Notes from Beyond: The Educational Prism

“You’re looking very well”.

Several people whom I’ve met in recent weeks have all said the same thing. It makes me wonder just how I was looking at the start of the year, at the lowest point. I looked hard in the mirror, and I think it is true: nine months free of the stresses of teaching life have indeed done something to recharge the physical batteries, even though the head still does not always behave itself.

Increasing distance has continued to present a changing perspective on how I have spent the past thirty years. I certainly don’t regret going into teaching, but the impact that this unique occupation has had is now clearer. I had always thought that I just about managed to keep the work-life balance in an acceptable place, but looking back it is becoming clear just how the job had  totally dominated my life, and indeed my mind. I saw almost everything through an educational prism; my entire existence was dominated by the concept of personal improvement, even as the demands of the job were sending me in the opposite direction. Much of my sense of life-purpose, even of the person I was ‘supposed’ to be was in effect dictated by the demands of the profession. I guess this is inevitable when one does any intense work for a long period, but that does not make it healthy. It’s clearer too, why many of the non-teachers I know seem to lack a sense of perpetual harassment: they aren’t teachers.

For those who would like to know, I am well on the road to recovery, though still ‘taking the tablets’. Hopefully in the next couple of months that too will cease, and I will have a better sense of where I stand for the future. Some supply work has been offered, but at this stage I really don’t know whether I want to go back into the shark-infested waters.

For that is what education has become, for those who work in it. I hope not everyone has my experience – only now am I starting to feel real anger, as well as sadness, at what happened to me. Not only were thirty years of good service to a school thrown wantonly onto the scrapheap by a management that appears no longer to set any value whatsoever by its duty of care to its staff, not only were they willing to push me to the brink of breakdown in order to get their cost saving, but I have not even had a letter of thanks for my service, which I think should be a formality, whether they mean it or not.

I suppose I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I could afford to take this breathing space, but it cannot last: somehow the income gap has to be closed by next summer. But I think that the physical improvement that people have noticed is testament to what teaching can do to individuals; it is nothing short of scandalous that the educational Establishment is prepared, despite all the high-minded talk, to treat its employees in this way. I know of about six other people who have left teaching prematurely this summer for related reasons.

Teaching always was more demanding that it perhaps appears to the public – but for it to have reached this extreme is inhumane folly. For a profession that majors on the life-enhancing benefits it delivers, to treat its staff so wantonly is hypocritical, self-defeating and a disgrace. I’ve always felt that schools should be doing what they could to mitigate the impact of stress on teachers; instead some at least, seem intent on magnifying it. It’s a pity it has taken the experience of the past nine months for me to realise the full scale of the matter. This isn’t to advise people not to go into teaching – but realise that you may not realise what it’s doing to you – and take care.

For anyone who enjoys my scrawling, I have started a new, more general blog. It can be found at

Know your enemy


  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements? x
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel? x   erm, well maybe…
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

What causes job burnout?

  • Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job.
  • Unclear job expectations. If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have … you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully….or your boss micromanages your work or treats you unfairly.
  • Breakdown of Community.  …there is no mechanism for conflict resolution, or feedback is non-existent. 
  • Insufficient reward. You feel undervalued or under-rewarded or you lack recognition for your effort.
  • Mismatch in values. If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch can eventually take a toll.
  • Poor job fit. If your job doesn’t fit your… skills, it might become increasingly stressful .
  • Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort …you might burn out quickly.

Who is at risk of job burnout?

  • You lack a reasonable balance between your work life and your personal life
  • You try to be everything to everyone
  • You work in a helping profession, such as health care, counselling or teaching
  • You feel you have little or no control over your work


I have been doing some research on the causes of workplace burnout. Burnout is a precursor to more serious problems. The list above is a composite assembled from two sources, but there are many others that largely say the same thing.

I have ticked those that I believe were my workplace experience over the past few years. I was not consciously aware of all of them at the time, nor the fact that they were piling up to the extent that they did.

