To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.


The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

Well-rounded people


Autumn term 1975. Monday morning started with double woodwork – and for me the slightly strange experience of learning in my father’s department. Although it’s perhaps a pity it didn’t come mid-way through the week, I always looked forward to the lesson (which was not taught by my Pa…).

Given the academic routine of the grammar school, I found great pleasure of making dovetail joints or turning bowls on the lathe for a change; in present-day terms, there is something very mindful about it. Unlike certain of my father’s colleagues, I never saw practical lessons as inferior, and I think it is where my now much-valued aesthetic appreciation and streak of perfectionism came from. I well remember my father’s fury when, one day he was summoned to the Headmaster’s office (where he was still seen as the chippie) and instructed to repair fifty wooden exam desks. He replied that he was not the odd-jobs man. Indeed, he was and is a highly-skilled cabinet-maker.

It was also interesting how some of the best in the class during those lessons were not the academic stars (though there was crossover); I think it was good that this gave those with different talents a chance to shine – and the academic ones a taste of what it was like to struggle a bit.

This recollection is particularly in my mind at the moment as my father, now 83, (and still turning out violins for a hobby) is currently collaborating with a young friend and me to construct a facsimile of a mid-century Scandinavian piece of furniture by Kai Kristiansen in American black walnut (shown in rosewood above). It is a wood he has never worked before and he is quite excited by the prospect; it is proving to be a most enjoyable experience, which has ranged from researching the original, to analysing the construction, adapting it for the workshop and personal taste, to sourcing suitable timber. A specification and price has been agreed, and construction will start shortly.

Practical skills have been repeatedly looked down on by educators in this country; it is though they are somehow insufficiently worthy, given their apparent lack of intellectual rigour. My former teacher Peter Whitton also knew this was not true, for despite being a Classicist, he was never happier than in his woodwork shop, where he too turned out fine pieces.

At present, I am starting to look at what I do next; the medication is gone, and I can feel my mental strength returning little by little. Amongst a number of ‘irons in the fire’ I am tempted to branch part-time into interior design, a field I have followed for many years. I defy anyone to claim that the processes involved are intellectually weak; indeed, I know of few so demanding exercises as solving difficult design dilemmas. And then there is the fact that one (hopefully) has a beautiful end product, which can be admired by those with the aesthetic sensitivity to do so. It is very tempting to sign up for that diploma.

Last Friday, we went to the opening night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Life of Julie Cope at FirstSite in Colchester; I am also currently reading his book The Descent of Man, and despite Perry’s lurid persona and less than rigorous academic background, let no one claim that this is not both a skilled and highly erudite man.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know individuals educated to the highest academic levels, who are not able to perform the simplest practical tasks for themselves, and who seemingly lack any ability really to appreciate (in the deep sense) beauty or fineness of work. They may have a trained minds (and I’m all for that) but they seem impoverished in other ways. Is this the cost of the narrow emphasis on academia? The ultimate sadness for my father came some years ago when the Craft & Design department he had founded and developed over forty years was closed to make way for a computer suite. No more opportunity for today’s sixth formers to do something practical as part of their week’s programme.

This is deeply short-sighted: many highly-educated people do also appreciate the arts and practical crafts; they provide a complete diversion into another deeply-rich aspect of life which I for one would never be without. Peter also knew this, as did the many clearly-thoughtful people at the Perry exhibition.

Only target-chasing educational managers seem snooty enough to disparage the personal empowerment to produce and appreciate tangible works, and to operate in the practical world as well as the intellectual one, that comes from learning these things. Our neighbouring nations such as Germany have never disparaged practical skills either – and a comparison of the two nations’ economies says all that is needed in that respect.

Bring back double woodwork on Monday mornings – especially in the most academic schools. Breadth, depth and richness in education is important.

The God of Small Things


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 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.  (usual disclaimer)

The original version of this post can be found on my other blog:

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.



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…



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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