Green shoots

Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Professor Colin Richards pointed out that we have “no firm, reliable, systematic way of assessing pupils’ understanding”. He went on to suggest that learning is idiosyncratic, complex and nowhere near fully understood. He implied that exam outcomes are rarely ‘fair’ in the indulgent sense that modern students and schools have come to expect, because what they can test is very limited. The best way we have of knowing a student’s capabilities is, he suggests, working with them discussing their insights and reading their ideas over a protracted period. I only wondered why he did not question who really needs to measure the workings of an individual’s brain in such precision – and why. Exams work fine – if used properly , and so long as we don’t over-egg what they can show.

I have just finished reading Paul Roberts’ book The Impulse Society. In its later stages, it turns into a discussion of why U.S. society and politics have descended into a polarised, paralysed stalemate. His over-riding theme is that neo-liberal policies have enabled the commercial sector to conflate everyday life with the Market, to the extent that many people perceive them as the same thing. Lives, he says, have become one long tract of self-seeking through the medium of consumption – the full realisation of the atomised market society.

In a world where either you get what you want or you don’t, societal interaction has been reduced to winner-takes-all, which in turn has the tendency firstly to polarise the options available and secondly to promote the aim of winning as an end in itself, rather than a search for the best solutions. The result is almost perpetual stalemate as preventing ‘the other’ from winning becomes a significant end in its own right, no matter what the cost. This is the logical end-point of the competitive society, while the notion of Compromise as the trade-off reached between one’s own needs and those of others (a.k.a. civil society), has all but disappeared.

All of this seems wearyingly familiar to a resident of the U.K., whose recent national history is one of dutifully following wherever the U.S. leads, no matter how blindingly obvious are the dead-ends . Our national conversation seems almost as marketised (and polarised) as theirs.

Roberts’ solution is to ‘create conscious distance between the market and people’ such that they start to observe again the value of non-market, non-commoditised assets and actions. Altruistic behaviour is a clear example of something that makes no selfish economic sense, but perfect sense seen in collaborative societal terms. Intellectual activity can easily be seen as another.

Government has a role in doing this by less actively promoting the bottom line as the defining criterion for everything, and Roberts identifies education as perhaps the key area where such distance can be created. In other words, we should be promoting the intrinsic and collective benefits of education, not simply defining it as yet another consumer durable whose only value is the monetary or at least material benefits it can (supposedly) deliver to the individual.

Writing in today’s Observer, Julian Coman is just the latest to bemoan the commodisation of university education, which he argues should be society’s greatest bastion of non-material values. And yet this too has been progressively taken down the same path, to lengths that now threaten the very essence of what it surely needs to be as a civilising cultural force within society. Through my wife, I gain regular insights into policy at our local university, and the extent to which it is now being run like a profit maximising, hard-sell and sometimes quite disingenuous business is quite galling.

The thing these various reports – along with many others – have in common, is the hint that new thinking is gradually gaining a hearing. After several decades of market-dominance, this is going to take time, but it seems that just possibly, at last, the inevitable limits of the market society are being recognised, and that maybe we need to rebalance our nation in favour of broader values. Education, of course, can play a major part in that – not by what it directly teaches (though less pressure to teach to the test would be a welcome step, and not only because of the messages it sends to the next generation) but through the things that are asked of it by society, and the mechanisms by which it is allowed to work.

The fact that there are many people now pointing out these shortcomings in the policies of recent decades is, of course, no guarantee that they will be widely listened to, nor that we can actually figure out what can be done about the manifest problems. Couching the necessary arguments in terms of false dichotomies doesn’t help: accepting the limitations of the exam system, for example, need in no way imply that the only alternative is a structure-less free-for-all. What it does need is a more realistic acceptance of the imponderability of much of life, and a rejection of the bogus quantification of many aspects of it.

But just maybe these really are the green shoots of a more sensible, balanced era to come. We can but hope.

Road Rage

I travel around 12,000 miles per year to and from work – or put another way, that is around 350 hours each year observing the major public space that is the modern highway. All life is here, and I have witnessed all manner of happenings over the years. I think this is sufficient for me to say with some certainty that much of the most inconsiderate, most aggressive behaviour I see is from those in luxury vehicles who, one might have thought, have clearly done well enough out of society to manifest a greater sense of responsibility than they often do.

What has this to do with education? Well, the holiday-remove from the immediate daily concerns provides a space to mull over wider issues – such as the purpose of what we do. Working in education has become such an intensive experience that it is easy to lose sight of that greater purpose – but it is therefore more important than ever that we do take stock occasionally. So please bear with me.

Summer reading so far has been The Year of Living Danishly and The Impulse Society. These two have unexpectedly provided a contrast that was food for much reflection on the nature of the society that we are helping to create.–Uncovering-the-Secrets-of-th/18113010–Whats-Wrong-with-Getting-What-We-Want/16462889

The Danes have been consistently reported as being the happiest nation on Earth. Helen Russell investigated why this is so – and her experiences shed as much light on what it is to be a driven Londoner as a laid-back Dane. Behind the light reading, there is some provocative comment on just how work- and career-oriented British life has become, such that Russell finds it difficult to cope with the time freed up by the short Danish working week. Initially she also struggles without the constant frenzied consumerism of London life where everything is laid on for the taking. She finds it difficult even to spend sustained time with her husband, so used are they to barely seeing each other.

