All I Remember…

The ultimate test of how well educated someone is has to be what their brain can do without any external support. I have continued to use my ‘brain only’ tests this year, and my pupils have increasingly become used to the concept, which has also been adopted by some colleagues.

Yet it has proved surprisingly difficult to ‘unlearn’ the thinking of years: for much of my career, the singular message has been about making classroom materials ‘accessible’ to pupils – for which read Not Difficult. The origin of this thinking is clear: the progressive view that education is primarily about enfranchisement of the less-privileged.

I have no objection to the sentiment – but it increasingly looks like monumental folly to believe that one can empower people intellectually by reducing the demands made on them. After a year of deliberate watching, there does seem to be a connection between the degree of retention and the difficulty of the task – people remember things that make demands on them. And yet the niggling concern about accessibility still lingers…

During such activities, pupils are often moved to express the difficulties they are encountering, and this can be instructive. One of the regulars has been “I understood it at the time, but I can’t remember it now”. Another frequent issue has been pupils struggling to express their ideas because of poor command of language.

I wonder how much we can really do about this. As teachers, we certainly need to consider strategies that will help pupils to remember what we teach – but it is possibly a step too far to claim direct control over their memories. Mnemonics have been used by teachers since time immemorial, but there remains a difference between self-consciously remembering something using such artificial means, and just knowing it, which is surely what we really want. To what extent do teachers have any real control over what moves into pupils’ long term memories?  And are we actually helping if we claim we do – or simply removing from pupils the obligation to do the essential work for themselves? Clearly we can work to improve communication skills – but I’m afraid that experience points to the fact that people do have internal limitations, Growth Mindset or not. Improving memory? I’m less sure.

Again, the progressive view would be to encourage engagement, and it is certainly true that interest can improve motivation to know. But my current reading of Kahneman also suggests that thinking is inherently effortful, and in many pupils’ minds engagement appears synonymous with not having to make much effort. Being a beginner at anything is inherently difficult; giving up is the default setting. Real engagement has to come from the internal desire to improve, and if that is lacking, no manner of externally-applied gimmicks will fill the gap. Perhaps the question here has to be how we challenge some children’s aversion to the learning process in the first place, rather than how we hoodwink them into mimicking it. Perhaps being honest about the demands would be a start.

Given that we are not prescient, knowing what pupils will remember in future remains a matter of guesswork, though I think that Bjork’s work on the effect spaced learning on retention is onto something important, even though it’s really just a fancy synonym for practice and experience! But if our teaching has been effective enough for pupils to understand at the time, there is perhaps relatively little more that we can do.

That is not to say that retention cannot be improved. As I’ve mentioned before, my involvement in traditional music has, to my mind grown that ability. Being able to recall many hundreds of tunes at will has undoubtedly made it easier to acquire new ones, whereas my wife who is only a few years into a similar musical journey still finds memorising a new tune much harder work. But the key here is that the work can only be done by the student. The key elements are the desire to ‘know’ the piece for its own sake – and the technical skills to acquire and execute it. If the pupil’s expectation is one of low input – and low self-expectation – then the going is likely to be all the more difficult.

What with the struggle I have had to get my older students to revise rigorously, and the protests of my younger students over being made to work using only their internal resources, it seems to me that something is wrong with the expectations of today’s learners. No doubt the distractions of technology, an off-the-shelf lifestyle and the dumbing-down effect of the media have played a part.

I suspect that the upping of the educational stakes has not helped either. As Lord O’Donnell recently observed, the government’s obsession with exam results and its belief that they are the best indicator of future personal effectiveness is potentially deeply damaging to the learning process. The shift of emphasis onto teachers has communicated the message that all the pupils have to do is sit there.

I know that trying to learn a new tune is more difficult if external pressure is applied; what I need is a neutral, unpressurised space in which to bring my undivided attention to bear on a specific task. I also know that I need to be able to take a break – if one task led unremittingly to another and another, the joy in learning new music would quickly evaporate – and that is without the consolidating effect that taking a break seems to have.

I think the same is true of learning more widely. Learning (and teaching) is best done in unthreatening circumstances, when the mind can be freed from external distractions and pressures. It is more effective when the parties involved understand their natural roles clearly. Confusing this with creating challenging learning tasks may be actively hindering people’s ability to learn, let alone their motivation to do so. Applying external pressure is distracting and depresses the ability to think.

If so, it is doing untold damage to the learning prospects of children – and the professionalism of teachers.

Putting the shine on it Part Two: the God of Small Things.

I’ve always viewed my own professional practice as discrete from the work I do for my school. This is, of course, to some extent a conceit but it serves to remind me about the locus of responsibility for my teaching – and also my reasonable right to develop that practice as I choose, independent of the ideological impositions from outside.

Nearing the end of year 28, I am in the generally pleasant (when unwelcome reality doesn’t intrude) position of having the basics under my belt, of being able to concentrate on and enjoy refining the niceties of my technique. Having said that, something big and totally unexpected will probably creep up and mug me next week…

My card-writing student had just completed a module of A2 work that I consider to be the pinnacle of both my students’ school geography careers, and also of my teaching. It means preparing them for a ninety-minute paper that effectively involves writing a mini-thesis in response to a previously unseen question; there is of course a steering brief from which we work. This brings the students close to undergraduate level, and involves them in individual research, with my role restricted to an amount of factual information-giving and then a great deal of chewing the philosophical cud with them. It is the nearest I get to seeing the ‘finished product’ of my efforts with them, and mighty satisfying it is too, with those who take the bait, when the thinking genuinely does start flowing in both directions. I reckon if they can do this, they have become pretty good thinkers for their age. And if I can do this, I must know my subject pretty well.

I’m certainly not complacent enough to claim I have nothing more to learn – even a time-served teacher can still have an off day, and that’s without the vagaries of the kids. This is why ‘outstanding’ is such nonsense – most of us probably are some of the time – and all of us probably aren’t some of it too. But nonetheless, I am generally enjoying my time controlling the job (relatively speaking), after the many years when to a greater or lesser extent, it controlled me – and before what I suppose will be the likely decline in energy as I approach my sixties and retirement.

I’m not sure my employers, with their different concerns, would agree, but I feel secure in my own mind that I now have a significant understanding of the complex phenomenon that is education, and that I can apply it in practice. The more things progress, the more convinced I am that the arguments presently being advanced for traditional teaching are broadly correct, and that the assumptions underpinning the progressive movement have been one huge intellectual and behavioural wrong turning.

I am equally certain that the present climate of narrow and unrealistic accountability, the targets culture and the general view of teaching as a merely technical procedure is equally misguided – which may well continue to do more to impair the quality of real teaching in this country than its proponents ever even realise.

