A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

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If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

The Unprofessionalisables.

I suppose it’s just yet another Holy Grail to hope that the teaching profession in Britain might ever reach a steady state. I remember my former head teacher saying in the early nineties that henceforth the only constant would be change. Maybe that has always been true, and the perception that there were (and are) steady states is just an illusion. Change probably is endemic.

But one is still entitled to wonder where it all gets us. While the physical world marches to its own rhythm, change in social constructs such as education is a more controllable matter. And we might wonder whether the fundamental need that people have for cognitive development has really changed so much that the constant upheaval is justified.

I came to the conclusion that most change in professional circles is really about people’s perceptions of what they are doing – and about power-play: who is in charge and whose world-view takes precedence. It is not much about delivering the basic service at all. Recent trends have only bulwarked the authority of those at the top of the greasy pole, and made it all worse.

The problem with teaching is that nobody really knows – let alone can agree – on what it is and what it is for. That, despite the essentially simple process of spending time with children and exposing them to things they have yet to encounter.

High amongst the confusions come the ceaseless calls to improve the ‘professionalism’ of the profession. Nobody seems to know what that means either; it is just more empty words. For school managers (and perhaps their political bosses) it probably means a workforce that does whatever it is asked with maximum effort and minimum dispute. Which might be fine, if what was being asked was both uncontentious and sustainable – but it is neither.

Then there is the view (which managers mostly seem to hate), that professionalism is about the ability to operate autonomously, within a set of guiding ethics, and still achieve largely good outcomes (although those outcomes themselves are not beyond question). This seems to me a much more viable model, especially in a field as nebulous as education, but it means allowing people more latitude than the current gate-keepers are willing to grant. It also means accepting the inherent uncertainty of the process, something that those being held to account are understandably reluctant to do, no matter how little they can really change it.

Attempts have been made to impose order and standards on the profession by the establishment of various bodies. But their legitimacy is questionable when they are not composed – voluntarily – of the majority of the grass-roots individuals that they purport to represent. So I am far from convinced that it is possible to increase professionalism simply by imposing structures: in the final reckoning, professionalism is a state of mind, and only the owners of said minds can really control it.

Here we return to the dichotomy mentioned earlier: should the professional state of mind be one of compliance with institutionalised norms (laid down by whom?) or should it rather be a state of independence to follow one’s conscience and experience – albeit probably within a general ethical framework? Until such matters are resolved, it is unlikely than any greater semblance of professionalism will be achieved.

In the case of other professions, one might  observe that status is indeed conferred by membership of august bodies – though they are usually controlled by their members rather than outside agencies. But this form of institutionalism is no guarantee of professional behaviour either – only a recognition of it (or not, as when people are struck off).

Here we come to perhaps the most uncomfortable point of all, for those arguing for a grass-roots definition of professionalism: there is simply no shared understanding of what it means. I can think of very many individuals over the years who, while technically competent, exhibited all manner of behaviours and attitudes that I found professionally questionable. Perhaps they thought the same about me. What are we to make of the Advanced Skills Teacher who was found to be having a relationship with a student? And there were many lesser manifestations of individual attitude that I certainly did not agree with.

Then there is what one perceives as one’s own responsibilities. In my view, a professional should have a degree of ‘benign remove’ from his or her clients (and employers) so as to retain the necessary detachment from partisan interests. How else can ethics be upheld? But I was regarded as old and pompous by the teachers who seemed to perceive themselves more as children’s buddies and life coaches (or management lackeys), things that I found verged on the puerile and professionally compromised.

It seems that attempts to engage with the mainstream teaching body as a profession is stymied by one simple fact: many of those concerned simply aren’t interested. What they want is to have fun with children; or failing that, to drill exam statistics out of them (which is not at all the same thing, but not much better). Or more charitably, just to do their job.

Unlike the researchers, whose interest most often strikes me as nerdishly academic, or the managers whose interest most often strikes me as blindly corporatist, ordinary teachers most often have only a vague sense of belonging to a discrete profession, let alone one that has any sense of dignity. They are more interested in something to get them through the next lesson than the underlying philosophy or psychology of what they are doing. And the short-sighted technocracy which now passes for teaching standards is only making it worse.

