Turning Fear into Exhilaration

“The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime”

Tom Sherrington talked about the fear in teaching in his blog post here and immediately grabbed my attention with some Ian Brown. By the end of the post, I stepped back took a deep breath and was ready to begin to tackle the work waiting for me but not in the way I would have normally gone about things – the bleary post new year eyes glazing as yet another Macbeth essay passes underneath my nose and lands in the done pile – but in a way that was reinvigorated and looking at the way to create the ‘rainforest’ analogy within my classroom.

I agree with Tom that the kind of fear he describes is one of the most counter-productive and negative aspect of education but I feel fear can be harnessed as a good thing. In John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ (sat proudly by my computer in all its new post Christmas present glory) his analogy surrounding Outdoor Activities having a high impact on classroom learning rang true and suddenly enabled me to clarify why some of my lessons were successful and some not so. Reflecting on my own experiences of education and linking these to Hattie’s analogy, the exhilaration of going over the edge when abseiling is provided by the fear of it going wrong and the rush of wanting to repeat that process is through the incredible rush of self-confidence (some might say in some activities the brief ideas of immortality, indefatigably or conquest that the moment gives you). This is turning fear into exhilaration.

Looking at this against Tom’s post, it is clear there are two types of fear: productive and counter-productive. Somewhere at sometime this was the idea in setting up regulatory bodies: create fear and drive exhilaration but as Tom points out, this has become counter-productive.


The regulatory system has become focused on outcomes measured by data. Data does not take into account experiences and individuals. Data is measured by targets and (making this next point based on the majority of students I’ve taught and schools I’ve taught at) targets create a feeling of relief when they are met and frustration and fear when they are not. This is not exhilarating. Relief is not a feeling that life-long learning can be based upon, which I believe is the key skill that many industries bodies dress up as ‘students not being ready for work’ when they comment within the media about the current education system.

When in our working life do we ever have as many diverse targets as a GCSE student has to manage on a weekly basis? If we were to sit down in ‘mentoring meetings’ and asked once every 4 weeks to explain why we are not meeting our target grade and when we finally meet or exceed them be told ‘well done’ but why are you not meeting your target in another subject that you are under-performing in, would we feel motivated? Does this experience create aspiration and exhilaration or  relief / frustration?

So with a combination of target grades (or worse ‘aspirational target grades’ set at a level that often seems unattainable to a student who has had so much data on their own educational progress throughout their 10 or 11 years of education that, in their mind, they are easily the most qualified person to judge what they can and can’t achieve) and mentoring there has been a culture created that focuses on relief as a result of fear rather than exhilaration because of conquering fear.

2012 marked ten years since I had left secondary education and having grown up in the Scottish education system but taught and trained in the English education system, I am often left reflecting on my own experience and wondering if it is the systems , the up-bringing or the person that has led me to seeing many students have a different experience to what I had at school. I certainly don’t have enough information to judge that but a feeling I had at school when I got each of my own assignments back was ‘wow – this is what I can do: I wonder if I can do more?’ and each time I showed I could do more (through skilful teaching and feedback) I felt exhilarated. I’m not sure if all students get this feeling from their education.

There was one experience that was different to this – my art lessons. After my second year of High School I stopped taking art. Two experiences informed this decision.

The first was at Primary School when we had a school trip to the McManus Gallery in Dundee. Now my primary teacher took us there and told us we were all going because we could all be artists. We were to look at the paintings and try to copy their style because we could all aspire to be artists like the men and women hung on the gallery wall. I remember feeling so low as I looked at my target hung on the cold white walls and looked at the paper I had been trying to replicate it on and seeing through precocious seven year old eyes that they did not match and I had failed. The teacher told me I had done well – I could see by simple spot the difference that this was wrong and I couldn’t see anyway I could get to that level. I was given a target that was ‘aspirational’ and I had no way of getting there. My mother often took myself and my brother to art galleries and though my brother loved to stand and observe the paintings, I hated it and rushed through the gallery as each painting was a reminder of what I couldn’t achieve.

