The God of Small Things

bresciani

It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from meschausettesrouges.com in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just looking, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is  a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also the thing that we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

If education is about promoting well-lived lives, I am deeply uncertain that the  aspirational, target-driven approach is doing that. While young people are unsurprisingly future-orientated, the present manic approach seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good educational time to promoting the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of superb fabric.

https://www.meschaussettesrouges.com/en/  (usual disclaimer)

The original version of this post can be found on my other blog: https://sprezzatura.blog

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Notes from Beyond 1: The end of Time

I’m glad to report that something like normality is being restored here. The drug-induced fug of the last seven months is receding as my dose has been cut and the mind heals itself; there are days when I even enjoy living – something that has been grimly absent since last autumn.

I still feel shocked when I think about the speed of change in my circumstances: this time last year, I was teaching full-time, with no expectation that the next decade would be any different. But a routine has established itself, with which I am not unhappy, and which is perhaps revealing some of life’s greater truths.

I am able to get up when the body is ready, rather than when the alarm clock dictates, eat a breakfast that sets me up so that the hunger pangs of mid-morning don’t happen. I’ve never been a ‘morning person’, so the ability to start the day in a gradual way is a huge improvement.

I have received enough messages from people I value, including some from colleagues of many years ago, for the inevitable crash in self-esteem to start to ease a little. There are enough people complimentary of my work for me to start to be confident again that it was not All My Fault.

And there has been a leap in my ability to think clearly and creatively about my position on all sorts of issues. I am getting involved in local community activities and a number of my dormant interests have revived.

Do I miss School? Very little, actually. The company of my colleagues defintely, and the better type of relations with the pupils too. But most definitely not the humourless grind of targets, scrutiny and compliance that the job has become. I don’t miss the regular assault on my better judgement from people whom, I honestly felt, sometimes had less insight and fewer principles than I – nor the consequent sense of having to live my life to someone else’s agenda.

But perhaps most bizarre is the sense of fluidity to one’s time. Having lived my entire life to the drum-beat of the academic year, having known precisely where one was and how things were progressing by the hourly, weekly and termly pulse of that system, it is quite disorientating not to have that. I even almost failed to notice that it was recently Half Term. But equally, it is lovely to be able to appreciate the onset of summer, rather than wishing it away for holidays that only begin when it is half-passed. I generally consider myself fairly self-aware, but only now is it becoming clear just how institutionalised a life in teaching had made me.

I am concerned that as time progresses, I may have less and less worth adding to the education debate. But that may be no bad thing – from a greater distance, it begins to look increasingly like a talking-shop whose main effect is to over-complicate what is still a fairly simple process. Of course, when it’s your daily life, perspectives are different – but I still feel that education is being over-complicated, and for all the wrong reasons.

I’m very fortunate that there no immediate need to seek new employment, and much of the above experience may seem to have little relevance for those who still need to earn a crust. But if there is one thing it is this:

The rat-race that consumes teachers and gobbles up children ever younger, is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. Education should be about life, not the reverse. The ridiculous amount of pressure being applied to all concerned both risks crowding out the very things needed to think and learn effectively – time. It is very noticeable how much easier it is to think creatively and productively without the pressures of The System bearing down and obliterating everything else.

The pedestal upon which ‘Learning’ is put by so many talking heads is not authentic. In their world, subjects are simply the means to exam passes and league-table positions. They are the passport to a world of often-subservient, deskilled employment from which too often the main beneficiaries are the bosses. And they are the opening for those same people to throw you on the scrap-heap when they have had enough of you. Not a noble, higher aim in sight.

It is so much easier to bloom personally and intellectually when life is not one continuous, needless race against time.

Good for the Soul

“I wanted her to learn piano because I thought it would be good for her soul”.

So commented ‘Pique Boo’ recently on my blog.

‘Good for the soul’ is an extremely important aspect of what learning is – and one that I think has been almost entirely forgotten by educators. Thanks to the daily pressures of the job, I (nearly) include myself in that, for all that I genuinely subscribe to the sentiment, and I should thank Pique Boo for reminding me of it.

Whatever the technical debates about this policy or that, education remains for some people fundamentally a matter of individual personal development of the most intimate, profound, reflective sort. I think it is the same experience of something completely intrinsic, intellectual, even spiritual in nature that perhaps drives enquiring minds, to a far greater extent than those obsessed with the mundane ticking of boxes ever realise.  It is precisely this kind of matter that has become almost entirely lost on present-day managers, policy makers and maybe even teachers.

I think it also sums up why I feel vaguely uneasy every time I encounter education being discussed in coldly mechanistic or materialistic terms: people who do this seem to have entirely missed the point of the self-discovery that it can provide. Every time such discussions take place, it is a reminder of just how far from their true remit modern education systems have strayed. ‘Good for the soul’ is in fact why I teach, and what I try to do for my pupils – and what a system devised by hard-heads sometimes criticises me for.

‘Good for the soul’ also serves to illustrate the artificiality of the divisions created within such systems. For example, when a true sense of intellectual enquiry is present, notions of ‘accountability’ dissolve – no one need be accountable for something done completely for love. Even formal distinctions between teacher and pupil become less significant when the undertaking is almost a shared enterprise.

It is probably asking too much to expect many young people to see the matter in this way, though I think it is far from impossible by the time they reach the sixth form – but that should not in itself invalidate the sentiment as an ideal.

And when it comes to debating the pros and cons of different types of education, I think it is important to remember that some people at least, wish their offspring to have this experience if they are capable of it. I cannot see that this is an unreasonable aspiration for a school system, and it might actually do society good if more emphasis were placed on it. Schools that are not good for the soul are still failing at least some of their pupils – and arguably, all of them.

