The Joy of Confirmation Bias

I wish I had read The Black Swan sooner. It is an engaging if sometimes challenging read. Taleb is a somewhat unconventional writer and he does not always explain complex concepts with the layman in mind. (I was initially floundering on the use of fractals in probability calculations…) But its basic message is worth the effort, and confirmation bias alone sees to it that it is satisfying to read something that justifies one’s own prior thoughts!

I show below a table reproduced from the later stages of the book. In it Taleb summarises contrasts in ways which different paradigms approach uncertainty. A Black Swan is a high-impact, low-frequency event that nonetheless has a massive effect; for instance, Taleb claims that 50% of the value of American stocks has been added by just ten tumultuous days in the last 50 years; similarly, just one blockbuster can completely turn a publisher’s fortunes around. Getting lucky enough to ride such a wave can be transformative, as can the negative impact of unforeseen catastrophes.

Taleb.jpg

The salient point for teaching, I think, is that there are aspects of life where grand master-plans and scientific predictions simply do not wash. Taleb points out that the social sciences and human behaviour in general are amongst them. There is no point in organising such phenomena around the diktats of elegant theories, or statistical predictions: the range of possible human responses to educational acts is just too great to call, and it does not regress to the mean either – something which most models assume. It is the educational equivalent of the Butterfly Effect.

One might conceive of a small event in a pupil’s schooling, that unbeknown to the teacher ‘lights a bulb in the mind’, and eventually causes that pupil to become the next Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking. I wonder what effect size John Hattie would ascribe to that… But to a lesser extent, the same is true about the actual effects of any educational (or other) interaction; this is why trying to identify and then depend on known ‘outcomes’ is pointless. (One might also consider the effect on the ‘total career impact’  of a teacher, of the act that produces the next Einstein!).

When I was writing my own book, I felt slightly uneasy that I could not substantiate sufficiently my claim that educational interactions are ‘irreducible events whose outcomes are only known to those involved’. For all that it felt right, justifying it was more difficult. But here, at last, is something that I think comes close. If it is indeed true that some effects in this world are governed by a fractal model of probability rather than a Bell Curve, then it is entirely possible for the effects of a teacher on a pupil to be unknowable – an educational Black Swan.

This does not mean that extreme events will occur frequently, but equally it does mean that they are eminently possible, and that we should not seek to build theories without allowing for them. Likewise, for every pupil who ‘works hard and succeeds’, how many (often unseen) pupils work hard but don’t? Or don’t work hard, but still do? It’s a deeply misleading relationship to suggest to people.

But given that they are unknowable in both nature and occurrence, we cannot therefore build accurate models of our effect. Resorting to those we have on the grounds that they are better than nothing does not make them any more accurate.

Taleb suggests that the only sensible response to this is Sceptical Empiricism, in other words a mode of working that is deductive: it works from reality to concept, rather than the opposite, always remembering that the past is not a good predictor of the future. The chart summarises the differences between this approach and the more conventional one, which does indeed look more like the present-day character of some education systems.

I was delighted to note that Taleb describes this approach as being ‘sophisticated craft’ rather than ‘poor science’ – which is indeed exactly how I would characterise my view of teaching vis à vis the established one, and what I proposed in the conclusion of my own book. And as he says, it is better to be broadly right than precisely wrong.

Which is what the current models being used in education are.

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Icarus

The criticism of schools minister Nick Gibb by an educational researcher for quoting a ‘mere blogger’ (Old Andrew) seems to have created a minor storm – and rightly so.

That ‘mere blogger’ happens to be not only a practising professional teacher, but also one of the most incisive voices in the British education world today. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that he has helped to bring about substantive change in the educational landscape. But beyond any personal slight is a more far-reaching point. Blogging happens to have become the major vehicle by which grass-roots teachers are able to communicate their thinking and experiences.

By seeking to invalidate such media, those in the educational research (and sometimes management) realm are in effect trying silence anyone who does not have access to the supposedly-superior educational macro-data that they do.

