Contractual Obligations

I’ll cut straight to the big reveal: every relationship, of any description, at any time, is based on a contract. The contract can be explicit or implied, spoken or unspoken, verbal or not, but by any definition, it exists. It has to. 

The contract is vitally important. It represents an agreement between two parties that forms the foundation of the relationship. Take this very blog post as a particularly immediate example. I have no idea who you are (unless, of course I know you, in which case, hi), but there is still a very clear set of unspoken contractual obligations at play. I have agreed to write something engaging and at least, relevant, that will not deviate from the agreed format of an internet blog post slash essay. I won’t lapse into Gregorian chanting or start typing in 1101110000011010011 binary code for example. And if you don’t like what you’re reading, you are well within your unspoken contractual rights to scroll to the end, close the tab, or get back to googling whatever it was you were googling before you got here.

Every relationship is built around some set of agreed rules in this way. Professionally, this can be seen in sharp relief with GCSE classes; those groups you’ve taught since year 9 and take all the way through to results day. At some point in year 10 an equilibrium is reached. The kids kind of get you and you equally get them. You know how far to push, the accepted limit of banter, the prerequisite effort levels, etc etc. And likewise, the kids know when to talk, when to listen, your various and far ranging moods and when to tune in to your increasingly frequent end-of-movie courtroom speeches. A contract has been established. 01010100001

Now, things tend to get interesting when a contract is breached. When the rules, spoken or otherwise, are broken, there will always be some level of response, or, worse, reaction.Take the GCSE class who gets the anxious new teacher in year 10. He or she might do the unthinkable and, say, get upset when the class doesn’t turn in a decent piece of homework for seven weeks. Said teacher might then lose the plot for a few minutes and tell the class a few home truths along the lines of, say, you’re going to fail your exams and fail in life because you have no work ethic and you treat these lessons like a joke. From teacher A, such aggressive verbal assertions might have been permissible under the rules of the unspoken contract established since Key Stage 3. But from teacher B, with no established contract, it becomes an act of pure aggression. The unspoken rules of the unestablished contract have been broken.

This is where contracts can be dangerous, which, incidentally, has nothing to do with the fact that they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. The real danger stems from the fact that contracts are defined by expectation.

When a contract is being established, both parties come to the table with a huge menu of expectations and wants. When I sit down to eat at a restaurant, I’m expecting the food I pay for to live up to certain expectations. The money I pay thus acts as a holder of these expectations. In a less literal example, when I enter into an unspoken social contract with a would-be friend, there are clear expectations as to what we might say to each other, how we might behave in various situations, how far we can take our banter, and so on. This has to be the reason that legal contracts are so detailed; they have to spell out every nuance of every clause to ensure that expectations are explicit. The implied becomes explicit and therefore the risk of conflict is minimised. There’s no room for disappointment, because the obligations and expectations are clear.

When we teach your kids, us teachers are continually surfing contractual waves. When I recently told a kid that in all honesty, the class functions better without him, I was pushing the boundaries of the unspoken contract that I would not and should not attack his social wellbeing. Not my proudest moment, but I was angry and in a reactive state. So when he reacted and stormed off, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself; I had breached an important contract. Similarly, when a student who had repeatedly failed to put any effort into his work frustrated me to the point of bemoaning “idiot kids”, his reaction (“you can’t talk to me like that sir”) might not have been accurate, but it was justifiable.

For teachers, establishing classroom contracts in detail is not as important as being aware of the expectations we bring to the table. Not knowing what your expectations are leaves you dangerously naive and vulnerable to your own reactions (which tend to be impulse-based and unreasonable). Far better is to evaluate (and continually reevaluate) your ideals and put effort into developing meaningful relationships. Because ultimately, these relationships are at stake when agreements, explicit or otherwise, are breached. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

And then, ‘Killamanshank’: Stumbling my way towards curriculum diversity

Maybe it’s because I haven’t shied away from my interest in Hiphop, maybe it’s because I’m black, maybe it’s because he’s found my youtube channel, but there’s this kid in my GCSE class who keeps challenging me to a rap battle.

It’s sweet really; he finds me in corridors, smiling inanely (him, not me) and starts calling me out with half formed lyrics, almost entirely borrowed from youtube views. I keep telling him it won’t happen. Mainly because he can’t rap, and my Simon Cowell-esque teacher persona refuses to take him seriously.

Until recently, when he came in, eyes gleaming, repeating the phrase:

“Killamanshank, Killamanshank”

complete with gun fingers. And then I called him on it. I asked him what he was saying, if he knew what he was saying and if he knew why he was saying it. What was it about shanking someone that he felt was exciting enough to bring to a cheeky rap-against-your-teacher scenario? Which led to a whole-class discussion about whether or not Grime reflects reality or reinforces stereotypes.

And then we watched the lyric video to ‘Castles’, discussing tensions between society’s view of the young black male and the actual societal pressures faced by young black males. Which, as it turned out, was a conversation of especial relevance to non-black members of the class, inasfar as they were forced to challenge their own perceptions of blackness.

And then we got to the line:

Tell Boris he’s lucky that I made it rapping or I would’ve been looting too

I asked them who ‘Boris’ is. They correctly identified the reference to London Mayor, Boris Johnson. I asked them who ‘Boris’ represents. They said they weren’t sure (my fault for asking a closed question). 

So I drew their attention to a few scribbled notes from the previous lesson, during which we had discussed the concept of marginalisation.

  
Look carefully at top right. That’s a list we came up with of all the things that the most privileged members of UK society are, the criteria that places them at the centre of mainstream society. We went through each point in turn and asked if they apply to Boris Johnson. Then we did the same with reference to David Cameron. Then we discussed what it means for someone to not satisfy any of that criteria. 
And I showed them this picture:

  
  
which none of them had seen. They immediately clocked Boris Johnson and David Cameron and started questioning how it could be that such a small circle of friends could end up in such positions of social privilege and political influence.

And then I showed them this picture:

  
and asked them what the difference is between a group of MCs who are heavily influencing the mindset of an urban generation and a group of public-school educated Oxbridge alumni who are heavily influencing the country. Which led us back onto the topic of marginalisation and social disenfranchisement, namely questions of how the socially disenfranchised respond to social inequalities, as highlighted by the Bullingdon photo.

Which in turn prompted me to turn our attentions towards the video to ‘ill Manors’ by Plan B.

  
It turned out that this is a very inclusive slice of anti-establishment class-based protest music, in that it features a full complement of marginalised peoples from a social spectrum; people of colour, people living in conditions of deprivation, criminals and would-be criminals, girls, boys, women, men, even an elderly woman in a wheelchair.

My students, at this point were gripped in debate. Some of the girls were firing home truths to some of the boys about their fascination with only the worst aspects of black culture. And some of them were realising, seemingly for the first time, that music videos are hyper-stylised representations, as opposed to accurate depictions of real-life. 

