A fair crack at the whip.

One Friday in November 2016, I left my classroom – and never went back. The mental health consequences of working in a stressful profession for three decades had finally caught up with me. They were a combination of the specific conditions at the very demanding (but increasingly misguided) school where I worked, and my growing sense that education more generally was moving in a direction that I could no longer reconcile myself with.

In November 2019, I was asked to fill an urgently-needed supply post at a different institution – this time a sixth form college – and I found myself, rather unexpectedly back in front of a class. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and since January I have been working part-time in a different department of the same college, covering long-term staff absence with a contract that will last a few more months.

I didn’t expect to find the profession had changed very much in those three years. But I increasingly sense that it has. While the different context makes direct comparisons difficult, my having tuned more widely back into teacher-talk is leaving me with a similar impression.

I should say immediately that what follows is no criticism whatsoever of the college where I have been working. I am extremely grateful for their having offered me a manageable way back into work, and the fact that they are continuing to employ me even over the current closures. It has been a pleasure to work in a place that values its employees in a way that my last one manifestly didn’t, and not to have to go to work worrying about hidden agendas.

But renewed exposure to the profession is increasingly suggesting that there have been further moves in a direction that gave rise to my previous misgivings. Education seems to have (been?) moved even further down the route of narrowly concerning itself solely with what happens in exams. In the process, the ability of individual teachers to provide creative, thoughtful and (hopefully) inspirational teaching seems to have been eroded still further.

I’m the kind of teacher whose main resources are his own brain, his character, and dare I say, his own eloquence. For me, teaching is akin to acting, not being a lab technician. To be able to function at my best with students, I need the freedom to think, create and interact with students in ways peculiar to me. Without it, I become little more than a human tape-recording. Rigid systematisation is all very well – but such constraints actually prevent the inspirational teaching that the system asks me to deliver. I have enough years in various classrooms to be certain about this – and recent experience is proving no different.

I suspect that this is a consequence of the Gove-led changes, which were only just starting to take effect in 2016. It seems that the changes in content and pitch have led to teachers becoming even more obsessed with what their students will encounter in the exam room. There also seems to have been a discernible quickening of the pace at which it is necessary to move through the curriculum, and a consequent increase in anxiety amongst teachers leading them to jettison anything that might appear not to be of direct use in an exam.

This worries me. It means that depth has been further sacrificed. It worries me even more that those in the profession seem not to have noticed. Or perhaps they just don’t share my misgivings. I read recently that education is not the meeting of fairly constant human intellectual and societal needs that I have always believed – but is instead a valueless, ceaselessly-evolving phenomenon which mutates in the way it conditions individuals for whatever is the prevailing socioeconomic climate of the time. In other words, it is reactive rather than formative, coercive rather than liberating.

This makes sense: as someone in his mid-fifties, I can hardly deny that my own education took place in a different era. It also explains why many of my younger colleagues and friends seem not to have the issues with the marketisation of society that I do, or to even notice what I tend to regard as its manifest failures. It also explains why the same phenomenon seems to prevail within the education profession: I am aware that my reservations seem not to be shared (at least publicly) by very many in the younger two-thirds of the profession. The obvious explanation is simply that they have grown up in a different era, more acclimatised to current norms and expectations. Maybe it really is nothing more than an illustration that I am getting longer in the tooth, than I care to admit.

But I don’t think so. Being adapted to a certain climate is no guarantee that it is actually benign.

I’ve been reading Seneca. The most striking thing about reading a 2000-year-old author is the similarities in the fundamental concerns of life then and now. In many ways, basic human need has not changed very much – and consequently neither, I suspect, has the need for an educated mind with which to tackle life’s difficulties and uncertainties – and whose success in doing so provides an equally enduring reward through a “well-lived life”.

Seneca counselled an approach to life that would serve us very well at the present moment. Yet modern education is moving further and further away from educating the “whole person”. It has become just another systematised production-line: good at maximising output, but lousy at quality control.

