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Does it worry you when a pupil says they hate your subject? It should. That’s a strong word hate. And then applied to your subject like a knife in the heart. Nobody should be hating a subject. They especially should not be hating your subject.

Well actually, they hate performing in your subject.

They hate performing in P.E.

They hate writing for the view of others.

They hate reading aloud.

They hate doing maths and showing their working out publicly.

They hate taking exams in your subject.

In all of these, they hate performing in your subject. They hate publicly displaying: their body, their misconceptions in maths, their ineptitude in speaking modern languages, their poor reading aloud in front of others and their difficulty writing out their ideas; for public ridicule as they see it.

So who are ‘they’? They are pupils and adults who have had a negative experience of performance in your subject and have developed an aversion to it. This can be especially cemented when they do the final performance – the examination or assessment. And all of this fits into the contemporary agenda of mental health, but don’t think it is a new problem. It’s just modern life involves more performance these days.

Pupils who dislike performance based aspects of a subject can be found in any room of people. I’ve met so many people who tell me a variation along the lines of: ‘I had a negative experience performing in an area of a subject and this has affected me in all walks of life.’ These people make life choices, career choices, struggle in specific relevant situations and employ avoidance of activities & circumstances: a life time of different experiences all rooted in a negative experience of performing in a subject at school, e.g. ‘I didn’t like speaking in front of the class and now I avoid all public speaking wherever possible.’ I meet TEACHERS who don’t like public speaking. It’s a real thing this is. Teachers!

This must not be confused with the stretch and challenge agenda.  This agenda is focused on removing differentiated learning outcomes. A good teacher knows exactly where a pupil’s comfort zones and barriers to learning are. They engage with the pupil using a high quality relationship to create trust. Once established, they then use that trust to take the pupil beyond their comfort zone in such a way that the pupil feels supported and stretched at the same time.

One question I find helpful to ask myself is this: do I want them to read 3 books or 1000 books? If I want to achieve the latter, then I need to find a way to ensure a pupil enjoys the performance of reading. Does a P.E. teacher want the pupil to play the sport in school and never again or do they want them to enjoy sport itself for life? We have to think about the long term outcomes even when we are thinking about assessment outcomes. It is important – we need to achieve both the outcomes (performing in assessment) and the inspiration (performing in life) together. There is no good in having one without the other.

Don’t forget there is a good side to performance – I am not saying performance is a bad thing. I read an interesting article on science experiments which said the reasons for doing experiments are a mix of learning and of generating curiosity, motivation and an interest in chemistry. It suggests that when children meet challenge, if they have enjoyed challenge before in the subject they are more likely to persevere and to have better self-efficacy. It is a bit like doing a five kilometre run and then going home and doing some quite difficult mathematics made much more interesting by the fact that your five kilometre running performance has provided the data. Successful performance is brilliant. Life changing. Inspiring. Alas, so is a negative experience of performance and not in a good way.

The next time you meet a child or adult who dislikes your subject, ask some questions. What is it they don’t like? Is it a performance aspect? Is there a single incident which has taken root and created this aversion? Install a new updated experience of performance. One in which they are taught properly this time. Don’t let them move forward still hating your subject: for the rest of their lives.

Be like #GarethSouthgatewould – teach them to own the process.

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