The Principles of Teaching – Part 1

“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself,” Albert Einstein.

I think that Einstein was exaggerating, but not by much.  If you substitute a well informed 18 year old for the 6 year old, then I am sure that he was pretty much spot on.

I am certain that if human beings are capable of carrying out a task then that task must in essence be fairly simple, despite the appearance of complexity.  I would argue strongly that if someone tells you that a task is complex then either they don’t really understand it, or the complexity it there as a cloak to either put off those who are not one of the initiated, or the task is fatally flawed.  I have no doubt that the trading that brought down the banking system falls into this category.

Einstein himself was very good at cutting through surface complexity to the heart of the matter.  Before he came up with Special Relativity, people believed that there was a universal clock and that time passed at the same rate everywhere.  Einstein’s radical idea was that there was no universal time and that time passed at different rates depending on the speed of travel.  He also proposed that the speed of light was the same for all observers.  All the consequences of his theory come from these simple ideas – in fact, the first idea is a consequence of the second.  There you have it: Special Relativity explained so that an 18 year old would understand.  Of course, it’s another matter whether they accept it as the ideas are not intuitive.  Also, the consequences of the these simple ideas can be fairly complex but, fundamentally, the ideas behind the complexity are in actual fact very simple.

When teachers start out on their journey, there is an awful lot thrown at them including reporting, differentiation, assessment for learning, the national curriculum, mixed ability or setting, mindset, marking and feedback, behaviour management, equality, homework, SEN, summative assessment, cross-curricular themes, safeguarding, classroom management, pedagogy, and many, many more.  It is very easy for teachers who are new to the profession to get bogged down with all of this and it is difficult for someone will little experience to sort out what is really important, to extract the essentials from this seemingly endless list.  It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that teaching is an endless, unbelievably complex task.

I am certain that this is wrong.  I am certain that there really are relatively few fundamental principles that underlie successful teaching.  There are a few stones of truth that successful teachers cling too and these inform everything that they do.  I am also certain that if teachers – especially new teachers – really understand these fundamental principles then their ideas will have more clarity and their job will be easier.  So, my question is, what are these fundamental principles that underpin successful teaching?  What are the principles that cut through the surface complexity and underpin the actions of a successful teacher?  What are these fundamental stones of truth?

The Principles of Teaching – Part 1

Mindfulness – Is It Really News?

There has been definite trend for mindfulness over the last year or so.  Certainly, last summer it was difficult to read a newspaper or listen to the radio without some mention of mindfulness and its use in many contexts.  I was interested enough in its potential benefits that I started studying and practising mindfulness about six months ago.  I have really enjoyed the process and I am certain that it has helped me.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is designed to root you in the moment by being aware of breathing, especially the outward breath, and being aware of your own body and how it feels.  This can be achieved through consciously moving through various positions that lead into a period of peaceful sitting; or can be achieved through repetitive movement.  No matter which way it is achieved, it leads to a sensation of being rooted in the moment with the future and the past left to look after themselves.
Recently, I have been reflecting on the nature of mindfulness and wondering if it really is so foreign to westerners.  I have never understood why grown men get up before dawn to sit and watch a a little float bobbing on the surface of a lake.  I know that some of these men do it to escape the family situation for a while and get some time to themselves.  But I am now fairly certain that a substantial number of anglers will be attaining a state of mindfulness, really being aware of the moment and their relation to it.  I am sure that many of them are unconsciously very competent exponents of mindfulness and this is probably one of the reasons why they come back to the lake side week after week.
Many sportsmen talk of being in ‘the zone’, when the ball appears to be far larger than it really is and their skills are executed faultlessly.  Again, I am sure that the experience of being in the zone is a manifestation of mindfulness.  When an athlete is in the zone there is no conscious thought, the athlete is using the reactions that have been built up through countless hours of training and the actions are the results of the programs that have been written into the brain through hours of practise; it really is being in the moment.  I could make a similar argument about musician who are ‘in the groove’, and interestingly, often when a musician realises that he is in the groove, he drops out of it because conscious thought takes over from the automatic processes that have been embedded through rehearsal.
I really do wonder if people continue with these pastimes- and there are many more that I could mention – at least in part because of their relationship to the experience of mindfulness.  Many many pastimes require the participant to be absorbed in the activity and to really live in the moment.  Perhaps the active study of mindfulness is a metacognative realisation of this and allows those who practise mindfulness to really get under the skin of this process.
I am certain that western culture includes many opportunities for mindfulness, and being in the moment, within activities that are not labelled as mindful.  Mindfulness is not alien or a bolt on for westerners, it is implicit in many areas of life although many people could benefit from the process being made explicit.
Mindfulness – Is It Really News?

What was the Point?

The morning after the Charlie Hebdo murders I wrote on the board #JeSuisCharlie before any of my students entered the room.  I asked them why I had done this and many of them realised that it related to the events in Paris the day before.  We talked about what Charlie Hebdo was and why it had been targeted. We discussed the possible motives for the murders and we talked about why the hash tag that I had written on the board had been trending worldwide on Twitter, and why that hash tag had been chosen.  Finally, I showed a selection of cartoons that had been drawn in response to the murders and talked about the imagery in the cartoons.  There was hardly a curriculum subject that we had not touched on. Most learners had been engaged in the session, even those who are not usually motivated by ‘tutor’ material.  At the end of the discussion, one student asked, “What was the point of that?”

I could not help but reflect on this comment.  This was the biggest news even of the decade but an articulate seventeen year old could not see the point of discussing it.  Had I presented the topic badly?  I don’t think so.  As I have said, I had succeeded in engaging people who weren’t usually engaged.  Or is this a deeper problem of detachment?  I would love to know.

What was the Point?

Have Fun!

When I say good bye to people I often say to them, “Have fun,” and I really mean it.  We only have one shot at this life so we might as well enjoy the ride.

A little while ago I taught a particular sixth form student who would come into lessons on a Friday afternoon and declare, “I don’t want to go to work tonight.”  He did this week after week until eventually I said to him that he didn’t have to go to work.  He replied that he did have to go to work or he would get sacked.  So then I told him that he really did not have to go to work, it was his choice to go and he went because he did not like the alternative.  He had a choice to make.  I can’t remember him complaining about his Friday evening shift ever again.

I think it is important that if someone is not enjoying something that they stop and reevaluate.  Sometimes the thing that they are not enjoying is unavoidable – washing up, for example – but often it is avoidable.  Sometimes with a small tweak it can be eliminated, although sometimes a lot more than a small tweak is needed and it might require a lot of upheaval to effect the change and it might require a lot of soul searching to decide if the upheaval is worthwhile.  But my point stands, why continue to do something that is no fun, or perhaps positively draining?

Obviously, this can apply to all aspects of life, but it certainly applies to our life as teachers.  Teachers are great at filling their days with tasks that are not strictly related to teaching and learning.  For example, the football team that you’ve been running for the last four years even though your subject specialism is History.  Perhaps you feel that your coaching is getting a little stale and you could do with a break, but who will take over?  Actually, this is not your problem.  You may well be, unwittingly being taken advantage of – Fred always does that team.  If you give sufficient notice that you will no longer be looking after the team then their is no problem.  But what about the children?  What if no-one else steps up?  Don’t guilt trip yourself.  The chances are someone else will step up, perhaps there is a new teacher who enjoys a bit of football coaching, or perhaps an established member of staff will take over.  But more importantly, what about YOU?  It’s your life and it’s your choice.  There is no point in living your life just to please others.  The choice that you made several years ago that was right at the time may not be the right one now.

We all have choices.  They may not all be pleasant or easy, but we have them nonetheless.  It is important that we use good judgement in making then and we weigh up the different options sensibly before we exercise our choice, but it is our choice to make.  And we certainly have a choice to have fun!

Have Fun!