Most of what I know about learning I discovered through running on mountain trails.
This journal entry represents my manifesto for teaching and learning in my classroom. I want to make something perfectly clear from the outset: while experimentation with technology may be one of the more outwardly obvious aspects of my work, it is not the point of my work. In this case, the medium is not the message.
I’m going to develop these headings over time, and each may eventually form their own independent article, but for now, here is everything I know about learning and teaching:
Getting Better is Painful
Perhaps it is part of the malaise of the First World that people have become so averse to hard work. It has become extraordinary to me to discover that many people consider the discomfort of hard effort to be a signal that there’s something wrong. I had this conversation with a group of young men the other day while embarking on a study of a Shakespearian play. “It’s boring”, they began, “I don’t understand half of it”. Their argument was fairly easily neutralised with the addition of a co-ordinating conjunction. “It’s boring”, I replied, “because you don’t understand half of it”. There’s only one way to fix that. Focus, sustained concentration, effort: discomfort. They weren’t incensed. Never underestimate the power of rational argument with teenage boys. Many of them know the benefits gained from this kind of determination, they experience it on the football training field or in the early-morning pool, on the river, or in their room with their guitar.
There are some places the learning “scaffolding” doesn’t reach. Teaching English, I use creative methods. I love the exercise of intertextual-comparison and I engage in more than my fair share of multimedia meddling, showing film and enacting scenes – the whole song-and-dance of the Shakespeare learning challenge. I don’t fool myself that any of this is going to make them any better at sitting and concentrating on decoding a passage of complex Shakespearian text. The only activity that can help them get better at that is concentrating on decoding a body of complex Shakespearian text under the guidance of someone who knows how to do it. So we do that first.
Running hurts too. To force adaptation (which is what “getting better” is) you must put your body and mind under pressure, and make ever-greater demands. No pain, no gain. As your body toughens, so does your mind, and your capacity to tolerate greater challenges increases.
Natural Talent is Real, We are Not All Equal
The notion that everyone is the same is corrosive to all forms of ambitious endeavour. Everyone arrives at a challenge with a different set of capacities and talents. These will put some at an advantage and others at a distinct disadvantage. Life is like that. Education should be about a fair chance, but education is also about recognising and driving talent. The intention of “a fair opportunity to succeed” should not be distorted into a driving obsession with making everyone reach an equal minimum standard.
No runner ever begrudges the winner of a race their accolades. “I am so de-motivated by the praise the winner received” said no runner ever. “I could never run as fast as the winner, so there’s no point trying hard”, said no runner ever. Getting to run in a race with elite runners of international acclaim is one of the greatest thrills of a weekend warrior. What they do tells us something about what is possible. I love running in those races where I cannot possibly win. As a runner, what I cannot handle is watching such a race. Every one of our students should be entered in the main race. Let them run with the winners.
Fulfilment Only Comes From Independent Success
The exhilaration of achieving something of meaning is the fount of “motivation” (which is the anticipation thereof). By over-supporting students and by removing all challenges and obstacles, we deny them the fulfilment of achievement. The coach might occasionally run alongside the runner, to share the experience, but they don’t carry them – and they certainly don’t shorten the course or handicap other runners. One of the fundamental reasons we put ourselves through the pain and discomfort and the times of disappointment and disheartenment in sport, is so that we can feel that sense of fulfilment when we achieve a result. When this happens, recognition from others is scarcely relevant.
Every time we simplify a task, over-assist, give extensions, praise ‘effort’ over ‘outcome’, we demean the learning experience, and discredit ourselves in the process. Only by maintaining high standards, asserting high expectations and demonstrating our understanding that success is its own reward do we show respect and value for the students’ human need to feel fulfilled.
Knowledge Matters and Skill Matters
The false dichotomy between knowledge and skill that is debated endlessly in the English education system is a criminal distraction. In academia as in wider society, it is strength and competence in both of these areas that is necessary. The emphasis on one of these to the exclusion of the other inevitably leads to disembodied experiences of learning at best, and at worst the distortion of learning altogether.
The complex process of reading (here I refer to reading as: decoding a written text, let’s not even mention the interpretation of what is read) is an excellent example of where skill and knowledge must both be developed, in concert, if one is to gain mastery.
Effective reading depends on a range of simultaneous processes, all of these reading processes involve both “skill” and “knowledge”. You have to know a word to recognise it, and you have to know a phoneme to sound it. Reading fluency, however, is a skill – it is not something that can be achieved by arbitrarily delivering the knowledge in unrelated blocks.
Moreover, emphasising one aspect of reading over any other inevitably undermines the development of the reading skill. As an example, the current English synthetic phonics emphasis will lead to readers who can make written words into sounds (and therefore test and sound like ‘good readers’) however they will be unable to make meaning from reading, nor ‘read’ through a semantic-linguistic path – which is how reading actually works. Putting all this together effectively is a skill that must be developed through repetition and attention to the whole process. It is a skill that I am still developing, just as I am still developing my knowledge of how language works. These are not discrete processes.
