Forever blowing bubbles…?

Priceline.com was an online company that sold excess airline capacity. By the year 2000, the stock market had capitalised it to the tune of $150bn, or more than the value of the entire airline industry. That was, of course, before the dot-com crash of that year. A similar effect was seen pre-2008, when Northern Rock amassed loan liabilities of over £100bn on assets of a mere £1.5bn.

Reading further into Aeron Davis’ book, it becomes clear how such bubbles arise: herd behaviour dictates that more and more people pour investments into a company simply because others are doing the same. Even though people know this is risky behaviour, the short-term consequences of not doing so, in terms of lost shareholder confidence – and thereby even senior jobs, are too great. Bad practice is thus actively rewarded – and when the crash ultimately comes, those at the top simply blame everyone else, walk away, and move on to their next executive post.

In both crashes, there were a few individuals who warned of what was to come, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. They tended to make lower returns – and thus paid with their jobs, in some cases a matter of weeks before they were proved right.

Education can’t have bubbles like this – or can it? Reading Davis’ account, I could not help but consider the possibility that it does, in the form of ideologies. The recent history of education is one of a sequence of fads that gained traction, and were wheeled out across the nation via the networking of senior managers and agenda-shapers. We have seen AfL, The Growth Mindset, Effect Sizes, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats, peer-assessment, green pens, triple marking and more follow this trajectory. Sometimes they originate in research, but quite often they seem to generate their own self-justifying ‘evidence base’ which is used to bludgeon people into compliance. For a few years, everyone piles into the latest idea, whose supposed value rapidly balloons until no one who claims to be serious about education can afford not to be doing it – and talking about it incessantly. Some build entire reputations on such behaviour.

And then the bubble bursts – not so much from financial unviability, but because the fad turns out to be unworkable, or because it does not after all deliver the demonstrable improvement in learning that it promised. I have sat in meetings where certain stellar individuals openly panned the very ideas they had been championing just a few years earlier – but by then they were onto the Next Big Thing, their careers safely intact, unlike the sanity of those who had been charged with implementing their now-disowned schemes. The collateral damage is not so much out-of-pocket shareholders as out-of-education teenagers whose schooling experience was badly distorted by such recklessness, not to mention the frazzled lives of teachers who were required to jump through yet more hoops in the process.

There are bubbles of different sizes too. Those within individual schools may be of quite some concern – but the impact of, for example, the bubble that promoted Free Schools is another matter entirely – in this case the disrupted education of those whose schools are increasingly closing mid-way through exam courses. Those consequences are not imaginary.

In all cases, education bubbles are caused in precisely the same way as financial ones: fads that no one can be seen to be ignoring, that create bandwagons of questionable practice, which can only have one conclusion. Yet everyone is required to take them deadly seriously at the time. One might have hoped for something more considered from the thinking part of society, but it seems the pressures for herd behaviour and the desire of some to build reputations and careers are just too strong.

And as in the financial sector, those who refuse to go along are penalised for their restraint with lost career progression and in some cases their jobs, for not using enough green pen, or not using group work, or failing to cook their pupils’ data records to satisfy the target-mongers. Let alone what befalls those who stand up and publicly say that the whole thing is wrong.

Oops. That’s getting personal again.

Advertisements

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

G.I.G.O.*

I was delighted to read yesterday that Huntingdon School in York, where John Tomsett is head, received Outstanding judgement at its recent Ofsted inspection.

I have not met John but have followed him online for several years, and corresponded with him on a few occasions; indeed his comments regarding the compassion with which he believes one should treat one’s staff were what led me to the world of educational blogging in the first place. He also helped me, a total stranger, with a particularly knotty problem I needed to resolve a couple of years ago.

I suspect John’s school has its share of petty frustrations like any other, but it is refreshing to see in black-and-white a statement of faith from a school leader that places integrity and human values above the rat-race of results and league tables –  and his being acknowledged for it. He is absolutely right on two things:

  1. Life is not a zero-sum competition: enhancing the experience of each individual is what matters, not who comes first (thereby devaluing the efforts of all the others). In this country’s current cultural climate, this is a mistake that too many make. Competition can of course add challenge – but the only competition many people actually need is with themselves; the need constantly to ‘beat’ others is neither healthy nor necessary. And I suspect it is only really important to those alpha-individuals whose own motivation is the acquisition of status and power, even in the education system.
  2. Treating people properly pays dividends in terms of the loyalty and motivation they will show in return. This is a day-to-day truism, but it is particularly so when times are tough and a lot depends on goodwill. A memorable feature of my own career was watching the systematic destruction of such goodwill.

Meanwhile, it sounds as though another school of my acquaintance continues soullessly to chase ratings, while treating its people as dispensable pawns on the path to league-table glory. Some school managements give a strong impression that they think they are running an industrial production facility, rather than a human enterprise; I wonder what on earth drives them to do so, other than selfish ambition. It is certainly not compatible with any greater ethical, humane vision for education.

The only surprise is that they still seem surprised when people who have been treated with disdain return the favour in kind; quite how they feel entitled to expect so much while giving so little is a constant mystery to me.

Perhaps they should remember that it is no more a privilege for teachers to work for a school, than it is for the school to have them. Knowing that, I think is the key to John Tomsett’s success; I wish I knew of a few more head teachers who were following his lead.

*Garbage in, garbage out.

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.