Bad Grammar?

I see the nation is working itself up into a lather again about the issue of grammar schools, and the debate shows every sign of degenerating into its habitual, simplistic factions when a more sophisticated discussion is badly needed. Unfortunately, the U.K. has always been hamstrung by social snobberies that cause fewer distortions elsewhere; issues of social mobility simply do not seem to get conflated with educational success in many continental countries as they do here. I accept that this means some of their solutions may not be completely appropriate here, but we do need to clear the air and clarify the issues. There is a perfectly good egalitarian case to be made for what I prefer to call specialised education.

The primary role of education cannot be to promote social mobility, which it can never guarantee anyway, but to develop the intellects and other abilities of those who receive it. If this leads to socio-economic advancement then all well and good, but there are too many other intervening life factors ever to guarantee it, no matter what system is in place. Expecting the education system to right every social wrong and then guarantee every child a privileged, affluent future is simply asking more than it can deliver; more gullible Affluenza at work here, no matter how noble the aspiration. And what is the point of encouraging children to be ambitious if those who are not are artificially boosted to equal success? The fact, which is unpalatable to some, is that for education to succeed, in relative terms, seemingly some have to fail.

It is no more equitable to dismiss bright children as being able to succeed under any system than to disregard less able ones because they may not. All children should have their needs addressed, and in my experience the comprehensive system does not do that as well as it might simply because it is asked to be a jack-of-all-trades. Furthermore, the failure of some state primary schools to secure Eleven Plus passes may say more about them and their methods (or their intake) than it does about the manipulation of the system by others. My (traditional) primary school proved itself more than capable of securing a good clutch of grammar school places – in a town that had three independent secondary – and even more prep – schools. It did so by concentrating on developing intellects, not righting social wrongs.

And given that the system aspires to create more prosperous, empowered citizens (or at least I hope it does) then who are we to argue if those it has already created clamour to send their children to a certain type of school?

But there is another way to resolve the ‘failure’ problem. It lies in how we define the word. The deep problem with British education is not the selective/comprehensive dichotomy, but the snobbery attached to it, which runs far deeper than the education system can change. The problem is that academic education is seen as the only route to success, despite much evidence to the contrary, if one examines the lives of ‘successful’ people. We then take the less academically-inclined (of all abilities) and force them through a single, pseudo-intellectual system in which they can only ever hope to be second-rate – and then effectively label them as failures. So much for the uplift effect of comprehensives. At the same time, we deny the academically-inclined the all-embracing culture that is needed to nurture their attitudes and talents. And to add insult to injury, we fail to provide the ‘failures’ with a more appropriate outlet for their often considerable talents.

The harsh fact is, some people have greater abilities than others, and society as a whole needs every talent to be developed to its maximum. I suspect this can best be done in specialist establishments; we do not expect Wimbledon champions to win simply by playing at their local tennis club or by being forced to study, say, electronics at the same time. We need top-quality technical skills – and we also need top-quality intellects; having been educated in one and taught in the other, there is no doubt in my mind that for the academically inclined of whatever background, grammar schools can offer a superior education. I see no reason why academically-inclined children should be denied their opportunity – but we also need to provide equally good technical and vocational schools for those with that aptitude, as many of our neighbours do.

Note that I say ‘inclination’ – not ability, for it would be perfectly possible to send children to a school according to professed preference, so long as that then manifested itself in their (and their parents’) commitment to it, rather than their raw I.Q. or exam results. The possibility of changing schools where application was lacking would provide a useful incentive here. Personally, I would rather teach less able but suitably-disposed children than bright but antagonistic ones – but I can only see it as counter-productive to be made to compromise my own academic inclinations in order to do my job.

My parents bettered themselves by having access to the only type of school that could academically rival the unaffordable independent sector, and my own grammar school was by no means packed with the middle classes. Many of those people have gone on to lead productive lives.

The only alternative to educating those capable to the highest level is to produce a generation where no one receives more than an average education, irrespective of ability – except those who can pay for it, and in my view, discrimination by wealth is more iniquitous that separation by aptitude. If we wish to create a truly comprehensive system, then we do need to remove the advantages enjoyed by those who went to independent schools – but that would not be the end of it: we would consequently also need to tackle the exacerbated effects of house-price inflation around popular state schools. Then we would need to cleanse people’s snobberies about which school they attended, which I suspect would only surface in another form. Where would it end?

We need to separate the benefits of specialised education from the admittedly iniquitous nature of the test that historically provided access to one aspect of it, for which more equitable alternatives exist possibly at a later age. We should be more realistic about what education can actually deliver – then it might be possible to have a sensible discussion about the best way to deliver it.

Ceasing to see education in excessively competitive terms might be a start.

All I Remember…

The ultimate test of how well educated someone is has to be what their brain can do without any external support. I have continued to use my ‘brain only’ tests this year, and my pupils have increasingly become used to the concept, which has also been adopted by some colleagues.

Yet it has proved surprisingly difficult to ‘unlearn’ the thinking of years: for much of my career, the singular message has been about making classroom materials ‘accessible’ to pupils – for which read Not Difficult. The origin of this thinking is clear: the progressive view that education is primarily about enfranchisement of the less-privileged.

I have no objection to the sentiment – but it increasingly looks like monumental folly to believe that one can empower people intellectually by reducing the demands made on them. After a year of deliberate watching, there does seem to be a connection between the degree of retention and the difficulty of the task – people remember things that make demands on them. And yet the niggling concern about accessibility still lingers…

During such activities, pupils are often moved to express the difficulties they are encountering, and this can be instructive. One of the regulars has been “I understood it at the time, but I can’t remember it now”. Another frequent issue has been pupils struggling to express their ideas because of poor command of language.

I wonder how much we can really do about this. As teachers, we certainly need to consider strategies that will help pupils to remember what we teach – but it is possibly a step too far to claim direct control over their memories. Mnemonics have been used by teachers since time immemorial, but there remains a difference between self-consciously remembering something using such artificial means, and just knowing it, which is surely what we really want. To what extent do teachers have any real control over what moves into pupils’ long term memories?  And are we actually helping if we claim we do – or simply removing from pupils the obligation to do the essential work for themselves? Clearly we can work to improve communication skills – but I’m afraid that experience points to the fact that people do have internal limitations, Growth Mindset or not. Improving memory? I’m less sure.

