Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.

Learning hard and easy

The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.

https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/why-learning-is-hard/

He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.

In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.

However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.

People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.

If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.

So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.

However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).

I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.

My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.

This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.

This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.

One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.

So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.

I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.

That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.

 

Don’t be stupid.

My recent reading has been The Stupidity Paradox by Mats Alvesson and André Spicer. It’s one of those books that I think anyone in an organisation, and certainly anyone running one should read. It’s also one of those books which, while not solely about education, will I suspect have many who work in schools nodding with recognition at almost every page.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Mats-Alvesson/The-Stupidity-Paradox–The-Power-and-Pitfalls-of-Function/18939366

The subject under scrutiny is what the authors call ‘functional stupidity’, in other words the kind of idiocy of the herd mentality or blindly-followed protocol that causes otherwise intelligent, skilled people to do very dumb things in certain situations. The authors are academics and the book is carefully balanced, demonstrating for example how encouraging people to overcome their misgivings can bring short-term benefits to an organisation. But the bigger premise is that this same behaviour can also cause longer-term problems if it prevents people from identifying the reality of situation, and particularly problems as they develop.

I think the book is useful because it calmly but mercilessly illuminates all kinds of stupidity that passes for good practice in all sorts of institutional settings, and while it perhaps focuses on managerial decisions, it also shows us that no one is immune: this is simply a cognitive failure of human beings when put in certain situations. In this sense, one might feel sympathy for those whose decisions, by dint of their seniority, have larger than average impacts, but it also presses the point that seniority ought to bring about a greater than average determination to avoid such pitfalls.

I wonder how many school managers have come across the idea of functional stupidity, let alone take it seriously. I think they should. If nothing else, it should warn of the dangers of micromanagement, and the antidote lies partly in empowering people to make their own decisions, while keeping coded behaviours to a  minimum.

I will end by giving a few examples of the issues the book addresses, and strongly recommend it.

The Knowledge Myth: We now live in a knowledge economy where intellectual power is all. This justifies giving people trumped-up job titles to reflect the fact – but also to ‘help’ them to believe that what they are doing is really smart. In fact, much work has been dumbed-down and is at least as mundane and repetitive as ever. The eventual realisation of this fact causes disappointment and disillusion.

Functional Stupidity. The idea that clever people, put in constrinaing situations, can behave stupidly. For example, the stipulation of institutional procedures can lead to blind adherence, even where there is a clear flaw in doing so. The outcomes can sometimes be disastrous.

Mindlessness. The establishment of routine in the workplace can lead to people following ‘social scripts’ which are so routine they are automatic. It can result in people ‘talking past’ each other, and conforming to role rather than thinking about what they are saying or doing.

Normality.  A variation on the above. People accept that sometimes even bizarre routines and practices are normal simply because they are habitual within the organisation.  They may appear deeply weird when seen from the outside.

Normality -2. People are deeply unwilling to stand out from the herd in organisations because doing so risks social isolation and possibly career suicide.

Leadership-induced stupidity. The creation of specific cultures or mindsets within an institution often comes from the top. They may bring a useful sense of cohesion and purpose – but they often inhibit wider thinking, particularly when there is a risk of upsetting the boss.

System-induced stupidity. There is a tendency to think that if systems are in place, then they must be working. Box-ticking becomes more important than actual functioning. The risk is the emergence of the ‘audit society’ in which it checking that things are being done becomes more important than actually doing them (well).

Culture-induced stupidity. Where an organisation cultivates a particular culture, this can again help cohesion. But, for example an organisation that is implacably positive, where negative thinking is not permitted, may find it very difficult to address real problems that crop up simply because it is not done to contemplate them publicly.

There is plenty more fertile reading, but I hope this whets the appetite.

Something in the water?

It’s extremely difficult to extrapolate from individual experiences to national trends. I am enough of a statistician to understand significance testing and the difference between correlation and causality, but sometimes tendencies have the appearance of something more, no matter how flawed the theory might suggest it is.

