S t r e t c h….and squeeze……


I always try to be very mindful of the need to take pupils into the ‘unknown unknown’. Indeed, I suspect that the type of teaching that only delivers what was stipulated at the outset is one of the main causes of the death of curiosity. It seems to me that young people have not – entirely – lost their curiosity, but that needs must dictate something beyond the limits teachers traditionally drew.

This week, curiosity was roused by an unusual errand that a pupil was asked by her tutor to run for me. As the colleague concerned also happens to be my lift-share and near neighbour, questions were forthcoming asked about our friendship. Normally, I would respond with ‘don’t be nosey’– but instead I responded to the question, “Who is your best friend?” with the reply, “My wife”. It seemed to gain approval. I was then asked whether the teacher concerned was “my best school friend”. I replied that it takes many years’ knowing someone before I would consider them to be a ‘best’ friend, but yes, said individual is a good colleague and indeed friend. I could see the cogs whirring – and again the response was favourable. Thus far am I prepared to go in the hope of compensating for some of the more antisocial attitudes to which modern children are exposed. I think the positive reception was down to the unexpected answers – and I hope those children are marginally wiser as a result.

The need to challenge understanding arose again later in the week – but this time the surprise was on me. We are often urged not to under-estimate children’s prior knowledge, and I suppose this relates to differentiation. I have always had strong reservations about formal differentiation – I worry that its real effect is too often to constrain progress, while being yet another source of additional work for the teacher that skilled heuristic classroom practice can actually remove. And furthermore, I have deep issues with mixed-ability teaching which is the provenance of the concept.

PowerPoint (and Prezi) may have their detractors, but for the geography teacher, they are a god-send, to the extent that virtually all my lessons use them at some point. The capability to bring images of the real world directly into one’s teaching, to annotate, inter-leave with data, animate ideas and more is, in my view unsurpassed.

Over the years, I have increasingly also used them as a tool for differentiation. My  typical lesson plan will involve the making of a PowerPoint. I hasten to add, I do not use it to script lessons, as I see done often. For me, it is a matter of preparing the images and information around which my narrative, discussion and other activities will be built. I used to prepare differentiated presentations for different classes, but increasingly I have integrated differentiation into single presentations. This makes for lots of slides –  for example, there may be several consecutive slides which present different complexities on the same issue.

Judicious use of the freeze button allows me to select either more or less complex versions of each concept according to how the lesson is going. I can simplify or complicate pretty much at will. Each lesson ends up being a unique combination of images, while still allowing me to teach in the traditional, teacher-led way that I prefer.

The week’s second surprise illustrated its potential: I was introducing a new topic, sustainable living, to various classes. The task in hand was to define and discuss under, over and optimum consumption. I expected that less able classes would need considerable time on this while more able ones could progress to the extension tasks. But as the week progressed, it became increasingly clear that the concepts were alien to virtually all pupils. Even the most able struggled with the abstracts behind taking too much – and perhaps too little – from our environment. Far from being conceptually ahead, the brightest class actually took longer to assimilate the ideas than some of the supposedly weaker ones. If they were thinking about in more sophisticated ways, then it was certainly well-hidden. In fact, they simply struggled.

While this is not customary, neither is it unique. I find it concerning that in recent years, I have encountered many able pupils whose on-the-ground practical and cognitive ability appears little different from supposedly much weaker students. I fear it is the pernicious effects of media and commercialism that are increasingly levelling down to the same common denominator – but the able have further to fall. In a lot of cases, attitudes to learning seem to be taking the same trajectory.

Far from stretching children to new heights, it seems the job in hand is increasingly remedial – of bringing pupils up to what one might once have deemed the starting-point. Luckily, creative uses of the tools to hand should make it possible to squeeze rather than stretch – even if we worry that it shouldn’t be necessary.

Gimme PROOF!

I got my knuckles mildly rapped on Friday for failing to provide the fortnightly data on my exam class. No matter that instead of setting a data-yielding past question, I had specifically directed them to spend an hour’s homework revising, in an attempt to bust their self-confessed reluctance to start preparing for their mocks (and had passed this information on). Apparently, this was insufficient reason for not providing the data; a rather rude word went through my head. I expect it will do so again tomorrow for my insufficient deployment of green pens.

A colleague has calculated that just to mark all his pupils’ work to the stipulated level requires in excess of sixteen hours’ work per week – in addition to all the other stuff he has to do. Knuckles can apparently get rapped for failing to achieve that, too.

I’ve just finished Tomsett’s book, with mixed feelings. I’m disappointed that he feels that the way to great learning is through great management; my experience suggests that overt management (at whatever level, including self) is as likely to make things worse as better. Better to remain nimble on one’s feet.

On the other hand, he clearly values his staff and knows that treating them well is the key to treating his pupils well – unlike a manager of another school  who once told me that his attitude to his staff was “bullish”. To which one might as well add a ‘Y’. I’m afraid I simply don’t understand how anyone can think that antagonising people is the way to get the best from them. Quite apart from the inevitable psychological reaction, setting unachievable targets, for example, is a sure-fire way of corrupting the system.

Despite my tone, I don’t decry the ‘innovations’ that educational management has exposed us to; an awareness of, say, differentiation or effective feedback is a helpful addition to a teacher’s armoury. But these things largely happen all the time in classrooms anyway, in a thousand unobtrusive ways; the burden is proving it. The time taken doing this often detracts from just getting on with it.

Tomsett calls for an evidence-based profession, which is curious since much of the case he builds in his book is distinctly anecdotal. He cites healthcare as being evidence-based, despite the fact that many within it have big misgivings about this approach. Caring for people (as opposed to merely treating them) is distinctly heuristic, and ‘interventions’ are less cut-and-dried that it might seem. Judgment is still called for – and even in the Law, ‘evidence’ is often far from conclusive.

