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Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”

https://muggedbyrealitycom.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/critical-mass/

This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?

Quality will out – part 1

kettle

In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.

Gridlock

Theresa May has done us a favour. I think it is high time that educational paradigms are discussed again: all the tweaking and meddling of the past decades have made for a complex muddle, and is perhaps an acknowledgement that the current system is still not providing as well as it might.

That is not the same as taking sides on the Grammar Schools issue. But the assumption by some/many of the pro-comprehensive majority that their preference is so morally and practically superior that the alternatives warrant nothing more than outright dismissal is both wrong and unprofessional. In many walks of life, such an approach would be considered rather suspect. There is enough evidence from around the world that it is more complicated than that. The present system arguably has at least as many flaws as the alternatives; much of the additional workload and pressure on teachers and schools seems to be caused by the need to counter these issues in what are possibly sub-optimal situations. It is right that an open debate should take place.

In the past few weeks, I have heard several local stories about Saturday road-gridlock on what turned out to be Eleven-Plus morning. I must admit, it had not fully registered how the exam has changed. It turns out that grammar schools now largely administer it themselves, as most primaries refuse to have anything to do with it.

It seems to me that this only accentuates the undesirable aspects of that exam, since it favours those with the awareness/determination/ability to reach those venues at the weekend. Very probably this is primarily those who have also paid for coaching etc. and it may disadvantage those, for example, whose parents are at work on a Saturday.

Contrast this with my experience from 1974, when the Eleven Plus took place anonymously as one amongst a series of relatively low-key tests conducted in the final-year classroom at primary school. This reduced pupil stress (although we did know what was happening) and it also meant that the entire mixed intake of that school had equal access to the exam. It seems to me that this was about as fair as that system could get.

On balance I do not agree with the Eleven Plus as the sole method of selection: there are other, if more complex alternatives. But it is not the entirely fault of the grammar schools that the system has been distorted like this, and therefore the present iniquity of the exam is weakened as an argument against selection more widely. It is just another example of what happens when what is effectively deregulation creates a free-for-all.

This weekend, I will make my final offering in this debate. It is in two parts, and examines the reasons why the gridlock still occurs. I think this matter is not being faced.

My motive for banging on about this at length is simply the desire to see the issue properly debated. When one repeatedly encounters occasions where senior colleagues use their platform openly to denounce the issue without any apparent regard for considered differences of opinion or the offence they may cause, it reinforces the view that dogma is taking precedence over debate.

In my case this only strengthens my determination to ensure that the alternative side is properly heard. It does not mean that my own views are entirely one-sided. Equally, from my induction into this profession thirty years ago, fully subscribing to the comprehensive model, my concerns have grown steadily that it may not be the best way of addressing many people’s – or society’s – educational needs. The alternatives surely warrant more substantial consideration.

 

 

Footplate footnote

abc-front

Knowing my interests, a neighbour recently gave me the book shown in the picture above. Quite apart from its nerdish historic interest😉 I noticed something poignantly but topically significant on the back cover:

abc-back

I can honestly say that the multiple prejudices stacked up in this modest text make the modern me instinctively recoil as much as the next person.

But perhaps we should pause and ask ourselves whether this truly represents a more blinkered era, or whether it reflects a time when personal differences and aptitudes were more readily accepted than they are today. Our modern lives insulate us from so many harsh realities – but it does not necessarily do us good. Consider, for example, the problems some have coping with the concept of death, or indeed misfortune of any kind simply because we encounter them so rarely in our sanitised lives.

In 1958 (the year of the book), more work was available for non-academic types – and it is conceivable that they would have neither wanted nor coped with the demands made of “Grammar and Public schoolboys who have the right qualifications…”

One might do well to consider whether this really represents a repression of the opportunities available to people from certain backgrounds, or a more pragmatic acceptance that not everybody is, or wants to be, the same. I think it is also highly significant that apprenticeships were on offer in “specific trades” which could well have offered furtherment to those prepared to work hard.

