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.


Putting the shine on it Part Two: the God of Small Things.

I’ve always viewed my own professional practice as discrete from the work I do for my school. This is, of course, to some extent a conceit but it serves to remind me about the locus of responsibility for my teaching – and also my reasonable right to develop that practice as I choose, independent of the ideological impositions from outside.

Nearing the end of year 28, I am in the generally pleasant (when unwelcome reality doesn’t intrude) position of having the basics under my belt, of being able to concentrate on and enjoy refining the niceties of my technique. Having said that, something big and totally unexpected will probably creep up and mug me next week…

My card-writing student had just completed a module of A2 work that I consider to be the pinnacle of both my students’ school geography careers, and also of my teaching. It means preparing them for a ninety-minute paper that effectively involves writing a mini-thesis in response to a previously unseen question; there is of course a steering brief from which we work. This brings the students close to undergraduate level, and involves them in individual research, with my role restricted to an amount of factual information-giving and then a great deal of chewing the philosophical cud with them. It is the nearest I get to seeing the ‘finished product’ of my efforts with them, and mighty satisfying it is too, with those who take the bait, when the thinking genuinely does start flowing in both directions. I reckon if they can do this, they have become pretty good thinkers for their age. And if I can do this, I must know my subject pretty well.

I’m certainly not complacent enough to claim I have nothing more to learn – even a time-served teacher can still have an off day, and that’s without the vagaries of the kids. This is why ‘outstanding’ is such nonsense – most of us probably are some of the time – and all of us probably aren’t some of it too. But nonetheless, I am generally enjoying my time controlling the job (relatively speaking), after the many years when to a greater or lesser extent, it controlled me – and before what I suppose will be the likely decline in energy as I approach my sixties and retirement.

I’m not sure my employers, with their different concerns, would agree, but I feel secure in my own mind that I now have a significant understanding of the complex phenomenon that is education, and that I can apply it in practice. The more things progress, the more convinced I am that the arguments presently being advanced for traditional teaching are broadly correct, and that the assumptions underpinning the progressive movement have been one huge intellectual and behavioural wrong turning.

I am equally certain that the present climate of narrow and unrealistic accountability, the targets culture and the general view of teaching as a merely technical procedure is equally misguided – which may well continue to do more to impair the quality of real teaching in this country than its proponents ever even realise.

The best analogy I can find for what I have found is with my other learning experiences in practical and creative fields, the end result of which is closer to that of a skilled artisan than a technician. The learning process has been one of honing skills, of learning from my mistakes and the inspiration of others, of giving meaning to day-to-day experiences by investigating the theoretical underpinnings. It is all far more human – and humane – than the present system seems to realise or want. And the key elements, dare I suggest, are well-judged wisdom and an ongoing conscience, not the ticking of boxes in a technical manual.

Again, my findings are far closer to the traditional interpretation of education than anything else, and I am also increasingly convinced that the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and philosophy can inform our practice as much as any more specifically pedagogic manuals – provided that they are not overdrawn in the way so many ‘new’ silver bullets are.

The key experiences of being at this stage are being able to  teach without even having to think about it. I’m sure that is not what Oftsed or my employers would want to hear, and I don’t mean that I never plan – far from it – but being in front of a class or dealing with individual students is now so instinctive that it is like breathing. I think you need to get to this stage before children take you fully seriously; inexperience always shows, no matter how promising the practitioner, whereas the quiet confidence of experience is such that there is no question in pupils’ minds as to who you are or what you do – even if they still don’t always play ball. This is far more effective than any gimmick.

There is almost no situation that arises of which I have not seen at least a variant before; the response is just there waiting, almost without thought: it’s just the stuff I do. Likewise the ‘pat’ comments just trip off the tongue, and the lesson character that is uniquely, quirkily mine is established enough that most pupils accept it without a second thought.

At least as important is knowing what not to do – and having the self-restraint not to do it anyway. There is, for example, a subtle art in judging precisely at what point a particular verbal intervention is needed: when to say something – and when to stay quiet and let matters roll. There is a subtle art in knowing what will energise – no, wind up – pupils: choosing when to let something lie, or when, deliberately, to say something that gets them going. There is a subtle art in sensing when a miscreant requires serious admonition and when a quiet word will do, when a detention needs to be set, when to let the matter lie with less. There is a quiet art in hitting just the right degree of long-suffering humour that can defuse a situation, or address a problem without escalating it. All of these things are the nuances of teaching that only come, I have found, after many years of effort; many of them, though, just seem to develop of their own accord. It’s akin to a sense of the theatrical

Finally I can do the job like those of my own teachers whom I most admired. I can choose exactly when and where to bring things to a high shine. I can savour the hidden nuances of a good wine.

I cannot finish this post, though, without expressing regret that little of this is what those who judge teachers seem to think is important. Maybe it is just taken for granted – but I think it should not be.  Little of what I have talked about here is visible in a formal lesson observation; indeed the circumstances are more likely to make it all evaporate. It is quite possible that no one ever notices the subtleties other than the individual themself. That shouldn’t matter – they are still highly valuable elements of how teachers teach.

That is why I consider my own practice as separate from my institutional role: at least I know that this is happening, even if no one else does. I know, and am finally reasonably happy with my own brand of teaching. But the fact that such experiences seem ignored, whereas those who are best at jumping through the hoops and then shouting about it are hailed as the best teachers – may partly account for the continuing turbulence within this profession. We need to let all teachers work towards finding their own high shine.

What Money Can’t Buy

I often struggle with educational initiatives. I’ve always been fiercely independent-minded, and I take exception to people telling me what to think, at least when convincing reasoning is not forthcoming. I’m not entirely sure whether this is helpful or not, but I suspect it may be a by-product of owning the kind of restless mind that education arguably seeks to foster – and perhaps those years of knowing just how crucial autonomy is to the classroom teacher.

