Electronic Babel?

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

Establishing this blog has proved to be an excellent professional experience. Over the past eighteen months, I feel that I have plugged into a network the like of which had hitherto been sorely lacking from my life as an autonomous professional. It is already quite difficult to remember how life was when the only regular source of information available was what my school chose to provide. The opportunities that this provides for teachers over the long term are great: online provision can help equip us as individual practitioners with professional information and discourse like never before.

However, I also wonder whether the proliferation of online discussion may also make life more difficult. There is a vast mass of information – far more than is practically possible to sift through given the demands of the day-job. And while looking outside ourselves is an essential process, it may also divert our attention from what, in my opinion, is the ultimate source of our professionalism – our inner selves. I will return to this in my next post.

So I find myself wondering what this online Tower of Babel can actually achieve. Is it yet another virtual experience that promises much but delivers much less? The world of edu-blogging is overflowing with people expounding their own diverse theories and opinions on what makes education tick. And yet, is it really moving us any further forward?

I have a stronger sense, now, that there is a subset of the educational world that is busy looking for ‘The Answer’ – and probably putting a lot of faith in the fact that the online world will form the means of, if not its discovery, then at least its dissemination. They seem to see teaching principally as a technical activity, one discoverable through the methods of science; it’s useful to know they are there – but difficult to see how they will ever convince one like me whose conception of the teaching and learning process starts from a fundamentally different place.

For all that I genuinely sympathise with the concerns of some that ‘evidence’ will inoculate us against future outbreaks of cargo-cult education, I think it is a false hope. For evidence of any type to have currency, it needs to be universalisable – and I just don’t think that is possible in education. To begin with, this needs there to exist a consensus over what we are seeking to achieve, that simply doesn’t – and can’t – exist.

While many have sought to define educational outcomes in terms of exams, the reality is that exams are not the purpose of Life – and nor therefore, of education. They are nothing other than a proxy measure for a process undergone – and some would say a pretty poor one at that. However much one argues otherwise, the inescapable truth is that exams are a human construct, while the cognitive effects of real education are not. Yet alternative definitions inevitably end up so ill-defined as to be useless except in the most philosophical of senses.

Secondly, the effect of evidence needs to be both demonstrable and repeatedly replicable – neither of which is remotely easy in the educational arena. Finally, ‘success’ depends on being able to define both the criteria and the time-frame with which it supposedly works. Not only are such criteria not universally accepted, but neither is the time frame. Education is a process with a life-long duration and effect – and therefore it is arguably pointless trying to ascertain its full effect except after the end of someone’s life. This is why obituaries are so instructive! Furthermore, the complexity and interaction of circumstance that contributes to the trajectory of an individual life is so vast, that it is probably impossible to isolate the specific impact of any one factor within it. Thus, while it may therefore be understandable that some have tried to reduce educational outcomes to smaller, more tangible criteria, this does not in itself lend that decision any existential validity.

Over the eighteen months that I have been following the blogosphere (admittedly a short period in the greater scheme of things), my impression is that we have moved  forward not one iota. Yet I don’t see this as a failure – merely evidence of the true nature of education – that despite the best public efforts of so many, we have not increased the overall consensus one jot.

Using the online community to try to pin down what works in education is doomed to failure; not one of the posts, documents or websites that I have seen has done anything whatsoever to shift my own take on education away from where it was already heading. This is not to say that they have not been informative or persuasive, or that I have not made certain changes as a result – my mind is not that closed! – but all of those things were inevitably mediated through my own pre-existing understanding of what education is. And that is without considering the significant impact of confirmation bias. Even where changes were implemented, the effects were imponderable to say the least – let alone universalisable in the way ‘proof’ needs to be.

None of the in-depth studies discussed on the more technical blogs has succeeded in doing any more than reinforcing  its own internal logic – but this is a very different matter from producing universal educational truths. One only has to disagree with their initial premises, assumptions and controls for the whole house of cards to collapse.

The point is, I don’t think it can ever be any otherwise. Education simply does not have the same levels of objective ‘truth’ as found in, for example curative medicine, let alone the concrete product-definition of the commercial world. Education is fundamentally a speculative and abstract undertaking – and one that is so diverse as to be impossible to generalise about, beyond the already-obvious matters of technical good practice that are widely known.  Unlike, say, the process of healing an illness, selling a product or perhaps resolving a legal dispute, in education there is not – and cannot be – an independent, universal definition of ‘success’.

