Reinventing the wheel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forever blowing bubbles…?

Priceline.com was an online company that sold excess airline capacity. By the year 2000, the stock market had capitalised it to the tune of $150bn, or more than the value of the entire airline industry. That was, of course, before the dot-com crash of that year. A similar effect was seen pre-2008, when Northern Rock amassed loan liabilities of over £100bn on assets of a mere £1.5bn.

Reading further into Aeron Davis’ book, it becomes clear how such bubbles arise: herd behaviour dictates that more and more people pour investments into a company simply because others are doing the same. Even though people know this is risky behaviour, the short-term consequences of not doing so, in terms of lost shareholder confidence – and thereby even senior jobs, are too great. Bad practice is thus actively rewarded – and when the crash ultimately comes, those at the top simply blame everyone else, walk away, and move on to their next executive post.

In both crashes, there were a few individuals who warned of what was to come, and adjusted their behaviour accordingly. They tended to make lower returns – and thus paid with their jobs, in some cases a matter of weeks before they were proved right.

Education can’t have bubbles like this – or can it? Reading Davis’ account, I could not help but consider the possibility that it does, in the form of ideologies. The recent history of education is one of a sequence of fads that gained traction, and were wheeled out across the nation via the networking of senior managers and agenda-shapers. We have seen AfL, The Growth Mindset, Effect Sizes, Brain Gym, Thinking Hats, peer-assessment, green pens, triple marking and more follow this trajectory. Sometimes they originate in research, but quite often they seem to generate their own self-justifying ‘evidence base’ which is used to bludgeon people into compliance. For a few years, everyone piles into the latest idea, whose supposed value rapidly balloons until no one who claims to be serious about education can afford not to be doing it – and talking about it incessantly. Some build entire reputations on such behaviour.

And then the bubble bursts – not so much from financial unviability, but because the fad turns out to be unworkable, or because it does not after all deliver the demonstrable improvement in learning that it promised. I have sat in meetings where certain stellar individuals openly panned the very ideas they had been championing just a few years earlier – but by then they were onto the Next Big Thing, their careers safely intact, unlike the sanity of those who had been charged with implementing their now-disowned schemes. The collateral damage is not so much out-of-pocket shareholders as out-of-education teenagers whose schooling experience was badly distorted by such recklessness, not to mention the frazzled lives of teachers who were required to jump through yet more hoops in the process.

There are bubbles of different sizes too. Those within individual schools may be of quite some concern – but the impact of, for example, the bubble that promoted Free Schools is another matter entirely – in this case the disrupted education of those whose schools are increasingly closing mid-way through exam courses. Those consequences are not imaginary.

In all cases, education bubbles are caused in precisely the same way as financial ones: fads that no one can be seen to be ignoring, that create bandwagons of questionable practice, which can only have one conclusion. Yet everyone is required to take them deadly seriously at the time. One might have hoped for something more considered from the thinking part of society, but it seems the pressures for herd behaviour and the desire of some to build reputations and careers are just too strong.

And as in the financial sector, those who refuse to go along are penalised for their restraint with lost career progression and in some cases their jobs, for not using enough green pen, or not using group work, or failing to cook their pupils’ data records to satisfy the target-mongers. Let alone what befalls those who stand up and publicly say that the whole thing is wrong.

Oops. That’s getting personal again.

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.

The Ghost in the Machine

Professor Robert Plomin has recently published more findings following from his previous work on the heritability of academic ability, in relation to the merits or otherwise of selective education. He attributes almost all of the 7% difference in performance (as measured by G.C.S.E. grades) to factors other than attendance at a selective school – and suggests that the remaining percentile may be accounted for by genetic variations.

The Guardian naturally seized on this as further evidence against selective education, as no doubt will many others.

I would not be at all surprised if the claims made in this research regarding selective schools were entirely correct. But regrettably, this piece of research is just another example of valuing the measurable rather than (everything) valuable. What neither Plomin nor anyone else can do is measure the cultural effects of attending not necessarily a selective school, but a seriously highbrow one. It should be noted that those two categories need not overlap by 100% – though it is very likely that highly academic and thereby cultured schools will be selective, for obvious reasons.