Some might consider the tone of this blog to be ample evidence of a ‘disaffected’ individual, and it has certainly plumbed the depths on occasions. But I have a strong professional ethic which, while it certainly does not represent the only way,  is not so ill-considered one should in effect be forced one to abandon it. The blog has been a well-meaning vehicle for developing ideas that were apparently unwanted elsewhere.

I suppose an employer has a (n absolute?) right to stipulate what they want from their employees, but a canny one will know that there is no alternative to harnessing the genuine motivations of their employees rather than forcing them to deny them. They should also be wary of moving the goalposts so that existing employees become disenfranchised.

My school is no worse than many, and certainly better than plenty. Other factors making for a harsher climate are but the effects of national trends. But in the lust for league-table prominence, and dizzy from Ofsted success, like many it has sometimes neglected the machinery that produced that success. Officially it’s all ‘for the pupils’ of course – but if their welfare is as important as is made out, then why are some of my classes still languishing without a proper replacement teacher?

I still genuinely struggle to understand how any organisation, let alone a people-based one like a school, can not only to neglect these considerations but actually pursue policies that risk making them worse…and yet that is precisely what parts of the education system are doing.  A good workman does not abuse his tools.

My G.P. had no hesitation in signing me off for another month. My spirits have improved somewhat recently – but I likened the situation to building a tower of playing cards – and then trying to rest a brick on the top. It’s not teaching, or even school per se – it’s just that anything requiring significant current to flow through the circuitry ‘up top’ trips the fuses again… The concentration and memory is often still shot. It is clear where the root cause of those difficulties lies.

Everyone is different; nobody really knows how well they will cope with sustained stress until they have to. It is no sign of personal inadequacy to discover you don’t cope well. Arguably the thoroughbreds the system says it wants will be more susceptible than old nags.

And the consequence of five (or thirty?) years of repeatedly ticking all those boxes isn’t going to be repaired overnight.




Living by numbers

For those who thought this is a teaching blog, please indulge me. Documenting my current experience is fully part of being a teacher, and there are lessons to be learned…

I have been using a great app to track my medication and recovery .   It reminds me each day to take the tablets, offers words of encouragement, shares the experiences of others, plots progress every two weeks and will even send the information to my doctor (if only she had time to read it). And if I let it, it will harvest my input to become part of the ‘big data’ being used by pharmaceutical companies to improve their products.

But my talking therapist was sceptical. Her main concern was that it would be too easy to rely on the app to tell me my condition, rather than look inwardly to judge for myself. She is equally sceptical about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which I was offered this week. I felt rather let down when the telephone interviewer told me he thought I had “typical anxiety”. It doesn’t feel like typical anything. According to my therapist, CBT is popular because it is “skills-based” and measurable. You get worksheets to do for homework. And at the end of six or twelve sessions, they are likely to terminate your course whether you are fully recovered or not, because you will have ‘demonstrated progress’. Accepting that I don’t know what I don’t know about CBT, the parallels with education are unmistakable. We both agreed that a more holistic approach was proving more helpful.

Having been forced to stand back from working life for the past three months, it has become increasingly evident how ‘conditioned’ to circumstance one becomes. Even as someone who feels he is generally fairly self-aware, it came as a shock to start to see just how time-orientated I have been. I was fretting about how long it would take to recover, about the fact that time was being ‘wasted’ doing very little, about the time targets I might be facing for recovery, when my sick leave would run out. And yes, the app is about numbers too, inasmuch as one has to rate how one is feeling on what is known as a PHQ9 test.

I am just too used to living my life against the clock, a constant battle to get things done by yesterday, with the anxiety about what will happen if I mess up. I am conditioned to being constantly told that one’s teaching can never be ‘good enough’, that the only thing to do when one reaches a target is to look for the next. My working life has run in hourly chunks for three decades, governed by the unbending regime of the school bell and timetable. Even home life was affected by the need to be ready next time the school bell rang. Those three decades seem to have shot past almost unnoticed. Today marks another full year on the clock of life; last time I checked I think I was about 28.

