The weight of numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, I’ve mentioned him again.

Undervalued and outcast

I have never been good at this time of year. No teacher is going to win much sympathy for coming to the end of six weeks’ paid holiday – but that doesn’t negate the difficulty of switching from one mode of life to the other. I am dedicated to my teaching, but I am not one who can’t wait to get back to work. Our profession may be important, but it is still subsidiary to the living of life as a whole.

While it is probably true that the thought of returning is worse that the doing, I nonetheless find it difficult to remain upbeat over the few days before the old routine re-establishes itself. And this year my feeling is somewhat heavier than usual because I am no longer convinced that my school values or supports my presence. Last year definitely qualified as my annus horribilis, and while the new prospects ought to be brighter, certain circumstances have created a gnawing doubt, despite the results being fine. Maybe mud sticks…

But I think the end-of-holiday sensation is about more than that. Dr. Giles Fraser summed it up well in ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio Four’s Today Programme a few days ago (can be heard here, at least in the U.K., for the next seventeen days). Even leaving aside the religious overtones, his suggestion that work is about Doing while play (and by extension holidays) are about Being sums it up neatly. Importing the workplace ethic into leisure time is fruitless: the notion that leisure ought to be professionally or economically productive alters its very nature. Or put another way, replacing its intrinsic value with extrinsic aspiration destroys it. True leisure is not about doing things that have external value, or even being loosely competitive (except possibly with oneself); one’s other obligations accepted, it is about a simple state of Being for its own sake, something akin to Flow. This is a counter-establishment wisdom worth striving for, and certainly passing on to the next generation: leisure is a valuable part of life.

I’m just not persuaded by those who imply that the sole purpose of life is to be economically productive. Were I to follow that doctrine, much of what makes my own life worth living would simply disappear. I don’t see much evidence around me that a life devoted solely to economic functioning is healthy, socially beneficial, or popular – and what’s more, the self-evident recharging of the batteries, and the visible increase in life-satisfaction that comes from leisure would just not exist.

This is why this transition is hard. But as with so many non-material things, it has become harder as the purpose of education became more economically-driven. When teachers were largely autonomous and intellect-driven, it was probably easier to import some of that sense of Being into one’s work too. But in these days of accountability and hard-headed management, there are just too many external, uncontrollable factors dictating one’s day-to-day functioning. The attendant loss of autonomy, as compared with holiday times, makes the transition from one to the other harsher, no matter how inevitable.

I am certainly not idle in my holidays: apart from time spent abroad, much has been done in terms of home improvement and in fulfilling various other roles. But the flexibility largely to follow one’s own schedule is priceless – as is the mental space it creates for an amount of day-dreaming – for which read Big Picture Thinking. These are the conditions I need for thinking about the underlying principles behind things I do, be they the next projects in my various hobbies, my responsibilities as Chair of the mutual company that runs the old building in which I live, and yes, to some extent my profession and the lives which it is supposed to enrich. There has just been the simple pleasure of doing things without too much need to watch the clock or to follow someone else’s diktat.

I have serendipitously researched a completely new avenue within one of my hobbies – and as my last two posts described, very unexpectedly got entangled in the political debate within the Labour Party.

In some ways, that last experience sums it all up: as a columnist in The Independent wrote a few days ago, the establishment backlash against Corbyn shows what happens to people who dare to question supposedly-accepted norms, of which the primacy of Work and The Economy are the sirens of our time. The out-casting of reactionaries is hardly new, but the implication that anyone who proposes something different can only be a naive idiot has, in its own right made me all the more convinced that Corbyns are very necessary. So has the implication that there are some world-views which “we all know” are now beyond thoughtful debate. Like the fact that it is possible to create a kinder society.

Corbyn is a symbol of anti-managerialism – or the view that we already have the best of all possible worlds and therefore nothing can or should ever be different – precisely the unambitious ‘realism’ of the other Labour candidates. Managerialism can afflict anyone: it is a state of mind borne from a defeatist, utilitarian view of the world where all we can do is tinker around the edges. The fact that it reinforces the status quo is of course as coincidental as it is ironic that the same message is pedalled by authoritarian regimes around the world. And the same could be said for Education, which itself increasingly functions in a similarly autocratic manner…

In a society that claims to be democratic and educated, the right to disagree has to be worth defending in its own right.

The suggestion that people who put their principles first are somehow naive or otherwise unrealistic is a criticism that has come my own way more than once. But the view that contemporary politics, education and indeed life, can be about nothing more than bland, unimaginative pragmatism creates a false dichotomy – vested interest wrapped up as supposedly hard-headed realism; whether of the Left or the Right barely matters. This is not an inspiring message for the next generation, so it is perhaps not surprising that many of Corbyn’s supporters are young.

