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.


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.

Boiling frogs

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

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

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

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

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

I will spare readers too much medical detail but who would have guessed that chronic prostatitis may be caused by stress? ( )

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.

Of marshmallows and mobiles

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted what became a very famous experiment known as the Marshmallow Test. A pre-school child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of them, and a bell. The adult left the room, having told the child that they could ring for attention at any time, at which point they would be able to eat the marshmallow. But if they were able to resist until the adult returned (up to twenty minutes later), they would be able to double the reward. The experiment has been repeated many times, and there are plenty of entertaining covert videos on YouTube watching children’s attempts to resist.

One of the issues I want to address this year is that of sustaining children’s engagement at a time when attention spans and motivations seem to be shortening. The school’s intake seems to be changing for the more difficult, and keeping children’s effort and attention is requiring new thinking. As I wrote some months ago, I am increasingly exasperated by the constant demands to have ‘Fun’ in lessons, and that comment by one Year 7 girl who had not done her work “because my lesson was not sufficiently entertaining” is still ringing in my ears. Not because it hurt, but because I felt it is symptomatic of a problem we face with today’s children, namely that many are so indulged that they have no sense of obligation to do anything other than seek immediate gratification. That expectation has been perpetuated by schools encouraging children to want their lessons to be, above all else, fun.

When asked, many pupils are actually very vague about what kind of fun they want; what they really want, I think, is to shorten the pay-back time to their perceived ‘reward’ for the lesson. In a materialistic world, the notion of intrinsic rewards unfortunately seems increasingly thin.

Mischel himself describes the difficulties encountered by indulged children when the school agenda changes with the primary/secondary transition, so I am in good company here. It was a fortunate coincidence that my wife bought me Mischel’s book at this time.–Understanding-Self-Control-and-How-to-Master-it/17432519

I had already been playing around with developments of Daniel Kahnemann’s two brains model, and wondering whether I could use this to tackle the issue in the classroom. I had decided to use three brains (the third, or first, the unconscious brain, being responsible for bodily functions), and I mentioned this rather spontaneously to a class last term. Rather unexpectedly, they threw the idea back at me some weeks later, so it clearly stuck. I am now wondering whether formally presenting pupils with this concept at the start of the year might help them understand why they need to be able to defer their gratification in my lessons at least.

The Marshmallow Test is  a measure of the ability to do just this, and Mischel’s  longitudinal studies (using precisely my own year-group, I realised…) suggests that this early ability can indicate future life prospects quite closely, even into adulthood. In essence it is about the ability of people to over-ride their ‘Brain 2’ (hot, emotional brain) with their ‘Brain 3’ (cool, rational one) when difficult decisions are needed. The stronger one’s ability to do this, the more likely one is to be able to persevere in the short term for the sake of longer term gain.

It turns out that Mischel worked with Carol Dweck, and he outlines strategies that can help people to develop greater resolve. He is directly concerned with their use by teachers and parents, and the link with the overworked but basically plausible idea of the Growth Mindset is clear.

I have prepared a Prezi that I am going to trial with likely-looking classes, and it can be found here:

I think this might be the making of a ‘nudge’ strategy – I also have a PowerPoint slide of a marshmallow ready to project at a moment’s notice when attention seems to be slipping or the F word gets used…

One unknown is the extent to which the target group of children will be prepared to pay attention to this in the first place, and the extent to which they are willing (or able) to take its message on board. Does conscious awareness of such things make them more or less useful? There is a risk, of course, that precisely those who most need to know this may be those least likely to be able to make any deliberate response. We will see.

Where do mobiles come in? I am also increasingly convinced about the negative impact of mobile phones on children’s concentration spans, let alone ability to find anything else interesting. Mischel writes about the strategies children (and others) can use for increasing resolution to resist. One concerns the mental ‘distance’ one puts between oneself and the temptation. Actively thinking about the tastiness of marshmallows makes temptation worse; thinking about them as fluffy clouds weakens it.

