• Alison Burton

So you think you know about education?

A beginner’s mind challenge..

Uncertainty during lockdown

Like fellow teachers, I’ve experienced the whole gamut of emotions over the last three months. Uncertainty is generally uncomfortable, being unable to fulfil our roles in the way we would normally do has been frustrating, new approaches have been challenging and most of us have at least one or two pupils we’ve been unduly worried about. If we’ve engaged with any kind of media during this period of heightened anxiety, we’re likely to have encountered hurtful accusations of laziness, failing our pupils or blame for not adequately facilitating the re-opening of the economy. It has been disheartening reading and at times I have wondered why I engage in an activity that seems so undervalued in our culture. However when I let go of my own reactivity, I was more able to identify and understand some of the thinking and fears behind these apparently negative views of the profession. If you have any interest in education – and arguably we all have a vested interest in the development of young people – please take a moment to adopt a beginner’s mind regarding your attitudes towards school..

Attitudes towards education

Our worlds are naturally shaped by our perceptions and past experiences. As we have all been schooled in some way, most of us believe that we understand education and are therefore both able and entitled to share our expert opinions on what’s best for whom. I’d suggest that in reality we may have some inkling as to what worked well for us and what didn’t, but have likely overlooked the majority of our own educational experiences, remembering and exaggerating only the highlights and - because of the brain's negativity bias - also the more traumatic aspects.

Teaching may not be quite what you think

How many times have you mentioned what you do for a living and had someone make clichéd assumptions about what the job entails? Often these responses are amusing, or perhaps slightly offensive, but where teaching is concerned, a problem arises because the prevalence of misconceptions from outside of the profession conspire to threaten children’s futures. Unless society as a whole, and policy-makers in particular, understand more of what currently happens in schools, we’re setting ourselves up to completely fail the Covid generation.

Education works in the people realm and is a complex undertaking. Whatever your political views or experiences of school, try to find an open-mind as you consider the following possibilities:

· you may know quite a lot less about educational processes than you believe..

· modern education is largely skills (rather than information) -based, which is quite different from 19th and 20th century approaches to learning

· one solution cannot possibly suit all young people

· significant numbers of children and families face various challenges that impact learning, those of us without their lived experiences cannot comprehend these

· adults who have chosen to work with young people have usually done so because they consider education to be valuable work, not because of the terms and conditions.

Education continually evolves

Consider how much the world has changed since you encountered your own formative school experiences. Did the internet exist when you left school or university? Did you know we’d be relying on powerful computers in our pockets by 2010? Education evolves to keep abreast of global change, but is invariably tasked with an enormous challenge in so doing, particularly during periods of very rapid social change. In the last two decades, understanding of brain science and learning processes have been transformed by technological advances - educators strive to reflect such developments in scientific knowledge in classroom practices. So perhaps we can all acknowledge that whilst school-buildings may seem largely unaltered , the activities that go on inside them may no longer be quite as we experienced in the 20th century and we may not have the level of expertise we'd assumed.

How we learn

Consider too, that - inconveniently - neither children nor adults learn in a steady, linear fashion. We therefore cannot state with any confidence where each child ought to be with regard to their learning after three months in lockdown. You may have parented a child who plodded along with something for months, only for the penny to drop and learning to take off at a rate of knots. You may have encountered another who was flying through school until a loss such as bereavement or parental separation sent their engagement with learning through the floor. Learners are people, and that makes teaching a highly relational process that’s way more complex than most folk appreciate. Our children have been through a global crisis. Have you struggled with lockdown or an uncertain future? Is it possible that younger people may have struggled even more and that supporting their well-being will be of greater importance than academic attainment (and totally underpins their future achievement) in the aftermath of the pandemic?

Testing and measurement culture

The UK’s education culture involves testing – we seem somewhat obsessed with measurement of academic performance. Step back and consider your own views here. Do you unintentionally measure others’ intelligence and worth by their examination record despite being aware that exams can never offer a perfect measurement of learning outcomes, that many factors impact someone's performance on a particular day? Somewhere along the way have you forgotten that learning is about the process of improving one’s understanding, rather than test success and social media posts? Might a subtle shift in your view of what learning’s really about colour your opinion about what children most need now?

For educators, testing has a somewhat different flavour. We're allowed to be obsessed with it because formal and informal assessment informs and guides all of our practice. Without knowing who gets what, we cannot possibly plan and deliver children’s next learning steps. So tests are really important, but because they facilitate rather than measure learning.

‘Catch up’ plans

Talk of post lockdown ‘catch-up’ learning is rife. This idea is based on an implicit assumption that every child should be at a certain stage on a certain date. It is logical that we should use approximate developmental milestones as benchmarks and progress indicators, but these should not become concrete goals for every child. Educators will immediately recognise that the proposals for a catch up plan are flawed, though understandably, others are less likely to see the truth in this. They all finished school at different stages and will all return to school at new different stages. Until students are back in the classroom, teachers (particularly of younger children) will find it very difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is that individuals need to catch up with. Sadly, any resistance to the catch up proposal is likely to be reported as evidence of the teaching profession’s laziness or unionisation, when this is simply the reasonable expression of views borne of educators' extensive experience of facilitating learning - experience that the general public does not have )or at least did not have prior to lockdown!) Planning catch-up programmes now would be akin to deploying a plumber to install a central heating system because one room felt a bit chilly, or expecting a doctor to write a prescription without having asked the patient about their symptoms.

Letting go

These are complex times and the issue of how we approach education as lockdown eases, an important one. Solutions may not be obvious, but off-the-cuff suggestions that do not allow for educators’ voices to be heard are likely to contribute to lasting damage and will do nothing to resolve ongoing issues around teacher recruitment and retention. Every member of society has a part to play, even if it’s one of simply being more open-minded and willing to listen before expressing a strong opinion. The subject is emotive and important and offers a prime example of the gains that are possible when we cultivate greater mindfulness. By patiently letting go of assumptions and judgments, by accepting things as they really are and by trusting members our educators to do the jobs they have been trained to do, each of us is in a position to contribute to the best interests of children and young people. Now is the time to pause for reflection and to observe, rather than to rush into fixing problems we have not yet had the opportunity to diagnose.

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