Carts and Horses  or For the hell of it.

“I’ll see you next week!” said the lady I didn’t yet know was Mrs King as she strode past the gutter where the grubby-fingered five-year-old me was playing with my friends. I was mystified.

But the next week, I was indeed locked into a sequence of weekly lessons with the old-school but not unkindly piano teacher. I did my practice and a year later sailed through Grade One with a distinction. But the strict, solitary routine rapidly paled; there was no reward in the endless scales practice, nor in most of the dull pieces I was given to learn. Another year later, I scraped through Grade Two – and Grade Three never happened. That was the end of my musical career for a decade – with the exception of the Singing Together, the BBC broadcasts in which we were exposed weekly to traditional song at primary school, which I loved.

In my mid-teens, I passed through and out of the trivialities of pop music in a couple of years, and through chance encounters with a tune book, a guitar and then a mandolin, I taught myself to play. In the years between then and the end of university, far too much of the time I should have been devoting to study was spent playing in bands with my friends. (Luckily, I had enough ability to carry my studies, but there was still a cost on results day…)

Nearly half a century on, I’m still playing traditional music, and it was a major support during Lockdown. Ten years ago, I switched from the mandolin to the fiddle, and picked it up quickly enough for it to become my main instrument – again mostly self-taught, with some online input and occasional steering from a friend who is a good player.

The College where I now work had no more teaching contracts for me this year, but offered work in Learning Support instead. As an incognito ex(?) teacher, this is affording a sustained insight into teaching in a range of other subject areas far distant from my own. It’s informative to see the teaching styles that are deployed. This is not a criticism of individuals, all of whom clearly know what they are doing – but the experience has reinforced my prior conclusion that the personal qualities of a teacher are a vital, and nowadays overlooked matter in the mix. Getting people qualified has become so serious a business, that both pleasure and distinctiveness seem to be getting squeezed out. Horses for courses, of course – and it is certainly true that pleasure means different things to different people. There is not a lot of visible evidence of disengaged students – at least at this stage of the year – but that seems in part because the young people themselves are now so po-faced about what they are doing.

It’s not entirely new. My sister, a skilled amateur classical violinist, summed it up a while ago: “I worked so hard at my music – and yet you seem to enjoy yours so much more…” The same seems to be true in the classroom: there seems to be a widespread absence of Joy. It’s not the teachers’ fault: as I said, they are all clearly very competent at doing what they have been told to do, namely conveyoring young people through their exams. What they are feeling inside, I cannot know. But I think I am also seeing what I have long suspected: the worthy and necessary process of becoming qualified is killing the one thing that makes learning worth it: the joy of doing it – well, joyfully. This is why the teacher’s freedom to practise is so crucial.

It’s been the story of my life: another well-meaning but off-target attempt by my parents to steer my music in my late teens also ended in failure, and my later involvement with a choral society came to an end with a change of musical director from a light-hearted (but highly skilled) individual to one who upped the formality stakes, introduced auditions and gave people a hard time if they ever missed a rehearsal. The dead hand of excessive seriousness should not be underestimated, even when it is well-meaning.

I’m not advocating trite ‘fun’: I’ve argued against that in education strongly in the past. There is no doubt that achieving great skill requires rigour; even an informal genre such as traditional music demands much self-discipline and close work to do it well. But there is more than one way of promoting it – and I fear that we now take education so seriously that the essential enjoyment is being squeezed into extinction. If we kill it, we extinguish the only flame that can really fuel that process in the longer term.

There is a difference between superficial “fun” and the deep enjoyment of developing one’s skills when done from genuine motivation. The heading photo is an unflattering picture of me playing at a recent gig; the expression is not agony, but a deep and very satisfying concentration in what is almost always the joyous buzz of playing music for other people – something that has driven me for nearly half a century, in a way that over-serious, externally-imposed things never could.

I think the same process has occurred across my wider experience; despite that early lack of academic focus, later in life, I came back to self-motivated learning across a far wider range of subjects than the school options system ever permitted. My instinct took me somewhere similar in my career, always feeling the deep need to plough my own reflective furrow rather than blindly follow the constrained, corporate-approved one.

I may not have become a virtuoso; that does indeed require something exceptional – but for most people, this is not the issue – and I wonder even how many thoroughbred virtuosi would really have chosen that route from an early age, had the ‘choice’ not been imposed. While one may of course extend the principle of proportionate returns to the stratosphere, I wonder where the diminishing returns and opportunity costs start to set in. For most, a fulfilled life can and will come from lesser, but still satisfying achievement. Motivation is the key  – that burning inner drive that makes you do worthwhile things.

My instinct didn’t play well in career terms. I enjoyed teaching, but those who sought to impose institutional conformity came closest to killing it. I think I can say now with confidence, that they nearly killed that which made it work for my students too. When I moved to a place that allowed me more discretion, back surged the enjoyment, motivation and sense of purpose many-fold. And it worked once again, for my students too. To me, that was the whole reason for doing it: the innate joy of good things done well. My sister, meanwhile, followed the accepted route, got to Oxford – and ended up locked into a conformist profession which she hates.

I am reading End State by James Plunkett, in which the former British policymaker examines the broken aspects of modern society. He has included education: both the preoccupation with the young at the expense of the life-long education that he argues is needed for both personal fulfilment and career adaptability in the digital economy – and the problem that it is utterly focused on bureaucratic processes whose ends are extrinsic and short-term. A rigid model, that was not the only conception of education that society could have adopted – and one that seems to me to kill much of what makes education valuable in the first place. It is now so much about ‘process’ that its more freeform aspects have been largely forgotten, or perhaps are no longer understood in the first place.

Plunkett argues that in all policy, ends should drive means, not the inverse, and those ends need to be ethical and humane, not just institutional or economic. A well-educated life needs to be based solidly on the joyous humane curiosity that provides the sustained motivation that externally-driven hoop-jumping mostly does not.

While looking up some finer fiddling points online recently, I found a discussion on, of all places, Mumsnet. It seemed to sum it up: a question from a mother with a child who was learning the classical violin but seemed not be enjoying it. As had I, she seemed to be responding more to the jigs and reels of traditional music. As the parent said: they are lively, but very fast. “What grade should my daughter be at before she tries to play them?” The calibration cart well and truly before the motivational horse.

Critical thinking- the come-back continues (?)

Right-on educationalists never miss a trick when it comes to advancing new initiatives for redesigning the educational world. Recent evidence suggests that someone somewhere is driving a post-Covid agenda for “building [education] back better”. Which would be all very fine, were it not for the implicit admission that their previous agendas were not, after all, as good as we were asked to believe.

Yes, I am being rather churlish, because of my long-standing exasperation at the faddishness of modern education, which I have seen too many times enhanced certain individuals’ careers, while making very little difference to the educational outcomes that really matter.

It has not proved easy to pin down where this is currently coming from; my source was word-of-mouth, albeit from someone with a degree of influence and a position to know. It is difficult not to agree with the tenor of the thing: the need for greater personal resilience, the ability to think independently (particularly in the age of fake news) and make a balanced appraisal of one’s actions and priorities.  

Before looking at the positive aspects, I need to state a couple of reservations:

First, vague platitudes that emanate from such sources are hardly new; what is needed is something that actually makes a real difference; secondly, I cannot help but see the irony in the fact that such aspirations were ignored in the years when we were being told to force-feed children as much ‘fact’ as possible in order to ram them through their exams. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but there are those of us who were cautioning against the narrowing of educational remits and horizons decades ago.

I cannot help suspecting that the apparent disinclination of much of our population to think carefully about anything much has – at very least – not been helped by an educational system that was more interested in delivering the fake certainty of exam-ready factoids, than holistic intellectual critique. The Brexit debacle and Covid uncertainty have exposed the weaknesses of a cognitively under-developed population.

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

How can we know that these are anything more than the latest fashionable buzz words, that will last only as long as it takes for the educational theorists and policymakers to come up with their next bright idea? For it is the inconsistent faddism that is at least as damaging as some actual policies: nothing ever is given long enough to become established, and teachers experienced, before it is superseded – and then it is retrospectively dismissed as a failure.

The good news (I think) is that Critical Thinking does seem to be back on the radar – at least to the extent that I have been asked, under the above agenda, to deliver some professional training to my colleagues later this term, with something of a commitment that it is more than another one-off. The immediate problem, though, is how to do something meaningful with this, in just a couple of hours.

The likes of Greg Ashman and Daniel Willingham have also been writing about the subject quite recently, too. The former, though sceptical, at least says he believes that CT skills are an essential component of education; Willingham seems less convinced. However, both doubt that CT can be explicitly taught – which might suggest that we are onto a loser again. Willingham seems to have concluded that critical thought is an ‘emergent skill’ that can only be developed through the delivery of mainstream subjects. Ashman seems tempted by a similar conclusion, though he is right to caution that whatever is done needs to be effective. How you define (let alone measure) that, of course, is another matter.