And yet she gradually comes to understand how a slower, less aspirational life has its merits. It even allows her to conceive, something that had conspicuously not happened in her previous life. In summary, Russell attributes Danes’ happiness to:

  • A deep sense of connection to the people and places where they live. People know each other and are more socially supportive than in racier societies.
  • A sense of tradition, where the routines and customs of Danish life are widely participated in, which breeds a sense of belonging, stability and rhythm.
  • Attention to their physical surroundings. High quality design brings a sense of calm and aestheticism to daily life, particularly important during the dark winters.
  • A strong social security system, so that people are well supported during times such as parenthood, unemployment or illness. Taxes are relatively high (up to 56%) but people accept this since they understand the benefits. It also makes life more flexible – for example the 80%-of-salary unemployment benefit makes it viable to resign from a job and look at length for something more rewarding.
  • Relatively high levels of social and economic equality.
  • Danish corporate culture subscribes to the above, with little of the long-hours or hierarchical mind-sets of the British workplace. Employers widely recognise the importance of treating staff well and accept that Danes work to live, not the opposite.
  • Possibly a genetic predisposition for happiness. This is supported by a lack of the material competitiveness seen in the U.K., so that people tend to focus on their good fortune rather than constantly yearning for more.

Having been able to spend more time in the small town where I live, rather than treating it as a dormitory, some of these issues became more evident to me in recent weeks: the simple pleasures of chatting to the local shop-keepers, of seeing people I know in the street, of being able to take a different, longer route, of not being driven by constant time pressure. These are all small things, but they noticeably contribute to a sense of wellbeing, perhaps a bit like the Danish concept of Hygge. In a difficult summer for world events, such smallness has been very welcome.

The Impulse Society, by contrast, shows just where other countries, the UK included, are going wrong. It questions whether providing for individuals’ every whim is actually advisable. The premise here is that modern abundance is incompatible with our primitive instincts, and many people are simply struggling to cope with the (commercially-fuelled) conflict that results.

Commercialised societies supposedly empower individuals by allowing them to tailor every aspect of their lives to their individual preferences, in the process excluding anything that is displeasurable. But this easily becomes a form of narcissism in which the individual’s very existence becomes dedicated to chasing ‘self expression’ – largely through the process of consumption.

The problem here is that welcome emancipation is rapidly overtaken by pure, basic greed. As people become more and more able to gratify themselves, their willingness to accommodate or compromise with others decreases; tolerance of diversity diminishes and people become increasingly insistent that they must prevail.

The result is an inflated sense of empowerment generated as every want is met, and a decreasing sense of obligation to anything beyond Self. This, Paul Roberts suggests, is why the wealthy buy large vehicles and then drive them badly. The heightened sense of status ‘entitles’ them to behave as they wish, while externalising the costs onto others, with whom empathy has disappeared. Bluntly, in a crash it is the other guy (in the smaller vehicle) who is meant to die. This certainly chimes with my almost daily experience.

Much of Roberts’ book is concerned with the effects of the growth (and crash) of high finance in western societies. This too is driven by the desire for ever quicker, larger and easier gratification. But the greed instinct means that any sense of restraint is quickly lost, even when the result is likely to be self-destructive. And equally importantly, Get-Rich-Quick sucks both resources and labour out of those parts of the economy that are more genuinely useful and productive. This is in part due to the fact that those tend to require more effort, skill and time to produce a benefit. Individual hegemony consequently diminishes the ability of societies to solve collective problems.

What has this to do with education? The answer, I think, is that our education system, as a significant part of our societisation process, needs to reflect very hard on the values, behaviours and attitudes it transmits.

Too much of what we do is now predicated on the individual benefits that supposedly accrue to those who pass successfully through the system. Much of that is expressed in purely monetary terms; much of it is about employability rather than a wider life.

The systems in place too often reflect the production lines of the workplace rather than a process of intellectual development, and they condition people to place this centrally in their lives. The extension of the school day into revision classes in evenings, weekends and holidays encourages a long-hours culture at the expense of wider activities, ‘consumed’ revision in place of self-reliance.

Too little attention is paid to the enhancement of quality, as opposed to the quantity – of life. While there have been improvements in school environments, there are many other aspects of quality of experience that are neglected simply because of time pressures.

Schools themselves have been encouraged to think in economic terms. Large school and class sizes may not statistically impact on ‘results’ – but the human experience of being a small cog in a large machine depersonalises the experience in just the way that Danish life does not. In terms of human experience, I increasingly conclude that small is beautiful, simply because it is manageable for the human brain. Small classes and schools feel better – and that is what matters.

More consideration needs to be given to how such values can be implanted in children. Liberal self-expression can certainly free people – but I think it is becoming clear that taken too far it has just as much ability to enslave as compliant small-mindedness. In fact, it can become just another expression of the same thing. Greater emphasis on shared values may be very desirable for all that it marginally restrains individual freedoms. In fact, it is too much freedom of expression that is at the root of low-level disruption in many classrooms; more conformism would certainly not go amiss in this sense.

Holidays feel good for a reason: they are good for the soul. They are only a problem for people whose lives have been so narrowed that they don’t know what to do when they are not working. Too much of daily working life feels the opposite; there is a reason for this too.

The Danes (and the Swiss who are in some ways similar in outlook) seem to understand how to reconcile a materially high standard of living with more humane values that provide genuine happiness and protect against the antisocial treadmill that daily life has become in many countries.

“Education should allow you to feel the equal of anyone – but superior to no one”.

And yet so much of what we do, even in the education system, simply perpetuates our difficulties.

What if everything they told you….? (with apologies to David Didau)

I guess I had a pretty traditional up-bringing, being taught by my parents that adults were sensible people who knew what they were doing. O tempora! O mores!

