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!


(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.

Turning it all around #3: Held to account.

Accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Pasi Sahlberg

One so often sees in education the application of extraordinarily blunt instruments to a subtle and intricate process that it’s easy to wonder whether those devising them really have much understanding of that process at all.  Holding professionals to ‘account’ might seem like a perfectly reasonable step within a complex modern society – until one reflects further on both the meaning of the word, and the nature of what is being attempted.

I have no difficulty whatsoever for being held responsible for my actions as a teacher – but therein lies the first nuance: responsibility is accepted, but accountability is imposed. What is more, accountability has a whiff of retribution about it, suggesting no consideration of the circumstances whatsoever, whereas responsibility again is more nuanced, and has positive as well as negative connotations. But what, therefore, am I to make of the advice from a senior manager some years ago, that one should never apologise (to a parent)?

Teaching is not like working on a production line. Unlike machinery, people do not usually submit willingly to direct control – and immature ones especially so. Many of the impacts of my work depend on how others react to what I do – and I have little direct control of that: influence is the best I can really hope for. Claiming that failure is simply the premeditated failure of the professional to get it right vastly over-simplifies the nature of the situations we deal with.

Increasing the intervention may even result in the opposite effect to that desired. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that the more I do for my pupils, the less they feel they need to do for themselves, and I have colleagues who are finding the same. The incitement to teachers to do more may well be having a negative effect, while a ‘failure’ to act may just as easily be the result of insightful judgement as neglect.

There is a multitude of external factors that also affect the outcomes of a teacher’s work, many of which involve purely reactive relationships. And yet institutional thinking believes it reasonable to hold teachers individually to account for many such situations – sometimes so precisely that a numerical target is applied. This is a denial of reality, for production targets are meaningless in real educational terms, more subject to apparent chance than anything else.

Such has been the emphasis on the supply-side of education in recent years that my pupils often react with surprise when I remind them that their teachers also exist to assess how they respond to the education they are being given. Many now seem to see schooling as a situation where they are the purely passive recipients of a service, where they need take no responsibility for any of their actions or outcomes.  This has been exacerbated by the demise of things that ‘remind’ them of those responsibilities, such as end-of-year exams in lower-secondary education.

Teaching children such responsibility is in itself part of their education.The effect of ramping up the demands on precisely those who have only partial control of the situation has been to shift the emphasis away from those whom we are really seeking to influence. The argument that children have diminished responsibility on account of their immaturity misses the point in typically progressive fashion: the whole purpose of education is to develop such understandings in them, not give in to the fact they don’t already have them. It is, in my view, entirely reasonable to place upon children a requirement that they too accept some responsibility for their actions, and that includes engaging with the educational process. But I would also argue that a teacher’s responsibility therefore also extends to not duping them into believing that lessons are simple matters of transient fun, with no longer-term consequences.

To remove from children any sense of their own ability or need to influence their own futures is about as great a disservice to them as I can imagine.  What is more, the zero-sum argument that children only have one chance in life is just another denial that reality is not perfect. Some children will always ‘fail’, whatever the criteria we use, through no fault of our own. And it is also worth remembering that without ‘failure’ there can also be no ‘success’ either. Forcing people onto the defensive about this is hardly helpful.

I would not wish to visit accountability on others – but if we are going to use it, then it needs to be done wisely. The key considerations must surely be:

  • an accurate identification of what the real determinants of a situation actually are;
  • where and to what extent control of them really lies, and
  • the appropriateness with which success and failure are defined.

I find it perfectly acceptable to be held responsible for my actions as a teacher – to a degree proportionate with the real influence I have over the situation. This must include an acceptance that I do not have the benefit of hindsight when making decisions about particular courses of action. I also accept it on condition that the criteria for success or failure reflect the reality of the situation, and that the assessment is made by those who have sufficient sophistication themselves to understand the interplay between all of the relevant factors.

But I do not accept it unconditionally in order to become a fall-guy whose function is to absorb the poor decisions and risk-offloading of others simply by virtue of the fact that they can.

Responsibility is a complex dynamic, particularly in collegiate institutions such as schools, and I think the balance is currently so far from being correct that it is probably doing more harm than good. If we are going to continue with such notions, there is probably only one indicator which comes close to giving a proportionate and realistic assessment – and that is intent.