I wouldn’t recommend the experience of the last three months to anyone, but in some ways time has slowed right down again. Although some capabilities have been taken away (bizarrely, I can write but I still can’t read much), in others ways I have got my life back.

Each day has been its own entity, rather than just a notch on the count towards the next weekend/holiday/end of academic year. I have had time to stare at the sky, to watch the changing light in our home, to amble around the picturesque town where we live, to spend real time looking at my own (neglected) needs rather than those of others, to keep up with the admittedly depressing world news. And to spend more time in touch with people who have come out of the woodwork to wish me well; people whom I was previously too busy to keep up with, and who were too busy themselves. Some are people I worked with for twenty years or  more, but who somewhat misinterpreted each other for all that time. Our attentions were too busy elsewhere.

The fact that those people care has been the most salutary lesson of all, for someone who has habitually conducted his life in a relatively self-contained way, whose vexations and objections were either internalised or put to the world through this blog. And though I tried hard to resist, it was easy to view the blog too as a numbers exercise, particularly when others urged me to put it about a bit more.

It can’t carry on indefinitely of course – but it has made me think.

But for all this time, I have fundamentally felt that teaching is about life, rather than the other way round – for all that it was a regularly-obscured and rapidly receding belief. But in the cut-and-thrust of regular school life, it has become too easy to believe that we live to teach. Just like we live to consume, or live to be rich, or popular. It’s all about Quantity. Even mental health treatment seems to have become just another set of production targets. The cart is well and truly before the horse; how foolish can we be?

My attention was drawn to something that a recent pupil wrote about me. I think it is from one of the class whose GCSE figures, while demonstrably sound, were not aspirational enough and so tipped me into my current place.

Really nice guy who clearly knows his stuff. Never gave up when I lost motivation for his subject and always willing to answer questions…has a lot of knowledge that he shares with us, not just about Geography… he tries to make us think for the answer instead of giving it to us. Respect that as instead of giving us stuff to just memorize, he is trying to get us to think for ourselves and get us prepared for higher education. Thanks.

I don’t believe in an education system that functions largely to justify its own existence. I certainly don’t believe in the mad, messianic drive to make teachers mortgage themselves to breaking point for the supposed sake of the next generation.  Educating the young is one of the most important of human activities – but it does not have to be the institutionalised destruction that it is now.

Education cannot be something that you ‘just do’ to people; it is about developing the potential for intelligent thought, and that fact needs constant renewal. Exam grades are a human construct; sophisticated brain processes are not. As with my app, numbers can be helpful – but an end in themselves, they are not. The relationship between qualifications and education is no more direct than that between treatment and good mental health: the the former seems not to guarantee the latter, for all that that is where the obsession lies.

The pupil quoted above ‘gets’ what I have tried to do: to deliver a holistic education that while academically rigorous was principally about developing high-level thought and personal compassion. The rest of the system seems utterly to have lost sight of this – and it doesn’t any longer rate those who haven’t.

The tone of this post is perhaps sounding like the start of a recovery – but one in which that student’s words might make an apt professional epitaph.

Head in the Cloud

I found William Poundstone’s recent book Head in the Cloud – The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google rather a disappointment. I had been hoping for an exposition of the neural benefits of being knowledgeable – but while disowning the view that cognitive development is only about material benefit, this is largely what the book confines itself to.–The-Power-of-Knowledge-in-the-Age-of-Google/19397512

More interesting – if still flawed – is Poundstone’s use of online polling to conduct fairly large-scale surveys of public knowledge. With a clear eye to the market on both sides of the Atlantic, he meticulously cites examples from both Europe and America and the results, if taken at face value, make depressing reading. If education’s goal is to produce a more informed populace, it seems that so far we have barely made a dent. That said, one might question the informative value of asking people lists of what they do or don’t know, particularly when the examples in the book itself highlights the extent to which such knowledge is culture-dependent.

