Narrative First

Somewhere towards the manic end of last school year I read a copy of Neil Postman’s The End of Education (recommended and loaned to me by my Head of School, Toby Newton). Whilst there were many parts that I enjoyed, and some that I disagreed with, the book had one take away that, to me, makes it an invaluable read for any educator.

The section in question is to do with the narrative of school, and ties in to the title of the book, in which “end” can be taken to mean either the point of education, or, if we get things wrong, the demise of public education as we know it. Postman’s contention is that schools generally provide only a weak narrative for students to buy into, leading to poor motivation and learning, and the possible undoing (or “end”) of schools as vital, public institutions. The specific prevailing narrative is identified by Postman as economic utility, and in short results in students getting the message that if they study hard they can grow up to become useful economic agents within the great capitalist machine.

Needless to say, most students have little short term interest in the economic utility story of their elders, and so schooling gets off on the wrong foot. Whilst this narrative is something that I had perceived, and subsequently rallied against, it is not one I have ever fully overcome in my own classroom.

Where the book opened my eyes was in helping me make explicit to my students what I believe to be a much more powerful narrative. This narrative, which we might call empowered me, teaches students that the best reason to learn is to render comprehensible and amenable a complex and uncertain world. As Thomas Harris makes clear in his seminal text I’m OK, You’re OK, it is the very essence of childhood that children feel “not OK” within the world, being, as they are, physically small and lacking in agency. The empowered me narrative, then, asks students to confront their not-OKness, and offers them educational options to move towards OK (ideally using student choice, self-direction and gradeless assessment).

How might this look in practice? Starting back this year I will use a simulation game in order to place students into a not-OK state, from which they will be given clues in the move towards OK. The game, which my pilot testing shows drives kids crazy whilst drawing them in for a closer look, will be followed by an unpacking of what my classroom offers, in terms of empowering them.

The hope then, is that my classroom, and the way students come to experience it, is restructured to look something like this:The only thing I’m left wondering is why it took so long for me to make explicit a narrative that was always there, hiding just out out sight?

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