I am increasingly of the view that the vast mass of humanity actually has very little idea at all what it is up to, something that education has so far only managed to fiddle with around the edges. One might have thought, however, that those who put themselves forward for positions of power or responsibility would have had an above-average grasp of the larger tides of human affairs, and have been aware of the various ways of interpreting them. It seems maybe not.

Naturally there are differing, sometimes competing readings of the world, and it is unlikely that there will ever be consensus on the way forward – but one might have expected those with the power to make significant decisions at least to have considered a range of alternatives. It seems that even that is too much to hope for. In recent months, I have had several conversations with people both in and out of education, where an awareness of some pretty important ideas was most conspicuous by its absence.

I accept that my tendency to home in on alternative views perhaps sends me in less-trodden directions. I do this not because I am a serial rebel, but because I believe that one has an educated duty at least to find out what those alternatives are, particularly when the present choice seems not to be working very well. And I am not talking about obscure issues; Oliver James (Affluenza), Daniel Pink (Drive), Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (Flow) and Margaret Heffernan (Wilful Blindness) are hardly insignificant – and yet the vast majority of people, even within the profession, seem never to have heard of them. As I said, one might have thought that those charged with making significant decisions would have at least ranged widely before settling their own outlooks.

And yet ideas that people work best when nurtured rather than put-upon, that intrinsic motivations normally out-strip extrinsic ones, that internal challenge is a key driver of human actions, or that management often cannot/chooses not to see as much as it thinks – seem widely unknown. I am not suggesting that everyone should agree with these ideas – but one might expect them to have at least been considered before adopting the opposite.

I am making further progress through Ha-Joon Chang’s book, and I am increasingly impressed by his critical but balanced approach to the ‘truths’ upon which much contemporary social and economic policy is based. He has just addressed the relationship between education and economic growth, upon which much recent policy in Britain has been based.

He dismantles the claim that education is the key to economic growth, examining the many cases where growth occurred despite a lack of education. He dismisses claims that the modern ‘knowledge economy’ changes the game – salient knowledge has always been the source of competitive advantage, he says, so nothing new there. What is more important is the structure within which it is deployed.

He goes on to discuss the weak and unimportant link between what is taught in schools and workplace skills. He argues that it is usually generic skills that give graduates the edge, rather than subject expertise. It cannot be otherwise, since workplaces are too diverse ever to be catered for at school level, even university level, and their specific demands can often only be learned on the job. It is an error to believe otherwise.

He examines the case of Switzerland, which has achieved the world’s highest economic productivity and yet has one of the lowest rates of university enrolment. Until 1996, it was just 16%. (He does rather ignore that country’s extensive system of vocational training – but this is not inconsistent: work-specific training has a better chance of driving economic growth than the general education that schools can offer). Chang offers wider examples that suggest that education is a very weak driver of economic growth, and that research has failed to find much correlation between growth and even fairly concrete measures such as maths scores. If we want to head in that direction, maybe we should take note.

Yet Chang is not arguing for less education. He says it is one of the most important things a society can provide for its people – but its benefits are not primarily economic. Education’s role is to broaden and enrich people’s lives in ways that material wealth alone cannot. Its main economic contribution is indirect: the creation of a contented and independent population/workforce that lives balanced lives and has the perspective to understand that good economic functioning is an important but not unique aspect in a well-lived life.  Knowing Switzerland well, I would say this is a very apparent characteristic of that country (but not of the U.K).

Chang argues that the drive to increase participation in higher education has also been misplaced. The economic role of education, he says, is largely limited to indicating to employers the level of skill they might expect from a given individual; all the growth of higher education has done is to dilute the skill-set one might expect of a graduate – and having a regular news-feed from our local university, this would seem to be the case. The result has simply been degree-inflation and the down-grading of graduate status. Further evidence that more education can even be economically counter-productive.

Chang’s view is of course only one among many – and yet it seems to me that he and the many others who are arguing for different approaches are systematically ignored by those who actually make policy, be that governments or individual school managers. What’s more, at the risk of my own confirmation-bias, I would say that it seems like common-sense to individuals like me who think a lot about such matters – and yet even within our own establishments, we are too often voices in the wilderness.

At a time when many social and economic problems seem more intractable than ever, one might have thought it wise at least to be casting around for as many views as possible – but bitter experience tells me that entrenched dogma seems to be the order of the day. Those who reach positions of power do not necessary know better than – or perhaps even as well as – some of the rest of us. Is it just ambition or ruthlessness, rather than breadth of vision that allows them to rise, thereby perpetuating one (often harshly Darwinian) view at the expense of the others?

What price enlightened decision-making?

First, engage the correct brain…

There are times when one has to stop being a subject teacher and just be a teacher. When concentration is lagging, or pupils are whingeing about the lack of Fun, I’ve found that they seem to resonate somewhat with a ‘three brains’ model. I’m not claiming any credit for it since it just grew from my reading of basic psychology, notably the work of Daniel Kahneman.

Silently, I just clear part of the board, and draw a simple side-profile of a head, with a brain inside. I put three asterisks at the back, middle and front and number them one, two, three. Curiosity has often been aroused by this point. I either label the diagram, of give a simple verbal explanation along the lines of 1) primitive (rear) brain, responsible for metabolic function 2) mid-brain, responsible for emotions and 3) front brain, responsible for higher thought.

Two and Three correspond to Kahneman’s two modes of thought. I explain that people’s minds ‘naturally’ reside in Brain Two, where emotional responses rule, whereas learning requires the use of Brain Three, higher thought. I  explain that Brain Three also requires most ‘energy’ and one has actively to move one’s mind into that mode.