This post is not intended to be a continuation of the previous debate on selection – but it strikes me that so long as people propounding certain models for education fail to take account of those who wish to have their children educated in ways and surroundings that are ‘good for the soul’ – and to ensure that suitable provision is made for them – then we are unlikely ever to make much headway in truly resolving the resultant issues.

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.

Pygmalion

 Pygmalion__final_version_by_mrDExArts

http://stevedelamare.deviantart.com/

The calls for an ‘evidence based profession’ keep coming, as though this would somehow solve all our troubles. But the problem with evidence is that it still needs to be interpreted by good old Mk1 fallible human beings. The idea that we will somehow be able to produce an education system that does not depend on this strikes me as not only probably impossible but highly undesirable.

All the evidence I have seen during my time in the classroom points to the fact that this would amount to the end of education and the start of people-programming. It would remove the ability of those in schools to function in an authentic inter-personal manner and replace it with a prescribed machine-ethic, which would produce human robots rather than complex individuals. Education is a social and intellectual activity, not a scientific-mechanical one; why would we want to make it otherwise?

This is not to say that evidence is useless – so long as it is defined in the broadest possible sense as ‘incoming information from the world around’. Indeed, doing anything without due regard for the context would seem to be little more than a form of madness. In my classroom, as in daily life, I constantly respond to the evidence of what is happening around me – but that it not to say that the response is simply formulaic. People are more complex than that.

Evidence comes in all manner of forms, and people use it in all sorts of ways. The evidence of the affection of one’s significant other does not usefully come in numerical form, any more than does the pleasure of a good meal or the first signs of Spring. The responses that ‘evidence’ of this sort evokes may just as likely be emotive as rational. People are more complex than that.

But  I suspect that those most loudly demanding evidence-based teaching have in mind something along the lines of medical procedures or scientific experiments, which they can plug into classroom situations safe in the knowledge that the desired outcome will pop out the other end. I fear they are going to be disappointed. People are more complex than that.

But other people use evidence too – artists and artisans, for instance. They work their material with an intimate knowledge of its properties, a deep skill in the use of their tools – and most importantly of all, an eye for the intrinsic potential of a particular piece of material. These methods may use science, but be less obvious and less easily transferrable than straight scientific procedure – but that does not make them ineffective with respect to their intended purpose. In fact, the very uniqueness of each artisan’s approach is what gives it its most desirable qualities.

In my mind’s eye, I see my practice a teacher more akin to the work of a sculptor than a scientist. As the JISC report mentioned in my previous post concluded, teaching can be seen as an artisanal activity, but I would argue, no less a skilled profession for that. I believe that this model would be much more helpful in guiding professional practice than the concept of a pedagogic scientist.

A skilled sculptor, Pygmalion brought forth from a crude piece of stone a figure of such beauty that he fell in love with it. He presumably did this only partially by recourse to his knowledge of the nature of stone. He also needed, in his mind’s eye, a conception of the beauty he was intending to create – and he then needed to fashion the stone in question to his ideals, while simultaneously reading, and accommodating, the flaws, blemishes and beauty of the material he was working with. His subjective reactions to what was unfolding would have guided his hand at least as much as his technical expertise.

One can consider the work of the teacher in a similar way: the purpose is to fashion a unique human being from the crude piece that one is given. In the early stages, this will mean removing large amounts of unneeded material, but the process will be increasingly one of refinement using a skilled eye and even more skilled hand to make just the necessary interventions to create the perfect result. But the process will never be the same twice, except in its most basic elements, since every sculpture will be different and every piece of stone unique.

It may be easy to dismiss sculptors as being of relatively little ‘use’ when seen from a scientific perspective, and yet they are equally skilled in their own way. What is more, they produce items that are not of mere practical application, but which beautify the world. And they do have a further purpose: to express  those aspects of existence than numbers cannot adequately communicate. In the case of Pygmalion, he produced a sculpture of such beauty that he yearned for it to become human – as indeed it did, thanks to the intervention of Aphrodite. And it was by becoming fully human, rather than a mere likeness in inert material – the stuff of scientists and statisticians – that it assumed its greatest beauty of all.

In researching this post, I happened upon another application of the Pygmalion story – the Pygmalion Effect. This has direct relevance for educators as it describes the effect of teacher expectations on pupil outcomes. I would argue that expecting our students merely to conform to technical definitions of success is actually to have low expectations of them, for all that this receives so much attention. It represents a failure of imagination: why would we wish future people to have merely technically accomplished lives, when living to the full is so much more? Surely it is far more important that those lives are things of beauty, lives well lived in an aesthetic, cultural and societal sense?

This need not conflict with an academic understanding of education, because it is through attaining the intellectual peaks that the wider views become visible, for all that the climb may be sheer hard work. But it requires a rather more organic view of learning than the sterile hitting of targets that the evidence-mongers seem to want.

If we are to use evidence, we need to be certain it is of the right kind, and that an appropriate response is possible. It needs to be the servant of teachers, not their master – and it needs to permit educators to raise people above the status of the merely technical, not plug them ever more tightly into it. My vision of education is closer to the classical ideal of  eudaimonia than the industrially mechanical, and for artisanal teaching we already have most of the evidence we need, simply through using our senses and intellects.

But I think it will be left to those teachers who have the sculptor’s aesthetic sensibilities to achieve this, not those who merely deal in technicalities.

The fruits of our labours.