As one who attended a boys’ grammar school and taught in a comprehensive, I can say with some confidence that the differences between the two were not in the ability-for-ability exam outcomes of the children – but they were most certainly there in terms of the attitudes and – for want of a better word – culture that the children acquired. This is something indefinable, but which still often has a life-long effect on those who experience it. It is not so much about what happens in lessons or exams, as the ‘air that people breathe’ in such places, that seems to remain in the mindset ever after. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the knowledge of having part of a so-called ‘elite’ either: it’s simply a matter of choosing to, and being able to access substantial culture and thought.

I have written recently about the inability I perceive of many to access ‘serious’ cultural-intellectual capital, and its potentially disenfranchising consequences for the overall quality of life. There is no doubt in my mind that a school that is able to cultivate a reflective, thoughtful and even highbrow atmosphere, where the pinnacles of human achievement are venerated and imitated, will better equip those who attend it with the expectations (of themselves as much as anyone) and perhaps the skills to access many life-affirming fields and outlooks. As I also wrote, this is a major (and overlooked) element in reducing social inequality – which is not a purely economic matter either.

Unfortunately, schools that need to cater for children (and their parents) who have no inclination to make the necessary effort to do this will always struggle to create such an ethos. This is not only a matter of ability, though it is still likely that the finer points of academe (not to mention any perception of their value) will be intellectually beyond some – and the consequence is that schools will have little choice but to respond in kind. This means, in my experience, that the indefinable atmosphere of an academic institution will simply never emerge, quite possibly reinforced by the staff recruitment choices that are subsequently made.

Sadly, I found my own interests and skills in such matters were largely redundant in the school where I taught – little valued by those in charge, and even less by the numbers of pupils who were unwilling or able to access what I was trying to offer. On the other hand, pop music, celebrity culture and general populist trivia were regularly promoted on the grounds that they were accessible to all; more complex aspirations mostly didn’t get a look-in. Thus the school was unwittingly an ambassador for a low or middlebrow worldview, rather than a repository for the highest kinds of human achievement, which in my view a school should be (no matter what its intake).

I should emphasise that this is not an argument for elitism – in those previous posts I argued that education should be creating opportunities for many more people to access complex forms of culture and thought. But the reality is that non-selective schools necessarily cater for so wide a range of backgrounds, that they in effect can only ever cater for the often-bland middle-of-the-road. To avoid ‘discrimination’, even many of those who might well benefit from exposure to more complex things never get the chance. The consequence of this is everywhere to be seen in our dumbed-down society, where there seem to be fewer and fewer people with the ability and inclination to engage with, and argue for, anything other than lowbrow populism.

The only  elitist or selective argument I would support is that as cultural custodians to society, it is preferable for schools to equip some people to nurture and perpetuate intelligent thought and culture than none.

So Plomin may well be right in his findings – but yet again the emphasis on the measurable outcomes of education only has failed to get near the essence of the ghost in the educational machine.

The kids are alright

I had not planned to follow up my last post with another on the same theme – but a rather lump-in-throat inducing session in my on-going talking therapy got me thinking – and then Bottomsbray’s latest post tipped the balance…

https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/it-takes-one-to-know-one/

The story of ‘Andy’ appeared to resonate, showing as it did one case where the claim that children’s futures lie entirely in their teachers’ hands was busted for the damaging myth that it is. While there are of course vulnerable and deprived children for whom school may be a salvation, the numbers of critical cases are, I suggest, relatively small; small enough not to predicate the entire system on them.