Which prompted me to click the video to Professor Green’s ‘Jungle’ (featuring Maverick Sabre), 
  
a song about the exciting and dangerous urban ‘jungle’ that is East London. With the new perspective offered by our conversation, the class were sharply critical of the representation of young, black men as Morlock-esque urban miscreants, full of nocturnal malevolence. We started to ask difficult questions of Professor Green and challenge our own preconceptions of ‘black boys’ as well as the wider presentation of black youth in pop culture.

In retrospect, this entire lesson (which was a complete derail from what I had planned) was a focussed exploration of three very important concepts: Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement. All three of these concepts are of crucial importance to the experiences of young people, but they don’t readily find a place in mainstream curriculum. Since exploring Hiphoped in practice in my own pedagogy, I have found that most kids are itching to discuss the various intersections between popular culture (that they feel ownership of) and dominant social paradigms (that they are subject to).

All of this demands an interrogation of the modern curriculum. Shortly after this experience, I found myself steering a year 9 unit of work on ‘Survival’ into a study of modern London and the tensions of multiculturalism, during which we examined and compared texts (literature, songs, music videos, poems) by Zadie Smith, Dizzee Rascal, Doc Brown, Sway, Plan B, William Blake and Charles Dickens. 

Along the way, we also studied a selection of newspaper articles and opinion pieces from the Telegraph and the Guardian, branching off into issues if Higher Education and the realities of studying in London. I’m wondering now why I didn’t explicitly introduce the concepts of Representation, Marginalisation and Disenfranchisement to this class and think that next year, it might be a good idea to build the Bullingdon Club/ Boy Better Know Debate into their year 10 curriculum. 

No complex conclusions on this one, just a reminder underliner of the importance of opening up the curriculum. When I allowed myself to enter a responsive state, I found myself asking questions alongside my students whilst also asking questions of them. By focussing on issues of marginalisation and representation, I could effectively offer them a place at the table without pandering to stereotypical notions of modern youth, at once accepting them as individuals whilst interrogating their social views and preconceptions. For me, this interweaving of social critique and textual study embodies HiphopEd:

HHEd Manifesto

By removing (or widening?) the parameters of the curriculum, my classes are able to have far more vital conversations than I could have planned for. Two things worth noting here:

1) Many of the essays produced by my students found new intersections between texts, starting conversations rather than confirming established conclusions.

2) This was the first time that my students had seriously discussed writers and artists of colour regarding issues that affect people of colour. In light of a decidedly white curriculum, this is not only significant, but an alarming reminder of the lack of diversity in the usual curriculum. 

As ever, something to think about.

Unseen Flirtations

Note: If you’re interested in further details of the units of work mentioned here, drop me a line in the comments. Always happy to talk.

Beyond Rags and Riches: The Reductive Power of Known Narratives

There’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking.

 

The mainstream, in its control of discourse, seems to function through aggression. It takes, dominates, appropriates, dictates and ultimately decides what Is and what Isn’t, what should and shouldn’t be. In this, non-dominant voices find themselves at the mercy of lines that have been pre-defined by society’s rulers (pun intended). And like all rulers, mainstream discourses tend to be rigid, brittle, inflexible and terrified of being bent out of shape.

 

Before I take the metaphor too far and lose you completely, I should explain the reasoning behind this essay’s opening statement.

 

A short while ago, I was busy recycling when I stumbled across a copy of ES magazine. A cursory flick-through revealed a feature spread on UK Grime artists Krept and Konan. If you don’t know, Krept and Konan are, to quote ES magazine, ‘Lords of Hiphop’. If you know a bit more, you’ll be aware that they are a duo of South London-based Grime MCs who came up through a largely underground following and are now making chart hits straddling both sides of the Atlantic.

kreptkonan1

 

 

ES magazine is a free publication distributed to commuters across London. There’s nothing niche about it. For this particular publication to be featuring Krept and Konan was an exciting prospect for me. I’m no connoisseur, but I follow Grime and am fascinated by its relationship with the mainstream. Grime is, among many things, the soundtrack of vibrant disaffection; kind of violent, energetic, playful and agitated all at once. Arguably, it’s an urban-born protest genre, reaching into a long heritage of Black British music. (Read this for more thoughts on the genre.) To feature in a magazine designed to distract Jo and Joanna Average on their way home from the office was, for me, intriguing.

 

Flick to the article in question (you can read it here) and it was clear that Krept and Konan had ‘arrived’. The article was a huge showcase of their new-found success, as marked by the glossy pictures of them in designer clothes, standing next to Rolls Royces, posing with Rolexes and lounging in private jets. Beside a subheading that ran:

 

Growing up surrounded by gang crime, rappers Krept and Konan found escape in South London’s urban music scene. Now everyone from Kanye to Ed Sheeran is a fan and they’re poised to break America. They tell Richard Godwin about doing time, being chauffeured by Drake and why they just want to make their mums proud

 

And… I didn’t like it. Because… I expected it. Let me explain.

 

Rags to Riches

The article is essentially a Rags to Riches story. More specifically, the exact same Rags to Riches story we have been presented with time and time again in the world of Hiphop. Socially deprived, economically impoverished criminal element picks up mic and makes millions through rap. The end.

 

Superficially, this, like all Rags to Riches, is a tale to be celebrated. But we have to consider the context. The Hiphop Rags to Riches is a mainstream endorsement couched in the politics of disempowerment. Hiphop is beleaguered by the Rags to Riches narrative. Think about it. A successful Hiphop artist is almost expected to come from some kind of social deprivation, as though their salvation (and acceptance by the mainstream) is tied to their ability to overcome socio-economic poverty. This is seriously reductive.

 

If the mainstream only accepts the success of the ‘other’ when that success is linked to a Rags to Riches narrative, then the Rags become overly important, and the Riches become overly valued. It is no accident that the ES article purports to understand Krept and Konan, but the reality is far more complex. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even a Hiphop act, but the article headline calls them ‘Lords of Hiphop’. The mainstream brain has kicked into gear to understand, package and pigeon-hole them as an understandable ‘other’.

 

On Thursday 10th December 2015 I had the privilege to hear Breakin’ Convention leader Jonzi (@jonzid) speak about his life in Hiphop at a HiphopEd seminar. He wove a rich, varied tapestry of art and culture, high and low, that went so much further than the Rags to Riches narrative. Jonzi stated very clearly that the commercialisation of Hiphop is not at the core of a culture that essentially requires no money to explore. So money cannot logically be an end goal. But, of course, Rags to Riches insists that a successful Hiphop artist is one that can stand next to a Rolls Royce in a gold watch.

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Narratives are nothing new. And nothing new is known through them. In his exhaustive and excellent study of narratives ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, Christopher Booker explores the notion that there are a finite number of narratives that we (as a species) continue to find and recreate to make sense of our selves and our stories. This is not offensive in itself, but paired with social inequalities and power paradigms? Something very dangerous can occur.

