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Sound and Fury

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Sometimes I get involved in things and then spend days wondering if I’m crazy, or stupid or disengaged. This weekend has been one of those times.

It started off with a few Facebook posts which were reactions to a talk Sugata Mitra had just given about his “hole-in-the-wall” experiments. I don’t really want to go into all the ifs, ands and buts, but the thrust of the arguments seemed to have two strings:

The first was that Mr Mitra was talking about schools that were empty of teachers and maybe that was a good thing and the second was that his audience – teachers – were applauding this idea.

Being somewhat garrulous and passionate – a lethal combination – I leapt into the fray and wondered why the Facebook posts were offended, disappointed, concerned by Mr Mitra’s comments (he has a right to say whatever he likes) when it was the applause of the teachers that should be the focus. Why were teachers agreeing with this man that schools without teachers are a “good thing”?

Then I revisited the lecture and listened to it again – very carefully and paused it when I needed to think and rewound it if I thought I hadn’t heard clearly. These are my conclusions to what he said:

– teaching and learning are different things – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– ask the right questions – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– absent yourself from the learning space – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– learning in a community is better than learning in isolation – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– learn by doing – we as teachers KNOW THIS.
– schooling as we know it has to change to meet the demands of the 21st century – we as teacher KNOW THIS.
– good teachers make themselves progressively unnecessary – we as teachers KNOW THIS.

Why then has this talk provoked such deep concern, unease and worry?

I don’t know.

In Praise of the Basics

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I have just spent a night in the most basic hotel I have ever been in. Initially I was a bit depressed by the come down in my circumstances. Sitting in the hotel bar, alone, I took time to have a look around not only at my environment, but at what was inside my head. The decor was the pinnacle of “cheap and cheerful” – great big 60′s daisies wallpaper in pink and green, shocking pink plastic-moulded chairs and a cheap, but cold Pinot Grigio. No barman, no little doilie under my glass, no buzz of conversation from the smart set chilling out after work.

So? Would I talk to the barman? Do I need the doilie to affirm my specialness? Would I engage with the smart set? No. So not having those things didn’t really make any substantial difference.

Up to the bedroom – the sort of fundamental reason for being in the hotel in the first place. Ghastly, tacky, plastic carpet, grey, furry fleece curtains( I kid you not ). No shampoo, bath gel, body lotion or proper glasses. No satellite TV, no wireless connections, no central heating. But – a big space, windows on two sides, spotlessly clean linen, piping hot water, plenty of towels, efficient wall heater and a working telly. Everything I would have had at home and absolutely everything I needed for the 10 hours I’d be there, most of which I would be unconscious.

On to the breakfast. Oh my, a very spartan affair. Fairly nondescript coffee, juice from concentrate, toast, fruit, cereal and a bog standard selection of so-called Danish pastries. What would I have had at home? Middle of the road coffee and a banana – if anything.

What did I pay for this? £30.

Now, what struck me was, why would I pay anything more than that for stuff I won’t use, things I won’t do and bits and pieces I don’t need? I don’t want satellite telly, a beauty counter of weeny bottles of ‘stuff’, including – almost religiously – a shower cap and a shoe horn. When last did you use or need either?

The extras and non-essentials are costing us and the planet dearly. Strip it back. Stop paying extortionate prices for hotels when all we really do there is shower, sleep and drink a cup of coffee.


I used to have this dream where I was standing in a classroom the size of a school hall which was filled to the four walls with eager, demanding students gazing up at me as the ‘dispenser of all knowledge and bringer of good futures’. I would look to my left and there, coming through the door for as far as the eye could see, were streams and streams of such students, pushing and shoving and needing to get into the room.


MOOCs hadn’t been thought of then, but if I had been able, in the dream, to hand out a url, I might not have woken up in a cold sweat wondering how on earth I was going to cope.

And this dream wasn’t so far from reality. At the time I was working for a training centre in South Africa which had opened its doors to students who needed to pass the school leaving exam in order to get on with their lives. Their education (I use the term loosely) had been disrupted by the social and political circumstances (convenient euphemism) that had prevailed for some time and were to prevail a while longer.

But this post isn’t a quick nostalgic look back at that experience: it’s a reflection on teaching MASSIVE classes and what it’s like doing it. Classes varied in number between 120 and 150 students.


I was teaching (loosely used term again) the equivalent of GCSE ESL English literature. There was no time for all the niceties like exploring and researching and pair work and interesting discussion leading to informed opinions and such like. The syllabus had to be got through and pretty sharpish.

