The Great Exception

Just a reminder that my book The Great Exception – Why teaching is a profession like no other is still available here.

A teacher-reviewer described it thus:

This is a very thought provoking book. It is a challenging read, but once you get into it, it prompts you to reflect on what and how we should be teaching our children. These days, education seems to be all about exam results, but the author argues that there should be more to it than [apparent] academic success. He examines the nature of teaching and learning in depth and successfully makes a case for more autonomy for teachers, who at present, are to some extent hampered and frustrated by prescriptive guidelines on how to manage their classes. Teachers in training could learn a lot from dipping into ‘The Great Exception’.

Here is a short except:

…I want to discuss here the conflicts that the systems-approach creates in terms of what it actually means to be a teacher. The choice of words is important: to be a teacher, not simply to teach. The latter implies a specific physical activity that can, at least in theory, be defined as a discrete set of actions which can therefore be specified and measured. It also implies a recruitment process that is focused on technical proficiency that can be both easily defined for the purposes of job advertisements and judged during the recruitment process. It supposedly makes the evaluation of that process relatively easy when it comes to the whole matter of appraisal, reward and even capability proceedings. However, it overlooks the crucial matter discussed above – that much of being an effective teacher is a matter of personal qualities and characteristics that are neither easily identified nor measured. These non-cognitive qualities may be difficult to identify – but they are often the things that determine what sort of role-model an individual will make – and thereby what context they will generate within which to exercise more specific skills. As Hilary Wilce has observed, children tend to take their leads from role model behaviours not instructions – and it is for this reason that wider teacher-qualities and behaviours are so important.

That schools have to operate within a regulatory framework that promotes quantifiable, accountable decision-making is, of course, not their own fault; neither is it necessarily an undesirable thing in itself, as there clearly needs to be some mechanism for regulating these processes and identifying out-and-out malpractice. However, the presence of such defined, black-or-white prescriptions for teaching can easily cause wider issues to be forgotten under the onslaught of an officially-sanctioned ‘truth’. The ways in which such constraints are then interpreted can lead to a narrowing of job descriptions and a loss of appreciation of the actual qualities that make up a successful teacher, many of which are indeed intangible. However, the latitude for autonomy and self-determination that can be read into such frameworks by individual managements can still make matters significantly either better or worse, as suggested by the varying degrees of teacher freedom observed from one school to another.

The fact that teacher-specifications have increasingly focused on technical capability at the expense of more indefinable personal qualities may be a reaction to outside circumstances, such as the need to widen the field of potential teachers to those who perhaps lack natural talent or insight, but who are nonetheless needed on sheer numerical grounds. Likewise, anti-discrimination legislation has perhaps forced more specific criteria on those involved in recruitment. But it has nonetheless shifted general perceptions of what it is to be a teacher, from that of someone with desirable personal qualities to that of ‘mere’ technical ability.

If this seems like a rather idealistic argument, then I suggest attempting a similar exercise in drawing up a ‘job description’ for an artist, actor or indeed a spouse, and then appraising their effectiveness in finding the ideal candidate. One might also consider the effect of one’s own behaviours on the responses one obtains from such people. Teaching has often been likened to acting in terms of the qualities required to ‘hold’ a class – but a merely technical outline of the necessary requirements for being an actor do not approach an explanation of why some actors are celebrated while others spend a lot of time ‘resting’. It comes down to a unique and largely indefinable set of specific personal qualities. The same is certainly true of spouses; I cannot imagine there are many people who would consider willingly marrying someone purely on the basis of a technical description, for all that dating agencies attempt to do just that…

I am told that the chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman has a copy. Whether it has been opened or not is, of course, another matter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

The Unprofessionalisables.

I suppose it’s just yet another Holy Grail to hope that the teaching profession in Britain might ever reach a steady state. I remember my former head teacher saying in the early nineties that henceforth the only constant would be change. Maybe that has always been true, and the perception that there were (and are) steady states is just an illusion. Change probably is endemic.

