Over the last few years, the teaching profession has become increasingly receptive to garnering and collating the opinions of students on the teaching they receive. We ask them if they know what level they’re working at, how helpful they find the teacher’s feedback, whether they know how to improve, and what their next steps should be. There is an undeniable confirmation bias to the questions we ask. We set the criteria of what we think ideal learning looks like, and then we ask our students to judge us on this criteria. We ask our students to judge us on how well prepared we have made them to achieve their best results.
What happens when you ask students about their experience of the classroom: what inspires them; what triggers their imagination; what makes them enjoy learning?
The responses are somewhat surprising.
All students recognise that they are party to a simple contract with their teachers. If they listen and do the work that their teachers request of them, then they will reach their full exam potential. The success of student, teacher, school and society depends on this. We need to fulfil our side of this contract because that is what we are paid to do. As one student noted: “Exam questions and preparation make me feel confident and I feel armed with the skills I need.” Preparing students for exams is our job. It is what our students need us to do.
It is our job, but is it the extent of what we should be in the classroom? Schools, teachers, and students have simply subscribed to this contract of learning as the way things have to be without question. Students, when describing what they would like to change about lessons, shared this sanguine acceptance:
“this is an outside factor which can’t necessarily be changed by one school alone”
“the problems are rooted within the education system and not simply within our school”
So, what is it that students want to see changed, but don’t feel it’s possible for us to effect?
They object to the mechanisation and depersonalisation of teaching. They want to respond on a personal level to what their teachers have to offer. They want to have teachers they can learn from, not teachers who instruct them how to learn. Their responses to the teacher run almost completely against the wisdom imparted by Ofsted over the past ten years. They are not looking for A Guide on the Side they want The Sage on the Stage. One student suggested that “I really enjoy lessons with lots of teaching and talking from the teacher as it is more engaging.” We may play down the importance of the personality of the teacher, but students definitely don’t: “my opinions about subjects fluctuate frequently, mainly based on the teachers. Teachers that are interactive in the classroom, are approachable, very passionate and like to slip in some humour, really engross me. A personal touch and connection with the teacher (knowing pupils names) makes you feel comfortable within the subject.” Another declared that “The teacher – how optimistic, passionate, non-robotic they are” is the single most important factor in being inspired. What I found entirely surprising was that not one student mentioned a range of varied tasks and activities in the classroom. It was much more focussed on who the teacher is rather than what the teacher does.
Indeed, task setting was mentioned only in the negative. I have lost count of the amount of times I have been in staffroom conversations where we bemoan the way that our students simply expect to be spoon-fed. However, the students identify this as being a shortfalling of ours rather than theirs. One commented that the worst lessons he encounters are ones where “it can feel like someone is just spoon feeding me information as opposed to giving any sense why they chose to teach that subject in the first place,” while another identified “irrelevant worksheets and being told to read from the textbook and answer the questions with little guidance or interaction from the teacher [as] the worst of the worst”. Students engage when their teacher is engaged.
The biggest vitriol however was reserved for the system itself. The word education has become increasingly connected with instruction rather than enlightenment. We have allowed education to have more to do with government policy than vocational imperative. While we get better at fulfilling our side of the contract to deliver results, we increasingly lose sight of the reasons we became teachers in the first place, and the student is suffering as a result.
What students look for in a lesson is application beyond the tyranny of assessment. One student’s comment: “one of the things which inspire me when learning or have inspired me throughout my school life is when I am shown or can see the link between what I am learning and the real world or my own life” was completely echoed by another: “the main source of inspiration in lessons for me was always how what was taught could be applied to the real world.” In short, they want an education which extends beyond the tests we coach them to succeed in.
Where does this leave us in terms of sparking imagination? Has the content heavy, canonical, elitist, rote-learning, restrictive curriculum of Cove and Gummings expunged imagination in education? I would argue that yes it has, but only because we have allowed it to do so. As a student so eloquently expressed:
So whilst learning about how to win at the exam game is vital for us to do well in our exams and therefore ‘succeed in life’, it simply isn’t fun. I can’t imagine it’s fun to teach either. So I think on that basis, having some way of incorporating entertainment and engagement is a necessity. And these aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, if the material isn’t entertaining, or at least presented in an entertaining format, what is there to discuss? Who would want to discuss that? That’s why the lessons about the ‘exam game’ aren’t the ones I then talk to my mates about. Those are the ones, if anything, we all collectively decide to forget.
We are judged by our examination results and in response we tailor our teaching to the demands of the exam. We have become robotic. We have chiselled our subjects into gobbets of manageable information. We have become efficient. However, in so doing, we have also become the educational equivalent of the most mechanical route one, long ball football team. We relentlessly hoist the ball into the box hoping that aimless forwards will somehow scramble it over the line. We have become functional.
Just as football needed to do in the nineties, we need to reconnect with the beauty of what we do. We need to remember that facilitating expression and exploration is at the heart of teaching. We need to engage, to inspire, and to entertain in order to free students’ imaginations.
It takes a leap of faith to relinquish the control over the minds that we have been relentlessly drilling, but we have reached the point where we spend so much of our time teaching markschemes and assessment objectives that the fact that we are ambassadors for a subject we love is often overlooked. I suspect that simply by changing the emphasis of teaching away from the demands of the exam and more towards promoting the love of our subjects would actually improve results.
Students want more from their education. Teachers want to give more to their education. Inspiring kids, sharing the passion for our subject, sparking imaginations is what all parties want. Yet we are too scared to do it.
The currency of schooling is learning, the goods are exams, and the profit is measured in value-added. This is an inescapable fact. Students, teachers, schools themselves, and society benefit from efficient schools. Whether we like it or not, that is our job. The main question remains whether mechanisation is the same thing as efficiency when it comes to education.