Where have all the good times gone?

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Knowledge for its own sake is under threat say Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods. Alot of the "fun" has gone out of the primary teacher's job according to our recent research on creative teaching, and, more recently, on inspections in primary schools. The most fruitful source of this used to be in pupil-teacher relationships.

"So much of what we did was me, and then we responded to each other and it worked. I will always remember having good relationships with my classes. I look back on it, and although we were often pretty worn out we had a lot of fun," says a teacher we talked to for our Economic and Social Research Council-funded project, Creative Teachers in Primary Schools.

Teachers were helped by the "children spurring you on". There is a social element to the experience in which the class do things together and learn together. Visits, dramas, presentations and spontaneous activities are all representations of both teaching as fun and learning as fun. It appears however that these are being marginalised by an outcome model of curriculum and assessment, and Office for Standards in Education inspections may exacerbate this process.

During observation of one inspection, teachers readily admitted that they stopped going on trips with their class beforehand, avoided planning trips or doing class drama during the inspection, and ensured that any spaces for spontaneity during the inspection week were curtailed.

"In fact, it had been much like this for a year leading up to the inspection. It's working extremely hard all year for one week, and then they ignore my records. And what have I as a teacher got out of it in terms of assistance and reflection on my practice - nothing, just a mark to say 'we're a good school'. "

The spontaneous or tangential is considered a significant feature of fun, for if there's something there that children are enthusiastically interested in, it would be so silly to ignore it. Because the motivation's there. It's already made, the drive to look at something, to find out about something. You don't have to stimulate it. It's a gift. It's energy and curiosity.

It might be the enthusiasm of a group wanting to produce a play on "No Smoking Day", or encouraging a boy who gets hooked on the number bonds that make 15 and tries to find them all, or providing free access to the drama studio for a group of girls who wish to choreograph a set piece for their Tudor musical. One of them talked about their teacher "letting us breathe".

In the last case the teacher sums up many teachers' feelings, "I just feel that this intuitive, teachable-moment type thing is in danger of being something apart. If that were to happen, I would find teaching so appalling. " The exciting social atmosphere, learning about children, "lighting sparks", "going with the flow" are all part of those "teachable moments" that are ends in themselves. Creating ends in the process of primary teaching seems to constitute a major defining characteristic of fun in teaching.

What is it that prevents these primary teachers from finding work fun? The national curriculum demands individual assessment across the whole curriculum at every stage even with the new level descriptions of the post-Dearing curriculum, and this creates a "getting done" mentality. It is not just a matter of overload but of the domination of teachers' psychological space by the demands of record keeping and detailed classroom and school level planning. Records are kept in one teacher's shoe cupboard because "I want to trample them to death". Days are dreamed of where "you could just decide what you wanted to do and have a fun day", and much of what used to be "pottering time in the classroom" is now spent in multiple meetings.

One experienced deputy head of a large primary school said that the national curriculum "is slowly eroding confidence. I used to feel a much happier, comfortable, confident teacher and now I've become uptight. Now I feel you've got to get this done, you've got to get that done, 'don't talk to me', 'go away', and I hate it. Yet I'm working harder than I've ever done before. . . but not doing class work. The balance is wrong now. This weekend I did about seven hours work that had nothing to do with the way I was going to teach on Monday morning. I was doing minutes for a language meeting, minutes for a staff meeting, a summary of the half term reports and I had to do a reference for a teacher who had left."

The swamping of fun in teaching through bureaucratisation is developing into an iron cage where routinisation mechanises almost every aspect of human life, eroding the human spirit and capacity for spontaneous action. The Ofsted inspection we observed also contributed to this. It involved the teachers producing a "performance", and created for one of the teachers a "surreal" experience of not knowing who she was anymore, particularly after obtaining a mark of approval for a partially contrived presentation.

"Everything seems much more artificial than it used to be. As a staff we don't really discuss the deep-seated issues as far as education is concerned, but a lot of my time is spent chivvying along, calming people down, trying to make things sound a bit more positive, generally humouring people," says one teacher.

Why should teachers' work be fun? If "fun" means teaching being interesting, creative, exciting, purposeful and dealing with the social, moral and political issues of learning and living then this, surely, enhances the quality of children's learning.

Second, an approach based on fun would have an effect on how pupils felt about learning. The emphasis at the moment across all educational sectors is one of acquiring merits, which are broken down into bite-sized pieces as in the national curriculum. These pieces are ends in themselves and symbols of achievement, but they are not ends in terms of the explorations of the knowledge itself. Knowledge is seen as a commodity.

Perhaps it might be appropriate for the next team meeting, department meeting, senior management meeting or faculty meeting to discuss how some fun can be retained in the teaching process. Some of our teachers were managing to do this, though not without difficulty. This way, they will encourage teachers' creativity and enhance the quality of learning.

Creative Teachers in Primary Schools by Bob Jeffrey and Peter Woods has just been published by the Open University Press.

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