Nonetheless, one has a professional duty to take reasoned view, and this I always try to do. And one does, to some extent, have to operate within the system one finds, even it is not entirely to one’s liking. Yet as time progresses, I am increasingly confident that my professional instinct is true; I know I have the moral motives of the educator truly at heart – but this only makes it all the harder when, as not-frequently happens, I recoil instinctively from the directive that is being ordained.

Rationalising one’s instinct is not always easy. This is why I think it is essential that teachers look as widely as possible for their perspectives, including the realms of psychology and philosophy. As I suggested in a previous post, I think it is impossible for a teacher to operate fully within the ethical remit of the profession without a degree of moral idealism.

Michael J. Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy is therefore very helpful.  This considers the moral limits of markets – the critical distinction being between a market economy as means of distributing goods, and a market society, where everything (and everyone) has their price. Sandel argues that the effect of this is the erosion of the moral settlement upon which societies function, and the eclipsing of other more benign behaviour.

Sandel’s arguments are elegantly simple, and offer a clear rationale for anyone who like me, has instinctive misgivings over the application of commercial principles to areas of life where they don’t seem appropriate. They can be summed up as follows:

  1. Intrinsic nature of the ‘commodity’.
  2. The Fairness Principle
  3. The Corruption Argument
  4. The Crowding Effect

The intrinsic nature of the commodity.

There are some qualities in life which naturally resist commercialisation. For example, the essential nature of friendship is altruistic and voluntary, not contingent on financial gain. It is possible to purchase the services of someone who will act in all the ways that a personal friend would, but the presence of a payment corrupts the substance of the relationship. Applying the price mechanism to such activities diminishes them, not the converse.

Education is similar: it too is not a commodity but a quality; not mass-replicable, but unique in each person’s experience. Setting targets for its acquisition, character, delivery and application deny the essential nature of the matter and risk narrowing how and why it is experienced.

The Fairness Principle.

Economics argues that the market is the most efficient way of reconciling supply and demand; Sandel counters that demand cannot be fully expressed through the price mechanism. The willingness to pay is an expression not only of the desire but also the ability to pay – and people do not have this equally, for reasons not always within their control; those who cannot pay are disenfranchised. People who pay premium prices may not be expressing the strongest demand or greatest appreciation, but simply the ability their wealth confers for casual trophy-hunting.  Those who pay to by-pass queues may not be expressing the greatest need, but simply their disdain for social justice.

Sandel argues that fairness is an essential societal construct, which explains why people feel outrage towards those who, for example buy access to politicians, or who engage in other nepotistic behaviour. One might observe this in the way rising property prices within the catchments of popular schools exclude those on lower incomes, thus restricting fair access to what is presented as a universal entitlement – let alone the deceit some will resort to in order to secure a place.

First come first served – or even, dare I say, selection on the grounds of exceptional aptitude – is arguably a fairer way to allocate scarce resources than recourse to the depth of people’s pockets.

The Corruption Argument.

Market principles argue that people should be able to buy and sell anything so long as it does not violate the interests of others. But the corruption argument questions the genuine free will of those who sell things such as their bodily organs, against their own deeper interests. Thus the market can operate counter to human wellbeing, and it tends to discriminate against those with lesser means and fewer choices. Education should not endorse this.

Furthermore, putting a price on priceless things (such as education) changes their nature, and with it the way people value them. Paying for private access to politicians, for example, corrupts the nature of (supposed) democracy; paying for kidneys changes the way people regard their bodies. Sandel argues that this is morally wrong, even in a secular sense, as it inequitably redistributes human wellbeing.

Worst of all, the application of price changes incentives – for example, paying people for hitherto selfless acts alters their motives. Sometimes it even results in less action; for example, paying people to donate blood has been shown to reduce the amount given as people feel their altruism has been corrupted.

Similarly, paying pupils and teachers by results subverts their motives, and in the case of teachers divides their loyalties; just about any other incentive given to teachers to ‘perform’ will compromise their integrity in some way. Furthermore, incentives do not always achieve the desired outcome: the market in carbon offsets does not inevitably change the amount of pollution, simply its source – and there is little evidence that payment significantly boosts exam results.

Compromising the altruism of teachers may have serious effects. Applying market principles to education risks valuing the marketable trappings of education (exam grades) over the more elusive cerebral qualities, which cannot be priced. And the more this happens, the more people will concentrate on the tradable facsimiles at the expense of the real thing.

The crowding principle.

Very simply, given its chance, selfish behaviour can easily displace other more socially desirable motives and actions. I would argue that the self-interest/self-protection instinct created by the regime of inspection, quantification and accountability has crowded out the time-honoured, altruistic principles of teaching.

Sandel argues that while moral arguments remain hard to substantiate, it is inescapable that flourishing human life does depend on attributes such as health, friendship, wisdom and trust that are impossible to price. In fact, applying a price simply dissolves their benefit. He argues that this is a fundamental human experience, which is governed by ethical principles, not economic ones.

I suspect that the greatest objection is to the unprincipled acquisition and (ab)use of wealth, rather than wealth itself. But applying the price mechanism more widely just makes its unscrupulous use all the easier, and in areas where the consequences may be more malign. Sandel’s book explains why I recoil from directives that push education further in an economised direction: they taint the honest principles of this vocation – and with it my own professional ethic.

Good for Business?

One of the worst accusations in Britain today, it seems, is to be ‘anti-business’. It comes with associated overtones of luddism, of being anti-wealth, anti-opportunity and out-of-date. And worst of all, it supposedly betrays the heresy of being anti-capitalist, a give-away for old-style socialism, the last retreat of duffle-coat-wearing, stony-faced hard-leftists whose world-view was discredited three decades ago.

