The girl who fell off her chair

I am occasionally able to dredge up one or two memories of my own experience of initial teacher education for the secondary sector; one experience in particular remains vivid. During a lesson in which I was being observed I sent out a small group of students to prepare a brief role-play task. For some reason or another, the room was rearranged slightly before their return. The lesson proceeded for a while. At some point I asked a question of the class and a girl, in attempting to raise her hand, fell to the floor. When I moved towards her to investigate (either with concern or to admonish her for whatever delinquent practice had resulted in her being so unsteady on her seat) I realised that she had not in fact been sitting at all. This girl had been part of the small group I had sent out of the lesson. She had returned to find that she no longer had a chair. Rather than informing me of this, she had contrived a way of half-crouching and half supporting herself on the table with her hand which (in my memory at least) had lasted her a good ten minutes until she had wanted to raise her hand and found herself unable to remain upright. To this day I wonder (among much else that is mysterious about this event) whether her intention had been to answer my question, or to inform me of her own uncomfortable predicament.

After the lesson came the inevitable ‘debrief’. The girl was apparently unhurt, but the incident had caused not inconsiderable amusement to her peers and clearly loomed large in our shared consciousness for the remainder of the lesson. My school-based observer could hardly have missed it (although I presume that she had not noticed the student’s plight before I had). I think I opened the dialogue with some remark to the effect that I had been thrown somewhat by the chair incident (as indeed I had). Much of the mood of the subsequent exchange now escapes me. I may have considered being amused by the situation, although I wonder as I recount this story whether humour is the appropriate reaction to what happened. I recall or imagine an interminable awkward silence. I am not sure what my immediate response to the incident had been during the lesson. Perhaps my reaction had been too cruel, or too cavalier, or had revealed some broader negligence or lack of awareness of safety concerns that it was somehow too uncomfortable for my observer to raise at this point. Perhaps she merely sensed my acute embarrassment and was concerned to ease my discomfort. Perhaps the whole event was so exceptionally odd that it represented a frustrating diversion from the business of evaluating pupil learning. Whatever the explanation, my observer eventually cleared her throat and said, ‘And now, over to the learning’ – and that was all we ever said about the matter. The next item on the agenda was very likely that – as usual, but perhaps with more reason on this occasion – my ‘timings were off’, and that I ‘hadn’t got as far as I planned’.

The persistence of this recollection is connected to its increasing inexplicability as the years go on; the event has a questionability that grows with each reminiscence. What did this event reveal about the situation in which I was involved, which I had some responsibility for creating? A student in my care had felt unable, for some reason or another, to alert me of her discomfort. What did this say about my unconscious demeanour or bearing in the classroom? What did this say about the humanity of the wider practice, institution or system in which this event had taken place? What did this say about the quality of the relationships I was attempting to form with my students, or the quality of the insights I had into their attitudes and engagement, to say nothing of my more everyday powers of observation? What duty did I have to explore the situation further with the pupil herself? This was an event – it now seems clear – that potentially called me into question in fundamental ways; it challenged my understanding of my personality, my relationships with others, and my vocation or profession as a teacher (in terms of whether I was really up to the task, or perhaps in terms of whether it was a task I really found myself inclined to want to continue with). I think my observer was also implicated in this in no small part. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) this existential import, the event was dismissed as tangential to the business of learning that was the subject of our discussion.

Maybe in dwelling on this example I make too much of an extraordinary occurrence. Perhaps what was passed over was not, in hindsight, of such incredible significance. But it would somehow seem hubristic to claim that any doubts I might have had about my vocation have now been so sufficiently allayed as to consign this event to the realm of the bizarre rather than the existentially challenging. Certainly any number of events, perhaps more recognisable to my colleagues because they have experienced similar happenings, still have the power to call my vocation into question in related ways. The doubts raised here never really go away. One of the things that is in fact so intriguing about contemplating this event is that it also calls into question any criteria I might hold for distinguishing an educationally significant event from an unremarkable diversion.

Is it cruel to make children read in silence?