My own (now) rather cynical voice has been honed by similar experiences: while still teaching full-time, my attempts to contribute to the wider debate and development within my school were repeatedly ignored by management seemingly because they did not come from an ‘appropriate’ source – and because they sometimes contained difficult, but necessary and well-meant truths.

Yet as with OId Andrew, my contributions found much favour amongst my teaching colleagues, as a huge pile of enthusiastic CPD feedback sheets shows. Those in charge must have seen them – but on no occasion was I able to persuade any of the school’s senior ‘leaders’ to attend. On the sole occasion that one of the lesser minions did appear, he described the session as the most thought-provoking CPD session he had ever attended. And still none of the others would come.

I apologise if this sounds a little like gilding my own cage – but the fact is, while it has become easier for the grass-roots teachers make their thoughts known, if anything, those in control seem to be shutting their ears ever more firmly to what is being said. My book (the publication of which by John Catt is hopefully a reasonable validation of its content) has also encountered scepticism from the same quarters that it might contain anything that those who make the decisions need to hear.

We have in Britain an education system that is becoming more like a regular branch of autocratic commercial activity by the month. The behaviour is strikingly similar: those at the ‘sharp end’ are treated with visible contempt, while those in charge continue to feather their own nests even at a time of crisis. The effects are the same everywhere: given my own experience there, it was with some schadenfreude that I learned recently that my former school is struggling to recruit humanities teachers to replace the several that it seriously disaffected in the past few years. Had they listened when we tried to speak, this might never have happened.

The ‘executive’ arm of the education system is increasingly becoming what in my book I called ‘management cancer’: not merely is it making life more difficult for the regular functionaries, but it is actively eating away at the system it supposedly serves. The dismissal of practising professionals as ‘mere’ anything is an expression of an attitude that sees education as either some kind of high-handed abstract apparatus for social intervention, or an under-handed personal career opportunity for a few – rather than a crucial personal-intellectual process that shapes the actual lives of real people. The punters and the labourers are little more than the necessary grist in that mill.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey asked in The Guardian a few days ago whether “school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s wellbeing and parents’ aspirations are being held back”. The answer is yes they are – not in the main by classroom practice, but by the vast, stifling thicket of management ideology and so-called research which claims to be powering the system – but in actual fact is doing much to damage it, while uttering the usual platitudes of executive parasites everywhere about how essential they are for the smooth-running, indeed mere existence of the whole edifice.

 

I should, as always, temper my comments with the acknowledgement that there are undoubtedly many school leaders everywhere who are doing a decent, genuine, unsung job of running their schools as humanely well as they possibly can. It is not them who I am criticising, but those with the sharpest elbows and loudest voices who have acquired – no, seized – disproportionate influence in education. I have sources from enough schools around the country to know that this is not just an isolated problem. A tellingly-anonymous article in The Guardian over the weekend which described experiences and sentiments amazingly close to my own might suggest the same – and is worth quoting from:

“…Then there was the endless river of snake oil flowing from educational consultants – mountebanks who promise they can solve all your educational ills if you follow their five-minute fad. And while you’re at it teachers, solve the problems of society! Teach kids to avoid drugs, underage sex and radicalisation.

So how should things be? Let teachers get on with the job; stop politicians interfering in education; allow good teachers the freedom to inspire their pupils. This is not going to happen. No wonder the average length of service for a teacher in the UK is five years. No wonder I left after 30.”

I also accept (as should we all) that due allowance needs to be made for ‘unknown unknowns’ when criticising the actions of others. It would be good if the same allowances flowed more often in the opposite direction too… We should probably also throw into the mix the fact that in a field like education, a single, stable, universally-applicable consensus is probably a dream too far – but all the more reason to accept and respect all parties in the debate.

I see a corporate culture whose hubris shows no sign of abating – to the point that its subscribers are no longer even ashamed of decrying their front-line practitioners in effect as ‘mere teachers’, whose views and needs can reasonably be ignored and even publicly dismissed. It is becoming more autocratic by the month and as some high-profile cases have shown, some individuals will not even stop at bringing the profession into disrepute in the process of furthering their own interests. How can this possibly be good for education?

