Embracing the Impossibility of Teaching.

You Should Know This:

‘I really hate it when teachers say things like: “you should know this” or “this is Year Seven work” or “this was in your KS3 textbook [you] should have learnt this”. It makes me feel even more pathetic than I already am!’

Year 9 Student. Focus Group – Written Suggestion.

A student in my Year Nine focus group wrote this in response to the question: ‘What would it be helpful for your teachers to understand about your experiences in their lessons?’ Repeating similar focus groups across three secondary schools, I found such moments were common. Follow-up conversations with teachers and students revealed that the words ‘You Should Know This’ were typically uttered as part of the following sequence.

First, the teacher finds that some students do not know what they should for the planned lesson to work. This leads them to tell the class ‘You Should Know This’ (or words to that effect). They may illustrate this point by reminding students of when they ‘learnt’ it. The teacher then often proceeds to teach the class as if they did know ‘this’, despite having just established that some students did not.

Last year I explored the diversity of pupil experiences which this ubiquitous moment reveals. ‘You Should Know This, rEDHome. Now, I would like to explore what it reveals about the teaching experience. How do we teachers make sense of, and make decisions within, the complex reality of our role.

Fantasy and External Reality

‘Fantasy is a double-edge sword – it solves problems and gives expression to wishes at the same time that it denies external reality.’

The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change, Seymour B Sarason

Fantasy: The faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things.’

(from : Oxford Languages)

The sense of frustration wrapped up in the should of ‘you should know this‘ – that things ought to be different – is rooted in our desire for an improbably fantasy to be realised. We would prefer it if events in our professional lives followed a storyline in which we play a noble, integral role. However our relative ignorance of other minds, the diversity within our classrooms, and the practical constraints of our job will inevitably ensure that individual students’ learning often fails to follow the course we have mapped out.

As Graham Nuthall writes

Because of individual differences in prior knowledge, as well as the differences in the way students engage in classroom activities, each student experiences the classroom differently, so much so that about a third of what a student learns is unique to that student; it is not learned by other students in the class.”’.

The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall

As a teacher, am I doomed to repeated moments of frustration when events fail to transpire as they ought?

In a sense, yes. The job presents impossible challenges.  But if you’re a teacher you probably know this already!

US Sociologist Seymour Sarason, spent his career working with and interviewing US teachers, he stated that the ‘modal teacher’ had come to accept the inherent impossibility of their task (and that administrators were often blind to it). Most teachers he met were of the understanding that achieving uniform success was an impossibility.

This need not be as demoralising as it sounds. Accepting the limits of any attempt to rationalise and inform actions within a complex system can be both cathartic and empowering. Mary Kennedy’s work around the persistent problems of teaching is a fantastic example of this approach. Her starting point is the recognition that the challenge of teaching multiple individuals simultaneously will inevitably produce persistent problems which we can respond to more or less effectively. However our responses will necessarily entail considered compromises. There is something powerful simply in the act of sharing this language. The sophisticated but optimistic story Kennedy tells about teaching is an appealing one. It allows a more nuanced and practical response to the inevitable challenges of teaching.

Complex systems will resist our attempts to control them and defy efforts to neatly resolve the challenges and contradictions which they entail. Frustration at complexity merely existing is wasted effort.

We might prefer that things were other. But they are not. Just as King Canute would have been foolish to rail against the tide’s refusal to follow his bidding, we achieve little by willing that the system was merely complicated and amenable to resolution rather than complex. This complexity denial is driven perhaps by our belief (or desire) that the system is essentially rational, knowable, and fixable. Winnable even.

Perhaps, deep down, we suspect otherwise but find this thought hard to countenance. To do so is to question the validity of our own efforts, the sacrifices we make, and the meaning we take from our jobs.  Avoiding this troubling thought can, ironically, lead us to double down on our efforts. Striving harder to reach a particular end, or at least to absolve ourselves of responsibility when (as we already suspect) it is not adequately realised.

Quiet Desperation: Being a school, of doing your best but never being good enough.

In one workload interview I conducted a few years ago, a hard-working but demoralised senior leader described the challenge she felt daily of ‘being a school, of doing your best but never being good enough’.

Most people, wrote David Henry Thoreau in Walden, ‘live lives of quiet desperation.’ Though there are moments of joy, significance and fun, quiet desperation is also a common feature of the teaching experience! Despite its ubiquity this moment is rarely analysed beyond the immediate emotion which it induces. This partly a consequence of the busyness of the job and partly that of complexity denial.

We, or those for whom we are working, may need us to work as if complexity didn’t exist. Maintaining this fantasy is, in itself, hard work. However, in the moment, with oft harried minds and limited cognitive slack it may seem preferable to stopping, looking up and recognising a deeper problem.

Thoreau went on to suggest than some men [sic] ‘live lives of resignation, which is but confirmed desperation.’ Friends of mine who have left teaching cite the pressure of the impossible demands as a major factor. Resignation can also be a state of mind of course.  It is a mindset which jaded professionals may feel drawn to.  We may take a kind of resigned solace in recognising ahead of time that complexity will frustrate the latest popular but naïve attempt to resolve an intractable problem.