I wouldn’t have an issue with evidence if much had been forthcoming – for despite all the discussion, precious little has emerged that can be claimed as hard evidence for universally effective, specific practice. Even its proponents increasingly seem to be ring-fencing their findings with caveats. If hard evidence could indeed be produced, it would enable managers to direct teachers absolutely in what they should do – and there would be little argument to be had, for who could oppose ‘proven’ good practice? But would even that make for good teaching?

But the fact remains, much of what we are being directed to do is NOT proven. It is based on whim and managerial convenience and plain old petty, jumped-up bureaucracy.  Where is the evidence that intensified written marking makes a substantive, universal difference to pupils? Where is the evidence that the colour of that marking improves their education? Where is the evidence that entering data on a spreadsheet makes a substantive difference to anyone except the bureaucrat whose job it is to check it?

From the current argument, teachers should not be required professionally to do anything except that which is proven to improve their pupils’ education, and perhaps some basic good housekeeping. (As always, I define that in opposition to the narrower (though sometimes necessary) objective of exam cramming).

On that basis I look forward to the forthcoming massive reduction in my workload.

Contrary wisdom

I’ve continued to edge forward through Tomsett’s book. I am not finding quite the kindred spirit that I expected, but there are nonetheless moments of insight which spark recognition here. Foremost amongst these is his sensation that the longer one spends doing this work, the less certain one becomes about things one formerly took as given. Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognise the same trend in my own scribblings. But at the risk of sounding hubristic, I think this is probably a sign that in our respective ways, we are both finally gaining the true wisdom that comes from knowing our work inside out. And I think it is only from this perspective that one finally perhaps appreciates why it may be unwise to promote people too quickly to positions where they are supremely able to cramp others’ style.

I’m disappointed that Tomsett identifies himself proudly as part of Gove’s Blob, for as I’ve said many times before, I don’t think that it is the role or right of the profession to attempt to impose particular ideological models or templates on society. I believe this can never succeed, and moreover any attempt to control what people may know or how they may think can only ever constitute a restraint on the pursuit of free Thought.

But there are pearls in there that schools would do well to heed. I well remember having a discussion some years ago with a youngish deputy head (now departed for promotion) in which he expressed incredulity that I only planned my lessons a few days ahead. As a Maths teacher, he said he planned his lessons at least half a term in advance. Perhaps it works in Maths, but it doesn’t in Humanities, and yet here was one model seeking to impose itself on the workings of another which it perhaps didn’t understand as well as it thought.

I’ve been instructed to prepare some materials in pretty much the same vein and it rather goes against the grain. It is reasonable to devise a plan of a course, outline its content, and perhaps some of the key materials, but as Tomsett says, how can you specifically plan the next lesson until you know how the last one went?

Indeed, this is actually an expression of formative assessment, where one refines one’s plans according to how a particular group of pupils progressed last time. And yet, the approved line seems to be contradictory: one should know precisely what one is going to do weeks in advance. You can’t do both. I’m glad Tomsett supports my own instinct on this one – once again the voice of practical experience counters the (sometimes naive) administrative will.

The next step could also be to listen to those of us who argue that the current obsession with marking conflicts with the best use of our time, which is surely spent planning in a more responsive way. I know many colleagues who admit that their lesson planning has suffered since the drive on marking appeared. And given the time required to do both tasks to a high standard, it is simply not acceptable to expect teachers to eat even further into what is left of their private lives.

It just goes to prove that there is always a perfectly justifiable counter-argument in education, which in itself should be sufficient to silence those who claim there is only one right way to teach. Leave it to people’s judgement.

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

A book that is creating some ripples at present is Teaching Backwards by Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns.

This was promoted at a recent training session and is currently being read by a like-minded colleague who is sufficiently impressed that I will probably follow.

Excerpts from the blurb say:

“… Teaching Backwards offers a more reflective and measured approach to teaching and learning.”  

Well, Good.

“Where many teachers focus on delivering content in a linear fashion, those who teach backwards start with the end in mind. This means that they know in advance what levels of knowledge, attitude, skills and habits they expect their learners to achieve, they define and demystify ambitious goals, and they establish their students’ starting points before they start to plan and teach.”

“Teaching Backwards ensures that learners consistently make great progress over time …[to] further develop their attitudes, skills and habits of excellence both for themselves and for their learners.”

I realise that I am creating a hostage to fortune by commenting on a book that I have yet to read – but it still generated a discussion earlier this week that is worth examining.

My beef is not with the aspirations, which are pretty universal – but as always, with the assumptions. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing team rather than the authors, but any book on education that claims to ‘ensure’ anything should be treated with caution. Furthermore, this does not conflict with linear teaching as implied, but strangely it does seem to suggest that teaching is a linear process once that start-point has been identified. Can we really anticipate the outcomes of a genuine learning process this closely?

The concern with ‘levels of knowledge, attitude, skill and habit’ comes across as yet another attempt to know the unknowable. It is true that eventually one has to settle one’s objectives, but I remain unconvinced that it is possible to delimit human behaviour this closely. Too many of those decisions depend on value-judgements, ultimately opinion masquerading as fact.

I am not sure what a ‘level of knowledge’ is anyway. From my own experience, there is just stuff I know and stuff I don’t. Maybe it is possible to apply a taxonomy to it – but does that really help? It makes relatively little difference to my lived experience of that knowledge, though possibly more to someone attempting to assess it. And lo! We return to the usual conundrum: this definition of learning is ultimately of more use to the teacher than the learner.

