When I arrived at the university this morning I ran into a retired head teacher colleague who I have known for more than 20 years. She is clearly enjoying retirement, having shed the responsibilities of school leadership with its associated stresses, though she remains committed to education, largely through supervising students on their school teaching practices. A meeting to discuss such work was the very reason that she was in the university today.
As is invariably the case when long established colleagues meet after having not seen each other for some time we began to reminisce on our earlier days teaching in schools. Angela, in common with many head teachers in the UK suggested that life in schools today is much more challenging than in previous years, and she clearly has no regrets about having taken retirement.
A particular memory that we share is of a brief course we ran for children from our two respective schools which looked at the life cycles and habitats of creatures living in local woodlands. This involved a couple of field trips during which we encouraged pupils, many of whom were described as having special educational needs, to delve through leaf litter in search of a range of invertebrates and other creatures and to use pooters, hand magnifiers and other simple apparatus to explore the exciting variety of life beneath the trees. I particularly recall that whilst the pupils showed little by the way of inhibitions, Angela was somewhat squeamish about handling earth worms, spiders, beetles, slugs, centipedes and a whole range of what she would certainly have described as “creepy crawlies!” None the less, she recognised the value in these experiences and joined in with the enthusiasm one would expect from a consummate professional.
The memories of these shared lessons made us both smile and recall specific individuals and the learning that had taken place. We particularly discussed individual pupils who struggled in the confines of the classroom, but demonstrated enthusiasm and interest in learning in this different environment. As we recalled these lessons we both felt that we had provided a tremendous platform for learning, but these memories also raised other issues, with which neither of us feel terribly comfortable. Whilst the lessons we conducted were well planned, with a good range of follow up activities in the classroom and well defined learning outcomes and assessment criteria, there was a good deal of spontaneity and flexibility in the work we pursued. As we worked in the woodlands the children often came up with ideas that were tangential to our lesson plans and we were able to follow new paths that led to increased learning. Some of this did not appear within the course objectives and at times bore little resemblance to the original intentions of the lesson, but none the less children learned, enjoyed the experience and in later years often recalled their visits to the woods.
I recall one particular lesson in which we were looking at the variety of trees in Wakerley Woods by identifying leaves and looking at bark patterns, when a pupil found a patch of toadstools at the base of a tree. This created a new interest amongst many of the children who went hunting similar examples of fungi, comparing them for shape, colour and location. For a significant part of the lesson the original objectives were set aside and the lesson content was determined by our pupils. As a result of this there was a breadth of learning and new experiences that we had not anticipated. We were eventually able to return to the original task of tree identification, but agreed that the diversion had been worthwhile and provided an important opportunity for learning.
“I suspect that this approach to teaching and learning may be less favourably looked upon today,” commented Angela. “If it isn’t in the lesson plan or the assessment schedule, in many schools it wouldn’t be encouraged. Furthermore, I fear that in today’s target driven and sanitised education world, behaviours such as this might have had us labelled as irresponsible and failing teachers.”
It is only a couple of years since Angela retired as head teacher; her experience of headship is much more recent than mine. I fear that what she had to say may be an indication of the narrow minded interpretation of what schools should be about that has been engendered by our political masters in recent years. Deviation from lesson plans and a prescribed curriculum is no longer encouraged, and learning that is controlled rather than spontaneous is the order of the day. Many teachers in school express similar views to those put forward by Angela, a fact that I find very disturbing.
I like to think that if Angela and I were in a similar position today we would react as teachers in exactly the same way that we did twenty years ago. I am sure that both of us still believe that learning comes from guided exploration, and that this needs to be encouraged in our children. However, I do worry that for many young teachers entering the profession, the pressures to ensure that a narrowly defined set of learning criteria are achieved, and that these should be addressed through a rigid definition of teaching styles, may limit the opportunity for creativity.
There are many imaginative teachers in our schools who rail against the imposition of pseudo-scientific and managerial approaches to teaching. Just as everything else in education eventually comes back into vogue, I am (almost) sure, and certainly hopeful that in the future they will have their day.