Just in case it still needs to be said, while strong hamstrings are essential to strong running, no number of hamstring curls performed in a gym are going to make a non-runner into a runner. They will, of course, become excellent at doing hamstring curls. Incidentally, knowing that hamstring strength makes for improved running efficiency does not make your running more efficient either.
Knowledge delivered in the process of developing a skill in order to effect an outcome is the ideal, logical, educational aim. We must stop the disembodiment of learning.
Routine and Change are Both Essential in Achieving Mastery
To become a better runner you have to run. Often. In doing so, you build capacity – put miles under your feet. The famous New Zealander Arthur Lydiard revolutionised the coaching of runners from this single premise. But to become a better runner, you must also interrupt the routine. Periodisation, Fartlek training, interval training are all methods used to create variance and a degree of unpredictability to training so that the body is, once again, forced to adapt and thus improve.
Success comes from both routine and from variance. The point is that both of these have to be purposeful. They are not capricious, these changes and repetitions are by design – and like any good educational experience – they are developed on the basis of what is known about what works. Learners must develop sound routines for learning, and they must at times be lifted out of the routine experience and encounter the unexpected.
Once again, these two apparent opposites are both necessary ingredients that lead to getting better.
Some talents may be intrinsic and even a favourable disposition to learning might to some extent be built-in to certain individuals, however perseverance and determination are virtues that we can develop in ourselves. We develop determination through seeing the results that come from our efforts. We become more confident in our own efficacy when we can see a direct link between our action and the success we achieve – and over time we can abstract this success and carry it from one area of our lives to another.
To develop determination in my students, I provide opportunities for them to work hard and risk failure. When failure occurs (and, yes there is such a thing) we learn how to use it to build success. I teach my students how to deal with the emotional components of failure and how to survive it. Then we focus on succeeding. When success happens it is real, and not a fait accompli. This fuels their determination. Perseverance becomes their habit.
Determination is not “thinking positively about a challenge” and it is not “having a good attitude”. It is engaging endlessly in the pursuit of success in the face of a challenge. Positive affirmation and creative visualisation do not of themselves make you a faster runner. Concentrating hard on being a faster runner, mostly while you are running, will. Positive affirmation that is insincere or affirming the effort in isolation from the result will not fuel a student’s determination. More than likely this will allow them to half-deceive themselves into the pretence that their failures are ‘good enough’.
It is said that “it is not the winning that counts, but how you play the game”, however, it is not said that “It is not the winning that counts, but how hard you tried”. This might be a hard fact, but it’s an important distinction. Some people just have to try harder than others – reassuringly their ultimate success is invariably sweeter.
We must respect the disappointment of our students when they fail. From this will come their determination to get up and succeed. From us they do not need sympathy, they need wisdom, knowledge and guidance. They need us to be strong enough to tolerate their disappointment, it does not need to be excused or assuaged. It is healthy.
Expert Advice, Knowledge and Coaching is Essential, Yet Some Lessons Can Only Be Learned from Experience
We are teachers because we know a lot about our subject of expertise. This matters a lot to our students and well it should. Most of our students are not autodidacts, nor do they arrive at knowledge spontaneously. We deliver the knowledge, and then, if we’re effective, we provide them with opportunities to integrate that knowledge. We help them to use the knowledge they gain to develop sophisticated and rigorous skills in developing their own ideas and interpretations.
A runner can train and train on their own, and they can run with other runners, but without expert coaching and guidance both in the skills and in the knowledge of the sport, they will not progress. The coaching must be specific to the runner. It must attend to their specific training need and if the runner is to develop independence, its theories must also be transmitted. Time with the coach must be used efficiently. The coach does not to go on every run with the runner, and they certainly don’t need to stand around uselessly while the runner performs his daily run.
So it is true with teachers, our time in contact with students should be spent in the transmission of essential knowledge, in setting individualised strategies for the students to follow to develop their skills, and in the testing and evaluation of the students’ progress. These are the specific skilled functions of the teacher. Using classroom time for the student to do their practice work is a waste of a very precious resource, and the teacher becomes a highly-paid and qualified homework supervisor.
Life lessons cannot be taught. All a teacher can do there is create circumstances where life lessons can be learned, and guide the students to respond to these in constructive ways. This article outlines the life lessons a teacher is in a unique position to expose their students to.
Winning is Wonderful
I want all the students I teach to be winners. I will not submit to the stultifying oppression of the restrictive prescription of learning by successive governments (I have already outlasted a couple), nor their determinist practice of predicting of students’ future grades, nor the slavish adherence to the latest educational fad (especially if this fad has anything to do with wall displays). I will run up the mountain with my students and when they falter – when it hurts – I’ll smile knowingly. “I know it does”.
“It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves” – Sir Edmund Hillary