Poundstone goes on to correlate scores in such tests with ranges of other views and opinions, often in quite specific ways. He suggests that a high level of ignorance of basic factual information often correlates with more extreme views on a range of issues, something that recent events in the U.K. might reinforce. For example, the past week has demonstrated that many hard-Brexiteers have little real understanding of the institutions they purport to advocate, as seen in their reaction to the High Court ruling regarding the sovereignty of Parliament to trigger  Article 50. And a vox pop in Barnsley on Friday’s Radio 4 Today programme revealed that some people think that the U.K. has already left the E.U.

One might counter that the human species has always functioned more on a mixture of ignorance, prejudice and instinct that its more intelligent members might feel comfortable with – but in a time when the consequences of ignorance are so far-reaching, educators perhaps need to face the music here. Even in so-called developed countries, the power of those baser reactions appears closer to the surface than we have liked to pretend, and it is not an exaggeration to suggest that they present a risk to the very foundations of ‘civilised’ societies.

Poundstone’s book fails, however, principally on its inability to consider the more intangible benefits of knowledge – precisely the same failing as many current educational models. A dependence on supposedly-scientific method stymies any attempt to consider such matters: if one’s ‘proof’ is largely found in statistics and correlations, then one needs a quantifiable outcome to measure against. In this sense, it is indeed easiest to look at relatively practical matters such as test scores, and the eventual earning capacities of differing people. In this, Poundstone shows – relatively convincingly within his own confines – that those who know more tend to have more conventionally successful lives. He hints at the cognitive factors that may lie behind this – the Marshmallow Test gets a mention – but he fights shy of the more difficult analysis. Unfortunately, this is precisely the same mistake that many educational models make: they frame their success criteria in material or at least quantifiable terms, simply because the alternatives are too difficult to measure.

But this is one of the oldest flaws in the book: measuring what you can rather than what you need will not necessarily provides the answers you seek. I am not for a moment pretending that I know the way forward on this – but my longstanding motive for being in education is the intangible benefits. I suspect that this really lies in the realm of assembled neural networks –and by definition those are both so complex and so unique as, I suspect, to be beyond useful analysis.

Much of what successful education ‘does’ simply cannot be quantified – it falls within the realm of Wisdom, and the very nature of this makes it unquantifiable. It is also so multi-faceted that it defies the craving of formal education to ‘know’ and claim credit for its input. I would suggest that education itself is only of most effect when, like a good wine, it has had decades of laying-down in which to mature. In other words, its impact is time-dependent in a way that modern institutions and policies prefer to deny. It relies on accumulation of experience and the benefits of hindsight to make much practical sense. One (hopefully) only has to compare the world-view of a recently educated but still immature undergraduate with that of the same person in later life to appreciate this.

I think we are witnessing the consequences of the collective failure to appreciate such matters: on the one hand, people have never had so much access to information (and education) as they have today – and yet it seems not to be making for better-quality discourse or more considered opinion; if anything, the opposite. I suppose one might consider the real issue to be the divide between those who have (effective) access to information and those who do not – but in which case there remain far more of the latter than we care to admit. But in reality, those views do not seem to correlate with education; there are plenty of educated people who hold bigoted views, and I suspect plenty of the less educated who do not.

What seems to be missing is the transformation of knowledge into wisdom. I suspect that this is because it is a process that no teacher can really do for you; I come back to the notion that teachers are merely the planters of seeds. But the decision of formal education to disown Wisdom as its key objective cannot be helping. In his final sentence, Poundstone edges closer to the real issue: Google might tell you the answer, but it cannot tell you what to ask in the first place – and nor can it tell you what to do with that ‘answer’ when you have it. In this, I think a much more satisfactory answer was provided by the late Douglas Adams, through the voice of Deep Thought: a computer might have given you the answer – but it is up to the individual to work out what the question is.

