Revolutionary times

Hilary Moriarty pens her thoughts on the revolution of the classroom in days gone by, and the past year

Questions from a civilised audience listening to national experts in their field are seldom a surprise. The speaker is good, sometimes better. The audience is patient, thoughtful and above all, interested. Very seldom abrasive, still less downright rude.

As I write I think, is that right? Are audiences still mannerly and polite, or have they, in my time, morphed into more aggressive beasts, likely to throw eggs and insults if the mood takes them? Feelings seem to run a great deal higher than ever they did in the quiet and decorous halls of higher education which I knew.

But I digress. What I wanted to talk about was an audience which produced a perfectly polite but very surprising question.

“Why,” asked the gentleman in the third row, “are we still sitting in rows, just listening to you? Have you not noticed there has been a revolution in schools, and classes are now organised in small groups around tables and people interact with their tasks and the information or problems the teacher has supplied, and children learn?

“So would we, if we had the same freedom to move, talk and consider aloud. You, on the platform, are the only person in the room with any agency, we have none. No opportunity to challenge you or talk to others and weigh things up. No chance, really, to think and learn. Just listen. It’s not enough. In fact, it’s a waste of everybody’s time.”

And yes, the whole audience cheered. It was the last presentation in a three-day conference which I had organised. And I never wanted to organise another.

Because in my experience at the time, that is what conferences did. Set interesting people up with interested audiences to hear what they had to say. Often you would later hear in the bar conversations peppered with, “I’m going to try that,” or “I never realised, now I understand.”

In my experience, real disappointment in any of the theories propounded from the stage or the presenter was rare. Unless I was hanging out at the wrong bars, my experience was all positive, whatever private grumps there may have been. Serious, professional people seldom – never, honestly – turned into a disgruntled rabble.

And they did not on the occasion I have recalled. But the question and the audience response indicated a possibly revolutionary change in audience expectations. Cordial, for the moment, but on the road to challenging.

Classrooms have been similarly revolutionised. Teachers stand and deliver? No chance! Whoever told us that to stand and deliver for 10 minutes – “Here are my thoughts on the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice,” – was much mistaken for today’s world and probably deluded when it was first said.

If ‘telling a class’ was ever the sum of all teaching, then those days have gone. The hour-long sessions I remember as a sixth former struggling with the enormity of A-level history – in which the class was silent, or reading aloud from an immense textbook, or trying our luck with how far forward we could push the chair of the classmate in front of us, getting said classmate inexorably closer and closer to the historian reading the book aloud at the pace of a funeral oration – are gone.

Looking back, it strikes me that mostly what those lessons taught us was not history – wonderful though it was, as we later discovered on the stage and in the soundtrack for Hamilton – it was endurance. And good manners. Actually no, scrub that, dreadful manners. But we did not riot, we did not talk back and we did not protest – at the time, there was no such thing as pupil voice.

For many parents – OK, grandparents – today’s classrooms are a different world from those they enjoyed/endured in their own youth. ’Twas ever thus – remember the lovely line in Cider with Rosie, where Laurie Lee remembers little about school except being asked to ‘stay there for the present’ and there never was a gift. School? Huh!

Looking back, it strikes me that mostly what those lessons taught us was not history – wonderful though it was, as we later discovered on the stage and in the soundtrack for Hamilton – it was endurance

Joining the ranks

There are dialogues in classrooms – challenge, discussion, provocation, involvement, disagreement, and lightbulb moments of clarity, joy and real learning.

And for years it has been quietly ticking along – inspiring, advising, nurturing, encouraging and, what shall I call it? Oh yes, teaching. Remember, the easy career choice when you were not bright enough to be a lawyer. “You’re only in it for the holidays. Easy peasy.” Argh!

But whatever it was, however teaching and learning had morphed over the years, this year our ranks were swollen by virtually every parent of a school-aged child. And this year, many a parent has been landed not just with some of the responsibility for their child’s education, further than delivering said children to the door and waving goodbye, but the whole shebang.

The fallacy that teaching is easy, and any mutt can do it came home to roost. Granted it’s not easy to ‘teach’ three primary children of different primary ages at the same time, but it’s surely easier than teaching a class of 30 children only roughly the same age.

A September child (old in their year) can be 20% older than the youngest August babe in the class – not inconsiderable in terms of development. Indeed, Gladwell reminds us that September-born children are advantaged over their summer-born classmates in many ways and for the rest of their lives.

My grandchildren are in three different classes of three different state schools, and they and their parents have been reasonably pleased with the interaction with their teachers during Covid-time. But effectively each child needed a computer/device to receive different broadcasts from different class staff, happening at the same time. A strain even for reasonably affluent parents.

And they rapidly made their judgments about how good the state schools’ provision was, class by class, year by year, county by county. In all fairness, in these parts I am hearing that independent schools rose to the challenge and committed wholeheartedly to the computer possibilities, blending class teaching and teacher presentation with individual tuition, comment and connection.

Colleagues previously IT-wary and after perhaps having previously fought a rearguard action against computers found themselves in the front line of a revolution they came to enjoy. Yes, it was prompted by a national and often personal disaster, but it was action, learning-on-the-job and triumphing that pupils were still learning.

Word has it that independent schools shone with every lesson, interaction or demonstration seen as a marketing opportunity. Manage this crisis, perhaps with better resources, perhaps with an acute awareness that no one has to attend an independent school – it’s an expensive choice and it had better be worth it. In the midst of the crisis, we may keep both pupils and parents – customers all – happy. Oh yes, and teachers, newly upskilled, too.


Hilary Moriarty is a former national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association and previously head of an independent school.

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