Of tragedy, irony and other epic failures of a classical nature…

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Reading Fintan O’Toole’s recent book Heroic Failure – Brexit and the Politics of Pain, it is easy to see that Csikszentmihalyi is onto something. People who are not equipped with the ability rationally to understand and contextualise their own situations are all too vulnerable to the deceit of others. And it is this, perpetrated over many decades, that ultimately brought us Brexit.

This post is not (really) about Brexit – though in my mind, it is almost impossible to separate that tortured issue from the matter of education in its widest sense. Had more of the British population been properly equipped with the thinking skills that effective education can provide, there might have been greater scrutiny of the misinformation that was propagated during that campaign – and, dare I say, a wider perspective on where the nation’s interests really lay. Being Irish gives O’Toole useful leverage in terms of detachment – though not necessarily impartiality – about such matters. He is, though, widely recognised as one of the most astute commentators of our time, and his book does attempt to overcome his own remain tendencies and approach objectivity.

His account chimes with my own lived experience of this country over the 56 years of my life – and the gradual dawning on me, by exposure to life elsewhere (that educational process again), that what was presented to the young me as Eldorado, was perhaps tainted by an inability to see what was happening elsewhere, and a vested interest in believing the UK was the best of all possible worlds, even at the time when it was in fact faltering. It is such exposure to the unfamiliar that is at the real core of effective education – yet it is also something that education in Britain has increasingly retreated from, in favour of safe, predictable mass-produced work-prep. (Keep your head down, obey the boss, and don’t ask difficult questions….)

Michael Gove, another character who is virtually inextricable from the debate about both recent British education and Brexit, reputedly so prized his own classical education that he believed it was a model for all. Yet an epic, tragic consequence of his legacy as Secretary of State for Education was the loss of ‘A’ Level Critical Thinking, going the same way as European Studies some years earlier. It fell foul of Gove’s new benchmarks for QCA validation, and hence was lost to students. Gone is the opportunity that Gove will no doubt have had, for young people to learn to think with the objectivity that has come down to us from the classical philosophers.

Since January I have been teaching part-time at the Sixth Form College that gave me a way back into the profession last autumn. I was also allowed to provide for volunteer students a short course in Critical Thinking just before half term. There is only so much one can cover in four hours – and yet the response from the students was overwhelmingly positive. So much for its being a minority subject; the verdict of the punters suggests that we need this subject back on the curriculum as soon as possible, as elements of it remain in most other European countries:

“I wish I had been made aware of this at the start of my A Levels”
“Very helpful on learning how to analyse information. I really enjoyed the sessions”
“Learning how to break down and question arguments was really helpful”
“I found the sessions very helpful in finding a new way to think”.

A theme of O’Toole’s book is the way in which British (really English) self-perceptions have been manipulated over a period of decades by those with vested interests in perpetuating or promoting a certain socio-economic model, one that involved keeping the country antagonistic to further acquaintance with its EU partners, let alone finding new ways to think.

These are the kinds of skills that Critical Thinking develops – and throughout the public debate of the past four years, I couldn’t help but reflect on the widespread inability in this country to engage in any kind of remotely rational thought. I was involved with this at a very immediate level while campaigning for remain. My overwhelming impression was that people were simply ill-equipped to engage in any kind of objective thought, such as CT provides – and that went for both sides of the divide.

That isn’t only the fault of the education system, of course – but I can’t help but feel that a different approach in recent decades might have helped address the deficient critical faculties of a large part of our population.

The ultimate tragedy is that people in this country now face an uncertain future, where they are going to need all the inventiveness and creativity that they can muster. Those who criticise this nation’s people for their fecklessness may have a point – but they confuse the cause and the expression of a serious problem – which is actually the failure to equip a significant portion of the people with even rudimentary rational-cognitive skills, preferring instead to feed them a diet of mechanistic, low-grade “employability skills” and hubristic, patriotic pap, because they supposedly can’t cope with anything more.

In that, the education system has been largely complicit, preferring to make itself ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’, ‘compliant’ – and ‘closed’ rather than the intellectually-challenging tackling of imponderables and Big Questions that it needs at least in part to be. On that at least, Gove and I can probably agree – though it is O’Toole who has the final word on the societal consequences of this failure – while Gove ironically became one of its chief architects.

Prior to reading O’Toole’s book, I was reading Seneca – a Stoic. I have a feeling we are going to need his sometimes-challenging teachings too, in the coming years.

Further details of my Critical Thinking course can be found at https://wordpress.com/view/thinkbetterthinkcritically.wordpress.com

On educational totalitarianism – and teaching my first lesson for two years.

In the Beginning, when the world was young, people set up organisations because there was work that was better done collaboratively. The army, for instance, was established in order to defend the nation. The greatest soldier was hailed as he (and it normally was ‘he’) who most successfully defended that nation.

But in time, as armies grew, they developed their own internal structures. They needed their own provisions and evolved their own interests. They needed resources, and those who worked within them wanted to be rewarded as well as possible for their efforts. The best soldier became he who most successfully defended the interests of the army.

