Charley says…

Charley_says

I read with sadness this week’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher, written by a soon-to-be ex-teacher who, after a couple of years has realised that an aspiration simply to teach one’s subject is no longer sufficient. I feel the loss to the profession of one who may well have been or become a fine teacher – rejected by a professional monomania that cannot tolerate diversity of intent, and which places almost anything above a simple love of one’s subject. Education has become just too technocratic for its own good.

It’s difficult to pin-point any moment when an intellectual inclination ceased to be the principal asset of a would-be teacher, but there has nonetheless been clear shift in emphasis in the past few decades. Both my parents taught, but while there was a clear pastoral element to their work, their principal focus was always ‘their subject’. Contrast that with the comment I shall never forget (for the wrong reasons) when on the first morning of my own P.G.C.E., I was told, “If ever asked what you teach, the answer is, “Children””.

I’ve discussed the semantic difficulties of that statement before, but it also portrays the extent to which a certain mindset has dominated the teaching profession, no doubt egged-on by the politicians and educational theorists  whose comfortable careers depended on grandiose ideas of social change. Just to want to teach one’s subject was no longer enough, when the purpose of education had become something between a velvet social revolution and life-coaching for the masses. And since then have been added the institutionalised performance pressures that mean it’s no longer sufficient just to try to change people’s lives; anything short of a fully measurable metamorphosis is just not acceptable.

As Secret Teacher concedes, it’s hard to argue that schools should have no concern at all for the wider wellbeing of their pupils – but that’s rather different from the full-on social engineering that we’re meant to engage in today with the supposed aim of ‘preparing pupils for life’. With the perennial debate about sex education again in the headlines, it’s clear that some things probably do need to be specifically taught, if only because one cannot rely on all parents to do so themselves. But that position also represents the top of a slippery slope whereby there is no end to the number of socially well-meaning interventions schools should make to compensate for supposed parental or wider societal failures.

The education system has hoisted itself well and truly on this petard. Over the years, it has never stood up to those arguing that it should ‘teach’ this, that or the other; to do so would have been to admit its impotence, or at least insignificance as the guarantor of the social Good. The result has been the ceaseless expectation that teachers will have no limits to what they can or will do for their pupils, whether academically or otherwise.

I’ve done my share of ‘social education’ over the years, having been rather inexpertly involved in careers education, First Aid and more; I’ve also spent hours sitting on various box-ticking committees whose job it was to transform, for example, children’s eating habits – but whose more mundane (but one suspects actually more desired) achievement was to add another accreditation-mark to the foot of the school’s letter-paper.

My conclusion is that such lessons are always going to be treated with time-honoured scepticism by many pupils; while there may be some who do gain directly (and they may not always be visible), the majority of young people do not take lightly to such worthiness. I suspect they see it as school going beyond its remit, and probably justifiably so – and they are adept at separating general discussions from anything that might apply directly to themselves. This is only compounded by the fact that it is extremely difficult to make such lessons anything other than nebulous.

While there has always been a place for a guiding word from an adult, in general such things cannot be overtly taught. Here is fine example of the need for a more oblique approach – and more so of the perception of the need for such; the transmission of values and attitudes is rarely effective when stipulated directly even by parents, let alone teachers. These are things which are assimilated, learned from other people’s ongoing example, though this is not to deny the need for intervention when actual transgression occurs. In general, a more helpful way is via the ethos of a school, and the  behaviour  modelled by those who lead and work in it. The error is then doubled by judging teachers and schools on the ‘outcomes’. In fact, it is equally possible that all we are doing is antagonising young people, perhaps even awakening their natural rebelliousness, or worse: it is known that prisons are a breeding ground for criminal technique…

Where more is needed, a pithy five-minute discussion within normal lessons can be productive, assisted by the fact that the matter in question tends to arise naturally, in a non self-conscious manner. This is a technique I have used to advantage on many occasions, and I have found that it tends to command more attention than any enforced programme of worthiness. It does, however, require sufficient flexibility in lesson –planning to make such digressions acceptable – and a teaching body sufficiently adept as to embrace issues as and when they arise.

This is a fine example of the own-goal typical of over-controlled education. While its intent may be valid, its desire to standardise, specify and measure has done more harm than good. The most meaningful way of embedding ‘desirable’ values in pupils is by having teachers who personify them; instead we have an imposed, extrinsic, corporate view of correctness. It has directed such things to be delivered in a way that almost guarantees resistance from many young people – and then it wonders why it fails to make an impact.

Yet it has become almost the dominant view that education is primarily about life-skills and life-chances. Well, in one sense, it always was – but not in the overt way that believes it can control both the inputs and the outcomes. The consequence, of course, has been ever-greater demands on teachers, backed with the emotional blackmail that if one drew a line then one was letting one’s pupils down.

Secret Teacher was absolutely right to draw closer limits to their aspirations – and not unreasonable to be seeking a degree of intellectual fulfilment as a motive for their work. That model also represents a more realistic and sustainable ambition for what one might expect of a typical teacher. It is especially regrettable that such intellectual fulfilment is now non grata and that the only acceptable motives derive from ‘welfare’.