That is not meant as harshly as it probably reads: I do have sympathy with those who just want a simple life, though that should not excuse them from identifying and maintaining appropriately high standards. From recent conversations with long-retired teachers, it probably  always was the case, and was not necessarily a bad thing, in that it gave them an authenticity with their pupils. My sadness is that few will discover that bothering to find those underpinnings actually gives such an outlook more sense. (That’s what TonicforTeachers is about…)

Much of the lack of interest is also due to simple time pressure. Full-time teachers are just too overloaded to have much left for the niceties of what they are doing, let alone membership of professional colleges: that is for those who are already looking for ways to escape. Neither is climbing the management ladder (which seems to be the sole reason many suddenly find interest in meta-educational matters) for everyone.

But we are still left with the same dilemma: those who want to apply ‘standards’ don’t understand that imposition is actually the last way to succeed – while those responsible for the day-to-day upholding of said standards seem to have little conception or concern for what that might mean, beyond its simplistically being “all for the children” (which is something else I’ve questioned before now…).

I can hardly be the only person who has attempted to square this circle unilaterally, by self-equipping with the philosophical background that was otherwise conspicuously lacking. In my opinion that is the only way it can be done which is why, in certain other countries, teachers are expected to have higher degrees, even doctorates, before they can teach.

I tried hard to develop my own strain of professionalism in my work: in this blog, in my book and in my contributions to CPD. My approach (though categorically not the content) was sometimes criticised for being over-academic; for my part, I could not see why mature adults should not be able to raise their own outlook above the ‘fun and group-work’ that they deliver to their pupils. We do not need to conduct professional discourse in the manner of Year Nines.

Yet it was my approach that was (supposedly) found wanting in the end; my determination to retain high professional and intellectual standards was apparently not pupil- (or data-) friendly enough – even though the same school was exhorting its teachers to deliver high academic standards. There was a personal dilemma all of its own in there: I found insight that I am certain enhanced my own professionalism – only for it to be ignored, and ultimately rejected, by a blinkered establishment. I can only assume that the individuals concerned either could not see the contradictions in that, or had no real idea what they were talking about.

What kind of professionalism is that?

Tonic for Teachers introductory offer!

Now that the new school year is well underway, time to think about professional development? Tonic for Teachers is a programme of fifty short audio commentaries (and associated downloads) on issues pertinent in education in the widest sense. Developed in the U.K. from a successful series of delivered CPD sessions, it discusses the nature of the teacher’s craft and sets it in a wider philosophical, psychological and social setting.

Available for a short time only at an introductory rate of approx. £10.00 (charged in Aus$) for unlimited access.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning 

The Joy of Confirmation Bias

I wish I had read The Black Swan sooner. It is an engaging if sometimes challenging read. Taleb is a somewhat unconventional writer and he does not always explain complex concepts with the layman in mind. (I was initially floundering on the use of fractals in probability calculations…) But its basic message is worth the effort, and confirmation bias alone sees to it that it is satisfying to read something that justifies one’s own prior thoughts!

I show below a table reproduced from the later stages of the book. In it Taleb summarises contrasts in ways which different paradigms approach uncertainty. A Black Swan is a high-impact, low-frequency event that nonetheless has a massive effect; for instance, Taleb claims that 50% of the value of American stocks has been added by just ten tumultuous days in the last 50 years; similarly, just one blockbuster can completely turn a publisher’s fortunes around. Getting lucky enough to ride such a wave can be transformative, as can the negative impact of unforeseen catastrophes.

Taleb.jpg

The salient point for teaching, I think, is that there are aspects of life where grand master-plans and scientific predictions simply do not wash. Taleb points out that the social sciences and human behaviour in general are amongst them. There is no point in organising such phenomena around the diktats of elegant theories, or statistical predictions: the range of possible human responses to educational acts is just too great to call, and it does not regress to the mean either – something which most models assume. It is the educational equivalent of the Butterfly Effect.

One might conceive of a small event in a pupil’s schooling, that unbeknown to the teacher ‘lights a bulb in the mind’, and eventually causes that pupil to become the next Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking. I wonder what effect size John Hattie would ascribe to that… But to a lesser extent, the same is true about the actual effects of any educational (or other) interaction; this is why trying to identify and then depend on known ‘outcomes’ is pointless. (One might also consider the effect on the ‘total career impact’  of a teacher, of the act that produces the next Einstein!).

