Train Hard Fight Easy or how to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine Part 2

This is the second part of guest-blogger Adam Bantick’s post on the impact of stress on educational performance. He would be delighted to hear others’ thoughts on this, and can be reached via the comments page of this post.

In Part 1 we looked at how stress affects us both in general and with exams, and now we deal with what to do about it.

According to Crum/ Akinola/ Martin and Fath (2017), how we perceive the stress threat is important in dealing with it, calling it the Stress Mindset. When encountering a new stressful situation, we do the following things. We have a Primary Appraisal, where we work out whether we can deal with it. Then a Secondary Appraisal, thinking what resources we have to deal with it. If we fear our resources cannot deal with it, we see it as a Serious Threat. Thus, if we can use our resources to deal with it, it is a Challenge ‘The mountain is big, but I have climbed mountains before, so I can climb this one’. If we cannot deal with it with our resources, it is a Threat ‘The mountain is big, and I have never climbed a mountain before, so I will fall off it and die’. Thus, we need stress to live.

With the meta-cognitive Stress Mindset, if we can think about stress the right way, we can turn a disadvantage into an advantage. A Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset is constructive, because it gives us a push to do something; a Stress-Is-Debilitating mindset is destructive, because if we think we will fail, we will not do something. We use a Stress Mindset every day, although we may not realise it. When we cross a busy road, our brains perceive the traffic as a threat (we could get hit by a car), and produce stress hormones to keep us alert. As we have crossed busy roads many times before, however, we know that we can cross this one. Using our resources to deal with the threat (judging traffic), we can cross the road – we use a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset to get us across. We get the usual stress hormones in our brains, but as we see crossing the road as only a challenge, we can do it.

Our Stress Mindset for exams is ‘Exams are stressful, but by adopting a Stress-Is-Enhancing way of thinking, the exam is a challenge, and can be overcome’. The Stress Mindset is a long-term thought process, because it governs how we see ALL exams, not just the paper in front of us. It is also essential, because the other ways of dealing with exam stresses are merely avoidance strategies, e.g. small rooms, extra time, coursework – the exam will not go away. Thus, we must change the way we think about exams if we are to overcome them.

Now, we return to the stress-confronting professionals who deal with danger every day. Every soldier, fire-fighter etc has been trained to do their job, and the longer, more realistic their training is, the more they will be able to do their job no matter what the difficulty. The Armed Forces, in particular, maintain a ‘Can-Do’ attitude, which means that whatever the obstacle, it can be overcome through training and practice; in other words, the Stress Mindset. They do not simply expose their personnel to repeated stresses, however, since that will only magnify the stress, but train them how to cope with it through Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). Firefighter trainer David Werner (‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ 4.8.13.), uses examples from the US Marine Corps (‘Warfighting: the US Marine Corps Book of Strategy’ 1989) in identifying and overcoming real-world stressors for his fire service. Here is Werner’s list of problems with my exam example: ‘Friction’ -things that if they can go wrong, will go wrong e.g. arriving late to the exam; ‘Uncertainty’ -not knowing what to expect e.g. the topic that you *knew* was not going to come up; ‘Fluidity’ -having to think on your feet e.g. the poorly-worded, random question; ‘Disorder’ -where our plans have been thwarted, and we must ‘re-order’ what we do e.g. supposedly memorising an answer that we cannot remember; the ‘Human dimension’ -our mental and physical state at the time e.g. having a bad cold in the exam; and finally, ‘Moral Forces’ -our mental preparedness for a hard task e.g. being confident of success due to proper preparation.

SIT was developed to condition personnel for these problems, and for the US Navy Seals, these are: Goal-setting and segmenting (working out what you intend to do, then break that goal into smaller/ more manageable tasks); Tactical Visualisation, (mentally rehearse what to do in any situation); Arousal Control, (controlling the physical effects of stress with deep-breathing etc); Self-Talk (talk yourself through how you feel and what to do); Focus Training (tuning out distractions and focusing on essentials); and Compartmentalisation (breaking thoughts into sections in order to deal with them).

A final observation from Murray is about ‘Weapon Push’. This is where soldiers believe that their weapon is better than their enemy’s (it doesn’t matter if it is), and so this confidence in their resources gives them an edge. In exam terms, our Weapon Push is the excellent subject knowledge and exam skills we have that enables us to take on the challenge of the exam; effectively our ‘secret weapon’.

