Different worlds

The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that poor performers simply don’t realise just how deficient they are; in order to evaluate one’s own performance, one needs skills and insights that unskilled people by definition do not have.

Conversely, able people possess the insights that can cause them to identify their own limitations and perhaps be unduly self-critical. According to Bertrand Russell:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wise people so full of doubts.

Or as John Cleese says:



The sting in the tail, of course, is that no one is in a position to judge whether we are as truly clever as we might think we are…

Even though I did not take full advantage of it at the time, I feel that my own education has served me well. Perhaps that is a useful position for a teacher to be in, and I have tried to pass on the best of my experience, while avoiding the pitfalls. Messrs. Dunning and Kruger might reply that I am in no position to judge!

In my experience, educating people is fundamentally a humane process. Certainly, intellectual and personal rigour is required – that goes without saying. Society rightly expects people to emerge from education with formal qualifications by which to validate the process – but the ultimate goal is surely to develop people in the round. That requires wisdom, humour, curiosity and compassion to cultivate people’s more complex senses and perspectives, to take them to the higher levels of civilised human life – and as a result, to further human society and the individual experiences within it.

The more I taught, the more I realised that my prime asset was simply being a balanced human-being myself, able to respond to any situation in an appropriate, compassionate and hopefully wise way. Important though they may be, the hard specifics of subject disciplines are best delivered by way of the soft skills that simply come from being an authentic human being. The hard-headed striving will only ever be an imposition if not delivered with kindness and conviction. My experience says this works; The System fails to understand.

I remember a deputy head once telling me that I was being too idealistic. “There is no way most people will ever attain that,” he said. “The most we can expect is to turn them into useful workforce.” That from someone who subscribed to the cults of egalitarianism and meritocracy…

The system I have been trying to work within has become increasingly removed from my own values. Exam results have become the end in themselves – but more for the benefit of the schools than the children within them. Schools have become fixated with figures, and have lost sight of any meaning behind them. All the ‘research’ is driven by the same lust for results – without any apparent appreciation that real education does not have a singular ‘result’ as such.

Even Increasing Opportunity seems to be couched only in these terms; education is being used more and more as a form of social engineering, but there is little understanding of what that really means. Other than accessing the next level of education, nobody seems to know what the ultimate purpose is for the recipients. This is not surprising when the only real answer can be ‘to live a fulfilling life’. But it is far removed from merely having qualifications, let alone being a ‘good worker’. So the system has avoided the issue by increasingly looked inward to its own interests.

So I have found myself working in an environment where I was increasingly at odds with the organisation I was serving. It has a largely utilitarian view of teachers’ work – to maximise exam results no matter what the cost or the even moral implications of Just Deserts. It wants teachers to operate in an almost purely technical sense – the mechanics of children’s exam performance, ‘intervening’ as and where necessary based solely on numerical information, and with the sole, naïve intention of improving those numbers. Even the motivational talk is focussed on maximising grades; very little about the pleasure of learning or its wider rewards: the classic definition of an exam factory. The role-model is the similar factories of eastern Asia, rather than the liberal views of continental Europe.

No doubt schools would claim that personal benefit was implicit in this process, but I’m not so sure; over the years, wider personal development has been mentioned less and less, in line with the abandonment of many opportunities to deliver it. Any sense of moral compass, except in the widest, most nebulous sense has been sacrificed to a bums-on-seats technocracy.

I should emphasise that I am not making school-specific criticisms; mine has only done what its masters bade or permitted. It has been very successful, too, in those terms. But in my opinion, like many it has lost its soul in the process. School life is now more pressurised, depersonalised, manipulated, mercenary and humourless than ever before – the antithesis of the warm, considered, tolerant, diverse, compassionate place I wanted to work for. Good education it is not; good training, maybe – but that’s not what I do…

My understanding of education, and what The System now says it wants have moved so far apart that I no longer feel prepared to work within it. The quality and breadth of what I am allowed to offer has withered – and the quantity of mindless, time-pressured compliance ballooned. What it permits me to do as an individual, intelligent professional, and what it expects me to deliver are so at odds with my expectations, let alone what is realistically possible – that I am leaving.