It is probably an inevitable side-effect of specialisation that this is so. But it hugely increases the risk that organisations will become diverted from their core purpose – and as those organisations have become more complex, and the competition for resources between them intensified, it has become commonplace that self-perpetuation possibly now even consumes more time and energy than do their original purposes.

I still follow the education world, but with increasing distance, it is ever clearer that it has become just the same as all those others in this respect– just another interest-group within wider society – albeit one that claims special importance (don’t they all?) – whose internal politics and policies may be of massive, overwhelming importance to those who have to deal with them daily, but whose significance withers when seen from a wider perspective. (How on earth did green pens ever assume such a huge significance in my life?)

This is not for one moment to suggest that education is not important. If anything it is more so than ever in a time when the quality of public debate about all sorts of issues seems to be plunging hell-ward through floor after floor that you thought really was the basement. In modern times, there has perhaps never been a greater need than now, for a widespread ability to think clearly and rationally about the big issues facing the world, and one’s own place within it. We are seeing without a shadow of doubt, that a little education is a very bad thing.

But thinking ability is not what the education sector is any longer providing, and nor has it for at least several decades when jumping accountability hoops has been more important. ‘A little’ education  seems for many to be the best it could do, and there were times when I suspected that that was indeed its only aspiration. There is a strange, unspoken counter culture within education that hints darkly that you should not expect too much from the ordinary punter…

While I accept that platforms such as social media have some very strange effects on the dynamics of discourse, turning normally sensible people into raging autocrats, experience of such interaction is leading me to conclude that the mean ability for rational, detached thought within the population is – well, almost non-existent. While the formal education sector cannot be the only culprit here, its success in equipping citizens at large with the ability to be considered, reasonable, responsible members of a developed society seems to have been slight. And while it is very easy to overdo the them-and-us comparison, my experience, as so often, suggests that this deficiency is not the same in every country. It is not inevitable – and hence not solely the product of media that are available everywhere.

It is very easy to conclude that education (at least in Britain) really does now put most of its collective efforts into self-perpetuation. I don’t mean the thousands of unseen hours of classroom teaching that happen every day (though even classroom teachers have been forced to think more carefully about self-preservation in recent times). It is precisely with that filter in place that the other impression comes to the fore.

Seen from the outside, those with audible voices in education really do seem to spend most of their time either pulling wings off intellectual flies, or devising ever more devious ways to command the internal politics of the sector. Not much there any more about the nuts-and-bolts purpose of successful teaching, except insofar as it is necessary to validate the efficacy of the establishments that deliver it. What has happened to the social-intellectual vocation of the profession?

I have been struck (again) by this in recent months in what appears to be the very muted response to the pronouncements of the new(ish) Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman. Were I still teaching, I would be very enthused by her comments about the need to deliver real education as opposed to the box-ticking of recent decades. Her views that breadth and subjective experience are more important than conformity or narrow-definition ‘results’ should be manna from heaven for all in the sector. The downgrading of exam results within inspections should be a blessed release. And yet, my perception is that there has been barely a murmur of approval.

Such is the grip of the edu-establishment over the sector that it is increasingly difficult for any dissenting voices to be heard. Anyone not toeing their desired line simply does not get heard – the blogosphere notwithstanding. And even that seems to have lost the dynamism that it had a few years ago. If even the chief inspector can be met with indifference when she says something out of line, what hope is there for anyone else?

Perhaps all the approval is happening in the privacy of front-line classrooms, but from those whose voices can be heard, very little. I suppose one should concede that this might be the behaviour of those who have seen too many false dawns before – or could it be that those who run the system these days are just too invested in it to want even benign change? Perhaps they actually secretly yearn for those harsh inspections? After all, many of them have done very nicely from it – dynamic careers and even more dynamic salaries for those who have risen to run sometimes multiple schools whose entire position is based on bean-counting, and a feudal approach to those who are more or less willing or able to deliver those beans when they are needed. In this climate, the real imperatives for education are so far removed from their daily preoccupations that they might just as well not really exist at all, any more. Educating children is just an incidental consequence of a system whose real purpose is now the career success of those who climb the ladder.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too hard on them: they are only copying the nest-feathering that is apparent in ever-wider sectors of society. Stellar careers were the carrot offered by past governments to entice people into the profession. But one might have hoped for higher principles from one whose basis is in the altruistic doing of good for others, let alone the preservation and perpetuation of the nation’s higher cultural and societal capital. In that sense, it makes the situation all the more reprehensible.

In the meantime, tomorrow represents my first venture into teaching in over two years. No, I have not changed my mind and re-entered the school environment; I will be running my first adult education evening class in Critical Thinking, a commodity that seems to be in extremely short supply. Despite my initially-low expectations, I have a small group of adults locally who will be coming along over the next six months to learn more about the skill that really should be the fundamental basis of everything the education system says and does – and which school management does its best to suppress.

I have even been planning ‘lessons’ again. I’m looking forward to doing this. Hopefully I can in a small way deliver something of real educational value, free from the shackles of the formal system. But I will never again be submitting to the regimen of those who run the that sector – at least not until something very fundamental changes and there is a re-birth of its true raison d’etre.

