Sunday, 30 January 2011

Teaching styles in the Movies #4: Lionel Logue, The King's Speech

Too soon?
In a film of many wonderful moments, there's an especially wonderful moment at the beginning of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper's Oscar hoover currently tarting around an Odeon near you. Prince Albert, the future King George VI is suffering yet another quack cure to remedy his lifelong stammer; this time, the portly sawbones is trying to get him to entertain a host of marbles in his royal mouth in the manner of a small boy's pocket. This state, plus the act of speaking through them will, the fat quack assures him, lead to the exorcism of his oral awkwardness.

Of course it does no such thing, instead nearly bringing about what would surely be history's least dignified regicide: death by marble-gargling. Understandably, Albert stalks off in a hissy fit, spitting slimy marbles on a perfectly good regency carpet and undoubtedly bemoaning his inability to have the man locked in the Tower. 'It worked for Demosthenes,' says the good Doctor, in his defence (moments after recommending that smoking will assist his attempts to be cured by relaxing the throat. I suspect it would take a snout of more Caribbean qualities to have that effect).

My room, my rules

As soon as I saw that scene I was hugging myself with joy, suspecting that the witch doctor was presented in order to magnify the man who followed him- I could smell an emergent movie hero of education. Sure enough, I wasn't disappointed with Geoffrey Rush's magnificent tutor Lionel Logue. Rush, who appears to have remained the same age for around forty years, has a humble first few scenes, without any foreshadowing of the great events in which he is to play a pivotal part. Albert's wife, the Duchess of York meets with Logue at his modest offices and at first flirts with discretion about the identity of her intended patient; unconvinced, she is forced to reveal that the patient will be Albert, at which point Lionel endures a visible spasm of surprise.

'So you'll be expected to treat him at the palace,' says the Duchess.
'No. He has to come here. Prince or no prince. My room, my rules,' says the stubborn Logue.

Lionel, you had me at 'No'.

'Hitler's b-b-b-beastly.'
As soon as that syllable passed your teeth I knew that this was a role model for everyone. How many teachers have forgotten this simple sentiment? How many children are even aware of it? For a start very few of us have anything like a room we can call our own, one we can dress and tend and build in our image; for the majority of teachers, the school day is a diaspora as we trudge like Hebrew slaves from well to well, our arms stacked with papers, books and pencil cases in an improbable, wobbling tower. Few joys define the itinerant teacher's classroom experience as much as arriving at the room five minutes after the students, only to find that in your absence they have telepathically decided to enact 'The Lord of the Flies' in an attempt at thirty-second theatre. If you're lucky they'll recognise that your part is that of the Naval Officer at the end. If not, you're Piggy.

By that point the damage is done, and can only be undone, or (more likely) partially amended; the teacher spends the next five minutes rearranging anarchic seating plans, defusing tribal warfare, and obtaining unanimity of direction and gaze. The room was theirs, and you have to wrest it from them.

I led some seminars yesterday with the TES on Behaviour Management with two lovely groups; one issue that one group focused on was the question of owning the room. I emphasised that one of the fundamentals of running a class is that the students perceive the space in which you coexist as being under your stewardship, and that this could be achieved by imagining that it actually did belong to you; in that case, no one but you has the authority to open windows, adjust heating, rearrange furniture etc. This lets the class know that you are in charge of the environment as well as their custody. Logue's explicit insistence that his treatment room is his space is a reflection of this necessity. He reinforces it further when Albert, finally persuaded by desperation to attend the sessions, tries to give it the big 'I am' with Logue, pulling out a Benson and Hedges (I like to think) and looking for someone poor off whom to light a match. Logue doesn't let us down, demanding that the sessions be a smoke-free zone, Prince or no bloody Prince.

Nobody was born to play uptight, awkward, testy Englishmen like Colin Firth; it's his superpower, and somewhere, Hugh Grant is weeping in homage to his ability to display the splutter and phlegm of a disappointed, dis-empowered monarch. 'How do I address you?' enquires Logue. 'Your Royal Highness,' he is told, 'The first time; after that, Your Majesty.' 'Bertie, I think,' says the obviously suicidal Logue. This isn't madness, though. This is Sparta. My room, my rules.

Oscar bait.
Every teacher needs to fix this as a North Star in their self-image: my room, my rules. We don't negotiate this premise; we don't compromise, or prevaricate about it. We don't discuss which rules we should have, or who's really in charge: it's a first principle of classroom management. If the room doesn't belong to you, it belongs to everyone, or no one, or more likely, the strongest arm and the loudest throat in the room. If you're not comfortable with the idea of being in charge, you have no business being in charge of children, their well being, their education or the sliver of their futures to which you are the custodian.

