They say you shouldn’t mix business and pleasure. But a couple of weeks ago, a conversation occurred with a few young colleagues concerning our respective home lives. I was brought up sharp by the perceptions they expressed about my own life outside school: to say they were wide of the mark is an understatement! This is not entirely surprising as I live nearly thirty miles from the school, and I only socialise occasionally with colleagues as a result. And being a somewhat private person, I also do not participate in their ongoing social media conversation.
I was reminded that in many ways, work-place colleagues often remain as ships in the night. We spend up to half our waking lives (superficially) together, and yet often know each other barely at all. In the case of teachers, this is made more extreme by the strange fact that although we spend our days surrounded by people, in some ways it is a rather solitary existence. Unlike say, office workers, much of our working day is actually spend alone with the pupils rather than with colleagues – and when this is not the case, moments are mainly used for professional catch-ups for which time barely exists else-when.
It’s probably a good thing that teaching encompasses a diversity of souls – after all, we need to cater for even more diversity when it comes to the children – and I am not actually as intolerant as I will be dictator-sounding here. But having spent social time with several groups of teachers recently, I am left wondering if there are any substantial values or outlooks – other than our profession – that we share at all. Or more to the point: are there any common qualities that all teachers ought to manifest?
It is true that societies such as Britain’s are becoming more diverse – but in some ways, the small-‘c’ mainstream public culture seems more uniform than ever. Far from being inspirational individuals, the societising trend seems to be making even educators more homogenous by the year. And it is not homing in on the one thing that I believe should unite all teachers: the life of the mind.
Having just conceded that it can be very difficult to know one’s colleagues, I am still left with the impression that the teacher role-model is – how shall I put it – becoming increasingly little more than a bolt-on that people assume at the classroom door. A life of the mind does not imply that we should all be alike, in fact quite the opposite. As The Independent’s erstwhile strap line used to say, “Great minds don’t think alike”! But there seem to be fewer and fewer really distinctive individuals within teaching, something that (or at least the perception of which) has probably not been helped by conformist career-ambition or the drive for professional compliance within schools. And yet it is distinctive individuals, more than corporate clones, that children often find inspiring.
For example, the recent political turmoil generated more staffroom discussion of political matters than usual – in other words, some rather than none at all. And yet many of those I encountered professed no knowledge of the issue at hand. While Remainers dominated the discussion, I’m afraid I got the impression that just as few really knew much about what they are wanting to remain in as those on the opposite side did the converse. More depressing was the claim that ‘nobody had ever been told’ much about the E.U.
Well, I would say to today’s Ambassadors for the Power of Learning: Go and Find Out! Go and read the literature; go and travel (not just ‘holiday’) in those countries! As we urge the pupils, learning is not a passive process!
I could relate a number of other recent experiences that have similarly reinforced the impression that there is increasingly little to differentiate teachers from the less-educated masses, but to do so would be to identify certain individuals whom I have no wish to offend. But my overwhelming impression is that teachers, like everyone else, are increasingly the victims of a mass-produced, commercialised, cyanosed culture whose only raison d’etre is mindless consumption and the groundless Worship of Me. A wider, personal interest in knowledge, learning, culture and the more cerebral side of life seems increasingly rare.
How this chimes with one’s credibility when it comes to standing up in a classroom and espousing the power of intelligent thought, I do not know. More to the point, what will be the consequences of a growing disconnect between how people behave professionally and personally? It’s an extension of the older objection that smoker-teachers can hardly preach the non-smoking message.
I expect many will be bristling at my presumption in commenting on the lives of others – and yet I find it difficult to understand what could be seen as a gentle hypocrisy or blind spot. One of the main impressions I was left with of my own schooling was that the teachers were almost without exception intelligent, thoughtful people: in some ways a pillar of society, who stood up for certain values not only in how they taught, but how they lived. This certainly did not mean that they were all solemn intellectuals (though some were) – but that they nonetheless practised in their own lives the values that they tried to imbue in their pupils; I know – some were family friends, and two were my parents. Perhaps the first of these was a decent formal command of their native tongue. But I am far from certain that this outlook is still universally the case within teaching.
