Quality will out – part 2

Much was made recently about the fact that so many of our Olympic successes were independently educated. The implication, as always, was that this shows the lack of wider opportunity in our country. Maybe there are many other potential medal-winners out there – but a little-discussed possibility is that if those people had not had the kind of education they did, they might not have been successes either. If you attribute so much influence to schooling, you cannot avoid this argument.

The blogger Muggedbyreality made an excellent point recently, which took my own thinking further:

“…to create a strong, flourishing academic culture in a school or a subject department or a class requires a disproportionate, perhaps excessive number of persons of an ‘academic’ inclination.

…An intellectual environment seems to need a critical mass of staff and pupils who revel in intellectual pursuits to get an intellectual buzz… even in schools with a genuinely comprehensive intake and thus enough students to create that flourishing intellectual environment, it is missing.”

https://muggedbyrealitycom.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/critical-mass/

This is my experience entirely. Whatever the arguments about selection, it seems to me that the effect of comprehensive schools has been to level people to the middle. The most probable outcome when a wide range of individuals is put through a common mould, is that there will be a tendency to a mid-point norm. This may well provide uplift at the bottom – but it comes at the expense of the greatest development of the most talented. In 1980, when I entered the sixth form, my grammar was turned into a sixth form college; its character changed almost overnight. No doubt some would argue that this was a good thing – but it was very clear to those who knew it before, that the academic ethos was instantly diluted by the simple arrival and behaviour of many who did not share that outlook.

This is precisely what I feel has happened to the U.K. over the past several decades. For all that diversity is supposedly celebrated, the common culture of this country has become ever more centred around the middle to low brow. Many educated people now have tastes and preferences no different from the less thoughtful mainstream. It has almost become a point of embarrassment to admit to anything more. I am not saying that they should not participate in that culture – but the number who also retain a diverse perspective, and who have the capacity to supplement their diet of soaps, celebrity and shopping with more demanding interests and activities, seems to have shrunk. And that is without the perceived intolerant eccentrics like me who would prefer their own diet to remain entirely unpolluted with junk. In other words, the pursuit and appreciation of challenging (but rewarding) high quality seems largely to have been lost, except perhaps when it only requires the flex of a credit card. And with it have been devalued the common cultural norms and values of the entire nation. I place part of the responsibility for that at the door of the education system.

I probably appear hugely intolerant here, but I want to make a point. A nation comprises vast numbers of people, all with their own world-view and preferences. But that nation’s collective civil and cultural life is the sum of all its parts, and perhaps more than that. If there are few willing or able to uphold the more exacting end of the spectrum, the whole suffers as a result. If no one is prepared to be intransigent in the name of high quality, then it will simply disappear.

The casualty is then the collective standard of culture, thought, discourse, innovation and achievement of the nation. I would argue there is enough evidence to suggest that those things have declined in Britain, at least to claim that education has failed to act as a brake on other destructive pressures. I realise that there are very many wider factors that are influencing such trends – but my point is that at least for some, education ought to be providing a counter-balance to the mind-rot, and in the majority of the non-selective sector, I strongly suspect that it is not.

In the meantime, those who do still worry about these things perhaps perceive their last refuge to be in the remaining grammar schools – or the fee-paying sector.

In terms of the general health of a country’s society, culture and wider welfare – to say nothing of individual preferences – I find it hard to accept that it is in the collective interest for the brightest and best not to be developed as far as they can be, for the sake of a rather low-grade equality. This is certainly not the approach that I see a number of our (rather more successful) neighbouring countries taking.

However, this is not in itself an argument for selection; in an ideal world, such aspirations would indeed be achievable universally. But the reality is that this does not happen; people are too diverse to be catered for so specifically all under one roof. Academic divisiveness is a distraction: the real issue ought to be whether specialised institutions of all sorts could achieve a broader but higher-quality education for more people than the current one-size-fits-all approach. Likewise, the mechanism for selection is nothing more than another distraction. I suspect that selection’s opponents well know it.

As Muggedbyreality says, it takes a surprisingly  large number of like-minded people to create a culture. I suspect that s/he is right: I work in a school that has a significantly positively-skewed ability range. I encounter lots of clever children – but very few who are academic. There are some – but nowhere near enough to influence the whole. This is not surprising, since they come in many cases from not especially academic backgrounds, and in any case, in most populations, I suspect the numbers of parents wishing or able to project such values is small. Institutional culture and values are things that schools have to instil – and in my experience, very few comprehensives successfully do so in academic terms, even where they claim otherwise.  Again there are too many reasons for this to discuss here, though my scrawling over the past three years has covered many.

In some ways, comprehensive education has indeed been the leveller that its proponents wanted. The trouble is, it had no alternative but to level as many down as up. I’m not sure that’s what they had in mind –at least I hope it isn’t. The idea of grammar (i.e. academic) schools for all is a practical non-starter. Too many people simply do not set sufficient store by high intellectual quality ever to attain the necessary critical mass. I should add that exactly the same claim could be made with respect to schools of technical excellence, and other specialist needs.

This is the blind spot of those who oppose selection: it is not (principally) a matter of securing ‘unfair’ advantage; it is a matter of perceived cultural quality. For the most resolute of selection opponents, the principal purpose of education is social engineering; they often see teachers as class warriors. I’m not suggesting that tackling disadvantage is unimportant, but shift to a different paradigm, and the argument shifts too.

Whether the reality of selection matches that perception is almost immaterial, though my memories of both grammar school and local independents are indeed ones of integrity. As a grammar school pupil, I only visited secondary moderns a couple of times, but their different ‘feel’ has stayed with me. It was not a matter of superiority, but it was definitely different. In cultural terms, I am afraid that comprehensives are more like ‘secondary moderns for all’ than grammar schools, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Neither is this even a matter of ability, so much as attitude. The problem stems not so much from the weak-but-willing, as the indifferent and the disaffected. Putting everyone together solves nothing; the lowest common denominator tends to prevail – and if it doesn’t, those who cannot meet the standards and norms risk feeling all the more excluded.

And this does not only apply to pupils: I increasingly feel that some of my professional tribulations over the years have come from working in a culture to which I am not entirely suited, and much of my more dubious workload has actually been generated as schools battle to control the problems and tensions inherent within the comprehensive system. I chose to express my faith in that system by working in it notwithstanding the personal cost – but were I to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight I would make a different decision. There are plenty of teachers who thrive in the comprehensive setting – but there are those like me, as with pupils, who can do their best work somewhere else. To ignore their needs is no more acceptable than to do the same to any other group.

David Willets, the former trade minister, writing in Prospect magazine says research shows that non-graduate incomes are higher in areas where there are lots of high-calibre graduates than elsewhere. That spreads opportunity – but it is not necessarily an argument for making everyone a graduate. High quality has a more widely beneficial impact by raising norms.