The best analogy I can find for what I have found is with my other learning experiences in practical and creative fields, the end result of which is closer to that of a skilled artisan than a technician. The learning process has been one of honing skills, of learning from my mistakes and the inspiration of others, of giving meaning to day-to-day experiences by investigating the theoretical underpinnings. It is all far more human – and humane – than the present system seems to realise or want. And the key elements, dare I suggest, are well-judged wisdom and an ongoing conscience, not the ticking of boxes in a technical manual.

Again, my findings are far closer to the traditional interpretation of education than anything else, and I am also increasingly convinced that the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and philosophy can inform our practice as much as any more specifically pedagogic manuals – provided that they are not overdrawn in the way so many ‘new’ silver bullets are.

The key experiences of being at this stage are being able to  teach without even having to think about it. I’m sure that is not what Oftsed or my employers would want to hear, and I don’t mean that I never plan – far from it – but being in front of a class or dealing with individual students is now so instinctive that it is like breathing. I think you need to get to this stage before children take you fully seriously; inexperience always shows, no matter how promising the practitioner, whereas the quiet confidence of experience is such that there is no question in pupils’ minds as to who you are or what you do – even if they still don’t always play ball. This is far more effective than any gimmick.

There is almost no situation that arises of which I have not seen at least a variant before; the response is just there waiting, almost without thought: it’s just the stuff I do. Likewise the ‘pat’ comments just trip off the tongue, and the lesson character that is uniquely, quirkily mine is established enough that most pupils accept it without a second thought.

At least as important is knowing what not to do – and having the self-restraint not to do it anyway. There is, for example, a subtle art in judging precisely at what point a particular verbal intervention is needed: when to say something – and when to stay quiet and let matters roll. There is a subtle art in knowing what will energise – no, wind up – pupils: choosing when to let something lie, or when, deliberately, to say something that gets them going. There is a subtle art in sensing when a miscreant requires serious admonition and when a quiet word will do, when a detention needs to be set, when to let the matter lie with less. There is a quiet art in hitting just the right degree of long-suffering humour that can defuse a situation, or address a problem without escalating it. All of these things are the nuances of teaching that only come, I have found, after many years of effort; many of them, though, just seem to develop of their own accord. It’s akin to a sense of the theatrical

Finally I can do the job like those of my own teachers whom I most admired. I can choose exactly when and where to bring things to a high shine. I can savour the hidden nuances of a good wine.

I cannot finish this post, though, without expressing regret that little of this is what those who judge teachers seem to think is important. Maybe it is just taken for granted – but I think it should not be.  Little of what I have talked about here is visible in a formal lesson observation; indeed the circumstances are more likely to make it all evaporate. It is quite possible that no one ever notices the subtleties other than the individual themself. That shouldn’t matter – they are still highly valuable elements of how teachers teach.

That is why I consider my own practice as separate from my institutional role: at least I know that this is happening, even if no one else does. I know, and am finally reasonably happy with my own brand of teaching. But the fact that such experiences seem ignored, whereas those who are best at jumping through the hoops and then shouting about it are hailed as the best teachers – may partly account for the continuing turbulence within this profession. We need to let all teachers work towards finding their own high shine.

Electronic Babel?

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.       Aristotle

Establishing this blog has proved to be an excellent professional experience. Over the past eighteen months, I feel that I have plugged into a network the like of which had hitherto been sorely lacking from my life as an autonomous professional. It is already quite difficult to remember how life was when the only regular source of information available was what my school chose to provide. The opportunities that this provides for teachers over the long term are great: online provision can help equip us as individual practitioners with professional information and discourse like never before.

However, I also wonder whether the proliferation of online discussion may also make life more difficult. There is a vast mass of information – far more than is practically possible to sift through given the demands of the day-job. And while looking outside ourselves is an essential process, it may also divert our attention from what, in my opinion, is the ultimate source of our professionalism – our inner selves. I will return to this in my next post.

So I find myself wondering what this online Tower of Babel can actually achieve. Is it yet another virtual experience that promises much but delivers much less? The world of edu-blogging is overflowing with people expounding their own diverse theories and opinions on what makes education tick. And yet, is it really moving us any further forward?

I have a stronger sense, now, that there is a subset of the educational world that is busy looking for ‘The Answer’ – and probably putting a lot of faith in the fact that the online world will form the means of, if not its discovery, then at least its dissemination. They seem to see teaching principally as a technical activity, one discoverable through the methods of science; it’s useful to know they are there – but difficult to see how they will ever convince one like me whose conception of the teaching and learning process starts from a fundamentally different place.

For all that I genuinely sympathise with the concerns of some that ‘evidence’ will inoculate us against future outbreaks of cargo-cult education, I think it is a false hope. For evidence of any type to have currency, it needs to be universalisable – and I just don’t think that is possible in education. To begin with, this needs there to exist a consensus over what we are seeking to achieve, that simply doesn’t – and can’t – exist.

While many have sought to define educational outcomes in terms of exams, the reality is that exams are not the purpose of Life – and nor therefore, of education. They are nothing other than a proxy measure for a process undergone – and some would say a pretty poor one at that. However much one argues otherwise, the inescapable truth is that exams are a human construct, while the cognitive effects of real education are not. Yet alternative definitions inevitably end up so ill-defined as to be useless except in the most philosophical of senses.

Secondly, the effect of evidence needs to be both demonstrable and repeatedly replicable – neither of which is remotely easy in the educational arena. Finally, ‘success’ depends on being able to define both the criteria and the time-frame with which it supposedly works. Not only are such criteria not universally accepted, but neither is the time frame. Education is a process with a life-long duration and effect – and therefore it is arguably pointless trying to ascertain its full effect except after the end of someone’s life. This is why obituaries are so instructive! Furthermore, the complexity and interaction of circumstance that contributes to the trajectory of an individual life is so vast, that it is probably impossible to isolate the specific impact of any one factor within it. Thus, while it may therefore be understandable that some have tried to reduce educational outcomes to smaller, more tangible criteria, this does not in itself lend that decision any existential validity.

Over the eighteen months that I have been following the blogosphere (admittedly a short period in the greater scheme of things), my impression is that we have moved  forward not one iota. Yet I don’t see this as a failure – merely evidence of the true nature of education – that despite the best public efforts of so many, we have not increased the overall consensus one jot.

Using the online community to try to pin down what works in education is doomed to failure; not one of the posts, documents or websites that I have seen has done anything whatsoever to shift my own take on education away from where it was already heading. This is not to say that they have not been informative or persuasive, or that I have not made certain changes as a result – my mind is not that closed! – but all of those things were inevitably mediated through my own pre-existing understanding of what education is. And that is without considering the significant impact of confirmation bias. Even where changes were implemented, the effects were imponderable to say the least – let alone universalisable in the way ‘proof’ needs to be.

None of the in-depth studies discussed on the more technical blogs has succeeded in doing any more than reinforcing  its own internal logic – but this is a very different matter from producing universal educational truths. One only has to disagree with their initial premises, assumptions and controls for the whole house of cards to collapse.

The point is, I don’t think it can ever be any otherwise. Education simply does not have the same levels of objective ‘truth’ as found in, for example curative medicine, let alone the concrete product-definition of the commercial world. Education is fundamentally a speculative and abstract undertaking – and one that is so diverse as to be impossible to generalise about, beyond the already-obvious matters of technical good practice that are widely known.  Unlike, say, the process of healing an illness, selling a product or perhaps resolving a legal dispute, in education there is not – and cannot be – an independent, universal definition of ‘success’.

Wishing it otherwise will not change that. Even in the somewhat more definable matter of psychological cause-and-effect, the factors are too complex ever to possess useable certainty. The human mind is just too cussed to submit to such a degree of predictability, and even the most carefully set up classroom procedure can be instantly wrecked by a power failure or the appearance of a wasp in the classroom. Try devising a theory to deal with that!

I am not, however, suggesting that the edu-blogosphere is useless – far from it. But its function is more that of a democratic professional clearing house, something that was very much needed, where all shades of outlook and experience are admissible. We should accept that the resultant discourse will inevitably be untidy, contradictory and of varying usefulness: that is the unalterable nature of educational debate. It is a truly great resource – but one that if anything amplifies the need of the individual to reflect on their own practice rather than replaces it, that increases the need to filter information, to adopt those things that make sense or seem to work and ignore the rest. And incidentally, it also places increased responsibility on the rest to accept that this will happen, rather than degenerating into factions, something that mercifully has yet to happen.

The blogosphere will never replace the main source of good practice – which is found within each and every individual teacher – with some universal theory of education. I think, therefore, that the tendency of the internet to homogenise opinion needs to be treated with caution: only a small fraction of what we encounter online will be directly applicable to our own situation. In my own case, my aim is simply to advance what I believe to be a credible argument, and hopefully to leave a small legacy of this one professional’s accumulated experience by the time I retire. It is for others to decide what, if anything, they take from it.

To return to my opening quote from Aristotle, the blogosphere makes the scope for individual thought much greater – but the decision to accept or reject a particular proposal still needs to come from our own unique insight. It also requires an acceptance of the diversity of the teaching profession and a high level of professional respect and conduct; regrettably, this is not yet to be found in all schools.

It is this that the blogosphere has real potential to enrich – by giving people access to a much wider spectrum of thought – rather than by hoping to find ‘external’ solutions. If we are expecting it to provide watertight answers, then I would suggest that we ourselves have yet fully to comprehend the true nature and complexity of the undertaking in which we are engaged.

Hobbies are important!

Do enjoy the atmospheric picture of rural France below, because it’s really rather special…



…All the more so when you learn that it measures all of about two feet across, and was made by an extraordinarily talented couple called Gordon and Maggie Gravett whom I once had the pleasure of meeting, while their model Pempoul was still in its early stages (it took twenty years to complete). If you’re wondering what model-making has to do with education, please bear with me.

The Gravetts’ work has been filmed by BBC4 and their model now has a five-year waiting list for exhibitions. They also draw people from long distances to hear their lectures. Whatever your impression of railway modelling in general, these people are surely artists, as are those responsible for the picture below, Pendon, which is also a model.


I wonder what the teachers of people such as the Gravetts would make of their success. I doubt it is something that could have been anticipated in the classroom, though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had been good at art. It is people like the Gravetts – not to mention my own lesser activities in the same field – that cause me to struggle with those who choose to narrow educational objectives to exam results, qualifications and ‘progress’ shown over the course of a matter of minutes rather than years, who choose to render the purpose pointlessly self-conscious and entirely mercenary.

The life of the mind is not , and should not be, restricted to a few narrow aspects of mundane practicality; in reality, it affects everything we do: not only work, but relationships, home-keeping, raising families – and fundamentally ‘pointless’ activities like hobbies. In short, it can enrich every aspect of one’s life. While we still hear platitudes about the ‘breadth’ of education, I wonder how many people really still believe it – but here, in the world of hobbies, is a very real example of the wider impact that developing one’s mind can have.

If you asked any teacher in the country what the point of education is, I very much doubt they would say railway modelling. And yet, why not? Both the Gravetts and the Pendon team have demonstrated high levels of critical thought, historical research, ability to synthesise and then realise their designs as they strove to reproduce the essence of 1950’s Brittany and 1930’s Berkshire respectively, to the ultimate degree of historical fidelity. They have high levels of both knowledge and practical expertise, indeed they have reached the top of their field – and who is to say this isn’t as important as sport or music or painting or literature? Or that their expertise is any less important than workers in more recognised fields? All they have chosen to do is to communicate their knowledge in a different format; the fact that railway modellers are still widely seen as anoraks isn’t their fault. More importantly, they have found something that is utterly absorbing and deeply rewarding.

I think it is no coincidence that many of the most intelligent people I know/have known have all engaged in often-arcane hobbies of one sort or another, for it is simply the mark of an enquiring mind that it rarely rests. The point of education is both everything and nothing: it is just about what happens to the mind as it is exposed to developmental opportunities, and an enquiring mind will never tire of seeking new material. Such a mind should be able to bring itself to bear on pretty much anything it encounters – which is why attempting to narrow its ‘purpose’ to the passing of exams, the securing of jobs or the earning of cash is such a betrayal, such a mark of the lack of real appreciation of its potential, of the death of the imagination. It represents the abandonment of the admittedly subjective enrichment that an active mind can bring, in favour of a dull utilitarian view propagated, I suspect, by those in grey suits who lack the imagination to have creative hobbies themselves.

I used the word ‘talented’ earlier on. Yet the current vogue for the Growth Mindset would have it that talent is much over-rated.  Could just anyone produce these masterpieces? Well, the materials and techniques used are surprisingly mundane; what is more defining is the attention to detail which comes from that fine eye, a willingness to experiment, a refusal to accept second-best and a persistence that sees the Gravetts scribing each stone of each building separately – and then painting it equally. Could just anyone do that? Possibly, yes. Can everyone develop a ‘fine eye’? Possibly yes. Hobbies can be empowering in a way utterly consistent with the Growth Mindset.

My own interest in railways and modelling has sustained a two-way dialogue with my wider intellectual and educational self for nearly fifty years now, virtually as long as I have lived. It was railways that first taught me my geography and which stimulated a wider interest in that subject; conversely, my academic discipline has brought a depth of insight to my hobby that otherwise probably would not have been there. Model-making was also where I first experience the phenomenon of Flow, and once you know how to cultivate it, you can do so elsewhere.