Wishing it otherwise will not change that. Even in the somewhat more definable matter of psychological cause-and-effect, the factors are too complex ever to possess useable certainty. The human mind is just too cussed to submit to such a degree of predictability, and even the most carefully set up classroom procedure can be instantly wrecked by a power failure or the appearance of a wasp in the classroom. Try devising a theory to deal with that!

I am not, however, suggesting that the edu-blogosphere is useless – far from it. But its function is more that of a democratic professional clearing house, something that was very much needed, where all shades of outlook and experience are admissible. We should accept that the resultant discourse will inevitably be untidy, contradictory and of varying usefulness: that is the unalterable nature of educational debate. It is a truly great resource – but one that if anything amplifies the need of the individual to reflect on their own practice rather than replaces it, that increases the need to filter information, to adopt those things that make sense or seem to work and ignore the rest. And incidentally, it also places increased responsibility on the rest to accept that this will happen, rather than degenerating into factions, something that mercifully has yet to happen.

The blogosphere will never replace the main source of good practice – which is found within each and every individual teacher – with some universal theory of education. I think, therefore, that the tendency of the internet to homogenise opinion needs to be treated with caution: only a small fraction of what we encounter online will be directly applicable to our own situation. In my own case, my aim is simply to advance what I believe to be a credible argument, and hopefully to leave a small legacy of this one professional’s accumulated experience by the time I retire. It is for others to decide what, if anything, they take from it.

To return to my opening quote from Aristotle, the blogosphere makes the scope for individual thought much greater – but the decision to accept or reject a particular proposal still needs to come from our own unique insight. It also requires an acceptance of the diversity of the teaching profession and a high level of professional respect and conduct; regrettably, this is not yet to be found in all schools.

It is this that the blogosphere has real potential to enrich – by giving people access to a much wider spectrum of thought – rather than by hoping to find ‘external’ solutions. If we are expecting it to provide watertight answers, then I would suggest that we ourselves have yet fully to comprehend the true nature and complexity of the undertaking in which we are engaged.

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.

Parallel universe

A factoid that has cropped up several times in recent weeks is that teachers apparently make almost no progress in developing their professional technique after their first three years. This is the source that John Tomsett cited for that information in his recent blog post.

I must admit that a full read of that document is still on my ‘to-do’ list, so I will have to take Tomsett at face value for the moment. No matter what, I have also seen and heard that same point mentioned twice more ‘live’ and several times online in the days since the original post. Such is the power of the internet.

I’m aware that I’ve done a good bit of extended ranting in recent posts, and was planning on easing off for a while – after all, I have no wish to be destructive for the sake of it, but I find myself unwillingly faced once again with a huge divergence between what some ‘authority’ is claiming and my own experience.  The problem is, just what am I supposed to make of such claims, especially when it seems well on its way to becoming an urban – well a management – myth? I know that in my case at least, this is simply not so. Of course, I’m only one individual, but I don’t think my experience or behaviour is so very different from other teachers I know and meet.

The truth is, I feel as though all of my best teaching has been done in the last ten years. After three years, I had hardly begun learning what it is to be a teacher. I choose my words carefully – to be a teacher, not simply to teach. I can perhaps concede that I may previously have been technically more energetic than I am now – a combination of minor personal health circumstances, gradual ageing and less than optimal curriculum circumstances are factors over which I don’t have complete control, but which still have an effect.

But in that last ten years, the teacher in me – the whole person who is responsible for educating and nurturing the next generation – has finally come of age. In front of the class now stands a moderately-aging individual, who pupils know has taught some of their own parents; he has a degree of insight, resilience and world-weary humour that simply wasn’t there when he was younger. Even a degree of patience for the little dears’ many shortcomings – perspective has taught him that such things are simply rites of passage best handled with mock-resigned humour.

So I’m left to conclude that yet again those who seek to judge and control us aren’t even in the same ball park when it comes to being a teacher. They are still trying to count beans, and it may be true that these days I don’t pile them up quite as tidily as they would like. But the more I hear and read about the worlds of educational management and research, the more I conclude that it exists in a parallel universe from that of the classroom teacher. In fact, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that they are not finding what they want not because it’s not there, but because they simply aren’t looking in the right universe. In simple terms, they need to give up on the pseudo-science and try looking for a debate about education in the realms of philosophy and creativity instead.