The fact that some people insist on high quality, and will go out of their way in order to secure it is both their reasonable right, and in fact of benefit to more than themselves. In cultural terms, their effect permeates to the standards of wider society. If one eliminates such people from the wider mix on the grounds that not everyone wishes to emulate them, the effect on the whole is disproportionately large. On the other hand, distributing them widely but thinly removes the critical mass necessary to sustain them. The same applies in education, whether we are considering the needs of the academic minority or any other.

Is this really such a desirable template for a thriving modern society?

Dead Cat Bounce – part two.

Were I a parent, I would wish my children to have a traditional academic education, provided they were suited to it. Yes, I suppose I am educated middle class, but I am not knowingly part of any conspiracy – unless by that we mean my wish to preserve my own values along with the next person. My reasons for considering a selective education would not be to deprive others of the same, but simply to exercise a reasonable choice. But the reality is, strict academic education is probably only suited for – and desired by – a relatively small part of any population. History dictates that we try to foist it on everyone; we need to get real.

But I can see no reason why the fact that others’ needs lie elsewhere should deprive those who do value these things from having them – otherwise we are guilty of nothing more than another, equally insidious form of discrimination. What is more, the more difficult access became to what I desired, the harder I would be prepared to fight to secure it. This is why competition is so fierce for what grammar school places remain.

What we are forced to confront here is nothing less than the Social Contract: the relationship of rights and responsibilities between individuals and the society in which they live. In particular, the right of society to constrain or arbitrate the choices of individuals, the obligation of citizens to accept this – and the obligation on society to provide what they want in the first place. It has only become more complex as society has succeeded in educating and empowering a larger fraction of its members.

There are frequent calls from those who oppose selection to encourage the ablest teachers to work in the poorest areas. I am not going to decry that, so long as coercion is not involved, and there is reasonable evidence that people of certain talents can indeed make a huge difference in that situation. But what is being called for here is nothing more than another form of selection. This is a form of positive discrimination that the opponents of academic selection are often entirely happy with, and I suspect that if May had announced a different form of specialisation, that explicitly boosted the chances of the underprivileged – perhaps even providing preferential treatment for them – then the objections would have been far more muted.

So I would like those who might object to aspirations like mine to explain why, if it is right that if the opportunities of disadvantaged children should not be frustrated by others, it is then right that an especially able child’s prospects should be compromised in return. All this does is create a different fall-group.

True equality of opportunity should not mean its removal from those who already have it. And yet that is almost inevitably what it does mean. The most likely outcome of failing to nourish outstanding talent is that it will never fully flourish.

As I said in part one, the evidence of my eyes is that children who are indifferent or worse to academic subjects normally outnumber those who really take to them; it is not even fully a reflection of ability. This is true even in a school with a positive ability-skew, such as mine. I do not decry the non-academic: it is just that their needs are different, and in my experience, by default they normally take tacit precedence.I daily confront the problem of classes with reasonable numbers of willing children being compromised by the indifferent majority.

What is more, the claim that comprehensives encourage social mixing has only minimal traction. My experience is that children, too, largely self-select and stick with their like. In a school with a wide ability and income range, the effect is to stigmatise and disaffect the less-successful, or less wealthy, all the more. This point is often dismissed by proponents of comprehensives – but it too is what I see every day.

I cannot see that it is right that those with the values and aptitudes to benefit most from any rigorous, high-level opportunity should be deprived it because there are those who will not or do not. That should apply equally to vocational education – as it already does, uncontroversially, to fields such as elite sport. In all such situations, it requires deep concentrations of like-minded people to achieve this.

Here we encounter another of the fallacies of those who oppose selection: that it casts ‘the rest’ onto the scrapheap.

There is certainly potential for this to happen – but it is more about social attitudes and alternative provision than it is an inevitable outcome of such systems. In the past, the U.K was not good at this. One might cite Germany, where the majority of children opt for technical schools, and there is certainly little sense of inadequacy about them – or that country’s industrial and technical sector. Countries differ in their cultures, of course – but around Europe, there is no strong evidence that selective systems enhance social division, nor that non-selective ones do the opposite.

The failure to offer high-quality alternatives to selective academic schools is not in itself an argument against the principle of them, or of selection as a whole.

To me, it seems preferable to enable those from under-represented backgrounds who demonstrate commitment and/or aptitude to be admitted to places that will nurture it, than to deprive everyone of it simply because all cannot have it – or choose not to want it.

And while it is easy to argue for social integration in principle, many of those who do so would, I suspect draw their own lines at mixing indiscriminately with those they themselves deem unacceptable. In other words, the fine words mask a deep hypocrisy. Very few people make no distinctions whatsoever when it comes to these matters. I am unapologetic that in my own life there are those whom I find so disagreeable or destructive that I choose to avoid them. I can see no good reason why I should be forced to mix with them, if only for (perceived) self-preservation – though this is not to deny their right to exist.

One might argue that good influences will rub off – but my regrettable experience is that it is often the coarse, indiscriminate and ruthless who prevail, because they lack the restraints of conscience and empathy that others perhaps possess. I would go so far as to suggest that the ‘success’ of attempts to increase social integration can be seen in the increasing coarseness of our national discourse and standards of public life – even amongst those sectors of society who in past eras might have felt obliged to uphold higher quality.

 Society needs extraordinarily talented people – wherever they come from – not least because they provide disproportionately high returns on the extra resources invested in them. In the long run, this is to the benefit of all – but they need specialist provision.

This is why this issue is ideological: is it desirable to achieve social and educational equality even if that means levelling people down rather than up? There is no straightforward conclusion to that: it is possible to argue either way. For several decades, Britain, for understandable reasons has decided that it is, but globally, historic attempts to do so have all failed. And as with everything, there is a cost. In this case, it might be seen in the quality of our society – be that in the productivity and skills-base problems we face, the erosion of that part of society more inclined to uphold civil standards – and, one might add, the resultant increasing inclination of those who can, to  buy their way out of the system.

 One of the consequences of denying certain sectors of society what they desire is that they will look elsewhere for it. But the means they have to do so are rarely equal.

All social settlements are compromises, education included. Selective education is by no means a perfect solution, and it does have potentially serious downsides. But it is a mistake is to pretend that the same is not true of the alternatives. And then it comes down to which is the least worst.

This is not to argue for deliberate discrimination against the already under-privileged; it is true that we can ill afford to ignore their talents, and it is true that the most serious problem with selective education as it has been delivered in this country in the past, is the perception and reality of what happens to ‘the rest’. But that is an entirely different issue from whether education should be used as a social leveller – which is the actual agenda of those who oppose selection. What is more, acts of wanton destruction are being committed in its name: who for example can justify the dilution of a high-achieving school’s academic standards on the grounds of increasing equality of access. In precisely whose interest is this?

So far I have concentrated very much on one aspect of the debate here, at the expense of others.

But there is almost no discussion about the multiple geometries that might exist. The worst culprit is the conflation of selection as a whole with academic selection, followed closely by its conflation with the Eleven Plus exam. In both cases there are other possibilities – but as so often, this debate is reducing to black-or-white false dichotomies which do nothing to resolve such matters.

For example, there is no reason why selection could not be at least partly consultative: I would agree that in this era, the ability of schools unaccountably to pick and choose is neither democratic nor a reasonable distribution of authority. That said, schools (or some form of arbitration) might provide a more objective judgement than individual parents, who will largely fight for their own interests.

One might also have a discussion about the merits of selection by aptitude as opposed to ability; this would deal with the problem of academically-weaker but motivated children. But where is this debate? In this case, one can present a case for specialisation, whereby children could choose between various types of school according to their preferences as well as abilities. I suspect that much of the sense of injustice around selection comes from the fact that it is imposed – but this need not be so.

 The existence or otherwise of selective system is a different argument from how the selection occurs, and on what basis. Selection does not exclude a consultative process, nor the idea that it can be based on aptitude rather than raw ability. Neither need it inevitably occur irrevocably, nor only at eleven years of age.

I began by accepting that there are many very strong points against selection; I fully share some of them. Grammars are no more a panacea than anything else.

One might mention, for example, that my notion of what a grammar school is, was forever shifted from the modest but traditional one I attended by the experience of attending interviews many years ago at two in Kent. Both appeared poorly run, with widespread complacency amongst staff and pupils and with little challenge. This is simply not acceptable.

One might also accept that grammar schools are not what they were – the practice of tutoring and cramming is certainly much greater than it used to be, and this very probably plays to the disadvantage of those who do not receive it. But that might be seen as a symptom of a situation, or an expression of wider changes in society rather than an inherent problem, and there are ways to neutralise it.

My experience of parents facing the morality of the selection dilemma is not that they seek unfair advantage; it is that they are fleeing from what they see as poor alternatives elsewhere. That would be my experience too: I am simply not confident that even a good comprehensive could deliver the kind of education that I would want for a child of mine.

This situation already exists – but it is a free-for-all based on pushiness and wealth rather than anything fairer or more regulated. It is true that in such a situation, the less advantaged will probably lose out. But we need to ask why certain sectors of society have this perception to begin with. Trying to prohibit it will not work – as with all prohibition, it just tends to send the problem underground. Seeking to deny those people who pursue this course their choices will make no fairer society than denying any other sector their rights – but spreading the benefits more widely could.

It is also not wholly true that grammar schools are simply private schools on the cheap; this is another careless generalisation by their opponents. Grammar schools often provide for those who value academic education but lack the wealth to pay for it; in that sense they are part of the fight against the privileges of wealth, as embodied by the private sector. That is the error of understanding of those who unquestioningly oppose them. Education has been so portrayed as a simplistic fight against privilege that all the other arguments have been marginalised.

 The caricature of a grammar school as being packed with self-serving middle class types is not one I recognise. By no means all grammars are ‘posh’.Even if that is the modern reality, it may more reflect the shortage of desired provision, rather than a conspiracy. The presence of more such schools would weaken such sharp-elbow tactics, while the replacement of the Eleven-Plus with alternative methods would neutralise the ability to exam-cram. This is not an argument against the existence of such schools.

Even if middle-class pushiness is objectionable, in a fair society why are such people to be denied access to what they too desire, so long as this is not at the expense of others?

This is also in part the cause of the exam-factory education that we have today. In schools where reluctance is the dominant pupil characteristic and schools are judged on how well they overcome it, it is hardly surprising that sweatshop coercion has become the method of choice. The casualty has been any sense of education as being of intrinsic value.

For many, it may never be – but time after time, I encounter pupils who ought to have a wider appreciation – but don’t. And as a teacher, I earnestly believe that some of my own energies and aptitudes have been wasted because non-academic schools have no use for them – and I have been forced to become a conveyor-belt teacher, even though that does not best suit my temperament or abilities. Yes, I am myself a legacy of a grammar school – but the qualities they imbue, of which I hope I possess a little, are in severe decline in this country, to our repeated, collective disadvantage.


 

In Zurich, even the Gnomes use the trams. Certainly, one may observe a great cross-section of Swiss society on public transport; even buses do not carry the negative social connotations that they do in the U.K. Plenty of people in the more urban areas rarely use their cars.

I deeply sympathise with the instincts of those who argue that social cohesion needs to be strengthened, but I cannot see that this can be done by coercion. It is true that the worst problem of selection is what happens to those who are not selected. But the refusal to allow individuals and social sub-groups to exercise choices that reflect their own values results in a less free society, rather than the opposite.

In Switzerland, the people who do not send their children to state schools are seen as a curiosity. Very few people opt out of the system (which is selective, but consultatively so), just as people of all backgrounds use public transport and most residential districts are far less polarised in this country. But the only way to achieve this in a modern, educated democracy is to create a system that is so good that people choose to opt into it rather than the opposite.

 The way to increase social cohesion is to provide as many high-quality pathways as possible. This encourages people to opt in rather than out. Forcing everyone through the same ‘average’ mould will only result in those who can, opting out in favour of what they prefer. This is precisely what has fuelled inequality in Britain.

That demands a commitment to excellence, a significant amount of resourcing, and an acceptance of natural human diversity with commensurate willingness to accommodate and cater for it. Trying to achieve the same thing by forcing all through the same mould can only accentuate the resentments and divisive forces that are such a feature of modern Britain. It is this point that those implacably opposed to selection in education cannot see.

What I have discussed above is not in itself sufficient to say that we should have selective education, let alone that we must. The problem of what happens to the non-selected vexes me as much as anyone else – but as I have shown, there are other geometries that are never even discussed.

Theresa May seems to have picked a fight she will probably lose – and made it worse by couching it in terms of a return to the past. But I think the argument about increasing choice is correct; what we need to be having is a discussion about how such choices are made, and between what alternatives.

The problem with grammar schools is not them – but how bad the alternatives were allowed to become. We should be offering better choices to those for who do not want an academic education and are alienated from school by it. There is no reason why one alternative should not be comprehensives: I think there are plenty of the ‘more privileged’ who would send their children to them on equally ideological grounds. But it would also no longer deny a strict academic diet to those who wanted it. Technical schools should be another choice. Percentage admission rates and other criteria should be part of the discussion.