A similar criticism can be made of ‘ambitious goals’ and ‘great progress over time’: there is nothing wrong with the aspiration, so much as the claim that a single approach can deliver an objective outcome.

My colleague is greatly taken with the notion of baseline testing, after which he intends to plan backwards starting with his end objective. I wish him good luck in finding it. While it is straightforward to identify given knowledge that one wishes pupils to have, other objectives such as ‘attitudes, skills and habits’ are not only more nebulous, but also subject to the vagaries of time and values. Personally, I would hope that I never reach a measurable end-point in such things, because they should continue to develop throughout a lifetime, and applying arbitrary judgements to them is both artificial and value-laden. (It is not that I don’t have such things which I promote, just that I recognise the slim likelihood that others will ultimately experience my ‘truths’ about the world).

Our discussion moved onto the value of this approach for differentiation: how can one differentiate if one does not know where one’s pupils start from? A reasonable question. But there is no single answer: no two people’s knowledge is the same, particularly at the specialised end of a discipline – and I would argue, nor should it be. Trying to homogenise knowledge is of no inherent value, and probably only matters for the purpose of passing exams (which I don’t decry – but it is not the same as ‘real’ knowledge).

But my biggest reservation is the implication that if one knows these things, one can then plan better for them. We come again to the Achilles ’ heel of all current teaching – the notion that it alone controls what goes on in (and into) children’s minds. My colleague argues that if there are four children in a class who already know the content of the lesson, they should not have to repeat it – and this is only possible if the teacher knows the situation in advance. But you can always know more about a topic to make it worth revisiting.

And what about the idea of revision? There is much evidence (notably from Robert Bjork) that repetition is important. Is it really a waste of those children’s time to revisit material, even inadvertently? There are other ways of dealing with the issue: they can be given leading roles in the class discussion – dare I say (as I did this week in this situation) putting them out front to ‘teach’ the others?

There is also a matter of numbers to consider: where lies the balance between ‘wasting’ a few individuals’ time and benefitting the rest? Should the same decision be made irrespective of whether the prior knowledge belongs to one child or twenty? In the latter instance, the teacher clearly needs to review the pitch of the lesson – but they may still conclude that revision is worthwhile. It can be an affirmative experience to share prior knowledge.

However, my biggest reservation lies in the supposed need to plan everything so closely. By all means find out what pupils already know; in fact, they tend to make it vocally known, even if it doesn’t become rapidly self-evident. But the way to respond is not by rigid planning, but by being heuristic, by knowing one’s subject well, and being sufficiently intellectually flexible as to adapt on the hoof.

I taught what superficially appeared to be the same lesson on plate tectonics to four varying classes last week. The resources were broadly the same (although I have a large reserve of electronic resources to draw on depending on how the lesson progresses). Some classes took two lessons to cope with the basic mechanics, though not without some left-field questions being let fly. Other classes rolled through in half the time and we extended into matters of continental drift, the discovery of tectonic theory, how it might be wrong, the difficulties of researching deep-ocean volcanoes, and the relevance to the Chilean earthquake. Many of those discussions could not have been tightly anticipated, and in some cases they only occurred with certain individuals who were forging ahead. Some came from pupil questions, some from snippets I judiciously introduced. All pupils gained the core knowledge – but their actual learning differed not only from class to class, but from individual to individual. Is this open-endedness a problem in the way tight planning implies?

Teaching backwards from objectives may be a sound concept, but as usual my feeling is that making this more than a broad-brush underlying principle risks emasculating it. It also implies there is consensus as to what those objectives should be.

Differentiation is an important part of the classroom teacher’s work – but planning it in advance reduces one’s ability to cope with the real-time needs of the classroom. Skilled teachers differentiate instinctively, moment by moment, and it can involve little more than a judicious additional comment to certain pupils. It relies on the here-and-now, supported by a wide knowledge. Why make it more complicated than it need be?

I will report back when I have read the book.

Fifteen Insights into Learning.

Chrisanicholson’s reply to my previous post prompted the realisation that it could be read as a justification of the kind of unaccountable personal philosophies that have arguably caused a lot of damage to education over the decades. This was not my intention – but I stand by my view that the only first-hand experience of learning (and of life in general) possible is our own. Everything else depends upon observation, proxy indicators, assumption or at least interaction, the accuracy – let alone transferability – of which is indeterminable.

I also suggested that this may be why it has proved so difficult to move professional discourse beyond the anecdotal and value-laden. I hoped to show why that might not, however, be as problematic as it might seem.

I was categorically not rejecting the insight that sources outside ourselves can provide (far from it), but this need not run contrary to the argument that each individual’s starting-point can only be their own experiences – even if it does contradict the current technocratic view of teaching. In some cases, these experiences can run deep enough to constitute an individual world-view that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable to challenge. Given the nature of teaching, our practice cannot but be grounded in our own experiences of the world – starting with our choice of subject. It may also be worth remembering that in other ‘caring professions’ such as psychotherapy and social work that also depend heavily on individual participation, practitioners themselves regularly undergo introspective analysis for both training and therapeutic reasons.

One would hope that by virtue of being teachers, we can reasonably assume ourselves to be educational ‘successes’ – even if the route by which that was achieved was not always straightforward. (It is simplistic to assume that the route to wisdom is inevitably a direct and predictable one, and neither is it necessarily the same as the formal educational validation one holds. That is part of the problem!)

Therefore, time spent reflecting on the nature of, and route to that success may well be productive – even if we then seek additional  interpretation elsewhere. And given that our own formal education may be rapidly vanishing into the dim past, it is perhaps worth examining more recent experiences, and indeed seeking them out as a means of professional (and personal) growth. Furthermore, I would suggest that we consider all forms of learning, not only the obviously formal ones.

