Feeling nervous?

I named my blog Teaching Personally because I think there is possibly no other occupation that relies so heavily on the nature of the individual. The kind of teacher one becomes is intimately connected with the person one is – as is the impact that doing this work will have on you. It is not a job – it is a way of life.

So I thought I would follow through on the personal theme ‘warts and all’ by describing the recent turn my working life has taken. I am not doing so out of any desire for sympathy, but because I think it is important that the potential consequences of personal burn-out are known. Maybe this might even help others spot the signs. Besides, it was suggested to me that writing about it might be cathartic in its own right.

For now, the school-specifics will need to be taken as given – I am reluctant to say too much while the situation remains unresolved. But the growing stress I had semi-unknowingly been experiencing for several years came to a head in mid-November, when I ended up in a situation which both my conviction and knowledge tell me is deeply unjust.

This coincided with a period of health worry and concerns about elderly relatives. As the autumn term got underway, I found the pace difficult, despite the fact that I have done the job for so many years. Side-effects of the medication I was taking were making matters worse. It was to prove enough to break the proverbial camel’s back.

I put the uncomfortable feelings to the back of my mind and carried on, but I started to experience increasingly frequent bouts of anxiety, and my sleep deteriorated further. There was a constant circular chatter of worries which occupied more and more of my thoughts; everything was always the catastrophic scenario. I ceased to find pleasure in anything at all; it was almost impossible to concentrate for any length of time. My memory fell apart. I started behaving and reacting erratically. Life just became robotic.

The ‘support’ structure at my school was such that there was no one to turn to – and as I teach in an isolated room, no one to notice my difficulties.

At my GP’s suggestion I took the decision to undergo talking therapy. But then the issue at school broke; despite my warning that I was ‘fragile’ no quarter was given, though the decision was made to refer me to Occupational Health.

My G.P. prescribed Sertraline, an antidepressant. It has the longest list of side-effects I had ever seen. I kept it for the weekend. The first day I took it, my mood crashed. I ended up trembling and feeling more anxious than ever. The symptoms became worse, to the extent that I found it difficult to get out of bed. The following Monday, being in a zombie-like state, I did not go to work. On the Wednesday, I somehow dragged myself to OH, where a sympathetic woman confirmed I was not fit for work. This situation repeated itself a month later.

During that time, I spent most of my time doing nothing whatsoever; the days were spent just staring into space. I could not face other people. Having even a few others around me gave me the jitters; larger groups were impossible. I became nervous about telephone calls, knocks on the door, mail arriving. My wife set me small tasks each day to keep me moving; on one occasion, it took me an hour to find the mental wherewithal to take the three minute walk to the bottle bank. On another occasion, I walked by the local primary school during its lunchtime break, and the sights and sounds were enough to set me trembling again. I became absent-minded and indecisive – and I have barely driven, or even been beyond our village, in the last two months.

It has taken eight weeks for the medication to have a discernible effect – and not before insomnia, hot flushes, outbreaks of blisters, muscle cramps and more. I seem to be working my way through the symptom sheet – but at least the worst of the gloom has lifted and I feel a little more stable.

I am O.K. pottering gently around at home, but anything that imposes any kind of ‘mental load’ still jangles the nerves. I get anxious about even the smallest things – and the thought of taking back a full work load is so painful that I try not to have it. I am currently signed off until the start of February, so I have a little more breathing space yet. I don’t know whether the pain that thinking about school brings is the proof that that is where the root stress lies; neither do I know yet whether this is transient and my appetite for teaching will return – or whether it is permanently blown.

I am not a weakling. I do not recognise the normal ‘me’ in the description above – these things always happen to other people – don’t they? I have been teaching for three-quarters of a working life. In that time I have grown into an experienced teacher, who could cope as well as anyone does with the pressures. While I have found increasing divergence between my skills and understanding of teaching and what the system seems to want, I know that I do a good job in the humane sense of the work. Unfortunately, that divergence and intolerance only added to the pressure.

As a relatively ‘quiet’ person, teaching was always going to take a toll. But someone needs to be there for the quieter pupils. It does not have to be only the preserve of the target-meeters, team players and yes-men. But if it is made like that, we others will inevitably have a hard time.

I have mentioned the dangers of the excessive demands being made of teachers many times before in this blog. Of course not everyone will have the same experience – but I have now become my own proof that I was at least partly right.

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It may not be wrong…

…that I stayed at school later than usual supervising students on the Controlled Assessment catch-up.

…that as a result I endured a significanty longer journey over the thirty miles home.

…that as my wife got caught behind an accident and took 80 minutes to go fifteen miles, by which time I was already working again, I have hardly spoken to her this evening.

…that she still cooked the dinner so I could carry on working.

…that because of a few days feeling off-colour, I am having to work extra-hard to catch up with the backlog.

…that I have just enough time to take a shower and read for ten minutes before bed – and that is the day done.

…that all of these things need to be done in the name of providing today’s children with a good education.

But it sure as hell is wrong that the uppermost thought in my mind as I did those things was the need to cover my back because of what ‘might’ happen at the forthcoming work scrutiny if I don’t get it all finished.

Affirmative Assessment

People don’t like feeling threatened, so it’s no surprise that children look worried when I announce a no-notice assessment; tests are traditionally seen as threatening. Many of my lower school pupils have been doing their first round of ‘brain only’ tests, and the reactions continue to be interesting.

I’ve written about these before, but to summarise, they consist of a mind-map projected onto the board, with a few topic headings and sometimes some content hints but nothing else. The purpose is to put the onus 100% on the pupils to show what they know, without support of any kind. I refuse to give anything more away than clarification of the summary points, which forces pupils to make their own decisions about their knowledge and how to use it. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and a number of colleagues have also taken up the idea, which has the added benefit of being blissfully straightforward to implement.

The rationale, which I share with my pupils, is that things that have been properly learned should be ‘in there’ just waiting to pop back out; mugging for a test is inherently artificial, and prone to immediate forgetting once the ‘threat’ has passed. This way, they can’t do that; we are effectively testing long-term rather than short-term memory.

Judging from the initial reactions of those who have never done this before, the idea of relying entirely on their own cognitive resources is distinctly unfamiliar. I worry that so much teaching in the past decade has revolved around the idea of easy accessibility that we have scaffolded learning to the point where children themselves rarely have to break a sweat. Some seem unfamiliar with the concept of actually being expected to know anything long-term; when I mention the problem of leaving your learning at the lesson door, some (metaphorically) nod in recognition. This way plays to the ‘Quiet’ qualities of inner knowledge – and there is no escape.

So after a brief preamble, they are let loose and spend the remainder of the hour working on their mind maps. Pupils are given A3 paper on which to communicate their ideas as they decide. This format is helpful because it allows pupils to start writing at whatever point they feel they can. Getting started is often the most difficult part, after which everything does indeed just ‘pop back out’, with many writing at length. Credit is given for (correct) extra information that pupils can provide from their own knowledge.

I have refined the process over the years – I judge more carefully the point at which they are allowed to consult their books deferring it if it seems appropriate. This is a one-way decision of their own choosing, following which they notionally score marks at half the rate. They must write in a different colour from that point, for which we now use GREEN – the idea being that knowledge which requires book consultation is effectively that which needs further work.

I have used this across the ability range, with very little modification – the intention being for all to aim as high as they can. I  level the results broadly using KS3 levels, with five or above needing reasonable explanation and six or more needing analysis. Writing diagnostic comments is easy – and the scripts are relatively quick to mark.

But the best bit is that, once familiar with the process, many pupils say they like the format. Quite a few rise to my challenge not to need to open their books – and very many report being pleasantly surprised at how much they find they do know; that is very empowering. I find it rewarding, too, to observe the explicit effects of my teaching. There is ample scope for positive reinforcement, and it also forces a realisation upon those who struggle that maybe they do need to pay more attention. Over time, this procedure provides an incentive to try to retain what they learn in lessons, as they now know they will be expect to demonstrate it. We are talking about real learning here, not just short-term performance.

Progressive teachers may be nodding knowingly at this point – but I see little to contradict the traditionalist ethos either, in giving pupils what amounts to a half-termly exam in silence. The key thing is that the task is demanding but still affirmative. And it has an interesting effect on behaviour, which also makes me wonder what the pupils are experiencing across their education more generally as a result of the all-singing-all-dancing type of lesson they perhaps more frequently encounter.

For all that they often seem unable to focus for long, when given a challenging task of this sort for which they have no option but to concentrate on their own resources, many do seem perfectly capable of rising to the challenge. Last period on Friday, I had a sometimes-difficult low ability class writing in silence for an hour without any bidding from me. Now that has to be worth doing.

The weight of numbers

I’ve never been one for crowds. I even find returning to school hard work for a while, simply because I spend much of the summer in the company of only a few people. I also find it difficult to reconcile my own earnest views with the compromise necessary to achieve a consensus – it’s the dilemma of when to defy the party Whip.

I do dislike the fact that the strength of numbers often means minority views are never really heard. It is not uncommon for numbers to silence those who differ, even when they have a point. I’ll go further: the peer pressure of groups often leads to situations where being on-message becomes more important than being right, where rational discourse is subjugated to the mere weight of numbers. The effect of group-think has been well-documented, and I wonder how many valuable insights go neglected because of the fear they might not meet acceptance.

A problem for those who would challenge this situation is that they inevitably sound as though they are perpetual nay-sayers. I resolved not to mention the name of a certain, currently-newsworthy politician again, but it seems to me that the reaction of those who disagree with him has been to drown what he has to say in a torrent of alarmism, rather than anything more constructive. That instinctively makes me want to listen more closely, not less, and I don’t think that this makes me just a permanent rebel: it’s just that quiet voices can contain their truths, unbridled by the desire to be popular.

I feel the same about my profession. The emphasis on professional obedience has perhaps never been stronger – despite the ongoing obsession with individual performance. This might not be a problem, were it not for the weight with which the majority/establishment view is invoked to define success: given that the absolute truths behind education remain as elusive as ever, using consensus to define what works may be flawed. Making a mark on one’s pupils is so much more subtle and diverse a process than any ‘consensus’ is likely to be able to define.

For example, in a profession that seems to consist largely of individuals whose expressed purpose on this earth is to be personal trainers for the young, it can be hard to argue that it is in everyone’s interest to draw limits around one’s work. No matter that experience suggests that rest makes for better teaching or that is entirely reasonable for those who wish to have a life of their own: to those for whom enough is never enough, this is easily portrayed as inadequacy, no matter how wise self-preservation might be in the long term.

This becomes a problem when narrowed judgements are made about individuals based on such premises. It is understandable why, for example, a school management would preference the person who never says No even if they will burn out within a few years – but it may not be wise. Is it more important that a teacher resonates with his or her pupils using their own techniques, or that they use officially-sanctioned teaching methods even if they work less well? Regrettably, my experience over the past decades is that those who do not sing from the approved hymn-sheet often suffer simply for being different, no matter how effective they might actually be – and I don’t think this is getting any better.

This long preamble brings me to the main point of this post. For all that I observe the undoubtedly genuine enthusiasm of those who can never get enough of this job, whose very being seems defined solely by their determination to be ‘better and better’ teachers (whatever that means), whose undying optimism transcends whatever happens to them, who believe that there is no such thing as luck, and who have an unswerving confidence in their individual ability profoundly to change the world, I cannot help but get a deep but sincere doubt in the pit of my stomach.

This may be a popular view – but is it really an accurate take on the world around us? Are humans really as in-control as such people seem to think? Are the things for which they claim credit really as much in their gift as they would have us accept? (And if so, why are bucks so quickly passed for things that don’t turn out so well?) And is even their vocation really best-served by early burn-out and the neglect of their nearest and dearest?

I have a nagging sense that much of what is being done in the name of our pupils is actually little more than an inverted form of the egocentrism that dominates the rest of society. Can we be sure that being ‘even better’ for our pupils is not really ‘even better’ for ourselves? This seems to me just a form of insatiability; is well-grounded satisfaction never enough?  It seems illogical to me that teachers invest so much of their pupils’ interests in the cult of themselves. Can we hand-on-heart say that this is not more about careers and professional profiles than real pupil welfare? And even if the answer is Yes, how is it possible to define ‘better and better’ in a way that has any useful long-term meaning for those pupils – as opposed to those teachers?

It seems to me that those who genuinely want the best might be more critical in their evaluations than that, more nuanced (dare I say mature?) in their understanding of the world and less prone to glib sound-bites. Similarly, the undying optimism of those who refute luck seems to me little more than an ostrich-like denial of the true complexity/randomness of the world, a hyper-narcissism (or naivety) than reduces the wider world to little more than a bit-player in one’s own life.