9780141186887

Things Fall Apart

Shortly after I presented some of these ideas at HiphopEd, Darren Chetty (HiphopEd and academic @rapclassroom) leaned in to offer that these politics of narrative are exactly the focus of Chinua Achebe’s classic novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. If you haven’t read it, the novel details the life and times of a tragic protagonist, Okonkwo of the Nigerian Igbo tribe. And after chapter upon chapter exploring the intersection of generations and cultural skirmishes alongside the moral fluctuations of a seriously enigmatic tragic hero, it ends with a musing from the British Commissioner:

 

One could almost write a whole chapter on him. Perhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate. There was so much else to include, and one must be firm in cutting out details. He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

As I say, there’s something dangerous about mainstream thinking. The Commissioner, in his representation of a colonial mindset, only understands what the thinks he knows of the Igbo. And of course he completely underestimates the richness and humanity of their entire culture. His casual reduction of an entire culture and one man’s (unknown) story to something worthy of ‘a paragraph’ is at once depressing and terrifying.

 

Beyond Rags and Riches

The presentation of Krept and Konan as a simple example of Rags to Riches is similarly problematic. It ignores so much that it doesn’t know, and worse still, fails to ask the kind of questions that might offer a new perspective to the mainstream brain. For example, one of the defining characteristics of Krept and Konan as artists is a propensity for punning and wordplay, almost of the Christmas cracker variety. Their lyrics are riddled with puns and double entendres, some quite clever, some worthy only of a groan. It was this that singled them out in the Grime scene in the first place.

 

I find this to be a defining feature of not only their work, but many Grime artists in general, something decidedly British that has roots in variety theatre and Stand-up as much as in MC heritage. But the mainstream lens isn’t wide enough for this conversation. Anything beyond the established narrative is a distraction and therefore irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that Krept and Konan might share some kind of postmodern lineage with punchline peddlars of old, because they are, quote ‘rappers [who] found escape in South London’s urban music scene.’ End of.

 

Things Falling Apart in Education?

Admittedly, there must be a responsibility for those ‘in the know’ to offer these new perspectives. But the marginalised voice is rarely given an opportunity to be heard, listened to and acknowledged. This conflict comes into sharp relief with regard to formal education.

 

During my presentation, I played an impromptu game of ‘Cohort Bingo’ with the audience. Call out as many cohorts as you can, as discussed by educators in educational institutions. They came thick and fast. EAL. Black Boys. G&T. Looked After. SEN. Radicalised. At Risk. NEET. White Working Class. Etc. Schools, by identifying these cohorts, are at risk of doing to children (and by extension whole sections of society) what the Commissioner does to Okwonko in the final paragraph of ‘Things Fall Apart’. As soon as we decide what a someone’s narrative is, we deny them the right to shape their own story. And worse still, we ignore their story as it might have existed so far. I’m finding that Education is treated as one big Rags to Riches arc, with students too often treated as broken Cinderellas in need of the Prince Charming of assessment to get them to the university ball. As a result, we focus too intently on the Rags element. Can they read? Are they poor? Are they naughty? Are they clever? Do people like them get the Riches we want them to get? All of this stops us from asking more profound questions about their journey.

 

This cohort-heavy approach to education comes from a fascination with the other, and fascination and fear are close bed-fellows. The Commissioner’s motivation is to pacify ‘primitive tribes’ largely because colonists are always afraid of the unknown. The dark threat needs to be tamed, right? And the first step towards that taming is understanding. But this, I feel, is the most dangerous step, when ‘understanding’ is a construct built upon ideological foundations.

 

For these reasons, educationalists have a serious responsibility to challenge mainstream discourses in exactly the same way that Chinua Achebe challenged race/colonial discourses in his novel (and how I should probably challenge ES magazine by writing an essay on the British wit of Grime). Until then, we will be at the mercy of accepted narratives that shackle far more than they liberate. Definitely something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations

Teaching to the converted: Black History Month

This blog post has a soundtrack. Click this link in a new tab and read on.

Right. So for reasons only the timetable gods will ever really appreciate, I recently found myself having to cover a merged set of year 8 classes, including only a small handful of kids from my actual class, who have been studying ‘Conflict’ over the past few weeks. We’d recently been exploring the concept of being at conflict with a place (namely London), examining George the Poet’s ‘My City’. I wanted to go further by studying ‘Sittin Here’, the opening track off Dizzee Rascal’s first album, Boy in da Corner.

So I get the music playing and present a selection of words from the song, excitedly telling the kids that we’re going to have a cypher.

Dizzee words

“What’s a cypher?”
“It’s a bunch of people rapping in a circle, and most of you are now terrified.”

Which they were. Admittedly, I hadn’t really set up the situation probably and the prospect of rapping freestyle in a group of peers is pretty daunting for even the most year 8-ish year 8 mind.

Of course, we got off to a slow, halting start and the kids didn’t do much beyond huddle in groups/ cling to tables/ stare wide-eyed at me/ shrink into themselves like prodded snails/ delete as appropriate. To be fair though, there was a palpable sense of excitement slash fear in the air, which transformed into positive energy once I got them all to chant a shared chorus. “Let me think… Let me THINK… Let me THINK (About what!) LET ME THINK!” etc. Despite having seven years of teaching behind me I was learning, all over again, about group dynamics, as if for the first time.

Naturally, I had to rap first to break the ice, and delivered an iceberg-shattering verse that the kids seemed to like, punctuated by whoops, repeated rhyming words and hype-man-esque dance moves. We were warmed up.

At that point, I lowered the volume and let the kids start writing lyrics of their own (note: it was amazing how quickly they found something to write on and with, with absolutely no heel dragging. Hiphoped: Bringing Children, to Life ™). Feel free to lower the volume on the other tab yourself.

Now, this isn’t a blog post about the magical powers of Hiphop to appeal to modern youth. I’ve written than one already. It’s about Black History. And black culture. See, I’ve spent the past four days wrestling with a blog about the perils of that thing we lazily call ‘cultural capital’ in modern education, linking it to something known as Aggression Theory. Please google it. That particular blog will probably never see the light of day because I just can’t reconcile my ideas properly, but this little anecdote I’m spinning offers a measure of clarity.

As the year 8s thawed and started sharing their verses, I was struck by how well-versed they were in the norms of Grime and Hiphop. Irrespective of gender, colour, creed, height, academic ability and eye colour they knew what was appropriate and what was expected. They knew which idiolect to adopt and which references to drop. To varying extents, they shared a tangible cultural capital of ‘black’ culture.