Finally, to Marshal Zhukov (Soviet commander in World War II) and ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’. He realised that new recruits were being slaughtered on the battlefield because their training was inadequate. He popularised the dictum of ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ by making training as realistic as possible (train hard), so that when soldiers got into battle it was just like training, and they could cope (fight easy). Thus, all training must reflect the real problem to be encountered, and must be so effective that training routines become second nature.

We have looked at the nature of the exam stress problem, and how important realistic training is to overcome Stress Threats. Now we need to see what to do to become an Exam Machine:

1 – Understand how our bodies perceive and react to stress. We have neurological, emotional and physiological reactions, which can inhibit our performance.

2– Acknowledge exams are Stress Creators. Exams create stress because they are tests with value-outcomes, such as grades. Our body’s reactions to stress can inhibit our performance in exams, so we must acknowledge exams are stressful.

3 – Adopt the Stress Mindset. Stress can be a destructive or a constructive thing – pre-exam nerves are essential to keep us alert. Stresses are challenges to overcome, not threats to kill us; exams are only a measure of our knowledge and understanding, not a judgement upon us personally. Do not catastrophise; even if we do fail, it will not ultimately make a huge difference in our lives. We are motivated to do well, because we could get high grades in the exam. Therefore, exams are a challenge, high grades are possible, we will use our body’s reactions to stress e.g. adrenaline, to work to our advantage and keep us focused.

4 – Train for the exam. We know the subject knowledge and exam skills inside out, which is our Weapon Push/ ‘secret weapon’. We will feel confident going into the exam, as no matter what the exam throws at us, we have prepared for it.
We have done our own Stress Inoculation Training through past-papers, revision sessions, mark-schemes etc. We have:
-Goal-setting and Segmenting- worked out what we intend to do in the exam, breaking the goal up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
-Tactical visualisation- mentally rehearsed what we intend to do in a given situation in the exam.
-Arousal control- controlling the physical effects of stress e.g. deep-breathing, drinking water etc.
-Self-talk -talked ourselves through why we feel the way we do and what we will do about it.
-Focus training -tune out distractions to focus on essentials in the exam.
-Compartmentalisation -break our thoughts into sections to deal with things when they go wrong. We are prepared for these problems:
-Friction – our physical preparations are good e.g. know our exam timetable, transport route, brought the right equipment
-Uncertainty – we prepared for all questions, revised properly
-Fluidity – we looked at all past papers, thought how our teacher would answer that question, and can plan it
-Disorder – we don’t rely on pre-prepared answers, don’t assume certain questions will/ will not come up
-Human Dimension -we sleep well, eat well etc
-Moral Forces – we have prepared as best we can, but keep a sense of perspective
Our brains use Cold Cognition in the exam, the Hypothalamus produces hormone to keep us alert and focused, but the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Hippocampus operate as normal. We feel confident because we have trained for the exam.

5 – Train Hard, Fight Easy. We have trained for a long time, and not just crammed for a while. We have done so many past papers that we can eat exams for breakfast.
Our exam training has been in proper exam conditions (timed, in an exam room, marked to exam standards). This exam will be just like a ‘normal day at the office’. We will show what we can do, but don’t worry much about the result. If there is a question we have not seen before, we think our way around it, using our secret weapon of knowledge and skills. We have been trained like this from the beginning of our course and everything is second nature. It will run like clockwork. We are Exam Machines. Our training will kick in.

And now for the teacher…
You probably prepare your classes using many of these ideas or methods already, but training for exams clearly takes a long time. Some students will have been preparing for exams from SATs onwards, but many children do not think about exams the right way. If we can equip our students with the right frame of mind and the right tools for the job, they should be better prepared for exams than ever before. How you do that bit is up to you. As any fire-fighter will tell you, heroes are not born, but trained.

Adam Bantick teaches History at The Sixth Form College, Colchester.

