Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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6/12/14: changing behaviour - or trying to

When I was a PhD student I came across a great word, new to me at the time - 'atavistic'.  I don't ever recall it being used in the middle of a sentence by a speaker expecting people to know what it means.  Indeed, I'm not entirely sure how the word is supposed to be pronounced.

So, what does 'atavistic' mean?  Reverting to a supposedly rejected set of beliefs.  An example of an atavistic attitude is as follows.  Picture a child born into a Christian family, being encouraged to pray, attending Sunday School, showing all the signs of having a living faith of their own.  Then this child gets to the teenage years, rejects the faith, progressing to a clearly articulated atheism.

Now picture this person, in their late twenties, being a passenger in a car involved in a head on collision.  In the final agonising seconds before the crash as the other vehicle approaches making the collision inevitable, this person starts praying to a God whose existence is supposedly rejected.  This is an atavistic attitude - the conscious rational self no longer accepts God, but put under extreme pressure, the belief returns.

The underlying idea here, that it is extremely difficult completely to change views once they have taken hold, is really important when considering education as an academic discipline.  One way of looking at this is beautifully summarised by an American sociologist, Dan Lortie, in his 1975 book, 'Schoolteacher: a sociological study'.  He coins the phrase, 'Apprenticeship of observation', meaning that beginning teachers have, by the time they start training, spent a huge amount of time seeing teachers at work - 15 000 hours, according to the title of the 1979 seminal work by Michael Rutter et al.  I'm wary of entering into special pleading, making out that I work in a more difficult field than other people, but surely it is straightforward fact that beginning teachers have spent massively more time observing teachers at work than beginning doctors have seen doctors, similarly engineers, accountants, social workers, nurses, lawyers, etc. etc., with extremely rare exceptions, eg. children who are very ill for a prolonged time.

So, by the time I worked with people in my former role as an initial teacher trainer, and even more so now I work with experienced teachers and other education professionals, they have a huge experience of seeing teachers at work, leading to strong views, which may or may be explictly stated, as to what teaching is supposed to look like.  The result?  Many teachers end up teaching in the same manner as they were taught.  My work as a teacher trainer then has very limited impact.  This is equivalent, in a medical context, to teaching students about key hole surgery and laser treatment, only for them to be going to the wards and using leaches.

And it gets more complicated than this.  As a teacher trainer I have also spent thousands of hours as a child in the presence of teachers and have developed strong beliefs about what teaching is supposed to be about.  Whilst these views are supposedly modified in the light of years of experience, study, research, debate and reflection, it is extremely easy to retract back to the original model.  And contradict what I say with how I say it.

Grief, this is depressing stuff, anybody would think I need a holiday - says the man getting on the plane this coming Friday, looking forward to the freezing cold and grey skies already.  But where does this discussion leave us?  Feeling that to make progress needs a considerable measure of humility, time, reflection, modelling, discussion, refining.  With the conscious self saying that I'm probably doing more good than I'm giving myself credit for, but you know these deeply held views....


The draft of this post I had in my mind included also mention of John the Baptist's call to tax collectors, soldiers and others to change their behaviour, but I think I'll stop here for this week.  Thank you for reading, your on-going support is much appreciated.

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