There are times when I genuinely wish I was a head teacher. Once, I would have been just about considered ripe, aged fifty, for that role; nowadays, if you’re not well on the way by your late thirties, you may as well forget it.

The trouble is, headship in the sense I am thinking about it is about leading a learning community to an enduring and principled sense of purpose – so my reverie rarely lasts long. I have little time for the bureaucracy, logistics, educational politics and general sabre-rattling that seem to make up so much of the present-day role. I dislike paperwork and matters financial, and I am not really cut out for a role as inspectorate high-jumper or strong-arm enforcer of government policy. I sincerely believe that these influences have had a net harmful effect on the spirit, let alone delivery, of education in Britain. No, if I were a head teacher, the direction would come from the humane instinct within, from the kinds of issues I discuss in this blog. I would probably be rapidly out on my ear.

Over the years, my insight into the purpose and functioning of education has developed significantly (as one hopes it would) and I would like to think that in personal terms, in another life this would allow me to offer leadership of value. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake – but on the other hand, I have my doubts whether the kind of life-wisdom required to do the job in the sense I understand it really can be acquired quickly. There again, I suspect that this is relatively low down the priorities of today’s would-be heads when they take those precipitate and perhaps premature steps into school leadership after only a few years in the classroom…

After the depths plumbed last term, the week following Christmas was a blissful time of long sleep-ins and much staring into space. I mean that in an entirely positive sense, as by the time Black Monday came along, my wife and I felt well-rested and (dark mornings notwithstanding) ready to face the world again. What’s more, there was time just to savour the fruits of our labour: the remnants of season’s food to be troughed, slow cooking to be done, a few glasses of good red to be savoured, time to advance a few domestic plans we have without undue rush – and time just to be comfortable.

There seem to be two contradictory models of school management; though they both of course share the same main objective of educating children, they take differing views of how to get there. In particular, they disagree about how much comfort to afford one’s staff.

The first sees a school as a quasi-corporation. In this model, outputs are all, and the means by which one gets there less important; I suspect that this is close to the way the majority of modern schools function. The problem with it, in my view, is that it fails to appreciate that in both education and general human development, in many ways the journey is the destination. Be it in terms of the learning process, the day to day experiences of the people, or the way it treats its resources – most particularly its personnel – it risks having little regard for what happens along the way, so long as the results are as specified.  Resources are for consumption, not sustaining; to put it bleakly, in this outlook the pathway to children’s success lies over the prostrate bodies of their exhausted, burned-out and in some cases discarded teachers. And when people do indeed fall by the wayside you simply bring in a replacement, since staff are little more than the machinery to deliver one’s purpose and certainly not individuals with their own unique value.

The fact that this appears to be the officially-sanctioned default model in the U.K. is in itself enough to kill my dreams.

I suppose it’s easy to dismiss the alternative as either hopelessly old-fashioned, or just too touchy-feely to be workable, but I think it need be neither of these things. There is an alternative vision of a school as a place where all can thrive, not some at the expense of others. Naturally, adults and children have differing interests, but while the children’s may be reasonably common to both models, the degree to which adults’ needs are attended to varies greatly. I am not only thinking of the need to provide for professional development, important though that is – but whether a school accepts that its adults have legitimate lives and needs of their own, rather than simply being ‘the machinery’; let alone the ways in which the school might make life for its staff not only easier but even more pleasant. There are enough studies out there showing that pay alone is not enough to motivate people, for it to be urgent that we re-think this.

It is of course widely true that teachers go into this profession with the needs of others rather than themselves at heart; they do not expect a cushy number, and nor should they. But they still need to earn a wage, and derive reward from what they do; they still have wider lives and obligations. There is no reason to expect them to behave like martyrs, constantly denying their own needs as though this is the only way to secure their pupils’ advancement, and I would suggest that fact that some do seem to think that is either a peculiar form of masochism or something their managers should be ashamed of propagating. I can see neither logic nor moral justification in presenting a model to the next generation of adults that involves asset-stripping the present one.  There is the oft-repeated mantra that happy teachers are good teachers; well there may be more to it than that, but everything I have witnessed over the years would suggest that that opposite at least, is true: unhappy teachers are rarely at their best.

This is not merely the whinging of someone dreaming of an easy ride; I see no conflict between configuring a teacher’s life in a way that makes time for other commitments, the development of their own needs and interests – even a degree of material and mental comfort – and the job they are able to do for their pupils. In fact, I have found through experience that my own welfare correlates directly with what I am able to provide for my pupils. Just where did this idea of martyrdom come from?

The first week of term was good – and a number of colleagues said the same. The sixth form are away on a fortnight’s mock-exam study leave, and this left me both sans tutor-group and with a few extra non-contact hours. Coming at a time when we were fresh, it was a hugely productive week; there was adequate time for preparation and marking, time to plan somewhat further ahead, time to chew the cud a little with colleagues – and, without the need to work until bedtime every evening, still time for a little home comfort at the end of the day. All in all, it was the first working week for some considerable time that felt balanced, that was genuinely pleasurable in and of itself.

It also served as a reminder that time remains our biggest enemy. It is not that teachers are generally lazy or incompetent: it is the shortage of time versus huge demands that prevents them from doing their best work. Releasing a few extra hours shows just how true that fact is: were the load simply lighter, then everything could be done that much better. One colleague pointed out that having teachers doing less would lead to laziness and indulgence. Well, when 150% is the norm, yes, I suppose a reduction to 100% would indeed look and feel strange for a while – but does that make it wrong?

