Sheeple

“You can’t not have exams!” The old guy (a former teacher) was incredulous. I decided to play devil’s advocate. “Why not?”

“How would you educate the pupils? How would they get jobs without qualifications?”

The conversation came after he had finished reading The Great Exception, and I was being subjected to an intense grilling over its contents. I decided not to go down the avenues of what constitutes meaningful assessment, or the fact that other countries seem to manage very well with alternative structures.

I will say outright that I do not doubt the need for testing; the discussion was founded on a misreading of my point – but it only emphasised the extent to which the education world is lost in its own circular reasoning. One could easily get the impression that the world would stop turning were formal education – and hence exams – to cease to exist. But it is not so. What I question is that exams should be seen as the purpose of education: a view that has become steadily more pervasive.

Without exams, education would continue in other forms – after all, in essence it is nothing more than the process by which newly-arrived young creatures (even sheep) make sense of the world they find, and the vast majority of life on this planet manages quite well without examinations. It is true to say, however, that most ‘higher’ forms of life involve some form of education of the young by the old, even if mostly just by imitation. And even in ‘primitive’ human societies, some form of testing often emerges to validate that process.

As with musicians working towards a performance, a focus is desirable, if not essential for most learning – as indeed for work in general. It provides both a discrete objective and an incentive, in the form of validation of the effort invested and the standard achieved.

The problem comes from the short-sightedness that can ensue. The fact that one creates a largely artificial construct in order to motivate and validate does not mean that that benchmark is, or should be, the sole purpose of the exercise. I suspect many would accept that the point of learning to play music is not just to pass exams, or even to perform. It is an end in its own right, though the way it is often pursued makes it easy to lose sight of the fact.

Although I have reservations about the mentality that it develops, I don’t even object to the pursuit of targets per se – if that is what gives a certain kind of character its kicks – but we should still not conflate an appetite for challenge with the medium which some people happen to use to fulfil it. If ‘challenge’ is your thing, then it arguably doesn’t matter too much whether you express it through passing music exams, academic exams, learning watch-making or pushing your 100 metres personal best.

But the pursuit of challenge often crowds out the initial purpose of its ‘carrier’ medium. The point of music is to enjoy the creation or hearing of music as in intrinsic ‘good’. One assumes – though the case is somewhat weaker – that the point of running is at least in part to enjoy running. To see it as nothing more than the means to a (target) end is to allow extrinsic motivators to crowd out the intrinsic ones. This comes with a cost.

In the case of intellectual activity, the purpose is not to pass exams, but to develop one’s cognitive ability for its own sake, of which any specific application can only ever be a sub-objective. This is perhaps the most important activity of all, because the ability to use it is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also adaptively useful. It allows one to address life‘s problems in a more considered way, and generally to act more autonomously through the ability to analyse for oneself rather than being reliant on others for what to think or do.

To some extent, I can close purpose with my interlocutor here, because there is no doubt at all that one use of such abilities is indeed their application to Work, and the certificate that one gains through achieving a certain level is (supposedly) a marker of one’s effectiveness in that respect. But we should still not confuse the validation with the process itself.
Einstein is credited with the quote:

“Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

– though he may have been borrowing it from a perceptive but unknown wag. It is surely correct: the only inherent purpose of education is that which is common to all species: the development of the cognitive abilities that allow one to operate more effectively. All else is peripheral, no matter how enjoyable, or socially-useful we make it.

But the old guy’s comments were evidence of the extent to which we have lost sight of this: the social and economic advantages which recognised education can bring have trumped its fundamental purpose. Inasmuch as intellectual fulfilment can be gratuitous, so has this too: the capabilities one can acquire in specific disciplines are useful, and intellectually rewarding in their own right – but they too are nothing more than ‘carriers’ for the neural effect that such experiences can cause in building networks in the brain. This is what Einstein meant: the only true purpose of education is its cognitive effect; once you have that, everything else flows from it.

This is not to say that the incidental benefits of learning are unimportant but they are still nothing more than incidental, and their use is still dependent on effective neural development. It is quite possible for forms of formal education to fail to develop that – while still handing out certificates like confetti, in effect for simply having ‘breathed the air’.

The vast multitude of ‘qualifications’ held by populations around the world do not stop them from making some pretty stupid decisions, which better ability to self-scrutinise cognitively might reveal this fact. This is no surprise: qualifications are simply social constructs that attempt to reflect (imperfectly) someone’s real abilities. But the focusing on the peripheral benefits – to the extent of losing sight of their true status – can even prevent people from using their brains in the way they need to. Alvesson & Spicer’s book The Stupidity Paradox is a testament to the fact the even extremely clever people can act very stupidly when circumstances conspire.

