I’ve been a massive fan of Bowie all my life, from the highs of Ziggy Stardust, Soul Man and The Thin White Duke, to the lows where he attempted dance music and tried to get down with the kids at late night raves. Bowie attempted all types of musical styles, even if it didn’t work out and his fans and critics were appalled with the outcome. Bowie didn’t care. He wanted change. He wanted to take risks. He wanted the challenge.
I am not a big fan of Marmite, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying it out every now and again. With teaching, it is the same. I might try something out and it doesn’t work with one class. But that’s not to say it won’t with another class. We shouldn’t be afraid of the challenge or something not working. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry, move onto the next idea.
Bowie would give teachers the option to manage their own lessons, their own curriculum, and their own chance to take risks. Bowie wouldn’t put rigorous and onerous time consuming paper exercises in front of us. He would want us to perform and do our best for our students. Teachers would be given the biggest challenge of their career and given the opportunity to try new approaches. The teaching and learning outcomes would be amazing. Just imagine the results schools would achieve and the positive learning atmospheres that would be created all across the country.
I’ve been trying to think like Bowie throughout my teaching career. If I found I was planning a lesson that didn’t have the right learning outcomes or wasn’t enjoyable, I would start again. Bowie has the same approach. He was never afraid to start again. He even killed off Ziggy Stardust at the height of his fame because he was bored and wanted to move onto the next new thing and try something different even if it didn’t work.
Over time I have created my ‘toolbox’ of teaching strategies, which year-by-year has been getting bigger and bigger. Over time I have been a magpie, collecting ideas here and there, no matter how small. David Brailsford, former Head of the British Cycling Team, has famously said it is the small things that matter, the little things. One lunchtime, he noticed the cyclists eating sandwiches, putting the food into their mouths with their hands. He wondered how many of them actually cleaned their finger nails. He felt if they cleaned their fingernails before every meal, there would be less germs going into their mouth and inevitability they would be less ill and be able to train more. He knew the other cyclists around the world wouldn’t be doing this, and his team would get a small edge over their rivals. Over time the British cycling time were less ill than their rivals. Brailsford was right. It is the tiny things that count, and within teaching we should make small tweaks here and there to improve our lessons and develop student achievement levels.
John Hattie backs this up in his ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ book. He has said that “achievement is changeable and leads to higher gains”. It could be argued that Hattie is the Bowie of the teaching world. In my school we have spent time looking at the Hattie, Claxton and Dweck focusing on their approaches to teaching and learning and, personally, thinking like Bowie! They are the teaching ‘Rock Gods’ of the moment. They are not afraid to say how it is and what we could be doing to make education better. Hattie said, ‘Educating students to have high, challenging and appropriate expectations is among the most powerful influence in enhancing student achievement.’ Bowie would expect each new album to be a success, and we could apply this to our students giving them high expectations.
Admittedly, some things are going to work and some things are not. But isn’t that the excitement of teaching, every day is different. We have outstanding lessons where everything works, but then we try something new and risky. It works wonders or sinks like a lead balloon. But in teaching we have to take risks or nothing changes and it becomes boring. Bowie wouldn’t stand for that, and nor should we.
Trying new things out and taking that risk could spark that neurone in a student’s head and get them interested. We have millions of neurones; imagine one idea making one spark. Caltech and UCLA scientists use pictures of celebrities to study how the brain processes what the eyes see. In 2005 they found an individual nerve cell that fired only when subjects were shown pictures of Jennifer Aniston. Another neuron responded only to pictures of Halle Berry. Follow up studies suggest that relatively few neurones are involved in representing any given person, place, or concept, making the brain staggeringly efficient at storing information. By us trialling new ideas out we could be sparking and firing up an unused part of the brain in our students heads!
As teachers we mustn’t be afraid of taking risks and challenging ourselves. This would ultimately be raising the bar and could only improve teaching. If Bowie was running the Department of Education change, would definitely be on the agenda. It might not all work, but imagine the fun we would have. Think like Bowie next time you are planning and teaching. What would Bowie do?
Do you have any particular role models for teaching? Let us know in the comments.