I am not advocating gratuitous elitism here: a certain down-to-earthness was and is probably both necessary and desirable in a teacher – but I have never seen why that should mean actively endorsing the mindlessness or shallow materialism of contemporary life. Surely others can see through it too? In fact, for intelligent culture to be really credible, it needs to be embedded precisely in the everyday lives of people who are not university academics. This is what I have seen amongst teachers on the continent, where a different self-perception still seems to endure. If we as teachers can’t find anything productive to do with our own time on this planet, let alone actively stand up for thoughtful, educated values, then why should we expect any more of others?
In a world where substantial, coherent, intelligent thought is both declining and ever-more necessary, what hope is there if a substantial proportion of even the teaching profession no longer practises what it preaches?
On this note, and gloating over the fact that my teaching year has already finished, TP will be taking its customary break over the summer. While there may well be occasional posts, normal service will be resumed in September, and I wish my readers (in the northern hemisphere at least) a restful summer.
My recent reading has been The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer. It’s one of those books that I think anyone in an organisation, and certainly anyone running one should read. It’s also one of those books which, while not solely about education, will I suspect have many who work in schools nodding with recognition at almost every page.
The subject under scrutiny is what the authors call ‘functional stupidity’, in other words the kind of idiocy of the herd mentality or blindly-followed protocol that causes otherwise intelligent, skilled people to do very dumb things in certain situations. The authors are academics and the book is carefully balanced, demonstrating for example how encouraging people to overcome their misgivings can bring short-term benefits to an organisation. But the bigger premise is that this same behaviour can also cause longer-term problems if it prevents people from identifying the reality of situation, and particularly problems as they develop.
I think the book is useful because it calmly but mercilessly illuminates all kinds of stupidity that passes for good practice in all sorts of institutional settings, and while it perhaps focuses on managerial decisions, it also shows us that no one is immune: this is simply a cognitive failure of human beings when put in certain situations. In this sense, one might feel sympathy for those whose decisions, by dint of their seniority, have larger than average impacts, but it also presses the point that seniority ought to bring about a greater than average determination to avoid such pitfalls.
I wonder how many school managers have come across the idea of functional stupidity, let alone take it seriously. I think they should. If nothing else, it should warn of the dangers of micromanagement, and the antidote lies partly in empowering people to make their own decisions, while keeping coded behaviours to a minimum.
I will end by giving a few examples of the issues the book addresses, and strongly recommend it.
The Knowledge Myth: We now live in a knowledge economy where intellectual power is all. This justifies giving people trumped-up job titles to reflect the fact – but also to ‘help’ them to believe that what they are doing is really smart. In fact, much work has been dumbed-down and is at least as mundane and repetitive as ever. The eventual realisation of this fact causes disappointment and disillusion.
Functional Stupidity. The idea that clever people, put in constrinaing situations, can behave stupidly. For example, the stipulation of institutional procedures can lead to blind adherence, even where there is a clear flaw in doing so. The outcomes can sometimes be disastrous.
Mindlessness. The establishment of routine in the workplace can lead to people following ‘social scripts’ which are so routine they are automatic. It can result in people ‘talking past’ each other, and conforming to role rather than thinking about what they are saying or doing.
Normality. A variation on the above. People accept that sometimes even bizarre routines and practices are normal simply because they are habitual within the organisation. They may appear deeply weird when seen from the outside.
Normality -2. People are deeply unwilling to stand out from the herd in organisations because doing so risks social isolation and possibly career suicide.
Leadership-induced stupidity. The creation of specific cultures or mindsets within an institution often comes from the top. They may bring a useful sense of cohesion and purpose – but they often inhibit wider thinking, particularly when there is a risk of upsetting the boss.
System-induced stupidity. There is a tendency to think that if systems are in place, then they must be working. Box-ticking becomes more important than actual functioning. The risk is the emergence of the ‘audit society’ in which it checking that things are being done becomes more important than actually doing them (well).
Culture-induced stupidity. Where an organisation cultivates a particular culture, this can again help cohesion. But, for example an organisation that is implacably positive, where negative thinking is not permitted, may find it very difficult to address real problems that crop up simply because it is not done to contemplate them publicly.
There is plenty more fertile reading, but I hope this whets the appetite.
Desperate times call for different solutions. No, not more about Brexit, though there are parallels. Rather against my better judgement, I found quite a lot to agree with a report in The Guardian about a Berlin school that has turned traditional assumptions about school structures upside down.
In essence, it is the pupils who decide what they wish to study, rather in the way that A.S. Neill’s notorious (?) Summerhill School did (and in fact still does).
I must admit I still struggle with the dilemma between the traditionalist view that the teacher knows best, that they are the experts in the room, that they should decide what children need to learn and that children should therefore be expected to comply – and the problems that this clearly poses in modern times, where children are simply not equipped with the necessary powers of concentration and respect for authority and knowledge that this approach requires. For all my traditionalist leanings, some of the arguments used by the Berlin school may have some traction.
As I have mentioned before, the intake at my school is changing significantly. In some ways, I suspect this simply marks the end of the charmed life that it has led for most of my time there, and it is now being forced to address the reality that many schools have faced for years. But there have been times this year when I admit I have been at a complete loss for how to engage children who seem to have no inherent interest whatsoever in anything I teach, whose starting-point is below anything I have encountered before, who have no regard at all for the authority of the teacher or indeed any other adult, and on whom my long-established practices make barely a dent. I am very reluctant to go down the edutainment route because I believe I would be neglecting the very things these children above all others need to have addressed. But on the other hand, the traditional approach is being found somewhat wanting too.
In some cases, these are children who hitherto would have gone to other schools, but no longer. Some of them I suspect come from homes where any kind of structure is absent – but by no means are all from underprivileged backgrounds. Some are clearly quite the opposite, and the phrase ‘silver spoon in the mouth’ does not begin to describe the attitude of entitled condescension that they manifest. But the one thing these two types have in common seems to be the sense that they need not lift a finger in support of their own education. Indeed, when challenged over their lack of work, one eleven-year-old this week told me to my face that my lesson had “not been entertaining enough”.
As I said, desperate times call for new solutions. I wonder whether this German approach might have something to recommend it. I think there are two important points here: firstly, so far as one can tell, there is no judgement made about the teacher in situations where, for instance, children choose not to engage with their lessons; likewise, there remain consequences for children if their chosen approaches do not yield the required outcomes. This is not responsibility-free freedom.
By coincidence, I have been deploying a somewhat unorthodox approach to my dilemma outlined above. I am fortunate to have a connecting classroom that is rarely used at this time of year. Consequently, the opportunity has arisen for children to be given the choice of whether to participate in my lesson and thereby accept my rules and expectations, or to spend the time in the other room (albeit under discrete observation by me).
The only consequence is that they will need to explain themselves if found during learning walks (having chosen to opt out of their lessons, they are not being deprived of anything by me) and the lack of marks in their books with consequent lowering of reported grades. In some cases, I provide opters-out with the work to be done at home. A few have chosen to remove themselves – but those who remained have generally shown improved co-operation, and lessons have been smoother without the disruptive elements. After a few weeks of this, one or two are beginning to see this a skive, and I need to think what to do next about them. But opting-out rates have fallen, and the effect seems to have been marginally beneficial. I expect to get into trouble for this sooner or later – but as I said, difficult circumstances require new thinking.
In an age when children come with the Attitude that they do, I increasingly believe that making them face the consequences of it is the only way to break through the arrogance and complacency that causes many of them to think that they can behave as they like within the classroom, safe in the knowledge that their “rights” are inalienable.
Schools and teachers have increasingly been shorn of the ability to deploy sanctions that hit home to this breed of sassy, brazen youth, and children know it. Given that children are now so marketised, perhaps the only thing left is to make them face the consequences of their consumer choices, make them actively ‘buy in’ to their education if they want it, rather than letting them get away with the diminished responsibility whose main effect is to damage the opportunities of the better-thinking others.
Sometimes it is only when we are deprived of something that we come to realise its true value.
I apologise for the lack of links in this post: WordPress appears not to be allowing them this evening.
When I am advising a student who appears set on going down an inadvisable route, I always try to spell out the considerations – and then allow time for second thoughts. Mistakes are sometimes made anyway, but there is no point in allowing errors to happen that a little reflection might avoid. When it comes to Brexit, we are now in an infinitely wiser place than we were just a few days ago: the general mood of the nation is known and some of the consequences have been seen, so it is no longer just conjecture.