The inability of people to scrutinise claims made in the Brexit debate is just the most extreme recent example of how all the certificates in the world do not in themselves prove people can use their heads. It may even be getting worse. There was some correlation between education levels and voting decisions, but I am not implying that there was a ‘correct’ decision – simply that the grounds on which it was made were often flimsy. Subsequent developments have shown this to be so.

This comes at the time when the subject that arguably most directly addressed the issue has been removed from the school curriculum. Simply because it did not meet QCA’s administrative criteria, Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level is no more. I suppose I should not be surprised: the formal educational establishment in Britain long ago lost sight of its true raison d’être. Just as the financial sector stopped funding the real economy when it was allowed to manufacture greater (spurious) benefit from financial engineering, the education sector long ago stopped being about actually educating people in the neural sense, and started being about fulfilling its own internal objectives.

So long ago, in fact, that it seems that even several previous generations of teachers cannot be relied upon to have noticed. But the consequences of this myopia are very real, and living with us in the way society as a whole is changing today. Its growing failure to do anything more than equip people with meaningless bits of paper is the elephant in the room of why education is not achieving what it supposedly sets out to.

With even the professional educational world largely thinking like sheep, one wonders what hope there is.

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The God of Small Things

bresciani

It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from meschausettesrouges.com in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just looking, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is  a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also the thing that we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

If education is about promoting well-lived lives, I am deeply uncertain that the  aspirational, target-driven approach is doing that. While young people are unsurprisingly future-orientated, the present manic approach seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good educational time to promoting the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of superb fabric.

https://www.meschaussettesrouges.com/en/  (usual disclaimer)

The original version of this post can be found on my other blog: https://sprezzatura.blog

On the fence

Interviewed in The Guardian, the veteran politician Ken Clarke makes a startling claim about government. Speaking about the nation’s intractable regional problems, he observes that despite their upbeat language, most politicians haven’t a clue how to solve them. “We’ve been trying for years” he says.

I admire such candour; more of it might start to re-focus people on the real issues rather than media-friendly sound-bites and facile quick fixes which are nothing of the sort.

I’m looking at the launch of the Chartered College of Teaching in much the same light. Despite Old Andrew’s misgivings, my instinct is nonetheless to join on the grounds that positive engagement might make a difference – and in principle, I’ve always thought that such an organisation is a good idea. But given that my decision to continue teaching is very much in the balance at the moment, and perhaps I’m being naively optimistic, I think I’ll wait.

The launch literature isn’t encouraging. The promise of giving teachers access to “the latest research” concerns me – not because I am against research per se, but because it looks too much like yet more jumping on this latest of bandwagons. As numerous others have pointed out, just where is the time going to come from in the average teacher’s life to avail of such a resource? And where is the research to show that teachers using research genuinely improves education? It might look glossy – but will it work?

I am afraid I am heartily sick of this direction of travel, and on the balance sheet, it is one of the things against my remaining in the profession. I don’t remotely consider myself a Luddite, but I simply cannot accept that even formal education is just about a targets-based production line – and let’s face it, all the ‘research’ into teaching methods is really only about pushing up exam pass rates. Anyone with a real concern for developing people’s capacity for intelligent thought will understand that it a far more subtle process and simply cannot be done to order in this way.

What makes lessons and teachers successful is not a precise science. In fact it could hardly be further from it. The development of the human mind is much more complex than that; as Greg Ashman described it recently, real ‘education’ is an emergent quality. What is taught, and how it is taught are not especially important – unless you are beholden to league tables. I would even say that the retention, while desirable, is not overly important for many people in the long run either, for all that I advocate academic rigour. Filling the Pail is not the be all and end all, as Greg acknowledges. As for how it is retained, that remains as complex and haphazard as ever.

What counts is the residue: what happens inside people’s heads as they go through this process we call education. As important as academic or pedagogic rigour is the quality of the human interaction involved. And as no two people are alike, the only way to develop skill in this is by individual practice – lots of it. This is what the researchers and would-be educational scientists fail to see.

The irony of my current situation is that I have written a book on precisely this issue; a couple of weeks ago it came within an ace of being published by a leading publisher. Despite much very positive feedback, it was torpedoed by one rather less impressed response – on the grounds that it does not make sufficient reference to established educational thought or to recent government policy. Just what does this have to do with classroom teaching (which is the subject of the book)? I am now waiting on a second publisher.

Here again, we have the Establishment refusing to give breathing space to anything that does not confirm existing prejudices. And yet, as Ken Clarke admitted, that approach often masks nothing more than a remote and ineffective ignorance of what works on the ground. This is not an intelligent way to proceed.

The current climate in education is (in part) giving rise to a spike in childhood mental health issues – to say nothing of the teachers. Educators are being urged to attend to this – by the same establishment whose policies exacerbate the problem.

