Wrong lever!

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(Picture: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in a meeting a few days ago, in which a well-meaning member of senior staff was outlining what ‘needs’ to be done to address under-achievement among some of our older students. As she conceded, there is little wrong with the teaching (we know we are collectively doing all the things that are currently identified as good practice). It just isn’t always having the desired effect.

A Plan was wheeled out. It involved yet more folder checks, setting and tracking of target, removal of privileges, helicoptering of students. In other words, all the things we are already doing; hardly a creative response to the situation. But in a way, I do sympathise: where a problem has been identified, Management cannot very well sit there and do nothing.

I was left with a sense of hopelessness, despite the fact that the issue doesn’t directly affect me at the moment as I don’t teach the cohorts concerned. As has been said many times, if you make the same input you will most likely get the same output – and yet again the people caught in the middle of this thankless, probably fruitless effort are the teachers whose workloads have been added to once again.

As I said, I don’t blame those making the decisions – they are caught in the same system as the rest of us, being held accountable for things we cannot control – but I would still suggest that the chances of improvement as a result of the extra work are minimal. I would have thought that recognising the limits of our powers might however be a good start. After all, this is not the first time the same approach has been taken, and last time, if anything, it seemed to have the opposite effect.

At the root of this is an inability to accept that there are some very important things over which we have very little control. And key amongst those, particularly with the older students, is their wider culture and attitudes. It may be necessary for schools to claim they have total control over student outcomes, but I am afraid it just isn’t so. Even Hattie accepts that.

I am not going to suggest there is nothing we can do to tackle complacency and over-confidence in students, but I think it is foolish to expect to bring about a rapid, profound change – or that coercion will achieve it. Rather than seeing schooling as the ability to drive back the tide, I see it more like sticking a paddle into a fast-flowing stream and hoping to make some rather helpful eddies. Note I say ‘schooling’ as opposed to education; the latter is indeed a profound force – but I am not sure that it is limited to, or even particularly well delivered by, what goes on in schools, particularly for those sectors of youthful society that if anything are already over-stimulated.

To put it bluntly, trying to change student actions by directing teacher ones amounts to pulling the wrong lever. Teachers are generally not the problem; (lazy) students are. And pressurising the teachers put even more pressure on those students, in the process becoming more stressed and short of time, is unlikely to make any difference at all. My best bet is for more resistance as more potential confrontations arise.

On the other hand, creating the space for teachers to be nurturing, even inspiring, or just plain human, might in time have an effect. But this looks too much like doing nothing.

I suspect the problem with lazy sixth-formers comes partly from post GCSE burn-out and possibly from admitting uncommitted individuals because of the cash they attract. It  perhaps lies in the fact that most of ours already want for nothing, and probably normal teenage inertia. It might also be that the targets aren’t right in the first place. In other words it is the wider circumstance that is wrong.

But depressingly, the only response the system seems to know is to work teachers harder. I suspect it actually requires a more subtle interpretation of which levers to pull; is it too much to expect subtlety, or at least wisdom, from the education system? Pulling the wrong lever is no better than pulling none at all.

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Bad Grammar 2 – Missed Opportunity

To my mind, the greatest missed educational opportunity of the past century was the failure fully to implement Butler’s 1944 Education Act. Several of our more educationally-successful neighbours have had systems broadly similar to that which Butler proposed for a long time, and they arguably have an advantage over us in what they achieve.

I argued in my previous post that there is a perfectly valid egalitarian argument to be made for separating children according to the type of education that they and their parents desire. Perhaps Corbyn’s Labour Party needs to re-examine its opposition to ‘selection’ in its quest to attract new voters.

While putting the onus on families admittedly leaves the door open for neglectful ones to abrogate their responsibilities, just how much responsibility should the state be expected to pick up in such situations? While real deprivation is indefensible, I wonder how much of the lower-aspiring part of the population really is unhappy with its life  – and how much of the ‘problem’ is actually the projection of educated, middle-class ambition onto those who may not want it. I would argue that the best motivator for those who wish for something else is their own aspiration, and the job of the system is to make sure that it does not actively obstruct them. I would also argue that a truly free society is one where people are able to make such choices even if they appear undesirable to others; one could even argue that the determination of those who experience rags-to-riches lives might not have existed were it not for their starting point. I certainly see many affluent children for whom complacency is the main enemy.