For me, public servants – teachers, politicians or whatever – should be self-effacing. This is neither pointless idealism nor defeatism, but it does mean that we are honest about what is self-interest what genuinely is not. Neither is it a position of total self-sacrifice – in fact quite the opposite. It recognises the limits as well as the potential of the obligations we have for each other, preserves the ability of the teacher to exist as a private individual in their own right – but also to use that individuality in the service of others. It means having a realistic view of the smallness of each of us, rather than the hyped opposite, and of the value in exploiting the esoteric in human nature rather than pushing group-think for ulterior purposes.

It also means accepting that I am not my pupils’ saviour, for all that I can have an important effect on them and society as a whole. But I see my pupils for less than one percent of their lives – and there are far stronger currents in those lives than me. Those lives have aspirations, time frames and definitions of success that stretch beyond anything which I can fully control. I can attempt to influence them – but not merely by conditioning them to jump through hoops.

This view certainly sees educational success as more than the exam results by which teachers are now routinely judged. Important though qualifications are, defining ‘outcomes’ in those terms is, I fear, little more than the hubris that I mentioned earlier: a shortened perspective on what we do that is of more direct use to teachers’ and schools’ prospects than the full lives of young people. And if that is so, I think I know why that pit-of-the stomach feeling is there: we have turned the language of altruism into little more than double-speak for self-interest.

Deep thought is not a defining characteristic of populism – but drowning out the quiet voices risks missing something valuable, for all that they may be superficially unwelcome: challenging ideas often are. But at very least we should allow them to follow their own course.

I doubt many will agree with me on the foregoing; several conversations had within the last week have done little more than reinforce my belief that unashamed self-interest is now so embedded as the prime-mover in British society that it will never change; why would teachers really be any different? Those who live it do not even recognise it for what it is – and the fear of confronting it will make them shout down those who dare question. A bit like what has happened to Corbyn.

Damn, I’ve mentioned him again.

STEM the flow.

Writing in today’s Independent on Sunday, Paul Vallely observes that there are two elements of human behaviour – the egotistical that focuses on controlling our surroundings to our advantage:  wealth, success and status – and the altruistic, which seeks inner fulfilment and shows compassion for others. A new book by David Brooks, The Road to Character, apparently argues that we thrive when we keep the two in balance, but that modern society is driving the egotistical at the expense of the altruistic.  I find this hard to doubt.

And so, fortuitously, a topical opening to a matter that has been preoccupying me for a while…

The drive to promote so-called STEM subjects has been going on for some time now. It appears that the government has identified them as meeting the principal needs of our economy, and therefore they are to be pushed through education. It is hard to doubt that many people with such skills are indeed needed to keep an advanced modern economy on track.

Having one finger on the pulse of our local university, it does appear that most of the funds and attention there are going into the applied sciences and business, while the arts and humanities are left to wither. One report I read a while ago suggested that there is now no state funding for degree-level humanities courses at any U.K. university; has this happened?

Furthermore, developments in secondary education – the emphasis on quantifiable linear progress, narrowly-defined learning objectives and technically derived teaching practices all appear more sympathetic to the teaching of STEM subjects than they do the liberal arts and humanities, where non-linear evaluation and personal response and interpretation are valid elements.

In a society as materially-focused as our present one, it is difficult to make the case for non-technical subjects; certainly it barely works to ‘justify’ non-material subjects in material terms. Economists have attempted to do just this – but it still somehow  misses the point.  It is also difficult to explain to materially-orientated children why other personal attributes may be worth having in their lives, when the mature benefits of such may be decades from fruition. (I did however, seem to hit a nerve this week, when I told a class that my ambition for them is as much to do with the personal integrity that will lead others in future to choose them as friends and partners, as how rich they may become…)

I fear we are losing something here. It is barely reasonable to argue that technical subjects are not important, but it echoes a view of the human condition that looks outward for both the sources and the solutions to its problems, perhaps even its existence. Material progress has undoubtedly greatly improved the human lot – but it has also been the cause of many of our largest problems; understanding our inner needs and responses is just as important in developing meaningful lives – let alone for addressing the roots of many global problems.

The value of the arts and humanities is not what they do directly to fix the world around us – but what they do to address our inner condition; we need to balance our attention between our personal and collective selves. But by knowing our inner selves, we also develop a more nuanced reading of the divergent positions of others. (In the same newspaper, Emma Sky relates how she struggled to persuade the American military in Iraq that the problem was more subtle than a simple good/bad dichotomy).

I am regularly left with an impression of a society which while materially prosperous, is inwardly poor – where the life of the mind and the self-knowledge it can bring is not just under-valued but not even present.  Creativity and deep thought do not seem to figure widely in everyday lives – and nor do their popular expression through serious art and culture; everything is mere ‘entertainment’ now. Few children I encounter – even in their late teens – seem to have much interest in exploring such fields; everything is focussed on securing inflated material dreams.

When material comfort is now so valued – and for many, so readily available, there seems less and less need to explore the profound questions about one’s being that have traditionally been part of the educative process. While it is of course easy to over-attribute children’s insight, this may also explain the expectation amongst many that schooling is also an outwardly-experienced process, rather than something whose main effect is internal.

The fact that the political and education systems now seem intent on furthering this, in the process downgrading the arts and humanities unless they can be shown to make money – is a profound endorsement of an impoverishing process. It risks making us technically perfect – and personally vacuous. And in terms of real education, it will make our job more difficult, since cognitive development remains essentially an inward process.

We may end up knowing more than ever before about the world around us – and less than ever about ourselves.

All done for this year – and reflections on a year’s blogging

Thanks to our process of ongoing CPD, we finish the term with three non-pupil days (already worked, thanks to a dozen staff training sessions delivered) and are thus on holiday from today. Hooray for a break from early rises!!! So here I am, beginning by doing nothing other than writing about ‘work’…

It seems to be customary to mark one’s blog-birthdays with a retrospective – so I thought that I would (not-quite) follow suit. Today effectively marks for me the end of one academic year of blogging; though the actual calendar anniversary is not until early September, today seems like a more productive time for a little reflection.

In that almost-year, I have written 96 posts (including this one) which is a satisfying average of nearly two a week for one who wondered before starting whether he would run out of steam. So has the effort been worth it?

