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.

Quantitative Easing and Asset-stripping

What is so wrong with making decisions about exam specifications based on track records of delivering good results? On the face of it, this seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do, particularly now that everyone is supposed to be everyone else’s customer. If schools are simply the customers of the privatised exam boards, then one could argue that it makes sense to look at the efficacy of the ‘product’ one is thinking of buying. After all, you wouldn’t intentionally buy a car that didn’t work well – and you simply assume that the parts used are suitable for the job.

But there’s a problem: in choosing an exam course, we not choosing a machine for our own use but a cultural-intellectual legacy, the benefit of which is neither clearly defined, nor intended for us. One of my main concerns about shopping around exam boards is that it comes perilously close to admitting that the ‘customer’ is really the school and not the pupils at all.

While it is pupils who will (hopefully) go on to achieve good grades, (and form the future corpus of the discipline) the aggregate effect of grades is really of little interest to anyone except schools, inspectors and politicians. In this case, my recent experience suggests that less attention will be paid to the actual educational experience offered to pupils and more to the outcome desired by the school, even if it is dressed up as being in the pupils’ interests. For example, I struggle to accept that it is in pupils’ educational interests to have less opportunity to explain themselves at length simply so that they have a higher chance of scoring a good grade.

In a nutshell, this is the problem inherent in having a system that is over-interested in results for their own sake: the intrinsic purpose of intellectual furtherment is all too easily overridden by the extrinsic aim of achieving exam targets for their own sake. I would argue that this is a far greater betrayal of pupils’ interests than any amount of vaguely lacklustre classroom teaching. It has far-reaching potential for sending pupils out from their schooling equipped with nothing more than the sound-bites of information that teachers required them to know in order to pass exams, rather than a deeper understanding of a field of human endeavour undertaken for its own inherent and wide-ranging value.

Furthermore, pupils will very likely have their own extrinsic temptations reinforced at the expense of the more challenging and scholarly understanding that a thriving mind just is, and is not ‘for’ anything in particular. (I would go so far as to say that a genuinely thriving mind cannot come about for anything other than  its own sake).  It also risks depriving them of the intrinsic fulfilment to be had from learning, since it becomes nothing more than a means to a fairly vacuous end, each topic nothing more than another box ticked on the exam spec.

In my view, this is selling children massively short, and worse than that our entire society too, as we seem to be heading in a direction where learnedness and intellectual self-sufficiency are seen as having little inherent significance for the average person. So where are the pioneers and thinkers of the next generation going to come from if we empty the intellectual pool so drastically? Such people tend to emerge unexpectedly from the ether, not from some special target-beset initiative. If we ask what learning is for and the answer comes back, ‘passing exams’, that is not ultimately very helpful.

It is perhaps easy to caricature my position as being ‘anti exam’ but this is most emphatically not the case. I am not for one moment suggesting that exams should not exist, or that they are not important. Just as many musicians find that the presence of a performance or examination focuses the mind to achieve great things, we do of course need some focus for schools’ work – and high fallutin’ abstractions about the innate value of learning are unlikely to wash with immature minds.

But musical performance is often not an end in itself – it is a catalyst for more profound action. There are major differences in the way exams can and should be used. Exams are effective when used as a retrospective validation of learning that has been undertaken for its own sake – a means of calibrating the level achieved against an expected canon – of what pupils can do, not what they should do. This is fine, because it places the emphasis firmly on the learning for its own sake, and being retrospective it removes or at least reduces the temptation by teachers and pupils to try to game the system. It frees people to think about the subject matter in hand in its own right.

By comparison, using exams as anticipatory objectives tends to do all the opposites. It devalues subject content and risks limiting the amount (and breadth) acquired to that supposedly ‘needed’ to pass the exam. It also diverts pupils’ real attention away from understanding the subject towards understanding exam strategy – not unnecessary, but surely not the crux of what we are trying to do. It also alters the balance between what one might expect of the pupil and the teacher. The relationship with the subject becomes an arm’s-length one rather than full involvement, and in the process this may inhibit any real curiosity or ‘love of subject’ (a.k.a. scholarship) that might develop.

I am not sure, either, that sending the message that education (or life in general) is all about how well you game the system is really very desirable.

It is true that teachers have always had to make choices about which syllabus to follow, but I am long enough in the tooth to remember such discussions from years ago. Before the days of extreme exam pressure, discussions were about the impact that the choice would have on pupils’ understanding of the subject – and to some extent, its match with the expertise of the staff on hand. Courses – and entire subjects – were offered more for their inherent educational and intellectual value, and not simply the results that they could deliver.

There is a massive difference between a school system that aims to educate people and one that aims simply to qualify them, but the emphasis seems to be shifting ever further towards the latter – what is important is not what you know, but the bit of paper that you have at the end.

In economics, printing money that is not backed by real assets – quantitative easing – is an empty gesture and risks being inflationary; qualifications – pieces of paper that allow the holder to move to the next stage – that are not backed by real learning and ability are worth  little more. The effect also tends to be inflationary – but this emphasis is perhaps not surprising from an education sector whose mentality increasingly resembles the high-risk, quick-buck world of high finance rather than a long-term socio-cultural investment.