Charley says… “Don’t go into teaching if you simply love your subject.” It’s a pity that we have lost this one to the profession as a result.

 

 “Charley says” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charley_says.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charley_says.jpg

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Fluidity

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Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina seems to have prompted a lot of discussion about the progress being made with artificial intelligence, and whether it will ever supersede human life on earth.

Of a number of articles in the press, Nicholas Carr’s in The Guardian was perhaps the most thoughtful. The debate falls into two camps: those who believe it is only a matter of time before A.I. becomes capable of outsmarting humans, and those who believe it never will.

Carr identifies the problematic non-transferability of artificial intelligence – in other words, A.I. can be vastly smart at what it is programmed to do and simultaneously hopeless at anything outside that realm. In the wrong hands, such single-mindedness could be lethal.

He also proposes that what makes humans smart is not their ability to process vast amounts of hard data but their ability to make sense of things, drawing on not only information but also observation, prior experience and emotion, and then weaving them into a whole, in a way that permits us to respond to the world in a manner both more sophisticated and subtle – and less predictable – than any machine. It’s going to take a formidable machine to equal the 100 billion neurons in the human brain.

This is why I think Carr is right when he says that the advantage we have over machines is that we are alive and they are not. The important thing is the fluidity of thought that those 100 billion neurons permit. Machines may become better than humans at specific tasks – but as Rhodri Marsden observed in The Independent, while we might end up with a cyborg that can paint like Monet, the chances of its also being able to come up with Duchamp’s Urinal are pretty remote.

In a sense, we are once again discussing the concept of causal density – the idea that reality is so complex as to be unpredictable. And the human mind is part of that. What makes us human is not our ability to be rational, but to go beyond that, into the realms of creativity, imagination, empathy and emotion. Machines can ape some human emotions, but that’s about as far as it goes – and as far as we know, they don’t actually experience them.

Carr suggests that a greater threat is becoming too dependent on A.I., such that we eventually lose those higher abilities. There is some evidence of that already, and I think there is more emerging in schools, where we might expect to see the first impacts of new technologies on up-coming generations. In particular, I am thinking about the decline I perceive in manual dexterity, including handwriting and general graphicacy.

Carr also discusses MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), which he claims are not being as successful as was predicted. He argues that this is due to their failure to replicate one aspect of traditional teaching: the largely indefinable effect of putting real human beings together and getting them to interact; here is another way in which the human sum becomes greater than its parts, and it’s why I believe that human teachers will always be, if not technically needed, at least desirable in human terms. Even if we can produce machines that one day can replicate such traits, I have my doubts that they will interact with humans fully successfully, simply because people will never trust a machine in the way they trust another human being.

Carr ends by suggesting that we should respect the abilities of smart machines, but that we should respect human capabilities even more. It was at this point that I saw a further irony: at the same time as we are up-skilling machines, we seem to be deskilling humans. Education is increasingly being seen merely as an exercise in logic and technical proficiency. The running is being made by the scientists and mathematicians within the education sector, whose concern is (rightly) with the transmission of technical skills, but whose model is being projected onto education as a whole. Yet in conversations, I am often left sensing that such people sometimes have even less real appreciation of, or time for, the more subjective – I would say humane – aspects of life than my humanities-derived prejudice suggests.

And yet it is these unpredictable and often creative aspects that form the core of what it is to be human. The majority of people’s lives are, I would suggest, lived more as an emotional narrative than as a data record. Major life-events are largely matters of emotion, and I would suggest from some experience that the more hard-headed amongst us sometimes fail to cope as well with such situations as the more emotionally-literate. While rationalism is of course useful, its tendency to devalue subjective experience is destructive to the quality of human lives. In educational terms, factual information only really becomes meaningful learning when it is mediated through the experience of a real human being.

Experience would suggest that such people also tend to see the management of institutions such as schools as a logistical exercise, rather than a human one. This might explain why they can appear insensitive to the disgruntlement they are wont to cause in their colleagues, and why they may make poor calls in critical situations such as recruitment, when an empathic ability to read character might be seen as an advantage.

If you are only relatively dimly aware of human sensitivities, it will be all the more difficult to factor-in the subjective elements that are needed for good logistical solutions. When planning a timetable, for example, does it really matter whether the patterns created cause difficulties or discomfort for the individuals concerned? I would argue that it can have a tangible impact on the quality of the resultant teaching.

And when it comes to lessons themselves, the same tendency is visible: we are neglecting the elusive, holistic experiences of human intellectual development in favour of a mechanised version of brain training. And we are preferring, as teachers, those who can deliver effective mechanical training over those who might have a more empathic, instinctive approach, who may value emotive quality of experience over clinical technical perfection. What’s more, those who are looking merely for technical ability will never understand the ‘something’ that many of the best teachers have,  which largely comes down to one subjective, unprogrammable thing: charisma.