And yet those who advocate a different approach borne of years in the front line are ignored. A common theme amongst many who have wished me well in recent weeks has been “we all know the system is crazy”. What is the College of Education going to do about THAT?

The mechanical approach is being still being advanced, to destructive effect. In my own case, the trigger that finally fried my brain – and has led me to consider my future in the profession – was the consequence of “my” failure to meet an arbitrary target with an exam class.  Despite the fact that experience strongly suggested it was deeply unrealistic (and my saying so repeatedly), the system has proved incapable of accepting that my years of humanely-successful teaching might be a sound basis on which to challenge the figures, let alone to consider the bigger picture.

I cannot and will not back down on this – hence the stress. Personally I can neither function in, nor tolerate, a system which demands that teachers operate simultaneously like robots and clowns, which so confines their modus operandi and then judges them in such an arbitrary and mechanistic manner. This is not a system that permits either meaningful teaching nor effective learning; it is good only for automatons.

Anyone want to publish a book on how to do things more benignly?

Good for the Soul

“I wanted her to learn piano because I thought it would be good for her soul”.

So commented ‘Pique Boo’ recently on my blog.

‘Good for the soul’ is an extremely important aspect of what learning is – and one that I think has been almost entirely forgotten by educators. Thanks to the daily pressures of the job, I (nearly) include myself in that, for all that I genuinely subscribe to the sentiment, and I should thank Pique Boo for reminding me of it.

Whatever the technical debates about this policy or that, education remains for some people fundamentally a matter of individual personal development of the most intimate, profound, reflective sort. I think it is the same experience of something completely intrinsic, intellectual, even spiritual in nature that perhaps drives enquiring minds, to a far greater extent than those obsessed with the mundane ticking of boxes ever realise.  It is precisely this kind of matter that has become almost entirely lost on present-day managers, policy makers and maybe even teachers.

I think it also sums up why I feel vaguely uneasy every time I encounter education being discussed in coldly mechanistic or materialistic terms: people who do this seem to have entirely missed the point of the self-discovery that it can provide. Every time such discussions take place, it is a reminder of just how far from their true remit modern education systems have strayed. ‘Good for the soul’ is in fact why I teach, and what I try to do for my pupils – and what a system devised by hard-heads sometimes criticises me for.

‘Good for the soul’ also serves to illustrate the artificiality of the divisions created within such systems. For example, when a true sense of intellectual enquiry is present, notions of ‘accountability’ dissolve – no one need be accountable for something done completely for love. Even formal distinctions between teacher and pupil become less significant when the undertaking is almost a shared enterprise.

It is probably asking too much to expect many young people to see the matter in this way, though I think it is far from impossible by the time they reach the sixth form – but that should not in itself invalidate the sentiment as an ideal.

And when it comes to debating the pros and cons of different types of education, I think it is important to remember that some people at least, wish their offspring to have this experience if they are capable of it. I cannot see that this is an unreasonable aspiration for a school system, and it might actually do society good if more emphasis were placed on it. Schools that are not good for the soul are still failing at least some of their pupils – and arguably, all of them.

This post is not intended to be a continuation of the previous debate on selection – but it strikes me that so long as people propounding certain models for education fail to take account of those who wish to have their children educated in ways and surroundings that are ‘good for the soul’ – and to ensure that suitable provision is made for them – then we are unlikely ever to make much headway in truly resolving the resultant issues.

Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

To my mind, the greatest missed educational opportunity of the past century was the failure fully to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Several of our more educationally-successful neighbours have had systems broadly similar to that which Butler proposed for a long time, and they arguably have an advantage over us in what they achieve.

I argued in my previous post that there is a perfectly valid egalitarian argument to be made for separating children according to the type of education that they and their parents desire. Perhaps Corbyn’s Labour Party needs to re-examine its opposition to ‘selection’ in its quest to attract new voters.

While putting the onus on families admittedly leaves the door open for neglectful ones to abrogate their responsibilities, just how much responsibility should the state be expected to pick up in such situations? While real deprivation is indefensible, I wonder how much of the lower-aspiring part of the population really is unhappy with its life  – and how much of the ‘problem’ is actually the projection of educated, middle-class ambition onto those who may not want it. I would argue that the best motivator for those who wish for something else is their own aspiration, and the job of the system is to make sure that it does not actively obstruct them. I would also argue that a truly free society is one where people are able to make such choices even if they appear undesirable to others; one could even argue that the determination of those who experience rags-to-riches lives might not have existed were it not for their starting point. I certainly see many affluent children for whom complacency is the main enemy.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive/selective dichotomy is actually a false one, a reaction to what actually came of the Butler Act rather than what was intended. There are other alternatives. This is not to say that the Act got everything right, or that it would still be right now, but had Butler been seen through I think we would be in a significantly better position now than we actually are.

