FHM Knowledge and Loaded Skills

In the ‘New Lad’ heyday of the mid-90s, when cigarettes, alcohol and football were all you needed to be a ‘ledge’, one was presented with a binary choice for lad-based news: ‘Loaded’ and ‘FHM’ were the clear market-leaders.  Nuts and Zoo were a little too low-brow, aimed more at the 13-year olds lacking the confidence to buy pornographic magazines in their local WHSmiths and GQ was a little too high-brow, not to mention that fact that it contained fashion shoots involving men.

FHM and Loaded contained a glossy mix of supposedly true laddish tales, a 24 page glossy shoot of a lady whose first name ended in ‘i’, some sports and some music that it was ok for a lad to like (Oasis, Cast, Space etc).  A ‘dilemmas’ feature occasionally made an appearance, presumably to massage the grey matter of the readership.  This would include questions such as:


‘Would you ‘do’ The Coors if you had to ‘do’ the bloke too?


Which would you prefer, a mermaid with the top half of a woman and the bottom half of a fish, or the top half of a fish and the bottom half of the woman?


If you could have ten points to spend on women, and supermodels were 10, women you knew were 2 and ‘lucky dip’ was 1, how would you spend your points?


If these aren’t actual questions from FHM, they are close enough to the brain-teasers posed by the mag, and they make for a brand of rather tasteless sexism.  I think we’ve moved on.


However, these needless and pointless questions aren’t so very different from the question of ‘Knowledge v Skills’.  We have admittedly move into a more highbrow line of questioning (perhaps even beyond GQ’s remit), but I don’t think the dilemma is any more valid as a question.  It is surely desirable to have both.  It is even possible to possess ‘skills’ in isolation, without background knowledge?  It is certainly possible to hold in one’s mind a large collection of disparate facts, which may be useful when it comes to questions of pure factual recall (pub quizzes) for example, but does this even constitute knowledge?  No-one articulates better what I mean than Richard Feynman – here he is talking about the difference between ‘knowing the name of something, and knowing something’:


http://www.haveabit.com/feynman/2


It is clear that the people Feynman criticise possess a certain degree of knowledge, without the skills of analysis to make that knowledge useful. However, how can you begin to use your skills of analysis if you don’t even know that it’s a bird making the noise?

Knowledge and skills have little in common with the ‘traditional v progressive’ debate, though some may argue that the method of direct instruction favoured by those in the former category promotes the importance of knowledge and the pupil-centred approach favoured by the progressives promotes skills-based learning, but to look at things in these terms is too simplistic and binary (almost in the mold of an FHM article writer).  


Every teacher must agree that the passing on of knowledge is to some degree their raison d’etre – this is evident in the quote from Joseph O’Neill, who states that ‘the human race refreshes itself in complete ignorance’.  However, no teacher would ever intend to pass on that knowledge without making connections between the material being delivered.  I watched the marvellous BBC4 series ‘A Tale of Three Cities’ last night, which focused on Paris in 1928.  The series moved effortlessly around the Culture, Politics, Art, Architecture and Music of the City, all placed in clear historical context.  I can’t imagine how one could have appreciated the programme without knowledge of how these things came to be, but it takes a certain degree of skill to understand how these things are connected.  ‘Only Connect’ has been the theme of my Third Form teaching this year, and I have tried to prove that connections can be made between seemingly disparate things.


I cannot imagine anything more dull than skills-based teaching – the passing on of knowledge is one of the most joyful parts of being a teacher.  Having said that, to think that I was merely preparing pupils for a tilt at the ‘Eggheads’ would be pretty disappointing too.  In much the same way that Baddiel and Skinner will always be linked to the laddish mid-90s through ‘3 Lions’ and ‘Fantasy Football’, it’s impossible to de-couple knowledge from skills.  It’s not an either/or question- if it’s those you’re after, stick to your back-copies of Loaded.

