A cat’s chance in hell

Some years ago, my journey to work used to take me past a new development of Lego-like ‘executive’ homes, for which the temporary yellow direction sign gave the name ‘Aspire’. I used to cringe every time I saw it – until I realised that the location had views of the local church which, yes, has a……

Across my consciousness, at some point during the last week, crept the phrase, “It is important that children from all backgrounds are taught aspirational values.” The context was the fixed mind-set of white, working-class boys.

This served as a reminder that there is almost no time in education when unqualified, sweeping statements of values are appropriate. At first sight this might appear an educationally reasonable, err, aspiration, but as always the devil is in the detail. While tackling low expectations is hardly contestable, it only becomes meaningful once one has also understood a realistic upper limit. Is it really important – even healthy – to be encouraging free-floating aspiration for all, irrespective of the likelihood of attaining such unrestrained dreams?

Perhaps it is too easy for a habitual sceptic like me to question the meaning of the words –  yet Freudian slips have a habit of revealing inner truths. While it is possible to aspire to all sorts of things, the word has in recent times come to mean mainly material aspiration, such as the rather mundane ability to afford a suburban ‘executive’ home. So one needs to be clear what it is that children should be encouraged to aspire to.

Moreover, the word increasingly has passive connotations: aspiring is about yearning for ownership, the purchase of something one cannot yet afford. This casts one in the role of consumer and assumes that aspiration is met by earning power; the expectation is on someone else to deliver a finished product. Maybe I’m stretching the point, but this is a concept that I feel has very little to do with real education and a great deal to do with how much of society now perceives it.

There is a difference between ‘aspiration’ and ‘expectation’, but one easily slips into the other. An aspiration may remain unfulfilled, whereas an expectation carries the opposite connotation. Again, this is not an unreasonable concept in itself – but again, one needs to define the parameters. There is no obligation on either aspirations or expectations to be reasonable, or even realistic. One is free to dream of whatever one wishes – but that is no guarantee that it is attainable.

How, amidst such complexity, is the teacher usefully to define high/low/realistic expectations for pupils, let alone enforce them? The locus of responsibility needs to be clear, and we should also remember that aspirations and expectations can be both contingent and contagious.

On the surface of it, one might find little to object to in one’s expectations of oneself, and realistically framed, these can serve as a helpful stimulus to progress. Nonetheless, we need to remember that self-delusion is all too easy, especially in a culture that encourages almost limitless expectations. But it is much more difficult to hold oneself to account than it is others.

I am certain I am not the only teacher who has encountered pupils (or perhaps more saliently, their parents) whose expectations were vastly out of proportion with all evidence of their ability. The teacher, at this point is faced with a difficult balance, between dashing ambition and tempering it with a dose of realism.  In this situation, internal expectations are easily externalised, in the hope of acquiring what one tacitly knows one cannot secure for oneself. But it also risks transferring to the teacher an unacceptable burden to deliver what may well be impossible, and certainly not fully within their gift. This is why it is essential that we consider the locus of responsibility when discussing expectations: what is it realistic to expect, and upon whom falls the task of achieving it?

The situation becomes even more complex with our direct expectations of others: there is no sense of self-accountability to temper our demands. It seems to me that in this respect, modern society is deeply dysfunctional: collective levels of expectation have been widely hyped, often beyond what is attainable; a focus on peak performance (particularly in sport) has distorted our understanding of the rarity of the phenomenon. By definition, there can be only one champion.

When free-floating aspiration is channelled into supposedly-justified expectation, all sorts of distortions can result. When we commodify pretty much anything, we risk over-simplifying the means by which it is attained, and indeed the nature of success. We also deny the inherent intangibility of qualities such as health or education, expecting that they ought to be deliverable just as easily as any consumer product. We tend to externalise failure to achieve them, as we might externalise a faulty product: blame falls on ‘poor service’ rather than accepting the true complexity of the situation, or our own responsibilities within it.

Thus can expectations be said to be contingent. But they are also contagious: one’s own are not simply the product of one’s own mind, but are influenced heavily by peer pressure and the wider social climate. Again, this phenomenon encourages them to be free-floating, decoupled from the necessary personal understandings that are required to remain proportionate.

Soundings of ‘pupil voice’ at my school repeatedly reveal one contradiction: both in my own lessons and those of numerous colleagues, pupils agree that they are learning much – but at the same time, the constant demand is for ‘more Fun’. Somewhere, these children have been led to expect that school needs, above all else, to be ‘fun’. I will leave aside a discussion of what that might actually mean – but I would suggest that this is not inherent in all children. I think I can say with confidence that at school age neither I nor my peers expected school to be, above all else, Fun.

This might not be particularly serious if it did not have implications for their subsequent responses. If one expects fun and is not getting it, this may stigmatise the teaching as deficient when it is anything but. This in turn affects pupil responses, for example by making less effort. Empowering pupil expectation assumes that children have a realistic understanding of the nature of learning and an honest acceptance of the balance of responsibilities for it – which many do not, and which wider messages may not be promoting.

Last summer, I stated my intention to revert shamelessly to a more traditional classroom approach, and this I have done; fortunately, the change of expectations from Ofsted has meant the pressure to produce ‘progressive’ lessons has diminished somewhat. Experience so far suggests that my classes of all abilities are generally able to cope with formal teaching, even when they superficially manifest an expectation for something else.

But I have nonetheless encountered a repeated demand for ‘more fun’, and expectations do condition responses. I have also found that where pupils encounter difficulty, their expectation seems not be that they first tackle it for themselves, but that the answer will simply be provided by me. After all, struggling is not always fun.

Likewise, I have found that some upper school students who are doing well in class are finding it difficult to score high marks in assessments because (at their own admission) they are doing little revision. Revision is hardly fun.

Then there is the case of a couple of generally-able sixth formers who are struggling to reach their full exam potential because they lack the ability to write at length, despite repeated advice that they need to read more. Reading subliminally develops one’s understanding and own style and depth of writing – but for some, reading is not fun.

In all cases, the general expectation is that the teacher will be able to rectify these issues – and I would not deny that it is the teacher’s job to try. But doing so need not mean taking more upon oneself; sometimes the best intervention is to make a student aware of what they need to do for them self. This can be a specific academic action – but at least as helpfully, it needs to involve communicating a suitable balance of expectation between the teacher and the pupil. And in this respect, the expectation that study always needs to be Fun may not be proving very helpful.

The more one thinks about this issue, the more complex it becomes. Balancing such considerations has probably fallen within the professional wisdom of teachers for generations, but that may be no defence against externally-inflating demands. I have not, for example, discussed the various effects of the expectations that schools communicate to their pupils through targets; too-high expectations can be just as damaging as too low. Neither have I considered the impact of schools’ unrealistic expectations of teachers.

It seems to me that the imbalance of expectations within the education system today may actually be hindering students’ success – and simultaneously damaging many teachers, both professionally and personally. While one would of course not wish to dash young people’s dreams, I am not certain that creating ones that they have not a cat’s chance in hell of attaining, is very helpful either. We need to temper aspiration with a wiser and more realistic appreciation of the nature of dreams – and a healthy dash of realism.



Once upon a time…

…there was a boy called John. He grew up in a fairly unremarkable town in the West Country. His parents, who were teachers, went to great lengths to develop the young lad and expose him to new experiences. Every day, before he could have his afternoon sweets, he had to perform some small thinking task, with the result that he knew his alphabet and early times-tables, was able to read well, even before he went to primary school. Each summer holiday, the family travelled widely around Europe with their caravan. John showed early promise, his reading age already off the scale by the time he was eight years old; he greatly enjoyed doing well, often undertaking ‘research projects’ just for the sake of it.  One of his fondest memories of upper primary school is of doing ‘DD’ – a weekly knowledge-research quiz set by his kindly old class teacher, Mr. Clifton.

He took the Eleven Plus (having reluctantly gone through a degree of prepping by his mother), and achieved amongst the highest scores in the town, thus entering the local boys’ grammar school, where he proceeded to compete vigorously with two or three other lads for the prime places in the top stream at the end of each half-term’s Marks Period.

Much to his surprise, at the end of his first year exams, he came second-highest in the year, having been given structured revision by his mother in the preceding weeks. But by the second year, his enthusiasm was waning for such a study-intense regime, and he gradually worked less and less hard. His parents became increasingly concerned, but the harder they pushed, the more John felt trapped in a corner and unable to comply. At the same time, his lifelong passion for railways was growing; he had never been particularly gregarious, and he spent much of his time reading railway books and building a succession of models, which he shared with a few like-minded friends. He developed an interest in the practical skills associated with model-making, encouraged by his father who had always been a skilled craftsman, but one who would never accept second-best work. Somewhere in John’s mind a rather obsessive streak of perfectionism took root…

As he entered his mid-teens, John’s early musical failure on the piano reversed, as he discovered the guitar. He worked hard at it, eventually forming a small folk group with some friends, which became his overwhelming passion during his late teenage years.

Meanwhile, his parents increasingly despaired at his disinclination to study hard; he eventually obtained a mixed bag of ‘O’ Levels, respectable enough, but not as good as those of the boys he had competed with a few years before. After showing some initial interest in Science, he eventually settled on the humanities, again ‘prodded’ by his parents. He was able enough in these subjects, but never felt great passion for them. Nonetheless, he was an enterprising and determined boy when motivated, and he achieved high standards and much satisfaction from his hobbies, even as his academic performance paled.

He took his ‘A’ Levels with much the same outlook; his efforts were increasingly focused on his personal interests, with school work taking a back seat. He began to fear academic failure, and aided by his parents’ continuing despair, increasingly began think of himself more generally as a failure. An emergent ability in French was stifled when he compared himself with some extremely talented girls in the same class at what was by now a co-educational sixth form college. A number of his friends were busy applying to the best universities, and while a couple of his teachers suggested he should do the same, he lacked the self-belief to follow-through. In any case he was by now too academically-unfocussed to stand a chance. But on results day, much to his surprise, he had achieved a set of grades good enough to get into a red-brick university.

University followed a similar pattern: much of his time was spent ‘growing up’ free from the constraints of the home environment for the first time. He was much-preoccupied by his abject failure to secure the attention of the opposite sex, and he diverted a lot of effort into his interests – which still didn’t really include the subject he was supposedly studying. His tutors seemed singularly uninterested in the travails of an anonymous undergraduate, and semi-knowingly, he drifted still further. When it came to his dissertation however, he chose a transport-related topic, and eventually produced a document that bucked his academic record by scoring a First. In the process, he also discovered a huge store of transport literature in the stack of the university library and immersed himself in it.

Growing fear of failure led to a last-ditch effort to save his degree, which he eventually managed to do, achieving a lower second. After graduating, John didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He applied unsuccessfully for a management job on the railways, and several other commercial opportunities, but he then took a gap year, working in a psychiatric hospital. Stuck in a dreary job, he increasingly yearned for his university life and (much to his surprise) his former subject. He finally took the decision to go into teaching.

He secured a place on a P.G.C.E. course, and eventually employment in a large secondary school. He struggled with teaching to begin with – the workload came as a culture shock for a start, as did finding himself in charge for the first time in his life. However, he resolved not to make his earlier mistakes again, and started to make progress. At some point, he realised that he needed to take charge of his life, and increasingly found that he could do so. He worked hard at his chosen career, though finding it difficult to resolve his own grammar school experiences with those of the comprehensive sector he was working in. He dutifully followed the expected pattern and applied for promotion, even though he inwardly lacked the conviction to follow through.

Over time, he developed a distinctive approach to teaching, and began increasingly to use his wider interests to broaden what he could offer his pupils. He also began to make up for lost time with his own education, deepening his command of his subject, reading widely in others and actively capitalising on what he discovered were latent skills he had perhaps had all along. His practical and musical skills appeared to have sharpened his mind more than he realised, and his experience of academic near-failure galvanised him. Over time, he found that his pupils began to respond positively to the quirky, somewhat eccentric but thoughtful teacher in front of them…

Question: was John’s education ‘successful’ or not?  Choose from:

A) John’s education was pretty much a failure, as has been much of his life since. His teachers failed to inspire him, and any success he achieved was largely a result of untapped and rather untamed innate ability. He achieved qualifications well below those he could have, and his life since (including his earning potential) has been blighted by that fact. His story is all the justification needed for the more interventionist approach that education has nowadays.

B) John’s education had some limited impact on a contrary and independent-minded individual. He should have been channelled in other directions that made better use of his apparent interests, despite the fact that that might have ‘wasted’ his academic ability. His parents were unwise to have pushed him and were probably counter-productive in their concern. His life could probably have been made better if his teachers had intervened more.

C) John’s education was a clear success. He exhibited fairly typical boyish dislike for formal structure, and it was unfortunate that the system reinforced some unnecessarily negative self-perceptions as a result. Nonetheless, his education clearly sowed the seeds for his later flourishing, both in terms of the necessary skills and the attitudes which only made sense much later in his life.  When he escaped the normal uncertainties of young-adult life he found himself equipped to make up for his earlier shortcomings. John’s teachers could have done little more to anticipate the future direction of his life, but succeeded in equipping him with core values, knowledge and role-models that emerged and served him well in later life.

‘John’ now has a life that pleases him greatly:

He and his wife earn enough to support themselves to a comfortable standard of living with which they are very largely satisfied. They have found an architecturally-distinctive home in a delightful small town in south eastern England, and have furnished it (using John’s practical skills) in their preferred modernist style.

John works in a profession which provides him with daily challenges and an enduring sense of purpose, even if his still-unruly mind is frustrated at the unnecessary constraints its hierarchy places on his ability to maximise his effectiveness.

He has a rich personal life, speaks two languages well and self-taught two others badly, has found his (highly erudite) soul-mate and enjoys a wonderful marriage. He has travelled widely and has friends in several countries.

He has achieved high degrees of competence within his still-active hobby fields, including having broadcast and published in one of them. These remain among the key elements of his life. He is active in those interest-communities, promoting in a small way the advancement of their activities.

Many of John’s youthful acquaintances (even though who made better use of their school days) seem to have had similarly unpredictable stories, but most are now living ‘ordinary’ but seemingly content lives, with secure relationships and variable career success.

He is now trying to use his experiences for the greater good of his profession and its clients, despite the fact that the great and good would probably dismiss him as a mere minnow who knows nothing.

When John reads the vast quantities of literature produced by the movers and shakers of the education world discussing how they can ‘make education better’, how the whole thing can be effectively managed as some kind of behavioural monolith, and how they can specify the behaviours that teachers should adopt in order to ‘deliver better outcomes’, he smiles inwardly at the chaos his own experience would cause in their perfect worlds.

He also wonders whether they would choose option A, B or C above – and whether that really matters so long as he – and those around him – are content.

Weasel words 2: Potential

Let’s assume for just a moment that the recently-aired figure of 70% does indeed account for the amount of heritability in educational outcomes.  I have been bouncing this idea off my colleagues in the last few days, and I haven’t found anyone who disagrees with the principle. (The fact that that already puts them at odds with the policy-makers is another story entirely…) Actually, the figure doesn’t really matter very much, and I don’t have great confidence in methodologies that claim to be able to pin such things down so precisely anyway.

So we’ll assume for now that there is some heritable aspect to educational performance, of whatever weight. From this we can derive an even more important point:  teachers do not have total control over the way their students turn out. Common sense that might seem – but we’re already diverging rapidly from those ideologies…

When I sit down to analyse the previous year’s exam results, I am expected to provide student-by-student explanations, especially in cases of under-performance. I find myself clutching at straws – a complete work of fiction is required to explain a particular event. This is not to say that I don’t recall how those students worked for me or the progress I subjectively feel they made – but I am inevitably left guessing at what specific combination of events led to a particular result. Duncan Watts’ book Everything is Easy – Once You Know the Answer is an interesting read on the dangers of over-simplifying causality.

Maybe we should consider what other factors might affect outcomes. It may indeed be that my teaching did not work for a particular student – but it might equally be that they did insufficient or ineffective revision, that they had not developed strong enough study skills or ethos during their wider school career – or equally, that on the day of their exam, the bus was late, they had slept badly, were feeling ill, or they had been dumped by their boy/girl friend the day before. Or a myriad of other reasons: who knows what combination of events actually was the ‘real’ one? But no matter how complex the real causality, the politico-education system assumes it’s all my fault.

I looked back at my own experience for insight. I was a reluctant student; despite being in the grammar school top stream, I was not especially industrious, or at least not when it came to school work – there were too many more interesting things to be doing in my teens. Who knows what my ‘potential’ actually was…

Back in that 1970’s grammar school, teachers didn’t push students especially hard, and I suppose plenty of modern educationalists would criticise them for that. But these were highly-intelligent people who taught by example, and it worked in as much as we developed an implicit respect for learned people and their ways. We also understood that our achievements were down to our work, not theirs.  I certainly don’t blame my teachers for not doing more: they knew the dangers of learned helplessness. The failing was mine, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. What’s more, it was that which has to some extent driven me to make up for lost time in later life.

I achieved adequate results, but I suspect nowhere near my ‘potential’ as it might be seen these days. My results at ‘O’ Level, ‘A’ Level and – yes – degree, were more the product of innate ability than anything I can claim much credit for. I was far too busy learning about entirely different things – things which, incidentally, have endured and continue to enrich my life to this day.

I do appreciate that I was blessed with certain intellectual advantages, but I wonder how I would have fared if I were at school today: would the present generation of bouncy, enthusiastic young teachers have pushed me to achieve more? I really don’t know. On the one hand, more pushing might have helped – except that my parents were already doing that. And it made virtually no difference at all – the brakes simply went on even harder as this awkward teenager refused to lose face.  Modern teachers might push more – but are they really drawing out ‘potential’ – or simply adding their own? They might prevent a degree of later-life regret, but do they motivate – or actually the opposite?

And so to return to this remaining 30%. From this figure, we may well need to subtract an amount for the effects that parenting and home background must have, whether positive or negative; maybe some more for the effects of peer pressure and more again for the impact of adolescence. Some students might have circumstances that affect them, such as ill health or bereavement. Finally we need to account for circumstantial factors such as those mentioned earlier. How much influence does that leave for the teacher? One might estimate 10-20% and even if you don’t accept the initial 70%, a lot of movement is necessary before the teacher becomes the dominant influence. A contributor on The Session a few weeks ago made the comment, “It’s pretty clear that a bad teacher can do all sorts of damage, but a lot less clear what benefits a good one brings”. He was talking about music tuition, but I think it’s an astute comment.

At the risk of over-exposing the poor guy, Dominic Cummings has a lot to say about good and great teachers – but he has so far to explain what he thinks that actually means. It seems to be something to do with realising students’ potential – but what that potential actually is, or how it can be ‘realised’ he doesn’t seem to know; I don’t think he’s alone.

And there’s the rub: we come to another word being used loosely, to define a concept that we can’t pin down. How are we to know a person’s potential? And in which fields? In modern usage it has come to mean the grades that statistical analysis suggests a student ‘ought’ to be able to achieve – the Minimum Target Grade.

Even a statistical sense, the concept is flawed: while macro-scale analysis may have its uses, applying it right down to the individual really isn’t helpful. The variation from the mean of those in the sample-group from which the ‘potential’ is calculated is great enough that pinning down any one individual within that distribution becomes largely meaningless. In probability terms, the chance of any given student hitting their MTG is often less than the cumulative probability of their scoring some other grade.

Then one might add the philosophical conundrum: how can anyone’s potential be greater than that which they actually went on to achieve? If the target was greater than what happened in real life, one can argue that the supposed potential wasn’t actually there, perhaps because other unknown determinants had not been factored in. This theoretical notion of ‘potential’ reeks of Affluenza, ever lusting after the unattainable.

Finally, we return to the question of which potential actually matters. Despite my modest formal  academic record, I am happy with my own ‘potential fulfilled’, met by a combination of innate intelligence and the maturity and hindsight brought simply by the passage of the years. My teachers undoubtedly did play a part, but I’m not sure it was as significant as is now claimed; in any case, it was done more by inspiration and example and playing the long-game. I really don’t think micro-management would have helped – it would have just made me more resentful.