This is a significant shift of mindset on the part of some (many?) in the teaching profession. My concern is that those making such decisions are not aware of the pitfalls of a contingent approach, that they have not really thought about the ‘structural’ educational damage that is being done by sacrificing long-term intellectual and cultural investment for the quick but shallow buck of ‘results’ – and my even greater concern is that even if they have, just like financial speculators and corporate asset-strippers, they may not care.

Tell me truly

I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow at present. I have known about his work on optimal experiences for some years but have only just got around to reading the original book. There is much food for thought here, and not only about teaching. I will write more about the wider concept on another occasion, though it may need explaining now that it refers to the state of mind achieved when someone is utterly absorbed in the task they are undertaking, to the exclusion of all other awareness. A bit like our pupils achieve all the time (in our dreams…)

What concerns me here, however, is one of the preconditions for flow, namely feedback. I have written before about the time being consumed by teacher-feedback, and pondered on the its productiveness versus its alternative uses. In general, I think the current emphasis on feedback as a whole is justified, and this can be partly explained by reference to Flow. But because of this, I am also left wondering whether the kind of feedback being asked of us is as productive as claimed, or whether this is just another example of good practice being seized on in an uncritical and misunderstood way and being applied (at great cost in teacher-time) without adequate consideration of its real utility.

Conventional wisdom has it that feedback allows pupils to identify their errors and rectify them, but I am sceptical about how often this really happens in anything more than a superficial way; as a rule, children are not that dedicated or intellectually mature. But Csikszentmihalyi describes feedback as an essential component of Flow, since it is only be being able to sense the consequences of one’s actions that one is able to adjust and reformulate them in order to refine one’s ability. In other words, its function is as much motivational as academic.

As a musician (indeed a trainee violinist) I found that the following particularly resonated:

“Optimal experience involves a very active role for the self. A violinist must be extremely aware of the every movement of her fingers, as well as the sound entering her ears, and of the total form of the piece she is playing, both analytically, note by note and holistically in terms of its overall design.”  

Without the ability to create noise instantly, the above process becomes impossible. The same applies to other everyday situations that can induce flow, such as conversation, reading, playing sports, cooking, and driving: it is the instantaneous nature of feedback that is important.

The other notable point is that the feedback is evaluated first affectively (i.e. with the emotions), and only slightly later rationally. This would seem to be consistent with Flow operating at something slightly below fully-consciousness, inasmuch as people respond more by intuitive reaction than structured deliberation when in Flow.

I’m trying to square this with classroom notions of feedback. While it is likely that Flow itself only arises sporadically in classrooms, what we can learn about feedback from it might still apply. The three essentials are:

1. Actions made by pupils need instant feedback so that they can then adjust their actions in real time.

2. Feedback is likely to be received affectively, in other words in terms of, “Am I doing well?” and “Do I like this?” This seems consistent with my experience: no matter what my advice, pupils normally head straight for the emotional pay-back of the grade or mark, and only later read the comments (if at all). I know the removal of grades has been advocated by some, but my experience was not that this made pupils pay more attention to the guidance, but simply that they paid less attention to the feedback at all. The affective element seems to be quite powerful, so maybe we need to harness it rather than ignore it.

3. With even the fastest turn-around is likely to be a matter of 24 hours before pupils see the feedback – nowhere near quick enough for the process to be of active, heuristic use to the pupil. By that time, it’s dead information about a completed activity; the affective kick will count for nothing and the pupil is left with a dry, diagnostic comment which may do little to inspire. So are we really doing anything helpful by spending so many hours writing in exercise books? As I said, the assumption that pupils are mature learners who crave technical feedback so that they can go away and actively reflect on it seems vastly wide of the mark in most cases.

While intellectual processing clearly develops with age, even in the secondary sector most of our pupils are still immature learners. In my view, the younger ones mainly work hard because they are obeying parental or other entreaties to do so, and what they really crave is affective approval for their efforts; the older ones may be moving towards intellectual self-scrutiny, but they still largely want encouragement as well as dissection.

I’m not suggesting that we should never provide diagnostic academic feedback, nor that it shouldn’t be in books – but whether the current fetish for it is justified, I’m still not sure. Just because something is deemed ‘good form’ does not in itself make it helpful. It would be no great surprise if the bureaucratic monolith had once again completely overlooked the more subjective aspects of this matter in favour of the technical ones.

This is clearly a complex topic and to some extent I’m thinking aloud here, but I think we need to question whether teacher feedback in the useful sense really does mean hours spent writing in books.  It seems to me that the best feedback would be above all instant and affective; diagnostic information is clearly part of the process, but might not be as important as seems currently thought. And given that instant written feedback is just not sustainable, maybe we would be better looking at other interpretations.

In terms of engaging our pupils with their work, more thought should perhaps be given to building flow-type feedback into lessons themselves. I suspect that this already explains quite a lot of why pupils sometimes engage with tasks (because they do provide feedback) – and why when they don’t, they often resort to chatting to peers; one might see this as opting for an activity that offers more instant flow/feedback than the task in hand. Tasks that offer feedback can come in many guises, and can include deep reading and – dare I even mention it – colouring in (though hopefully in a structured way, for example as in devising choropleth maps rather than simply ‘pretty’ ones).