Both people start from the position that past teaching of CT has not been successful; I wonder how they can be so sure. For a start, “success” depends on the criteria that are set for it. If these are couched in terms of, for example, improved exam results, then of course it will be difficult to identify any material difference that CT makes. But the problem here is not the effect, so much as the method of measurement: trying to measure the impact of free-ranging skills such as intellectual rigour simply in terms of an increase in the number of beans counted is entirely to miss the point. Desirable though that outcome might be, the impact of CT is simply not sufficiently specific, and any attempt to do so will inevitably reach a null conclusion.

What I can say, however, is that students of mine (both academic and otherwise) repeatedly report the significant impact they notice in their thinking in general, as a result of being exposed to the subject. The following quotes are indicative:

“…so helpful. I had my [masters] portfolio signing off on Friday; they commented about how I had such a grasp of critical reflection – all thanks to CT!”

“We should have had this at the start of the first year” (sixth form student)

None of which guarantees, of course, that the impact will follow through to exam results – but one might have thought that ringing endorsements from a wide number of students would be reasonable grounds to suspect that an approach was of benefit.

Greg Ashman seems to conclude that critical thought is only possible in the context of a large amount of prior subject knowledge; I disagree. It is of course easier to scrutinise a particular item in depth when one has deep contextual insight – but the whole point of discrete CT teaching is to demonstrate the approach in isolation, in the way one might similarly focus on a particularly tricky phrase in music, before re-inserting it into context; this is hardly unconventional educational practice, and is easily done. The use of generic content for doing this is not the weakness that has been claimed, but a means for focussing on the essential approach without too many content-based distractions. This does not mean that it is impossible to re-apply the approach that one has learned to more specific contexts at a later stage, as the following quote from another sixth former that might suggest:

“Very interesting and helpful in learning how to pick out and analyse data.”

Perhaps another part of the problem – which I address in my training sessions – is the error of seeing CT skills as discrete techniques, rather like learning a particular operation in Maths. It does not work like this: what we are dealing with here is a paradigm for thinking; extended exposure to any paradigm does not result in discrete “skills” that one can plug into specific situations (particularly at the level of mastery, where one’s skills become wholly integrated), so much as a shift in the entire pattern of one’s thought. In that sense, it is more of a philosophy than a tool kit, and anyone looking for discrete evidence of the latter is likely to be disappointed.

From a purely intellectual point of view, CT shifts one’s approach in the direction of overt scepticism: something that is of course a basic building block of serious academic thought, but something that does not seem widely appreciated in the population at large. Studying concepts such as the Burden of Proof and the Credibility of Evidence do have an effect on people’s thinking, even if it cannot be measured; Ashman accepts this point, even as he frets at the impossibility of substantiating it.

From a pedagogic position, it shifts the context of lessons away from “filling the vessel” with only that which will be useful in the exam hall, towards “fuelling the fire” that is the real mark of an active, engaged mind. Again, trying to find a hard-and-fast link between the two is likely to be in vain – but a glance at any exam-board grade descriptors will show that such nuanced thinking is widely embedded in the top-level responses. The fact that there is uncertainty about how best to develop such things does not mean that they are not recognised.

The real problem here is simply the current, rather philistine mindset of a profession that demands tangible proof before accepting anything. A less intellectually-enlightened view it is hard to imagine; it will certainly struggle with the idea that CT is as much about appreciating the limits to knowledge, as anything that will guarantee an A grade. It is those limits that, far from being unscientific, allow me to accept for what it is, the holistic, observed effect of the educational process (including teaching CT) without knowing the nuts-and-bolts of how it works – let alone rejecting things I cannot ‘prove’ in some politically-skewed way.

But there is an even more fundamental object that Willingham and others raise: if it is impossible to demonstrate the discrete effectiveness of CT, then it is not worth trying. I wonder how much time these critics have actually spent trying; in my many years of experience, I encountered almost no one who, having been shown these approaches, had anything negative to say the experience. (I exclude from that, certain pupils who did react against the rigour required to pass an exam in it – but that is rather different from the content itself).

There is a simpler reason why CT has not been more widely and successfully taught, and that lies with the perceptions of those who make the decisions. Most obviously, CT has only been seen as a gold-plated add-on for the academically gifted – and experience has, therefore, been distorted. The potential benefits to the wider population have barely been explored.

As for the effectiveness of the discrete, formal approach, I would argue that CT is a core skill, and it should therefore be treated as equal with literacy and numeracy. Those two things can also be considered “emergent skills” which individual might ‘eventually’ acquire through engagement with other subjects – but no one would seriously consider leaving such things to chance: we teach them discretely. Had CT been given equal attention as a fundamental building block of the educational process, even from relatively early years (as trials have shown it can be), then we might be more certain about the impact of doing so.

I hope the latest murmurings are belated recognition of the problems caused by a widespread lack of critical thinking skills – but until the subject is properly understood and appreciated by those who need to implement it – and especially those who are sceptical about it – then I am not sure how far we will get. A basic skill that critical thinkers learn concerns the need for comparable and consistent evidence – but also the need for that evidence to be framed appropriately for what we are trying to judge. While education remains obsessed with the mechanistic passing of exams, CT will struggle to make its case – but if ever there were a need for CT skills, it is in the priority and paradigm-shift needed by those who criticise it.

The following quote is often attributed to Einstein:

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

It is not something that will please the bean-counters and others who have a need for hard proof – but I am pretty certain Einstein was referring to the ability to think critically. Why do we leave the installation of such basic intellectual ‘software’ to chance?

Critical thinking: the phoenix arises? Part 2

My main purpose in the second part of this post is to address some of the points being raised about CT, which in my experience are fallacies that prevent a full appreciation or evaluation of the subject.

1 It is not compatible with a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The best analogy I ever found for this is the DNA double-helix. The same diagram can be used to represent the relationship between skills and knowledge: wrapped around each other, each dependent on the other. Without evaluative ability, knowledge is reduced to rote learning. While this may still have a role in developing retention abilities, facts are not a lot of use if you do not know what to do with them – and in particular, which ones to accept and which not to, when contradictions arise. The notion that ‘facts’ are constant and non-negotiable is surely an intellectually untenable position, and one with the potential to do much societal harm, by entrenching positions and bulwarking them against reasoned scrutiny or debate.

On the other hand, skills-based education is meaningless if there is no material upon which to practise or focus it. This was the shortcoming of the drive for such an approach, and it risked leaving people with abstract “abilities” but no material base with which to deploy them. There are plenty of studies that support the view that internalised knowledge is an inherently empowering force, but it is equally arguable that “a little learning is a dangerous thing” – if it leaves people without the ability to evaluate what they supposedly “know”.

One might argue, too, that addressing this in a more sophisticated way can give people an appreciation of the importance of epistemology and a more subtle insight into the real nature of “knowledge” in the first place. It is pointed out in one of the referred articles that ‘knowledge is not itself sufficient for good thinking’. (Ennis)

The accusation that Critical Thinking is a “fact free zone” is fallacious. It contains a great deal of detailed factual information – otherwise it has nothing to apply its techniques to. Its perceived weakness is in fact its strength: factual input can be taken from an immensely wide range of matter and used as required. It can, for example, be applied to PSHE type material, or it can be applied to any specific subject discipline, or indeed the wider issues of (school) life. It is, after all, an approach – and it can be used with respect to whatever is desired.

2. It can be taught through other subjects.

Another objection comes from well-educated people who believe that they do not need instruction in this subject because “they can already do it” as a result of their other education. It is undoubtedly true that critical thought processes can be acquired indirectly, and indeed it is unlikely that people will experience academic success without that happening. It is also true that teachers with the requisite skills can use them in their other teaching; I do this myself, though its impact is often limited by the consequent lack of student perspective on the subject as a whole.

But it is no substitute for being taught the skills systematically. It is not that they are so revelatory that they cannot be otherwise acquired; more that they warrant attention in their own right, in a way that mostly does not happen if they are simply a beneficial side-effect of other learning. I seriously doubt that many educators would leave other core skills to chance: they do not accept that literacy or numeracy are things “you just pick up as you go along” – and I argue that reasoning skills should be treated in the same way.

3. It is an elitist subject only suited to the academically able.

This may seem more difficult to refute, not least because of the subject’s origins. It is not surprising that high-level thinking skills are of most obvious utility to those who do a lot of high-level thinking. But this is a circular argument that can easily be reversed: perhaps it is the absence of these skills that prevents more people from thinking in more complex ways.

This perception has also been reinforced by the decisions that schools made regarding whom the subject would be offered to; very often it was only academic high achievers. It was further complicated by only being offered to older students, often outside regular school hours, rather than integrated into the curriculum along with other core skills from early years – thus reinforcing the perception that it is an obscure subject only of interest or use to swots.

While my own professional practice was indeed steered at the academically able, the adult classes I delivered were to all-comers, and those who attended (and gave very positive feedback) were by no means highly academic. During my training period, I also met a person who had taught CT skills to young offenders; they responded well, and had found the subject empowering in helping them to resist negative peer pressure. It all depends on the presentation.

I would argue that critical skills can be taught at as many levels as any other, and that they have wide application in non-academic settings, such as addressing the apparent vulnerability of a wide sector of the population to the snake-oil merchants and other would-be deceivers who increasingly populate social media and the online world more generally.