Working in a fairly disciplined hobby really does provide vast developmental opportunities: were it not for model-making, I would never have learned to solder, to etch and to airbrush. I would have a lesser understanding of electrics and electronics and my carpentry skills would be less developed. My ability to work with precision with would be non-existent. I would not have learned the rudiments of photography. But perhaps as importantly, I would have less-developed patience, eye for detail, appreciation of the need to plan and set myself objectives, and above all, sense of empowerment that comes simply from knowing I can do things. What’s more, by the sharing of these things either in ‘meat’-space or virtual space, communities are formed, and I encounter people whom otherwise I would be very unlikely ever to meet – largely in an altruistic and generous-minded context not always present in other aspects of life. Some have become good friends.

I hope it’s a little clearer now why I chose to discuss such an esoteric field: when one examines activities which are utterly elective, and in some ways utterly pointless, then it throws the whole issue of people’s abilities and motivations into stark relief. It also permits a discussion of these issues unburdened by all the usual educational agendas. Yet I challenge any educationalist to deny that the disciplines discussed above are important.

In many ways, hobbyists are the epitome of the educational ideal: people doing and discovering things simply for the pleasure of doing so. And for all that education can help in the more pragmatic elements of life, I believe that some of its greatest rewards are to be found in purely intrinsic expressions of what it can do. We need to ensure that our pupils understand this too.

I will end with another view of the Gravetts’ talent –  small-town French life captured to perfection.


Are you sure? Are you really sure?

“Why do you stay in education when you seem so sceptical of it?” a well-meaning colleague asked the other day.

Well, I suppose the short answer (idealistic, but none the less sincere for that) is that I believe in the power of education to enhance people’s lives; it’s the system I doubt, not the education. I know about real education’s transformative power from the experience of my own family as it shifted from Midlands mining community to the ‘professional classes’. And a second answer (pragmatic, but nonetheless relevant for that) is that at the age of fifty, it’s where my experience lies – and to be blunt, the chances of finding equivalent work elsewhere are diminishing all the time…

But there’s another answer too: why wouldn’t you be sceptical of what you know or are told?

The point of being educated oneself is surely to be able use one’s critical faculties to scrutinise the world in such a way as hopefully to arrive at a more accurate, informed, or at least considered understanding of it. Why would one adopt a certain course of action without a reasonable degree of confidence in it? It is the ability at least to feel that one can do this – and thus influence the world around – that brings the confidence that education can confer, even if in reality our ability to anticipate our real effect is more limited. That said, the real voice of experience is, I think, not the one that speaks with the most certainty, but the one that recognises the limitations of its own knowledge.

As I wrote a short time ago, time delivers such perspectives that nothing else can. As I enter the final quarter of my career, I find myself in the bemusing situation of being confident that I know (as opposed to suspect) less and less. Things that seemed entirely obvious and beyond doubt twenty years ago seem to be increasingly matters for conjecture. John Tomsett, who is about my age, wrote something similar a few months ago when he commented that the more he teaches, the less he feels he knows about learning. I would imagine we’re not alone: this is simply the deep and subtle appreciation that comes with approaching mastery of anything.

I think this is a good thing: it is a sign of the continuing refinement of my understanding of my profession. While it may be entirely possible to go through one’s entire career without asking a single searching question about what one is doing, this has never been my way. The fact that things are becoming less substantial may actually be a mark of maturing of an understanding of the education process that has been gestating for the past quarter-century. I can pretty-much take the mechanics of the work as instinct; what become ever more fascinating are its philosophical and existential underpinnings – and I can increasingly easily dismiss the occasionally-sardonic comments of the less-travelled for whom everything is still solid.

As a consequence, I find myself questioning more and more of the established ways of doing things: undertaking such a journey does not guarantee that the destination will necessarily be the ‘approved’ one. Aided by my recent discussion with Ian Lynch, I have found myself this week wondering whether all the ‘normal assumptions’ about the way we organise and run schools and education actually have any substantial foundation at all. If you were starting from scratch, would you really design it to be the way it is?

For instance, is it really true that a few individuals can effectively co-ordinate the doings of a couple of thousand others – or is the order seen in most schools more insubstantial than it seems? Is the faith we are expected to place in management justified or not? We might want to believe that our world is totally under control, but is it really? As with all power, the ability to control people is more illusory than real – it relies a lot more on the complicity of the supposedly-controlled than it might seem. One might extract a single desired action from someone – but the unseen consequences may spread much further. Yet management persists with the myth that all bounty descends from on high. It’s not so much the people who are bad (although they can be), as the flawed system that they are trying to implement. There is, however, no virtue in defending the indefensible. And when one observes the way the education system in Britain is treating many of its practitioners, one really does wonder what the hell it thinks it is doing.

In his comments last week, I’m afraid that Ian Lynch betrayed some of the hubris that for my money is more indicative of the problem than the solution. It seems all too easy to assume airs and graces, the power of professional life and death over others, the illusion that one has the power to run the entire world just as one pleases, with no consequences.

But it doesn’t work: people ultimately work to their own agendas, outlooks and abilities, no matter that they may not be publicly seen. I am not, and will never be, a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Most teachers I know find all the motivation and energy they need internally; there really is no need for the stick. Even when things go wrong, the internal beating-up they give themselves is far greater than anything that can be imposed – or needs to be.

Much better to free those people to find their own solutions wherever possible, in my experience, than supposedly to manage them ‘better’ – whatever that means. A system that expends so much energy pursuing its own simply in the name of imposing some kind of questionable uniformity really has lost the plot. As the former D-G of MI5, Jonathan Evans writes in this month’s Prospect, better an untidy system that works than a tidy one that doesn’t.

Prompted further by ‘Icing on the Cake’ I have also wondered at the supposedly universal truth that there are good teachers and bad teachers, to which we might add good managers and bad managers. Why do we persist in applying such simplistic and meaningless labels to people – and then treating them accordingly? Given that there is so little consensus over what we are trying to achieve, the criteria used to judge such things are – and can never be  anything other than – utterly subjective. This need to assign to people their ‘due’ place is one thing that I have noticed by its absence in the continental systems; I have a nasty suspicion that the shadow of centuries of endemic deference within British society still stalks our professions.

Assumptions about the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, underpin our views on what our core activity, teaching and learning actually is too. But how can we be so arrogantly, unshakeably sure we are right? It certainly seems that the relationship between what someone ‘teaches’, by whatever means, and what someone else ‘learns’, is not the direct and controllable process that the education system wants to believe. Is this just another professional fiction?

The only way to understand learning is not by watching others, but by doing it oneself. The only thing that really matters in education is what happens inside the head of the pupil, and only by being inside the head concerned has one any chance at all of appreciating what is happening. We can only do that for ourselves, of course. From my own school days, I don’t think I remember ever being self-consciously aware that I was learning, in the way we expect current pupils to be; so far as we were concerned, I think we were just ‘doing stuff’ – some of which somehow, mysteriously went in, stuck and gradually accumulated into something called an ‘education’. I don’t even remember being consciously aware for the most part that the teachers were actually teaching, either, in the equally self-conscious way we mean today. Certainly, information was conveyed, skills learned, but it was all just what you did, what we all did… Are we really any better off for looking so hard, and fretting when we fail to find, something invisible?