I have deep reservations about placing such specific emphasis on potential, for all that it is a helpful broad-brush concept. I’m not sure that it does students or teachers any favours, especially when it is framed as short-term statistics– and it may do a lot of harm if expressed in a way that means little to the person concerned. It is also dangerous because we can never predict it accurately; expecting either too little or too much can both cause distress and demotivation. We should also hesitate over using inappropriately short timescales: personal potential by definition takes decades to become evident.

I’m not saying that good teaching has no effect – far from it, but we really should beware of claiming more than is realistically possible, either by outcome or method. The word ‘potential’ has become just another tool of Affluenza-education, a useful rule-of-thumb hijacked to – supposedly – justify its own often self-interested ends. Who really stands to gain from claiming that teaching is by far the most important determinant in realising someone’s potential – and then using statistics to ‘prove’ it?

Meanwhile the wider notion – that of ‘human potential’, which brought some of us into the profession in the first place – slips ever further from sight.

Autumn and the joys of teaching.

I was in an exceptionally good mood today. Nothing to do with the approaching weekend, I’m sure, nor the fact that we have finally had a little of the mellow September weather that I really like…

At this time of the year, teachers are fresh, the honeymoon period with new classes hasn’t really worn off, and the pressure of exams still seems a long way away. It’s a pleasant way to spend a day – and what a difference it makes, to feel relatively relaxed with the pupils, to have the time to respond to one or two of their off-topic but interesting questions and to pull someone’s leg a bit; it’s all good humoured and the kids enjoy it, none more so than some of the less-than-angelic ones, who often have come to expect rather different treatment.

I’m more than ever convinced that successful teaching is about relationships. My good humour rubbed off on the whole proceedings all day long. This does not mean falling over oneself to curry favour with the pupils, and certainly not trying to be their ‘mate’ – there will always be times when some steel is needed, but good relationship-building can help avoid serious breakdowns. It’s a bit like a bank account – there are times when you pay in, and times when you need to draw on your capital.

The personal relationship one develops with one’s classes counts far more in my experience than any number of gimmicky activities. Children are not circus animals, to be made to perform novelty tricks; what they seem to appreciate is someone who openly likes them, has time for them – and if this is right, pretty much anything is possible. Even those who make you tear your hair are often more easily managed by disarming their misdemeanours with humour. And it’s not only the pupils’ stress that is defused by this approach… I have observed this in Switzerland, where relaxed, cordial relations between teacher and pupil seem to be cultivated more actively then in the U.K., where the pressure is on to perform.

It seems to me that children crave knowing that their teachers are human; natural nosiness accounts for some of it, and one’s privacy is important – but judiciously tapped, even one’s own foibles can be excused by self-deprecating humour; they’ll forgive a lot! So – albeit with care – I have been prepared to share a little of my personal thoughts and interests with certain classes. I can sense some frowns appearing at this point. True, one must indeed be careful, but the authenticity gained by showing children that you practice what you preach is a winner.

It seems to me that modern life is depriving many children of really warm relationships; even caring parents can so easily end up hovering anxiously, helicopter-like over their offspring, which in my view is actually rather vicarious. I suspect it can even kill the warmth in those relationships – parents should be very careful indeed about sending their relationships down the contingent, aspirational route. Children need space to be (or find) themselves too.

Education now takes itself so seriously that relaxing in this way is not the done thing. Despite some over-the-top pallyness, teachers have in some ways become more distant, more manipulative, less authentic. The system is so focused on results that wider personal interaction is not really approved of; have a chat with your pupils and your lesson will be criticised for ‘lacking pace’. But the investment in building relationships is more than worth it, and will pay dividends if and when the going perhaps gets more difficult. This is more easily done when people feel contented: things that please teachers will have a good effect on their students; things that don’t, won’t. Yes, we should try to rise above this – but we’re only human.

It’s also true, this does not work in every case – judging when to adopt a certain approach is part of the teacher’s skill – but for all I sometimes hark back to traditional teaching, I for one am not afraid to adopt a much more approachable and personable stance with my pupils than in the old days. Building those relationships makes the job more pleasant for all concerned.