But one is still entitled to wonder where it all gets us. While the physical world marches to its own rhythm, change in social constructs such as education is a more controllable matter. And we might wonder whether the fundamental need that people have for cognitive development has really changed so much that the constant upheaval is justified.

I came to the conclusion that most change in professional circles is really about people’s perceptions of what they are doing – and about power-play: who is in charge and whose world-view takes precedence. It is not much about delivering the basic service at all. Recent trends have only bulwarked the authority of those at the top of the greasy pole, and made it all worse.

The problem with teaching is that nobody really knows – let alone can agree – on what it is and what it is for. That, despite the essentially simple process of spending time with children and exposing them to things they have yet to encounter.

High amongst the confusions come the ceaseless calls to improve the ‘professionalism’ of the profession. Nobody seems to know what that means either; it is just more empty words. For school managers (and perhaps their political bosses) it probably means a workforce that does whatever it is asked with maximum effort and minimum dispute. Which might be fine, if what was being asked was both uncontentious and sustainable – but it is neither.

Then there is the view (which managers mostly seem to hate), that professionalism is about the ability to operate autonomously, within a set of guiding ethics, and still achieve largely good outcomes (although those outcomes themselves are not beyond question). This seems to me a much more viable model, especially in a field as nebulous as education, but it means allowing people more latitude than the current gate-keepers are willing to grant. It also means accepting the inherent uncertainty of the process, something that those being held to account are understandably reluctant to do, no matter how little they can really change it.

Attempts have been made to impose order and standards on the profession by the establishment of various bodies. But their legitimacy is questionable when they are not composed – voluntarily – of the majority of the grass-roots individuals that they purport to represent. So I am far from convinced that it is possible to increase professionalism simply by imposing structures: in the final reckoning, professionalism is a state of mind, and only the owners of said minds can really control it.

Here we return to the dichotomy mentioned earlier: should the professional state of mind be one of compliance with institutionalised norms (laid down by whom?) or should it rather be a state of independence to follow one’s conscience and experience – albeit probably within a general ethical framework? Until such matters are resolved, it is unlikely than any greater semblance of professionalism will be achieved.

In the case of other professions, one might  observe that status is indeed conferred by membership of august bodies – though they are usually controlled by their members rather than outside agencies. But this form of institutionalism is no guarantee of professional behaviour either – only a recognition of it (or not, as when people are struck off).

Here we come to perhaps the most uncomfortable point of all, for those arguing for a grass-roots definition of professionalism: there is simply no shared understanding of what it means. I can think of very many individuals over the years who, while technically competent, exhibited all manner of behaviours and attitudes that I found professionally questionable. Perhaps they thought the same about me. What are we to make of the Advanced Skills Teacher who was found to be having a relationship with a student? And there were many lesser manifestations of individual attitude that I certainly did not agree with.

Then there is what one perceives as one’s own responsibilities. In my view, a professional should have a degree of ‘benign remove’ from his or her clients (and employers) so as to retain the necessary detachment from partisan interests. How else can ethics be upheld? But I was regarded as old and pompous by the teachers who seemed to perceive themselves more as children’s buddies and life coaches (or management lackeys), things that I found verged on the puerile and professionally compromised.

It seems that attempts to engage with the mainstream teaching body as a profession is stymied by one simple fact: many of those concerned simply aren’t interested. What they want is to have fun with children; or failing that, to drill exam statistics out of them (which is not at all the same thing, but not much better). Or more charitably, just to do their job.

Unlike the researchers, whose interest most often strikes me as nerdishly academic, or the managers whose interest most often strikes me as blindly corporatist, ordinary teachers most often have only a vague sense of belonging to a discrete profession, let alone one that has any sense of dignity. They are more interested in something to get them through the next lesson than the underlying philosophy or psychology of what they are doing. And the short-sighted technocracy which now passes for teaching standards is only making it worse.