Perhaps those who think that A.I. will one day outwit humans are right after all – but it may be achieved not so much by building more powerful cyborgs, but by our own goal in dumbing down human life and turning it into a low-grade machine-like experience – which is what sometimes seems to be happening in parallel.

The last product of civilisation

“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilisation and at present very few people have achieved this…” Bertrand Russell.

How we spend our leisure is not immune from general societal influences, and in surprising ways we can learn much about the nature of society from how people choose to spend their elective time. As Bertrand Russell observed, what we do with our free time is in many ways a significant challenge for society – and one which we still seem widely poor at addressing in any productive sense. The current answer seems to be “fill it with more work” – which I am not convinced makes for either a balanced life, or indeed effective workers. And the alternative, for most of the past hundred years, has become increasingly passive and commercialised.

My previous post outlined the ways in which hobbies can be seen as the epitome of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ – and I used a couple of examples of excellent model-making to show what determined individuals can achieve purely for the pleasure of it. In this post, I examine some of the less encouraging trends which may be seen as expressions of wider societal developments, and ask what we might learn from this as educators. I suggest that non-railway folk bear with the following and treat it as an extended metaphor!

Railway Modeller magazine has been around for about 60 years; I first took an edition in October 1974 (cost 35p), since when I have been an almost continuous reader. I still have some of my earliest editions, and it is interesting to compare them with the latest edition (cost £3.95).

Some changes, such as the shift to full colour simply reflect developments in publishing, and the amount of technology on offer blows the mind. Yes, you can now control your model trains from your mobile phone, or even by voice command…

What interests me more though, are the subtler changes. For example, the font-size has increased noticeably when compared with the dense pages that I used to peruse aged eleven. The articles tend to be shorter too, while the size and number of pictures have increased. The amount of advertising has increased dramatically too. From an educator’s point of view, the modelling press is clearly less demanding of the reader than it used to be.

More subjectively, the pitch of the text seems to have been lowered; gone are the erudite discussions of the arcana of real railway practice or demanding modelling techniques, to be replaced with tabloid-speak. Much of the writing is both basic and formulaic, and as I know from bitter experience, any attempt to write more distinctively will meet with liberal use of the editor’s blue pencil. Also largely gone are the complex architectural and engineering drawings that used to be provided monthly for the scratch model-maker; what we get instead are page upon page of nit-picking product reviews, not only for what is currently available but what is coming next. Many articles resemble extended adverts for certain products; the tone is resolutely one of a rather bland kind of ‘fun’ rather than anything more considered.

I’m afraid to say that the mean quality of the model making seems to have fallen too. Much of what we now see is simply the plonking of commercial products, and boring homogeneity has set in. Each month, I pass by much of what is presented, in search of something that has at least a little originality.  What constructional articles remain generally seem to assume a much lower level of technical competence than used to be the case. It’s not so much a matter of tolerating those still developing their skills, as being exposed to the completely artless – who for some reason still seem to think their efforts at retail therapy are worthy of national exposure; in a small way, it’s part of the celebrity famous-for–five-minutes culture.

Ironically, the quality, range and detail of the commercial models (all now made in China) has gone through the roof in recent years – as has the price. A fairly standard Hornby model locomotive now retails for well over £100. Then there is the cost of all the advanced electronics. The effect of this has been to change railway modelling from a creative hobby into an expensive branch of retail consumption. This is all the more evident when one compares these exquisite commercial products with the crudeness of the model settings they are actually being run on. As purchasing power has increased, so proportionately have self-help practical skill, knowledge and creativity seemingly decreased. What we are seeing here is the usurping of an eccentric, homespun, individualistic craft-hobby by just another aspect of retail therapy, the modeller being reduced from an autonomous, intrinsically motivated individual to a mere shopper, passively consuming what the market conspires to provide.

What’s more, unlike in 1974, when there was one magazine, there are now five – all pushing the same homogenous material each month – a true triumph of quantity over quality. A further development has been the emergence of an online community, and this gives much wider exposure to what people are doing in the hobby. Unfortunately, the general level is about as far from Pempoul as can be imagined, most models resembling giant toy train sets than anything more realistic. Regrettably, one sees vast numbers of comments of the type “…far beyond my capabilities…” – and I know from others’ experience that this divide between the (perceived) expert few and the vicarious, almost sycophantic majority is not restricted to railway modelling. The growth mind set seems to have been usurped by a fixed one, where people start from the assumption that they can’t do any better, while a few individuals seem to have almost become online hobby-superstars.

As an educator, I find this concerning. We seem to be institutionalising ignorance and helplessness, and it appears to be infiltrating even the most democratic, self-help orientated of activities – our hobbies; of course, it suits commerce to have it so – but are commercial profit margins really what hobbies are about? Sadly, it is by no means uncommon for those who speak out in favour of higher aspirations to be labelled as ‘elitist’ and subjected to the abuse found on many internet forums. Likewise, the one journal that still refuses to lower its sights is also widely dismissed as elitist.