I suspect that many in education in the U.K. only really value academic success because they perceive it as a mechanism for social change; that is why they push the under-privileged agenda so hard, when true intellectual development ought to be available to all irrespective of other circumstances. Their willingness to under-value bright children gives them away. The good news is, you don’t actually need to be rich to be a Thinker – but I hear relatively little in my day-to-day work about intellectual development for its own sake. It mostly seems to be seen as a means of delivering material gain.

The role of Government should be to establish the framework and prevent or correct abuses of the system, rather than attempting large-scale pre-emptive social engineering. While this might be seen as a right-wing outlook, there is nothing un-egalitarian about maximising people’s autonomy and opportunity so long as it doesn’t then adversely affect others. In fact, this is the Left’s dilemma: top-down dirigisme is incompatible with people’s sense of self-determination, and it needs to resolve this conflict. Yet this largely remains the way in which education is framed. In educational terms, opportunity and freedom should be expressed as increasing the genuine choice available to people rather than forcing everyone through the same mould; the role of government should be to ensure that the choices are equitably provided for, and (ideally) equally regarded.

So what might such a system actually look like?

To begin with, the tinkering of recent governments through various forms of school specialisation goes nowhere near far enough. Choice is meaningless when all available alternatives are actually purveying pretty much the same thing.

Had Butler been seen through, each locality would by now have had an academic school, one or more technical schools and some general schools. This would be the minimum guaranteed provision; the actuality would need to reflect local demographics. This would have presented real choice, provided sufficient capacity was available, which in turn would rely on funding that permitted a degree of excess capacity to persist.

Primary schools would exist very much as now, though their role might move further towards identifying children’s early aptitudes. While they would focus on core skills there would be no need to prepare for the Eleven Plus, since this would not exist – anywhere. They would however need to record each child’s development in a way that supported the important choice that was to come later. It is worth remembering that in most continental systems, children start school at a later age without adverse educational effects later on; establishing a secure home life is seen as more important for the very young, and the social security system promotes this.

There would be a policy decision to be made whether a child’s future pathway was to be chosen at eleven or later; there is an argument that it should be at fourteen, and this is the direction that continental countries seem to have taken – an age where preferences and aptitudes are becoming clearer. In this case, there would need to be some form of generalist middle school, which could perhaps be collapsed with later-years primary as indeed happened under the middle school system. Again, the focus is on securing the basics and preparing for the later stages of education.

A fourteen-to-eighteen upper school could then better reflect the educational phase that all young people now effectively experience anyway, at the cost of a little continuity. A consultation process would need to take place to establish not ability, but aptitude and preference for a particular path. This would need to draw on evidence from previous schooling as well as parental and pupil choices. While this may sound unworkable, it is effectively the system by which this phase of education is determined in Switzerland – a combination of track record, preference and school consensus, with no sudden-death, high-stakes exam for which the more-advantaged can be primed. It is worth noting that independent schools are seen, as a Swiss friend memorably put it, “Only for children who have something wrong with them” (!)

The advantage of such a system is that it would present greater real choice to individuals, while also making them responsible for those choices. Schools would need the ability to transfer pupils who had made inappropriate choices or who were otherwise not meeting requirements. An independent appeals process would also be needed.

I don’t think that the academic schools would inevitably end up as the most popular; technical schools could easily involve support from industry and might well end up better resourced than the academic ones. I suspect there would be considerable demand, not only from the less able; aged fourteen, I might have been tempted to take that path myself, and might have worked harder as a result. Academic schools arguably do not need so much hardware in any case, and would probably benefit from being smaller – but they would need to be highly academic (relative to pupils’ ability), in order to attract only those who really wanted that approach.

It is likely that general schools would be more numerous and hence closer to home for many; these might however be more problematic in terms of perception, but they could be acceptable so long as they were properly resourced and not publicly vilified – something similar to a community school. Or they might not be needed. I suspect that those who desired specialised facilities would be prepared to travel further so long as cost did not prevent.

This is of course only a theoretical outline and it would not be perfect. But by providing real choice, sharing responsibility between schools and families and removing the social stigma of the Eleven Plus it could work, as it does elsewhere. By focusing on individual realisation rather than socio-economic competition, it might start to tackle both the inequality and the snobbery that so infest the current system, in a way that overt social engineering has not.

There are other coherent cases to be made, but it seems to me that we help no one by confusing socio-economic arguments with educational ones – and while we point-blank refuse even to discuss some issues for purely ideological reasons, we may be overlooking workable solutions that lie beneath our very noses.

