Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Squaring the Circle

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Squaring the Circle

Article excerpt

A picture of Isaac Newton hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in London. Painted by William Blake, it depicts the scientist calculating the distance between two points using a pair of compasses. The image is widely believed to symbolise Blake's contempt for rational thought. So focused is Newton on his measurements that he's oblivious to the multicoloured, effervescent rock face beneath his naked bottom.

Having never got the hang of slide rules or cosine tables, I've always liked this damning depiction of reason. It's also a fitting allegory for current trends in teaching. Except that instead of compasses we're holding progress charts, and most of us don't teach in the nude.

Teaching now is all about measuring. We measure where students are at the start of the lesson and where they get to at the end, then calculate the progress they've made in between. It's oddly therapeutic, like placing a piece of thread on a map to see how far you've walked. "Ten miles," you mutter to yourself. "How remarkable. I think I'll celebrate with a sticky toffee pudding, a coffee and a fag."

But not all progress is equal. Sauntering along a National Trust footpath with a pair of binoculars is not the same as scrambling up Ben Nevis with a six-man tent on your back. If we focus on the distance travelled, rather than the altitude or the magnificent waterfalls we pass along the way then, like Newton, we're looking at the wrong things.

Teaching wasn't always this calculating. When I first started, it involved fewer spreadsheets and a lot more papier mâché. …

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