John Tomsett’s post earlier today was eminently sensible, in claiming the campaign was not honest. In the broadest possible sense of the word, this is an educative moment for a nation that has perhaps taken both its democracy and the status quo for granted for too long. Unlike many other European nations, we have never really had to have the kind of national debate that they had following the Second World War. It has been all too easy to sit smugly on our supposed laurels.
While the media will always alight on novelty, there have been quite a few accounts today of people having second thoughts about their Leave votes, of seeing the back-pedalling that is already going on, of saying they did not take the enormity of the consequences seriously enough.
It is entirely correct to say that the will of the people should be respected; in that sense there can be no going back until the ‘right’ result is achieved. Hopefully, that is an abuse of democracy that this country is still above.
But on the other hand, would it not be reasonable to ask the nation to confirm its decision in a second vote, to reaffirm that this is its will, now that the balance of opinion is more clearly known, and now that the nation has in effect looked into the abyss? It would need to be done soon, and on the same terms as the original vote. But is not the ability to learn from one’s mistakes not a key part of the educative process?
We would not write a student off for their folly without a chance to reflect. It is not (quite) too late for informed second thoughts.
A welcome and productive half-term break comes to an end. In between our day-trip to Birmingham (approved!) and the odd social engagement, our financial advisor paid us a visit, with the welcome news that our pension arrangements should secure us a modest but comfortable retirement. He based his calculation on my working until I’m sixty, which is another eight years away.
In the bigger scheme of things, even being able to consider retirement at such an age is probably a blessing – and it’s not as though I’ll be short of things to do without work. But it would only be possible of course as a result of doing the work that earned the money… And yet I can’t help being mindful of two things: at my age, my Swiss friend was just a couple of years away from the point where the system lightened his teaching load on account of increasing age and declining stamina, in a way that would probably be portrayed as ageist in the U.K. And after a month which held something of a (hopefully ungrounded) health worry for me, I am also conscious that my mother only made it to 67…
A good colleague has been teaching for ten years longer than I; after a couple of part-time years, the next will probably be his last. As colleagues of nearly thirty years, we sometimes talk over the experience. He agrees that the first ten years of his career, from the late 1970s, were relatively untroubled; it was from the mid ‘80’s that things ratcheted up – in other words about the time I started teaching. So people of my generation are perhaps the first to have spent their whole careers in the hot-house that British education has become. They say that a career in teaching takes its toll; they are not empty words.
We wonder whether the current crop of young teachers will be able to keep going for a full career; recent reports suggest that in many cases they are already deciding that they can’t.
I finished Chang’s book during the holiday; at the risk of labouring it, I will make one further reference. Education is not fully ‘marketable’ in the way that other aspects of the economy have been – but it has still been exposed to the same neo-liberal philosophies. It’s not too difficult to perceive where the outlook came from – the idea that life is inherently a struggle, that flourishing only happens when comfort is dismissed. And yet this seems too much of a convenient legitimation of a culture in which (a few) winners do take all – comfort included. While it may have brought some benefits, the whole process of opening education to something like market forces has paralleled – in my view not coincidentally – the era when too many aspects of it became toxic. Do those benefits really outweigh the very evident costs?
As Chang convincingly argues, education’s principal impact is not economic, and it is the refusal of marketised societies to accept or value this that has done so much damage: in simple terms, education is being forced to do something that it inherently cannot. And in the process, very many of the contradictions and corruptions of the system have become established. What should be the most affirmative undertaking of a civilised society has become ensnared in the debasement of market consumerism.
If that were a merely theoretical argument, it might not matter so much – but the price is being paid by the people in the system: not the new edu-barons who are doing very nicely – but the ordinary teachers and pupils whose careers and educations are being blighted by the fear of burnout or retribution for the failure to march to someone else’s drum.
Education should not be – I would argue cannot successfully be – like that – and I should not be feeling that the return to work after a mere week off is such a huge weight re-descending on my life. By no means do I dislike my work – but holidays are nonetheless ever-more welcome respite. Whatever happened to balance?
In Chang’s words:
We should build a system that brings out the best, rather than the worst, in people.
But I fear that in some ways present-day education has become the latter.