Learning Waterways | Guest Post

I’m really pleased to post an article written by my friend, John MacArthur. Eclectic, acerbic, witty, and akin to Eeyore (he would prefer that I not use “curmudgeonly”), John’s writing often takes me to thoughtful places I haven’t been before. ~S

I’ve been a high school teacher, or, if you prefer, a “leader-forth” or educator for a while and if we have a fault we rather tend to like the sound of our own voices rather too much. We tend to drone on interminably rather than encourage Socratic dialogue, since in an information-rich enterprise, some of us still seem to suppose that the kids really ought to get their money’s worth from the fountain of all wisdom; us, in other words, to the exclusion of all other forms of data acquisition. Cram the facts inside with the brute force of rhetoric, let them ferment, and with any luck something useful might just come out. It’s actually quite efficient in some ways, but utterly counterintuitive because that’s not the way real people learn new stuff. The waterways of learning are not smooth canals, but turbulent rapids – the information cascades over so many rocks of incomprehension that the frail raft of knowledge gets tossed around in all directions like a piece of driftwood, which is why most good teachers I know ask ten questions for every fact. Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus attention on a task is crucial for what we rather grandly describe as a learning outcome, and since we’re obsessional as a species for trying to measure things, we try to allocate numbers to help us understand. Unfortunately, disagreement is vast, to the end that people actually can’t agree on the precise definition of “attention” anyway. So, the numbers often don’t make sense and we’re trying to measure a piece of string whose length changes every time we try to measure it.

Staircase Rapids rosshamiltonphotography.com

We put students in age-related groups, regardless of their ability or social maturity. How odd is that? How can we expect those with widely different personalities, perspectives, aspirations, abilities and requirements all to seamlessly receive our latest offerings with the same degree of comprehension, willingness or efficiency? Teaching is a craft, not a science. The raw material isn’t predictable always, although with practice, its characteristics can be almost intuitively felt. Like a potter ‘understands’ the clay, its variants and proclivities, so a good teacher reads the mood of a class, catches all the non-verbals in the room, and then sets tasks accordingly, or, better, invites participation, sometimes needing to completely re-evaluate a lesson objective. I have never been a great planner, in the sense that if asked to write down exactly what is going to happen over the course of a fifty minute lesson, I can create an elegant piece of fiction which will satisfy an inspector, but sticking to it in practice I find virtually impossible. Student A has had a bad time the lesson before, and it shows. He’s turned up to my lesson truculent, angry and mutinous and his emotional perspective has been transferred to a new authority figure, this time, me. If A is going to be difficult, this means B, C, D and E will show sympathetic resonance, which makes E, F and G impatient and frustrated.

I sometimes used to ask teachers I mentored to tell me what colour the class is today using a colour chart of their own making. Red might mean ‘volatile, unpredictable and potentially boisterous’, blue might mean ‘calm, cohesive, ready to listen’, and so on. I then asked the teacher to tell me, not write down for me, what strategies they might suggest dependent on what colour seemed to be dominant at the time.

We’ve come an awfully long way since Thomas Gradgrind’s ‘facts’. Yet, it is becoming clearer that, faced with the continuously evolving outcomes of a scientific and technological revolution more profound than anything we as a species have ever faced before, we still don’t really know how to educate the Facebook generation. With that in mind, perhaps I might offer a few final thoughts for anyone pondering teaching as a career. Read the class. For each hour of formal lesson time, give at least fifteen minutes off. Change activities frequently. It doesn’t really matter much about content, (it doesn’t, really it doesn’t) instead focus on skills. Finally, enjoy yourself.


photo (3) John MacArthur is a recently retired master teacher who has taught all over the world, most recently in Israel. Currently residing in France, he is learning to manage the chemistry in his new pool.

A writer, science geek, and philosopher, more of John’s writings and musings can be found here and here and here. He’s worth reading.

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