In any case, during my years teaching, I knew barely a handful of teachers who did not do their utmost for the children in their charge – and yet for most of those years, we were subjected to an unending barrage from a school which self-identified as “bullish” – of how much ‘better’ we needed to be, how we should never be satisfied with ourselves (a mentality perpetuated by some of the biggest voices in education), how there was always so much more we could and should do – and above all, how targets were therefore inviolable. Most people responded, and the levels of stress in the school were, on occasions, horrific. Despite this, most children went out to successful futures – while the staff were horsewhipped ever harder by successive managements to push the headline figures up into the mid 80’s and the school to a multiple- ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted grade. And when the figures finally dipped, as they always eventually do, the only response they could come up with was more of the same.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas, my state of mind suddenly spiralled rapidly down into the pit again; we were out shopping, and bizarrely, by the time we got home, the various physical complaints that I had experienced for many years (but not for the last, medicated one) all suddenly re-appeared: muscle and joint aches – to the point I could hardly get out of the car, headache, extreme lethargy, digestive upheaval, to say nothing of the mental fog that closed off my ability to focus on anything. It got progressively worse for the rest of the day, until I turned in. By the following mid-day after a long sleep, I was virtually back to what currently constitutes normal. I was mystified – and went in search of information. I discovered that all those problems are known symptoms of depression. While I knew that physical pain could cause low mood, I had never before considered the opposite. Nor, apparently, do quite a few G.P.’s who, when presented with unexplained symptoms (just as I had done), tend to go in search of physical causes first. It seems that it is far from unusual for depressed people to experience physical symptoms even before any mental disturbance becomes evident.

This presented the possibility that the numerous ailments of just these sorts that I had been accumulating for perhaps ten years were in fact growing signs of a longer-rooted depression that had eventually got me. Hence the reason I am writing this: I wonder how many other teachers are out there are in a similar situation, not realising where they are heading. Not all may suffer the full consequences – but it is worth pondering.

And how many school cultures are causing it? I clearly remember the depressing effect – not just on me – of the constant message that we were never good enough, that we would damage children irrevocably if we did not do as we were instructed, the outright fear of being found wanting. The message was always that to be a teacher, you first need to be tough – and that meant taking, uncomplaining, whatever the school threw at you. The message was also that schools start from the assumption that their employees are lazy and feckless. But being tough is not, in my experience, the most important quality of a teacher: being sensitive to other people’s needs is. And being sensitive (and conscientious) makes you all the more likely to take seriously what your managers tell you they want.

If I made a mistake, it was precisely this: mortgaging my own sanity in order to do what they demanded. While I did express my doubts, I nonetheless worked unremittingly, under a constant cloud of worry about whether I was doing ‘enough’: that sounds very familiar in this profession. It was only recently, when the demands spiralled ever further up into the deep blue yonder of management fantasy, when they became clearly unworkable – and when they started denying that the school even had a stress problem –  that the whole thing really appeared as the sham that it is, and I eased up.

This is not about children’s welfare; it is about management hubris – or fear. The only rationale that can justify what is now being foisted upon teachers is the insatiable lust of some school managers for advancement for themselves, or (perhaps more likely?) the protection of their own positions. No rational understanding of child wellbeing or of furthering education is sufficient to justify the absurd amount of largely pointless work now (as E=mc²andallthat said the other day) being demanded of teachers, and which even Ofsted does not require. It is the regime of zealots and ideologues, who care nothing for the practical consequences of their own increasingly barmy mania.

https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/markopalypse-now/

I am left with the possible conclusion that my difficulties were a lot longer-standing than I had considered; hence perhaps, why recovery is also taking a long time. Most of it was nothing to do with teaching children, so much as the entirely avoidable demands of an out-of-control system – a system which in the end applied such intense pressure to precisely my weak spot (my professional conscience) that I crumbled. My mistake was to be conscientious enough to take them seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, plenty of kids like ‘Andy’ come out of the system none the worse for wear. Perhaps schools don’t always succeed (on their own terms) with them – but as ‘Andy’ shows, many are capable of making successes of themselves anyway, as they always have. He is not the only one I have encountered. In fact, the diet that schools force at such children is, in itself, perhaps counter-productive, even damaging: there was no way ‘Andy’ ever wanted – or was going – to be an academic. As a resolutely academic teacher, much of what I could offer was of little use to him; what I did provide – as he fondly remembered – was a patient, consistent, supportive adult. And even on that score, despite my suspicions that other role models may have been more appropriate, I think in a small way, I succeeded.