And the other neglected means of providing instant feedback is of course that much-reviled activity talking to pupils. I suggest that verbal feedback is under-rated, and it should probably focus as much on heartfelt encouragement where merited, and tactical ‘nudging’ where not – as on in-depth technical critique.  It should also be used almost constantly in real-time in lessons. Using feedback as a motivational device to maximise engagement in class seems a much more realistic proposition than the current technical-diagnostic model that seems largely predicated on the idea it will directly improve retention.

I am quite attracted to the idea that feedback is not merely providing reams of sterile analysis, most of which will never be more than skim-read when the iron is already cold. Doing less of that would of course also free up more teacher time for more productive activities, and lighten our burden considerably into the bargain.


She left quickly after the lesson; a brief word of thanks – but the look in her eyes was one of disappointment. Having encountered the ramblings of this blog, the young teacher watching my lesson was perhaps expecting to see pedagogical pyrotechnics, but I fear she was disappointed.

A recent formal observation of my teaching produced a similar result – very competent but not outstanding. There is a difference between having a clear understanding of what you’re trying to achieve (as I hopefully do) and actually delivering it on the day in the classroom. By mainstream measures, my classroom practice is sound but not remarkable.  I will say in my defence that my introverted self does react rather badly to knowing it is being watched, and my persona definitely changes in line with what I know as red-buttonitis – the way in which a piece of music you can play perfectly always goes wrong as soon as you press ‘Record’.

I’m not seeking any kind of public redress here, so what follows is solely an attempt to raise an important issue ‘in the round’; I anticipate nonetheless that it is one that will strike many chords…

Just what are we to do if the criteria against which we are judged fly in the face of what we genuinely believe (perhaps as a result of years of experience, and much reflection) to be actual good practice?

From what I can tell, the criteria for judging teaching, particularly on that good/outstanding boundary, are skewed heavily towards the amount of explicit direction being provided for moving pupils towards their predicted exam grades. In many cases, that seems to involve effectively teaching a lesson entirely and solely around how to score a high exam mark, with all other thinking, activities and content subordinated to that one outcome. I struggle to see that as good – let alone outstanding – education.

Now, I have no issue whatsoever with exams used properly (of which more another time), but I am not the only voice at present to be questioning whether exam results really are such a good proxy for effective learning after all, particularly now that they have in effect become a currency in their own right. I certainly have my doubts.

There is also a substantial body of research which suggests that overt emphasis on targets actually increases the risk of missing them. The reason is simple: effort and attention is diverted towards achieving the target per se, and away from the activity that will actually secure it, namely subject mastery – all the more so if you accept the thesis that says working memory will struggle to do both simultaneously. By aiming at the mark of education, the target shifts away from the thing itself.

It seems to be a common problem: I’ve had two highly-intelligent sixth formers in recent weeks alone telling me how the growing pressure is preying on their minds and actually impairing their ability to study – and they are by no means the first. And yet we are encouraged actually to trade on pressure, in the belief that it can only enhance work rates…

Furthermore, it seems to me that looking too hard for something actually makes it disappear – the more you actively crave happiness, the less you find it. That’s the problem with the red button: as soon as you raise the stakes you become hyper-aware, and that itself is enough to cause failure. Part of the process of Flow is sub-conscious; many musicians know all too well what happens when you start ‘watching’ yourself playing…

The problem with theories comes when they are used in an idealistic sense, as in stipulating how reality ‘ought’ to behave, often where empirical information is either not available or is too complex to make certainty easy. That is how we judge what we presume to be good teaching: so-called pragmatic ‘common sense’ suggests that giving people targets and driving them hard will lead to their doing more work and achieving better results; experience suggests that this is not (always) the case. Even where more work is being done, the quality will not always be such that it is genuinely productive.

The classroom is where many of these problems collide: from the ideology-driven models of what education ‘ought’ to be, through sometimes-misconceived notions of how learning works, to managerial requirements for accountability, teachers are caught between many conflicting demands. If the determinants of what a teacher does in the classroom are compliance with external demands or expectations, then this can easily compromise what he or she judges to be genuinely in the pupils’ interests.

When the expectations in a lesson observation are based on assumptions like these, it makes it difficult to explain why one is doing something different, no matter how well considered. Particularly with the older students, I prefer a more gradualist, reflective approach, one that emphasises the importance of subject mastery in achieving highly, rather than a somewhat cynical attempt to ‘game’ the exam.  I emphasise the need to internalise understanding, and explain that this process cannot normally take place quickly or under pressure; the dynamics of the mind see to that. While my students are aware of their targets, and make good progress towards them, I place little emphasis there, preferring instead to focus all our attention on the actual studying we are doing; if anything, I try to shield my students from the external pressures.

It’s probably not surprising that this doesn’t square well with official expectations. Preconceived judgments made of such lessons may mistake the actual effectiveness of the teaching, and misunderstand the strategies being used by the teacher.

In a culture that demands close accountability, criteria clearly are needed to identify good practice. But measuring things just for the sake of it, simply on the grounds that they are relatively easily identified is not good grounds for doing it. The constraint that this imposes is a good example of how such preconceptions can effectively narrow what is considered acceptable practice – and given the absence of visible alternatives, this then becomes self-perpetuating.

