I Don’t Know the Kids: Not That Well

One of the most refreshing things about David Didau’s latest book, What if Everything You Knew about Education Was Wrong? is his determination to induce doubt in his reader’s mind. Complacent certainty is a debilitating thing for teachers.

A clear example of this kind of complacency is contained in the words, ‘I know my pupils’. It’s the killer punch to an argument, because it is not falsifiable. There is no definitive evidence that can be presented to refute this statement. One can debate endlessly over the evidence for this approach or that, only to have the whole discussion closed down with these four short words. The implication tends to be that ‘you can pontificate all you like about cognitive science; you can use any logical argument you like; but I possess knowledge which supports my approach, knowledge to which you evidently have no access, you cold-hearted intellectual, you!’

In response to this statement, I can only counter with a shocking admission. I don’t know my pupils: not that well. I don’t have marvellous insights into their psychology and motivation. I don’t have a gut feeling that this or that method is just the perfect match for them, and will lead to a moral and academic transformation.

Am I the only teacher in the world who doesn’t claim to be a mind reader? Am I the only one who is not some kind of witch doctor for the soul, offering miraculous remedies due to my mystical insight into the inner lives of my pupils?

I have five children of my own, and I don’t know them that well either. I try to teach them right from wrong, to encourage them, to explain things to them, but I don’t have a magic key which gives me direct access to their minds and souls. Could anyone explain to me how I am supposed to obtain this key?

So many other people seem to have it. They talk with great confidence about how they craft differentiation strategies for this or that pupil. When I explain that I just teach the whole class the best way I know how, they are shocked at my lack of subtle and profound insight into my pupils.

Actually, I rather like the fact that I have no magic key to souls or crystal balls that predict reactions. I rather like the mystery of the human soul. I like its ineffable freedom and unpredictability. That’s one of the reasons I love being a teacher: you never know what’s going to happen next. It must be a bit boring for these people who have everything figured out.

Of course, I can tell when my pupils don’t understand, because they get things wrong. Then I explain things again, and they have another go. But really, I have little to no idea of the mental and/or moral processes that led to the error. Because I don’t have a window into their souls. I just don’t know them that well. Do you?

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11 thoughts on “I Don’t Know the Kids: Not That Well

  1. Excellent post. I was once asked to nominate a pupil from my class for a “friendship award”. I suppose I should have been flattered that it was assumed I would know my pupils so well, but I thought of the countless interactions which take place when a teacher is not present and refused. I like to think they are friendly and get on well, but I cannot read their minds and cannot be around all the time.

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  2. I think some of this comes from the stultifying notion that we should be spending time with 30 pupils the same way a parent would with a newborn. Listening to every gurgle and breath, pouncing on every word uttered, etc. In reality if you spend your time doing that then of course you have to take a ‘facilitator’ role as it’s the only way you are going to be ‘available’ for such insights. If on the other hand you are teaching them, no you won’t have all that insight but then that depends on how well you think you need to know the children. I always said I was their teacher not their friend. I was happy to talk about non-lesson related things during lunchtime or when on break duty but not in class and not while teaching. If things came up, then I would judge it. However, I don’t feel it is my duty to be a substitute parent to a child. This attitude lingers in primary education in particular – but there is no oversight into the positive or negative impact this has on children. I don’t go with the ‘it feels right’ because I know that feeling alone does not serve us well.

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  3. My teachers certainly didn’t know me. I remember the first time I outwitted one was when I was roughly 8 years old. I was always quiet and studious, quirky too. My teacher did not realise that, in addition to my school work, I was also studying the teacher. He was not expecting that.

    We cannot read minds.

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      • Also, let’s not forget that many teachers make horrific assumptions based on pure prejudice: children of single parents cannot possibly aspire to much, working class children lack intellectual ability, or that bad behaviour must be some kind of SEN rather than lack of parenting backed up by lack of structure and routine in class (ie progressive ed).

        Just take a look at the assumptions made about me: that I must be male, for example.

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      • Ha! My wife, who very much enjoys reading your blog, has always insisted that you are female. I had assumed the opposite. One of the things I really like about Didau’s latest book is the way he points out just how crap we are at making rational, objective judgements. But we think we’re really good at it.

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  4. What a great trip into the land of reality. The pretensions of the know-it-all brigade of teachers is frankly half the problem. Whether they like it or not, inappropriate strategies for the teaching of reading to infants actually impacts negatively on early learners’ brains.
    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/may/reading-brain-phonics-052815.html (this is an eyebrow raiser)
    Quite a responsibility. Personally I’m just as sure that that we must maintain an open mind should new evidence come to light that challenges what we may have previously endorsed, as any single teacher who thinks they know-it-all.

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  5. Pingback: “It works for me!” The problem with teachers’ judgement | David Didau: The Learning Spy

Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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