Lessons from X Factor

Over the last couple of weekends, for reasons that are probably best not discussed, I have been catching up on the audition rounds of X Factor. I know there are many things that we can say are not good about the whole phenomena of X Factor; its commercialisation, its glorifying of instant success, its raising of unrealistic expectations among the young, and so on. However, just watching the format of those auditions, and watching the response of Simon Cowell, and the other judges, even when the person in front of them really has no hope at all, started to raise questions about what it is that we are doing, the expectations we are setting and the way in which we engage with our own students here in Swansea.

As we approach the beginning of term I am very aware that on Tuesday morning, like so many of the rest of you, I will be meeting a new group of students in the module that I am co-teaching this term. What is it that I am expecting of that encounter? What is it that the students might be expecting? Who, perhaps, is auditioning whom?

Three things about the X Factor auditions that particularly struck me were the challenge to ‘show us what you can do’, the care that the judges exhibit for the contestants alongside the real interest that they have in them as people, and the challenge to the contestants to be authentic and to do something original.

There is a real recognition, within the format, that the contestants come into the audition exhibiting some kind of talent. It might not be fully formed, a little rough around the edges, it might be quirky or somewhat from left field, it may be amazing and take the whole panel by surprise, but it is the talent that the candidate already has that is being encouraged when the judges say ‘show us what you can do’. How often do we enter the teaching context within a university, even with a final year class, and assume, perhaps unconsciously, that we, the teachers, are the ones with the talent, something that we wish to instill in the students. Do we see the teaching experience as one in which we are starting from a blank canvas? Of course, we often recognise that the students bring a great deal of experience, and perhaps particular skills and aptitudes with them but when we are teaching, for example, the philosophy of religion, do we ever start by asking ‘what do you know already?’, ‘What are the questions that you want to ask, and how might you approach them?’ before we introduce them to the literature and the ‘official’ way of asking and answering such questions. How often do we actually say to students (even in our traditional forms of assessment) ‘show us what you can do?’

X Factor is, of course, a talent show. The contestants have varying degrees of talent and it is the innate, or potential talent that is being sought at the auditions stage, not what the contestants have learnt (although there is often a recognition that some of the candidates have undergoing tuition and others have not). By its nature, many of those attending the auditions simply will not have talent, or perhaps it is fairer to say enough talent, or the right kind of talent. In these circumstances, the format, as it has developed, is actually very supportive and caring (unlike earlier series where there was some kind of implicit mocking of those who had an inflated view of their own talent). The responses of the judges are generally of the form, ‘thank you, but perhaps you are not ready yet’, or ‘thank you, but perhaps you are not quite right for this show’. There is a level of care shown, at what is recognised as a very stressful experience.

There were a couple of papers in last week’s Times Higher Educational Supplement that asked about the role of kindness and encouragement in the learning process, something, it was suggested, that is undervalued in many theoretical presentations of learning and teaching. This does not mean that we all have to suddenly become very cuddly or touchy-feely. The X Factor does show, at least in the most recent series, how it is possible to be hardnosed, to give really difficult feedback, while retaining a supportive approach. Kindness and encouragement are vital parts of the learning process and the way in which we support our students, even when they are failing, perhaps especially when they are failing, is a good indicator of a really special teacher.

Finally, therefore, the challenge to be authentic and original. It is great to see, on occasions, within the show, when a contestant suddenly realises what is being asked of them, not to be like everybody else, or to live up to other people’s expectations, but to express themselves, and their emotions, directly and authentically within the performance. I was told by one of my lecturers when I was at University that you can never get a first class mark simply by working hard (although that does not negate the need to work). The first class student is one who shows flair, who owns the material, and who does something significantly different with it. It is something that is very difficult to get across to students, that need to inhabit the material, make it entirely second nature, so that they can truly express their own ideas and create something entirely new from the information that is in front of them. When a student does grasp what is meant, when the penny drops, and they make that transition from describing the work of others, or mechanically going through the motions, to making their own mark in the field, then it is a real joy to watch.

Swansea University is not the X Factor. We all know that. What we are doing is something very different. Apart from anything else we are dealing with the whole community, not just those who get through to the next round. Everybody, we hope, can be a winner in their own way. However, there are always things to learn, the recognition of talent and the need for dialogue, the importance of kindness and encouragement, and the support for authenticity and originality, that I think are worth keeping in mind as we enter into a new academic year and meet the next cohort of students in our classes over the next few weeks.


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