So I have compiled a list of my own conclusions to date. They may make sense to nobody but me – I hope not – but that may be the very point. Some have only become fully clear as I have sought external interpretations, but they nonetheless remain among the most important instruments of my own practice, and at least as useful as anything more institutionally derived.

  1. Growing up in a home where education was valued to the point of being in the oxygen was, I now see, essential for my later-life values. But this is not at all the same thing as having learning pushed (too) hard at me by my over-anxious parents, which if anything had the opposite effect. Their best ‘lead’ was by example.
  2. Finding one’s metier is important.There are some things in life that appear to have in-built fascination. This is not always explainable, though they may hark back to early-life experiences of which I have at best dim awareness. That interest is experienced emotively, and it is a very useful motivational ‘hook’.
  3. A key motivator has always been ‘benign envy’: the inspiration of encountering people who could do things that resonated with me, and which I desperately wanted to emulate. The best of those people were humble about, but assured in their abilities. Yet outward competitiveness has done me few favours; my main competitor (and critic) has always been myself.
  4. This envy was gradually augmented by a growing sense of autonomous self-conception, whereby I grew to understand the things that were of value in my life. This I later saw as having a sense of (self-generated) purpose. Purpose is important.
  5. Intrinsic reward trumps extrinsic reward every time. The side-effects of ‘success’ are not unwelcome (for example my earnings from my writing) but they were never a significant motivator in themselves – and pale compared with the rewards of gaining expertise. Extrinsic rewards can be perversely limiting.
  6. Knowing stuff is fun, and starts a virtuous cycle. A good factual grounding is empowering and provides the foundation upon which further insight is built. There is a buzz in encountering something new that somehow ‘fits’ with what you already know, but which offers a new angle on it. Expertise and refinement make you appreciate things that others don’t see; depth is rewarding.
  7. Mastery is important – but not in simple ways. Getting better at something is pleasing, but it can also lead to complacency. Accepting that you don’t have mastery can create a powerful hunger to get better.
  8. Flow is a massively important motivator. Things that provide deep reward (but also challenge) make learning so easy it is unconscious. It is commonest to experience flow in things that have that initial buzz for you – but the more you experience it, the more it becomes possible to find it elsewhere. But looking too self-consciously for such things makes them disappear.
  9. Micro-management by others is more likely to apply the brakes than anything else, because it kills autonomy. Even where formal instruction is needed, consent is important. This is not the same as rejecting external help – rather that learning has to be consensual, even if not actively sought. You can take the horse…
  10. Long-term effort is nearly always worth it. Formal instruction is not always enjoyable but it is a necessary discipline particularly in the early stages while key competencies are being acquired. I gained most from being given a strong lead, if only because the structure provided a useful discipline for keeping going, before the benefits of perseverance had really become self-evident.
  11. Discipline boundaries are necessary but artificial. I started out with a few specific areas of interest – but as my knowledge grew, it expanded into disciplines far from where I started – let alone where I ever expected to find interest. But learning is not necessarily transferable: playing the guitar is not much help in learning the trombone.
  12. Problem-solving is a great way of learning. Experimenting with one’s knowledge develops understanding (this is what is valuable about a ‘tinkering’ hobby such as model-making). But it only works once one has a reasonably secure command of the requisite knowledge and skills, otherwise it degenerates into unproductive dabbling.
  13. Some experiences provide insights that are intense enough to appear self-evident. But one must remember that they may not be so for everyone. People in different disciplines often think in very different ways and tolerance is a virtue. It is unlikely that one will ever learn everything without any guidance along the way – even from unexpected sources.
  14. Maybe life’s lessons can only be learned at life’s pace. I wish someone had explained some of these things to me when I was younger (although whether I would have listened or understood is another matter entirely…).
  15. The key to it all is the Enquiring Mind. If you have one of those, then the sky is the limit. If you don’t, then nothing will work very well, and life will be dull. Exam results are not a reliable signifier of an active mind.

I am still left wondering how one might fully appreciate such insights, other than through one’s own experiences. That, after all, is where wisdom actually takes root – in our own minds – and technical competence alone does not a truly great musician (or teacher) make.

The question is, how can we best translate them into something useful to our pupils? I am not convinced that treating education as an economised ‘good’, a technocratic hoop-jumping process – or as a form of amorphous self-discovery-through-play – even get near the matter.

I suspect that traditional scholars knew more than we sometimes credit.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread and butter

“….and what do you write about?” asked the pleasant lady from Ofqual. “Erm…erm…well, educational matters actually”, I mumbled. She seemed to lose interest.

For the second time in one evening, I had struggled to explain what my blog is about. And with it, my approach to teaching. I wasn’t able to mention discussions of classroom technique, specific educational research, the latest initiatives or the benefits of hard data. (“If you can handle data, then you can sock it to Ofsted by playing them at their own game”, I was told).

All evening long, the education conversation flowed; this is what Andrew Old’s blog-meets thrive upon. While there seems to be a general presumption in favour of more traditional teaching, the spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps once again giving the lie to the them-and-us view of the divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The age-profile of the attendees is predominantly young, though there were a few greying heads in the crowd. I don’t for one moment blame ambitious young teachers for being excitable about what they do, and for being highly engaged with the policy and technical debate; I was once, too…

But time has, I must admit, wearied me of such matters. I’ve come to see it as marginal to the real, everyday business of dispelling young people’s ignorance. That’s not a criticism of those who enjoy it, but it does seem to me that the bread-and-butter of teaching is so easily marginalised these days in the wider politicised, technical-ised discussion within the profession.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I’m of an age with even older pupils’ parents these days, rather than their older siblings, but the personal impacts of education seem to matter more and more, and the policy less and less. I know some would argue that the two are inseparable, but I’m not so sure.

