You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxgn3

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Reinventing the wheel

On my first day as a trainee teacher in 1986, one of the senior staff at the worthily progressive School of Education at U.E.A. really did wheel out the old chestnut:

“If anyone asks you what you teach, the answer is Children.”

I think this derives from the long-standing progressive-left view of education as an instrument of social policy, in which academic disciplines (and pretty much everything else) were subordinated to the raw social objectives of something between an induction and indoctrination process for society’s young.

This was a fore-taste of the reservations I increasingly experienced about the whole way the educational establishment runs things: I unashamedly went into teaching in part from a desire to work with, and educate others in, my specific discipline. I was not best pleased to hear that such things were to be relegated to bit-parts in some grand scheme of social manipulation.

The surprising thing is that this agenda has lasted so long: the stimulus for this post was John Tomsett’s recent rumination on the nature of subject-specific pedagogy, which implied that the notion of subject disciplines having intrinsic importance for how people teach is still unfamiliar or even bizarre to many.

Geography suffers particularly in this respect: for decades it has been a Cinderella subject. The public still seems to think it consists of memorising lists of capital cities, while even its exponents often fail to see it as a repository of discrete expertise. I think this derives from the fact that to those concerned, it appears to study the blindingly obvious.

In recent months I have become involved with the production of the local Neighbourhood Plan – and the ensuing discussion with both those involved and the community at large has revealed this for the myth that it is. It has become clear that local developments and dynamics which were indeed blindingly obvious to me (and another local geographer) seemed largely invisible to many others, to the point that they required significant explanation. What geographers see and understand about the world is certainly not blindingly obvious to those not thus trained. But such training is extremely useful in ‘reading’ the world around us in a complex way – and for that reason, if no other, I would have thought that this subject-specific expertise is highly desirable. The fact is, geographers, like all other academics, live their subject to the point that they cease to notice – and this then saturates their teaching with not just specific content but an entire  mind-set that is unique to their, as every, discipline.

Many of those who were supposedly ‘leading teaching’ in my school were from the pure and applied sciences – including the usual share of overly-competitive ex-P.E. teachers. My experience suggested they never did understand (or perhaps care) why those of us who taught arts and humanities had such difficulties with the concept and application of linear, measurable progression that they were happily using. It was only when I first observed and then taught some basic maths that the utter foreignness of not only their techniques, but also their mindset became apparent. By then I was a highly-experienced humanities teacher – but I struggled greatly to do justice to even basic maths: the required approach was just too alien to my own.

It is tempting to regard this as a case of systemisers versus empathisers: those running the system largely came from technical subjects, whose approach (and perhaps general world-view) was compatible with a mechanistic, linear, quantitative approach; almost none of them had any grounding in the more interpretive, evaluative subjects of the arts or humanities. And being systemisers, they were quite happy insensitively imposing technical-fix approaches on their colleagues in blissful ignorance that it is simply not possible accurately to assess the skills of critical argument, let alone emotive creativity required in such subjects in such reductive, linear ways. It became clear that it was most certainly not a matter of it being ‘all just teaching’: those subject-specific skills were so deeply-imbued that their practitioners (including me) often failed to recognise them for what they were. And yet they (necessarily) coloured our entire view of what we were doing.

Csikszentmihalyi observed a similar divide between psychologists and surgeons: the latter loved ‘practical, mechanical medicine’ and despised the former as wishy-washy, while in their turn, the psychologists revelled in the subtleties of reading human behaviour and despised the surgeons as crude mechanics. And ne’er the twain shall meet. This is why it is essential that one group must not gain hegemony over the other.

To return to the notion of teaching being primarily a matter of social engineering, there is a deep irony here. My objection is certainly not in the desirability of improving people’s life-chances, but to the fact that due to the foibles of human nature (which systemisers often ignore), direct attempts at achieving it rarely work – and are highly vulnerable to political misappropriation. On the other hand, people who learn the basics of geography (and every other specific subject) actually end up equipped with very real life-applicable knowledge, taught by people for whom the appropriate mindset is second nature. Incidentally, we might also reflect here on the unseen consequences of the widespread use of non-specialist teachers.