Someone once said that the civilisation of a society is measured by the way it treats its minorities. In modern Britain, it is those (of whatever background) who value liberal academic education and a high-functioning intellect who increasingly constitute the minority. Who will fight to protect their rights?

Dead cat bounce – part 1

The issue of selection is back on the agenda, and temperatures are rising. Is this anything more than May’s dead cat bounce to deflect attentions from Brexit?

However the issue will never be resolved until a mature discussion can be had – and that seems as far away as ever. I have tried here to discuss some of the underlying issues that rarely figure in the headline debates. It is a long piece and will appear in two parts. For those who wish to cherry-pick, my key points are summarised in the boxes…

 

There are many reasons why my wife and I have never had our own children – but the innumerable dilemmas that face modern parents are certainly not something I miss. Chief amongst them is the vexed issue of education.

As expected, the can of grammar school worms has been re-opened. Quite why, at this moment, I don’t know. Perhaps May is more scheming than some suspect, and she knows it will be a good way of drawing fire away from Brexit…

I really do not know what to conclude of the grammar schools issue – but what I do know is that the venom it draws forth is such that measured debate still seems all but impossible. For all that I am prepared to make the arguments for selective education, I am far from decided about them, and I accept the underlying principle of education, that it should maximise opportunity for all, irrespective of background.

What I really want to see is a properly considered debate, but yet again the opponents of selection are wheeling out the well-rehearsed sound-bites, in some cases with such venom that a proper debate is the last thing we will get. The selection issue is in actual fact a conflation of several different arguments, none of which ever gets much of an airing, and for which the case is far more complex that its opponents will ever allow to be heard.

The grammar school issue is par excellence the one that shows the extent to which this so-called profession is still ideologically rather than intellectually driven. For all the claims of professional rigour, the valuing of objective ‘research’ and the tomes of worthy comments supposedly exalting educational excellence, when it comes to matters like this, the education world descends into simple, bald dogma.

 The failure to have a reasoned discussion about selection shows just how dogmatic the education profession remains. We will never move forward until the arguments in favour are properly debated.

Furthermore, while it is normal that professional consensus will emerge, that is no guarantee that it is the product of high-quality deliberation rather than the ability to shout the loudest. More than anything, I object to the fact that one faction assumes it is entitled to define the terms of not only this debate but of education as a whole. In the process, it is quite prepared to ride roughshod over any opposition, no matter how considered, and no matter how much disharmony it creates in the process. I had this experience in my own workplace this week. So much for tolerance and sensible professional debate.

This is why I am prepared to advance the alternative argument.

In fact, the arguments in favour of non-selective education are weakened by the failure of its proponents even to consider and address the more reasoned points of the opposition; what we get instead is a hysterical, vitriolic and intellectually weak tsunami of dogma that does little more than condemn the opposition for being subhuman. I oppose the assumption that all ‘right-thinking people (in education)’ share a single view on this, and therefore reasoned discussion is not necessary. One might read more into this…

It fell to Friday’s Guardian, to its credit, to concede that while grammar schools may seem to many to be the spawn of the devil, the reasons why some argue for them may in themselves be less so.

For example, it would be interesting to know how opponents of selection explain the fact that plenty of our neighbouring countries have selective systems, and yet do not have the degree of social division within them that this country experiences.

 That education exists primarily to tackle social division is merely one opinion. It is not necessarily important enough to over-ride all others. Beliefs that education can or should be the means of tacking this issue may be wide of the mark. There is only partial evidence that it succeeds – and enough countries operate selection without extreme social division to doubt the connection between the two.

Furthermore, social justice is an intangible and subjective concept. It can never be objectively achieved. Therefore it is a weak objective for education to focus on, even though we should never stop trying to maximise opportunity for all.

The assumption that education is about social justice is not tenable. There are many other reasons to educate people. Achieving social justice is undoubtedly one of the objectives of education – but the U.K. seems to have fallen into thinking that it is the sole purpose. It is not.

Furthermore, the objectives of education may vary from place to place, even within a country. There are clearly areas where tackling deprivation must be the primary concern – but there are equally  areas where this need be a lesser concern. There is no clear reason why the whole of the nation’s education policy should be dictated by this one issue, particularly when there are other priorities (of which more later) that are arguably being neglected as a result.

What social justice really means in practice is never explained. How it differs from the politics of envy is not clear. There is a deep assumption from those who deploy this argument that the country is rife with injustice, that given a level playing field many of those who hold important positions would be ousted by kids from council estates who, were it not for the injustice of their prior lives, would prove to be far superior. Or would we simply replace one elite with another, as is often the case in revolutions?

I will not deny that there (probably) is a socially-caused waste of talent in this country – as there probably is in all. But a little-discussed consequence of education as guarantor of social mobility is what should happen to those who simply prove not to be capable (or willing) to do very much. Are the sirens of ‘social justice’ really content to let such people remain where they fester as a result? Maybe that is what already largely happens? And while I am certainly not going to defend incompetents who use privilege to attain unwarranted power, are those who advance this argument really content to allow other people to sink downwards as a result? For the consequence of the hidden assumption about the unrecognised meritocracy is that those who are currently advantaged must fall to make way at the top.

The undeclared premise of those who champion this argument is nothing more than the old chestnut of Prizes for All, the old delusion of an attainable Utopia. Unfortunately, too many in education are still in thrall to this dream, which incidentally, is not the same as the wish to cultivate all people’s potential, since it casts far too many judgements about what constitute ‘successful’ outcomes.

The fact is, for all those individuals who do manage to rise against the odds, many more are simply not able to, or cannot be bothered. Whatever the reasons for this – and basic cognitive ability may well be one, however unpalatable to some – the truth is, not everyone has the same aptitudes or inclinations. In many ways, the Left is happy to celebrate diversity – so why not in education? Caring for those who need support, as a compassionate society should, cannot be conflated with pretending that all can be kings.

And if the real priority is to ensure that no child wants for the best opportunities, then the far harder, but more significant issue is to tackle the home cultures into which children are born. Some would argue that improving education would tackle this across the generations, but this only raises a deeper issue: just who we are (middle-class professionals) to dictate to other sovereign individuals what is important in life.

Does society as a whole have the right to make such judgements and thereby curtail the rights of certain parents to raise their children as they see fit? So long as the laws regarding children’s physical and mental safety are not abused, who has the right to insist that parents must instil a respect for education in their children? The fact is, for all the decrying of middle class values, the entire education system is grounded on precisely those – the belief that everyone must benefit from what ‘we’ feel is important. It is where a lot of alienation comes from; equally, the right-thinking, left-leaning establishment can easily be accused of wanting to eliminate the problem by simply creating ‘more people like us’.