While it is of course important that every single young person gets a fair crack at the whip, that importance diminishes if the whip itself actually isn’t really very worth having. No amount of standardised, conveyor-belt education can ever attend adequately to the needs of distinctly un-standardised individuals. Those whom it attends to least are, as usual, those who arguably need it most. Neither is the answer to make the individuals more standardised.

Never has it struck me more forcefully than now, how essential real education is. Society’s responses first to Brexit and now to the coronavirus are symptomatic of a nation that simply lacks the widespread personal-intellectual maturity and resilience to cope with adversity.

That is a failure, amongst other things, of its long-term educational approach. We have created a society that is so deafened by the noise of trivial distractions that we have not bothered to develop the internal grit – strength of personality and character – to cope when it stops, and we are forced to fall back on the void where our own personal resources should be.

Many seem to be afraid of how they will cope when they no longer have endless working hours to fill their lives, to help them avoid having to stop and contemplate anything more fundamental – like how to address our own mortality, or the fragility of modern society. They seem to lack the intellectual horsepower that might help them get a grip on the real nature and scale of the current problems – and deal with them in a thoughtful, considered and resilient way.

A local acquaintance told me about his (adult) daughter – who goes out every night to some kind of event. They have all stopped; her comment was, “My life is over”. My response, had I met her in person, would have been, “No: it has just begun”. I tried the same approach, with varying success, with my students in the week before the college closed: “Now is precisely the time when you have an unprecedented opportunity to find out more about yourself, and what you are capable of when all the scaffolding is taken away”.

What it boils down to in the final reckoning is a system that does not know how to stop consuming. In a very real sense, education is just being consumed in exactly the same way as everything else: superficially, at top speed – and then discarded, without ever a chance to savour, and learn from, the quality of what really does not benefit from rushing so giddily past.

This is what concerns me about the headlong rush to cover exam syllabuses: at what point do students ever have the chance to stop and ponder the implications and deeper meaning of what they are encountering? How are they ever supposed to gain in wisdom from their studies if they are whip-cracked ever onwards, the whole thing just merging into an indistinct blur whose only purpose is to be just sufficiently organised that it can be regurgitated in an exam?

It is incredibly difficult to buck this trend, not least because it is now the prime determinant of what people expect education itself to be like. That goes for the teachers as well as the students. I have tried hard to enhance my new students’ lessons, in order that they could understand and appreciate the significance of what we are covering, rather than just fill pages with notes that do nothing more than scratch the surface.

It is, however, difficult to persuade them that this is worth doing, as it seems to be something they haven’t encountered before. It is almost as hard to convince colleagues that it is worth disrupting the hell-for-leather teaching schedules for, too. It is hard to persuade them that occasionally going a little off-piste for the sake of contextualising and enriching learning may be entirely productive even in the narrow, exam-specific sense. There is value – where one judges it appropriate – in going beyond what the exam board says we should know. Especially when the dividend is better learning – and wiser people.

There is so much more to education than skimming an exam specification. And so much more to teaching. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon exams and formal syllabuses in favour of a 100% curriculum of fuzzy navel-gazing. But there is an art to getting people to think that is beyond “being lost”; in my experience, it is already widely lost. We are in a situation where education consists – and can consist – of sitting in a room going through the motions, without any real thinking going on at all. Just as long as sufficient is remembered to get through the exam. It’s not really the teachers’ fault, nor the institutions’. This is what, via the democratic process, ‘the nation’ decided it wanted its education system to become.

As a result, we are perhaps in the final throes of an education system that no longer knows why it really exists, except to perpetuate its own conveyor belt-like existence churning out more false certainties to people left too incurious ever to discover better. And to distract from the really big issues they need to be thinking and learning about. That art resides in allowing teachers to be more than mere technicians: to draw on their own intelligence, wisdom and above all humanity, in the interests of drawing the same qualities out of their pupils.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: in these most pressing of times, the one force within human society that has the potential to help people to cope – education – has, to my mind failed to prepare them adequately for the enduring challenges of existing and surviving – let alone thriving – on this planet. It was too busy meeting targets. In the interests of preparing people to be compliant workers and consumers, it failed in its duty to encourage them to become complete humans. And faced with the last-chance saloon for doing so, it is still so busy listening to its own trivial internal chatter that rather than looking hard at what it could be doing right now, it is just busy churning out even more of the same. Fiddling like Nero. Meeting targets. In overdrive.

