I had the great pleasure recently of speaking to Edinburgh University’s Post Graduate Diploma in Education students, an optimistic, effervescent cohort of budding teachers. Three things which I said evinced enthusiastic and positive discussion.
The first was a statement by Professor Sally Tomlinson: “Education is not a commodity to be bought, sold or rationed in market transactions. It is a right and a precondition of freedom for all citizens. It involves an opening up to knowledge, ways of understanding and the development of abilities which create informed, caring and cooperative citizens.”
What an exciting and wonderful challenge: to develop, among all young people, and not merely the academic elite, informed, caring and cooperative citizens.
That will involve preparation for work and the development of countless skills, but it also demands that we see our purpose as being located as much in the affective as in the cognitive domain. What Prof Tomlinson says however goes beyond that; by denying that education is a commodity, she fundamentally questions the market paradigm which currently dominates public discourse on education as well as on wider issues.
The second was Carl Roger’s basic premise for any therapeutic relationship, but one which also seems to me the basis for any effective teacher-learner relationship, that the teacher holds the learner in unconditional positive regard. The simple statement of that value for teachers is that our job is “to teach, not to judge”. One student put it to me in beguilingly frank form when she said that hearing that phrase, “unconditional positive regard”, was “a kick in the bum” to her. She realised that her negative, initial judgement of one particular student in her class when on placement, had been the very reason why she had failed to communicate with him.
The third was a discussion about courtesy. I made the point that in my last school we had initiated a major drive around courtesy, encouraging not only that regular use of the small, daily courtesies, but such things as holding doors open for others. We stated explicitly that we valued courtesy as a sign of respect and to show that we are thinking of other people’s needs and feelings.
It was one other aspect of caring, cooperative citizenship but it also made demands of individual young people, to question their own behaviour, to put others first, to consciously consider how their behaviour affected those around them. What also raised a few smiles among my audience was my suggestion that, since the best way to raise standards of courtesy in a school was for teachers to model courteous behaviour, in some cases the hardest task was insisting that all teachers were as courteous to our young people as they expected the young people to be to them.
Our job goes far beyond teaching knowledge and skills. It transcends subjects and academic disciplines. It is about learning to be more human. One of the great Scottish educationalists of the 20th century, John MacMurray, argued for the need to educate the emotions, place relationships and care at the heart of teaching and learning, eradicate fear and the pressures of high-stakes testing, replace aristocratic traditions of schooling with the development of a truly democratic culture, and locate all we do as educators within the wider, deeper context of how we learn to live good lives together.
Meeting this year’s student teachers and catching a sense of their commitment to the life’s work on which they are about to embark, left this old teacher confident that MacMurray’s and Tomlinson’s vision might yet become reality.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.