I have had enough feedback over the years to know that pupils did identify and appreciate my qualities as a teacher, even if it sometimes took them a while to do so; that was part of the plan. I was told the other day that my ‘problem’ is that I have developed too complex a view of education for an increasingly crude system to value. Be that as it may, those who wish to run education on production-line principles simply do not see what they are missing – and they have never given the likes of me a chance to argue. Such closed-mindedness is not the mark of educational success.

On my own terms, I succeeded as a teacher over a period of thirty years. After a hesitant start, I developed my skills and understanding to become the unique teacher that each individual can only be; not something valued in a corporate age. The System has judged me less favourably because I was not able or willing to confine myself to blinkered and often self-serving agendas.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes it impossible to know who is ‘right’. But the manifest contradictions in much of what the present system claims to be trying to achieve – that many people seem simply to ignore – speak to me of something much less considered or coherent than it claims.

So let’s just say that there exist two educational worlds, one like mine – and The System, which increasingly do not mix. I think mine works and can be intellectually supported – but if it’s not what this utilitarian, materialistic, increasingly harsh – and uneducated – country wants, then who am I to argue?


Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.


More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.

“Grammar Schools for All!”

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

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

Quality will out – part 1


In a rather unfortunate coincidence, our kettle and our fridge both expired recently. We have had the fridge for fifteen years – and the same kettle for nearly twenty. This is far longer than the average for such goods – but then we spent what seemed like crazy amounts on them at the time. In the mid-Nineties, £100 seemed an inordinate price for the simple ability to boil water. But both items proved to have been sound investments: the premium paid for ‘quality’ is not all hype, and in this little kitchen-sink drama, hindsight has justified the apparently counter-intuitive, even reckless behaviour at the time.

Not only have these goods lasted far longer than cheaper alternatives, but we have enjoyed the superior build, functionality and appearance that they afforded. The best choice is not always the most obvious, and certainly not the cheapest.

I am lastingly intrigued by what it is that constitutes ‘quality’; one might almost consider it a nature versus nurture question. ‘Best’ is of course subjective: it depends on what your criteria were in the first place – but to be too precious about that is to deny the fact that in these things, there seems to exist a hierarchy, albeit an elusive one, of something rather more objective. It is fairly clear that some materials are inherently more robust than others – but the qualities added by careful manufacture, not to mention ergonomics and aesthetics are less so.

I think it is important to accept that high quality is not an overriding concern for many people, and that is not necessarily wrong. It is quite possible knowingly to opt for less for entirely sensible reasons – but just because one might choose to do so is not in itself to deny the issue either. Neither is this a comment on personal taste: you can still respect the quality, even if you don’t like the style. Yet quality, it seems, will out – and certain people are prepared to pay handsomely for it, whether it concerns kettles – or education.

More controversially, I think that we use a similar judgement when it comes to people and places: I suspect that many would understand my impression that in the round, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark exemplify good quality, but Italy (for all that I love it) exasperatingly less so. I suspect many Italians might agree. Personal experience suggests that we instinctively judge people in a somewhat similar way, and this is not as insidious as might be thought. It is a natural human instinct to attempt to identify ‘them’ and ‘us’ or at least ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we can be discerning without necessarily being condemnatory. In such matters, quality (or the lack of it) may not be entirely intentional, therefore we may refrain from judging, for all that we exercise choice.

One can speculate on what high quality means in education. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am unconvinced that it means what much of the educational establishment, or its political masters think. Quality as an aggregate concept may differ from that of the individual experience, but in educational matters, the only one that really matters is the latter, and I’m not certain that the one inevitably begets the other. It is possible to go to a good school and still have a lousy experience.

So, in my attempt to broaden the debate on selection, I am going to be shamelessly partisan for a moment. Naturally, I would want my child(ren) to have a high-quality education, and here is what that would mean to me in terms of choice of school:

A school:

  • That does not endorse the world of popular celebrity/pop/sports culture and use it as their default role model, as many seem to do.
  • That does not avoid high culture and thought on the grounds that it is difficult and inaccessible.
  • Whose dramatic productions are not an endless diet of musicals because that is all that will engage the pupils and maximise participation.
  • That has a library that isn’t called a ‘Learning Resource Centre’ or something such, while still containing a woefully small number of books.
  • That gives priority to learning over ‘engagement’, to wisdom over ‘winning’.
  • That has a serious, high-minded ethos, atmosphere and staff that pupils feel slightly in awe of.
  • Where teachers consider themselves to be vaguely academic, rather than ‘life coaches’ or youth workers.
  • That retains a sense of community in its annual rituals and extra-curricular activities.
  • That does not subordinate the greater liberal aims of education to maximising its place in the league tables.
  • That secures good exam results but understands that they are not the purpose of education.

