Brave New World

I sometimes imagine myself having a face-to-face conversation with a wide-eyed edu-evangelist, one of those who continually remind us of just how much impact their interventions have on pupils. In my mind’s eye it goes something like this:

Me: “What do you think was the effect of your last lesson on your pupils?

Evangelist: Well, they made progress because they knew something at the end of the lesson that they didn’t at the beginning”. Oh – and I was rated Outstanding.

Me: And do you think they will now know and use this for the rest of their lives?

Evangelist: All the indicators show that they now know it, so why wouldn’t they?

Me: Assuming you are correct, what effect will this have on them?

Evangelist: Well, my intervention has clearly improved their lives.

Me: In what way?

Evangelist: They will get better exam results and go on to achieve their potential.

Me: What do you mean by that?

Evangelist: Well, they will have a better life.

Me: But what do you mean by that?

Evangelist: Well…  they will have a better life.

Me:  In what way? And where’s your evidence?

Evangelist: Err…”

I know this is very confected, but it serves to illustrate the point that education is in many ways the triumph of hope over experience – the very phrase Prof. Robert Coe used for his recent paper. As I have previously implied, the edifice that is current educational ‘wisdom’ is more akin to a religious movement than anything more rational – a strange state of affairs when you consider that we supposedly promote the virtues of advanced thought.

This, I suggest, is one of the roots of our difficulties in establishing full professional credibility – unlike other professions, we are unable to demonstrate a discrete body of proven practice with specific, tangible outcomes. Unlike in medicine or Law, education is an intervention in advance of the problem. If anything, the matter has been made worse by attempting to tackle this perceived deficiency by relying on pseudo-science, which some are increasingly likening to witch-craft. It’s hardly a reliable basis on which to build a profession.

As I have argued before, the best (and only) way to address the fundamental uncertainties of the educational process is to find a paradigm that works with it, rather than attempt to truss and cram it into something that doesn’t. That means glorying in its inherent serendipity, emphasising the refined sensitivities practitioners need to get the most out of an inherently unpredictable process, and acknowledging the multiplicity of its beneficial effects, even in their uncertainty. It means accepting that the only really helpful informant of such practice is reflective use of anecdote – otherwise known as experience. And it also means stopping promising things that we really can’t deliver, and talking up the very real benefits of those that we can.  These are all points I’ve made before; what’s changed is that others seem to be starting to say the same things.

For example, there are a number of current discussions regarding the relationship between learning and progress, of which this is one. At last, people are beginning to realise that these are not the same thing – something that I have felt in my bones for years, but have been unable to substantiate. Well, that’s the nature of professional instinct and experience, I guess.

My suspicion that it is very possible to get people to ‘achieve’ (i.e. over-achieve) in observation or exam situations without necessarily having much real learning going on, seems to have some basis. This is clearly more in teacher’s interest than the student’s. Likewise, some people are beginning to argue that learning is an invisible process, and therefore all attempts to measure it are – and will probably remain – fruitless. It is even being argued that notions of ‘performance’ can inhibit learning – again something that I have felt anecdotally might be the case, but could not support with fact.

(with thanks to   for this and other links in this piece.)

If all this can be developed, it will hopefully reveal the sand on which the identification of supposedly ‘outstanding’ teaching is built. It will not make the job of accounting for ourselves any easier – but it might just more accurately reflect the true nature of the issue in the first place.

A rewarding incident occurred in a year 11 lesson this week: one perceptive lad was clearly itching to raise a point during a lesson on the varying impacts of globalisation. It was the kind of lesson that inspectors despise because it was (initially) led by teacher-talk. He was reluctant to do so, he said, because he was worried that he would be seen as racist. I reminded him that my policy is that pupils may ask or raise any point whatsoever within the walls of my classroom – so long as they are prepared maturely to justify and discuss their position.

He proposed that nearly all of the most economically-developed countries in the world are ones with white majorities; he was hinting as some kind of determinism. Amid an atmosphere of growing engagement, I asked him to elaborate, which he did. He built a reasonably-founded argument, to which a few others joined in.

There followed a discussion involving amongst other things the origins of the Industrial Revolution, the effects of the slave trade, imperialism – and the history of Japan.

Then, in my best Robin Williams manner, I leaned expansively back in my chair, hands behind my head, and posed the killer question: “To what extent are any of those factors you have outlined anything white people can claim conscious credit for – or was it simply an accident of history and favourable geography?” There was silence. No ‘progress’ was demonstrable – but I’m damned sure that learning was taking place in all its diverse glory, even though I can’t exactly define what. And I suspect that the product of that entirely unplanned episode will, in some residual form, linger in the minds of those who experienced it, their world view having subtly shifted in the process.

Meanwhile, anecdote is about to be given another boost. Just maybe, I can point the way for my imaginary evangelist: I suspect, in one or other form, we are all in this work because we believe in (hope for?) a better future. But I often wonder whether we would recognise it if we saw it – what would that ‘better future’ actually look like? I’m braced for the arrival later today of a sizeable group of staff and students from our Swiss partner school, whose annual visit I organise.  The next week will be manically active, but if previous years are anything to go by, it will yield massive, if unquantifiable learning for all concerned – which will be consolidated when we make the return journey in June.

Switzerland is far from perfect, but having travelled extensively there, I think that in its day-to-day life, it in many ways  represents the embodiment of a significantly ‘better future’ compared with what we have in the U.K. at present. Its people are prosperous without being brash, they generally respect each other’s interests; they have exemplary forms of democracy, personal liberty and environmental practice. They are strongly community-minded and have low crime rates. Their infrastructure works – and their education system seems to turn out highly effective, skilled individuals in all sorts of fields. All without a visible ‘progress measure’ or mention of that tired old Anglicism, “World Class” to be seen. I will write more on Switzerland in a future post.

Having Swiss people in our over-worked, rather fraught system for a week is not without its embarrassments. Very regrettably, the Swiss students regularly out-class ours in terms of the breadth and depth of their engagement and achievements: many of these are genuinely high-achievers – though I think I have fielded a particularly good bunch on our side this year…

The difference was best expressed by a student a few years ago, who having spent a week in Switzerland, simply said to me, “Sir, this place works”. That’s not a bad definition of ‘better future’ – and that’s learning.

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