Bibliography
‘Brains and Bullets’ Leo Murray 2013 Biteback publishers
‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ David Werner 4.8.2013
‘Mind Blanks in Exams’ Jared Cooney Horvath and Jason M Lodge Straits Times 31.10.2016
‘Exam Stress and Psychology’ Dave Putwain The Psychologist Journal December 2008
‘The role of Stress Mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and psychological responses to challenging and threatening stress’ Alia J Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin, Sean Fath Anxiety, Stress Coping 2017

Of tragedy, irony and other epic failures of a classical nature…

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Reading Fintan O’Toole’s recent book Heroic Failure – Brexit and the Politics of Pain, it is easy to see that Csikszentmihalyi is onto something. People who are not equipped with the ability rationally to understand and contextualise their own situations are all too vulnerable to the deceit of others. And it is this, perpetrated over many decades, that ultimately brought us Brexit.

This post is not (really) about Brexit – though in my mind, it is almost impossible to separate that tortured issue from the matter of education in its widest sense. Had more of the British population been properly equipped with the thinking skills that effective education can provide, there might have been greater scrutiny of the misinformation that was propagated during that campaign – and, dare I say, a wider perspective on where the nation’s interests really lay. Being Irish gives O’Toole useful leverage in terms of detachment – though not necessarily impartiality – about such matters. He is, though, widely recognised as one of the most astute commentators of our time, and his book does attempt to overcome his own remain tendencies and approach objectivity.

His account chimes with my own lived experience of this country over the 56 years of my life – and the gradual dawning on me, by exposure to life elsewhere (that educational process again), that what was presented to the young me as Eldorado, was perhaps tainted by an inability to see what was happening elsewhere, and a vested interest in believing the UK was the best of all possible worlds, even at the time when it was in fact faltering. It is such exposure to the unfamiliar that is at the real core of effective education – yet it is also something that education in Britain has increasingly retreated from, in favour of safe, predictable mass-produced work-prep. (Keep your head down, obey the boss, and don’t ask difficult questions….)

Michael Gove, another character who is virtually inextricable from the debate about both recent British education and Brexit, reputedly so prized his own classical education that he believed it was a model for all. Yet an epic, tragic consequence of his legacy as Secretary of State for Education was the loss of ‘A’ Level Critical Thinking, going the same way as European Studies some years earlier. It fell foul of Gove’s new benchmarks for QCA validation, and hence was lost to students. Gone is the opportunity that Gove will no doubt have had, for young people to learn to think with the objectivity that has come down to us from the classical philosophers.

Since January I have been teaching part-time at the Sixth Form College that gave me a way back into the profession last autumn. I was also allowed to provide for volunteer students a short course in Critical Thinking just before half term. There is only so much one can cover in four hours – and yet the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. So much for its being a minority subject; the verdict of the punters suggests that we need this subject back on the curriculum as soon as possible, as elements of it remain in most other European countries:

“I wish I had been made aware of this at the start of my A Levels”
“Very helpful on learning how to analyse information. I really enjoyed the sessions”
“Learning how to break down and question arguments was really helpful”
“I found the sessions very helpful in finding a new way to think”.

A theme of O’Toole’s book is the way in which British (really English) self-perceptions have been manipulated over a period of decades by those with vested interests in perpetuating or promoting a certain socio-economic model, one that involved keeping the country antagonistic to further acquaintance with its EU partners, let alone finding new ways to think.

These are the kinds of skills that Critical Thinking develops – and throughout the public debate of the past four years, I couldn’t help but reflect on the widespread inability in this country to engage in any kind of remotely rational thought. I was involved with this at a very immediate level while campaigning for remain. My overwhelming impression was that people were simply ill-equipped to engage in any kind of objective thought, such as CT provides – and that went for both sides of the divide.

That isn’t only the fault of the education system, of course – but I can’t help but feel that a different approach in recent decades might have helped address the deficient critical faculties of a large part of our population.

The ultimate tragedy is that people in this country now face an uncertain future, where they are going to need all the inventiveness and creativity that they can muster. Those who criticise this nation’s people for their fecklessness may have a point – but they confuse the cause and the expression of a serious problem – which is actually the failure to equip a significant portion of the people with even rudimentary rational-cognitive skills, preferring instead to feed them a diet of mechanistic, low-grade “employability skills” and hubristic, patriotic pap, because they supposedly can’t cope with anything more.