And if that’s too novel an idea, let’s return to that basic claim; let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. Just why might it be that teachers don’t develop further? Is it that the people who do this job week in and week out are really a bunch of idle losers – or could it be (in the week when a report highlights the enormous hours being worked by teachers), that after three years they are simply too busy just trying to survive? That’s what bean-counters don’t see.

There’s more coming on this in following posts, but I think that’s enough resignation for one evening.

Blame it on Adam Smith

I recently read Edward Skidelsky’s Guardian review (also viewable here) of Philip Roscoe’s new book I Spend therefore I am: The True Cost of Economics (which sounds like required reading in its own right). I was struck by a reference he made to the writings of Aristotle, which further investigation suggests went along the lines of:

It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Nicomachean Ethics Book I, (c. 325 BC)

This strikes me as eminently relevant to the current predicament of British education. Since entering the world of edu-blogging, I have been exposed to countless thousands of words directed at dissecting the process of education. Much of it is interesting and some challenging; some of it I readily agree with (Confirmation Bias at work again?) and some of it I don’t. That is probably healthy for the blogosphere itself. But I am always left wondering how much of the deeply technical discussion is in fact in vain. Are we still looking too hard for precise meaning in what is basically a simple and largely speculative activity?

Reading through (some of) the reams dedicated to classroom practice, the deployment of this or that procedure or technique, my general reaction is that this has nothing to do with what I do in the classroom. Maybe I’ve just advertised myself as a very poor teacher – but most of what I do is purely the instinctive reaction to the people around me and the task I have set us all to do.

On the other hand, one might hope that with something around 25,000 hours of active teaching under my belt, the activity would be instinctive. If not, there probably is something wrong.  I do deploy techniques and activities that are specific to the classroom, things that I have learned and evolved over the years, things that I have borrowed, and things that generally make sense in terms of understanding my specific academic discipline and its modus operandi. It’s also true that some of these things were consciously learned over those years of developing my craft. What I don’t now do is make conscious techno-decisions at either the planning stage or the delivery stage.

Is this a definition of mastery? And if so, then why do so many experienced practitioners who must be doing pretty much the same things, seemingly not recognise it as such? Where is the real benefit in pulling wings off flies over this?

The three pictures below could all be said to represent paradigms for teaching:

(All sourced from Creative Commons – see bottom)

The armies of wing-pullers seem to prefer picture 1 – appearing to see education as a scientific process whereby precise interventions have known and predictable outcomes, and the role of teacher is similar to that of scientist, adding just the right chemicals at just the right moment in order to precipitate the desired reaction.

This is what generates those reams of worthy discussion – which chemicals to use at which moment – and teachers these days have every bit as much interest as scientists in reaching predictable outcomes. If you are attracted to this world-view, I wish you luck. The harder we look, the less we find – yet again we are in a phase when the orthodoxies of recent years are being turned upside down.

Those 25 000 hours of teaching seem to me to constitute a reasonable sample size over an extended period of time that would suggest it doesn’t work. Well, for me at least – though that wouldn’t be such a problem if the ‘scientists’ weren’t insisting that everyone adopt their approach. For an excellent exposition on why this is flawed, read Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, which neatly dismantles the false assumptions and methodologies behind much of this thinking. (It is interesting that Bennett himself, a clearly-erudite individual who entered teaching via the fast-track programme, within ten years concluded that much of what he had been taught was pseudo-scientific balderdash).

The supposedly-scientific with its promise of guaranteed results, is easily misappropriated. The key ingredient for doing this is Management, from government down. There is of course, an absolute need for some form of co-ordination in organisations that involve many hundreds of people – but with his Division of Labour, Adam Smith has got a lot to answer for. As soon as you impose on the science-based production line a body whose sole purpose is to direct others what/when/how to do things, you create a whole set of secondary agendas and divided loyalties perfectly positioned to exploit the supposed predictability of the situation. The division of labour worked admirably when the output of the factory was pins, though even there, when looking at images like picture 2 and the one below, I’m always left doubting how great the experience was for those actually doing the (very repetitive) work. Those who became rich from the process were not those doing the making.

See bottom for attribution

Smith’s model has, of course brought great material advances to society – but when you make the mistake of applying the theory of the production line to an activity whose process involves cognitive rather than mechanical activity, whose raw materials and products are human beings, not identical inanimate objects, you cannot expect the same outcomes.