TP has not exactly become a high-volume blog, though its hits are climbing gently through the thousands – but David Didau gets as many hits in a week as TP gets in year! I keep reminding myself that spinning hit-counters are not purpose of the exercise – for most of my life I seem to have homed in on minority causes and positions, so I should know this. Bizarrely, however, the urge to look at the counter can be quite irresistible, and in a sense this has been salutary in its own right: it is remarkable how compulsive the abstract chasing of numbers can become, even as one knows deep down that this is not in itself a deep or enduring reward for one’s effort. Would that those who run our schools accepted as much.

I hope, though, that I have managed to write engaging posts, in keeping with my conception of teaching as a profession that espouses reflective, considered values. I hope that the contents have provoked thought and contributed a little to my aim of recording and transmitting the accumulated perspectives of my now-twenty-seven years in the classroom into the general repository of the profession.

Andrew Old has helped by regularly disseminating my writings on The Echo Chamber, and some time ago he allowed me authorial rights; thus I effectively became a small cog in the production of that admirable exercise. Thanks, Andrew, for this endorsement.

I also attended the two legendary bloggers’ curries in Brick Lane, and this was a great experience. The conversation was excellent, and it was good to meet in person some of those whose views I have come to respect online – and indeed to meet teachers from extremely disparate parts of the profession. Apart from the curious experience of only initially knowing people by their pseudonyms, it was also productive by being a great leveller, and permitting discussion in a way that might not so easily be possible across levels of one’s own school’s hierarchy. Was I the only one who sensed almost excitement at feeling as though we were at the hub of something significant – even if it’s not really clear what?

Someone, somewhere, earlier in the year, advocated blogging as a great means of professional self-development, and I have to agree. The past year has seen me engage far more fully in the wider educational debate, and this has been a welcome fillip for someone who is three-quarters through his career. I had felt for many years that teaching lacked the opportunity for a real, grass-roots dialogue about its practice, and this is most definitely filling that void. It has the potential to pull those grass-roots of our profession together like never before – and who knows where that might lead? Contacts with DFE and Ofsted may be only the start… It has been particularly interesting to read and interact with people in other countries, though this has also enhanced my suspicions that the Anglo-American-Antipodean model of education has something flawed about it, in that it seems to be laden with problems that simply seem less of a big deal elsewhere. What are we doing wrong? And I mean in wider society, not just education…

It has also caused me to reflect on my own experience to date in some unexpected ways: given that the majority of bloggers seem  to be either relatively new entrants or else senior leaders, it has made me more aware of the expertise and perspective that I have accumulated over nearly three decades in the classroom and which one simply takes  for granted. Perhaps that is a lesson with wider applicability: in these days of incessant self-scrutiny, the best qualities of all are those that are so embedded that they are ‘merely’ instinctive.

I do seem to have dug myself something of a hole as being anti-research, which really is not the whole story. No doubt science can tell us useful things about learning – I am just doubtful whether it will be much we didn’t know already, or at a usable resolution. I am also concerned that this is just going to become the next stick to beat classroom teachers with – and also that it will lead to further ignoring of the more personal, qualitative and cultural aspects of the job, some of which in my view are more likely to be where the key to good practice actually lies (If there is one…)

It is good to see so many young teachers communicating their experiences, though perhaps somewhat concerning to note the extent to which the target-driven training regime is being embedded in their collective subconscious. It has also been a great relief to discover that there are plenty of people out there who like me do not approve of the constructivist hegemony within our profession – where have you been all my life? What seems to be new, at least to me, is the emergent school of reasoned thought in support of a more traditionally-slanted and independent-minded strand within the profession, so that the pro-traditional argument can now go beyond the conventional entreaties about learning for learning’s sake. For all that that is important.

Reading many school leaders’ blogs has, however, reinforced my view that senior managers largely talk to each other, about things and in a language that have little direct bearing on the direct experience of being in a classroom – which is not to say that they don’t provide useful insight. One of the persistent problems with education (and many other institutions) in this country is the extent to which they are run top-down, with only those at the top being directly privy to key information and ideas – which they then roll out as the latest silver bullets, steam-rollering those below them to comply. Blogs have not disabused me of the impression that school teaching and school management are running to two entirely different and not always mutually-helpful agendas.

I feel ambivalent about Gove’s departure. I did not take to the man, did not like the apparent provenance of his views, and I certainly cannot endorse his party – but on the other hand, he seems to have created a climate in which it was, for the first time in my career, almost acceptable openly to express traditional educational values. I hope that this will continue, and  I suspect this genie is indeed out of the bottle. I am not dogmatic, and dislike the way in which much of the opposition to him was clearly ideological. I feel more personally confident about approaching the new year with a traditional academic agenda (as do several colleagues), though in my case I have got to work through two and a half decades of self-denial and constructivist conditioning first. Such is the power of the educational establishment to shape those who work within it, even against their wills.

On the other hand, blogging has led to my profession making even greater inroads into my personal life. I have found myself thinking about educational issues almost incessantly, and probably boring some of my colleagues (let alone my wife) stiff with the latest imponderables. The level of thought-saturation I achieved in such thinking actually got quite oppressive on occasions, and I found it quite difficult to switch off. Is this really beneficial to us as people or teachers?

For all that I believe in high-level  professionalism, I also think we tend to take it too far and the work-life balance really does need to take some precedence, and not only in the summer recess.  People need balanced lives and outside interests in order to be good teachers; in my case I have several deep hobbies that deserve quality time, and my dear wife really should receive more of my conscious attention than she sometimes does.

But overall, the experience of edu-blogging has been very positive and career-enhancing. I have read numerous education and psychology-related books, some as a direct result of blogging. Teacher Proof and Seven Myths stand out, as does Susan Cain’s Quiet, which reassured that one does not have to be a raving extrovert to be successful. It has even prompted me to re-start work on my book, currently going through the later stages of fine-tuning. Not that there is a publisher in the offing yet, but who knows, and there is always the Christodoulou route…

So what does an edu-blogger do in the long summer holiday? I think part of the unseasonal answer may be to hibernate – not completely, as I’m sure there will be things that warrant comment, but the post rate may fall somewhat. I have 140,000 words of book to finalise, after all – and I need to practise what I preach on the life balance. I hope to meet more bloggers at the next Brick Lane curry at the end of August.

Full service will be resumed in September.