When I was writing my own book, I felt slightly uneasy that I could not substantiate sufficiently my claim that educational interactions are ‘irreducible events whose outcomes are only known to those involved’. For all that it felt right, justifying it was more difficult. But here, at last, is something that I think comes close. If it is indeed true that some effects in this world are governed by a fractal model of probability rather than a Bell Curve, then it is entirely possible for the effects of a teacher on a pupil to be unknowable – an educational Black Swan.

This does not mean that extreme events will occur frequently, but equally it does mean that they are eminently possible, and that we should not seek to build theories without allowing for them. Likewise, for every pupil who ‘works hard and succeeds’, how many (often unseen) pupils work hard but don’t? Or don’t work hard, but still do? It’s a deeply misleading relationship to suggest to people.

But given that they are unknowable in both nature and occurrence, we cannot therefore build accurate models of our effect. Resorting to those we have on the grounds that they are better than nothing does not make them any more accurate.

Taleb suggests that the only sensible response to this is Sceptical Empiricism, in other words a mode of working that is deductive: it works from reality to concept, rather than the opposite, always remembering that the past is not a good predictor of the future. The chart summarises the differences between this approach and the more conventional one, which does indeed look more like the present-day character of some education systems.

I was delighted to note that Taleb describes this approach as being ‘sophisticated craft’ rather than ‘poor science’ – which is indeed exactly how I would characterise my view of teaching vis à vis the established one, and what I proposed in the conclusion of my own book. And as he says, it is better to be broadly right than precisely wrong.

Which is what the current models being used in education are.

Introducing Tonic for Teachers

 

 

What separates an expert from a novice is not purely technical procedure. It is insight and interpretation – the refinement that allows the expert to ‘read’ a situation more fully and to respond in more nuanced ways.

There is little available in the world of teacher professional development to cater for this need.

Tonic for Teachers is the new online resource that I have created to address this need, using materials from popular and successful CPD sessions and developing many of the ideas proposed in my book The Great Exception.

For a modest one-off payment, it gives access to fifty short short audio commentaries totalling over five hours of material, together with downloadable hard copy, other resources, video links and more, aimed to make it as accessible as possible for busy working teachers. The aim is not to provide quick-fix classroom tricks, but to promote growing insight and increased resilience in classroom practice.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning  and please share!

Out of the blue

If you had told any of the poor unfortunates involved in Genoa’s disaster that their fate was to be sealed when a bridge fell away beneath them, I doubt they would have believed it. Such events lie close to the margins of human credibility, at least when it comes to personalising the matter so brutally.

I am reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ground-breaking work The Black Swan, whose main contention is that events in this world are far more frequently determined by the unexpected and unknown than humans feel comfortable with. The events in Genoa must come close to such a phenomenon, and feel quite raw here, as I have driven over that bridge several times.

And yet it seems that the actual direction of human travel is still to try to rationalise ever more aspects of our existence, even though all that the signs are that this process constrains and depersonalises the very experience of being human.

One might argue that the maintenance of a bridge should be entirely rational and systematic – but that overlooks the fact that no matter how good the systems, they cannot cope with the irregular, irrational or unexpected. And I suspect those elements of human nature run far deeper than mere logic.

In reality, our attempts to impose order and predictability on this world are as self-defeating as they are superficial. Indeed, much of what we value most is anything but systematic.

I suspect the tendency derives from two things:

1) The huge size of modern societies and organisations, such that the only way to co-ordinate consistent behaviour seems to involve a reduction in scope for individual decision-making. There are serious implications here for both democracy and individual autonomy.

2) The reliance on I.T. and other technical systems, interaction with which requires intransigent adherence to the structures (and limitations) put in place by those who created them. I suspect that they gradually condition the mind to a linear, box-ticking view of the world.

In both cases, the effect seems to me to be a diminution of the scope for individual human initiative – and blindness that this perhaps increases our exposure to the kind of systemic failures that cause bridges to collapse or other seemingly out-of-the-blue happenings to take place. (It seems that warnings about problems with the bridge were lost in Italian cultural laxity…)

I was recently struck by the same impression on reading that up-take of arts, humanities and modern foreign languages continues to decline in the U.K., at the expense of the STEM subjects. This is no surprise, since it has been policy at both governmental and individual school level for some time – and students do tend to respond to such steer. It is also no doubt in part due to the fact that such subjects lend themselves more easily to the kind of technocratic, easily-defined form of ‘progress’ that has been favoured in recent years – and no less to the perception that these fields are where success is clearest and rewards greatest. No need to inconvenience ourselves with such imponderables as ‘unknown unknowns’ let alone matters of relative wisdom; just churn out more of the same black-or-white and collect rather more than £200 just for passing Go.