Again, the progressive view would be to encourage engagement, and it is certainly true that interest can improve motivation to know. But my current reading of Kahneman also suggests that thinking is inherently effortful, and in many pupils’ minds engagement appears synonymous with not having to make much effort. Being a beginner at anything is inherently difficult; giving up is the default setting. Real engagement has to come from the internal desire to improve, and if that is lacking, no manner of externally-applied gimmicks will fill the gap. Perhaps the question here has to be how we challenge some children’s aversion to the learning process in the first place, rather than how we hoodwink them into mimicking it. Perhaps being honest about the demands would be a start.

Given that we are not prescient, knowing what pupils will remember in future remains a matter of guesswork, though I think that Bjork’s work on the effect spaced learning on retention is onto something important, even though it’s really just a fancy synonym for practice and experience! But if our teaching has been effective enough for pupils to understand at the time, there is perhaps relatively little more that we can do.

That is not to say that retention cannot be improved. As I’ve mentioned before, my involvement in traditional music has, to my mind grown that ability. Being able to recall many hundreds of tunes at will has undoubtedly made it easier to acquire new ones, whereas my wife who is only a few years into a similar musical journey still finds memorising a new tune much harder work. But the key here is that the work can only be done by the student. The key elements are the desire to ‘know’ the piece for its own sake – and the technical skills to acquire and execute it. If the pupil’s expectation is one of low input – and low self-expectation – then the going is likely to be all the more difficult.

What with the struggle I have had to get my older students to revise rigorously, and the protests of my younger students over being made to work using only their internal resources, it seems to me that something is wrong with the expectations of today’s learners. No doubt the distractions of technology, an off-the-shelf lifestyle and the dumbing-down effect of the media have played a part.

I suspect that the upping of the educational stakes has not helped either. As Lord O’Donnell recently observed, the government’s obsession with exam results and its belief that they are the best indicator of future personal effectiveness is potentially deeply damaging to the learning process. The shift of emphasis onto teachers has communicated the message that all the pupils have to do is sit there.

I know that trying to learn a new tune is more difficult if external pressure is applied; what I need is a neutral, unpressurised space in which to bring my undivided attention to bear on a specific task. I also know that I need to be able to take a break – if one task led unremittingly to another and another, the joy in learning new music would quickly evaporate – and that is without the consolidating effect that taking a break seems to have.

I think the same is true of learning more widely. Learning (and teaching) is best done in unthreatening circumstances, when the mind can be freed from external distractions and pressures. It is more effective when the parties involved understand their natural roles clearly. Confusing this with creating challenging learning tasks may be actively hindering people’s ability to learn, let alone their motivation to do so. Applying external pressure is distracting and depresses the ability to think.

If so, it is doing untold damage to the learning prospects of children – and the professionalism of teachers.

STEM the flow.

Writing in today’s Independent on Sunday, Paul Vallely observes that there are two elements of human behaviour – the egotistical that focuses on controlling our surroundings to our advantage:  wealth, success and status – and the altruistic, which seeks inner fulfilment and shows compassion for others. A new book by David Brooks, The Road to Character, apparently argues that we thrive when we keep the two in balance, but that modern society is driving the egotistical at the expense of the altruistic.  I find this hard to doubt.

And so, fortuitously, a topical opening to a matter that has been preoccupying me for a while…

The drive to promote so-called STEM subjects has been going on for some time now. It appears that the government has identified them as meeting the principal needs of our economy, and therefore they are to be pushed through education. It is hard to doubt that many people with such skills are indeed needed to keep an advanced modern economy on track.

Having one finger on the pulse of our local university, it does appear that most of the funds and attention there are going into the applied sciences and business, while the arts and humanities are left to wither. One report I read a while ago suggested that there is now no state funding for degree-level humanities courses at any U.K. university; has this happened?

Furthermore, developments in secondary education – the emphasis on quantifiable linear progress, narrowly-defined learning objectives and technically derived teaching practices all appear more sympathetic to the teaching of STEM subjects than they do the liberal arts and humanities, where non-linear evaluation and personal response and interpretation are valid elements.

In a society as materially-focused as our present one, it is difficult to make the case for non-technical subjects; certainly it barely works to ‘justify’ non-material subjects in material terms. Economists have attempted to do just this – but it still somehow  misses the point.  It is also difficult to explain to materially-orientated children why other personal attributes may be worth having in their lives, when the mature benefits of such may be decades from fruition. (I did however, seem to hit a nerve this week, when I told a class that my ambition for them is as much to do with the personal integrity that will lead others in future to choose them as friends and partners, as how rich they may become…)

I fear we are losing something here. It is barely reasonable to argue that technical subjects are not important, but it echoes a view of the human condition that looks outward for both the sources and the solutions to its problems, perhaps even its existence. Material progress has undoubtedly greatly improved the human lot – but it has also been the cause of many of our largest problems; understanding our inner needs and responses is just as important in developing meaningful lives – let alone for addressing the roots of many global problems.

The value of the arts and humanities is not what they do directly to fix the world around us – but what they do to address our inner condition; we need to balance our attention between our personal and collective selves. But by knowing our inner selves, we also develop a more nuanced reading of the divergent positions of others. (In the same newspaper, Emma Sky relates how she struggled to persuade the American military in Iraq that the problem was more subtle than a simple good/bad dichotomy).

I am regularly left with an impression of a society which while materially prosperous, is inwardly poor – where the life of the mind and the self-knowledge it can bring is not just under-valued but not even present.  Creativity and deep thought do not seem to figure widely in everyday lives – and nor do their popular expression through serious art and culture; everything is mere ‘entertainment’ now. Few children I encounter – even in their late teens – seem to have much interest in exploring such fields; everything is focussed on securing inflated material dreams.