Learning notes from Basel – 2

One of the great things about our school partnership is that it isn’t just the students who benefit. Over the years I’ve been running this, I have got to know a fair number of Swiss teachers reasonably well, and it is always a great pleasure to catch up with them during the various visits, both professionally and personally. I will express publicly my gratitude for the hospitality they always show both to me and the various colleagues who accompany me.

While the students are busy, we have some time to talk teaching (and other things), and it is very interesting to compare notes in a more sustained way than is perhaps possible with a more ad-hoc type of exchange, where one may be less able to ‘blend in’. So one might see that the level of familiarity presents an opportunity for sustained interaction on professional development.

One of the things to emerge from discussions this time has been a degree of consensus about the highly personal nature of teaching, the need for each person who makes this journey to find their own solutions, and the limitations of formal structures in helping to do so. At the risk of the usual confirmation bias, I find it reassuring that some of my own reservations about the effects of high control on teachers are echoed elsewhere.While the Swiss system does not (yet) suffer from anything like the degree of top-down prescription of the English one, there are nonetheless some moves afoot in that general direction – and the reaction of teachers here seems to be pretty much the same as that in the U.K. Maybe this is simply human nature at work; the dislike of overt control seems universal – but perhaps that is telling us something that we could learn from and build on. What is repeatedly evident here, though, is the relatively high degree of autonomy that remains –  the management structure is very flat – and yet everyone seems to go about their work in a professional and conscientious way with very little direct oversight from management.

An interesting point to emerge has been an acceptance that teachers come in all shapes and sizes, and that attempting to impose a single template is neither fair to them nor does it expose students to a range of personality-types and teaching styles. One view expressed was that there are nonetheless perhaps four loose ‘types’ of teacher. This might seem to be heading in a dangerous direction, but for a few critical mitigating points. Firstly, this is merely a descriptive exercise, not a prescriptive one – it simply attempts to identify observed patterns rather than draw tight stipulations from them; secondly, four is a distinct improvement over the ONE that I sometimes feel is the perceived British ideal. (I have written before, for example, about the dominance of extrovert role-models in the U.K. – and also the apparently extrovert-biased centre-of-gravity of opinion about what characteristics are desirable in a teacher). One view expressed here  is  that a school actively benefits from a mix of personality-types and teaching styles – and that is something that might conceivably be managed at a whole-school level in terms of recruitment, and the breadth of approaches that are permitted or encouraged.

This might appear to be stating the bleeding obvious – but in fact it strikes me as subtly but importantly different from the monoculutral approach that seems to predominate in the U.K. Hopefully, more to come on this.

Slowly does it…

We’ve reached that time of year when the school suddenly goes quiet. The G.C.S.E. and ‘AS’ students have already left, and the Upper Sixth go this week. The frenetic activity to prepare them for their exams is done for another year. There’s still a huge amount to do, of course: the workbook for the Year 8 day-trip to Lille needs up-dating – and it’s only a month until I make the return trip to our Swiss partner school with this year’s sixth form group. And already, preparations for the new year’s teaching.

But nonetheless, there is just enough of a pause to stop and ponder the frantic rush that secondary-school life has become, and wonder whether it is either necessary or beneficial to the pupils – let alone the staff. I think what capped it for me was a year 11 student observing to me a couple of weeks ago, how fast time passes by. I remember school years going on for at least a decade when I was in my teens – and I have to admit that my reply did go along the lines of ‘Just wait until you’re my age…’

I delivered a new CPD session a couple of weeks ago on this theme, and as it was very well received,  I thought I’d review it here; the title was Slow Teaching.

The Slow Movement originated in the mid 1980’s in Italy, as a reaction against the spread of fast food. The concept has now become a fully-fledged world-wide movement, and has expanded to include slow cities, slow travel, slow money, slow parenting – and slow education. There is even a Slow Education movement.

The principle is well-explained by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, who did much to bring the ideas to wider attention through his book In Praise of Slow:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes, rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible not just as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in just about everything from food to parenting.”

This seems to make eminent sense to me, and not only because it would perhaps grant me the time I feel I really need – but never get – to do this job better, without going insane in the process. Slow would seem to appreciate that time spent reflecting on the last lesson and carefully planning the next is precisely what is needed – far more than the whole array of whistles and bells with which the education world seems as preoccupied as ever. It most certainly would not be time wasted – even if I were observed sipping a coffee or dare I say (given the nice weather) a kir in the process…

There is a vast amount in this idea, ranging from classical notions of education as eudaimonia (flourishing of the individual) through the much-debated ideas of 10,000 hours to mastery and Cognitive Load Theory (whereby care should be taken not to overload the working memory), to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of Flow being the deepest, intrinsic experience one can have (which presumably can’t be hurried either) – to the need for introverts to have the time and space they need to do things their own best way.

The Slow Schools movement unfortunately seems to have been appropriated by the further reaches of the constructivist movement, although they do concede that Slow should not be a prescriptive concept. However, I can’t see anything to prevent the idea being adapted by more traditional approaches too: developing the patience needed for full command of a subject is worth emphasising whatever the approach, as is taking the time to think before writing or speaking, and developing ideas as far as they can go. Having the patience to read a text carefully for full meaning is another example. And I think the technique described here some time ago, of getting pupils to do ‘brain-only’ tests, where they have to sit and think until they have written as much as they can recall, is inherently Slow in nature.

I do wish the idea would catch on more widely; it would be good to be able to savour both the experience of really developing pupils in a considered way, rather than rushing headlong at the next set of exams – let alone a little more of the life that seems to be going past just too quickly, squeezed in round the edges of the job. It seems that even some of the pupils might agree:

When it comes to a properly-grounded education, just what exactly is the rush?

Red-button-itis

She left quickly after the lesson; a brief word of thanks – but the look in her eyes was one of disappointment. Having encountered the ramblings of this blog, the young teacher watching my lesson was perhaps expecting to see pedagogical pyrotechnics, but I fear she was disappointed.

A recent formal observation of my teaching produced a similar result – very competent but not outstanding. There is a difference between having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve (as I hopefully do) and actually delivering it on the day in the classroom. By mainstream measures, my classroom practice is sound but not remarkable.  I will say in my defence that my introverted self does react rather badly to knowing it is being watched, and my persona definitely changes in line with what I know as red-buttonitis – the way in which a piece of music you can play perfectly always goes wrong as soon as you press ‘Record’.