The problem was/ is/ might be they don’t fully appreciate the nuances of the culture they have adopted as their own. I’ve said in previous posts that there is an allure to the illicit nature of urban music that will always appeal to the adolescent mind. But there is so much more going on that many kids, through no fault of their own, do not see, let alone appreciate. I talked to the year 8s about their lyrics (often violent, always boastful, littered with references to money, sometimes playful) and they hadn’t considered why they leant towards some subjects over others. Only one student (interestingly enough, an ‘at risk’ black boy with a history of school suspension) wrote about something really profound, talking about “this place called prison/ that you don’t want to live in”, with references to young children wielding knives in the streets. They laughed with incredulity when I described looping the breaks on funk records to create a party (“what’s a record?”) and furrowed their brows when I suggested that some of them had written lyrics of protest. And when I asked who they wanted to listen to, it was a top five rundown of the latest youtube stars, rather than a considered list of interesting or arresting artists.

With another Black History Month on the horizon, I’m thinking that I might have a responsibility to offer these kids deeper insights into Black British culture, not because I’m black, but because I appreciate the nuances of that culture. I can see the provenance of various urban genres and their wider socio-economic relevances. I can place myself in a socio-cultural historical context. I’d like to think that I can hold my own in a rave just as much as in a debate about UK race relations in the 21st century. And if we’re serious about giving kids a cultural capital that means anything, perhaps we should offer them opportunities for similar understanding of their selves. Definitely something to think about.

-U

Skepta-gate: Why Teachers Can’t Keep it Real

 

So I’m drifting round my first year 10 lesson of the Autumn term and I hear one of my students rapping away to himself. My ears tune in and I realise it’s the hook from ‘Shutdown’ by UK Grime MC, Skepta. One of my students, a young Bengali boy, is quietly rapping away to himself while underlining the date and title.

 

Jokingly, I tell him that he’s going to need to put more bass in his voice if he’s going to pull that off. His response? Widened eyes and dropped jaw.

 

Him: “Sir, you KNOW that song?”

 

Me: “Why wouldn’t I know that song?”

 

Him: “Sir, it’s SKEPTA.”

 

Me: “I know!”

 

For some reason, this student (and the other kids on his table) found it utterly unbelievable that I would even be aware of, let alone appreciate the music, life and times of Skepta. They were bemused and incredulous all at once and to be honest, I don’t think they really believed me anyway.

 

Skepta is a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. I am a 30 something year-old British born Londoner of West African heritage. We share a number of similarities, up to and including the complexion of our skin. He looks like this:

and I look like this:

IMG_5621

I have tracked his career from the earliest days of Lord of the Mics. I have bought his music and scrutinised his lyrics. I have discussed the socio-cultural resonances of his work with academics. I have shouted his lyrics in my car whilst driving through the streets of East London. And yet a scrawny teenager of Bengali heritage feels more entitled to claiming kin than I do.

 

Three theories immediately spring to mind as to what’s going on.

 

Theory A: Youth

Skepta represents aspects of youth culture that a 14-year old (irrespective of cultural background) feels close to – closer than he thinks I could or should be. As a boring grown adult, it seems unlikely that I would fully appreciate the youthful exuberance of Skepta’s music and general energy. (Especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory B: The streets

Linked to the above. Skepta is a representative of the streets, in his slang, his dress, his references. The average teenager would feel more aligned to this than he may expect of his 33-year old chino-wearing English teacher. (Again, especially seeing that I dress like Carlton Banks.)

Theory C: General appropriateness

Linked to both A and B. Skepta’s music does not court the attention of adults, and it would be incongruous to hear an adult professional chanting Grimy road anthems while at work. It’s far more appropriate for a teenager who frequents youtube and is drawn to the allure of illicit music to be be rapping at school, rather than his teacher. (Who dresses a bit like Carlton Banks.)

Carlton aside, somewhere in the middle of these theories dance the deciding factors of context and identity. In previous posts I have explored the intersection between persona and identity, suggesting that teachers find themselves snared between crafted and appointed personalities, sometimes at conflict.

 

Skepta-gate, as it shall be referred to from this point on, throws this conflict sharply into light. Why should my teacherness be an obstruction to my other identities? Why can’t my students reconcile my role as a teacher with the possibility that I may be other things? That I may be from the same social universe as their idols? What is it about the establishment that brings the gears of identity grinding to collapse? And who exactly are my students seeing when they see me? Someone like them with a shared appreciation of marginalised cultures, or someone who is so ingrained in the systems of education that he couldn’t possibly understand where they are coming from?

home road school

I find this worrying. One of the underpinning philosophies of Hiphoped as a critical pedagogy is that it seeks to offer a space of reconciliation for various identities. In the past, we’ve talked of the languages of Road – Home – School as being disparate, forcing students to code-switch and slalom. When I think about it, a similar pressure is exerted upon teachers, especially teachers who fall out of mainstream norms. Not to overstate the case, but isn’t it weird that a young, black, urban teacher is seen, by students, as alien from black, urban youth culture?

 

A cynical but valid argument is that capital E Education is a straitjacket on identity. The idiosyncratic peaks of an individual who becomes a teacher are bulldozed flat by the profession itself. Alarmingly, my students might look at me and see not a person with the potential for personality like any other, but a simple manifestation of an established system.

 

The upshot of this is that teachers may find themselves struggling to forge meaningful relationships with their students if the teacher persona is indeed as restrictive as I’m suggesting. And any efforts to reach out and bridge this gap are fighting against a tide of socially and culturally ingrained ideals. When I think about it, this is perhaps a central tension that runs through Hiphoped, or any pedagogy that seeks to meet the kids where they are. Kids aren’t of the establishment, teachers are. End of. It’s no wonder that my anti-establishment claims (ie: liking Grime music) would be met with instant incredulity.

 

Interestingly, Skepta himself explores the tensions between identity and establishment in the song ‘Castles’ from his 2014 album ‘Blacklisted’. The song (analysed and discussed here by Hiphop Educator/ Academic Darren Chetty and UK rapper Ty – well worth a listen) outlines a young black male’s movement through a system of distrust. He reflects on failing at school (being labelled a ‘sideman’ by teachers), being distrusted by shop security guards, potentially ending up a ‘statistic’ to his racial profile, empathising with the London rioters of 2011, gun crime in urban environments, and the futility of casual drug use (smoking a ‘stupid zoot’). In this, the disconnect between society at large and societal expectations of the young black male prevent Skepta from relaxing into his successes. Yes, he is invited ‘to talk to the kids at assembly’, but his success as a musician is shackled by ongoing social stereotyping.

 

Ironically, I find myself in the inverse position, whereby the students I teach might distrust my authenticity because of my professional persona (linked to stereotypes of what a teacher is), while the system I teach in fully welcomes my teacherness. As long as I look, act and sound like what a teacher is supposed to look, act and sound like, I can’t possibly be as ‘real’ as is expected of a young black male. In the eyes of my year 10s, a teacher can’t be as real as Skepta, hence the incongruity of my knowing about Skepta in the first place.

