Geetha Narayanan’s presentation to ChangeMooc this week has coincided with an evening out with a friend who has recently qualified as a primary school teacher and it has been very interesting to think further about Geetha’s approach to teaching and learning, and how newly qualified teachers are expected to teach in the UK.
I mentioned in my last post that most people who listened to Geetha were ‘stirred’ and I have been reflecting on why. For some people attending the Mooc presentation, Geetha’s ideas seemed to be new, or maybe it was just that, like me, they don’t recognise Geetha’s approach in the schools around them at the moment. My newly qualified friend agreed with me that currently in the UK teacher trainees are constrained by a standards driven curriculum, and teachers and children in school are constrained by endless testing and assessment.
But it wasn’t always like this. When I was teaching in a primary school as late as the 80s, we were doing a lot of the things that Geetha was talking about in her presentation, such as asking children to build the tallest tower that would support a raw egg with a given number of straws and a limited amount of cellotape . At that time I worked for a head teacher who when I asked him, as a newly appointed teacher, for the maths syllabus replied ‘We don’t teach maths like that here’. He expected maths to be investigative and problem solving and related to ‘life’. His view was (and I think I might have mentioned this before on this blog somewhere) – if the children want to talk about birds nests all week long, then that’s what we must do and draw as much maths, English, science etc. out of it as possible. Teaching in his school was such fun.
Then in the 90s teachers in primary schools we found ourselves with the Literacy and Numeracy hours, back to basics, prescribed lesson plans and so on. At that time, one talented young teacher said to me, ‘I don’t have to be creative any more. I hardly have to think any more. I just pick up the prescribed lesson plan and teach it’.
I can understand that the National Curriculum, Literacy and Numeracy hours were introduced to ensure that all children got a ‘fair deal’ and covered the basics. A focus on birds nests for a week or more meant that other aspects of the curriculum probably weren’t covered – so children went from primary school to secondary school, not only with gaps in their knowledge, but also with very different skills and knowledge according to which school they had been to and which teacher they had; a real problem for the secondary school teachers.
On the other hand I remember one year a group of children who had been in my top class in primary school, coming back to visit me after their first year in secondary school and complaining that they hadn’t covered anything new in their maths curriculum in their first year at secondary school. They had all been taken back to the level of the lowest common denominator.
So how do we balance the passion that Geetha brings to teaching and the freedom needed to express this passion, with the need to ensure that all children cover and learn the basic skills they need for living in an increasingly complex and fast moving world.?
Geetha’s presentation suggested for me that some things are critical
- teachers who are passionately interested in the development of the children they teach – I don’t think the teachers are the problem. Most of the teachers I know are passionate about their work.
- curricula that capture children and teachers’ interests and focus on engaging and motivating children as well as knowledge and skills. The current curriculum in primary schools in the UK is, in my opinion, very constraining and in the wrong hands ‘boring’.
- a recognition that passionate teachers are likely to be very creative if they are given enough flexibility to be so.
- teachers who are willing to discretely subvert the system to ensure that the children in their care enjoy their schooling and are motivated to learn. This does not need to be as negative as it might sound. All it takes is creativity and an imagination.
- headteachers with vision. I am eternally grateful that I worked for a headteacher with vision. Unfortunately he died too young, but he had a massive impact on the way I think about teaching and learning and he would have recognised a soul mate in Geetha Narayanan.