As a Head, the first thing I would do would be to cultivate a sense of comfort amongst my staff; emphatically not complacency – but the sense that they mattered enough in their own right to know that they did not need to martyr themselves in order to meet my expectations. This is not a zero-sum matter, but it would mean ensuring that my expectations were realistic and reasonable in the first place.

The second thing I would do would be to ensure the sovereignty of the adults in the school over that of the pupils. This is not a way of inverting a school’s true priorities – simply of ensuring that the pupils appreciated that it was they who were the guests in the school, not the teachers.

But above all, I would buy my staff time. I would maximise, rather than minimise the number of staff I could employ; I would create as much non-contact time as possible rather than paring it back to quota at every opportunity. I would view the maximisation of the wage bill as the sign of money well spent. In education, the quality of the people is all – but unlike the first model, I would remember that this is an internal as much as an external matter. You can hire good people, but if you make it impossible for them to function well, you’re wasting your money.

I would not always employ the cheapest teachers I could find, but I would require all staff to take an equitable share of the teaching load. After all, what is the core function of a teacher? I would allow people maximum freedom to work as they needed to, both within the classroom and without; I would consider allowing them to spend at least part of their non-teaching week away from the premises if it suited them. I would ensure that the management just created the minimum expectations of what was required, and then left people to get on with it with only those wantonly abusing the position being pursued.

I would emphasise that the adults’ personal, academic and professional development went hand-in-hand with that of the pupils, and was not viewed in opposition to it. I like to think that this would offer a genuinely wellbeing-based school and create a win-win situation whereby everyone felt valued and could thrive. I like to think this would rub off on the more specific indicators of institutional success, too.

It’s probably clear why I will never, even in another life, make it to a headship. I would no doubt have people chasing me over my staffing costs alone, before the first year was out. I would have others chasing me for giving my staff too comfortable a time, for tolerating ‘low standards’. But comfort exists for a reason: it is a sign that one’s body and mind are not being unduly stressed, that their basic needs are being met – and I believe that people perform best when they are not under duress. Striving certainly has its place – but this is not opposed to comfort: intelligent, motivated people are generally quite capable of separating this from an excuse to be lazy; Flow will be their greatest motivator – if an institution makes that possible.

Neither is the above anathema to high standards; it is about giving people the autonomy and trust to do a good job. The punitive mentality of the mill or sweatshop is outdated and particularly inappropriate in places where people function with brain rather than brawn.  In reality, my model is little different from what happens in other European countries that have more socially-minded institutional frameworks than the U.K.’s sweat-the-assets, dog-eat-dog approach.

The fact that it probably sounds hopelessly naive is not in itself a reason why it would not work – but it probably is an indication of just how far we still have to go.

Hobbies are important!

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

 

Pempoul

…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.

pendon

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.

Pempoul2

Are you sure? Are you really sure?

“Why do you stay in education when you seem so sceptical of it?” a well-meaning colleague asked the other day.

Well, I suppose the short answer (idealistic, but none the less sincere for that) is that I believe in the power of education to enhance people’s lives; it’s the system I doubt, not the education. I know about real education’s transformative power from the experience of my own family as it shifted from Midlands mining community to the ‘professional classes’. And a second answer (pragmatic, but nonetheless relevant for that) is that at the age of fifty, it’s where my experience lies – and to be blunt, the chances of finding equivalent work elsewhere are diminishing all the time…

But there’s another answer too: why wouldn’t you be sceptical of what you know or are told?

The point of being educated oneself is surely to be able use one’s critical faculties to scrutinise the world in such a way as hopefully to arrive at a more accurate, informed, or at least considered understanding of it. Why would one adopt a certain course of action without a reasonable degree of confidence in it? It is the ability at least to feel that one can do this – and thus influence the world around – that brings the confidence that education can confer, even if in reality our ability to anticipate our real effect is more limited. That said, the real voice of experience is, I think, not the one that speaks with the most certainty, but the one that recognises the limitations of its own knowledge.

As I wrote a short time ago, time delivers such perspectives that nothing else can. As I enter the final quarter of my career, I find myself in the bemusing situation of being confident that I know (as opposed to suspect) less and less. Things that seemed entirely obvious and beyond doubt twenty years ago seem to be increasingly matters for conjecture. John Tomsett, who is about my age, wrote something similar a few months ago when he commented that the more he teaches, the less he feels he knows about learning. I would imagine we’re not alone: this is simply the deep and subtle appreciation that comes with approaching mastery of anything.

I think this is a good thing: it is a sign of the continuing refinement of my understanding of my profession. While it may be entirely possible to go through one’s entire career without asking a single searching question about what one is doing, this has never been my way. The fact that things are becoming less substantial may actually be a mark of maturing of an understanding of the education process that has been gestating for the past quarter-century. I can pretty-much take the mechanics of the work as instinct; what become ever more fascinating are its philosophical and existential underpinnings – and I can increasingly easily dismiss the occasionally-sardonic comments of the less-travelled for whom everything is still solid.

As a consequence, I find myself questioning more and more of the established ways of doing things: undertaking such a journey does not guarantee that the destination will necessarily be the ‘approved’ one. Aided by my recent discussion with Ian Lynch, I have found myself this week wondering whether all the ‘normal assumptions’ about the way we organise and run schools and education actually have any substantial foundation at all. If you were starting from scratch, would you really design it to be the way it is?