I’m not seeking any kind of public redress here, so what follows is solely an attempt to raise an important issue ‘in the round’; I anticipate nonetheless that it is one that will strike many chords…

Just what are we to do if the criteria against which we are judged fly in the face of what we genuinely believe (perhaps as a result of years of experience, and much reflection) to be actual good practice?

From what I can tell, the criteria for judging teaching, particularly on that good/outstanding boundary, are skewed heavily towards the amount of explicit direction being provided for moving pupils towards their predicted exam grades. In many cases, that seems to involve effectively teaching a lesson entirely and solely around how to score a high exam mark, with all other thinking, activities and content subordinated to that one outcome. I struggle to see that as good – let alone outstanding – education.

Now, I have no issue whatsoever with exams used properly (of which more another time), but I am not the only voice at present to be questioning whether exam results really are such a good proxy for effective learning after all, particularly now that they have in effect become a currency in their own right. I certainly have my doubts.

There is also a substantial body of research which suggests that overt emphasis on targets actually increases the risk of missing them. The reason is simple: effort and attention is diverted towards achieving the target per se, and away from the activity that will actually secure it, namely subject mastery – all the more so if you accept the thesis that says working memory will struggle to do both simultaneously. By aiming at the mark of education, the target shifts away from the thing itself.

It seems to be a common problem: I’ve had two highly-intelligent sixth formers in recent weeks alone telling me how the growing pressure is preying on their minds and actually impairing their ability to study – and they are by no means the first. And yet we are encouraged actually to trade on pressure, in the belief that it can only enhance work rates…

Furthermore, it seems to me that looking too hard for something actually makes it disappear – the more you actively crave happiness, the less you find it. That’s the problem with the red button: as soon as you raise the stakes you become hyper-aware, and that itself is enough to cause failure. Part of the process of Flow is sub-conscious; many musicians know all too well what happens when you start ‘watching’ yourself playing…

The problem with theories comes when they are used in an idealistic sense, as in stipulating how reality ‘ought’ to behave, often where empirical information is either not available or is too complex to make certainty easy. That is how we judge what we presume to be good teaching: so-called pragmatic ‘common sense’ suggests that giving people targets and driving them hard will lead to their doing more work and achieving better results; experience suggests that this is not (always) the case. Even where more work is being done, the quality will not always be such that it is genuinely productive.

The classroom is where many of these problems collide: from the ideology-driven models of what education ‘ought’ to be, through sometimes-misconceived notions of how learning works, to managerial requirements for accountability, teachers are caught between many conflicting demands. If the determinants of what a teacher does in the classroom are compliance with external demands or expectations, then this can easily compromise what he or she judges to be genuinely in the pupils’ interests.

When the expectations in a lesson observation are based on assumptions like these, it makes it difficult to explain why one is doing something different, no matter how well considered. Particularly with the older students, I prefer a more gradualist, reflective approach, one that emphasises the importance of subject mastery in achieving highly, rather than a somewhat cynical attempt to ‘game’ the exam.  I emphasise the need to internalise understanding, and explain that this process cannot normally take place quickly or under pressure; the dynamics of the mind see to that. While my students are aware of their targets, and make good progress towards them, I place little emphasis there, preferring instead to focus all our attention on the actual studying we are doing; if anything, I try to shield my students from the external pressures.

It’s probably not surprising that this doesn’t square well with official expectations. Preconceived judgments made of such lessons may mistake the actual effectiveness of the teaching, and misunderstand the strategies being used by the teacher.

In a culture that demands close accountability, criteria clearly are needed to identify good practice. But measuring things just for the sake of it, simply on the grounds that they are relatively easily identified is not good grounds for doing it. The constraint that this imposes is a good example of how such preconceptions can effectively narrow what is considered acceptable practice – and given the absence of visible alternatives, this then becomes self-perpetuating.

If correct, my view that teaching is a far more subtle activity than is now represented, can mean that things a teacher is doing that actually make a real long-term educational difference to pupils may not be readily visible to the short-term observer looking for exam-targeted progress. The more I read and reflect, the more I conclude that the natural companion of teaching and learning is psychology, not economics. A teacher working on that assumption will not be judged well by a system that thinks the opposite.

I’m content with being merely ‘good’ in official eyes; I have made conscious decisions not to do some of the things I am being told make an outstanding teacher because my reading of the psychology, and the feedback I receive from students, suggests that they may not be quite as outstanding as the system seems to think. I can easily live with that.

But it seems ironic that the system put in place to identify excellence may itself not be up to the job when it encounters something other than what it has – however mistakenly – already pre-ordained it is looking for.

That, I suspect, is also why my young colleague looked disappointed.

Weasel words 4: Learning

“The mind is a fire for fuelling, not a vessel for filling.” Plutarch.

Now this is a big one: a weasel-word right up there with Teaching – so settle in. In fact, to be really nuanced in my Political Correctness, it should come before teaching, as in L&T. (Is this progress?) And this teacher is confessing that after nearly thirty years, he still doesn’t even know precisely what it means.

But then, do any of us? Consider the following; is learning:

a) The act of memorising facts (relevant or otherwise)?

b) The acquisition of specific skills that one previously didn’t have? (But how do you know when you’ve fully ‘learned’ something so open-ended?)

c) The development of one’s attitudes towards the world? (But who is to assess what is ‘right’?).

d) A cognitive process by which we know what we know?

e) A process by which neurones connect to make new electro-chemical pathways in the brain?

f) A temporary, possibly short-lived phenomenon? (In which case how much use is it?)

g) A permanent change (in which case, how do we know when it has been completed?)

h) An act of alignment with the aim of increasing societal harmony?

i) An act of individual liberation that frees one from the need to conform as above?

j) The correction of one’s previous errors?

k) Something else entirely?

In fact, it is probably all of the above, and more – and in a sense it doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that the word is used with near-reverence by many involved in education, and is increasingly talked about as though it is a single, homogenous, knowable  process (it has nigh-on become a concrete noun)  which given the above, strikes me as the height of folly. Like everything else, the word has been commoditised to the point that it can be invoked in almost any situation where someone wishes to imply that what they are saying is VERY IMPORTANT.

The thing that worries me about this is that we risk oversimplifying what is still fundamentally a mysterious process, and one that for all we know is unique to each and every one of us. It is indubitably true that people do learn – in as much as they move on from where they were before, be that in skills, knowledge or outlook. But by commoditising it, we move it from the realm of the unconscious to that of the conscious mind, thereby risking narrowing the process, and by becoming so meta-cognitive about it we also risk its evaporating before our eyes. We spend so long looking for whether it is happening or not, that we simply move our focus away from the unconscious act of doing it to the conscious act of watching for it.