Like the writer of the Guardian article, I have no doubt that these people will continue to fly higher and higher, to the detriment of the rest of the educational system. Indeed, I hope they do, for I have a new name for them: Icarus.

We need to discuss management openly – while dodging the bullets.

If one sticks one’s head above the parapet, one should expect to encounter some low-flying ordnance. Parts of The Great Exception do seem to be causing controversy – which is good.

I expected my critique of ‘Big Management’ not to go down well in some quarters, though most school managers will no doubt be far too thick-skinned to be riled by comments from the likes of me. In any case, I hope it is possible to separate the issue from the people. Over the years, I did encounter a few managers whose behaviour was truly despicable, but they were very much the minority, and I have many friends and former colleagues who are or were managers: this is not personal.

We need to ask this question – because there is no reason whatsoever why management should be any more virtuous or above reproach than the rest of the system. Indeed given its huge influence, it has the capacity to cause far more harm to education than the inadequacies of mere individual classroom teachers – and that is without considering the huge costs that big management imposes on a cash-strapped system.

The worst thing to do would be to dismiss criticism out of hand, which would rather prove the point about the risk of hubris.

I am more concerned with the system that is being operated than the people enacting it, most of whom have to operate within frameworks over which they no more have complete control than anyone else. I am confident that most people in such positions are genuinely acting in what they believe to be the best way. But that is not to say that either they – or the system – are always getting it right: outside pressures can result in very perverse behaviours, especially as people move further from the grass-roots classroom experience. Neither is it untrue that self-interest sometimes clouds their judgement. Yet it is worth re-stating that no-one is forced to take such posts, and I would not wish some of their dilemmas on anyone.

For all that education has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, nobody seems to have stopped and asked whether ‘big management’ is actually helping. It seems to be taken for granted that it does (even when that flies in the face of experience) and I do not get the impression that the alternative views presented by highly-experienced managers like Margaret Heffernan, Daniel Pink and John Kay are widely known (that is why they’re in the book…). One manager I persuaded to read Daniel Pink described his book as “a revelation”. I’m afraid to say that plenty of conversations I have had with managers over the years betrayed nothing so much as a certain tunnel vision.

It is not sufficient for management teams solely to self- or peer-appraise; this is not acceptable for classroom teachers, and neither is it reasonable to dismiss the comments from those lower down the ‘food chain’ on the grounds of incomplete insight. If that were the case, we would stop all ‘pupil voice’ exercises today.

It is undoubtedly true that the situation is not the same everywhere: while I focus on many of the generic pitfalls of the management process, this is not to imply that practice is universally bad. But I also know from direct experience that the actions of management in certain circumstances can be responsible for a great deal of difficulty, distress and over-work. Over the years, I have been variously told that I was “naive” to call for more compassion in the workplace, that management should be “bullish” and that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City”. I was told it was “insubordinate” to question a particularly difficult manager. None of this is remotely helpful. I would hope that well-meaning managers would acknowledge this and be concerned about it: why would they be otherwise?

This issue needs to be discussed in the open: there is a crisis of recruitment and retention in the profession – and it is not true that it is solely caused by low pay or the behaviour of the children. ‘Management’ is responsible for creating the climate (and many of the pressures) in the educational workplace – and there is plenty to suggest that it is not always good. I have repeatedly seen this with my own eyes – and I know that it is not always taken seriously. What greater own-goal could the profession score?

If it is true that poor classroom teaching needs to be addressed without much compunction, then the same is surely so for poor management – and the ability of those in senior positions to close ranks and insulate themselves more from adverse situations should not prevent that. Hypocrisy is destructive – and if managers feel uncomfortable about being criticised, then perhaps it will remind them how regular teachers feel under similar situations, many of which are management-instigated. In fact, I would much prefer to see a more consensual, less confrontational climate all round.

My book is not mainly aimed at new teachers as one reviewer suggested: I will be only too pleased if senior managers read it: some at least need to.