That might be easily dismissed as the faulty memories of a (moderately) oldie, or perhaps the failings of a previous education system, were it not for the fact that I have had the same experience within the last couple of years. While I was taking violin lessons, at no point was I self-consciously aware of learning, or even becoming ‘better’, except in the most generalised of long-term senses. The Flow experience that I have discussed before was all. Again, techniques and approaches were discussed and rehearsed, and knowledge imparted – but I am still darned if I can capture the experience in anything that bears relation to how we currently talk about the matter. What’s more, I wonder whether the teacher was consciously aware of teaching; given that the lessons were recorded and delivered online, I think there is reasonable doubt that the teacher knew what – or even if – she was successfully teaching. Yet she was – as defined by me, the pupil. (The nice thing about traditional music is that it is all much less formal and self-conscious than that – which is fine, and it clearly worked. Learn I did – but quite how that process worked, I am still not fully sure).

I am much more certain that rendering the whole process utterly self-conscious as it is today, does little to help, but perhaps much to hinder. Not only is the process of learning removed from the control of the learner, and deposited firmly in the coercive control of the ‘learning provider’, but the attempt deliberately to manipulate that process may actually make it harder. I am sure that the many learning and teaching sessions that I have attended, the many hours of CPD, the endless meetings and more were all perfectly well-intentioned to ‘develop’ me as a teacher – but I regret to say that the vast majority of the process of professional development and the managerially-approved practices that it was designed to embed – to say nothing of being ‘managed’ on a day-to-day basis – have done little except make my job harder. One should of course resist the arrogance that says one can never learn from others, and yes, I now know about Hattie – but what if (as seems possible) he’s wrong? Many have wondered that – but the issue has never been addressed; we are just expected to ‘believe’. His base(!) assumptions certainly don’t square with my own reasons for being a teacher.

The vast majority of development I have done has been internal, as a result of the process of self-scrutiny, self-criticism and reflection that I would argue should be an automatic part of any professional’s practice. By doing this, I have gradually refined what I do, experimented, learned lessons and adapted. Except in the most general terms of wanting to be a successful teacher, I had no real idea of where that journey was leading me: it was a true voyage of discovery. The only outside influences of any impact were things begged, borrowed and stolen from colleagues whose ideas appealed to me, whose style I liked, and whose experience I valued  – and the books I have read: mostly not educational manuals, but books about psychology and human behaviour, the insights from which have been deeply thought-provoking. I am afraid to say, however, that in many cases, they only served to increase my scepticism about the whole edifice of the educational establishment and the claims it makes for itself, whether with respect to its clients or its practitioners.

I think the key element here is autonomy. All of the most valuable learning experiences I have had have been those which were undertaken voluntarily, as an expression of my own aspirations or curiosity. Advice that was willingly sought from sources of my own choosing was much more useful than all those who sought to impose ‘approved practice’ on me. The journey was essentially my own, and nothing else has come close in terms of effect.

(Part Two of two will follow tomorrow).

Slowly does it…

We’ve reached that time of year when the school suddenly goes quiet. The G.C.S.E. and ‘AS’ students have already left, and the Upper Sixth go this week. The frenetic activity to prepare them for their exams is done for another year. There’s still a huge amount to do, of course: the workbook for the Year 8 day-trip to Lille needs up-dating – and it’s only a month until I make the return trip to our Swiss partner school with this year’s sixth form group. And already, preparations for the new year’s teaching.

But nonetheless, there is just enough of a pause to stop and ponder the frantic rush that secondary-school life has become, and wonder whether it is either necessary or beneficial to the pupils – let alone the staff. I think what capped it for me was a year 11 student observing to me a couple of weeks ago, how fast time passes by. I remember school years going on for at least a decade when I was in my teens – and I have to admit that my reply did go along the lines of ‘Just wait until you’re my age…’

I delivered a new CPD session a couple of weeks ago on this theme, and as it was very well received,  I thought I’d review it here; the title was Slow Teaching.

The Slow Movement originated in the mid 1980’s in Italy, as a reaction against the spread of fast food. The concept has now become a fully-fledged world-wide movement, and has expanded to include slow cities, slow travel, slow money, slow parenting – and slow education. There is even a Slow Education movement.

The principle is well-explained by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, who did much to bring the ideas to wider attention through his book In Praise of Slow:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes, rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible not just as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in just about everything from food to parenting.”

This seems to make eminent sense to me, and not only because it would perhaps grant me the time I feel I really need – but never get – to do this job better, without going insane in the process. Slow would seem to appreciate that time spent reflecting on the last lesson and carefully planning the next is precisely what is needed – far more than the whole array of whistles and bells with which the education world seems as preoccupied as ever. It most certainly would not be time wasted – even if I were observed sipping a coffee or dare I say (given the nice weather) a kir in the process…

There is a vast amount in this idea, ranging from classical notions of education as eudaimonia (flourishing of the individual) through the much-debated ideas of 10,000 hours to mastery and Cognitive Load Theory (whereby care should be taken not to overload the working memory), to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of Flow being the deepest, intrinsic experience one can have (which presumably can’t be hurried either) – to the need for introverts to have the time and space they need to do things their own best way.

The Slow Schools movement unfortunately seems to have been appropriated by the further reaches of the constructivist movement, although they do concede that Slow should not be a prescriptive concept. However, I can’t see anything to prevent the idea being adapted by more traditional approaches too: developing the patience needed for full command of a subject is worth emphasising whatever the approach, as is taking the time to think before writing or speaking, and developing ideas as far as they can go. Having the patience to read a text carefully for full meaning is another example. And I think the technique described here some time ago, of getting pupils to do ‘brain-only’ tests, where they have to sit and think until they have written as much as they can recall, is inherently Slow in nature.

I do wish the idea would catch on more widely; it would be good to be able to savour both the experience of really developing pupils in a considered way, rather than rushing headlong at the next set of exams – let alone a little more of the life that seems to be going past just too quickly, squeezed in round the edges of the job. It seems that even some of the pupils might agree:

When it comes to a properly-grounded education, just what exactly is the rush?

Once upon a time…

…there was a boy called John. He grew up in a fairly unremarkable town in the West Country. His parents, who were teachers, went to great lengths to develop the young lad and expose him to new experiences. Every day, before he could have his afternoon sweets, he had to perform some small thinking task, with the result that he knew his alphabet and early times-tables, was able to read well, even before he went to primary school. Each summer holiday, the family travelled widely around Europe with their caravan. John showed early promise, his reading age already off the scale by the time he was eight years old; he greatly enjoyed doing well, often undertaking ‘research projects’ just for the sake of it.  One of his fondest memories of upper primary school is of doing ‘DD’ – a weekly knowledge-research quiz set by his kindly old class teacher, Mr. Clifton.