My school is currently experiencing something of a downturn in the quality of its intake. Having been there for so long, I think I can say that with confidence, knowing that I have already allowed for the tinting of spectacles. Many colleagues agree.

We are finding pupils coming to the school less equipped with basic skills and attitudes than ever before. We are also encountering more, even aged 11, who seem actively, deliberately antagonistic. More time is being spent addressing these issues than ever, in a way unprecedented in the school’s experience over several decades.

I’m not going to fall into the number-cruncher’s trap of trying to attribute simple causality to this: my whole understanding of education is based on the view that many social and cognitive phenomena are simply too complex to deconstruct.

There are, however, a few factors that may well be part of the mix. The area now has a religion-oriented free school that is undoubtedly attracting some families and thereby changing the intake of the longer-established local schools. There have also been subtle changes to our own admissions policy, which I don’t agree with but whose aims are understandable. It is perhaps bringing to us more children who really need our help, but are less inclined than ever to accept it.

I suspect that impacts of the social media and technology revolution are beginning to be seen: there appears to be a change in children’s ability to concentrate, their ability to interact harmoniously, and their tolerance of people telling them to do anything that does not involve using an iPhone. I wonder too, whether this is narrowing children’s ability to find things interesting: it is becoming more and more difficult to catch children’s enthusiasm; many pass their lessons listlessly on auto-pilot, rarely really engaging with topics in the way that used to happen. Their default setting seems to be non-committal loafing; the old tactic of standing and waiting for silence seems to have a longer and longer lead-time. This despite my methods having, if anything, been improved and refined over the years.

I am finding more children ill-prepared with basic school equipment, and less willing to put more than the cursory effort of a couple of minutes into the tasks they are set. And above all, they seem less and less concerned about – and increasingly prepared to challenge – any instruction to the contrary.

I tried to engage my year 13 tutor group this week in a light-hearted discussion about their next steps. I used one of my stock lines for such situations: if you’re not a bit fed up with school by now, then we’ve done something wrong. But the grunts that were the habitual reply then crystallised into a torrent of resentment about how boring school has always been and how they expect university to be just the same. Nose stuck firmly on his phone, one muttered that he is only going so he can get a certain job; no amount of arguing that boring is all in the mind cuts any ice.

In between the two age-groups, I find low level disruption becoming a fact of life, and I know I am not alone. I had a discussion with some otherwise-biddable year eights whom I had had to tick off. The rather perceptive comment emerged, “I guess we got into bad habits at primary school”. If I have any sympathy it is only because my own enthusiasm for the endless round of target-setting that education now is, is no greater than theirs; has modern education actually created this ennui?

On the other hand, some of my year elevens said they were choosing my revision classes over others because I “teach the subject not just give us exam practice”.

If I were to put these pieces together and blame recent educational practice, no doubt the instrumentalist, statistics-faithful classes would accuse me of bias or weak analysis. It would be down to confirmation bias, because I am on record as opposing the grinding down of education into the dull conveyor belt that it has become. I would be over-ruled in my view that petty hoop-jumping, far from being motivating, is a dull and demoralising experience.

I might equally be criticised for my opposition to techniques that seem to have left primary-age children without the basic habits of mind to be able to cope in secondary school. I might be lambasted for continuing to believe in education for education’s sake, for trying to maintain, even enhance, the academic content of my teaching even when it was not immediately ‘fun’.

The more perceptive might accuse me of being the root of the very things I complain about, a proponent of ‘dull’ traditional teaching, without seeing that those year elevens have now come to realise that deep command of a subject is where the interest really lies, and that dabbling while lacking the basic skills you need to access it might initially be fun but is not ultimately very rewarding.

I might be further criticised for having the wrong expectations of our poor, troubled young people. But these are not the unknowing under-privileged. These are in the main children from homes where they want for nothing, who in some cases are almost sickeningly affluent and indulged. These are children who have grown up with such a massive sense of entitlement that nothing a mere teacher can tell them need be taken very seriously, children who treat their education as a consumable service, who believe they are entitled to the very best no matter how little effort or responsibility they invest for themselves. These are baby cuckoos, squatting beaks-open at others’ expense, not foals struggling against the odds to find their feet. This is the boredom of want-for-nothing wealth.