It’s over-simple – but in the last month I have had three occasions when pupils have bounced the idea back at me in subsequent lessons. It’s something they seem not to know, which is odd when one considers how much effort has gone into meta-thinking about the educative process. I think this also helps to explain some of the issues I’ve raised in my previous two posts: a life of indulgence has the effect of pampering Brain Two, while reducing the need to activate Brain Three. While people can aspire on the grounds that Brain Two is unhappy, it requires Brain Three thought to figure this out – and pampered people have little reason to make this effort.

But I think it is a mistake to imply that Brain Three is the only important one. People need to be able to leave Brain Two in good hands in order to be able to put themselves in Brain Three mode, without the self-fulfilling worry that Brain Two will reassert itself. It’s why people can’t think when they are afraid, or when their basic needs are being threatened. That is why I’ve always considered that building good relationships with pupils is paramount, and far more important than any teaching techniques that one subsequently chooses.

My current reading is Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, which despite its glib title, is a thoughtful critique of economic theory. As a South Korean (now Cambridge professor) he has an interesting position from which to comment on the way Britain runs its affairs, including education. It might suggest that we have been guilty of running our society too strictly along the lines of economic Brain Three, while ignoring the costs of neglecting welfare Brain Two.

Thing 5: Assume the worst about people and you will get the worst.

People are not rational economic beings, motivated only by self-interest. If you assume that, you will contaminate people’s evident other motivations, and spend inordinate amount of precious resources checking up on them to make sure they aren’t cheating. You will also add pressure that will make them more likely to cheat for self-preservation.

Thing 9: We do not live in a post industrial society.

The salient point is that you cannot increase productivity in services the way you can ramp it up in manufacturing. If you do, it will be at the cost of quality.

“In some cases, the very attempt to increase productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a twenty-seven minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled?”

School managements and government ministers take note.

Maybe the twain could meet…

Last week’s lesson observation fortunately went well, but as so often, the greatest insight was unexpected. After the observer had departed, the Year 9 class, who had put themselves instinctively on their best behaviour (there are still some one can rely on) relaxed somewhat. They had done 45 minutes of formal study of the possibilities for widening wealth distribution in India. They had worked hard and asked pertinent questions, and had told the observer that they found the subject interesting.

But towards the end of the lesson, many expressed exhaustion at the effort required to sustain their concentration for “so long”. For my part, I had been thinking that it was just what I would expect a normal, undisrupted lesson to be like, pretty much like how every lesson used to be when I was at school.

These are children who can expect a crop of top exam grades in a few years time – and yet quite innocently, they confessed that sustaining concentration for three-quarters of an hour was an exceptional demand on them. Yet again I was momentarily transfixed by the starkness of the contrast between what I consider to be a normal teacherly expectation and the starting-point of even able children. It occurred to me that summed up in that simple exchange lay the entirety of the conflict of expectation I quite often experience with my classes.

The experience cast new light on the complaints, later in the week, of another class, that the assessment I had set them was “so difficult” (it wasn’t) – as though that was an unreasonable thing to do. Somewhere, we have failed to transmit suitable expectations to these children – and to prepare them to be able to meet them.

I’ve been asked several times recently what I think of the protests over the testing regime. I’m in two minds. I can remember, even in primary school, doing sustained reading tests, and a series of others, one of which we were dimly aware was the Eleven Plus; I don’t think we felt greatly stressed by such things- it was just what the teacher gave us. And while the yearly grammar school exam regime was distinctly draconian compared with anything I witness now, and we hated it, we coped.

I have few issues with testing as such, even the proposed base line tests, as I think teachers do need to know who and what they are dealing with: how else can they devise suitable strategies or assess successful learning? On the other hand, the stress that testing causes may well be unhelpful, and I also have deep reservations about the way in which modern education in the U.K. has turned into factory-farming. I am increasingly convinced that the narrowness of the regime and the degree of compulsion backing it is a major cause of the indifference and indolence amongst young people that I referred to in my previous post. I worry that a great deal of the wider educational experience and benefit has been lost, to our collective impoverishment.

The balance between rigorous standards and a broad education is being presented as an irresolvable dichotomy. I don’t think it need be so, and a lot of it comes down not to the children at all, but to those who frame education. For all that I propound a rich, wide and intrinsic purpose for education, I don’t think that this needs to be advanced by unstructured classroom ‘play’. Teachers should model high-level intelligent thought and transmit the message that a serious but broad mind is a desirable asset, that is as personally rewarding as it is practically useful. The achievement of such a state demands high levels of concentration and thought, which children need to be shown and expected to work for. They need to be given a serious-minded programme (including due testing) that equips them for this. Unstructured ‘fun’ in the classroom clearly sets up an entirely different, and in my mind inferior, expectation which serves children increasingly badly as they get older.

The issue of stress is, I think, vicarious. My impression is that most is not coming from the children, but their parents and teachers. Undoubtedly this transmits to the children too: why wouldn’t it if the significant adults in their lives are constantly trumping up the stakes and exhibiting serious signs of anxiety themselves? The fact that these adults increasingly believe that education is a zero-sum game (which is, after all what they have been told) is where the stress comes from. With base-line tests, helicopter parents will be anxious that their little dears do not besmirch the upbringing they have thus far been given, or fail to exhibit the early signs of genius; the SATS of course are a public trumpeting of the success or otherwise of both the parents and the schools upon which multiple fortunes hang.