The world has changed immensely since the publication of this book, and I am certainly not suggesting that our (hopefully) more tolerant and positive language is a retrograde step . But it’s also noteworthy that the language here in no way talks down to young people as is the tendency today.

I’m no nostalgic, nor an apologist for undeserved privilege, but I wonder how different the outcomes from the present system really are, for all our sensibilities. Are we really much further forward when it comes to addressing these issues?

Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.

Dead Cat Bounce – part two.

Were I a parent, I would wish my children to have a traditional academic education, provided they were suited to it. Yes, I suppose I am educated middle class, but I am not knowingly part of any conspiracy – unless by that we mean my wish to preserve my own values along with the next person. My reasons for considering a selective education would not be to deprive others of the same, but simply to exercise a reasonable choice. But the reality is, strict academic education is probably only suited for – and desired by – a relatively small part of any population. History dictates that we try to foist it on everyone; we need to get real.

But I can see no reason why the fact that others’ needs lie elsewhere should deprive those who do value these things from having them – otherwise we are guilty of nothing more than another, equally insidious form of discrimination. What is more, the more difficult access became to what I desired, the harder I would be prepared to fight to secure it. This is why competition is so fierce for what grammar school places remain.

What we are forced to confront here is nothing less than the Social Contract: the relationship of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the society in which they live. In particular, the right of society to constrain or arbitrate the choices of individuals, the obligation of citizens to accept this – and the obligation on society to provide what they want in the first place. It has only become more complex as society has succeeded in educating and empowering a larger fraction of its members.

There are frequent calls from those who oppose selection to encourage the ablest teachers to work in the poorest areas. I am not going to decry that, so long as coercion is not involved, and there is reasonable evidence that people of certain talents can indeed make a huge difference in that situation. But what is being called for here is nothing more than another form of selection. This is a form of positive discrimination that the opponents of academic selection are often entirely happy with, and I suspect that if May had announced a different form of specialisation, that explicitly boosted the chances of the underprivileged – perhaps even providing preferential treatment for them – then the objections would have been far more muted.

So I would like those who might object to aspirations like mine to explain why, if it is right that if the opportunities of disadvantaged children should not be frustrated by others, it is then right that an especially able child’s prospects should be compromised in return. All this does is create a different fall-group.

True equality of opportunity should not mean its removal from those who already have it. And yet that is almost inevitably what it does mean. The most likely outcome of failing to nourish outstanding talent is that it will never fully flourish.

As I said in part one, the evidence of my eyes is that children who are indifferent or worse to academic subjects normally outnumber those who really take to them; it is not even fully a reflection of ability. This is true even in a school with a positive ability-skew, such as mine. I do not decry the non-academic: it is just that their needs are different, and in my experience, by default they normally take tacit precedence.I daily confront the problem of classes with reasonable numbers of willing children being compromised by the indifferent majority.

What is more, the claim that comprehensives encourage social mixing has only minimal traction. My experience is that children, too, largely self-select and stick with their like. In a school with a wide ability and income range, the effect is to stigmatise and disaffect the less-successful, or less wealthy, all the more. This point is often dismissed by proponents of comprehensives – but it too is what I see every day.

I cannot see that it is right that those with the values and aptitudes to benefit most from any rigorous, high-level opportunity should be deprived it because there are those who will not or do not. That should apply equally to vocational education – as it already does, uncontroversially, to fields such as elite sport. In all such situations, it requires deep concentrations of like-minded people to achieve this.

Here we encounter another of the fallacies of those who oppose selection: that it casts ‘the rest’ onto the scrapheap.

There is certainly potential for this to happen – but it is more about social attitudes and alternative provision than it is an inevitable outcome of such systems. In the past, the U.K was not good at this. One might cite Germany, where the majority of children opt for technical schools, and there is certainly little sense of inadequacy about them – or that country’s industrial and technical sector. Countries differ in their cultures, of course – but around Europe, there is no strong evidence that selective systems enhance social division, nor that non-selective ones do the opposite.

The failure to offer high-quality alternatives to selective academic schools is not in itself an argument against the principle of them, or of selection as a whole.

