Teaching, learning and expectation

My last blog discussed why teaching needs to be a caring profession and outlined how I began – teaching maths to secondary school kids in bottom sets. So my question (that I have never considered until now) is: why was it assumed (by that Head) that a least experienced teacher could work successfully with pupils who needed the most experienced? Did that Head really expect me, as a probationer (and still learning), to bring out the best in those children?

Forty years ago I could not have answered my own question, but after a lifetime of teaching children who were far from being ‘high fliers’ – I now can. The question is important because of what teaching IS. It is not merely delivering information. Effective teachers reach out to pupils – dig deeply and discover their different, sometimes individual, learning needs – then adapt their methods and approaches accordingly so that teaching and learning merge as one. We could say that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Adapting teaching to suit varying needs is known in the job as ‘differentiation’.

Less effective teachers deliver the National Curriculum in the same way to classes of children – as if those pupils all have the same needs. Back in 1979 when I began, differentiation rarely happened. So if some less able children did not ‘get it’ in the first place, or forgot it – whatever the subject, it was assumed that not much could be done about it. The ‘fault’ or failure lay in a pupil’s lack of innate intelligence.

Back to my question: back in 1979, those ‘bottom set’ children assigned to me were not considered as important as those in the top sets. After all, they were never going to be ‘high fliers’. Few of those children I taught then were expected to attend university or take up further training, leading to a professional career. So who taught them was not important. Whether they achieved was not important. In short – their achievements were not considered as important as those in the higher sets. The ‘bottom sets’ were low down – against a hierarchy of expectation. Harsh – immoral even – but that’s how it was.

Thinking about this now – I hope expectations have changed. A little later in my career (1988) I taught in a special school, and soon realised that any child who ‘didn’t fit’ in a mainstream secondary was in danger of ending up in a special school – because of behaviour difficulties or lack of achievement: the reason being that those first comprehensives were not as equipped to deal with a range of needs and differing abilities as they are now. The movement from ‘tripartite’ (grammar school) to ‘comprehensive’ schooling (from late seventies) took a long time to evolve into a system that (now) offers equal opportunities to every child. Many ex-grammar school staff struggled to adapt their teaching to accommodate the needs of children who did not ‘get it’ the first time round.

So what do teachers need for teaching in our modern comprehensives? Knowledge of their subject? Yes, in the first instance – but knowledge alone is nowhere near enough for success. I learned that simple truth on my first day as a probationer – my knowledge of maths was not going to be passed across to those ‘bottom set’ learners simply by talking and demonstrating methods. They needed much more: motivation, reasons to engage in learning – as well as FUN. Those children also needed someone to believe in their abilities. Being in a bottom set carried low expectations: poor estimates of worth. They were not worth it (so they thought). So why bother?

Does this brief look back into education seem a little depressing: as if some less able children were written off, and not expected to achieve much? That is how it seemed to me as an inexperienced teacher. But having spent my final years teaching children who have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) – all that changed. No more low expectation! Success for all depends on every child being encouraged to strive and achieve the best – whatever that is.

The job of teachers is to know what every child’s ‘best’ is and work towards achieving it. High, yet realistic, expectations can bring out every learner’s potential.

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