Here, we have a wider philosophical point: what are those who do aspire to high standards to do? While a hobby should of course be all about people doing absolutely what they enjoy, there is a world of difference between someone ‘playing trains’ á la Scalextric and someone painstakingly crafting an accurate scenario. Those who aim high are, if they are not careful, stigmatised for doing so, and then are effectively forced to hive themselves off into an enclave which then only reinforces the impression. Here, we have an uncomfortable aspect of human psychology at work: the tendency to agglomerate into tribes, and to excoriate anyone who chooses to be different. This is particularly regrettable when the dominant ‘tribe’ tends to be founded on ignorance and low expectations. Excellence, it seems, upsets a lot of people.

Far from being a unifying force, such pressures can result in division; on the one hand we have the ‘great unwashed’, pandered to in their ignorance by the vested interests of the mass market, but without access to the higher skills and individuality of mind that are the true source of self-realisation – and on the other, ignored minorities who may struggle to endure in a mass-society, given the waywardness of their interests: a microcosm of contemporary society at large.

This brings us to a second irony: the mass market has indeed democratised the hobby. All-comers can now aspire to owning models of a quality previously only available to the wealthy few who could afford to commission the best engineering; on the other hand, this may well have lowered the general standards and aspirations of the hobby as a whole. It has certainly made the ‘special’ rarer. It has also taken power out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the large businesses that provide the products. Which is preferable? Just as in education, widening the market has not really led to the mass-availability of best-quality (was that ever a realistic dream?), but simply the dumbing-down of the mean – while those sufficiently determined or with sufficient resources have hived themselves off into perceived cliques, if only for self-preservation.

I am certainly not blaming the education sector for this: what I am describing is the result of far wider trends in the way our needs are met and the world organised. But I would argue that the effect is indisputable: the relative decline in the ability of the ‘small’ individual to plough his or her own furrow, and an increasing pressure to conform to externally-defined norms – even where this results in a lowering of quality or diversity.

This is where education does have significance. The education world itself has been subject to the same pressures of standardisation and mass-production, and many parts of it have chosen to co-operate rather than resist. The ‘product’ we offer is today more homogenised than at any time in the past; does that guarantee minimum standards or destroy high ones? It has become harder for individual teachers to practise in they way they choose, and to infuse their work with their own values rather than imposed ones. They are being forced to play toy trains, even if they are fine modellers at heart. Quite a few have chosen to leave, or to hive off into the private sector where more flexibility arguably remains.

And what of the pupils? When we homogenise their experience in the same way, when we give the impression that education is simply the passage along a mass-consumption conveyor belt, what are we doing to their perception of the world? When we define targets for learning that remove the scope for individual thinking and interpretation are we unconsciously reinforcing the conformity effect? When they do see excellence, do they see it as something they can achieve, or something unattainable?

When we emphasise pupils’ positions as de facto consumers of educational qualifications, what are the deep impacts on their perceptions? When schools endorse the commercial world (in ways they used not to do) by selling overtly-branded food and drink, or by playing the latest pop music over the tannoy during Christmas lunch, we are sending powerful educational messages, not the least of which is to reinforce young people’s central perceptions of themselves as passive consumers of stuff, rather than active agents of change with a potential for autonomous self-direction.

As I have mentioned before, I have encountered numerous students who, when asked about their free time either reply that they spend all their time on their school work – or else look at me in blinking incomprehension.  I do think that the current educational climate is partly to blame for that. That, and the overwhelming dominance of the T.V. in their lives. This is not the same everywhere, as I have observed with Swiss students, many of whom have impressive lists of personal interests and achievements – so why are some cultures seemingly less passive than others?

This homogenisation is not the fault of education – but education is surely one of the most powerful tools that society has with which to shape itself. When the effects of these trends become apparent in a field as obscure as railway modelling, it becomes pretty clear what is going on. If any blame does fall on the education world, I suspect it is for emphasising education purely as a means to work and money, and downplaying its wider benefits; that at least could conceivably be a culture-specific factor.

Do we really wish the education system to perpetuate this – or to challenge it?

Once upon a time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do It Yourself!

I don’t normally comment on specific classroom practice, partly because there is already so much out there about it, and partly because I tend to be sceptical about broad claims made for or from any one person’s experiences. I’m also not sure that pupils should be used as guinea-pigs, though I suppose the research has to be done somewhere…

But I thought I’d bend the rule to discuss one particular experience from recent weeks, inasmuch as it may shed just a little light on a wider current debate. I’m certainly not claiming any originality for the technique – it’s hardly complex – and nor am I going to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from what is after all one very small sample. I’m sure more sceptical readers will see many flaws in what I am about to describe, to say nothing of the philosophy underpinning it.