That is not meant as harshly as it probably reads: I do have sympathy with those who just want a simple life, though that should not excuse them from identifying and maintaining appropriately high standards. From recent conversations with long-retired teachers, it probably  always was the case, and was not necessarily a bad thing, in that it gave them an authenticity with their pupils. My sadness is that few will discover that bothering to find those underpinnings actually gives such an outlook more sense. (That’s what TonicforTeachers is about…)

Much of the lack of interest is also due to simple time pressure. Full-time teachers are just too overloaded to have much left for the niceties of what they are doing, let alone membership of professional colleges: that is for those who are already looking for ways to escape. Neither is climbing the management ladder (which seems to be the sole reason many suddenly find interest in meta-educational matters) for everyone.

But we are still left with the same dilemma: those who want to apply ‘standards’ don’t understand that imposition is actually the last way to succeed – while those responsible for the day-to-day upholding of said standards seem to have little conception or concern for what that might mean, beyond its simplistically being “all for the children” (which is something else I’ve questioned before now…).

I can hardly be the only person who has attempted to square this circle unilaterally, by self-equipping with the philosophical background that was otherwise conspicuously lacking. In my opinion that is the only way it can be done which is why, in certain other countries, teachers are expected to have higher degrees, even doctorates, before they can teach.

I tried hard to develop my own strain of professionalism in my work: in this blog, in my book and in my contributions to CPD. My approach (though categorically not the content) was sometimes criticised for being over-academic; for my part, I could not see why mature adults should not be able to raise their own outlook above the ‘fun and group-work’ that they deliver to their pupils. We do not need to conduct professional discourse in the manner of Year Nines.

Yet it was my approach that was (supposedly) found wanting in the end; my determination to retain high professional and intellectual standards was apparently not pupil- (or data-) friendly enough – even though the same school was exhorting its teachers to deliver high academic standards. There was a personal dilemma all of its own in there: I found insight that I am certain enhanced my own professionalism – only for it to be ignored, and ultimately rejected, by a blinkered establishment. I can only assume that the individuals concerned either could not see the contradictions in that, or had no real idea what they were talking about.

What kind of professionalism is that?

Introducing Tonic for Teachers

 

 

What separates an expert from a novice is not purely technical procedure. It is insight and interpretation – the refinement that allows the expert to ‘read’ a situation more fully and to respond in more nuanced ways.

There is little available in the world of teacher professional development to cater for this need.

Tonic for Teachers is the new online resource that I have created to address this need, using materials from popular and successful CPD sessions and developing many of the ideas proposed in my book The Great Exception.

For a modest one-off payment, it gives access to fifty short short audio commentaries totalling over five hours of material, together with downloadable hard copy, other resources, video links and more, aimed to make it as accessible as possible for busy working teachers. The aim is not to provide quick-fix classroom tricks, but to promote growing insight and increased resilience in classroom practice.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning  and please share!

Out of the blue

If you had told any of the poor unfortunates involved in Genoa’s disaster that their fate was to be sealed when a bridge fell away beneath them, I doubt they would have believed it. Such events lie close to the margins of human credibility, at least when it comes to personalising the matter so brutally.

I am reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ground-breaking work The Black Swan, whose main contention is that events in this world are far more frequently determined by the unexpected and unknown than humans feel comfortable with. The events in Genoa must come close to such a phenomenon, and feel quite raw here, as I have driven over that bridge several times.

And yet it seems that the actual direction of human travel is still to try to rationalise ever more aspects of our existence, even though all that the signs are that this process constrains and depersonalises the very experience of being human.

One might argue that the maintenance of a bridge should be entirely rational and systematic – but that overlooks the fact that no matter how good the systems, they cannot cope with the irregular, irrational or unexpected. And I suspect those elements of human nature run far deeper than mere logic.