The plain fact is, most learning happens without our fully realising it. We can’t even very closely control what we learn – it is simply that which the brain somehow chooses to squirrel away at any given moment. That is why it also strikes me as foolish to being a lesson with the words “Today we are going to learn (about)…” As if we have that level of control! We might well have the intention (learning objective) but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Little Johnny is actually going to learn that. He may instead come away with a new swear-word he learned from his neighbour, the fact that if you put synthetic gloves on top of the heater, they do melt, or maybe that Sir actually has a rather interesting hobby that he only found out about because Sir accidentally left his email open when he turned the whiteboard projector on. He will go away little the wiser about our splendid Learning Objective – but he will still have learned.

I’m not actually sure, either, when I learned to teach. There have been endless hours sitting in P.G.C.E. seminars, L&T meetings, staff meetings – and a few moments when the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight descended, but for the most part it has been such a slow, accretional process, so much below the radar of consciousness, that I have not even been aware of it. Neither did I wake up one morning suddenly flushed with the realisation that I had finally finished learning and could now honestly think of myself as a Good Teacher. Incidentally, I’ve also learned a great deal about how schools (and indeed my fellow humans) work; in particular the politics of the places, and the fact that things don’t always happen for the simple, honourable reasons that one might hope. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to learn that; well I always was a bit naively idealistic.

This is why I am constantly perplexed at the modern need to measure when learning has supposedly happened. We expect a very different type of learning from our pupils, from that which we ourselves experience. Maybe we should implant lights on pupils’ heads – red (flashing) for Learning in Process and green for Process Complete…

While it may well be necessary to use a form of shorthand for Learning with immature minds, I’m really not sure that we are helping by sending the wrong message; instead of suggesting that Learning is a trivial, short-term activity, perhaps we would be better off encouraging children to understand what the long term actually means? By combating the short-termism of modern life, rather than giving in to it? In turning this slow, accretional process into yet another instant, zero-sum game, we simply up the stakes and create anxiety that may actually inhibit real learning – while simultaneously raising our own stress levels and workloads to unnecessary heights.

Over an even longer period than I have been teaching, I have also learned to play several musical instruments – and nary a formal lesson in sight. While instrument-playing is a thing unto itself, I think that it can nonetheless tell us something about learning more generally. My current challenge is the fiddle – ahem violin – which I have been working at for around three years, after deciding that I really needed to be playing one of the serious core instruments of Irish Trad. In this case, my thirty-five years’ prior learning on the mandolin gave me a good start, and for once I decided that some taught lessons were probably in order – in the form of an online distance-learning course from OAIM.

Through her video lessons, Majella Bartley, a respected fiddle teacher from western Ireland, taught me to acquire all of the techniques of ornamentation that I might never have worked out for myself. She did it by demonstrating how they work, what they sound like – slowly at first – and then making the learner play them again and again until the fingers did what they were supposed to. A perfect combination of didactic and active learning – but the majority of the work was done solo, in the confines of my spare bedroom, as I practised what I had been taught. Most pleasing of all was the fact that during my recent enforced ten-month-and-counting break thanks to post-viral syndrome, very little seems to have been lost. That is surely good learning.

But technical progress isn’t everything. One of the challenging aspects of traditional music is that everything is done by ear, and there is no one definitive version of a tune – each player makes it their own. And even when you can do this, there is no guarantee that you will capture nyah – the ‘feel’ of the thing.

Learning to do that is indeed a mystical process that for me only happened when I got myself over to the dimly-lit back-rooms of various hostelries in remote parts of Ireland and played into the night with the natives. Once again, the learning was subconscious – but what an education it was.

At no point was the L word used. It was accepted that this mysterious process just sort of happens when you are least expecting it. Go looking too hard and it disappears into the Irish mist.

I think the same thing happened at school – I don’t really remember ever being conscious of learning anything; some things seemed like common sense, others were really difficult and needed working at – but the point of actual learning remained invisible. And then there was that curious thing that once upon a time was called the Hidden Curriculum…

The reason for this extended digression is to illustrate what I believe to be the true nature of learning – something greater than the sum of its parts. When learning something new, it is of course necessary to acquire the basic skills and knowledge, some of which can be done mechanically – but real mastery is so much more than that. It also depends on the osmosis of all sorts of intangible attributes that give one the right ‘feel’ for the subject. Just as one cannot acquire overnight the hundreds of tunes that a good traditional musician will hold in his head, it also takes time for things to develop. Some of the process really is that oblique; I often tell my sixth-formers that the best way to improve their subject-specific writing is to read what others do, and let it soak in. Again, that takes time, and to pretend otherwise is seriously to mislead.

One of the problems here is the timescale of the classroom. Is it reasonable, with a lesson-duration of one hour to justify, to claim that learning has only occurred once something has been committed to long-term memory? I suspect that the only people who really need to take a short-term view of learning are actually the teachers, under pressure from the usual accountability…

I don’t need to try to remember my name – I just know it – and so I think I can reasonably say that I have learned it. But I can’t remember the number of the restaurant I telephoned from memory yesterday – though at the time I thought I had learned it, but clearly not. Yet I can still remember a defunct bank account number from twenty years ago. Such are the mysteries of short and long term memory. I sometimes tell my students that they can only consider they have learned something once they know it as they know their own name, but how we get to that stage is still hit-or-miss to say the least, and I’m really not convinced that all the gurus and researchers with their pet theories and flashy learning aids are really very much help, for all that they neatly fit my one hour slot. I have seen too many occasions when what looked like learning at the end of a lesson (or even a term later) turned out to have been nothing of the sort when we revisited the topic eighteen months on.