To me, it seems preferable to enable those from under-represented backgrounds who demonstrate commitment and/or aptitude to be admitted to places that will nurture it, than to deprive everyone of it simply because all cannot have it – or choose not to want it.

And while it is easy to argue for social integration in principle, many of those who do so would, I suspect draw their own lines at mixing indiscriminately with those they themselves deem unacceptable. In other words, the fine words mask a deep hypocrisy. Very few people make no distinctions whatsoever when it comes to these matters. I am unapologetic that in my own life there are those whom I find so disagreeable or destructive that I choose to avoid them. I can see no good reason why I should be forced to mix with them, if only for (perceived) self-preservation – though this is not to deny their right to exist.

One might argue that good influences will rub off – but my regrettable experience is that it is often the coarse, indiscriminate and ruthless who prevail, because they lack the restraints of conscience and empathy that others perhaps possess. I would go so far as to suggest that the ‘success’ of attempts to increase social integration can be seen in the increasing coarseness of our national discourse and standards of public life – even amongst those sectors of society who in past eras might have felt obliged to uphold higher quality.

 Society needs extraordinarily talented people – wherever they come from – not least because they provide disproportionately high returns on the extra resources invested in them. In the long run, this is to the benefit of all – but they need specialist provision.

This is why this issue is ideological: is it desirable to achieve social and educational equality even if that means levelling people down rather than up? There is no straightforward conclusion to that: it is possible to argue either way. For several decades, Britain, for understandable reasons has decided that it is, but globally, historic attempts to do so have all failed. And as with everything, there is a cost. In this case, it might be seen in the quality of our society – be that in the productivity and skills-base problems we face, the erosion of that part of society more inclined to uphold civil standards – and, one might add, the resultant increasing inclination of those who can, to  buy their way out of the system.

 One of the consequences of denying certain sectors of society what they desire is that they will look elsewhere for it. But the means they have to do so are rarely equal.

All social settlements are compromises, education included. Selective education is by no means a perfect solution, and it does have potentially serious downsides. But it is a mistake is to pretend that the same is not true of the alternatives. And then it comes down to which is the least worst.

This is not to argue for deliberate discrimination against the already under-privileged; it is true that we can ill afford to ignore their talents, and it is true that the most serious problem with selective education as it has been delivered in this country in the past, is the perception and reality of what happens to ‘the rest’. But that is an entirely different issue from whether education should be used as a social leveller – which is the actual agenda of those who oppose selection. What is more, acts of wanton destruction are being committed in its name: who for example can justify the dilution of a high-achieving school’s academic standards on the grounds of increasing equality of access. In precisely whose interest is this?

So far I have concentrated very much on one aspect of the debate here, at the expense of others.

But there is almost no discussion about the multiple geometries that might exist. The worst culprit is the conflation of selection as a whole with academic selection, followed closely by its conflation with the Eleven Plus exam. In both cases there are other possibilities – but as so often, this debate is reducing to black-or-white false dichotomies which do nothing to resolve such matters.

For example, there is no reason why selection could not be at least partly consultative: I would agree that in this era, the ability of schools unaccountably to pick and choose is neither democratic nor a reasonable distribution of authority. That said, schools (or some form of arbitration) might provide a more objective judgement than individual parents, who will largely fight for their own interests.

One might also have a discussion about the merits of selection by aptitude as opposed to ability; this would deal with the problem of academically-weaker but motivated children. But where is this debate? In this case, one can present a case for specialisation, whereby children could choose between various types of school according to their preferences as well as abilities. I suspect that much of the sense of injustice around selection comes from the fact that it is imposed – but this need not be so.

 The existence or otherwise of selective system is a different argument from how the selection occurs, and on what basis. Selection does not exclude a consultative process, nor the idea that it can be based on aptitude rather than raw ability. Neither need it inevitably occur irrevocably, nor only at eleven years of age.

I began by accepting that there are many very strong points against selection; I fully share some of them. Grammars are no more a panacea than anything else.