4 Critical Thinking skills do not transfer well to other disciplines.

I can only suspect that this criticism comes from theoreticians who have never tried teaching the subject. The feedback I have consistently received over many years from people in varying situations is that they find the skills revelatory and the approaches empowering – and that included in application to other studies. In fact, many of my students were very specific in this matter: they found CT skills to be of direct benefit in subjects where the exercise of judgement is required. That includes the arts, humanities and social sciences. History was frequently mentioned, as was literary criticism and Law.  I have taught it to politics students to good effect. And while less-frequently taken by scientists, I had people with that background saying that they found the analytical work on, for example the evaluation of data, to be of great use. Not to mention the more philosophical insight into matters such as the nature of “proof”.

5. It’s as dull as ditch-water.

It is a demanding subject. Early on, it is necessary to learn certain conceptual steps that require an amount of effort. But this is no different from any type of learning – acquiring the basics may not be greatly interesting. But we do not reject literacy, numeracy or any number of other skills on those grounds. We expect pupils to strive to master the skill, and it can be argued that striving is beneficial in its own right. It is true that I encountered a subset of students (not by any means all the weaker ones) who felt challenged by the unfamiliar nature of what they were being taught and, in some cases, switched off. But this is a problem for the teachers to deal with any subject; we do not reject subjects wholesale on these grounds.

It is also true that CT can be an abstruse subject when taken to its higher levels. But again, this is also true of many others. We do not reject them simply because few will take them to doctorate level. It is also true that the subject was done no favours by many of the earlier textbooks that were produced, which were indeed “dusty”. But it is entirely possible to make the subject relevant to students and frame it in an attractive and contemporary way. The last textbooks produced by Heinemann for OCR were heading in this direction, and it is possible to go further with one’s own resources.

In my own teaching, now freed from the constraints of an exam syllabus, I have also chosen to combine CT with elements of basic cognitive and behavioural psychology. This works firstly because it moves backwards a step from simply examining the rational errors that often bedevil people’s thinking, to a discussion of the psychological reasons why they happen in the first place. There is scope here, for example, to develop understanding of work by Kahneman into the difference between rational and instinctive thought; and that of Csikszentmihalyi and others on motivation and reward. Secondly, examining people’s behaviour can give real-life examples of the consequences of not thinking rationally – of which perhaps the most familiar example will be people’s experiences on social media and with the world of advertising and media more generally, but also the world of corporate blindness. They soon learn to appreciate the importance of misrepresented or partial information, and the distortion that vested interests can cause on more balanced reckoning.

5. It is not a significant enough subject to be given equal status with others.

This, of course, is a matter of opinion, that rather depends on one’s priorities and understanding. If one considers that reasoned thought is as important as I suggested earlier, one might also question how education thinks it can succeed without these skills.

The widely-esteemed International Baccalaureate contains a compulsory module on the “Theory of Knowledge”, which has similarities to CT, and would suggest that these skills are widely valued elsewhere; it is indeed my first-hand experience that there is more interest in CT abroad, where philosophical matters are perhaps in wider public currency. I have taught elements of the subject to Swiss students, who took it in their stride.

The numbers of people who have active experience of teaching this subject are small when compared with the numbers who seem to have an opinion about it. Experience suggests that the critics often have little real knowledge of what the subject really does; they just do not like the sound of it. A classic of the kind was Nigel Farage’s tweet outlining his objection to the subject. One might not expect much insight from that source, but it is also my experience that many others only have hazy understanding of what the subject actually does, too. Its name perhaps does not help in this respect, not least because people assume it is about negative or destructive thinking when nothing could be further from the truth. It is certainly not the same as cynicism.

That said, I would not advocate allocating a full timetable slot to the subject; there is no more need than there is to give for example literacy or PSHE a full allocation, at least while there are no exam courses to follow. But sufficient time to learn and practise the skills is needed, and this does not happen instantly. The subject would also benefit from much greater integration across the curriculum, which in turn would require or allow other subject teachers to understand it, and to be able to map their own possibilities for exploiting its skills.

This in turn would require teachers to be able to use the skills themselves, perhaps more of an obstacle than it might seem. On the one hand, one might expect educated professionals to deploy CT skills almost instinctively as a matter of course – but it seems that it is not so, if the reactions I sometimes encountered amongst colleagues are indicative. The key concern is perhaps the nature of the subject, which can challenge notions of teacher authority or proficiency. In particular, real-time discussion with pupils requires real-time thinking on the part of the teacher. This is perhaps challenging for a generation of teachers that has either chosen, or been trained to deliver their lessons in an uncritical, pre-digested form, with close plans that anticipate and dictate every moment of every lesson, and every desired outcome.

I would again argue, however, that this approach is no more than another example of the failure of modern education to grapple with the real nature of thought and learning. It prefers to play institutionally safe, rather than challenge its participants to soar intellectually.

In the climate of closed, mono-dimensional thinking and discourse that has emerged, we are all the losers, but none more so that the generations of upcoming people who may never be equipped with the autonomy of thought required to make their way through the dense informational and decisional thickets of the modern world. We can do better than this.

Critical Thinking: The phoenix arises? Part 1

I am indebted to my colleague Adam Bantick for drawing my attention to several relatively recently published pieces about Critical Thinking, here, here, here and here. It seems there is something of a resurgence of interest in the subject; I will resist the temptation to speculate overly about any connection there may be with the outcome of certain recent national events – or indeed to comment further on the ironic, presumably unintended consequences of Gove’s education reforms, that seem to have done little more than embed even further the closed-mind, exam-boggled model of education that was in the ascendant even before his time, but which he presumably did not have to suffer himself.

The purpose of this piece is to address some of the questions that seem to be raising their heads again about the subject: things that are being treated as novel, when in many cases they have been addressed before. It would also appear, from at least one of those pieces, that there is some confusion about what Critical Thinking actually is; it is certainly a much more specific and refined process than simply “thinking hard”, even if such a term might constitute a suitable introduction to primary age pupils. It would be good if any new debate did more than simply re-heat the previous ones. Part 1 discusses general issues, while Part 2 responds to some of the more specific reasons raised for not teaching CT.

I often find myself going round in circles on this subject. Even as the exam boards deleted the formally taught version from their portfolios, I have continued to advocate CT’s desirability for an intellectually liberating model of education that still, even increasingly, seems to elude this nation in its general delivery of that asset.

Indeed, the suspicion that the subject seems to elicit is a regrettable consequence of a system that has perhaps failed to equip even its educational practitioners with such skills for so long now that they are not widely known or understood. This may be why we have ended up with an excessively ‘safe’, closed-mind model of compliance-education that ticks many institutional boxes but does little to ignite people’s ability to question, scrutinise and understand the world around them – in other words, to arouse their curiosity. Drilling people to pass exams is not at all the same as educating them effectively, and one of the reasons why is its lack of scope for open-ended critical consideration. Sadly, there seems to be a widespread lack of awareness of – or at least suspension of disbelief in – this dualism in today’s teaching profession.

Recent events have highlighted as never before the need for populations to be generally equipped with the ability to make reasonably rational appraisals of the world around them, without relying unduly on increasingly partisan and vested sources of suspiciously-comfortable external information. Indeed, I would argue that a society that does not widely have the ability to do this is not collectively educated at all – and the implications are potentially serious for everything from individual life experiences to the strength of our civic and democratic structures and processes.

As a (hopefully) good critical thinker, I should disclose my interest. I was trained to teach the subject to ‘A’ Level by the OCR exam board and did so for around eight years in the early 2000s. I taught ‘AS’ level to 14–16-year-olds, and both that and ‘A2’ level to 16–18-year-olds. I have since devised and taught adult classes in CT from my home both in person and online to an adult student in the USA. Most recently, I have delivered a short-course in the basic skills to humanities students in the Sixth Form College where I now work. In literally every situation, the response from my student groups might be summed up as, “Why were we not given this earlier?” Hence my advocacy of the subject.

In fact, CT has always been the mainstay of my wider approach to teaching; perhaps naively, I always believed that the purpose of education was to empower individuals to reach their own conclusions, not just unquestioningly accept what they were told. My geography lessons revolved around ‘evidence’ in various forms, the job being to scrutinise and draw conclusions from it. It would be disingenuous to suggest that proceedings were not tilted towards arriving at generally-accepted knowledge – but that is not to detract from the process by which it was done nor the fact that genuine, analytical discussions frequently took place (the subterfuge was largely to counter the inexperience of young minds in working in this way).

All we were really doing is replicating the process of academic thought, and as my students grew older, we moved closer towards complexity, while naturally still reflecting their abilities. In time, they came to understand that “truth” and “fact” are by no means as clear-cut as they might initially seem. This seems to me a hugely valuable insight in its own right; likewise, my requirement that their conclusions for just about anything be supported with reasoned evidence.

This is why I remain perplexed by the possibility that teaching should really be about anything else, or that the above approach should really be doubted so strongly by many educators. It is also why I became disillusioned with more recent educational practice, which seemed strongly tilted towards closed thinking: the uncritical consumption of (only) that material required for equally uncritical regurgitation in exams, in order to deliver the results that the system wanted. Thinking what we are told to think in order to jump through hoops labelled “exam”. To my mind, this was an utter betrayal of the real nature and purpose of education, and one I could not condone.