 

Ultimately, this leaves an anvil-like question mark dangling precariously over the flimsy box construction that is identity. Should I shrug and accept my fate as a teacher destined to culturally be at arm’s length from my students? Or do I fight to make my authenticity/ realness/ social identity/ delete as appropriate known? No easy answers, but, as ever, something to think about.

 

-Unseen

 

Note: A potential problem in all this is the extent to which ‘realness’ is equated with negative social traits, but that’s for another blog post. Much to think about.

Becoming yourself: A teacher’s journey to authenticity

Harry Hill has something profound to say about who you are.

Right then. Let’s start with an easy one. What do the kids call you at school? I’m guessing… some variant of Mr/ Miss/ Ms/ Mrs Something-or-other? Perhaps ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’? At least to your face.

Ok, now a harder one. Who exactly are you when you’re at school? Well, to answer that one you’re going to have to read the rest of this blog post. Stay with me.

In the earliest days of my PGCE, I remember being profoundly weirded out by my given title of ‘Mr Boakye’. To clarify, my name is Jeffrey Boakye. At no point in my life had I been referred to as Mr anything and it felt odd to suddenly find myself decorated with that moniker, just because I was hanging around in a school in a professional capacity.

‘Mr Boakye’ (inverted commas entirely necessary) felt somewhat different to the ‘Jeffrey’ that I felt myself to be prior to teacher training. ‘Mr Boakye’ kind of felt like a new character I was adopting, rather than the person I actually was. Jeffrey came quite easily to me aged 26. ‘Mr Boakye’ was going to take some work.

Which, to an extent, summarises the following seven years, up until the writing of this blog post, during which time I have been crafting ‘Mr Boakye’. He talks a certain way. He definitely dresses a certain way. He has certain attitudes and behaviours, and projects a certain set of ideals upon his practice. Not to get too Liam Neesonish about it, ‘Mr Boakye’ has a particular set of skills acquired over a (reasonably) long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you.

Introduce a very interesting dichotomy that forms the basis of this essay: The fact that ‘Mr Boakye’ is a crafted, craftable concept, and one that I can objectively scrutinise, suggests that there is something about teaching that is performative, if not artificial. Simply put, teachers don’t just stroll into their careers as the casual first namers you might meet in a pub or wherever; we take an active step into the role of teaching. And that comes with effort and deliberation.

See, while the crafted persona of ‘Mr Boakye’ is strong and gets stronger, the life of Jeffrey Boakye has informed my teaching at every turn. When I think about it, many of my lessons have been tea-stained by events of my life. For example, when helping my sister get her daughter into primary school, my letter of commendation became the subject of persuasive writing analysis. I once got a bunch of year 9 boys to analyse and critique my wedding speech. My love of Hiphop has almost entirely derailed my pedagogic thought processes (for the better). And so on.

In his excellent book on the history and machinations of stand-up comedy ‘Getting the Joke’, Oliver Double offers the astute and useful ‘Performer-character’ distinction. Stand-up comedians, he argues (by the way, read this essay if you need convincing on the genetic similarities between the comedian and the teacher), are on a performer-character spectrum. Meaning that they straddle all kinds of lines between who they are and who they choose to project to their audiences.

Teachers, I believe, are on the same spectrum. Who we are, who we choose to be, and who we think we need to be are all paddling in the same canoe.

Anyway, here are Oliver Double’s distinctions. I’ll list them first, then we can consider how they might apply to a teacher:

  • Character comedian. You know the type – comedians who exist entirely as a stylised character bearing no relation to the person who plays them. Think all the characters played by a Harry Enfield or Steve Coogan. Personally, I’m not sure if this can apply to a teacher, unless you walk into a classroom with a fake name and completely fabricated personality. Which, crazily enough, I actually did for a string of lessons in 2011 in which I adopted the role of ‘Poetry Man’, a Wonka-esque, trilby-hatted loon who took kids out on adventures involving balloons, biscuits, zombies and polaroid cameras. Seriously, I did that. Click the links. It was exhausting.
  • Exaggerated persona. These are those comedians who play amped-up versions of themselves, usually with stage names and outlandish wardrobe. This, if I’m being honest is where I am at the moment. ‘Mr Boakye’ has evolved into a stylised vision of my own creation. A kind of cartoonified projection of the teacher Jeffrey Boakye has chosen to be.
  • Naked self. When all pretences are dropped and the character is as close to the person as possible. Ironically, I think this naked self can only really emerge accidently. The intensity of teaching and constant proximity to audience (students; colleagues…) means that any chosen persona will necessarily slip. I’ve always maintained that the ‘real’ you will out after even a short stretch of teaching, because you can’t keep a a mask on when building relationships. I can do everything in my power to create ‘Mr Boakye’ but the kids know Jeffrey whether I like it or not.

Recently (by which I mean the last four years or so) I have been trying, intently, to forge the naked self into the exaggerated persona. I have no idea if this is a sensible idea but I’m in love with the concept of not having to put on (or take off) any masks in my professional life. I want to be ‘Mr Boakye’ at all times. I want to lose the inverted commas; I want my work wardrobe to be my weekend wardrobe.

What I really want, I think, is authenticity, and this might be the point of this essay. Teaching thrives in the relationships between teacher, student, subject, and the more authentic these relationships the better. If I’ve learned anything about developing this authenticity it’s that you have to allow something real to permeate your crafted self just as much as you have to exercise control over your naked self.

None of this comes easy. Like the comedian, the teacher is probably racked with insecurity, a sense of deficit and constant doubt. What we do is intimate, but stylised; authentic, but kind of fake, and we have to straddle all that on a day-to-day basis (minus holidays). Teaching is intensely personal. No safety buffer. ‘Mr Boakye’ is me. His competence, passion, expertise, skill, likeability is being judged all day long. Oliver Double talks of the ‘person in the persona’, a neat summation of what we wrestle with. We aren’t one person; we are a collection of choices and experiences. We choose to let some things show and we can’t prevent other things from showing. As Harry Hill puts it:

I think once everyone started doing their own material, most people are putting over… something about themselves, no matter how hidden it is.

From this understanding, it’s not so much a case of asking can you control your persona, it’s more a case of do you want to?

In the past thousand words or so I have suggested that ambiguity over the self is part of becoming a teacher. The question to leave on is whether or not (or to what extent) this ambiguity might help or hinder your practice. Teaching forces us to do what comedians and artists strive to do: reconcile our various selves. We’re so exposed, and so structured, that we have to find a middle ground. This is to be welcomed, perhaps celebrated? It’s about honesty, or the right level of dishonesty, or control, or lack of, which keeps the relationships alive and vital. The audience, the students, need to see some of who you are if they are to accept you and genuinely enter the dialogue you instigate every time you stand there with a lesson plan. To go back to the hard question at the start of this essay, who are you when you walk into the classroom? And who do you want to be? As ever, no straightforward answers, but definitely something to think about.

-Jeffrey ‘Unseen Flirtations’ Boakye

For more thoughts on the nuances of performance and persona I strongly recommend finding and reading ‘Getting the Joke’ by Oliver Double.