In reality, our attempts to impose order and predictability on this world are as self-defeating as they are superficial. Indeed, much of what we value most is anything but systematic.

I suspect the tendency derives from two things:

1) The huge size of modern societies and organisations, such that the only way to co-ordinate consistent behaviour seems to involve a reduction in scope for individual decision-making. There are serious implications here for both democracy and individual autonomy.

2) The reliance on I.T. and other technical systems, interaction with which requires intransigent adherence to the structures (and limitations) put in place by those who created them. I suspect that they gradually condition the mind to a linear, box-ticking view of the world.

In both cases, the effect seems to me to be a diminution of the scope for individual human initiative – and blindness that this perhaps increases our exposure to the kind of systemic failures that cause bridges to collapse or other seemingly out-of-the-blue happenings to take place. (It seems that warnings about problems with the bridge were lost in Italian cultural laxity…)

I was recently struck by the same impression on reading that up-take of arts, humanities and modern foreign languages continues to decline in the U.K., at the expense of the STEM subjects. This is no surprise, since it has been policy at both governmental and individual school level for some time – and students do tend to respond to such steer. It is also no doubt in part due to the fact that such subjects lend themselves more easily to the kind of technocratic, easily-defined form of ‘progress’ that has been favoured in recent years – and no less to the perception that these fields are where success is clearest and rewards greatest. No need to inconvenience ourselves with such imponderables as ‘unknown unknowns’ let alone matters of relative wisdom; just churn out more of the same black-or-white and collect rather more than £200 just for passing Go.

And reading this blog drove home to me – as its author eventually realised –  the extent to which the whole edifice of present-day education is built upon assumptions of consequentialism that may make teachers, and even pupils feel temporarily good about themselves, but which vastly overstates the actual power and predictability of our interventions. And all sorts of serious consequences are hung on the failures of such world-views.

There are times when I feel completely at odds with the general direction of travel of the world. Maybe it’s just Age, but most of the really valuable experiences and insights of my life have been anything but technical in nature – and I fear that the tendency to orientate our lives as though they were just part of one large machine risks neglecting many of the subjective, creative and even downright irrational moments of inspiration that are the essence of what separates humans from machines.

I find it deeply regrettable that even the one process that ought to lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition is increasingly abandoning this difficult territory in favour of simplistic technical fixes.

I have recently completed a vocational diploma myself. While it has equipped me well enough with the technical skills and knowledge that I need, it has been a relatively sterile experience simply because it was so predictable: while it had the full plethora of learning objectives and assessment criteria, there was little provision or requirement for the kind of deeper thinking that might have led to richer insight. What’s more, being online, it lacked the real human contact that is an important part of much learning. I have ended up technically qualified, but (had it not been for my own irrepressible curiosity, which inevitably led me off the beaten track) I don’t think I would have been much wiser or insightful as a result. It is training, not education.

I had a similar experience when developing the online resource that I will be launching shortly: the platform that I adopted is technically an excellent tool to work with. But in order to produce the course as conceived, I had to ignore some of the stipulations of the technicians who developed the platform: I was expected to make my innovation fit the system, rather than the opposite. Official listing of a course is purely a matter of fitting the ideological system-template rather than the quality of the content, which seems to have been ignored. What is more, there was no possibility of contextualising the submission: it was a simple pass/fail when subjected to a check-list of what the producers (think they) want. A classic case of style over substance. Systems that lack even the possibility of interaction or feedback are weak, if not dangerous.

The platform is thoroughly rooted in constructivist ideology, and so I suppose it is not surprising that it rejected something more traditionally based. But the point is still the same: a good system should be capable of identifying quality and value wherever and however it appears. Too many reject potentially good – perhaps even ground-breaking – material simply because it does not comply with superficial norms or expectations. Is our education system more generally increasingly making the same mistake?