It is not as though the current incumbency (in education or politics) has delivered bounty to all: the narrowing of acceptable values, priorities and occupations has hardly made for an inclusive, democratic society; one might have expected that the realists would have spotted that exclusion is the surest way of breeding rebellion, of pushing moderates towards the extremes – but that is clearly an abstract too far…

Ideals are a much-undervalued asset. They are the soil within which tolerance should grow, where day-to-day actions are informed by bigger intentions and insights rather than the unquestioning ‘busy-work’ demanded by small-minded managerialsm. That is equally true in politics, day-to-day lives – and education.

Its enforced loss reduces potentially rich lives to mere existence – we all need greater and more humane things to strive for, however incomprehensible they may seem to our critics. Destroying them is counter-productive: it is in such situations, where people no longer feel they have a meaningful stake or purpose that they turn from would-be loyal employees/citizens/members into sceptics, if not cynics. Of all the professions, Teaching ought to understand that.

In the final reckoning, the end-of-holiday blues comes from the knowledge that the Being of the last six weeks now has to go back in the box, to be replaced by the Doing of a system that (like the political system that directs it) now largely involves the ideal-less busy-work of managerialism. As though there were no alternative.

Still curious…

I’ve been re-reading Ian Leslie’s excellent book Curious. I confess to being somewhat tired at present of the ceaseless ebb and flow of argument in the profession. To me it only points to one thing: the fact that people will never agree about what education is, or what it is for. And the endless churning of educational rumination speaks of other truths: a profession that is has become utterly self-obsessed, and simultaneously in search of a single, crystallised purpose that it will never find. I don’t blame the education profession for this loss of intellectual confidence; it is simply the product of serving a society that demands simple answers to complex questions. But if we were able to follow our own good advice more closely, we might find it easier to rise above it all, and focus on that which makes the most difference.

It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Or is it that the education system has failed, in recent times, to promote the wider view such that even people in the profession can no longer see the simple, pure value of curiosity? Have we become educational jobsworths, blind to the real, inspirational value of it all? The endless discussion of teaching styles, management initiatives and performance indicators is obscuring this one simple fact: if we can cultivate people’s curiosities, then everything else pretty much falls into place. The real solution is to be found in less defined but more lasting truths – and if only the educational establishment would stop navel-gazing for a few moments, and look upward and outward to the one lasting quality that it supposedly promotes, then it might see that the answer is, in fact, disarmingly simple.

But this is not the precise science that many teachers now seem to want; curiosity is oblique and best approached accordingly. Nothing can be guaranteed to work with all the people all of the time; being adaptable, intuitive and even improvisational are as likely to work as anything more prescribed. Breaking the rules can be as successful as sticking to them.

I would suggest that the one essential thing is for the teacher to be endlessly curious them self.

So I offer a few extracts from the introduction to Leslie’s book that struck me as hammer blows for the eternal truth of what we should be trying to do:

“…the world is incredibly interesting. If you’re paying attention, everything in the world – from the nature of gravity, to a pigeon’s head, to a blade of grass – is extraordinary…the closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this.”

Not even many teachers, these days. Just hit those targets!

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question that nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns…pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point…”

Tell me about it…

“Rather than just getting more people to school and university… the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question and create”.

(Leslie observes the concerns of far Eastern nations that their schools are crushing curiosity and instilling mindless obedience; yet it is precisely those that our own system holds up as the desirable objective.)

“Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times…for their enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part they will be worth the difficulty.”

Try persuading SLT of that…

“If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life….”

My work-life balance is doing that already.

“Our education system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer pr a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner – and yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers and programmers tend to be the most curious learners…we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world rather than inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals.”

Add teachers to that list.

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other…”

Leslie’s observations come very close to embodying my own experience, one which ultimately led me to wish to teach. Leslie comes down firmly on the side of traditional approaches to education, though it’s necessary to read the book to find out why. And it’s worth asking why it is that our education system itself seems so intent on doing precisely the opposite; by doubting those who represent the views described above, it strikes me that it is disregarding precisely that which would make it work most successfully.

Mavericks, Blue Skies and the Art of Cloudiness

I may have been a little harsh on Nancy Klein. I decided to give her book another go, from the beginning. In the end, I still lost the will to live in amongst all the management strategy and the rather evangelical tone, but there are still some very helpful nuggets in there – of which more anon.

No one can accuse her of being negative, and I’m aware that anyone who detracts a lot can start to sound boorish. People much prefer to hear good news, and it’s been interesting monitoring my own blog to see what kind of posts attract most views. But as Klein herself implies, sometimes you have to work through the clouds before the sun can come back out. Her book is largely about the need for people to think openly, honestly and independently in order to make things work better. That means facing up to the negative stuff too, and I fully agree with her on that.