But I also hope that the (necessary) coverage of these issues will not distract from the more positive sections on good practice later in the book. I take the view that all in education have largely been co-victims of outside pressures, and my intention was to offer a constructive view of a more realistic, sustainable and humane way forward.

Getting that right would be one of the surest ways to improve the sector for everyone.

Unfinished Business

Thanks to Old Andrew for flagging-up the continued existence of this ‘blogging legend’ on Twitter. I try to limit my social media activity (it takes up too much of life as it is) so I only notify on Twitter, rather than participate. I am always very pleased to receive comments and correspondence via the blog itself, though, or at: blog [at] sandistock.plus.com.  I rather wonder whether a “legend” is something very old, imaginary and probably redundant…

I had been wondering again whether the blog warrants continuation. I’ve now been out of the classroom for well over a year, and the immediacy of my experience is fading. That said, I still keep more than a weather-eye on the education scene, and still read others’ blogs reasonably frequently.

The future here is still not very clear, other than the fact that a crust will somehow need to be earned again from early summer, even though ‘the head’ is still far from right; dilemma – and one that what’s left of the welfare state in this country doesn’t seem unduly concerned about. At least I’ve kicked the drug habit, so there’s a clearer view of the real situation. Salutary lesson: anyone who thinks antidepressants are an easy answer should think again.

There are a few irons in the fire, some in education, some not. One may involve becoming a student again for a while. But without implying criticism of those who have helped me, I don’t think anyone should be under the impression that there is a lot of support out here for people in difficulties. Any hope of ‘obligation’ borne from years spent in public service is pie in the sky. Regrettably, I include my Union in that: I guess that regulation and legal constraints perhaps prevent them from doing more than offer very general observations. Which is all very well – but not especially helpful just at the time when one could do with a stronger lead.

One of my long-time correspondents has urged me to keep the blog going, so that is what I will do, albeit probably on an intermittent basis as and when something comment-worthy comes up. As he put it “There is unfinished business with the toxic culture in education.” Yes indeed: I now know of six people even in my small pool who are signed off/medicated for teaching-associated mental health problems, and many more who are at varying stages of unhappiness or distress with what the job is doing to them. This is not right.

I suppose it is unsurprising that a forceful personal experience makes one more aware of ‘issues’ but once there, the situation seems obvious. Even amongst the zealots who often manage education, it must take a particularly callous person not to be concerned for the mental health of one’s staff. Which is not to say they don’t exist; how they manage not to see either the damage being done to their own institutions or the massive irony of the supposedly life-affirming education sector being toxic to those within it, is beyond my understanding. Of my original group of close colleagues, the last one left the school in question at the end of last term, for largely similar reasons. One might hope that those in charge would reflect on why they are losing good teachers – though I suspect they won’t. Management blindness is too self-confirming for that.

But we should also remember that there are those such as John Tomsett who have been rightly recognised for taking a different approach with regard to wellbeing – though it is informative that Ofsted felt it necessary to tell him that his school’s ‘Outstanding’ came because of his compassion not in spite of it.

Unfinished business there indeed is: not from any need for retribution, but simply because the sector is too important to be allowed to continue in its current unsustainable form. There is plenty of evidence around to support that view, quite apart from my own that much of what education is currently doing (or is perhaps being made to do) is entirely counter-productive to its supposed aims. Damaging entire generations is too high a price for politico-economic dogma…

…which leads me to offer an up-date on my book for those whom I know are already interested – and as a shameless plug at those who aren’t (yet…?). Titled ‘The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other’ it is one teacher’s view of the reasons for education’s intractable problems, and a proposal for a more sustainable model. It is about to go to print, and should be out fairly early in the New Year. More details as they emerge.

Unfinished work – indeed. At which point I will wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year.

Take care of yourself – seriously

I remember the first lesson I ever taught. It was in a typical 1950’s-built school in the suburbs of Norwich. Monday period 1: 3rd year (as it then was) French – and I wasn’t even a French specialist. The Head of Department had approved my plan with his habitual phrase, remembered to this day: “It’s all grist to the mill…!”

