Why So Serious? On Engagement.

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‘Critical reflection on my experience as an student in unexciting classrooms enabled me not only to imagine that the classroom could be exciting but that this excitement could co-exist with and even stimulate serious intellectual and/or academic engagement’. – bell hooks

Before I get pummelled with this dictum, yes I know that engagement is a poor proxy for learning. An engaged class is not necessarily learning, but they are not necessarily not learning either, and this is equally worth remembering. This ‘engagement as poor proxy’ theory could allow the chronically uninteresting teachers to rest on their laurels, blaming pupils for their own disinterest, when the route of the problem lies not in the poor attention span of the kids but in the stale soulless performance of the teacher.

If Joey Essex was unexpectedly cast in the role of Hamlet at the Globe, and you turned up and hated the performance, expecting to see David Tennant, you would blame the crap acting, not the weak persistence of you, the audience, for your unsatisfying three hours.

You see, it is easy to denigrate a teacher who seeks as a priority to engage their classes when we imagine them engaging the kinder by slapping a tambourine on their thigh whilst wearing fancy dress, jazz hands flailing, glitter guns shooting, a playlist of film clips playing on, and what not. It isn’t like that. By engagement I am talking about pupils being a contributor to the lesson rather than purely a receiver, being respected enough to be recognised as a human being by teachers and peers, and for pupils to be encouraged to think deeply and to share emerging thoughts. This is not incompatible with the teacher being the expert, but it requires a reconsideration of what learning is and what it may ‘look like’.

It is often presumed that a serious/successful class is one where the teacher/lecturer/professor teaches/lectures/professes to a quiet and listening class. The raft of hand signals, non verbal gestures and expectations set in classrooms are designed to get the children listening. This is not wrong, in itself, and I rely on these to get through the day. What it does do is give the teacher a phenomenal amount of control – should this teacher then use their pupils’ complicity/adherence to lecture at them (I don’t mean this in a derogatory way) or should the teacher use this control to redirect the learning talk back throughout the classroom?

I went to two schools that, in retrospect, were not brilliant, but I had a few really good teachers. There was one place I attended with a good reputation where the teaching was generally absolute dreck – the University of Cambridge. I studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology, and even when the content was absolutely fascinating (the social world explained through the anatomy of a Mongolian Yurt, the social anthropology of menstruation, social democratic eugenic movements in Western Europe, Marx’s Paris Manuscripts) it was delivered through two hour lectures that sapped the life out of me and everyone else.

Perhaps the allure of the traditional Oxbridge education was meant to stun us into acquiescence, but all I know is that to sit for two hours whilst somebody talks is almost never going to be enough to keep my attention. If they had the hypnotising voice of Alan Rickman and the mind-expanding ideas of Judith Butler, perhaps I could just about survive a half hour giving my full interest, but otherwise… No. I don’t think this is a failing on my part by the way. I don’t think a measure of my intellectual capacity is my ability to sit still without falling asleep in an echoing chamber with no natural light.

In my final year I had some lectures at the Faculty of Education, and that was different. The lecturers – Diane Reay, John Beck, Natalie Heath and the late great Rob Moore – had an encyclopaedic knowledge of their academic field, but they approached ‘knowledge delivery’ differently. They included us in the discussion.

If I am arguing against the ’empty vessels’ model, this was more like a ‘Wine Tasting’ model of learning, where the expert gave us uninitiated noobs little samples of greatness, sought our opinions, taught us how to appreciate them and interpret them and explained their origins. We could end our sessions having sampled a lot, taken it in, and begun to recognise the differences in taste and texture.

I recall one session in the second year where we had a guy who to us was really radical, threatening and cool because he wanted us to share our names before the session. His session was about the Political Economy of Capitalism, and he wanted us to share our views with the group about the pre-session reading. It turns out that progressive pedagogies are the great leveller, as the hooray posh-heads, international students and gawky comp kids like myself were equally resistant, silent and awkward when it came to actually giving an opinion. It took me about six weeks into the course to utter a sentence.

I recall another when the lecturer, who to be fair needed to rely on some engagement method as she was lecturing about SPSS, asked for a volunteer to come up to the front for an activity in the lecture hall. I distinctly remember suddenly finding faith and praying not to asked, but also immediately reaching the conclusion that she was a crap lecturer because she was doing stuff like this. It made her more human, but I think I had become very used to this cosy position where lectures were about me rocking up, doodling, listening to about 10 minutes and leaving for a Starbucks.

It makes you think about why exactly we teach the way we do, in schools and universities. How much of what we do is founded in habit, ritual and history, rather than ‘what would promote learning’? And then, when we do insist on promoting particular teaching orthodoxies, what particular kinds of learning does that promote, and which kinds of learners do we breed?

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