Reinventing the wheel

On my first day as a trainee teacher in 1986, one of the senior staff at the worthily progressive School of Education at U.E.A. really did wheel out the old chestnut:

“If anyone asks you what you teach, the answer is Children.”

I think this derives from the long-standing progressive-left view of education as an instrument of social policy, in which academic disciplines (and pretty much everything else) were subordinated to the raw social objectives of something between an induction and indoctrination process for society’s young.

This was a fore-taste of the reservations I increasingly experienced about the whole way the educational establishment runs things: I unashamedly went into teaching in part from a desire to work with, and educate others in, my specific discipline. I was not best pleased to hear that such things were to be relegated to bit-parts in some grand scheme of social manipulation.

The surprising thing is that this agenda has lasted so long: the stimulus for this post was John Tomsett’s recent rumination on the nature of subject-specific pedagogy, which implied that the notion of subject disciplines having intrinsic importance for how people teach is still unfamiliar or even bizarre to many.

Geography suffers particularly in this respect: for decades it has been a Cinderella subject. The public still seems to think it consists of memorising lists of capital cities, while even its exponents often fail to see it as a repository of discrete expertise. I think this derives from the fact that to those concerned, it appears to study the blindingly obvious.

In recent months I have become involved with the production of the local Neighbourhood Plan – and the ensuing discussion with both those involved and the community at large has revealed this for the myth that it is. It has become clear that local developments and dynamics which were indeed blindingly obvious to me (and another local geographer) seemed largely invisible to many others, to the point that they required significant explanation. What geographers see and understand about the world is certainly not blindingly obvious to those not thus trained. But such training is extremely useful in ‘reading’ the world around us in a complex way – and for that reason, if no other, I would have thought that this subject-specific expertise is highly desirable. The fact is, geographers, like all other academics, live their subject to the point that they cease to notice – and this then saturates their teaching with not just specific content but an entire  mind-set that is unique to their, as every, discipline.

Many of those who were supposedly ‘leading teaching’ in my school were from the pure and applied sciences – including the usual share of overly-competitive ex-P.E. teachers. My experience suggested they never did understand (or perhaps care) why those of us who taught arts and humanities had such difficulties with the concept and application of linear, measurable progression that they were happily using. It was only when I first observed and then taught some basic maths that the utter foreignness of not only their techniques, but also their mindset became apparent. By then I was a highly-experienced humanities teacher – but I struggled greatly to do justice to even basic maths: the required approach was just too alien to my own.

It is tempting to regard this as a case of systemisers versus empathisers: those running the system largely came from technical subjects, whose approach (and perhaps general world-view) was compatible with a mechanistic, linear, quantitative approach; almost none of them had any grounding in the more interpretive, evaluative subjects of the arts or humanities. And being systemisers, they were quite happy insensitively imposing technical-fix approaches on their colleagues in blissful ignorance that it is simply not possible accurately to assess the skills of critical argument, let alone emotive creativity required in such subjects in such reductive, linear ways. It became clear that it was most certainly not a matter of it being ‘all just teaching’: those subject-specific skills were so deeply-imbued that their practitioners (including me) often failed to recognise them for what they were. And yet they (necessarily) coloured our entire view of what we were doing.

Csikszentmihalyi observed a similar divide between psychologists and surgeons: the latter loved ‘practical, mechanical medicine’ and despised the former as wishy-washy, while in their turn, the psychologists revelled in the subtleties of reading human behaviour and despised the surgeons as crude mechanics. And ne’er the twain shall meet. This is why it is essential that one group must not gain hegemony over the other.

To return to the notion of teaching being primarily a matter of social engineering, there is a deep irony here. My objection is certainly not in the desirability of improving people’s life-chances, but to the fact that due to the foibles of human nature (which systemisers often ignore), direct attempts at achieving it rarely work – and are highly vulnerable to political misappropriation. On the other hand, people who learn the basics of geography (and every other specific subject) actually end up equipped with very real life-applicable knowledge, taught by people for whom the appropriate mindset is second nature. Incidentally, we might also reflect here on the unseen consequences of the widespread use of non-specialist teachers.

With the greatest of respect to John Tomsett, to be mystified or bemused by this betrays the extent of the error perpetrated by those for whom education is only a form of direct social engineering. That even reflective individuals such as John are only just reconsidering this shows just how deeply the approach has penetrated the whole profession. I find it hard to believe that they (who must all have their own subject specialities, too) could have been quite so greatly taken in. Or at least I would if I hadn’t been too, for quite some time. (While I ‘felt’ there was something wrong, it took many years to pin-point it).

Those who, from classical times onward, formed the body of education around the study of discrete disciplines knew more about what they were doing than the modern outlook credits. Academic subjects are more than simply a vehicle for delivering education: they are education itself. It seems that many in educational circles who have believed otherwise, but who may now be thinking again, have spent the last forty years in effect reinventing yet another wheel.

Give me the child for the first seven years…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning it all around #2: Popularity Equals Greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worldly wise?

So much reading, so much blogging, so much talking (It was another good Brick Lane curry last Friday). So much to think about – and all this only related to the day-job… There are so many different views, so much debate about what does or doesn’t work that it gets quite difficult to know what to think after a while. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me is that people who teach different subjects to some extent talk different languages. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – they are only relating their own experiences as relevant to what they do – but it does make one question the degree to which it is possible to agree common approaches and expectations across teaching as a whole. Maybe our energies would actually be better directed looking elsewhere.