It strikes me that mobile phones are nothing more than the mother of all marshmallows when it comes to modern children’s attention: by definition immediately to hand, and of almost unlimited, instant gratification. The more they use these devices, the shorter their attention span becomes as they get hooked on instant feedback; by comparison, the deferments required by serious learning must seem deeply unattractive, even without all the surrounding inducements.

No wonder they can’t think about anything else. So I am also considering declaring UDI when it comes to phone policy in my lessons. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I have to separate the damned things from the little addicts…

First, engage the correct brain…

There are times when one has to stop being a subject teacher and just be a teacher. When concentration is lagging, or pupils are whingeing about the lack of Fun, I’ve found that they seem to resonate somewhat with a ‘three brains’ model. I’m not claiming any credit for it since it just grew from my reading of basic psychology, notably the work of Daniel Kahneman.

Silently, I just clear part of the board, and draw a simple side-profile of a head, with a brain inside. I put three asterisks at the back, middle and front and number them one, two, three. Curiosity has often been aroused by this point. I either label the diagram, of give a simple verbal explanation along the lines of 1) primitive (rear) brain, responsible for metabolic function 2) mid-brain, responsible for emotions and 3) front brain, responsible for higher thought.

Two and Three correspond to Kahneman’s two modes of thought. I explain that people’s minds ‘naturally’ reside in Brain Two, where emotional responses rule, whereas learning requires the use of Brain Three, higher thought. I  explain that Brain Three also requires most ‘energy’ and one has actively to move one’s mind into that mode.

It’s over-simple – but in the last month I have had three occasions when pupils have bounced the idea back at me in subsequent lessons. It’s something they seem not to know, which is odd when one considers how much effort has gone into meta-thinking about the educative process. I think this also helps to explain some of the issues I’ve raised in my previous two posts: a life of indulgence has the effect of pampering Brain Two, while reducing the need to activate Brain Three. While people can aspire on the grounds that Brain Two is unhappy, it requires Brain Three thought to figure this out – and pampered people have little reason to make this effort.

But I think it is a mistake to imply that Brain Three is the only important one. People need to be able to leave Brain Two in good hands in order to be able to put themselves in Brain Three mode, without the self-fulfilling worry that Brain Two will reassert itself. It’s why people can’t think when they are afraid, or when their basic needs are being threatened. That is why I’ve always considered that building good relationships with pupils is paramount, and far more important than any teaching techniques that one subsequently chooses.

My current reading is Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, which despite its glib title, is a thoughtful critique of economic theory. As a South Korean (now Cambridge professor) he has an interesting position from which to comment on the way Britain runs its affairs, including education. It might suggest that we have been guilty of running our society too strictly along the lines of economic Brain Three, while ignoring the costs of neglecting welfare Brain Two.

Thing 5: Assume the worst about people and you will get the worst.

People are not rational economic beings, motivated only by self-interest. If you assume that, you will contaminate people’s evident other motivations, and spend inordinate amount of precious resources checking up on them to make sure they aren’t cheating. You will also add pressure that will make them more likely to cheat for self-preservation.

Thing 9: We do not live in a post industrial society.

The salient point is that you cannot increase productivity in services the way you can ramp it up in manufacturing. If you do, it will be at the cost of quality.

“In some cases, the very attempt to increase productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a twenty-seven minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled?”

School managements and government ministers take note.


Friday morning. Assembly. Not my favourite time of the week, as the well-meaning young Year Head has a tendency to ‘up’ the motivational talk complete with power-music as we enter. Just at a time in the week when my head is most likely to hurt.

I’ve been a sixth form tutor almost as long as I’ve been a teacher, and I like to think that has taught me a thing or two. I don’t think it’s pushing confidentiality too far to admit that our students, who often do brilliantly at G.C.S.E., have for the past few years not quite managed to repeat the trick at ‘A’ Level. A lot of energy has gone into looking for reasons why.

A moment of frisson. I suddenly realise that the pump-iron atmosphere has gone. The music has been replaced by something calm. The message is not Aspire, but take time to treat yourself well. Work hard, yes – but do it in a considered way. There are people who will support you if you need it.

