When something appalling happens, like last Friday’s events in Paris, how should those of us working in schools respond?
After the wave of attacks in the Parisian suburbs, most people will have watched footage on television and online. Some will have read news reports, eyewitness accounts and the commentaries of journalists. I can’t imagine anyone wasn’t shocked, dismayed, unnerved and upset.
But what responsibilities do we have in schools when terrible events like this puncture the fragile normality of our lives?
Schools, after all, are where society chooses to educate its young. They are the places where we pass on the shared knowledge, culture and values from one generation to the next. Our responsibility as teachers is therefore greater than in many other jobs because of this unspoken expectation of society.
Schools, in other words, aren’t just everyday places of work. They are rooted in the shared understanding of our society. They are microcosms – small versions – of the country we live in.
So what should we do in schools after atrocities deliberately attack those values?
A friend of mine, Ian Gilbert, wrote a book called ‘Why Do I Need a Teacher When I’ve Got Google?’ It’s not an unreasonable question.
Back in the late 1970s when I was at school, we relied on teachers and books to pass on essential knowledge. We assumed that most teaching would be dull. Any pictures we saw of computers were machines that filled whole rooms, humming and spewing ticker-tape whilst tended to by bespectacled balding scientists in white lab coats.
Now we have the internet.
Graham Nutthall was one of the UK’s experts in teaching. By watching hundreds of teachers at work, he researched and illuminated what they do. He concluded that the internet will never replace them, because true teaching has to respond to the needs of the learner.
This is what makes teaching different from lecturing. It spots what you as a student can or cannot understand, what you currently can or cannot do. Then it matches the teaching to your needs as learner.
Nutthall believes that computers will never be able to do this. That’s because true teaching involves the distinctly human gift of sensing from another person’s body language whether they ‘get it’ or not. Even if you say you understand what I’ve taught you, the precision of my questions and what I see in your responses will help me to judge whether we need to practise more, re-explain, or move on.
This is what teachers routinely do. It’s a reminder that our role isn’t just about imparting skills or passing on knowledge like some game of cultural Pass-the-Parcel. Great teaching exemplifies what it is to be human.
That’s why schools matter in the wake of terrible atrocities. The internet will tell us what happened. It will serve up theories and explanations and comment. But our students need also to see first-hand the human capacity for grief, anger, disbelief and love.
They need an opportunity to share with other humans our incomprehension, our confusion, our dismay. They need to see that empathy – feeling a strong bond for people we do not know and who may not speak our language - is at the heart of being human.
They need to learn that the terrorist attacks of last Friday had roots and causes, but that it’s far too simplistic to assume they were a result of religion or race or other off-the-shelf sociological explanations.
Those Parisian attacks were fundamentally an attack on what it is to be civilised human beings. They shocked us so much because they went against so much of what we believe in – values that apply irrespective of a person’s ethnicity, colour and faith.
That’s why schools matter.
In our response we need to rise above the cynicism of terrorists who seek to show the worst that human beings can do to others humans. Our response should show the best.
-- Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds