Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally

This acronym is something I remember being taught in maths at school, something to do with the order of operations. I don’t actually remember what the acronym means, so … either the maths teacher was crap, acronyms don’t work, or I have never had to use order of operations since I was sixteen so my memory couldn’t be bothered to store this once vital information. How can we tell? What factors decide what information we hold onto and what we forget?

Oh God with a capital G who lives in the heavens, I would believe in you if you could answer me this. And not just in one context, with one class, one student, just for one year. If you could give me the holy grail of education- getting students to recall the relevant information at the right time, in the right context, I would worship you every day. It is the foundation of learning, the building block of abstract thought and without it we are lost because we can only build on the knowledge we have, so I need my students to remember the basics before we can get onto the complex. But, what we know about how this works is exceedingly limited. There is very little educational research that can be generalised across society because education involves humans, and for me it involves teenage humans who are notoriously fickle (according to my schema). Humans are difficult to pin down, they bring their emotions to the situation, their cultural associations, their upbringing and everything that is happening to them and has happened to them. Is it surprising that what works in one case, does not work with another? Teachers are also bringing elements of themselves to the situation. Believe me, teaching the role of the father in the psychology of attachment is a real bitch when your own father is dying, then dead and then you attend his funeral. It makes answering students’ questions about dads an emotional rollercoaster. I taught that element of the spec. really badly that year, really badly.

So what has this got to do with good old Aunt Sally? Well, working out what works in education is really hard. If anybody tells you they have the answer with any certainty, immediately check how much money they plan to make, and then tell them that they are wrong. Education is littered with the skeletons of the dead and expensive ideas that teachers have been told were the panacea. They weren’t, hence their skeletal status. Although some of them still lurch around us like zombies, biting into your pedagogy and killing your brain (see learning styles). So instead of facing these difficulties, acknowledging that when one thing works in one context, it might not work in another, and understanding that it isn’t just because the teachers are a bit shit, we do something else. We create something, something easy to measure and easy to correct- it might be attendance and punctuality for example. Who cares if it is only an issue for a small number of students, particularly if you are looking at attendance and punctuality to lessons? Well, those who can measure it care about it. Attendance and punctuality slots neatly into a spread sheet, and when it decreases it is a victory for a policy implemented to solve a problem that didn’t really exist, but Aunt Sally came to visit. Albeit briefly. Because what is the lasting impact of this policy? Will it improve student attainment? Will it improve student well- being? It certainly doesn’t solve the problems of students who are desperately struggling with mental health issues, being carers for parents, or even those struggling academically with how to write an essay. But hey, the data on attendance and punctuality now looks awesome. So instead of excusing Aunt Sally, I’d like her to fuck off. Totally fuck off out of education. Then we might look at the real problems, with outcomes possibly unmeasurable until years later, and then we really will be doing something that approaches the needs of the students we work with.

P.S. Oxford Dictionary definition of Aunt Sally

1A game played in some parts of Britain in which players throw sticks or balls at a wooden dummy.

1.1count noun A dummy used in the game of Aunt Sally.

1.2count noun A person or thing set up as an easy target for criticism.

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