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 

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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.



 

Lessons Learned

I have been reading Brian Lightman’s book Lessons Learned: A life in education.

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Brian was a colleague of mine for a few years in the early 1990s and I am indebted to him for both his support early in my career (where much else was lacking), and more recently for encouraging the publication of my own book The Great Exception.

In the meantime, he went on, via several headships, to become General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

His book provides a fascinating insight into his experiences as he ascended to the top of the profession. The memoirs of a head teacher should be required reading for all in education: both those in the classroom for the appreciation it can bring of the breadth and challenges of the role – something it seems that few others bother to communicate to their staff – and those in political positions for a view of just how complex and demanding a job it is.

From the lower rungs, it is easy to criticise ‘management’, and I have done my share of this, although I have always tried to tackle the issue rather than the person. I have also identified ‘management’ as being more than just that found at school level. But it is also fair to say that from a classroom perspective, management hubris often ensured it was not clear just where some of the impositions and conflicts that we struggled with were originating from. Those in such positions would do well to remember which parts of the anatomy are most visible from beneath…

One might argue it would be in their own favour for school managements to be more open with their staff about the imposed conflicts they face, rather than (as was my experience) trying to present an invincible, non-negotiable stance which was certainly not interested in the thoughts or ideas of mere classroom teachers. By sometimes claiming total authority, school managements have not only deprofessionalised their staff, but also in effect claimed ownership of many of the education system’s failings that may not actually have been their fault. That said, in many cases, it has clearly been school managements’ interpretations of political diktats that have caused the real problems.

While Lightman naturally comes at these issues from a very different, more strategic perspective, it is reassuring that the former leader of a Head teachers’ union corroborates many of my own views on issues seen from the classroom, such as:

  • the need for individuals to be able to develop their own good practice
  • the need for schools to support their staff rather than micro-manage or otherwise demean them
  • the need for more a pluralistic appreciation of the nature and aims of education
  • the need to reduce the narrow emphasis on exam results as the sole driver for both teaching and schools as a whole
  • the desirability of extended professional development for teachers that aims at a wider professionalism than basic classroom skills or production-line techniques.

I do however lack his apparent belief that complex policy and control structures really are the best means to achieve higher standards. I doubt that they actually have the ability to reach to the level of individual classrooms with anything more than a restricting effect. And we still haven’t really pinned down what ‘better education’ actually means.

While I have certainly experienced the impacts of different styles of school management, I have also seen far flatter structures being very successful elsewhere. If we had a highly-educated and trained, fully professionalised work force (in spirit and approach rather than just intent) in this country, such as is found in Finland, Switzerland and elsewhere, there would simply be much less need for towering hierarchies to drive everything. To be fair, Lightman does hint at this. The lack of such is the fault of education policy over decades.

The later stages of the book recount Lightman’s encounters with the political establishment during the last Labour years and then the 2010 Coalition-era government. It is not edifying reading.

This account of the means by which education policy was made: the sheer prejudice brought to bear – not least on the achievements of prior administrations, the refusal to credit professional expertise and insight, the sometimes ad-hoc, opportunistic nature of policy-making, and the sheer, arrogant cronyism of the system, makes depressing reading. It has to be said without much pleasure, that all of these traits were, according to Lightman, far worse under the Conservatives than the other parties.

Sometimes it is the small and non-education related points that are enlightening: for example, the observation that while most parties’ annual party conferences are packed with pressure-groups’ stalls, the Conservative one mostly features up-market traditional country-wear.

The impression Lightman gained is that this party represents a regressive, privileged and condescending – yet immensely powerful – force within society that has little understanding of, or interest in, any world-view except its own. And it still believes in its own entitlement to govern.

For someone who is increasingly more widely critical of the ways in which the U.K. is governed, this blows a major hole in the claim that this country is well governed, for all the veneer of authority and control that the Establishment can still put on. And in the light of the nation’s current difficulties, if this account of the education department is representative of approaches in (Conservative?) government more widely, one can only fear for the nation’s future.

Back with teaching, in my own way, I believe I attempted to develop a form of professionalism close to that which Lightman describes. My own approach attempted a blend of the best of proven traditional techniques with the more promising and workable aspects of newer ideas. I tried to educate young people rather than just prepare them to jump hoops. And this blog is testament to this teacher’s attempts to widen his perspective on his professional practice.

It was hard work as it often involved swimming against the tide of a system that eventually burned me out, threw me out – and stamped on the remains. And whatever the perceived or real weaknesses of this particular individual, I now represent just one more experienced, committed teacher lost to a system that can ill afford it – against which Lightman rails.

In very many ways, the education system needs to become much less dogmatic in its approach – and much more trusting of professionals to do a good job. Lightman’s experiences in Germany (he is a linguist) reflect my own in Switzerland in this respect.

All in all, a thought-provoking account of a life in education that does much to cast light on layers of the structure not normally visible to those in the classroom, but one that does not lose sight of the fundamental importance of the grassroots nature of the profession.

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

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.