If in difficulty, Simplify. It is not something modern education seems to be very comfortable with. If you have a problem, convention is to add another layer of management and a handful of initiatives: that has been the approach of my school, and no doubt many others. It justifies people’s existence – but, some of the time at least, it may very possibly be exactly the wrong approach.

Some weeks ago, I spent a good few hours writing up my thoughts on the sixth form issue, because I want us to resolve it. I also incorporated views of colleagues, and I had also gone ‘fishing’ with my present tutor group for their thoughts. Those years have given me a subtlety of approach that means I have a chance of getting something other than ‘pat’ answers.

Talking to a somewhat disgruntled parent a few days ago, a young colleague was pleased to be thanked for the care he had shown the man’s son. The thanks were not for the pump-iron aspiration-mongering – but for showing the personal time and interest that had helped the boy, not natural ‘A’ level material, cope with his course. My colleague was surprised, but also pleased.

Icing on the Cake this week drew attention to this report that suggests relatively few parents are choosing schools solely on the basis of their Value Added scores. Maybe they prefer schools that simply care well for their offspring?

I offered up my report, to an unenthusiastic reception. It looks as though the sixth form is heading for more monitoring, more intervention, more form-filling, more pressure. My tutor group had already told me that they find this unhelpful, that it creates anxiety in some and irritation in others. They know what they need to do, even if some aren’t finding the motivation easily. Perhaps the high-pressure approach has already exhausted it?

In my document I suggested that what is needed is less pressure: remove a lot of the ‘noise’ from school life. Emphasise the intrinsic reasons for study, not what it ‘will’ get you. Play down the The Apprentice approach. Encourage, and create time for quiet reflection and learning. Rekindle the personal touch. I have always found that I get the best response from students simply by dealing in the intrinsic interest in their courses, and by being very personable with them, not simply a task-master. The comments in their cards and presents bear witness.

The Head of Sixth-Form said she would read my comments. I have not had any response; maybe there will be none. But for a moment in that assembly, I found myself wondering whether my words might have found a willing ear after all.

Teachers are often told, ominously, that doing the same thing will always get the same result. Well, the same goes for schools too. Maybe a different response is needed here. Like many schools, mine has been utterly saturated by the imperatives emanating from government; that and accountability culture have bred this macho mind-set that has always felt utterly at odds with the true process and purpose of learning. Maybe it is time to re-learn some of the habits of Quiet.

I can’t be sure that it is my words that brought about a change – or even if this is a fundamental change, too early to tell – but it would be nice to think that they helped.  I’m not, by the way, arguing for a free-for-all. And we are not talking about a school that has been slack, where a boot in the backside may be completely appropriate: this is about the challenge of staying at the top of one’s game. In addition to relaxing the day-to-day, I suggested we need a couple of points across KS5 when students do face a reckoning, perhaps even to the point of being required to leave if they don’t shape up. It seems to work in Swiss schools. But it also removes the daily pressure that grinds people down, and frees the mind for the task in hand.

I would add two caveats. Even if my hunch is right, it will not work if this turns out to be just the latest ‘initiative’. Fine words will not do this job alone: what is needed is a deep change of heart. Actions speak louder! And in order to achieve this, all the learned behaviours of the macho approach need to go. It would take courage to give up the desire to micro-control people, particularly when the stakes for getting it wrong can be high.

But I have still never worked out how people’s education is magically transformed by filling in yet another feedback form.


Utter Rubbish – a postscript

Saturday’s post (Utter Rubbish) went straight to the top of my all-time-most-read. I’m not sure whether that means there a lot of people in agreement, or whether lots are thinking what an inveterate fool T.P. made of himself. Either way, here is a short clarification:

Andrew Sabisky commented that Lleras-Muney’s number is the result of large-scale research, and that it is possible using natural experiment (I like that) to obtain plausible figures. However, subsequent (peer?) review apparently contested the result. Thanks to Andrew for the link.