It seemed to me that education system did not know what it really wanted. At ‘A’ Level in particular, many specifications and marks schemes say they require students to demonstrate critical abilities – and yet there was very little on how these were to be identified or developed. It seemed completely at odds with subject specifications that were increasingly closely framed in a way that inhibited wider thought. How is it possible to develop open-ended critical thought when you know that exam success depends on hitting narrow, content-related targets?

The other perplexing issue is the apparently widespread perception that CT is the preserve of the ‘progressive’ wing of the profession. I am extremely surprised to find myself by implication being allied with progressives, when I have always argued that traditional study is fundamentally more rigorous and ultimately effective, than ‘edutainment’. It is even more surprising when you examine the origins of the subject: in modern times it first emerged in the independent sector (where it was developed to give students an advantage in their applications for top universities), while its real roots lie in the work of the philosophers of ancient Greece.

I eventually concluded that far from being an obscure subject for use only by academic anoraks, this approach should be central to what the wider education process attempts to achieve.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is some persuasive evidence coming forward that the closed model of education is selling people damagingly short. It is perhaps most widely seen in social media discourse, where (whatever the specifics of that medium) one sees a widespread inability either to engage in reasoned discussion, or to evaluate incoming information effectively. It was perhaps most acutely visible in the UK in the debates around Brexit, but also perhaps in respect to the Pandemic.

I find it concerning that many of those expressing strong views on such subjects refuse to engage in any rational debate whatsoever with people of different views. It seems that there are plenty of people who do not appreciate the difference between fact and opinion, and whose ability to support, let alone defend, their chosen position is so tentative that they refuse to do so. In this way, we arrive at bunker thinking.

I also suspect that it was deficient critical appraisal skills that during the pandemic led many people to struggle with both conflicting information and their own decision-making in the situation; likewise, the inability to create cognitive distance from emotional thinking made it harder to cope with the demands of lockdown and social distancing.

I find it difficult to accept that an education system which does not equip people with such independent thinking skills can be seen to be doing an effective job. In short, becoming ‘educated’ is not the same as owning a clutch of certificates, no matter how that ticks the requisite boxes within the system.  CT does not solve this problem single-handedly, but it certainly addresses head-on many of the pertinent issues.


…is the sound of me finding something that speaks back to me thoughts I have been having for a rather long time.

It is always comforting to have one’s confirmation bias massaged of course, though the hazards should never be forgotten. But while reading Prospect Magazine a few days ago, I came across a promotional piece for the PER Group, an organisation I had not encountered before.

Its effect was to bring into new focus a point I have been making in several recent posts: the British education system manifestly does not work in the way a thriving, flourishing society needs it to.

This is the conclusion I reluctantly came to over a career working in the sector; while I can accept that the purpose of an education system is whatever society decides it is, I also believe there is a higher truth about the need to develop the human brain, that can be traced backwards through human evolution as the cause of our species’ development. There is no guarantee that shifting societal or political perceptions and priorities will pay any great heed to it, nor that even the best-intentioned efforts of teachers will be anything but in vain if they are misdirected – but the results of its neglect will happen all the same. And they increasingly are doing.

It might be defined as developing in each individual human being the ability to use the higher brain to respond (reasonably) rationally to the world as encountered, and to moderate the effects of raw, uncontrolled instinct upon which other animals overwhelmingly operate.

While that might sound beautifully, liberally woolly, there is firmer neuroscientific and psychological ground behind it. Workers such as Daniel Kahneman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have described the human mind as being split between the mid-brain instinctive/emotional self, and the front-brain rational self. Kahneman explained how evolution steers all animals towards instinctive, self-preservation responses, and this is reinforced by the much higher energy demands of rational thinking which makes it inherently more difficult.

Csikszentmihalyi has described the highest human cognitive achievement as being the ability of the rational mind to control its unruly other half; it is that potential that sets humans aside from all other animals, and what has led us to create the human world as we know it, to achieve our aims and to find therein our lives’ fulfilment.

It gets more complicated when, as John Bargh pointed out, the unconscious mind is more influential than we tend to think – but he too concluded that rationalising that fact is the way to harness its power. All in all, this is describing a purpose of education that is best called self-knowledge or self-control; all else in the educational process ultimately works (or should work) to this end. Those who develop it are better equipped to contextualise their true position in the world, and to respond to both its opportunities and threats.

Sadly, I came to the conclusion that modern education does not do this. It has become a closed system like many others in modern society, more concerned with internal process and self-validation than delivering a genuinely worthwhile end-product: it has become busy-work. As long as young people leave education with a clutch of certificates, the system can be “shown” to have done its job, no matter what the real capabilities of the brains concerned. What happens to them in the rest of those lives is of little more than theoretical interest in this reductionist view of the process.

From a political and professional position, it is easier to create a “rubber stamp” system like this, than tackle the real, hard, enduring difficulties that lie in the way of helping people to develop true self-knowledge. What is more, a significant element within teaching has actively rejected ideas such as this, because it (wrongly) perceives the intellectual approach needed to develop it to be elitist. A cynic might suspect that society’s vested interests never really wanted that to develop in people at large, anyway…

What caught my attention about the PER Group’s article, was its proposal that recent events have lain bare the consequences of this approach, in ways that until now have also been largely anecdotal or theoretical.

It argues that there are now five signs of this:

  • Growing prevalence of mental health issues in the population (over and above the effect of greater reporting)
  • The illiteracy and lack of logic or balance in much public discourse, notably on the internet.
  • The emergence of identity politics
  • Vaccine refuseniks and other such deniers.
  • Historic statue smashers.

The argument is that a successful education system would have equipped a much larger proportion of the population to cope with the challenges and demands of recent times, using rational capabilities that they actually seem not to have developed. Instead, we have seen a growth in quasi-animalistic responses based on superstition, tribalism, emotion, and the denial of reason or balanced perspective. The default setting seems to be uncritical acceptance of whatever half-truths the rumour-mill of marketing departments and the media throw out – or if not that, then genuine confusion.

The failure of large numbers of people to appreciate this, and the apparent widespread helplessness to respond effectively to the challenges of Brexit and the Pandemic, are symptomatic of a society where cognitive resilience and an ability to act rationally are not widespread. It is precisely those capabilities that the classical model of education aimed to develop, even if not always knowingly. I have seen that it still endures in some other nearby countries, which have not adopted the same educational model as the U.K.

The key to this is the centrality of Reason within the culture of education. It is about teaching people to react critically and with wide perspective to the world, and not least to their own circumstances within it. And yet critical reasoning has been progressively chased out of a system that like most others has become increasingly dominated by corporate groupthink and the influence of short-term coercion.

The commercialised exam system in particular, has become the tail that wags the dog: now both the sole determinant of what is taught, and of the success criteria in a closed loop of inward-looking, self-referential behaviour. For this to work, it requires a high level of compliance on the part of educational establishments, teachers and students – compliance stimulated by the short-termist vested interest of those players to keep the system working, even though it may actually be producing little of real value. Compliance-pressure is, by definition, an enemy of reasoned thought.

In other words, the education system we now have requires uncritical consumption of what it prescribes to feed the various vested interests within that system. What it absolutely does not want is people who question everything that they are told, including the premises upon which that system (like most others in a consumer-based society) are based.

Perhaps the most singular expression of this occurred in 2017, with the abolition of Critical Thinking as an examined subject, because it could not meet the specified-content criteria required by OFQUAL since Gove’s reforms. But it was also something that I encountered on an almost daily basis as one whose instinct was always to question assumptions: I increasingly spent my career being persona non grata in an institution where neither the management nor the many of the staff seemed widely willing to challenge the hand that fed them, or to address what to me seemed like glaring, unignorable flaws in what we were all being told to do.

Hence, reading a piece such as that mentioned above came with a massive sense of recognition, even vindication – for all that I know my own critical faculties need to be brought to bear on it too.

What was less familiar was PER’s reading of why this situation has arisen, seemingly worse in the UK than almost anywhere else: an account based on the insulated socio-cultural experience of this island nation when compared to continental ones with stronger needs for cohesion and homogeneity thanks to their nearer neighbours. I have reservations about exceptionalist readings of the U.K.’s plight – I tend to think it derives from that perspective rather than despite it – though the argument advanced is interesting and plausible.

What interests me particularly is the reading of this country’s recent tribulations as the product of a failing education system in a way that seems very plausible to me – but in a deeper sense than the hackneyed call that “they ought to teach it in schools”. What is lacking is the deeper valuing of a rationality that I fear now eludes many of the nation’s teachers too, their never having been given it themselves during their own schooling. Again, the anti-elitist element in education actively eschews the idea that being ‘educated’ brings about fundamental changes in the nature of a person that by definition differentiate those who have it from those who do not.

I include the original article below for anyone who would like to read it; quite whether pressure groups and think-tanks really have much chance of denting an issue like this is I feel is rather doubtful – and doubly so for ones that, like PER seem to be rather high-minded (for all that that is precisely the point…). The whole point of vested, wilful ignorance is that its ears are closed to alternative understanding – something that itself has become a widespread trait of public discourse in this country, including the education sector. That I see as yet more evidence of the very same problem: even if we later refute what we see, the critical mind will always examine it first. That was anything but my experience of the education system as a whole towards ideas that might have challenged its world-view.