When material comfort is now so valued – and for many, so readily available, there seems less and less need to explore the profound questions about one’s being that have traditionally been part of the educative process. While it is of course easy to over-attribute children’s insight, this may also explain the expectation amongst many that schooling is also an outwardly-experienced process, rather than something whose main effect is internal.

The fact that the political and education systems now seem intent on furthering this, in the process downgrading the arts and humanities unless they can be shown to make money – is a profound endorsement of an impoverishing process. It risks making us technically perfect – and personally vacuous. And in terms of real education, it will make our job more difficult, since cognitive development remains essentially an inward process.

We may end up knowing more than ever before about the world around us – and less than ever about ourselves.

Still curious…

I’ve been re-reading Ian Leslie’s excellent book Curious. I confess to being somewhat tired at present of the ceaseless ebb and flow of argument in the profession. To me it only points to one thing: the fact that people will never agree about what education is, or what it is for. And the endless churning of educational rumination speaks of other truths: a profession that is has become utterly self-obsessed, and simultaneously in search of a single, crystallised purpose that it will never find. I don’t blame the education profession for this loss of intellectual confidence; it is simply the product of serving a society that demands simple answers to complex questions. But if we were able to follow our own good advice more closely, we might find it easier to rise above it all, and focus on that which makes the most difference.

It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Or is it that the education system has failed, in recent times, to promote the wider view such that even people in the profession can no longer see the simple, pure value of curiosity? Have we become educational jobsworths, blind to the real, inspirational value of it all? The endless discussion of teaching styles, management initiatives and performance indicators is obscuring this one simple fact: if we can cultivate people’s curiosities, then everything else pretty much falls into place. The real solution is to be found in less defined but more lasting truths – and if only the educational establishment would stop navel-gazing for a few moments, and look upward and outward to the one lasting quality that it supposedly promotes, then it might see that the answer is, in fact, disarmingly simple.

But this is not the precise science that many teachers now seem to want; curiosity is oblique and best approached accordingly. Nothing can be guaranteed to work with all the people all of the time; being adaptable, intuitive and even improvisational are as likely to work as anything more prescribed. Breaking the rules can be as successful as sticking to them.

I would suggest that the one essential thing is for the teacher to be endlessly curious them self.

So I offer a few extracts from the introduction to Leslie’s book that struck me as hammer blows for the eternal truth of what we should be trying to do:

“…the world is incredibly interesting. If you’re paying attention, everything in the world – from the nature of gravity, to a pigeon’s head, to a blade of grass – is extraordinary…the closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this.”

Not even many teachers, these days. Just hit those targets!

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question that nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns…pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point…”

Tell me about it…

“Rather than just getting more people to school and university… the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question and create”.

(Leslie observes the concerns of far Eastern nations that their schools are crushing curiosity and instilling mindless obedience; yet it is precisely those that our own system holds up as the desirable objective.)

“Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times…for their enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part they will be worth the difficulty.”

Try persuading SLT of that…

“If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life….”

My work-life balance is doing that already.

“Our education system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer pr a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner – and yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers and programmers tend to be the most curious learners…we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world rather than inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals.”

Add teachers to that list.

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other…”

Leslie’s observations come very close to embodying my own experience, one which ultimately led me to wish to teach. Leslie comes down firmly on the side of traditional approaches to education, though it’s necessary to read the book to find out why. And it’s worth asking why it is that our education system itself seems so intent on doing precisely the opposite; by doubting those who represent the views described above, it strikes me that it is disregarding precisely that which would make it work most successfully.

Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

It’s that time, when lists are being published regarding who has opted for what next year. It’s always a matter of curiosity, of course – but backed with a degree of minor anxiety about the calibre of pupils and the wider perceptions caused by greater or lesser numbers of pupils opting for one’s subject.

About a week ago, I had a conversation with a bright Year 10 pupil, along the lines of, “I didn’t expect it to be like this: it was so easy in year 9, we played lots of games and it was fun (the F word again…); this year’s its been hard work…”

My reply was to the effect: would he rather I didn’t teach the material that he needs to obtain a good exam grade/ would he rather I left him at (sub-) Year Nine level work/ how did he think people make progress towards tertiary education/gain expertise in a subject – and why, if it is not capable of being “fun”, did he think people take doctorates in the subject and/or spend their working lives teaching it? At the end of that barrage, the poor lad was forced to agree that he has indeed moved his understanding on a great deal since last September, and to take it on trust that greater depth might indeed foster greater interest.

I have known teaching programmes that deliberately cover the more exciting topics just before options are taken. This strikes me as completely wrong, and another example of the system (by linking high take-up to departmental success) perverting the ethical behaviour of teachers. Some would argue there’s nothing wrong with putting a positive shine on one’s subject; well of course not (within reason) – but the timing strikes me as nothing less than cynical.

Personally, I would rather give my younger pupils teaching that allows them to appreciate the true nature of the subject, and that prepares them to make both the choice for and the transition to higher level work. If they then decide that the subject is not for them, then I would argue that I have done them (and the department) a service. Besides, academic subjects (if not all subjects) are what they are – they are not, in my opinion, there to be cut-and-pasted at whim, just to make a ‘fun’ pupil experience. We need to bring the pupils to the subject, not the other way round.

In the case of this year, my take-up has been relatively small – but then I have been teaching mainly less-able pupils strongly academic work for the past nine months; if they have decided it is not for them, is this a bad thing? And I know that those who have opted for it are the ones who have demonstrated genuine interest in the subject during that time.

Of course, I am delighted when large numbers of pupils do opt for my subjects, but I would rather they made the right choice for them – not the school. I do know, too, that teachers can help pupils discover interest in unexpected places – but that is rather different from playing to the crowd just to secure the right short-term outcome. And if they opt otherwise, we should not automatically conclude the worst about our teaching.

I’m all for extending the reach of my subject – but not by diminishing it in the process; I would rather have fewer, committed students (of whatever ability) than lots of uncommitted ones. We continue to conflate popularity and success; if the wrong pupils take the wrong subjects forward, it’s in nobody’s interest.

