Sacred cows

Miss Miller, Teacher of the Year.


While thinking about my teaching plan and the challenge for 2010, I sent out a tweet this afternoon:

Conceiving & justifying a 2010 teaching plan… keywords: rhizome, Moodle, community, challenge, ’sacred cows’, ‘we’. Excited.

I will post details another time, but let’s just the say the “rhizome” part is informed by the original ideas of Deleuze, outlined a lot more eloquently by Dave Cormier (link) and Erica McWilliam (Meddler-in-the-middle, Unlearning How To Teach) and is something I am passionate about, read about, think about and which I have, in parts, tried already at my old school (how time flies :-) with encouraging success. ‘Moodle” – the plan involves students creating and managing their own Moodle course, knowing just a couple of Moodle-basics that my old classes learnt in an hour. “Community, we” – gist of the rhizome, above. “Sacred cows” – some below. Will post, promise.

Very soon, I got a reply from Olaf Elch (a fellow moodler :-) ) in Germany:

My t-plan is similar to yours. I left out the rhizome and changed the “we” to “I”. (It makes it more likely to actually happen. ;o)

But that kinda misses the crucial point of it Olaf… so we started a quick Twitter conversation. Two lines by Olaf particularly raised my eyebrows in further conversation:

1) McWilliam makes some VERY big assumptions. “A T[eacher] who doesn’t add value will be bypassed.” How can a pupil bypass a classteacher?


2) If you turn a teachers from an expert into a meddler or co-learner you are taking away the chief selling point of the teacher role.

Olaf then expands on the expert part, saying that as a teacher, he needs to be an expert, that his students (adult and young) expect it and ‘demand it‘, and that some of his colleagues are stimulating but have ‘faulty factual knowledge’, which makes them ‘just as useless’ as experts who can’t teach [probably meant as stimulate, since Olaf recognised the importance of teaching of how to learn and engaging students].

I opened Olaf’s question to the venerable Twittendom full of very intelligent and caring people and got a bunch of replies which Olaf no doubt read too. Another Twitter-sation success, thank you all who chipped in.

OK, but let’s clear the air a bit here and shoot some sacred cows…

Quick quiz: Which of these best describes the verb ‘to learn’: a) to be clear, certain, never fail,  b) to be confused, uncertain, fail frequently

A  breeds false self-esteem, steeped in extrinsic rewards, B is an increasingly common discomfort in our societies.  As McWilliam states “let’s take ‘lifelong learning’ seriously (or stop using it)” and not just as a nice gimmick.

And in that mess, ‘teacher’, valuable as we are, may become a placeholder for a name of a role that needs to and will change. And that’s OK with me.

Have something to say? (I) missed a/the point… Click ‘Comment’ and go for it

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Author: human on December 30, 2009
Category: 3. Change?, 4. Teaching
Tags: , , ,
5 responses to “Sacred cows”
  1. Olaf says:

    First of all, thanks for a stimulating discussion earlier today on Twitter. In teacher training sessions I constantly try to show how useful Twitter is and maybe our conversation today will serve as evidence.

    My first thought when I read your post was that I hoped that your colleagues are more open to change than mine. I was horrified at the thought of trying to implement something so far-reaching in my school. Although I do some teaching at the school, my role there is as a consultant to the English Department.

    Regarding my comment about teachers being bypassed, two words are important. Firstly “will”: I take its use here as a prediction. Secondly, “bypassed”, which I take to mean in the passive form that the learners will take no account of the input from the teacher. Here it depends on the who the learner is. A university student may have acquired sufficient critical judgement to “bypass” a tutor and look for other sources. A child in secondary school does not have the skills or resources to do this effectively. The role of a class teacher, who may teach the majority of the child’s subjects, is so large that it is not realistic to bypass it. (Sadly in Germany it can happen that a class teacher teaches ten or eleven of a child’s subjects in secondary school – my polite view on that is that the system is ridiculous!) Even in more enlightened systems the class teacher is a role-model and a major influencer in a child’s development.

    My second point starts with a word play. There is a lot of talk, particularly in elt adult education about the words, teacher, trainer, and coach. In business English teaching I tend to call myself a coach – I try to get the best out of my learners and give them strategies to enable them to perform better in the real world. (I could have said, “I teach them strategies…”)

    In school my role as a source of knowledge is greater. The learners don’t yet have the skills to organise their own learning. Self-Organised Learning is practised in the school in some subjects, but I am yet to be convinced as to it’s value in foreign language teaching. Having said that, I believe strongly in peer-group learning and will be introducing a system in the Spring where senior students will occasionally teach junior students (under supervision).

    The balancing act between teacher, trainer and coach is vital to good learning outcomes and a teacher that doesn’t manage this (or add value) should not in my opinion be bypassed – they should be removed from teaching responsibilities.