The second experiences was in my last year of High School art, where our art teacher had asked us to design the label for a new packet of crisps. He had lots of bags of crisps out on the table for us to look at and then try our own. I copied a Walker’s label (in my eyes) perfectly and took it to the teacher. He said ‘no – that’s not what I asked you to do – create your own’. I went back and combined the Golden Wonder’s label with the Walker’s label  and took it back to receive the same answer. Third time lucky I tried my own and was quite proud yet got the answer of ‘it is too simple you need to be more detailed – I think when you choose your options you should avoid art you are unlikely to do very well and you should focus on some of the subjects you are good at’.

Although tremendously demotivating, it was sage advice. I look at the GCSE / A-Level Art Galleries at the end of each year and marvel at the skill students show and always try to work out whether I could have achieved that at the same age. The answer is always: I could have achieved something but I’m not sure it would fit into the qualification’s criteria.

The twist in the tale here is that I went on to do Art at University with Music Technology – two subjects that I had not taken any formal qualifications in. Through a serendipitous change of heart, I ditched Russian History – a subject that had exhilarated me at school – for Art as I had decided I wanted to work in film sound and needed some backgrounding in the visual arts to succeed at this.

As a 17 year old I walked into my first Art class at university and it was life drawing. There in front of me were my worst nightmares: a blank canvas (my teen and pre-teen stigma surrounding art and drawing gnawed at the back of my mind), a group of confident people who had done life drawing at schools and colleges who were confident in their own style and every teenage boy’s nightmare, a naked middle aged female that you not only had to look at, draw and show your work to, but also converse and ask her to change position every now and again to add to your work. The first ten minutes of that seminar were possibly the most heart stopping moments of my university educaton. The only advice I had about art was ringing in my ears ‘too simple, more detail, choose something you are good at’.

The fear quickly turned to exhilaration as someone was complimentary about what I had produced and I began to love life drawing. A friend’s brother was also at the same university but a few years older. He was in the throws of dissertation and exams and he asked me what classification of degree I wanted to get. I did find this a bizarre question. The outcome of my three years wasn’t really playing on my mind as a first year. I said ‘well I don’t know what I’m capable of yet but I’ll aim for a first and work from their’.

I did find out what I was capable of: ‘Life Drawing Unit Semester 1 2002 – 67% – I love the simplicity of your  approach to life drawing. The clean and simple lines create very evocative pieces.’ 3% away from a first and the tutor using the words that had haunted me from the age of 13 in a positive way. To that tutor, I am forever in debt. I was exhilarated and I built upon that success to gain first class honours in Music Technology and Art.

Barnett Newman who I discovered and fell in love with his paintings at university

So the long and winding road of anecdotes takes me to the crux of my argument. Fear can be productive in education. Fear should be encouraged within education because fear creates exhilaration and lifelong learning. The change I want to see within my lifetime is an attitude change. I want to see that teachers do not fear Secretary of States, Ofsted, Line Managers, Results, Scrutinies, Deviating from Schemes Of Work, Innovating within the classroom and the disruptive behaviour that we all experience at points in our careers.

I want productive fear in education – my fear is that students don’t leave my classroom exhilarated about what they have, can and could achieve. I fear that students are relieved when they meet their targets rather than exhilarated by their ability to achieve more than their targets. I fear that the students in my class don’t know how to deal with ‘perceived failure’ and feel limited and ‘unintelligent’ rather than exhilarated that they have completed part of a longer journey. I fear that students will give up when faced with fear and uncertainty rather than experience the exhilaration of conquering that fear. If exhilaration in education happens in every classroom across the country rather than small pockets here and there, all the fears that Tom Sherrington outlined will take care of themselves.

How can exhilaration be measured in education? Does it need to be measured? I’ll leave that to those who wield the yardsticks but if it is present then there is nothing wrong with the U.K.’s education system.

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here: http://share.edutronic.net/

This should not be our OFSTED face -it should be our ‘students leaving our education with a feeling of relief’ face

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