Fifteen Insights into Learning.

Chrisanicholson’s reply to my previous post prompted the realisation that it could be read as a justification of the kind of unaccountable personal philosophies that have arguably caused a lot of damage to education over the decades. This was not my intention – but I stand by my view that the only first-hand experience of learning (and of life in general) possible is our own. Everything else depends upon observation, proxy indicators, assumption or at least interaction, the accuracy – let alone transferability – of which is indeterminable.

I also suggested that this may be why it has proved so difficult to move professional discourse beyond the anecdotal and value-laden. I hoped to show why that might not, however, be as problematic as it might seem.

I was categorically not rejecting the insight that sources outside ourselves can provide (far from it), but this need not run contrary to the argument that each individual’s starting-point can only be their own experiences – even if it does contradict the current technocratic view of teaching. In some cases, these experiences can run deep enough to constitute an individual world-view that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable to challenge. Given the nature of teaching, our practice cannot but be grounded in our own experiences of the world – starting with our choice of subject. It may also be worth remembering that in other ‘caring professions’ such as psychotherapy and social work that also depend heavily on individual participation, practitioners themselves regularly undergo introspective analysis for both training and therapeutic reasons.

One would hope that by virtue of being teachers, we can reasonably assume ourselves to be educational ‘successes’ – even if the route by which that was achieved was not always straightforward. (It is simplistic to assume that the route to wisdom is inevitably a direct and predictable one, and neither is it necessarily the same as the formal educational validation one holds. That is part of the problem!)

Therefore, time spent reflecting on the nature of, and route to that success may well be productive – even if we then seek additional  interpretation elsewhere. And given that our own formal education may be rapidly vanishing into the dim past, it is perhaps worth examining more recent experiences, and indeed seeking them out as a means of professional (and personal) growth. Furthermore, I would suggest that we consider all forms of learning, not only the obviously formal ones.

So I have compiled a list of my own conclusions to date. They may make sense to nobody but me – I hope not – but that may be the very point. Some have only become fully clear as I have sought external interpretations, but they nonetheless remain among the most important instruments of my own practice, and at least as useful as anything more institutionally derived.

  1. Growing up in a home where education was valued to the point of being in the oxygen was, I now see, essential for my later-life values. But this is not at all the same thing as having learning pushed (too) hard at me by my over-anxious parents, which if anything had the opposite effect. Their best ‘lead’ was by example.
  2. Finding one’s metier is important.There are some things in life that appear to have in-built fascination. This is not always explainable, though they may hark back to early-life experiences of which I have at best dim awareness. That interest is experienced emotively, and it is a very useful motivational ‘hook’.
  3. A key motivator has always been ‘benign envy’: the inspiration of encountering people who could do things that resonated with me, and which I desperately wanted to emulate. The best of those people were humble about, but assured in their abilities. Yet outward competitiveness has done me few favours; my main competitor (and critic) has always been myself.
  4. This envy was gradually augmented by a growing sense of autonomous self-conception, whereby I grew to understand the things that were of value in my life. This I later saw as having a sense of (self-generated) purpose. Purpose is important.
  5. Intrinsic reward trumps extrinsic reward every time. The side-effects of ‘success’ are not unwelcome (for example my earnings from my writing) but they were never a significant motivator in themselves – and pale compared with the rewards of gaining expertise. Extrinsic rewards can be perversely limiting.
  6. Knowing stuff is fun, and starts a virtuous cycle. A good factual grounding is empowering and provides the foundation upon which further insight is built. There is a buzz in encountering something new that somehow ‘fits’ with what you already know, but which offers a new angle on it. Expertise and refinement make you appreciate things that others don’t see; depth is rewarding.
  7. Mastery is important – but not in simple ways. Getting better at something is pleasing, but it can also lead to complacency. Accepting that you don’t have mastery can create a powerful hunger to get better.
  8. Flow is a massively important motivator. Things that provide deep reward (but also challenge) make learning so easy it is unconscious. It is commonest to experience flow in things that have that initial buzz for you – but the more you experience it, the more it becomes possible to find it elsewhere. But looking too self-consciously for such things makes them disappear.
  9. Micro-management by others is more likely to apply the brakes than anything else, because it kills autonomy. Even where formal instruction is needed, consent is important. This is not the same as rejecting external help – rather that learning has to be consensual, even if not actively sought. You can take the horse…
  10. Long-term effort is nearly always worth it. Formal instruction is not always enjoyable but it is a necessary discipline particularly in the early stages while key competencies are being acquired. I gained most from being given a strong lead, if only because the structure provided a useful discipline for keeping going, before the benefits of perseverance had really become self-evident.
  11. Discipline boundaries are necessary but artificial. I started out with a few specific areas of interest – but as my knowledge grew, it expanded into disciplines far from where I started – let alone where I ever expected to find interest. But learning is not necessarily transferable: playing the guitar is not much help in learning the trombone.
  12. Problem-solving is a great way of learning. Experimenting with one’s knowledge develops understanding (this is what is valuable about a ‘tinkering’ hobby such as model-making). But it only works once one has a reasonably secure command of the requisite knowledge and skills, otherwise it degenerates into unproductive dabbling.
  13. Some experiences provide insights that are intense enough to appear self-evident. But one must remember that they may not be so for everyone. People in different disciplines often think in very different ways and tolerance is a virtue. It is unlikely that one will ever learn everything without any guidance along the way – even from unexpected sources.
  14. Maybe life’s lessons can only be learned at life’s pace. I wish someone had explained some of these things to me when I was younger (although whether I would have listened or understood is another matter entirely…).
  15. The key to it all is the Enquiring Mind. If you have one of those, then the sky is the limit. If you don’t, then nothing will work very well, and life will be dull. Exam results are not a reliable signifier of an active mind.

I am still left wondering how one might fully appreciate such insights, other than through one’s own experiences. That, after all, is where wisdom actually takes root – in our own minds – and technical competence alone does not a truly great musician (or teacher) make.