But for anyone really concerned about the resilience and wellbeing of our society, thinking outside the currently-accepted box is, I suggest, precisely what is needed.

Brass Tacks

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.  Søren Kierkegaard

An ongoing (light-hearted) bone of inter-generational contention in this family is, “You’ll be the same when you’re my age…”. I am not that deterministic in my own outlook, but I can accept that life has its phases that may not differ very much between individuals, even if their individual expression or experience does.

It seems to be that as one ages, one tends to spend more time thinking back over past experiences; perhaps this is not so surprising, as hindsight is a wonderful thing, and allows a degree of interpretation that was not possible at the time. If only it were otherwise, in our professional lives, where being in one’s later career often seems to equate to growing cynicism.  

Approaching my later fifties, this certainly seems to be true for me, though it is perhaps more in sadness than anything more bitter. It was once said that the price of a lifetime in a profession is a close-up view of its grubby underside – and thus it is increasingly easy to view matters from a rather sceptical (but not always unjustified) perspective. I tried to believe in the inherent goodness of the teaching profession – and learned a hard lesson.

This was brought forcefully home to me recently by the same rather heated discussion on Greg Ashman’s blog, that I referred to here. The vanities of the debate over the role of “science” in education (one of those things you are expected to accept unconditionally), were suddenly pricked by a contribution from a teacher in New Zealand – though I suspect the comments are more widely true:

Stop splitting hairs about the niceties of advanced practice; what is more important is the needs of the many who are in teaching not because they are any good, but because they saw it as a means of earning a living – and who need to be told how to teach.

Sadly, I recognised a good deal of truth in this, probably not only for New Zealand.

Over thirty-plus years in the profession, this once-young-and-naïve teacher has concluded that despite its virtuous public image, there is a level of complicity in teaching no less than in any other profession, and the New Zealander had shone a harsh light on the reality. It is no less true in this profession than any other, that if you want the profession to be kind to you, you have to “play the game”. Being no lover of hypocrisy, this is something I can say with honesty, I have never done.

It gradually became apparent to me that much in the profession was double-speak. Much of the “essential work” that the profession does is all too easily seen to contain a large helping of “bigging-up”. This has been seen most recently in the profession’s response to the Pandemic, where its cries of apparent despair were at odds with the whole, wider picture being reported about the impact on children. I have seen this many times before: the ignoring of evidence that does not suit the collective professional agenda.

Despite the supposed wish for ‘engaged professionals’, what is really wanted is not engagement with the reality, but compliance with the laid-down agenda – for that is what the system rewards, no matter how valid your alternative ideas. It is only acceptable to express your views if they correspond with the official version. No surprise here, I suppose, in a profession with a strong left-of-centre bias: top-down disguised as bottom-up.

My own well-meaning attempts to contribute to the professional debate fell mostly on deaf ears, I suspect because they often fell outside the orthodoxy; it was Not Done to question what you were being told; it turned out the ‘engagement’ that was wanted was with obedience, not independence of mind. I concluded eventually, that my ideas may even have been used against me.

I saw it again in the review by a school manager in the Times Educational Supplement of my book; she panned the chapter on management out of hand – but had clearly not bothered to read much more of it. What can a mere classroom teacher know, after all, even after several decades? (I was later wearily told by a much more accomplished educational author, that this is not uncommon.)

This is hardly new: from what I can tell, my parents both experienced similar during their time as teachers, but it seems to have got worse: the inevitable consequence of the “professionalisation” of teaching, by which I mean the increased corporate emphasis on career-progression, managerial status and pay as success-markers, and by implication personal worth or wisdom. No matter that such things only have marginal bearing on the dirty business of actually teaching young people, nor the fact that it is a deeply anti-intellectual mindset.

With this have come the forked tongues and vested interests of those who publicly profess ad nauseam how much they love teaching – even when it sometimes turns out they don’t actually do very much of it any more, themselves – and how concerned they are for the fate (it is nearly always threatening) of young people – for whom the teaching profession is of course the Knight in Shining Armour.

Unfortunately, far too often this feels like little more than the virtue-signalling that now seems to be a sine qua non for the ambitious teacher. I was left with the distinct impression that what they ‘loved’ was not teaching, but their own careers within it. Sometimes I doubt they even realise they are doing it.

The actions match: the early-adopters of every new fad and policy that appeared – and also the first to ditch them when something newer came along to be “right-on” with. But they still went on the CV trajectory as evidence of “leading learning”. If ever there was a more trite phrase….

Such CVs often give the impression that their owners have single-handedly transformed the educational landscape, in stark disregard of the collegiate manner in which they advocate we should work. Clearly, some are more equal than others; all in the interest of “shaping the educational world of today” – or of shaping their careers of tomorrow? There is now so much busy-work surrounding teaching that the ambitious individual barely need get their hands dirty at all…

I saw it most harshly of all in some of the individuals who got to run schools. It was all too apparent from their actions that the wellbeing of the institutions or the people who comprised them came a distant second to the career benefits to the individuals concerned, for all that their words said otherwise. In some cases, the phrase “cynical exploitation” would not be too harsh. Methought they protested too much- and time often proved me right.

It is perhaps emblematic of the matter that you have no chance of even reaching such a position today if you have not been “thrusting” during your early career; personally, I felt that I had achieved the mature practical and philosophical understanding of education that might have made me an effective Head only in my fifties, as used to be the case, after many years of experience and reflection. But far too late to climb the professional career tree, even if I had wanted to take on such a pressured role.

I also cannot help but feel that those doing the virtue signalling might actually better serve education by not flitting from school to school every couple of years to grow their careers, turning everything upside down in the name of “innovation”, and then leaving others to pick up the pieces. While change is of course sometimes necessary, one of the greatest benefits to young (and especially disadvantaged) learners comes from stability. That includes systems that do not change every five minutes, and people they can reasonably assume will still be there in a year’s time, and in whom they can come to know and trust.

And then, into the heart of such thoughts, the New Zealander thrust the observation that many teachers, far from being gifted, selfless beacons of virtue to young people, are in fact nothing more than unskilled wage-slaves, doing the job because they couldn’t think of any better way of earning a crust.

I am not suggesting for a moment, that this is a desirable state of affairs, nor that a win-win situation for teacher and taught cannot happen; simply that far more often, it does not. Fundamentally, the career-ambitious are driven by personal concerns that arguably are incompatible with the self-less nature of teaching and learning – and by virtue of gaining control, they then marginalise those who see things differently. This was all too often the experience of my own working life, where my own sometimes left-field experiences were regularly rejected by the institution they were intended to help, in favour of those who were prepared to say the right thing at the right time to the right person – and sometimes to engage in practices that looked suspiciously like gaming the system they claimed they upheld.

In a way, the career climbers and the wage-slaves are two side of the same coin; the response of the ambitious to the not-ambitious is to exclude them or ignore them. They achieve a monopoly on the success-criteria, which they then cast in their own image. They consider themselves pivotal to the profession, definers of both success and failure – and exercise the control that seemingly renders both themselves indispensable and everyone else (not just the wage-slaves) disposable. It is just the effect which the prioritisation of management over grass-roots practice has had everywhere, especially when seniority, perceived “authority” and remuneration favour the former.

I have no idea how widespread the wage-slaves are. Like most others, I saw examples of brilliant, gifted teaching in my time – but probably more examples that ranged from dull to utterly dire. I encountered people (for example when covering for them) who were clearly running very effective practice that was helping their pupils greatly – and those who were unmitigated disasters. But the correlation with those who were “going places” in their careers was certainly not what one might hope, and at times it even seemed inverse. Not infrequently those who followed approved practice closely were still not effective; others who did not clearly were. Maybe there is a reason for that: the truth about expertise in teaching that as with all professions, dare not speak its name:

Talent and Seniority are not (always) linked.

Naively, I believed the tosh about empowered individual practitioners, and tried (not least through this blog and my CPD work) to add my two-pennyworth. But I was saying the wrong things to the wrong people, no matter how true to my classroom experiences or how rooted they were in my own professional reading and thinking. As a long-standing colleague once told me, I never learned to “play the game”.

Yet I too was pulled up sharp in Ashman’s blog, by such a brutal assertion. I was forced to accept that it is indeed consistent with rather a lot of what I have witnessed in teaching over the years: of people who seemed to have weak command of, or interest in their subjects; whose own sharp intellect was never very evident; who as a result seemed capable of only seeing education in the reductivist, instrumental terms that were handed down by their bosses: who did indeed seem to need to be told how to act. It seemed to be the most fundamental denial of the role of the teacher imaginable: people employed as educators who seemed themselves only to possess only a limited conception of what it really means to be educated.

Maybe they were indeed in it just to earn a crust. In a way, I sympathise because their predicament is as real as it is disowned by the PC-speakers. I no longer believe the myth that all who enter teaching come with a burning desire and talent to do nothing else; I myself only really came to appreciate the importance of that much later on as my age and experience grew. Most others seemed to be the same.