Nonetheless, the comprehensive/selective dichotomy is actually a false one, a reaction to what actually came of the Butler Act rather than what was intended. There are other alternatives. This is not to say that the Act got everything right, or that it would still be right now, but had Butler been seen through I think we would be in a significantly better position now than we actually are.

I suspect that many in education in the U.K. only really value academic success because they perceive it as a mechanism for social change; that is why they push the under-privileged agenda so hard, when true intellectual development ought to be available to all irrespective of other circumstances. Their willingness to under-value bright children gives them away. The good news is, you don’t actually need to be rich to be a Thinker – but I hear relatively little in my day-to-day work about intellectual development for its own sake. It mostly seems to be seen as a means of delivering material gain.

The role of Government should be to establish the framework and prevent or correct abuses of the system, rather than attempting large-scale pre-emptive social engineering. While this might be seen as a right-wing outlook, there is nothing un-egalitarian about maximising people’s autonomy and opportunity so long as it doesn’t then adversely affect others. In fact, this is the Left’s dilemma: top-down dirigisme is incompatible with people’s sense of self-determination, and it needs to resolve this conflict. Yet this largely remains the way in which education is framed. In educational terms, opportunity and freedom should be expressed as increasing the genuine choice available to people rather than forcing everyone through the same mould; the role of government should be to ensure that the choices are equitably provided for, and (ideally) equally regarded.

So what might such a system actually look like?

To begin with, the tinkering of recent governments through various forms of school specialisation goes nowhere near far enough. Choice is meaningless when all available alternatives are actually purveying pretty much the same thing.

Had Butler been seen through, each locality would by now have had an academic school, one or more technical schools and some general schools. This would be the minimum guaranteed provision; the actuality would need to reflect local demographics. This would have presented real choice, provided sufficient capacity was available, which in turn would rely on funding that permitted a degree of excess capacity to persist.

Primary schools would exist very much as now, though their role might move further towards identifying children’s early aptitudes. While they would focus on core skills there would be no need to prepare for the Eleven Plus, since this would not exist – anywhere. They would however need to record each child’s development in a way that supported the important choice that was to come later. It is worth remembering that in most continental systems, children start school at a later age without adverse educational effects later on; establishing a secure home life is seen as more important for the very young, and the social security system promotes this.

There would be a policy decision to be made whether a child’s future pathway was to be chosen at eleven or later; there is an argument that it should be at fourteen, and this is the direction that continental countries seem to have taken – an age where preferences and aptitudes are becoming clearer. In this case, there would need to be some form of generalist middle school, which could perhaps be collapsed with later-years primary as indeed happened under the middle school system. Again, the focus is on securing the basics and preparing for the later stages of education.

A fourteen-to-eighteen upper school could then better reflect the educational phase that all young people now effectively experience anyway, at the cost of a little continuity. A consultation process would need to take place to establish not ability, but aptitude and preference for a particular path. This would need to draw on evidence from previous schooling as well as parental and pupil choices. While this may sound unworkable, it is effectively the system by which this phase of education is determined in Switzerland – a combination of track record, preference and school consensus, with no sudden-death, high-stakes exam for which the more-advantaged can be primed. It is worth noting that independent schools are seen, as a Swiss friend memorably put it, “Only for children who have something wrong with them” (!)

The advantage of such a system is that it would present greater real choice to individuals, while also making them responsible for those choices. Schools would need the ability to transfer pupils who had made inappropriate choices or who were otherwise not meeting requirements. An independent appeals process would also be needed.

I don’t think that the academic schools would inevitably end up as the most popular; technical schools could easily involve support from industry and might well end up better resourced than the academic ones. I suspect there would be considerable demand, not only from the less able; aged fourteen, I might have been tempted to take that path myself, and might have worked harder as a result. Academic schools arguably do not need so much hardware in any case, and would probably benefit from being smaller – but they would need to be highly academic (relative to pupils’ ability), in order to attract only those who really wanted that approach.

It is likely that general schools would be more numerous and hence closer to home for many; these might however be more problematic in terms of perception, but they could be acceptable so long as they were properly resourced and not publicly vilified – something similar to a community school. Or they might not be needed. I suspect that those who desired specialised facilities would be prepared to travel further so long as cost did not prevent.

