Socrates still has a place in inner-city teaching

From the Robin Caldecote Memorial lecture, given by Tim Brighouse, the chief education officer of Birmingham to the Royal Society of Arts
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The Independent Online

The circumstances in which teachers find themselves are the greatest influence on their role and on the skills and qualities which they will need to perform their role well.

The circumstances in which teachers find themselves are the greatest influence on their role and on the skills and qualities which they will need to perform their role well.

One morning in South Africa a couple of summers ago, I visited a prestigious, formerly white, now mixed secondary school, so well-appointed that it would put our city technology colleges to shame. The afternoon was different. I was driven to a shanty-town black school in a combination of a ramshackle shed and a second-hand ship's container. The teachers had no obvious resources or services.

The same is true here, but perhaps to differing degrees. Eton and Harrow are worlds apart from some of the dilapidated schools I feel guilty about in the inner city. And their pupils are different too. It is not simply social economics or class. In the inner-city, to have a deep respect for and demonstrable understanding of a child's present and past culture is the first essential step to unlocking their minds. Without it, not as much can be achieved with those children, whose disposition to learning is distracted by other more pressing circumstances and where self-esteem is fragile. So many of our inner-city schools present an essential challenge. Especially for any one of those teachers whose task is to teach in a mainly mono-racial, or mono-faith school where their own origin or identity is different.

Important contextual influence is more than the pupils' background, the building and the equipment. It is also time. In the Sixties, the ultimate sanction was the cane. Now it is exclusion. Each brings its massively damaging but different consequence to the individual. The first was a more deferential age of compliance, while the present one is of rights and a debate about values and responsibilities, to which the media acts as an almost irresistible megaphone.

Yet teachers today can still prove their lineage to Socrates in the skill of their questioning and through the need for supplementing this with a far deeper understanding and deployment of what might be called the "deus ex machina", or "alter ego" technique. It is a device I have observed among talented teachers over the years, and think it deserves careful analysis by the profession. You see it in the nursery and infant class among teachers who deploy teddy bears who acquire personalities of their own as they are sent on adventures with youngsters and adults alike. They write stories, and develop conversation and writing, as well as a sense of geography and adventure.

The same phenomenon emerges later in the teenage years. I have seen an urban teacher grab the attention of a challenging Year 9 class by the use of a large glove puppet. Such behaviour was to the amused delight of the teenagers, but in practice it was of course governed by the extraordinary skill of his amazing boss, a talented English teacher who even allowed the glove puppet sometimes to mark the pupils' work!

More cautiously you see it in the drama, history, or philosophy teachers as they variously use painted masks and characters with whom to discourse in imagined one or two-way conversations. So characters in history can be points of reference to events in other ages - travellers through time, as it were, engaging with youngsters whatever era they may be studying.

It is present too in the drama studio, where the lively lessons often involve youngsters themselves acquiring more than one character and where masks and imaginary conversation are legion. Their colleagues in science, who used famous scientists from the past to describe more vividly the breakthrough in knowledge that has informed us all down the ages, were using the same technique.

What all these devices have in common is the potential to "unlock the mind" by the use of imaginary or distant personae with whom the learner relates, but in a way that is subtly if indirectly guided by the teacher.