You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.


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.

Missing the Point

Following our new-found political involvement, my wife and I have been bombarded with emails from the various Labour candidates. We are taking our responsibility seriously, and so in the interests of balance went to hear one of the ‘other’ candidates speak locally last Friday. I was genuinely open to persuasion but am afraid it was not an inspiring experience, and if anything it reinforced my view that we desperately need something other than ‘the usual suspects’.

The meeting was packed, and on that front at least, I would hope that the Labour Party and the country in general would see that the ‘Corbyn Effect’ has been good in terms of political engagement. But the fact that even the Labour establishment is closing its ears to the voice of a significant number of people simply because they don’t believe that those people are important in terms of wining Power, is a cause for concern – and yet another failing of our all-or-nothing political system.

As an elector, I wanted to hear substantive reasons why I should vote for the candidate concerned, but what we got was largely platitude and an emotive appeal for support based on assertion and with little strong or specific reasoning. One should acknowledge the limits on what can be discussed in a public meeting – but the depressing shallowness of the speaking was only matched by the toothlessness of most of the questioning: a serious, critical evaluation of a potential prime minister this was not. The other dispiriting thing was the partisan-ship; while it was to be expected at what was effectively a party rally, I don’t like tribalism at the best of times – but much of what came across was raw prejudice rather than any form of considered debate. So much for the critical skills of even the more politically-motivated part of the populace; maybe we need compulsory Critical Thinking For All.

From my educator’s point of view, the candidate sealed his/her own fate. A question was raised by a young woman clearly just out of school; it concerned the angst being experienced by British teenagers, complete with accounts of depression and self-harm among her friends. The question was not clearly-worded, but to my ears it referred to the pressure that young people are being put under by the corporate targets culture; she went as far as to say that she had hated her own school experience.

Unfortunately, the speaker totally failed to register this and proceeded to trot out the usual platitudes about holding schools to account and ensuring that all young people have good opportunities – for which the solution apparently is undiluted support for the comprehensive system without any visible awareness that that system, or at least the culture it has bred, is perhaps part of the problem. I sympathised with opposition to the academy system – but there was no apparent awareness that the solutions to educational problems are pedagogic rather than political or managerial.

Until we have politicians who genuinely understand that the solutions to such problems cannot come from managerialism but have to start with the re-empowerment of people like classroom teachers to do their job as best their individual vocation and intellects permit, nothing much is likely to change. And while their policies create false incentives for the management of institutions such as schools, that often make teaching more difficult and onerous that it need be, this will not happen. Unfortunately, the candidate on Friday showed no awareness of this whatsoever, which in turn only reinforced my opinion that ‘business as usual’ will no longer do.

At least Corbyn seems to be aware of that.

The Golden Watch

Some years ago, we used to use an exercise called The Golden Watch as an ice-breaker at sixth-form induction. It established a moral dilemma over acting honestly in a workplace situation. There was clearly a ‘right’ solution, but my abiding memory is of the significant numbers of students who failed to choose it. On more than one occasion, the view was voiced that it’s only wrong to cheat if you get caught;  well, I suppose this is an area where many parents work in The City…

But in my naivety, I was repeatedly shocked at the number of (one might hope idealistic) young people whose moral compass appeared so different from my own.

I have worked my entire career in a climate of Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and in close proximity to the national (if not global) hub of it all at that. On turning eighteen, I voted for Thatcher during her first two terms – having grown up during the retrenchment of the Seventies, the bright new ways of the Eighties offered a shiny optimism I hadn’t experienced in Britain before. I also remember on entering the teaching profession, a number of colleagues struggling even to make themselves speak to me once this news was out.

Yet, I find myself this weekend in the somewhat surprising position of being labelled (by proxy) ‘Hard Left’. Yes, I am one of the several hundred-thousand who have affiliated to the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger unexpectedly leading in the leadership contest. Ironically, I suspect that it is now some of my younger colleagues who are going to refuse to speak to me on the outing of this news – and I thought one is supposed to become more conservative as one grows older…

I have always had reservations about teachers being politically active; it is within their personal rights of course, but the conflation of teaching with political indoctrination has always been rather close for comfort. I certainly remember some teachers who did not always stay on the right side of that line.

But I also consider that I have a wider societal responsibility as a supposedly- educated professional. I have seen the changes wrought during decades of free-market doctrine. I’m not suggesting that these were solely caused by specific political policies – but there can be little doubt that this country’s chosen path has made it more possible for certain trends to emerge than might otherwise have been the case. The worrying thing is the self-perpetuating consensus that has taken hold that there is no other way, and which is endlessly repeated by commerce – and all of the mainstream political parties. As impartial educators, we have a duty to encourage the questioning of such claims.

I know other even wealthier countries, and have observed numerous cohorts of their young from close quarters. I know that the values the students expressed in The Golden Watch are by no means equally prevalent everywhere, and while increasing wealth does not inevitably bring greater social responsibility, it does not have to bring greater amorality either. It’s more a matter of the thinking that is encouraged about how that wealth should be made, and how it should be used. As one writer to The Independent put it, it’s about whether we want to become more like Denmark or the U.S.- and this is, to my mind, clearly an educational question.

