Have you ever inspected the inside of a mechanical watch? Those ones with gears and cogs. They are a thing of real beauty.
Vacheron Contantin currently claims to have the the most complex pocket watch available. Check it out!. When you look into a watch of this sort, you can't help but wonder why so many little gears are needed! With so many little parts (interestingly called 'complications'), is there a threat of poor reliability? Is it difficult to service? Are fewer parts not better?
During my idle moments when my brain is not yet at optimum capacity, I like to browse through the funny pictures posted on www.uberhumor.com. Lots of photographs of silly Americans and cute cats. Recently, I came across this peach:
The poster is trying to take the mechanical workings of a gears as a metaphor for how education works. It is amusingly flawed, but the metaphor is pretty useful.
Cogs in the educational wheel
The participants in a school's operation are called stakeholders. Parents, teachers and students are perhaps the key stakeholders. But there are a lot of other stakeholders too: the school principal, doctoral experts from a specialist university, government officers and ministers, the school staff, the students' peers, the vocal mothers' group, the old grandmother on the corner. Any (or all) of these contribute to, and can have a say in how things are run in a school.
More stakeholders means there is greater input and more resources available. But like a complex watch, the more stakeholders, the more things there are to go wrong.
In education, the greatest problem is the conflicting agenda of the different stakeholders. Teachers and parents want more money spent while finance and administration want more efficiency for what money there is available. And so on.
Perhaps the biggest problem with multiple stakeholders is the dilution of responsibility. When things go right, everything is fine, but when things go wrong, someone must be to blame. To my mind, this blame-game is problematic.
In struggling private schools, the scale of things allows it to be easily seen. Student numbers drop - the parents blame the school, the owner blames shoddy teaching, the teachers blame the lack of resources. Or something along those lines. If Superman were to land to save the day, which department would he fix?
When we get to the state school system, things are far more complex - like that fancy watch.
Fixing faulty cogs
At the ministry level, there is constantly a search for ways find fixes. Problems are identified and pulled apart, and interventions are created and put into force. And then nothing changes. For some reason teachers don't implement the change. Why a change in policy doesn't lead to changes in the classroom is then baffling. You can almost hear them saying 'Those teachers won't do as we tell them!'
But, again, it's more complex than that. The world of education is notoriously conservative.
Teachers look back on the halcyon days of their own education as the model for how things should be. Experienced teachers are given positions of power, and then say things like, 'We have been doing things this way for years and it works'.
Studies on teacher practice have identified a fascinating thing called the 'apprenticeship of observation' - teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. In a climate where the past directs the future, innovative government policies (for what they are) meet a brick wall of resistance. And perhaps rightly so - as teachers, we have pressing concerns of making and marking tests and dealing with difficult classes.
Can policy makers at a boardroom table say anything that will make our job at the coalface easier?
Doing what we can
Is there a solution? Like a good watch, things can only really work smoothly in the schooling system when everyone does their little part. Each cog has its function, moves at its own speed, and somehow contributes to the success of the whole.
As foreign English teachers, much as it pains me to say so, we really do have a very small part to play. But if you look closely at the inside of the watch, even the tiniest cogs play some important role - without them, the big cogs aren't going to do what they need to do. Unlike a watch, however, in education if something is broken, it can't simply be replaced.
Teachers moralizing about poor government policy is as destructive as school owners shouting about shoddy teachers. Instead, dealing with the broken cogs in a school requires patience from all the stakeholders.
While sharing views can be useful if it is done in the right spirit, our duties are usually clear: going back to that peachy poster, the responsibility of all the stakeholders (including the students') is to the students' learning: finger pointing achieves nothing except to self-justify an abdication of that responsibility.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.