He took the Eleven Plus (having reluctantly gone through a degree of prepping by his mother), and achieved amongst the highest scores in the town, thus entering the local boys’ grammar school, where he proceeded to compete vigorously with two or three other lads for the prime places in the top stream at the end of each half-term’s Marks Period.

Much to his surprise, at the end of his first year exams, he came second-highest in the year, having been given structured revision by his mother in the preceding weeks. But by the second year, his enthusiasm was waning for such a study-intense regime, and he gradually worked less and less hard. His parents became increasingly concerned, but the harder they pushed, the more John felt trapped in a corner and unable to comply. At the same time, his lifelong passion for railways was growing; he had never been particularly gregarious, and he spent much of his time reading railway books and building a succession of models, which he shared with a few like-minded friends. He developed an interest in the practical skills associated with model-making, encouraged by his father who had always been a skilled craftsman, but one who would never accept second-best work. Somewhere in John’s mind a rather obsessive streak of perfectionism took root…

As he entered his mid-teens, John’s early musical failure on the piano reversed, as he discovered the guitar. He worked hard at it, eventually forming a small folk group with some friends, which became his overwhelming passion during his late teenage years.

Meanwhile, his parents increasingly despaired at his disinclination to study hard; he eventually obtained a mixed bag of ‘O’ Levels, respectable enough, but not as good as those of the boys he had competed with a few years before. After showing some initial interest in Science, he eventually settled on the humanities, again ‘prodded’ by his parents. He was able enough in these subjects, but never felt great passion for them. Nonetheless, he was an enterprising and determined boy when motivated, and he achieved high standards and much satisfaction from his hobbies, even as his academic performance paled.

He took his ‘A’ Levels with much the same outlook; his efforts were increasingly focused on his personal interests, with school work taking a back seat. He began to fear academic failure, and aided by his parents’ continuing despair, increasingly began think of himself more generally as a failure. An emergent ability in French was stifled when he compared himself with some extremely talented girls in the same class at what was by now a co-educational sixth form college. A number of his friends were busy applying to the best universities, and while a couple of his teachers suggested he should do the same, he lacked the self-belief to follow-through. In any case he was by now too academically-unfocussed to stand a chance. But on results day, much to his surprise, he had achieved a set of grades good enough to get into a red-brick university.

University followed a similar pattern: much of his time was spent ‘growing up’ free from the constraints of the home environment for the first time. He was much-preoccupied by his abject failure to secure the attention of the opposite sex, and he diverted a lot of effort into his interests – which still didn’t really include the subject he was supposedly studying. His tutors seemed singularly uninterested in the travails of an anonymous undergraduate, and semi-knowingly, he drifted still further. When it came to his dissertation however, he chose a transport-related topic, and eventually produced a document that bucked his academic record by scoring a First. In the process, he also discovered a huge store of transport literature in the stack of the university library and immersed himself in it.

Growing fear of failure led to a last-ditch effort to save his degree, which he eventually managed to do, achieving a lower second. After graduating, John didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He applied unsuccessfully for a management job on the railways, and several other commercial opportunities, but he then took a gap year, working in a psychiatric hospital. Stuck in a dreary job, he increasingly yearned for his university life and (much to his surprise) his former subject. He finally took the decision to go into teaching.

He secured a place on a P.G.C.E. course, and eventually employment in a large secondary school. He struggled with teaching to begin with – the workload came as a culture shock for a start, as did finding himself in charge for the first time in his life. However, he resolved not to make his earlier mistakes again, and started to make progress. At some point, he realised that he needed to take charge of his life, and increasingly found that he could do so. He worked hard at his chosen career, though finding it difficult to resolve his own grammar school experiences with those of the comprehensive sector he was working in. He dutifully followed the expected pattern and applied for promotion, even though he inwardly lacked the conviction to follow through.

Over time, he developed a distinctive approach to teaching, and began increasingly to use his wider interests to broaden what he could offer his pupils. He also began to make up for lost time with his own education, deepening his command of his subject, reading widely in others and actively capitalising on what he discovered were latent skills he had perhaps had all along. His practical and musical skills appeared to have sharpened his mind more than he realised, and his experience of academic near-failure galvanised him. Over time, he found that his pupils began to respond positively to the quirky, somewhat eccentric but thoughtful teacher in front of them…

Question: was John’s education ‘successful’ or not?  Choose from:

A) John’s education was pretty much a failure, as has been much of his life since. His teachers failed to inspire him, and any success he achieved was largely a result of untapped and rather untamed innate ability. He achieved qualifications well below those he could have, and his life since (including his earning potential) has been blighted by that fact. His story is all the justification needed for the more interventionist approach that education has nowadays.

B) John’s education had some limited impact on a contrary and independent-minded individual. He should have been channelled in other directions that made better use of his apparent interests, despite the fact that that might have ‘wasted’ his academic ability. His parents were unwise to have pushed him and were probably counter-productive in their concern. His life could probably have been made better if his teachers had intervened more.

C) John’s education was a clear success. He exhibited fairly typical boyish dislike for formal structure, and it was unfortunate that the system reinforced some unnecessarily negative self-perceptions as a result. Nonetheless, his education clearly sowed the seeds for his later flourishing, both in terms of the necessary skills and the attitudes which only made sense much later in his life.  When he escaped the normal uncertainties of young-adult life he found himself equipped to make up for his earlier shortcomings. John’s teachers could have done little more to anticipate the future direction of his life, but succeeded in equipping him with core values, knowledge and role-models that emerged and served him well in later life.

‘John’ now has a life that pleases him greatly:

He and his wife earn enough to support themselves to a comfortable standard of living with which they are very largely satisfied. They have found an architecturally-distinctive home in a delightful small town in south eastern England, and have furnished it (using John’s practical skills) in their preferred modernist style.

John works in a profession which provides him with daily challenges and an enduring sense of purpose, even if his still-unruly mind is frustrated at the unnecessary constraints its hierarchy places on his ability to maximise his effectiveness.

He has a rich personal life, speaks two languages well and self-taught two others badly, has found his (highly erudite) soul-mate and enjoys a wonderful marriage. He has travelled widely and has friends in several countries.

He has achieved high degrees of competence within his still-active hobby fields, including having broadcast and published in one of them. These remain among the key elements of his life. He is active in those interest-communities, promoting in a small way the advancement of their activities.

Many of John’s youthful acquaintances (even though who made better use of their school days) seem to have had similarly unpredictable stories, but most are now living ‘ordinary’ but seemingly content lives, with secure relationships and variable career success.

He is now trying to use his experiences for the greater good of his profession and its clients, despite the fact that the great and good would probably dismiss him as a mere minnow who knows nothing.

