Trapped inside a Polytunnel

Recently, we invited 29 educational professionals from an inner-city primary school, to go for a silent walk with us. The purpose of the walk was to facilitate a conversation around the curriculum, and teacher agency. But what actually happened was completely unexpected. As seasoned educational facilitators, practitioners and consultants, we knew it was something amazing.

Within a few minutes of leaving the confines of the school building, 29 staff from the school found themselves stuck in a long, narrow plastic polytunnel, with the door open, where they stayed, in silence for almost ten minutes.

The ordeal only ended when visible signs of irritation and exasperation reached a tipping point. First, one teacher moved towards the entrance they had come in through, then the rest followed. We all walked silently back inside the school building.

“What happened there?”, we asked.

“You didn’t set the boundaries”, was the first reply.

“We were all too respectful”, added another. (The Head Teacher was among the group, and because she stayed, the rest stayed too.)

“But you all knew what to do – you all knew you’d had enough. Why didn’t you move?”

“We were waiting for someone to tell us what to do – we were waiting on permission.”

We pushed a little further: “How did it feel – to be standing in there for ten minutes in silence.?”

“Like a funeral.”

How closely does the accident of being trapped in a ‘funeral’ polytunnel mirror the practice of teachers who have come to accept that their profession needs to be told what to do? 29 education professionals knew something wasn’t right, but were prepared to go along with it, until someone told them to do something else.

How has this happened? We recently stumbled across the psychological term ‘Learned Helplessness’. As discussed in the Teacherhub blog we understand it to mean: When a being perceives that it has little to no control over a situation, it will apply the same thought process to later situations, even if they do have control. In a student application, if a child believes that they have no control over their academic success or failure, then they would have little belief that they could improve their situation.

We think the same can be applied to educational professionals who have been stripped of their professional judgement and freedom to experiment with their pedagogy. This has created a pervasive culture of inaction leading to a stagnation of practice. Educational professionals, despite reassurance from school leaders, Government and contemporary research, struggle to overcome the mindset of learned helplessness. We don’t believe this is about blame but it forms part of our understanding into why things seem impossible to change in education. However, we don’t believe anything is impossible.

So what can be done?

• We believe teachers can be helped to recognise and reassert their professional judgement.
• We believe teachers can exercise their agency to reposition the curriculum as a lived experience, more closely attuned with people’s real lives.
• We believe teachers can work with the young people in their care as co-enquirers.
• We believe teachers need also to be learners, and as John Hattie’s epic meta-analysis of ‘What works’ clearly states, learners can be teachers.

We believe in the relational resources of participation. Education isn’t something anyone should ‘do’ to anyone else, or for that matter feel is ‘being done to them’. Education is a shared collaboration. Participation extends to leaders who delegate and empower, teachers who collaborate with their pupils to enquire into unknowns, and pupils who bring renewable energy and enthusiasm through the natural human instinct to learn. A natural instinct to learn that is not served well, perhaps increasingly not served at all, by waiting to be told what to do after getting stuck in a claustrophobic plastic polytunnel because the invitation to go for a walk was misunderstood.

The liberated 29 teachers spent a further hour with us, exploring what happened. Reflecting on what they could do to ensure the metaphor of the polytunnel would not be repeated, or perpetuated in their practice. We look forward to working with them again in a few week’s time. . . .

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