And that’s where there is no substitute for a properly educated mind.

The Best of Friends

Even more than most people, children can mean many things with their words. But listening to them still remains the most direct way of probing their minds. The number of ‘shaft-of-light’ moments that I have experienced over the years could probably fill a book in its own right…

My previous post about expectations received much attention (by my normal standards anyway), and I think the longest correspondence of any so far. I should perhaps emphasise that I was trying to consider the issue in the broadest of terms, though inevitably not all got covered equally. So we might consider:

  • Children’s expectations of their school, teachers and lessons
  • Children’s expectations of themselves
  • Teachers’ and schools’ expectations of the same
  • Other parties such as parents and society at large.

It is very possible that there are significant disparities between different groups’ expectations of the same thing – though there is also the possibility for expectations to be contagious from one group to another.  This is a complicated area, and trying to make sense of it is not made easier by one’s own biases and limitations. I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, which is making me particularly mindful of this at the moment…

But last week I took an opportunity to delve a little deeper than I usually would into what my pupils were thinking. A discussion in a Year Nine class, that I might normally have suppressed in the interests of learning Geography, I instead let run and even encouraged a little. As I said, one has to be very cautious in drawing conclusions, not least because one cannot verify the facts or ascertain the sincerity of the views expressed, but the observations were not without interest.

The participants were fourteen year old girls (the boys in the class showing no interest whatsoever); most are biddable, but towards the lower end of our ability range. They were working on an extended task, but other discussion developed, which revolved around who was being unkind to whom on the social media, who had the best boyfriend, and their plans for what sounded like a regular (unaccompanied) outing to an expensive shopping destination twenty miles away in London. Not for the first time, I got the impression that school is nothing more than an inconvenient interruption of a hectic social whirl in which their parents are willing accomplices…

I have transcribed their words as accurately as I can, given that I was relying on memory:

Pupil 1: English is really boring. Why do we need to do that stuff? I mean, we already know how to speak. Why do we have to do all those stupid exercises and notes? And literature – what’s the point of knowing stuff about all those boring books?

Pupil 2: …I just do what I want, when I want. (Me: Even in your lessons?)  Yep. (And what about at home?) Yep, the same there. (Don’t your parents tell you things?) Sometimes, but I mostly don’t listen. (And what then?) Nothing happens…

Pupil 3. …we want more fun in our lessons. (Me: what do you think would make lessons more fun?) (pause….) dunno really, just less of the stuff we have to do. (Don’t you think the teachers know why they give you this work?) ….’spose so – but it’s just boring. I don’t see the point.

Pupil 4: Well, we don’t really know what the future will be like, so we don’t really know, do we? (Me: do you accept that your teachers have lived parts of their lives that you haven’t come to in yours yet?) Yes, that’s obvious. I s’pose they do know stuff – but it’s so boring and I don’t want to do it. (What would you rather be doing?) Dunno, probably hanging out with my friends, or going shopping.

…and one contributed by a year 10 pupil courtesy of a colleague with whom I was discussing the issue…

“Aw miss, you only got me a D in my exam….”

I’m fairly certain this is all routine stuff that will be familiar to many. But within it lie clues to how children today may perceive their schooling. I’m certainly not going to idealise the past, but what strikes me is the confidence with which these individuals make judgements based on what is inevitably a very limited appreciation of the wider issues; well, that’s modern children for you.

But what also seems to be lacking is any sense of obligation, be it to teachers, parents – or even themselves. They perceive little use in what they are doing beyond immediate amusement. As RequiresImprovement observed on my previous post, why would affluent children make the effort to think, when (as Kahneman says) it requires effort, and the rewards are so intangible? It’s ironic that ultra-materialism has led children (and adults) to reject the one path that was supposed to lead them to empowerment….

