How Learning and Teaching Shape Us

Warning: This theory was dreamt up in a pub, whilst not entirely sober. It may therefore be utter bollocks… so. You know. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Photo by @SpiralSkies

Anyway. I was in the pub the other night talking to a friend, and he described three types of people:

  • Those that do the donkey work. They don’t have any singular skills, they just have to work hard.
  • Those that have one thing they’re really good at.
  • Those that like to explore and be creative. They have ideas, they discover new things, but they might not be particularly good at any one thing.

I’m not convinced you can easily categorise people like that — I think everybody’s multifaceted. Most people have several things they’re good at. Many people have things they are passionate about, but they’ve never had the chance to develop those skills. Or the skills exist, but they’ve never had the opportunity (or inclination, or confidence) to showcase them.

I think I’d rather repackage my friend’s categories as follows:

  • Those that have never had the opportunity to show what they can do, or the freedom to explore.
  • Those that have managed to excel in at least one area.
  • Those that have decided not to focus on just one thing, and have found the opportunity to explore in many directions.

This is a generalisation, obviously. People can move between categories, exist in more than one category at once, or occupy some other category that I haven’t even listed. But stay with me. I think the way people are taught will edge them towards one of those categories:

Some teaching consists of somebody waving a big stick at you. Learn this thing, or else. There are at least three responses to this:

  • Work hard, avoid the stick. You don’t want to be hit by the stick! You’ll do whatever is required to avoid that stick, and that might mean working really hard and becoming good at something.
  • Give up all hope. You’re going to keep getting hit by that stick. You learn to expect the stick. You deserve the stick. You’re a useless fecker and it’s all a waste of time. Whatever. (You think I joke? Try teaching in an inner city high school. Watch all those kids that have come to believe they will always be stupid, and have given up. It’s heart-breaking.)
  • Refuse to play. You wanna keep hitting me with a stick? Bring it on. I’ll hit you back. I DON’T CARE. I’M NOT PLAYING YOUR STUPID GAMES.

Teachers who bring their big sticks to work believe it will create people in the first category. These teachers are either sadists or they believe they’re motivating people to work hard and succeed. It works, sometimes. Not all the time.

But even when it works, it can create people who are good at things purely for the sake of success. They are less likely (IMDHO) to experience the joy of doing something just because they enjoy doing it.

The people in the second and third categories? They’re the ones who either end up doing the grunt work, working hard with little joy, reward or “success”… or they end up doing nothing at all… or they may rebel their way to a great place where they have the freedom of creativity and exploration.

There’s another way to that place, though. Another way of becoming one of the creators, one of the experimenters. And that’s when you’re lucky enough to encounter another style of teaching. This is the “Let’s Explore” style.

A confession: I am a sad embittered ex high-school maths teacher. One of the most frustrating things about my experience was that I was shown a beautiful vision of the future, only to have it smashed around my ears. I was taught about how much more effective maths teaching can be if you DON’T give pupils the answers, DON’T treat maths as a series of boring questions with boring solutions that are either right or wrong (with the inevitable sense of failure — accompanied by a metaphorical stick — when your answers aren’t ‘correct’). Instead, give students problems to explore. Encourage them to theorise, to experiment, to discover their own truths*.

And then I was chucked out into the UK state school system, which leaves you with minimal space, opportunity or energy to do anything of the sort. Whether you want to or not, you end up wielding a big stick. And it sucks.

But when students are given the chance to explore… when they are explicitly taught to explore… without any big sticks lurking in the background (e.g. the soul-destroying exam system)… that’s when creativity is given its wings. That’s how you end up with the third type of person. We can all be that kind of person.

We just need the freedom to breathe.

— — — — — — — — — — —

Talks I’m doing soon on the subject of teaching and learning are listed below this photo (just so you don’t miss the picture, because it’s my favourite):

Photo by @SpiralSkies

Talks I’m doing soon on the subject of teaching and learning:

*Some great resources for people who want to teach and learn maths via exploration:




@ClareSudbery - freelance technical agile coach, maths geek, XP enthusiast, podcaster (, novelist (, sleep evangelist #BLM

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Clare Sudbery

Clare Sudbery

@ClareSudbery — Freelance technical agile coach, podcaster (, novelist (, sleep evangelist #BLM

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