I very much doubt (in hope) that John Hattie goes home each evening and runs his family the same way he would have us running education. “Hmm, must buy the wife some flowers; perhaps she’ll cook dinner then. (Effect size 0.7). Won’t bother talking to the kids – they only ignore me anyway. (Effect size 0.2)…” I don’t operate like, that, and I sincerely hope that others don’t either.

For my money, teaching remains a simple human interaction, not so different from any other. Granted, the classroom demands a certain protocol – but then so do many other social situations. But while we all have a broad understanding of the dynamics of social psychology, across wider society, I genuinely hope that effect sizes are not overtly the reasons for people’s actions. We would all be the poorer for living in societies that operated on such mercenary lines.

People’s needs are just as holistic, irrational, conflicting – and ultimately humane – as they have ever been. It is not our ability to be rational that defines our humanity, but our ability to go beyond that into the fields of empathy and originality. Our growing understanding of the workings of the human brain may be showing us how it works – but not why. It would be a tragedy if this insight were to reduce the human experience to that of biological-economic machinery. Neither will it explain the subjective experience of being human, any more than Hattie’s effect sizes explain the subjective experience of learning.

So for all the techno-talk, my blog remains resolutely low-tech. I am really not especially interested in the machinations of the professional educational world. I am, however, greatly interested in how people’s minds and personalities develop, of how they know what they know and do what they do, and how they come to form part of the wider groupings we call society.

I’m not sure how that can be adequately expressed in technical terms. Authentic human lives and societies are a matter of narratives, and wide-ranging ones at that. For this reason, I believe that education is best discussed in such terms. Despite the data we deal with, much of teaching and education is still experienced as a narrative (just listen to the dominant conversation in any staffroom), and I don’t think this is a weakness. For all its lack of technicality, there is much the teacher can learn from the insights obtained in this way.

That (I hope) is where my distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined blog comes in.

With thanks to Andrew Old for organising another stimulating evening.

When good begins to grate…


Shortly after Christmas 2013, an off-duty rail worker, Matt Lenton noticed a man behaving oddly at his local station near Brighton. He engaged the man in conversation, and his suspicion was confirmed – that the man had been about to throw himself in front of a train. They talked, and Lenton then drove the man to a nearby garden centre for a coffee. Several hours later, and after having passed on the Samaritans’ phone number, Lenton took the man home, giving him his own phone number in case he ever needed ‘non-helpline’ help.

This incident would never have been known if it had not been for the man contacting Lenton’s employer, as Matt Lenton himself said nothing. He was recently given an industry award for his actions.

The significant point here is Lenton’s subsequent actions: he just went home and said nothing to anyone. The citation at the award ceremony said that he didn’t feel he had done anything that anyone would not do under the circumstances.

One of the key components of a vocation such as teaching is that it is done selflessly. Just as Lenton just went home at the end of that day, so teachers and those in other caring professions should do the same. There is no need to trumpet what one has done; even if one can be certain of one’s effect, the purpose of causing it is simply the knowledge that good has been done, not any benefit that might accrue to us from doing so.


I always buy my wife amaryllis for Christmas, and I too am very fond of them. Their deep red is the symbol of Christmas, and their shamelessly sculptural shape is striking. They sit very nicely as a bold table centrepiece in our modern interior.

There is no point in analysing a flower any further: one cannot quantify beauty, or the pleasure it brings. It is meaningless to try to score it; and pointless even to ask how beautiful it is, let alone to attempt to compare different flowers in anything other than an utterly subjective way. Trying to quantify them in terms of value is fairly pointless too: while flowers clearly do come at a price, this is only in part a reflection of their desirability. One also needs to factor in supply-side considerations, their seasonal nature and the avarice (or lack of it) of the retailer before one reaches a figure. And this has little, if anything to do with the inherent beauty of the object.

There is a large amount of Life that also ‘just is’. Like Lenton’s act, and like the flowers, any further analysis is simply pointless, in the sense that it adds nothing, and may even detract. Yet we seem to be losing sight of this fact in the great quest for quantification and accountability. It seems that we are no longer content to appreciate inherent value: what we need to know is the price and our consequent ‘greatness’ relative to others.

This turns everything it touches from something of inherent to contingent or relative value, and we are doing this not only to objects, but to the acts of living and doing too. Evaluative self-scrutiny – the measuring of one’s social capital – has become such a widespread phenomenon that we risk spending more time on it than on doing things in the first place. Social media must take a lot of the blame, as must the pressures of accountability: actions risk becoming validated by the response they receive rather than by the doing of them in the first place. The depressing effects of social media on people’s self-perception are becoming more widely known, and I think the same phenomenon is having a wider effect on modern life in general. The self-conscious notion of ‘lifestyle’ becomes the enemy of the fulfilling life it describes; the concept of ‘career’ the opposite of a job well done.

Professional practice in many walks of life risks falling into this trap, but perhaps none more so than in the public services thanks to the scrutiny agenda. In education, the focus on ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ is part of this. Quite apart from the inescapable subjectivity, nay meaninglessness, of such terms, obsessing about these matters simply diverts attention from our core purpose. And yet this is has become a significant part of educational activity: institutionalised navel-gazing, the purpose of which is ostensibly to guarantee quality and hoist-up minimum standards. But its real intention is self-aggrandisement.

