Let’s keep feelings out of it

6th November 2015 at 00:00

has there ever been a more pointless question in education than “How do you feel?”

I don’t mean in pastoral meetings or staff surveys, but in a lesson. “How do you feel about the way Hitler rose to power?” was a question I once saw a desperate history teacher use. “How do you feel about that question?” I asked a pupil at the back. He gave me a look as if he’d just sat in a puddle of jam. “I don’t see what it’s got to do with the lesson,” he said. “I don’t think how I feel about Hitler is very important.” Out of the mouths of babes.

I teach RE, so maybe I see a bit more of this kind of guff. The worst I’ve seen was a plenary question in a lesson plan apparently designed by a madman: “How do you think Jesus felt when he was on the cross?”

Let that sink in for a minute. Tell me, 12-year-old, how would you feel if someone crucified, tortured, humiliated and abandoned you, yet you were a hybrid of omnipotence and helplessness, soon to be resurrected and immortalised? What’s that you say? A “bit sad”?

I imagine the architect envisages that the pupil will use the question as a trigger to unpack all they have learned and lock it down in their mind using emotional association to encourage reflection. As we all value our own perspectives, the activity anchors learning and prepares the mind for further investigation. Which is fine, except this is all gibberish.

How we feel about something is the kind of question we ask when the factual content of the reply is of interest and value to the listener – a doctor’s exam, perhaps, or consoling an upset child. Building empathy is a valuable part of a relationship. However, parents don’t send their children to school so they can work through their feelings about the Tudors, but so they can learn who the Tudors were and what they did.

The former is dangerously indicative of a culture that puts feelings above the objective world. Time spent on activities that present no real learning opportunities means seconds and hours that will never be recovered. Poor kids can’t access tutors and cultural capital to remedy this deficit – they get one precious bite at the banana. Every time we start a lesson with “How do you feel about the Holocaust?” we lose a chance to challenge and change a child for the better.

Therapy culture, where emotions are a key aspect of learning, grew like a mushroom in the dark. No child was made an iota more or less happy by sharing teenage sentiments about Gandhi, calculus or Ohm’s Law. “I loved school, but you know what it needed? More chances to discuss how The Siege of Krishnapur made me feel,” said no child, ever.

When I see a question that includes the dreaded “feel”, I rub it out and replace it with “What do you think, and why?” because at least that challenges pupils to consider the ethical dimensions and substantiate them. Feelings don’t need to be justified; they just are. Kids will have them whether or not we ask them to write them down. But actual learning? I feel that’s more important.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert

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