It is also an insult still regularly thrown at the teaching profession by those in the business world, often accompanied by complaints that teachers have an easy life, fail to prepare young people for the ‘world of work’ etc. etc. Most regrettably, it  comes in the same breath that also denounces academics for being ‘ivory tower’ (i.e. useless) and that propounds the ‘University of Life’, school of hard knocks and the rest of it – ad nauseam. As if a life of undeserved hard knocks is anything worth advocating  – or indeed the kind of society that dispenses them.

A letter was sent this week by a hundred ‘business leaders’ to The Daily Telegraph, urging people to vote Conservative for the good of business; it was widely covered across the media at large. Were we supposed to see this as anything other than an expression of sheer self-interest by those who in recent years have rewarded themselves so handsomely at everyone else’s expense? Who is most likely to gain from Britain being ‘Open for Business’? Was the hint of the loss of the low-wage, insecure jobs that employers increasingly demand really meant to scare us into obedience?

So I was extremely pleased to see a letter in The Independent (Keep business out of politics) objecting to the assumption that business leaders should have any more call on people’s voting instincts than anyone else.

This is the sixth richest nation on the planet, and yet we have a programme of austerity that is cutting into the marrow of our public realm. Whether the neglect is ideologically driven or not, civic amenities in the U.K. are a disgrace, and the state of the infrastructure (at least outside the capital) falls far short of that which I see in my frequent travels around other European countries. Support for people on ordinary means is evaporating, even as the rich force up the general cost of living; the ability to pool resources is being curtailed by pro-business legislation.

‘Good for business’ has entailed the de-recognition of representation for employees in large parts of the workplace, increasing job insecurity, reduced pension-provision and more. ‘Good for business’ has resulted in zero-hours contracts, and abuses of the minimum wage in areas such as the restaurant trade. Will Hutton’s most persuasive argument is that ‘good for business’ has led to the U.K. having the lowest levels of R&D in the developed world, while companies have largely become a means of extracting wealth for shareholders from existing assets, rather than investing in the economy of the future. If Hutton is correct, fewer than 20% of companies are actively involved in offering work experience or apprenticeships to young people.

‘Good for business’ has resulted in the U.K. economy becoming little more than a shareholder’s bargaining chip on the financial markets, further enriching the top 1% at the expense of the rest. It has meant the failure to pursue corporate and top-end tax avoidance. Having a friend whose company is currently being asset-stripped after an aggressive take-over, with his job at risk, I know this is not fiction. This is sharp contrast to many of our competitor-countries such s Germany and Switzerland (hardly a hotbed of leftism) who retain a much more balanced social contract.

And ‘good for business’ has seen the misappropriation of the education sector – whose moral remit remains, through the development of the intellect, the preparation of young people for all aspects of life – into a mere tool of economic policy, whose purpose is to deliver workplace-ready fodder to employers, in order to save them the expense of training them properly themselves.

But concurrent with the above, the teaching profession has been busy getting itself a bad name again – hardly conducive to balancing the sirens of the business faction. Once again, the spring conferences are advocating strike action, this time to boycott baseline tests of children entering the education system. While this is a sensitive issue, the old-left instinct to strike over every issue does nothing to dispel the public impression of teachers as old-left dinosaurs. I support the principle of representation – indeed want it enhanced to mirror the German system of a legal requirement for employee representation at Board level – but I despair of the actions the profession’s (un)representative bodies, which certainly do not reflect my outlook. More specifically, when most Union policy still expounds ‘progressive’ views, it makes it very difficult to know where to turn if one wants to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, I am proud to record that I will most definitely not be casting my vote for the good of business. I entered teaching because of my desire to live in a civilised society, which presents its people with maximum enfranchisement and the opportunity to live a good life – and my wish actively to contribute to that.  I see my role as building social capital – of which economic capital is only one part – one that if not balanced by other civic considerations leads to a fragmented and polarised society. Regrettably, it is becoming ever-clearer that this is precisely what is emerging in Britain as a result of the ideologies of the past few decades, and one does not need to be on the hard-left to see it.

The track record of the business-led society in Britain in recent times is one of raw self-interest. Too much of what has been allowed to happen (with political complicity) operates in the narrow interest of those who own it, with far too little sense of social obligation to create wealth for society at large. The signs of this are everywhere to be seen, from income disparities to my friend’s predicament, to the state of our roads. The demonisation of the public sector (mostly led by the business community) has eroded public provision to an unacceptable extent, while the beneficiaries of the business-friendly climate have increasingly bought themselves out of the society that hosts them. Where opportunity and investment do occur, they often come with a free-market price-tag that excludes many.

Will Hutton’s book offers some interesting solutions to this impasse, which I will discuss in a forthcoming post. This is not, however, to cast myself as just another old-leftie. I remember the decay and disruption of the Seventies and would not wish to repeat that. So I am not anti-business – but I am most definitely anti- tax-avoidance, low-wages, executive incomes, low-investment and asset-stripping. I am anti business having any special consideration within wider society. And I am most definitely anti the way in which that corner-stone of civil society – our education system – is increasingly being modelled along similar lines.

I am pro-democracy, pro-civil society and pro-fairness. I am also pro-opportunity – but not only of a narrowly economic sort. Good business actually means precisely those things too – because it would invest in a wider fair and prosperous society and this is it patently failing to do; what the signatories of the Telegraph letter actually meant was ‘good for profits’.

Before making either special claims on voters’ loyalties – or its regular attacks on those, notably in the public sector, whose humane values do not support its often-rapacious ways – the business sector needs to clean up its own act.