    I also have good memories of meddling, but I see it as a tool that can be used and not as a central role.

    My strongest belief is that teachers should be themselves. I’ve seen boring “chalk and talk” teachers get fantastic results and turn out really good students and I’ve seen good teachers get into a terrible mess because they believed that the course book had to be covered and ended up doing exercises that they thought were poor. Guess what? The kids saw that the teachers didn’t believe in what they were doing and didn’t take it seriously.

    Teaching is a minefield and far too few teachers fail the training. It’s a tough and tiring job and should be rewarded accordingly. Equally, those who don’t or can’t cut it have no place in the job and should find something else to do. I heard a comment once about training social workers which should also be applied to teaching – “We spend 10 minutes selecting them, and 2 years training them. It should be the other way round.”

    My attempt to say all that in Twitter-length:

    If you produce people with transferable learning skills and good basic knowledge you are doing a good job. How you do it is your affair.

    Looking forward to the debate…


    • human says:


      Hi Olaf

      Yes, I think I’ll show this too as a great example of a ‘meeting of minds’ made so damn easily through Twitter.

      Look, I’ve stirred this a little but it is really just a version of the old “content versus process” argument. Yes, the optimal way(s) are probably somewhere along the continuum but… this kinda argument fundamentally changes very little as I see it. It is pure tinkering.

      I like the idea of a rhizome to shake, interrogate and possibly change the fundamentals on which this awful and outdated system of education rests, alternative for which we can’t even have the language for. You know, I work with kids at the bottom of socioeconomic heap (perhaps not the best analogy :-) ). Regardless of content or process, if I don’t value THEIR knowledge, THEIR experience and give them a chance to be freer in what they do to learn and meaningfully participate in the society, I am just a safe, middle-class, know-it-all, shining-white-knight (OK, enough metaphors) who is there to somehow ’save them’ from themselves and their destiny. Noble it seems but pity is not empathy and understanding. And kids know it only too well.

      Anyway, I think you will find an extension of these ideas on the series of posts I am co-writing with two of my friends and which you can find right here on Human under ‘Why is everyone an expert in education?’ (

      I invite you to have a read and perhaps offer your thoughts (again).

      As I said over Twitter – thank YOU (for your tweets, time and excellent comment, lots of good points). Here is to many stimulating and important conversations!


  2. The ’subject matter expert’ discussion reminds me of a parallel in the IT industry. I loosely define myself as a ‘Business Analyst’ rather than a developer (and anyone old enough to have seen my code will realise this is a wise choice), and there are plenty of discussions around the BA world as to whether the BA should be someone with a depth of knowledge in the business field they are applying technology to (leading to Financial BAs, Manufacturing BAs etc etc). The contrary train of thought is that the BA is someone with more generic skills with a focus on exceptional communication skills, requirements gathering/documentation skills and the ability to be the ‘babel fish’ between software developers and the business. These people call on Subject Matter Experts to supplement their knowledge as needed in the project. The nay-sayers argue that the SME should be the same person who analyses the required changes, but in my experience there are no guarantees that an SME will have the right communication (and other) skills to be able to get the message across to the development team about what needs to change.

    An exact parallel? No. But the concept of someone aiming to create knowledge (be they a teacher or a BA) not necessarily being the same as someone with a deep understanding of a specific subject area I think does have some strong similarities.

    My thoughts only, ymmv :)

    • human says:


      You may want to glance at my reply to Olaf too, to save some typing and get to the point.

      Ah those pesky categories. We, people, love to categorise don’t we. It is essential after all but we get so caught up in the folly of labels sometimes we can’t see the forest from the trees (hmm, ESL moment, is that how the saying goes? … geez I’m popping cliches like lollies tonight :-) ). We get so caught up in definitions, roles, we expand and atomise to have more data and understand better… hmmm, don’t think humans largely operate like that, contrary to what may be the popular views.

      Any wise boss, be it in the army as the strictest example of role division or a hippie commune (they do still exist, right?) will ultimately want to ‘get the job done’. Expert, novice, analyst, salesman… don’t care. Like a coach of a cricket team doesn’t give a damn who gets five catches and who gets none. Speaking of sport, I trained under/worked with a coach who was obsessed with breaking things down, analysing every bit, labelling, categorising, benchmarking. He lost the big picture, we lost a pile of games and he lost his job. “But I have done everything right” he would have said!

      I recommed a great read on the topic – John Ralston Saul’s Unconscious Civilisation. It’s more than a decade old, some bits a bit out, but largely an awesome (and quite brief, succinct) pounding of bureacratisation of society and some of dearest and most important facilities, organisations, ideas and institutions.

      Thank you for you comment mate, as I said in the ‘140 list’ – if/when we go out for a beer one day, we better take same time.


  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by tomwhitby: RT @lasic: New post on ‘Human’ Sacred cows

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