One might mention, for example, that my notion of what a grammar school is, was forever shifted from the modest but traditional one I attended by the experience of attending interviews many years ago at two in Kent. Both appeared poorly run, with widespread complacency amongst staff and pupils and with little challenge. This is simply not acceptable.

One might also accept that grammar schools are not what they were – the practice of tutoring and cramming is certainly much greater than it used to be, and this very probably plays to the disadvantage of those who do not receive it. But that might be seen as a symptom of a situation, or an expression of wider changes in society rather than an inherent problem, and there are ways to neutralise it.

My experience of parents facing the morality of the selection dilemma is not that they seek unfair advantage; it is that they are fleeing from what they see as poor alternatives elsewhere. That would be my experience too: I am simply not confident that even a good comprehensive could deliver the kind of education that I would want for a child of mine.

This situation already exists – but it is a free-for-all based on pushiness and wealth rather than anything fairer or more regulated. It is true that in such a situation, the less advantaged will probably lose out. But we need to ask why certain sectors of society have this perception to begin with. Trying to prohibit it will not work – as with all prohibition, it just tends to send the problem underground. Seeking to deny those people who pursue this course their choices will make no fairer society than denying any other sector their rights – but spreading the benefits more widely could.

It is also not wholly true that grammar schools are simply private schools on the cheap; this is another careless generalisation by their opponents. Grammar schools often provide for those who value academic education but lack the wealth to pay for it; in that sense they are part of the fight against the privileges of wealth, as embodied by the private sector. That is the error of understanding of those who unquestioningly oppose them. Education has been so portrayed as a simplistic fight against privilege that all the other arguments have been marginalised.

 The caricature of a grammar school as being packed with self-serving middle class types is not one I recognise. By no means all grammars are ‘posh’.Even if that is the modern reality, it may more reflect the shortage of desired provision, rather than a conspiracy. The presence of more such schools would weaken such sharp-elbow tactics, while the replacement of the Eleven-Plus with alternative methods would neutralise the ability to exam-cram. This is not an argument against the existence of such schools.

Even if middle-class pushiness is objectionable, in a fair society why are such people to be denied access to what they too desire, so long as this is not at the expense of others?

This is also in part the cause of the exam-factory education that we have today. In schools where reluctance is the dominant pupil characteristic and schools are judged on how well they overcome it, it is hardly surprising that sweatshop coercion has become the method of choice. The casualty has been any sense of education as being of intrinsic value.

For many, it may never be – but time after time, I encounter pupils who ought to have a wider appreciation – but don’t. And as a teacher, I earnestly believe that some of my own energies and aptitudes have been wasted because non-academic schools have no use for them – and I have been forced to become a conveyor-belt teacher, even though that does not best suit my temperament or abilities. Yes, I am myself a legacy of a grammar school – but the qualities they imbue, of which I hope I possess a little, are in severe decline in this country, to our repeated, collective disadvantage.


 

In Zurich, even the Gnomes use the trams. Certainly, one may observe a great cross-section of Swiss society on public transport; even buses do not carry the negative social connotations that they do in the U.K. Plenty of people in the more urban areas rarely use their cars.

I deeply sympathise with the instincts of those who argue that social cohesion needs to be strengthened, but I cannot see that this can be done by coercion. It is true that the worst problem of selection is what happens to those who are not selected. But the refusal to allow individuals and social sub-groups to exercise choices that reflect their own values results in a less free society, rather than the opposite.

In Switzerland, the people who do not send their children to state schools are seen as a curiosity. Very few people opt out of the system (which is selective, but consultatively so), just as people of all backgrounds use public transport and most residential districts are far less polarised in this country. But the only way to achieve this in a modern, educated democracy is to create a system that is so good that people choose to opt into it rather than the opposite.

 The way to increase social cohesion is to provide as many high-quality pathways as possible. This encourages people to opt in rather than out. Forcing everyone through the same ‘average’ mould will only result in those who can, opting out in favour of what they prefer. This is precisely what has fuelled inequality in Britain.