The question is, how can we best translate them into something useful to our pupils? I am not convinced that treating education as an economised ‘good’, a technocratic hoop-jumping process – or as a form of amorphous self-discovery-through-play – even get near the matter.

I suspect that traditional scholars knew more than we sometimes credit.

Locked in my own head

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir,? J.M. Keynes

In my last post, I observed that if we are expecting the blogosphere (one day) to deliver answers by way of improving education, I think we are going to be disappointed. In many ways, it is a fantastic device for professional discourse, and it has enriched my own professional experience very greatly, causing me to consider many issues and outlooks that I might not otherwise have encountered.

But the operative word is ‘consider’ – for ultimately the benchmark by which I evaluate what I encounter is always my own prior understanding of learning. Nothing that I have yet seen has carried sufficient objective robustness to demolish those preconceptions to the extent that a total rethink has proved necessary.

There are those who would probably argue that this is just evidence of my fixed mindset – or at least inflexibility. Those of a scientific bent might well argue that my own preconceptions simply should not come into it: what we should be looking for are scientific truths about what works in education, and if the weight of evidence is against me, then I should change my views. All well and good – but just where is the evidence that does carry that level of confidence? I’m still waiting…

I am not going to say that people are wrong to seek greater rigour in education – but I think that the attempt to build a generalised definition of good practice risks diverting us from the place we really need to be looking. Even the most dispassionate of scientists amongst us cannot escape the realities of the educational world: when we deal with (young) people, we are operating in the social and human domain, for which scientific approaches may just prove too technically precise; those soppy soft skills may actually be better. As my afternoon lesson today showed all too well, there are times when trying to be efficiently scientific in the way one deals with a situation simply do not produce the expected results….

While it may be perfectly possible to share good practice when it comes to class management, this is not at all the same as the cognitive process that is Learning. They may be related in the school setting but the former is a logistical exercise in people-management that comes about simply because society chooses to educate its young in groups where their collective behavioural dynamic needs to be steered. The latter, by contrast, is an invisible cerebral process that takes place solely within the brain of the individual, even though it is of course capable of outward expression. Much of the discussion of what constitutes good or successful teaching risks conflating these two elements.

It is a simple existential truth that at one level, each of us is locked inside our own head. For all that we can communicate with each other, each person’s experience of this world is entirely unique to them and not directly sharable with any other. Therefore the only kind of learning  of which we can gain any direct experience is our own. Even that is not easy, because the process can elude even the individual concerned, with the fact that learning did take place (possibly in a highly convoluted way) only becoming apparent in hindsight. So how much more difficult is it to make confident assertions about what or how others have learned, when we have not the slightest ability to know what really goes on in their heads?

I suspect that this is why educational discussion largely remains mired in a mass of anecdote, subjectivity and emotional (over?) reaction  – mine included. The inescapable fact is that the reference base-line is our own knowledge and experience of what it means to learn, as experienced by us and us alone. And why not? This is the only reasonably tangible experience we actually have to go on. Therefore, when we read something that brings new information, the prime reality-check is whether it fits with our own experiences or not; it may also explain the depth of feeling that debates on these issues often generate. A discussion of teaching and learning cannot help but be a discussion of our own core values and life-experiences – and who is going to dare to stand up and judge who is ‘right’ and who not on matters such as those?

I think this issue does, however, have more than philosophical implications. It means that if we want to understand the nature of learning, we perhaps need to spend less time in conferences and webinars and more time looking inwards at our own experiences as successful learners. The best thing to do to ensure that you do not go stale as a teacher is simply to keep learning yourself – and then taking the time to reflect as rationally as possible on what that process means.

To my mind, learning is not some kind of rarefied and elusive thing – it is the most natural, even common thing that the brain can do – arguably its raison d’etre. A life spent playing computer games or at the roulette table will not be devoid of learning; nor will a life spent in the company of criminals. This is not to say, of course, that all types of learning are equally useful or socially desirable – and I would suggest that some forms of activity are more learning-dense than others. But be that as it may, one of the most important things we can do as teachers is to reflect on our own experiences, and then to replicate them (possibly in modified form) in a way that will help others to follow the same path.

The implication of this is that one’s classroom style is probably inseparable from one’s own psyche and outlook; it may have consequences for the success that different teachers have with different pupils, and perhaps the way that such matches are made. But I would suggest that it is simply impossible to separate any individual from the way their own brain works. It is impossible fundamentally to think in any way other than your own – though this need not mean that one’s thinking is incapable of evolution over time. The trick is to understand how that happens.

The logical conclusion is that we need to accept that teachers are what they are when it comes to their teaching style; while we may reasonably make judgments about their effectiveness with respect to the various proxies we use for learning, people can only really teach in the way they do. It also means that, in the interests of fairness and accuracy, we need to be very wary of the limitations of those proxies in judging the real effect of a teacher on his or her pupils.

It means that any attempt to define ‘better’ and worse’ ways of teaching is a futile exercise, partly because there are just too many to categorise usefully – and partly because learning itself is so diverse and personal a process that it is impossible to judge what works and what doesn’t in any universal sense.

Finally, this might also allow us to achieve a degree of peace in the ever-churning cauldron of conscience regarding what we ’ought to do’, and how we justify it. There will be as many acceptable answers as there are reflective practitioners. My conclusions that traditional methods work best (for me – and hopefully my pupils) derive purely from my own experience, and there is little that can match that experience when it comes to individual decision-making.

In my case, my continuous learning has been in the fields of my musical and model-making activities (and much reading), all of which are learning-dense and where I constantly put myself in the shoes of the learner. For example, when I started learning the violin several years ago, I took online lessons which I followed roughly weekly – with associated practice. While I did have some useful prior experience (the mandolin shares a lot with the violin), there is no doubt in my  mind that progress was most rapid and focused when I was being shown precisely what to do, and given exercises to allow me repeatedly to imitate and develop. There were aspects of technique that I simply would have not discovered – at least nowhere near as quickly and accurately as by being shown them by an expert.