And reading this blog drove home to me – as its author eventually realised –  the extent to which the whole edifice of present-day education is built upon assumptions of consequentialism that may make teachers, and even pupils feel temporarily good about themselves, but which vastly overstates the actual power and predictability of our interventions. And all sorts of serious consequences are hung on the failures of such world-views.

There are times when I feel completely at odds with the general direction of travel of the world. Maybe it’s just Age, but most of the really valuable experiences and insights of my life have been anything but technical in nature – and I fear that the tendency to orientate our lives as though they were just part of one large machine risks neglecting many of the subjective, creative and even downright irrational moments of inspiration that are the essence of what separates humans from machines.

I find it deeply regrettable that even the one process that ought to lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition is increasingly abandoning this difficult territory in favour of simplistic technical fixes.

I have recently completed a vocational diploma myself. While it has equipped me well enough with the technical skills and knowledge that I need, it has been a relatively sterile experience simply because it was so predictable: while it had the full plethora of learning objectives and assessment criteria, there was little provision or requirement for the kind of deeper thinking that might have led to richer insight. What’s more, being online, it lacked the real human contact that is an important part of much learning. I have ended up technically qualified, but (had it not been for my own irrepressible curiosity, which inevitably led me off the beaten track) I don’t think I would have been much wiser or insightful as a result. It is training, not education.

I had a similar experience when developing the online resource that I will be launching shortly: the platform that I adopted is technically an excellent tool to work with. But in order to produce the course as conceived, I had to ignore some of the stipulations of the technicians who developed the platform: I was expected to make my innovation fit the system, rather than the opposite. Official listing of a course is purely a matter of fitting the ideological system-template rather than the quality of the content, which seems to have been ignored. What is more, there was no possibility of contextualising the submission: it was a simple pass/fail when subjected to a check-list of what the producers (think they) want. A classic case of style over substance. Systems that lack even the possibility of interaction or feedback are weak, if not dangerous.

The platform is thoroughly rooted in constructivist ideology, and so I suppose it is not surprising that it rejected something more traditionally based. But the point is still the same: a good system should be capable of identifying quality and value wherever and however it appears. Too many reject potentially good – perhaps even ground-breaking – material simply because it does not comply with superficial norms or expectations. Is our education system more generally increasingly making the same mistake?

Many of the greatest leaps of human achievement have been made by mavericks who chose not to follow the rules but to redefine them. This often involved the rejection of pre-existing systems, and a reliance on intuition, talent and the not-so-obvious, rather than the ability to follow others’ instructions. Many of the innovations that frame modern life were in reality just the result of useful accidents. Something similar might be criticised in a system that rejected the Black Swan possibility that a bridge might actually be likely to collapse due to sheer human incompetence, despite its supposed (perhaps illusory?) technical prowess.

There is no point in pretending that human life is a purely technical matter; while we have learned (to some extent) to control the material world around us (and we need systems to do that), very much of the experience of being human does not obey such rules, and thus proves otherwise. We need to acknowledge the limits of systems as well as their utility. We should actually be growing our appreciation of the fact that a rich, well-lived human life is about more than mere technical matters – but such matters are too complex for reductivist instincts.

By moving so many fields of human endeavour – and perhaps most critically the subjects and methods by which we learn – in a purely technical direction, I fear we are losing sight of the very subjectivity upon which many of our greatest achievements stand.

Unconditionally mercenary

An eminent writer to a national newspaper recently observed that education in Britain has ‘lost its sense of moral purpose’. That need not imply any particular belief system for it still to be true, inasmuch as education should presumably strive for a higher ideal in the quest for objective knowledge.

As if more evidence were needed of the extent to which this is true, The Independent has reported that the number of unconditional offers made to would-be university students has risen from fewer than 3000 in 2013 to over 68 000 this year. It seems that the sole driver of this has been the desire of universities to fill places in advance and secure their incomes for the year ahead.

