Stormy weather

One of the positive things about the edu-blogosphere is that it seems relatively free of the acrimony that blights much other online discussion. I have no wish to change that – but my post yesterday brought forth a couple of negative comments (both surprisingly off-line) accusing me of something approaching educational nihilism. Maybe it’s the atmospherics we’re presently experiencing (or just the end of the holiday blues?)…

Before I go further, I should also point out that by naming head teacher Geoff Barton, I was not getting personal – it was simply that he used a widespread phrase/concept that I consider particularly unhelpful when it comes to furthering education. I hope no offence was taken.

The always-thoughtful Pedagogueinthemachine made a surprising observation this morning: he/she is worried that the new Ofsted observation guidelines will in effect leave teachers foundering in the classroom regarding what they should do to achieve those great grades. I’m not sure whether this was irony or not, but if not, then it does highlight a new unintended consequence of recent policies.

Pedagogue highlights the loss of the ability to “dust off the Ofsted lesson” as a retrograde step.  I see it as entirely the opposite: if inspectors now go into classrooms with open minds rather than closed ones, that can only be a good thing. They will hopefully be looking for effective teaching by whatever means, rather than adherence to preconceptions of what that is. Yes, that will rely rather more on interpretation and experience – but isn’t that why they are inspectors in the first place? I suspect the negative tone of the new guidelines is simply a means of counteracting previous (mis?)understandings of what inspectors should be doing, and is not directly meant for teachers’ consumption. In fact, part of me suspects that all this has been taken far too literally all along – but that is what happens if you give people such criteria.

As for leaving teachers foundering, then it’s worth reminding ourselves that the primary purpose of teaching is not to get teachers good (career) marks from the inspectorate. If Pedagogue is right, the teaching-by-numbers effect is even worse than I thought, and we desperately need to refocus our teaching away from simply keeping the inspectorate off our backs.

If teachers have now become so dependent on Ofsted tick-boxes in order to structure and validate what they do, then it can only have been at the expense of both their own critical thinking about what makes learning work, and indeed what learning is. My advice to anyone feeling threatened by the new climate is to take a long, hard look at your own practice, and what you understand by Education; identify what you do best with children – and throw yourself into it with all your heart. The result is likely to be a far more authentic teacher and thereby more authentic experience for the pupils than anyone who has been ritualistically planning their lessons by Ofsted formula. In saying this, I of course know that there are some, maybe many, for whom the former Ofsted model is perfectly natural, and nor is it to suggest that people’s understanding can’t evolve over time. But the new approach should at least allow those of us who feel our work has been compromised – or even demonised – by right-think to receive more even-handed treatment.

As for educational nihilism, nothing could be further from the truth. As far as I am concerned, the one aim of education is to help people to be better thinkers. Note the word ‘help’; not guarantee. This includes both knowledge and skills – but trying to define why this is important is as pointless as trying to define the meaning of life. To begin with, there is no end-point at which we can measure ‘success’. Thought is a process as natural as life itself – and as perpetual, for as long as we breathe. It is not for any one thing in particular – it is simply the cognitive means by which we and all animals respond to the world.

Thought is equally as valid in the context of people’s ‘pointless’ pastimes as it is in choosing what food to eat, whom to marry, how to manage one’s finances or how to function in the workplace. It informs how we interact with other people, how we make life-decisions, and respond to crises or information reaching us from elsewhere. It helps us reflect on our emotional selves and perhaps make more rational responses than emotion alone might permit.

Better thinking is simply about practice and effective application – though it is also about an understanding of rational thinking mechanisms, the ability to defer gratification and critical evaluation of our sources. It is about knowing how to evaluate conflicting information and draw informed conclusions. In a more practical sense, it is about the accurate judgement and application of skills and procedures and the appropriate evaluation of outcomes in such activities. All in all, it is about self-knowledge (which is different for each of us) and the replacement of superstition with something more considered. It is used hopefully to secure better outcomes for ourselves and others – always allowing of course for infinite variation in what ‘better’ means.

This is completely the opposite of nihilism; in fact any other definition of education is simply a sub-set of the above, and anyone attempting to define a more specific purpose for education is almost inevitably doomed to exclude some of those processes, or at least the circumstances in which they are appropriate. Therefore it is better not to try –and to accept the process in the widest possible sense.

But above all, it is about understanding the limits of what is knowable. The mark of an educated mind is ultimately its ability to accept the uncertainties of Existence; to cope with the unavoidable conflicts of living, and its liberation from the instinct to impose false truths on the world simply for the sake of comfort. This is worth watching for more.

It is entirely natural – if flawed – for people to seek certainty, and we do that by trying to identify patterns that provide an illusion of certainty where none actually exists. Likewise, society imposes narrowed definitions of what learning means and is ‘for’ simply because there is no natural consensus. It is all just a construct – but that does not inevitably mean that it is helpful in getting people to think better: possibly even the opposite.

It is all the more understandable that people should seek certainty when they feel the stakes are high or they are in particularly uncontrollable situations. This has been the true cost of the previous Ofsted approach – it has led a generation of teachers to find illusory certainty in the presence of the tick-box and lesson-template, and never to face the great imponderables that the true process of education daily stares in the face. In that sense, it has narrowed the collective thinking of the very people in society who ought to have the strongest and most secure command of the true nature of thought. That is the rather unexpected conclusion that year upon year of Learning & Teaching meetings have led me to.

If we truly want to improve the quality of teaching, we should encourage educators to engage with such things again, and relegate the ad nauseam navel-gazing over this or that classroom strategy to its rightful secondary position. Only by (gently) exposing young minds to the true nature of life will we improve their thinking and learning; the quality of teaching is merely a vehicle for that eternal truth –as Ofsted is hopefully on the verge of remembering.

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