Well-rounded people


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Boiling frogs

Many years ago, before becoming a teacher, I worked in a psycho-geriatric hospital. The memory of the pathetic souls therein has never quite left me – but when you see them daily, it is not long before you start to forget quite what ‘normal’ might mean.

They say that if you put a frog in a beaker of water and turn up the heat, it will sit there gradually acclimatising until it boils to death. But if you drop the frog into hot water it will hop out again, safe.

Despite the best efforts of several people, my school has resisted the implementation of a formal stress policy, appearing to argue that only failing teachers get stressed. Other issues will apparently be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I only have to look around me daily to see that this is not the case – though spending years in the profession could quite possibly lead to boiling frog syndrome. I wonder how many of us take as normal levels of stress that in a wider context might be considered alarming, even threatening. Such a policy risks making people internalise a problem that could be defused by sharing, thus setting up vicious cycles likely to make matters worse and perhaps even self-fulfilling.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my previous workplace, I suppose that like many, I lazily tended to think that mental health issues only affect others. But the more interested I become in this issue, the more it becomes apparent that the effects of stress can be both insidious and oblique. One starts wondering whether boiling frog syndrome is at work on oneself.

As I mentioned some posts ago, I recently had something of a health scare. It has been a roller-coaster summer as a result, but after hospital tests proved almost entirely clear, the most likely diagnosis for the remaining symptoms is a problem in which a significant factor can be, yes – stress.

I will spare readers too much medical detail but who would have guessed that chronic prostatitis may be caused by stress? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronic_prostatitis/chronic_pelvic_pain_syndrome )

And some of the test results it can yield overlap with markers for prostate cancer, so plenty of cause there for further alarm. There is also significant co-morbidity with IBS, something I know all too much about. Both have significant psychological as well as physical effects, not least because of the ongoing pain and discomfort that they can cause. Be all that as it may, I won’t pretend that these events haven’t also affected my state of mind, and with it my personal efficiency and (perhaps) professional effectiveness.

This is but one of a number of indeterminate, sometimes overlapping functional problems that the medical profession is still getting to grips with – but unhealthy stress is, nonetheless, implicated as a contributory factor in many of them. Teachers beware!

I wonder how much those in charge of staff really understand such issues. Deflecting the issue with the claim that stress is necessary is mere displacement activity.

They cannot of course be expected to be medical experts, but the causes of problems for their staff are more numerous and more complex than might at first be apparent; a reasonable duty of care might require an acceptance of this. Given the potential of such conditions to impair people’s effectiveness in the workplace, it need not even be a matter of altruism to adopt a sympathetic stance. When someone says they are stressed, certain images and behaviours perhaps come to mind – but if the foregoing is correct, there are both more numerous and less obvious conditions in which stress may be a factor. Denying that it is anything other than a marker of inadequacy seems like the most philistine of responses, to my mind the mark of a system deploying delusion to avoid home truths.

Longer-standing readers will know of my own career turbulence over the past couple of years, and given that these conditions can be (and have also been) long-standing, they may be more of a factor in the equation than I have suspected. It is certainly true that they have become more intrusive as pressure increased under the current regime, until this recent turn of events meant I could ignore them no longer.

How such issues are approached can make a significant difference: there is not a teacher on the planet whose performance would not be affected by the experience of long-term health difficulties – and they are hardly something one invites.

My experience is that most teachers are not people to shirk their responsibilities, and I include myself in that. Yet a widespread view in schools these days seems to be the opposite: it is implied that any sign of weakness is the teacher’s (deliberate) fault. As was recently pointed out to me, pressures sometimes build up to unhealthy levels without one even being fully aware of what is happening, yet my default setting was to blame myself, very ably assisted by a professional environment which encourages that. There is no guarantee that the demands made of teachers these days are either reasonable or achievable simply because they have a veneer of authority – but it is all too easy for them to set up a destructive train of thought in someone’s head as a result.

I don’t think that I am unusual: at some point, most adults probably experience pressures and conflicts in their lives that affect them adversely, even if they are not aware of it – but  this particular manifestation of the issue nonetheless came as a surprise, and has been the cause of much worry. I have come close enough to the matter, both physically and mentally, to take greater care in future.

Given the value they place on learning, one might hope that schools would be enlightened employers, particularly as the occupation can be identified as a significant cause of stress in the first place. But recent times suggest that this is far from always the case. It is not an easy situation to resolve – but offloading complete responsibility for any eventuality onto the shoulders of individuals is neither fair nor productive. The refusal to accept that wider issues will ever legitimately intrude on the perfect world of the educational zealot is just another expression of the warped perspectives of some in this profession.