That demands a commitment to excellence, a significant amount of resourcing, and an acceptance of natural human diversity with commensurate willingness to accommodate and cater for it. Trying to achieve the same thing by forcing all through the same mould can only accentuate the resentments and divisive forces that are such a feature of modern Britain. It is this point that those implacably opposed to selection in education cannot see.

What I have discussed above is not in itself sufficient to say that we should have selective education, let alone that we must. The problem of what happens to the non-selected vexes me as much as anyone else – but as I have shown, there are other geometries that are never even discussed.

Theresa May seems to have picked a fight she will probably lose – and made it worse by couching it in terms of a return to the past. But I think the argument about increasing choice is correct; what we need to be having is a discussion about how such choices are made, and between what alternatives.

The problem with grammar schools is not them – but how bad the alternatives were allowed to become. We should be offering better choices to those for who do not want an academic education and are alienated from school by it. There is no reason why one alternative should not be comprehensives: I think there are plenty of the ‘more privileged’ who would send their children to them on equally ideological grounds. But it would also no longer deny a strict academic diet to those who wanted it. Technical schools should be another choice. Percentage admission rates and other criteria should be part of the discussion.

Someone once said that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its minorities. In modern Britain, it is those (of whatever background) who value liberal academic education and a high-functioning intellect who increasingly constitute the minority. Who will fight to protect their rights?

Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…

 

There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]

Good Sports?

It is a known phenomenon that (ex) P.E. teachers are disproportionately represented in management circles. In fact, I remember during my P.G.C.E. hearing them specifically advised to ensure they secured management roles because of their physical expiry date in terms of how long they could continue to keep up with energetic teenagers. As someone who increasingly feels the pace of even classroom teaching, I am not going to disagree when it comes to the effects of ageing.

I am not going to launch an ad hominem criticism, for despite that rather calculating advice, I am sure the majority of such people have a lot to offer: there are some aspects of learning where the P.E. approach would appear valid. But I am also getting sick and tired of sporting types trying to convince the rest of the world that it would be much better if only we could run everything through the medium of sports psychology.

Regular readers will also know that I have nothing against Psychology either. In fact, I think we need more of it in teachers’ professional armoury. But Sport Psychology is not the only, nor even the most appropriate type for the whole of education, let alone wider human endeavour.

Yesterday, I was invited to consider why the U.K. Olympic team has improved its performance so markedly over the past twenty years. A number of responses were offered by colleagues, but we were assured that it was, in the main, down to the psychology of marginal gains. It is the cumulative impact of lots of small technical adjustments that add up to large effects. This is what led to Olympic success, and it is to what Team Sky coach Dave Brailsford attributes Tour de France success too.

Members of my break-out group were asked to identify marginal gains that we could use in education. It was suggested that we could provide rulers and highlighters for children as they went into the exam hall. Some other ideas emerged. But they were all logistical: practical steps that teachers could do to remedy children’s deficiencies. (Whether we should do that is another matter; there is a view that says bringing the requisite equipment to an exam is part of the test). But when I asked how we might instead deliver – and identify – marginal learning gains, there was silence. Even those who were generally in favour of the concept seemed to struggle to know what a marginal learning gain is, and how we should know it when we see one. And that is before we can explain just how or why a specific marginal increase in knowledge might be tangibly more useful.

Matthew Syed is a well-known motivational speaker, which followed from his career as a top table-tennis player. I have no issue with his success – but he seems to be someone else who believes that what works for sports is directly transferrable to all other human endeavours. I disagree.

Syed falls foul of the Achilles’ Heel of sports psychology: he does not seem to understand the difference between practical, measurable performance such as a sporting ‘best’ and something that is a philosophical or existential imponderable, such as those which concern the effective development of the intellect.  And he multiplies his error by demonstrating his inability sustain an appropriate analogy.

His recent TEDx talk compared the mindsets of the aviation industry to sub-optimal performance with that of the medical profession.

