Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about
Success in a classroom is a complex victory - hard won, as every teacher and child knows. There are these occasional moments of grace when everything is perfect - students are paying attention, the content is interesting, the interaction leads the lesson and yet, does not detract from the pace, the teacher has found a rhythm - and you can feel the smooth energy that flows in the room. These classes are not as rare as one might think, but they take a great deal of work. Much of the work is done slowly, over time when one builds relationships and behaviours, so that the class can operate smoothly. This alignment of student behaviour is probably the toughest part of a teacher’s job who not only has to manage the range of talent, ability, intelligence and interest in the classroom but also the range of behaviour. This is a skill too.
Teachers at the early primary level, and those for early years acknowledge that this is the toughest part of their jobs, especially if they are expected to cover a syllabus and take the children through a formal learning process. (Oh, don’t gasp, many children across the world take tests regularly before they are five years old, and yes, I agree it is outrageous). Much of what these teachers do is gently socialise children to work with each other constructively and prepare them to be able to work in a formal classroom. This is where their ‘schooling’ begins - they are schooled in certain ways of behaving (sit still, seek permission, speak in turn, speak to what is being discussed and so on) and in ways of learning. Some teaching cultures encourage curiosity, questioning, application of skills and so on, while other teaching cultures inculcate discipline, listening, memorising, keeping pace with the rest and reproducing knowledge bytes. Schooling is a subset of education that happens in these interactions but is essential to create space for mass education to take place efficiently. The relationships and behaviour that the early teachers foster are useful to teachers in later year groups as the students progress higher. It is clearly better for a teacher in middle school to be able to work with students who are capable of writing well-reasoned essays, are systematic with their work and are able to track their own progress. Less joyous than leading a curious class to discovery, but certainly more useful.
We, of course, all hunt for that perfect space where we can have it all as teachers and learners. We would love to have no walls, free research, guided play while meeting achievement targets and aligning with standardised test and curricula. Some school cultures make it easy for students and teachers to follow more individualistic self learning pathways while others are far more regimented. This is not just led by the school’s philosophy but also its age and size. And most importantly, the country. School culture is clearly driven by the country and its regulatory system. Finland and India have completely different school cultures not just because they are geographically disparate but also because the people and the regulations are completely different. England and India share similar education structures due to shared genesis and therefore, similar models and goals. Yet school culture in the two countries could not be more different - one stayed with industrial age models and is emerging into new realities now, the other pivoted so often that even educationists often don’t know which way they face. On a flippant note, this shows up in the way classroom furniture is arranged. Much can be observed by seeing who students and teachers face in standard room settings at a school. The culture of a country, the subcultures of family and ‘tribe’ seep into the classroom and the teacher is in charge of socialising them all. China and India are neighbours with similar values (is it fashionable to say this yet or am I ahead of my time?), demonstrated in the classroom. Their challenges are similar when it comes to scale and access to quality education. Among other countries, they too face the macro challenge of moving away from regimented learning systems that place the learner as the silent receiver of knowledge towards greater creativity and growth while retaining discipline - a key cultural artefact.
Which is why it is interesting to observe the reactions to the BBC2 programme where they invited Chinese teachers into an English school for four weeks to see if Chinese teaching techniques could work in a different context. It is even more interesting for India that structurally is closer to the English system and culturally closer to the Chinese way. The documentary is not research, nor is it possible to draw interventions based on it, yet it is insightful. This is not just a clash of teaching and learning styles, this is a clash of cultures. Students unused to long 12-hour days were tired, one even brought a kettle into the classroom to make a refreshing cuppa. The words to the national anthem were not known to all, which surprised the visiting teachers but will not faze most people in the UK. One carries one’s national identity in different ways, jingoistic salutations to the flag first thing in the morning is not their way. Cultures do not travel well, or if they do, they need time to settle.
In a classroom the clash of cultures shows up fairly rapidly - as was evident in this exercise. The great value here is in being able to see a different way of doing things and being able to question oneself again. For example, in the Chinese way, competitive sports in the middle of the day were mandatory. Sports are very much part of a school day in England, even continuing during examination season. On a personal note, I might add that the English way of supportively clapping for the laggards in sport is one of the nicest things I have ever seen. There is deep kindness there, and a willingness to support every last one in the community. Does this forgiveness of a slower, non-competitive pace in a school environment come from the welfare state, as commentators have said? Possibly. Is it a better way to live? Hmm. Is it a better way to run the classroom?
The question spans politics, ideology, civilisational clashes, teacher training practices and so much more. This ‘way to run a classroom’ is the classroom culture. It is the choice every teacher makes, and they make it everyday. Sometimes they inherit the choice from their teachers, or from precedent and culture within the school. Sometimes they are forced into the choice by the behaviour in the classroom. Often they find themselves reacting and coping, not realising that the smell of the classroom, the culture within, is a choice that is theirs, and theirs alone. This is the unspoken part of their jobs. Not discipline, but culture. This is what will set up their students for life even as they absorb the knowledge and the skills that form the content of the class session. To grow students up to be hardworking babus, to grow them up to be researchers and scientists, inventors and innovators, or to grow them up to be global and corporate citizens. Teachers choose the future when they create classroom culture. A successful classroom is not just a schooled, socialised classroom, it is one that creates a culture that suits the context, goals, aspirations and potential of the students. This is what teachers create and build, they build a culture that breeds the future.