I no more have an answer than anyone else to the deep philosophical conflict between social solidarity and individual opportunity, but I am certainly not ‘intensely relaxed’ about living in a society where the few are ‘filthy rich’ (to quote New Labour’s Peter Mandelson) – at least while inequality is a great as now. The privatised market-economy simply has not delivered what was claimed – and if anything has decreased opportunity, increased costs and coarsened life for the majority. Utilitarianism – whether from politicians or sixth-formers – may appear to be a practical answer to modern problems until one realises that ‘ends justifying means’ effectively unleashes a race to the bottom in terms of the moral and democratic benchmarks of society.

I find it difficult to support the rampant individualism pedalled by my (as no doubt many) schools, when it leads young people to have no higher principles than those I described earlier; this is a product of an Affluenza mentality that promotes self-interest (even in academic performance) as more important than anything else. But I work in education to further a fair and just society, where honesty, authenticity and the life of the mind are valued – not the kind of debased dog-eat-dog, society-as-market-transaction that has now taken hold. Many of the people currently ringing the alarms about the supposed resurgence of the hard left themselves seem so deeply saturated in market values, that they simply cannot conceive of anything else. And it is just not acceptable for people who dissent from this not to be able either to advance their arguments or to expect to be represented.

Corbyn is simply expressing values that I agree with, and he has a plain-talking sincerity that other glossy, career-politicians clearly just don’t ‘get’. I admire his refusal to engage in negative campaigning – and I would have been attracted to this no matter what party he represented. The crude, false-dichotomy terms in which much debate in British public life is now couched must itself raise concerns for the skewing effect it has on public understanding and debate. More than ever, we need an educated population that can cut through the c**p. It is not true, for instance, that all of Corbyn’s supporters are Militant Tendency cryogenes – some like me are just people who are fed up with a non-choice of self-aggrandising politicians and their unvarying diet of pulp commercialism.

Neither is it true that there is no alternative to the market society – it exists quite comfortably just across the Channel; is it a coincidence that those more ‘socialist’ societies are in many cases more stable, tolerant and outward-looking than our own? As a teacher, these are issues that deeply inform my professional purpose.

I do have concerns that the far-left would reassert progressive education, but hopefully the traditionalist genie is too firmly out of the bottle now to be put back. And this is certainly no more concerning than the deep damage that has been done to education by the imposition of market principles on what should be an impartial provider of social capital.

Corbyn’s actual electability is, in a sense, beside the point: what is important now is to create a wider choice within the British political system. The obsession with election-winning is understandable, but it also shows how far politics has moved away from the principle of democratic representation towards the sheer exercise of power. But people cannot vote for an alternative if one does not exist – and the overwhelming sense at the last election was that it would make no difference in the end who won…

In fact this surge of interest is precisely what good politics should be about – a genuine movement of the electorate wishing to express their views. The fact that the Party and the media are united in telling people that they are ‘thinking the wrong thoughts’ demonstrates the degree to which the tail of what is left of our democracy now wags the dog; as an educator, that is also something that I need to take seriously. On a more personal level, I am simply seizing the opportunity to express a preference that our broken electoral system denies, by virtue of my living in a ‘safe’ constituency.

I don’t apologise for being political here – it is a truism that politics affects education, and not just at a policy level. Both are fundamental forces that shape how we live, and the society of which we form part. This issue also shows how we need more complex insights than a simple Left/Right shouting-match. I see no conflict between my conservative-traditionalist teaching and my more liberal social views; I am certainly not ‘hard-left’ and even the label ‘Socialist’ does not sit easily. It is more complicated than that – for a start, old-school conservatism actually shares this sense of social responsibility.

The irony is not lost on me that in the process I seem to have ‘gone native’ as a teacher more fully than I ever expected. But how can one do this job without some sense of social idealism? And how can that square with a view of life as being just one long commercial transaction?

Education has an essential role to play in developing more complex insights in people, and at times like this, these are sorely needed. In other ways, we are witnessing the political system struggling to cope with the more complex motives and loyalties of ‘thinking people’.

I used to play a fuller part in this by teaching ‘A’ Level European Studies and Critical Thinking. But both courses have been scrapped or downgraded – you guessed it – thanks to (privatised) exam-board ‘market forces’.

No alternative to cheating unless you get caught? I don’t think so. Principles are important.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Political tribalism is, in many ways the antithesis of what education allegedly stands for. I hold by my perhaps-naive ideal that the purpose of my daily work is to develop in people the independence of mind to make their own decisions, rather than remain prisoner to those foisted on them by received wisdoms and historical precedent. I also equate that with a growing  breadth of vision, and a widening of horizons that hopefully lead to the realisation that one’s own interest is more than a simple matter of self-serving.