I have no doubt that it is possible to ram specific information into our pupils’ heads by labouring it enough – but whether that is either necessary or desirable is another matter. Cramming classes are just that – a futile attempt to enable young people to jump through short-term exam hoops – that in many ways is a complete betrayal of what learning is really about. I think you can even get a pupil to retain more than 100% of their true capability in the short term – witness those students who ‘over-achieve’ at G.C.S.E., only to find themselves utterly unequipped for the demands of ‘A’ Level, vacant on material they supposedly learned in Year 11. This is the worst conflation of all – real learning is not the same as that which is needed simply to pass exams.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Albert Einstein

Even worse, I also find myself questioning the actual use of all those facts that teachers daily drum into their pupils – and this from a staunch supporter of teaching knowledge. Do we spend so long obsessing about whether the kids are learning that we cease evaluating whether what they’re learning is even of much use?  I hear so many colleagues talking about learning in this prepackaged sense that I wonder whether they ever actually stop to question the use of the topics they are covering. “Because it’s on the specification” isn’t in itself the greatest of reasons. To my mind, there is a vast difference between knowing something and having ‘learned’ it. How much of it is really of any use other than for those who intend to take that subject forward?

It seems to me that people who lack a wide working knowledge are at an intellectual and functional disadvantage, quite apart from missing the inherent pleasure of knowing stuff. I know that I retain some of what I was taught at school, though most of it – even in my own subject – was mainly secured by revisiting it later in life. I also retain the residue of many other subjects, but it is as nothing compared with the disparate knowledge and skills I have acquired serendipitously along the way. One of the satisfactions of ageing is the breadth of working knowledge acquired – as in the way that random factoids that you didn’t even know you knew just appear out of the blue when doing the general knowledge crossword. Again I’m not sure how much of that is down to any consciously-undertaken process.

The same applies to skills; both in my music and my other interests, my proficiency has undoubtedly grown over the years. I suppose it has been a matter of doing the same thing time and time again over decades; I’m not really very sure what school – or even any formal teaching – ever had to do with it. Maybe it’s just temperament – the introvert within me is inherently interested in deep skills. It’s not always even been a particularly pleasant process – my back and arms ached for months while I gradually improved my violin posture, but the will to improve carried me through. Conversely, for people who aren’t temperamentally so-inclined, I wonder how much we can really do for them. I find it a bizarre notion to contemplate a person who only knows that which they have been formally taught in school. For all our Learning Objectives, lesson plans and swish resources, how much can we really get someone to learn if they are not predisposed so to do?

“An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.” Nicholas Murray Butler

So much though it grieves me to say so, I think that the  modern experience of formal education has little to do with real learning, and everything to do with validating the system that delivers it. I know many people who have gone through the system, even to the highest levels of great universities – and some of them seem to know precious little about much at all. No doubt they are expert in their chosen fields, and good at their jobs – but when it comes to breadth and general application… And some of them are teachers. So what price having learned a lot about something specific if the cost was a loss of perspective about the world at large? Is this a failure of the education process, or a shortcoming of the individual concerned? To be fair, I also know individuals whose highly specific knowledge provides them with daily insight in their wider lives – it all depends on what you do with what you’ve got…

This is perhaps why the emphasis shifted to learning skills: the idea is that skills are transferable, and as we all know, eminently useful for employers. Except that most skills we teach at secondary level are still so generic that they cannot be of much use in any specific line of work: it’s another edu-myth. What’s more, skills are useless without something to use them on – namely knowledge, and this as we also know, has been out of fashion until very recently.

Rather ironically we don’t actually teach perhaps the most relevant skills of all, except to a small group of older students, through the medium of Critical Thinking. From my experience, the ability to dissect a proposition or piece of information methodically and dispassionately, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, is perhaps the most valuable – and transferrable – skill of all. Pupils who take this course tend to find it a revelation, and in many cases they apply it widely to other subjects. But we still leave these skills largely to chance!

When we talk about what pupils have learned, I think we often mean something different. In terms of information, it may well be that pupils leave a lesson aware of information that they did not have at the beginning – but there is a significant difference between current awareness of something and having learned it. Likewise, the fact that a pupil may have executed a certain procedure during a lesson may mean that they have physically done it, but whether they have learned anything is less clear. In both cases, the real learning is the processing that happens in the mind following exposure to a new experience – or perhaps multiple exposures to it.  The problem from the teacher’s perspective is that we can’t really control what pupils do with the stuff we expose them to. That is too much wrapped up in the innate functions of their brains, not to mention the cultural filters through which they perceive the experience.

And in both cases, I’m not completely clear how the experience of discrete learning is really connected to the fundamental result I think we all desire – the development of an effective, autonomous individual who is both able to live a fulfilled life them self, and to contribute to the wider well-being of us all.

I’m certainly not going to decry our efforts to promote the acquisition of either knowledge or skills, not least because it is a significant source of inherent satisfaction in my own life – but how it becomes ‘learned’ is a different matter.  People who go through life knowing little seem to me to be significantly impoverished for it, and Google is no substitute. Likewise, people who never develop their skills (of whatever sort) beyond the basic miss out on a huge source of satisfaction – that of getting better at things, becoming expert even. Without my accumulated expertise in my own particular arcane interests, life would be immeasurably the poorer.

But I think we deceive ourselves if we claim that what happens in a classroom has a direct impact on what remains in people’s heads throughout their lives. The notion that a single one-hour lesson can implant anything usefully and permanently in a brain is deluded. That is why lifelong learning is important, though it needn’t mean a life spent in a long succession of evening classes.

Certainly we create possibilities, hopefully stimulate processes that continue well beyond school-age, and yes leave residues of knowledge in people’s minds. Some of what we do may indeed be genuinely learned, though whether it is any more than a random occurrence I don’t know.  But to say that we generate learning – let alone that we can specify and measure it in the short time we have with our pupils – is a step too far, another sign of how presumptuous modern teaching has become. What’s more, learning can only be measured by its application and this requires the perspective of time and context that we can barely hope to recreate in a regular working classroom. As I said above, retention rates are not always impressive, though one might hope that more has actually ‘gone in’ than pupils are actually able to retrieve on command during an assessment situation. But in real learning (as opposed to exam results) terms that doesn’t matter unduly.

I have said before that teachers are merely planters of seeds; we might create the possibility for learning, but I don’t think we can claim to have much control over the thing itself.  One thing that can help is to focus on the ‘unknown unknowns’, where the potential for progress is perhaps greatest and most immediate – and yet modern education seems intent on restricting itself to knowable, pre-definable outcomes from lessons.

For all that fMRI scanners can show us about the brain, genuine learning remains a largely mystical process that occurs autonomously in the unconscious mind.  Trying to fill an unfillable vessel seems like the height of delusion, so maybe the best we can hope for is to chuck a few logs on the fire before our pupils leave us. Whether they burn is really  up to them.