Earlier this year, I conducted a project with a group of students on a residential trip. Our goal was to construct a working hand from a combination of found and provided materials. I showed the children a range of mechanisms and gave them a choice of instructions to follow with a strong proviso to adapt and experiment as they saw fit. Then I sat back and watched them at work.
They formed four groups of three and set about making their hands. We’d discussed what hands do, and once I’d weathered their double-entendre (no worse than my own) we settled upon the following challenges to meet with our artificial hands:
1) can we pick something up?
2) can we carry something a distance?
3) can we throw something a distance?
Two of the groups produced creditable hands that could pick up and throw small objects (eggs, pieces of tissue, etc). One group produced an incredible, fully-articulated hand that could pick up a quite-heavy rock and carry an egg, and throw a ping-pong ball a respectable distance.
One group did pretty much nothing. Over the four days of the project, they filled a plastic cup with plasticine (both of which materials I had provided) and managed to lift a ping-pong ball (which I’d provided) by plonking the upended, plasticine-filled cup onto the ping-pong ball so that it stuck to it and then they lifted it. They then spent the rest of the residential project chewing gum, rolling their eyes and making half-baked attempts to belligerently ‘improve’ their artificial hand.
Throughout each day, I went over to them (with no little timidity as their eye-rolling was so intimidating in its circumference) and tried to cajole them to heightened levels of non-inaction. My suggestions were wound up into the orbit of their eye-rolling and tossed through the window panes out into the rain-soddened patch of lawn beyond the decking outside our porta-cabined learning zone. The bovine roll of their chewing was topped by a sudden stillness in their (sinisterly unified) fixity of eye contact. Each group member was united in the enjoyment of their regard of my diminishing optimism.
In my current pedagogical context, this represents pretty much the pinnacle of good practice. I patiently follow these children in their meanderings. (Although in this case, the following is quite easy, as this particular group of students had no desire to go anywhere.)
I’d created an open-ended, choice-based, skills-oriented activity (as I had been told to do) and I watched around 75% of my project group do at least something. But this project had created a space for me to reflect as I was teaching. It was so open-ended in fact that it created a little too much space. And in this space, I thought…
I thought: I’m not telling the students anything; we aren’t doing anything; nothing is happening now and nothing will happen afterwards. This is to no end.
Yes, 75% of the students will return home with some prosthetic limb to wave at their parents. Yes, some students will have learned that if you thread string through a straw and pull said string, said straw will bend (and that may either resemble a finger or resemble some grotesque and sudden sporting injury). Yes, there will be evidence of a sufficient sort to populate photo galleries, school Facebook pages, prospectuses even.
But it is a nothing to no end.
Who is responsible for this emptiness? Well, me, I guess. I ran with the remit. I sang from the hymn sheet. We have a funny way of falling in with the norms of our prevailing and immediate ethos, don’t we? From one educational extreme to the other, we find ourselves either commanding that the children track us… or we find ourselves exhorted to follow them.
Meanwhile there are teachers out there that waste no time; waste no words; waste nothing. Make no mistake: before such teachers, the whole child is taught; the whole child is developed. But not through a gamble of meandering veneer. The whole child is taught through an artful dialogue within an architecture fully realised by the teacher. Not transmitted as such, but alluded to, suggested at and ultimately realised within the student as something crystalline and apparent – at once fully personal to the child and recognisable to the adult.
There’s nothing vague about it. And it scorches scrutiny with its truth.
It is teaching; it is powerful.
The teacher is alive.