It is also evident to me that the resultant perspective is more likely to cross partisan boundaries than respect them. Thus, my own general perspective is progressive, even while I embrace a generally small-c conservative conception of what constitutes a good society. The values of fairness, compassion, the rule of law and a positive-default respect for one’s fellow citizens are not the exclusive property of any one political group, and they belong as much to the future as the past.

This belief in community extends to offering a real welcome to those who seek refuge or genuine self-improvement within our shores, and to working co-operatively within the family of European nations, from many of whom we can actually learn a lot. When it comes to Europe, it is this spirit of consensual co-operation that our petty, confrontational nation just does not ‘get’.

It involves supporting those who struggle within our society – for whatever reason – accepting that it is almost impossible to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor – and probably morally and intellectually indefensible while we persist with not making the same distinctions when it comes to the rich.

I cast my vote unwillingly, being deeply unimpressed with almost all of the choices in front of me – and as expected it made no difference at all; I am one of the millions disenfranchised by our current system. In the end, mine was a vote of principle, a call for more regard for our environment because if we get this wrong, the rest of human affairs amounts to little more than fiddling while Rome burns.

Yet conversely again, I believe that the best way to advance liberal societal views is through the use of long-established educational techniques. The surest way we have found to give people independence of mind is to equip them with rigorous critical skills and deep knowledge about the world within which they live.  In this way, they will be most able to draw their own conclusions – and, I hope, achieve the perspectives that understand why parochialism and narrow, material self-interest are not ultimately the best model for our species.

And with the same logic, I conclude that our education system – in its broadest sense meaning any and every way in which the young are inducted into the world – is failing as never before. Neither the progressive philosophy of magical self-discovery nor the narrowly economised approach of recent decades has made much headway against the ongoing descent of our nation into a factionalised, dysfunctional set of self-interested tribes, much as it was in primitive times.

The growth of rampant self-interest and the depth of approval for the winner-takes-all culture is, in my view just another sign of this nation’s retreat from compassionate, civilised values. It is also a sign of a society failing to cope with a changing world, and retreating yet further into illusory ‘certainties’. The dogma of yesterday’s election winners must carry the blame for having done more than most to further that – or at least for  failing to counter it.

In my view, teachers and academics should do their utmost to embody higher, more considered values, as part of their wider role within society – though this need not mean having no opinion. But if recent personal and online experiences are anything to go by, even this (theoretically) most altruistic of professions is now increasingly infiltrated by people who are really only in it for their own gain. The deteriorating conditions of employment of many, the increasing hegemony of a few all-powerful people, the disdain with which they treat their juniors – and the unprincipled machinations of those who aspire to join them – must be a concern for any who believe in a fair and principled society, most of all in a profession whose purpose is supposedly to provide positive role models.

I don’t see this improving in the next five years; as Clegg said, this is a victory for fear and regressive thinking. As such it represents a defeat for educated values.

If so, then I’m afraid I think our profession too, stands accused of adopting Nero’s approach to the growing conflagration.

The Best of all possible worlds

All nations tell stories about themselves: it is a way of creating a shared consciousness about their place in the world. Unsurprisingly nearly all of them paint the nation concerned as the most virtuous and blessed on the planet. They need not be encumbered by more sober appraisals of reality, and one might even observe that the more flattering the picture, the less so may be the reality – after all, those most in need of a good story are often those for whom reality is most wanting.

We British are no slouches when it comes to the national story. In fact we’ve been at it longer than many, since well before the appellation ‘Great’ was added to our name. And we still are – for what other purpose serves the current imperative to be teaching ‘British Values’ to our young, as if they were not the values of other civilised nations too?

The last time this issue arose, the best response I read was from the excellent Mark Steel in The Independent. Unfortunately, I can’t find it, but I can well imagine him talking a pot-shot at this latest incarnation: the current reality of the British Story includes the most polarised wealth of any nation in Europe, the longest working hours, some of the least secure employment, a political system increasingly unsuited to modern governance (which has repeatedly failed to be reformed) and a government that has periodically contemplated withdrawing from its people access to European Human Rights legislation that is apparently perfectly adequate for millions of others, even in countries supposedly much less satisfactory than our own.

I have recently been reading The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, a 1957 text appraising the ways in which working class life in Britain was changing in the post-war period. It became a classic of social analysis, and is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in social affairs, whether from an educational perspective or otherwise.

In many ways, Hoggart’s observations remain very relevant today, and the book was reprinted in 2009. Hoggart’s description of the remants of northern working-class life provide much food for thought on the matter of social progress, particularly considering the priority that has been (and still is) accorded to that matter as a supposed aim of mass education.

The second half of the book is a polemic against the loss of a humble but authentic way of life under the assault of the commercial vested interests that were starting to seep into British society, principally from America. This was the beginning of the hollowing out of society that arguably continues today.

Hoggart acknowledges the material improvements that were coming to ‘ordinary people’ at the time, relieving the drudgery of daily life – and the increased educational opportunities being afforded as mass access to secondary schools did indeed lift some out their uneducated state. However, he bemoans the fact that this occurred hand-in-hand with an almost irresistible commercialisation of life that neutralised much of the potential cultural and intellectual gain by appealing to the mass populace’s instincts for the low-brow. In one fell swoop, liberation by mass education was defeated by the self-interest of base commerce. One can argue that this too has continued – even strengthened – to the present day.