In recent years, I have stopped the lessons, and have allowed my ‘learning’ to be more serendipitous and self-guided. The result is that I have made nowhere near as much progress as I was doing under tuition; I have fallen into some bad habits and have probably not developed the degree of further proficiency that might have been expected. While learning through ‘idle play’ is less pressurised and in some ways more pleasurable, it is simply not delivering the results of a more formal programme – despite the fact that I do now have a degree of proficiency that I can bring to bear on the matter.

I am certainly not going to claim that this is cast-iron proof that direct instruction always works best, although I have had a couple of other recent experiences where ‘guide on the side’ style teaching has simply left me feeling I had never got to grips with the nuts-and-bolts of the topic we were supposedly studying.

According to my own logic, there will be as many answers to this question as there are people asking it – but I would suggest that I really don’t need much more evidence or justification for why I hold the views I do, and why I teach the way I do. It is also why attempts to create consensus about what is great teaching (whether online or elsewhere) stand about as much chance of success as those of defining great Art.

While we do have a responsibility to consider the individual needs of our students, I think it is perhaps unrealistic to expect teachers to operate in ways that make no personal sense to them, any more than we do artists. And we need to accept that this is all the justification that can, or needs to be given.

To travel or to arrive?

Occasionally, while writing a blog post, I find I’ve written something that on second thought has greater significance than it seemed at the time. A case in point was the phrase used in my previous post, “The journey is the destination”. It’s hardly original, but perhaps worthy of further thought.

A couple of mornings ago, the Today Programme covered the latest claims from some M.P.s that High Speed 2 (the proposed new London – Manchester/Leeds rail line) “does not represent good value for money”, with the implication that therefore it should not be built.

The problems with this are twofold. Firstly, there is the assumption that Value for Money is a relevant, even defining, factor. In fact, there may be many other criteria which justify its construction: anyone who has travelled on French or German high speed trains will know just how excellent they are from a passenger’s perspective, whether or not they make money. Yes, a British ‘Pacer’ local train may get you to the same destination (eventually) as the new Intercity Express  – but the actual experience of getting there most definitely won’t be the same. Not that speed is everything, of course.


Secondly, there is the implied certainty in the claim, even though it involves making predictions about a project that will take many years even to construct.

Cost-Benefit Analyses are being done by organisations all the time. Government is a past master at them, as they supposedly represent an evidence-based approach to effective management of national expenditure. They have also become extremely complex, and I don’t pretend to understand their intricacies. The results they yield, normally expressed as a multiplier factor of benefit to cost (as in 4.3 : 1), look precise, and seem increasingly to be accepted without question. But quite apart from the questionable possibility of quantifying the future, one needs to remember that the interpretation remains totally subjective. Discussions about the value of  productively-used time on trains  are immutable, as are the financial figures attached to things like environmental benefits.

And the threshold for what is considered to justify investment is, as far as I can tell, entirely arbitrary and subject  if nothing else, to political expediency. Moreover, CBAs attempt to second-guess uncertainty by incorporating elements such as ‘Optimism Bias’, which is a figure inserted supposedly to counteract the effects of excessive enthusiasm. On what grounds such figures are arrived at, is unclear – but they can make or break a project.

They can still be spectacularly wrong. Cost-overruns on governmental computer systems and the now-closed Millennium Projects are examples, while a classic is the Channel Tunnel, which has never reached its predicted traffic levels – largely because when the CBAs were done, nobody foresaw the emergence of low-cost airlines and the global shift to China. No amount of complex analyses will make the future any less of a Black Swan. On the other hand, the London Eye was meant to be temporary but proved to be so popular that it was retained, while Andy Scott’s Kelpies sculpture near Falkirk has proved wildly more popular than predicted and the local authority is now hastily developing expanded visitor facilities.


The education sector has been blighted by bogus quantification. We too like to imply that the future is certain, and that pupils’ educational results are a matter of when rather than if. It makes schools look as though they are in control, that they can deliver a predictable ‘product’. But I don’t think this helps because it can cause complacency, while unrealistic targets can demotivate if they are taken too seriously. The presence of such bogus certainty can create an intractable sense of destiny, and if the future does indeed turn out unexpectedly, the consequences can be far-reaching.

Assuming we are not going to scrap the procedures entirely, we desperately need an optimism bias to counter practices such as the arbitrary rounding up of targets for no better reason than “that’s what we feel we should be aiming for” – which is hardly scientific.

But there’s a deeper level of concern. The focus on ‘destinations’ diverts the attention from the journey of getting there. The whole of the Research drive in education is inextricably linked with the assumption that outcomes are what matter; the process of reaching them is treated as no more than a means to an end. One wonders what will happen if the most learning-efficient processes turn out to be morally or ethically unacceptable.

Yet given that all of us only have one ultimate destination, one could argue that it’s what happens along the way that is of more importance – at least if you’re not religious. The process of becoming – and remaining – educated is arguably more important than any one destination that it might have. It’s the experience of doing it, every day, that arguably offers greatest rewards.  And destinations are, in any case, as numerous as people – so just as with ‘cost-effectiveness’, on what grounds are the assumptions justified?

Yet all sorts of arbitrary destinations are being used, be they exam results, inspection outcomes, career objectives or that ultimate measure of arbitrariness: “success”. It’s not completely unhelpful to set objectives, of course, as they clearly create the impetus to get things done. But we should perhaps pay more attention to their mostly arbitrary and rarely final nature. Even where major investment predictions have proved catastrophically wrong, life generally went on; fudges were developed to explain why – when theory  fails to live down to real life, it is ultimately the theory that has to give.

While the question, “To travel or to arrive?” has two valid answers (and each may be appropriate in different circumstances) we need at least to ensure that the choice remains, either for what is necessary on specific occasions, or just for what people might choose. The quality of the journey can be valuable in its own right, no matter where we are going.