Some will no doubt throw up their hands at this list – but I am not attempting to be consensual! The point is, this could explain why someone like me might just decide to send their child to a grammar school – or to choose to work in one. For all that others might have different values, there is little in my list that can be objected to on ethical or equality grounds. Neither is there anything in it about wishing to deny the same to others. And the order of priorities is not accidental.

I entirely respect the fact that a school’s job is not just to deliver what parents (think they) want. It has an important role as an intermediary between a developing person’s home life and the wider world. It is important that children are exposed to challenging ideas and different models. But the best way to do this is high-mindedly – hence the value I place on formal study rather than the touchy-feely kind. That is also why I have an aversion to schools appropriating popular culture, quite apart from the fact that it does not make them look cool.

It is the job of a school to be solemnly non-partisan. This is not at all the same as having no standards, which can be established through the wider ethos – but teachers should understand that their role is not to be surrogate parents, social workers, policemen, commercial agents or anything else. Teachers should present children with the wonders of the world for them to contemplate – but they should leave it up to them to work out, in due course, what to do with that inheritance. This is the only way to respect the sovereignty of even an immature individual and avoid accusations of indoctrination. In turn, the only way to help children understand how to do this is by teaching them the benefits and skills of higher level, impartial thought.

My list of preferences may seem unduly prejudiced against popular culture, and indeed it took me some time to work out why. Personally, I feel very uneasy when it comes to employing pop music, celebrities and other popular culture in the classroom. Part of this is because I regard most of such material as meretricious, talent-free junk and incompatible with my own ideals. But more importantly, this is stuff that children are all too widely exposed to elsewhere, often for utterly partisan reasons. I would not want my child to be exposed to this in the one institution that ought to rise above such endorsement. The whole point of a school is to expose children to things they would not otherwise encounter, not to reinforce the low-brow, self-promoting rubbish they get everywhere else. And in any case, I suspect that children generally want to keep such things as their own space without adults invading.

I accept again that this all is entirely partisan; not all popular culture is rubbish. As part of the world it deserves some impartial consideration – but not implicit or explicit endorsement. There is also the small matter than most of the ‘difficult stuff’ arguably just happens to constitute the peak achievements of human culture, knowledge and endeavour – and for teachers to fail to expose children to it on grounds of low popularity is, in my view a betrayal of what our profession is supposed to be about.

I know too many people of my generation who owe their appreciation of the higher aspects of life to various teachers, ever to approve of the descent into populism that much of the education sector has since pursued. I should add that I am not only considering academic matters either: people from my own school ended up as senior engineers, respected musical instrument-makers and more so it’s not just narrowly academic. The point is, low-brow education simply does not expose people to the levels of excellence that might inspire them to follow suit. Neither is this just a matter of culture: it has been commented on several times recently that the U.K. is a nation of excellent consumers – but it has lost the ability to be an excellent producer of very much at all.

Part two (tomorrow) will consider the implications of this for how education is organised.

Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…


There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]

The ‘G’ word

Our new Prime Minister seems to have ruffled a few feathers with her mention of the G-word. I have read several people in the past few days who were working themselves up into a quite a lather about the possible return of grammar schools, which while (probably) unlikely, appears closer to being on the agenda at present than it has been for many years.

One writer (source lost) went as far as to claim that there are no good reasons for grammar schools whatsoever. Well here, from someone of relatively modest background who went to one, is one – albeit in hypothetical form.

Just suppose it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that selective systems delivered the best educational outcomes. We can modify that to ‘best outcomes for able pupils’ or ‘best outcomes for all pupils’ as preferred.

We would then be in a situation where those who on the one hand trumpet their devotion to such outcomes but on the other vehemently oppose selective education, had a difficult choice to make. Try it: Are the best educational outcomes for individuals worth securing at the expense of (supposed) equality of access for all, or should we accept lesser individual outcomes for the sake of (supposed) social integration and equality of access?

I don’t think that dodging the question on the grounds that it is a false dichotomy is really a satisfactory response here; it is given as a hypothetical test.