Hoggart has much to say about the educational system (he was an academic from a working-class background). Even then, he perceived in the application of education (and commerce) to those with little aptitude for it, as much the destruction of the authentic working class as a force for social progress. He argued that it removed people from their roots without ever allowing them to settle comfortably in their new social milieu. This is the story of my own parents, whom I know took decades to feel comfortable in the middle class surroundings in which they found themselves by dint of having become grammar-school teachers.

As the book progresses, Hoggart becomes rather condescending, but what he says does still resonate:

“the over-importance of examinations, the piling-up of knowledge and received opinions…a technique of apparent learning, of the acquisition of facts rather than the handling and use of facts.”

“[the scholarship boy] learns how to receive a purely literate education, one of using only a small part of his personality and challenging only a limited area of his being.” He begins to see life as a ladder, as a permanent examination with some praise and some further exhortation at each stage…He rarely feels the reality of knowledge, of other men’s thoughts and imaginings, on his pulses; he rarely discovers an author for himself and on his own…”

Hoggart invokes Herbert Spencer, who in the 1900s spoke of education thus:

“The established systems of education, whatever their matter may be, are fundamentally vicious in their manner. They encourage submissive receptivity instead of independent activity.”

I found myself wondering what has changed. It is a significant point: acquiring the trappings of education is of little consequence if one has no idea what to do with the thing itself.

One can perhaps read in such sentiments the origins of the progressive movement of the 1970s, but despite this (and its many failings) I fear that the current system of education is reverting rapidly to the earlier model. For all that I support the philosophy and methods of traditional teaching, my aim is to develop in my pupils the capacity for rigorous independent thought, and thereby an ability to become one’s own person. I do not believe it exists simply to validate small-minded institutional conformity.

If we remove for a moment the man-made structures that surround education, there can remain only one real purpose: the enhancement of individual lives. Humans are born with large and active brains; learning is not elective – it is instinctive. The purpose of any education system should therefore be to harness this capacity to permit the individual to lead a fulfilled life during his or her time on this planet, and (ideally) to assist others in doing the same.

I found myself wondering whether we have made any progress at all in this since the 1950s. In many ways, that was a time of optimism, perhaps the only period in recent British history when there was genuine social mobility, from which my own parents benefitted. Material progress has of course been mind-boggling since then – but I wonder whether it has really had much effect other than the diminution of the loftier aspirations in people’s lives. But as the unsentimental Hoggart points out, there was a large sector of the population that was not in the least interested in furthering itself – and again the same can possibly be said today.

As the many incurious young people that I encounter would suggest, material abundance seems to have done little but dull any interest in higher aspirations. The commercial world whose emergence Hoggart was witnessing has since sated the vast majority of people’s desires, while simultaneously dumbing down the diet so as to placate them in a fog of materialist self-satisfaction. When life‘s reward comes from the next iPhone or a flat-screen T.V. why worry about anything more abstract? Or as one student said to me this week, in what way might aspiring to earn £5 million a year be seen as an unreasonable life-goal?

I find myself wondering whether it is really worth trying to impose educated values on those who seem to have little real desire for them, any more now than in the 1950’s. Maybe we would be better concentrating on those (of any ability) who do show interest and promise?

The post-war idealism is long-gone. I find it hard to feel positive about a national story that is increasingly built on consumption-derived conformity and a lack of critical thought. Most worryingly, while the masses are glued to their flat screens, I suspect we are witnessing the emergence of a new aristocracy – that of the executive classes, who are increasingly cornering the real power and wealth, even in supposedly socially-orientated fields such as health and education. Several stories encountered this week point to the fact that management is increasingly becoming an end in its own right. It scarcely matters whether it is a school, hospital, university or commercial company – or indeed an entire nation; what is important is that it be managed, that its operatives be controlled and aligned with the corporate mission-statement, that the self-promotion of the organisation is more important than the substance of what it delivers.

Management too often feeds itself at the expense of its host; it is becoming a parasite on the real business of organisations. The platitudes may flow from those in charge, but words are cheap, and I might feel more convinced by their sincerity if those issuing them showed less need to regard themselves as deserving greater perks and vastly larger incomes than their minions. I might have more confidence in the mission statements if they didn’t come at the expense of the work-life balance, pay levels and sometimes even health of those lower down. Let alone the sometimes-demeaning treatment of those who for whatever reason do not play the corporate game.

It is particularly regrettable that education, an activity whose authentic goal is the intellectual liberation of the individual, is being increasingly misappropriated to serve the corporate power-dreams of a few, who are looking more and more like a detached cadre of self-aggrandising  fixers than an integral part of cohesive learning communities.

So much for an education system that works in the interests society as a whole; the values it now promotes are to entice the next generation of this aristocracy to make it for themselves if they can. It rewards personal ambition, material recompense and the clinical exercise of power over anything closer to the humane founding principles of education.

