Thursday, June 21, 2007

On inspirational teaching

I hated the film Dead Poet's Society, and not just because it had the inexpressibly ghastly Robin Williams in it. If you haven't seen it, lucky you - but you know the script anyway: charismatic unconventional teacher defies stuffy, stultifying tradition to inspire pupils, who find their inner-selves and blossom like flowers, threatened bureaucracy then closes him down - you know the sort of thing. Most teacher dramas aren't quite as awful as this but at base they're all much the same: Rambo movies for Guardian readers, is what they are.

I'm not saying Blair bought into this exactly, but he did seem to bring a belief in charismatic leadership into his education policies. Leadership from business is what's needed - as if 'leadership' or 'management' was a single skill that can be transferred to any activity. And we saw this too, I think, with the education department's toe-curling "Everyone Remembers a Good Teacher" recruitment adverts.

If his cliche-ridden Mansion house speech is anything to go by, Brown intends to continue the same sorts of policies and perpetuate the same kind of myths. He said, for example, that the government would try and attract more "inspirational graduates" into teaching. I disagree that more inspiring teachers is what's needed. We could always use more of them, of course, but it's no kind of solution. There's a few problems with this "charismatic teacher myth":

1) In relation to discipline, it re-enforces the belief that order should depend on the teacher's qualities. It shouldn't. A teacher should be able to control a class because they are seen as a representative of an institution with a set of rules, not because they are perceived as possessing certain skills or qualities or a certain type of personality.

2) In relation to learning it re-enforces the lie that education can be made perpetually entertaining. It can't be. Some stuff is just plain boring and can't be made to provide immediate gratification. But like your Bran Flakes, once you've got it down you, you'll eventually realise it's doing you some good.

3) Charisma is a quality that is, as well as being by definition unusual, rather difficult to quantify - so how are they going to go about recruiting these inspirational graduates?

4) A lot of the movie-type inspirational teachers are parasitic on a system of rules that others have established and enforced. "Hey, he's unorthodox, he bends the rules - cool!" But what happens when there are no rules left to bend? Not so cool then.

I'm not at all sure if this is what Brown meant but I've found the myth of the charismatic teacher is surprisingly widespread, even amongst people who should know better. What I'm saying is we need a system where teachers, whether they are inspiring, rather dull, or something in-between, aren't confronted on a daily basis with behaviour that is slightly above the criminal but some way below what should be acceptable. After all, no-one goes on about the need to find more "inspirational" police officers, doctors, or social workers.

In fairness he did also talk about discipline - saying Ofsted might be asked to "raise the bar" on what is considered acceptable. Which is welcome because at present you'd have to be a virtuoso limbo-dancer to get under the bar at its current level.

Robin Williams: A most deserving candidate for a fatwa, in my view.

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