As any teacher know?

A document from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) was recently brought to my attention. The author is Niall Sclater and it concerns codes of practice for learning analytics, largely with reference to the tertiary sector. However, there is one section that I believe may be of interest to  the school teaching community, and as it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 I offer a few sections from it here. (It can be found on pages 26 and 27 of the original). I will leave most conclusions to readers; suffice it to say that I feel it supports some of my recurrent arguments about the severe shortcomings of use of statistics to inform the educational process.

The original document can be downloaded here:

“A working party at Charles Sturt University (2014) notes that “learning is a complex social activity and that technical methods do not fully capture the scope and nuanced nature of learning”. Reducing the complexity of student behaviour to a number or a traffic light is pointed out by Campbell et al (2007) to result potentially in oversimplified or insensitive conclusions. Any algorithm or method will be reductive in that it attempts to create a manageable set of metrics which do not necessarily reflect reality (Greller & Draschler 2012). No prediction can take into consideration all possible factors such as problems at home or financial difficulties…”

“Slade & Prinsloo (2013) point out that as much data related to learning is held in systems outside the control of the institution…it is impossible to obtain a holistic picture of student life. Moreover the data is itself temporal and may only afford a view of an individual at a specific place and time, not allowing for the changing and multiple identities of learners as they progress through their studies.”

“A number cannot represent the personal growth or development of relationships that arise from attending an educational establishment. Johnson (2014) worries that data mining can treat a subject as a collection of attributes rather than an individual. He discusses course recommendation systems where people are recommended to do what people like them have done before…For Johnson it appears that learners are being thought of as mere collections of skills to be matched to an outcome, rather than individuals. He thinks that such systems undermine student autonomy…denying students the opportunity to make their own decisions.”

“Tertiary education can be an “individual artisanal craft” where the standardised metrics and interventions of learning analytics ay not fit easily (Contact North 2012)


Do you have to weigh a pig to fatten it?

Yesterday: to Essex University with a group of upper school students to try to enthuse them for the academic life… In the afternoon, we had a seminar  with one of the young lecturers from the University’s Mathematics Department. I must admit that Maths never lit my own candle (possibly the result of a fixed maths-mindset at home, where the family was firmly on the arts side…?) so I confess my reservations about how engaging this would be…

But for ninety minutes, our pupils’ attention was held by a young guy with nothing more than a clear passion for his subject, a few fairly basic PowerPoint slides and a handful of challenging mathematical puzzles. Having done previous outreach work, he clearly knew his audience, and related well to them, pitching his opener at a challenging but accessible level and ratcheting it up from there. Even as an erstwhile maths unbeliever, I found it very stimulating, not least the way he demonstrated how problems can be difficult for ‘even’ maths to solve, once variables starts to increase in  number. (I was left thinking about classroom applications of this: Causal Density and the impossibility of predicting the specifics of how any given lesson will develop…) But for all that he enthused about the clarity of maths, for me the success of the session was down to the distinctly unquantifiable, untechnical element of his infectious enthusiasm.

A discussion over today’s lunch-table ranged far and wide from this starting-point. At one point (the circumstances are unimportant, but they related to education) the observation was made, “If you don’t measure things, you won’t know how to improve them!”

Is this valid or not? It would certainly seem to be the case that without knowing what you’ve got, then it’s hard to appreciate it – and I suppose ‘improve’ it, always assuming it needs improving. If the aim is indeed to increase the quantity of what you’ve got, then knowing where you’re starting from would seem to make sense. And – most important in these accountable days – if you don’t measure, it’s hard to ‘prove’ there has been an improvement at all…

But this is where my habitual reservations kicked in: an increase is one thing – but an improvement is quite another. One objective, the other subjective; more is not always better. One needs to know what needs to be measured – and that it is being measured in a suitable way. Quantity is often not the only relevant factor – but quality is much harder to objectify. For all that the young lecturer promoted Maths on its objectivity, the significant thing that made his lecture succeed was inherently un-measurable in any really meaningful way.

There risks being a blind-spot in those who love the quantitative game:  assuming that everything is reducible to useful numbers.

There are some things in this world that are simply not measurable in any meaningful way. Sometimes, those things are important, even critical. I would argue that the supposed lack of precision in the arts and humanities is not the weakness it is sometimes presented as, but a sophisticated acceptance of, and response to the un-measurability of much human experience, in a way that an objective approach sometimes fails to capture.

Then there are the matters of whether measuring something actually can actually help improve it – and whether we risk valuing what we measure rather than vice versa. I was reminded of the proverb “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it more often”. And even if you do succeed in fattening the pig, there is no guarantee that the fattest pig will be the most flavoursome. Even though a recipe that involves pig products may begin with quantities of ingredients, there is no guarantee that the tastiest dish won’t have been improved by the intuitive adjustments made by an experienced chef.

I would not for one moment suggest that the relatively objective approach presented by subjects like Mathematics has no use – but I think we need to be wary of seeing it as a panacea. Those who approach life from a purely factual/logical approach may have an easily-made case – but it is not the only one with validity.

Quite often the things that really make a difference are purely qualitative, even indefinable. For example, can we really be so sure that the best teachers are simply those with the best statistics behind them?  Adopting an excessively numerical approach, especially to matters as complex and culturally-laden as education, may result in our over-simplifying the nature of what we are really dealing with – and missing the very qualities that gives something its inherent worth.


Trusssssst in me…..

