Fact or fiction?

29th November 2013 at 00:00
Every teacher knows the dos and don'ts, proverbs and universally accepted notions that make up classroom folklore. Is there any truth in them? Or are they merely myths? Teacher Tom Finn-Kelcey takes a look at 10 of the most contentious

1. Don't smile until Christmas

What people mean by this is that a teacher should begin with a new class like a classic Test match cricketer opens the innings: nothing flashy, clear focus, iron discipline, playing a straight bat to anything tricky.

There is something to be said for this advice - it is important to set high expectations of a class and insist upon them. But the statement "Don't smile until Christmas" implies that at some point you can ease up on your expectations of the children, and you can't if you want the best for them. You need to set out to enforce expectations in a long-term way that is conducive to good learning.

Also, because of the nature of the profession, few teachers are cut out to be iron-willed disciplinarians. I'm not scary, so trying to pretend to be in front of 30 children is a recipe for disaster. The good news is that this is fine, because the way to earn respect is by being fair and consistent and - most important of all - by teaching well. If students enter your classroom expecting a good, well-planned lesson where they will learn something from a person who is vaguely intelligent and vaguely interesting, then you will probably earn their respect. By "not smiling until Christmas" and playing the ogre, all you are likely to get from them is their compliance. If that is all you want from your class, perhaps you ought to contemplate a career change.

2. Teaching is always a performance

There is more than a grain of truth here: getting the attention of students is vital, especially if you teach children who are disenchanted with education. A friend of mine is a firm believer in "edutainment" to engage many of the hard-to-reach kids he teaches. One can often find him dressed in historical costume, directing enthralled students to clamber under desks to simulate trench warfare. Even for the more reserved among us, it is a rare day when we do not give thought to how to engross our students in some of the less immediately enticing elements of the curriculum.

I frequently see teachers get this wrong in two interlinked ways. The first is when they sacrifice learning for entertainment. I'm sure I am not alone in having seen students emerge from the classroom of the "entertainer" full of excitement and fervour, but a little unsure as to exactly what they learned or what purpose the lesson served. The second mistake is when teachers forget that their subject material will do the inspiring for them if they use it well. A teacher does not need to be a colourful bouncing jester when they have mastered their subject and know how to deploy it to maximum effect.

The emotion of great literature, the sheer wonder of scientific discovery, the creative possibilities of the arts and the excitement of a great historical tale all beat contrived entertainment. It is misguided and narcissistic to allow your "performing" to obscure the goal of good education: to help students gain access to the great liberator that is the body of human knowledge.

3. Never turn your back on a class

Part of me would love to say something smug at this point, such as, "If you can't leave them to it, you haven't created independent learners." But it is a good thing for you to oversee what is going on for as much of the time as is realistic.

This is especially important if you have problematic children in your class. I used to teach in a school where there were a number of individuals who were capable of snapping in a moment and inflicting quite serious harm on their classmates. Without a great deal of vigilance - and, on more than one occasion, a swift physical intervention - there could have been serious consequences. Such situations are thankfully rare, but there is still a need for even those of us who teach the brightest students to keep a watchful eye on things.

These days, I work with students who are extraordinarily bright and a pleasure to teach, but they are not adults and are not always mature enough to make smart choices. I know that if I leave the room during a task, the students' focus is likely to wander considerably. If this comes as a shock to you, I suggest that you think back to when you were 14 years old and ask yourself how focused you were when the teacher left the classroom for a moment.

This is not to say that we shouldn't find ways for students to develop their ability to work without supervision. It is a vital part of the school socialisation process. But this should be done gradually and with a sense of realism about the behaviour of the average teenager.

4. The internet demands a pedagogical revolution

This has to be one of the laziest contentions ever. So often I hear about how we need to turn everything upside down because of the arrival of new technology. Over the long history of this line of argument (it goes back to the dawn of time) it has been proved wrong again and again. Prophets of change seem to imagine that the nature of good education and of human beings is profoundly altered by technology.

The extent to which you believe in this myth depends on what you think education is for. If you follow the Thatcherite New Right line of thinking, in which the sole function of education is to prepare workers for their place in the economic system, and you believe that education should be about practical vocational preparation, you are likely to see the demands of the modern world as ones that should be mirrored by the style and content of schooling. Old-fashioned things such as books, old- fashioned subjects such as history and science, and ideas such as deep learning and knowledge acquisition are out of step with the instantaneous, ever-changing, postmodern nature of the internet age, say those who peddle this myth.

But if you believe that the function of education is to help students achieve intellectual emancipation through mastery of the best of human knowledge, new forms of technology are simply add-ons to help deliver this goal, rather than game-changers. If anything, education needs to kick back against the internet age by emphasising the importance of concentration, logical thinking and extended learning tasks, and by developing the ability of students to spot untrustworthy information.

Do not mistake me for a Luddite: I love technology and think that using new technology in schools is an excellent idea. However, I am acutely aware of its limitations. Laura McInerney wrote a wonderful piece in TES ("Take your tablets and let's begin the lesson", 5 July) taking to task this idea that the use of technology is somehow revolutionising education. Anyone who hasn't yet read it should do so.