If correct, my view that teaching is a far more subtle activity than is now represented, can mean that things a teacher is doing that actually make a real long-term educational difference to pupils may not be readily visible to the short-term observer looking for exam-targeted progress. The more I read and reflect, the more I conclude that the natural companion of teaching and learning is psychology, not economics. A teacher working on that assumption will not be judged well by a system that thinks the opposite.

I’m content with being merely ‘good’ in official eyes; I have made conscious decisions not to do some of the things I am being told make an outstanding teacher because my reading of the psychology, and the feedback I receive from students, suggests that they may not be quite as outstanding as the system seems to think. I can easily live with that.

But it seems ironic that the system put in place to identify excellence may itself not be up to the job when it encounters something other than what it has – however mistakenly – already pre-ordained it is looking for.

That, I suspect, is also why my young colleague looked disappointed.

Once upon a time…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opportunity cost

It’s sometimes difficult to maintain a balance between my working life and my ‘other’ life. I’m not ashamed to admit that – I suspect that most teachers would say the same, and I still maintain that my employer and my pupils get a good deal, if you want to put it that crudely. I think that deal would be better still if the parameters and benchmarks by which we define good education were more realistic.  It tends to be the administrative and statistical tasks that take a back seat when time is short; the one thing I absolutely will not compromise on is lesson preparation and resourcing.

The fact that I probably already sound vaguely apologetic about this is conditioning – the cumulative effect of many years spent in a profession almost permanently on the defensive. But this is not meant to be a defensive post.

Last weekend (the closest to St. Patrick’s Day) was the most hectic of the year for an Irish music band such as mine, and we played on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. The Sunday gig was awesome – a huge barn of a bar (under railway arches) full of people clapping, cheering and generally heaping on the plaudits. As the Irish say, It Was Mighty.

I had of course arranged my work so that this could happen – but I got thinking about the opportunity costs of the workplace, and this is not only an issue for teachers. I wondered what the balance actually was, that afternoon, between the amount I added to the sum total of human happiness by performing music for three hours, versus the same time spent (as it usually would have been) doing school work.

One can extend this concept: given the general length of the British working week, how many pro-social activities are withering so that we can keep our noses to the grindstone? We may be adding to the specific riches of our employers – but are we subtracting more from the collective richness of our communities and nation? If so, that is quite an externallity they’re getting away with, and it can only offset any good we’re doing.

It goes beyond the relative trivialities of playing music. For example, I ruled out standing as a parish councillor on the grounds that I could not do it properly and still hold down a full-time teaching job – but local democracy needs volunteers. Then there are my duties as chair of our communal property management company that often get scant attention, when they really deserve more. That’s without the intermittent neglect of my friends and family simply because my time and attention is on the job. And I haven’t even mentioned the number of weeknight music sessions I automatically turn down, let alone my vague desire to take another degree…

Teachers are, almost by definition both energetic and socially-motivated. They are the kind of people who are inclined to get stuck in and make things happen. They have the intelligence, organisational and communication skills to make things work – and if they weren’t perpetually exhausted, they’d have the energy too.  It’s reasonable that our paid work and professional responsibilities have a signifcant call on us – but with the increased demands placed upon all of us in society by our voracious workplaces, just how big a price, in the form of wider personal and societal wellbeing is being paid in the process?

The well of learning (can) run deep.

One of the individuals in the picture below is me in the sixth form, circa 1982. Thanks to the perspicacity of our music teacher, who had decided a year or two previously that he was going to include us in a school concert, the group of teenage musicians shown was building for itself quite a decent local reputation that lasted until we went to university. Indeed, 2014 may mark the year when we reconvene in recognition of our collective fiftieth birthdays…


The nerve-jangling experience of that first performance in 1980 was near the start of a curious journey that for me has so far has lasted over 35 years. I have not a drop of Irish or Scottish blood in me, but the progressive discovery of the deep well of beauty that is those countries’ traditional music has been a profoundly enriching experience.

After a hectic and not uneventful week with our Swiss school-guests, my wife and I forced ourselves up to Islington last evening to see The Gloaming at the Union Chapel. During some of their extended sets, I found myself reflecting on the path that had led me to deep appreciation of such an obscure type of music. This is not the stereotyped folk music of The Pogues or The Dubliners, but a rich and complex seam of culture that requires considerable effort to understand and play at all well.  The Gloaming mix Irish traditions with elements of classical music, jazz and the avant-guard; almost unknown outside their genre, these highly-gifted musicians still filled the thousand-seater venue to a standing ovation.

This short feature may give an insight for the curious (it too, requires a little patience):

Forgive my digression; what has this to do with education?

In some deep-seated ways, I feel my discovery of this music has to be linked with my own educational experiences. Not only was it the direct recognition of one teacher that sparked my enjoyment of performing it, but the more subtle mind-training of the education years paved the way for the sometimes-difficult journey into a new culture. Somewhere along the way, a combination of my innate tastes, coupled with the formalised training in thought, knowledge-acquisition and understanding, a fostering of my curiosity, and the mental tenacity required to stick with challenging material must have been instrumental in bringing me to my current level of appreciation.

I’m not suggesting for one moment that everyone should get into traditional music. But I think that one of the most valuable legacies of the education process can be the creation of possibilities for everyone to tap their own deep well of life-passions, no matter obscure they turn out to be. It certainly seems that many highly-educated people do take their own particular interests to great lengths, and I suggest that this can do at least as much (I would say far more) to create a ‘life well lived’ as any increase in earning power.

