Making Choices

12 07 2009

[You can listen to this letter here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store.]

Learning how to teach is a fascinating business. Just a few years ago, I was sitting on the other side of the classroom. It all seemed very straightforward then: explain something to the class and get them to copy down some notes about it. If there was any trouble, a bit of shouting and threatening body language would do the trick.

Making Choices

Well, either I missed quite a lot while I was at school, or the changes in education over the last few years have been astonishing. It turns out that teaching is quite a sophisticated business. Let’s put aside for a moment all the work that goes into lesson planning, practice questions, scheme of work composition etcetera. The big issue that everybody always wants to talk about is behaviour management.

Here I’m sure that there have been some developments, and they are all positive. Today teachers are encouraged to use the language of choice. The emphasis is no longer on the pupil’s behaviour itself, but rather on the choice that pupil has made to misbehave, and the choice they must make about whether to continue. It may sound rather unlikely, but it’s actually rather effective. That is, apart from when dealing with a smart-alec.

“Connor, what should you be choosing to do?”

“Getting on with the work, Mr Townsend”

“And what are you choosing to do?”

“Smear Pritt Stick in Emily’s hair, Mr Townsend”

Trying to employ this practise in the classroom over the last week has set me thinking about the way in which our lives are dominated by our choices.

At school we may choose whether to behave or not, and that has implications for our success in exams. On the whole we choose our careers – even if the availability of certain jobs is out of our hands, we choose to join the public, private or third sector. We choose to spend our money in certain ways – some people on cars, clothes and jewellery. Others enjoy a good holiday.

We don’t always put a lot of thought into our choices, but they do remain our choices. We have chosen to consume enough alcohol to send even the most resilient ladette goggle-eyed. Similarly I can’t imagine a lot of thought goes into the choice to participate in the Pamplona Bull Run.

If this event does have any rational basis, then I would be delighted to have it explained to me. As far as I can see, a number bulls are released into the crowded streets of Pamplona. As they charge their way towards the bull ring, participants make a half-hearted attempt to race them, with rather unconvincing attempts to avoid being seriously injured. In fact, I suspect that getting injured is sort of the point of the whole thing.

Apparently the bull run is all part of a religious festival, celebrated in several towns around Spain. The Pamplona version was made famous by a Ernest Hemmingway, when he used it as the backdrop to one of his novels.

Since 1910 (why this date is the starting point for the statistic, again I do not know) many hundreds of people have been seriously injured and fifteen people have lost their lives to being gored. My first reaction to this statistic is mixed. On the one hand I had expected more fatalities. Fifteen in just under a hundred years is not bad for a festival based on releasing angry bulls into large crowds.

On the other hand, it is clearly a very dangerous pastime, and one would have thought steps could have been taken to limit the human peril – say removing the bulls’ horns, or at least putting corks on them.

Actually, steps have been taken in recent years. The cobbles of Pamplona have been covered in a special paint which provides extra grip… but this is to stop the bulls falling over, as it was considered cruel otherwise. The human element was ignored. Still, as people seem so mindlessly and pointlessly to observe, three thousand people are killed on our roads every year. An interesting question is whether we can say that, like the bull runners of Pamplona, they also chose to be one the roads.

Of course, choice is supposed to be the basis of our system of government – democracy.  But the theory doesn’t always work. Once you remove the fact that one party has been in power for twelve years, and the other hasn’t, how much genuine choice is there between our political parties? Many would say that there is nothing to choose between.

There is a famous gag about the Soviet Union’s attempts at democracy. It goes like this: even if they did allow another party, we would still be a one-party state… because everybody would choose to leave the communist party.

Not only do our choices shape our lives, they also say a lot about who we are and what we value. I happened to find myself observing a debate at the Church of England’s Synod this weekend. Like everybody else, the Church is facing a drop in income as a result of the recession. The question was which one of the Church’s many worthwhile activities would have to be sacrificed.

The proposed budget had chosen, among other things, Youth Work to be labelled non-essential, or rather “organisationally avoidable”. Well, as you can imagine, this didn’t go down very well at all. The Bishop of Lincoln explained that the choices we make with our money are a pretty indication of what is important to us.

Another choice that we have seen this week is the choice of the people of a small town in Wiltshire. In April 2007, due to resurfacing of the runway at RAF Brize Norton, RAF Lyneham became the returning station for the bodies of British Military personnel killed overseas.

Now, any military death must be examined by a coroner immediately upon the body’s arrival back in the UK. It so happens that the town of Wotton Basset lies on most direct route between RAF Lyneham and the Oxfordshire Coroner’s office at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford. For that reason, and for that reason alone, the small town become the focal point for a moving and solemn ritual.

Whenever there is a returning body (sometimes alone, sometimes in a long convoy) to be transported, the people of Wotton Basset choose to take it upon themselves to recognise the nation’s gratitude. Without invitation, without organisation, without even any public announcement, people gather in their hundreds, sometimes thousands, to stand in silence. Apparently the event is extraordinarily powerful, and the military have said that it means a great deal to them.

What is most important is none of these people are compelled to be there. They have made a choice.

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