In other words, we need to examine people’s motives, for this is the clearest indicator of whether they are acting in good faith or not, while also accepting that we do not live in a perfect or predictable world. This is in itself difficult, but it comes back to the concept of an on-going, individual professional ethic. Appraising this – over a suitable period of time – would provide a fairer and more accurate reflection of a teacher’s conduct that any number of attempts to pin on individuals blame for situations whose outcomes they could neither accurately predict nor fully control – or whose causes were actually collective.

But the real problem is the misidentification of the locus of responsibility in the first place. Of course teachers need to discharge their duties as well as humanly possible – but that is rarely in genuine doubt. Therefore they are not usually deserving of blame. We need to spend less time holding teachers to account and more time ensuring that the expectations of the children themselves are sufficiently demanding.

Do you have to weigh a pig to fatten it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Term Eighty-two

I enjoy reading blogs from Newly Qualified Teachers – it gives me a useful perspective on what it is to be entering this profession now, of encountering the whole caboodle for the first time, of struggling to reconcile the conflicts that have multiplied many-fold since I was in the same position. And also to revisit the optimism of starting out on a great career- journey.

But by this stage of the year, one reads some posts where the tarnish is already visible, the disbelief at the stress and workload already manifest. And I smile wryly and think, “Now do it all again – about a hundred times”.  For therein you have the sum of an average teaching career. It has been notable in recent conversations with some of our current young staff that quite a few say they cannot envisage remaining in teaching long-term; well, many of us had problems at that age envisaging forty years of anything (let alone the number of years that they will have to do) but even so, I can’t say that I blame them, for all the professional problems it could cause…

For me, this was term number eighty-two, and I’m afraid to say it has to go down in the annals right at the pits end of the scale. As I observed at the time, for some reason things got ridiculously hectic surprisingly early on, and it just kept getting worse.

On the positive side, I was invited by John Tomsett to visit Huntington School, and I hoped to take up his offer, partly to quell some of my reservations about the Growth Mindset, but also because I am mightily curious about how he runs a tight ship while still both visibly caring for the wellbeing of his staff and retaining his humility as a classroom teacher. If all is what it seems, this is a remarkable balancing act. Unfortunately, my request was turned down by my own school. Growth Mindset harrumph.

The week before half-term, I caught a nasty viral infection that laid me low for several weeks, and which I then kindly passed to my wife and several other people. I don’t know whether it’s just age, the post-viral legacy of an even nastier thing a couple of years ago (which my G.P said could linger for years) or just the cumulative wear and tear of working life, but I don’t seem to be able to shake these things off as quickly as I used to… The idea that teaching can cause physical burnout is NOT A MYTH. Treat with respect.

Just when I had rather prematurely returned to work, the school landed a bombshell. Suffice it to say that last year’s department GCSE results were not our finest moment, but despite some significant internal and external extenuating circumstances (not least the fact that the exam board had introduced new content in mid-flight) it had clearly been decided that a head had to roll. It has been suggested to me by incredulous colleagues that there may have been some behind-the-scenes finger-pointing, but I’m not going to speculate. Whatever the reason, my head, it seemed had been chosen. It would appear there are some things that even eighty-one terms of good karma can’t protect you against.

Despite my convalescent state, and needing to care for my wife who was still signed-off, I was put on a ‘supportive process of  informal monitoring’, albeit of reduced duration – which sounds innocuous enough until you hear mention of the consequences of an unsatisfactory outcome.  I later realised that this was probably ‘just’ a statutory requirement.

