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The mechanics of teaching

When I was training to be a teacher, and I do mean training, in the early 1970s, I was able to buy my first car. This was helped in no short measure by a full student grant, and three years in fully-funded student accommodation. Those were the days! Anyway, I bought my first car for £120 and it was a mini-van of some age already when I became its proud new owner. At last, freedom and the ability to spread my wings beyond the immediate confines of Didsbury and Greater Manchester, as well as the vagaries of the public transport system, for the wide open roads that were to lead me to North Wales, the Derbyshire hills, the Pennines and the North Yorks Moors. I had developed an interest in potholing, which explains my destinations of travel on many weekends. I was also now able to get home to Tyneside easier too, casting off the shackles of British Rail and their fictional timetabling.

As a newly qualified and independent driver, I learnt many things, one of which was that, though iconic, the average mini of the early 70s or 1960s was not without its challenges or issues. In the first few months my car had broken down more times than the audience in a screening of The Exorcist! Which is why I developed an interest in car mechanics. One of my teacher-training friends knew lots about car engines and mechanics, having worked in garages during summer breaks. He also spent a lot of time under the bonnet of his Sunbeam Spitfire, a black, sleek babe-magnet (he thought!), which seemed to spend more time in bits or static, than it ever did cruising the highways of Manchester impressing young ladies. He was to teach me much about basic car mechanics and maintenance, the only type required by owners of early minis, especially if they were perhaps ever so slightly 'financially challenged'.

The brainchild of Sir Alec Issigonis in the late 1950s for BMC (British Motor Company), the mini had been designed to be a fuel efficient, economical motor that would bring motor vehicle ownership within the reach of the masses. It succeeded in all those aims, but it had its quirks that today's young drivers might struggle to comprehend. Amongst these quirks were sub-frames prone to rusting and rotting, sills and wings that did the same, electrics that didn't like moisture and a shape that was to aerodynamics as bricks are to boats! My first year or so of motoring 'freedom' was filled with the smell of Plastic Padding, used for filling holes and reattaching body parts, and WD40, which helped manage the electrics in damp conditions, which were not unheard of in the Manchester area.

Under the bonnet of my beloved Mini, there throbbed the power of an 850cc engine, which with a following wind, and a downhill run could reach somewhere between 70 and 80 miles per hour! Sir Alec was a man of minimalistic design, and the engine compartment of the Mini was very simple and easy to navigate. Everything was within sight and fairly easy to reach. After learning the layout of the parts, and their basic function, it wasn't long before I could not only change the oil, but I could also carry out simple repairs, such as changing fan-belts, replacing break-pads, cleaning or replacing carburettors or alternators, cleaning or replacing spark-plugs and working my way up to removing the cylinder head and replacing gaskets. Not all as glamorous as it sounds!

What I also learned, was that once I could do all these basic repair and maintenance tasks on my Mini, I could do them on any Mini, because they were all exactly the same. I could even transfer my new knowledge and skills to other car models that I later moved onto, such as Allegro, Marina, Escort and even a Capri at one stage. Never got my hands on a Cortina 2000, my dream car at the time. Once you understood the basic mechanics of such cars, and all their foibles, you could quite easily and readily repair or upkeep them, without resorting to an expensive visit to a garage. I wouldn't say I particularly enjoyed working on the mechanics of these cars, but it was a necessity if I wanted to stay on the road for any length of time.

Cut forward to today and we find a completely different picture. The modern car is a heady mix of latest engine technology, plus electric and high-tech gadgetry that almost defies you from lifting the bonnet lid at all. Even putting water into the screen-wash is not without its challenges, with colour-coded caps and pipes waiting for the unwary. Today, the car has to go into the garage for any issue greater than a change of tyre, and the first thing they will probably do is connect it up to a diagnostic computer system to identify the problem! Having said that, cars today are so much more comfortable, reliable and powerful than they ever were when I took my first steps as a fledgling driver. Perhaps what they don't have though is the character!

The mechanics of cars remain much the same, only more so, now. Everything has moved on and parts are much more likely to be replaced rather than repaired. For mechanics the tools and systems they use have changed, but the diagnosis and solving of issues follows the same step by step procedures, with the vehicle immobilised, or on rollers, to allow the work to take place. Mechanics is a technical activity with inanimate objects. The mechanic has developed his knowledge and his practice as new modifications and improvements have happened over the last forty to fifty years of vehicle development. His training has been updated to meet the latest developments, as his costs and charges have continued to grow.

In all that time, I doubt if the average, skilled mechanic has spent much time considering the philosophy or ethics of what they do. He or she probably has not spent much time wondering how to do their job differently or improve their practice. They definitely won't have had to deal with untrained and less-knowledgeable observers looking over their shoulder as they work, telling them how they could do it better, or asking them to prove what they have done! Once they had completed their apprenticeship and read the manual, they were generally considered to be ready to be let loose on your automotive pride and joy. They would have updated their training as new developments took place or were added, but would still know that if they follow the step by step procedures required, then the outcomes are pretty much guaranteed to work. If they don't, you can always replace the car!