The experience is changing my views of education. Instinctively, I believe in equality of access, and I support moves to increase it for those who genuinely lack opportunity. But I am also increasingly of the view that those who knowingly reject what education has to offer have only themselves – and those who raised them – to blame. The argument that even these children are the blameless recipients of unfortunate circumstances has only so much traction when it comes to off-loading the blame for their boredom and laziness. People who live by the view that the customer is always right should have to shoulder the burden of their own poor choices.

I no longer feel much guilt at limiting what I am prepared to do for them; I don’t see why I should perpetuate their expectation of being waited on hand and foot. By secondary age, children are quite capable of making conscious decisions for themselves, and at very least of understanding the advice they are being given. If they wish actively to reject what the education system has to offer, I no longer feel that teachers or schools should lose sleep over it. Let them go out and try to make a go of their free-market lives using that grossly inflated self-confidence that so many possess – and good luck to them. They say education is wasted on the young…

Those wearisomely reading this, grumbling at another disillusioned teacher may be thinking that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps so – but this malaise does seem to be spreading. I would be entirely prepared to accept that this is simply the product of a set of local circumstances that say nothing about the wider health of the education system – were it not for the fact that I have unprecedentedly heard of two other schools within fifteen miles of here who are finding the same thing with their Year Sevens. Hardly statistically significant – but just a coincidence? One is a grammar school.

It is no doubt easy for the educationally right-on to dismiss my concerns and to claim I have a dystopian world view. It is also beyond their abilities even to consider that the policies they enthusiastically advanced might actually be harmful. But maybe they are right.

In which case, what was in the water round here back in 2004, when those children were born?

Tragedy – à la Grecque

Some of my favourite films are Claude Berri’s 1980s adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. I struggled through the first in a cinema in Amiens not long after its release, when my French was not as good as it is now.  Full appreciation came with a second viewing of it, and reading the novel, a few years later…

The story has been described as an up-dated Greek tragedy, and heart-breaking it certainly is. The patriarch of the Soubeyran family played by Yves Montand finds in the denouement that two films’ worth of scheming deceit have destroyed no one more so than himself, and in the most exquisite of ways.

The Dragon School is an independent school in Oxford. A couple of weeks ago, a newspaper report investigated how the school has managed to produce so many of the nation’s greatest thespians. (I am working from memory here, having not been able to re-trace the source, so please forgive the lack of precision). Further investigation shows a wider set of notable alumni.

One of the deputy-heads attributed success to having the freedom to allow pupils to experiment with acting and public speaking and all manner of other aspects of liberal education. He was asked why he felt the state sector did not achieve similar results. The reply, if I recall correctly, was that the state sector is far too hamstrung by the needs of political accountability and bureaucracy ever to have the latitude to create this kind of opportunity. It also requires a view of education that understands that pinning teachers down to specified procedures and measuring educational success only in terms of league table data is not enough.

It seems to me that there is a distinct undercurrent running through the educational agenda, namely how to capture the enduring benefits of a private education for the many. (Having spent a couple of days in Liverpool over the holiday, one might appreciate why liberating the underprivileged masses might still be a worthy aspiration). The thrust of the Dragon School article was clearly this – and I suspect it may also underpin various governments’ faith in academies. What I can say with more certainty that at least some in state school management are driven by an envy of the private sector.