5. You need only plan in your first two years

If only this were true. The main trouble with this idea, as you invariably discover as you become a more experienced teacher, is that you tend to look back on those first few years in a similar manner to the way you now see your 14-year-old self. Leafing through the first two years of lesson plans is much like looking through family photo albums, finding pictures from the height of your adolescence and thinking, "Oh my God! Did I really do that?"

Your first few years, much like your teens, are a steep learning curve, and your planning is a long way from perfect. Even if you are that amazing teacher who gets it right straight off the bat (they do exist), there is still a need to replan and rethink. Aside from anything else, you can be sure that as soon as you have settled into a well-planned, perfectly structured course packed full of high-quality learning resources, the government will drive a steamroller straight through the middle of your hard work and turn your subject around completely.

But the core of what you do once you have some experience under your belt should stay broadly the same. If it doesn't, you ought to question whether it was ever truly useful for your students in the first place. Replanning should be much more about updating to current examples, creating better extension tasks and refining things that didn't quite work as you hoped last time around. So, although taking the time and trouble to get it right in Year 1 won't remove the need for planning in the future, it will minimise it.

6. Behaviour gets worse when it's windy

I have to admit that I have very little experience of this one. My duties are usually supervising the canteen queue, checking that students have their cards or standing at the gate at the end of the day holding a home- made placard with "Tuck your shirt in!" emblazoned on it, to save having to say it 500 times.

But after speaking to my colleagues and all the primary school teachers I know, it has become apparent that this weird phenomenon is often quoted as gospel truth. Despite failing to come across anything resembling a convincing explanation for it, I find it difficult to argue with the experiences of the magical effects of wind of such an overwhelming majority of teachers. Perhaps there is something in our genetic make-up that means we behave strangely in disagreeable weather.

I look forward to high-quality research from the UK Department for Education into this one. Perhaps Dominic Cummings could follow up his genetics and intelligence paper with an investigation. He may end up contributing something of more substance to our understanding of education than he has thus far.

7. The better the qualifications, the better the teacher

I truly wish I could defend this idea. The academic snob in me is insistent on the notion that the better your academic qualifications are, the better the teacher you will be. However, my experiences within schools simply do not support this. I have seen and heard too many examples of people whose heads are packed full of knowledge that they have gained from the best universities, who have CVs groaning under the weight of top-notch qualifications, but who cannot transmit even a tiny bit of what they know to a roomful of children.

Equally, some of the best teachers, who help the brightest students to achieve the highest results, have fairly mediocre qualifications. These committed teachers, whose academic ability is not the strongest, have to swot up on their subject, and perhaps this is what means they are better able to explain the core principles of an idea to students.

Other teachers were themselves let down by education and enter the profession from a fairly low base in terms of qualifications. It is these people who tend to put the most effort into improving their subject knowledge; if this is done over a long period of time, they can become veritable oracles of wisdom.

On top of this, we must remember that although there may be more truth in this correlation when we are talking about a teacher of older teenagers, a different skill set is clearly necessary to help develop much younger children.

8. Teachers must know it all

When I was in teacher training, my tutor frequently reminded us of a quote from the great Ernest Hemingway. When asked what qualities made him an accomplished writer, he famously replied: "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector."

If this is true, all students should become great writers because they all have one of these pre-installed. Even if you want to pretend that you have all the answers, and even if you think that you are getting away with telling porkies to your class, it isn't working. You can sometimes fool them for a short time, but as soon as some smart alec unmasks you by doing research themselves, you will look an utter wally.

There is nothing wrong with not knowing everything; children will respect you for admitting that you don't know. Get the student who asked the question to find out the answer and begin the next lesson by explaining it to the class. Having said all this, it is better if you do know most of the answers - students' questions should be predictable if you have planned properly.

9. Boys excel at exams, girls at coursework

Strong evidence supports this statement, and it is hard to argue with the raw data about things such as coursework. Sociologists present an array of explanations for the phenomenon. Some argue that genetic differences predispose girls to patient, careful working patterns, and that boys are testosterone-fuelled risk-takers who thrive in exams. It is also argued that these are behaviours that boys and girls are socialised into.

Others say that it is down to teachers and the self-fulfilling prophecies we create by labelling our students. Whatever the answer, it is difficult to dismiss this belief as a mere myth. Yet every one of us has a boy in their class who loves coursework and a girl who performs only in the exam hall.

10. You're exhausted, so it's OK to put on a video

Tiredness as an excuse for sticking a class in front of a video is unlikely to wash with anyone. As we all know, to be tired all the time is to be a teacher, but if this were acceptable the nation's children would be video-blind by now. Although I hate to sound pious, turning up to school too hung-over to teach is not really on either.

I concede some ground on this teaching method, however, when it comes to the end of term. There comes a point, usually during the last two days of the autumn term, when students and staff alike simply hit the wall. It is at this moment that serious, intellectually challenging learning becomes actively counterproductive. When the keenest, most dedicated student in your class is sprawled across their desk, eyes vacantly scanning the ceiling for something heavy to come crashing down on them to end it all, it is probably time to reach for the remote control.

If you are going to do this, though, find something relevant for them to watch. My politics students usually get the Yes Minister Christmas special on the final day of term. I suspect that I look forward to it just as much as they do.

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