Many of the greatest leaps of human achievement have been made by mavericks who chose not to follow the rules but to redefine them. This often involved the rejection of pre-existing systems, and a reliance on intuition, talent and the not-so-obvious, rather than the ability to follow others’ instructions. Many of the innovations that frame modern life were in reality just the result of useful accidents. Something similar might be criticised in a system that rejected the Black Swan possibility that a bridge might actually be likely to collapse due to sheer human incompetence, despite its supposed (perhaps illusory?) technical prowess.

There is no point in pretending that human life is a purely technical matter; while we have learned (to some extent) to control the material world around us (and we need systems to do that), very much of the experience of being human does not obey such rules, and thus proves otherwise. We need to acknowledge the limits of systems as well as their utility. We should actually be growing our appreciation of the fact that a rich, well-lived human life is about more than mere technical matters – but such matters are too complex for reductivist instincts.

By moving so many fields of human endeavour – and perhaps most critically the subjects and methods by which we learn – in a purely technical direction, I fear we are losing sight of the very subjectivity upon which many of our greatest achievements stand.

From novice to master

When seen in the driver’s seat, it is barely possible to distinguish between an advanced driver and a novice. Insofar as it is possible at all, it will mostly not be down to the actual operations that they perform (which are largely the same for any driver) so much as their body language and general ease with the task in hand.

Even when being driven by those two people, much of what makes one more accomplished than the other may only rarely be noticeable, for it resides in the domain of cognition. It is perhaps only in extreme situations that the expertise of the advanced driver may become visible, through the speed of their reflexes, and the strategies they can deploy. In many cases, however, the fact that experienced drivers are known to focus much further away from their own vehicle may simply mean that their expertise rests in the ability to avoid difficult situations in the first place.

It is also true that advanced motorists are taught to break some of the rules hard-wired into novices; for example, there are skills that involve using the whole road to corner safely and comfortably – where appropriate – that would leave a novice quaking. But that does not make it poor practice: it is simply that the master has better appraisal of complex situations and a wider range of appropriate responses to hand.

It is not so different in the classroom. Not many attributes will give away the level of experience of an individual teacher; perhaps age may be an indicator, but even that is not reliable since the profession has mature entrants. The basics of classroom craft are little different no matter what the level of experience.

What makes the difference is what the master-teacher knows, how this enables them to interpret what they are encountering – and how they then react. We might call this Experience. And once again, expert reaction may on occasions involve judicious breaking of the rules of supposed ‘good practice’.

There seems to be something of a backlash against the notion that skilled teaching is largely an intuitive matter, that experience is indeed important. The proponents of evidence-based practice argue that intuition, let alone ‘common sense’ is too dependent on the limited perception of the individual, and that it often misinforms or causes complacency. What is needed, they say, is considered practice based on the results of aggregated evidence.

I consider this to be a false dichotomy. It is not that the arguments for evidence are wrong, so much as naive – and impracticable. A significant proportion of a teacher’s time is spent reactively – adapting according to whatever circumstances arise in their class. Some can be anticipated, but many cannot. There is simply not time for rumination on what the evidence would say before a response is necessary.

The point about expertise being unconscious still holds. Having watched expert teachers amongst my colleagues for several decades, it seems evident to me that they operate at an intuitive level: the teacher is the person, and there is no need for them actively to ponder their response: they just drop automatically into ‘teacher mode’.

The trick of mastery is to reconcile these two elements: leaving a novice to work entirely on intuition may indeed lead to poor outcomes, since even if they have excellent technical skills, they probably lack the insight with which to ‘read’ a situation and reach instinctively for a good solution. A Master, on the other hand, will have precisely that back-catalogue of experience to draw upon (of which they may be only dimly conscious), which will allow them to respond in an effective (but not always predictable) way to a given situation. Embedding good practice in intuition is the answer, though what works on the ground may still not always be what aggregate research suggests; the circumstances of teaching are too situation-specific for that.