The choice modifiers I offered might be important. If the good outcomes were for only the grammar school pupils, then I suspect many in education would be prepared to sacrifice that on the grounds of equality. On the other hand, if the outcomes were ‘proven’ to be improved for all children, where would that leave the objectors? If the choice is still for equality, then what price the worthy calls for educational excellence?

I am as sensitive to the issues around social exclusion and equality of opportunity as anyone else in education, and were I to let it this could give me endless sleepless nights. But when I read comments such as the one mentioned above, the suspicion reawakens that this debate is less about good education than personal/political agendas. Even as a society, we need to decide whether we prefer educational equality to excellence, and failing to make an active decision only leads to a default one. For several decades, the choice has been for equality, and given this country’s insidious, engrained privileges system, then I can well understand why. But to refuse even to debate the issue, let alone on level terms, strikes me as utterly foolish, particularly as inequality has still got worse over that period.

This is not even to consider the wider issues. For example, were I a parent, I would be facing a dilemma of my own: whether to deny my child the formal academic education I would wish it to have, or to do whatever was possible to secure it, even if that meant going private. We then face the issue of whether the absence of grammar schools has actually led to a more divisive system with more people going private, as indeed my own parents did for my sister when faced with the alternative being a very poor comprehensive. I wonder where this division too leaves the ideologues, even before challenging them to explain to me why as an adherent of formal academic education, only I should be denied the one kind of opportunity that I might prefer.

So we might pose another dilemma: would you prefer academically selective education or economically selective education? Personally, I have a clear answer to that, which is made clearer still if it is emphasised that academically selective education should be available to all, irrespective of their social or economic circumstances.

I know it can be argued that in an ideal world, comprehensives should provide as good an education as the grammar schools. But it is not an ideal world, and the experience of forty or more years suggests that in the round, very few manage to do this. If we are going to wish away the real-world failings of the comprehensive system on ideological grounds, then there is no reason not to do the same for the alternatives. We might also remember that the much-desired social mobility is relative: in order for someone to rise, someone else has to fall; how acceptable is that?

What is more, it is merely a value-judgment that education should be first and foremost about social engineering; personally, I reject that as I prefer to see it as a matter of cerebral development and cultural transmission. Much of the ‘proof’ being offered that selective education does not increase social mobility depends firstly on the assumption that that is what education is intended to do – and secondly on the means (mostly financial) by which such things are being measured.

I suspect that many who oppose selection have never been near a grammar school themselves, let alone spent long enough in one to appreciate how the culture of such places tends to reflect an entirely different value set from those that are unavoidably compromised by the disaffected or uncommitted parts of the population. Even my own highly-rated school increasingly suffers from this, despite its having in the past traded on the ‘non-selective grammar school’ claim.

Opponents of selection should perhaps reflect more on the imperfection of the world, and decide which is the least of the available evils. I am not suggesting that grammar schools are a panacea, but selective education of some form or other still features in many (though not all) of the countries that out-perform this one in international comparisons. As I have suggested before, however, one particular knot to unravel is whether opposition is really to the idea of selection per se, or the means of selection, which I oppose as much as any. There are fairer ways (at probably better ages) in which to make such choices than a sudden-death exam at a young age. I suspect that changing this process would dilute many of the tricks deployed by the more-advantaged to pack such schools with their own. I would also suggest that a failing of past selective education in Britain was the often-poor alternatives on offer – but that is another issue entirely, and is certainly not internationally universal.

We might reflect on whether the loss of strictly academically-focussed education has had a wider effect on the country. As I have mentioned before, I encounter fewer and fewer people, even amongst those who hold multiple bits of paper, who really strike me as being intellectually awake, who delight in cerebral activity for its own, entirely conscious self. I wonder whether they simply never had it awakened. And I feel that the country’s collective culture is ever more debased, in contrast to that which I see elsewhere, where commercial depredations seem to be having less of an effect. Perhaps we have abolished the values and outlooks that tended to anchor such things? And that is before the shortfalls of skilled labour and workforce productivity from which we suffer.

This leads to me to a final dilemma, which concerns another ‘G’ word. I wonder how many of those who oppose academic development based on ability are also in deep despair at this country’s Gold medal-haul in the recent Olympics. Even an utter non-sportsman like me takes a degree of pride in it – and the wider benefit for society of elite sporting success has already been discussed. The country’s massive turnaround in the past decade has clearly been a result of the much-improved resourcing for such people, even though sporting participation amongst wider society has not grown nearly as much.

