Faith and Stuff

“We weren’t supposed to be, we learned too much at school, now we can’t help but think the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.”

Pulp – Mis-shapes

You will be glad to know that I have no plans to come over all Dawkins at you: your faith, like the absence of mine, is an entirely personal affair, and none of my business. That’s a hint, by the way, for anyone ready to save my soul with a comment…

No, this isn’t a post about that kind of faith. This is a post about teacher faith. You see, not so long ago I was a keen enthusiastic little trainee on a part time training course and there were all these people telling me stuff. Stuff that would make me a good teacher, stuff that I needed to do to pass the course. That sort of stuff. Then I did DELTA, and learned shitloads of stuff. And I believed every single word, referenced or not. Because they were trainers and they knew their stuff, right? And then later on I started working in the public sector and managers told me stuff, and people said that certain stuff was best practice and that I should do that stuff because OFSTED said it was good stuff. I was a true believer. I listened, I absorbed, I followed the True Path of the Righteous.

I can pinpoint, to within a few months, the arrival of my professional scepticism. It was around September 2004, and it was the insistence that setting targets helped ESOL learners learn English. It was my first encounter with the “because it’s good practice” non-argument, and when pushed for a better explanation, nobody could come up with anything. (Still waiting for the research to prove it, by the way.) Suddenly all these authority figures saying stuff began to sound, well, unauthoritative. I asked for evidence, politely, and was politely rebuffed. So I tried to find out for myself, and I found a big fat heap of nothing. Lots of “best practice guidelines”, lots of advice, and a tiny little bit of not very informative “how to” guidance, but nothing that said “this works because this research and this study said so.” I started to look around at all the other stuff I’d been told over the years, looking for evidence for all sorts and by golly was it interesting. Some of it was there, some of it wasn’t, but for an awful lot of things I’d been told was good practice had little or no evidence base. The whole house of cards started to look very rickety indeed.

We place a lot of faith and trust in our teachers. Necessarily so. ESOL students trust that we are telling the truth when we say that we use some for positive statements and any for negatives (I have some apples, I don’t have any bananas) even though it later turns out that this is not really the rule as it is used. (I like most pop music, but I don’t like some of it. I like any coffee, I’m not fussy). It’s an uncomfortable way to phrase it, but sometimes teachers lie to learners in order to make a complex thing less complex, more easily understandable, and this is what happens on initial teacher training courses: we simplify and tell lies so that some basic level understanding can be established before the teachers go off and discover that more or less everything they’ve learned is not wrong, as such, but is almost certainly not much more than a useful guideline.

Asking difficult questions like “who says so?” however, tends not to make you very popular. Nobody likes a smart Alec, after all. You get accused of all sorts when you ask questions: accused of being disrespectful, of being a cynic, of mocking, of not being aspirational, as well as quiet but stern reminders of your place in the grand scheme of things. People who ask questions make life difficult. I have had trainee teachers in the past who ask awkward, challenging, perceptive and generally brilliant questions of you. So far, these trainees have been, without exception, the strongest trainees on their respective courses, and the most successful subsequently. But when they ask those questions it’s bloody annoying, and so it should be. After all, you are getting your beliefs challenged, and that’s hard, but the benefits are endless. It forces you to go away and examine your position much more carefully and thoroughly, and either you come back stronger, and with greater evidence or support, or you come back humbled and your mind broadened. The worst thing you can ever do to people in this situation is dismiss them with “it just is” statements like “it’s good practice” because that’s deeply patronising. You may as well just pat them on the bottom and say “don’t you worry your pretty little head about it”.

Like I’ve written before, there’s nothing absolute in teaching, nothing fixed, although absolutes are which new teachers might find reassuring. Perhaps atheism and religious belief is not the right parallel here: they depend on absolute beliefs. Perhaps agnosticism is the better parallel: we can never fully know for sure, and we are always learning and changing as teachers in face of the evidence as it occurs before us. Any faith we do have must be a flexible faith, one which is open to new thoughts, new developments and interpretations. We must never assume that something is right, at least not on face value, and even where the evidence does exist we must still analyse it and think about how well it can apply to our own contexts of teaching and learning.

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