A crisis in the making

It was a three-day residential conference during which some 60 headteachers were exploring the significance of new research into learning to find ways to improve classroom practice.  By the end of the second day some people were obviously flagging, and their attention was wandering.  Rather than pressing them too hard late in the afternoon, I gave them two pieces of reading to do overnight in preparation for what would happen the following day.  The pieces were not long – one was four sides, the other five.  The following morning it was obvious that significant numbers of them had not done the reading, but rather had enjoyed the social experience of communal living.  So I delayed the start of the conference and suggested that I would provide everybody with a 20-minute reading period to catch up on the material we needed to work on for that day.  To my amazement six of the headteachers left the room.  When they came back 20 minutes later they gave me a short note.  “Reading is not our preferred learning style, that is why we did not do what you suggested last night.”

I was dumbfounded.  Western society depends not simply on people who can read, but upon people who know how to deal with what they read, and turn it into ideas which help make further sense of other things.  In recent attempts (all highly laudable) to make school more attractive to those youngsters who come from homes in which the concentration needed in the classroom is not practiced in their informal lives, teacher-trainers have emphasised to would-be-teachers the need to understand different forms of learning – some people learn visually, others verbally; many do better when they are working in teams, while others are at their best when curled up in a corner with a book.  So teachers have been encouraged to fill their lessons with a variety of activities so that pupils will move on to the next task before getting bored.

But for people holding responsibilities within schools to use this research to suggest that, because reading is not their preferred learning style, they just don’t have to do anything about it is just obviously absurd.  Successful writers from Dickens through to J.K. Rowling have always had to discipline themselves so that, on bad days, they force their pens to draft and redraft before they can recover the sense of flow of their good days.  Good teachers intuitively understand this.  By and large good teachers don’t bore their pupils, but that is because they are people of deep understanding.  Unless teachers learn to be such proponents of deep understanding then they will inevitably end up boring their pupils.

I had hoped that that experience was only a blip, and that few teachers thought like that.  But I was dismayed only a few weeks ago to meet a man whose main job is to act as mentor to newly qualified teachers.  He also organises conferences for some local authorities.  We fell into conversation and he was interested in what I was doing.  I suggested that he should take a copy of the book.  He smiled and said he would oblige me by buying a copy of the book, but the chances of ever having the time to read it was almost negligible.  “After all,” he said, “I’m not really a reader.  And because of that I don’t find time to do it.”

When I remonstrated with him that only by knowing what we are talking about would we know how to change and improve the system his response was stark.  “But I never realised why we do need to change the system,” he said.  “We just need to get people to be more efficient and work harder.”

See Action 6 of the Briefing Paper