Reading [the manuscript for Master and Apprentice] has been a gale of fresh air and most reassuring for my sense of sanity. If your book receives many nods of recognition, much polite applause and then gathers dust on concerned people’s bookshelves, one of my worst fears will have been realised. Your book calls for action and challenges the complacency and apathy that haunts these times. Since my launch into the teaching “business” 29 years ago as a teacher either indoors or outdoors, in state schools or private schools, on 4 different continents in countries both highly “developed” and very “under-developed” and with children of all ages, I have learnt something about what good education is and is not. Despite constant frustration and occasional despair I’m still hopeful and idealistic. I firmly believe that investment in education and the people involved in promoting it should be the main priority of a country’s citizens and its government. We have not seen this in most developed countries in a financial or an informed way for far too long.
We are, as educators of young people, TOTALLY missing the boat in today’s Western education system. Instead of addressing all the crucial aspects of what it means to foster contributing, thinking and compassionate human beings for an unknown future we are spiraling downward into a morass of self-perpetuating, gutless, self-serving, materialistic apathy. Most schools are utterly boring and degrading places for all who frequent them, students, teachers and administrators alike. There are exceptions, of course, due to dedicated families, teachers, school boards and/or communities, but they are very few and far between.
Your book is addressing this crisis and it’s not a moment too soon. My following comments roughly follow the course your book takes with interludes of my own, prompted by what you wrote. I am returning to the world of teaching again in July after a break of a year to think and do other jobs. When I left teaching last June I felt very frustrated about the state of education and the role I was playing in seemingly supporting something basically fairly meaningless so something I couldn’t believe in. Exhaustion and disillusionment are familiar feelings. I worry about being one of those people, who you mention in chapter 18, who, in the end does the thing right rather than doing the right things. Apathy, disinterest, stupidity, elitism and conformity have haunted my teaching career and quite frankly, I am sick of all of them. Why? I really do love to teach and work with children and young people, of all ages. They have, over the years helped to teach me how to work with them BUT, I have had precious little opportunity to express this as fully as I would wish as I am so pointlessly and often humiliatingly circumscribed.
As you mention in your book, teachers are being told rather than trusted at every turn. One example of this is, much of the class time during the school day being prescribed by those who are not in the classroom and doing the teaching. Interruptions of all kinds are the order of the day. There is such a pressure to fit everything in that I feel I am, with my students, bouncing superficially over news bites of life rather than having and taking the time to savour the true flavour of the experiences and questions that life has to offer a classroom learning experience. Apart from having a bruised bum I am left feeling deeply disappointed, mistrusted, completely misdirected, sick with indigestion but worst of all I feel that I have missed a golden opportunity to truly engage with my students by being able to be an inquisitive, seeking, enthusiastic and playful teacher with them. The apathy and harried hurriedness of my colleagues, who, by and large, are trying to be very caring and responsible teachers, adds to my sense of isolation. I am tired of feeling so alone in my thinking and striving as a teacher. Is that the normal human condition I wonder? Do most people really feel this way, some of the tears of the Madonna you speak of in the first chapter? I don’t want to accept that this degree of alienation from ones fellow colleagues and acquaintances is the way of the modern world and so one just has to get on with it.
In the preface you introduce the metaphor of the coin, the title. One of the most important aspects of this for me is the necessity of becoming more of a generalist thereby finding context for our particular specialty (whether it be a certain grade or subject). Another important aspect is, not only to reunite the thinking with the doing but to balance them too. To see, feel and do from a standpoint of the jungles of life, rather than the biome of a local tree. A generalist is some one who can see both sides of the coin but who can also, through seeing the new vision of the coin spinning, unite the two into a new and transforming impulse, through the “messy” time of trial and error, creativity and play. Play and humour, are surely foods of life that none of us can do without? We play, we spin coins and then they look different, interesting, eye-catching, until they fall. Through uniting the thinking with the doing we create something new beyond the qualities of the 2 separately. This needs to be emphasized more in your book I think.
This inbuilt disconnection leads to a tendency to look at things 2 dimensionally or more commonly I’m afraid in 1 dimension. It’s quicker and as we come from the position of a specialist we know all about it surely, or if we don’t we’re told we certainly should know, so let’s just pretend if we’re not sure. How often is a coin turned over to see what’s on the other side? We even more rarely take the time to find a flat surface to spin it, there is “just no time”. We all need time to play. As for children it is not taken with the degree of seriousness that it deserves. For them, play is their “classroom”. How often does one act on the new realizations one gets from seeing the bigger, more general picture? There is too much fear of taking a stand, speaking up, bucking the tide, speaking from the heart and showing emotion, and so risk being illogical or ridiculed. Where have courage and conviction gone? We play it safe and become more risk free, we have forgotten the necessity and edge of it. As a result the very real need of it in childhood and the humour and playfulness essential in adolescence is lost. There is no hunger for what has never been tasted.
When I first read your book I found the metaphor of the coin (referring to the earlier title Both Sides of the Coin) hard to grasp in relation to the book as a whole. It seemed that you were describing, in some detail, pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle coming from different backgrounds/specialties and you were trying to find a way to fit them all together. It feels as though you have written these sections at different times after different profound experiences with people in Africa, Dubai or England? These pieces are fairly distinct units. Do you want the individual reader to link them together in whatever way they see fit? Will you address this in more detail in the conclusion? A few more references to the different parts and aspects of the book as you go along would help to create more of a cohesive whole. You do manage to make the book relevant to people’s personal experiences through your own stories, which you tell very well. However these lose their potency if not obviously related to a bigger picture.
Our preoccupation with that of the specialist (who, you so rightly point out, is afraid to speak up and challenge) has become more and more focused on the supremacy of the head (university, head of a business). These roles are not challenged or questioned enough. As well, our society is still dominated by the intellect, the male, the rich and the white. Despite the intellectual challenges and constant protests of women, minority races and less advantaged countries these inequities still insidiously and obviously exist. They must be incorporated thoughtfully into the curriculum, not only at the age of the adolescent (which you emphasize) but also in an appropriate way, to the younger child. Our educational attitudes should speak and demonstrate equality and inclusiveness through educating all aspects of the child not through safe, polite, politically correct conversation but through wrestling with the feelings and passions of what it means to be in those different roles in society.
Marrying the head and the hand, which you emphasize, is a part of the solution. For example, I have noticed in my classroom, many children are very clumsy when it comes to manipulating simple tools like scissors, pens, crayons and brushes. The handicrafts, so essential for teaching hand eye co-ordination, as well as the steps in the process and struggle of making something, have been marginalized by the rush of every day. These important lessons simply take too much time and teachers are pressured to focus most of their time on academic goals. Children see few examples from their community of active craftsmen and craftswomen. They are cloistered in a bubble of “safety and predictability” and academic fast tracking, behind classroom walls where there is little exposure to different cultures, levels of wealth and differences in the human condition. Frustration and boredom boils over in the playground and explodes in adolescence. Many high schools respond by cutting out recess. Is it little wonder that schools are succeeding in producing so many students keen to opt out or just make a lot of money for themselves? Where’s the meaning?