What Makes a Good Pupil?

Kipling - the Elephant's Child

Let me be an Athenian. All education is about virtue – so a good pupil is a virtuous one. No, not that annoying goody-good in the front row whose hand shoots up before you’ve even finished your question to the set. That’s not virtue, that’s knowledge: to be a Know-it-all is not to embody perfection in a pupil. Neither is it the Genius who can work it all out quickly once the working is demonstrated on the board. That’s not virtue, that’s intellect: to be quick of mind is not perfection, either. Yet neither is it the hard-working, conscientious, recently-elected Captain of Diligence for the Scholars’ House: that’s not virtue, it’s graft: he or she is not the virtuous pupil, either – or, at least, not the perfect one.

This ranging of stereotypes, then, is unhelpful as a method of finding a ‘good’ pupil; one who is virtuous. Let’s take as our razor a simple contrast instead. Because there are, in fact, only two kinds of pupil: the one who says “Here I am, sir!” and the one who says, “Ah, there you are, sir!”. The latter is the virtuous. The latter is the good. Why? Because he or she has shown initiative born not of necessity, but of curiosity.

And we may recognise these pupils by their actions: the pupil who sends you an email the evening after a lesson, with an interesting link to a newspaper article; the pupil who catches you after the lesson and chats, unselfconsciously, about their own experiences of a subject, revealing aforethought; the pupil who comes up to you after Chapel and – though you won’t mention this to the Chaplain – has been daydreaming during the Sermon on a tangent you raised in your lesson and has something further to say; the pupil who is curious to a fault; the pupil who has the smile of reason, as in Voltaire, but will also take things on faithful trust because they chime with instinct; the pupil who is not petty, neither slow to anger at others’ ignorance, nor quick to scrunch up his or her face in disdain; the pupil who is curious amidst his own ilk and not just around teachers. These are the good pupils, and their virtue is born of an agility – both of mind and spirit – that allows them to tiptoe deftly through the minefield of prejudices and pitfalls we adults regularly and mischievously set up in their way.

All of that said, I quite like the Know-it-alls: they have potential, but their manner needs work, and they must be taught not to equate knowledge with the ability to wield it. The Genius is the opposite: while impressive, he or she is often lazy and may actually know little, being idle in the assumption that the engine of their quick wit needs no fuel for the stoking. The Grafter has potential, too, but his or her method may preclude inspiration and curiosity – not allowing one’s eye to be caught and kept by an off-piste word in the dictionary, but instead forcing it to remain on track in quest of the word required to complete your prep, may be efficient and diligent, but it will produce no intellectual wonders, nor serendipity in a subconscious link forged.

The pupil with pluck; the plucky pupil, the “Ah – there you are!” pupil, the virtuous pupil: the Good Pupil, is one who takes matters into their own hands. The satiable curiosity of Kipling’s baby elephant is strong with these pupils. As teachers we must nurture that curiosity, draw out their genius to which it can be yoked, train them in hard graft – but not so exhaustingly that their genius can no longer flex to its full. And, through all this, heap their plates high with knowledge – and not of the bite-sized sort, but that which must first be chewed and digested to derive the benefit. This Good Pupil can then develop their own ‘moral good’, much of which grows out of their academic good. The Athenians called that Virtue – and the purpose of all education.

W. Gunson, Oundle, Easter 2015.

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