For instance, is it really true that a few individuals can effectively co-ordinate the doings of a couple of thousand others – or is the order seen in most schools more insubstantial than it seems? Is the faith we are expected to place in management justified or not? We might want to believe that our world is totally under control, but is it really? As with all power, the ability to control people is more illusory than real – it relies a lot more on the complicity of the supposedly-controlled than it might seem. One might extract a single desired action from someone – but the unseen consequences may spread much further. Yet management persists with the myth that all bounty descends from on high. It’s not so much the people who are bad (although they can be), as the flawed system that they are trying to implement. There is, however, no virtue in defending the indefensible. And when one observes the way the education system in Britain is treating many of its practitioners, one really does wonder what the hell it thinks it is doing.

In his comments last week, I’m afraid that Ian Lynch betrayed some of the hubris that for my money is more indicative of the problem than the solution. It seems all too easy to assume airs and graces, the power of professional life and death over others, the illusion that one has the power to run the entire world just as one pleases, with no consequences.

But it doesn’t work: people ultimately work to their own agendas, outlooks and abilities, no matter that they may not be publicly seen. I am not, and will never be, a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Most teachers I know find all the motivation and energy they need internally; there really is no need for the stick. Even when things go wrong, the internal beating-up they give themselves is far greater than anything that can be imposed – or needs to be.

Much better to free those people to find their own solutions wherever possible, in my experience, than supposedly to manage them ‘better’ – whatever that means. A system that expends so much energy pursuing its own simply in the name of imposing some kind of questionable uniformity really has lost the plot. As the former D-G of MI5, Jonathan Evans writes in this month’s Prospect, better an untidy system that works than a tidy one that doesn’t.

Prompted further by ‘Icing on the Cake’ I have also wondered at the supposedly universal truth that there are good teachers and bad teachers, to which we might add good managers and bad managers. Why do we persist in applying such simplistic and meaningless labels to people – and then treating them accordingly? Given that there is so little consensus over what we are trying to achieve, the criteria used to judge such things are – and can never be  anything other than – utterly subjective. This need to assign to people their ‘due’ place is one thing that I have noticed by its absence in the continental systems; I have a nasty suspicion that the shadow of centuries of endemic deference within British society still stalks our professions.

Assumptions about the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, underpin our views on what our core activity, teaching and learning actually is too. But how can we be so arrogantly, unshakeably sure we are right? It certainly seems that the relationship between what someone ‘teaches’, by whatever means, and what someone else ‘learns’, is not the direct and controllable process that the education system wants to believe. Is this just another professional fiction?

The only way to understand learning is not by watching others, but by doing it oneself. The only thing that really matters in education is what happens inside the head of the pupil, and only by being inside the head concerned has one any chance at all of appreciating what is happening. We can only do that for ourselves, of course. From my own school days, I don’t think I remember ever being self-consciously aware that I was learning, in the way we expect current pupils to be; so far as we were concerned, I think we were just ‘doing stuff’ – some of which somehow, mysteriously went in, stuck and gradually accumulated into something called an ‘education’. I don’t even remember being consciously aware for the most part that the teachers were actually teaching, either, in the equally self-conscious way we mean today. Certainly, information was conveyed, skills learned, but it was all just what you did, what we all did… Are we really any better off for looking so hard, and fretting when we fail to find, something invisible?

That might be easily dismissed as the faulty memories of a (moderately) oldie, or perhaps the failings of a previous education system, were it not for the fact that I have had the same experience within the last couple of years. While I was taking violin lessons, at no point was I self-consciously aware of learning, or even becoming ‘better’, except in the most generalised of long-term senses. The Flow experience that I have discussed before was all. Again, techniques and approaches were discussed and rehearsed, and knowledge imparted – but I am still darned if I can capture the experience in anything that bears relation to how we currently talk about the matter. What’s more, I wonder whether the teacher was consciously aware of teaching; given that the lessons were recorded and delivered online, I think there is reasonable doubt that the teacher knew what – or even if – she was successfully teaching. Yet she was – as defined by me, the pupil. (The nice thing about traditional music is that it is all much less formal and self-conscious than that – which is fine, and it clearly worked. Learn I did – but quite how that process worked, I am still not fully sure).

I am much more certain that rendering the whole process utterly self-conscious as it is today, does little to help, but perhaps much to hinder. Not only is the process of learning removed from the control of the learner, and deposited firmly in the coercive control of the ‘learning provider’, but the attempt deliberately to manipulate that process may actually make it harder. I am sure that the many learning and teaching sessions that I have attended, the many hours of CPD, the endless meetings and more were all perfectly well-intentioned to ‘develop’ me as a teacher – but I regret to say that the vast majority of the process of professional development and the managerially-approved practices that it was designed to embed – to say nothing of being ‘managed’ on a day-to-day basis – have done little except make my job harder. One should of course resist the arrogance that says one can never learn from others, and yes, I now know about Hattie – but what if (as seems possible) he’s wrong? Many have wondered that – but the issue has never been addressed; we are just expected to ‘believe’. His base(!) assumptions certainly don’t square with my own reasons for being a teacher.

The vast majority of development I have done has been internal, as a result of the process of self-scrutiny, self-criticism and reflection that I would argue should be an automatic part of any professional’s practice. By doing this, I have gradually refined what I do, experimented, learned lessons and adapted. Except in the most general terms of wanting to be a successful teacher, I had no real idea of where that journey was leading me: it was a true voyage of discovery. The only outside influences of any impact were things begged, borrowed and stolen from colleagues whose ideas appealed to me, whose style I liked, and whose experience I valued  – and the books I have read: mostly not educational manuals, but books about psychology and human behaviour, the insights from which have been deeply thought-provoking. I am afraid to say, however, that in many cases, they only served to increase my scepticism about the whole edifice of the educational establishment and the claims it makes for itself, whether with respect to its clients or its practitioners.