It is with this knowledge that I often come to wonder, why do some folk still look on teaching as a technical, or mechanical activity? Such people tend to want to tell teachers what to do, 'Just do this, or use this, and you will do better', as they view each teaching and learning episode as repeatable, in terms of both inputs and outcomes, or they are peddling an idea, resource or programme. Such thinking often sits behind calls to 'share best practice', 'use this resource or programme' or pleas to 'just tell us what to do.' Teaching is not a technical or mechanical activity. There are too many variables. Many teachers and systems have re-enforced the view of teaching as a mechanical technical activity, by focusing more on accountability, performativity and directive approaches for many years. We have encouraged teachers and system leaders not to think, just to do.

Contexts vary, and these impact on learning, at a local, national and international level. Indeed, you can further divide each of those levels into further sub-levels of context and influence, all of which are in play in shaping learning experiences and outcomes. If you move a Mini from Manchester to London, from Manchester to Sydney or from Manchester to Moscow, it still remains exactly the same car and does not change because it is in a different setting or context. You will work on it in the same way, and will get the same results and outcomes as a result of tried and tested step-by-step procedures. Even the fact that you may be speaking a different language, has no impact of the procedures you must follow if you want to replace the cylinder-head gasket. Whether you carry out that work outside your house or in a garage doesn't change what you need to do. You may complete the procedures more quickly if you are experienced and have access to better equipment, but you still have the same steps to complete, to get the same outcomes.

Learning and teaching is more complicated than this. Not only do contexts have great influence, we are also talking to, and working with, people. Every person is different and every person's perceptions, influences and biases are different. These differences are not only unique, they change from day to day and over time. This means you can interact with people, in one way at any particular time, then interact the same way at a different time, and the outcomes can be completely different. You have changed, they have changed and the context has changed and moved on. No wonder teaching is such a demanding and complex activity, especially to those who spend much of their time thinking about it.

That is not to say it is impossible. We all have experiences every day that show us that we can sufficiently embrace this complexity to help others to learn, we can make a difference. We do this through a combination of professional expertise and experience, ever expanding knowledge about the complexity of learning and our constantly developing ability to shape our practice according to contexts and the responses of  the young, or older, people we are working with. Teaching can only ever be imprecise, because of all the variables at play. We will have successes and we will have failures, our aim is to increase the former, as we decrease the latter.

In the early 1970s, when I was training, we were taken to visit a school who were embracing something called 'Programmed Learning'. This was going to be the next new thing in education, and it was based on an approach, and use of resources, that led learners to learning and enlightenment, through clearly identified and controlled steps. It was individualised, shaped by the errors learners made, and tapped into the Zeitgeist and excitement of the time about how computers were going to change everything about how we learned. I remember thinking at the time that what we were being shown was more Orwellian than Utopian, and I thought the world had gone mad. Such 'programmed learning' never really took off, but it was an early exposure for me to the prevalence of fads and trends in education, and how everyone was searching for the 'silver bullet' or panacea that was going to solve all the issues around learning and how to teach to maximise this.

I have continued to witness such approaches throughout my career, and yet here we are. We still struggle to say, see or understand what good teaching is or looks like. We still lack clarity on the purpose of education. We still argue about the merits of one piece of research over another, one approach over another. We are not sure how assess or measure our impact on learning. We are still being told what we should be doing by others. Some issues like mental well being are deteriorating, amongst students and the profession. Is attainment or achievement rising or falling? Equity is getting worse, not better. And so it goes on. The perfect way of teaching and learning would seem to be the Holy Grail of education for many, when at best it is more like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

However, I still have more hope than pessimism for the profession. There are many people, in many different systems, who recognise all of this, but who are still working diligently to make a real difference. They haven't given up in the face of the challenges, and they aren't waiting to be told what to do by others. Neither are they slavishly copying what others have done, or doing exactly what they are told to do, or using the resource they have been told to use. Instead they are using all their knowledge and experience to shape, and develop, the learning experiences of all the learners they are working with, and for. They use a mix of pedagogical approaches, as necessary, and they utilise resources, including all partners, to best support the next steps in learning for their learners. Importantly, they have found a voice in the cacophony of chatter. The establishment and development of so many different teacher-led professional learning platforms being a visible manifestation of this. They are determined to develop and to keep growing their practice, as they better understand their impact on learning, and this is shaped by their learners as well as their personal and professional contexts.


I do not wish to denigrate technicians or mechanics, I have nothing but admiration for their skills and ability to work with ever increasingly complex machines. But, I would suspect your average technician or mechanic might freak out at the level of thought and complexity we need to embrace in teaching. Sometimes we might think it would be great to come in each day knowing exactly what was going to happen and how the planned learning would proceed. But, we recognise that life, and learning, are not like that, but we still love what we do and what we can achieve. Not through the application of  real or metaphorical Plastic Padding and filler over cracks or holes, or the squirting of WD40 over shorting connections, but through the application of knowledge, values and determination to make that difference for all. There are scrap-heaps and yards for cars we can no longer fix, they are either fixable or replaceable. As educationalists we should be determined there are no such scenarios for young people.




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