I’m not being at all new-age about this: I’m certain the forming of those aptitudes was in part the by-product of formal academic training – but the outcomes were largely unknowable to those who delivered that training in the first place. When I see the narrowed, prescriptive process that modern education has become, I fear for the Death of Passion. In my own subject, Geography, we even have a lesson tick-box for ‘Awe and Wonder’. Yes – even the majesty of the natural world has been reduced to an administrative tick-box, without many colleagues apparently sensing of the irony of it.

I see far too many examples of students’ UCAS and other personal statements that are merely clones of the many almost-identical ‘good practice’ templates they are provided with. That to me is a contradiction in terms; the worst are those that say “My school work takes up all my free time”.  I’m not arguing for less academic rigour (and by definition it’s only in later in life that this perspective has become clearer to me) – but this strikes me as self-defeating. At 18, I didn’t see the bigger picture either, but I can say with certainty that those journeys such as my musical one which have done most to enrich my life, were already well underway in a way that our texting-obsessed, shopaholic pupils mostly don’t seem to be emulating.

This is not only an educational problem: it is a technological, economic and societal one, but there are still a few who buck the trend: a few years ago, I asked a tutee of mine on her last day in school how she would be spending her post-‘A’ Level summer. She replied that she would be touring the folk festivals with her melodeon: she had taken up the instrument after seeing a band that I had booked as part of a sixth-form Arts day. Until then I had had no inkling.

But for the most part, modern education seems to be limiting  the possibilities for young people to take their interests where they will – or at least reinforcing their predisposition not to bother. As I said, this is not a plea for less formal education – that is where some of the inner perseverance was fostered. But in general, by reducing everything to bureaucratic certainties, by cutting the demand for tenacity in response to supposedly-shortened attention-spans – and by ignoring the little bit of Miss Jean Brodie in the role we have to play, we risk also reducing the chances for children to discover their own latent passions.

In my view, we are losing something precious.

Groucho was Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weasel words 4: Learning

“The mind is a fire for fuelling, not a vessel for filling.” Plutarch.

Now this is a big one: a weasel-word right up there with Teaching – so settle in. In fact, to be really nuanced in my Political Correctness, it should come before teaching, as in L&T. (Is this progress?) And this teacher is confessing that after nearly thirty years, he still doesn’t even know precisely what it means.

But then, do any of us? Consider the following; is learning:

a) The act of memorising facts (relevant or otherwise)?

b) The acquisition of specific skills that one previously didn’t have? (But how do you know when you’ve fully ‘learned’ something so open-ended?)

c) The development of one’s attitudes towards the world? (But who is to assess what is ‘right’?).

d) A cognitive process by which we know what we know?

e) A process by which neurones connect to make new electro-chemical pathways in the brain?

f) A temporary, possibly short-lived phenomenon? (In which case how much use is it?)

g) A permanent change (in which case, how do we know when it has been completed?)

h) An act of alignment with the aim of increasing societal harmony?

i) An act of individual liberation that frees one from the need to conform as above?

j) The correction of one’s previous errors?

k) Something else entirely?

In fact, it is probably all of the above, and more – and in a sense it doesn’t really matter. What I do know is that the word is used with near-reverence by many involved in education, and is increasingly talked about as though it is a single, homogenous, knowable  process (it has nigh-on become a concrete noun)  which given the above, strikes me as the height of folly. Like everything else, the word has been commoditised to the point that it can be invoked in almost any situation where someone wishes to imply that what they are saying is VERY IMPORTANT.

The thing that worries me about this is that we risk oversimplifying what is still fundamentally a mysterious process, and one that for all we know is unique to each and every one of us. It is indubitably true that people do learn – in as much as they move on from where they were before, be that in skills, knowledge or outlook. But by commoditising it, we move it from the realm of the unconscious to that of the conscious mind, thereby risking narrowing the process, and by becoming so meta-cognitive about it we also risk its evaporating before our eyes. We spend so long looking for whether it is happening or not, that we simply move our focus away from the unconscious act of doing it to the conscious act of watching for it.

The plain fact is, most learning happens without our fully realising it. We can’t even very closely control what we learn – it is simply that which the brain somehow chooses to squirrel away at any given moment. That is why it also strikes me as foolish to being a lesson with the words “Today we are going to learn (about)…” As if we have that level of control! We might well have the intention (learning objective) but there’s no guarantee whatsoever that Little Johnny is actually going to learn that. He may instead come away with a new swear-word he learned from his neighbour, the fact that if you put synthetic gloves on top of the heater, they do melt, or maybe that Sir actually has a rather interesting hobby that he only found out about because Sir accidentally left his email open when he turned the whiteboard projector on. He will go away little the wiser about our splendid Learning Objective – but he will still have learned.

I’m not actually sure, either, when I learned to teach. There have been endless hours sitting in P.G.C.E. seminars, L&T meetings, staff meetings – and a few moments when the clouds parted and a shaft of sunlight descended, but for the most part it has been such a slow, accretional process, so much below the radar of consciousness, that I have not even been aware of it. Neither did I wake up one morning suddenly flushed with the realisation that I had finally finished learning and could now honestly think of myself as a Good Teacher. Incidentally, I’ve also learned a great deal about how schools (and indeed my fellow humans) work; in particular the politics of the places, and the fact that things don’t always happen for the simple, honourable reasons that one might hope. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to learn that; well I always was a bit naively idealistic.