There seems to be a growing torrent of people questioning more and more of the erstwhile non-negotiable wisdoms of recent years, and this week it seems to be the turn of AfL (Assessment for Learning). As several writers point out, this has been a central plank of the drive to quantify learning, and as those writers are now also pointing out, for example here and here, the premises upon such things are based seem shakier the harder you look at them.

As David Didau (a.k.a. Learning Spy) observes, AfL is a particularly sacred cow to slaughter. That may be so, but I have had my reservations about it all along. It strikes me that the main reason we ‘need’ (want?) to be able to measure learning has nothing to do with the process itself, and once again everything to do with validating and accounting for our professional systems. I’m not saying it isn’t helpful to know whether pupils are actually learning stuff, but the notion of being able to control and measure that process accurately enough to direct one’s planning lesson by lesson always struck me as daft – unless you are obsessively worried that those outcomes might not be ‘good enough’. As Didau and others are now pointing out, not only is learning invisible, but the relationship between it and the teaching process is not the mechanistic, directly causal one that AfL presupposes. The only perplexing thing about all this is the expressions of apparent surprise and disappointment that this may be so. I think this whole edifice was just another case of wishful thinking on the part of the educational engineers.

So I offer the following experience as a small contribution to the debate. The activity concerned was most definitely not conducted with formal AfL in mind; in fact it took place before I became aware of this debate at all. All I was curious to know – in the roundest, most subjective terms possible – was what my pupils had retained in their memories from a sequence of about five or six lessons. I also wanted to create an opportunity to discuss with them the matter of personal attitudes and responsibility for learning.

It just so happens that my findings may be of some relevance.

For the first time in a number of years I have used the very simple technique of providing pupils with an A3 sheet of paper, and on the screen at the front a template with selected prompts from a recently-completed topic. All they have to do is write down as much as they can – purely from retained knowledge – about the various aspects of the topic just learned. I do not give pupils any warning of this as I want them to write without the boost of prior cramming, just to see precisely what may remain in their longer-term memories. As a sop, I allow them after some thirty minutes to choose to consult their exercise books – on the provisos that they change writing colour and that once the book is open it can’t be closed again. (Quite a few chose not to).  They are also told that ‘book knowledge’ scores credit at half the rate of ‘brain knowledge’. I actually look largely at the first section.

From a marking point of view, it is relatively straightforward, with L4 constituting reasonable description, L5 starting to offer explanation through to emerging analysis at L7 – all fairly broad-brush stuff, as it inevitably is in humanities. I have now done this task with a number of different classes from years seven to nine. Note however, that at no point did I mention targets, levels or expected outcomes to the pupils – I just left them to write unhindered by input from me…

What was almost more interesting than the actual results was the pupils’ initial reactions to the task. One should bear in mind that our ability range is positively skewed, but that many pupils perhaps have an excessive sense of entitlement resulting in sometimes-complacent attitudes to their work and high expectations of what teachers will do for them.

Many reactions were along the lines of “you can’t expect us to know all that!” and protests that they had been given no notice. These were somewhat allayed when I explained why we were doing the exercise and precisely how it would work. But there was still quite a lot of incredulity that I was expecting them actually to know significant amounts unaided. As planned, however, this provided ample opportunity for later discussions about why that was, and the implications for effort levels. It was also significant to note that most of the hardest-working pupils offered little protest and generally just got stuck in.

I was fairly hard-hearted with all requests to provide answers or significant further guidance; however, I did point out that getting started was often the hardest part, and they should just wade in with one of the questions they felt they could answer – hence the diagrammatic format. Indeed, once they started, it was gratifying to note that many pupils were indeed able to write quite a lot, often more than they expected. This in turn provided opportunities for positive feedback.

Conversely, there was a significant minority who were able to write very little; no prizes for guessing what the general attitudinal profile of those pupils tends to be. I’m afraid I left them to struggle and this later provided a useful opportunity to point out to the class as a whole the consequences of not making an effort in lessons. Who knows whether this will have a long-term benefit…

On marking the work, it was indeed pleasing to note good levels of knowledge, though less ability to explain than describe; that is of course consistent with cognitive development, but it makes me wonder whether some of these skills are less developed than they sometimes appear in more structured tasks. It was notable, however, that most of the grades were lower than the official module assessment, conducted about a week previously, which explicitly instructed pupils what they had to write to score a given level and gave them more material resources to draw on. What’s more, that task was done with minimal protest.

I think it may be indicative that taking away teachers’ ‘scaffolding’ of pupil tasks and asking them to rely purely on their own resources both elicited a very different reaction from the students and also had an impact on their apparent attainment.  I will leave readers to decide for themselves which they think is the more representative and educationally-sound practice, but I know what I think. It may also be worth reiterating an emerging argument that emphasising ‘progress’ may even come at the expense of genuine learning.

A further clear distinction was that many less-able pupils made comments along the lines of “I remember doing it, I understood it at the time but I can’t remember it now” and “I have a problem remembering things”. This is more difficult to draw conclusions from; it has certainly made me reflect on whether I am doing enough to help such pupils retain what we cover – but also whether it is in fact a reasonable or necessary expectation that they will do so. Clearly it’s necessary for formal examinations, but they seemed to be referring to limitations that are not subject-related (such as, “I didn’t understand it”) but more fundamentally cognitive issues. How much is it really possible to do about that, and how accountable should we therefore be for the outcomes?

