Every weekday morning, my daughters both moan about having to get up for school. They moan about their teachers and they moan about homework. Given free rein, they would spend all day every day watching BuzzFeed video channels, making Spotify playlists, watching Netflix and taking online quizzes. It’s not that they’re lazy, it’s just that they’d really rather not have to learn maths, science and geography.

They’re both moderately conscientious, reasonably hardworking girls who never put a foot wrong in school. On parents’ evenings, we’re regaled with tales of how good their attitude to school is and how much progress they’re making. Broadly speaking, we’re pretty happy with this. We send them to school knowing that, for at least part of each day, they’re going to be bored, frustrated and uninspired. We know they don’t like some of their teachers and don’t see the point in some of the subjects they’re expected to learn. And knowing all this we are fully supportive of their school.

Why? Because it’s not the job of a teacher to do what students want. It’s not the job of a teacher to entertain children or present them with endless ‘engaging’ activities. The job of a teacher is to teach the curriculum and support students in their understanding of it.

I say all this because a teacher on Twitter has been circulating a note his or her son wrote to his teacher:

Here’s a transcript in case you’re put off by the handwriting:

We do the same thing day in day out in geography we never do group activities or anything fun or engaging and it is your job to motivate us to work and if we ever did group work or even discussion work we might get some students who struggle to engage or work on pure writing. on the other hand a lot of our writing will be useful for us in our exams but I we did more interesting or Teamwork activities people might understand the topics instead of just memorising things.

Now clearly I can’t comment on this young man’s geography lessons, maybe he’s entirely justified in feeling this way, but to present this, as their parent did, as a reasoned argument against whole class instruction is a pretty poor show.

The first thing to point out is that this student has clearly not memorised guidance on sentence structure. They may or may not understand how a written sentence needs to be punctuated for clarity, but this understanding is not something that they are able to effortlessly retrieve from long-term memory. My purpose here is not to belittle a child, but to show how they have been let down by their experience of education. This sort of basic grammatical understanding is simple enough to be fully automatised. It’s not enough for students to understand how grammar is supposed to work, they have to be able to use this understanding without having to think. The purpose of “memorising things” is to free up mental space to be able to think about more interesting things without giving people who don’t know you grounds to discount your opinion as uneducated.

Now to the substance. While the letter writer acknowledges that a lot of the writing completed in class will help his classmates to perform better in their upcoming exams, they’re unhappy that these activities are the same “day in day out”. I have some sympathy with this. One of the greatest blights on secondary education in England is that a disproportionate quantity of time is spent preparing for exams. The received wisdom is that by getting students to complete written tasks which correspond to the sorts of things they’ll have to do in exams, exam results will go up. I’m not at all sure that this is true. Daisy Christodoulou makes a good case, in Making Good Progress?, for formative assessment only to apply to formative tasks instead of, as is currently the case, endlessly trying to formatively assess summative tasks. In this case, the student’s experience of geography might be improved if more lesson time was spent on learning the detail of different geographical concepts and how they apply to a broader range of contexts. In addition, instead of repetitively practising essay questions, it might be beneficial to master some basic grammatical skills through decontextualised drill. Hang on though, wouldn’t decontextualised drill be even more boring? Well, that’s entirely up to individual teachers. Such purposeful practice can be made more inherently interesting through competition and interactive instruction.

This takes us to the main source of this student’s gripes: they want more groupwork. This is interesting. Even at the height of my full on prog phase of teaching I found that students had a pretty mixed opinion of groupwork. Generally speaking, hardworking, quiet, conscientious students hated it, whilst most others only really appreciated the extra opportunities afforded to chat with friends. Only the most extrovert really seemed to look forward to it. My teaching became an exercise in devising cunning techniques to keep students on task, either by designing tasks in such a way as to minimise opportunities for off-task chatting or by conceding to the unquenchable thirst for fun. Both my own children have negative views of group work. My youngest daughter hates it. She’s inevitably split up from other sensible, hardworking students and make to work in a group with more feckless characters. She often ends up doing all or most of the work in order to avoid her teachers’ opprobrium. My eldest daughter is more charitable; she really enjoys group work in drama and is forgiving of some of the tricky characters she’s expected to supervise. Her preference is for paired work during which she can chat away with another like-minded student. There needs to be a much better justification for group work than that a few children like it.

As time’s gone on I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with the motivational powers of fun. Obviously I have nothing against children enjoying lessons, but to make fun the object is, I think, a betrayal of what they really need. I argued here that children having fun is a poor reason for selecting an activity, and here I suggested that some forms of ‘engagement’ may actually do more harm than good. There’s good reason to think that the causal connection between motivation and improved performance might not work the way most people seem to think; it appears more probable that improved performance causes students to be more motivated rather than the other way around. To that extent, if it is a teacher’s job to motivate children then probably the best way of achieving this aim is to ensure they have mastered the subjects being taught.

To sum up:

  1. Teachers are not responsible for entertaining children or making them happy. And they certainly should not be responsible for children’s mental health. Ideally your passion for what you teach should be infectious, but this is not the purpose of teaching.
  2. Different children like different things. There’s no way you can please them all so your best bet is to concentrate on teaching students to master what you’re employed to teach.
  3. Teachers should not feel ashamed of doing the same thing “day in day out” as long as what’s being done is more than just exam prep.
  4. Motivation is most likely to stem from success and students are mostly to be successful when taught via interactive whole class instruction.
  5. Kindness is important but it’s worse than useless without being both fair and firm. Never feel you have to apologise for making students work hard.