Holding this belief central to my own practice, I have seen all over again why my own sense of purpose went into meltdown those years ago. I simply cannot spend an hour in a classroom with young people and come out feeling they have done nothing more than learn how to jump through a few new hoops, but are otherwise none the wiser.

I feel that the way people are responding to the present wider emergencies is vindicating me.

The Sound of Silence

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“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and everything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is perceived as less need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove from us the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing wall-to-wall conveyor of equally pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell, I am certain, knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfilment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. To deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfil. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students from giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than our insisting on doing it for them. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.

 

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

“Grammar Schools for All!”

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle.

I’ve taken some flak over the past weeks for my defence of selective education – though to balance the record, there has been quite a lot of support too. Politically speaking the matter seems to have gone quiet again – I suspect May has other matters on her mind, but just possibly she is beginning to realise the scale of the opposition she faces.

If the latter is true, she will have regrettably squandered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a grownup debate about the fundamentals of the education system in this country. Still, I suppose that is just par for the course when one considers the level of discussion on other pressing matters in recent times. Once again, however, the casualty will have been the state of the nation in a country where far too much is still determined on intellectually weak grounds such as prejudice, vested interest and historical precedent.

My own position has perhaps shifted a little during the past few weeks, in particular as a result of reading some of the (unfavourable) findings of international research on the impact of selective education. I would repeat however that the fact I was prepared to entertain the argument did not mean I fully endorsed it. I will leave readers to decide whether that makes me educated or not!

Neither does it mean that I have executed a neat U-turn. What it does show is that the debate is both complex and multi-faceted, and far too complicated to be reduced to a simple black-or-white false dichotomy. I concede the potential price of badly-executed selection but argue that this does not mean that what I prefer to conceive of as ‘specialised’ educational provision is inherently a bad idea. This is the debate that will probably never now happen.

Instinctively, I believe that schools should perform a role of social integration, and that implies being non-selective. What concerns me, however, is the reality of the situation, which I increasingly perceive to be the cultural and perhaps academic debasement of the education system, such that most rather than some are now deprived of the riches that the best of it used to deliver. My impression is that it is now left to a rump of the education system, much of it fee-paying, to sustain the highest levels of culture, intellect and general talent in our country – and that is more rather than less divisive when it comes to opportunity.

The rallying-cry of the early proponents of comprehensives was ‘grammar schools for all’, and on the surface it is hard to object to the sentiment. But as I argued in previous posts, this is based on the assumption that ‘all’ even want, let alone would cope with, a grammar-school style education. Quite frankly, many of the children I teach would probably founder under such a regime, and would in all likelihood detest it as well. I can see no reason why less academic children should be forced through a schooling that they actively dislike because it does not meet their needs, any more than academic ones – but that is what arguably happens nowadays anyway, since academic success has become the benchmark against which all are judged. I really don’t blame the disaffected ones for resenting being put through a system in which they feel they can only ever lose. For that is the harsh reality, whatever the growth mindset might claim.

But the consequence is that their disaffection – or at least the need of schools to try to counter it through the culture and methods they employ – still comes to dominate the character of many schools, both through their implicit needs, and more visibly through their behaviours. Regrettably, it seems to me that one of the markers of lesser intelligence is an inability to empathise with the needs of others; the disaffected or unruly are not about to shut up for the sake of the boffins in their midst. And it is still this dilemma that informs my support for finding a different solution – for the good of all concerned.

‘Grammar schools for all’ might be a noble ideal – but in reality this has simply not come to pass. If this sentiment really meant what it appears, then those of us who experienced grammar schools, who still endorse and hopefully embody their values and cultures, and whose teaching style derives from them, would be embraced by those who wished to spread such opportunities to all.

Instead, I – perhaps we – have spent a career being forced to deny my provenance and cultural-academic values, and to change my techniques to accommodate those whom it was claimed would not cope with them. Education more widely has been moved away from the cultural jewel that it (partly) was, towards a form of mass entertainment-cum-employment training. This means that the educational opportunities available have effectively become limited by the inability of some to cope with them, and that is no more ‘democratic’ than the converse.

It is probably a pragmatically sensible position under the circumstances – but grammar schools for all it most certainly is not.

The Best of Friends

Even more than most people, children can mean many things with their words. But listening to them still remains the most direct way of probing their minds. The number of ‘shaft-of-light’ moments that I have experienced over the years could probably fill a book in its own right…

My previous post about expectations received much attention (by my normal standards anyway), and I think the longest correspondence of any so far. I should perhaps emphasise that I was trying to consider the issue in the broadest of terms, though inevitably not all got covered equally. So we might consider:

  • Children’s expectations of their school, teachers and lessons
  • Children’s expectations of themselves
  • Teachers’ and schools’ expectations of the same
  • Other parties such as parents and society at large.

It is very possible that there are significant disparities between different groups’ expectations of the same thing – though there is also the possibility for expectations to be contagious from one group to another.  This is a complicated area, and trying to make sense of it is not made easier by one’s own biases and limitations. I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, which is making me particularly mindful of this at the moment…

But last week I took an opportunity to delve a little deeper than I usually would into what my pupils were thinking. A discussion in a Year Nine class, that I might normally have suppressed in the interests of learning Geography, I instead let run and even encouraged a little. As I said, one has to be very cautious in drawing conclusions, not least because one cannot verify the facts or ascertain the sincerity of the views expressed, but the observations were not without interest.

The participants were fourteen year old girls (the boys in the class showing no interest whatsoever); most are biddable, but towards the lower end of our ability range. They were working on an extended task, but other discussion developed, which revolved around who was being unkind to whom on the social media, who had the best boyfriend, and their plans for what sounded like a regular (unaccompanied) outing to an expensive shopping destination twenty miles away in London. Not for the first time, I got the impression that school is nothing more than an inconvenient interruption of a hectic social whirl in which their parents are willing accomplices…

I have transcribed their words as accurately as I can, given that I was relying on memory:

Pupil 1: English is really boring. Why do we need to do that stuff? I mean, we already know how to speak. Why do we have to do all those stupid exercises and notes? And literature – what’s the point of knowing stuff about all those boring books?

Pupil 2: …I just do what I want, when I want. (Me: Even in your lessons?)  Yep. (And what about at home?) Yep, the same there. (Don’t your parents tell you things?) Sometimes, but I mostly don’t listen. (And what then?) Nothing happens…

Pupil 3. …we want more fun in our lessons. (Me: what do you think would make lessons more fun?) (pause….) dunno really, just less of the stuff we have to do. (Don’t you think the teachers know why they give you this work?) ….’spose so – but it’s just boring. I don’t see the point.

Pupil 4: Well, we don’t really know what the future will be like, so we don’t really know, do we? (Me: do you accept that your teachers have lived parts of their lives that you haven’t come to in yours yet?) Yes, that’s obvious. I s’pose they do know stuff – but it’s so boring and I don’t want to do it. (What would you rather be doing?) Dunno, probably hanging out with my friends, or going shopping.

…and one contributed by a year 10 pupil courtesy of a colleague with whom I was discussing the issue…

“Aw miss, you only got me a D in my exam….”

I’m fairly certain this is all routine stuff that will be familiar to many. But within it lie clues to how children today may perceive their schooling. I’m certainly not going to idealise the past, but what strikes me is the confidence with which these individuals make judgements based on what is inevitably a very limited appreciation of the wider issues; well, that’s modern children for you.

But what also seems to be lacking is any sense of obligation, be it to teachers, parents – or even themselves. They perceive little use in what they are doing beyond immediate amusement. As RequiresImprovement observed on my previous post, why would affluent children make the effort to think, when (as Kahneman says) it requires effort, and the rewards are so intangible? It’s ironic that ultra-materialism has led children (and adults) to reject the one path that was supposed to lead them to empowerment….

Another expectation which has echoes in the above, is parents who see their offspring as their “best friends”. I cringe every time I hear this. To my mind it betrays a completely inappropriate relationship, one born of infantilisation and one that is in denial of the more difficult responsibilities of parenting. If this is how the other principal adults in some children’s lives behave, it is no surprise if those children cannot cope with the expectations of teachers. If adults and children alike are engaged in some kind of conspiratorial form of play at home, then where is the understanding of the need for effort, perseverance, mature behaviour and good conduct going to come from?

I saw nothing in the above exchanges that made me reconsider my fundamental views. Children may complain about their lessons, but they appear to have very little idea what they want instead. All we are seeing is the age-old complaints of pupils; the only difference now is that they (and some in education) seem to think they should be listened to. Becoming too emotionally close to children only makes it harder to disregard such whining, and adopting educational policies that condone indulgence at the expense of more demanding development will only make matters worse.

We live in a time where leisure and self-indulgence are such high-profile aspects of life that children have less understanding than previous generations of what real effort actually means. And this is reinforced by a permissive and indulgent parental culture which offers little effective guidance about the appropriateness of behaviour or attitude. As I mentioned before, I encounter many children who genuinely seem to have no understanding of why they cannot have everything they want instantly, with no obligation on them whatsoever.

At the stage when children like those above are about to start exam courses, I doubt how much more we can do to change their fundamental attitudes. Certainly there is an element of mid-teen ennui, but my feeling is that it goes deeper than that.  When I asked one of the protagonists what she expected from her future life, the response was immediate: “To marry a rich man”.

There are several pupils in that Year Nine class who keep themselves apart; while the bulk of the class has made – I am afraid to say – only marginal progress this year, these others  have engaged with what we have done, and have made strong progress both academically and, perhaps more importantly, in their attitude. Several have opted for Geography in Year 10. I have increasingly been able to have meaningful conversations with them, though whether I can claim any credit is another matter; maybe their expectations were just different to begin with.

Of course we need to engage with children as we find them – but there are clearly back-stories and attitudes invisible to those who judge our success. We also need to worry less when our pupils complain. While there are many ways of reading these comments, in the midst of such relativism and indifference, we need to set the expectations for education – and they need to derive unapologetically from the intellectual and personal development that is what we offer.

In this respect, we are employed to know best! But we should neither be surprised nor unduly distressed if some refuse the offer; in the market society they worship, consumers have – as they know well – the option not to buy. But as LeahKStewart implied, teachers must also avoid sending the message, “Please learn these things to do well in the exam so I can keep my job” – otherwise we are no better.

Towards the end of the lesson, I approached one of the more vocal girls; I instinctively dropped down to be on her level. Across the desk, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You have to trust your teachers. I can’t prove why – but they have been places in their lives that you haven’t yet. They do know what they are talking about.”

She appeared hypnotised. Just for a moment, I had her undivided attention – then she turned and took out her vanity mirror again.

Give me the child for the first seven years…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could provide hard scientific answers to the question of what works best in education. Having spent most of my career on the receiving end of a steady stream of progressive ideology, I find myself asking what would be the consequences of its being possible to prove that this does actually harm children’s prospects.  Would there be a sudden U-turn?

Having witnessed, earlier this year, the results of a pupil survey that showed unequivocally that they distrust peer assessment – and the subsequent instruction that therefore we need to do more of it “in order to show the children why it is valuable” – I somehow doubt it. In fairness, I equally doubt that many traditionalists would abandon their ideas either, were they shown to be flawed.

I persist in my doubt that there will ever be hard answers, so perhaps ideologues need not worry too much, but recent events have got me thinking about another, perhaps more easily identified matter, namely learned behaviours, and the degree to which these do or do not support the learning process.

