Teach Teachers How To Create Magic – Christopher Emdin

How important is the ‘act’ of teaching? No, not those theories of ‘pedagogical practices’ – sometimes ridiculously called ‘best practice’, as though such a thing exists. I’m talking about the ‘performance’; The ‘preacher -in-a-“black-church”’ type performance that truly engages.

This TED Talk by Christopher Emdin struck a chord with me. Like Emdin says, I set out to “be an educator, change lives, and spark magic” and every day I come home exhausted. I feel like an actor that’s been performing a 6 ½ hour show. If there’s every a day when the bell goes at 3:30 and I still have a whiff of energy left in me, I feel as though I didn’t try hard enough – that I didn’t push myself to create that ‘magic’.

Yes, of course, learning tasks should be engaging, content should be relevant to the students, learning should be student-centred, yes, yes, yes, blah, blah, blah. But all of that – the best theory, the best content, the best practice (scoff!) – in the hands of an educator whom lacks that X-factor, will never spark magic.

“So why does teacher education only give you theory and theory, and tell you about standards and tell you about all these things that have nothing to do with the basic skills, that magic that you need to engage and audience, to engage a student?” (Emdin, 2013). Spare a thought for the “aspiring teacher in a graduate school of education, who’s watching a professor babble on and on about engagement in the most disengaging way possible” (Emdin, 2013).

So what makes a great teacher so great?

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What is education, anyway? Pt.2

Let’s face it, children are basically all the same and should be taught in the same, tried and tested, chalk and talk, fashion. Teachers in schools should focus purely on the 3R’s – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic – and leave that creative ‘fluff’ for kids to pursue in their own time. Children should be viewed as empty vessels and a teacher’s role is to fill them with enough knowledge to pass the test. Some kids are just lazy, hyperactive or incapable of learning, so teachers should let them be whilst focussing on the other kids that can and want to learn. Wait… What? Was there actually a time when people thought this way about education? I do hope that the opinions above are not felt by any person on this earth. My opinions are much more aligned with those articulated in Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk, “How to escape education’s death valley” (2013). So let me quote some of the highlights…

Ken Robinson’s take on how we should be viewing education…

What’s wrong with the current model of education?
• “I will make you a bet, and I’m confident I will win the bet. If you’ve got two children or more, I bet you, they are completely different from each other, aren’t they?”
• However, “education… is based on, not diversity, but conformity”
• “[We assess] what kids can do, across a very narrow spectrum of achievement.”
• They say there’s an ‘ADHD epidemic’, but “If you sit kids down hour after hour, doing low grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget.”
• “In place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance” in schools… and a “culture of standardization.”

How should we be viewing education? What needs to happen?
• “Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents; not just a small range of them.”
• As well as literacy, science and maths, “a real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, to physical education.”
• “The whole point of education is to get people to learn. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on”
• The role of teachers is “to facilitate learning”… to “mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage”.

It seems pretty obvious when Robinson observes that education ‘happens’ in classrooms in schools, and that the people who ‘do’ education are the teachers and the students. “If you remove their discretion, it stops working”. Why then, is virtually every aspect of what goes on in education dictated by politicians, administrators, businesses and organisations, and even parents? It must be said that great teaching and learning happens in spite of the current model. “It’s like people are sailing into a head wind all the time.”

It’s all well and good to whine and moan about education and the fact that teachers are dictated to and that the current model of education is so outdated it is beyond ridiculous. But why don’t we stop the complaining and actually do something about it?

A veteran teacher, frustrated with the current state of affairs in schools, notes that “no one ever asks the teachers, those who are up to their necks in the trenches each day, or if they do, it is in a patronizing way and our suggestions are readily discarded. Decisions about classrooms should be made in classrooms. Teachers are the most qualified individuals to determine what is needed for their own students.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/12/31/i-would-love-to-teach-but/)

I wonder what education would ‘look like’ if we handed control to teachers and students?


What is education, anyway? Pt.1

Ken Robinson’s take on schools, and how they kill creativity…

You’re likely one of the 20,738,467 viewers of Ken Robinson’s “Schools Kill Creativity” 2006 TED Talk. Robinson’s assertion, and general gist of the talk, is that “all kids have tremendous talents, and we squander them; pretty ruthlessly”. The “we”, we can infer from the rest of his talk, are schools.

Let me pick out some key points:
• “My contention is that creativity, now, is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
• “We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
• “Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects… At the top are Mathematics and Languages, then the Humanities and at the bottom are the Arts… And in pretty much every education system there’s a hierarchy within the Arts. Art and Music are normally given a higher status in schools that Drama and Dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches Dance every day to children, the way we teach them Mathematics. Why? Why not?”
• “Our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability.”
• (On why schools are so focussed on academia) “Education systems were designed to meet the needs of industrialism… The subjects given the highest status were those that were most useful subjects for work… Kids were, and still are, steered away from subjects you like on the proviso that you won’t find work doing that, such as music, art and so on.”

To finish:
• “We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”
• “Our task is to educate their whole being”

I believe we’d struggle to find many teachers that would whole-heartedly disagree with what Robinson has to say. I believe that most teachers do what we do in spite of those “fundamental principles”. I believe many teachers would feel that – as well as their students’ innate talents and creativity being snuffed – their own talents and creativity don’t get much of a look-in. I believe most teachers are very restricted in terms of what they teach as well as how they teach it. Naturally, as a teacher, I’m bound to get defensive when schools are under fire, but in this case I believe that Ken Robinson is correct. However, I also know that there’s very little teachers can do about it.

It’s the administrators and politicians that should take Robinson’s advice. It’s also the perceptions of a majority of parents that would need to vastly change if any rethinking of fundamental principles were to occur. So many administrators, politicians and parents are so conditioned by their own school experiences (in many cases this was decades ago!), that makes me feel that Ken Robinson’s ideas are, sadly, a pipedream.

On school change and educational reform, Richard Elmore (2007) noted that “complex systems are built to do what they have always done, not to engage in fundamental transformations.” So, wouldn’t many argue that the ‘product’ that schools create is great? Lots of young people are popping out at the end of the school machine, ready for either work or further study. Wouldn’t many argue then, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

What do you think?


• Elmore, R. (2007) Educational Improvement in Victoria. Harvard University
• Robinson, K. (2006) Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity. TED Link: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html