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Why-you-should-have-your-own-bl

Syed claims that the aviation industry has a rigorous and open culture that discusses its mistakes and conducts forensic investigations with the aim of improving performance. This, he claims is a Growth Mindset. He contrasts it with the medical profession, which he characterises as largely closed-mindset, where complacent professionals rest on their laurels, and will do anything including subverting uncomfortable truths in order to perpetuate their own status and hegemony. Quite where the evidence to support this claims is, is not made clear; it sounds suspiciously like lazy generalisation to me, and is certainly not what my knowledge of the Health Service would suggest.

But the real weakness of the analogy concerns the nature of these two ‘industries’. Aircraft are constructed by (human) engineers using known technologies to perform single, predictable tasks. When they fail, it is relatively straightforward to identify the failure, even if it is human error, and to put mechanical ‘fixes’ in place to rectify recurrent problems. One might also observe that the aviation industry is driven primarily by the profit motive.

Human bodies are not (in the evolutionary sense!) made by people. For all that we do know, they remain in many ways mysterious, and it is certainly not true that a specific intervention such as the administration of a drug will have only one, knowable, proportionate effect. It is also considerably harder and more risky to dismantle a human body and observe the malfunction in concrete terms – especially while it is still functioning. Human beings’ diagnostic software is notoriously unreliable and also subject to whim and emotions such as fear.

The job of a medical practitioner is therefore not the same as that of an aircraft engineer when it comes to offering confident diagnoses and plans of action. While the general principles of the human body are known, the way forward is much less certain, and that is without the problem that a human being has  feelings and multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes and priorities in the way an aircraft does not. Given these differences, I would suggest that any reticence or even defensiveness on the part of medical practitioners is at least highly understandable. I suggest that at least in the U.K., much of the medical profession is not primarily driven by financial profit.

In many ways, medicine remains in part a matter of judgement, rather than a knowable applied science like mechanical and electrical engineering.

I have discussed this at length because too much is made of such analogies in educational professional development terms. The objections outlined above occurred to me pretty spontaneously – and to others as well. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising when such claims are greeted with scepticism.  There are undoubtedly some elements of education that are quantifiable, but much of what concerns people like me comes much closer to the considered judgement of medical professionals than the conscientious but largely mechanical procedures of aviation.

But there is a further objection, for which Mr Syed is as responsible as any: this is not being used dispassionately, but to promote the Growth Mindset and other specific agendas. There is an implication that those who disagree do so because their thinking or worldview or personal motives are deficient. Or to put it another way, ‘if only you thought properly you would come to the right conclusions’ (i.e. Ours).

I have no difficulty with the Growth Mindset, given certain caveats – but any value it has can only be destroyed by using it in a partisan way: this is not good academic practice. I have heard tell that even Dweck is not entirely happy at the way her concept is being used by education.

With my maverick’s hat on, I argued that the success of the Olympic team shows that selection by ability works. At least some of those athletes were head-hunted for their talent, and then around £5 million per medal thrown at them. No-hopers lost their funding.

I wonder how many of the Syeds and disciples of this world would demonstrate a growth mindset if presented with that argument, particularly in the field of education.

Unfortunately, the fallout of such P.C., partisan approaches is the undermining of training within our profession, not least in the eyes of those who are meant to be benefiting from it.

In the rush to impose sports psychology on even the most inappropriate of fields, such people ably both demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties of education, and perpetuate the misgivings some of us have as to why it is they are deemed suitable to be telling the rest of us what to do.

Learning hard and easy

The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.

https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/why-learning-is-hard/

He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.

In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.

However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.

People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.

If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.

So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.

However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).

I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.

My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.

This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.

This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.

One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.

So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.

I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.

That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.

 

Of marshmallows and mobiles

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted what became a very famous experiment known as the Marshmallow Test. A pre-school child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of them, and a bell. The adult left the room, having told the child that they could ring for attention at any time, at which point they would be able to eat the marshmallow. But if they were able to resist until the adult returned (up to twenty minutes later), they would be able to double the reward. The experiment has been repeated many times, and there are plenty of entertaining covert videos on YouTube watching children’s attempts to resist.