Developing from this is the burgeoning number of conferences, research activities and publications. Watching ourselves is becoming bigger business than doing what we’re meant to be watching in the first place; being seen to be good is more important than just being it. Books with titles like “Teach like a Champion” and “From Good to Great” are predicated on the assumption that there is some kind of meta-knowledge that we can eventually attain which will transform our effectiveness. But the cynicism and manipulativeness implied by such titles are beginning to grate with me.

I’m not suggesting that a degree of self-awareness is not a good thing – but this is rather different from the whole infrastructure that is springing up to impose others’ understandings of it on us. Yes, there are things to be learned from reflection, but we risk over-formulating the practice of teaching – and most other aspects of modern life – at the expense of simply getting on with it.

As numerous recent events worldwide would suggest, while we never know how many disasters never happen, the fact that calamities do still happen suggests that it is impossible ever to second-guess the future.We will never escape the raw fact that life has to be lived as it happens, and that shifting our eyes from that fact to meta-analyses simply takes our eyes off the ball, as a result raising contingent stakes in a way that can actually make matters worse.

I wonder how Matt Lenton’s experience could have played out differently if it had been possible to anticipate it. It is possible that as a Rail Neighbourhood Officer, Lenton has received training in how to deal with suicidal people, but even if he has, it is questionable how useful it was on that day a year ago. The fact is, every event is unique, and attempting to deal with it as though it were simply part of a larger pattern may be self-limiting. Treating vulnerable people as ‘just another case’ is close to the worst thing to do.

There is the fact that the incident happened when Lenton was off-duty; one wonders how his being on duty would have changed things. One cannot schedule suicide attempts to coincide neatly with the duty-turns of those who encounter them, but one wonders whether Lenton’s mind would have been less focused solely on assisting that individual, or whether he would have been preoccupied with following protocols and guidelines – and whether his actions might literally have been fatally flawed by that fact. For it seems that the defining element of Lenton’s heroism was precisely his authenticity, and it was his sincerity that changed the man’s mind. Had he appeared as merely the face of officialdom, the effect may have been very different.

He may also have been aware of the need to report his actions afterwards, of the need to fill the inevitable paperwork, and the fact that this could conceivably contribute to his personal advantage. He undoubtedly could not have just gone home and said nothing: his interests would inevitably have been divided between genuine compassion and his professional obligations. I suggest that Lenton’s freedom to operate purely as he needed was the crucial element in the outcome that day; that the constraints of professional accountability may have fatally constrained his actions.


There is little point in trying to specify what makes flowers beautiful; they just are. Musing on this over breakfast the other day, while admiring our Christmas amaryllis, did not get me far. Apart from the aforementioned qualities of colour and form, I was reduced once again just to enjoying them for what they were. Colour and form may be useful concepts, but they do not embody those qualities, only describe them. The only way to appreciate the flowers fully is just to take them for what they are.

The modern tendency for meta-thinking will likewise only get us so far; just as identifying procedures for dealing with would-be suicides or knowing that flowers beautify a room is not the same as doing or experiencing them, being able to identify certain qualities that make for successful teaching is an entirely different prospection from delivering them, let alone guaranteeing them. Yet one is left with the sense that, if only we can define these things, then that in itself will be enough to guarantee both their use and effectiveness. Why else the obsession with pinning it all down so far?

But it is not so; life will still need to be lived in the moment, as much in the classroom as anywhere else. Equipping people with meta-knowledge about what they are doing may not be without its uses, but I suspect that it is much less useful than is currently being claimed. I am also suspicious that the claims made for such meta-knowledge, with labels like ‘good’ and ‘great’ are of less relevance to actual classroom practice than to the self-promotion of those applying them to themselves.

The salient factor about Matt Lenton’s story is that he just went home and said nothing. The important thing was the doing of the deed, not the acclaim that could have followed afterwards. In fact, thinking about the latter may well have led to an entirely different outcome, as his employer later recognised. The important thing about amaryllis is that they just are, not why they are. Both Lenton’s action and the effect of amaryllis in our Christmas home are indeed great – but their greatness is merely a by-product of their being what they are. In both cases, setting out to be great (if flowers had consciousness…) would actually diminish the effect. It would just turn to narcissism.

Teaching and learning are just the same: they are best done unconsciously, just for the sake of it. The modern obsession with form over function risks getting us nowhere fast, and using it to self-label, whether as good, great or anything else is creating a hostage to fortune. We need to just get on with teaching as best we can, each moment for itself – and let go of the obsession with greatness.

This is not to say that there are not great things in the world – but as  both Matt Lenton’s story and my favourite Christmas flowers show, while greatness does indeed derive precisely from the subjective acclaim of others, it is really only earned by authenticity, not acquired by the self-conscious seeking of a deluded form of greatness for its own sake.

The effects of management: an open letter to Ian Lynch

Some days ago, ‘Disappointed Idealist’ posted a long polemic about the shortcomings of educational management. I commented on what I felt was a heartfelt and perceptive observation, since when a dialogue opened up between Ian Lynch and me on the comments section. I don’t think it is reasonable to conduct an extended discussion on the comments board of someone else’s blog, so I have moved here to continue my response. The following is therefore a specific reply to Ian Lynch’s comments, in effect an open letter. The previous discussion can be found here.


Have you come across Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness? If not, I suggest you read it. It might explain some of my doubts about the efficacy (or should that be sanctity?) of management. I suggest you also look at Obliquity by John Kay, and Drive by Daniel Pink for why the current approach is wrong and doomed to failure. Details of all of these can be found on my reading page.

They represent, of course, just one world-view, but I think we can probably agree that management is a very complex matter. I will repeat: my objections are not some kind of a grudge. Indeed I have always tried to act in a constructive and professional way for the management of my school; they deserve respect for the difficult job they have undertaken. But equally, no one makes people take those jobs. Too many of them may have been taken due to personal ambition rather than aptitude. The view that you can do more good from higher up is, in my view, deeply flawed.

