Faking It?

I completed my PGCE at Cambridge in 1998. My affable supervisor, a Dave Allan lookalike called John Raffan, gave all those passing the course a small gift. The course wasn’t a tough one to pass, but a chap in his mid-40s named Colin did manage to fail. He didn’t do any of the assignments, which may have played a part, but his decision to put an ice-cube down the back of one of his female pupils at a parents’ evening may have been terminal to his chance of success.

Anyway, John’s gifts were a nice touch from a lovely man, and the book he gave me (Bluff Your Way in Teaching) still has pride of place on the bookshelf in my office. It didn’t take him long to work me out, and he would be pleased to know that I have been bluffing my way in teaching ever since.

All teaching has an element of bluff. For example, our authority is pretty much all bluff. Pupils do what they are told due to a combination of respect for the person issuing the command, a sense that the request is made for their own greater good and their genuine fear of sanctions. Sanctions are also bluff, however: we can’t actually force pupils to do a sanction and therefore even punishment has an element of compliance. Pupils need to buy in to the concept of authority for authority to be meaningful – the authority is therefore not real, relying on a construct implicitly agreed by both parties.

A synonym for bluff is ‘fake’. A fake teacher is one who looks and sounds like a teacher, but is really a fake, an imitation. Fake teachers are ones who don’t really know what they are talking about. They fake a knowledge of the subject matter because they are inexpert in what they are delivering. I have taught Chemistry for my whole career, but I have also dipped into Physics, Biology, Geology and English. I felt like a fake delivering each of these, and God knows how I would have felt had I taken on Computing as was requested in the dim and distant past. I have an A level in Physics and 40% of the first year of my undergraduate degree was Mathematics, but I still feel like I’m faking it when I teach aspects of these subjects.

I don’t doubt that I am a better mathematician than the junior pupils I teach, but that is not enough. I shouldn’t be happy to be a few pages ahead of these boys in the textbook, nor have to scrub up on my understanding of a topic before teaching it. We shouldn’t ever be ‘learning together’. Spending time pondering the best way to communicate the subject is necessary, but spending time making sure I can answer off-topic questions that come my way is not. I should be able to answer pretty much any question that is thrown at me, and if it is interesting and worthwhile, I should have the confidence, knowledge and expertise to take the lesson in a tangential but beneficial direction.

Faking a deeper knowledge of a subject than you possess, even unintentionally, is not acceptable. Delivering a course that cannot be expanded upon and cannot be developed is likely to lead to formulaic and uninspiring teaching. Schools should commit to finding subject experts to teach within their specialism at all levels.

A significant problem arises when Schools are unable to appoint subject specialists to teaching roles. When I taught in the UK, we used to mine the ‘fresh from university’ talent pool, asking for expressions of interest in teaching fellowships from the dozen or so top university departments for individual subjects. Australia, however, has a twin problem. First, teachers must have a teaching qualification, which is a significant hindrance (at least in the sense of recruiting some of the brightest and best) and secondly the status of the teaching profession is so low that often one needs to dig down to ATAR scores far lower than one might wish just to get a ‘body in a classroom’.

Anthony Seldon used to talk about appointing genuine subject experts, irrespective of teaching experience, claiming they would learn the ‘craft of the classroom’ whilst on the job. This strategy has an element of risk associated, but he is right in the sense that it it far easier to train someone in the delivery of pre-learned subject matter than it is to educate them in that subject matter in the first place.

So how do these inexpert teachers manage to get by? How are they able to fake it every day? In part, it is due to the blurring of the purpose of education. The main purpose of education at School is for pupils to learn, to develop knowledge and to become cleverer as a result. This requires genuine expertise from the teachers in the material they are delivering. When this is not the case, we may end up falling back on pos-ed, mindfulness, NLP and learning styles, techniques of engagement, character ed, study skills and memory gimmicks, growth mindset, grit and increased wellbeing as a key factor in academic success.

None of these require subject expertise and tend to be promoted by those who do not prioritise the teaching of subjects and the purpose of education to increase knowledge, develop understanding and to make children cleverer. They are also often quite vague in their delivery, outcomes and direct purpose. If academic outcomes are to be improved, I would argue that to improve the expertise of the teacher is more likely to be effective than trying to get the ‘critical positive ratio’ nearer to the magic figure of 2.9013?

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4 thoughts on “Faking It?

  1. i think lack of subject knowledge is already having an impact in Australia, and is only going to get worse. If you are a capable Specialist Maths or Physics teacher you can already practically choose your school, and when you can do that you choose the ones that are nice to work at. Soon, if not already, only kids at private/Catholic/select entry schools will be taught subjects such as those simply due to lack of teachers, thus closing off entire fields to a generation of kids.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I discovered this after reading the one about education in Australia, Part 2, I would love to read part1.

    As a specialist English language and literature teacher, with sound qualifications in my subject I have often been frustrated by the disdain this has invited. Especially as I have got older. It was because of this that my business partner and I, she is also a subject specialist, have begun our little endeavour.

    We are great teachers but not such great employees. Our classes are often seemingly chaotic, we chase many red-herrings, because we can and we constantly challenge ideas that make no sense. We are a little intolerant of jargon and we place less importance on tidy results than we do in inspiring and engaging students in the wonders that literature has to teach us. But we are expendable in the English speaking world. After all, if you can speak English, you can teach it. That seems to be the theory. There are many younger, more compliant teachers available who are not burdened with too much subject knowledge so can contentedly colour within the lines. It is very sad.

    We will soldier on anyway, and if we can sow a few seeds of discontent with mediocrity in the teachers we mentor then so much the better.

    I have taken your words as encouragement. Hope that is Okay. 🙂

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