When John reads the vast quantities of literature produced by the movers and shakers of the education world discussing how they can ‘make education better’, how the whole thing can be effectively managed as some kind of behavioural monolith, and how they can specify the behaviours that teachers should adopt in order to ‘deliver better outcomes’, he smiles inwardly at the chaos his own experience would cause in their perfect worlds.

He also wonders whether they would choose option A, B or C above – and whether that really matters so long as he – and those around him – are content.

Parallel universe

A factoid that has cropped up several times in recent weeks is that teachers apparently make almost no progress in developing their professional technique after their first three years. This is the source that John Tomsett cited for that information in his recent blog post.

I must admit that a full read of that document is still on my ‘to-do’ list, so I will have to take Tomsett at face value for the moment. No matter what, I have also seen and heard that same point mentioned twice more ‘live’ and several times online in the days since the original post. Such is the power of the internet.

I’m aware that I’ve done a good bit of extended ranting in recent posts, and was planning on easing off for a while – after all, I have no wish to be destructive for the sake of it, but I find myself unwillingly faced once again with a huge divergence between what some ‘authority’ is claiming and my own experience.  The problem is, just what am I supposed to make of such claims, especially when it seems well on its way to becoming an urban – well a management – myth? I know that in my case at least, this is simply not so. Of course, I’m only one individual, but I don’t think my experience or behaviour is so very different from other teachers I know and meet.

The truth is, I feel as though all of my best teaching has been done in the last ten years. After three years, I had hardly begun learning what it is to be a teacher. I choose my words carefully – to be a teacher, not simply to teach. I can perhaps concede that I may previously have been technically more energetic than I am now – a combination of minor personal health circumstances, gradual ageing and less than optimal curriculum circumstances are factors over which I don’t have complete control, but which still have an effect.

But in that last ten years, the teacher in me – the whole person who is responsible for educating and nurturing the next generation – has finally come of age. In front of the class now stands a moderately-aging individual, who pupils know has taught some of their own parents; he has a degree of insight, resilience and world-weary humour that simply wasn’t there when he was younger. Even a degree of patience for the little dears’ many shortcomings – perspective has taught him that such things are simply rites of passage best handled with mock-resigned humour.

So I’m left to conclude that yet again those who seek to judge and control us aren’t even in the same ball park when it comes to being a teacher. They are still trying to count beans, and it may be true that these days I don’t pile them up quite as tidily as they would like. But the more I hear and read about the worlds of educational management and research, the more I conclude that it exists in a parallel universe from that of the classroom teacher. In fact, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that they are not finding what they want not because it’s not there, but because they simply aren’t looking in the right universe. In simple terms, they need to give up on the pseudo-science and try looking for a debate about education in the realms of philosophy and creativity instead.

And if that’s too novel an idea, let’s return to that basic claim; let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. Just why might it be that teachers don’t develop further? Is it that the people who do this job week in and week out are really a bunch of idle losers – or could it be (in the week when a report highlights the enormous hours being worked by teachers), that after three years they are simply too busy just trying to survive? That’s what bean-counters don’t see.

There’s more coming on this in following posts, but I think that’s enough resignation for one evening.

Blame it on Adam Smith

I recently read Edward Skidelsky’s Guardian review (also viewable here) of Philip Roscoe’s new book I Spend therefore I am: The True Cost of Economics (which sounds like required reading in its own right). I was struck by a reference he made to the writings of Aristotle, which further investigation suggests went along the lines of:

It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Nicomachean Ethics Book I, (c. 325 BC)

This strikes me as eminently relevant to the current predicament of British education. Since entering the world of edu-blogging, I have been exposed to countless thousands of words directed at dissecting the process of education. Much of it is interesting and some challenging; some of it I readily agree with (Confirmation Bias at work again?) and some of it I don’t. That is probably healthy for the blogosphere itself. But I am always left wondering how much of the deeply technical discussion is in fact in vain. Are we still looking too hard for precise meaning in what is basically a simple and largely speculative activity?

Reading through (some of) the reams dedicated to classroom practice, the deployment of this or that procedure or technique, my general reaction is that this has nothing to do with what I do in the classroom. Maybe I’ve just advertised myself as a very poor teacher – but most of what I do is purely the instinctive reaction to the people around me and the task I have set us all to do.

On the other hand, one might hope that with something around 25,000 hours of active teaching under my belt, the activity would be instinctive. If not, there probably is something wrong.  I do deploy techniques and activities that are specific to the classroom, things that I have learned and evolved over the years, things that I have borrowed, and things that generally make sense in terms of understanding my specific academic discipline and its modus operandi. It’s also true that some of these things were consciously learned over those years of developing my craft. What I don’t now do is make conscious techno-decisions at either the planning stage or the delivery stage.

Is this a definition of mastery? And if so, then why do so many experienced practitioners who must be doing pretty much the same things, seemingly not recognise it as such? Where is the real benefit in pulling wings off flies over this?

The three pictures below could all be said to represent paradigms for teaching:

(All sourced from Creative Commons – see bottom)

The armies of wing-pullers seem to prefer picture 1 – appearing to see education as a scientific process whereby precise interventions have known and predictable outcomes, and the role of teacher is similar to that of scientist, adding just the right chemicals at just the right moment in order to precipitate the desired reaction.

This is what generates those reams of worthy discussion – which chemicals to use at which moment – and teachers these days have every bit as much interest as scientists in reaching predictable outcomes. If you are attracted to this world-view, I wish you luck. The harder we look, the less we find – yet again we are in a phase when the orthodoxies of recent years are being turned upside down.

Those 25 000 hours of teaching seem to me to constitute a reasonable sample size over an extended period of time that would suggest it doesn’t work. Well, for me at least – though that wouldn’t be such a problem if the ‘scientists’ weren’t insisting that everyone adopt their approach. For an excellent exposition on why this is flawed, read Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, which neatly dismantles the false assumptions and methodologies behind much of this thinking. (It is interesting that Bennett himself, a clearly-erudite individual who entered teaching via the fast-track programme, within ten years concluded that much of what he had been taught was pseudo-scientific balderdash).

The supposedly-scientific with its promise of guaranteed results, is easily misappropriated. The key ingredient for doing this is Management, from government down. There is of course, an absolute need for some form of co-ordination in organisations that involve many hundreds of people – but with his Division of Labour, Adam Smith has got a lot to answer for. As soon as you impose on the science-based production line a body whose sole purpose is to direct others what/when/how to do things, you create a whole set of secondary agendas and divided loyalties perfectly positioned to exploit the supposed predictability of the situation. The division of labour worked admirably when the output of the factory was pins, though even there, when looking at images like picture 2 and the one below, I’m always left doubting how great the experience was for those actually doing the (very repetitive) work. Those who became rich from the process were not those doing the making.

