Half-way through my MEd, what have I learned?
Two assessed essays down. One essay returned. Marks and feedback taken on board. A year’s worth of teaching and my own research – both ‘in the field’ and doubtless in a library – and 20,000 words to go. Then, hopefully, three letters to put after my name: MEd.
It’s a scary but not unmanageable prospect.
A year ago, an MEd seemed a somewhat vague process. I’d surfed university websites galore, spoken with colleagues, called on the wisdom of anyone who’d offer it, applied, got accepted and started out, convinced I was doing the right course at the right place. But quite what educational research exactly entailed I was a little less sure, and having finished my own PGCE some fifteen years earlier (or thereabouts – I have no sense of time these days), it was a frankly daunting if exhilerating prospect.
Now, I’d like to tell you that during the last year, I’ve read so much and been taught so much that my professional expertise is such that I am now in a position to comment on the inadequacies of our educational system, to pontificate on how we ought to teach, and to dictate the lines which all schools must follow in order to rid our society of its woefully low levels of educational attainment.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as so often seems to be the case when you’re really learning, it’s sometimes impossible to put it all together and explain exactly what’s going on – I’ve tried before, but that was before the real pain set in…
Now, hesitatingly, um-ing and err-ing and stuttering all the way, in a not very considered and probably illogical order, I’d just about say this much I’ve learnt:
- Teaching is infinitely more complex than most of us imagine. The world of education seems full of panaceas. Doubtless some of these offer a useful correction to the errors of the previous swing of the pendulum, and some probably even improve on what’s gone before, but the evidence for their efficacy is at best patchy. Be grateful if you were always skeptical about the claims made for learning styles: there is no basis for them. Pity those children in schools that still continue to peddle such myths.
- Extend such skepticism* towards most government policies, irrespective of party, and read all Department for Education reports cautiously. Don’t be duped by apparently impressive footnotes. If you’ve ever felt a bit uneasy about the latest reforms to curricula or syllabi, you are emphatically not a whinging enemy-of-change-reactionary. Rather, be thankful that your critical faculties have remained intact.
- I have a passion for libraries, and I’ve rediscovered it. (Confession: I almost became a librarian after university first time round.) Don’t think for a moment of your local library, stuffed full of Barbara Cartland novels and slightly out of date gardening tomes. Imagine the sort of library where serendipitously you stumble upon books which you actually want to read, and on which, before you know it, you’ve wasted a good hour. Or maybe you haven’t; maybe you’ve actually discovered something worth reading.
- There are still people out there who think about what real learning means and have the intelligence, knowledge and confidence to speak clearly about the difference between this and examination performance. (Yes, of course exams matter – I care hugely about my own marks – but most teachers will understand how the discourse of schooling has too often been reduced to discussion on how to maximise marks, often of a slightly dubious, ‘game-playing’ nature.)
- The importance of ethics in educational research. Why you do it and how you do it matters as much as what you find out.
- Vygotsky is
interesting fascinating awkward. Dialogic teaching resonates with my own classroom practice and I am slowly learning more about it. Nonetheless, a rejection of spoon-feeding methods is unsettling for some students, particularly when the learning becomes completely open ended. But of one thing I am convinced: talk is central to learning. The research really is there.
- Research methods in the Social Sciences are infinitely contested and debated. For English graduates who found literary theory complex, think back to your worst nightmare (probably Derrida) and the arguments you had about that as an undergraduate and you are starting to see the endless (and possibly pointless) arguments between qualitative and quantitative research methods. Starting to understand some of these issues, as well as being able to do the practical work of research – observe, interview, record, analyse, reflect and so forth – empowers teachers in their own practice. It’s genuinely liberating if utterly unnerving. Whatever Ofsted (or more likely the myths about Ofsted) say, a spreadsheet of numbers does not tell everything, particularly when it comes to explaining what students have learnt.
- English teachers desperately need to be heard again as voices of expertise in the debate about curriculum reform. Yet while we must debate what we teach and how we test it, how we teach is the urgent issue facing us. Schools have to be given sufficient money and time to invest in teachers and our system needs to enable teachers to teach. Real, sustainable improvements in teaching do not happen by quick fixes alone.
- There are serious pedagogical issues around the teaching of A levels. Students are hindered by the dominance of assessment objectives, the inadequacies of assessment measures and the complaints of universities and students. But at the moment, my hunches in this area are just that, for there has been a dearth of research into teaching of literature to post-16 students.
- Learning is exhausting. Sometimes, I think I’d forgotten that.
A year from now, thesis submitted and life returning to some semblance of normality, will I offer an even vaguely similar list? Learning is a tricky business, full of false starts, blind alleys, moments of confusion and a search to somehow put it into words and, as I keep realising, assemble it all into some kind of order.
But the journey has been
fascinating tiring frustrating revealing.
As they say, watch this space.
*See here for an interestingly pedantic article on the spelling of skeptic/ sceptic followed by some well considered comments.