In that, the education system has been largely complicit, preferring to make itself ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’, ‘compliant’ – and ‘closed’ rather than the intellectually-challenging tackling of imponderables and Big Questions that it needs at least in part to be. On that at least, Gove and I can probably agree – though it is O’Toole who has the final word on the societal consequences of this failure – while Gove ironically became one of its chief architects.

Prior to reading O’Toole’s book, I was reading Seneca – a Stoic. I have a feeling we are going to need his sometimes-challenging teachings too, in the coming years.

Further details of my Critical Thinking course can be found at https://wordpress.com/view/thinkbetterthinkcritically.wordpress.com

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of it.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the shared subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

On educational totalitarianism – and teaching my first lesson for two years.

In the Beginning, when the world was young, people set up organisations because there was work that was better done collaboratively. The army, for instance, was established in order to defend the nation. The greatest soldier was hailed as he (and it normally was ‘he’) who most successfully defended that nation.

But in time, as armies grew, they developed their own internal structures. They needed their own provisions and evolved their own interests. They needed resources, and those who worked within them wanted to be rewarded as well as possible for their efforts. The best soldier became he who most successfully defended the interests of the army.

It is probably an inevitable side-effect of specialisation that this is so. But it hugely increases the risk that organisations will become diverted from their core purpose – and as those organisations have become more complex, and the competition for resources between them intensified, it has become commonplace that self-perpetuation possibly now even consumes more time and energy than do their original purposes.

I still follow the education world, but with increasing distance, it is ever clearer that it has become just the same as all those others in this respect– just another interest-group within wider society – albeit one that claims special importance (don’t they all?) – whose internal politics and policies may be of massive, overwhelming importance to those who have to deal with them daily, but whose significance withers when seen from a wider perspective. (How on earth did green pens ever assume such a huge significance in my life?)

This is not for one moment to suggest that education is not important. If anything it is more so than ever in a time when the quality of public debate about all sorts of issues seems to be plunging hell-ward through floor after floor that you thought really was the basement. In modern times, there has perhaps never been a greater need than now, for a widespread ability to think clearly and rationally about the big issues facing the world, and one’s own place within it. We are seeing without a shadow of doubt, that a little education is a very bad thing.

But thinking ability is not what the education sector is any longer providing, and nor has it for at least several decades when jumping accountability hoops has been more important. ‘A little’ education  seems for many to be the best it could do, and there were times when I suspected that that was indeed its only aspiration. There is a strange, unspoken counter culture within education that hints darkly that you should not expect too much from the ordinary punter…

While I accept that platforms such as social media have some very strange effects on the dynamics of discourse, turning normally sensible people into raging autocrats, experience of such interaction is leading me to conclude that the mean ability for rational, detached thought within the population is – well, almost non-existent. While the formal education sector cannot be the only culprit here, its success in equipping citizens at large with the ability to be considered, reasonable, responsible members of a developed society seems to have been slight. And while it is very easy to overdo the them-and-us comparison, my experience, as so often, suggests that this deficiency is not the same in every country. It is not inevitable – and hence not solely the product of media that are available everywhere.

It is very easy to conclude that education (at least in Britain) really does now put most of its collective efforts into self-perpetuation. I don’t mean the thousands of unseen hours of classroom teaching that happen every day (though even classroom teachers have been forced to think more carefully about self-preservation in recent times). It is precisely with that filter in place that the other impression comes to the fore.

Seen from the outside, those with audible voices in education really do seem to spend most of their time either pulling wings off intellectual flies, or devising ever more devious ways to command the internal politics of the sector. Not much there any more about the nuts-and-bolts purpose of successful teaching, except insofar as it is necessary to validate the efficacy of the establishments that deliver it. What has happened to the social-intellectual vocation of the profession?

I have been struck (again) by this in recent months in what appears to be the very muted response to the pronouncements of the new(ish) Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman. Were I still teaching, I would be very enthused by her comments about the need to deliver real education as opposed to the box-ticking of recent decades. Her views that breadth and subjective experience are more important than conformity or narrow-definition ‘results’ should be manna from heaven for all in the sector. The downgrading of exam results within inspections should be a blessed release. And yet, my perception is that there has been barely a murmur of approval.

