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Learning How To Sing

03/01/2017 11:06
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This Christmas, I was poignantly reminded of my school teaching years in two highly unexpected ways. First of all I got, in my mother's terms, 'proper flu' for the first time since my days in the classroom, holiday sickness being reminiscent of 'Teacher Holiday Sickness Syndrome'. So, wrapped in a snuggle blanket on the couch snuffling over my iPad, I caught up on a lot of things I had missed in the media over the last few months- which is how I eventually found Coldplay's tribute to Viola Beach at Glastonbury. In a year when so many awful things have happened, the loss of young potential is one of the greatest tragedies, as Chris Martin captured in his reference to the loss of excitement, joy and hope, and the aim of creating a brief alternative future for these very talented young men.

As the lights flashed across the stage and the two bands began to sing together, the world-famous and the rookies, I was powerfully and quite unexpectedly reminded of what good teaching actually is - to develop a very closely attuned ear to the 'songs' that your students are 'singing', and to sing along with them, adding your skills, knowledge and experience to demonstrate how they might sing even better. At this point, for me, an extra layer of sadness was added to the combined performance I was watching. The promising young men who comprised Viola Beach have, very sadly, been lost to the world and will never headline at Glastonbury; all we can ever have is this brief alternative future that Coldplay gave them in that one enticing performance. However, the young people we work with every day continue to embody a vast range of human potential, and the system into which they, and their teachers are crushed extinguishes this in so many different ways.

When we cease listening to each other's songs and stop trying to make harmony, human communication becomes inevitably truncated and disrupted, and this is what happens when the practice of education is subsumed into business management practices rooted in 'service delivery'. Of course, throughout the long pathway of an education, the knowledge and skills of the older generation are transmitted, but this is best done through examples that engage with the interests and creations of the learners, rather than through an attempt to plug a one-size fits all memory stick into their minds to download prefabricated knowledge in order to pass a prefabricated test. If all we ever do is 'deliver' things, there is no room to create- and what then proceeds within the situation that emerges ceases to be education; the relationship between teachers and learners becomes 'the filling of a bucket rather than the kindling of a flame'.

This usurpation of the role of the teacher through state control is the key reason underlying the abandonment of the profession by so many, and why it is becoming an unpopular choice for young people with good entry qualifications. The greatest joy in teaching- what Erik Erikson referred to as 'generativity-' is the facilitation of originality and creativity in the learner. Teachers who are prevented from engaging in generative practices are permanently doomed to Erikson's depressing alternative: stagnation.

And, beyond the demoralisation of individual teachers and learners, there is, of course a clear and present danger within the erroneous conception of education as 'service delivery': no western generation following the industrial revolution has ever been able to fully predict the world in which their children are going to live as adults; as such, it is crucial that education is aimed principally at the development of transferable skills and independent learning capacity. One positive lesson we can surely take from the tumultuous events of 2016 is that human beings will never be able to reliably predict the future for the up-and-coming generation.

And so, listening to the music of two successive generations, I was unexpectedly transported to the mind- jazz environment of the creative classroom, to contemplate my own alternative interpretation of their sweet, wistful lyrics:

And she said that together we could do anything
And she told me that she loves a boy who knows how to sing
So I learnt how to sing

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