The process involved three SLT observations over a couple of weeks, and my observation of some Outstanding teachers’ lessons. To be fair, once the issue had been raised, finger-pointing or not, ignoring the matter was clearly not an option for the school management who no doubt had a few fingers pointing in their direction too. And to be doubly fair, the process was carried out with courtesy and professionalism, and it soon became clear that my initial anxiety about a witch-hunt was unfounded. It was emphasised that this was NOT a capability procedure, more a matter of quality assurance – though that was cold comfort at the time, as both my personal life and normal working routine still went into a violent tailspin. I’m not the kind of person to take something like this lightly: it is a rabbit-in-the-headlights experience that can easily induce a kind of mental paralysis whereby you simply can’t think about anything else. It becomes all too clear that as stress levels rise, negative outcomes can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And no amount of previous experience can fully inure you to that fact…

“Engage with the process”, I was advised, and indeed I did, not being the door-slamming, storming-out-of-office type – though it didn’t feel like there was exactly a lot of choice about it at the time. In the event, I was ‘cleared of all charges’ with the lessons observed having no significant weaknesses, the pupils saying good things, and my marking being deemed fine. I can think of several reasons for the ‘lack of some pace’ that was the only recurrent criticism.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and indeed the first opportunity for some time to watch other teachers was useful, if only for seeing that their good-but-routine lessons did not differ significantly from my own, except perhaps in their adherence to ‘approved’ structures. Likewise, I have now had my own practice tested close to the limit and found not to be greatly wanting; in a strange way that is quite reassuring. Even the anxiety attacks and sleepless nights have gradually receded.

I often talk up the virtues of experience, though I can now add there are some kinds it is better not to have had. Nonetheless, it was enlightening, if only because one realises just how easily things can go wrong. These days, I have little real doubt in my own competence (and more) as a teacher – but as such situations develop, it is all too easy to start believing the scenario oneself. One also starts to worry that others, with their manifestly different outlooks, may not see it the way you do. If I did have a worry, it was the fact that I may not be sufficiently ‘on message’ for official taste; in the event, that concern was largely laid to rest, too.

It highlights the inflexibility of the current accountability culture, where ‘results’ really are all, and other factors – to say nothing of one’s wider contributions – seem to get so easily pushed to one side. One also starts to appreciate the collateral damage of such events, both in terms of people’s personal lives and their wider professional responsibilities. Are the stakes really so high that there is no better way?

An unfortunate casualty  has been the CPD session that I had planned on the engaging professional-development benefits of edu-blogging, the latest of a sequence of very well-received sessions I have delivered in recent years – which I am told will now have to wait until all three of my PM targets can once again be ticked ‘Pass’. Nose, face, spite methinks.

Still, the term ended on a good note: my current upper sixth class clearly think enough of my teaching to have bought me a John Lewis Christmas Hamper, so I can’t be all bad, even when I’m not being observed. It provided more of a lift than they will ever know. On which note, I wish my readers a joyous Festive Season, another process that I fully intend to ‘engage’ with – once I have got my taste buds back from the customary end-of-term streaming cold.

As I have said many times, social reality and in particular the nature of causality, is so complex that we attempt to rationalise it at our peril, which is why I am suspicious of people who claim they can, especially in a field like education.  The impacts of getting it wrong are arguably so wide as to be unknowable; when one hears of academics, G.P.s and head teachers taking their own lives as a result of career worries, is it really worth such a draconian approach? Even in my own (now seemingly-) mild case, while I bear no grudges, the experience has hardly been endearing.

Here’s to term Eighty-three; may the next be better than the last.

The Tragedy of Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a Tiger For?


“Tigers are the creature you would design if you were more skilful and more knowledgeable than you could ever be, to do the sorts of things tigers do. But that is not how tigers came into existence. Tigers are good at being tigers because adaptation has honed them to be well-adapted to the daily life of tigerdom. There is neither more nor less to it than that.”¹

I suppose I’m on a bit of a minor roll at present, at least in one respect. I have taught a particularly demanding module of our ‘A’ Level course single-handed to some classes for a number of years now, and the results for the last three have been very good. The upshot of this is that one of my professional development targets for the new academic year is now to write a new scheme of work for it. This is welcome recognition, in a school where my methods tend not to gain much favour or acknowledgement.

The clear expectation is that I am going to set on paper, and thereby share, my trade secrets. But there’s a problem: I don’t know what they are. At no point have I sat down and devised a revolutionary new teaching programme for the module; I have no world-beating new resources, no new techniques, and I am as surprised by the favourable results as anyone else. In fact, somewhat worried as well because each passing year is going to make it harder to maintain the unasked-for reputation I seem to have gained for this.