It worked for Demosthenes

Returning to the well-meaning, useless witch doctor at the start of the movie, I was struck by how similar he was, in origin and execution, to the current predicament of the teacher. I'm not suggesting that anyone is trying to stuff sterilised glass balls in anyone's mouth (although if they are, it would make a tremendous Swan-Song case for the GTC). Drowning in a priori assumptions, he attempts to apply fashionable (in this case ancient) orthodoxies to real-life situations, despite an almost intuitive apprehension on the part of everyone else that this might be as useful as a telephone made of bananas. When I entered the Secret Garden of Education, I was assured that students had VAK (verbal, audio or kinaesthetic) learning style preferences; that red ink would cauterise their emotional growth; that if everyone tried on different learning hats then we'd all graduate with firsts, and that if you enforced a no-hands-up rule, the dull child would blossom into a savant. These dogma are toppling as I write, have toppled in pockets of enlightened practise, but still endure, like superstitions, in many dark places.

This is the appalling place that education finds itself in now; an unimaginable position of barbarity and shamanism- in the 21st century- where the latest piece of research is assimilated without challenge into established practise; where axioms of good learning and behaviour, such as an assertive discipline centred around reward and sanctions, or teacher-led education, have been vilified by a progressive Mafia of theorists and social engineers who often have never seen the inside of a classroom unless they had a clipboard or questionnaire in their roguish hands.

If they learned, you taught them: experience trumps theory in the classroom

Logue is raffish, often rude, eccentric and at times confrontational, but he has one thing in his favour; his methods worked. What he didn't have was a Ph.D. in speech therapy, or a placatory certificate, which is probably just as well, because while he was antagonising the future monarch, people who were qualified speech therapists were stuffing marbles into people's throats and asking them to sing Rule Britannia. What he had was a track record of helping people with stammers, using techniques that he learned from humble acting beginnings, on poor chaps back from the trenches who bottled up their shell shock and demons by stuttering.

'Well if it's so uncomfortable, put the marbles in your mouth.'
In some ways that's how the skill of teaching progresses: we enter classrooms with some theory, some character (if we're lucky) and then we see what works. We try tough; we try tender; we try treats; we try torments. We learn (if we're paying attention, if we care) how to speak, how to command, how to encourage and stimulate, when to reinforce and when to question. These aren't skills that can be delivered from books and lectures; these have to be experienced in order to be assimilated. This isn't memorising a route; this is riding a bike.

Of course theories play a part; the wisdom of those who have preceded us is an essential element of this process, as is self-discipline, honesty, and the capacity to intelligently reflect on our experiences. I have learned by far the greatest portion of my approach in the classroom, then pondering on my bike journey home. Only a fraction of my practise was born in the lecture theatre or tutorial room- it was simply too remote to the experience of teaching.

Lionel Logue may have lacked certification; but his techniques worked, so despite the attempt to discredit him by the Archbishop of Canterbury (who in the movie helpfully stands in as the Forces of the Reactionary Establishment, which is kind of him) Albert trusts him, and his trust is paid off in an elegant crescendo at the end, where Bertie apparently defeats Hitler through an unusual way of descending onto phonic plosives, or saying 'f*ck, b*gger' in between difficult consonants. (There is, I must say, an unusual divergence from the cinematic norm at this point: Beethoven's sublime Seventh Symphony, second movement is used as a metronomic counterbalance to the tension and slowly released drama and joy of the finale; usually such a sweeping score is used as a replacement for dramatic tension (see: House, anything on BBC1-4, any movie with a vampire in it), not as a scaffolding.)

The point is that often, theory attempts to replace experience in the practise of education, and this often results in a kind of Frankenstein lesson plan, where the modern practitioner is so busy trying to shoehorn SEAL, PLTS, differentiation, AFL, evidence of progress, positive rewards and group work into a fifty minute slot, that there appears to be very little time left for actual teaching amongst all the flim-flam. Like a bowl of vitamins for dinner, the science looks good, but it fails to satisfy.

So to Hell with the latest research that indicates that children learn better hanging upside down, or facing east, or rubbing their brain buttons or something; science, as I frequently rant, is the best guess we've got, and I salute its effectiveness against the crystal balls of superstition and cant. Social science doesn't share the same space on the podium; it must always be one step down in our estimation, because even by its own standards it doesn't delivery the certainty of the empirical method, such as it is. But then it doesn't claim to be, at least not in the hands of repsectable practitioners. But in the hands of social science acolytes, the practise becomes a racket, and everyone suffers by its claims to orthodoxy.

'Curse you Logue, and your phonics!'
The King's Speech is an excellent film (Christopher Hitchens provides a commentary on its relative worth as a piece of history here). Lionel Logue knew that what worked was what was important in his notional classroom, and damn anyone with their voodoo statistics that, twisted beyond recognition, claimed that smoking cured cancer and aided the recovery of good diction. We, as teachers, should go forth and do likewise, and learn to trust our instincts as we gain them.

We aren't the slaves of theoretical dogma; we are the builders of the new pyramid. Until that changes, nobody tells us how to hold a chisel the right way.

Lionel Logue- Heroes of Education #4

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