One of the issues I want to address this year is that of sustaining children’s engagement at a time when attention spans and motivations seem to be shortening. The school’s intake seems to be changing for the more difficult, and keeping children’s effort and attention is requiring new thinking. As I wrote some months ago, I am increasingly exasperated by the constant demands to have ‘Fun’ in lessons, and that comment by one Year 7 girl who had not done her work “because my lesson was not sufficiently entertaining” is still ringing in my ears. Not because it hurt, but because I felt it is symptomatic of a problem we face with today’s children, namely that many are so indulged that they have no sense of obligation to do anything other than seek immediate gratification. That expectation has been perpetuated by schools encouraging children to want their lessons to be, above all else, fun.

When asked, many pupils are actually very vague about what kind of fun they want; what they really want, I think, is to shorten the pay-back time to their perceived ‘reward’ for the lesson. In a materialistic world, the notion of intrinsic rewards unfortunately seems increasingly thin.

Mischel himself describes the difficulties encountered by indulged children when the school agenda changes with the primary/secondary transition, so I am in good company here. It was a fortunate coincidence that my wife bought me Mischel’s book at this time.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Walter-Mischel/The-Marshmallow-Test–Understanding-Self-Control-and-How-to-Master-it/17432519

I had already been playing around with developments of Daniel Kahnemann’s two brains model, and wondering whether I could use this to tackle the issue in the classroom. I had decided to use three brains (the third, or first, the unconscious brain, being responsible for bodily functions), and I mentioned this rather spontaneously to a class last term. Rather unexpectedly, they threw the idea back at me some weeks later, so it clearly stuck. I am now wondering whether formally presenting pupils with this concept at the start of the year might help them understand why they need to be able to defer their gratification in my lessons at least.

The Marshmallow Test is  a measure of the ability to do just this, and Mischel’s  longitudinal studies (using precisely my own year-group, I realised…) suggests that this early ability can indicate future life prospects quite closely, even into adulthood. In essence it is about the ability of people to over-ride their ‘Brain 2’ (hot, emotional brain) with their ‘Brain 3’ (cool, rational one) when difficult decisions are needed. The stronger one’s ability to do this, the more likely one is to be able to persevere in the short term for the sake of longer term gain.

It turns out that Mischel worked with Carol Dweck, and he outlines strategies that can help people to develop greater resolve. He is directly concerned with their use by teachers and parents, and the link with the overworked but basically plausible idea of the Growth Mindset is clear.

I have prepared a Prezi that I am going to trial with likely-looking classes, and it can be found here:

https://prezi.com/obktg6kxg4ow/your-brain-is-amazing/

I think this might be the making of a ‘nudge’ strategy – I also have a PowerPoint slide of a marshmallow ready to project at a moment’s notice when attention seems to be slipping or the F word gets used…

One unknown is the extent to which the target group of children will be prepared to pay attention to this in the first place, and the extent to which they are willing (or able) to take its message on board. Does conscious awareness of such things make them more or less useful? There is a risk, of course, that precisely those who most need to know this may be those least likely to be able to make any deliberate response. We will see.

Where do mobiles come in? I am also increasingly convinced about the negative impact of mobile phones on children’s concentration spans, let alone ability to find anything else interesting. Mischel writes about the strategies children (and others) can use for increasing resolution to resist. One concerns the mental ‘distance’ one puts between oneself and the temptation. Actively thinking about the tastiness of marshmallows makes temptation worse; thinking about them as fluffy clouds weakens it.

It strikes me that mobile phones are nothing more than the mother of all marshmallows when it comes to modern children’s attention: by definition immediately to hand, and of almost unlimited, instant gratification. The more they use these devices, the shorter their attention span becomes as they get hooked on instant feedback; by comparison, the deferments required by serious learning must seem deeply unattractive, even without all the surrounding inducements.

No wonder they can’t think about anything else. So I am also considering declaring UDI when it comes to phone policy in my lessons. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I have to separate the damned things from the little addicts…