With the greatest of respect to John Tomsett, to be mystified or bemused by this betrays the extent of the error perpetrated by those for whom education is only a form of direct social engineering. That even reflective individuals such as John are only just reconsidering this shows just how deeply the approach has penetrated the whole profession. I find it hard to believe that they (who must all have their own subject specialities, too) could have been quite so greatly taken in. Or at least I would if I hadn’t been too, for quite some time. (While I ‘felt’ there was something wrong, it took many years to pin-point it).

Those who, from classical times onward, formed the body of education around the study of discrete disciplines knew more about what they were doing than the modern outlook credits. Academic subjects are more than simply a vehicle for delivering education: they are education itself. It seems that many in educational circles who have believed otherwise, but who may now be thinking again, have spent the last forty years in effect reinventing yet another wheel.

Forever blowing bubbles…?

Priceline.com was an online company that sold excess airline capacity. By the year 2000, the stock market had capitalised it to the tune of $150bn, or more than the value of the entire airline industry. That was, of course, before the dot-com crash of that year. A similar effect was seen pre-2008, when Northern Rock amassed loan liabilities of over £100bn on assets of a mere £1.5bn.

Reading further into Aeron Davis’ book, it becomes clear how such bubbles arise: herd behaviour dictates that more and more people pour investments into a company simply because others are doing the same. Even though people know this is risky behaviour, the short-term consequences of not doing so, in terms of lost shareholder confidence – and thereby even senior jobs, are too great. Bad practice is thus actively rewarded – and when the crash ultimately comes, those at the top simply blame everyone else, walk away, and move on to their next executive post.

In both crashes, there were a few individuals who warned of what was to come, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. They tended to make lower returns – and thus paid with their jobs, in some cases a matter of weeks before they were proved right.

Education can’t have bubbles like this – or can it? Reading Davis’ account, I could not help but consider the possibility that it does, in the form of ideologies. The recent history of education is one of a sequence of fads that gained traction, and were wheeled out across the nation via the networking of senior managers and agenda-shapers. We have seen AfL, The Growth Mindset, Effect Sizes, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats, peer-assessment, green pens, triple marking and more follow this trajectory. Sometimes they originate in research, but quite often they seem to generate their own self-justifying ‘evidence base’ which is used to bludgeon people into compliance. For a few years, everyone piles into the latest idea, whose supposed value rapidly balloons until no one who claims to be serious about education can afford not to be doing it – and talking about it incessantly. Some build entire reputations on such behaviour.

And then the bubble bursts – not so much from financial unviability, but because the fad turns out to be unworkable, or because it does not after all deliver the demonstrable improvement in learning that it promised. I have sat in meetings where certain stellar individuals openly panned the very ideas they had been championing just a few years earlier – but by then they were onto the Next Big Thing, their careers safely intact, unlike the sanity of those who had been charged with implementing their now-disowned schemes. The collateral damage is not so much out-of-pocket shareholders as out-of-education teenagers whose schooling experience was badly distorted by such recklessness, not to mention the frazzled lives of teachers who were required to jump through yet more hoops in the process.

There are bubbles of different sizes too. Those within individual schools may be of quite some concern – but the impact of, for example, the bubble that promoted Free Schools is another matter entirely – in this case the disrupted education of those whose schools are increasingly closing mid-way through exam courses. Those consequences are not imaginary.

In all cases, education bubbles are caused in precisely the same way as financial ones: fads that no one can be seen to be ignoring, that create bandwagons of questionable practice, which can only have one conclusion. Yet everyone is required to take them deadly seriously at the time. One might have hoped for something more considered from the thinking part of society, but it seems the pressures for herd behaviour and the desire of some to build reputations and careers are just too strong.

And as in the financial sector, those who refuse to go along are penalised for their restraint with lost career progression and in some cases their jobs, for not using enough green pen, or not using group work, or failing to cook their pupils’ data records to satisfy the target-mongers. Let alone what befalls those who stand up and publicly say that the whole thing is wrong.

Oops. That’s getting personal again.

Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

Icarus

The criticism of schools minister Nick Gibb by an educational researcher for quoting a ‘mere blogger’ (Old Andrew) seems to have created a minor storm – and rightly so.

That ‘mere blogger’ happens to be not only a practising professional teacher, but also one of the most incisive voices in the British education world today. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that he has helped to bring about substantive change in the educational landscape. But beyond any personal slight is a more far-reaching point. Blogging happens to have become the major vehicle by which grass-roots teachers are able to communicate their thinking and experiences.

By seeking to invalidate such media, those in the educational research (and sometimes management) realm are in effect trying silence anyone who does not have access to the supposedly-superior educational macro-data that they do.

My own (now) rather cynical voice has been honed by similar experiences: while still teaching full-time, my attempts to contribute to the wider debate and development within my school were repeatedly ignored by management seemingly because they did not come from an ‘appropriate’ source – and because they sometimes contained difficult, but necessary and well-meant truths.

Yet as with OId Andrew, my contributions found much favour amongst my teaching colleagues, as a huge pile of enthusiastic CPD feedback sheets shows. Those in charge must have seen them – but on no occasion was I able to persuade any of the school’s senior ‘leaders’ to attend. On the sole occasion that one of the lesser minions did appear, he described the session as the most thought-provoking CPD session he had ever attended. And still none of the others would come.

I apologise if this sounds a little like gilding my own cage – but the fact is, while it has become easier for the grass-roots teachers make their thoughts known, if anything, those in control seem to be shutting their ears ever more firmly to what is being said. My book (the publication of which by John Catt is hopefully a reasonable validation of its content) has also encountered scepticism from the same quarters that it might contain anything that those who make the decisions need to hear.

We have in Britain an education system that is becoming more like a regular branch of autocratic commercial activity by the month. The behaviour is strikingly similar: those at the ‘sharp end’ are treated with visible contempt, while those in charge continue to feather their own nests even at a time of crisis. The effects are the same everywhere: given my own experience there, it was with some schadenfreude that I learned recently that my former school is struggling to recruit humanities teachers to replace the several that it seriously disaffected in the past few years. Had they listened when we tried to speak, this might never have happened.

The ‘executive’ arm of the education system is increasingly becoming what in my book I called ‘management cancer’: not merely is it making life more difficult for the regular functionaries, but it is actively eating away at the system it supposedly serves. The dismissal of practising professionals as ‘mere’ anything is an expression of an attitude that sees education as either some kind of high-handed abstract apparatus for social intervention, or an under-handed personal career opportunity for a few – rather than a crucial personal-intellectual process that shapes the actual lives of real people. The punters and the labourers are little more than the necessary grist in that mill.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey asked in The Guardian a few days ago whether “school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s wellbeing and parents’ aspirations are being held back”. The answer is yes they are – not in the main by classroom practice, but by the vast, stifling thicket of management ideology and so-called research which claims to be powering the system – but in actual fact is doing much to damage it, while uttering the usual platitudes of executive parasites everywhere about how essential they are for the smooth-running, indeed mere existence of the whole edifice.

 

I should, as always, temper my comments with the acknowledgement that there are undoubtedly many school leaders everywhere who are doing a decent, genuine, unsung job of running their schools as humanely well as they possibly can. It is not them who I am criticising, but those with the sharpest elbows and loudest voices who have acquired – no, seized – disproportionate influence in education. I have sources from enough schools around the country to know that this is not just an isolated problem. A tellingly-anonymous article in The Guardian over the weekend which described experiences and sentiments amazingly close to my own might suggest the same – and is worth quoting from:

“…Then there was the endless river of snake oil flowing from educational consultants – mountebanks who promise they can solve all your educational ills if you follow their five-minute fad. And while you’re at it teachers, solve the problems of society! Teach kids to avoid drugs, underage sex and radicalisation.

So how should things be? Let teachers get on with the job; stop politicians interfering in education; allow good teachers the freedom to inspire their pupils. This is not going to happen. No wonder the average length of service for a teacher in the UK is five years. No wonder I left after 30.”