Mowgli and Kaa the snake

Kaa had a pretty dubious way with Mowgli, but then trust is a slippery concept to begin with. Yet the notion has been in the ether a fair bit recently, and in the blogosphere with comments ranging from “Yes I do trust them but I’m just checking anyway” (sic) through to “The way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them”. Unfortunately, no time to check back for the sources at present…

Trust is arguably another weasel word, and we would do well to reflect on what it means and how it is used, particularly in the febrile world of modern education. We might even conclude that it isn’t, in the raw, a particularly helpful concept.

Saying “I trust you” without any kind of qualifier is arguably the height of naivety, for all that it might be flattering.  I can think of only a very small number of people in the world to whom I might say that. But responsibility for the problem lies with both parties: given that we cannot foretell the future, accepting someone’s unconditional trust may well be to lead them firmly up the path to expectations that simply cannot be delivered. On the other hand, placing trust without specifying the parameters is potentially a recipe for failure.

Another problem comes from the importance that is placed on those expectations. ‘Trusting’ someone to put some rubbish in a bin a rather different proposition from trusting someone to get a heart operation or a flight landing right. Therefore one might be more or less careful with the way the word is bandied around depending on the situation.

Equally, the same criteria might inform the willingness with which we accept such expressions of faith. I hope that those on whom our lives depend do indeed assume our trust with due gravity.

We also need to distinguish between trust in intent and trust in outcomes. I would argue that the former is actually more well-founded in the latter: one is implying faith in someone’s intention to do their best, and perhaps carries with it the implicit acceptance that the outcome may still not always be as desired, since even the most trustworthy of people may sometimes fail for reasons beyond their control. The latter, as I mentioned earlier, may be more foolhardy given the uncertainty of the world we inhabit; we might prefer to comment on someone’s reliability in delivering a particular outcome, which is subtly different from exhibiting trust, since it relies more on past track record and perhaps less on future good intentions, conscience or principles.

In education, the stakes we play for are not, at least in any defined sense, a matter of life or death – though this is not to deny that they are significant. Unlike the trust we (perhaps reluctantly) place in a surgeon, the trust placed in a teacher is less far-reaching. The beneficiaries of our trustworthiness do usually live to tell the tale, and given that fact, it seems reasonable to be able to expect to place fair trust in a teacher to do their job. But that last phrase – do their job – hides a serious problem.

‘Doing their job’ in my understanding involves making great efforts to stimulate young minds, to open them to the world around, and to create the possibility for lives well lived, and within reason to support the quest for success in the form of formal validation. That, I feel confident I can deliver, for the effort required to do so is very largely within my gift. But increasingly, ‘do their job’ seems to mean ‘deliver the best outcomes’ (for which read exam results). As I have discussed before, I am not confident that all the important factors involved in that narrower definition do lie within my gift. Clearly, my teaching is a significant part of the equation, but there are so many other factors over which I have little or no control, ranging from circumstantial ones to the willingness of the pupil to be educated in the first place, that I feel it is unwise both of society to trust teachers to deliver something so specific, and indeed of teachers to accept that trust. And yet, somehow we seem to be drifting in the direction of equating trustworthiness with delivering exam results, aided and abetted by the high stakes now being placed on such numbers and letters.

While the situation is like it is, I am not convinced that it is either realistic or wise for teacher to be ‘trusted’ in the sense that many would want – that of being left alone to do what they judge right with pupils. After all, if you die on the operating table, all the trust in the world will make no difference. And neither do I really want to accept trust for something I cannot in all honesty guarantee or control.

Yet we persist with seeing trust as a virtue – and why not? It implies goodness of character, perhaps even moral virtue. It is fully compatible in my mind with the role of the teacher: what is wrong is not the notion of trusting teachers, but the level of expectation that is being applied to it. Trust needs to be realistic, and accept that even the most trustworthy may fail occasionally, perhaps without their status necessarily being called into question. In the sense of trust, what is important was their intentions, and to some extent their actions inasmuch as they had control of them.

There is also another issue which is relevant here, which may warrant its own post another time: that of Knowing.  In order to have reasonable confidence in another, such that one might consider trusting them, one needs to know them well. And by this I mean an in-depth knowledge of the salient factors that govern that individual, not the superficial familiarity upon which we often rely.

Modern education, as with much of modern life, is being increasingly depersonalised. This is partly due to the sheer scale on which many things operate, partly down to our increasingly commoditised view of ‘success’ and partly down to the over-individualised mindset that sees others merely as vehicles for the meeting of our own demands, rather than complex people with their own qualities and agendas. Many of the judgements currently being made on often spurious numerical or criteria grounds are surrogates for more subjective but ultimately more informed and more sophisticated decisions made by and about real people. When you have nothing more specific to go on, depersonalised measures of reliability are all there is – but this is not at all the same thing as real trust.


The effects of management: an open letter to Ian Lynch

Some days ago, ‘Disappointed Idealist’ posted a long polemic about the shortcomings of educational management. I commented on what I felt was a heartfelt and perceptive observation, since when a dialogue opened up between Ian Lynch and me on the comments section. I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct an extended discussion on the comments board of someone else’s blog, so I have moved here to continue my response. The following is therefore a specific reply to Ian Lynch’s comments, in effect an open letter. The previous discussion can be found here.


Have you come across Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness? If not, I suggest you read it. It might explain some of my doubts about the efficacy (or should that be sanctity?) of management. I suggest you also look at Obliquity by John Kay, and Drive by Daniel Pink for why the current approach is wrong and doomed to failure. Details of all of these can be found on my reading page.

They represent, of course, just one world-view, but I think we can probably agree that management is a very complex matter. I will repeat: my objections are not some kind of a grudge. Indeed I have always tried to act in a constructive and professional way for the management of my school; they deserve respect for the difficult job they have undertaken. But equally, no one makes people take those jobs. Too many of them may have been taken due to personal ambition rather than aptitude. The view that you can do more good from higher up is, in my view, deeply flawed.