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

A book that is creating some ripples at present is Teaching Backwards by Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns.

This was promoted at a recent training session and is currently being read by a like-minded colleague who is sufficiently impressed that I will probably follow.

Excerpts from the blurb say:

“… Teaching Backwards offers a more reflective and measured approach to teaching and learning.”  

Well, Good.

“Where many teachers focus on delivering content in a linear fashion, those who teach backwards start with the end in mind. This means that they know in advance what levels of knowledge, attitude, skills and habits they expect their learners to achieve, they define and demystify ambitious goals, and they establish their students’ starting points before they start to plan and teach.”

“Teaching Backwards ensures that learners consistently make great progress over time …[to] further develop their attitudes, skills and habits of excellence both for themselves and for their learners.”

I realise that I am creating a hostage to fortune by commenting on a book that I have yet to read – but it still generated a discussion earlier this week that is worth examining.

My beef is not with the aspirations, which are pretty universal – but as always, with the assumptions. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing team rather than the authors, but any book on education that claims to ‘ensure’ anything should be treated with caution. Furthermore, this does not conflict with linear teaching as implied, but strangely it does seem to suggest that teaching is a linear process once that start-point has been identified. Can we really anticipate the outcomes of a genuine learning process this closely?

The concern with ‘levels of knowledge, attitude, skill and habit’ comes across as yet another attempt to know the unknowable. It is true that eventually one has to settle one’s objectives, but I remain unconvinced that it is possible to delimit human behaviour this closely. Too many of those decisions depend on value-judgements, ultimately opinion masquerading as fact.

I am not sure what a ‘level of knowledge’ is anyway. From my own experience, there is just stuff I know and stuff I don’t. Maybe it is possible to apply a taxonomy to it – but does that really help? It makes relatively little difference to my lived experience of that knowledge, though possibly more to someone attempting to assess it. And lo! We return to the usual conundrum: this definition of learning is ultimately of more use to the teacher than the learner.

A similar criticism can be made of ‘ambitious goals’ and ‘great progress over time’: there is nothing wrong with the aspiration, so much as the claim that a single approach can deliver an objective outcome.

My colleague is greatly taken with the notion of baseline testing, after which he intends to plan backwards starting with his end objective. I wish him good luck in finding it. While it is straightforward to identify given knowledge that one wishes pupils to have, other objectives such as ‘attitudes, skills and habits’ are not only more nebulous, but also subject to the vagaries of time and values. Personally, I would hope that I never reach a measurable end-point in such things, because they should continue to develop throughout a lifetime, and applying arbitrary judgements to them is both artificial and value-laden. (It is not that I don’t have such things which I promote, just that I recognise the slim likelihood that others will ultimately experience my ‘truths’ about the world).

Our discussion moved onto the value of this approach for differentiation: how can one differentiate if one does not know where one’s pupils start from? A reasonable question. But there is no single answer: no two people’s knowledge is the same, particularly at the specialised end of a discipline – and I would argue, nor should it be. Trying to homogenise knowledge is of no inherent value, and probably only matters for the purpose of passing exams (which I don’t decry – but it is not the same as ‘real’ knowledge).

But my biggest reservation is the implication that if one knows these things, one can then plan better for them. We come again to the Achilles ’ heel of all current teaching – the notion that it alone controls what goes on in (and into) children’s minds. My colleague argues that if there are four children in a class who already know the content of the lesson, they should not have to repeat it – and this is only possible if the teacher knows the situation in advance. But you can always know more about a topic to make it worth revisiting.

And what about the idea of revision? There is much evidence (notably from Robert Bjork) that repetition is important. Is it really a waste of those children’s time to revisit material, even inadvertently? There are other ways of dealing with the issue: they can be given leading roles in the class discussion – dare I say (as I did this week in this situation) putting them out front to ‘teach’ the others?

There is also a matter of numbers to consider: where lies the balance between ‘wasting’ a few individuals’ time and benefitting the rest? Should the same decision be made irrespective of whether the prior knowledge belongs to one child or twenty? In the latter instance, the teacher clearly needs to review the pitch of the lesson – but they may still conclude that revision is worthwhile. It can be an affirmative experience to share prior knowledge.

However, my biggest reservation lies in the supposed need to plan everything so closely. By all means find out what pupils already know; in fact, they tend to make it vocally known, even if it doesn’t become rapidly self-evident. But the way to respond is not by rigid planning, but by being heuristic, by knowing one’s subject well, and being sufficiently intellectually flexible as to adapt on the hoof.