The problem is neither formal teaching and testing nor the breadth of the curriculum, which need not conflict at all – but the stakes we are being made to play for. I suspect that if we were just to shut up about all this, children would pass more smoothly and perhaps more successfully through a balanced regime of testing-within-learning without all the angst that is supposedly being created along the way.

And if we were also to shut up about education needing to be both ‘fun’ and economically relevant, if we allowed teachers the autonomy to model their own good practice and to make enlightened decisions about what to teach, we could restore the balance between the demands of formal study and the intrinsic value that allows it to remain interesting to children, in a way that could indeed resolve a multitude of problems.

Parallel lives

I spent Friday evening at one of Old Andrew’s blog-meets. It did little to disabuse me of the opinion from my previous post that education in the U.K. is an utter mess. True, voices of discontent often shout louder than others, and I do not doubt that plenty of British children still receive a decent education. But I wonder for how much longer this can continue when it is being provided by a profession that is in a state of perpetual turmoil.

The present system has been developing for over a quarter of a century – so what are its achievements? If it is so successful, why the endless quest for the supposed educational Holy Grail? And why are we facing a severe recruitment crisis?

We do not seem to be producing generations of inquisitive, thoughtful people who are moving society in enlightened directions. Judging from the snippets I hear daily, everyday life for the majority is cruder and more intellectually dead than for generations before. Basic functional and life skills seem to show little improvement, and if my experience is typical, more likely deterioration. Certainly, exam results rose – but were not above accusations of manipulation and dumbing down. For all the initiatives, I am not seeing substantially more motivated, educated people emerging. Dylan Wiliam appeared to be pointing to a sort of economic retrenchment as justification for educating; how uplifting is that?

We have also created a teaching profession which seems more widely disillusioned and burned-out than ever before. My previous post elicited comments describing people being over-worked to the point of distraction; of others being put in positions verging on victimisation from which their only escape was to leave teaching. Friday evening was dominated by the frustrations of teachers trying to make the system work, but also to preserve some vestiges of their own sanity. Perhaps the other end of the table was having happier discussions…

Simultaneously, we have witnessed the emergence of a managerial culture that often only has one solution – to be even more intransigent. It is one whose baseline is that educated people – potential role-models – are ignorant and lazy, or else elitist.

These problems are utterly self-made. Teaching is fundamentally not a complex process. It involves finding ways of communicating knowledge and skills to those who don’t have them. Most of these rely on nothing more than the ordinary principles of interaction upon which all human behaviour is based. Key among them is Trust: the fact that one is genuine, something which can be relied upon when the way forward is not clear. Even children dislike being overtly manipulated.

More mysterious are the consequences  of education: it does have a real effect. In particular, getting people to use their rational as opposed to emotional minds brings about changes too complex to elaborate here.

But the process of doing this, particularly with immature minds, is not as direct as those in charge think. The great mistake has been to confuse deeply ordinary, humane interactions that lead to real learning with the technical, large-scale objectives for it – and then to allow the process to be dictated by the latter.

After thirty years, I have developed ways of reaching most pupils. For all that I follow certain principles, many are utterly peculiar to me. And I just know that children leave my lessons being a little better educated – even if they don’t always enjoy or realise it at the time. Yes, it is broadly measurable – but the more important benefits are intangible, such as the relationships I build with them, and the experience of reaching something that feels like insight.

But my difficulty, time and time again – as with many teachers I encounter – is that this does not match what Policy says education should be about. A less hubristic system might conclude that it was the policy that was wrong. But the psycho-tricks of power mean that this is the last question being asked. Time and again, it demands unachievable results using unrealistic methods. It has lost all sight of what ordinary teachers in ordinary classroom can actually deliver, and forces them to live parallel lives, doing what they know works – then pretending to do what they system wants when it is watching. As a way of delivering effective education, this is madness – and in terms of needless workload (and the morale it destroys) it is a disaster.

From my earlier lesson observation, which acknowledged good teaching but still ‘Required Improvement’ because I did not tick enough procedural boxes, to recent experiences of colleagues failing to meet delusory targets, to the whole marking/workload issue, to teachers feeling the only solution is to leave, to the ‘mysterious’ loss of older pupils’ motivation, this is a crisis manufactured by the application of the wrong system to a subtle and almost indefinable process.

Yet it is so engrained as to have become almost articles of the faith. Even John Tomsett repeated recently,

(Head) teachers are rightly challenged to ensure every single student gets the best examination outcomes possible.

I understand the thinking – but no! The responsibility for exam outcomes has to lie with the pupils; teachers cannot – and should not – control enough of the factors, and in any case, the view that ‘all shall have prizes’ is logically flawed. Besides, there are many more purposes to education than exam results or individual self-maximisation. I hope John also remembers what he wrote about Learned Helplessness, which seems to me to be a far more pressing problem.

This is now more about league-tables and inspections and careers than real education: that was lost long ago. And one might ask where the limits lie. Perhaps we should actually sit the exams for the pupils? That would certainly drive up exam results.

Also ignored is the trade-off between the needs of pupils and the entirely legitimate interests of those who teach them. The single-minded focus on pupils has been an excuse to neglect teachers, for example over just treatment or a reasonable work-life balance. It has too often led to the non-solution of flogging teachers harder. The excuse that there is no alternative is not a solution: teachers are not there to be the punch-bag of the system. In any case, any sensible factory-owner will recognise the need to keep the machinery in good working order.