And so much for a national story that still considers its values superior to much of the world. In the introduction to Hoggart’s book, the writer Lynsey Hanley says

“Without self-respect, [Hoggart] argues, you are open to … denigration and exploitation by those who see opportunities in human vulnerability.”

Yet it is just such a destruction of individual self-respect that the British national story is now facilitating through its abandonment of higher educational and intellectual ideals. I entered teaching with those higher ideals in mind and I deplore the way this new aristocracy is diverting my own working life too, to deliver its narrow, selfish corporate objectives.


Bread and butter

“….and what do you write about?” asked the pleasant lady from Ofqual. “Erm…erm…well, educational matters actually”, I mumbled. She seemed to lose interest.

For the second time in one evening, I had struggled to explain what my blog is about. And with it, my approach to teaching. I wasn’t able to mention discussions of classroom technique, specific educational research, the latest initiatives or the benefits of hard data. (“If you can handle data, then you can sock it to Ofsted by playing them at their own game”, I was told).

All evening long, the education conversation flowed; this is what Andrew Old’s blog-meets thrive upon. While there seems to be a general presumption in favour of more traditional teaching, the spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps once again giving the lie to the them-and-us view of the divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The age-profile of the attendees is predominantly young, though there were a few greying heads in the crowd. I don’t for one moment blame ambitious young teachers for being excitable about what they do, and for being highly engaged with the policy and technical debate; I was once, too…

But time has, I must admit, wearied me of such matters. I’ve come to see it as marginal to the real, everyday business of dispelling young people’s ignorance. That’s not a criticism of those who enjoy it, but it does seem to me that the bread-and-butter of teaching is so easily marginalised these days in the wider politicised, technical-ised discussion within the profession.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I’m of an age with even older pupils’ parents these days, rather than their older siblings, but the personal impacts of education seem to matter more and more, and the policy less and less. I know some would argue that the two are inseparable, but I’m not so sure.

I very much doubt (in hope) that John Hattie goes home each evening and runs his family the same way he would have us running education. “Hmm, must buy the wife some flowers; perhaps she’ll cook dinner then. (Effect size 0.7). Won’t bother talking to the kids – they only ignore me anyway. (Effect size 0.2)…” I don’t operate like, that, and I sincerely hope that others don’t either.

For my money, teaching remains a simple human interaction, not so different from any other. Granted, the classroom demands a certain protocol – but then so do many other social situations. But while we all have a broad understanding of the dynamics of social psychology, across wider society, I genuinely hope that effect sizes are not overtly the reasons for people’s actions. We would all be the poorer for living in societies that operated on such mercenary lines.

People’s needs are just as holistic, irrational, conflicting – and ultimately humane – as they have ever been. It is not our ability to be rational that defines our humanity, but our ability to go beyond that into the fields of empathy and originality. Our growing understanding of the workings of the human brain may be showing us how it works – but not why. It would be a tragedy if this insight were to reduce the human experience to that of biological-economic machinery. Neither will it explain the subjective experience of being human, any more than Hattie’s effect sizes explain the subjective experience of learning.

So for all the techno-talk, my blog remains resolutely low-tech. I am really not especially interested in the machinations of the professional educational world. I am, however, greatly interested in how people’s minds and personalities develop, of how they know what they know and do what they do, and how they come to form part of the wider groupings we call society.

I’m not sure how that can be adequately expressed in technical terms. Authentic human lives and societies are a matter of narratives, and wide-ranging ones at that. For this reason, I believe that education is best discussed in such terms. Despite the data we deal with, much of teaching and education is still experienced as a narrative (just listen to the dominant conversation in any staffroom), and I don’t think this is a weakness. For all its lack of technicality, there is much the teacher can learn from the insights obtained in this way.

That (I hope) is where my distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined blog comes in.

With thanks to Andrew Old for organising another stimulating evening.

Traditional teaching: it’s all academic

The debate about the respective positions of traditionalist and progressive education shows no sign of abating. Earlier today, Old Andrew posted a reflection on the role of knowledge in education – which is perhaps widely seen as the totemic difference between the two sides.

And yet it appears that the traditionalist camp (within which I broadly count myself) isn’t as united in its understanding of this as it might seem. The observations that followed betrayed a wide range of understanding, not to mention conflicts, regarding the respective positions of progressive and traditional education.

For example, if you support the use of education for the transmission of a canon of knowledge (particularly of ‘great thought’), then it seems that this also labels you as a supporter of the Establishment.  To belong to this camp, you must apparently also subscribe to the view that education is all about passing exams, and that the purpose of the whole undertaking is to ready people for their place in the grand economic plan.

This caricature of traditional education is about as far removed from my own understanding as it is possible to be, as supported by my own experiences at a grammar school in the 1970’s. Employability was about as far away from the lips of my teachers as it is possible for a word to be, and few of my teachers were straight apologists for the intellectual or social Establishment. In fact, many were sceptics and cynics in the mould of a great part of the teaching tradition.