Today’s work – Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea from Prison”. So, with my middle-class, white South African frame of reference and a nod to the teacher training I had received, I opened with the almost de rigeur schemata-activating question: “How many of you have actually BEEN in a prison?” says I, inwardly rolling my eyes at such an absurd notion. Fully two-thirds of the class raised their hands. WTF? NOW what? Middle class, white South African frame of reference being all there was for me to cling to in the face of such a situation, I asked the next stupid question, “What for? What were you in prison for? Errol?” (Errol sat near the front and I knew his name.) Errol looked at me and smiled wryly to himself. He knew I had been rocked back on my heels by the previous answer. “Stealing a goat.” Unable to stop myself, I almost screamed, but it came out as a whisper, “Why?” He looked at me squarely now, “Because I was hungry.”

I wonder if a DELTA assessor would have passed me on the lesson that followed? Not a bleeding chance. But be that as it may. I also wonder, in the context of the current adaptive learning debate and the approaching tsumani that are MOOCs and their like, whether in fact, rather than teachers becoming obsolete and somewhat “last century”, perhaps having a real live human teacher to talk to may become a distinct privilege.


Going Back

UnknownI’m not even going to apologise for the bold stealing of the idea for this post from my favourite blogger. He knows I’m an inveterate idea larcenist, but then maybe we all are after a fashion.

But on with the post. I have just got back to the UK after three weeks in South Africa and the feelings and thoughts these visits usually evoke haven’t settled down yet.

It was summer and hot and thundery, shade was at a premium. That sticky, heavy air oozed across the water barely lifting a ripple. Doves slept in the gum trees which sighed under the relentless beating sun. “I love it here so much,” I hear myself breathe. But it isn’t love: it’s essence, spirit, basis, being. And it’s hard and unforgiving and demanding and cruel. It makes you need it, but remains unmoved; it makes you long for it, but it doesn’t care if you leave; it hooks itself into you like a parasite that leaves you feverish and disconsolate.

I want to go back, but that would mean a kind of dying and I’m not ready for that.


Sir Lowry's across False Bay

Near Riviersonderend




The Art of Conversation

Mr James Nathan Miller said:

There is no such thing as a worthless conversation, provided you know what to listen for. And questions are the breath of life for a conversation.

I think I’ve said it too.

What’s Wrong with Dogme? after Scott Thornbury

After a week of fairly volatile mental meanderings and random outbursts, I ambled around Facebook this morning and came across this.

Scott points out in his video that there may be – and he blames himself partly – a problem of interpretation with regard to some of the dogme terminology: namely “emergent language”. It is not the language that emerges, but the syllabus. That leads to the other weaknesses he identifies which are that a conversation-driven class runs the risk of not being challenging enough in terms of new language use to cover the almost endless varieties of discourse that we need, and can and how does the teacher capitalise on the learning opportunities presented thus.

I suggest that the word “conversation” is also being misinterpreted. A conversation is not just chatting: it encompasses every possible type of discourse. It is analysis, description, evaluation, summary, opinion, lie, oath, explanation, excuse, argument, negotiation, introduction, joke, speech and story – to name but a few.

And the teacher deals with this by listening and asking – not only to her students, but to everything that is spoken and heard all the time, anywhere.

Should you or shouldn’t you?

I had a bit of a quandary I mean I was in a bit of one some time ago. This is it:

If you were teaching someone who made what you felt to be an inappropriate comment with regards race, would you:

a) challenge the student to justify the comment?
b) move the conversation to what you hope will be an enlightening and meaningful discussion on racism?
c) change the subject?
d) state your position and refuse to teach the student?

As a self-confessed coward, my choice is c) on most days, or if I’m feeling mentally fluent and on top of things, a). I cannot in all conscience choose d). The client has paid and it behoves me as teacher or trainer or facilitator (what ARE we called these days?) to soldier on with the lesson regardless. b) is too risky, unless all bases are covered and some sort of Plan B is in place.

I’m surprised at myself in that I would not feel the same sense of trepidation if the – ism was anything other than racism. I’m quite happy to approach, deal with, manage, work around, with or through any of the others, but racism has me dumbstruck. I know that’s because I’m South African and race was and still is to a certain degree a hugely important and challenging thing here. And as such my views are concretised and inviolable – racism CANNOT prevail.

The other -isms? Maybe my views just aren’t as strong, or I tend to be a bit beige and see everyone’s point of view. I’m going to read Willy on PARSNIPS again and reflect on my answers to the very thought-provoking questions he poses.

I’ll get back to you Willy.


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