Punk Learning is here – Interview with Tait Coles

Imagine a classroom where there are no rules. Imagine teachers calling for chaos. Imagine pupils being in complete control of their own learning. This may sound scary and unreasonable, but for Tait Coles, the author of Never Mind the Inspectors: Here’s Punk Learning, he believes that schools should be applying these teaching methods to provide a more creative learning experience for their pupils.

So, what exactly is punk learning? Coles explains: “The whole philosophy of punk learning is that the students are given the opportunity to have complete control and ownership of their learning.” Just like the pupils, teachers are meant to follow the rules. Lessons are planned out, worksheets are produced, everything feels scripted. But, with Coles’ punk learning, anything goes. He said: “Punk learning represents a do-it-yourself ethos and a shake-up of the old established order. “It is a change, and we desperately need a change in this current educational landscape.”

Coles is a teacher and a vice principal in a Bradford Academy. He is known as being a classroom maverick, simply, he likes to do things his way. As he was growing up he would develop a fascination and an obsession towards music, but most particularly with punk.

The title of the book was named after the iconic Sex Pistols album – Never mind the Bollocks. The album sent shock-waves across the country when it was released in late October of 1977. It was banned from many record shops because of its distinguished name, and most likely due to how controversial the Pistols were at the time. But, the album was critically acclaimed, admired for its honesty and how there had simply been nothing like it before.

The iconic album featured tracks such as: Pretty Vacant, Holidays in the Sun and Anarchy in the UK, with the latter being one of the most controversial songs of all time. Anarchy in the UK was about standing up and being rebellious. The country was in a really bad state during the time when it was released, employment levels were down, and nobody hardly had anything nice to say about the government either. Indeed, Anarchy in the UK spoke to every angry middle-class member of society, and they made sure that their voices were heard. And this is exactly what punk learning does for students, it gives them the chance to let themselves be heard.

Coles claims that the problem with today’s educational standards is that teachers are not letting pupils learn what it is that they actually want to learn. “Students are now expected to learn prescribed knowledge through authoritative techniques. “Young people who enter the educational system who don’t fit the mould of white, middle class, Christian and so on, are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their ethnicity, income or religion.” Teachers are taking away pupils’ identities. There is no opportunity where they can fully express themselves and this is clearly being shown from how controlling lessons have grown to become in the classrooms. “Students need the freedom and encouragement to determine and discover who they are and to understand that the system shouldn’t define them.”

Punk learning calls for teachers to use worksheets and learning objectives for their lesson only if they are appropriate to the subject, and not to just use them as shortcuts. In other words, teachers should be letting the students be the ones to decide how they get taught. Worksheets and learning objectives are far to controlling and this leads to every lesson feeling the same. There is nothing creative about delivering the same lesson over and over again,

 Students deserve the opportunity to have a say because this is their education. Coles explains how as a teacher he quickly learnt that he was expected to be politically neutral and only teach his students a pre-determined and deliberately chosen bank of knowledge But, by refusing to acknowledge and recognise that other knowledge exists, he realised that teachers are writing certain students out of history, therefore meaning that they have been written out of democracy. He said: “When schools do this, they are separating education from democracy, and as soon as this happens, students become powerless.”

Since it was released in 2014, Never Mind the Inspectors: Here’s Punk Learning has sold over 1000 copies and now appears on the recommended list for three teacher training courses across the UK.  However, the UK is not the only country where teachers have begun to apply punk learning to their lessons: “I’ve heard from teachers even as far as Australia who successfully use punk learning,” Coles said. “These teachers don’t ignore the contexts, culture, histories and meanings that their students bring to school. “They provide an education for their students that prepares them with the knowledge of identifying the problems and conflicts in their lives and the skills to act on that knowledge, so they can improve their current situations”.

Punk learning could completely change the way how both teachers and students perceive education. It may sound risky, it may sound intimidating and it may sound ridiculous to even try, but students deserve to get the best out of their education, even if that means letting them be the on. “this power and opportunity can enable young people to do something differently in their moment in time in order to create a positive and constructive legacy.”

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