Maybe we should have denied those people what they needed on egalitarian grounds that everyone ought to be able to run equally fast, or have access to equal training facilities? A similar approach to industry has been proposed in the wake of Brexit: we need to get much better at backing our best talent and giving it the extra resources it needs to grow, even if some do fall by the wayside or receive less in the process. It’s a matter of best-targeting scarce resources, as well as catering for specific needs.

It is worth remembering that the perception of exclusivity from outside supposed elites is not in itself evidence of restrictive practices to entry. So why deny society the benefits of those – from whatever background – whose high intellectual speed needs nurturing in the same way, if only for the disproportionate benefit that they ultimately bring to everyone?

Bad Grammar?

I see the nation is working itself up into a lather again about the issue of grammar schools, and the debate shows every sign of degenerating into its habitual, simplistic factions when a more sophisticated discussion is badly needed. Unfortunately, the U.K. has always been hamstrung by social snobberies that cause fewer distortions elsewhere; issues of social mobility simply do not seem to get conflated with educational success in many continental countries as they do here. I accept that this means some of their solutions may not be completely appropriate here, but we do need to clear the air and clarify the issues. There is a perfectly good egalitarian case to be made for what I prefer to call specialised education.

The primary role of education cannot be to promote social mobility, which it can never guarantee anyway, but to develop the intellects and other abilities of those who receive it. If this leads to socio-economic advancement then all well and good, but there are too many other intervening life factors ever to guarantee it, no matter what system is in place. Expecting the education system to right every social wrong and then guarantee every child a privileged, affluent future is simply asking more than it can deliver; more gullible Affluenza at work here, no matter how noble the aspiration. And what is the point of encouraging children to be ambitious if those who are not are artificially boosted to equal success? The fact, which is unpalatable to some, is that for education to succeed, in relative terms, seemingly some have to fail.

It is no more equitable to dismiss bright children as being able to succeed under any system than to disregard less able ones because they may not. All children should have their needs addressed, and in my experience the comprehensive system does not do that as well as it might simply because it is asked to be a jack-of-all-trades. Furthermore, the failure of some state primary schools to secure Eleven Plus passes may say more about them and their methods (or their intake) than it does about the manipulation of the system by others. My (traditional) primary school proved itself more than capable of securing a good clutch of grammar school places – in a town that had three independent secondary – and even more prep – schools. It did so by concentrating on developing intellects, not righting social wrongs.

And given that the system aspires to create more prosperous, empowered citizens (or at least I hope it does) then who are we to argue if those it has already created clamour to send their children to a certain type of school?

But there is another way to resolve the ‘failure’ problem. It lies in how we define the word. The deep problem with British education is not the selective/comprehensive dichotomy, but the snobbery attached to it, which runs far deeper than the education system can change. The problem is that academic education is seen as the only route to success, despite much evidence to the contrary, if one examines the lives of ‘successful’ people. We then take the less academically-inclined (of all abilities) and force them through a single, pseudo-intellectual system in which they can only ever hope to be second-rate – and then effectively label them as failures. So much for the uplift effect of comprehensives. At the same time, we deny the academically-inclined the all-embracing culture that is needed to nurture their attitudes and talents. And to add insult to injury, we fail to provide the ‘failures’ with a more appropriate outlet for their often considerable talents.

The harsh fact is, some people have greater abilities than others, and society as a whole needs every talent to be developed to its maximum. I suspect this can best be done in specialist establishments; we do not expect Wimbledon champions to win simply by playing at their local tennis club or by being forced to study, say, electronics at the same time. We need top-quality technical skills – and we also need top-quality intellects; having been educated in one and taught in the other, there is no doubt in my mind that for the academically inclined of whatever background, grammar schools can offer a superior education. I see no reason why academically-inclined children should be denied their opportunity – but we also need to provide equally good technical and vocational schools for those with that aptitude, as many of our neighbours do.

Note that I say ‘inclination’ – not ability, for it would be perfectly possible to send children to a school according to professed preference, so long as that then manifested itself in their (and their parents’) commitment to it, rather than their raw I.Q. or exam results. The possibility of changing schools where application was lacking would provide a useful incentive here. Personally, I would rather teach less able but suitably-disposed children than bright but antagonistic ones – but I can only see it as counter-productive to be made to compromise my own academic inclinations in order to do my job.