I think the key element here is autonomy. All of the most valuable learning experiences I have had have been those which were undertaken voluntarily, as an expression of my own aspirations or curiosity. Advice that was willingly sought from sources of my own choosing was much more useful than all those who sought to impose ‘approved practice’ on me. The journey was essentially my own, and nothing else has come close in terms of effect.

(Part Two of two will follow tomorrow).

Schoo-be-do-be-doo!!!

scooby_doo_40

I should probably start by apologising for that title, which is bad even by my standards…

From time to time, a random set of encounters crystallises into something greater than the sum of its parts, and this last week witnessed one such. Perhaps we should take from this something about the nature of learning itself, for I think that in the midst of the current heat of the research-based revolution, we are perhaps losing sight of a much more close-at-hand source of insight – our own experiences. After all, as largely-graduate professionals, we can surely consider ourselves to have some personal insights into learning, and the assumption that others inevitably experience something wildly different is not especially tenable.

The first of these recent experiences was a staff-meeting that re-exposed my colleagues and me to the work of John Hattie, and married it with Dweck’s growth mindset. It has to be said that the session seemed to create more heat than light – and I for one am not going to gainsay that. What kind of arrogance would it be to dismiss the hundreds of years of cumulative teaching experience that that staff body represents – and in an Outstanding school at that? Yet it has to be said that Hattie’s ideas were not well-received, nor indeed the implication that there is something wrong with our mind-sets…

Nonetheless, one moment stuck in my mind: in a clip of a TED lecture, Hattie asks something to the effect of “How can we ensure that people continue to value education as they grow up?” That is a question that I would imagine virtually all teachers could subscribe to – even if the answer might be “Not by using your methods!” I’m afraid I would probably concur. My ‘problem’ with the emphasis on knowing one’s impact is philosophical rather than technical: why does one need to? There is an assumption behind virtually all such thinking that it is a) possible and b) desirable to be able to identify closely what educational effect one has had. But why? Even Hattie himself admits that virtually everything teachers do has some positive effect.

Where did this zero-sum game evolve from? I’m afraid I simply cannot see the life-long, quixotic nature of personal cognitive-intellectual development as a high-stakes, all-or-nothing situation; to me this is a most bizarre and deeply-unrealistic reading of the phenomenon, that bears no resemblance whatsoever to my own experience. I’m afraid the only conclusion I can find is that the desperate ‘need to know’ really is more about validating the teaching profession (not to mention the careers of certain individuals within it) rather than anything fundamentally about what children get from the experience. Certainly exam results are important – but even then the correlation with life-experiences is not as direct as some would have us believe – and having good exam results most definitely is not the same as being a well-rounded, educated individual.

I have also been cautious about Carol Dweck’s work: to me, the claim that everything is simply about hard work and positive thinking flies in the face of the hard cognitive realities of life. But then I came across the following unattributed image, courtesy of Stephen Tierney’s blog:

Dweck

In one simple page, some of Dweck’s ideas began to make rather more sense. I self-checked against those lists – and concluded that I can genuinely claim to do most of the things on the right-hand side. But something else immediately occurred to me: I was not aware that I was doing everything ‘right’. And maybe this is a very critical matter, which goes far beyond Dweck or Hattie or any of the research. I will return to this in a moment – but first, I need to pull in a couple of other threads.

Tierney asked the question: “What if Growth Mindset is just the latest Silver Bullet?” He also started speculating on the role of chance in life’s outcomes, and the degree of certainty which we can really exercise over our activities. These are real problems, which are currently being conveniently ignored by many pro-research advocates; is it a fixed mindset to accept that there are limits in the real world – or just a sign of realism and life-experience? And in this sense, is the constant quest for research-derived, closed-success-criteria silver bullets really getting us anywhere that a bit of intelligent introspection can’t?

Also this week, Rachel Jones reported here on a conference at the East London Science School  that started to address some of the issues central to my misgivings: for example, even supposing we could refine education down to the predictable process that some seem to want, what would it actually achieve? It would effectively reduce people – both teachers and pupils – to programmable robots, and thereby deny a significant part of what it is to be human. Whom would this actually benefit? I find it hard to accept that the answer is pupils and teachers. I wish I had been there.

The same session appears also to have considered the (false) analogy being made with evidence-based medicine, and it also questioned whether neuroscience really has much of help for teachers. Medicine is about curing bodily malfunctions; teaching is not. It is not a ‘cure’ – or even a treatment. It is simply helping people grow and develop as human beings, and those who see it in terms of remedial interventions are making questionable assumptions about what (if anything) needs ‘curing’, let alone our ability to do so. I prefer to see it as something developmental – a much more positive take. I suspect that much of the ‘fix’ they seem to think is needed is more about fixing schools’ exam results than anything really educational.

Formal education is simply the attempt by humans in intervene in a natural process – to structure and amplify it (admittedly with good cause) – but the more I think and read, the more I conclude that much of this increasingly formalised, strait-jacketed  approach is doing more harm than good. Real learning reacts badly to such direct prescriptions.

Finally, Tom Sherrington wrote a post here in which he questioned the usefulness of management as a form of micro-control. Here is at least one head teacher who has realised that people are essentially autonomous – and attempting to specify closely what they should do and how they should do it usually ends in tears.  What you have to do is create a culture where people ‘buy in’ because they can see that it both reflects their own values while leaving them enough space to be individuals. And that applies to pupils and teachers alike, even if pupils can benefit from more guidance.