And yet, just as in Greek tragedy, it seems that the protagonists just cannot see that they are increasingly the agents of their own destruction. The whole point of private sector education is that it:

  1. Places significant onus on the pupils for their progress, not to mention personal development. From my brushes with the private sector, it seems most certainly not to be about teachers running round dementedly trying to be all things to all people, gaming the systems so as to meet arbitrary targets, so that pupils never have to lift a finger for themselves. Indeed, some private schools have run notoriously Spartan establishments.
  2. Still understands the fact that education is not a measurable or even very definable quality. It seems still to appreciate that there are limits to what any school can do for someone – and then you just have to create the space and support for them to fly if they will.
  3. That teaching is an equally elusive process, and that pinning teachers down to specific procedures – most of all bureaucratic ones – does not a good teacher make.
  4. That quality is more important than quantity. Clearly, this is a difficult issue for the mass-education system, but pretending that large class-sizes and an increasingly conveyor-belt like experience make no difference, is plain ignorant.

 

So if this is what the state sector feels it needs to emulate, how is it going about it?

Answer: by increasing all of the pressures that drive teachers (and schools) in completely the opposite direction: more narrow ‘accountability’, more data, more bureaucracy, more standardisation, less scope for the individual (pupil or teacher). A myopic view of acceptable educational methods and outcomes and decreasing emphasis on the liberal aspects that cannot be measured – but which, if the Dragon School experience tells us anything, is from where great talent sometimes emerges.

And as several experiences last term indicated, this does transmit to pupils. Even as one who has strongly suspected that the present system is the source of, not the cure to, the toxicity of state education, I was hit hard by the strength of the evidence.

Daisy Christodoulou recently reviewed a book, Ouroboros by Greg Ashman about his teaching experiences in Australia and Britain. The imagery here is also classically Greek: this is the notion of the snake eating its own tail, “a vicious antithesis of progress”. Daisy was struck by the endless recycling of bad old ideas within state education; for me the problem is similar: this is a system that thinks it knows where it wants to go, but lacks the insight to see that its chosen methods are heading it in entirely the opposite direction. And the more it struggles, the more it can – tragically – only see one direction: the one it already knows, regardless of the fact that this is increasingly being shown not to work.

You simply cannot bang the table and demand that people deliver liberal, creative or intellectual education in a homogenised, done-to-order, over-specified manner. These are the very things that destroy those qualities. While I accept that the independent sector does have in-built advantages, it does however still seem to understand this. Nicky Morgan may dream about the same being true in state schools – so what has she done?

Imposed another needless, time-consuming and expensive reorganisation on the system, which can only serve to distract further from schools’ true purpose – and if my reading is correct, reduce still further the freedoms of individual teachers to function as they need. Yes folks! The solution for our state education sector’s problems is….. MORE MANAGEMENT!

And in the best traditions of Greek tragedy, by doing so it is sowing yet further the seeds of its own undoing.

Utter Rubbish – a postscript

Saturday’s post (Utter Rubbish) went straight to the top of my all-time-most-read. I’m not sure whether that means there a lot of people in agreement, or whether lots are thinking what an inveterate fool T.P. made of himself. Either way, here is a short clarification:

Andrew Sabisky commented that Lleras-Muney’s number is the result of large-scale research, and that it is possible using natural experiment (I like that) to obtain plausible figures. However, subsequent (peer?) review apparently contested the result. Thanks to Andrew for the link.

But my title did not principally refer to the research itself, even though its provenance may be questionable and I stand by my comments over why it cannot be applied to the individual. It is possible that this is not what Lleras-Muney intended. It is widely accepted that increasing educational opportunity can have significant aggregate benefits for populations. It is particularly noticeable in developing countries where general life expectancy is low, and where certain groups (notably women) gain access to education for the first time.

What I think is U.R. is the way that such data are misrepresented to support partisan(?) agendas, particularly in relation to specific classroom practice. I don’t know whether Dylan Wiliam was just being careless in his use of language, but to my eyes he is saying that one year in ‘school’ will add 1.7 years to one’s life. As a justification for formative assessment, I think he presumes too rather too much!

It exasperates me when discussion of classroom practice ignores the reality of teaching specific groups of young people. Extending their longevity is not normally foremost in my mind, even when embedding formative assessment!