The more I think about this analogy, the more traction it gains. Which is more important: the supposed ‘outcome’ of a lesson – or the educational experience that the pupils have on the way? How do we treat lessons that might offer great views, but where they destination isn’t especially exciting? Let alone lessons/journeys made entirely for the pleasure of doing so, where there is no especial destination? I’m not advocating specific teaching styles here, but from a philosophical point of view, ensuring that we balance the experience of learning with the more utilitarian aspect of ‘objectives’ is perhaps more important than we presently consider. We tend to obsess about punctuality (and indeed this may sometimes matter) – but does a few minutes’ lateness really matter, if we gained from a pleasant journey?

It seems to me that we in education have become so focussed on the supposed destinations of the educative process that we have neglected the quality of the journey. I would go so far as to claim that for many children, it is the experience of school that is more important than the pieces of paper they end up with; it’s only the adults who obsess about the latter, even if it rubs off on some pupils. Those who have had a good journey may be more likely to keep on travelling than those who took the short-cut, seemingly reaching the same place, but who missed out on the experience. I often encounter such people struggling to come to terms with ‘A’ levels…

It is easy to dismiss those who object to the target culture, but there is a perfectly sustainable objection based on the unreliable assumptions that such predictions cannot avoid. Given the unreliability of futurology and the finality of our ultimate destination, one might argue that what we do along the way is all that matters. In education the journey is (at least) as important as the destination.

Hobbies are important!

Do enjoy the atmospheric picture of rural France below, because it’s really rather special…



…All the more so when you learn that it measures all of about two feet across, and was made by an extraordinarily talented couple called Gordon and Maggie Gravett whom I once had the pleasure of meeting, while their model Pempoul was still in its early stages (it took twenty years to complete). If you’re wondering what model-making has to do with education, please bear with me.

The Gravetts’ work has been filmed by BBC4 and their model now has a five-year waiting list for exhibitions. They also draw people from long distances to hear their lectures. Whatever your impression of railway modelling in general, these people are surely artists, as are those responsible for the picture below, Pendon, which is also a model.


I wonder what the teachers of people such as the Gravetts would make of their success. I doubt it is something that could have been anticipated in the classroom, though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had been good at art. It is people like the Gravetts – not to mention my own lesser activities in the same field – that cause me to struggle with those who choose to narrow educational objectives to exam results, qualifications and ‘progress’ shown over the course of a matter of minutes rather than years, who choose to render the purpose pointlessly self-conscious and entirely mercenary.

The life of the mind is not , and should not be, restricted to a few narrow aspects of mundane practicality; in reality, it affects everything we do: not only work, but relationships, home-keeping, raising families – and fundamentally ‘pointless’ activities like hobbies. In short, it can enrich every aspect of one’s life. While we still hear platitudes about the ‘breadth’ of education, I wonder how many people really still believe it – but here, in the world of hobbies, is a very real example of the wider impact that developing one’s mind can have.

If you asked any teacher in the country what the point of education is, I very much doubt they would say railway modelling. And yet, why not? Both the Gravetts and the Pendon team have demonstrated high levels of critical thought, historical research, ability to synthesise and then realise their designs as they strove to reproduce the essence of 1950’s Brittany and 1930’s Berkshire respectively, to the ultimate degree of historical fidelity. They have high levels of both knowledge and practical expertise, indeed they have reached the top of their field – and who is to say this isn’t as important as sport or music or painting or literature? Or that their expertise is any less important than workers in more recognised fields? All they have chosen to do is to communicate their knowledge in a different format; the fact that railway modellers are still widely seen as anoraks isn’t their fault. More importantly, they have found something that is utterly absorbing and deeply rewarding.

I think it is no coincidence that many of the most intelligent people I know/have known have all engaged in often-arcane hobbies of one sort or another, for it is simply the mark of an enquiring mind that it rarely rests. The point of education is both everything and nothing: it is just about what happens to the mind as it is exposed to developmental opportunities, and an enquiring mind will never tire of seeking new material. Such a mind should be able to bring itself to bear on pretty much anything it encounters – which is why attempting to narrow its ‘purpose’ to the passing of exams, the securing of jobs or the earning of cash is such a betrayal, such a mark of the lack of real appreciation of its potential, of the death of the imagination. It represents the abandonment of the admittedly subjective enrichment that an active mind can bring, in favour of a dull utilitarian view propagated, I suspect, by those in grey suits who lack the imagination to have creative hobbies themselves.

I used the word ‘talented’ earlier on. Yet the current vogue for the Growth Mindset would have it that talent is much over-rated.  Could just anyone produce these masterpieces? Well, the materials and techniques used are surprisingly mundane; what is more defining is the attention to detail which comes from that fine eye, a willingness to experiment, a refusal to accept second-best and a persistence that sees the Gravetts scribing each stone of each building separately – and then painting it equally. Could just anyone do that? Possibly, yes. Can everyone develop a ‘fine eye’? Possibly yes. Hobbies can be empowering in a way utterly consistent with the Growth Mindset.

My own interest in railways and modelling has sustained a two-way dialogue with my wider intellectual and educational self for nearly fifty years now, virtually as long as I have lived. It was railways that first taught me my geography and which stimulated a wider interest in that subject; conversely, my academic discipline has brought a depth of insight to my hobby that otherwise probably would not have been there. Model-making was also where I first experience the phenomenon of Flow, and once you know how to cultivate it, you can do so elsewhere.

Working in a fairly disciplined hobby really does provide vast developmental opportunities: were it not for model-making, I would never have learned to solder, to etch and to airbrush. I would have a lesser understanding of electrics and electronics and my carpentry skills would be less developed. My ability to work with precision with would be non-existent. I would not have learned the rudiments of photography. But perhaps as importantly, I would have less-developed patience, eye for detail, appreciation of the need to plan and set myself objectives, and above all, sense of empowerment that comes simply from knowing I can do things. What’s more, by the sharing of these things either in ‘meat’-space or virtual space, communities are formed, and I encounter people whom otherwise I would be very unlikely ever to meet – largely in an altruistic and generous-minded context not always present in other aspects of life. Some have become good friends.

I hope it’s a little clearer now why I chose to discuss such an esoteric field: when one examines activities which are utterly elective, and in some ways utterly pointless, then it throws the whole issue of people’s abilities and motivations into stark relief. It also permits a discussion of these issues unburdened by all the usual educational agendas. Yet I challenge any educationalist to deny that the disciplines discussed above are important.