As I drove home last Tuesday, the car-driving analogy I mentioned in my previous post plopped into my mind. It is, of course important that we have people who understand the mechanics of vehicles – but this kind of technical capability is not the best analogy for an educated mind. We need to define it in a way that comes closer to reflecting people’s real life-experiences. And that is where we come back to the value of introspection. Examining our own ‘driving’ experiences may be more useful than reading the vehicle-manual when it comes to deriving the general utility from the process.

To return to my small enlightenment with Dweck: the Growth Mindset suddenly made more sense – but as an ideal, not as an ‘intervention’.

The mistake is often not in the concept – but in the belief that such things can be specified and then deliberately imposed or commanded.

Directing someone that they somehow should do what Dweck (or any other theorist) says seems to be to invite self-defeat. You cannot make someone behave like that – any more than telling someone to be honest or reliable or happy will secure those ends. The person concerned has to be those things for and within themselves; the best an outsider can do is to encourage, perhaps by modelling, perhaps by creating a favourable climate. But if they are, then those qualities will become genuinely self-sustaining.

Using such things as though they are tools in a mechanic’s kit is more likely to destroy them. These are things that need to be in the ether, in the culture of an establishment, in the air that people breathe. The elements of the Growth Mindset cannot be commanded or imposed – they can only be cultivated – invisibly, indirectly, over time, and by collective subscription, not by the solo mandates of would-be superstar teacher-researchers. And this is why all of those well-meaning attempts to define ‘good education’ in terms of specific ‘interventions’ will fail: their aspirations are not (always) wrong – but their advocated solutions almost certainly are.

One of the comments added to Tierney’s post regrettably spoke about ‘using the Growth Mindset for seven years’ – as though it is a pot of face crème. Such things are not simply ‘products’ that you take down from the shelf and then apply to children and test for how much smoother it makes their brains – even though the same correspondent talked confidently about the proven benefits that their research had ‘demonstrated’. As if such things are this deterministic!

And as last week’s trip to Lille showed, real learning can embed itself in the most unlikely and unstructured of ways – nothing to do with what learning-lab results by interventionist teachers might suggest. If the technocratic approach is really so necessary, just why does learning happen in such un-technocratic situations, as it clearly did that day? It strikes me that rendering everything we do conscious and deliberate is leading us in completely the wrong direction. It risks destroying the very qualities in people that we all claim to seek.

There are three very elemental verb-defined conditions in human existence:

  • To do
  • To have
  • To be

Techo-education places all its attention on the first two – the first by intent and the second by implication. But the qualities such as those which really change lives are neither – and nor can they be future-proofed technically, in the way Hattie was pondering. The only way to do that is unconsciously by what we are, or become – not specifically what we do or have. The only way to embed educated values is through being educated – not owning it.

‘Being’ certainly involves more difficult science than doing or having – but that does not stop it being the place where the truly educated mind resides – in the realm of the unconsciously-enacted processes of someone’s very being, and finding the end of those rainbows will be as unhelpful as it is unlikely.

So what do we want to emphasise in schools? Doing or being? Extrinsic bolt-on techno-fixes, or fundamentally innate desirable qualities? Managerial diktats or growth cultures?

School: BE/DO/BE/DO?

Of flaws and flows

As long ago as 1958, J.K. Galbraith observed in The Affluent Society that some individuals in society are accorded the status of being allowed to pronounce knowingly on things that are inherently unknowable. These are the people who can specify the collective route ahead; I am emphatically not one of them.

I was called a rebel by a colleague this week. This is actually very disappointing, because I don’t perceive myself as anything of the sort: conscientiously, professionally sceptical, yes – but not a rebel. Insult was added to injury because it served as a blunt reminder that one’s professional persona is all too easily misinterpreted by recourse to lazy stereotypes. In fact, I believe that it is the professional duty of each and every one of us to subject professional discourse to scrutiny, as best we are able – and the fact that I tend to be somewhat more vocal than average is partly a reaction to the fact that so many seem disinclined to do anything other than what they are told.

The fact that something is officially sanctioned does not in itself mean that it lacks deep flaws.

Another long-standing senior colleague also told me this week how excited he is about the coming of evidence-based teaching. “It’s time for people to stop relying on hunches and start looking at what the evidence tells us”, he said. “Sounds familiar”, I thought. So I repeated my heartfelt concern that research is very dependent on which of it you believe, the epistemological problems caused by knowing which line of enquiry to pursue in the first place – and what you should do when research provides conflicting conclusions. His eyes glazed rapidly over, and he moved on. The word ‘rebel’ may have drifted through his mind…

My scepticism derives from a genuine struggle to reconcile my own experiences as both a teacher and a learner with what we are being told by the ‘authorities’. Too often, the two just don’t square – and this leaves the dilemma of either accepting what I’m told unconditionally, or seeking alternative understandings that appear to make more sense. To dismiss the latter as ‘ignoring the evidence’ is both unjust to the process and prejudiced of assumption.

For my many failings, I believe one of my strengths is a good degree of self-knowledge, and it from this that these conflicts arise. I really can’t work out whether it is me who is missing something that ‘they’ know – or whether it is the other way round. It feels like the latter – but then I suppose that thanks to confirmation bias, it probably would. That said, it only takes one exception to disprove the rule, and as such even my own dissent is in a sense sufficient to torpedo some of the ‘rules’ currently being proposed. What’s more, the fact that the coming age of evidence-based teaching already seems prepared to gloss over the inconvenient philosophical and practical objections is not an encouraging sign that it will become anything more than the latest bandwagon.