But my title did not principally refer to the research itself, even though its provenance may be questionable and I stand by my comments over why it cannot be applied to the individual. It is possible that this is not what Lleras-Muney intended. It is widely accepted that increasing educational opportunity can have significant aggregate benefits for populations. It is particularly noticeable in developing countries where general life expectancy is low, and where certain groups (notably women) gain access to education for the first time.

What I think is U.R. is the way that such data are misrepresented to support partisan(?) agendas, particularly in relation to specific classroom practice. I don’t know whether Dylan Wiliam was just being careless in his use of language, but to my eyes he is saying that one year in ‘school’ will add 1.7 years to one’s life. As a justification for formative assessment, I think he presumes too rather too much!

It exasperates me when discussion of classroom practice ignores the reality of teaching specific groups of young people. Extending their longevity is not normally foremost in my mind, even when embedding formative assessment!

While it is true that educating a population is achieved by educating many individual people, the process is oblique and it is not straightforward to make direct links between the specific process and the general effect. Likewise, I have long criticised the commodification of ‘achievement’ as something distinct from the process of actual learning. Neither is quantifiable in any absolute way, and such approaches fail to capture the real life-benefits that ‘being educated’ can bring, which are mostly not objectively experienced at all. I am not sure how one would go about quantifying ‘achievement’ in relation, for example, to a growing appreciation of Literature or competence in a foreign language, nor how this contributes to the effects that Wiliam suggests.

One might further argue that the marginal quantity of life is not as important as its quality, and even in economic terms, increased longevity is as likely to add to the cost burden on society as reduce it.

The promotion of this utilitarian, economised view of education by those with significant clout has diminished a more individual, cultural and humane appreciation of its effects. This is the outlook of those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, and it has done untold damage to the wider perception of education in Britain.

That is where the Utter Rubbish really comes in.


Fish64 recently pointed me towards Dylan Wiliam’s sexily-titled book Embedded Formative Assessment  (thanks) but being stingy, I took a ‘look inside’ on Amazon first… Chapter One begins:

Wiliam 5

Two things struck: Wiliam talks about ‘educational achievement’ and not education; I assume this is intentional. I concede that I have not read the rest, but on this showing I am not inclined to.

Secondly, I wonder what Wiliam thinks about the education that leads to the all-important ‘achievement’. How does reading Shakespeare’s plays or studying the customs of rainforest peoples lead to ‘achievement’? Perhaps he has the times-tables more in mind, but then he is a mathematician…  I’m also curious about how he manages to define achievement so precisely. Maybe I should read it after all.

He continues:

Wiliam 6

Now, he may be right about the harsh economic realities of the world. I don’t think many would contest the need to be self-supporting, nor that reducing unnecessary burdens on the State is undesirable. Nor is it wrong to look to the future, though Dylan risks falling prey to the ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ fallacy.

But I read with a heavy heart. For if these are the only reasons that an eminent educationalist can find to justify educating people, then we really are in trouble. Becoming an educated person has been subordinated to the abstract of ‘achievement’; in this view, the day-to-day reality of teaching real children in real classrooms has no other purpose than to stave off macro-scale socio-economic disaster.

I do not get up on dark January mornings with such utterly miserable aims in mind.

For all that these things are undoubtedly useful by-products of what we do, to have sunk to such utilitarian depths fills me with despondency. Are we really suggesting that the pleasure to be had from an appreciation of poetry or world culture or scientific insight is of no higher use that keeping the pay-cheques rolling in? And in any case, global trends are tending to de-skill most work, not the opposite – so will more education really help?

At present, I am loosely privy to investigations into under-achievement in older students. My reluctance to discuss specifics makes it difficult to be more precise, but I know this group well and have worked with its predecessors for over 25 years, longer than anyone else involved. I have noticed changes from close at hand; I have views on what the issues are, supported by an accumulated back-catalogue of comment and discussion.

Here we have a microcosm of the wider problem: those addressing the issue have tried any number of technical fixes and none has worked. The thinking seems to be that what is needed is more control, more coercion and less freedom. The solution is seen in changing the procedures.