The lesson was, in what I suspect is a fairly common experience, a hammer blow. My preparation hadn’t been half thorough enough; there was a flaw in one of the activities, and I hadn’t reckoned seriously enough with the gratuitous bait-the-student-teacher disruption… I guess that’s why we have teacher training.

It took quite a few years for feelings of confidence to emerge; I remember my father saying it took him about ten to be reasonably satisfied with his teaching. I don’t think there was ever anything wrong – indeed on several occasions more experienced colleagues told me in no uncertain terms not to be so hard on myself. By the time I reached last year, I was even reasonably comfortable with describing myself as unconsciously competent in the classroom – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms.

But in the light of experience, I can’t help reflecting on the several posts I wrote on the subject of introversion, most relevantly here:

https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/12/07/groucho-was-right/

Also here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/shhh/ and here https://ijstock.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/feeling-nervous/

If you happen to be a sensitive and not outgoing or gregarious individual, the damage the rough and tumble of teaching does can be particularly serious. A colleague of thirty years expressed incredulity that I felt such characteristics applied to me, so effectively had I masked my inner self for all that time. I was always my own harshest critic – but, I reasoned,  how many teachers would say the same? It must be in the tens of thousands….Still, I did the day-job week in, week out, swallowing the pressure, trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, doing the things I was told to even when I had deep reservations about them – without any serious thought that it was storing up harm…

My point is this: everyone who does it knows that teaching is a high pressure game – but we still don’t know it – in the sense of being aware of the impact it can (or should that be does?) have. We become so habituated to its demands – the pressurised day-to-day working life, the pressure from managers and politicians, the fact that our evenings and weekends are barely our own – that we treat it as normal. It is not.

As the years went by, I became dimly aware that other people did not experience the same relentless pressure as I did, such that my waking life was utterly dominated by my work; theirs weren’t. Which is not to say that other jobs are not pressurised – but few somehow seem to consume people like teaching does.

As more years went by, the cumulative impact on my health increased – but so gradually that I barely noticed: each little niggle was simply a little niggle, that happened to be a bit bigger than it had been before. When the gloom that was the early signs of depression started appearing, it was just that I was having a bad day. Except it wasn’t.

It is probably true that these things have a harsher impact on the quieter, more introverted people – but just read Bottomsbray’s latest post here https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2017/11/25/anatomy-of-a-breakdown/  to show that it can happen to anyone.  He and I are roughly of an age; our careers have tracked each other. If anything, he has had a narrower escape than I did. But looking back, it is clearer than ever before, just how significant the impact of teaching over those last thirty years of constant, turbulent change in the profession has been. I wonder how many more people there are out there who are nursing the same scars, and who may (heaven forbid) be heading in the same direction. If you are, as Bottomsbray says, seek help and don’t be proud about it.

I said it numerous times, but even I didn’t believe it until I saw it: the effect of putting intelligent, conscientious people under that amount of pressure for that amount of time is not pretty. In effect throwing them on the scrapheap to fend for themselves at the end of it is worse – a lot worse, and that still hurts.

But after a year without teaching, I now have a life that more closely resembles those of other people: work is work – and the rest of life is my own. Around the home, many things that had been neglected for years have gradually been put in order; I have time to spend with my wife and friends, and just to cook nice things for dinner. I have time to engage in projects in our community, that I just didn’t have the time or energy for before. I have a more balanced life – and if it weren’t for the remaining ‘head’ issues, it would be great.

It is not inevitable that a career in teaching destroys all that: my parents managed a better balance in their day – and my Swiss friend Alfred always retained a better work-life balance even while he was still teaching. It is just the utter madness that the British education system has become that is doing the damage; a madness that is making a few executive head teachers rich and powerful, delivering a sterile, hollowed-out ‘education’ to the next generation – and burning this one out in the process. It cannot continue.

I have been doing plenty of ‘work’ during the past year, not least finishing a book expanding many of the above ideas much further, developing much else that I have covered over the years in this blog, and examining ways in which a different, more sustainable model could achieve benefits all round. It is currently in production with John Catt Publishers and should be out in the New Year. More details in due course.