Of course silver-bullet solutions which promise to fix wicked social problems by tampering with schooling will fail. An awareness of complexity, and experience of working within the education system for a sustained period will (hopefully) teach us this. Over-time we may become anaesthetised to naively expecting these fixes to live up to their initial hype.

How though can we avoid cynical resignation? Merely pointing out that any individual story fails to accurately capture the system, or that individual programmes and projects will fail to tame it is fairly redundant. Of course they do and of course they won’t. Despite the challenges of working in a complex environment we need make practical decisions. I would like to proactively engage with persistent problems rather than deny or bemoan them. There is, I hope, a middle way.

The Far Side of Complexity

US Supreme court judge , Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr once wrote

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”

Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr

This simplicity is a mindset as much as it is a particular set of ideas. It includes the recognition that any given map which we rely on to make sense of and inform our actions is provisional, sketchy and subject to change – both because we will encounter new perspectives and ideas and because the terrain which we are navigating is itself in a state of flux.

We need stories, mental models and maps to make sense of our place in the system and inform our actions.  We can use them (rather than be dictated to by them) if we hold onto them rather more loosely.

‘You should know this.’ This statement expresses a wish but denies external reality. Existentially it won’t help me to dwell on the frustration which it might provoke. Practically the moment presents me with the need to act in a way which acknowledges and then works with the impossibility of classroom teaching.

Sometimes, when it becomes clear that some students do not know what they ‘should’ , I can pause, change plans and explaining ‘this’ again. Sometimes I may need to accept that ‘this’ will have to be skipped over today. The finite number of lessons available and predetermined course content might mean this is a necessary compromise. Overtime, I may be able to reduce the frequency of such moments – but I suspect they can never be entirely eliminated.

Our individual classroom teaching experiences and those of each of our students  are shaped, to some degree by the system in which they exist and the assumptions upon which this system rests.

Sociologist Seymour Sarson points out that this system will inevitably function differently for different students. 

[A graded school system,] taking a new crop of children every year at five [to six] years of age, moving them through their studies in “lock-step” fashion ‘til graduation, makes an assumption about the equality, motivation, and performance for children of similar age that the reality of individual differences rudely challenges.

‘You should know this’ moments are inevitable. Our responses can be more or less effective. Different teachers may choose to make different compromises in responding to them. Stating that reality should be different may be cathartic but we need to tread carefully.

The individual student feels worse, ‘even more pathetic’ (in her words) after these moments.

I am aware that the mental state of individual students is not the direct product of any single teacher’s rushed utterance. Equally, the word ‘should’ may be used by a teacher merely to explain necessary prior understanding prior to the introduction of a new idea. There may not be any blame implied on the students part.

However, at times, working with focus groups in a various secondary schools, I did get the impression that harried teachers sometimes transferred onto students their need for teaching to work as it should. I wonder whether our need for a naive model to work juxtaposed with palpable evidence that it isn’t produces a problem which we resolve by jumping to one of two equally unhelpful conclusions

  • It must me my fault- clearly I’m not teaching properly.
  • It must be the students’ fault – they are not learning as they should.

My colleague Dan Boorman often speaks about the irrational work and anxiety produced when we scramble around trying to prop up a model of schooling which clashes with reality. If we intend to navigate a career in education it may help us to remember that dwelling on how things ‘should’ be is rarely helpful.

  • It’s not our job to defeat complexity. We should resist attempts to tell us that it is. Especially when the source of this unreasonable demand is ourselves!
  • The existence of ‘persistent problems’ are neither an affront to our professionalism or our students’ adequacy. They are built into the model of schooling within which we work.
  • The small stories which individual students, teachers and leaders are living are important, impossible to control, and largely hidden from us.

Two perspectives have helped me to reflect on of the meaning making which professions, like teaching often involve.


In The Road Less Travelled, M Scott Peck, frames humans as explorers, navigating a complex and changing landscape. In doing so we develop mental maps of the world. These maps guide our behaviour but are only ever provisional. They need constant revising, sometimes redrawing, something we are often reluctant to do. Instead, we exert considerable efforts pressing on and ignoring the dissonance under out noses.  Willing the world to conform to self-evidently flawed mental cartography allows us to defer the strain and uncertainty involved in redrafting it. But comes at a cost.


What story do I tell myself about my role, about what I am and should be doing, about the effect I can ave upon others? What are the dominant stories that others society, policy makers, leaders, students, etc tell? Stories are vehicles for meaning. With them, we make sense of our experiences in the world. Their internal logic can motivate particular actions.

Buried in a book exploring the role of data analysis in US schools and colleges, is some interesting advice. Much data analysis, the authors suggest, is presented without consideration of the actions which it might inform. Their advice (attributed to Michael Shriven) is to think carefully about the story one wishes to convey.   

No data? Tell the story. Data? Show the data and focus on the story’

Creating a Data Informed Culture in Community Colleges, Phillips & Horowitz, 2017

A cursory analysis of the role of social media in recent months seems to confirm that stories can often Trump (!) data when it comes to the meaning we make of complex events and the actions which these narratives can inform.

The maps and stories we use to make sense of our roles, the tales told by others about the same, and the narratives we share in formal and informal communities contribute to our own teaching experience and those our students and colleagues.

 My next two posts will explore our internal cartography and story-telling respectively.  

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