This is why I am constantly perplexed at the modern need to measure when learning has supposedly happened. We expect a very different type of learning from our pupils, from that which we ourselves experience. Maybe we should implant lights on pupils’ heads – red (flashing) for Learning in Process and green for Process Complete…

While it may well be necessary to use a form of shorthand for Learning with immature minds, I’m really not sure that we are helping by sending the wrong message; instead of suggesting that Learning is a trivial, short-term activity, perhaps we would be better off encouraging children to understand what the long term actually means? By combating the short-termism of modern life, rather than giving in to it? In turning this slow, accretional process into yet another instant, zero-sum game, we simply up the stakes and create anxiety that may actually inhibit real learning – while simultaneously raising our own stress levels and workloads to unnecessary heights.

Over an even longer period than I have been teaching, I have also learned to play several musical instruments – and nary a formal lesson in sight. While instrument-playing is a thing unto itself, I think that it can nonetheless tell us something about learning more generally. My current challenge is the fiddle – ahem violin – which I have been working at for around three years, after deciding that I really needed to be playing one of the serious core instruments of Irish Trad. In this case, my thirty-five years’ prior learning on the mandolin gave me a good start, and for once I decided that some taught lessons were probably in order – in the form of an online distance-learning course from OAIM.

Through her video lessons, Majella Bartley, a respected fiddle teacher from western Ireland, taught me to acquire all of the techniques of ornamentation that I might never have worked out for myself. She did it by demonstrating how they work, what they sound like – slowly at first – and then making the learner play them again and again until the fingers did what they were supposed to. A perfect combination of didactic and active learning – but the majority of the work was done solo, in the confines of my spare bedroom, as I practised what I had been taught. Most pleasing of all was the fact that during my recent enforced ten-month-and-counting break thanks to post-viral syndrome, very little seems to have been lost. That is surely good learning.

But technical progress isn’t everything. One of the challenging aspects of traditional music is that everything is done by ear, and there is no one definitive version of a tune – each player makes it their own. And even when you can do this, there is no guarantee that you will capture nyah – the ‘feel’ of the thing.

Learning to do that is indeed a mystical process that for me only happened when I got myself over to the dimly-lit back-rooms of various hostelries in remote parts of Ireland and played into the night with the natives. Once again, the learning was subconscious – but what an education it was.

At no point was the L word used. It was accepted that this mysterious process just sort of happens when you are least expecting it. Go looking too hard and it disappears into the Irish mist.

I think the same thing happened at school – I don’t really remember ever being conscious of learning anything; some things seemed like common sense, others were really difficult and needed working at – but the point of actual learning remained invisible. And then there was that curious thing that once upon a time was called the Hidden Curriculum…

The reason for this extended digression is to illustrate what I believe to be the true nature of learning – something greater than the sum of its parts. When learning something new, it is of course necessary to acquire the basic skills and knowledge, some of which can be done mechanically – but real mastery is so much more than that. It also depends on the osmosis of all sorts of intangible attributes that give one the right ‘feel’ for the subject. Just as one cannot acquire overnight the hundreds of tunes that a good traditional musician will hold in his head, it also takes time for things to develop. Some of the process really is that oblique; I often tell my sixth-formers that the best way to improve their subject-specific writing is to read what others do, and let it soak in. Again, that takes time, and to pretend otherwise is seriously to mislead.

One of the problems here is the timescale of the classroom. Is it reasonable, with a lesson-duration of one hour to justify, to claim that learning has only occurred once something has been committed to long-term memory? I suspect that the only people who really need to take a short-term view of learning are actually the teachers, under pressure from the usual accountability…

I don’t need to try to remember my name – I just know it – and so I think I can reasonably say that I have learned it. But I can’t remember the number of the restaurant I telephoned from memory yesterday – though at the time I thought I had learned it, but clearly not. Yet I can still remember a defunct bank account number from twenty years ago. Such are the mysteries of short and long term memory. I sometimes tell my students that they can only consider they have learned something once they know it as they know their own name, but how we get to that stage is still hit-or-miss to say the least, and I’m really not convinced that all the gurus and researchers with their pet theories and flashy learning aids are really very much help, for all that they neatly fit my one hour slot. I have seen too many occasions when what looked like learning at the end of a lesson (or even a term later) turned out to have been nothing of the sort when we revisited the topic eighteen months on.

I have no doubt that it is possible to ram specific information into our pupils’ heads by labouring it enough – but whether that is either necessary or desirable is another matter. Cramming classes are just that – a futile attempt to enable young people to jump through short-term exam hoops – that in many ways is a complete betrayal of what learning is really about. I think you can even get a pupil to retain more than 100% of their true capability in the short term – witness those students who ‘over-achieve’ at G.C.S.E., only to find themselves utterly unequipped for the demands of ‘A’ Level, vacant on material they supposedly learned in Year 11. This is the worst conflation of all – real learning is not the same as that which is needed simply to pass exams.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.” Albert Einstein

Even worse, I also find myself questioning the actual use of all those facts that teachers daily drum into their pupils – and this from a staunch supporter of teaching knowledge. Do we spend so long obsessing about whether the kids are learning that we cease evaluating whether what they’re learning is even of much use?  I hear so many colleagues talking about learning in this prepackaged sense that I wonder whether they ever actually stop to question the use of the topics they are covering. “Because it’s on the specification” isn’t in itself the greatest of reasons. To my mind, there is a vast difference between knowing something and having ‘learned’ it. How much of it is really of any use other than for those who intend to take that subject forward?