I beg to differ. Both this approach and Dylan Wiliam’s book are missing something essential, namely that education is about people, not machines. In fact, people generally intensely dislike being treated as though they are machines. I don’t care how many books dissecting the human mind tell us that it is all a matter of brain chemistry and cold behaviouralism: people do not experience life like this, and therefore do not understand it thus.

Those who believe people can be engineered in this way, and that successful education is simply a matter of getting the systems right, miss the vital point. What is actually needed is more emphasis on the intrinsic life-affirming qualities of education, and less on the dull routines. The situation I described above is both a delicious and an exasperating example of the limitations of the technocrat’s world-view, the most striking evidence yet that my instincts are correct. I am simultaneously bathing in schadenfreude and wishing I could do more to help.

My certainty comes from two sources: in a rather oblique way, I asked the students for their perceptions. I am in a slightly unusual position, one that perhaps gains me answers they wouldn’t give under more senior scrutiny; more of this anon.

The second source is even simpler: the experience of the other human beings enduring similar difficulties: their teachers.

Teaching is often described, with reason, as the most satisfying of occupations, and yet many of the teachers I know best sound increasingly sick to the back teeth of it. I will not mince my words: I know many dedicated, competent and hard-working teachers who seem utterly hacked off with the way their chosen profession is going.

It’s not the teaching, nor for the most part the pupils. And I’m not even aiming for the easy (management) target – but the fact is, the whole joyous ensemble has been reduced to little more than an unremitting grind by the sheer pointless tedium of the production-line mentality.

This most creative and intellectually stimulating of activities is having every last breath of life squashed from it by the endless, grinding routine of targets, reviews, initiatives and yet more targets. The pleasure of learning has been replaced by the fear of failure, curiosity usurped by the dullness of tick-box and target review. And so far, I’m only taking about the teachers.

When I asked the students what they felt was important they were forthright:

  • Schools that feel like a community not an exam factory.
  • Teachers who know you as a person not an exam target.
  • A regime that does not threaten and constrain as its way of ‘motivating’.
  • Interesting things to learn, from teachers who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about them.
  • And they were honest enough to admit that their own motivation was key: without it, no amount of coercion will work; with it, none is necessary.

There are other subtexts – but the fundamentals are little different from how the teachers are feeling about their work. It is about nothing more than the basic considerations of the ‘Humane Factor’.

We might learn two things:

  1. Forcing people to teach or learn (well) doesn’t work.
  2. Paying people, whether in certificates or salaries, is not enough either.

And this is precisely what the technocrats cannot see even when it is staring them in the face.

Both teachers and pupils are utterly beset by imposed diktats that sap their morale, kill their interest and reduce their work to little more than a chore for the sake of keeping their superiors off their backs. Each time they jump, the only response is ‘jump higher’. And we wonder why motivation evaporates…

I know from bitter experience, when you cloak education in bureaucracy and compulsion, it kills the vital interest STONE DEAD. The only motivation left is to survive in the bland and futile world that remains.

The most likely human reaction is to put the brakes on. There comes a point where enough is enough, where the tank is empty, where there simply is no more to give. And at that point, people start refusing to co-operate. They become desperate to preserve what remains of their autonomy and wider lives and if anything, commitment falls.

And the people who instigated these systems? They look on with puzzled expressions, wondering why their clever science and management algorithms no longer give the results they expect. But being products of a utilitarian world where nothing other than mechanical pragmatism and material outputs matter, they do not see. What’s more, though all this is hardly news (there is a large body of work from people like Daniel Pink on what really motivates people), they do not have the grace to listen to anyone who dares suggest that they have it wrong. Their only remedy is More of the Same.

I’m not given to sympathy for wide-eyed progressives who believe that education should be a process of indulgence, but this surely worse. I don’t believe we have an entitlement to a cushy life, but is this really the best the (arguably) most advanced civilisation the world has known can come up with for even its more privileged members?