See bottom for attribution

Smith’s model has, of course brought great material advances to society – but when you make the mistake of applying the theory of the production line to an activity whose process involves cognitive rather than mechanical activity, whose raw materials and products are human beings, not identical inanimate objects, you cannot expect the same outcomes.

Picture three at the top shows what is for me a more appropriate model – that of the craftsman. Prior to industrial processing, each worker relied largely on their own resources to produce what was needed. While this was not time or cost-efficient, it did allow that individual not only much more autonomy in their work, but also the scope to develop and deploy a wider range of skills. The intervention is largely inductive and anticipatory, not deductive and corrective; it also creates the possibility whereby unique, non-standardised raw materials are not seen as rejects in the way that machinery requires – but potential for creative adaptation. Over time, the mastery developed by the craftsman does indeed become intuitive – and probably also unique to each; likewise, the product is often a finely-crafted individual item, distinctive to the maker, yet no two ever being precisely alike. And what’s more, the job satisfaction also tends to be higher.

For me, this is by far the best template upon which to build a mastery of teaching. There is certainly a need for the learning of the basic skills and tools of the trade, but real heights are only achieved when such technical constraints are escaped and the creativity of the individual is given its head. Both of my parents were teachers – my father trained as a furniture-maker before teaching woodwork and latterly Design & Technology; my mother was an English specialist who delighted in teaching the works of Spenser and Milton in the days when such things still widely happened. I have seen my father craft fine furniture and violins from raw wood – and the more I think about it, both of them crafted people in a similar way through their teaching. I know – I was one of them.

Skilled crafts-people require few managers to tell them what to do – their motivation and judgement comes from within. They are capable of examining each unique raw piece and knowing just how to work it to bring out its inherent qualities, yet also to bring it to the required form. This judgement is acquired over many years of personal experimentation – there is only limited use in their being directed to do what others do. They rarely do exactly the same thing twice in any case, yet they are capable of repeatedly forming items of beauty from crude materials.

Pretty much what teachers do.

Crafting is in some ways a mysterious, inexplicable process, as dependent on intuition as specific formal training; as Aristotle suggested, it sometimes pays not to examine such things too closely. There’s no need for all the techno-speak; production-line teaching only produces cloned results – the appliance of science is all about the predictable – and all the more so when the craftsmen are de-skilled to become mere operatives by a management class with ulterior motives. People are not standardised components to be put through a machine – they are individual ‘pieces’ with their own qualities and flaws, each of which accordingly needs individual shaping and finishing to bring out their latent qualities, be they teacher or taught. And the former needs to be given the latitude accorded to master-craftsmen in order to accomplish this transformation.

In the machine age, a huge premium if often attached to the unique, hand-crafted product. This is not an outdated methodology from the past – it is the only way to deal with human, as any other sort of diversity. The machine-approach to teaching is broken. Let’s leave it that way and learn to craft again.

The well of learning (can) run deep.

One of the individuals in the picture below is me in the sixth form, circa 1982. Thanks to the perspicacity of our music teacher, who had decided a year or two previously that he was going to include us in a school concert, the group of teenage musicians shown was building for itself quite a decent local reputation that lasted until we went to university. Indeed, 2014 may mark the year when we reconvene in recognition of our collective fiftieth birthdays…


The nerve-jangling experience of that first performance in 1980 was near the start of a curious journey that for me has so far has lasted over 35 years. I have not a drop of Irish or Scottish blood in me, but the progressive discovery of the deep well of beauty that is those countries’ traditional music has been a profoundly enriching experience.

After a hectic and not uneventful week with our Swiss school-guests, my wife and I forced ourselves up to Islington last evening to see The Gloaming at the Union Chapel. During some of their extended sets, I found myself reflecting on the path that had led me to deep appreciation of such an obscure type of music. This is not the stereotyped folk music of The Pogues or The Dubliners, but a rich and complex seam of culture that requires considerable effort to understand and play at all well.  The Gloaming mix Irish traditions with elements of classical music, jazz and the avant-guard; almost unknown outside their genre, these highly-gifted musicians still filled the thousand-seater venue to a standing ovation.

This short feature may give an insight for the curious (it too, requires a little patience):

Forgive my digression; what has this to do with education?

In some deep-seated ways, I feel my discovery of this music has to be linked with my own educational experiences. Not only was it the direct recognition of one teacher that sparked my enjoyment of performing it, but the more subtle mind-training of the education years paved the way for the sometimes-difficult journey into a new culture. Somewhere along the way, a combination of my innate tastes, coupled with the formalised training in thought, knowledge-acquisition and understanding, a fostering of my curiosity, and the mental tenacity required to stick with challenging material must have been instrumental in bringing me to my current level of appreciation.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that everyone should get into traditional music. But I think that one of the most valuable legacies of the education process can be the creation of possibilities for everyone to tap their own deep well of life-passions, no matter obscure they turn out to be. It certainly seems that many highly-educated people do take their own particular interests to great lengths, and I suggest that this can do at least as much (I would say far more) to create a ‘life well lived’ as any increase in earning power.

I’m not being at all new-age about this: I’m certain the forming of those aptitudes was in part the by-product of formal academic training – but the outcomes were largely unknowable to those who delivered that training in the first place. When I see the narrowed, prescriptive process that modern education has become, I fear for the Death of Passion. In my own subject, Geography, we even have a lesson tick-box for ‘Awe and Wonder’. Yes – even the majesty of the natural world has been reduced to an administrative tick-box, without many colleagues apparently sensing of the irony of it.

I see far too many examples of students’ UCAS and other personal statements that are merely clones of the many almost-identical ‘good practice’ templates they are provided with. That to me is a contradiction in terms; the worst are those that say “My school work takes up all my free time”.  I’m not arguing for less academic rigour (and by definition it’s only in later in life that this perspective has become clearer to me) – but this strikes me as self-defeating. At 18, I didn’t see the bigger picture either, but I can say with certainty that those journeys such as my musical one which have done most to enrich my life, were already well underway in a way that our texting-obsessed, shopaholic pupils mostly don’t seem to be emulating.

This is not only an educational problem: it is a technological, economic and societal one, but there are still a few who buck the trend: a few years ago, I asked a tutee of mine on her last day in school how she would be spending her post-‘A’ Level summer. She replied that she would be touring the folk festivals with her melodeon: she had taken up the instrument after seeing a band that I had booked as part of a sixth-form Arts day. Until then I had had no inkling.

But for the most part, modern education seems to be limiting  the possibilities for young people to take their interests where they will – or at least reinforcing their predisposition not to bother. As I said, this is not a plea for less formal education – that is where some of the inner perseverance was fostered. But in general, by reducing everything to bureaucratic certainties, by cutting the demand for tenacity in response to supposedly-shortened attention-spans – and by ignoring the little bit of Miss Jean Brodie in the role we have to play, we risk also reducing the chances for children to discover their own latent passions.

In my view, we are losing something precious.