Too many tricks, too little balance

8th August 2003 at 01:00
With so much to fit in, are we losing sight of what teaching is really all about?

When I qualified as a primary teacher in the early 1960s and walked out of college into my first appointment (we never called it a "job"), I carried a small suitcase of exciting objects and pictures, all carefully selected to enrich the environment in which our young pupils discovered and internalised their world.

In those days we were fairly devoid of jargon, but we probably believed in the chaos theory, apparently haphazard concept formation, self-motivated learning, child-centred education, citizenship and, yes, I suppose we were "trendies".

What results we achieved in those blissful days. And how well we knew our pupils. When I reminisce nostalgically about those times, younger colleagues say: "But could you keep up with all that individual attention now?" No, but only because of the strict timetabling we need today so we can fit all the elements of subject-oriented teaching into the day.

What concerns me is the current thinking - evidently the result of sound research - that to raise achievement, each lesson (and grouped activity within many lessons), needs a finely tuned learning objective to focus the child on the set task.

My heart sinks as I recall my initial college training, when we were shown how children developed a multiplicity of schemata and concepts as they explored the classroom we had prepared so thoughtfully. How dare we imply that our students' learning is limited to - or at least measured successful by - prescribed objectives?

When you're young, you don't appreciate the prophetic nature of A A Milne's writings. But when I revisited Winnie the Pooh as therapy for my weary soul, this sent shivers down my spine: "Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming down stairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."

What with jumping through hoops, plate spinning, throwing the hat in the ring, dancing to someone else's tune, and cracking the whip, you could be forgiven for making a link between teaching and a travelling circus.

I don't want the pendulum to swing back: too much has changed for that to be appropriate. But it is desperately important that we keep sight of children's need to make choices and decisions for themselves, then learn to live with the consequences. We must be available to reach the child where he or she is (wherever else can you meet someone?). Then the pupil is given just the right level of guidance to take the next step towards independence. Why do I love this profession? Can you answer that? Can I?

Yes, I've moved on 30-odd years. Gary, in my current Year 1 class, habitually throws himself under the tables, drums his heels on the floor and makes animal noises. We know he has problems at home, but the rest of the class has a right to their education, and I have a right to do my job.

But the day comes when I have to give him some quality time. I abandon the literacy plan; my teaching assistant takes over the class, and I take Gary aside.

He tells me that when his uncle comes round to "have a go at my mum", Gary first protects his toddler brother, shouts at his older brother to "stop blabbing and get a grip", then runs to a neighbour for help.

With such a heavily packed timetable, where do children nowadays get a chance to share these experiences that have such an impact on their progress? Gone are the days of those precious one-to-one reading sessions that covered so much more than reading (whatever happened to the hidden curriculum?).

I fear for these children: it was bad enough when we used to shake our heads wisely, and valued people by their academic achievement. Now it seems academic achievement has been narrowed down to include only the prescribed learning objectives devised in some distant ivory tower. How long before the "enrichment" of the learning environment we are now hearing about, filters down to enrich the children?

The writer teaches in Kent. She wants to remain anonymous

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