My parents bettered themselves by having access to the only type of school that could academically rival the unaffordable independent sector, and my own grammar school was by no means packed with the middle classes. Many of those people have gone on to lead productive lives.

The only alternative to educating those capable to the highest level is to produce a generation where no one receives more than an average education, irrespective of ability – except those who can pay for it, and in my view, discrimination by wealth is more iniquitous that separation by aptitude. If we wish to create a truly comprehensive system, then we do need to remove the advantages enjoyed by those who went to independent schools – but that would not be the end of it: we would consequently also need to tackle the exacerbated effects of house-price inflation around popular state schools. Then we would need to cleanse people’s snobberies about which school they attended, which I suspect would only surface in another form. Where would it end?

We need to separate the benefits of specialised education from the admittedly iniquitous nature of the test that historically provided access to one aspect of it, for which more equitable alternatives exist possibly at a later age. We should be more realistic about what education can actually deliver – then it might be possible to have a sensible discussion about the best way to deliver it.

Ceasing to see education in excessively competitive terms might be a start.

Still curious…

I’ve been re-reading Ian Leslie’s excellent book Curious. I confess to being somewhat tired at present of the ceaseless ebb and flow of argument in the profession. To me it only points to one thing: the fact that people will never agree about what education is, or what it is for. And the endless churning of educational rumination speaks of other truths: a profession that is has become utterly self-obsessed, and simultaneously in search of a single, crystallised purpose that it will never find. I don’t blame the education profession for this loss of intellectual confidence; it is simply the product of serving a society that demands simple answers to complex questions. But if we were able to follow our own good advice more closely, we might find it easier to rise above it all, and focus on that which makes the most difference.

It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Or is it that the education system has failed, in recent times, to promote the wider view such that even people in the profession can no longer see the simple, pure value of curiosity? Have we become educational jobsworths, blind to the real, inspirational value of it all? The endless discussion of teaching styles, management initiatives and performance indicators is obscuring this one simple fact: if we can cultivate people’s curiosities, then everything else pretty much falls into place. The real solution is to be found in less defined but more lasting truths – and if only the educational establishment would stop navel-gazing for a few moments, and look upward and outward to the one lasting quality that it supposedly promotes, then it might see that the answer is, in fact, disarmingly simple.

But this is not the precise science that many teachers now seem to want; curiosity is oblique and best approached accordingly. Nothing can be guaranteed to work with all the people all of the time; being adaptable, intuitive and even improvisational are as likely to work as anything more prescribed. Breaking the rules can be as successful as sticking to them.

I would suggest that the one essential thing is for the teacher to be endlessly curious them self.

So I offer a few extracts from the introduction to Leslie’s book that struck me as hammer blows for the eternal truth of what we should be trying to do:

“…the world is incredibly interesting. If you’re paying attention, everything in the world – from the nature of gravity, to a pigeon’s head, to a blade of grass – is extraordinary…the closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this.”

Not even many teachers, these days. Just hit those targets!

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question that nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns…pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point…”

Tell me about it…

“Rather than just getting more people to school and university… the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question and create”.

(Leslie observes the concerns of far Eastern nations that their schools are crushing curiosity and instilling mindless obedience; yet it is precisely those that our own system holds up as the desirable objective.)

“Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times…for their enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part they will be worth the difficulty.”

Try persuading SLT of that…

“If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life….”

My work-life balance is doing that already.

“Our education system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer pr a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner – and yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers and programmers tend to be the most curious learners…we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world rather than inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals.”

Add teachers to that list.

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other…”

Leslie’s observations come very close to embodying my own experience, one which ultimately led me to wish to teach. Leslie comes down firmly on the side of traditional approaches to education, though it’s necessary to read the book to find out why. And it’s worth asking why it is that our education system itself seems so intent on doing precisely the opposite; by doubting those who represent the views described above, it strikes me that it is disregarding precisely that which would make it work most successfully.

Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

It’s that time, when lists are being published regarding who has opted for what next year. It’s always a matter of curiosity, of course – but backed with a degree of minor anxiety about the calibre of pupils and the wider perceptions caused by greater or lesser numbers of pupils opting for one’s subject.

