and more scared still, of being told off. It means we get trapped in a cycle that exists because the people at the top keep repeating the same message in different disguises that *something is happening*, so it *must* be happening? Right? Wrong. The same thing is happening over and over again, but it is just disguised in different words so that the new leader of Sixth form can make an impact and earn those extra management points.

 

The fact that minor victories make it through now and again is a saving grace. Occasionally someone with great ideas turns up and makes a difference to a group of students despite the overwhelming tide of rules that the school forces upon its learning environment and that is too few and far between. Imagine if we all could actually take risks? If we all felt guilt free to take risks and make informed active choices that we believed in to teach the children we *know* who are sat in front of us?

 

And another thing… Why the hell are the students sitting down?

Asking a child to sit down and NOT learn is like asking a grizzly bear NOT to eat the honey you just placed in front of it. Is it really that important? To observe authority enough to allow it to curtail inspired learning for so many years? We ask students to sit down because we want them to be behaving when our boss walks in. Let’s ask them to sit down when they’re tired. That’s my point.

 

High school itself really felt like a factory to me. I was extremely lucky to have some amazingly inspirational people around who believed in me, and showed me how to succeed if I believed in myself too. The fact that I wore a uniform didn’t change me one jot. The fact that I was proud of my school badge did.  It gave me a sense of belonging and that was nothing to do with a uniform. Imagine if schools implemented a code of conduct instead of a uniform? Imagine if it was just a school badge that could be sewn into a jacket or a school bag? Maybe there are some positives to wearing a uniform that I cannot see, but as yet I’m failing to see how allowing children to express their own individuality through wearing what they choose is not infinitely better. I cannot see how making everyone dress the same way is positive in any way. Children learn authority through their interactions with parents and class teachers and PEERS. I know I did not become a more disciplined person because someone ensured I stood in line during assembly or because I wore a uniform. ALL of my discipline came from learning conversations, and strong relationships with people I respected.

Sadly though some people in my school often came across like this…

 

“Respect me!”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I’m telling you to!”

 

Sadly every school has good and bad teachers in it.

 

As a teacher I often struggled not to fall into certain traps. I would do things very much differently now if I could. The most common mistake I made was standing in front of a class for twenty minutes, even half an hour before the students in front of me genuinely started to learn anything.  As teachers we are doing everything we can to optimise learning, but often it does not come across that way to an observer because we start to waffle and distract ourselves from what we were supposed to be learning today, especially if we are still learning how to be teachers and have not filled ourselves full of confidence yet. It is easily done, we try our best but everyone has bad days and life has a habit of slowing you down. It’s hard but as teachers we have to strive to be our best at all times. I made this mistake so often, but I can’t remember the last time someone told me half an hour of instructions where I then successfully went away and remembered every single thing they had said, so WHY did I used to do it and expect my students to remember so much? Why didn’t I just teach in smaller stages to make it easier for all of us? Maybe we are fashioned into doing it a certain way by our own learning experiences, without reassessing whether it is the most efficient and learning friendly way of doing things. I am much older now and I would teach SO much differently now if I went back into teaching.

To stop and start and have enough control in a classroom to physically organize and inspire and teach 30 young adults is an incredible expense of energy. It makes sense that it would be easier to leave them sitting where they are but surely that is not dynamic? Surely it’s about learning for yourself as a practitioner how to have the confidence and energy to take complete control and to feel free to move your students around and stop and start sections of a lesson according to what is needed rather than according to the how much energy you happen to have on that day. That is what I would strive for if I was a teacher now.

It’s got nothing to do with laziness. Teaching is simply one of the hardest working professions there is and it is the way that it is for many reasons. Just because things have been done in one way for so long does not mean we shouldn’t break the mould and attempt to do it in a brand new way for the sake of teaching our students in a much better way.

What if teachers were allowed to NOT deliver a three part lesson? What if a teacher had the power to actually teach in the way they thought was best for each student? What if a teacher could teach in a way that was not designed to impress an OFSTED inspector should they have a random observation with no notice? It fascinates me to daydream about how much further a student might develop if teachers were not hindered by conventional teaching expectations and rules. I think it would be fantastic and I think one day long into the future that it will have to happen eventually.

 

At the moment education is all about money, statistics and the hold that the industrial revolution has over the world of education in our country. It shouldn’t be. It should be about our children. Our children make better newspapers than us grown-ups, our children make better committees than we do, they debate arguments better than we do, and they have another huge, rather overwhelming advantage over us too.

 

They learn better than we do.

 

Children get things done. It’s time to listen to them. And learn.

 

Our current system piles extra pressure on our students. Schools disrupt students learning when they are approaching their GCSE’s. The do this by removing them from what is considered to be unimportant subjects and redeploying them into intervention sessions that try and fill the gaps in their knowledge that they need to pass their maths and English exams. This is the end of a journey that started with a target that was set for them 5 years before when they left primary school. FFT and grading pathways are still ruining our children’s learning and holding students back. When are we going to start breaking down this ridiculous framework that still has a grip on our schools? We should be removing league tables and treating each school independently due to its background, position and situation. Value added. It’s the only way forward in terms of how to correct this ancient beast we call teaching in my opinion.

