Let's be frank, brilliance is in short supply

21st August 2009 at 01:00

Rarely, if ever, have I achieved "brilliance" in anything. In all probability the same is true for you, and for most of our colleagues, despite any impressions given to the contrary.

So why, then, do we tend to be so free with the "brilliant" accolade when engaging with our pupils over the most basic of accomplishments? "Sir, I've brought my pen" - "Brilliant".

This effusive approach certainly encourages happy, positive classroom atmospheres but I wonder whether we have been too free with our praise. Has there been too much quantitative easing on the superlatives front, thereby storing up problems of over-inflatedness in adulthood? There is surely a thin line between a student becoming "positively reinforced" and becoming positively deluded.

As a non-brilliant person I could easily be wrong about this, but my anxieties about the longer-term consequences came to the fore when two very different - yet strangely connected - reports were released about the British public. One was from Nuffield Health and the other was from a former Australian test cricketer.

The first of these informed us, among other damning stats about our slothfulness, that one in six of us is now too lazy to get up to change a television channel when the remote control breaks, that a third of us would never consider running for a bus, that two-thirds of parents are often too tired to play with their children, and that half of dog owners cannot be bothered to take it for a walk. As for climbing two flights of stairs - are you `avin a laff?

The national lethargy is reflected in our spineless psychological make-up too, at least according to cricketer Justin Langer. For the Ashes series he supplied a dossier of advice to his Australian compatriots about the apparently gutless nature of the English whenever things start going wrong. "Most of them make all sorts of excuses and start looking round to point the finger at someone else - it is a classic English trait from my experience," reported Justin.

When we read such stories of the nation's ills our professional reaction is "Don't blame us", and we should certainly be wary of drawing too many conclusions from one outspoken Australian. But maybe there is an uncomfortable truth for us here. Maybe teachers' tendency for the past few decades to shower high praise on the most modest of personal actions has contributed in part towards large sections of the population developing an inflated idea of what is or what is not a praiseworthy level of effort and application. There follows, too, a subsequent inability to respond positively to the inevitable setbacks and failures in life.

Huge pressure from league tables has further encouraged us to nurse and spoonfeed young people through their exams, often leading to an even more deluded sense of personal effort and achievement on their part. We should not be surprised if we find many of those same people turning into fat, lazy and feckless adults. It's not just our fault of course, but maybe teachers are in part to blame. Let's not blame it all on society, the media, parents and the Government. Maybe we have all got it wrong. They are not brilliant, but nor are we.

  • Stephen Petty, Head of humanities, Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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