Picture three at the top shows what is for me a more appropriate model – that of the craftsman. Prior to industrial processing, each worker relied largely on their own resources to produce what was needed. While this was not time or cost-efficient, it did allow that individual not only much more autonomy in their work, but also the scope to develop and deploy a wider range of skills. The intervention is largely inductive and anticipatory, not deductive and corrective; it also creates the possibility whereby unique, non-standardised raw materials are not seen as rejects in the way that machinery requires – but potential for creative adaptation. Over time, the mastery developed by the craftsman does indeed become intuitive – and probably also unique to each; likewise, the product is often a finely-crafted individual item, distinctive to the maker, yet no two ever being precisely alike. And what’s more, the job satisfaction also tends to be higher.

For me, this is by far the best template upon which to build a mastery of teaching. There is certainly a need for the learning of the basic skills and tools of the trade, but real heights are only achieved when such technical constraints are escaped and the creativity of the individual is given its head. Both of my parents were teachers – my father trained as a furniture-maker before teaching woodwork and latterly Design & Technology; my mother was an English specialist who delighted in teaching the works of Spenser and Milton in the days when such things still widely happened. I have seen my father craft fine furniture and violins from raw wood – and the more I think about it, both of them crafted people in a similar way through their teaching. I know – I was one of them.

Skilled crafts-people require few managers to tell them what to do – their motivation and judgement comes from within. They are capable of examining each unique raw piece and knowing just how to work it to bring out its inherent qualities, yet also to bring it to the required form. This judgement is acquired over many years of personal experimentation – there is only limited use in their being directed to do what others do. They rarely do exactly the same thing twice in any case, yet they are capable of repeatedly forming items of beauty from crude materials.

Pretty much what teachers do.

Crafting is in some ways a mysterious, inexplicable process, as dependent on intuition as specific formal training; as Aristotle suggested, it sometimes pays not to examine such things too closely. There’s no need for all the techno-speak; production-line teaching only produces cloned results – the appliance of science is all about the predictable – and all the more so when the craftsmen are de-skilled to become mere operatives by a management class with ulterior motives. People are not standardised components to be put through a machine – they are individual ‘pieces’ with their own qualities and flaws, each of which accordingly needs individual shaping and finishing to bring out their latent qualities, be they teacher or taught. And the former needs to be given the latitude accorded to master-craftsmen in order to accomplish this transformation.

In the machine age, a huge premium if often attached to the unique, hand-crafted product. This is not an outdated methodology from the past – it is the only way to deal with human, as any other sort of diversity. The machine-approach to teaching is broken. Let’s leave it that way and learn to craft again.





…but not just yet!

The term ended on an optimistic note for me. Since September, a young Irish colleague and I have been teaching traditional music to a small group of sixth formers. Their inaugural performances were at the end of term assemblies, and they went down a storm. Even the coolest of cool sixth-formers were spotted feet a-tappin’… And the two of us broke school protocol by playing along in the band. For the last couple of days, I was inundated with compliments from students, many of whom I barely know, saying how much they had enjoyed it.

What a difference to encounter genuine, spontaneous warmth in this way – especially for something as potentially uncool as folk music – and from a group of young people who seem to set above-average store by material wealth and outward appearances.

It was a greatly-rewarding experience, a reminder of the value of all those non-Ofsted, non-exam things that education ought equally to be about. Fundamentally, people respond to others, and need to feel part of a community. Over the years, a lot of things that can promote this have been driven out in the humourless quest to achieve targets – and teacher-time and goodwill for organising them has been drained, not least through sheer exhaustion. Over time, our school has become (even more) successful at delivering Results of the official kind – but there has been a noticeable draining away of a sense of good humour and community spirit. I’m afraid to say, many of the staff are just so focused on delivering management diktats that they seem not to have noticed. It has all become just too serious and driven, and I fear this is not a good model to be presenting to young people for the future.

We need to refocus on the results of the unofficial kind – such as the experience described above – which nobody can legislate for. Apart from anything else, for me (not a music teacher) it has been great to work with the pupils in a completely different field; I have experienced talent of a kind not often seen in the geography classroom, and it has also widened my teaching skills. The unexpected reaction from the students was hugely uplifting at the end of an exhausting term, and reinforced my belief that you can still ‘cut through’ to the genuine people beneath the serious exteriors.