There are plenty of parents even in the affluent area where I teach, who have no such values. In fact, they and their children may well be quite content with their lives, without the intrusion of bourgeois values; I get little impression to the contrary. If one encounters people who set no store by education, but are living perfectly contented lives, who are we to tell them they’re wrong?

Technology has provided the means for most to live in at least reasonable material comfort – so if they wish to live small-scale, short-sighted (to our eyes) lives and bequeath their children the same, then who are we to argue? It is not as though higher-powered lives come with no costs. Neither, from an employability perspective is it that society no longer needs such people, and while their vulnerability to technological change is real, to some extent that has always been the case. Arguably, we need to equip them to use their lives in other ways – if they so choose.

One might go further and argue that commerce and the media increasingly cater for lower-brow majority tastes, and it is actually the needs of the more thoughtful that are neglected; in my part of the country, it is the tasteless, conspicuous wealth of those who have cash but little else that dominates. For all their failure to appreciate liberal educated values, deprived they certainly are not; they care not a jot that they offend some, but while I don’t like their mores, I am hardly entitled to wish them into oblivion. Round here, it is the higher-minded who are the endangered species.

 It can be argued that a free society does not have the right to impose ‘educated values’ on those of its members who may not want them. It may be little more than an underhand means to wish away the less desirable factions of society. The existence of the underclass, while clearly not in doubt, is often over-stated by those with a certain agenda – and it need not inevitably take priority over the wishes of other parts of society.

There is another side to this argument. Quite possibly I would not be living the relatively modest, but thoughtful life I choose today were it not for the fact that my uneducated grandparents still valued the Intellect enough to support their children through working-class grammar schools. In due course they (and we) entered the professions. Despite the equally-available opportunity, some of my grandparents’ neighbours did not do the same. Others went to the local technical college; many went down the mines. But while this might seem to justify non-selective education, in fact there were many factors other than academic ability at work.

Such life-stories are often dismissed as irrelevant, the tales of the lucky few. Well perhaps – but in my mother’s case in particular, one unpretentious grammar school in a small Midlands mining town managed to produce a considerable number of people who went on to eminence, in some cases internationally. Like my mother, from within their professions they then championed the case for others to have the same chance. In terms of the talent pool, that is worth not dismissing. Had that not been the case, those individuals may well have gone down the mines too – and perhaps be prematurely dead from silicosis. Why are such success storied dismissed by those who oppose selective education? They may not be the majority – but as I said, lack of opportunity is not the only reason for supposed failure.

It is a widely-seen human propensity that people self-select their social groupings; as anyone who has read Richard Hoggart’s study of 1950’s northern working class communities will know, this is by no means the preserve of the self-entitling middle classes as many of the ideologues would have us believe. It is also worth noting from such accounts, that the resentment of the ‘lower orders’ to their superiors was not always as burning as is sometimes implied. Are we really proposing to intervene in people’s right to choose their own social circles?

It is not true that all groups that have high entry requirements are inevitably exclusionist; in many cases this is an illusion perceived by those who either cannot – or choose not to – enter. While one could debate the pathways to access, I think it is clear that rigorous selection criteria for surgeons or airline pilots are probably a good thing. It does not mean that there is a social conspiracy to exclude large sections of society, as some would suggest.

It is self-evident from the arguments of those who profess greatest concern that social inequality has grown since the abolition of selective education. Again there are many ways to explain this – but claiming that the relatively few remaining grammar schools are to blame is not statistically tenable. Suggesting that their absence has driven more who can afford it into the private sector may be nearer the mark. And as the Prime Minister’s comments suggest – and my own experience supports – we now have selection by house prices instead.

The simple fact is, those who have the means to achieve an advantage will always try to do so, be it by intelligence or by hard cash. We have to assume that those who advocate the furtherment of the underprivileged still accept this fact – though I do wonder… What they in effect seek to do is bestow advantage on another portion of society – but ‘advantage’ at whose expense?

How far, in a free society, should we intervene here? Unless we are advocating a full-blown communist revolution, there are few signs of how it will ever be prevented. Perhaps it would be better to harness this tendency rather than disown it? In which case, when it comes to access to academic education (indeed, all types of specialist provision), I would far rather it were allocated on the basis of the potential to benefit and use its legacy wisely, than on either the distribution of cash in society – or the random throw of a dice.

When I became a teacher, I wholeheartedly endorsed the comprehensive ideal – but in thirty years, I have never encountered a comprehensive school that came near the academic ethos of a grammar school. As one who attended a grammar but worked for three decades in a comprehensive, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge this than many.

Such is the nature of a comprehensive school that even good ones struggle to assemble a really strong academic centre of gravity. Even my own – which is comfortably within the nation’s top hundred by results – increasingly struggles to do this. By specialising, academic schools simply have the ability to cultivate and insist on a culture that does not arise elsewhere. As Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it, they are “intellectual hothouses bringing working-class kids to the world of ideas and debate”. This is the identity I recognise, not that caricatured by their opponents, of state-sponsored, fees-free private enclaves for the middle classes.

[to be continued.]

Blink!

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell is a somewhat esoteric writer who became known through his work on tipping points and it was also he who originated he idea of 10000 hours to mastery. His work has not been without controversy.

Blink concerns itself with the processes that go through the sub-conscious in be first couple of seconds of thinking about something. Gladwell’s contention is that our minds are able to make highly effective snap decisions even before our conscious thinking processes have had a time to kick in.

He cites examples where experts were able to predict outcomes of events too soon for rational processes to have happened, and a number of cases where fakery was detected by people who ‘felt’ there was something amiss, even though they weren’t quite sure what.

He examines the ability of mavericks to out-think the system by using instinct and doing unpredictable things – and he also considers sometimes tragic occasions where the ability to read situations went wrong, which he suggests is down to the interruption or disruption of people’s instincts by distracting events.

This makes for interesting reading, and there are a few education-specific applications within the book. For example, Gladwell asks to what extent teachers should frame their guidance to a particular student based on the rational knowledge of standardised test scores, and to what extent on a more instinctive knowing of that individual.

This might also assist one of my long-standing betes-noires – the disconnect between the rationalist approach to classroom management  and the more humane-instinctive approach, which I favour.

Gladwell suggests that long experience has the effect of embedding in the subconscious much learned practice, such that it can be accessed without the need for a conscious process of introspection. I have been watching myself (and my pupils) this week with this agenda in mind. It is striking how much in-class interaction happens in the sub-two second zone. The ability of a teacher to read and react to a particular event, be that a normal intraction with a pupil or something exceptional, mostly seems to rely on what they process in under a couple of seconds. Indeed, the ‘life’ of a class depends very much on the kind of experienced spontanaiety that this generates. An hour in which everything happened only at the speed of deliberative thought would be long and dull indeed.