My own early attempts at entering management were, admittedly,  unsuccessful; there may have been many reasons for that, but with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I am greatly relieved that I never did so. I think I was not ready for it at the age when it was expected that one ought to be looking for junior management roles, and somewhere inside I knew that. I will admit that I would also find it very difficult to suppress my own strongly-held views and experiences just for the sake of holding the management line. Maybe, in the conventional sense, that made me unsuitable.

Teaching is a job where long service delivers perspectives that simply are not available to new entrants, no matter how talented they may be, and particularly if they flit from school to school. How much bad management is a result of people being pushed to take roles for which they have insufficient experience or perspective? Decades of doing the job throw a very different light on what is important and what is not. Young turks may not see this, instead being more anxious about making their mark. So much damage is done by actions that have little to do with education and everything to do with demonstrating the so-called effectiveness of the manager. As you say, this is made all the worse by the accountability trap.

My objection to management is not over-idealistic; it is born from two very practical considerations which relate to the assumptions made not only about its own potency, but about the real nature of the world we inhabit:

  1. Management as a concept is predicated on the belief that it is possible to control things centrally. This in turn is based on the view that things happen for identifiable cause-and-effect reasons. While this may be partly true in the material/mechanical world, it is not as directly so for the behavioural world, even in the commercial sector (think bankers’ behaviour). The causal density of human behaviour and interactions is so high that it is effectively impossible to identify, let alone anticipate, the actual effects of one’s actions. Therefore, management is doomed to failure because it is simply attempting too complex a task,  to co-ordinate closely the real behaviour and motives of a hundred or more adults, let alone the children. This is all too visible in the amount of time people spend trying to circumvent imposed constraints on their actions and trying to cover their backsides from the perceived or real consequences of not doing what management wants. This is not productive activity.
  2. In any organisation, management is a construct. It does not produce anything of itself; it is not the core activity of any organisation. It therefore constantly needs to reinvent reasons for its own existence – and these largely consist of coming up with new ways of telling other people what to do and then checking up on them afterwards. Sometimes that may be helpful or necessary, but it all too easily becomes a self-serving activity the key purpose of which is to preserve its own raison d’etre, let alone the prestige of those in those roles. As I mentioned before, it sets up too many conflicts of interest ever to be otherwise.


I am an educated, thoughtful and conscientious individual, and I do not go to work to be patronised, or told what to think and do with no reason,  like a mindless automaton. My loyalty is to be won, not demanded. I expect to work hard, but I do not expect to have the job made more difficult than it needs to be. I have a life beyond work to which I am entitled, and I do not expect to be condemned or criticised for protecting it. I do not expect to have it gratuitously invaded by people who seem to think they have unlimited rights to my time.

You may argue that such things are inevitable; be that as it may, the effect in terms of morale, let alone dehumanisation of the workplace, is still the same. You suggest that we need to accept that which we cannot change, but I see no reason why I should accept the distress and demoralisation of either me or my colleagues just because it seems that not much can be done about it because I am not powerful within my school. That is not the same as claiming that such things are done deliberately – though there are times, even in a good school like mine, when it comes close. There are some things that are simply wrong – and the way that too many people get treated in the workplace is one of them. It is not compatible with a modern, civilised country.

As for doing something about it, I have spent my career fully engaged in professional dialogue both within the school and more widely – but you cannot discuss things with people who are unwilling to listen, and who in effect consider they know better because they are somehow ‘more important’. You cannot change things from the inside if you cannot gain access to the inside because your ideas don’t ‘fit’. I have acted in numerous roles in an attempt to argue certain cases – always with the same conclusion: the default position of management seems to be to listen to nobody but itself – and to do what it wants regardless. Ironically, increased local freedoms only seem to have made this worse.

No matter how inevitable you think this is, the effect is too often a destructive culture within organisations whereby too much effort is expended on in-fighting and the them-and-us mentality which often exists. While there undoubtedly are individual teachers who hold grudges, I am genuinely not one of them – and I still feel I can say that over nearly thirty years, the divisions have been created more from above than below.

We would be much better off accepting the real limitations that exist on the ability of a few often-remote individuals to control the minds and actions of others; it is the inability of management to accept this fact that causes a lot of its problems.

Management would be more effective, if it accepted that its job was to establish minimum expectations, go about winning hearts and minds by creating a good ethos and then allowing people to operate within those basic expectations with as much freedom as possible. Tom Sherrington wrote as much a few months ago. Certainly there is a role to weed out the genuinely bad, but the constant drive to impose uniformity on people does nothing more than deny human variability and individuality and is guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction and demotivation.

You may claim this is idealistic – but there are countries where it works, such as Switzerland (as I have written before in these pages). I have seen teachers working in a genuinely collegiate manner, with a minimal flat management structure for overall coordination. It works fine – and it also used to work in this country – until the point when education caught management sickness and it became the only real route for ambitious teachers to ‘prove’ their worth. I have also worked in leaderless teams at times – and nothing ground to a halt. Belgium ran itself for many months without a government, while the Soviet Union collapsed under its management’s inability to control its citizens’ lives sufficiently closely to command their compliance. That is the reality of reality – it is oblique and polycentric; it does not work to centralised command, no matter how much some people might want it to.

The biggest obstacle to improving this situation in this country is the confirmation bias that tells managers that the only solution to poor management is more management. Certainly we need some – but not the debilitating parasite that it has been allowed to become. Until they accept that management is no more indispensible and no less fallible than the rest of us, we are not going to get far.

The Tragedy of Commons

A year ago, I wrote a post about the joys of early-autumn teaching, a period when both teachers and pupils are fresh, the weather still clement, and the weight of exam-study has yet fully to kick in.