I also accept (as should we all) that due allowance needs to be made for ‘unknown unknowns’ when criticising the actions of others. It would be good if the same allowances flowed more often in the opposite direction too… We should probably also throw into the mix the fact that in a field like education, a single, stable, universally-applicable consensus is probably a dream too far – but all the more reason to accept and respect all parties in the debate.

I see a corporate culture whose hubris shows no sign of abating – to the point that its subscribers are no longer even ashamed of decrying their front-line practitioners in effect as ‘mere teachers’, whose views and needs can reasonably be ignored and even publicly dismissed. It is becoming more autocratic by the month and as some high-profile cases have shown, some individuals will not even stop at bringing the profession into disrepute in the process of furthering their own interests. How can this possibly be good for education?

Like the writer of the Guardian article, I have no doubt that these people will continue to fly higher and higher, to the detriment of the rest of the educational system. Indeed, I hope they do, for I have a new name for them: Icarus.

To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.

The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

Is there room for staff?

There was a thoughtful piece in The Guardian this week about the decline of the staffroom. One can easily see this issue as highly symbolic of the attitude of the education system to its key staff. I must admit I was not previously aware that legislation was enacted in England (only) in 2012 to remove the need for schools to provide any work or social space for teachers. One can only stand speechless at the utter short-sightedness such decisions.

The situation is more complex than it might seem. For example, the school where I passed the bulk of my career was very widely spread across its site: it had previously been two adjacent single-sex schools, which had merged in the early 1970s. It meant that facilities were relatively plentiful, but the distances involved made it difficult for the staff to congregate in one place regularly – particularly as the length of break and lunch times was cut back. Instead, team rooms were provided, and they were generally well-equipped and well used. However, as the emphasis shifted away from a central staffroom – and as the recent management seemed to lose interest in maintaining a cohesive staff body – the place inevitably fragmented.

From a situation where I knew everybody on the staff in my early years, we moved to one where I barely even recognised some colleagues, let alone knew their name or had spoken to them. I was not alone.

One can speculate on the reasons why school managements might take the decision to remove communal staff space – and as in the rather difficult situation described above, they are not inevitably insidious. As school roles hit the top of their cycle, the pressure on space inevitably grows. But it is still all too easy to suspect that the division of staff and the reduction of their ability to communicate with each other may prove to be an attractive side-effect (if nothing else) when seen from certain management perspectives.

Yet once again, the consequences of this approach may harm more than the teachers themselves – this is another example of what might seem a purely logical difficulty having real impacts that far more deeply damage the fabric and work of the school. The fact that such impacts are either not known or are under-estimated is another consequence of having bean-counters in control of places like schools.

Professional communication is made easier if one has at least the semblance of acquaintance with one’s colleagues; in later years I found myself collaborating with people who were basically complete strangers. In some cases, it was even necessary to spend time finding out who a particular individual was, and where they were to be found; the alternative of email, while useful, diminished the direct personal interaction which can be extremely useful when discussing pupil matters.

Furthermore, the opportunity for the informal sharing of good practice across the school was reduced, as inevitably was one’s sense of shared purpose with one’s colleagues.

But beyond all that one needs to ask what are the perceptions of teachers, both individually and as a body, in Westminster and more locally, to think they should not be given a personal space within a school. Perhaps more light is cast by the case mentioned in the article of the school where the staffroom had windows so that the pupils could see what was going on within. This speaks of the utterly misplaced priorities that see teachers as servants of the children. What does it ‘say’ that a school management should consider the children as having the right to see everything of the staff’s business – and that staff should not have anywhere on the premises where they can gain a little privacy when needed?

I would be extremely suspicious of accepting a job in a school that had no staffroom: for all the innocent ones, there are too many insidious reasons why this might be so. But once again, it is quite possible that this is another own-goal for the schools concerned too. It is a matter of basic principle that people do better work once their basic needs have been met; this includes the ability to be sociable, the ability to rest and have a break – and one might add the dignity afforded by privacy when it is needed. When these things are not met, the end result can surely only erode commitment and quality. And given this week’s government announcements about further intended measures to tackle over-work, one wonders whether thinking will be joined-up enough to address matters like this, which can only make the work-life balance, not to mention general well-being and morale, worse.

