Braced for a world beyond the belt

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Since the 1960s, schools have been transformed into happier, more humane institutions. But, writes Ian Smith, not all the reforms were for the better

It came as a surprise to me that it was the ruby anniversary of The TESS. The first edition was published when I was in sixth year at school. It was six when I started teaching and 20 when I left the classroom to become an adviser.

The questions I want to pose on this anniversary are: to what extent has classroom methodology changed in that time, and has it been for the better?

To answer the second question first: schools have improved beyond all recognition for both pupils and teachers. They are happier, more humane institutions, more inclusive and much more effective in helping young people to learn. Teachers are more professional and have much better conditions of service. I don't think it follows that they are easier places to teach in.

My school days were not the best years of my life. Despite the fact I was academically able and generally well behaved, I can remember being in a state of high anxiety, even fear, a lot of the time. The learning was "done to you" and the methodology was "full frontal". Exam results and university were the main goals.

It wasn't until sixth year that I realised I couldn't think for myself. One young teacher started to relax with us and debate current issues. He asked me what I thought about the abolition of the death penalty. I didn't have an opinion. I could write him a good essay on the subject, outlining the pros and cons, but I did not know what I actually thought about it myself.

Since I realised I had been spoon-fed at school and knew that would not happen at university where there would be lots of people more intelligent than me, I feared I would be "found out". As a result, I worked very hard in my first year, did well and suddenly started to believe in my own ability, relax and think for myself (mostly in pubs).

My mother had been a teacher and I was interested in history, but I'm not really sure why I wanted to teach initially. The way I had been taught was not good, and in history it was appalling. All I can remember is having notes dictated to us, having to learn them and feed them back to the teacher in examinations. I can still hear the boring monotone in which they used to be recited.

By the time I entered teaching, I did have the beginnings of a "mission" to help make my classroom a more effective place to learn than I myself had experienced. But I was very naive and started in a school where the belt was used as a first resort. I had a timetable that included three first- and three second-year classes (D, E and F in both cases) with 35 to 40 pupils in each for two 40-minute periods a week. I will leave the rest to my memoirs.

What I realised from week one was that there was no way I could teach my pupils in the way that I was taught at school. Indeed, I had to stop thinking so much about what and how I was going to teach them and learn much more about how they learn. What would motivate them? How could I get them on my side? How could I help them to be successful learners?

At least I came into teaching at a time when "traditional" teaching methods were under attack from what came to be labelled progressivism. Of course, this has now become a term of abuse. Far too many progressives threw out too much of the old and based their thinking on doubtful theories of learning. I was one. At one point in my career, I was the worksheet king.

For many of my students, I am ashamed to say, history probably became a boring slog through worksheets punctuated by the odd video or filmstrip and far too little class discussion. I was guilty of not requiring or helping them to think - the very thing I held against my own history teacher.

I left teaching after 14 years in the classroom and have spent the last 20 years working nationally in different roles to support teachers to develop their classroom methodology. I could have used this article to give my perspective on the shift there has been nationally in the last 40 years from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on learning - and teaching. I could have speculated generally on how far this message has actually impacted on classroom practice and teachers' professional development.

Hopefully, I will have the chance to do that in the future. This has been a more personal perspective.

I believe that, if I were in my sixth year now, I would be able to think more effectively and I would be more articulate. I'd have much more confidence in my own ability and (possibly) even be clearer about what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe I would not have drifted into teaching.

But, despite the hard times and the mistakes I have made, it would have been very hard to have had a more fulfilling career elsewhere.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited, the teacher development agency.

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