Diderot, Ruskin and the cult of more in the classroom
I was asked recently in an interview how important I thought resources and the built environment were to children's education. I think the question was designed to elicit a grand vision for the school - one in which classrooms dripped with all the latest technological innovations and magnificent new buildings were to be found at every turn. But I was feeling mischievous.
"Not very important at all", I said. "One of the best pieces of teaching I've ever seen was on a beach, where the expositor - armed only with a stick - drew diagrams in the sand. The pupils were captivated."
I didn't stop here, of course, but I learnt later that the panel had considered this response flippant. The more time I spend in the profession, though, the more I have come to believe that the best teachers are those able to teach with meagre resources. I should stress that I'm no Luddite: I think it's right that schools are well resourced and that teachers and pupils are properly equipped. My point is that in most cases the equipment is nice to have not need to have. That's an important distinction. When teachers get into the mindset that they can't teach without this or that tool, then we're in trouble.
James Clear's post about the Diderot effect has a message for us as teachers too. Diderot observed that obtaining a new possession can result in a spiral of consumption that leads us to acquire yet more new things. As James explains:
Life has a natural tendency to become filled with more. We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify, to eliminate, to reduce. Our natural inclination is always to accumulate, to add, to upgrade, and to build upon.
So it is in our classrooms. I've seen some teachers blanch in horror when it turns out the room they've been assigned to is having it projector replaced, or that iPads aren't available, or that the WiFi is down. But, nice though these things are, none of them are essential for good teaching. In fact it might not be a bad idea, from time to time, for us to deliberately teach with no extraneous aids. Doing so is strangely cathartic and liberating - there's no place to hide and you're forced to reconnect with the art of teaching in its purest sense. I reckon John Ruskin was onto something:
Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.