To reduce one of the great civilising and cultivating forces of human existence to nothing more than an exercise in defensive utilitarianism is a catastrophe. It crushes the spirit – not that those responsible would understand, less care, for such concepts. It turns life to dull routine, grind, drudgery. It kills optimism and the genuine appetite for knowledge. We become just grist to a particularly faceless, mean-spirited mill. And it’s insidious: it reaches even into my weekend, when I sit down to plan the week’s lessons.

Wiliam’s error is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. True, the world around us is changing – but the basic needs of ordinary people really do not change very much. The basic functions of life remain broadly the same, as do those of the human mind, such as the ability to be motivated or bored, fascinated or uninspired.

There is very little point in trying to organise a small-scale, bespoke activity like teaching from the perspective of the macro-strategist. What is important is not whether economic Armageddon is being averted, but whether people are finding their education interesting, whether they are making sense of the world around them, whether they feel valued and cared for – and whether they can go on to live largely ordinary but fulfilled lives; this isn’t primarily about ‘achievement’.

The problems facing education are not those of macro economics. But in creating an education system predicated the converse, they have utterly failed to notice that these are not the things that inspire people, unlike the fascination that comes from a genuinely lively, humane mind. And if this comes good, most of those larger concerns will probably take care of themselves. You can only create an educated society by creating educated people. Yet the system has created such vast amounts of pointless busy-work that people scarcely have time to pay attention to the things that really do matter, such as the time to think deeply or to build meaningful relationships.

I don’t doubt that Dylan Wiliam is correct about the trends, but a much better approach would be to educate people for a world where they see different priorities, different ways of finding fulfilment and of supporting themselves. It means lifting our eyes from the ground – what education has long been about – not simply fixing them ever more firmly in the dirt. It may mean helping people to find fulfilment elsewhere than the shopping mall. Wiliam’s is an outlook based on an Affluenza-fear of losing what we have got – but the solution is not to make the anxiety greater.

This approach has turned education into little more than an unending cycle of grinding procedural drudgery. Willing workers have been turned into resentful slaves, and those responsible look on uncomprehendingly while their grandiose visions fail before their eyes, and then they crack the whip once more.

No wonder people are looking for ways out.


Wrong lever!


(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.

Trying too hard to be different(iated)…

A book that is creating some ripples at present is Teaching Backwards by Andy Griffiths and Mark Burns.

This was promoted at a recent training session and is currently being read by a like-minded colleague who is sufficiently impressed that I will probably follow.

Excerpts from the blurb say:

“… Teaching Backwards offers a more reflective and measured approach to teaching and learning.”  

Well, Good.

“Where many teachers focus on delivering content in a linear fashion, those who teach backwards start with the end in mind. This means that they know in advance what levels of knowledge, attitude, skills and habits they expect their learners to achieve, they define and demystify ambitious goals, and they establish their students’ starting points before they start to plan and teach.”

“Teaching Backwards ensures that learners consistently make great progress over time …[to] further develop their attitudes, skills and habits of excellence both for themselves and for their learners.”

I realise that I am creating a hostage to fortune by commenting on a book that I have yet to read – but it still generated a discussion earlier this week that is worth examining.

My beef is not with the aspirations, which are pretty universal – but as always, with the assumptions. Maybe it’s the fault of the marketing team rather than the authors, but any book on education that claims to ‘ensure’ anything should be treated with caution. Furthermore, this does not conflict with linear teaching as implied, but strangely it does seem to suggest that teaching is a linear process once that start-point has been identified. Can we really anticipate the outcomes of a genuine learning process this closely?

The concern with ‘levels of knowledge, attitude, skill and habit’ comes across as yet another attempt to know the unknowable. It is true that eventually one has to settle one’s objectives, but I remain unconvinced that it is possible to delimit human behaviour this closely. Too many of those decisions depend on value-judgements, ultimately opinion masquerading as fact.

I am not sure what a ‘level of knowledge’ is anyway. From my own experience, there is just stuff I know and stuff I don’t. Maybe it is possible to apply a taxonomy to it – but does that really help? It makes relatively little difference to my lived experience of that knowledge, though possibly more to someone attempting to assess it. And lo! We return to the usual conundrum: this definition of learning is ultimately of more use to the teacher than the learner.

