In the lower sixth I became a slacker. I devoted a great deal of time to the exciting distractions that the threshold of adulthood brings. I’d never really had such freedom before – and I capitalised on it. This, you will agree, was pretty normal for a 17 year old. However, there was one subject I was particularly enjoying at this point and that was A-Level psychology. Milgram’s classic study of obedience gripped me; even now I remember learning the meaning of terms like ‘diffusion of responsibility’ and ‘extrapolation’.
Nevertheless, my interest and work-rate were unevenly matched. At the start of the year I had written some promising pieces, but gradually laziness took over. It all came to a head on the day my teacher handed me back a marked project. It had been awarded (if that’s the right word for it) a U. I promptly ripped it in half and fell into a dark sulk. My teacher kept me behind and asked me, knowingly, why I had torn it. I had let myself down, I responded; I had not done as well as I could. If I recall correctly, she said very little. She didn’t need to; I could say it all myself.
I was reminded of this moment when I sat down this week to watch Richard Linklater’s wonderful coming-of-age movie, Boyhood. If you’ve not seen it yet, you really must (beware – spoilers coming!). Filmed in time-lapse over twelve-years, it gently and languidly follows Mason and his journey from childhood towards maturity. We see him grow physically, intellectually amd emotionally before our eyes. His dysfunctional family life is a typical one: good and bad events interweave in predictable fashion. The film dips into his school life from time to time. The usual clichés are there – his peers ridicule his new haircut; bullies threaten him in the toilets; a note is passed to him from a pretty girl – but they do not feel banal.
Mason excels in photography. He has developed a passion and a talent for the subject but devotes too much time to the dark room when he should be undertaking the assignments necessary to complete the course. Eventually he has a showdown with his teacher who shares some choice wisdom (I forget the exact wording). There are plenty of good photographers out there in the real world, but only those who have been prepared to match their talent with hard work have found success. Happily, the film later shows that Mason is awarded a photography scholarship at college.
However, the film is too subtle and well-made to settle for simple cause and effect. We never learn whether his teacher’s wise words and actions were enough to turn Mason around or whether the motivation ultimately came from within. This is wise filmmaking: when you step back to take a longitudinal view of life and education, it is an error to look for single causes to complex outcomes. It’s all so much more complicated than that.
All this got me reflecting on my own story. Was that frustrated moment at the end of class really the catalyst for my eventual A grade in psychology?
Much of how we interpret an educational outcome depends upon our vantage point. We turn our lives into easy, simple stories, finding coherence by knitting together jumbled-up and unrelated moments. In hindsight, everything seems clear, the arbitrary complexity of life filtered down into narrative simplicity. The story of my A-grade in psychology is just that: a story. Other participants – my teacher, my parents, my friends – might tell it very differently. In a hundred parallel universes, my success might be attributed to a hundred different causes. (Or perhaps I just lucked-out with the exam questions? Who knows?)
As teachers we face a timeless paradox: our individual influence can be huge and profound, yet often we are no more than a tiny cog in the idiosyncratic engine of a child’s life. Sometimes a choice word in an ear changes a future; at other times, ten-thousand words lead to little alteration. Therein lies the sheer frustration of this job.
We know, for instance, that genetics provide a more accurate indication of future GCSE results than environmental factors. It would be easy to hear this and find solace in fatalism. Yet there are individual children, classes and, indeed, whole schools that buck this trend – see Doug Lemov’s work on ‘champion teachers’ for example. Sadly, however much we dress it up, education is designed to separate the ‘winners’ from the ‘losers’. Statistically, some kids will ‘pass’, others will ‘fail’. Some teachers will get great exam results, others will not. Even if the quality of education were to improve beyond all measure, this uncomfortable circumstance would remain stable.
So, let’s give ourselves a break. Let’s aim to find out what has the best chance of working well, do it as best we can, learn from it… and then move on. However hard and well we work, failure, success and everything in between will still happen to us. Not all factors are within our sphere of control. We are humans, not gods. Life is complex: the impact of our actions and words might not be felt by the child for many years or in the way we expect it to be felt.
Yes, you win some, you lose some, but this is composed of many factors, not all within the realm of your influence.