Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thank Heavens for Jamie's Dream School

No greater love letter has been written to the art of teaching than the wonderful Channel 4 series "Jamie's Dream School". Hosted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, the series shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the job of teaching, and as a consequence makes for great television, but is of sparse value for anyone attempting to learn anything about teaching. There are a few wonderful teachers in the bunch, but generally the series gives us incompetence of the highest order.

The fundamental error that the series makes is that someone who is an expert in a particular field is automatically a good teacher in that field. Part of the reason for this might be the foolish assumption that expertise makes you good at everything, whereas the opposite is true, expertise is, in fact, "spectacularly narrow" (W.G. Chase). Brilliant chess players are not automatically good at playing draughts, nor are they automatically good at playing a chess-like game with different rules ... and they certainly are not automatically better at teaching chess just because they are good at it themselves. And beyond this, someone who is naturally gifted at a particular endeavour might be a very, very poor teacher because have no idea of how to break down the endeavour into simple steps to explain it to novices, and they might be very impatient with someone who can't understand things as quickly as they themselves can.

Another utterly obvious point the the series fails to recognise is that peer-learning is "the single most potent source of influence on the growth and development" of students (Alexander Astin), so to populate the classroom full of students who are academically weak and are having trouble studying is completely pointless and painfully teacher-centred. Let's face it, it's the body of students in our classrooms that do the heavy-lifting - we create the environment and they do the work. To have a whole class full of students who are weak removes the "champions of the classroom" that inspire the others to work hard.

Nonetheless, I reiterate my initial point, this show is a love-letter to teaching, it shows that the job isn't just a matter of turning up and knowing the subject, there are all kinds of classroom management, motivation, psychology, and trust issues involved as well, thanks Jamie.

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