Such is the grip of the edu-establishment over the sector that it is increasingly difficult for any dissenting voices to be heard. Anyone not toeing their desired line simply does not get heard – the blogosphere notwithstanding. And even that seems to have lost the dynamism that it had a few years ago. If even the chief inspector can be met with indifference when she says something out of line, what hope is there for anyone else?

Perhaps all the approval is happening in the privacy of front-line classrooms, but from those whose voices can be heard, very little. I suppose one should concede that this might be the behaviour of those who have seen too many false dawns before – or could it be that those who run the system these days are just too invested in it to want even benign change? Perhaps they actually secretly yearn for those harsh inspections? After all, many of them have done very nicely from it – dynamic careers and even more dynamic salaries for those who have risen to run sometimes multiple schools whose entire position is based on bean-counting, and a feudal approach to those who are more or less willing or able to deliver those beans when they are needed. In this climate, the real imperatives for education are so far removed from their daily preoccupations that they might just as well not really exist at all, any more. Educating children is just an incidental consequence of a system whose real purpose is now the career success of those who climb the ladder.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on them: they are only copying the nest-feathering that is apparent in ever-wider sectors of society. Stellar careers were the carrot offered by past governments to entice people into the profession. But one might have hoped for higher principles from one whose basis is in the altruistic doing of good for others, let alone the preservation and perpetuation of the nation’s higher cultural and societal capital. In that sense, it makes the situation all the more reprehensible.

In the meantime, tomorrow represents my first venture into teaching in over two years. No, I have not changed my mind and re-entered the school environment; I will be running my first adult education evening class in Critical Thinking, a commodity that seems to be in extremely short supply. Despite my initially-low expectations, I have a small group of adults locally who will be coming along over the next six months to learn more about the skill that really should be the fundamental basis of everything the education system says and does – and which school management does its best to suppress.

I have even been planning ‘lessons’ again. I’m looking forward to doing this. Hopefully I can in a small way deliver something of real educational value, free from the shackles of the formal system. But I will never again be submitting to the regimen of those who run the that sector – at least not until something very fundamental changes and there is a re-birth of its true raison d’etre.

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

Reinventing the wheel

On my first day as a trainee teacher in 1986, one of the senior staff at the worthily progressive School of Education at U.E.A. really did wheel out the old chestnut:

“If anyone asks you what you teach, the answer is Children.”

I think this derives from the long-standing progressive-left view of education as an instrument of social policy, in which academic disciplines (and pretty much everything else) were subordinated to the raw social objectives of something between an induction and indoctrination process for society’s young.

This was a fore-taste of the reservations I increasingly experienced about the whole way the educational establishment runs things: I unashamedly went into teaching in part from a desire to work with, and educate others in, my specific discipline. I was not best pleased to hear that such things were to be relegated to bit-parts in some grand scheme of social manipulation.

The surprising thing is that this agenda has lasted so long: the stimulus for this post was John Tomsett’s recent rumination on the nature of subject-specific pedagogy, which implied that the notion of subject disciplines having intrinsic importance for how people teach is still unfamiliar or even bizarre to many.

Geography suffers particularly in this respect: for decades it has been a Cinderella subject. The public still seems to think it consists of memorising lists of capital cities, while even its exponents often fail to see it as a repository of discrete expertise. I think this derives from the fact that to those concerned, it appears to study the blindingly obvious.

In recent months I have become involved with the production of the local Neighbourhood Plan – and the ensuing discussion with both those involved and the community at large has revealed this for the myth that it is. It has become clear that local developments and dynamics which were indeed blindingly obvious to me (and another local geographer) seemed largely invisible to many others, to the point that they required significant explanation. What geographers see and understand about the world is certainly not blindingly obvious to those not thus trained. But such training is extremely useful in ‘reading’ the world around us in a complex way – and for that reason, if no other, I would have thought that this subject-specific expertise is highly desirable. The fact is, geographers, like all other academics, live their subject to the point that they cease to notice – and this then saturates their teaching with not just specific content but an entire  mind-set that is unique to their, as every, discipline.

Many of those who were supposedly ‘leading teaching’ in my school were from the pure and applied sciences – including the usual share of overly-competitive ex-P.E. teachers. My experience suggested they never did understand (or perhaps care) why those of us who taught arts and humanities had such difficulties with the concept and application of linear, measurable progression that they were happily using. It was only when I first observed and then taught some basic maths that the utter foreignness of not only their techniques, but also their mindset became apparent. By then I was a highly-experienced humanities teacher – but I struggled greatly to do justice to even basic maths: the required approach was just too alien to my own.

