A Much Better World: From fast food pedagogy to Michelin star andragogy

A Much Better World: From fast food pedagogy to Michelin star andragog. Paul Henderson

Paul’s latest thoughts will resonate with so many of us who have been teachers. He goes on to highlight some core essentials for effective, deep learning.

When I was a classroom teacher I felt that, even if I were to tirelessly strive to refine my teaching skills to the absolute pinnacle of my abilities, the highest possible level at which I could work would be no more than that of the educational equivalent of a skilled burger flipper. Yet in the much better world of my current educational practice, I feel there are opportunities to achieve the highest levels of excellence with hard work and dedication, and that the very best in my field are the educational equivalents of Michelin star chefs. Clearly, the idea of being the educational equivalent of a burger flipping conveyer belt worker with no hope for any signs of improvement before retirement was not very appealing and therefore, after a good deal of soul searching, I decided to resign from the career in which I had invested so much time and money, as so many teachers do when the realities of the job dawn upon them. I still think that teaching is one of the most important things anyone could dedicate their professional life to, but what I was doing was not really teaching, and what I was ‘teaching’ was not a true real world reflection of my subject, therefore it was time to explore other options.
During my time as a classroom teacher it felt like I was training lab rats using punishments and rewards according to a very inflexible imposed criteria to box tick and hoop jump their way from one end of a vaguely subject shaped maze to the other. As if this were not bad enough, by the time students were awarded their certificates they had forgotten everything they demonstrated they had learned in order to receive them, while us teachers were being praised to the hilt for our fantastic job on yet another record league table performance. In stark contrast to this, I now work in a much better world as an educational practitioner who is professionally, philosophically and personally self-concordant and able to engage with the learning process in a way that is far more suitable and effective for all concerned. In my current job there is no reason whatsoever for the young people I work with not to arrive at learning solutions that fulfil their self-defined aims in a way that is personally meaningful, fully contextualised and creative. While acknowledging that nothing is perfect, it seems to me that what I am doing now is vastly preferable to what I did then for all concerned, yet I am still working in state education, so what has changed apart from the fact that I am now a music instructor rather than a classroom teacher?
In my experience there only appears to be three significant changes required to make a massively positive difference in teaching and learning. These are;
1. Voluntary participation of learners.
2. One-to-one and small group teaching.
3. Non content prescriptive curriculum and assessment criteria.

Voluntary participation of learners
Students volunteer to participate in instrumental music instruction and its related extra-curricular activities and can quit if they don’t enjoy it. This means that they are intrinsically motivated. Motivation can be divided into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic. Wherever the stimuli required for extrinsic motivation are used, whether they are in the form of punishments or, far more commonly, in the form of positive reinforcement, learning is coerced, and consequently learners are trained and conditioned irrespective of their wishes. This is an expedient way to contrive league table results and achieve prescribed outcomes, but it is known to detach learners from the natural learning process, kill creativity, curiosity and explorative playfulness, inculcate dependent learning, and override intrinsic learning urges which can atrophy to virtually nothing without being purposefully employed. This is not a pleasant list of side effects. In consideration of the well documented evidence, it would seem that if conventional intra-curricular compulsory core subject schooling were a drug which was subjected to the strict and rigorous criteria of the randomised control trials that underpin modern medicine, with unschooling and democratic free schooling used as a pedagogical placebo, it would not be surprising if a very strong case emerged for the banning of conventional schooling altogether on the basis of its comprehensive catalogue of toxic psychological side effects.

One-to-one and small group teaching
One-to-one and small group teaching enables educational practitioners to effectively become andragogues rather than pedagogues because without classroom management and constant monitoring of discipline, teachers can adopt the strategies and principles of andragogy, which are far more conducive to deep learning than the shallow regurgitation required to pass prescribed content assessments. As a result of this, teaching and learning becomes much more about personal, creative and immediately responsive purposive interaction than contriving the implementation of formal learning strategies to satisfy an imposed box ticking and hoop jumping pedagogy.