In particular, this is about the effectiveness with which one phase of education prepares children for the demands of the next. I have kept an open mind about the primary sector, because I have little direct experience of it, and because I know how essential its work is. But following the blog of Quirky Teacher in recent weeks, I have encountered some controversial views from a mature entrant to primary education and this has sown some doubts over its efficacy. While the long-term effects of learning are invisible, it is easy enough to observe how pupils fare with the increasing demands placed on them as they age.

My brushes with the primary sector have not filled me with confidence. Some time ago, I attended a Healthy Schools seminar dominated by primary teachers; I came away incredulous. The majority were young and female (I mention this purely in the light of Quirky Teacher’s comments about the over-feminisation of the primary sector). Much of their attention seemed to revolve around voracious careerism, various gossip and scandal. Not much specifically about teaching young children…

This was of course one isolated instance – but other experiences, including having a similarly-minded primary teacher as a near neighbour for many years, hardly dispelled the impression. I do wonder whether rampant careerism is really compatible with the core priorities of establishing key cognitive abilities in young children.

Equally, I sympathise with Quirky Teacher’s reservations about teachers (at all levels) who claim to ‘love children’. To me, this speaks of a level of emotional involvement incompatible with the role of a professional; we are not their parents. Certainly, the word may be used loosely, but that in itself raises questions about professionalism – and it also ignores the many other reasons for going into teaching. We do need compassion – but love?

This implies an emotional involvement that may prejudice the more detached work we have to do with them. Such focus risks cuddly indulgence, a narrow focus on the current state of a child’s being rather than where he or she is going next, and perhaps a reluctance to create situations that cause short term ‘pain’ in the interests of long-term gain. While it is hardly contestable that children entering the education system for the first time need a caring transition from the home environment, our job as teachers is gradually to wean them from this and induct them into the wider world. By the end of primary education, children should be equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to cope with the greater demands of secondary school.  Indeed, my own memories centre on groups gradually giving way to formal teaching and lines of desks.

I am not convinced that this is widely happening. Before I am accused of being over-critical of primaries, secondary schools make it worse by falling over themselves to smooth that transition; I would rather that children arrived in Year 7 being – yes – slightly apprehensive about what they will encounter. I think they should be a little in awe of the teachers, and we should not discourage this.

In secondary school, the problem is extended by treating educational ‘outcomes’ as being the end of secondary schooling with its attendant exam results; we need to question whether we are really using Key Stage Three to prepare pupils for Key Stages Four and Five – and whether we are really equipping older pupils with what they will need after school.

My recent lower school teaching has been heavily loaded with less able classes. I resolved to continue with my broadly traditional approach, and this initially created some low-level behavioural issues from children who appeared unused to it. Nonetheless, I established good relationships with the majority, even those who sometimes fell foul of my expectations. In particular, the issue of inappropriate talking arose; it seems to me that many children no longer have the self-discipline to know when it is inappropriate to talk; even with a very firm hand, self-restraint does not come easily. Delving into this suggests that they don’t understand what they are doing wrong, or that they need to modify their behaviours to others’ expectations. A lot of children transgress not through deliberate naughtiness but through learned bad habits – at which point we need to ask where they learned them…

The expectation appears to be that school is about fun (that word again) and not formal learning – hence the grumbling about being formally taught – and given that this started in Year 7, this message may have come from primary school. By the time they arrive in secondary school, it is harder to change the expectation, even though their book work has improved…

Confronting my Year 10 G.C.S.E. class this week about a very mixed set of exam results, the confession gradually emerged about how little revision many had done; despite clear advice, most seemed to think that a few hours just before the exam were enough to master a content-heavy subject like geography. I deployed the thinking of Robert Bjork and David Didau – the necessity for spaced learning, desirable difficulties and the rest. There was silence… and then one voice muttered, ”But that means we have so much work to do…”

Why exactly are able students, with much to gain from the educational system, who overwhelmingly come from comfortable home backgrounds, baulking so greatly at the need to work hard? And this in an outstanding school? Why is it that many of them have found the workload at Key Stage Four difficult?