Some subjects seem to get disproportionate coverage – English Lit. has been in the news recently of course – but Science, Maths and to some extent History get regular airings. Other subjects seem to linger in the shadows, receiving barely a mention – and much to my perpetual puzzlement my main subject, Geography seems to be amongst them. It’s not as though it’s a new discipline and in fact one might have thought that with the way the world currently is (globalisation, the rise of the East, various conflicts raging, climate change, increasing mobility) that Geography would be seen as a highly relevant subject. But no matter how many train trips Michael Portillo goes on, it’s still a Cinderella, seemingly destined to live perpetually in the shadow of academically-more-credible History.

One wonders whether Michael Gove has any substantive views on the teaching Geography, beyond the fact that we all need to know where London is. Actually, he seems to be in favour of more regional studies, which I’m not against: pupils seem to like them for their concreteness. If anything, the subject at school level has become too conceptual. But there is still the problem that (unlike in History) everything goes out of date so rapidly.

I am also coming to the conclusion that this affects how teachers think about learning: if you have an essential core skill like literacy or numeracy to teach, it may make you more concerned with the specific techniques employed in the classroom – as the never-ending debate about how to teach reading would testify. It also gives you a fairly identifiable benchmark of success – if a pupil can read better than before, or is becoming more numerate, that is fairly visible, if not always measurable – and in a meaningful timescale. It may also make you generally more interested in skills than knowledge, insofar as they are separable.

But how should one teach Geography? And indeed, what should be the purpose of teaching it? How does one know whether pupils have made progress – especially if you accept that knowing lists of countries, capitals and main exports is of limited use? What approaches are specific to, and most effective in the subject? John Hattie talks about modelling success – but in a multivariate subject like mine, that is easier said than done. History and the other humanities do share some of these dilemmas – but in History’s case at least, it seems to have more intellectual capital to fall back on when it needs it; Geographers, by comparison seem to be perceived as people who get excited about obscure things like pro-talus ramparts or zones of accretion and discard. The very breadth of the subject is perhaps also its problem, in that it doesn’t seem to have a very clear identity or field of study.

In fact, Geography  does have a long, if rather schizophrenic past, deriving from the age of discovery and empire, through the quantitative revolution of the 1970’s and 80’s, the move towards behaviouralism and the current one-earth concern with human-environment sustainability – hardly an insignificant theme in its own right. As people travel more and more, one might have expected a growth in interest in the world they move around, but it seems not – most pupils (many of whom are more widely-travelled than I) seem to transit from airport to resort and back again with barely a glimpse of the actual places they travel to – and in plenty of cases no knowledge whatsoever even of where they’ve been.

One of the problems of teaching Humanities (and possibly geography as opposed to the others) is its essentially holistic, integrating nature. The skills is employs are relatively generic, so there’s little very distinctive there, and individual chunks of knowledge are arguably not especially important in themselves, even if they do sometimes have intrinsic interest. While some topics are more complex than others, there is little clear hierarchy of knowledge by topic – it’s more a matter of how closely you look. So the concept of a linear progression of knowledge is rather a non-starter. A command of the subject really derives from the overview one achieves with a good all-round knowledge.

I would argue that a good knowledge of place is important in its own right – I can’t imagine what it is like to live in a world where you have no sense of location – and it is also essential working knowledge since nearly everything that can be discussed in some way contains references to Place. But the acquisition of it is a little-discussed process that certainly doesn’t derive only – or even mostly – from school lessons. Neither does systematically memorising an atlas solve the problem.

And even excellent world-knowledge does not a good geographer make. In the final reckoning, it’s about having the ability to understand and assess the functioning of the planet – be that physical or human, or the interaction between them. Ultimately, the skills are those of weighed judgment, what some people would call considered thought or wisdom. A good student possesses, above all else, the ability to make connections between a disparate range of factors and come to an explanation and evaluation of the whole. They will rely on data and other factual information in the process, but will also evaluate it critically, and add their own informed judgment. These are not skills that are easily explicitly taught.

The following is an extract from the 2014  ‘A’ Level Edexcel Module 4 exam pre-release material, upon which students have to write a 70-mark, 90-minute dissertation-style report with an unseen title. It gives an idea of the range of material and thought needed:

OPTION 1: Tectonic Activity and Hazards

  • Explore the range of strategies used to manage tectonic hazards before, during and after their occurrence.
  • Research contrasting examples of managing a range of primary and secondary tectonic hazards.

  OPTION 4: The World of Cultural Diversity

  • Explore the physical and human factors which influence the degree of cultural
  • Research a range of contrasting locations to illustrate how cultural diversity varies from place to place.

  OPTION 6: Consuming the Rural Landscape – Leisure and Tourism

  • Explore the fragility of different rural landscapes and their resilience to the demands of both leisure and tourism.
  • Research contrasting rural landscapes which illustrate a variety of impacts from leisure and tourism.

This is not an insignificant challenge, and there is no reason why it should be seen as lacking academic credibility. But the methods by which such material is taught are not easy to define: like geography itself, people seem not to understand what is involved. More specifically, when one is preparing students for a challenge of this sort, notions of specific technical teaching styles – let alone the ability to ‘show progress’ in any one lesson – appear more than faintly ridiculous. One might also start to appreciate why it is difficult, at any level, to impose simplistic measures of competence in the subject: for Geographers at least, the descriptors of the National Curriculum never made much sense – any they certainly weren’t linear and watertight in the way that was intended.

Maybe Geography could help itself more, by presenting a less fusty image (though how it does that in the light of so much prejudice is another matter) – but certainly this is a subject whose needs deserve to be more widely known – and upon whom unhelpful frameworks of expectations derived from other subjects – need not to be imposed. I have come to realise that some of my differences with others regarding teaching methods and objectives derive from subject-specific matters  – but that is a two-way street.

I would be interested to hear what other geographers (and indeed others in general) have to say about this…