Anton won't be pointed in the right direction

20th May 2011 at 01:00

Anton has ears, but he doesn't use them. At least he doesn't use them for the purpose for which they were intended - to listen. And the Antons of this world don't only have a problem with their ears, they also suffer from a pernicious brand of myopia. Of course, they don't know that they have it - indeed, if you ask them they will assert that their "vision" is 2020. But then aren't the most dangerous conditions the ones you don't know you've got?

Teachers come across Antons on a regular basis. There is not exactly one in every class, but it's rare that two or three years will go by without your meeting at least one of the genus. And Antons are difficult characters to deal with. This is because they are living paradoxes, oxymorons on legs. They are students, but every Anton I have ever met is certain that he or she has absolutely nothing to learn. Partly this is because they are on the wrong course. That is, a course of too low a level. You, or a colleague like you, has put Anton on this course. Thus you (or someone so like you it makes little difference) are wrong. As a consequence, whatever it is you are trying to teach him, Anton knows it already. Indeed, he probably knows it better than you. He never actually says it, but Anton often implies that when it comes down to it you really don't know what you're talking about.

Undaunted, you do your best to try to teach Anton something. "Look," you say as you hand back his latest sketchy production, "this has promise, but if you put your mind to it you could do a lot better." And it's true. Antons often do have ability. It's the recognition that their ability needs to be developed that they are so resistant to.

You tell him the old adage about genius being 5 per cent inspiration and 95 per cent perspiration. But you might as well save your breath. The only word Anton chooses to hear in the sentence is "genius". Never mind. Just as a Boy Scout smiles and whistles under all difficulties, so must the teacher try, try and try again.

"You need to give what you write some more structure," you suggest. "Tell me about your planning." All this elicits is a smug little smile. When you persist, Anton tells you in a definitive voice: "I don't plan. I've never planned. I don't need to." So that's it. End of conversation.

It's not that Anton doesn't do his work. Indeed he's often the first to give it in. You announce to the class that you want them to embark on an individual research project. This is planned to last for several weeks because, as you explain carefully, it's as much about process as product: you want them to use a whole variety of techniques and sources for their research and then to reflect on their practice.

Anton tells you straight away that this is meat and drink to him, and that he already has a subject. You question him further and find out to no great surprise that it's a topic he has researched before. To be honest, it probably wasn't suitable then and it certainly isn't now.

You tell Anton this in as diplomatic a way as you can, but he's not to be deflected. Don't worry, he says, as if to a child. He knows what he is doing. A week later Anton's research report is on your desk. Like everything else he produces it's rushed, superficial and not what the brief requires. When you tell him this, he stomps off exclaiming to whoever will listen about the criminal waste of his time.

For all this, Antons stay the course. And because their work is generally good enough to scrape by, the college stats record them as a "success". In value-added terms they score a nice round zero. But now that the bottom line is the only line, value added is decidedly yesterday's measure.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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