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a bright Year 10 pupil, along the lines of, “I didn’t expect it to be like this: it was so easy in year 9, we played lots of games and it was fun (the F word again…); this year’s its been hard work…”

My reply was to the effect: would he rather I didn’t teach the material that he needs to obtain a good exam grade/ would he rather I left him at (sub-) Year Nine level work/ how did he think people make progress towards tertiary education/gain expertise in a subject – and why, if it is not capable of being “fun”, did he think people take doctorates in the subject and/or spend their working lives teaching it? At the end of that barrage, the poor lad was forced to agree that he has indeed moved his understanding on a great deal since last September, and to take it on trust that greater depth might indeed foster greater interest.

I have known teaching programmes that deliberately cover the more exciting topics just before options are taken. This strikes me as completely wrong, and another example of the system (by linking high take-up to departmental success) perverting the ethical behaviour of teachers. Some would argue there’s nothing wrong with putting a positive shine on one’s subject; well of course not (within reason) – but the timing strikes me as nothing less than cynical.

Personally, I would rather give my younger pupils teaching that allows them to appreciate the true nature of the subject, and that prepares them to make both the choice for and the transition to higher level work. If they then decide that the subject is not for them, then I would argue that I have done them (and the department) a service. Besides, academic subjects (if not all subjects) are what they are – they are not, in my opinion, there to be cut-and-pasted at whim, just to make a ‘fun’ pupil experience. We need to bring the pupils to the subject, not the other way round.

In the case of this year, my take-up has been relatively small – but then I have been teaching mainly less-able pupils strongly academic work for the past nine months; if they have decided it is not for them, is this a bad thing? And I know that those who have opted for it are the ones who have demonstrated genuine interest in the subject during that time.

Of course, I am delighted when large numbers of pupils do opt for my subjects, but I would rather they made the right choice for them – not the school. I do know, too, that teachers can help pupils discover interest in unexpected places – but that is rather different from playing to the crowd just to secure the right short-term outcome. And if they opt otherwise, we should not automatically conclude the worst about our teaching.

I’m all for extending the reach of my subject – but not by diminishing it in the process; I would rather have fewer, committed students (of whatever ability) than lots of uncommitted ones. We continue to conflate popularity and success; if the wrong pupils take the wrong subjects forward, it’s in nobody’s interest.

Fifteen Insights into Learning.

Chrisanicholson’s reply to my previous post prompted the realisation that it could be read as a justification of the kind of unaccountable personal philosophies that have arguably caused a lot of damage to education over the decades. This was not my intention – but I stand by my view that the only first-hand experience of learning (and of life in general) possible is our own. Everything else depends upon observation, proxy indicators, assumption or at least interaction, the accuracy – let alone transferability – of which is indeterminable.

I also suggested that this may be why it has proved so difficult to move professional discourse beyond the anecdotal and value-laden. I hoped to show why that might not, however, be as problematic as it might seem.

I was categorically not rejecting the insight that sources outside ourselves can provide (far from it), but this need not run contrary to the argument that each individual’s starting-point can only be their own experiences – even if it does contradict the current technocratic view of teaching. In some cases, these experiences can run deep enough to constitute an individual world-view that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable to challenge. Given the nature of teaching, our practice cannot but be grounded in our own experiences of the world – starting with our choice of subject. It may also be worth remembering that in other ‘caring professions’ such as psychotherapy and social work that also depend heavily on individual participation, practitioners themselves regularly undergo introspective analysis for both training and therapeutic reasons.

One would hope that by virtue of being teachers, we can reasonably assume ourselves to be educational ‘successes’ – even if the route by which that was achieved was not always straightforward. (It is simplistic to assume that the route to wisdom is inevitably a direct and predictable one, and neither is it necessarily the same as the formal educational validation one holds. That is part of the problem!)

Therefore, time spent reflecting on the nature of, and route to that success may well be productive – even if we then seek additional  interpretation elsewhere. And given that our own formal education may be rapidly vanishing into the dim past, it is perhaps worth examining more recent experiences, and indeed seeking them out as a means of professional (and personal) growth. Furthermore, I would suggest that we consider all forms of learning, not only the obviously formal ones.