I taught what superficially appeared to be the same lesson on plate tectonics to four varying classes last week. The resources were broadly the same (although I have a large reserve of electronic resources to draw on depending on how the lesson progresses). Some classes took two lessons to cope with the basic mechanics, though not without some left-field questions being let fly. Other classes rolled through in half the time and we extended into matters of continental drift, the discovery of tectonic theory, how it might be wrong, the difficulties of researching deep-ocean volcanoes, and the relevance to the Chilean earthquake. Many of those discussions could not have been tightly anticipated, and in some cases they only occurred with certain individuals who were forging ahead. Some came from pupil questions, some from snippets I judiciously introduced. All pupils gained the core knowledge – but their actual learning differed not only from class to class, but from individual to individual. Is this open-endedness a problem in the way tight planning implies?

Teaching backwards from objectives may be a sound concept, but as usual my feeling is that making this more than a broad-brush underlying principle risks emasculating it. It also implies there is consensus as to what those objectives should be.

Differentiation is an important part of the classroom teacher’s work – but planning it in advance reduces one’s ability to cope with the real-time needs of the classroom. Skilled teachers differentiate instinctively, moment by moment, and it can involve little more than a judicious additional comment to certain pupils. It relies on the here-and-now, supported by a wide knowledge. Why make it more complicated than it need be?

I will report back when I have read the book.

Gulags with Whiteboards

The long summer break provides, I am unashamed to say, the one opportunity in the year to empty my head (almost) completely of matters educational. Far from being a desertion of duty, I view it as a necessary period of ‘recharging’ prior to re-engaging in September, hopefully with a fresh mind and renewed vigour. And as my wife said yesterday, this is the only time in the year when we get what many would consider to be ‘normal’ evenings.

Therefore I have not been watching the BBC’s Are Our Kids Tough Enough? which has reportedly placed Chinese teachers and methods in front of British pupils. But the reviews suggest that the Chinese teachers have been challenged by the lack ingrained cultural deference for education when it comes to behaviour. And a letter in yesterday’s Independent (here, seventh letter) also questioned the wisdom of the Chinese approach. The writer had taught in China for eight years and described the system there as ‘Gulags with Whiteboards’, complete with bullying and humiliation of children deemed not to be performing sufficiently highly. He returned to the U.K. when his own children reached school age, rather than put them through the Chinese experience.

And yet this is the system that is being held up as a model to British educators by some commentators. Indeed, my own experience is that the British system is well on the way to emulating it, despite reports also filtering out that the Chinese themselves are desperate about the effects that the regime is having on their young people. A colleague of mine who has also worked in China described the children as ‘mindless drones’ by the end of their schooling. As I said, we seem well on the way down the same route. (The same newspaper recently reported a survey showing that young people exhibit decreasing concern for the freedom of speech, for example).

My summer reading has continued to convince me that the human condition is both more unknowable and more quixotic than most realise; we need an education system that works with human foible not against it. I spent a week of my holiday staying with one of my own teachers in western France. Naturally teaching was discussed – and the reaction of this deeply humane man, now in his eighties, to my anecdotes was instructive: “Where is the human touch?”

The mental distance from which I presently write makes it seem all the more misguided that we appear intent on shaping people to the education (or is it economic?) system rather than the other way round.

You Take the High Road…

the path forks

The end of a year in which the contradictions within education became even more apparent – as did the inequalities between the paths one can take…

The balance is shifting towards traditional teaching.

Though my instinct has always been for traditional techniques, years of exposure to progressive doctrine had their effect, especially while one’s perceived success as a teacher palpably hung on its adoption. But things have begun to change: most importantly, a coherent rationale is emerging for traditional approaches. This is important because it counters the claim from progressives that traditionalism is little more than the confirmation-bias of a bunch of luddites.

But whether it will translate to anything more substantial in schools remains to be seen. From my own experience, the progressive message has gone distinctly quiet, but the alternatives are hardly being given coverage.

My own determination to adopt a more traditional approach was sustained. I am not claiming unequivocal success: as with all outcomes in education, it’s not as simple as that. But despite the difficulties encountered with pupils whose expectations were clearly of something else entirely, I can cautiously say that plenty did start to exhibit (and expect) more formal educational behaviours.

We need a clearer path for classroom teachers

One of the problems with traditional teaching has been the lack of career progression. Once one had mastered one’s classroom, there was little left to do except gradually turn into Mr. Chips – hardly a mark of success in a career-obsessed world. This, fundamentally, is the reason for the growth of Management – it provides a more acceptable and defined career path for teachers. But in doing so, it removes people from the core business.

Many of my teacher-friends in Switzerland exhibit little desire to take the management route: they seem happy developing their academic and pedagogical skills, and this seems far more acceptable than it is in Britain. I suspect that the flatter management structures and the relative lack of career snobbery make it easier. My closest friend in particular seemed perfectly happy until his recent retirement (and despite his doctorate) to develop his personal practice without the need for hierarchical validation; he is not alone.