It seems to me that people who lack a wide working knowledge are at an intellectual and functional disadvantage, quite apart from missing the inherent pleasure of knowing stuff. I know that I retain some of what I was taught at school, though most of it – even in my own subject – was mainly secured by revisiting it later in life. I also retain the residue of many other subjects, but it is as nothing compared with the disparate knowledge and skills I have acquired serendipitously along the way. One of the satisfactions of ageing is the breadth of working knowledge acquired – as in the way that random factoids that you didn’t even know you knew just appear out of the blue when doing the general knowledge crossword. Again I’m not sure how much of that is down to any consciously-undertaken process.

The same applies to skills; both in my music and my other interests, my proficiency has undoubtedly grown over the years. I suppose it has been a matter of doing the same thing time and time again over decades; I’m not really very sure what school – or even any formal teaching – ever had to do with it. Maybe it’s just temperament – the introvert within me is inherently interested in deep skills. It’s not always even been a particularly pleasant process – my back and arms ached for months while I gradually improved my violin posture, but the will to improve carried me through. Conversely, for people who aren’t temperamentally so-inclined, I wonder how much we can really do for them. I find it a bizarre notion to contemplate a person who only knows that which they have been formally taught in school. For all our Learning Objectives, lesson plans and swish resources, how much can we really get someone to learn if they are not predisposed so to do?

“An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about nothing.” Nicholas Murray Butler

So much though it grieves me to say so, I think that the  modern experience of formal education has little to do with real learning, and everything to do with validating the system that delivers it. I know many people who have gone through the system, even to the highest levels of great universities – and some of them seem to know precious little about much at all. No doubt they are expert in their chosen fields, and good at their jobs – but when it comes to breadth and general application… And some of them are teachers. So what price having learned a lot about something specific if the cost was a loss of perspective about the world at large? Is this a failure of the education process, or a shortcoming of the individual concerned? To be fair, I also know individuals whose highly specific knowledge provides them with daily insight in their wider lives – it all depends on what you do with what you’ve got…

This is perhaps why the emphasis shifted to learning skills: the idea is that skills are transferable, and as we all know, eminently useful for employers. Except that most skills we teach at secondary level are still so generic that they cannot be of much use in any specific line of work: it’s another edu-myth. What’s more, skills are useless without something to use them on – namely knowledge, and this as we also know, has been out of fashion until very recently.

Rather ironically we don’t actually teach perhaps the most relevant skills of all, except to a small group of older students, through the medium of Critical Thinking. From my experience, the ability to dissect a proposition or piece of information methodically and dispassionately, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, is perhaps the most valuable – and transferrable – skill of all. Pupils who take this course tend to find it a revelation, and in many cases they apply it widely to other subjects. But we still leave these skills largely to chance!

When we talk about what pupils have learned, I think we often mean something different. In terms of information, it may well be that pupils leave a lesson aware of information that they did not have at the beginning – but there is a significant difference between current awareness of something and having learned it. Likewise, the fact that a pupil may have executed a certain procedure during a lesson may mean that they have physically done it, but whether they have learned anything is less clear. In both cases, the real learning is the processing that happens in the mind following exposure to a new experience – or perhaps multiple exposures to it.  The problem from the teacher’s perspective is that we can’t really control what pupils do with the stuff we expose them to. That is too much wrapped up in the innate functions of their brains, not to mention the cultural filters through which they perceive the experience.

And in both cases, I’m not completely clear how the experience of discrete learning is really connected to the fundamental result I think we all desire – the development of an effective, autonomous individual who is both able to live a fulfilled life them self, and to contribute to the wider well-being of us all.

I’m certainly not going to decry our efforts to promote the acquisition of either knowledge or skills, not least because it is a significant source of inherent satisfaction in my own life – but how it becomes ‘learned’ is a different matter.  People who go through life knowing little seem to me to be significantly impoverished for it, and Google is no substitute. Likewise, people who never develop their skills (of whatever sort) beyond the basic miss out on a huge source of satisfaction – that of getting better at things, becoming expert even. Without my accumulated expertise in my own particular arcane interests, life would be immeasurably the poorer.

But I think we deceive ourselves if we claim that what happens in a classroom has a direct impact on what remains in people’s heads throughout their lives. The notion that a single one-hour lesson can implant anything usefully and permanently in a brain is deluded. That is why lifelong learning is important, though it needn’t mean a life spent in a long succession of evening classes.