While it is true that educating a population is achieved by educating many individual people, the process is oblique and it is not straightforward to make direct links between the specific process and the general effect. Likewise, I have long criticised the commodification of ‘achievement’ as something distinct from the process of actual learning. Neither is quantifiable in any absolute way, and such approaches fail to capture the real life-benefits that ‘being educated’ can bring, which are mostly not objectively experienced at all. I am not sure how one would go about quantifying ‘achievement’ in relation, for example, to a growing appreciation of Literature or competence in a foreign language, nor how this contributes to the effects that Wiliam suggests.

One might further argue that the marginal quantity of life is not as important as its quality, and even in economic terms, increased longevity is as likely to add to the cost burden on society as reduce it.

The promotion of this utilitarian, economised view of education by those with significant clout has diminished a more individual, cultural and humane appreciation of its effects. This is the outlook of those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and it has done untold damage to the wider perception of education in Britain.

That is where the Utter Rubbish really comes in.

Wrong lever!

250px-Leverframe

(Picture: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago, in which a well-meaning member of senior staff was outlining what ‘needs’ to be done to address under-achievement among some of our older students. As she conceded, there is little wrong with the teaching (we know we are collectively doing all the things that are currently identified as good practice). It just isn’t always having the desired effect.

A Plan was wheeled out. It involved yet more folder checks, setting and tracking of target, removal of privileges, helicoptering of students. In other words, all the things we are already doing; hardly a creative response to the situation. But in a way, I do sympathise: where a problem has been identified, Management cannot very well sit there and do nothing.

I was left with a sense of hopelessness, despite the fact that the issue doesn’t directly affect me at the moment as I don’t teach the cohorts concerned. As has been said many times, if you make the same input you will most likely get the same output – and yet again the people caught in the middle of this thankless, probably fruitless effort are the teachers whose workloads have been added to once again.

As I said, I don’t blame those making the decisions – they are caught in the same system as the rest of us, being held accountable for things we cannot control – but I would still suggest that the chances of improvement as a result of the extra work are minimal. I would have thought that recognising the limits of our powers might however be a good start. After all, this is not the first time the same approach has been taken, and last time, if anything, it seemed to have the opposite effect.

At the root of this is an inability to accept that there are some very important things over which we have very little control. And key amongst those, particularly with the older students, is their wider culture and attitudes. It may be necessary for schools to claim they have total control over student outcomes, but I am afraid it just isn’t so. Even Hattie accepts that.

I am not going to suggest there is nothing we can do to tackle complacency and over-confidence in students, but I think it is foolish to expect to bring about a rapid, profound change – or that coercion will achieve it. Rather than seeing schooling as the ability to drive back the tide, I see it more like sticking a paddle into a fast-flowing stream and hoping to make some rather helpful eddies. Note I say ‘schooling’ as opposed to education; the latter is indeed a profound force – but I am not sure that it is limited to, or even particularly well delivered by, what goes on in schools, particularly for those sectors of youthful society that if anything are already over-stimulated.

To put it bluntly, trying to change student actions by directing teacher ones amounts to pulling the wrong lever. Teachers are generally not the problem; (lazy) students are. And pressurising the teachers put even more pressure on those students, in the process becoming more stressed and short of time, is unlikely to make any difference at all. My best bet is for more resistance as more potential confrontations arise.

On the other hand, creating the space for teachers to be nurturing, even inspiring, or just plain human, might in time have an effect. But this looks too much like doing nothing.

I suspect the problem with lazy sixth-formers comes partly from post GCSE burn-out and possibly from admitting uncommitted individuals because of the cash they attract. It  perhaps lies in the fact that most of ours already want for nothing, and probably normal teenage inertia. It might also be that the targets aren’t right in the first place. In other words it is the wider circumstance that is wrong.

But depressingly, the only response the system seems to know is to work teachers harder. I suspect it actually requires a more subtle interpretation of which levers to pull; is it too much to expect subtlety, or at least wisdom, from the education system? Pulling the wrong lever is no better than pulling none at all.

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

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

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

Excerpts from the blurb say:

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

Well, Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will report back when I have read the book.

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.