There is actually a lot of other work out there that reinforces my own experience much more closely; it just doesn’t get heard. Galbraith made a very valid point about contrived differences of legitimacy: the value of something really does seem to depend on whose voice is saying it. And yet, their motives may not always be what they claim.

In the past couple of days, the following appeared on the blog of a Finnish-American teacher/researcher:

“… all too often we are talking about learning goals when we actually mean teaching goals.  The objective and subjective realities of teaching and learning get mixed together.  Each student has a different subjective experience of the learning that happened in the class during the school year.  Teacher has her/his own experience, too.  So, which one is true?”

And

“In education a common misconception is to believe that significant learning only happens when students are taught.  In reality students are born learning machines, they learn all the time, everywhere. But teachers are needed to enhance those individual learning experiences and help students to dive deeper into the subject or the area of their interest. Documenting and testing should not be the primary focus of teaching.”

I can only add, “Amen to that”. In the final reckoning, both the existence and utility of ‘learning’ can only be user-defined. And yet we persist with profession-led evaluation of what we are doing. How convenient.

And that is the basis of my reservations regarding the whole edifice of professional educational discourse: whom does it really exist to serve? The entirety of my own ongoing learning tells me time and time again that it is an oblique, serendipitous and often unconscious process. Inconveniently, its relationship to any teaching experienced is indirect, and more often than not there is a significant time-lag. Much of what people try to teach me professionally simply does not work: for all that they model the latest effective methods, more often than not, the outcome is of very little use – so (methods notwithstanding), whither its ‘value’?

To begin with, it conflicts with my own inner sense of purpose: I am not interested in being told how to know things in an externally-defined technocratic sense. That is not for one moment to say that I am uninterested in learning from others, just that how I use it must be defined internally, in accordance with my own sense of purpose. In other words, the interpretation and significance of what is taught can only be down to me. (How it becomes that is altogether another matter, and too involved to discuss here).

I know that people (supposedly) learn in different ways, and for different purposes – but in my case at least, learning simply is not the linear, knowable, technical process that we are told it is – and which much research assumes. And for me, there is only one purpose to it: a sense of personal meaning. That isn’t as selfish as it sounds – because it can easily be derived altruistically. For example, my greatest reward as a teacher comes from an authentic experience of helping someone else to move towards their own fulfillment, insofar as I can judge that. But without my own fulfillment, the job would risk becoming fruitless.

Again, it’s not as though there is nobody else expressing these sentiments. Alexander McCall Smith, writing in this month’s Prospect Magazine  says,

“ …there are plenty of people in the world who view education as a form of technical training designed to fit you for a job. It is so much more than that; the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom is an end in itself. It enriches our lives. And it should be within the reach of everybody.”

Again, this makes eminent sense to me, for all that most of those earnestly discussing teaching as though they were talking about car-maintenance seem oblivious to it. In fact, it seems so close to being a self-evident truth that I am left wondering what education does mean to those who seem not to see this. And by ‘enriches’, McCall Smith clearly doesn’t mean £££. The problem is that such insights are almost impossible to ‘prove’ in the sense that the research-faithful demand.

This present sceptic (not rebel, note) accepts that some research can indeed be helpful – so it is not as though I have an ideological objection. For example, another very recent blog discusses the neuroscience of teenage minds in a way that both makes empirical sense to me, and provides useful working knowledge. But what it (wisely) does not attempt to do is to extend its conclusions to stipulating specific teaching approaches or objectives. At least implicitly, it respects the fact that scientific explanations cannot inform the moral and subjective ways in which people actually experience education. Why has psychology all but disappeared from teacher training?

And finally, we come to some research that really does have the potential to explain something of use and great enlightenment to teachers: the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book Flow I have just finished. Therein lies a humane and wide-ranging explanation (backed up by considerable amounts of research) into the things that motivate and fulfill people – and yet it would seem to remain largely unknown to teachers. Much of what I have written above is (retrospectively) confirmed by what Csikszentmihalyi describes.

He comes to the conclusion that optimal experiences need to be autotelic (self-defined) and to lead to a life that becomes increasingly ‘complex’ (by which he means advanced in terms of competency), that provides demanding but not excessive challenges and that allows people to find meaning through the pursuit of whatsoever happens to interest them, rather than what others impose. Csikszentmihalyi is at pains to point out that such experiences cannot be taught, only learned – and that when learned, the experience of Flow can be derived from something as apparently inconsequential as lying on one’s back watching the clouds pass overhead. He also points out that many of the material rewards of contemporary society, the acquisition of which seems to be a major objective for much present-day ‘education’, do not deliver such experiences. And from this, one might then conclude that mainstream education is either intentionally or otherwise directing young people towards sub-optimal aspirations for their lives.

For all its lack of apparent technicality or direct ‘evidence’, this is a finding that corroborates so much of my other understanding – let alone personal experience – that it would seem to offer a highly-important insight into how one should approach education; to ignore it would be irresponsible. It also reinforces much of what I have read about economization and Affluenza – and can be used to interpret a great deal of what is happening for better or worse in contemporary education. I would argue that this represents a coherent and well-founded reading of education – and yet, I suspect to adhere to it would be (conveniently) dismissed as a mere hunch on my part.

Yet the opposite, as proposed by the advocates of ‘evidence’, seems to constitute some form of centralised, pre-planned mind-control, with as far as I can see, little yet to demonstrate how it is of much practical use in the classroom, let alone in offering people the hope of fulfilled lives.

Confirmation bias must of course be borne in mind – but when faced with the seemingly-nonsensical outpourings of the technical ‘evidence’ camp – or something that at least to me makes both logical and intuitive sense, why is it rebellious to go with the more helpful option?