The Power of Instruction

“But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.”
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 1, p.147.

And so, the A-level Physics results were announced. And . . . they weren’t too bad. Actually, I thought the A2 ones were pretty good. I was pleased. The AS ones were more mixed, but still they were “not too shabby” as Lenny from The Simpsons might say.

Like many other teachers, I spent the previous, fateful Wednesday night sleepless with worry. Mainly selfish worry in my case, I am sorry to confess. Would the results be such that I would be drawn slowly over hot coals by SLT? Thankfully, in the morning, some quick calculations on the back of an envelope helped me to dispel that worry, at least.

The Physics results stacked up well against Biology and Chemistry, and were comfortably above the school average. This is how our current “data driven culture” has affected the behaviour of a typical teacher on the ground. It sometimes seems that we worry more about our percentages than our pupils.

But this post isn’t about that. It’s about a thought that occurs whenever I am complimented on “my” examination results. How much of my students’ success (or failure, for that matter) is actually down to me?

I have helped. Of that I have no doubt. There is a small share of exam glory that belongs to us — we few, we happy few that dare to tread that strange, dazzlingly-lit space in front of the interactive whiteboard.

But I believe that it is a lesser share than is commonly supposed. I know that the public, many parents, most students — and perhaps even the majority of teachers — actually accept this myth of “it’s mainly down to the teacher” as an article of faith. And I think they’re wrong.

Let me suggest an analogy to explain what I mean: “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.” I believe that teachers are in a similar situation: you can lead students to knowledge but you cannot make them learn.

Does that mean that I’m a passive, inactive take-it-or-leave-it teacher? Hell, no! I bloody well am not! I am busy jumping up and down pointing out that the water in this here waterhole is ever so nice and cool and clear and I will happily serve it in a golden goblet with a paper umbrella and a cherry on top while singing the hallelujah chorus if only the skittish ponies in my care would just . . . drink. A little bit, please? On some days I’d even settle for a sip. On others, I might even be satisfied it they so much as glanced in the direction of the water.

But the point is: the ultimate decision to learn or not to learn is theirs, not mine. Oh, I can come up with all sorts of ingenious activities to keep them occupied and busy, but busy does not equate to learning. In fact, it is my considered opinion based upon both my experience as an A-level student (many, many moons ago) and as a teacher that, particularily at A-level, the most important learning often takes place outside the classroom.

What we do in the classroom is encourage, signpost and help students overcome the occasional obstacle or misunderstanding. For the most part, the magic of genuine learning happens out of our sight.

A while back, an ex-student sent me an email which I still read now and then when I am dispirited or discouraged. The student wrote: “Life at university has been great, but you can’t imagine the number of times that I’ve wished that learning in life was as easy as learning in your classes back then.”

I am touched and honoured that the student felt that way, but feel I must acknowledge that the student’s own efforts did the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. This student — amongst many others that I have had the privilege of teaching — had that “happy disposition” that meant (in my opinion) that my instruction was “almost superfluous”.

Almost superfluous. But not, by any means, completely superfluous. Just “almost.” And that makes me smile.

This was the feeling that made the opening quote from Edward Gibbon resonate with me. But I find some wise words from Machiavelli also carry weight: “God is not willing to do everything, and take away that share of glory that belongs to us.”

A small share of our students’ glory is a teacher’s portion, and for many of us, it’s actually the best part of the job.

4 thoughts on “The Power of Instruction

  1. Miss Ironfist August 20, 2013 / 3:51 pm

    I wish you could help me when I start my PhD. ILYF

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