If only the people in expensive suits could understand that.

Season’s Greetings to all who read this, and I wish you similar uplift in your own teaching lives.

10,000 hours

One of my several very esoteric interests is playing traditional Irish music. I’ve been doing it for over thirty years, and suffice it to say that it’s a very accessible, very sociable activity that is a big antidote to the pressures of working life. I need one of those… These days it’s played all over the world, and bizarrely it seems to attract a disproportionately large number of highly educated, very thoughtful folk.

There has been a long-running discussion recently on one of the online forums about the widely-known claim that it takes 10,000 hours of active, conscious learning to achieve mastery of a musical instrument. Would-be prodigies need to put this in before the age of eighteen

This is, of course, another example of a theory that is very difficult to test, though some research has supposedly been done. It does nonetheless raise a number of issues for anyone aiming to excel. Assuming it is right, at what point should one expect to feel fully competent as a professional? Based on my school, a typical teacher in Britain might teach about 22 hours a week. The school year is normally 39 weeks long. A quick calculation shows that on this basis, one needs to teach for over 11 ½ years to achieve mastery. My father (also a teacher) once told me that it took him some ten years to feel fully in command of his work. I think it took me longer; being a naturally rather quiet person, maybe I was a slow learner…

In fact one (hopefully) never stops learning, and I genuinely feel that I am still getting better in the classroom, at least when measured against my own internal aims. What is also notable is that mastery (insofar as I can claim to have experienced it) seems not to feel much like you expect it to – either musical or other. It’s too intuitive for a start.

One can link the 10,000 hours idea to the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious  incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious  competence
  4. Unconscious  competence

A good example of part of that is the person who said, of playing a musical instrument, “It’s only when you can play a bit yourself that you realise just how good the really good guys are.”

Another way of describing stage four – by which I think we might also mean Mastery – is that it’s ‘in your bones’: what you are doing has become so much second nature that you just do it without thinking. You may not even feel particularly ‘good’ at it. Yet you may well be deploying all sorts of tricks of the trade that you have accumulated along the way, you may well even be breaking the rules of supposed ‘good practice’. After all, once you have learned the rules you can learn when to break them; geniuses aren’t usually known for sticking to the rules.

This is definitely true of Irish music, where there is an intangible ‘character’ to the real thing (as found very largely only in Ireland), People who have grown up in the tradition have – even when they’re breaking all the rules – ‘something’ that those of us who are from elsewhere don’t have. You can learn to recognise it, but replicating it yourself – most of all consciously – is much more difficult than it seems.

I hope I could honesty say, in my 27th year of teaching, that I have achieved something close to mastery. It is certainly second nature. My style is completely personal to me, it works for me when it comes to engaging with children in my lessons; it might well not for someone else. The trouble is, it is largely based on personality, a degree of acting, a degree of charisma, my own weird brand of humour, an ability to draw, a bit of rhetoric, a bit of wit. Not to mention a dose of reverse-psychology and a good dollop of knowledge, both subject and wider.

The system in which I work judges my skill by the degree to which I conform to pre-specified, uniform routines of centrally-dictated ‘good practice’, as laid down by the latest government gurus and inspectors, and aimed purely at demonstrating that every child in my class makes precisely the anticipated type of progress as laid down by statistical expectations. There are no tick-boxes for humour, irony, let alone rhetoric (which is BAD, no matter how rousing) – all the techniques that many of the master-teachers I know use all the time.

The expected practices – which are largely technical, not personal – actually seem aimed at a level below 10,000 hours, at those who are still in mid-journey. Nothing wrong in that as such, (they may both secure both minimum standards and point the way ahead) – but are they appropriate for judging those further on? In my view, they aim at a sub-optimal situation simply because it’s supposedly measurable.

One additional complication – when something is deeply in your bones, it really is not easy to make radical changes of direction just in order to meet the latest fad (which one can bet probably did not take 10,000 hours to dream up). Old dogs may not be able to learn new tricks – but is it necessarily a bad thing if the tricks they already have work?

We might also learn from 10,000 hours something about the speed at which children learn, and reflect on whether it is realistic to demonstrate anything significant in a space as short as one hour, as we are expected to do.

Am I to conclude that the system isn’t really interested in mastery – or at least, being the child of a bureaucratic mind – it hasn’t a clue how to recognise it when it sees it?