It is precisely this catalogue of prior experience that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Master, for it allows them to contextualise what they are encountering in a far deeper and more nuanced way than someone who lacks it. (There have been cases of clinicians correctly diagnosing people in restaurants just by noting their demeanour and subconsciously matching it against prior cases; try legislating for that…).

This is why it is both safe and advisable to allow experienced teachers latitude in their personal practice.

The problem is that this means that school managers have to relinquish control over what happens in their classrooms. The path to achieving mastery also makes it almost impossible to specify or prepare for. The course-leader of a significant teacher training establishment recently conceded to me that far too little is provided to help teachers move towards such excellence. Nobody seems to know how to do it. This is in part because that process does not ‘fit’ neatly with institutional practices; indeed it largely has to be done for oneself – and the traditional way has simply been by serving time. In the meantime, school-based professional development has too often become little more than a means of reinforcing institutional policy agendas.

I did significant work in this area to develop my own practice, and in recent years I offered a series of successful and popular CPD sessions to my colleagues. The intention was not to refine classroom craft (which was often already good) but to enhance the perspectives and contexts which people use to interpret what they encounter.

I regret that my personal misfortune brought this programme to a premature end, so I have been developing an online course using those materials and many more. I will be launching this in the coming weeks as an affordable resource for those who want to take the initiative of moving their own practice forward, and who are not afraid to break with convention in order to do so.

Watch this space!

Fake education?

Question: What is the connection between fake news and educational research?

The recent public release of targeted images used by Leave organisations during the Brexit campaign has revealed the potency of targeted advertising, some of which did indeed cross over into misinformation, if not downright fake news.

One might consider that a purpose of education is to counter the effect of such strategies, for example by equipping people with the critical thinking skills to see through such assaults. But there is a deeper and less flattering commonality: it seems to me that much educational research is (naively or otherwise) actually directed at precisely the same objective of ramming information ever more ‘efficiently’ into people’s heads.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the intent of the two activities is the same – but the impression that I often get from those who promote such research is that they are in search of ever more effective ways of planting information in people’s minds.

Most of the outcomes seem to be implicitly directed more at improving schools’ performance in the various accountability measures than developing independent critical (and by definition uncontrollable) thought. This is reinforced by the widespread use of the glib and unelaborated notion of ‘better education’ – which in the worldview of such researchers (and their patrons, educational ‘leaders’) really only ever seems to equate with better results.

I do not dispute the importance of qualifications for young people – but it is nonetheless true that they do not need to be entirely synonymous with the exam results that are increasingly driving the system, and indeed the entirety of what schools seem to think they exist for.

Seen from that perspective, it makes complete sense for them to support research that could reveal the perfect system for securing 100% pass rates – in just the same way that retail and political organisations have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to secure what they perceive as optimal outcomes. In both cases, this presumably means every last person doing and thinking what they are told.

But the prime means of doing that is by controlling people’s behaviour as closely as they can- which in my understanding is the diametric opposite of increasing people’s liberty which I view as a much superior objective for education. Is there really a great difference between educational research and that into other forms of thought-manipulation such as marketing techniques or targeted political advertising?

The education system has already travelled a long way down this partisan route: ever since it was made to compete for ‘customers’ and justify its existence in every last way, any sense of objectivity about what it is doing has been long abandoned.

Universities now compete for students on the basis of glossy marketing and branding rather than genuine academic quality. What matters is controlling perceptions – and schools are not far behind them: witness the banners that are almost a sine qua non of school gates these days, proclaiming the supposed brilliance of every last institution to the world at large. How demeaning can it get?

And when we reduce it to basics, even thought the professed aims might be otherwise, what is really so different from the ways in which schools – through publicity and result-enhancing ‘research’ are seeking to manipulate minds, and the techniques now being employed by the shady world of misinformation?

We might be proclaiming one thing, but the effects of education-as-thought-control are not so very different.



 

You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxgn3

Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.