It is tempting to regard this as a case of systemisers versus empathisers: those running the system largely came from technical subjects, whose approach (and perhaps general world-view) was compatible with a mechanistic, linear, quantitative approach; almost none of them had any grounding in the more interpretive, evaluative subjects of the arts or humanities. And being systemisers, they were quite happy insensitively imposing technical-fix approaches on their colleagues in blissful ignorance that it is simply not possible accurately to assess the skills of critical argument, let alone emotive creativity required in such subjects in such reductive, linear ways. It became clear that it was most certainly not a matter of it being ‘all just teaching’: those subject-specific skills were so deeply-imbued that their practitioners (including me) often failed to recognise them for what they were. And yet they (necessarily) coloured our entire view of what we were doing.

Csikszentmihalyi observed a similar divide between psychologists and surgeons: the latter loved ‘practical, mechanical medicine’ and despised the former as wishy-washy, while in their turn, the psychologists revelled in the subtleties of reading human behaviour and despised the surgeons as crude mechanics. And ne’er the twain shall meet. This is why it is essential that one group must not gain hegemony over the other.

To return to the notion of teaching being primarily a matter of social engineering, there is a deep irony here. My objection is certainly not in the desirability of improving people’s life-chances, but to the fact that due to the foibles of human nature (which systemisers often ignore), direct attempts at achieving it rarely work – and are highly vulnerable to political misappropriation. On the other hand, people who learn the basics of geography (and every other specific subject) actually end up equipped with very real life-applicable knowledge, taught by people for whom the appropriate mindset is second nature. Incidentally, we might also reflect here on the unseen consequences of the widespread use of non-specialist teachers.

With the greatest of respect to John Tomsett, to be mystified or bemused by this betrays the extent of the error perpetrated by those for whom education is only a form of direct social engineering. That even reflective individuals such as John are only just reconsidering this shows just how deeply the approach has penetrated the whole profession. I find it hard to believe that they (who must all have their own subject specialities, too) could have been quite so greatly taken in. Or at least I would if I hadn’t been too, for quite some time. (While I ‘felt’ there was something wrong, it took many years to pin-point it).

Those who, from classical times onward, formed the body of education around the study of discrete disciplines knew more about what they were doing than the modern outlook credits. Academic subjects are more than simply a vehicle for delivering education: they are education itself. It seems that many in educational circles who have believed otherwise, but who may now be thinking again, have spent the last forty years in effect reinventing yet another wheel.

The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

Putting the Soul back. Part II

Narrowing the remit of state education has proved counter-productive and divisive.

There are hidden implications of taking a work-related functionalist view of education that go beyond the simple difficulty of now knowing what will be appropriate preparation. In fact, I suggest that the supposed focus on workplace skills is precisely what is responsible for the never-ending complaints from employers that ‘young people’ lack the necessary initiative, motivation and more to be fully employable. I will come to this in a moment.

Furthermore, for those intent on the social equality agenda, narrowing educational purpose like this does more harm than good. Those exposed to supposedly ‘privileged’ educations (whether in selective schools or the private sector) are given a wider diet than this. That is not to say that such things are always specifically taught – but a large part of that educational experience might be deemed to be ‘cultural’ rather than economic – whether in the sense of access to high level arts opportunities, the personal development upon which independent schools place such emphasis, the rarefied intellectual climate that tends to be generated in places where intelligence is generally high, the received ‘standards’ that are set – or the social networking opportunities that such institutions tend to construct for later life.

While one might well object to the privilege thus bestowed, it is incorrect to suggest that these things do not amount to a store of cultural capital, whose effect is often to enhance the lives of those who have access to it. The important effect is not just the ability or inclination of the individual to avail themselves of the external opportunities, so much as what it does to the expectations of the individual, of what they might reasonably expect from life – and at least as importantly, of themself. I will talk more about expectations in the following post  – but for those who believe (as I do) in equality of opportunity, reducing the state educational offering to a simple matter of work-readiness is a mistaken way of tackling such inequalities, for all that it might appear to possess more ‘relevance’ than the broader, less focussed approach.