I also think the reaction of the pupils to being expected actually to have retained any knowledge long-term was interesting. One always needs to allow for youthful hyperbole of course, but it makes me wonder whether this might show  something about younger pupils’ attitudes to and understanding of the acquisition of long-term knowledge, versus short-term recital for the purposes of demonstrating ‘progress’ and hitting NC levels. Their appreciation that learning was about anything more than a transient focus on something seemed surprisingly weak. This may be why the demands of G.C.S.E. and ‘A’ level hit many perfectly capable pupils hard – perhaps they simply aren’t being prepared for the long-term retention of knowledge, a task-skill that must surely take years. If this is the case, that lack of knowledge may also be hindering their ability to develop more complex critical skills.

If so, in real educational terms this expression of Learned Helplessness is probably doing far more damage than any inability accurately to measure what learning does go on. And what’s more, collectively it’s our fault.

What’s concerning about the questions now being asked about AfL is that the proposed solutions seem to involve tweaking systems, making them more complicated still, or even inventing completely new ones. Why we can’t just accept the fact that learning is a qualitative, oblique, almost unmeasurable process and stop worrying, I really don’t know. Formal exams will be a good enough proxy test – in the fullness of time. If it’s good enough for the Finns (and the Swiss) then it’s good enough for me.

Groucho was Right.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” (Groucho Marx)

The ripples of implication from reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion are still resonating through my mind. Rather to my wife’s incredulity, this was the first time that I had considered the issue in any systematic way, and it’s certainly not something that receives a lot of coverage in the professional arena.

The matter of introverted pupils came relatively easily to mind, having come across my share over the years, and a lot of what Cain has to say about both the difficulties faced by such people – as well as their often-unsung strengths – made a lot of sense. What was more challenging were the implications for being a teacher.

If Cain’s assertion is correct, between a third and a half of humans are at the introverted end of the scale, and this implies that there are a lot of introverts in teaching. It is possible, however, that they are under-represented due to the misconception that one needs to be outgoing in order to stand in front of a class of children. In my case, it came as no surprise, having read the early part of the book, to find myself at the introverted end of the scale.

This is not to suggest that I am some kind of timid mouse (after all, I’m reasonably comfortable not only in front of a class or taking an assembly,  but also playing music in front of a crowd), but it was nonetheless instructive with regard to some of the challenges that I have faced during my time as a teacher. What was most interesting was the realisation that issues which I have largely tended to attribute to my own individual shortcomings may not in fact be that, nor indeed failings at all, but simply the poor interface between a certain kind of temperament and a system that is not configured for it. This is not a way of offloading responsibility for such matters, more a helpful way of attributing a fairer causality between the parties.

So this post may seem somewhat self-indulgent (heck, my blog’s called Teaching Personally!) but it’s offered in the hope that others of a similar inclination may find it instructive for their own development.

I initially read Cain’s book with growing alarm; apart from the rather uncanny experience of having your own personal foibles identified and analysed in a book, it initially seemed as though her analysis was pointing towards that part of me that has always doubted whether I have the ‘right’ temperament to be a teacher. The shared wisdom of recent decades seems to be that teachers need to be outgoing, extrovert, reaching out to their pupils – and simultaneously prepared to be permanently on their backs, overtly running every aspect of their school lives in order to get the best out of them. This was reinforced by the sight of such ‘dynamic’ people gaining the promotions and the approbation of the school leadership. My own understanding that if you are any good, you will be recognised and rewarded without the need for self-promotion has proved hopelessly and sometimes painfully wrong. That said, it did help me understand why I have never felt any great desire to manage my colleagues – or have them manage me.

The minutiae of Cain’s observations, such as the fact that introverts need quiet space to recharge their batteries after social interaction neatly explained why I intuitively seek the quiet of my classroom for ten or fifteen minutes each lunchtime, why I feel the need to head fairly quickly for home at the end of the day and do my work there, and why I have always found training sessions that required group work and stranger-interaction particularly painful. And it explains why I hover uncomfortably round the edges of large gatherings of colleagues.

It may even show why I have had such difficulty accepting the more batty diktats from On High, that ranged from the merely daft through the surreal to the (occasionally) downright unethical. It explained why Doing what the Boss Tells Me is not enough, as it seems to be for the majority – and why they (as extroverts?) have on occasions perhaps failed to understand that I wasn’t simply being bloody-minded. While I have had some modest management responsibility, my own style – of largely leaving people to do their own thing unless help was sought or intervention clearly needed, maybe didn’t meet official approval.