Ahead of a talk to be given at the Institute of Education, Tom Bennett, behaviour guru and figurehead of the ResearchEd movement, invited questions via twitter that he hoped he could address in his seminar. One tweeter asked “Is it cruel to make [children] read/ write/ think in silence?” Bennett’s response on twitter was a one word, “no”, accompanied by this picture of guffawing muppets.

picThe subject of this particular post is not twitter etiquette or one particular exchange, but rather the implication that it is acceptable to consider this question about cruelty to be out and out laughable.     Bennett’s response is representative of a widespread return, particularly amongst the ‘edublogger’ community, to ‘traditional’ approaches to education, in response to a perceived failure of a ‘progressive’ project in which a child’s autonomy is supposedly prized above all else. The story goes that allowing children to discover by themselves, without the hindrance of attempts by those wiser than them to transmit valuable and hard-won knowledge, or to discover their moral code free from external constraint or imposition, has bred a growing number of illiterate and morally reprehensible youths unable to improve their own social situation. The implication is, I suppose (although no argument was offered on this occasion) that it is not cruel to impose things on children that they do not want or enjoy when we know what is best for them, and that, for the educational good of our children, we should laugh away suggestions that it might in any cases be wrong.

I imagine one might also argue that silence is imposed on children by teachers, who have some wisdom in these matters, that this happens in school, which is a certain kind of institution that requires certain kinds of behaviour, and that it is conducive to better learning.   We certainly wouldn’t claim that it is never in any circumstance cruel to require a child to sit in silence.

Before we proceed, I will note that I am going to make a comparison with a disciplinary situation, but I am not assuming that the practice of requiring children to sit in silence in school would be necessarily a disciplinary practice. Pedagogical reasons can be offered for it. That said, let’s imagine a father, who in response to some real or imagined slight, requires a young child to sit without speaking for several hours, and maybe continues to extend the time period whenever the child makes a noise – up to, say 48 hours? The father might say that he is the parent, who knows best, that this is his home and his rules, and that this discipline is for his child’s long term good.

This father is not simply mistaken somewhere in his reasoning. He is cruel. In other circumstances the line might not be so easily drawn, but the fact that the father’s stated reasons seem at least at first glance to be of a similar kind to those that might be offered by teachers shows us that claims linking silence in class to cruelty cannot simply be dismissed as ridiculous. We are moving here into realms of subtlety and nuance, to questions about appropriate context, and ultimately to the discernment of appropriate justifications for our actions.

Imagine that our hypothetical father has observed the practice of putting a child in ‘timeout’ to think for a while about her actions. This is commonly accompanied by a requirement to sit in silence. But this practice does not in all possible applications escape charges of cruelty. Consider, for example, if a parent finds that he put his child in timeout to reflect on a crime she didn’t actually commit. Most parents are going to feel pretty bad about that. It’s also fairly clear that a young child can only be expected to reflect in silence for a few minutes. Any longer than that is unlikely to have the desired effect, and risks the charge of cruelty. One would also imagine that this practice would simply be harmful for a child who was unlikely to understand what she had done wrong. Some other approach to moral formation would be necessary.

So there are perhaps three considerations relevant to determining whether a certain way of treating a child is cruel. The first might be proportionality. In the case of ‘timeout’, for example, five minutes is appropriate, say, and three hours is too long. Then there is the justification for using this approach over another. Do we have a good reason for doing this rather than some alternative? Finally, there must be some confidence that the approach we have taken will bring about the result we want. If we require children to sit in silence for too long, with no good reason, and without any confidence that this will bring about any substantial good for them, then we could rightly be accused of being cruel, because children tend to like to wriggle about and make noise.

I’m not arguing that teachers are always being cruel when they require children to sit in silence, but I am calling for teachers and influential educators to think about the subtleties of context and justification. It is certainly conceivable that teachers sometimes require children to work in silence for a disproportionate amount of time, without having really considered other ways of going about a similar learning task, and without any strong reason to believe that the silence is necessary or useful in bringing about a particular desired educational outcome. And it is far from cut and dried that there might not at least in a small number of these situations be some cruelty involved.