This is of course only a theoretical outline and it would not be perfect. But by providing real choice, sharing responsibility between schools and families and removing the social stigma of the Eleven Plus it could work, as it does elsewhere. By focusing on individual realisation rather than socio-economic competition, it might start to tackle both the inequality and the snobbery that so infest the current system, in a way that overt social engineering has not.

There are other coherent cases to be made, but it seems to me that we help no one by confusing socio-economic arguments with educational ones – and while we point-blank refuse even to discuss some issues for purely ideological reasons, we may be overlooking workable solutions that lie beneath our very noses.

Safety Announcement

John Tomsett wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago on the vulnerability of the teacher. I think he has a point: one of the unique things about teaching is that it inevitably becomes so intertwined with the practitioner as a person that it is difficult to know where the boundary lies. My impression gained from acquaintances who work in other fields is that there remains a greater degree of emotional separation between them and their job; while people of all sorts of course invest personal feelings in their work, there are perhaps few activities where it becomes quite so inextricably bound up with the person doing it.

I suspect The Quirky Teacher would not approve of this touchy-feely-ness so I hasten to add that I don’t see it as an excuse for a lack of rigour. It is essential that children experience environments that develop their higher intellectual faculties, and that involves going beyond the instinctive, emotional state of the mid-brain. This is why it is important that teachers are mature, intellectually-developed people who are able both to do that for themselves, and model it to their pupils.

But I don’t think this removes the sense of insecurity that being a teacher can provoke: I’m not sure that denying the existence of an emotional self is the mark of an intellectually developed person, in fact quite the opposite. I suspect that a fully-functioning intellectual mind simply becomes more aware of the fundamental tensions, contradictions and sheer unknowability of the educative process, and of life itself. The fact that the ultimate effect of a teacher’s work is so invisible pretty much guarantees, in conscientious people to breed a sense of insecurity.

This is all the more so in a climate where so much hangs on the observed so-called outcomes of the process. I can understand why people have increasingly grasped at children’s small, identifiable steps that can sometimes be seen in the classroom – but that can still not deny the bigger truth that the process and effect of learning are so broad and amorphous as to be invisible. I’m afraid the impression I have gained of those who prefer discernible ‘progress’, and toughness to emotional sensitivity, is that it is an expression not of intellectual superiority but of an inability to grasp the subtler, indeterminable truths.

Thus, while I completely support the view that teaching should be a rigorous profession, I am unconvinced that this means abandoning or ignoring the emotional landscape. While we should of course push children intellectually to achieve the best of which they are capable, this must be accompanied by an emotional literacy that understands their immaturity, both personal and developmental. It means being able to respond to children as individual people, not just as exam-machines.

And it should not just be confined to our pupils. A good colleague/friend and I encountered this week an emotionally-charged situation involving another colleague; he later admitted that it had taken him a few critical seconds (longer than I) to register the emotional context, and he considered this to be a weakness. I hope he would forgive me for agreeing with him, though I should add that he is an excellent teacher in very many respects. But as someone with a professed desire to climb the promotional ladder, I hope he will work at this emotional sensitivity, and accept that it need not be seen as a weakness when expressed outwardly.

When teachers invest so much of themselves in their work, those who attain seniority need to remain aware of this fact. So much of the contemporary educational climate emphasises the toughness of the profession and the demands that this places on people; so much is made of individual accountability, the consequences of perceived failure, or of being seen to be ‘soft’ that we have trampled on the emotional landscape that is still there, just beneath the surface and in some cases feeling quite raw.

Criticism of one’s teaching is so close to being a criticism of one’s self, personality and intellect that it is hardly surprising when teachers react deeply to it. Being made to subvert one’s personal modus operandi to that of an increasingly assertive corporation may be difficult to accept in any walk of life – but it is particularly the case when one’s basic functioning depends so heavily on one’s personal characteristics. Given the emotional investment that this job extracts, it is unsurprising that loyalties to schools as institutions sometimes develop further than many perhaps feel to their places of work – so consequently, schools should perhaps be all the warier of trampling on their employees’ feelings, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Tomsett seems an icon of success in avoiding this, which others would do well to emulate rather than playing tough.