Certainly we create possibilities, hopefully stimulate processes that continue well beyond school-age, and yes leave residues of knowledge in people’s minds. Some of what we do may indeed be genuinely learned, though whether it is any more than a random occurrence I don’t know.  But to say that we generate learning – let alone that we can specify and measure it in the short time we have with our pupils – is a step too far, another sign of how presumptuous modern teaching has become. What’s more, learning can only be measured by its application and this requires the perspective of time and context that we can barely hope to recreate in a regular working classroom. As I said above, retention rates are not always impressive, though one might hope that more has actually ‘gone in’ than pupils are actually able to retrieve on command during an assessment situation. But in real learning (as opposed to exam results) terms that doesn’t matter unduly.

I have said before that teachers are merely planters of seeds; we might create the possibility for learning, but I don’t think we can claim to have much control over the thing itself.  One thing that can help is to focus on the ‘unknown unknowns’, where the potential for progress is perhaps greatest and most immediate – and yet modern education seems intent on restricting itself to knowable, pre-definable outcomes from lessons.

For all that fMRI scanners can show us about the brain, genuine learning remains a largely mystical process that occurs autonomously in the unconscious mind.  Trying to fill an unfillable vessel seems like the height of delusion, so maybe the best we can hope for is to chuck a few logs on the fire before our pupils leave us. Whether they burn is really  up to them.

10,000 hours

One of my several very esoteric interests is playing traditional Irish music. I’ve been doing it for over thirty years, and suffice it to say that it’s a very accessible, very sociable activity that is a big antidote to the pressures of working life. I need one of those… These days it’s played all over the world, and bizarrely it seems to attract a disproportionately large number of highly educated, very thoughtful folk.

There has been a long-running discussion recently on one of the online forums about the widely-known claim that it takes 10,000 hours of active, conscious learning to achieve mastery of a musical instrument. Would-be prodigies need to put this in before the age of eighteen

This is, of course, another example of a theory that is very difficult to test, though some research has supposedly been done. It does nonetheless raise a number of issues for anyone aiming to excel. Assuming it is right, at what point should one expect to feel fully competent as a professional? Based on my school, a typical teacher in Britain might teach about 22 hours a week. The school year is normally 39 weeks long. A quick calculation shows that on this basis, one needs to teach for over 11 ½ years to achieve mastery. My father (also a teacher) once told me that it took him some ten years to feel fully in command of his work. I think it took me longer; being a naturally rather quiet person, maybe I was a slow learner…

In fact one (hopefully) never stops learning, and I genuinely feel that I am still getting better in the classroom, at least when measured against my own internal aims. What is also notable is that mastery (insofar as I can claim to have experienced it) seems not to feel much like you expect it to – either musical or other. It’s too intuitive for a start.

One can link the 10,000 hours idea to the four stages of competence:

  1. Unconscious  incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious  competence
  4. Unconscious  competence

A good example of part of that is the person who said, of playing a musical instrument, “It’s only when you can play a bit yourself that you realise just how good the really good guys are.”

Another way of describing stage four – by which I think we might also mean Mastery – is that it’s ‘in your bones’: what you are doing has become so much second nature that you just do it without thinking. You may not even feel particularly ‘good’ at it. Yet you may well be deploying all sorts of tricks of the trade that you have accumulated along the way, you may well even be breaking the rules of supposed ‘good practice’. After all, once you have learned the rules you can learn when to break them; geniuses aren’t usually known for sticking to the rules.

This is definitely true of Irish music, where there is an intangible ‘character’ to the real thing (as found very largely only in Ireland), People who have grown up in the tradition have – even when they’re breaking all the rules – ‘something’ that those of us who are from elsewhere don’t have. You can learn to recognise it, but replicating it yourself – most of all consciously – is much more difficult than it seems.

I hope I could honesty say, in my 27th year of teaching, that I have achieved something close to mastery. It is certainly second nature. My style is completely personal to me, it works for me when it comes to engaging with children in my lessons; it might well not for someone else. The trouble is, it is largely based on personality, a degree of acting, a degree of charisma, my own weird brand of humour, an ability to draw, a bit of rhetoric, a bit of wit. Not to mention a dose of reverse-psychology and a good dollop of knowledge, both subject and wider.

The system in which I work judges my skill by the degree to which I conform to pre-specified, uniform routines of centrally-dictated ‘good practice’, as laid down by the latest government gurus and inspectors, and aimed purely at demonstrating that every child in my class makes precisely the anticipated type of progress as laid down by statistical expectations. There are no tick-boxes for humour, irony, let alone rhetoric (which is BAD, no matter how rousing) – all the techniques that many of the master-teachers I know use all the time.

The expected practices – which are largely technical, not personal – actually seem aimed at a level below 10,000 hours, at those who are still in mid-journey. Nothing wrong in that as such, (they may both secure both minimum standards and point the way ahead) – but are they appropriate for judging those further on? In my view, they aim at a sub-optimal situation simply because it’s supposedly measurable.

One additional complication – when something is deeply in your bones, it really is not easy to make radical changes of direction just in order to meet the latest fad (which one can bet probably did not take 10,000 hours to dream up). Old dogs may not be able to learn new tricks – but is it necessarily a bad thing if the tricks they already have work?

We might also learn from 10,000 hours something about the speed at which children learn, and reflect on whether it is realistic to demonstrate anything significant in a space as short as one hour, as we are expected to do.

Am I to conclude that the system isn’t really interested in mastery – or at least, being the child of a bureaucratic mind – it hasn’t a clue how to recognise it when it sees it?