Why I Teach

I’ve recently been reflecting on my initial reasons to begin teacher training and my reasons for continuing to teach now.

I do not teach because of the love of my subject.

I do not teach because ‘every day is different’.

I do not teach because I love young people.

And I certainly do not teach because of the reasonable workload, the excellent pay and the long holidays, or because it was the only career available to me.

Now, the first three reasons might surprise anyone reading this. After all, surely these are prerequisites for being at least somewhat successful as a teacher. Allow me to reassure you that I do love my subject, I do love the variety of the job and I do love working with young people. I could write for pages about these things, but that is not my focus right now. Instead, I want to talk about the underlying reason as to why I am a teacher.

I teach because I believe that education is the best tool available for improving the life chances of vulnerable young people. I am so angry that 33% of pupils on Free School Meals achieve 5 A*-Cs at GCSE compared to 60.5% of all other pupils, and I am angry that pupils who attend fee-paying schools are quite significantly more likely to attend and graduate from the best universities. There are hundreds of statistics I could give to demonstrate this point; ultimately, I believe that one of the reasons that education in Britain today is so unsuccessful is because it ‘keeps poor children poor’ (Katharine Birbalsingh).

This is why I was so disappointed to read this in an article from The Times by Caitlin Moran.

‘My plan is very straightforward, and rests on two facts: (1) the 21st-century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in 21st-century schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.

First, as anyone with a teenage/young adult child will know, the notion of them going into a full-time, long-term job with a pension at the end of it looks like something we left behind in the 20th century. The old pathway – learn a skill, use it for 40 years, then retire – is over. The jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation. Indeed, the jobs of the future increasingly require you to invent your own job. The majority of jobs our children will have – in just a few years’ time – have almost certainly not been invented yet.

If you work better sleeping until noon, then working until 2am – as most teenagers do – congratulations! You no longer have to deny your own biology! And if, working at 2am, you have no teacher to help you, discovering how to research on your own is, frankly, going to be far more useful than the thing you’re supposed to be learning. Because, (2) my education policy would be to stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone.’

I’m not qualified enough to talk about her claim that the majority of young people will go on to do jobs that have not been invented yet, but I want to challenge the idea that teaching knowledge is pointless, because everything is ‘Googleable’.  We need to challenge this sort of thinking as it is so harmful to the poorest, most vulnerable students.

In my first year of teaching, I had been challenged to ensure my pupils were developing ‘independent learning’ skills. Some of the feedback I had received informed me that my lessons involved too much ‘teacher talk’, and that I needed to let the students discover Mathematics for themselves. The school I worked in was making full use of a ‘Bring Your Own Technology’ policy, and so I also needed to incorporate this. This sounded somewhat plausible, so I planned a series of lessons for my Year 9 class making use of this feedback.

The series of lessons were on Scatter Graphs – by the end, I wanted pupils to be able to:

  • identify the purpose of scatter graphs and when they are appropriate to be used
  • plot points on scatter graphs
  • identify negative, positive and no correlation
  • draw lines of best fit
  • estimate values using a line of best fit
  • discuss the dangers of using a line of best fit to estimate values outside of the data range

I gave them task cards, which explained the success criteria for this topic. They had full access to the Internet. Each group had 3 ‘Teacher Help cards’ which they were allowed to redeem if they decided they required my assistance. Each group had to present at the end of the week (using either a PowerPoint or a poster or whatever they wanted) to explain their findings on Scatter Graphs. I really cannot stress enough how unsuccessful these lessons were – by the end of it, although most pupils could identify positive and negative correlation, their learning had not extended beyond this.

Why, then, was it so unsuccessful? After all, pupils had access to the Internet which contains a wealth of information about Scatter Graphs. They were in groups, which should have allowed for excellent collaboration and developing their communication skills. Instead, pupils became overwhelmed by the task in front of them and simply could not make sense of it.

Their basic method was to type in Scatter Graphs to Google, and then spend all lesson copying and pasting from Wikipedia onto a PowerPoint, which they then mumbled to the class during their presentation time.

A scatter plot can be used either when one continuous variable that is under the control of the experimenter and the other depends on it or when both continuous variables are independent. If a parameter exists that is systematically incremented and/or decremented by the other, it is called the control parameter or independent variable and is customarily plotted along the horizontal axis. The measured or dependent variable is customarily plotted along the vertical axis. If no dependent variable exists, either type of variable can be plotted on either axis and a scatter plot will illustrate only the degree of correlation (not causation) between two variables.

Now, I can make sense of this chunk of text, but only because I have a wealth of knowledge already. I already understand clearly the definition of a ‘continuous variable’ and what ‘customarily’ means and the difference between correlation and causation. They didn’t. As such, I spent much of the lessons rushing around trying to explain to pupils what was relevant and what wasn’t, and it was chaotic and unproductive. At the end, I retaught this unit in a more ‘traditional’ fashion – I stood at the front, and explained what pupils would be learning. Pupils then practised these skills in a variety of ways. It was undeniably more successful in terms of their learning.

If you are a student from an affluent background, with parents who attended university and have high aspirations for your future, then this approach to learning may be somewhat successful. If such a student is given a task, they are likely to have a higher level of vocabulary which makes it easier to break down more complex pieces of writing. They are more likely to want to succeed, and so will be prepared to think harder and persevere for long in the hope of being successful. Such students are more likely to have been praised by class teachers for previous excellent work, and so this provides an additional level of motivation.

I do not think that the series of lessons on Scatter Graphs would ever be the most successful method of pupils learning about Scatter Graphs – a well-crafted quality exposition by a teacher who has carefully planned the sequence of learning would lead to greater retention and pupil learning.

The key point is that it is the poorest students who have the most to lose from this ‘just Google it’ approach to education, and we should be challenging this approach whenever we see it creeping in. This is because these students are most unlikely to attain highly at GCSE currently, and this has an overwhelming impact on their life chances. Our focus needs to be on improving attainment and outcomes, and we need to be drawing on the best educational research about ‘what works’ in learning to enable all students to excel. We do not need to be focusing on vague criteria about ’21st century skills’ and suggesting that Google makes teaching a redundant profession.

I now teach because I believe that education is the best tool for improving the life chances of vulnerable young people – I no longer facilitate ‘independent’ learning.

 

 

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