One would hope that this is an evident case of enlightened self-interest for schools. I cannot conceive how one can expect teachers to function at their best when their own emotional state is in turmoil. The argument that being a professional means being tough enough to over-ride such concerns may today be the preferred, macho response – but I challenge anyone to ignore deep-felt internal discord completely or indefinitely. The call to be tough is little more than a sop for treating people inconsiderately. In my view, this lies in direct contradiction to the qualities one might seek in a teacher in the first place, and which we might counsel with respect to our pupils. But one must first secure one’s own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.

Personally, I like to think that sensitivity is a quality I bring to the classroom. It provides almost a sixth sense with respect to those needing attention, and it generates the enthusiasm that fuels my teaching. I have been repeatedly complimented on the relationships I build; it means drawing out the goodwill in people, rather than bludgeoning them into compliance.

But I’m not sure it’s possible to be sensitive and thick-skinned simultaneously. It also painfully exposes me to a sense of failure, makes criticism cut deep. It took many years to build inner confidence in what I do, and to accept the positive reactions of my pupils as validation, even when those in charge appeared less than happy with my approach, which was not always procedurally what they demanded. It means that although I’m reasonably resilient (and I have the years to prove it) it has taken a year even to come close to healing the deep wounds of last autumn, when my practice was called into doubt – even though the individual most probably responsible for initiating that has now been discredited and has left teaching. Was this really the wisest way to treat a teacher?

I would draw two conclusions from this. One derives from Tomsett’s post: the most appropriate way to engage in professional development, support (and critique) is peer-to-peer. This retains a level of empathy and trust that very few top-down structures can match. It does imply a more eclectic and serendipitous process, allowing the less useful temporarily to co-exist with the more, and permitting people to sift for themselves. This has been anathema to those who prefer to wield direct control – but I hope the foregoing explains why it may still be a wiser approach. I would only differ with Tomsett inasmuch as he seems to think it is a new idea; I would argue that it is what teachers have always done.

And secondly, in a time when tough decisions are being faced by institutions as austerity begins to bite, I would caution macho-managements everywhere when it comes to trampling on their staff’s feelings. Goodwill is something they are going to need a lot of in the near future.

Nudge Nudge

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge has been highly influential since its publication in 2009. It adds further weight to the argument that policy and decision-making is less straightforward than it might at first seem.

Their basic premise is that direct instruction and compulsion challenge our sense of autonomy, thereby switching us off, and often having the opposite effects to those intended.

A classic of the kind is the motorway reminder “Wearing seatbelts saves lives” which has been shown to be more persuasive than a more direct piece of information threatening prosecution. Health warnings on cigarette packets take a somewhat similar approach.

More surprisingly, the impact of default settings can be huge. For example, two European countries with radically different organ donation rates (otherwise-similar Germany and Austria) were shown to achieve that result simply because one country has an opt-in policy to organ donation while the other has an opt-out.

Followers of Sunstein and Tholer include Barrack Obama and David Cameron. Recent changes to U.K. pension contributions legislation has indeed changed the default setting, with the intention of increasing contributions to individuals’ pension funds. It seems to work.

Teachers are of course, past masters at Nudging. Every raised eyebrow in class, every sideways glance and emphatically cleared throat sends a discrete but clear message to the recipients. In many cases, these are more effective than a directly-voiced command, not least because they avoid a direct challenge to pupils’ autonomy, and perhaps because it contains just a suspicion of humour.

When marking, a comment to the effect of “You could also have…” is possibly more effective than “You did not…” or even “You needed to…”

I think the Nudge approach deserves a higher profile. The temptation may be to expect teachers to use very direct control and high-profile forms of organisation. For some individuals, these may work perfectly well, but for others a more nuanced nudge-based approach may be more appropriate, and it is not necessarily inferior.

This recent article suggested as much.

The same approach could no doubt be extended: maybe with some thought we could consider the default settings for meeting deadlines, for expected behaviour in class, even for how our classroom layouts and individual personalities can be used to nudge pupils in beneficial directions without compromising their autonomy. Maybe those who manage and judge teachers might like to consider the benefits of the same approach too.

This is not a new idea, though Sunstein and Tholer have shone a helpful light on the matter. It deserves to be more widely known.