Why Debra Kidd Wants A Teachers’ Revolution

  • Why Debra Kidd Wants A Teachers’ Revolution

Revolution is one of those words that tends to make people feel a little bit uncomfortable. We imagine heads on blocks; riots in streets; having to refer to colleagues as ‘comrades’ as we slap them on the back. And most teachers are not really up for that. They just want to teach kids, do their best and get on with the job. So it’s always a risk to call for a revolution – but I am calling for one anyway. And I call for it because heads are already on blocks in the shape of tired and stressed minds under unbearable pressure. There are already quiet riots taking place in our classrooms – thousands of children tapping on desks, quietly chattering, throwing firebomb questions like “what is the point?” And we’re not just slapping comrades on the back. We’re slapping them in the face as we compete for attention, for pay, for promotion. We’re in the midst of a revolution whether we like it or not. The question is, whose revolution should it be, and what new world would we like to come out of it?

One of the problems with our current system is that the people most capable of seeing new possibilities and futures are overloaded to the point that they can’t see past next week. Our teachers stand at the frontline every day. They know that they are pushing children through objectives towards tests that simply shift their shape with every new whim of an education minister. They know that the data they input into the spreadsheet matters more to their superiors than the stories and contexts of the lives of the children they teach. They know that they are probably colluding in a system that does more harm to children than good. But they keep on because there is not time, space or energy to reconceptualise the future.

The human touch

For those of us who step briefly out of the system to look up at the stars, we can see possibilities. We can ask ‘what if’ questions:

1. What would the purpose of education be if everyone accepted the truth that there will never be enough jobs for all our adult population even if they were all highly qualified?

2. What would the purpose of education be if people stopped to think that the jobs we need doing most in society pay least money?

3. What would we do if we looked at the needs of our society – its ageing population; the pressure on community and local services; the impact of unpredictable weather patterns; the growing demand for creative thinkers (even the Institution of Engineering and Technology has called for more Arts subjects to be taken by those considering a career in those areas); its huge gaps in outcomes between the poorest and richest; the rise of loneliness and mental health issues… what if we looked at those issues and asked what kind of education would create people who solved those problems? We’d have to come to one conclusion: a humane education.

The revolution I call for is not about violence and anger. It is about kindness and compassion. It is a plea for developing curriculum models with conscience at their hearts; a plea for our humanity to override our focus on competition and a blind obsession with measuring. It is a plea to create a more hopeful and caring world for the future.

Soft success

“Tree hugger!” I hear some cry. I am unconcerned. I like trees. And am more than happy to give a couple a cuddle. Why is it that kindness and consideration are labelled as ‘soft’ skills? They are the qualities that create movement; that change hearts and minds. They win people over. They create peaceful solutions to painful problems. Take a look for a moment at the mission statement of the International Baccalaureate:

“The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect… These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.”

Nowhere in the IB is competition or economic output named as a priority and yet this qualification is so highly regarded that Russell Group universities have recently dropped their IB point score offer to encourage these students onto their courses. IB students populate some of the most high profile international jobs in the world – in the diplomatic services, in the UN, in International Law and business, in humanitarian aid and so on. It’s a hugely successful educational philosophy and programme. And the reason it is so successful is that it operates entirely independently of government policy and interference.

Small and mighty

I know most of us can’t teach IB; but we can be IB minded in our approach to learning. We can be revolutionary in an evolutionary sense –moving our outmoded and outdated system forwards by creating the small incremental changes to our classroom practice that will make a difference to the lives of children. For example, you can become a pedagogical activist in your classroom in the following ways:

1. Let people in to come and play with you – parents, colleagues, visitors. Let them see that you’re prepared to be seen, warts and all, and to work with them to reflect on what you do.

2. Put big questions at the heart of what you do – reframe that which has to be taught in order to bring wonder into the world. Instead of writing a lesson objective on the board that states “LO : To be able to name and identify the parts of an atom”, why not start with Richard Feynman’s statement that “Nothing has an outline” and ask the class if that’s true and if it is, why can they feel the chair under their bottoms? Why doesn’t the nucleus fall out of the atom? Now they’re really interested in atoms… and how they relate to their world.

3. Never tell a curious child that “you don’t need that for the exam” then just leave it there.

4. Remember that every piece of knowledge we have as a species exists because someone was curious enough to want to know it – they asked a question. Where is the curiosity in your teaching? How do you bring the newness and awe of the content to the children? And remind children that we don’t know it all yet – there is so much more to be discovered; by them.

5. Never brag about the outcome of a lesson observation or Ofsted inspection. You feed the monster you say you despise.

6. Work beyond the limits of the syllabus – if there is really interesting stuff about your subject that pupils don’t get to engage with until A Level, stick it in KS3 or KS2. Too often we look at GCSE content and work backwards. Look beyond.

7. Never dumb down your language. A 4-year-old can deal with the complex latinate vocabulary of dinosaurs; show me one who can’t manage to understand Tyrannosaurus Rex. So use high level vocabulary. Explain it and get them to chew it.

8. Think in terms of concepts rather than facts. Could you connect the subjects in your school or even the units in your subject through concepts like Beauty, Power, Love, Justice, Identity, Democracy?

9. Don’t leap through stupid hoops because some politician had a dumb idea. British values? Really? Does that involve teaching children to obsess about measuring stuff and sneering at people? Teach human values. Teach with soul. Decent people live everywhere.

10. Remember that you are in charge of your classroom – most of the time, no-one other than the people who need you the most is looking. Tend to their needs. Act in their interests. Make your lessons an adventure for all of you.

If you only did these things – these manageable, small things – then learning in our country would be revolutionised. You would be revolutionary, comrade. Let’s go hug a tree.

About the Author

Debra Kidd taught for over twenty years, across all age groups from 4 to post-graduate. She is an Associate of Independent Thinking Ltd and The Royal Society of Arts. Her first book, ‘Teaching: Notes from the Frontline’ was published in September 2014.