Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Teaching for a better society

We had an end-of-project conference the other day to report our findings to other researchers, people involved in training English teachers and a fair representation of former teachers from the period we've been studying, 1945-65. There were also a handful of young teachers from London schools.

The striking contrast with today is that there existed then a significant number of London teachers who were so concerned with how well they were able to do their job that they were willing to give up endless evenings and weekends to meet together in study groups, for discussion and to hear speakers. Teachers today work just as hard, I believe, but don't organise themselves to meet for self-driven professional purposes. As for how much professional discussion goes on in department meetings I don't know enough to say.

Why the difference? In 1949, 1956, 1965 there was little extrinsic motivation to do the job well: pay was poor and few teachers were on anything above the basic pay scale.

One thing the two groups, then and now, have in common is that both would probably agree that the society they live in leaves much to be desired. The difference is that in those post-war decades there was a belief that education could make a serious contribution to making it better; for the teachers at our meeting, teaching English was a social project. I doubt if anyone today believes that an important key to building a better society lies in what teachers do with kids in their classrooms. If teachers today are wanting to do good, and many are, it's by helping individuals to liberate themselves by education from whatever's holding them back from a full and flourishing life.

A second difference might be that in 1956 those teachers believed there was a social group in which hope could be placed, namely that huge number of working-class children -- i.e. the majority of children -- who the system had neglected, except by picking a minority out for sponsorship in the grammar schools. I never hear it said these days that the hope for the future lies in the working class.

Is there a group in which hope might be placed? One that immediately suggests itself is the immigrant population that quite clearly contains large numbers of intelligent and admirable young people. But I don't hear it said that they're the hope either, even though many teachers appreciate their contribution to the schools.

The reason surely is that what's wrong with society today won't be solved by education; the problems are structural, to do with globalisation, corporations and finance. Of course, the problems were structural then, too, in the sense of social class, though people perhaps didn't see that so clearly; they thought education could make a difference, both through new structures (comprehensive schools) and through teaching that induced habits of mutual respect and cooperation, as well as assertiveness and criticality; if the citizenry were imbued with democratic values, things would clearly be better.