It is all another PC myth that the profession perpetuates, while doing nothing about the problems it causes, be they the better identification of promising young entrants, or the way the subsequent over-specified remedial measures actually compromise perfectly competent but individualistic teachers. I suspect for their own good, the wage-slaves would be better off doing something else – and I now know that education is far too important for it to be left them.

But it is also too important to be left to the office-worshipers. The answer is not a profession so closed to diversity that it will tolerate nothing other than the narrow views of those with the sharpest elbows who muscle their way into position of influence – some of whom themselves seem to have concluded that the best solution to their own wage-slave problem lies in the Peter Principle.

It genuinely rankles most when you find yourself being judged by someone who visibly understands less about your teaching than you know you do yourself, especially when they have half your years or experience. And doubly so when they imply you don’t know what you are talking about.

So I have become no admirer of the gushing PC-speak of those who (think they) control the profession, or who are set on becoming them; it is not needed, to do this work effectively. In fact, it makes me doubt their motives. Probably the wage-slaves need to be removed – but I also suspect that many of them are not as hopeless as they think, had the definition of “Good Teacher” not been narrowed to the extent it has by the loose clique that calls the shots. The effect of that has been felt by far more than those who really did need support: under the deception that there is only one “right” way, and that everyone else was a slacker, it cramped the style of thousands of perfectly good teachers.

None of the above is intended to criticise the many genuine people who work in teaching, who still adhere to the profession’s enduring ethic. But my efforts to be part of it simply left me with a cynical perspective on the wider group I found myself working with, which increasing age and distance has made me both more certain of, and less afraid of calling.

Sadly, I struggle to have much love for the profession as a whole; it seems more concerned with being doctrinaire than inclusive; more concerned with professional form and prospects than the routine, day-to-day delivery of great education to as many people as possible. Its own behaviour often seems completely at odds with the values it loudly trumpets, not least the fake public modesty behind which lies a deep-seated sense of bossy self-importance.  What’s more, it rejects any who dare to disagree. Luckily, the corner of it where I am passing my final years in teaching has better perspective than many, and has done quite a lot to restore some faith.

I suspect it always has been thus; but now that the rewards for supposedly-stellar individuals are as great as they are, it is becoming intolerable. Perhaps it is only seen by those of us with access to hindsight; none of us saw these things as starry-eyed new arrivals.

The real problem, however, is that some never do – and too often, they are in charge.

Scrap the “privileged middle class” view

A recent post by another teacher on social media expressed the hope that children supposedly being “deprived” of their education by lockdown will use the opportunity to learn about wider life experiences, and the growth to be gained from appreciating simple and immediate things, such as the natural world, the value of human relationships, creative activities, basic domesticity and cultivating one’s inner awareness. In a wider sense, it suggested, perhaps those who are learning this are not “falling behind” – but are in fact ahead of the rest.

It was followed by predictable comments about this being “all very well for the privileged middle classes” – which seems to be becoming the default criticism of anything that does not meet the approval of a certain right-on sector of the profession, and indeed society more widely.

It increasingly strikes me that there is a huge hypocrisy going on here, which – well-meaning or not – actually serves to perpetuate the social divisions that such people claim to decry. It is based on the assumption that everyone else subscribes – or should subscribe – to the aspirations of those expressing them, and that if they don’t then they are to be pitied or fretted about.

Such views are in themselves a form of social condescension; charitably, perhaps an expression of bleeding-heart guilt at the motor of middle-class social climbing, but which in the process serves to embed perceived social exclusion in those not able or not wishing to follow them. Even if I am wrong about this, the plight of the under-privileged is, in any case, surely not the only benchmark against which everything should be judged, any more than is the achievement of middle-class values the only indicator of success.

Many of the ‘simple’ things mentioned in the original comment actually have very little to do with middle class privilege; it struck me that most of them would be eminently realisable in the average African village, and it is perhaps not beyond the realm of credibility to suggest that people in such a place might indeed know more about the simple pleasures of life than many in the West credit. There have been plenty of studies suggesting that, barring the presence of food shortages, conflict, natural disasters or ill health, happiness levels often hold up quite well in the materially poorer parts of the world, perhaps even better than in places where Status Anxiety is more rife. The belief that it cannot but be otherwise is itself a privileged middle-class conceit.

In just the same way, it is entirely a middle-class conceit to believe that “poor people” in this country inevitably suffer from not being able to access the hyper-competitive, hyper-materialistic world of those who occupy it. I would not for a moment wish to underestimate the impact of real deprivation and hardship where it exists, but reaction to this serious problem is in danger of becoming used as little more than an inverted expression of middle-class angst or virtue-signalling. I suspect that ‘the poor’ may suffer as much from the effects of the social pressures that such attitudes apply, than from their own circumstances. Happiness is largely a product of relative expectations.

When it comes to education, who are really the deprived? Middle-class servitude to high levels of material consumption – large vehicles, large mortgages and the large incomes needed to service them – are also a form of slavery, and those in hoc to it see education as little more than the process of validation needed to ensure their offspring continue in it. I have seen too many bad effects of hot-housing and competitive parenting to believe that it is only benign; and the cries of children ‘falling behind’ with their education are only based on assumptions of what is “not behind”, that are dictated entirely by the exam calendar and achieving the “right” (exam) results to ensure they can progress to the next stage of the conveyor belt, and ultimately to their own position in the social pecking-order. Those doing the complaining often seem to be those most locked-in to the hot-housing mentality – and perhaps least able to see the harm it can cause; the hysteria with which they often react is, to me, more indicative of those addicted to Status Anxiety than those of an excessively tolerant disposition.

Education in the U.K. (if not elsewhere) has long been dominated by middle-class social climbing, and it seems at least as bad now as ever. Widespread assumptions about the nature and necessity of education are themselves culturally dependent, and still remain driven by the societal advances that it can deliver, rather than any kind of self-development.

The teaching profession is just as guilty of this as the materially better-rewarded parts of the middle class – and their concern is now compounded by the pressures brought to bear by a system that determines their own career and income prospects by crude measures of exam outcomes.

The problem is, by perpetuating angst about Status Anxiety, and stressing about things that may compromise it, those doing it both exaggerate the divides between those who do and don’t subscribe to it and perpetuate their own captivity to a set of values that may not be as beneficial as they believe. And then they compound the matter further by insisting that there is no other valid perspective. This is not, of course, to suggest that formal education is not important, nor that the loss of specific tuition, for example in basic skills such as literacy is not seriously concerning – but there is still more to education than that.

It may be that early appreciation of “the simple life” came from privileged and rather precious members of the Very Rich who had little concept of what it really means. But that does not need to diminish the concept itself; there is plenty from cultures around the world to suggest that the deluded ones are those who continuously chase material advancement, whereas true fulfilment lies in much simpler and more eternal truths, the rediscovery of which the slowing of our hyperactive world may indeed have created space for. This need not only be possible in overheated, over-anxious middle-class environments; indeed, it may be more possible elsewhere. Who are the real prisoners here?

The most regrettable thing for me is that Education has been not only misappropriated by those in society who advance its use for fuelling Affluenza, but that that now includes the educational establishment itself. One might have hoped that it would not have sold its soul in this way and would have retained more enlightened and pluralistic views about its purpose. For me, education has always been about liberating people to make their own informed decisions about life, not about tying them into a socio-economic rat-race that does at least as much harm to people’s wellbeing as good.

If we set aside the sometimes-precious tones of those who are suggesting that lockdown may not, in general, be as educationally catastrophic as others are claiming, then the message may be worth considering. As with everything, this should be a chance for reflection: does education as it currently is, have its objectives, processes and methods right? Or should we at least be considering more fairly the alternative views? To my mind, the dogmatism with which they are currently being rejected is evidence of the failure of education as presently configured to develop sufficient open-mindedness with respect to what is really desirable in life.

As I said, who are really deprived?

Rivet counters

This is my lockdown project:

OK I admit it, I am a railway modeller. I have been one for around fifty years, well before that hobby’s supposed new-found Lockdown Cool.

It’s a profound and wide-ranging hobby: a combination of fine technical skills, factual research and artistic interpretation. Mine is not the most accurate modelling around: some modellers obsess about hundredths of a millimetre, or the precise number of rivets on a locomotive. Hence the derogatory term ‘rivet counter’. In fact, more of those who model seem interested in the technical end of the spectrum. There are many models around of astounding technical accuracy – and yet they are quite often soulless and lacking in character.

 My latest model is of one of the few parts of the country I have never visited, North East Scotland. Yet I have been told by many, including some who live there, that I have successfully captured the ‘character’ of that area, which was what attracted me to it in the first place. I have done this many times; my approach was to spend many, many hours researching and absorbing not only the railways of the area, but all of its other characteristics as well. ‘Somehow’, that comes out in my modelling – as it has done many times before. I guess it’s a matter of creative receptiveness.

Certainly, I need a significant amount of scientific and technical knowledge, of metal and wood working, electronics, materials and geometry to get the thing to work – but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient to achieve a successful end result, any more than knowing the chemical composition of paint will alone make for a great painting. It does not capture the soul of the place. This, many modellers recognise as a more difficult matter, especially (often by their own admission) those of a more technical, less artistic perspective.