But school managements are not judged against people like him, or the kind of encounter that he and I had. And because of that, they apply pressure to people like me, who internalise it to their own cost, to do ever more work, the only Sisyphean rationale for which can be to cover management arses.

In a way, my experience is the price the education system now exacts from teachers for ‘Andy’s’ success. It is too big a price – made all the worse by the fact that it is largely needless. Based on the witness of those I know who are still teaching, I wrote something yesterday about the education system to a former colleague that I would never previously have contemplated:

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

Andy was O.K. anyway – and such is my enduring fragility that the realisation that much of that system-induced stress was actually for nothing, was indeed enough to induce a large lump in the throat.

Well-rounded people

bench

Autumn term 1975. Monday morning started with double woodwork – and for me the slightly strange experience of learning in my father’s department. Although it’s perhaps a pity it didn’t come mid-way through the week, I always looked forward to the lesson (which was not taught by my Pa…).

Given the academic routine of the grammar school, I found great pleasure of making dovetail joints or turning bowls on the lathe for a change; in present-day terms, there is something very mindful about it. Unlike certain of my father’s colleagues, I never saw practical lessons as inferior, and I think it is where my now much-valued aesthetic appreciation and streak of perfectionism came from. I well remember my father’s fury when, one day he was summoned to the Headmaster’s office (where he was still seen as the chippie) and instructed to repair fifty wooden exam desks. He replied that he was not the odd-jobs man. Indeed, he was and is a highly-skilled cabinet-maker.

It was also interesting how some of the best in the class during those lessons were not the academic stars (though there was crossover); I think it was good that this gave those with different talents a chance to shine – and the academic ones a taste of what it was like to struggle a bit.

This recollection is particularly in my mind at the moment as my father, now 83, (and still turning out violins for a hobby) is currently collaborating with a young friend and me to construct a facsimile of a mid-century Scandinavian piece of furniture by Kai Kristiansen in American black walnut (shown in rosewood above). It is a wood he has never worked before and he is quite excited by the prospect; it is proving to be a most enjoyable experience, which has ranged from researching the original, to analysing the construction, adapting it for the workshop and personal taste, to sourcing suitable timber. A specification and price has been agreed, and construction will start shortly.

Practical skills have been repeatedly looked down on by educators in this country; it is though they are somehow insufficiently worthy, given their apparent lack of intellectual rigour. My former teacher Peter Whitton also knew this was not true, for despite being a Classicist, he was never happier than in his woodwork shop, where he too turned out fine pieces.

At present, I am starting to look at what I do next; the medication is gone, and I can feel my mental strength returning little by little. Amongst a number of ‘irons in the fire’ I am tempted to branch part-time into interior design, a field I have followed for many years. I defy anyone to claim that the processes involved are intellectually weak; indeed, I know of few so demanding exercises as solving difficult design dilemmas. And then there is the fact that one (hopefully) has a beautiful end product, which can be admired by those with the aesthetic sensitivity to do so. It is very tempting to sign up for that diploma.

Last Friday, we went to the opening night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Life of Julie Cope at FirstSite in Colchester; I am also currently reading his book The Descent of Man, and despite Perry’s lurid persona and less than rigorous academic background, let no one claim that this is not both a skilled and highly erudite man.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know individuals educated to the highest academic levels, who are not able to perform the simplest practical tasks for themselves, and who seemingly lack any ability really to appreciate (in the deep sense) beauty or fineness of work. They may have a trained minds (and I’m all for that) but they seem impoverished in other ways. Is this the cost of the narrow emphasis on academia? The ultimate sadness for my father came some years ago when the Craft & Design department he had founded and developed over forty years was closed to make way for a computer suite. No more opportunity for today’s sixth formers to do something practical as part of their week’s programme.

This is deeply short-sighted: many highly-educated people do also appreciate the arts and practical crafts; they provide a complete diversion into another deeply-rich aspect of life which I for one would never be without. Peter also knew this, as did the many clearly-thoughtful people at the Perry exhibition.

Only target-chasing educational managers seem snooty enough to disparage the personal empowerment to produce and appreciate tangible works, and to operate in the practical world as well as the intellectual one, that comes from learning these things. Our neighbouring nations such as Germany have never disparaged practical skills either – and a comparison of the two nations’ economies says all that is needed in that respect.