Where is the concern for the actual quality that entrants are required to demonstrate, or of the likely impact on their motivation? The adverse effects of this are blatant evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the system on all fronts.

Unconditional offers used to be the preserve of the very few highly talented (or possibly canny) students in whom universities expressed complete confidence that they would achieve their entry requirements. That has been thrown out in favour of the hard logistics of bums-on-seats in an over-supplied marketplace.

But the response of the students is hardly better: while the psychology of receiving an unconditional offer was always the same (I saw how a couple of people I knew who received them suddenly eased up as their ‘A’ Levels approached), it is now plumbing the depths of the mercenary, with The Independent reporting that many students simply stopped showing up at school at all, and one school reporting a fall in its pass-rate as a result from 74% to 14% in one year when 40% of its students received unconditional offers.

As I said, the reverse-psychology effect of the unconditional offer has always been there – but in the past, I think that students still perceived enough inherent value for the learning process to know that it was important to see their courses through for their own sake.

Today’s students would appear to have no more value for their courses than as a passport to the next level, and seem utterly unprincipled in doing absolutely no more than is required to secure it. This is no surprise either, for it follows precisely the known effects of contingent rewards on effort levels.

I hardly blame them, for these are the values that the entire education system has been peddling for several decades now: education as commodity; something whose value is entirely extrinsic and material; learning for learning’s sake an utter waste of time. And a system of exams and qualifications that itself has become more important than the qualities and abilities that it supposedly represents.

I strongly objected to such views when I was still working in education, and did what I could to combat them amongst my own students. It was the reason why I drew clear limits around what I was prepared to do just to cram students through the same corrupted, superficial hoop-jumping process. And I have documented probably ad nauseam the reaction of that system to my principles.

I can only assume that those who promote such values in what now passes for the British education system view these developments without the slightest alarm.

From novice to master

When seen in the driver’s seat, it is barely possible to distinguish between an advanced driver and a novice. Insofar as it is possible at all, it will mostly not be down to the actual operations that they perform (which are largely the same for any driver) so much as their body language and general ease with the task in hand.

Even when being driven by those two people, much of what makes one more accomplished than the other may only rarely be noticeable, for it resides in the domain of cognition. It is perhaps only in extreme situations that the expertise of the advanced driver may become visible, through the speed of their reflexes, and the strategies they can deploy. In many cases, however, the fact that experienced drivers are known to focus much further away from their own vehicle may simply mean that their expertise rests in the ability to avoid difficult situations in the first place.

It is also true that advanced motorists are taught to break some of the rules hard-wired into novices; for example, there are skills that involve using the whole road to corner safely and comfortably – where appropriate – that would leave a novice quaking. But that does not make it poor practice: it is simply that the master has better appraisal of complex situations and a wider range of appropriate responses to hand.

It is not so different in the classroom. Not many attributes will give away the level of experience of an individual teacher; perhaps age may be an indicator, but even that is not reliable since the profession has mature entrants. The basics of classroom craft are little different no matter what the level of experience.

What makes the difference is what the master-teacher knows, how this enables them to interpret what they are encountering – and how they then react. We might call this Experience. And once again, expert reaction may on occasions involve judicious breaking of the rules of supposed ‘good practice’.

There seems to be something of a backlash against the notion that skilled teaching is largely an intuitive matter, that experience is indeed important. The proponents of evidence-based practice argue that intuition, let alone ‘common sense’ is too dependent on the limited perception of the individual, and that it often misinforms or causes complacency. What is needed, they say, is considered practice based on the results of aggregated evidence.

I consider this to be a false dichotomy. It is not that the arguments for evidence are wrong, so much as naive – and impracticable. A significant proportion of a teacher’s time is spent reactively – adapting according to whatever circumstances arise in their class. Some can be anticipated, but many cannot. There is simply not time for rumination on what the evidence would say before a response is necessary.

The point about expertise being unconscious still holds. Having watched expert teachers amongst my colleagues for several decades, it seems evident to me that they operate at an intuitive level: the teacher is the person, and there is no need for them actively to ponder their response: they just drop automatically into ‘teacher mode’.

