First things first.  Be warned, dear reader.  In the following however-many-words you will likely find nothing original or new.  No flipped learning here, good sir.  Stealth assessment?  Down the corridor.  AfL and G&T… T&L and FFT… alas, this is an acronym-free zone.  This budget emperor takes care of his own clothes and sees a wardrobe already fit for purpose, if only he’d look after it.

Recently I spoke briefly about the transition from Primary to Secondary School in the videos on Consortium’s YouTube Channel, and how we can harness and maintain the enthusiasm and willingness to try of our newly arrived Year 7 students.  The following aims to build on that, by focusing on some of the simple but effective principles that, in my experience, require no PhD thesis or academic seminar to convince.  They work, as most teachers will tell you.

What do we already know?

A quick recap then, of what I think we’re dealing with.  Many students come from a Primary school in which they are well-known and well-liked; an environment that is familiar and safe.  As big, year 6 fish, they then arrive to Secondary school only to find themselves minnows in an alien ocean; a world unknown, littered with labyrinthine corridors, intimidating faces and endless, raucous queues for the water dispenser because, as all students quickly learn, an empty water bottle at the beginning of a lesson is apparently a plastic death sentence. 

Labyrinth Photo by beasty . on Unsplash
School corridors, as imagined by new Year 7 pupils.

And yet, despite all this, year 7 students are often quite remarkable for their general enthusiasm and willingness to engage.  Long before the prison walls of adolescence have set in, or examination fever taken over, they find themselves walking freely through a world of learning untrammelled by such nonsense.  They know what many forget – that learning is interesting and liberating.  And they abound with those two things that take such a battering over the years: enthusiasm, and a willingness to try, unbound and unafraid.  You might call it innocence and a desire to please, and you might sometimes be right.  But also recognise that such an attitude towards learning is truly, truly healthy.

How then, amidst the threats on the horizon, to maintain it?

1. Be honest 

I love my subject, but I don’t love everything in it.  There is always some content that I find dry, mundane or uninteresting.  For the many students who do not immediately warm to my subject, god only knows how slowly the clock might turn.

There are of course many ways to address such moments; many dynamic activities and effective strategies.  They are to be celebrated, but sometimes I prefer a simpler approach.  Sometimes, if I think something boring or idiotic, I will simply tell my students.  Danger!  I’m aware of the pitfalls here.  How can you risk influencing young minds in such a manner?  How could you, in all educational conscience, impose your own bias on the delicate and fertile minds of the young?  How could you risk destroying what little motivation remains amongst those who already have little interest in your subject?  How dare you!

How dare we indeed.  Because in being honest at such moments, we do nothing less than demonstrate an authentic relationship with learning.  We show our students that we are not indifferent “facilitators.”  We show them that disliking a section or topic need not define your relationship with a subject.  In speaking to them sincerely, we treat them with respect, and thus model the idea that a civil, educated environment is one in which honesty and respect trump age and prestige.  And when we tell them, honestly, that we are fascinated or moved by something, they will believe us, and they will want to know what moves us so. 

Why is it ok to admit that you are bored, frustrated or disinterested in something?  Because it is entirely human to feel so.  Students see and feel such an authentic response, even if they cannot articulate why it speaks to them.  They will know that we are not in the business of trying to sell something we don’t believe in, and they will trust us as a result.  They will see that this education business is not really about grades, because if you reflect a real relationship with learning, then you humanize it, and it humanizes you.

2  Go beyond your curriculum

When I was training to be a teacher, “cross-curricular” education was all the rage.  Though not forgotten, it has now been largely sidelined in order to make way for that all-consuming leviathan… “progress.”  But I remain a big believer, and I think such an approach is important if we still wish to champion the enthusiasm and willingness to try of our students.

As teachers we are to a large extent bound by our curriculum.  I understand that, but there is also a danger in letting that perspective strangle any desire or attempt to go beyond the curriculum.  I think this is sad and damaging, for reasons I’ll try to make clear.

We should try to get past our own curriculum.

When I say “going beyond the curriculum,” I have two separate strands in mind.  The first is going beyond the immediate curriculum content within your own subject, while the second involves the cross-curricular approach that establishes links between your subject and any other.  I can only deal with them briefly here, but will try to give a sense of why they are important, and how to go about them.

I have three particular strategies in mind:

  1. Giving them harder material (eg. a year 9 problem/essay to a year 7 or 8 class)
  2. Giving them personal / social / historical context
  3. Giving them momentary links to other areas or subjects

The first of these serves two purposes: respect and intellectual space.  On the one hand it represents real faith in the students’ capacity to engage with difficult, higher level ideas.  While the challenge alone is enticing, they also feel respected via our assumption that they are capable.  And of course you are to an extent modeling the excellence to which you hope they will aspire. On the other hand, in consistently extending the boundaries of your subject, they are afforded greater intellectual space in which to move – the kind of space that a curriculum can sometimes cramp.

The second of these involves humanizing content that might otherwise feel distant or disconnected.  Pythagoras, through time and name alone, may seem alien to many.  But like all the rest, he was just a man.  How to see that?  Well, knowing that he became something of a cult leader with, among his various principles, a hatred of beans, may help. 

At the heart of it all, transcending distance and time, we see… humanity; the passions, fears, idiosyncrasies and oddities that also fill classrooms and staffrooms around the world.  So give what personal or historical context you can (regardless of its presence or absence on a curriculum), and make human what might seem alien.

Alien? Look beneath the surface and it’s just a dog. (We think).

Finally, our own learning over the years has gone well beyond any particular GCSE or A Level curriculum and we are – though we might forget sometimes – the richer for it.  Culture, learning… such worlds care nothing for curriculum boundaries, and the views are the better for it.  The air crisper and the vision clearer.  Many students inevitably begin to consider the classroom as a necessary conveyor belt with a set of grades waiting at the end of the line.  Get the grades, get the college/university place, move on.  So show them what is often forgotten or ignored; that learning itself illuminates the world.  That a richer life is theirs if they please, one in which curiosity, intrigue, joy, surprise and a sense of wonder lie forever open to them.

Part of ‘The Good Fight’ by Tom Brooker for Consortium Education.
Find out more about Tom here.