Unlike in many neighbouring countries, British education seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. What goes on in classrooms is not so different – it is the power that managers have over teachers. Much of my daily energy goes not into battling with unwilling kids (which in any case is what I’m paid for) but into navigating a system that seems intent on making life as difficult as it knows how.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what teachers need to do in classrooms in order to get children to learn, and what those driving the system want it to do. The real irony is that there is no fundamental disagreement about those larger aims – but too many of those who have removed themselves from day-to-day teaching have forgotten that they are best achieved humanely, and that issuing more diktats, bureaucracy, constraints and ways to fail are not likely to make them any more reachable. Indeed, current experience suggests that they are having precisely the opposite effect. And in the process, a monster has been created.

Teaching profession? What other profession drives its own practitioners to disillusion? Right now, I’d call it a shambles.


Fish64 recently pointed me towards Dylan Wiliam’s sexily-titled book Embedded Formative Assessment  (thanks) but being stingy, I took a ‘look inside’ on Amazon first… Chapter One begins:

Wiliam 5

Two things struck: Wiliam talks about ‘educational achievement’ and not education; I assume this is intentional. I concede that I have not read the rest, but on this showing I am not inclined to.

Secondly, I wonder what Wiliam thinks about the education that leads to the all-important ‘achievement’. How does reading Shakespeare’s plays or studying the customs of rainforest peoples lead to ‘achievement’? Perhaps he has the times-tables more in mind, but then he is a mathematician…  I’m also curious about how he manages to define achievement so precisely. Maybe I should read it after all.

He continues:

Wiliam 6

Now, he may be right about the harsh economic realities of the world. I don’t think many would contest the need to be self-supporting, nor that reducing unnecessary burdens on the State is undesirable. Nor is it wrong to look to the future, though Dylan risks falling prey to the ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ fallacy.

But I read with a heavy heart. For if these are the only reasons that an eminent educationalist can find to justify educating people, then we really are in trouble. Becoming an educated person has been subordinated to the abstract of ‘achievement’; in this view, the day-to-day reality of teaching real children in real classrooms has no other purpose than to stave off macro-scale socio-economic disaster.

I do not get up on dark January mornings with such utterly miserable aims in mind.

For all that these things are undoubtedly useful by-products of what we do, to have sunk to such utilitarian depths fills me with despondency. Are we really suggesting that the pleasure to be had from an appreciation of poetry or world culture or scientific insight is of no higher use that keeping the pay-cheques rolling in? And in any case, global trends are tending to de-skill most work, not the opposite – so will more education really help?

At present, I am loosely privy to investigations into under-achievement in older students. My reluctance to discuss specifics makes it difficult to be more precise, but I know this group well and have worked with its predecessors for over 25 years, longer than anyone else involved. I have noticed changes from close at hand; I have views on what the issues are, supported by an accumulated back-catalogue of comment and discussion.

Here we have a microcosm of the wider problem: those addressing the issue have tried any number of technical fixes and none has worked. The thinking seems to be that what is needed is more control, more coercion and less freedom. The solution is seen in changing the procedures.

I beg to differ. Both this approach and Dylan Wiliam’s book are missing something essential, namely that education is about people, not machines. In fact, people generally intensely dislike being treated as though they are machines. I don’t care how many books dissecting the human mind tell us that it is all a matter of brain chemistry and cold behaviouralism: people do not experience life like this, and therefore do not understand it thus.

Those who believe people can be engineered in this way, and that successful education is simply a matter of getting the systems right, miss the vital point. What is actually needed is more emphasis on the intrinsic life-affirming qualities of education, and less on the dull routines. The situation I described above is both a delicious and an exasperating example of the limitations of the technocrat’s world-view, the most striking evidence yet that my instincts are correct. I am simultaneously bathing in schadenfreude and wishing I could do more to help.

My certainty comes from two sources: in a rather oblique way, I asked the students for their perceptions. I am in a slightly unusual position, one that perhaps gains me answers they wouldn’t give under more senior scrutiny; more of this anon.

The second source is even simpler: the experience of the other human beings enduring similar difficulties: their teachers.

Teaching is often described, with reason, as the most satisfying of occupations, and yet many of the teachers I know best sound increasingly sick to the back teeth of it. I will not mince my words: I know many dedicated, competent and hard-working teachers who seem utterly hacked off with the way their chosen profession is going.

It’s not the teaching, nor for the most part the pupils. And I’m not even aiming for the easy (management) target – but the fact is, the whole joyous ensemble has been reduced to little more than an unremitting grind by the sheer pointless tedium of the production-line mentality.

This most creative and intellectually stimulating of activities is having every last breath of life squashed from it by the endless, grinding routine of targets, reviews, initiatives and yet more targets. The pleasure of learning has been replaced by the fear of failure, curiosity usurped by the dullness of tick-box and target review. And so far, I’m only taking about the teachers.

When I asked the students what they felt was important they were forthright:

  • Schools that feel like a community not an exam factory.
  • Teachers who know you as a person not an exam target.
  • A regime that does not threaten and constrain as its way of ‘motivating’.
  • Interesting things to learn, from teachers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.
  • And they were honest enough to admit that their own motivation was key: without it, no amount of coercion will work; with it, none is necessary.

There are other subtexts – but the fundamentals are little different from how the teachers are feeling about their work. It is about nothing more than the basic considerations of the ‘Humane Factor’.

We might learn two things:

  1. Forcing people to teach or learn (well) doesn’t work.
  2. Paying people, whether in certificates or salaries, is not enough either.

And this is precisely what the technocrats cannot see even when it is staring them in the face.