The trick of mastery is to reconcile these two elements: leaving a novice to work entirely on intuition may indeed lead to poor outcomes, since even if they have excellent technical skills, they probably lack the insight with which to ‘read’ a situation and reach instinctively for a good solution. A Master, on the other hand, will have precisely that back-catalogue of experience to draw upon (of which they may be only dimly conscious), which will allow them to respond in an effective (but not always predictable) way to a given situation. Embedding good practice in intuition is the answer, though what works on the ground may still not always be what aggregate research suggests; the circumstances of teaching are too situation-specific for that.

It is precisely this catalogue of prior experience that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Master, for it allows them to contextualise what they are encountering in a far deeper and more nuanced way than someone who lacks it. (There have been cases of clinicians correctly diagnosing people in restaurants just by noting their demeanour and subconsciously matching it against prior cases; try legislating for that…).

This is why it is both safe and advisable to allow experienced teachers latitude in their personal practice.

The problem is that this means that school managers have to relinquish control over what happens in their classrooms. The path to achieving mastery also makes it almost impossible to specify or prepare for. The course-leader of a significant teacher training establishment recently conceded to me that far too little is provided to help teachers move towards such excellence. Nobody seems to know how to do it. This is in part because that process does not ‘fit’ neatly with institutional practices; indeed it largely has to be done for oneself – and the traditional way has simply been by serving time. In the meantime, school-based professional development has too often become little more than a means of reinforcing institutional policy agendas.

I did significant work in this area to develop my own practice, and in recent years I offered a series of successful and popular CPD sessions to my colleagues. The intention was not to refine classroom craft (which was often already good) but to enhance the perspectives and contexts which people use to interpret what they encounter.

I regret that my personal misfortune brought this programme to a premature end, so I have been developing an online course using those materials and many more. I will be launching this in the coming weeks as an affordable resource for those who want to take the initiative of moving their own practice forward, and who are not afraid to break with convention in order to do so.

Watch this space!

Fake education?

Question: What is the connection between fake news and educational research?

The recent public release of targeted images used by Leave organisations during the Brexit campaign has revealed the potency of targeted advertising, some of which did indeed cross over into misinformation, if not downright fake news.

One might consider that a purpose of education is to counter the effect of such strategies, for example by equipping people with the critical thinking skills to see through such assaults. But there is a deeper and less flattering commonality: it seems to me that much educational research is (naively or otherwise) actually directed at precisely the same objective of ramming information ever more ‘efficiently’ into people’s heads.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the intent of the two activities is the same – but the impression that I often get from those who promote such research is that they are in search of ever more effective ways of planting information in people’s minds.

Most of the outcomes seem to be implicitly directed more at improving schools’ performance in the various accountability measures than developing independent critical (and by definition uncontrollable) thought. This is reinforced by the widespread use of the glib and unelaborated notion of ‘better education’ – which in the worldview of such researchers (and their patrons, educational ‘leaders’) really only ever seems to equate with better results.

I do not dispute the importance of qualifications for young people – but it is nonetheless true that they do not need to be entirely synonymous with the exam results that are increasingly driving the system, and indeed the entirety of what schools seem to think they exist for.

Seen from that perspective, it makes complete sense for them to support research that could reveal the perfect system for securing 100% pass rates – in just the same way that retail and political organisations have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to secure what they perceive as optimal outcomes. In both cases, this presumably means every last person doing and thinking what they are told.

But the prime means of doing that is by controlling people’s behaviour as closely as they can- which in my understanding is the diametric opposite of increasing people’s liberty which I view as a much superior objective for education. Is there really a great difference between educational research and that into other forms of thought-manipulation such as marketing techniques or targeted political advertising?

The education system has already travelled a long way down this partisan route: ever since it was made to compete for ‘customers’ and justify its existence in every last way, any sense of objectivity about what it is doing has been long abandoned.

Universities now compete for students on the basis of glossy marketing and branding rather than genuine academic quality. What matters is controlling perceptions – and schools are not far behind them: witness the banners that are almost a sine qua non of school gates these days, proclaiming the supposed brilliance of every last institution to the world at large. How demeaning can it get?

And when we reduce it to basics, even thought the professed aims might be otherwise, what is really so different from the ways in which schools – through publicity and result-enhancing ‘research’ are seeking to manipulate minds, and the techniques now being employed by the shady world of misinformation?

We might be proclaiming one thing, but the effects of education-as-thought-control are not so very different.