I think we need to lose the targets framework altogether. Jimmy started at level 2. If he gets to level 3c, brilliant. If he gets to level 7b, brilliant. We need to stop putting a cap on it. Why? Because the current system still assumes wrongly that if you are good at English, that you ought to be good at maths, and that if you are good at music, then you ought to be good at Art or Drama, or maybe maths too if you’re a classical music student. It’s all wrong. You cannot paint children into those boxes. If you do, the system determines their decisions, not themselves.

Jimmy happens to be a Musical prodigy. He is utterly rubbish at Maths and pretty average at English so far. Isn’t it lovely that because this school needs to meet a pass rate, that Jimmy is taken out of Music in Year 11 for nearly a third of the year because of his Maths intervention? Jimmy is easily equipped to take on A level music, but he is now forced into an Maths intervention program because he went from a D to a B instead of a B+, but the cost of that is Jimmy gets an A- in GCSE Music instead of an A* because the school needed him to get a better maths grade. Jimmy doesn’t really want to do Maths but he is obedient and does what his parents tell him to do. Now Jimmy is waiting for his maths result to see if he will be a better Accountant because everyone tells him that is what he should do when he secretly wants to be a concert pianist and tour the world. It is insane.

 

We need a learning revolution.

 

Education needs a democracy installing, not a clueless dictator who has never been an education secretary before.

I wish we could put a team of five or six specifically chosen people in place, to hammer out the new frameworks in which learning should occur. One that allows a template which has moveable parts, so that each school is catered for under its own merits and circumstances, as well as the students learning methods being appropriate to the background and geographic area of the school. Teachers should be deciding what lesson content is, and they should be taking risks and experimenting, learning how to teach each class and student as a unique entity through what they know of the student and the surrounding community.

We need the people who are at the fore of creative learning progress. These people (such as Sir Ken Robinson) know what they are talking about. We need a super-group of learning heroes who understand the flaws in the system but who also have the means between them to redesign the system for the new age of learning. We need to change the paradigm.

We need to get rid of the school bell and to flush out the effect that the industrial revolution has had on the structures and frameworks that have held back our children for so long. I’m not saying by any means that this is the only way to fix the education system. Some of it is not broken and works just fine. There are many ways in which this new structure could exist, and my suggestions here are merely that. A suggestion. An idea. But surely it is time we started looking at the options which are on the table. My point is that we should have creative leaders who understand learning in position to setup a new framework that empowers teachers to teach what they know to the students that they know. We need to think about individual learning, and personalised pathways.

I wonder what ideas a creative team might come out with… I’d have faith in the ideas they might try… there is no such thing as one big fix, or one way that is better than another. We need concurrent and flexible ideas to enable our learners. All I do know for sure, is that we simply have to stop teaching them by intervention methods and filling in the holes before an exam in the hope that the students parrot their way to success rather than actually learning the material and being able to reuse the learning later on in life. As it stands, students have the knowledge to pass the exam they are about to take, whereas too many do not have the knowledge to apply their learning afterwards in the way they should. The point is to pass the exam, rather than to learn Maths or English in a way that benefits them further down their learning journey. Something has to be done. We’re giving out Mars Bars when we need to be giving a balanced diet, and it’s making our children bewildered when they move on from High School.

 

 “At college I remember the teachers who inspired me.”

 

By the time I got to College I had only just realised that I had developed a small personality. I was extremely shy and I remember on my first day just how nervous I felt without the structures that had given me such a safety net at school. I not only had to assess my own learning, but I now had to CHOOSE whether I wanted to learn something. I did not have to be there.

 

That dynamic changed everything for me. Not being forced to do subjects I did not want to do suddenly opened up a passion for learning that I had never felt before. At school, I had barely passed my music exam, getting a C amongst my other 5 C’s and 3 B’s. I was an average school student. Conscientious was always thrown round, but I was also a daydreamer. At college, I was a do-er.

The difference was that I realised through the passion of my new set of teachers that I was an individual and that I had the power to decide whether I wanted to learn something or not. I started not only to get above average grades, but I started to know that I was going to get them. I learned that you get what you work for, and that I was not a standard learner, I was someone who had to work harder to learn something, and at college, my teachers inspired me to want to improve myself and to work hard.

The change in thinking and the leap in knowledge between GCSE and A Level is way too big. There is almost an unbridgeable gap that exists at the moment, which leaves students approaching A levels with a serious disadvantage at the very start of their college careers. They believe it still works in the way it did at school. It doesn’t.

 

When I left school I struggled to understand why my knowledge was as deficient as it was. I had felt as though I had worked pretty hard, but that was always going to get the average results that I did. I was happy that I had passed everything sure, but it had made no sense to me, why I had to get a C in French, when I wanted a B or above in Music. I KNEW at that age that music was going to be my life. My education was changed to suit the school and I like everyone else had to parrot my way through my weaker subjects and learn how to pass exams without understanding what I was actually writing.