In many ways, hobbyists are the epitome of the educational ideal: people doing and discovering things simply for the pleasure of doing so. And for all that education can help in the more pragmatic elements of life, I believe that some of its greatest rewards are to be found in purely intrinsic expressions of what it can do. We need to ensure that our pupils understand this too.

I will end with another view of the Gravetts’ talent –  small-town French life captured to perfection.


Quantitative Easing and Asset-stripping

What is so wrong with making decisions about exam specifications based on track records of delivering good results? On the face of it, this seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, particularly now that everyone is supposed to be everyone else’s customer. If schools are simply the customers of the privatised exam boards, then one could argue that it makes sense to look at the efficacy of the ‘product’ one is thinking of buying. After all, you wouldn’t intentionally buy a car that didn’t work well – and you simply assume that the parts used are suitable for the job.

But there’s a problem: in choosing an exam course, we not choosing a machine for our own use but a cultural-intellectual legacy, the benefit of which is neither clearly defined, nor intended for us. One of my main concerns about shopping around exam boards is that it comes perilously close to admitting that the ‘customer’ is really the school and not the pupils at all.

While it is pupils who will (hopefully) go on to achieve good grades, (and form the future corpus of the discipline) the aggregate effect of grades is really of little interest to anyone except schools, inspectors and politicians. In this case, my recent experience suggests that less attention will be paid to the actual educational experience offered to pupils and more to the outcome desired by the school, even if it is dressed up as being in the pupils’ interests. For example, I struggle to accept that it is in pupils’ educational interests to have less opportunity to explain themselves at length simply so that they have a higher chance of scoring a good grade.

In a nutshell, this is the problem inherent in having a system that is over-interested in results for their own sake: the intrinsic purpose of intellectual furtherment is all too easily overridden by the extrinsic aim of achieving exam targets for their own sake. I would argue that this is a far greater betrayal of pupils’ interests than any amount of vaguely lacklustre classroom teaching. It has far-reaching potential for sending pupils out from their schooling equipped with nothing more than the sound-bites of information that teachers required them to know in order to pass exams, rather than a deeper understanding of a field of human endeavour undertaken for its own inherent and wide-ranging value.

Furthermore, pupils will very likely have their own extrinsic temptations reinforced at the expense of the more challenging and scholarly understanding that a thriving mind just is, and is not ‘for’ anything in particular. (I would go so far as to say that a genuinely thriving mind cannot come about for anything other than  its own sake).  It also risks depriving them of the intrinsic fulfilment to be had from learning, since it becomes nothing more than a means to a fairly vacuous end, each topic nothing more than another box ticked on the exam spec.

In my view, this is selling children massively short, and worse than that our entire society too, as we seem to be heading in a direction where learnedness and intellectual self-sufficiency are seen as having little inherent significance for the average person. So where are the pioneers and thinkers of the next generation going to come from if we empty the intellectual pool so drastically? Such people tend to emerge unexpectedly from the ether, not from some special target-beset initiative. If we ask what learning is for and the answer comes back, ‘passing exams’, that is not ultimately very helpful.

It is perhaps easy to caricature my position as being ‘anti exam’ but this is most emphatically not the case. I am not for one moment suggesting that exams should not exist, or that they are not important. Just as many musicians find that the presence of a performance or examination focuses the mind to achieve great things, we do of course need some focus for schools’ work – and high fallutin’ abstractions about the innate value of learning are unlikely to wash with immature minds.

But musical performance is often not an end in itself – it is a catalyst for more profound action. There are major differences in the way exams can and should be used. Exams are effective when used as a retrospective validation of learning that has been undertaken for its own sake – a means of calibrating the level achieved against an expected canon – of what pupils can do, not what they should do. This is fine, because it places the emphasis firmly on the learning for its own sake, and being retrospective it removes or at least reduces the temptation by teachers and pupils to try to game the system. It frees people to think about the subject matter in hand in its own right.

By comparison, using exams as anticipatory objectives tends to do all the opposites. It devalues subject content and risks limiting the amount (and breadth) acquired to that supposedly ‘needed’ to pass the exam. It also diverts pupils’ real attention away from understanding the subject towards understanding exam strategy – not unnecessary, but surely not the crux of what we are trying to do. It also alters the balance between what one might expect of the pupil and the teacher. The relationship with the subject becomes an arm’s-length one rather than full involvement, and in the process this may inhibit any real curiosity or ‘love of subject’ (a.k.a. scholarship) that might develop.

I am not sure, either, that sending the message that education (or life in general) is all about how well you game the system is really very desirable.

It is true that teachers have always had to make choices about which syllabus to follow, but I am long enough in the tooth to remember such discussions from years ago. Before the days of extreme exam pressure, discussions were about the impact that the choice would have on pupils’ understanding of the subject – and to some extent, its match with the expertise of the staff on hand. Courses – and entire subjects – were offered more for their inherent educational and intellectual value, and not simply the results that they could deliver.

There is a massive difference between a school system that aims to educate people and one that aims simply to qualify them, but the emphasis seems to be shifting ever further towards the latter – what is important is not what you know, but the bit of paper that you have at the end.

In economics, printing money that is not backed by real assets – quantitative easing – is an empty gesture and risks being inflationary; qualifications – pieces of paper that allow the holder to move to the next stage – that are not backed by real learning and ability are worth  little more. The effect also tends to be inflationary – but this emphasis is perhaps not surprising from an education sector whose mentality increasingly resembles the high-risk, quick-buck world of high finance rather than a long-term socio-cultural investment.

This is a significant shift of mindset on the part of some (many?) in the teaching profession. My concern is that those making such decisions are not aware of the pitfalls of a contingent approach, that they have not really thought about the ‘structural’ educational damage that is being done by sacrificing long-term intellectual and cultural investment for the quick but shallow buck of ‘results’ – and my even greater concern is that even if they have, just like financial speculators and corporate asset-strippers, they may not care.