The elephant in the room.

I’ve been grappling with Dominic Cummings’ extended essay, written as he leaves his role as Gove’s principal adviser. Based on media reports,  I’m not sure he sounds like a particularly pleasant person – but that should not preclude him from having interesting things to say. My curiosity was aroused by a headline sound-bite claiming there simply being not enough highly-talented people in the country who want to be teachers for policy to be based on the notion of spreading excellence.

I was braced for a highly-politicised far-right diatribe, but the reality is more complex. Channel 4 has a summary of his main arguments here and the whole essay can be accessed here. Be prepared for around 250 pages! Currently, I’m around half-way through.

I’m not quite sure how to react to seeing some of my own suspicions about the current system put into writing by someone as close to the centre of power as Cummings has been. It should of course be borne in mind that these are simply his personal views – but  they can only be born from his experiences. He identifies the same distortions caused by the present incentive mechanism, and the resultant exam-gaming that has gone on. This is not to say that he confirms all of my views – around half of what I have so far read conflicts, but there are some notable agreements too.  For example, he criticises the pseudo-science that supposedly underpins current ‘good practice’ – but then goes on to argue that a return to past models of ‘intuitive teaching’ is not the answer. Instead, he argues that we need an even more complex techno-fix. I suppose a policy-wonk would do that…

But before one can consider his many plausible points, there are two big weaknesses that come to mind:

The first is that his entire treatise approaches education from a national strategic perspective; hardly surprising from someone in his position. He is primarily interested in the mobilisation of the country’s ‘human resources’ to tackle the problems of an unknown future. There’s nothing inherently wrong in a politico doing that, but it risks looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope, as they often do. Individual people do not generally experience themselves as ‘resources’; their own lives are – to them – unique personal narratives. In as much as anyone really knows what they are doing, for many, contributing in the abstract to the future of humankind probably comes below having a reasonably comfortable life, good relationships with one’s peers and some time to enjoy oneself; who is to say that is wrong?  Cummings needs to think harder if he wants to understand people’s basic motivations, and how they affect the process of education.

Seen from that perspective, the aims of education appear very different from those of a strategist – but that is the perspective that more closely informs the priorities of an ordinary teacher in an ordinary classroom on an ordinary school day. The practicalities of dealing in a generally productive way with thirty or so young individuals inevitably takes precedence over macro-scale objectives. Cummings is gracious enough to concede his lack of teaching experience – but I suspect he would adjust his views were he to try running a school classroom day in, day out.

My second, linked, concern reflects a much wider issue – what constitutes a ‘good’ teacher in the first place? Cummings helpfully acknowledges the shortcomings of institutional efforts to formalise the matter, but has yet to identify an alternative. Ultimately, too much depends on what you believe the purpose and  outcomes of education should be – and the degree to which it is even possible to arrive at a standardised notion of good practice. Given that he acknowledges the almost-unknowable complexity of many systems, he might realise that pinning this down is going to be virtually impossible – and that in turn should make him wary about criticising too forcefully.

Inevitably, I found myself wondering how Cummings would rate my teaching – in many ways I subscribe to his views that education should be about challenging people to enter the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’, but I doubt that he would approve of my intuitive, highly personal way of going about it. Cummings appears to understand the complexity of systems in a way that too many schools seem not to – but he then goes on to argue that the solution is in a much deeper understanding of maths/physics-based statistical and cognitive modelling rather than a return to teaching as an inherently individual, empirical, heuristic activity. His instinct is understandable – but whether it would deliver a workable solution for the nation’s classrooms is another matter.

I’m divided here: on the one hand, the historical tendency has been for humans to get better at things over time; one could argue that education should be no different, no matter what the old-timers say. On the other, the things we have got better at are largely technical, and one could argue that we are much less advanced in social and psychological understanding. Teaching can certainly be prescribed in technical terms – but is that any guarantee that they work in the personal-psychological realm?

In my opinion, one reason that education seems to be having a decreasingly profound impact on current generations is not so much to do with its lack of ambition, but its depersonalisation in the name of (false) equality. So much has been compromised by the supposed need for entitlement-based accountability that the ability of individuals to operate in self-optimal ways has been deeply compromised; put simply, too much of my time and energy goes into matters that in the end have very little bearing on what pupils get out of my lessons. In this sense, Cummings is right to identify the deliberate blindness of much of the educational establishment to its politically-correct own-goals.

That has been compounded by external societal factors that, as yet, Cummings has not acknowledged at all. He needs to consider the trivialisation effect that lowest-common-denominator mass-media and commerce has had on people; the Affluenza-commercialisation of life that results in many students being unwilling to persevere with anything that doesn’t provide instant gratification, and the general rise in material prosperity that has eclipsed society’s desire for anything more abstract.

And then there is the elephant in the room: what is it reasonable to expect of an individual teacher? I know no teachers who aren’t dedicated to doing the best job they can – but I also know them as private individuals who quite reasonably have their own personal lives, responsibilities and aspirations – in a way that politicians and society at large don’t see. Too often this is forgotten by the workaholic few who run the system. Teachers generally accept that their professional lives will have a significant impact on their personal lives, but this should not be ruthlessly exploited as it too often is; apart from anything else, the difficulties it creates only compromise teachers’ ability to be at their most effective.

We in Britain need to be rid of the mentality that says the only good teacher is an overworked one; the sometimes overly-precious teaching profession itself is as much to blame for this as anyone. Other countries do not seem to see it this way: for example, they don’t see reducing contact time as simply a licence for teachers to be ‘even’ lazier. I have extended acquaintance with a Gymnasium (grammar school) in Switzerland; teachers there clearly work hard, but they have much more control over their own time management, for example by being able to work from home. They have far flatter management structures – in other words, far fewer people telling them what to do, and much greater autonomy. They have more closely-defined boundaries on societal expectations of their role, and they seem more balanced and less harassed than many of their British counterparts. Salaries are high enough that many choose to work less than a 100% timetable (something they are entitled to do), thus releasing the time needed for a more reflective and thorough approach that is just not possible in the headlong rush that is a British teacher’s daily routine, at least without completely sacrificing one’s personal life.

Improving teaching may actually be a lot easier than Cummings thinks; yes, we need(ed) to increase the level of technical and intellectual capability of the profession – and that is not simply a matter of better classroom mechanics – but we could achieve a lot much more quickly simply by giving teachers the time to fulfill their core role properly – without the perpetual stress and exhaustion that constant overload brings.


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