My own early attempts at entering management were, admittedly,  unsuccessful; there may have been many reasons for that, but with the benefit of a lot of hindsight, I am greatly relieved that I never did so. I think I was not ready for it at the age when it was expected that one ought to be looking for junior management roles, and somewhere inside I knew that. I will admit that I would also find it very difficult to suppress my own strongly-held views and experiences just for the sake of holding the management line. Maybe, in the conventional sense, that made me unsuitable.

Teaching is a job where long service delivers perspectives that simply are not available to new entrants, no matter how talented they may be, and particularly if they flit from school to school. How much bad management is a result of people being pushed to take roles for which they have insufficient experience or perspective? Decades of doing the job throw a very different light on what is important and what is not. Young turks may not see this, instead being more anxious about making their mark. So much damage is done by actions that have little to do with education and everything to do with demonstrating the so-called effectiveness of the manager. As you say, this is made all the worse by the accountability trap.

My objection to management is not over-idealistic; it is born from two very practical considerations which relate to the assumptions made not only about its own potency, but about the real nature of the world we inhabit:

  1. Management as a concept is predicated on the belief that it is possible to control things centrally. This in turn is based on the view that things happen for identifiable cause-and-effect reasons. While this may be partly true in the material/mechanical world, it is not as directly so for the behavioural world, even in the commercial sector (think bankers’ behaviour). The causal density of human behaviour and interactions is so high that it is effectively impossible to identify, let alone anticipate, the actual effects of one’s actions. Therefore, management is doomed to failure because it is simply attempting too complex a task,  to co-ordinate closely the real behaviour and motives of a hundred or more adults, let alone the children. This is all too visible in the amount of time people spend trying to circumvent imposed constraints on their actions and trying to cover their backsides from the perceived or real consequences of not doing what management wants. This is not productive activity.
  2. In any organisation, management is a construct. It does not produce anything of itself; it is not the core activity of any organisation. It therefore constantly needs to reinvent reasons for its own existence – and these largely consist of coming up with new ways of telling other people what to do and then checking up on them afterwards. Sometimes that may be helpful or necessary, but it all too easily becomes a self-serving activity the key purpose of which is to preserve its own raison d’etre, let alone the prestige of those in those roles. As I mentioned before, it sets up too many conflicts of interest ever to be otherwise.


I am an educated, thoughtful and conscientious individual, and I do not go to work to be patronised, or told what to think and do with no reason,  like a mindless automaton. My loyalty is to be won, not demanded. I expect to work hard, but I do not expect to have the job made more difficult than it needs to be. I have a life beyond work to which I am entitled, and I do not expect to be condemned or criticised for protecting it. I do not expect to have it gratuitously invaded by people who seem to think they have unlimited rights to my time.

You may argue that such things are inevitable; be that as it may, the effect in terms of morale, let alone dehumanisation of the workplace, is still the same. You suggest that we need to accept that which we cannot change, but I see no reason why I should accept the distress and demoralisation of either me or my colleagues just because it seems that not much can be done about it because I am not powerful within my school. That is not the same as claiming that such things are done deliberately – though there are times, even in a good school like mine, when it comes close. There are some things that are simply wrong – and the way that too many people get treated in the workplace is one of them. It is not compatible with a modern, civilised country.

As for doing something about it, I have spent my career fully engaged in professional dialogue both within the school and more widely – but you cannot discuss things with people who are unwilling to listen, and who in effect consider they know better because they are somehow ‘more important’. You cannot change things from the inside if you cannot gain access to the inside because your ideas don’t ‘fit’. I have acted in numerous roles in an attempt to argue certain cases – always with the same conclusion: the default position of management seems to be to listen to nobody but itself – and to do what it wants regardless. Ironically, increased local freedoms only seem to have made this worse.

No matter how inevitable you think this is, the effect is too often a destructive culture within organisations whereby too much effort is expended on in-fighting and the them-and-us mentality which often exists. While there undoubtedly are individual teachers who hold grudges, I am genuinely not one of them – and I still feel I can say that over nearly thirty years, the divisions have been created more from above than below.

We would be much better off accepting the real limitations that exist on the ability of a few often-remote individuals to control the minds and actions of others; it is the inability of management to accept this fact that causes a lot of its problems.

Management would be more effective, if it accepted that its job was to establish minimum expectations, go about winning hearts and minds by creating a good ethos and then allowing people to operate within those basic expectations with as much freedom as possible. Tom Sherrington wrote as much a few months ago. Certainly there is a role to weed out the genuinely bad, but the constant drive to impose uniformity on people does nothing more than deny human variability and individuality and is guaranteed to cause dissatisfaction and demotivation.

You may claim this is idealistic – but there are countries where it works, such as Switzerland (as I have written before in these pages). I have seen teachers working in a genuinely collegiate manner, with a minimal flat management structure for overall coordination. It works fine – and it also used to work in this country – until the point when education caught management sickness and it became the only real route for ambitious teachers to ‘prove’ their worth. I have also worked in leaderless teams at times – and nothing ground to a halt. Belgium ran itself for many months without a government, while the Soviet Union collapsed under its management’s inability to control its citizens’ lives sufficiently closely to command their compliance. That is the reality of reality – it is oblique and polycentric; it does not work to centralised command, no matter how much some people might want it to.

The biggest obstacle to improving this situation in this country is the confirmation bias that tells managers that the only solution to poor management is more management. Certainly we need some – but not the debilitating parasite that it has been allowed to become. Until they accept that management is no more indispensible and no less fallible than the rest of us, we are not going to get far.