 

We need to discuss management openly – while dodging the bullets.

If one sticks one’s head above the parapet, one should expect to encounter some low-flying ordnance. Parts of The Great Exception do seem to be causing controversy – which is good.

I expected my critique of ‘Big Management’ not to go down well in some quarters, though most school managers will no doubt be far too thick-skinned to be riled by comments from the likes of me. In any case, I hope it is possible to separate the issue from the people. Over the years, I did encounter a few managers whose behaviour was truly despicable, but they were very much the minority, and I have many friends and former colleagues who are or were managers: this is not personal.

We need to ask this question – because there is no reason whatsoever why management should be any more virtuous or above reproach than the rest of the system. Indeed given its huge influence, it has the capacity to cause far more harm to education than the inadequacies of mere individual classroom teachers – and that is without considering the huge costs that big management imposes on a cash-strapped system.

The worst thing to do would be to dismiss criticism out of hand, which would rather prove the point about the risk of hubris.

I am more concerned with the system that is being operated than the people enacting it, most of whom have to operate within frameworks over which they no more have complete control than anyone else. I am confident that most people in such positions are genuinely acting in what they believe to be the best way. But that is not to say that either they – or the system – are always getting it right: outside pressures can result in very perverse behaviours, especially as people move further from the grass-roots classroom experience. Neither is it untrue that self-interest sometimes clouds their judgement. Yet it is worth re-stating that no-one is forced to take such posts, and I would not wish some of their dilemmas on anyone.

For all that education has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, nobody seems to have stopped and asked whether ‘big management’ is actually helping. It seems to be taken for granted that it does (even when that flies in the face of experience) and I do not get the impression that the alternative views presented by highly-experienced managers like Margaret Heffernan, Daniel Pink and John Kay are widely known (that is why they’re in the book…). One manager I persuaded to read Daniel Pink described his book as “a revelation”. I’m afraid to say that plenty of conversations I have had with managers over the years betrayed nothing so much as a certain tunnel vision.

It is not sufficient for management teams solely to self- or peer-appraise; this is not acceptable for classroom teachers, and neither is it reasonable to dismiss the comments from those lower down the ‘food chain’ on the grounds of incomplete insight. If that were the case, we would stop all ‘pupil voice’ exercises today.

It is undoubtedly true that the situation is not the same everywhere: while I focus on many of the generic pitfalls of the management process, this is not to imply that practice is universally bad. But I also know from direct experience that the actions of management in certain circumstances can be responsible for a great deal of difficulty, distress and over-work. Over the years, I have been variously told that I was “naive” to call for more compassion in the workplace, that management should be “bullish” and that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City”. I was told it was “insubordinate” to question a particularly difficult manager. None of this is remotely helpful. I would hope that well-meaning managers would acknowledge this and be concerned about it: why would they be otherwise?

This issue needs to be discussed in the open: there is a crisis of recruitment and retention in the profession – and it is not true that it is solely caused by low pay or the behaviour of the children. ‘Management’ is responsible for creating the climate (and many of the pressures) in the educational workplace – and there is plenty to suggest that it is not always good. I have repeatedly seen this with my own eyes – and I know that it is not always taken seriously. What greater own-goal could the profession score?

If it is true that poor classroom teaching needs to be addressed without much compunction, then the same is surely so for poor management – and the ability of those in senior positions to close ranks and insulate themselves more from adverse situations should not prevent that. Hypocrisy is destructive – and if managers feel uncomfortable about being criticised, then perhaps it will remind them how regular teachers feel under similar situations, many of which are management-instigated. In fact, I would much prefer to see a more consensual, less confrontational climate all round.

My book is not mainly aimed at new teachers as one reviewer suggested: I will be only too pleased if senior managers read it: some at least need to.

But I also hope that the (necessary) coverage of these issues will not distract from the more positive sections on good practice later in the book. I take the view that all in education have largely been co-victims of outside pressures, and my intention was to offer a constructive view of a more realistic, sustainable and humane way forward.

Getting that right would be one of the surest ways to improve the sector for everyone.