The Unteachables I: I can’t even remember how to learn, it’s been so long since I’ve been doin’ it.

Only three years after it screened in the UK, The Unteachables (Channel 4) hit our screens (Friday nights, TV1).

Led by the late, great educationalist, Professor Ted Wragg, the programme (‘research’ project) sets out to explore what it takes to engage some of the country’s most difficult students, excluded from the schools many times and often out of English (and other subjects) for several terms. The kids are housed in a barn (a significance not lost of this viewer).

The man responsible for the shift is English teacher extraordinaire (“miracle worker”, “respected” and “adored”), Phil Beadle, teacher of the year in 2004 and contributor of his own English Master Classes to TeachersTV. His mockney accent thickening perceptibly when ‘dumbing down’ his language for the kids (his biggest fear is that he won’t “connect with at least a couple of them“), he vacillates between delivering calm mini-lectures on Gardner’s multiple intelligences (see image) which all teachers should be obviously be addressing and the kind of nervous energy that would exhaust any normal human being after one lesson. The man must spend his holidays recovering in a darkened room somewhere very, very quiet.
[His words of wisdom remind me that researchers in the UK tracked all students excluded in a given period and concluded that 80% were kinesthetic learners. This kind of sound data is even requested on permanent exclusion forms (giving rise, no doubt to, “he threw a chair at me so I concluded he was a kinesthetic learner”).]

The kids are made for a TV producer’s dream, all f-ing c-t this and d-kh-d that. Oh no, that’s Phil again with his dumbed down kid-speak. There’s Kirsty (“My god, she’s going to come at me!”), Grace (“Just the thought of anger management makes me angry”; Wragg remarks, almost admiringly, that “she’d be good in a war.”) and Dale, the toughest of the lot who looks he should still be at junior school but can smoke like a pro and is fluent in vivid Anglo-Saxon. Yet, plucky Phil wins them over by teaching punctuation in the style of a Samurai warrior. But of course.

With all respect to Wragg (who’s thinking has influenced thousands of teachers), how fair and reliable can any conclusions about effective teaching be when we know the editors sit behind their wizard’s curtain at Channel 4 weaving a visual narrative that does more to teach us about how to manipulate your TV audience than about manipulating troublesome teens. And what might we conclude, from the way the narrative is presented? That being a bad kid is damn good fun (little cheeky tikes, bless’em). That the teachers just haven’t been doing it right.

That the only way to succeed is to teach out of your socks as though every day is your last.

To be continued….

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