Reader, can you name the year/date that Charles I was beheaded?

This started as a brief look at how to champion and preserve enthusiasm and a willingness to try in students, specifically the younger secondary students in whom adolescence and examinations have not yet systematically dismantled the joy of learning.  We’ve all seen it: the curious, fascinated and vibrant young mind in year 7 has become, by year 10, the scowling, willfully indifferent and desperately individual… ‘individual.’

Often in stark contrast with…

These principles/strategies aim to fight the latter, all-too-familiar trajectory, but the more I look at them, the more I think there is no reason that they ought to apply to KS3 students alone.  In fact, the more I think about them, the more I think such a topic could become a book that precisely no one and his brother would read, but time waits for no man while the clock looks at me like a chump.  So, muddled and flawed no doubt, but from this b-rate, sofa-bound soldier cometh the cry… onwards!

And of the two remaining strategies (see Part 1) that I’ll be considering, I would argue that the first might just be the most underrated in all of education (and by the way, just in case, Charles I was beheaded on January 30th, 1649).  You likely won’t hear about this in any over-priced educational seminar.  It is the polar opposite of the all-singing, all-dancing “initiatives” that throng education like so many city-based billboards making up in colour what they lack in substance, and looking down from up on at high at the pitiful masses below.  It’s not new, it’s not original and, perhaps due to pedagogical winds of the last 25 years blowing West, it tends to summon visions of an antiquated, uninspiring, out-of-touch authoritarian stubbornly residing in the East.  Without further ado, I give you…


I’m always quietly amazed when I hear a teacher (and I often do) declare that a student had forgotten something already covered.  “We’d literally just done that,” they say, with either genuine frustration or a high-minded dismissal of the idiocy they find themselves forced to deal with.  I’m an educated professional.  I’ve enjoyed my fair share of conceptual fireworks over the years, and I’ve grafted to understand things that I previously knew nothing of.  But I couldn’t tell you where I left my wallet, or my coffee cup, or the coursework I haven’t marked.  If I remembered everything I’d ever been told, well, things would be different, not least for my poor, suffering wife.

But accepting that repetition is a vital part of learning isn’t the same as suggesting that it can help champion and preserve enthusiasm and a willingness to try in the classroom.  So how can it contribute to the latter?  Firstly, it can introduce a degree of energy.  On what date was Charles I executed?  Well, reader?  If you’ve just established this in the classroom, try asking five students the same question before moving on.  Very simple, but everyone is involved, wondering if it will be their turn next, while suddenly the pace has lifted.  Too simple?  Why of course, until you ask the same question 3 minutes later.  “Bugger,” think all and sundry, “I can’t get this wrong now!”  “Yes,” think some, “I know this.”  Soon, whilst introducing and advancing new information/ideas, you are consolidating at the very same time, and so each student is consistently being confronted with their own learning, except it’s easy and it’s fun.

You know why else repetition is powerful?  Because whether you’re 13 or 36, getting the answer right is empowering.  And if you feel any inclination to dismiss or belittle that, just have a look at how you feel the next time you’re asked a question to which you know the answer.  Soon you have students who begin to define their relationship with your subject not by what they don’t know, but by what they do.  Through something as simple (and easy, flexible and varied in its delivery) as repetition, you’ll have introduced a degree of energy and empowerment into the classroom. 

And even if some insist that your subject is not for them, they’ll still have something to say about January 30th, 16…

The final principle/strategy I’d like to consider is, by far, the most important of all.  It is as difficult and as crucial to ourselves as it is to the students.  It ought, I believe, to be at the heart of any liberal education, and yet it can be muddied and threatened at every turn.

Maintaining perspective

Anyone in teaching is familiar with the many gripes on offer in education.  Overcrowded classes, endless deadlines, fumbling leadership, being at the mercy of “targets,” students too ready to give up, parents too ready to blame, and many – oh so many – more. 

You see and hear it in the staffrooms, amidst the coffee-cup stalwarts in the same spot each morning, break and lunch, putting the “world” to rights.  I don’t know the stats, but I do know that teacher retention is terribly, terribly low.  The pressure and the scrutiny is unrelenting; the reward-to-hours ratio questionable. 

There are many reasons when you walk through that classroom door to bring a face and an attitude that reflects the terrible weight of those pressures and anxieties and yet, inside you will find waiting – eager and largely blameless (unless, as many do, you wish to blame them for being young in the first place and therefore prone to distraction, disinterest or even destruction) – those who lie at the heart of all that we do: the students.

If we wish to champion and preserve the enthusiasm and willingness to give it a go of our students, then I’d say we must start with protecting such attributes in ourselves.  Sadly, teaching these days has the capacity to crush both.  Pressure can and does strangle enthusiasm; workload can and does wither the will; anxiety can and does smother the smile.  I blame no one in particular for this, but least of all I blame the children.

I think maintaining perspective is the hardest and most crucial fight in the game.  Learning is beautiful, exciting and profoundly important.  The world is large.  The young are in need – more so than they know.  Danger and insecurities abound, but so too do curiosity and the capacity for joy. 

Sometimes it’s good to get a new perspective.

I am aware that such words alone do little to wash away the difficulties we all face.  But if we fight to maintain a sense of perspective ourselves – to scatter the clouds that cramp the horizon – then I think we offer something far more important to the students than any particular piece of curriculum content we might be covering that day.  Those clouds (data, observations, targets, deadlines…) are many, and they obscure the light that any real teacher will tell you resides in the faces of students when a classroom comes alive.  But if they do not see that light in us, then their own will fade.

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