I have recently been re-reading Obliquity by John Kay, a book that will stand multiple readings if only for its deeply therapeutic value as an escape from the pressure caused by such excessive accountability and micro-management of my working life. The tiger discussion is his. Kay’s message is that human beings know little about the real workings of the world – and can control even less – certainly much less than we like to think. Through a combination of case studies, philosophy and psychology, Kay mounts the argument that believing we can control ever more of the world around us is  fundamentally futile. We would be much better off accepting that the world is just too complex ever to know sufficiently well to produce reliable outcomes, and we would do even better to accept that many of the best outcomes come about, if not by chance, then by processes too complex to know. Then we could just celebrate them for what they are, fortunate products of Chance, as and when they happen. Our delusion tends to come from our conquest of mechanical processes – but achieving a degree of control over inert materials is a relatively simple thing compared with the world of behavioural phenomena. In fact, we can even only control relatively simple, isolated aspects of the physical world too, as any environmental scientist will tell you.

Kay develops many threads, all of which lead to the conclusion that we would should accept that we don’t and can’t understand much of what we do, and that attempts to the contrary are most often delusions. He makes much use of Franklin’s Gambit, which states that rationales for decisions are very often created retrospectively using evidence selected (consciously or otherwise) simply to justify decisions that we have already made in our minds by altogether more oblique ways. Interestingly, he insists that obliquity is not the same as intuition, which can indeed lead in dangerous directions, as David Didau and others have been arguing. Obliquity is the acceptance that experience and expertise often work in indirect, invisible and sometimes inexplicable ways, that we are unlikely ever to fathom, let alone bottle and sell to new teachers. It also accepts that the inability to provide reasoned explanation is not a sign that things do not work.

In how many ways does this apply to education! One might argue that it was the basis of all the now-discredited educational policy of the past few decades – people being directed to follow certain procedures and disregard others simply on the whim of those with other agendas, who quite possibly had retrospectively selected the evidence that supported their pre-existing agendas.

Unfortunately, the pendulum-swing against such ideologies seems to be relying on the same assumption – that if only we can find sufficient evidence, we will be able to prove our case. Well, the news is, that just isn’t going to happen, as a few workers seem to be starting to realise.

When I write up my scheme of work, I expect it to be a triumph of predictability and tedium, for I have nothing new to say in it. The only way in which I appear to have succeeded with those students has been by transmitting my genuine fascination with the topic, spending some time looking at its philosophical underpinnings as opposed to cramming them full of exam-ready facts – and emphasising the fact that with much of the preparation they are pretty much on their own. Well, they have to be, given that the exam consists of a single ninety-minute thesis-style report, for which their own individual research is mandatory.

Oh, and I think that by the time the students reach the later stages of year 13 I have generally established very good working relationships with them, such that they take on trust my advice and do what I bid them do. Nothing that is going to give any succour or silver bullets to those who don’t value such matters.

In my view, one sign that modern teaching remains a much less mature profession that it would like to be is its apparent inability simply to accept that it is what it is. It is still trying to pretend that it can employ the methods of science or medicine or business to arrive at regular, predictable outcomes. Becoming educated (as opposed to merely qualified) simply isn’t like that. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to learn more about the mechanisms of learning, but expecting to find anything that will be of direct use in each and every one of the world’s classrooms is worse delusion than the quest for the Holy Grail. Whatever cognitive science and the rest may deliver us, it is still going to have to be delivered by fools like me, whose input alone is enough to torpedo any amount of rigorous control.

It would be more honest and more productive to accept that a teacher is simply the creature that you would design if you were more skilful and more knowledgeable than you could ever be, to do the sorts of things teachers do. But that is not how teachers came into existence. Teachers are good at being teachers because adaptation has honed them to be well-adapted to the daily life of teacherdom. There is neither more nor less to it than that.

That is where real educational and pedagogic success comes from, and writing a new scheme of work is not about to change that.


¹ Obliquity by John Kay, Profile Books 2012, page 134.

Can Science really part the clouds?

This post is a response to a productive discussion on the blog Evidenceintopractice (EiP) in the last couple of days. The original can be found here.