Let Go!

It’s all too easy to sound like a broken record when you land on a good idea, especially if few others seem to be noticing it. Reading a recent blog brought my mind back to one of the enduring ideas that I have read about in recent years, namely Obliquity. Experiencetomeaning is suggesting here that consciously trying too hard to achieve something can have the opposite effect. In my experience, he is right.

Two other pieces I read in the last few days also seemed to be touching on Obliquity – but nobody seems to have noticed it for what it is. I would recommend John Kay’s book on the subject to all who work in education, for its simple core idea: very often the things we most want are least-well achieved by wanting them all the more. In other words, Obliquity is the Art of Letting Go.

I have never met John Tomsett, though people I know who have attest to his utter decency and dedication. His was also the first edublog I encountered. Some weeks ago, he made a passing comment about being able to hold contradictory views simultaneously, for example by placing faith in randomised control studies while also putting in place seemingly unscientific courses on Happiness. He bemoans the loss of rigour in English Literature courses, while simultaneously accepting that he is probably part of Gove’s Blob, and his writings over a period of years seem to confirm this schizophrenia between deeply humane values and management-itis (sorry John).

We will set aside the problems caused lower down command chains by senior managers who send contradictory messages (which is not to deny the honesty in confessing to such dilemmas), but I wonder whether Tomsett has considered that his espousal of Blob philosophies might actually be the cause of those diluted standards. In many cases, is it the traditionalists whom the Blob has dismissed for decades who have actually tried to uphold academic quality, whereas all the full-on progressives with their radical new ideas seem to have achieved is – yes – those lower standards.

I also wonder what Tomsett hopes to achieve by teaching happiness. I can imagine the groans from his year 10’s in September, and the gradual decline of that course to the pupil-status of Citizenship and PSHE. Personally, I think I would take great exception at someone presuming to teach me to be happy. Not that Tomsett isn’t in good company of course, because Wellington College under Anthony Seldon has taught this course for a number of years. A look at Seldon’s work with Richard Layard might even convince that there is something in it, and for a long time, I would have agreed.(In fact, I still do, it’s just how you go about it).

A piece reported on Radio Four this morning linked to comments by Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton, saying that our education system is too exam-orientated, and that it is narrowing the experiences that children have. The DfE naturally responded, saying that there is no tension between a strong exam focus and a broad education. Well, I beg to differ. The link is indirect, in that exam accountability narrows teachers’ focuses and this has a knock-on effect. I can see this in my own school, where over the past two decades, a number of communal events have fallen by the wayside as the school grew and the emphasis shifted to bums-on-seats exam cramming. Likewise, the willingness of many teachers to participate in wider school activities seems to have lessened, and teachers’ own lives and practices seem to have become ever more focussed on exam-cram teaching. So while there may be no direct ‘tension’, for my money, the effect is still there.

Finally, the ever-perceptive missdcox commented recently in her blog about teaching addiction – the way in which school consumes people’s entire lives, such that they feel any time not spent on school work is somehow a mark of deficiency on their part. She is all too right: it seems that many teachers just don’t know how to switch off.

The common theme between the above anecdotes is ‘trying too hard’. In each case, the aim is sound: to provide children with the best education that we can. But they all make the same mistake of assuming that the way to do this is to increase the pressure and manage the process ever more closely. They assume a direct relationship between inputs and outputs, and this is the fundamental flaw of managerial culture.

Instead, we need to accept that much of what happens in this world is not directly controllable; that much of what we want is at best a desirable by-product of our actions, and that aiming directly at often-intangible aspirations may simply result in failure. It’s not surprising that accountable managers don’t get this – when you are responsible, the thought of letting go must be petrifying. But we need to learn how to do it.

The reason I am no longer in favour of teaching happiness is that you simply cannot teach (read ’manage’) it. The responsibility for finding happiness lies ultimately with each and every one of us. While this is not to say that one cannot study happiness in an academic sense, this is not the same as achieving it, and identifying happiness-causing factors may simply make people go chasing them in the same way that they chase wealth. And just as with wealth, happiness can only be achieved as a by-product of other, more productive activities. We would be much better simply creating happy schools than teaching happiness – it is an ethos, not a subject. And to do this, we may need to let go of many of the things we do that create unhappiness, whether for staff or pupils. After all, the two are linked.

This is also the flaw with the Growth Mindset: again, it cannot be taught – it is another thing that needs to be in the atmosphere, part of the ethos, and actively foisting it on people (as Tomsett was also intending to do) may again be counter-productive. In order to achieve both happiness and a growth mindset, we need to let go, and stop trying too hard to achieve them. Give them space, create a wholesome ethos – and they will happen.

This is the reason that Tony Little is correct too: excessive exam-emphasis is counter productive. Cultivating wide educational experiences does not come at the expense of rigour: it encourages it, but the DfE’s exam accountability has an indirect effect. Again it is a matter of ethos – a quality that might be said to be the most oblique, indirect educational variable of all. Over-pressurised, discontented teachers will pass those feelings onto children; exam-factory lessons will not cultivate a love of learning. We need to let go and allow school communities to breathe.

And it is why missdcox speaks such good sense when she worries about teachers who are addicted to their job. It is one thing to be conscientious and another never to know when to stop. It will not do their work any good never to have a break. They too need to let go.

It is also why my posts have become fewer over the holiday, and why I have decided not to take Old Andrew’s advice to start tweeting (yes, I was the unknown guy at the Brick Lane curry…).  I hope my ideas are useful to people, but I need to let go too – and I do not wish to become a slave to edu-Twitter. If you like my ideas, please follow them up – and spread the word!

If you have not read Obliquity, I strongly recommend that you do.