In his latest blog, our Deputy Head, Mr Godfrey, discusses effective teaching strategies with some sixth formers.
This week the association which connects the Heads of the world’s leading independent schools – known as HMC – revealed the outcome of a recent survey of its 360 members. They had been asked their views on a range of educational matters.
The survey reveals a very significant gap between what teachers think education should be for and what the curriculum is delivering. They think the current system focuses too much on qualifications and not enough on broader aims such as values, attitudes, and skills: strikingly, 94% believe GCSEs need partial or complete reform.
The teachers were stating loudly and clearly that there needs to be much more emphasis on curiosity and a love of learning rather than a box-ticking, narrow curriculum.
I have seen other surveys published, with very similar results, during my 20 years of teaching. Frankly, I digested this latest one with weary resignation.
I knew it would be far more revealing and interesting to talk directly to our own pupils about their own lessons at Downe House.
So I gathered a group of UVI girls in my office last Monday and grilled them about their experience of my own subject, English, during their time at our school. As a newcomer, I hoped they had experienced more ‘love of learning’ than box-ticking in our classrooms.
The girls were pleased to air their thoughts and were candid with their feedback. They were overwhelmingly positive, but there were some important messages to take away.
The most important and emphatic message from the girls was how much they valued passion and enthusiasm from their teachers.
As one of the girls said: “I just love it when my teacher gets excited in our lessons. Her passion is infectious.”
“I was dreading studying Pride and Prejudice for A Level,” said another. “I tried and failed to read it over the summer before LVI started. It was so long and mushy. But then Mrs Boswell told us that she had fought to teach it to us because she loved it so much. She made the novel come to life.”
The girls explained how different teachers reveal their enthusiasm in different ways. One said: “Mrs Boswell is like a teenager when she’s excited – it’s so funny.” Another said: “Mr Owen is different: he cares a lot but is much more cynical with it. I remember how irritated he was by the lovers in Wuthering Heights!”
The girls were keen to tell me how their enjoyment of English is maximised when their opinions are listened to and valued.
“When we studied The Handmaid’s Tale at A Level, it was the first time we were asked our opinion about things that really mattered to us,” said one of the girls. “It was just amazing: suddenly we were talking about abortion, spirituality, love, pornography and more. I remember being told by the teacher: if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”
“I like it when the teacher argues with us and challenges our opinions,” said one of the girls. “It makes it all much more engaging and thought-provoking.”
One of the girls shared a revealing anecdote: “I hadn’t enjoyed GCSE English very much and wasn’t going to do it at A Level. But then I was chatting to a Sixth Former in the library who was reading about the historical context of Othello. I realised that English was about a lot more than simply metaphors and similes.”
Clearly, for the subject to be interesting, it needs to be sufficiently challenging.
“The best teachers find a way to let you know they expect more from you,” said one of the girls. “Not in a mean or pressurised way, but in a way that reminds you or makes you aware that you are capable of doing better.”
“Yes,” said another. “One tactic some teachers use is to call you to the front for a ‘chat’ about your work while the rest of the class work quietly. I remember being told how I could improve and all the others in the class could hear! But it was fine – and it was good to get individual attention like that.”
One pupil said: “If a teacher knows me well and has faith in me, then I will be motivated to try harder when they expect a lot from me. I will try harder for them.”
I was struck by the passion with which the girls spoke. I told them they were a far cry from the stereotype of an all-girls school full of well-behaved but rather passive pupils.
“I think girls here can appear quite passive in lessons when they are younger, but we become less so as we get older and find our voice,” said one girl.
Another added: “If we are not challenged, we are likely to seem passive in lessons because we are bored. But if we are challenged and motivated, we will not be passive.”
The HMC survey may have shed some light on how the UK’s education system has become too crowded and overly focused on results and assessment.
But what is clear to me is that our girls will rise to anything when they are challenged and inspired by their teachers.
Mr Matt Godfrey
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