Why Is Risky Teaching Better Than Cruise Control?

A lacklustre syllabus

Having worked as a teacher in inner city comprehensives for twenty years, I have no doubt at all that such schools can and do work minor miracles with students. Particularly with those students who are more likely to underachieve. Teachers work incredibly hard to motivate students to ‘get’ their subject, and to understand it well enough to pass GCSEs with good grades. What usually works less well however, is what is done for those students who already ‘get’ a subject. Who possibly already love it and are possibly even already exceptionally good at it. The syllabus certainly doesn’t demand any where near enough from these students, and GCSE can often be a pretty simple exam for them. Way too simple in fact. And sadly, they are not encouraged to explore it in more interesting, complex ways. Often because of the justifiable fear of their teachers that their students may actually be marked down in an exam if they come at a question from too unusual a perspective.

So what happens to those students who already ‘get it’? 

With the best will in the world, many teachers do not see their needs as a priority. They tend to be put on a back burner. They are often required to go through the same step by step teaching as all of the other students. Covering work they already know. With frequent repetition. Not only doesn’t it stretch them, it can have far more worrying tendencies. Such as boredom. And lack of any high performance aspirations to really master the subject. And often, as a result, complete disengagement. They are effectively high performing and honed engines that are being given low grade fuel.

Just to clarify at this point. This is certainly not just confined to comprehensives. I have seen far too many ‘cruising’ lessons in top independent and high performing grammar schools to assume that their practice is that much better. In fact it often lacks the drive and focus that is the norm in schools serving more disadvantaged schools. For one obvious reason. Get the lesson engagement wrong in a tricky school and you get crucified, so it’s in your interest as a teacher to ensure that you get a class on board. I believe that the biggest difference in more advantaged schools is not the teaching, but often the peer pressure that keeps some of the most able students engaged and on track in these schools. It isn’t stated often enough, but a whole group of highly able and motivated students in a class can lead to some pretty complacent teaching. I have seen it. But the love of the students for the subject is often undiminished because they can feed off their peers.

Cloying teaching

There is a peculiarly cloying brand of teaching that seemingly treats the most able as being highly delicate and fragile orchids who require special tending. I have no doubt that there are some very able students who fall into this category. They can indeed certainly be afflicted by insecurities and doubts, and these doubts can sometimes be given greater impetus because the students are smart enough to see themselves and others quite clearly. But it is a very different thing to therefore treat all of them as if they all have a proneness to over-sensitivities or excitabilities. Many students love the battle, the occasional intellectual dog fights. They enjoy risk (look at what else they can choose to experiment with at this age) and may have far less fear of failure than their teachers.

Burn out versus lack of ignition

There is also, on similar lines, a legitimate fear amongst many teachers about the dangers of ‘hothousing’ students. We all acknowledge the dangers inherent in students being pushed too far and too fast in school (or quite often at home) so that they lose interest in a subject that they previously loved. The fear expressed is often in terms of students ‘burning-out’. To use an analogy, the blend of fuel used for F1 racing is tuned for the demands of different circuits – or drivers – or even different weather conditions. More potent fuels give noticeably more power but that needs to be balanced against the danger of engine wear. There is the obvious danger that the wrong fuel applied at the wrong time might have severe consequences for the overall performance.

I have to say that in all my involvement with schools over 30 years now, I have yet to see a single example of this phenomena. Of course that is not to say it doesn’t exist. I am quite sure it does. I too have seen the Channel 4 documentaries about gifted preciousness. As a teacher, I too wanted to protect the students in my charge. But the culture within so many schools has become obsessed with protection. We as teachers don’t take the risks, so our students (unsurprisingly) don’t either. I still believe the greatest risk is not taking any.

I have seen, all too often, in thousands of classrooms, not the ‘over pushing’ of students, but rather, a distinctly depriving diet of dead dross (aka the national curriculum), completed with a lack of excitement and challenge. The failure across much of the system is that students have no fires lit anywhere near them. Put simply, the lack of ignition is a far more serious problem in UK schools than the risk of burning out.  As a result students are less likely to feel the sense of flow that comes from real engagement, they are therefore less likely to acquire the necessary work habits and enquiry skills that they require to get them through University.

Risk and more risks

Bringing on the most able requires teachers to demonstrate flexibility, open-mindedness, and a willingness to listen and learn equally as much as it requires exceptional subject knowledge. But taking risks has to be the genuine hallmark of the truly great teachers, and for that to work they need to have the confidence not just in their own abilities, but also the belief that their students will be able to survive and thrive in a more rarified, free wheeling and demanding atmosphere than that which is normally found in classrooms. “Over seriousness is a warning sign for mediocrity…(teachers) who are seriously committed to mastery and high performance are secure enough to lighten up…” (M. Gelb)

Teachers must believe how far and how fast such students can go if no limits are put on them, and understand that they can assist the roller-coaster ride, even if they themselves may need to leap off before the end.