In the U.K., remaining in the classroom is still seen as a dead-end that is becoming increasingly unattractive due to the growing pressure on classroom teachers from elsewhere. We need a more appealing second route – and it needs its own type of performance criteria.

Despite initiatives such as Advanced Skills Teachers, it is not easy to pin down good teaching in ways that make it short-term accountable – or rewardable – in a system dependent on tick-box criteria. But it may not be necessary either. So long as teachers’ incomes are not significantly eroded, people who follow this path may be less concerned about hierarchical prestige or financial reward in the first place. What is more important is preserving the autonomy for them to teach as they need.

It is quite possible for teachers to ‘plateau’ once they have mastered their classroom – but I increasingly think this is not the end of the matter. My reading over the past couple of years has yielded many insights into behavioural and philosophical matters that have enriched my understanding of what I do, materially influenced my professional behaviour and increased the effectiveness with which I respond to my pupils.

Little of this is outwardly observable, let alone box-tickable, and little of it needs to be implemented in an unremitting, doctrinaire way. It is more a matter of the person one becomes – and the ways in which this informs one’s personal practice. There is a pleasing solidity to the inner knowledge that, at last, one has reached a degree of professional depth and resilience that endures, no matter what ‘the system’ throws at you.

So just at a time when the future appeared to promise only ‘more of the same’, through the clouds new heights have become visible – and maybe therein lies a way to develop a more profound definition of what it means to be a classroom professional. It needs to become more possible and acceptable for people to pursue this route – and this means providing the means for development equal to those available to managers.

But…

You can’t go down both paths.

A vacancy arose for Head of Department, and at long last I felt confident that I could do the job and address the specific issues. But it became clear that I am too far down the Mr. Chips path and the role went to a young chap a couple of years in. I am sure he will learn (steeply) – but I doubt the wisdom of closing off such roles to those with the insight of years; time was when many heads of department were in the latter stages of their careers.

Maybe I am a late developer – but I know things now that would make for more considered decision-making, and the implementation of far sounder educational practices than when I was younger. I think it was the unformed awareness of this that prevented me from making a more convincing case for promotion in my own early years. But external appearances count – even though, as Kahneman observes, brassy confidence may simply betray lacking awareness of the limits of the possible. It seems as though one must choose at a stage of one’s career when these greater truths are still invisible.

There is still only one route open to the success-hungry teacher – and it leads away from the classroom. What is more, those left behind are ever more closely controlled by people who took it. By taking the path labelled ‘management’ one starts dining at entirely different tables – and one’s diet becomes that of effective management rather than effective teaching; they are not necessarily the same thing, even if those in charge seem to think otherwise.  Thereafter, developing further as a teacher is either taken for granted – or of limited interest. Clearly, management is needed – but why is the path of pedagogy allowed to peter out in a thicket, while that of management leads on to ever richer pastures?

How will this lead to better education in the future?

TP will be taking its customary break over the summer; no doubt issues will arise that require comment – but normal service will resume in September.

What did you expect?

The boy was confident; despite his mere twelve years, he betrayed no sense that he might need to moderate what he said to an adult more than four times his age, and one of his teachers at that.

“I don’t concentrate because Geography’s hard. It’s not fun and I don’t like it”.

My heart sank a little; whatever our views on teaching, this is not really what we want to hear. But the reasoning is worth exploring further:

  1. I expect lessons above all to be fun;
  2. This subject is difficult;
  3. Therefore it is not fun;
  4. Therefore I don’t like it;
  5. Therefore I am justified in not engaging with it.

I had held him back after a lesson because he has been presenting low-level issues with poor attention and work-rate. He is something of an attention-seeker and one of the many children I encounter who, I would consider, have a self-confidence vastly inflated beyond the normal egocentrism of childhood.

But my teaching has clearly not engaged this pupil, and that gives cause for reflection. Needless to say, my reading of the situation was different. Consistent with the views of colleagues who also teach him, the lad’s reasoning needs to be reversed: being an attention-seeker, he tends to ignore the rules of the classroom, and he needs regular steering in order to keep him on task. He tends to shrug off gentle reprimand and needs firm treatment before he begins to take notice. He is of moderate ability and has struggled to understand the work as a result of his inattention.  His need for instant gratification means he lacks the tenacity when the going gets difficult. In short, he is not equipped for the secondary-school classroom.

There is a clash of expectations here that says much about the central conflict within education.

Given that the pupil concerned has been in this school for less than a year, much of his outlook has probably carried over from his earlier experiences. Whether the attention-seeking is simply temperament, the effects of over-indulgent parenting or a sign of something more complex is not yet clear. Whatever, this boy clearly perceives his schooling as something where his response and effort are conditional, rather than – as I would prefer – an opportunity at which he has a duty to try his hardest. How to turn this round?