I suggest there are many reasons. Wider lives have to play a part: many of these children want for nothing, and are used to being indulged by wealthy parents; they lack the hunger for self-improvement that often feeds educational effort as much as they lack clear boundaries. Schools may have fuelled this by providing extra support to get them through the exams; learned helplessness has become an epidemic. I have frequently challenged pupils up to sixth form age about this: they admit that the more we do for them, the less they do for themselves – and consequently know how to. On the other hand, maybe we need to consider the possibility that too much pressure has been applied through testing, and we are turning children off learning. Can both even exist together?

It is possible that the focus of Key Stage Three teaching, often informed by primary school techniques, is preparing pupils insufficiently for the greater intellectual demands to come – and it is also possible that over-loving primary schools are too focussed on naturalistic readings of early childhood to establish the key expectations of self-discipline and cognitive focus at that critical stage – apart from cramming for KS2 tests, that is. By the time children arrive in secondary school, it is nearly too late; many of the issues I deal with seem rooted in their earlier years.

While there is not much we can do about the wider societal issues, I think the time is overdue for the education sector as a whole to have a lengthy discussion about the totality of how we prepare children for their futures.

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.

Actually, I teach Geography…

My subject is not some kind of obscure, eccentric, elitist aberration. Like all disciplines, it covers an aspect of the world around us which can enlighten people who have yet to know it. Delivered in a coherent way, it has intrinsic interest where that is allowed to shine through, and not fragmented or subverted for ulterior motives. My subject will not be of deep interest to all students (that is reasonable – and not my fault), but a wide and balanced curriculum can provide something for everyone, insofar as most pupils are biddable. For those who respond at a deeper level, it can provide enduring enrichment for life – irrespective of what the jobs market or wider world throw at them. It needs no more ‘use’ than that.

My subject also provides me with a welcome dose of intellectual stimulus (at least when teaching older students) which is part of my reward for doing the job; its subject matter  is intimately linked with both my professional identity and the sense of vocation necessary for me to do this work.

My subject is not merely a means to an end, and I need to be able to teach it in a way that allows me to put my best polish on it. In my case, that is by cultivating a culture of quiet thoughtfulness rather than perpetual novelty.

I see no reason why ‘academic’ (in the narrow sense) should be a dirty word in school circles.

A few days ago, I discussed the questionable wisdom of using education for promoting social mobility. This was not to say, however, that all ‘social engineering’ is wrong: simply to educate someone is to manipulate their life in some way. What seems unjustifiable to me is the foreclosure of so many dimensions of that process simply to promote one centralised view of what is desirable. This applies equally to the restrictions imposed on teachers in the name of being ‘interesting’ ,‘fun’ ,‘economically relevant’ or simply compliant – or on pupils, many whom are implicitly assumed to be incapable of serious thought,  instead needing to be merely edu-tained until they can go out to work. To my mind, this amounts to an unacceptable restriction of individual liberty, when education should be about facilitating diversity not increasing uniformity.

The mental agility developed by academic activity is an invaluable tool in the classroom, whether turned into a quick wit, or a profound well of knowledge that students can draw on, once exposed to it. I have experienced little that cuts through to pupils like the earnest experience of real insight – and that is best cultivated in a pure academic way, free from the pedestrian diversions of minimum targets, peer assessments and the like.

A more inspiring opportunity I think education in the true sense cannot offer – and so much more meaningful than any number of ‘edutainment’ games and party tricks. I cannot claim that this is the easiest route – it takes time and patience before children start to engage in real thought, and the success rate will never be 100%. I fear that all this froth has crept in simply as a way of avoiding the sometimes-challenging task of getting pupils to focus on the real, deep issues.

Despite all of the distractions that beset modern children, we should challenge them to confront serious learning rather than shying away from it. I tell my pupils that we don’t play endless games in my class because I consider their education (and the issues) to be more important than that. They come to understand: we under-estimate children if we think they are incapable of responding to this.

So yes, I am a teacher of Geography – to children, of course.