Bring back double woodwork on Monday mornings – especially in the most academic schools. Breadth, depth and richness in education is important.

Hustle

I’ve always resisted joining Linkedin – not sure I like their strapline (It’s who you know rather than what you know) however true it probably is…

But I am able to see some of their content, and this blog post struck me as eminent sense, perhaps one of the most to-the-point writings on the topics that I have seen. It is all the more interesting as it comes from that Heartland of Hustle, the United States.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/work-life-balance-only-losers-bernard-marr?articleId=6327795572057210880#comments-6327795572057210880&trk=prof-post

I’m not entirely sure how much of the article in the link is openly available, but it is certainly worth a read if you are able.

I think the word Hustling sums the issue up: the general mindset that says if your life is not whizzing past at 900 m.p.h. then you are a loser. Even since I stopped teaching, I have encountered many people who seem to be trying to cram so much in that they never have time for anything. And while one might naively have hoped that a sector like education, which supposedly majors on its insight and superior world-view would know better, there is little to suggest that it does.

In fact it seems to glory in hustle: the sense that to be someone ‘who matters’ you have to be rushed off your feet. And it goes even further: if you disagree, then you need to be hustled out of the system because you’re clearly not up to it.

I spent a good bit of my latter years in education urging both my pupils and colleagues (though CPD sessions) to try not to hustle. The self-harm that it causes is simply too great to be justifiable, and I would argue that organisations that deliberately propagate hustle are neglecting their duty of care to their staff. There is plenty of evidence that it is not productive either – and one might have hoped that enlightened school leaders would have appreciated this.

But in my own experience, even while the words “work-life balance” were being reluctantly and unconvincingly murmured by those in charge, their actions were still promoting precisely the opposite.

I realise that am writing this with the luxury of not having to get up and work every day   – not that I would recommend the reason why to anyone.   I am however fully involved in productive activity of several other sorts – but the impact on my own well-being of easing up has been visible enough for me to conclude that the advice is correct: human beings are simply not meant to spend their lives at the pace now being expected.

And the really concerning this is that schools are possibly the single greatest place where expectations concerning this can be transmitted to upcoming generations. What more evidence does one need to conclude that much of today’s education sector is working directly contrary to its own supposed aims?

Here to finish are a few choice quotes from Bernard Marr’s article for those who may not have access to it. I hope he wouldn’t mind.

A hustle mentality isn’t new to Americans; hard work has been heralded as the silver bullet to achieving the American dream since the founding fathers penned the Declaration of Independence. Today’s version that edgy entrepreneurs… preach as gospel includes 12- to 15-hour work days to achieve your professional goals—even if that means sacrificing your life. But are you truly successful if a singular focus to achieving the pinnacle of your career or success as an entrepreneur leaves little room for things that make you happy?

The hustle mentality is an unwritten expectation that’s pervasive in many company cultures that it seems impossible to avoid if you have any hope of getting ahead...

Yet, our organizations suffer from extraordinarily low employee engagement, high turnover and disgruntled employees. Our people are stressed out and unhealthy.

In the frenzy to get results, are we losing the meaning and joy in life? What’s being lost in the hustle is room and the precious time needed for creativity, the fun, pleasure and restorative nature of enjoying activities we love outside of work and nurturing our families. 

Being creative requires space, silence and slow time. When you give yourself that, you will likely be more innovative and more on your game.

It might be time to trade in those hustle-themed T-shirts and coffee mugs for another mantra showing you don’t buy into the hustle movement any more. Embrace the 9 to 5. Go on those vacations. It’s time to start living life, because it’s the only one you get.

 “You can’t truly be considered successful in your business life if your home life is in shambles.”

 

Notes from Beyond: The Educational Prism

“You’re looking very well”.

Several people whom I’ve met in recent weeks have all said the same thing. It makes me wonder just how I was looking at the start of the year, at the lowest point. I looked hard in the mirror, and I think it is true: nine months free of the stresses of teaching life have indeed done something to recharge the physical batteries, even though the head still does not always behave itself.