One can easily be a supporter of social egalitarianism without accepting that this means depriving those who already have good opportunities of them in the name of those who have fewer; the aim should be to deliver the best possible opportunity to everyone. There is no reason why state education should be a narrow, low-grade, solely functional experience. We can be pretty certain that those schools that do deliver the wider educations are not about to stop doing so any time soon – and by insisting on a narrower remit for the state sector, proponents of such may be unwittingly perpetuating the very divisions they so wish to remove. By failing to develop that wider breadth of perspective and focusing so strongly on economic attributes, schools may be closing doors on all sorts of dimensions of life that could otherwise enrich the later lives of their pupils.

Certainly, those claims from employers that so many young people lack the necessary ‘attitude’ seem less-often levelled at the independent sector. Since we cannot easily anticipate the specific skills that will be required in the workplace (let alone anywhere else), it would seem a better bet to spend our time developing fully-rounded individuals whose general approach to life is constructive enough that they will bring good attitudes, skills and determination to whatever they do – employment included. And equally important, expect the same considerate treatment in return.

The kids are alright

I had not planned to follow up my last post with another on the same theme – but a rather lump-in-throat inducing session in my on-going talking therapy got me thinking – and then Bottomsbray’s latest post tipped the balance…

https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/it-takes-one-to-know-one/

The story of ‘Andy’ appeared to resonate, showing as it did one case where the claim that children’s futures lie entirely in their teachers’ hands was busted for the damaging myth that it is. While there are of course vulnerable and deprived children for whom school may be a salvation, the numbers of critical cases are, I suggest, relatively small; small enough not to predicate the entire system on them.

In any case, during my years teaching, I knew barely a handful of teachers who did not do their utmost for the children in their charge – and yet for most of those years, we were subjected to an unending barrage from a school which self-identified as “bullish” – of how much ‘better’ we needed to be, how we should never be satisfied with ourselves (a mentality perpetuated by some of the biggest voices in education), how there was always so much more we could and should do – and above all, how targets were therefore inviolable. Most people responded, and the levels of stress in the school were, on occasions, horrific. Despite this, most children went out to successful futures – while the staff were horsewhipped ever harder by successive managements to push the headline figures up into the mid 80’s and the school to a multiple- ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted grade. And when the figures finally dipped, as they always eventually do, the only response they could come up with was more of the same.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas, my state of mind suddenly spiralled rapidly down into the pit again; we were out shopping, and bizarrely, by the time we got home, the various physical complaints that I had experienced for many years (but not for the last, medicated one) all suddenly re-appeared: muscle and joint aches – to the point I could hardly get out of the car, headache, extreme lethargy, digestive upheaval, to say nothing of the mental fog that closed off my ability to focus on anything. It got progressively worse for the rest of the day, until I turned in. By the following mid-day after a long sleep, I was virtually back to what currently constitutes normal. I was mystified – and went in search of information. I discovered that all those problems are known symptoms of depression. While I knew that physical pain could cause low mood, I had never before considered the opposite. Nor, apparently, do quite a few G.P.’s who, when presented with unexplained symptoms (just as I had done), tend to go in search of physical causes first. It seems that it is far from unusual for depressed people to experience physical symptoms even before any mental disturbance becomes evident.

This presented the possibility that the numerous ailments of just these sorts that I had been accumulating for perhaps ten years were in fact growing signs of a longer-rooted depression that had eventually got me. Hence the reason I am writing this: I wonder how many other teachers are out there are in a similar situation, not realising where they are heading. Not all may suffer the full consequences – but it is worth pondering.

And how many school cultures are causing it? I clearly remember the depressing effect – not just on me – of the constant message that we were never good enough, that we would damage children irrevocably if we did not do as we were instructed, the outright fear of being found wanting. The message was always that to be a teacher, you first need to be tough – and that meant taking, uncomplaining, whatever the school threw at you. The message was also that schools start from the assumption that their employees are lazy and feckless. But being tough is not, in my experience, the most important quality of a teacher: being sensitive to other people’s needs is. And being sensitive (and conscientious) makes you all the more likely to take seriously what your managers tell you they want.