A recent vigorous discussion on Greg Ashman’s blog produced two points of note: one, a revival (at least from my perspective) of the arguments about the value of scientific research in education, and the latter a rather startling claim about the profession from a contributor in New Zealand. This post deals with the first of them; the other discussion is for another time.

I found little to disagree with in Greg’s initial post, which tentatively speculated on the value of scientific research to teaching. I got the sigh of “Oh no, not that again” out of the way fairly quickly and was able to agree that teaching based solely on a horrified subjective reaction to some of the social and intellectual inadequacies which we encounter, is unlikely to produce an effective response – but also that an adequate response is equally unlikely to be obtainable by recourse solely to scientific knowledge. People are not machines; TLC needs to be part of the mix.

But there was still a loud – and not especially scientific – kick-back from several who suggested that I “do not understand science” because I expressed scepticism about the mechanistic, unempathetic approaches of some (in my experience many) of those who practise and advocate it. This came from people whom (I assume) know nothing of me other than what was written in those few comments, and who have probably not come across my more extended thinking on my own blog. The weary sigh reasserted itself…

The first sign of what was to come arrived in the form of the tired observation that it is “typical” that those who reject a scientific approach to teaching technique do so because they are stubborn, uninformed and (by implication) arrogant, stale and complacent. The additional criticism that I always read into this is “unwilling to do what they are told” – despite the fact that scepticism is a healthy scientific quality. In my own experience that largely meant managers who were endlessly seeking to control the teaching methods used by their staff.

While I’m wary of jumping to equally trite conclusions, it’s almost too easy to suggest that these responses actually affirm my position. I saw no evidence that those making them were doing anything other than precisely the kind of mechanistic thinking that I doubt. I wonder who amongst them stopped and asked themselves whether it was not in fact their own thinking that was limited, rather than mine. Perhaps those who reject the approach do so precisely because they can see its limitations. It may be very easy to dismiss the non-quantifiable elements of human experience as ‘unscientific’, but that cannot deny that they exist – as such reactions very well showed – and it could be that the bigger limitation is to fail to accept that science is not all-knowing and all-useful. I may not be a scientist myself, but I am a trained critical thinker – and part of that discipline involves appreciating the limits of knowledge, scientific or otherwise.

Certain contributors conceded that there indeed are limits to what “(The) Science” can tell us about education. Well, thank heavens for that. But in which case, I am left wondering why they continue to promote it so strongly. I wonder what it can tell us, that many years’ actual classroom experience as easily cannot. For all the claims, I am still waiting for a single, tangible instance of how scientific research into education can help me improve my teaching of Geography in a way that having spent three decades in the classroom could not – because there has not been even one.

This is not a refutation of science – simply an invitation for it to deliver what its proponents claim it can. In any case, my doubts are not about science, so much as those who advocate its inappropriate use. I am still waiting. I am also waiting for an answer – any answer – to why long periods in the classroom trying various techniques and evaluating the responses – does not constitute a scientific experiment in its own right, a kind of longitudinal study, albeit a low (but adequate) resolution one. I am well aware that replicability is a requirement of an experiment, and that classroom experience is often not replicable (that is presumably what they mean by the ‘limits of science’). But this is precisely why I argue that education is not tightly analysable using scientific method – there are simply too many unknowable variables for sufficiently hard conclusions to be drawn.

This is not a refutation of science either. It is entirely likely that even apparently random events have causal underpinnings; in the past, when we didn’t understand, we used to call it ‘Magic’. It is just that these things tend to lie in the complexities of the human brain, whose functioning remains so unknown to us as to appear random or magical, or at best only loosely predictable for much of the time. In this sense, the issue with those advocating a scientific approach to teaching is that they underestimate the complexity of what they are claiming to know. It is not unscientific to accept that education needs to engage the amygdala as well as the pre-frontal cortex…

In the cut-and-thrust of the everyday classroom, it is not a matter of rejecting science so much as simply not having the time to conduct deep investigations of thirty children’s cerebral processes and needing instead to rely on experience and a degree of intuition simply to get by. In fact, one can argue that a teacher’s ‘experience’ is actually a collection of partly rational observed outcomes of those processes, generalised into practical working knowledge, without the need to know precisely which neurones were driving which reactions. Likewise, the way in which a skilled teacher reacts to, and constructively manages these situations is not “mere anecdote”, even less stubborn complacency, but an equally complex body of partly factual knowledge acquired over time. Empathy is just the ability to deploy it instantaneously, even predictively – but to rationalise it is to destroy it.

It would indeed be foolish for a teacher never to reflect on their experiences of “what worked” and what did not – and to adjust their practice accordingly; this is what normally happens over the decades – but perhaps not for those who can’t wait that long. The fact that it tends to be experienced at the intuitive level simply reflects the fact that these skills need to be embedded so deeply, and yet retrievable so instantaneously, as to go beyond what we experience as rational thought. That is not an anti-science reading of the situation.

Finally, I often ask – but receive few answers to – why the science in education is so selective. This would seem to be completely contrary to the most basic of scientific principles. Yet there was very little profession-wide reaction to the highly credible work of Robert Plomin on heritability. There has been very little discussion of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on motivation and Flow. There seems to be limited awareness of the research of Duncan Watts on causal density, John Bargh on the unconscious, or John Kay on obliquity.

And very little of the work of Margaret Heffernan or Alvesson & Spicer on institutional blindness. Perhaps the last is the most telling of all: they may be saying things that the professional and managerial establishment would rather not hear. I should add, for the sake of those who suggested that I don’t ‘know science’, that I have read all of the above, some several times, and they have all been absorbed, qualitatively, into the way I teach. But I use them as working knowledge within my personal practice, not as some kind of lab technique.

One thing these all seem to share is a recognition of the limits, and often subjective nature, of their findings – which is not to suggest that the research behind them was not rigorous. And yet the work of John Hattie was elevated virtually to that status of a professional Bible for a few years because his statistical meta-analyses claimed to be able to prove which teaching techniques yielded the best results. Until, that is, it was noticed that traditional teaching scored highly in his results – at which point the clamour subsided. Likewise, it was often ignored that Hattie recognised the limitations of his own work, and accepted that he could not measure many of the desirable outcomes of education.

I am not suggesting that there is a conspiracy going on here, though it is possible that there is. ‘The Science’ has been largely advocated in teaching by those who have other agendas – most obviously those who wish to be able to correlate teaching with definable outcomes (something that is is easier in technical subjects than others). The reasons for doing this are not particularly scientific – they are of much more use to those who manage and wish to validate the educational system. As such, however, they are not specifically educational outcomes either, no matter how they are dressed up.

In order to operate in this way, the ‘outcomes’ being sought need to be definable in themselves: without measurable results, science is simply not rigorous. Yet in education, ‘outcomes’ are themselves too many and too variable ever to be simply quantifiable. Even a valid time threshold for their measurement is imponderable.

These are arguments I have rehearsed many times. It is sad that there is still no better response to such issues matters than to direct ad hominems at the person raising them; so much for Science. I still have received no better answers – and certainly not a single example – of how The Science is supposed to improve my specific classroom practice. What is this, beyond an illusory Holy Grail for those who lack the ability or inclination to teach more empathetically and holistically? The basics, such as memory function, and the value of repetition are known; how else it can help me teach an evaluative subject like Geography remains unanswered.

And in the meantime, repeated, unsolicited and independent anecdotes are telling me that many of the students I meet find a targets-driven, hot-housed, production-line experience of education grinding and demoralising in the extreme. I don’t do that – and I get different results in terms of engagement and motivation; what more ‘proof’ do I need? None has yet told me how much s/he valued the fact that I wrote in green in their book, that I gave them lots of numerical targets, or that they could spend the lesson rehashing trite, ritualised “feedback” comments on my marking. People are not machines.

This is what happens to the classroom when the mechanistic end of ‘science’ takes over what is fundamentally a cultural/behavioural activity, the richness and wonder of (and motivation for) which come from things which science struggles to capture. As with even a ‘pointless’ activity like railway modelling, internalised technical expertise is certainly necessary – but it is not sufficient to make for a good experience. That was the simple point of my argument, which once again was refuted by those who seemed to lack the ability to see it. Without the more subjective, creative and inexplicable aspects, the soul of the educational process is lacking  – as shown in the comments of those students.

I wonder how many decades I need to hear such feedback before I can stop dismissing it as “just your experience” or “mere anecdote”.

Gimme time!

There is nothing I like more than settling down to an activity knowing that there are no constraints on the time I have available to spend on it, and I can in effect continue until the exercise itself, or my own stamina, brings it to a natural close. I’m probably fortunate in that my personal circumstances do create such opportunities in the way that those who have large numbers of other demands on them at all times do not have.

I suppose this is rather self-indulgent, but I also feel that removing the pressure of time is one of the best ways of focussing entirely on the activity in hand, and thereby maximising one’s effect. That is equally true for hobby activities, domestic tasks, relations with other people – and professional duties.

