The Means and the Ends

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.

Too much fun

Perhaps it is the people whose work I encounter, but I feel recently as if, in general, the advice out there for teachers right now is: don’t have too much fun. It’s all about rigorous learning. And to a certain extent, I agree: children are in school to learn; we are educators, not entertainers, and if you plan a lesson to be “fun”, chances are students will leave having not learned much. I also know that each teacher is different, and has a different style, and that variety is part of the patternless pattern of all aspects of life.

But I also know I am guilty, deeply guilty, for having far too much fun. Clearing out my phone, I found a note written on 11th August 2013 called “new school year resolutions”. Many of these were regarding having an actual life beyond school, but the last reads: “improve rigour of learning – set the tone.”

Anyone who has met me will be aware that 1. I have zero capability of poker face and 2. I smile too much. Neither of these aspects bode well for a teacher. Somewhere along the line, I have learned to do an impression of an angry face, which is moderately effective. (Though quite a few of my students find this face hilarious, so I’m not sure it ever quite has the desired effect.)

You see, selfishly and stupidly, I still can’t quite get over my luck. Every single day I get to turn up to a place filled with wonderful colleagues, a desired level of challenge, a sense of academics, books, and children who really, really want to learn almost all the time. When I see students lining up for a lesson, even if I’ve had a terrible morning or a horrible meeting, I can’t help but grin. They’re so full of energy and hope, they give me energy and hope.

This might sound lovely to any non-teachers reading this, but too often this happiness bubbles over into fun. I’m not saying I plan lessons to entertain, I just get a little over-excited when teaching. I make only a few silly jokes and do a great impression of a teacher most of the time, but the tone of most of my lessons is a bit like a very controlled reading party.

Don’t get me wrong, I teach from the front for some time every lesson, and I make them write on their own for a quarter of the lesson. But in between that, my students can be trusted to discuss and try out and push limits and (crucially) stay on task. I still believe discussion is a necessary precursor to writing analytically. This discussion can be framed and guided; the activities around the texts can be varied and can occasionally involve a creative twist. These activities must be linked to the learning objective and the final desired outcome, but equally they must be engaging, or no-one will do them, and no-one will learn anything, and no good will come.

I have bad days and sad days, and days when it’s just not working, when I find myself giving too many warnings and even sending students out. I know I am the difference in the room, and with my usual approach that student would be sitting down doing the work. I know that extra effort on my part can make the difference, but it’s not easy to consistently manage behaviour in a completely positive way in 10 out of 10 lessons (though very many teachers do it), especially at the end of a term when you are tired and they are tired. After all, the stuff of learning is hard, and teachers and students alike both have bad, sad days.

So, where is this going? I’m not sure how much I agree with my August self. I have found that when I “set the tone” in this rigorous way, it tends to translate into overly didactic, overly controlled and overly sombre experience. I’m being someone else, and I’m not a good enough actor for my students to trust that person. I’ve always found that students respond to reality: they need to know the person you present to them is who you really are (not the same thing as knowing anything about your private, non-teacher life). And what I hesitate to add for fear of hubris is that my students do really well; often far beyond what is expected of them. If what I did wasn’t working, I would change it, immediately, despite my personal reservations and predilection for having a fun time.

Perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on fun. But a lesson devoid of joy doesn’t work for me; it doesn’t make teaching a career I want to be in and it doesn’t make my students learn.