She  maintains that corporate environments are highly likely to stifle that process, particularly ones with entrenched hierarchies (like schools?) One section of Klein’s book covers questions that leaders should ask themselves – and their staff – regularly to ensure that they remain in touch with the reality of their organisation. It includes:

  • What do we as an organisation assume that probably limits everything we do?
  • What needs improvement in this organisation that I haven’t noticed?
  • How would your work have to change for it to be exactly right for you?
  • Whom amongst the most junior people in my organisation can I invite to think with me today?

Klein also makes the point that an organisation comprises all its individuals, and it is limiting to assume that those ‘lower down’ are only in it for themselves, that they can’t see what is happening, and have no valid opinions or strategic view. In fact, the people who are most likely to become divorced from the reality are those at the top, as they tend to be relatively removed from the work-face practicalities.

Corporate Blindness is a major hazard for all kinds of organisations, and educational ones are no exception. I (naively?) start from the assumption that people are not in education for anything other than altruistic reasons, and therefore those at the top do genuinely believe in the ‘right’ reasons for doing what they do. That said, there is no reason to assume that the same pit-falls don’t exist, and occasionally one is left with the impression that some people do in fact develop as taste for power and influence per se that is every bit as strong as those running large corporations. In schools, just as elsewhere, the malaise created by people never being listened to can spread disillusionment to a deeply destructive degree; it results in their spending their time fighting obstructions rather than moving things forwards.

In the case of British education, the most significant cause of Corporate Blindness has been – you guessed it – Ofsted.  An article in yesterday’s Guardian broached the possibility that schools might indeed be diverting too much attention into pleasing the inspectorate at the expense of real, deep education for their pupils. That’s hardly surprising when you consider the cataclysmic consequences of getting it ‘wrong’. The strength of feeling in the resulting reader-comments was quite breathtaking, as indeed were some of the anecdotes (if true). This is a classic case of unintended outcomes making matters worse rather than better, as I have been arguing for some time to anyone who would listen(!) – and try as I might, I find it very difficult to put a positive slant on it.

Which brings me to the word Maverick. One more than one occasion, I have had this label applied to me. In many people’s minds, it seems to be associated with negativity, cynicism and destructiveness. But there are two kinds of mavericks – negative ones, who do indeed embody those characteristics, and positive ones, who for all their lack of conformity, have only the best of intentions at heart.  That’s me!

A random Google search found several articles on ‘managing maverick employees’, most of which seemed to consider them largely to be a problem to be controlled. I can see why – if your main aim is to ensure 100% compliance, then people who keep asking awkward questions or doing things differently are a major headache.  But that’s where the institutional blindness comes in – if the main objective of an organisation is nothing more than conformity, then it has:

a) been diverted from its primary objective

b) gone on the defensive, more concerned with sustaining existing structures than solving real problems and

c)  probably replaced leadership with management (see below).

In fact, many individuals from Steve Jobs to Richard Branson to Anita Roddick (let alone many in politics and the arts) mavericks have proved more successful than conventional thinkers.

Manage leader

Some time ago, I came across a phrase that stuck, to the effect that management is not the same as leadership; leadership relies neither on administrative efficiency nor even on seniority, but merely on inspiration, and the fact that people willingly follow. Mavericks can be leaders too! They may ask difficult questions, and on occasions sound superficially negative – but is that really worse than head-in-the-sand positivity and conformism? Which is more likely to solve real problems? For all her unfortunate tone Kline seems to know the answer (even though she has gone on and syndicated the term ‘Thinking EnvironmentTM’  !) – and it isn’t to support the status quo…

Human instinct drives people to conform, but that does not make it the best way to solve problems; what mavericks do is to think ‘outside the box’ to identify real problems and hopefully offer ways forward. Teaching has had plenty of them over the years – something to do with employing lots of independently-minded intelligent people I suspect (though there seems to be a growing tide of conformity too, now we’re faced with the tsunami that is official-think). Too often, free-thinkers have not been given a voice – which is why scepticism often turned to cynicism.

In the case of schools, many managers have had relatively little formal training – they’re basically teachers promoted out of the classroom; I’m left wondering how widely-known problems like this actually are. Few schools seem to be seeking out people like Klein in the way major corporations are doing. No matter how good the intentions, hubris is always a risk, and people need to be aware of corporate blindness. They need to listen to the grass-roots, however uncomfortable that might be, or however negative it might initially sound. And they need do it authentically, not just going through the motions. That’s where they will discover the real limitations on the organisation.

I’m rather intrigued by the notion of the corporate joker – someone actually employed with the specific remit to puncture people’s egos and question their assumptions – all in the nicest possible way. I could do a job like that…

Mavericks may not always be popular, and they may even be a pain – but engaged with in a constructive way, they can serve a very useful purpose of seeing through the clouds to the blue sky beyond.