And I would recommend to all teachers that they take seriously the impact of stress, even if they think they are immune. It can have some unexpected effects.

Fifteen Insights into Learning.

Chrisanicholson’s reply to my previous post prompted the realisation that it could be read as a justification of the kind of unaccountable personal philosophies that have arguably caused a lot of damage to education over the decades. This was not my intention – but I stand by my view that the only first-hand experience of learning (and of life in general) possible is our own. Everything else depends upon observation, proxy indicators, assumption or at least interaction, the accuracy – let alone transferability – of which is indeterminable.

I also suggested that this may be why it has proved so difficult to move professional discourse beyond the anecdotal and value-laden. I hoped to show why that might not, however, be as problematic as it might seem.

I was categorically not rejecting the insight that sources outside ourselves can provide (far from it), but this need not run contrary to the argument that each individual’s starting-point can only be their own experiences – even if it does contradict the current technocratic view of teaching. In some cases, these experiences can run deep enough to constitute an individual world-view that it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable to challenge. Given the nature of teaching, our practice cannot but be grounded in our own experiences of the world – starting with our choice of subject. It may also be worth remembering that in other ‘caring professions’ such as psychotherapy and social work that also depend heavily on individual participation, practitioners themselves regularly undergo introspective analysis for both training and therapeutic reasons.

One would hope that by virtue of being teachers, we can reasonably assume ourselves to be educational ‘successes’ – even if the route by which that was achieved was not always straightforward. (It is simplistic to assume that the route to wisdom is inevitably a direct and predictable one, and neither is it necessarily the same as the formal educational validation one holds. That is part of the problem!)

Therefore, time spent reflecting on the nature of, and route to that success may well be productive – even if we then seek additional  interpretation elsewhere. And given that our own formal education may be rapidly vanishing into the dim past, it is perhaps worth examining more recent experiences, and indeed seeking them out as a means of professional (and personal) growth. Furthermore, I would suggest that we consider all forms of learning, not only the obviously formal ones.

So I have compiled a list of my own conclusions to date. They may make sense to nobody but me – I hope not – but that may be the very point. Some have only become fully clear as I have sought external interpretations, but they nonetheless remain among the most important instruments of my own practice, and at least as useful as anything more institutionally derived.

  1. Growing up in a home where education was valued to the point of being in the oxygen was, I now see, essential for my later-life values. But this is not at all the same thing as having learning pushed (too) hard at me by my over-anxious parents, which if anything had the opposite effect. Their best ‘lead’ was by example.
  2. Finding one’s metier is important.There are some things in life that appear to have in-built fascination. This is not always explainable, though they may hark back to early-life experiences of which I have at best dim awareness. That interest is experienced emotively, and it is a very useful motivational ‘hook’.
  3. A key motivator has always been ‘benign envy’: the inspiration of encountering people who could do things that resonated with me, and which I desperately wanted to emulate. The best of those people were humble about, but assured in their abilities. Yet outward competitiveness has done me few favours; my main competitor (and critic) has always been myself.
  4. This envy was gradually augmented by a growing sense of autonomous self-conception, whereby I grew to understand the things that were of value in my life. This I later saw as having a sense of (self-generated) purpose. Purpose is important.
  5. Intrinsic reward trumps extrinsic reward every time. The side-effects of ‘success’ are not unwelcome (for example my earnings from my writing) but they were never a significant motivator in themselves – and pale compared with the rewards of gaining expertise. Extrinsic rewards can be perversely limiting.
  6. Knowing stuff is fun, and starts a virtuous cycle. A good factual grounding is empowering and provides the foundation upon which further insight is built. There is a buzz in encountering something new that somehow ‘fits’ with what you already know, but which offers a new angle on it. Expertise and refinement make you appreciate things that others don’t see; depth is rewarding.
  7. Mastery is important – but not in simple ways. Getting better at something is pleasing, but it can also lead to complacency. Accepting that you don’t have mastery can create a powerful hunger to get better.
  8. Flow is a massively important motivator. Things that provide deep reward (but also challenge) make learning so easy it is unconscious. It is commonest to experience flow in things that have that initial buzz for you – but the more you experience it, the more it becomes possible to find it elsewhere. But looking too self-consciously for such things makes them disappear.
  9. Micro-management by others is more likely to apply the brakes than anything else, because it kills autonomy. Even where formal instruction is needed, consent is important. This is not the same as rejecting external help – rather that learning has to be consensual, even if not actively sought. You can take the horse…
  10. Long-term effort is nearly always worth it. Formal instruction is not always enjoyable but it is a necessary discipline particularly in the early stages while key competencies are being acquired. I gained most from being given a strong lead, if only because the structure provided a useful discipline for keeping going, before the benefits of perseverance had really become self-evident.
  11. Discipline boundaries are necessary but artificial. I started out with a few specific areas of interest – but as my knowledge grew, it expanded into disciplines far from where I started – let alone where I ever expected to find interest. But learning is not necessarily transferable: playing the guitar is not much help in learning the trombone.
  12. Problem-solving is a great way of learning. Experimenting with one’s knowledge develops understanding (this is what is valuable about a ‘tinkering’ hobby such as model-making). But it only works once one has a reasonably secure command of the requisite knowledge and skills, otherwise it degenerates into unproductive dabbling.
  13. Some experiences provide insights that are intense enough to appear self-evident. But one must remember that they may not be so for everyone. People in different disciplines often think in very different ways and tolerance is a virtue. It is unlikely that one will ever learn everything without any guidance along the way – even from unexpected sources.
  14. Maybe life’s lessons can only be learned at life’s pace. I wish someone had explained some of these things to me when I was younger (although whether I would have listened or understood is another matter entirely…).
  15. The key to it all is the Enquiring Mind. If you have one of those, then the sky is the limit. If you don’t, then nothing will work very well, and life will be dull. Exam results are not a reliable signifier of an active mind.