Us vs Them vs I: Another look at Differentiation

Before leaving his post as Education Secretary, Michael Gove left as a parting gift, an assessment regime hinged entirely upon examination. By eliminating coursework, students are now expected to demonstrate their academic progress in a series of exams, just like the good old days. The upshot of this is that teachers are under increasing pressure to steer learning away from a shared experience. Now, this blog post is not the place to debate the pros and cons of exam-centered assessment, but I do wonder if the wider debate over collective learning (and collective assessment)  has been woefully overlooked.

The current educational landscape has made the exams game almost aggressively individualistic. High university fees, competition for places and reliance upon exam performance means that students are fighting the world to get their place in the world. It’s no surprise that the number of EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) applicants has doubled to 35,000 this year since 2010. Students are realising that they need to stand out; they need to be different. You can blame Capitalism – a free market approach to education will always tend towards individualism.

Now, there’s a fairly long list of things that can take a teacher from nought to inadequate in 60 seconds, and differentiation is fairly high on that list. Nothing can quite generate those nauseating feelings of guilt like the realisation that you haven’t quite taken into account the varying ability levels of your class – one of the reasons that differentiation continues to be a hot focal point in teacher training and performance management. The underlying logic is clear; the best teaching will be tailored to the specific needs of individual students, as opposed to a ‘best fit’ approach that might overshoot subtle nuances.

In my time as department lead, I have, every assessment interim, been required to analyse data and offer commentary as to the progress of various cohorts. And at the end of it the desired action was always clear: sit down with each teacher in my department and work out a strategy for each ‘Red Alert’ student in their class (as identified by the data crunch).

Again, the underlying logic is clear; the apex of good differentiation is personalisation. It then becomes the job of the teacher to work out the specifics of each student’s needs, which, of course, leads to huge amounts of anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

As a so-called ‘middle manager’, I have felt it my responsibility to ensure that, anxiety aside, proper differentiation takes place. So, after every interim I would diligently schedule an action plan meeting with each of my colleagues and work out how best to meet the needs of students X, Y and Z. Which, of course we never really followed up on. We’d have the meeting, the next interim would roll round, and I would, with a little knot of guilt, start the differentiation dance all over again.

None of this, I think, makes me a bad middle manager. There’s something about differentiation which is mirage-like and almost ephemeral. It seems doable in theory but in practical application quickly spirals into poorly tweaked resources, or ad hoc minutes spent during lessons.

Which might explain the evolution of my lesson observations during the year. A few half terms of drifting in and out of lessons to observe practice and identify examples of good teaching resulted in the following list of questions:

How do your students know when they are doing well?

How do your students know what good work looks like?

How do your students know what a ‘well’ classroom looks/ feels like?

When do your students have Autonomy?

When do your students have Relatedness?

When do your students have the chance to show Competence?

Does your class have a culture or sub-culture?

The interesting thing about this list is that it refers exclusively to students plural as opposed to student singular. Somewhere in my understanding of performance management, it had become apparent that a holistic approach to classroom analysis was somehow preferable to reducing a class to a selection of individuals (despite consistent pressure towards individualisation).

In his New Scientist essay ‘The Death of Individuality’, Alex Pentland offers the idea that individuals learn better in a social context. In what he calls ‘social physics’, a community actively feeds off the actions and implicit lessons offered by own members, to the benefit of each individual within the group as well as the group as a whole. Far beyond simple peer pressure, he argues that individual incentives are dwarfed by social networks – citing ‘patterns of communication’ as key to decision-making in small groups, as opposed to the characteristics of individuals.

At this point, if you’re a teacher, you’re probably right now thinking something along the lines of “Well, duh.” Teachers know the power of ensemble. It’s what we spend our weeks, months and years building with our respective classes. It’s why we continue to utilise group work as a pedagogic strategy, despite the rugged individualism of solo examinations. We understand that a class of kids is greater than the sum of its parts. The problem is that traditional assessment models view the individual as the greatest unit of rationality, and this can far too easily bleed into how learning is structured. If it is true that we learn through community, then why not follow that stream into the estuaries of shared assessment?

At times, education gets this right. Drama teachers understand the power of ensemble in assessment; whereby individuals are judged on their contribution to a shared outcome. The (currently trendy) concept of Project Based Learning invites students to develop individual skills through the shared creation of a product. The dialogic classroom, by definition, relies upon communication to even function.

No neat conclusions to this one but if it’s obvious that classes learn well (or best?) collectively, it seems equally obvious that we would do well to prioritise communal learning. Yes, there are arguments against collectivism in education, but I feel these arguments will always be rooted in negative assumptions of human motivation; that some people will coast, or that some will piggyback the work of others. In reality, classrooms can be far more collegiate. Evidence? See below for a selection of practices garnered from my department based on the questions outlined earlier:

  • Using student work for modelling
  • Using marking as an opportunity to highlight specific student’s positive outcomes
  • Creating class booklets of work to celebrate outcomes
  • Rewarding positive class behaviours as well as work
  • Developing tasks that rely upon individual participation for a desired outcome (all students valued equally)
  • Ditch the seating plan
  • Developing a culture of valued individuals

As ever, something to think about.

-Unseen

Underplanned and Fully Prepared: Let’s Teach

I remember when I was a new teacher, thinking that I would one day reach a point where I wouldn’t have to plan lessons. Years later, I’ve realised I was chasing a false dream, a mirage panacea; I still do have to plan. Extensively. But not necessarily in the way that I thought I had to. And in fact, all of my planning might have already happened, even if I haven’t realised it.

Now let me try to unpick these somewhat cryptic assertions.

At the time of writing, I am currently in that phase of the summer holidays where a little knot of anxiety is starting to form at the realisation that I am not fully prepared for September. Despite years of honing my craft, there is still a part of my teaching brain that doesn’t believe I am fully prepared until I have crafted a scheme of work, worked out my assessment points and generated resources to be used by kids in the classroom.

Which is fair enough. Years of experience have taught me that being prepared is extremely helpful. Knowing, roughly, what is going to happen or at least what is supposed to happen, can help alleviate the stress of… well, of what? And in that ellipsis is the first sticking point in our understanding of and approach to preparation and planning. Consider why teachers plan. Is it:

  • To ensure that curriculum needs are met?
  • To minimise risk of divergence?
  • To ensure that lessons have a structure?
  • To ensure schemes of work have a purposeful direction?
  • To focus the mind?

In all of this, it could be argued that planning is ultimately for the benefit of the teacher. Students routinely amaze me at their lack of concern over what is coming next in a learning sequence. No matter how active we make individual lessons or activities, the fact remains that students are largely passive when it comes down to curriculum design. When, if ever, has a class gone up in arms over a strange turn in direction during a scheme of work? When has a student ever demanded to see a mid-term plan to make sure what the teacher envisaged is actually happened? They just don’t care and it just doesn’t matter. So why do teachers agonise over planning?