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Clarifying roles and responsibilities

I’ve been lucky in my teaching career that I have never had a complaint about the quality of my teaching.  This is not supposed to be false modesty: I know of some excellent teachers who have been the subject of complaints and some pretty lousy ones who seem to go beneath the parental radar.  I have been challenged over things I have said when discussing the academic progress of individual children (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) and I have defended the teaching competence of colleagues, firstly as a Head of Department and latterly as Director of Studies (mostly because the accusations were baseless, occasionally because it was simply the professional thing to do, whilst all the time trying to solve the problem behind the scenes).  In the vast majority of cases, the expectations of parents are wholly reasonable; they understand their children, their interests and capabilities and will play the Wenger role to perfection, meaning that they will defend their offspring to all outsiders in public whilst giving them a proper going over in private when the situation demands.  I don’t respect those individuals who feel that paying a large sum of money for an education somehow guarantees enhanced grades and places at ‘top’ universities and I think that the triangle of child, parents and teacher should be close to equilateral at all times.  It certainly shouldn’t be the case that two sides of the triangle ever gang up on the other side.  I have experience of all three possibilities here, but the most common side to get a bashing used to be the child, and now seems to be the teacher.  When a parent looks to strengthen their relationship with their son or daughter by picking a fight with a teacher on their behalf with no evidence of need, it is unfortunate.

In terms of education, both parents and teachers (and many other people besides) have some responsibility.  Clearly the two mentioned above are the key people, but authors, journalists, TV presenters, documentary makers, musicians, sportsmen etc will end up playing some part in the education process, whether they like it or not.  I don’t think I have ever been explicit when it comes to defining my role as a teacher in the education of the pupils I teach.  No parent has ever asked me to define my responsibilities in their child’s educational development.  It’s as though there’s always been a tacit understanding of what was offered and expected.  I suppose that my role as a teacher of chemistry would have involved (in no particular order):

1.  Teaching the contents of the exam syllabus so that it was understood
2.  Preparing for examinations to ensure a pupil’s grade represented the best of their ability
3.  Exploring areas of interest and relevance within the subject
4.  Preparing pupils for challenges beyond School, which has usually meant university
5.  ‘Sowing seeds’

There isn’t much crossover between what I would do as a teacher of chemistry and how a parent would be involved in the education of their child and I have deliberately left out the pastoral care aspect of boarding education (where I have spent 13 of my 16 years as a teacher).  The area of commonality across all Schools is the academic side of education.  The point where I think that teachers and parents cross-over is number 5: when it comes to sowing seeds.  This is also maybe the point at which parental responsibility trumps that of a teacher.

Why do I have deep interests in Art, science, cricket, music, food, wine, travel and literature as a 37-year old man?  It is because I was exposed to them as a child, and not in a manner where they were rammed down my throat.  I was taken to Lord’s (when the day was sunny), the Science Museum (when it rained) and many places far from these shores.  I was read to and it was expected that I would read.  I used to devour books on holiday but when I wanted to watch TV at home I was never forced to pick up a book instead.  I was taken to concerts and I asked to be taken to more – I remember one time my father asking if I really wanted to come.  I didn’t think parents asked questions like this.  When I considered it, I wasn’t sure what the answer was, but I thought it was my choice and this was important to me.  I was taken to art galleries, but not dragged round art galleries, and there would usually be a nice lunch or a picnic to make the memory of the day a good one.  I was encouraged to be adventurous with food (even though I was naturally very cautious) and I was given wine which made me feel grown-up.  Each and every Welsh castle had an interesting and different story associated with it, even though they all tended to look the same.  And again, there would always be a picnic to have somewhere in the grounds.  Put simply, whereas I think that all the interests I have now are ones that I have come to myself, the reality is that the seeds were sown years ago, mostly by what happened in the holidays rather than by what happened at School.

That’s the role of parents when it comes to educating children.  Leave the syllabus, exams and subject extras to the teachers.  Don’t complain if the teacher is boring (children can still learn a lot from boring people, and they’ll have plenty of boring lecturers at university and boring bosses later in life).  If the teacher is incompetent, that’s the time to complain.  Children need exposure to books, films, walks, music, art, theatre, food and conversation.  Sow the seeds and then stand back and watch your child reap the benefit.  Some seeds will germinate immediately, some will take years and others will never see the light of day, which is inevitable.  

As a final point, it is worth remembering that financial richness does not necessarily equal cultural richness and it’s a modern fallacy that art is elitist and football is the game of the people.  Last time I looked, it never cost £60 to visit an art gallery.  Some seeds take to ground that may appear stony and lacking depth; fling enough quantity and type of seed and something will come of it, be sure of that.