Picture this: a classroom inhabited by a class preparing for a “functional skills” English assessment. The students are clear about what was expected of them. They are working with focus and the atmosphere in the room is calm. What these boys are earnestly doing, in this typical room, on pieces of paper and in neat ink, is “writing an email”. Classes like this are happening all over the country and I am not at all calm about it, for inside my head an epiphany, or if not that, a blood clot, is inexorably forming.

Students are asked to perform such meaningless exercises so often in school that it is a total credit to their faith in their teachers and the institution of school that they should willingly submit to such absurdity at all – let alone with the patience, trust and dedication shown by these young men.

Who in their right mind could perform such a task with passion? How many more letters like these, thrown into the landfill, un-read and un-appreciated by their putative recipient will it take before we exhaust the next generation of their will to live? Certainly their teacher will have read each letter and commented on their content and style and fitness for their so-called “purpose”, but in reality, who really cares to make a letter of appeal or persuasion truly appealing or persuasive if it is not ever going to meet the eyes of anyone to whom the writer, personally, wishes to appeal to or persuade. A letter is written for a reason, to effect an outcome or to express an opinion which, at the very least, we hope will add our point to a debate about something that we feel something for. Writing a letter is almost always, particularly in these 134-character-sound-bitten times, an act of passion.

Except for our young in our schools, who write letters simply to show they can write letters. They write meta-letters.

Once it may have been acceptable to drill our pupils in the facts and rituals of our subjects until they were all able to repeat the data in perfect unison. In those days the lives they were being prepared for were pre-determined and unchanging. Now, the student of the present must prepare themselves with skills, knowledge and a disposition to learning and adaptation that will hold them in good stead for a productive future that can barely be imagined.

Don’t think it stops here with the meta-letter. Students write for imaginary newspapers. They speak to imaginary audiences about subjects with which they have no personal affinity. They tell stories no-one will ever hear. They correct their spelling and perfect their rhetoric to convince no-one of anything. Almost everything they do is in order to prepare themselves for a notional future in the real world. In the real world no-one gives you a detention for being late, you either miss out or lose your place. In the real world people know when to talk in a group without having an authority figure directing traffic. In this world respect is mutual and lost when coerced. This world is a place where learning is exciting and knowing something has value and nothing is for free. In this world the way you do something is as important as what you do and your performance is not scaled and norm-referenced. In the real world you are not tested later. The action is the test.

If, like me, you like the ‘real world’, but see no reason that it should end at the classroom door, I’d be very interested to know how you think we might be able to get real inside schools. Here are some nominal categories and my thoughts on how we may be able to authenticate students’ school experiences.

Contexts

An authentic context is a highly motivating factor to anyone performing any form of complex or social task. Some authentic contexts I’ve tried to create are:

  • Writing letters to actual people to ask them to visit the classroom, or to answer a question
  • Writing stories to be read to students in other, often younger, classes with themes that are believed to be of use to them
  • Speaking from experience and demonstrating a skill or talent
  • Writing and presenting for public view, in print, on radio and online
  • Creating promotional materials for events and products that actually exist and will be sold.
  • Evaluating an advertising campaign on the basis of the sales it generates.
  • Making a film and showing it to an audience
  • Writing a submission to a politician and sending it
  • Arguing for a change to a school rule, in person, to the headmaster or board of governors

Relationships

Our relationships with our students must be authentic too. “Because those are the rules” is not enough to justify an admonishment. “Because these are the rules we share” is better. But even better still, how about “That behaviour does not support our success, it interferes with our mission”

Beyond this, if we are to constantly conceal our uniqueness as people behind the persona of ‘teacher’, we are cheating our students of the opportunity to develop a meaningful and appropriate engagement with an adult with whom they have a long-term working relationship. How can they possibly begin to respond to teachers and other adults with sincerity and generosity if they aren’t dealing with an authentic unique human being. We should not be respected ‘because we are teachers’, we should be respected because we deserve respect and because it is warranted. Equally we should be demonstrating this same respect. If we lose our temper or raise our voice, it should be a matter of contrition. We must model humane and self-aware behaviour if we wish to hold hope that we will see these qualities in the students we teach.

If all the students ever have to respond to are tropes, is there any wonder they present to us as zombies? It seems a rational response.

Consequences

This is perhaps the most contentious and gnarly of all the inauthentic tropes of school life. “Actions have consequences” is a very healthy mantra; however, when the sanctions for inappropriate actions become contorted into a protracted exercise in institutional procedure, what actually happens is that the so-called consequences become completely divorced from the actions that triggered them. It is not unusual for a student in detention to be unable to recall what exactly they did to get themselves there in the first place.

Consequences should be natural. Consequences should be connected to the actions that trigger them – and as much as is possible, consequences should be logical. If a student wastes their time in class, I cannot for the life of me understand why their time should be formally wasted for a further 30 minutes in an after school detention where the purpose is to achieve nothing. This seems to be yet another meta-lesson. “We are holding you here doing nothing as a consequence of your doing nothing earlier in order to teach you a lesson”.

I would replace these sanctions with effective responses. Disruption could be responded to with extinction. Acts of destruction with direct reparation. The student should be offered the opportunity to make good. They should be encouraged to use their initiative and supported to restore their good name.

And as a result of all this, we will be dragging our creaking school system inexorably into the real world and our students along with it. Grades, sanctions and tasks will be kept in perspective and the critical faculties of students and teachers alike will be kept razor sharp. Students won’t expect success to be conferred on them by others, they will understand how to develop positive human relationships, they will have a high capacity to solve their own problems and they will leave the school system ready to take on the world.

Are you up for the challenge?