The complicated truth of the matter is that planning has more to do with teacher well-being than it does to do with student attainment. And this, I think, is because planning is not the same as doing. A neatly packaged scheme of work acts as a safety blanket for that daunting walk in the woods that is teaching. Planning offers the perception of control and mastery over events that haven’t happened, and we therefore stick to the plan in a bid to exercise control over the uncontrollable.

This very blog post, I am writing unplanned, in a bid to prove this point to myself. Yes, I have thought hard about what I am typing and rolled around in my own ideas for about 48 hours now, but the construction of meaning that is coming from these paragraphs is unscripted. I’m communicating in real time editing, on the fly, planning at the same time as writing, an ice cube fizzing on a hot iron plate.

Teaching, essentially, is more like a conversation than a playscript. Conversations demand reflexiveness, spontaneity, agility and cooperation. In a conversation, one must respond in real time to what the other person is saying. Yes, you might have an agenda and you may know what you want to convey, but you can’t simply say a string of perfectly planned statements in a perfectly planned order. If you did, it wouldn’t be a conversation; it would lack integrity. We don’t plan our conversations and this, ironically, is what makes us very good at having conversations – the high risk of live performance hinging upon not rehearsal, but real-time interaction.

So does planning hold any relevance at all? Of course it does. In his excellent essay ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’, academic and stand-up comedian Kevin McCarron suggests that the stand-up comedian uses the same mental agility that a good teacher should employ in order to respond to and and work with audiences (students) towards a shared outcome. He writes:

…just as comedians can move material around in the set, or drop it completely, depending on the response they are getting, or spontaneously improvise on something somebody has said, so too teachers should be able to shift their material, or drop it, depending on the response of their students.

In this, McCarron argues that extensive planning is potentially at the detriment of improvisation. It takes us out of the moment, out of the conversation. However, the ability to improvise is linked, inextricably to experience. To return to the conversation analogy of a few paragraphs ago, the only way you know how to slalom the twists of a conversation is by relying on experiences of other conversations from your past.

Perhaps, then, we should redefine ‘planning’. Perhaps we should eschew the concept of planning and replace it with the subtly different concept of ‘preparation’. Perhaps preparation is closer, semantically, to ‘living’. We don’t plan the moment-by-moment experiences of our lives, but we continually prepare for them, through the process of living. We plan through our experiences, our various moments, our conversations of the past that inform our present. I haven’t planned this blog post per se (apologies for its meanderings), but I have prepared myself to write it through seven years of teaching and 48 hours of thought after reading an engaging essay. In the classroom, a teacher’s wealth of experience should be enough preparation for the learning journeys ahead. McCarron writes:

It is not necessarily the case that teachers prepare far too much for seminars for the sake of their students; it is just as likely that this excessive preparation is done to protect themselves from their students.

A powerful idea. Students, like comedy audiences, ‘[value] interaction more than information’. And while you can prepare for interaction, you certainly can’t plan how it will go. Planning is too often used as protection from the risk of the unknown, and this is,, ironically a risk that we must embrace, just as we do every time we enter a conversation.

Rather than worry about what we can control through preparation, perhaps teachers would ultimately do better to reflect on their experiences and concentrate on staying flexible in the classroom, at the time of teaching, in the moment of dialogue and interaction with the students we learn with. Definitely something to think about.

For further insights into the links between teaching and stand-up, I strongly recommend reading ‘Stand-Up or Fall Down: Pedagogic Innovation, the Comedy Club and the Seminar Room’ by Dr Kevin McCarron. 

Hiphop Education in the UK: Making the case for Grime

JME setting fire to the mic with a uni degree in the ‘Man Don’t Care’ video

Earlier this year, I took my year 8 tutor group through a Hiphop Ed curriculum, through which we explored the history of Hiphop, cultural resonances worldwide, and various related  socio-economic issues including class, Feminism, gender norms, and Capitalism. The project began with a DJ workshop and culminated in a series of essays, each on a question chosen by individual students. During this time we analysed rap lyrics, watched documentary footage, had debates on key issues and even carried out primary research at a local shopping centre. They then had to take their essays and flip them into five-minute ‘Ignite’ speeches, which were delivered in a whole school event.

Before this process began I knew my students had an interest in Hiphop. Even the most casual chats about music confirmed what we already know: that Hiphop culture (and its various offshoots) is now the dominant youth culture. This, of course, is by no means a simple cause for celebration. The hyper-capitalist direction mainstream Hiphop has moved in has almost divorced it from social responsibility, as my class discussed after reading Questlove’s excellent essay series: ‘How Hiphop Failed Black America’. And it is no accident that five of my 13 students chose to focus their essays upon issues surrounding gender and the subjugation of women in modern society. They were ready to interrogate rather than celebrate.

Which I found interesting. After the initial novelty of playing with records had waned, it became apparent that for these kids (aged 12/ 13) very much saw the Hiphop I presented to them as something historic. Their expertise and relatedness to the culture as they understand it is tied, inextricably, to the context through which they discovered it. Sounds obvious, but it raises a (much debated) point about not just Hiphop in education but cultural studies overall: to what extent should a student’s experience of a culture steer their exploration of that culture’s ‘official’ history? I felt as though I was giving my class an opportunity to deepen their understanding of a culture that pervades their exploratory adolescent years, but, to be honest, I’m not sure how much they cared.

Skip forward a few months to the end of term, and the obligatory classroom party, complete with Doritos, Haribo, party games and youtube playlists. After minor protestations I quickly capitulated and let the kids take the helm. And weren’t the results interesting.

First of all, as expected, the playlist was entirely black music, with no exception, again confirming what we already know: that black culture (and its various offshoots) is the dominant youth culture. Slightly more interesting was the provenance of music being chosen. It was about 90% (give or take) British. And almost entirely current. And of this selection, exclusively Grime.

I find this telling. My class (predominantly Muslim, about 60% UK-born, speaking a total of 11 different languages, spanning Eastern Europe, Asia, West and North Africa) are in firm agreement that the hottest music out is Grime music. With unfettered access to the latest hits via youtube, these nascent adolescents seem to be pinning their flags to artists who speak in the language of their streets.

I recently read this excellent and inspiring piece on ‘Why I love Grime’ by @okwonga which reminded me what excites me so much about Grime. Its energy, wit, underlying social protest and unashamed Britishness make it a compelling incarnation of UK youth culture. Not to mention the fact that Grime has evolved from a very British heritage (Ragga, Dancehall, Jungle, Garage), harking back to the Windrush diaspora and proliferation of Black Britain via the West African migration of the 1970s. So when I find myself shouting the lyrics to ‘Man Don’t Care’ by JME alongside three or four over-excited 12 year-olds, maybe I’m actually celebrating – black UK music and black UK culture.