 

I was left without the Music theory knowledge I needed to get into College. I got a part-time job and paid for extra lessons through the summer to train me up for the Grade 3 Music theory exam that was my hurdle to getting on my chosen course. I did OK, working hard, but I couldn’t click with it like I knew I should be able to. Something was missing.

I walked into that entrance exam without any knowledge of whether I could pass that exam or not. I got 65/100. I needed 66 to get in.

The course leader let me join the course with the other 24 students. That opportunity changed my life. I worked *so* hard. I started to learn the things I had always wanted to learn. After 2 years, I was one of only 4 people to pass the course. I got 4 distinctions, seven merits and a pass. I was delighted, not because I had passed, but because I had learned that hard work pays off and that I was able to learn so much more efficiently than I ever had before.

This was my tutors fault. They taught in a way which showed through their body language that they loved their subject and loved teaching. They were truly inspirational, taking lessons out of the classroom and teaching in unconventional and creative ways, finding tricks to reinforce learning so that we KNEW the answers to things, rather than just thinking we knew. It was a revelation of epic proportions. The difference was that the tutors had control of the learning, and rather than prove the learning being the focus, the focus was individual learning, about getting everyone to understand, not just the people who you thought ought to understand. The 20 people who failed knew the information that they needed to know. They should have passed. The reason they didn’t, was because they didn’t care about actually getting the qualification, they went to college to drink and have fun too, which was fine for them. I wanted to fill my head with information and get into University. So I beavered away late into the nights just to get my head around the next assignment or performance exam. That entire cohort went on to succeed in huge bands, or succeeded as music teachers and everyone achieved great things in their own way. It was about value added. The tutors took a set of misfits, and moved every one of us forward in a way that was personalised and appropriate to each one of us. I left college feeling inspired.

 

“At university I remember the teachers who taught me how to teach myself.”

 

During college I had a personal tragedy. My father passed away during my final year and I broke my hand during an A level Art course but I still managed to draw enough to get a B despite drawing with a pot on my arm. I had learned how to play a piece of music on guitar and my plan for some years had been to go to Derby University. I went. But I went a year after I had intended.

I arrived for the audition and played my guitar. I played the piece ok, but the rather formal and cold teacher who judged me told me that another 400 guitarists had applied and that only the very best had a chance to get in. My audition was average. I was nervous because I knew I hadn’t applied to anywhere else because this was my *perfect* course. All my eggs were in one basket. I didn’t screw it up, but I didn’t *own* it. I didn’t get in.

I went away for a year and worked part-time whilst helping my Mum to get over my father’s passing away. I picked up a bass guitar instead and set about learning a brand new audition piece. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Duke Ellington on a solo bass. This time I nailed it. Only 200 bassists had applied and due to my obvious determination, I had a very different response at Audition 2.

 

“You’re in.”

 

Brilliant.

 

I spent the first year with my ears wide open, taking in everything I could.

I spent the second year treating it as if it was my third year, and that was when everything that could go wrong, did. I damaged my hand again and failed an exam as I couldn’t write. I got a 2-2 for my second year.

In year three I learned from my mistakes. I listened to my tutors and began to use them. I began to talk to my friends and started targeting what I didn’t know, and I opened up my mind. It worked.

In my final year I utterly changed. My tutors knew who I was because I pestered them… a lot! I got 6 A- and 2 B’s and played my final performance exam as though it was my last ever performance of anything ever. I went for it and finished my degree playing my harmonica with the performance of a lifetime.

I got a first class honours degree in popular music with music technology. At the time, I was only the 3rd person in the courses fifteen year history to do so.

I managed this because my tutors believed in me, and empowered me to teach myself. They showed me, not only how to find out something I didn’t yet know, but also how to use it properly when I found it. This was teaching and learning at its very best and those teachers, mixed with my own passion, made me learn how to teach myself efficiently. They gave me confidence, and taught me that wisdom comes from those who admit when they do not know something, and have a backup plan of how to find out and to never give in. You don’t get a first without some serious determination.

It seems utterly ridiculous to me that it is only by the time we get to University that we fully understand how to learn and how to teach ourselves. Surely we should be installing the means to teach ourselves at the other end of the journey!?

 

“If you don’t get these results… OFSTED will come sooner…”

 

The above sentence is the sub text of what threatens our teachers all the time. It leaves nothing but an air of scare tactics and stress hanging over the heads of our teachers, who are being told to take risks, but are held accountable and told off if they make a mistake. It’s un-tenable. It has been for years. Education is a bigger beast than the Government accepts.

I know my own opinions in this article are flawed; I certainly am no expert on education. I have just had a rant and mentioned some ideas that ideologically I would love to see come to fruition because I genuinely care about the state of education in this country. I am merely an observer with a creative mind. All I’m trying to do, is suggest that there is another way, not even my way, a way that is right and appropriate to the times we are now living in. I am waiting with baited breath for someone with all the answers to come in and sort it all out. It’s time for the people who ARE the experts to sit down and hammer out a new way. That’s my point. Get a team of experts in.

It’s that, or we’ll be back here in the dark ages of the industrial revolution forever more, filling in temporary holes in our children’s’ knowledge, instead of challenging them and having them actually learn stuff properly.

 

 

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