I am still left wondering how one might fully appreciate such insights, other than through one’s own experiences. That, after all, is where wisdom actually takes root – in our own minds – and technical competence alone does not a truly great musician (or teacher) make.

The question is, how can we best translate them into something useful to our pupils? I am not convinced that treating education as an economised ‘good’, a technocratic hoop-jumping process – or as a form of amorphous self-discovery-through-play – even get near the matter.

I suspect that traditional scholars knew more than we sometimes credit.

Eyeore 0 – Tigger 1

I think one mark of truly reflective practice is a preparedness to seek and find solutions wherever they may lie. This is not always easy, as it can involve going well beyond one’s comfort zone and maintaining an open mind with regard to whatever one finds.

Last winter, I was caught by a particularly nasty infection that not only laid me very low for the entire Christmas holiday, but also lingered several months into the New Year. Indeed, I am not fully free of the after-effects even now. While I was able to stagger into school for the new January term, there is no doubt that my teaching was affected over a period of months, and this naturally led to anxiety. To compound the matter,  I have a tendency to be one of life’s Eyeores, my sometimes over-analytical mind all-too-easily seeing the problems before the benefits. As the months wore on, I also began to wonder whether there was something more profoundly wrong, health-wise.

During my searches for antidotes, I came across several websites that recommended meditation for such situations. Visions of incense and yellow robes spun before my eyes – and that is not an identity that sits easily with my self-perception, to say the least. But in said spirit of open-mindedness, I looked further, until I came across a website recommended by a number of august institutions including the BBC, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times: www.getsomeheadspace.com/

This claims to offer a modern, secular approach to meditation based around the benefits of mindfulness to modern life. The co-founder, Andy Puddicombe has since given a TED talk, which can be seen here. Sceptical to say the least, I decided to give the free trial a go, and was highly surprised to find that the basic relaxation exercises therein brought an immediate and noticeable sense of stress-relief. Consequently, I decided to explore further, and after eight months of rather up-and-down progress, I have begun to suspect there really is something in it – and not only for moments of extremis.

My wife says she has noticed a shift towards a more positive ‘centre of gravity’ – more Tigger and less Eyeore. I would add to that a noticeable change in my professional disposition: I feel less stressed in the classroom, more patient with my pupils, and more resilient when dealing with the trying ones. I think it has also improved my relationships with those around me – a major emphasis of the programme. What’s more, my current programme focuses on creativity, and I am left wondering whether this is partly responsible for the burst of creative thinking that has resulted in this blog.

Ever the sceptic, and aware of the perils of auto-suggestion, I am reluctant to say the word ‘definitely’; I certainly didn’t have any kind of transformative experience, more a gradual shift in my mental centre of gravity. That said, the effects feel quite tangible. Some months ago, BBC Horizon’s Michael Mosely explored the issue in the programme The Truth About Personality that included Puddicombe. Analysis of his brain activity appeared to suggest that practising mindfulness, amongst other things, could have an effect.

As Kate Mather wrote recently in The Guardian, sometimes extreme events make you re-examine the balance of life. In the case of teaching, anything that might offer a means of managing the sometimes extreme stresses has to be worth consideration.  If nothing else, Mindfulness provides a welcome technique for de-stressing at the end of a busy day.

An amount has also been written about using it as a technique with children, something I am curious about but have not yet had the chance to try.