I teach in London, so it’s not surprising that my students revere Grime, which is a cultural London success story. Their eyes light up with Grime. They love references to a world they can see on the way home from school, spoken in the same language they learn in the playgrounds of their schools. The glitz of American Hiphop seems to be too glitzy, too glamorous, too foreign, too mainstream. Your Kanyes and Jay Zs are of an older generation, music for their parents maybe. And even your Drakes and Big Seans (who the kids love) seem to be a few years stale. While the neo-conscious movement led by your Kendrick Lamars and J Coles just doesn’t seem to register at all. The average UK teenage music fan is looking for something closer to home, and what’s closer to home than Grime?

Skepta summarises the wider relevance of Grime neatly in the following line from ‘Castles’:

My teacher told me I’m a side man, I told her to remember me Now they wanna email me, asking if I can talk to the kids in assembly

Grime was never supposed to make it into the mainstream; it’s the sound of disaffected youth shouting discontent in shows of lyricism that mean nothing to anyone other than themselves. And yet the culture has born a generation of icons who are part of the establishment, whether the establishment accepts it or not.

On this note, the image that introduces this essay is particularly revealing. JME takes the university degree he has and sets it alight in a blazing rejection of societal expectations and mainstream definitions of success. He then proceeds to use this to set fire to the microphone that he has chosen to define him, before rapping a few bars into the flames. It’s a powerful conflation of ideals that ultimately empowers him. He can do what he wants, how he wants, with or without the acceptance of mainstream society. Grime, in its idiosyncratic tunnel vision and ADHD energy levels, is much the same; a symbol of empowered disaffection.

So perhaps when we discuss Hiphop Education in the UK we really need to discuss Grime as the embodiment of Hiphop’s basic tenets in this country. Perhaps Grime is the UK’s incarnation of Hiphop, as socially and politically important as any other musical movement. And perhaps we (by which I mean educators) should therefore give it the respect it’s already earned from today’s youth. Something to think about.

-UF

Does Teacher Training Know Too Much?

Question: What happens when you call a cup, a cup?

Answer: It stops being any number of things that it could have been:  a hat, a dragon’s nose, a weapon, a drum, a shoe, etc, etc.

This morning, I had a blazing argument slash friendly chat with colleagues in the staffroom over this very point. We weren’t originally talking about cups though; we were talking about teacher training. In light of the fact that so many schools are failing to hire the required staff, it quickly became apparent that many teachers believe in competencies; the idea that there is a pre-defined list of things that a good teacher should or could be able to do.

I disagree with this position, for the same reason that I think you shouldn’t go round calling a cup a cup. As soon as you begin to codify ‘good’ teaching, you effectively limit the possibilities of what good teaching could be. Every step towards definition closes a door of possibility. The dangers of this are twofold. First, it works against a culture of innovation and second, it establishes a culture of deficit and insecurity. Think about it for a minute: if there is a definite list slash criteria that a ‘good’ teacher should adhere to, anyone entering the profession is immediately faced with a list of things they cannot do or may not be able to do.

This, surely is crippling. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling to attract teachers, when the expectations are so restrictive. It’s not a question of standards – obviously, teachers should be aiming for excellence and competence – it’s a question of approach. Do we know what we are asking new teachers to step into? And are we choking their potential before it’s had a chance to flourish?

Exploring the unknown unknown

Too much of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) seems to be hung up on what we can call ‘the known knowns’, the things we know to work or not work, as proven by experience or research. Whatever. The known unknowns are slightly more interesting; ie: the things we know we don’t know, such as whether a skills-based curriculum is better than a knowledge-based curriculum, or whether PBL is better than a linear scheme of work for fostering student engagement.

My argument here is that our energy is best spent contemplating the unknown unknowns; the things we never even realised we didn’t know that we might one day discover. The things that might revolutionise our ideas and lead to unpredictable successes in the future. If we accept the unknown, it changes the realms of possibility. Once upon a time, humans believed ourselves to be the centre of the universe, placing ourselves atop a ludicrous and lofty metaphysical throne. Then Galileo came along with his home-made telescope and discovered that we are floating in one of trillions of galaxies. This simultaneously dethroned us while opening up new realms of possibility regarding space and the universe. Rather than naval-gazing and wondering how we came to be so amazing, humans could finally start contemplating the awesome mysteries of the great unknowns. With trillions of galaxies out there, it becomes frankly stupid to position yourself as anything but an explorer.

So too with teaching? I think so. I often tell people that, in my eyes, I am not a teacher seeking some preset goal of pedagogic perfection but am in fact undergoing ongoing action research. And the more I know, the more I don’t know. Questions foster questions and the the grappling with new ideas is what fuels my development. Like Galileo, surely our innovation should be fuelled by curiousity and innovation?

Case in point: skateboarding. Bear with me. See, the skateboarding community is an excellent example of a learning community that feeds itself with its own curiousity over the unknown. There was a time when no-one ever made a skateboard jump with their feet, while moving. Then, one day, someone, in a moment of inspired, imaginative innovation did it. The ‘ollie’ was born. This was then fed back into the community, and new skaters took it and tweaked it, spinning the board (a ‘shove-it’) or flipping the board (a ‘kick flip’) or making it jump front first (a ‘nollie’). All of these moves were, before the ollie was born, part of an unknown unknown – beyond the realms of possibility.

Now, you have a catalogue of moves that a new skater in 2015 is aware of and can learn, but the possibilities are still infinite. The tricks keep coming because skaters aren’t happy with an inventory of moves passed on from some predefined canon of manoeuvres.

Can you imagine if this is what teaching was like? If new teachers were stepping into a community of innovation fuelled by curiousity, informed by but not limited by the past? It would change everything. I’ve said in previous posts that the human brain is designed to innovate – why not embrace this and start all training right there? Explore the knowns as a means of exposing the unknowns. Mystical.

So, does experience matter?

At this point, you may be wondering if experience holds any relevance if the job of a new addition to a community is to explore and invent, rather than to simply gain mastery of existing skills. Good question. I have an anecdote that might be useful.

In a recent interview lesson a prospective art teacher presented the kids with the task of designing a set for a theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. Where do you start, he asked them. And of course, he was met with blank stares. He then proceeded to blindfold the kids and started reading ‘The BFG’ alongside music, asking them to draw instinctively as he read. Then, he removed the blindfold and talked through what they had drawn, cutting out the shapes and fixing them together in a 3D diorama. This was the first draft of the theatre set.

Brilliant, isn’t it? In 15 minutes, this guy had opened doors to unknown creative possibilities, using his expertise to make sense of innovative experiments. His mastery was guiding innovation, not stifling it. (Coincidentally, he wasn’t a teacher.)

Ultimately, we need to remove the barbed wire of expectation from ITT. Perhaps then teachers, new and not-so-new, might feel free to explore their profession and make innovations for the benefit of the teaching community at large. Something to think about.

-Unseen Flirtations