In the past, I have confused the means and the ends.
In my first year of teaching, I thought back to my most recent experience of school: A-level English. Looking at the oldest class I taught, year 10 set 5, I thought there could be no better path than the one teachers older and wiser than I had taken me on. At ages 17 and 18, I had written an essay a week.
So, I decided to set my year 10 set 5 an essay a week.
Obviously, this was doomed to failure. My poor struggling year 10s, so far behind in literacy, failed so utterly in this first homework I lost their trust entirely. It took a very long time to build it back up.
I had confused the means and the ends. Of course I wanted year 10 to write beautifully crafted, intelligent essays. But I hadn’t considered that the way to get someone to write a great essay is not to just write a lot of essays.
I see this a lot in unit planning, especially at KS4. We’ve become awfully good at drilling to the exam. But two years is a very long time to drill to the exam. We have two years to teach, with perhaps two weeks (or, if desperate, months) to drill exam practice. Too many KS4 units on English language, for example, teach using unlinked, decontextualised texts, like random novel openings or random excerpts from unlinked news articles. Although this is the format students will encounter in their eventual exam, it is surely a wasted opportunity to only teach disparate content in the ‘teaching’ stage. Of course in the end, we want students to be able to write about decontextualised pieces of writing, but in the run-up it is surely much more effective to lead students through a well-designed scheme, for example short stories, or articles linked by a common theme like feminism, or social justice – schemes that will allow students to practice key exam skills, but also learn something.
The means don’t have to look like the ends. In fact, they rarely do.
When successful adults turn around and say: ‘I didn’t enjoy school. I want our children to have a more fun experience than I had,’ they are confusing the means and the ends. We all want children to have fun; or rather, fulfilling, happy lives. But you don’t get to those ends by making school all about having fun. Many adults have succeeded because of schooldays filled with hard, hard work, not fun and games. We can have fun and games now, because of that hard work.
In Education is Upside Down, Eric Kalenze writes about ‘engagement first’ teaching. This is the paradigm in which I was taught to teach. It was only after too many years of seeing my poorest students make insufficient leaps in their education that I realised my error. We can’t put fun first; we can’t even put exams first.
We have to put learning first, and the means do not often look like the ends.