Increasing distance has continued to present a changing perspective on how I have spent the past thirty years. I certainly don’t regret going into teaching, but the impact that this unique occupation has had is now clearer. I had always thought that I just about managed to keep the work-life balance in an acceptable place, but looking back it is becoming clear just how the job had  totally dominated my life, and indeed my mind. I saw almost everything through an educational prism; my entire existence was dominated by the concept of personal improvement, even as the demands of the job were sending me in the opposite direction. Much of my sense of life-purpose, even of the person I was ‘supposed’ to be was in effect dictated by the demands of the profession. I guess this is inevitable when one does any intense work for a long period, but that does not make it healthy. It’s clearer too, why many of the non-teachers I know seem to lack a sense of perpetual harassment: they aren’t teachers.

For those who would like to know, I am well on the road to recovery, though still ‘taking the tablets’. Hopefully in the next couple of months that too will cease, and I will have a better sense of where I stand for the future. Some supply work has been offered, but at this stage I really don’t know whether I want to go back into the shark-infested waters.

For that is what education has become, for those who work in it. I hope not everyone has my experience – only now am I starting to feel real anger, as well as sadness, at what happened to me. Not only were thirty years of good service to a school thrown wantonly onto the scrapheap by a management that appears no longer to set any value whatsoever by its duty of care to its staff, not only were they willing to push me to the brink of breakdown in order to get their cost saving, but I have not even had a letter of thanks for my service, which I think should be a formality, whether they mean it or not.

I suppose I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I could afford to take this breathing space, but it cannot last: somehow the income gap has to be closed by next summer. But I think that the physical improvement that people have noticed is testament to what teaching can do to individuals; it is nothing short of scandalous that the educational Establishment is prepared, despite all the high-minded talk, to treat its employees in this way. I know of about six other people who have left teaching prematurely this summer for related reasons.

Teaching always was more demanding that it perhaps appears to the public – but for it to have reached this extreme is inhumane folly. For a profession that majors on the life-enhancing benefits it delivers, to treat its staff so wantonly is hypocritical, self-defeating and a disgrace. I’ve always felt that schools should be doing what they could to mitigate the impact of stress on teachers; instead some at least, seem intent on magnifying it. It’s a pity it has taken the experience of the past nine months for me to realise the full scale of the matter. This isn’t to advise people not to go into teaching – but realise that you may not realise what it’s doing to you – and take care.

For anyone who enjoys my scrawling, I have started a new, more general blog. It can be found at https://sprezzatura.blog/

Sense from Spielman

Some surprisingly enlightened words from Amanda Spielman, the new head of Ofsted in the last few days. She has observed that education is about more than passing exams, and that the qualitative cultural experiences of, for example hearing or performing classical music should not be foregone in a race for exam passes. But that is exactly what is happening.

She has said that Ofsted may need to start looking ‘under the bonnet’ of the headline figures a school provides, to see how they were arrived at. I am not confident she will like what she sees.

Spielman has also accepted that the current situation has been reached due to the pressures of numerical accountability on schools, noting that few people, given such targets will be prepared to risk a fall for the sake of principle. She is right – and likewise about the effect on children’s education, which has been to destroy the enlightening experience it should be and replace it with a conveyor belt.

The trouble is, the present system has too much invested in its current mechanisms; while it is true that managements have downward pressures on them, my experience suggests that some at least were all too assiduous in the way they embraced the exam-factory culture. The single biggest influence on educational culture is school-level management, and instead of standing up for educational principle, some at least sold their souls for the sake of institutional hubris. The alternative reading, that the system has actually valued intellectual philistinism so much as to allow it to come to rule the system, is worse. I don’t see these people about to execute a skidding U-turn in a way that would only undermine their own raison d’être.

From my position “beyond”, this is saddening. Spielman is voicing the very issues that I tried to stand up for in my teaching career. I never neglected the importance of qualifications for my older pupils, but ‘qualifications’ are subtly different from ‘results’. My refusal to game results or to be solely driven by the need to maximise them at the expense of children’s real education was one factor that put me where I am now.