Well, the weather is still clement, but in other ways, this year could not have been more different. The whirlwind blew in unexpectedly early for a number of reasons, and since then it has been downhill all the way. Unsurprisingly, I have ended up with a heavy cold and hacking cough, that on Friday saw me having to step out of lessons in convulsions. I’m not yet sure whether I will be fit for the classroom tomorrow. A number of my colleagues are ill as well. The effect of the weight of work has been palpable these past weeks, and the question in my mind has been. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” In what way can such immense pressure be said to be helping children’s education?

Last weekend, while we were browsing in a Cambridge bookshop, my wife landed on an interesting-looking journal, which I subsequently bought. The Journal of Modern Wisdom is a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Durham. It has been around for a few years, but seems to be publishing at the ‘comfortable’ rate of an edition every couple of years. Well, why rush?

I have no idea whether this journal has a future, although I sincerely hope so; there is much of value within, both of personal interest and, more relevant here, for the educator. The essay that particularly caught my eye was called The Common Bad, by Ben Irvine, the journal’s editor.  The first couple of pages can be read on the website.

Irvine introduced one of those seemingly simple ideas that have the potential to transform one’s understanding: the Tragedy of Commons; I had not encountered this before. It seems that my earlier question, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” was more accurate than I imagined.

The Tragedy of Commons explains how individual decisions aimed at securing a personal advantage can result in collective disadvantage. In simple terms, it describes the fear of being left behind. At a football match, it only takes one spectator to decide to stand up to gain a better view, for the dynamic to be set in motion. The reasoning goes: “If I stand up and others don’t, then I gain a better view; if I stand up and others do as well, then I am no worse off, whereas those who remain seated will be left staring at others’ backsides.” As the effect spreads, increasing numbers of people stand, thereby negating any individual gain – and in the process decreasing the collective utility by giving everyone tired legs and fractious moods.

Irvine applies the same theory to more serious situations, explaining for example, why the media feel the need to hype the news, why companies do the same for their products, why politicians spin rather than addressing the issues. In these cases, the disutility is also more serious, for example by the erosion of balanced public coverage and debate of important issues, or the impoverishment of people who can ill-afford the goods they are being exhorted to buy. Irvine goes on to discuss the relationships between gullible consumers, over-competitive producers, and the governments that attempt to pick up the pieces. In many cases, the social costs of personal ambition are significant, and it is not difficult to think of many more recent examples of this, starting with the growth in inequality. He suggests that the only escape from this trap is by developing the wisdom to understand the dynamic clearly, which then allows the individual to choose when to abstain from certain reinforcing behaviours. This strikes me as something we not only need to be doing for ourselves, but also as a laudable aim for modern, democratic education.

I was unable to read this without constantly thinking about the climate I experience in school. Nearly everyone I encounter seems to harbour the same private concerns – that the current pace is unsustainable, that it is at least in part unproductive, that it does actual harm to those it touches – and that no one seems to know where it all comes from. The Tragedy of Commons would suggest that the answer to that last point, at least, is ourselves.

Much of what raises the temperature in schools is actually copied behaviour, which might be read using the same logic as the football match. In a high-stakes, competitive system, where teachers and schools are, in effect competing for a limited supply of perceived excellence (be that through lesson grades, career progression, professional reputation or league table positions), it only needs a few people to decide to raise the stakes for everyone else effectively to feel pressurised into doing the same. While there may be times when this is educationally desirable, we need to ask whether the additional actions really provide sufficient marginal benefit to be justified, and whether their aims are educational, or personal/bureaucratic/managerial furtherment. I fear the latter may be more often the case. Too much of what raises the temperature seems to be of little clear educational benefit.

Thus people and schools engage in a constant round of up-bidding in an attempt to secure individual advantage – but the actual result is a system that disadvantages all by having become totally unmanageable and disproportionate to the resources we can bring to bear on it. Having flayed ourselves to achieve four-fold Outstanding, some individuals in my own school are now talking about going ‘beyond outstanding’…

All of the serious impacts on teachers’ wellbeing mentioned here are a manifestation of this – but so too is the consequent damage to pupils from below-par teachers, the depersonalisation of the educational experience for pupils, and its transformation into a game of institutional logistics. We present our pupils with the unedifying spectacle of a group of (supposedly thoughtful) adults working themselves up into a frenzy about what might appear to them, to be not much. And we then exhort them to emulate the behaviour in their own lives.

Irvine’s analysis also provides a strangely reassuring – if disquieting – rationale for the fact that there is no big, malign hand steering the affairs of the education system, in the way it is all too easy to believe when things are difficult. For all my scepticism about management, it reinforces my belief that few people have deliberately malign intentions. Much of the problem comes about as a result of actions that are either well-intentioned or at worst ill thought out.

But the uncomfortable conclusion is that therefore, we all are responsible for the current febrile climate that is making many of us ill.

This realisation in turn may lead us to consider solutions. The Tragedy of Commons is endemic in many societies; escape from it is therefore very difficult because it involves individual decisions to swim against the tide, even at the cost of apparent personal disadvantage, and staring at others’ backsides is not an enticing prospect. It is all the more difficult when many of those responsible for initially raising the stakes are also in positions of power over us, and able to make life uncomfortable should we dissent. But the best argument for doing so comes from the knowledge that there are few if any winners from this behaviour. Overall, no one benefits.

Many of the concerns outlined above were matters which general experience had already highlighted; Irvine’s essay simply sheds helpful new light. I had already concluded that the only solution is to play one’s own game; my resolution to plough my own furrow in terms of my professional practice has brought benefits in terms of reducing the pressures to up the ante all the time, and this has, I believe yielded not only some personal relief, but also benefits for my students. Even though it is heavily compromised by directives over which I have no control (and it has not stopped me getting ill), the mere decision to adopt a certain worldview has been galvanising in its own right. It has if nothing else, removed the constant pressure to compete, the anxiety from which is undoubtedly a major cause of over-work and under-performance.

