Let me start by stating that this week’s post has been written with a little more than the usual level of broad sweeping generalisation. I’m slightly uneasy about that, but I’m confident you’ll forgive me. As is the necessity for this blog, I can only write from experience and point to trends or themes that have struck me as valid. I wish I could invest time in finding supporting evidence but, if I did that, the work would never get done. As always, feel free to comment, compliment or challenge me on anything that interests you. Either way, enjoy.
I’ve taught students from three very different societies in my career so far. In each case the students I encountered have had a distinctive cultural quality that had to be taken into consideration when working with them.
Take London for example. Back in the 90’s London schools could be brutal. Especially “Sowf Lahndun”. The classes I worked with were often best described as ‘disaffected’. It wasn’t that they were malicious or anything, they just saw little value in school the way adults might and this dictated their behavior. More on this chapter of my life will be revealed in future posts but, suffice it to say for now that I learnt the art of classroom management in that city. I learnt fast too.
It was a very different situation in Japan. In some ways though, just as difficult. Here I had no need to worry about classroom management and unruly extrovert personalities. Quite the opposite in fact. By and large the students I taught were extremely motivated and attentive. They were also, however, terrified of being asked a question in front of their peers. For them it was a no win situation. Getting a question wrong was an appalling embarrassment, and getting it right brought unwanted attention (because no one likes a know-it-all). Here too there was a professional challenge, that of overcoming students’ anxieties before I could effectively teach.
So that brings me to the third distinct student body. The one I have spent the majority of my career around and am currently teaching. The focus of this post.
Modern, middleclass, Melbournians.
This challenge lies somewhere between the other two extremes. The students I now teach are, for the most part, neither adversarial Londoners nor intensely driven Japanese. They are pleasant enough young people who will approach their classes with a reasonable degree of curiosity and endeavor. A ‘goldilocks’ group if you like. Not surprising really, Australia has a high standard of living, and Melbourne is apparently one of the world’s most livable cities (although I don’t know exactly who says this).
So, in a broad sweeping generalised kind of way, life for these students is pretty comfortable and therein lies the problem.
The greatest challenge I face in teaching these kids is complacency.
It was highlighted quite strongly over the last two weeks as I held Parent Student Teacher interviews for my three year 11 classes. Time and time again I found myself affirming and complimenting the person who sits in my class but questioning their effort as a student. So often the message was this is a polite young person who is attentive, courteous, and even interested…but passive. By their own admission these students would agree that they consider their quality of output to be “alright” but nothing that was pushing them to break out in an academic sweat. In essence they have settled into a habit of performing up to a level that satisfies their personal sense of identity but not much else.
Most parents respond to these interviews with varying degrees of agreement and frustration. Occasionally there’s almost relief expressed that someone else has confirmed what they had long suspected. Occasionally there’s an ironic plea for advice as to how they as parents can do more to facilitate improvement. On very rare occasions a parent will want to know what I’m going to do about it. I wont go into the details of what usually happens next. That’s not really the point.
But here’s what matters. There is this remarkable paradox. People and society strive to make the world a better place for their kids, but the more successful they are, the less need there is for the kids to feel the same. Make the world a safer place with less to worry about, and the kids will…not worry about anything at all.
Still, as I wrote earlier, this is just another challenge that teachers need to overcome in facilitating learning. There are a host of factors that I have found over the years can help shake off complacency. One of the most powerful is that teens are desperate to be treated as adults. So, if students are encouraged to really consider what it is they want to go onto after high school, and spoken to with frankness about the nature of the task ahead in order to achieve it, I generally find the effort rate rises.
There’s a great deal more to it than that of course, but this was always a discussion of broad generalisations.