A similar criticism can be made of ‘ambitious goals’ and ‘great progress over time’: there is nothing wrong with the aspiration, so much as the claim that a single approach can deliver an objective outcome.

My colleague is greatly taken with the notion of baseline testing, after which he intends to plan backwards starting with his end objective. I wish him good luck in finding it. While it is straightforward to identify given knowledge that one wishes pupils to have, other objectives such as ‘attitudes, skills and habits’ are not only more nebulous, but also subject to the vagaries of time and values. Personally, I would hope that I never reach a measurable end-point in such things, because they should continue to develop throughout a lifetime, and applying arbitrary judgements to them is both artificial and value-laden. (It is not that I don’t have such things which I promote, just that I recognise the slim likelihood that others will ultimately experience my ‘truths’ about the world).

Our discussion moved onto the value of this approach for differentiation: how can one differentiate if one does not know where one’s pupils start from? A reasonable question. But there is no single answer: no two people’s knowledge is the same, particularly at the specialised end of a discipline – and I would argue, nor should it be. Trying to homogenise knowledge is of no inherent value, and probably only matters for the purpose of passing exams (which I don’t decry – but it is not the same as ‘real’ knowledge).

But my biggest reservation is the implication that if one knows these things, one can then plan better for them. We come again to the Achilles ’ heel of all current teaching – the notion that it alone controls what goes on in (and into) children’s minds. My colleague argues that if there are four children in a class who already know the content of the lesson, they should not have to repeat it – and this is only possible if the teacher knows the situation in advance. But you can always know more about a topic to make it worth revisiting.

And what about the idea of revision? There is much evidence (notably from Robert Bjork) that repetition is important. Is it really a waste of those children’s time to revisit material, even inadvertently? There are other ways of dealing with the issue: they can be given leading roles in the class discussion – dare I say (as I did this week in this situation) putting them out front to ‘teach’ the others?

There is also a matter of numbers to consider: where lies the balance between ‘wasting’ a few individuals’ time and benefitting the rest? Should the same decision be made irrespective of whether the prior knowledge belongs to one child or twenty? In the latter instance, the teacher clearly needs to review the pitch of the lesson – but they may still conclude that revision is worthwhile. It can be an affirmative experience to share prior knowledge.

However, my biggest reservation lies in the supposed need to plan everything so closely. By all means find out what pupils already know; in fact, they tend to make it vocally known, even if it doesn’t become rapidly self-evident. But the way to respond is not by rigid planning, but by being heuristic, by knowing one’s subject well, and being sufficiently intellectually flexible as to adapt on the hoof.

I taught what superficially appeared to be the same lesson on plate tectonics to four varying classes last week. The resources were broadly the same (although I have a large reserve of electronic resources to draw on depending on how the lesson progresses). Some classes took two lessons to cope with the basic mechanics, though not without some left-field questions being let fly. Other classes rolled through in half the time and we extended into matters of continental drift, the discovery of tectonic theory, how it might be wrong, the difficulties of researching deep-ocean volcanoes, and the relevance to the Chilean earthquake. Many of those discussions could not have been tightly anticipated, and in some cases they only occurred with certain individuals who were forging ahead. Some came from pupil questions, some from snippets I judiciously introduced. All pupils gained the core knowledge – but their actual learning differed not only from class to class, but from individual to individual. Is this open-endedness a problem in the way tight planning implies?

Teaching backwards from objectives may be a sound concept, but as usual my feeling is that making this more than a broad-brush underlying principle risks emasculating it. It also implies there is consensus as to what those objectives should be.

Differentiation is an important part of the classroom teacher’s work – but planning it in advance reduces one’s ability to cope with the real-time needs of the classroom. Skilled teachers differentiate instinctively, moment by moment, and it can involve little more than a judicious additional comment to certain pupils. It relies on the here-and-now, supported by a wide knowledge. Why make it more complicated than it need be?

I will report back when I have read the book.