The Tragedy of Commons also serves to remind us that there is no one out there who single-handedly has the power to transform this situation. Even those in power who recognise the problems seem not to know how to tackle them. This term’s experience shows just how hard it can be to fight this battle – but given the foregoing, if we really want to escape the intolerable pressures bearing down on many of us, do we really have a choice?

Just another brick in the wall…

There has been so much change in British education in the past couple of decades that it is hard to keep track of what happened when – and more importantly, why. Innumerable decisions have been made, undoubtedly with the noble intention of improving the educational experience of our young people, but which were either ill-conceived to begin with, or which have had serious unintended consequences in the meantime.

An overheard conversation some days ago got me thinking about the amount of information that exam boards now provide to schools. The conversation went something like this:

“The exam board hasn’t made its requirements clear [in respect of para. x, subclause y of the specification]”.

“In which case, how are we to know what to teach to cover that question?”

“It’s not fair on children that exam boards aren’t clearer in what they want, as it means we can’t teach them what they need in order to score the marks.”


I’m not wishing to criticise the individuals having that conversation, for their response is entirely logical and consistent within the current climate; indeed, it is what the system seems to expect. It is also quite possibly what those individuals experienced in their own schooling, but that does not make it good education.

If I recall correctly, the requirement on exam boards to publish not only sylliabi but also marks schemes, specimen questions, detailed reports on each year’s cohort and grade thresholds stems from the point when they were removed from the tender care of the universities and told to become commercial organisations. It was argued that opacity was not fair on the ‘customers’ who did not know what they were getting for their effort/money, and in one sense it is hard to argue with the logic of this.

But the actual (if unintended) outcome has been that teachers have ever more closely targeted their teaching solely at the requirements of the exam specifications at the expense of a more general teaching of their subjects, as the aforementioned conversation would suggest. It has also removed from teachers the need to know their subjects well enough to make academic decisions for themselves – let alone the pedagogic freedom that such a position conferred. We have got to the point that if it isn’t on the exam specification, you don’t teach it, no matter how interesting or broadening it might be, or how much expertise you might have in it.

In the days prior to the availability of such information, one was subtly forced to teach more widely, simply because there was an element of the unknown in what might appear on an exam paper, or how. While exam strategy has always been a part of preparing pupils for external exams, the degree of certainty that is now possible means that a broad study of the subject has progressively been replaced by a process of targeted gaming of the specification, so as to secure almost guaranteed marks. This has been accompanied by an increasing willingness to challenge exam results, and while it is impossible to defend real errors in marking, one is left with the distinct impression that these challenges are often more about league table positions than anything else.

This is, of course, great news for schools whose status depends on delivering good results with great predictability, and it might appear good for pupils who are given relative certainty about know how to get the grades.

But there have been wider costs. Perhaps the least distinct, but most important, is that loss of breadth and freedom to explore the subject relatively free from exam-passing pressures. Exams are genuinely necessary and useful as a retrospective means of selectively assessing a student’s wider ability, but this is completely different from their present contingent use as the raison d’être of most teaching.

More subtly, it has encouraged exam-teaching to become a matter of regurgitation of pre-digested material, with a consequent reduction in the perceived need for candidates to think for themselves, or to apply their knowledge in perhaps more unexpected ways. This is a high level skill in itself, and in my opinion what should be expected in order to obtain the highest grade. The effect of this has gone far beyond the exam hall, as pupils now widely seem to expect certainty and instant accessibility as a matter of course, with a consequent reduction in a willingness to do the thinking for themselves. On-a-plate exams have led to the expectation of on-a-plate knowledge; this is another expression of learned helplessness.

It also sends the message that knowledge and thought themselves are a matter of certainty, whereas most thinking people would, I believe, accept that a key feature of a thoughtful mind is its acceptance of uncertainty. We need to be acclimatising children to this fact if we want them to become deep and effective thinkers.

The conspirator in me also worries that there is a corporate back-story here, in that we actually don’t any longer want people questioning the status quo too much, but merely doing obediently precisely what is expected of them, the knowability of the outcome more important than its inherent value. This is not my understanding of the purpose or process of true education.

From the teacher’s perspective, transparency could be argued to have played a part in ratcheting-up the accountability culture – after all, when you have all-but been told the answers, there really is no excuse for not delivering top grades except incompetence…

The best way to encourage broad thinking is to prevent the opposite from happening – and this means reducing the transparency of the exam system, such that there remains a degree of uncertainty for teachers and pupils alike. Only in this way will genuinely wide and deep thinking become necessary, since it would be less possible to question-spot.

I realise this probably sounds rather idealistic, and I do know that school-level education also needs to be about the command of the rather more rudimentary basics – but the current situation actually prevents thinking from ever going beyond that even where it would be desirable, in the way the overheard conversation demonstrated.

No doubt ‘transparency’ was introduced with the very best of intentions – but while it may suit the techo-managerial establishment to have such mechanised systems and accountability, it has arguably come at the cost of an exam system that is about testing  how young people have been pre-programmed into compliance rather than what they know or can do – which is not at all the same thing. And then the same establishment complains that young people lack deep thinking abilities…

Because of the desire for certainty over real, uncertain thought, exam transparency has become just another brick in the wall of the deeply flawed educational edifice that has been built in this country. It could be argued that the old system was more subtle in its purpose that it appeared – and the solution to the current narrowing of teaching and learning may be the opposite of what presently seems obvious.