It is my experience that this is one of the facts that most distinguishes the experienced-teacher me from my former novice self. It would also seem, however, to be something that has been overlooked in the drive to make teaching a planned and perhaps rigid activity. I think this might be one of the ‘missing pieces’ in my case that teaching is largely a matter of heuristic skill rather than consciously practised technicalities. Or at least that it is this rather than adherence to external rules that makes for successful teaching. I would go further and suggest that the ‘sparkiness’ that can make a lesson engaging derives from this skill, and the more we can operate in that zone, the more life our lesons will have.

There are two spin-offs from this: when experienced teachers instinctively react against something they are being told to do, it may not just be from bloody-mindedness – and this phenomenon might also warrant greater attention in situations when engagement with the educative process is not all we would want, and where technical fixes seem to be failing.

NONE AT ALL

I hold two enduring images of fifty-something teachers in my head. They are both male, perhaps because they draw to some extent on people I have known, and perhaps because they also serve as the poles of the role-model I hold for myself. I apologise to female readers…

One is polished, urbane, supremely assured, completely in control of his work and his life. He is a successful teacher, probably head of a largish department (in the days when HoD still meant something). Nothing comes as a surprise to him – he has seen (and dealt) with it all before. He is liked and respected by his pupils, and treats them with a mixture firmness and good-humoured condescension.

The other sad character lacks confidence, is slightly dishevelled, probably has leather elbow pads (a sore point for me as a geographer) keeps to the shadows, and is both the butt of disdain and the recipient of hassle from his managers. Long-suffering personified – but he is not necessarily a bad teacher.

Most importantly, both are their own people – and neither probably fully exists.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am sulking as a result of the mishap outlined in my previous post, and I would like to thank those who have made or sent supportive comments, notably e=mc²andallthat, whom I met once and found to be much on my wavelength. But it’s true, my professional pride was bruised this week and it nudged my self-perception slightly towards the perhaps less desirable end of the spectrum.

I think the consummate professional would take the blow on the chin, identify what went wrong, and move on. So that is what I have done. I am annoyed at myself for getting a few things wrong, notably forgetting that the school introduced (I’m tempted to say imposed) a new observation form this year. I prepared using the old one, only realising my error five minutes before the observation took place. I also took at face value the new advice not to produce lengthy plans for observations; had I done so, I could have spelt out some things that went overlooked.

Bizarrely, I had a slight sense of sleep-walking towards my doom, probably not helped by an actual shortage of sleep over recent weeks. But I also refuse to angst over the things that I know full well were simply the misfortunes of chance.

It is absolutely right that one should ask oneself hard questions in such situations – I am not in the habit of defending the indefensible, but I do know that I am fundamentally a perfectly competent teacher, and it should take more than one somewhat poor lesson observation to dent that . Quite how I deal with the recent self-realisation of just how much I change under scrutiny is another matter.

But I am also annoyed at a system that generates these problems in the first place. Once again, my reluctance to discuss publicly the specifics of a particular school makes providing detail difficult, but there is value in reflecting on the wisdom of using an observation form that stretches to four pages of close A4, over twelve narrowly-defined categories. Often it is stipulated that the absence of concrete evidence must result in a ‘Requires Improvement’ verdict. While there is a certain logic, this narrows the scope of what a teacher can do, and utterly ignores the fact that much of what makes lessons work is subjective or impressionistic, or both. One is guilty until proven innocent.

It also flies against the policy that there is no (longer a) presumption for or against any particular teaching style, as what is expected all but ties both hands behind one’s back. The effect is rather insidiously to deprive both of my bi-polar role-models (and everyone in between) of their essential autonomy and turn them into powerless apparatchiks of the school-state.

I was actually somewhat heartened to read the form, as most of the criticisms were in fact defaults to R.I. because I hadn’t demonstrated the required form. This is less damning than criticism of my actual teaching, of which there was little. Basically, I once again demonstrated my inability to jump through hoops.

It didn’t help that the two observers were both young and relatively inexperienced, despite their rapid promotion; I suspect they found it difficult too – but they were confined by the stipulation of tick-boxes that leave no room whatsoever for interpretation or wider context. And I think this is the lesson to be drawn here: over-constrained scrutiny engineers a magnificent possibility to snatch failure from the jaws of success. The wider profession seems, slowly, to be realising this – so why are schools like mine and that of e=mc²andallthat heading in the other direction?

I talked over my lesson with a couple of colleagues. During the feedback, I enquired whether certain significant subtleties within my lesson had been noticed; the reply suggested not. Again, I don’t cast blame: I’m not sure, aged 25 I would have spotted the finer points of a lesson from a thirty-year teacher, either. But as one of my colleagues said, it seems as though I have been judged using tools insufficiently sharp for the job.

I am now wondering whether to let this lie, or attempt a response – and this is my main point for writing in detail here. Some time ago, a senior colleague ran CPD on conducting “Courageous Conversations”; someone asked whether this included conversations up the hierarchy as well as down. It appeared that the possibility had not been considered.

I know that some see me as wordy (some readers might agree!). But education is a complex business, and sometimes it is necessary to develop ideas at length. After all, we would criticise students who did not attend to necessary detail. And when we are scrutinised in such precise and minute detail ourselves, is it not reasonable to expect a detailed response?

So I shall be writing a response to the observation, but it will have to be on plain paper. The room provided on our new observation form for a comment from the teacher is – well, I think you can guess that…

Contrary wisdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

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

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

Excerpts from the blurb say:

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

Well, Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will report back when I have read the book.

You Take the High Road…

the path forks

The end of a year in which the contradictions within education became even more apparent – as did the inequalities between the paths one can take…

The balance is shifting towards traditional teaching.

Though my instinct has always been for traditional techniques, years of exposure to progressive doctrine had their effect, especially while one’s perceived success as a teacher palpably hung on its adoption. But things have begun to change: most importantly, a coherent rationale is emerging for traditional approaches. This is important because it counters the claim from progressives that traditionalism is little more than the confirmation-bias of a bunch of luddites.

But whether it will translate to anything more substantial in schools remains to be seen. From my own experience, the progressive message has gone distinctly quiet, but the alternatives are hardly being given coverage.

My own determination to adopt a more traditional approach was sustained. I am not claiming unequivocal success: as with all outcomes in education, it’s not as simple as that. But despite the difficulties encountered with pupils whose expectations were clearly of something else entirely, I can cautiously say that plenty did start to exhibit (and expect) more formal educational behaviours.