To my mind, it is actually the progressive tendency that has had the utilitarian understanding of education, arguing that transferrable skills are more important than specific knowledge, that external applications are more important than intrinsic value, and that child-centred approaches are more important than the knowledge of the teacher.

Contributing to Andrew’s discussion, I suggested that the whole point of traditional education is to keep it academic – but it should be noted that the OED offers two definitions of the word, and maybe this is where the misunderstanding lies.

That second definition is: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest.

chriswmparsons criticised my view that the whole point of traditional education is to leave the wider purpose of study indistinct. Much to my great surprise, he argued that my position was so relativist as to be ultra-progressive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If you accept this definition as opposed to the other one (relating to education and scholarship), then one can only conclude that traditional academic education must essentially remain open-ended. To assign specific purpose to one’s study is to make it contingent on that end. In other words, we define its purpose before we actually know what it is. To define something in this way is to place limits around it and this is anathema to true, open-ended intellectual thought.

Certainly, and rightly in my view, traditional education espouses the teaching of an accepted canon, and it prefers clearly-defined techniques for doing so – but this is to conflate its method with its purpose. It ignores the fact that the canon itself was evolved over a period of time and constitutes the collective wisdom of many individuals, where speculative thought was essential and disagreement frequent. In many cases, the refutation of prior wisdom is precisely what led to the validity of the established canon – in a sense it’s a matter of what has withstood trial by destruction.

So I do not for one moment think that traditionalists should reject any notion of radical dissent, nor that they need become meek organs of the establishment.

The key here is that the traditional education is a) founded on substantial academic procedures and b) it tends to make progress by evolution rather than revolution. The only way to facilitate this process is firstly to make people aware of what the ‘accepted wisdom’ actually is, and secondly to provide them with the means of rigorous evaluation of it, in the form of critical thinking skills.

Back in August, I wrote a little-read piece on the meaning of tradition, prompted by a book I was reading on the current state of traditional culture in Scotland. It seemed to have an amount of resonance for the education debate, and some of that post is perhaps worth re-stating here:

“Teachers as a breed need to look to the future: their entire work is founded on the notion that the future can improve on the past – but they also need to respect the legacy that that past endows.”

“So where does this leave the supposedly redundant methods of ‘traditional’ teaching? West resorts to the notion of the ‘carrying stream’ to explain. In his view – and he quotes the Scottish poet and intellectual Hamish Henderson – the carrying stream flows out of the past and into the future, linking our past accomplishments and understandings with those yet to come:

“It is a tradition that flows through time, picking up new flotsam as it goes, leaving some things on its banks in the process. At any given point, its content and form may be a little bit different from places further up or down stream, yet it remains recognisable as the same tradition”.

West also points out that a stream, in flowing, is not like a pond which is indeed static. He suggests this is the difference between tradition and convention, the latter of which is indeed stagnant and adhered to ‘because it has always been this way’.  Traditions tend to die when they become mere convention, as they need change and evolve to keep them alive.”

“However, tradition tends to be a process of evolution rather than revolution – and maybe this is where the teaching profession is going wrong, both in its widespread rejection of traditional methods and its obsession with ‘silver bullets’, quick-fixes which often turn out to be rather less helpful than they first seem. West again:

…change, within tradition tends not to be revolutionary or even rapid, but incremental, considered, evolutionary. That is not to say that radical new ideas or approaches do not appear…but time tends to be the judge. Roots are important, as is an appreciation of where things come from, where we stand within the stream, and how to use that knowledge to create fresh and meaningful art going forward.

Tradition can be of great use in the modern world, a questioning, solidifying force, and a reminder that society cannot spend its entire time in the fast lane. Yet it can help us move forward and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.”


I must admit that this brief exchange has pulled me up short – I too had assumed that the traditionalist movement was largely agreed on what it valued and understood. I think the re-emergence of this debate is one of the most important things happening in education at present, and it pleases me greatly that it is no longer unacceptable to admit to being a traditionalist. But I think we need to clear up these issues urgently:

  1. We need to be clear about the difference between method and purpose. It is one thing to employ traditional teaching techniques in the classroom, but quite another to consider that their only purpose is to embed an uncritical, unchanging view of establishment values and tastes. One of the key attributes of real academia is the process of critical review.
  2.  Consequently, traditional teaching may involve rejecting or downplaying utilitarian views of education. What and why one teaches is as important as how, and if you only think that education is about passing exams or securing employment, then your practice will reflect these views.

Traditional teaching may indeed have a relativist purpose – it refutes the idea that education is for anything in particular, and by doing so it accepts that it can indeed be ‘for’ anything at all – whatever each individual chooses. In that sense, it is a democratising force as it leaves each individual sovereign to interpret the experience as they choose, not as an external agency pre-specifies.

As the excerpts from Gary West’s book show, traditional education need not be backward-looking or regressive. Tradition is best used as a force for informing the future. Likewise, traditional methods need not be preserved in aspic – they need to be able to adapt to changing times, while still retaining their emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and the power of critical thought.

In my opinion, it is absolutely essential that such misunderstandings are cleared up; the conflation of traditional teaching with Victorian values and social regression cannot help its cause one iota.