If I made a mistake, it was precisely this: mortgaging my own sanity in order to do what they demanded. While I did express my doubts, I nonetheless worked unremittingly, under a constant cloud of worry about whether I was doing ‘enough’: that sounds very familiar in this profession. It was only recently, when the demands spiralled ever further up into the deep blue yonder of management fantasy, when they became clearly unworkable – and when they started denying that the school even had a stress problem –  that the whole thing really appeared as the sham that it is, and I eased up.

This is not about children’s welfare; it is about management hubris – or fear. The only rationale that can justify what is now being foisted upon teachers is the insatiable lust of some school managers for advancement for themselves, or (perhaps more likely?) the protection of their own positions. No rational understanding of child wellbeing or of furthering education is sufficient to justify the absurd amount of largely pointless work now (as E=mc²andallthat said the other day) being demanded of teachers, and which even Ofsted does not require. It is the regime of zealots and ideologues, who care nothing for the practical consequences of their own increasingly barmy mania.

https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/markopalypse-now/

I am left with the possible conclusion that my difficulties were a lot longer-standing than I had considered; hence perhaps, why recovery is also taking a long time. Most of it was nothing to do with teaching children, so much as the entirely avoidable demands of an out-of-control system – a system which in the end applied such intense pressure to precisely my weak spot (my professional conscience) that I crumbled. My mistake was to be conscientious enough to take them seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, plenty of kids like ‘Andy’ come out of the system none the worse for wear. Perhaps schools don’t always succeed (on their own terms) with them – but as ‘Andy’ shows, many are capable of making successes of themselves anyway, as they always have. He is not the only one I have encountered. In fact, the diet that schools force at such children is, in itself, perhaps counter-productive, even damaging: there was no way ‘Andy’ ever wanted – or was going – to be an academic. As a resolutely academic teacher, much of what I could offer was of little use to him; what I did provide – as he fondly remembered – was a patient, consistent, supportive adult. And even on that score, despite my suspicions that other role models may have been more appropriate, I think in a small way, I succeeded.

But school managements are not judged against people like him, or the kind of encounter that he and I had. And because of that, they apply pressure to people like me, who internalise it to their own cost, to do ever more work, the only Sisyphean rationale for which can be to cover management arses.

In a way, my experience is the price the education system now exacts from teachers for ‘Andy’s’ success. It is too big a price – made all the worse by the fact that it is largely needless. Based on the witness of those I know who are still teaching, I wrote something yesterday about the education system to a former colleague that I would never previously have contemplated:

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

Andy was O.K. anyway – and such is my enduring fragility that the realisation that much of that system-induced stress was actually for nothing, was indeed enough to induce a large lump in the throat.

Sense from Spielman

Some surprisingly enlightened words from Amanda Spielman, the new head of Ofsted in the last few days. She has observed that education is about more than passing exams, and that the qualitative cultural experiences of, for example hearing or performing classical music should not be foregone in a race for exam passes. But that is exactly what is happening.

She has said that Ofsted may need to start looking ‘under the bonnet’ of the headline figures a school provides, to see how they were arrived at. I am not confident she will like what she sees.

Spielman has also accepted that the current situation has been reached due to the pressures of numerical accountability on schools, noting that few people, given such targets will be prepared to risk a fall for the sake of principle. She is right – and likewise about the effect on children’s education, which has been to destroy the enlightening experience it should be and replace it with a conveyor belt.

The trouble is, the present system has too much invested in its current mechanisms; while it is true that managements have downward pressures on them, my experience suggests that some at least were all too assiduous in the way they embraced the exam-factory culture. The single biggest influence on educational culture is school-level management, and instead of standing up for educational principle, some at least sold their souls for the sake of institutional hubris. The alternative reading, that the system has actually valued intellectual philistinism so much as to allow it to come to rule the system, is worse. I don’t see these people about to execute a skidding U-turn in a way that would only undermine their own raison d’être.

From my position “beyond”, this is saddening. Spielman is voicing the very issues that I tried to stand up for in my teaching career. I never neglected the importance of qualifications for my older pupils, but ‘qualifications’ are subtly different from ‘results’. My refusal to game results or to be solely driven by the need to maximise them at the expense of children’s real education was one factor that put me where I am now.