He appears not to distinguish between himself and adults in terms of knowledge or authority; while not disrespectful, he shows no embarrassment when reprimanded, and considers it acceptable to respond with his own view.  This may be part of regular childish immaturity, but the over-assurance of the response perhaps is not. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of his home.

No matter how unacceptable I find this boy’s attitude, I am nonetheless required to address it. Indeed, it is going to be necessary to break through it before it is possible to educate him effectively. By the age of twelve, it may already be too late, and the degree of progress possible is unclear, for all that I will continue to correct his behaviour. Maybe the lad will find the teacher who ignites him, but I’m not holding my breath.  Any change is more likely to be gradual and partly a matter of how he matures. We cannot claim sole credit for that…

The progressive movement correctly identified this problem: we cannot, ultimately, control the autonomous actions of our pupils – only influence them (however strongly). But it arrived at precisely the worst conclusion – that therefore we need to curry our pupils’ favour by making school ‘fun’. The problem with this is its denial of the conditions necessary for learning. Most subjects vary internally in their appeal, but learning is also matter of hard work. Then there is the historic fact that children have disliked school throughout the ages – probably because of the loss of freedom that it represents as much as anything more specific. Believing that one can address this by changing the nature of lessons is a step too far.

Failure to face the difficulty of learning causes avoidance of precisely those elements essential to advance it.  This is not the approach advocated in other fields – for example it is accepted that prowess at sport requires graft, and musicianship likewise. So why does collective wisdom insist that academic learning must primarily be ‘fun’? We should be showing children that it’s more important than that.

I’m not sure that Geography is inherently ‘fun’ anyway. It has its appealing topics – but in the final reckoning, it is what it is – the rational study of the complex world around us. Developing an awareness and understanding of that is a profoundly important activity – but in my experience, the only way to make it self-consciously ‘fun’ is by using activities that distract from the content by masking it with trivia. Real interest requires a mindset that is prepared to find the world interesting, and which enjoys challenge. It is not something that can be generated by jelly-carving or puppet shows, and I suspect that the same is actually true of most subjects. By the time children arrive at my door, they need at least an implicit acceptance of that.

Interest (rather than ‘fun’) comes from the role- and knowledge-model that I present to my pupils. One can sometimes ‘hook’ children by reference to prior experiences – but this is restricted to things they already know about. Formalising our ‘study’ is just as good – and there are other ways: my classroom persona and wit are helpful tools for engagement, as is narrative, as is my ‘desk-side manner’ – all parts of the teacher-craft that conventional performance measures tend to diminish. Communicating the importance and ‘bigger picture’ of education plays a part too.

But what are we to do about pupils who are already lost to this? While much of the problem may come from beyond school, we do need to examine the expectations that the school system itself is creating. Children’s expectations of school inevitably come principally from what they encounter there, both formally and through peer contact.  I suspect that the call for ‘fun’ comes largely from unstructured primary school experiences, which may explain the difficulty some children find in coping with more formal situations.

In secondary schools, we should be careful with the messages we send: if we create specific expectations regarding teachers’ methods, it is hardly surprising if pupils respond accordingly. Almost as bad is the emphasis on engagement over all else; by highlighting this, we are all but legitimising disengagement. This also affects how teachers decide to teach. If enough opt for the high fun/low learning approach because that is what has been stipulated, then it is hardly surprising if pupils struggle when they encounter a teacher who makes more formal demands. It is hardly fair to judge the teacher alone on the consequences.

I am not suggesting that teachers should give no consideration to how they present their subject – but we need greater realism about the purpose of secondary education, and it is essential that pupils are equipped to cope with it. It is of course incumbent on teachers to teach as well as they can – though what that means and how it is defined is much wider than the mechanics of what happens in a specific lesson. But how, and to what extent they can be deemed responsible for the learning that results is another matter, especially when they are facing ill-prepared pupils. Neither am I convinced that less able pupils need ‘more fun’ in the name of differentiation – I have seen plenty of children of modest ability who coped perfectly well with formal learning; what makes all the difference is the expectation.

I was satisfied with one comment from my pupil: he is finding the subject difficult. Were that not the case, then I could stand guilty of pitching my lessons too low. But how we change the highly limiting perceptions he expressed is much less obvious. He needs to work harder and concentrate more – but how to ‘persuade’ him when that is not already engrained belief is much harder. It is not, I think, a bone of contention between traditionalists and progressives that the most effective learning requires intrinsic motivation; the problem is what to do where that does not already exist.

I may be required to address the situation as I find it – but what success might reasonably be expected for issues that range wider than – and possibly predate – my intervention is far from clear.