We need a clearer path for classroom teachers

One of the problems with traditional teaching has been the lack of career progression. Once one had mastered one’s classroom, there was little left to do except gradually turn into Mr. Chips – hardly a mark of success in a career-obsessed world. This, fundamentally, is the reason for the growth of Management – it provides a more acceptable and defined career path for teachers. But in doing so, it removes people from the core business.

Many of my teacher-friends in Switzerland exhibit little desire to take the management route: they seem happy developing their academic and pedagogical skills, and this seems far more acceptable than it is in Britain. I suspect that the flatter management structures and the relative lack of career snobbery make it easier. My closest friend in particular seemed perfectly happy until his recent retirement (and despite his doctorate) to develop his personal practice without the need for hierarchical validation; he is not alone.

In the U.K., remaining in the classroom is still seen as a dead-end that is becoming increasingly unattractive due to the growing pressure on classroom teachers from elsewhere. We need a more appealing second route – and it needs its own type of performance criteria.

Despite initiatives such as Advanced Skills Teachers, it is not easy to pin down good teaching in ways that make it short-term accountable – or rewardable – in a system dependent on tick-box criteria. But it may not be necessary either. So long as teachers’ incomes are not significantly eroded, people who follow this path may be less concerned about hierarchical prestige or financial reward in the first place. What is more important is preserving the autonomy for them to teach as they need.

It is quite possible for teachers to ‘plateau’ once they have mastered their classroom – but I increasingly think this is not the end of the matter. My reading over the past couple of years has yielded many insights into behavioural and philosophical matters that have enriched my understanding of what I do, materially influenced my professional behaviour and increased the effectiveness with which I respond to my pupils.

Little of this is outwardly observable, let alone box-tickable, and little of it needs to be implemented in an unremitting, doctrinaire way. It is more a matter of the person one becomes – and the ways in which this informs one’s personal practice. There is a pleasing solidity to the inner knowledge that, at last, one has reached a degree of professional depth and resilience that endures, no matter what ‘the system’ throws at you.

So just at a time when the future appeared to promise only ‘more of the same’, through the clouds new heights have become visible – and maybe therein lies a way to develop a more profound definition of what it means to be a classroom professional. It needs to become more possible and acceptable for people to pursue this route – and this means providing the means for development equal to those available to managers.

But…

You can’t go down both paths.

A vacancy arose for Head of Department, and at long last I felt confident that I could do the job and address the specific issues. But it became clear that I am too far down the Mr. Chips path and the role went to a young chap a couple of years in. I am sure he will learn (steeply) – but I doubt the wisdom of closing off such roles to those with the insight of years; time was when many heads of department were in the latter stages of their careers.

Maybe I am a late developer – but I know things now that would make for more considered decision-making, and the implementation of far sounder educational practices than when I was younger. I think it was the unformed awareness of this that prevented me from making a more convincing case for promotion in my own early years. But external appearances count – even though, as Kahneman observes, brassy confidence may simply betray lacking awareness of the limits of the possible. It seems as though one must choose at a stage of one’s career when these greater truths are still invisible.

There is still only one route open to the success-hungry teacher – and it leads away from the classroom. What is more, those left behind are ever more closely controlled by people who took it. By taking the path labelled ‘management’ one starts dining at entirely different tables – and one’s diet becomes that of effective management rather than effective teaching; they are not necessarily the same thing, even if those in charge seem to think otherwise.  Thereafter, developing further as a teacher is either taken for granted – or of limited interest. Clearly, management is needed – but why is the path of pedagogy allowed to peter out in a thicket, while that of management leads on to ever richer pastures?

How will this lead to better education in the future?

TP will be taking its customary break over the summer; no doubt issues will arise that require comment – but normal service will resume in September.

All I Remember…

The ultimate test of how well educated someone is has to be what their brain can do without any external support. I have continued to use my ‘brain only’ tests this year, and my pupils have increasingly become used to the concept, which has also been adopted by some colleagues.

Yet it has proved surprisingly difficult to ‘unlearn’ the thinking of years: for much of my career, the singular message has been about making classroom materials ‘accessible’ to pupils – for which read Not Difficult. The origin of this thinking is clear: the progressive view that education is primarily about enfranchisement of the less-privileged.

I have no objection to the sentiment – but it increasingly looks like monumental folly to believe that one can empower people intellectually by reducing the demands made on them. After a year of deliberate watching, there does seem to be a connection between the degree of retention and the difficulty of the task – people remember things that make demands on them. And yet the niggling concern about accessibility still lingers…

During such activities, pupils are often moved to express the difficulties they are encountering, and this can be instructive. One of the regulars has been “I understood it at the time, but I can’t remember it now”. Another frequent issue has been pupils struggling to express their ideas because of poor command of language.

I wonder how much we can really do about this. As teachers, we certainly need to consider strategies that will help pupils to remember what we teach – but it is possibly a step too far to claim direct control over their memories. Mnemonics have been used by teachers since time immemorial, but there remains a difference between self-consciously remembering something using such artificial means, and just knowing it, which is surely what we really want. To what extent do teachers have any real control over what moves into pupils’ long term memories?  And are we actually helping if we claim we do – or simply removing from pupils the obligation to do the essential work for themselves? Clearly we can work to improve communication skills – but I’m afraid that experience points to the fact that people do have internal limitations, Growth Mindset or not. Improving memory? I’m less sure.

Again, the progressive view would be to encourage engagement, and it is certainly true that interest can improve motivation to know. But my current reading of Kahneman also suggests that thinking is inherently effortful, and in many pupils’ minds engagement appears synonymous with not having to make much effort. Being a beginner at anything is inherently difficult; giving up is the default setting. Real engagement has to come from the internal desire to improve, and if that is lacking, no manner of externally-applied gimmicks will fill the gap. Perhaps the question here has to be how we challenge some children’s aversion to the learning process in the first place, rather than how we hoodwink them into mimicking it. Perhaps being honest about the demands would be a start.

Given that we are not prescient, knowing what pupils will remember in future remains a matter of guesswork, though I think that Bjork’s work on the effect spaced learning on retention is onto something important, even though it’s really just a fancy synonym for practice and experience! But if our teaching has been effective enough for pupils to understand at the time, there is perhaps relatively little more that we can do.

That is not to say that retention cannot be improved. As I’ve mentioned before, my involvement in traditional music has, to my mind grown that ability. Being able to recall many hundreds of tunes at will has undoubtedly made it easier to acquire new ones, whereas my wife who is only a few years into a similar musical journey still finds memorising a new tune much harder work. But the key here is that the work can only be done by the student. The key elements are the desire to ‘know’ the piece for its own sake – and the technical skills to acquire and execute it. If the pupil’s expectation is one of low input – and low self-expectation – then the going is likely to be all the more difficult.