But all this rather seemed to be increasingly pointing to the fact that temperamentally I’m simply not cut out for this job…

Perhaps more helpfully, Cain explains why intrinsic motivation is so important to me. Especially when it comes to donning the extrovert’s mask and bearing a degree of mental discomfort, it is absolutely essential that one fundamentally believes in the reason for doing so. I find this with my music too – for me, performing is not about showing off or merely entertaining, but the expression of what I believe to be a valuable but lesser-known form of culture. Take that away, for example by changing the music, and the effort simply wouldn’t be worth it. This also suggested the reason why I need time to recharge with my other interests – the more overbearing the professional workload becomes, the more I need a break from it – unlike some others who seem to have an infinite capacity to grind through it, no matter what the cost to their wider lives or sanity.

I think the same is true in the classroom; I am perfectly able to manage a class successfully, and indeed larger groups as when leading an assembly – but all the time my instinct is to shy away from such large gatherings and seek either my own company or that presence of a smaller group of individuals. It explains why I best like teaching smaller, sixth form groups, and tutoring individuals. It is certainly where I feel I excel, and the fact that students seek out my help in such settings may bear testament to this. With larger groups, I have found my own esoteric style – certainly not found in any teaching textbook – that involves a rather oblique humour and (probably not coincidentally) a degree of self-deprecation. I am definitely a horse-whisperer rather than a lion-tamer.

It may also explain why I instinctively prefer the quiet, more self-contained, more ‘individual’ pupils who to my surprise are sometimes dismissed as recluses or ‘anoraks’ by more outgoing colleagues. I find it easier to understand them on an emotional level, and I find the brash, outgoing types particularly wearing. In the past I had much work to do to inure myself to the more hurtful comments and behaviours that pupils can sometimes display; it took time and effort to realise that it wasn’t personal and that the correct response involved H₂O and a duck’s back…

Finally, it also explains why I have been most comfortable at a remove from the establishment – I need that space to function. Schools, and this profession, are interaction-intensive places but I have always felt the educational establishment to be The Other, nothing to do with me. I don’t like subsuming my own self into the larger Team, be that the school workforce or the more abstract sense of the Profession. It matters greatly that they often don’t represent my views and values; I know my own mind, what makes me tick, what drives my work – and in some cases, I feel I have insights not achieved by others who have nonetheless had more conventional success. Not that this is to say that I am contrary for the sake of it – where congruence is achieved, it is no difficulty to go along with it – but too often group-think seems to involve the sacrifice of things that are too important or too precious.

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All in all, the balance-sheet didn’t look too positive: lots of explanations for things that I took as my own weaknesses, but a seemingly lengthy list of problems. But with my brain in overdrive, it didn’t take me until the latter stages of the book to realise there was another side to it.

The most obvious counter-argument is that introverted children need their own champions – perhaps more than most, and trying to drive their introversion out of them, as extroverts are likely to do, is not helpful; indeed it may even be cruel.

Then there came the realisation, as Cain outlined, that introverts actually possess many of the skills required for deep learning. This is not to say there is nothing to learn from collaboration, but at one level it is a truism that we are alone on this Earth – and that is perhaps most of all the case inside our own heads. Deep learning is ultimately something everyone has to do for themselves, and the distractions of frenzied social situations may only make it more difficult. Teachers who realise this, model such behaviours, and promote such skills and insights are arguably all the more essential in an extrovert-dominated world. I think I can say without undue immodesty that this is something my pupils do, in time, come to value in me.

My instinct to draw back from pupils, to allow them their own space may have its uses too. The excesses of helicopter parenthood and teacher-hood seem to be creating a generation who have never had the need to be self-reliant, let alone the space to discover their inner selves. We seem to be developing Learned Helplessness to an alarming extent, and the in-your-face extroversion required from the conventional teacher-model really isn’t going to help. Being ready in the background with the safety net if needed, is no bad thing in itself; being less inclined to jump in where you’re not needed may be more helpful to young people than it first appears.

What’s more, if one considers teaching still to be a vocation, introverts are more likely to possess those intrinsic motivations that energise them to do the selfless thing. They are more likely to be in possession of a clear professional ethic than less self-aware people, and as such may be more self-regulating in both their professional behaviour and personal conduct. What they don’t need is overt micro-management that takes them away from this.

So here is an attempt to summarise the balance-sheet for introverts:

Introverts  are: Introverts aren’t:
Self contained –they have most of what they need already on board. Their energy comes from within, and groups tend to drain them. Antisocial – they make deep friendships, but normally fewer in number. They need wider society only sparingly.
Self critical – they know their own faults all too well. Team players – they prefer their own ideas
Self regulated – the self-reflection makes them more self-conscious and more likely to check false moves. Competitive (except against self)
Reflective – they tend to think and be affected deeply by what they do or experience. Self-promoters. They don’t need external recognition, and feel uncomfortable blowing their own trumpets.
Deep thinkers – they often seek theoretical understandings and patterns. Inclined to do what they’re told if it doesn’t align with their inner motivations.
Self motivated – they are fully driven by intrinsic reasons. Impressed or motivated by status. Inner success is more important.
Better dealing with individuals and small groups. Multi-taskers – they prefer focussing on one thing at a time – deeply. This can give problems with the scale of modern workloads.
Often able to develop stage personae to hide their more retiring instincts – but only if the cause is just Comfortable with small-talk. They prefer to discuss weighty matters, which others may find too intense.
Empathetic, emotionally aware, even vulnerable.
Focused hard workers – when allowed to be self-directed
Quietly inspirational thanks to their determination and profound beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? The System seems increasingly to ape the transatlantic corporate model, where to be a good teacher-employee is to conform and do what the organisation says, and not ask too many questions. In this case, it seems to think it wants lots of extroverts – that is what ‘common sense’ now suggests a teacher needs to be, the more so now that education is supposedly all about the skills that will get you advancement in the workplace. Of all of these, the ability to talk yourself up seems paramount. Society in general, at least in the U.K., does indeed seem increasingly to value style over substance, and this does not sit well with introversion. What’s more, as young people increasingly demonstrate such behaviours, it may be more and more difficult for introverts to connect with them.

On the other hand, this is precisely why a balancing model is all the more necessary. There are still plenty of quiet kids out there, and they may be getting an increasingly raw deal; someone needs to be there for them. Someone also needs to stand up for those quieter, more empathic behaviours that are, in the final reckoning more socially constructive than me-first extroversion. There is a case that the classical model of teacher as an impartial conduit for knowledge, one who has the ability and modesty to take his own persona out of the equation, may still have value.

This is not to say that extroverts aren’t needed; Cain is at pains to point out that the relationship is symbiotic: what is needed is a good balance of the two. But at present that may imply a rebalancing in favour of the quiet people.

However, it is important to realise that the system doesn’t really function in favour of introverts, and this isn’t likely to change. As teachers, introverts have many very strong qualities, which in former times were probably more recognised than they are today. But they also have a long list of things that may in the current climate be considered handicaps. As I found myself, these require a lot of work to reconcile, and the introvert may find it harder to make progress developing their professional practice than an extrovert. Above all, it is necessary to cultivate the ‘front’ that allows you to override the instinct to avoid large social groups. It is perfectly possible to do this, and to sustain it long term – but it is also true that this will probably exact a price in terms of both stress levels and perhaps perception by colleagues; this I can also vouch for. Cain goes so far as to suggest that long-term denial of self can result in more serious health problems. In the end, developing the confidence to do it your own way – provided it works – is more important than mere self-indulgence.

It could be argued that more could be done to ease the way for introverts – this remains very much an unknown minority – but I can’t say I’ve witnessed any overt discrimination. Quiet people are still appointed, even though first impressions at interview may not always be the best. Anthony Seldon may be right in appointing people who his gut instinct says can become great teacher – given sufficient time, and some may take longer than others. Maybe we simply don’t see all those who never make it… But  I certainly think the issue of introversion needs wider exposure, so that individuals can recognise both themselves and their peers in this respect, and so that institutions identify diverse strengths wherever they lie. It may mean a greater tolerance to allow people to find their own level, without being too judgmental. For that reason, Cain’s book does a great service and is heartily recommended.

My final thought is this: Cain suggests that many great leaders have been drawn from the ranks of introverts; despite their lack of overt leadership skills, their quiet determination and greater diplomacy can shine through in the end; Ghandi comes to mind. Introverts by no means need to be pushovers; once, a quarter-century ago, I was fortunate to be briefly in the fairly close presence of Nelson Mandela. Despite his reputation for a fiery temper, my overwhelming impression was of an innately Quiet Man.

Weasel words 2: Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smell a rat.

To control rat infestation, French colonial rulers in Hanoi in the nineteenth century passed a law: for every dead rat handed in to the authorities, the catcher would receive a reward. End result: more rats.

At a fee-paying school in Israel, teachers were exasperated with pupils being collected late by their parents. So they introduced a charge that was added to the school fees for every late collection. End result: late collections increased.

John Tomsett, a head teacher in York blogged recently that the instigation of formal intervention tactics with exam classes resulted in a decline in pass rates. The removal of the intervention had the opposite effect.

In the first case, people bred rats specifically to hand in, in order to claim the reward – and presumably some escaped. In the second, parents now felt they were justified in turning up late as they were paying to do so. In the third, Tomsett discovered that the pupils were becoming more and more reliant on teachers to do everything for them – what he calls ‘Learned Helplessness’ and were consequently doing less revision themselves.

I am currently reading “The Art of Thinking Clearly” by Rolf Dobelli – an excellent study of cognitive biases and other ways in which reality double-crosses us. Apparently the first-named example, which comes from the book, is called the Incentive Super-response Theory. There are many others which provide much food for thought. So far, I have been particularly struck by those entries that relate to the unsuccessful use of targets – but then so would I  be:  Confirmation Bias is another double-cross!

As the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for” – and be even more careful what effects the result of your latest ‘initiative’ will actually have.