Climate Change is a really important topic – and a really complicated one. Science is trying to identify what is really happening in the atmosphere – but that is not enough to prevent sceptics such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson vociferously expressing their reservations. Provocatively writing on the leader page of today’s Independent on Sunday under the caption Don’t let balance get in the way of the Truth, Katy Guest complains that Lawson is being given too much airtime, saying that if 99% of scientists agree on something, the reason is probably that they are right. Lawson, on the other hand, typically counters that “99% of scientists” normally means 99% of climate change scientists – who might be considered to have a vested interest – and that wider science is by no means so unanimous. Who is right? It is almost impossible, especially as a lay-person, to know. Taken in terms of their own logic, both sides might be seen to have a plausible case, and as for what the Truth is, as I said, who knows?

Seen in scientific terms, the issue ought to be clear-cut. Either climate change is happening or it isn’t – there is no other option. If it is happening, then either it is being exacerbated by humans or it isn’t. But that is where things start to get complicated. In utterly rational terms, one might argue that it really doesn’t matter. Climate is continually changing as a result of natural variation; even rapid change can occur due to the effects of volcanic activity and other epochal mega-events. It only matters to us because of its implications for human existence – and at that point, we cross a Rubicon from the realm of scientific objectivity to that of subjective interpretation.

At that point, the clear waters of  our best research efforts into climate science are instantly muddied by matters of opinion, vested interest and individual philosophy. Since we are human, it cannot be otherwise. Quite apart from the desirability of continued human existence itself being a subjective matter (try asking, if you could, all those species whose extinction we have caused what they thought about it), there is nothing more than a probability-judgment that humans are causing the change. If nothing  else, the ‘yes’ camp is balanced by those who argue that it is a sign of hubris to think that humans are significant enough to cause climate change – and it is indeed curious that the issue emerged pretty much at the time when the previous bogeyman – the Cold War – ended. The theory that mankind ‘needs’ something to worry about is not, in my view particularly far-fetched.

It is also very likely that those on both sides of the argument have significant vested interests to protect that colour their conclusions. The scandal caused by leaked emails from the Climate Change Unit at the University of East Anglia some years ago suggests that scientists are not immune. So much for objectivity. God has yet to descend from on high and give us a Great Big Tick and say, “Yep, humanity, you screwed up!” And in this instance, self-assessment is frankly proving useless and peer-assessment not a lot better.

But whatever you conclude, the practical truth is that it still remains impossible to determine whether any one unusual ‘weather event’ is a product of climate change or not. Even given of the data and computing power we have, the planetary climate  is just too complicated a system (and its timescale too huge) for us to be able to say with the necessary resolution what caused what. Even when local events do seem to echo larger patterns, causality is by no means clear.

So even if we eventually confirm beyond a shadow of doubt what much science seems to be telling us, there will, I suggest, still be very little chance that we will understand precisely why any single event happened. At best, Science will give us a general framework but no more. It may be able to tell us what we could do at a macro-scale to tackle the problem, but it is very unlikely to be able to tell us what to do to manage any specific matter. In that sense, our understanding of the climate is still rudimentary – and is likely to remain so, simply because the climate is such a complex system that accurately predicting its behaviours down to a local scale is too immense a task – especially when one remembers just how many localities there are to be dealt with. In other words, we are dealing with a system whose causal density is so high as to make predicting it at a useful resolution effectively impossible.

I have used this analogy because EiP cited it as an example of how Science can tell us useful things about complicated issues. (S)he is probably right – so long as one retains a suitable level of resolution, but it is of only limited use at the scale at which we really need to intervene. I hope the parallel with education is clear.

EiP also argues that scientific evidence is not an event but an accumulation of probability. This seems very reasonable, as does the claim that the give-away for pseudo-science is its often-exaggerated claims. In this sense, we might be able to use research evidence in education to insulate ourselves against all of the cargo-cult stuff to which we are regularly subjected.  Well, it’s a nice idea, and it would indeed be great if it worked. But if science struggles to prove anything at a really useful scale, then it is always going to struggle to disprove it too. That’s not to say that we might not dismiss things where the evidence well and truly stacks up to the contrary – but as in Lawson’s case, that is not going to stop people arguing the opposite, sometimes with some force. And as Einstein (I think) in effect said, it only takes one experiment to disprove a Law.