Non content prescriptive curriculum and assessment criteria
The best thing any exam board can do is to utilise forms of assessment that do not prescribe content. This is the way Michelin star restaurants are assessed. Criteria are set which maintain standards, but contents (ingredients and recipes) are not prescribed. This means that chefs can use whatever ingredients in whatever proportions they please to create food that is truly excellent. Their imagination is the only limit. By contrast a burger flipper has to deliver food that must adhere to prescribed content criteria ensuring standards are adhered to while killing any creativity whatsoever on the part of the flipper, and any real engagement with the taste of real food on the part of the consumer; it’s more about delivering a prescribed curriculum than creating delicious and memorable food with character and flair.
The same excellence and creativity enhancing Michelin style of assessment is also utilised in the solo performance assessments that music candidates sit. The exam board set a list of criteria with a suggested list of pieces as a guide, but the actual program of pieces used in the exam can be arrived at through a process of open source learning or can even be created in its entirety by the candidate. Their imagination is the only limit. Creativity remains unimpeded while standards of excellence are still maintained. This excellence enhancing method of assessment exists right now within state education but its use is limited. If excellence is the aim then it should be widespread. Students can and have attained the highest possible results by playing their own musical creations in solo performance exams at all levels. Students have also gained top marks through utilising an entirely open source learning approach whereby learning and assessment content is learner defined and sourced. Academic and intellectual freedom and creativity remain unimpeded while still maintaining standards. The form of assessment that allows all of this is not utilised nearly as often as it could be but it most certainly can be and has been done within state education with excellent results.
Not every music candidate can justify the extra time it takes or the commitment required to drive their own learning, and some do not place music performance at the top of their priorities but still enjoy participating. In such instances students may wish to be trained to pass exams as a means to fulfil wider aims (e.g. as an enjoyable way to achieve part of the non-specific prerequisite academic credits to gain access to a university course which may not be related to music). In these instances there may be a mutual agreement between student and teacher that the best option would be to use spoon feeding teach-to-the-test techniques using exam board pre-approved guideline content which facilitates minimum learning with maximum attainment. This strategy requires less time spent on sourcing or creating content and practising, and consequently allows for more time to be spent studying for the student’s higher priority areas. In such circumstances teach-to-the-test, spoon feeding or dumbing down, whatever you want to call it, is ethically justifiable. It is not ethically justifiable to pass these techniques off as a ‘broad and balanced’ general approach to education, but they do have their place when mutual consent is given as part of a wider exam preparation strategy where time management has to be critically evaluated. The ethical justification comes from mutual consent.
Sadly, there are some kids who would walk into a three star Michelin restaurant and ask for a ‘Big Mac’ because they don’t know any different, just as, as many educationists have observed, there is likely to be a significant number of students attending today’s conventional formal learning institutions who, given the choice, would opt to be spoon fed in every subject because they have forgotten all knowledge of anything different. This is thanks to a previous succession of blameless spoon feeding teachers whose style of teaching, reluctantly adopted to satisfy the demands of the system, inculcates dependent learning which causes the natural informal intrinsically motivated autodidactic learning instincts of the pre-school years to atrophy to virtually nothing through lack of use. Because of the extent of the damage done to their natural learning instincts, the only curative but mostly impractical remedy for such highly dependent learners is up to a year of deschooling. Without this solution more spoon feeding appears to be their only option.
Unfortunately, it has been noted that box-ticking teach-to-the-test techniques are widespread in formal learning institutions. They involve changing the behaviour of students using uninvited operant conditioning as an expedient way to contrive better league table results and achieve prescribed outcomes. It could be argued that these techniques are only ethical when used by mutual consent, as is the case with other techniques used to change human behaviour such as hypnosis and cognitive behavioural therapy. Unfortunately learners and teachers in such institutions are very rarely made aware of the fact that the use of punishments and rewards to achieve compulsory learning outcomes is a form of operant conditioning. This is mainly due to the fact that punishments and rewards are such an irreproachable part of the system that their ethics are never questioned.
While the merits of their pedagogy may be debatable, great things definitely do happen in conventional schools – especially when TV cameras are running! It is no coincidence that the greatest memories most people have of their school years are as a result of extracurricular activity. However, most of the day-to-day activities in conventional schools are intra-curricular and don’t get remembered or filmed often because they are not memorable and make for terrible TV. I doubt a school based TV drama or documentary would have very high viewing figures if it devoted 50 non-stop minutes to showing pupils sitting at desks perfecting their polynomial factorisation skills. On the other hand, an extracurricular activity such as helping a boy with a stammer, as shown on a recent popular school based TV show, gives a glimpse of how things can be when teachers are afforded the rare the luxury of genuinely working with pupils to meet their personal individual needs rather than ticking the next box in a committee formulated outcome based checklist.
In writing this piece I am not pretending to be an expert in alternative, mainstream or any other kind of education. There are those who have dedicated their entire lives to discovering more about the nature of education who are infinitely more qualified to speak with legitimate authority. Neither am I claiming to be God’s gift to teaching – when I see the work of my colleagues I am reminded that I always have a lot more to learn (although I’d like to think I have my moments!). This and my other writings are just my small contribution to a very important and far bigger picture viewed from the unique perspective of a ‘bog standard’ educator working in the front line who has experienced three simple changes in learning environment that have vastly improved the potential for breadth, depth and personal meaning in teaching and learning. All I hope to achieve is to offer my small contribution to a very important cause.
I resigned from classroom teaching because I felt the system forced me to either adopt an unethical pedagogy or resign. While I still have to do some teaching to the test, I now do it in an ethical way that facilitates a specific mutually agreed learning strategy. The main thing is that I am now able to work with young people to genuinely help them achieve their self defined aims, and offer praise for their self motivated effort in a genuine way, rather than as an insidious veiled behaviourist stimulus.
What I’ve stumbled across is not particularly new. It is just a small example of what many leading advocates of alternative learning have been putting forward as part of their evidentially substantiated, proven beyond doubt and utterly conclusive case for over a century, and I guess I should be thankful that I am one of the lucky ones who is now able to work by their principles as a professional educator. Perhaps one day all professional practitioners of education will be able to thank their lucky stars, and all learners will learn in a learning environment that is sensitive and adaptable enough to further their self-defined aims and ambitions in a personally meaningful way without the spectre of uninvited coercion. Examples of such an environment can be found in extracurricular sports coaching, instrumental music instruction and its related extracurricular activities, school shows, school trips, after school drama (etc) clubs, home education, public libraries and alternative schooling, but these are special cases whose educational approaches do not reflect the widespread social and cultural expectations of standard conventional intra-curricular pedagogy. Surely it would be a much better world if the widespread social and cultural expectation and mainstream intra-curricular convention was that all children should be given the right to experience something much more akin to a Michelin star education than a force-fed fast food fix.
Paul Henderson, September, 2014.

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