Holidays are of course the best chance one might get to set up such situations, but over the past few years I have had, on occasions, so much time on my hands that I was thankful for having interests that do expand to fill the time available in this way. The practical and emotional rewards have been manifest, and I think it is no surprise that my extended convalescence from the poor mental health caused by the events of four years ago has included a great reduction in the pressure of time in my life.

The same experience has, however, extended into my ongoing professional life. It has become a self-evident truth here, that the reduction in my working week to about 30% of full-time has had a huge impact. Most importantly, it has allowed me to control my stress levels, which can very quickly get out of hand – but it goes further than that.

Teaching is now just one activity that I do in a wider, more varied week; on those terms, where I am in control of it rather than vice versa, it is great. My teaching has benefitted from the general lack of haste that I now experience. I have been able to devote much more time to reflecting on my teaching and my students, and planning where and how to go next with them. I have learned their names more quickly, despite the difficulties imposed by our Covid-dictated timetable. Interestingly, our three-hour long lessons are both manageable and productive in a way quick-fire short ones are not – but probably only because I do a restricted number of them in a week.

I recently had 75 termly assessment essays to mark – but was able to give them the time to do this in depth without burning myself out, giving large amounts of individualised feedback as necessary.

I have been able simply to enjoy teaching once again, in a way that had largely evaporated when I was working full time.

The impact of Covid have perhaps caused a similar realisation more widely; without wishing to dismiss the privations it has caused, it has also presented an opportunity for people to slow down and reappraise their priorities in a way they simply did not previously have the time to do. It has perhaps become apparent that running our lives on time-pressured autopilot does not always result in the best decisions or choices being made.

Maybe we need to get off that treadmill more generally? My experience suggests that it need not result in less productive work activity, in fact quite the opposite.

It’s clearly not sustainable for all teachers (or others) to work a 30% week, but I think the wider lesson is well worth learning: more is not always better. When it comes to teaching, many of the countries known to have high-quality education systems and stable, experienced workforces within them, both pay their teachers well enough that it is economically viable to trade money for time, and they create other conditions where the time released can be flexibly and productively used. That includes creating extra time for the necessary non-classroom part of the job, without the sense of one’s work utterly dominating and controlling the rest of one’s life.

The key message from my experience is simply that creating a better work-life balance pays all sorts of dividends, including better teaching.

Unfortunately, the massive drive of recent years to improve teaching in Britain has failed to appreciate this – and has come with an ever-vaster workload whose main effect has been to nullify any of its other gains. Teaching is an intense activity – and to be done effectively, teachers need significant time to pause, reflect and prepare, quite apart from time to attend to their own welfare through a better work-life balance. It cannot be done effectively as a headlong charge simply to keep one’s head above water.

I have known the idea shown in the diagram below for many years. My recent experience has only shown once again how true it often is. Unfortunately, the British education system has yet to learn it – to its own cost.


During my degree course in the early 1980s, there was one module that struck fear into most geography undergraduates. It had the added sting of being compulsory – and it appeared on the timetable with the (deliberately?) understated title ‘QM’. This, we soon found out, stood for Quantitative Methods.

Few of us had been expecting a hefty dose of mathematics to feature in our degree – but we were catching the tail end of the ‘quantitative revolution’ that had swept through many subjects in the preceding decade. Many of us were left baffled – even though in later years I found myself teaching some of the very same material that had by then filtered down to ‘A’ Level.

One thing that did stick in the mind, however, was Confidence Levels. It made sense to me that thresholds for sampled correlations could be higher in the field of Physical Geography (99%) than in Human (95%) since behavioural matters are both less predictable and less measurable than natural, and in Geography we had them both.

And then, not very long after I entered professional life, Statistics caught up with me again, as Big Data invaded education. Despite early assurances to the contrary, it soon became evident that there was a strong push to make teachers work in accordance with the diktats of such data – be that when appraising ‘outcomes’ from the educational process, evaluating their own performance within it – and even when selecting their teaching methods.

On the surface, it’s hard to argue with the findings of Big Data: they suggest that if only one looks at a large enough sample, then it becomes easy to identify ‘what works’. Perhaps the ultimate product of this approach came in the work of John Hattie, whose meta-analyses were pushed relentlessly at us for some years as the ultimate vindication of some teaching methods over others. That is, until the uncomfortable truth was noticed, that ‘direct instruction’ – close to what some of us knew to ‘work’ as traditional teaching – scored rather higher in terms of effect that those doing the pushing really wanted…

The suggestion was that the world was reducible to, and most usefully understood as, sets of data. I had my doubts as an undergraduate – and doubly so later, when it came to Education. While one can probably have confidence in the procedures themselves, there are inescapable weaknesses in the way in which such data is captured, not to mention the value-judgements being made when it comes to drawing conclusions from it. All along, that 95 percent figure kept cropping up in my mind. Nowhere did I see educational research conceding the fact that such it has a relatively high margin of error.

At no point was the conflict between this and the other necessary aspirations of educationalists even mentioned: namely, the fact that education needs to work for rather more than nineteen in twenty students.

My entire experience suggests that it can only ‘work’ at the level of the individual; what is going on in other people’s heads is immaterial; therefore, aggregate conclusions are not very helpful. It is not possible to become educated vicariously; every single person must undergo that process for themself – and a one in twenty failure risk is no more acceptable than if my aircraft pilot or heart surgeon made decisions with similar – even if we accept that realistically we won’t please all of the people all of the time. For the individual whom education fails, the fact that the other nineteen had a better experience is irrelevant.

All of this has been thrown back into sharp relief this term – and a conversation in the team room the other day confirmed that I am by far the only one who has noticed.

The issue was one of class sizes. ‘Research’, we have repeatedly been told, shows that class size has little or no effect on educational outcomes. Perhaps not surprising, when finding the opposite could prove expensive; statistics are too often a smokescreen for political agendas.

Yet this finding has yet again flown in the face of not only a common-sense understanding of how human interactions work, but of the term’s empirical experience. It may well be that it is possible to exam-cram children in halls of 200 at a time, with little effect on their exam grades – but is that the only ‘outcome’ of any merit? Maybe this is why society has such a utilitarian perception of education – not to mention a mental-health epidemic. I have long had my doubts about people who see life in this way; the number-crunchers may have cold science apparently on their side, but often they seem to be people will diminished appreciation that the fabric of a good life is rather less clinical than that…

The college has been teaching half-classes of students for the whole of this term; consequently, we rarely have more than ten or fifteen in a room – and when they are not being taught, the students are mostly at home, following the lessons remotely. It has actually worked rather well – and has no doubt been instrumental in keeping the incidence of Covid19 low – hardly an inconsiderable ‘outcome’ in itself.  (The downside has been the fact that the half-classes receive their week’s teaching from one person in a single three-hour dose, which requires stamina from all concerned).

Yet several of my colleagues have been commenting favourably on the experience of having small classes, as opposed to the 25-plus sixth formers at a time which had become the norm. It is rather like the old days when sixth-from lessons were more like tutorials – and that does have an impact on the quality of the experience. It simply means each individual gets more attention. It has been noticed that this appears to have had a positive effect on the quieter students, who have been more participative than one might have expected. It has had beneficial effects on those suffering from anxiety, whether about Covid or more generally. I wonder whether that ‘research’ picked up on such things.

While classroom management is rarely a major issue in a sixth form college, it has still been easier with smaller groups – as has the task of learning the all-new students’ names. It has altered the dynamic of the classes, and I suspect that from the students’ perspective, it has also contributed to the relatively speedy group-bonding that has been witnessed this term, despite the other disruptions. The feedback from the students about their learning, too, has been extremely positive, despite the strange times.

While marking in sixth form colleges always comes in huge batches, the ability to manage it more flexibly has made for rather more ease in getting through it. From my personal perspective, smaller groups have made my sustained return to the workplace easier in many ways, simply by allowing me to manage my workload and thereby stress levels. It has also meant that I have been able to play to my strengths in building good relationships with my students relatively quickly. These things are all important parts of a good learning experience.

I have no idea (yet) whether any of this will feed through to their exam results, though effort levels this term have been high. But I am certain already that it has boosted the more qualitative experience for all concerned. It is entirely reasonable to consider other factors that may be relevant here, such as the specifics of the individuals concerned, and perhaps the enhanced appreciation of educational opportunities in a group that was deprived them for several critical months.

The ability to focus more fully on small numbers of individuals may have been of particular benefit to those who often slip through the net – the 5% ignored by the confidence levels in educational research. Even the enforced need to communicate with students more by email means that when I am replying to a student’s message, that individual has my compete, undivided attention, something that perhaps is not a concern of those who see education in purely macro-statistical terms.

The strange dynamic created by half of the class’ being invisible, also seems to have had the effect of pulling people together and focussing them on the subject in hand; it has certainly required the students to take more responsibility. The inability to do much more than teach didactically does not seem to be doing a great deal of harm, whatever that fabled research might say.

Yet again, my instinct that education works best when it is approached iteratively and on a small scale seems to have been confirmed by events. No doubt that will be dismissed by some as ‘mere anecdote’ – but it is anecdote that I trust more than any approach that risks my, and my students’, real-life experiences and wider welfare as often as one time in twenty.