Both teachers and pupils are utterly beset by imposed diktats that sap their morale, kill their interest and reduce their work to little more than a chore for the sake of keeping their superiors off their backs. Each time they jump, the only response is ‘jump higher’. And we wonder why motivation evaporates…

I know from bitter experience, when you cloak education in bureaucracy and compulsion, it kills the vital interest STONE DEAD. The only motivation left is to survive in the bland and futile world that remains.

The most likely human reaction is to put the brakes on. There comes a point where enough is enough, where the tank is empty, where there simply is no more to give. And at that point, people start refusing to co-operate. They become desperate to preserve what remains of their autonomy and wider lives and if anything, commitment falls.

And the people who instigated these systems? They look on with puzzled expressions, wondering why their clever science and management algorithms no longer give the results they expect. But being products of a utilitarian world where nothing other than mechanical pragmatism and material outputs matter, they do not see. What’s more, though all this is hardly news (there is a large body of work from people like Daniel Pink on what really motivates people), they do not have the grace to listen to anyone who dares suggest that they have it wrong. Their only remedy is More of the Same.

I’m not given to sympathy for wide-eyed progressives who believe that education should be a process of indulgence, but this surely worse. I don’t believe we have an entitlement to a cushy life, but is this really the best the (arguably) most advanced civilisation the world has known can come up with for even its more privileged members?

To reduce one of the great civilising and cultivating forces of human existence to nothing more than an exercise in defensive utilitarianism is a catastrophe. It crushes the spirit – not that those responsible would understand, less care, for such concepts. It turns life to dull routine, grind, drudgery. It kills optimism and the genuine appetite for knowledge. We become just grist to a particularly faceless, mean-spirited mill. And it’s insidious: it reaches even into my weekend, when I sit down to plan the week’s lessons.

Wiliam’s error is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. True, the world around us is changing – but the basic needs of ordinary people really do not change very much. The basic functions of life remain broadly the same, as do those of the human mind, such as the ability to be motivated or bored, fascinated or uninspired.

There is very little point in trying to organise a small-scale, bespoke activity like teaching from the perspective of the macro-strategist. What is important is not whether economic Armageddon is being averted, but whether people are finding their education interesting, whether they are making sense of the world around them, whether they feel valued and cared for – and whether they can go on to live largely ordinary but fulfilled lives; this isn’t primarily about ‘achievement’.

The problems facing education are not those of macro economics. But in creating an education system predicated the converse, they have utterly failed to notice that these are not the things that inspire people, unlike the fascination that comes from a genuinely lively, humane mind. And if this comes good, most of those larger concerns will probably take care of themselves. You can only create an educated society by creating educated people. Yet the system has created such vast amounts of pointless busy-work that people scarcely have time to pay attention to the things that really do matter, such as the time to think deeply or to build meaningful relationships.

I don’t doubt that Dylan Wiliam is correct about the trends, but a much better approach would be to educate people for a world where they see different priorities, different ways of finding fulfilment and of supporting themselves. It means lifting our eyes from the ground – what education has long been about – not simply fixing them ever more firmly in the dirt. It may mean helping people to find fulfilment elsewhere than the shopping mall. Wiliam’s is an outlook based on an Affluenza-fear of losing what we have got – but the solution is not to make the anxiety greater.

This approach has turned education into little more than an unending cycle of grinding procedural drudgery. Willing workers have been turned into resentful slaves, and those responsible look on uncomprehendingly while their grandiose visions fail before their eyes, and then they crack the whip once more.

No wonder people are looking for ways out.


Club, spear, operate!

I work at a school that, in its wisdom is continuing with the numerical grading of individual lesson observations. I do not comment publicly on my school’s policies, and indeed this is a practice that has doubtlessly helped the school attain its success, whatever the rights and wrongs of continuing with it now.

The recent observation of one of my lessons , while by no means a disaster, did not go as well as planned. I’m coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t perform well under scrutiny; I doubt I’m alone. In fact, I’ve always suffered from stage fright, which I had to work hard as an amateur musician to conquer. (The key is the realisation that an audience is almost never hostile, which may not always be said for the tone of some lesson observation frameworks).

I digress.Suffice it to say that I made what turned out to be a wrong call in one of those snap decisions over the track of the lesson, which slowed subsequent work and made it difficult to demonstrate students’ progress before the lesson ended. (No matter that we finished the task today with some very good thinking being shown by the class).

I was expecting this criticism, though I think that taking such a narrow view of lesson outcomes defies any sensible rationale. Does it really matter that because a snap decision failed to pay off, it took a class an extra half-hour to complete their work, so long as the result was good?

I was not, however, expecting the other criticisms. The first was that I had not put my objectives on the board at the start of the lesson. It was not sufficient to have a question/title in place, nor the fact that stating the objectives would have revealed the epiphany which I wanted the pupils to reach for themselves (which they duly if belatedly did).

The second was that too much time was spent on gathering factual information – even though it was clearly new information, and that the resource sheets required understanding and interpretation in order to acquire the salient points. I wonder whether this subtlety was even noticed. And here I was hoping that the blobby hatred of anything factual was dying out…

The final criticism was that pupils were not able to give specifics as to what they “need to do next to improve at Geography”. This question reveals a profound failure to understand the nature of learning; one might as well ask what they needed to do to bring about world peace. Non-specific questions of this sort cannot be honestly answered in any meaningful way, so it is not surprising that the pupils floundered.

Geography relies heavily on gaining a holistic understanding of the interactions of a vast number of natural and human phenomena, and trying to reduce it to simplistic linear progression is utter nonsense. Or at least using this as a success indicator is.

