In assembly, on Monday we talked about the tortoise and the hare – how sometimes slow and steady is a better approach than rushing to the end and allowing complacency to get in the way of attention to detail.
It’s a conundrum I’ve come across a lot in my teaching career. So often the children in a class will see finishing first as being the most important measure of success, when in reality what we are usually more interested in is the children completing their work well and demonstrating their learning.
As a child I was, for a while, a school refuser. I have often thought back to that period, which in total began when I was about 8 years old and lasted until I was nearly 13. For most of that time, it was about trying to avoid school by saying I felt unwell, but as the consequences of my frequent absences escalated, my desperation and unhappiness increased to the point when I ran away from school. The police became involved and at that point, I knew it was serious, and I was forced to resolve to change; a very painful experience for all concerned. [Please don’t tell the pupils!].
So, why was I so unhappy at school and what drove me to run away?
Well first, I didn’t want to be there. The school was not particularly a naturally comfortable place for quiet, introverted children, who don’t like large groups of loud and boisterous children. I was much more comfortable at home, where I could enjoy my own company. I loved being taught on a one-to-one basis and made much better progress on much less teaching time; moving from a small primary school to a large secondary school really only exacerbated my problems.
Secondly, I was not motivated to want to learn. Much of the school curriculum is an artificial construct that perhaps bears little relation to what we are interested in or indeed what need in order to live useful and fulfilling lives; it mostly exists to create hurdles that allow us to access the next phase of our education or life. As an adult and an educationalist, I recognise now, however, that it is not the explicit curriculum that matters so much as the disciplines of good working habits, the ability to undertake research, to be able to communicate ideas effectively and to think analytically and strategically.
Over time the curriculum has evolved because it provides a sensible framework for developing these higher level skills – the ones we do use in our adult working lives. The difficulty then arises, however, that unless the curriculum itself appeals to the learner’s interests, the only remaining motivators are the rewards that arise from other aspects of being in the classroom. So for example, for pupils who are strongly driven by achievement, finishing first, regardless of whether in doing so they have fulfilled the objectives of the task, gives them the reward they need; a burst of well-being. Think of the rush you get from coming first in a race. Indeed even now I find I constantly set myself little targets, and in just about every way meaningless targets – arriving somewhere by a particular time, completing a certain number of tasks in a day’s work, finishing the crossword – and when I do, however pointless in terms of making a real difference to my life, I still get the little rush of satisfaction at having met my own targets.
In truth, there are times when we, as teachers, encourage this system of reward; by creating little races in lessons every time we ask a question and expect hands to go up. I am always puzzled when pupils moan that they knew an answer but I didn’t ask them – surely knowing the answer should be enough, but of course it isn’t; what they really want is the reward of being the “winner”, because without that they are denied that little rush of satisfaction.
So, this is why we need a very broad curriculum in a school like ours, supported by a wide range of clubs and activities; to give all the children the best possible opportunity to find subjects or activities that they enjoy and which help them to understand the benefits of learning and thus motivate them in a positive way.
When you want to do the course, because you are enjoying the journey, you don’t need to be the first to finish. And if you have a strong motivation to learn in one area, it not only helps you to get through the bits you find less appealing but also models how to get through them more successfully.
I like to imagine that the tortoise actually enjoyed going slowly in his race against the hare, because it gave him time to admire the beautiful scenery on the way, and that for him, winning really mattered very little, it was just a small bonus at the end.