So I have compiled a list of my own conclusions to date. They may make sense to nobody but me – I hope not – but that may be the very point. Some have only become fully clear as I have sought external interpretations, but they nonetheless remain among the most important instruments of my own practice, and at least as useful as anything more institutionally derived.

  1. Growing up in a home where education was valued to the point of being in the oxygen was, I now see, essential for my later-life values. But this is not at all the same thing as having learning pushed (too) hard at me by my over-anxious parents, which if anything had the opposite effect. Their best ‘lead’ was by example.
  2. Finding one’s metier is important.There are some things in life that appear to have in-built fascination. This is not always explainable, though they may hark back to early-life experiences of which I have at best dim awareness. That interest is experienced emotively, and it is a very useful motivational ‘hook’.
  3. A key motivator has always been ‘benign envy’: the inspiration of encountering people who could do things that resonated with me, and which I desperately wanted to emulate. The best of those people were humble about, but assured in their abilities. Yet outward competitiveness has done me few favours; my main competitor (and critic) has always been myself.
  4. This envy was gradually augmented by a growing sense of autonomous self-conception, whereby I grew to understand the things that were of value in my life. This I later saw as having a sense of (self-generated) purpose. Purpose is important.
  5. Intrinsic reward trumps extrinsic reward every time. The side-effects of ‘success’ are not unwelcome (for example my earnings from my writing) but they were never a significant motivator in themselves – and pale compared with the rewards of gaining expertise. Extrinsic rewards can be perversely limiting.
  6. Knowing stuff is fun, and starts a virtuous cycle. A good factual grounding is empowering and provides the foundation upon which further insight is built. There is a buzz in encountering something new that somehow ‘fits’ with what you already know, but which offers a new angle on it. Expertise and refinement make you appreciate things that others don’t see; depth is rewarding.
  7. Mastery is important – but not in simple ways. Getting better at something is pleasing, but it can also lead to complacency. Accepting that you don’t have mastery can create a powerful hunger to get better.
  8. Flow is a massively important motivator. Things that provide deep reward (but also challenge) make learning so easy it is unconscious. It is commonest to experience flow in things that have that initial buzz for you – but the more you experience it, the more it becomes possible to find it elsewhere. But looking too self-consciously for such things makes them disappear.
  9. Micro-management by others is more likely to apply the brakes than anything else, because it kills autonomy. Even where formal instruction is needed, consent is important. This is not the same as rejecting external help – rather that learning has to be consensual, even if not actively sought. You can take the horse…
  10. Long-term effort is nearly always worth it. Formal instruction is not always enjoyable but it is a necessary discipline particularly in the early stages while key competencies are being acquired. I gained most from being given a strong lead, if only because the structure provided a useful discipline for keeping going, before the benefits of perseverance had really become self-evident.
  11. Discipline boundaries are necessary but artificial. I started out with a few specific areas of interest – but as my knowledge grew, it expanded into disciplines far from where I started – let alone where I ever expected to find interest. But learning is not necessarily transferable: playing the guitar is not much help in learning the trombone.
  12. Problem-solving is a great way of learning. Experimenting with one’s knowledge develops understanding (this is what is valuable about a ‘tinkering’ hobby such as model-making). But it only works once one has a reasonably secure command of the requisite knowledge and skills, otherwise it degenerates into unproductive dabbling.
  13. Some experiences provide insights that are intense enough to appear self-evident. But one must remember that they may not be so for everyone. People in different disciplines often think in very different ways and tolerance is a virtue. It is unlikely that one will ever learn everything without any guidance along the way – even from unexpected sources.
  14. Maybe life’s lessons can only be learned at life’s pace. I wish someone had explained some of these things to me when I was younger (although whether I would have listened or understood is another matter entirely…).
  15. The key to it all is the Enquiring Mind. If you have one of those, then the sky is the limit. If you don’t, then nothing will work very well, and life will be dull. Exam results are not a reliable signifier of an active mind.

I am still left wondering how one might fully appreciate such insights, other than through one’s own experiences. That, after all, is where wisdom actually takes root – in our own minds – and technical competence alone does not a truly great musician (or teacher) make.

The question is, how can we best translate them into something useful to our pupils? I am not convinced that treating education as an economised ‘good’, a technocratic hoop-jumping process – or as a form of amorphous self-discovery-through-play – even get near the matter.

I suspect that traditional scholars knew more than we sometimes credit.