Thinking is really difficult. Somewhere out there, we know there is (probably) an objective Truth – but finding it is another matter. Just recently, I was involved in something of a disagreement over – shall we say – the future direction of a creative venture. I had a position that in all honesty was in significant part a matter of personal preference, albeit derived from knowledge and reasoning. That said, as a critical thinker, I always attempt to set  mere bias aside and arrive at a more tenable view by means of reasoning and scrutiny of evidence. So my actual view ended up as a cocktail of instinct and reason that was nonetheless inadequate to win the argument, for all that my position was well-supported. My opponent was (I assume) doing something similar, but coming to very different conclusions about the same situation. That said, when I proposed a compromise based on balanced scrutiny of the hard evidence, very little was forthcoming from the other side, and certainly nothing that persuaded me to change my stance. Regrettably, the issue was not resolved by reason but by gut feeling – and this was all amongst educated, thinking people.

I mention this because I think it is very important in relation to what education is ‘for’. EiP seems relatively content to accept that in the current climate, the maximisation of exam results is an acceptable benchmark against which to measure what works. I disagree – and I believe I am living evidence that the relationship between exam results, the acquisition of a well-functioning intellect and living a fulfilled life is not strong. You can read that whatever way you choose!

I also suspect that science is unlikely ever to give us sufficient insight into the human brain ever to be able to explain the specific processes going on in any one of the seven billion-odd brains on this planet, each of which consists of countless billions of neurones, let alone the connective permutations possible between them. In fact, it didn’t even prove more than very generally helpful in the very specific, localised dispute I outlined above. In that sense, I think this is an even bigger problem than climate change.

So far as I can tell, EiP maintains a high level of intellectual rigour and the blog contains much of interest and use – and there is evidence from other plaudits to suggest that I am not alone in thinking that. But that is not to say that his/her assumptions are always correct. So to summarise my reservations:

1. To deploy science/research/evidence in education with any rigour requires a top-down macro-approach, normally of some size. This means that the results will similarly be based on generalised findings rather than specific circumstances.

2. (As I repeatedly say) educational impact is only meaningful at the individual level. When we are trying to learn something, if we fail, knowing that 95% of others succeeded is of little help.

3. As with climatic events, the confidence levels that science can achieve are nowhere near sufficient to provide us with any useful insight for specific circumstances. At best they can give us a general overview of what tends to be the case – so a general framework in which to operate, useful but not sufficient.

4. What tends to be the case generally and what obtains in any specific circumstance can be wildly different, so generalisations are easily rendered redundant.

5. Since we do not have perfect knowledge, and cannot therefore anticipate the future, we can never be certain in advance whether we are encountering a typical or atypical circumstance. Therefore, despite the science, we are effectively reduced once again to trial and error – hopefully using techniques that may be generally known to help (not ‘work’). To quote Einstein again, when asked about his working methods, he is reputed to have replied, “I grope”.

6. It is not in any case possible to determine ‘what works’ unless you can both agree on criteria and then measure them. As many are now saying, the best we have for learning is proxy measures – and as my creative disagreement above shows, there is no guarantee they will be of much use when applied to the intractable situations of real life with which education is presumably ultimately meant to assist. People just aren’t like that.

7. Even if we could arrive at a situation where we knew with 100% certainty ‘what works’ in education, what are the moral implications of this? Do we really want to create a situation where we are effectively the instruments of mind-control, in which the individual recipient has no sovereignty?  Do we really wish to take on the moral responsibilities that this would confer? This might prove comforting for head teachers facing Ofsted inspectors or teachers being observed – but if it were to come to pass, I would not be able to sleep at night. I would have thought History gives us enough warnings to realise that attempting scientific control of the people’s thought-processes is not a Good Thing.

Maybe, as EiP suggests,  I am being too pessimistic about the potential of science – it has certainly moved us far over the past few thousand years – though not largely in the behavioural domain. I am not against Science trying to show us things that might help us to teach and learn better – but the search for either perfect learning or a vaccine against educational doggerel is, I fear going to prove to be in vain. The task is simply to big for us, at least any time soon – and in any case, it will remain overwhelmingly subjective. Wishing for something is  no guarantee it can be done – and I am hardly the first to counsel “Be careful what you wish for”.