What with the struggle I have had to get my older students to revise rigorously, and the protests of my younger students over being made to work using only their internal resources, it seems to me that something is wrong with the expectations of today’s learners. No doubt the distractions of technology, an off-the-shelf lifestyle and the dumbing-down effect of the media have played a part.

I suspect that the upping of the educational stakes has not helped either. As Lord O’Donnell recently observed, the government’s obsession with exam results and its belief that they are the best indicator of future personal effectiveness is potentially deeply damaging to the learning process. The shift of emphasis onto teachers has communicated the message that all the pupils have to do is sit there.

I know that trying to learn a new tune is more difficult if external pressure is applied; what I need is a neutral, unpressurised space in which to bring my undivided attention to bear on a specific task. I also know that I need to be able to take a break – if one task led unremittingly to another and another, the joy in learning new music would quickly evaporate – and that is without the consolidating effect that taking a break seems to have.

I think the same is true of learning more widely. Learning (and teaching) is best done in unthreatening circumstances, when the mind can be freed from external distractions and pressures. It is more effective when the parties involved understand their natural roles clearly. Confusing this with creating challenging learning tasks may be actively hindering people’s ability to learn, let alone their motivation to do so. Applying external pressure is distracting and depresses the ability to think.

If so, it is doing untold damage to the learning prospects of children – and the professionalism of teachers.

Putting the shine on it Part Two: the God of Small Things.

I’ve always viewed my own professional practice as discrete from the work I do for my school. This is, of course, to some extent a conceit but it serves to remind me about the locus of responsibility for my teaching – and also my reasonable right to develop that practice as I choose, independent of the ideological impositions from outside.

Nearing the end of year 28, I am in the generally pleasant (when unwelcome reality doesn’t intrude) position of having the basics under my belt, of being able to concentrate on and enjoy refining the niceties of my technique. Having said that, something big and totally unexpected will probably creep up and mug me next week…

My card-writing student had just completed a module of A2 work that I consider to be the pinnacle of both my students’ school geography careers, and also of my teaching. It means preparing them for a ninety-minute paper that effectively involves writing a mini-thesis in response to a previously unseen question; there is of course a steering brief from which we work. This brings the students close to undergraduate level, and involves them in individual research, with my role restricted to an amount of factual information-giving and then a great deal of chewing the philosophical cud with them. It is the nearest I get to seeing the ‘finished product’ of my efforts with them, and mighty satisfying it is too, with those who take the bait, when the thinking genuinely does start flowing in both directions. I reckon if they can do this, they have become pretty good thinkers for their age. And if I can do this, I must know my subject pretty well.

I’m certainly not complacent enough to claim I have nothing more to learn – even a time-served teacher can still have an off day, and that’s without the vagaries of the kids. This is why ‘outstanding’ is such nonsense – most of us probably are some of the time – and all of us probably aren’t some of it too. But nonetheless, I am generally enjoying my time controlling the job (relatively speaking), after the many years when to a greater or lesser extent, it controlled me – and before what I suppose will be the likely decline in energy as I approach my sixties and retirement.

I’m not sure my employers, with their different concerns, would agree, but I feel secure in my own mind that I now have a significant understanding of the complex phenomenon that is education, and that I can apply it in practice. The more things progress, the more convinced I am that the arguments presently being advanced for traditional teaching are broadly correct, and that the assumptions underpinning the progressive movement have been one huge intellectual and behavioural wrong turning.

I am equally certain that the present climate of narrow and unrealistic accountability, the targets culture and the general view of teaching as a merely technical procedure is equally misguided – which may well continue to do more to impair the quality of real teaching in this country than its proponents ever even realise.

The best analogy I can find for what I have found is with my other learning experiences in practical and creative fields, the end result of which is closer to that of a skilled artisan than a technician. The learning process has been one of honing skills, of learning from my mistakes and the inspiration of others, of giving meaning to day-to-day experiences by investigating the theoretical underpinnings. It is all far more human – and humane – than the present system seems to realise or want. And the key elements, dare I suggest, are well-judged wisdom and an ongoing conscience, not the ticking of boxes in a technical manual.

Again, my findings are far closer to the traditional interpretation of education than anything else, and I am also increasingly convinced that the fields of cognitive psychology, behavioural economics and philosophy can inform our practice as much as any more specifically pedagogic manuals – provided that they are not overdrawn in the way so many ‘new’ silver bullets are.

The key experiences of being at this stage are being able to  teach without even having to think about it. I’m sure that is not what Oftsed or my employers would want to hear, and I don’t mean that I never plan – far from it – but being in front of a class or dealing with individual students is now so instinctive that it is like breathing. I think you need to get to this stage before children take you fully seriously; inexperience always shows, no matter how promising the practitioner, whereas the quiet confidence of experience is such that there is no question in pupils’ minds as to who you are or what you do – even if they still don’t always play ball. This is far more effective than any gimmick.

There is almost no situation that arises of which I have not seen at least a variant before; the response is just there waiting, almost without thought: it’s just the stuff I do. Likewise the ‘pat’ comments just trip off the tongue, and the lesson character that is uniquely, quirkily mine is established enough that most pupils accept it without a second thought.

At least as important is knowing what not to do – and having the self-restraint not to do it anyway. There is, for example, a subtle art in judging precisely at what point a particular verbal intervention is needed: when to say something – and when to stay quiet and let matters roll. There is a subtle art in knowing what will energise – no, wind up – pupils: choosing when to let something lie, or when, deliberately, to say something that gets them going. There is a subtle art in sensing when a miscreant requires serious admonition and when a quiet word will do, when a detention needs to be set, when to let the matter lie with less. There is a quiet art in hitting just the right degree of long-suffering humour that can defuse a situation, or address a problem without escalating it. All of these things are the nuances of teaching that only come, I have found, after many years of effort; many of them, though, just seem to develop of their own accord. It’s akin to a sense of the theatrical

Finally I can do the job like those of my own teachers whom I most admired. I can choose exactly when and where to bring things to a high shine. I can savour the hidden nuances of a good wine.

I cannot finish this post, though, without expressing regret that little of this is what those who judge teachers seem to think is important. Maybe it is just taken for granted – but I think it should not be.  Little of what I have talked about here is visible in a formal lesson observation; indeed the circumstances are more likely to make it all evaporate. It is quite possible that no one ever notices the subtleties other than the individual themself. That shouldn’t matter – they are still highly valuable elements of how teachers teach.

That is why I consider my own practice as separate from my institutional role: at least I know that this is happening, even if no one else does. I know, and am finally reasonably happy with my own brand of teaching. But the fact that such experiences seem ignored, whereas those who are best at jumping through the hoops and then shouting about it are hailed as the best teachers – may partly account for the continuing turbulence within this profession. We need to let all teachers work towards finding their own high shine.