My Collins Westminster Dictionary tells me that “premise” can also be spelt “premiss” which seems apt in the case I’m about to put forward.
When a person leading a meeting for teachers puts forward an idea as a given, something generally accepted, I pay attention. Here’s one: “This is the way we used to teach…but we know better now” or: “Thirty years ago we were taught like this, but we don’t want to follow that bad example any more.”
Why does this rankle so much? I talked about it with a friend and discovered that hearing those statements pronounced as if everyone would agree (i.e. as a premise) makes me sad. It seems to dismiss my forty years of teaching as worthless.
When I began teaching we had a new English curriculum which wasn’t just about reading and writing, but about viewing and moving and shaping and speaking. It was designed to appeal to students of all skills and abilities and get them engaged in their learning. We did drama and group work and made endless collages and posters as we explored different approaches to literature and language. It was dynamic and interesting. We moved into larger spaces to make films, do drama or group work. Language was studied in depth, particularly the thorny language of advertising, but also of conversation and levels of spoken conversation. It was a fantastic, creative introduction to teaching and how dynamic it could be. It was about student-centred learning, and the teacher as facilitator – terms I hear used now as if they’ve just been invented!
With NCEA, this has narrowed as we have less time for the creative tasks, and are more focused on assessment, data gathering and “adding value” (a market term I thought had been discredited in its application to teaching). Students produce work digitally and are less likely to make posters or collages without considerable work to get them started. If they are asked to do a task they want to know if it is worth credits as they weigh up whether or not they should invest some energy into it. And they are more medicated for depression and anxiety than ever before.
My two oldest nieces were in the first year of NCEA and said they felt like guinea pigs, but, like all of our lovely resilient kids, they got on with it and are doing nicely in their thirties now, thank you very much! As are many of the students who have “suffered” through the “terrible old-days of teaching”. Even the leader of the meeting who has been positing the premises mentioned above – although there are clearly gaps in academic process somewhere.
New Zealand education is in a constant state of change and has always been. Here’s another point which rankles: “We have to get used to change or be left behind”. It doesn’t even need saying, surely. It’s what we do. And our students go along with it patiently, while those leading meetings are either revealing that they had very unhappy childhoods at school or have very short memories.
My secondary school years were pretty good. There was an interesting, varied collection of teachers with their own styles of teaching. We had very sophisticated discussions in English and went to see live theatre, notably a performance of King Lear at the Court Theatre. We had political discussions in history, learned funny anecdotes in French, listened to great music up in the attic music room, loved learning about South America in geography so much that we hoped our teacher would take us on a field trip! We did have a field trip to Arthur’s Pass to study glaciation, which has always been useful since when travelling through New Zealand and even when I was travelling in Norway. One very enthusiastic teacher would jump up from her seat in the bus, point out the window and shout: “A truncated spur!” or: “A hanging valley!”
Did we suffer from this supposedly dreadful education? Hell, no. Did we go on to do all sorts of interesting things with our lives? Hell, yes.
I would like to pay tribute to all of my teachers at primary and secondary school, and all the great teachers my family speaks of. And the teachers in my own family. Lovely Ruth who devised maths games to engage young learners. Those games became sought after by other teachers. I would tell her about “new” developments at school when she was in her late eighties and she would laugh and say, “I remember when we did that.” What about that great teacher on the West Coast who, with the students in a small rural school, built an amazing little house, making everything themselves. I visited it once and was impressed by all that must have gone into that incredible learning experience for those lucky kids.
Nothing is new, just new people come into leadership roles with bright ideas they think they’ve just discovered. Trying out “new” ideas is great, it helps keep teaching moving and interesting, which is how it should be, but let’s honour the past, not dismiss it so off-handedly as a bad job.