As I’ve observed before, in the hands of the experienced, rules can be gainfully broken. Unfortunately, the systems don’t allow for this, while the less experienced (or less imaginative) can fail to appreciate it. I don’t doubt that those doing the observing were dutifully following orders and I accept that the lesson was not perfect; we’re all human! But someone, somewhere devised the tick-list in use without much regard for the reality of teaching and learning, as opposed to mere performance.

It just goes to show what happens if you equip even the most well-meaning with a club and spear and then expect them to conduct brain surgery.

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.


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.

The Limits of Skill.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow seems to be often-cited by those in education who advocate macro-scale ‘evidence’ over individual experience.

The book provides some challenging insights from an educator’s perspective, but it seems to me that this is another case of confirmation bias on the part of those with a particular axe to grind. Kahneman’s work has been (mis)appropriated for ideological purposes in much the same way as has happened, I suspect, to that of Carol Dweck.

The early chapters do indeed appear to dismiss the ability of the human mind to make rational sense of the world around it, when compared with the power of statistical analysis. A key foundation of Kahneman’s work is the dominance of the instinctive mind over the rational part, whereby much of our understanding of the world is constructed from a series of assumptions that may – or may not – resemble a more objective reality.  But this is certainly not the main thrust of the book, which is concerned with the failure of (economic) rationalism to explain observed human behaviour. Kahneman is, after all, the father of behavioural economics.

It is easy to see how this argument could shift decision-makers towards the use of algorithms, as seems to have happened in everything from job interviews to teaching methods, to ways of assessing educational outcomes. I will naively assume that its tendency also to shift decision-making away from front-line practitioners towards managers and policy-makers – The Few who have access to supposedly more sophisticated aggregate data – is merely coincidence…

But Kahneman’s central theme is more sophisticated than that: he argues that the world is so complex that a key, often-ignored determinant is Chance, coupled with the tendency of phenomena to revert to the mean (in other words, the norm). He proceeds to show how so-called expert analysis is often no more reliable than a random guess.

He also distinguishes between two sorts of human intuition: that which operates in ‘low validity’ circumstances, where predictions are based on hunches against essentially random events – and that which operates in regular circumstances, whereby the practitioner has had the ability to learn from experience in a controlled and repeating environment. A stock market trader is an example of the former; a clinical practitioner the latter.

The former he shows to be little more than guesswork – whereas the latter is in fact the act of experienced individuals subconsciously recognising and responding to patterns that they have encountered before, and modifying them as needed. This is close to my experience of teaching over many years, and I think it is a hugely significant distinction that has been ignored by those who use this book to argue for a technical approach.

Kahneman does not address the educational world directly, but one can debate whether the classroom constitutes a regular, learnable environment more than an information-noisy, random-guess situation. Despite the short-term unpredictability of individual lessons, I would argue that in the long term, it does. And if this is so, then Kahneman’s suggestion that considered experience is about as good as most algorithms in making sound decisions can apply to teaching. This is not to suggest that teachers never resort to hunches – but to say that they should not, aiming instead for deeply-considered judgements. But equally, they should be wary of the pseudo-rational claims of statistics.

However, this is still not Kahneman’s over-riding point; in fact, he argues, none of the approaches available to us is likely to make anywhere near as much impact on outcomes as we like to believe.

People have some ability to intuit short-term outcomes with success, based on a reading of circumstances, but this gives the illusion of greater control than actually exists, thereby creating the false sensation of expertise.

The illusion of coherence and the over-confidence that it breeds may indeed make for bad intuitive judgements, and we should beware this.  Hindsight creates the further illusion that events are linear, predictable and controllable, in way that is far less true than faith in human competence demands. Therefore we should also beware of claiming that human skill is able to influence outcomes to anything like the extent that most professions – and their masters – require

It is entirely understandable that professionals being held to close account will crave and claim the power to make things happen in an orderly and predictable way – but if Kahneman is to be believed, it is just not true. It is difficult to argue that anyone should act in a professional capacity simply on the grounds that “I felt like it at the time” – but much easier to acknowledge that long experience is a valid basis for decisions. The higher the degree of confidence, the more we should be suspicious of the claim; it is better to advance cautiously from a position of low certainty – but it takes far greater maturity to concede the limits of one’s powers than to ignore them.

One of the book’s key claims that will stick in my mind is that truly competent experts are those who know and accept the limits of their expertise.

The second half of the book is an exploration of why human behaviour is much better explained by recourse to psychology than the rationalism of classical economics suggests. Given that education deals almost exclusively with the domain of human behaviour, it seems extraordinary that some within it seem intent on finding a rationality equivalent to classical economics, even though that is increasingly shown not to explain the world adequately. One is left wondering whether such people have even read the second half of Kahneman’s moderately-demanding book.

If we accept his findings, as teachers we have little choice but to resort to a skilled heuristic approach. It would be much better to invest our effort in developing this to the highest possible level – while always acknowledging its limits – rather than deceiving ourselves (and everyone else) that education is controllable in the way a production line is.

The flaw with much current educational debate is that it requires knowable endpoints and finely controllable situations that simply cannot be guaranteed; it then holds people unrealistically accountable for delivering them. Moreover, the data-based approach presupposes outcomes whose criteria are little more than arbitrary benchmarks which may have little to do with the real world as experienced through individual lives or that reflect the workings of real causality.

Despite his faith in logic, Kahneman shows why a rationalist world-view is inadequate for explaining the human condition – and in the end, it is surely more use to apply theory to human need than it is to manipulate the latter simply to obey the laws of logic. Just as with economics, education should serve people, not the other way round.