Another expectation which has echoes in the above, is parents who see their offspring as their “best friends”. I cringe every time I hear this. To my mind it betrays a completely inappropriate relationship, one born of infantilisation and one that is in denial of the more difficult responsibilities of parenting. If this is how the other principal adults in some children’s lives behave, it is no surprise if those children cannot cope with the expectations of teachers. If adults and children alike are engaged in some kind of conspiratorial form of play at home, then where is the understanding of the need for effort, perseverance, mature behaviour and good conduct going to come from?

I saw nothing in the above exchanges that made me reconsider my fundamental views. Children may complain about their lessons, but they appear to have very little idea what they want instead. All we are seeing is the age-old complaints of pupils; the only difference now is that they (and some in education) seem to think they should be listened to. Becoming too emotionally close to children only makes it harder to disregard such whining, and adopting educational policies that condone indulgence at the expense of more demanding development will only make matters worse.

We live in a time where leisure and self-indulgence are such high-profile aspects of life that children have less understanding than previous generations of what real effort actually means. And this is reinforced by a permissive and indulgent parental culture which offers little effective guidance about the appropriateness of behaviour or attitude. As I mentioned before, I encounter many children who genuinely seem to have no understanding of why they cannot have everything they want instantly, with no obligation on them whatsoever.

At the stage when children like those above are about to start exam courses, I doubt how much more we can do to change their fundamental attitudes. Certainly there is an element of mid-teen ennui, but my feeling is that it goes deeper than that.  When I asked one of the protagonists what she expected from her future life, the response was immediate: “To marry a rich man”.

There are several pupils in that Year Nine class who keep themselves apart; while the bulk of the class has made – I am afraid to say – only marginal progress this year, these others  have engaged with what we have done, and have made strong progress both academically and, perhaps more importantly, in their attitude. Several have opted for Geography in Year 10. I have increasingly been able to have meaningful conversations with them, though whether I can claim any credit is another matter; maybe their expectations were just different to begin with.

Of course we need to engage with children as we find them – but there are clearly back-stories and attitudes invisible to those who judge our success. We also need to worry less when our pupils complain. While there are many ways of reading these comments, in the midst of such relativism and indifference, we need to set the expectations for education – and they need to derive unapologetically from the intellectual and personal development that is what we offer.

In this respect, we are employed to know best! But we should neither be surprised nor unduly distressed if some refuse the offer; in the market society they worship, consumers have – as they know well – the option not to buy. But as LeahKStewart implied, teachers must also avoid sending the message, “Please learn these things to do well in the exam so I can keep my job” – otherwise we are no better.

Towards the end of the lesson, I approached one of the more vocal girls; I instinctively dropped down to be on her level. Across the desk, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “You have to trust your teachers. I can’t prove why – but they have been places in their lives that you haven’t yet. They do know what they are talking about.”

She appeared hypnotised. Just for a moment, I had her undivided attention – then she turned and took out her vanity mirror again.

Give me the child for the first seven years…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could provide hard scientific answers to the question of what works best in education. Having spent most of my career on the receiving end of a steady stream of progressive ideology, I find myself asking what would be the consequences of its being possible to prove that this does actually harm children’s prospects.  Would there be a sudden U-turn?

Having witnessed, earlier this year, the results of a pupil survey that showed unequivocally that they distrust peer assessment – and the subsequent instruction that therefore we need to do more of it “in order to show the children why it is valuable” – I somehow doubt it. In fairness, I equally doubt that many traditionalists would abandon their ideas either, were they shown to be flawed.

I persist in my doubt that there will ever be hard answers, so perhaps ideologues need not worry too much, but recent events have got me thinking about another, perhaps more easily identified matter, namely learned behaviours, and the degree to which these do or do not support the learning process.

In particular, this is about the effectiveness with which one phase of education prepares children for the demands of the next. I have kept an open mind about the primary sector, because I have little direct experience of it, and because I know how essential its work is. But following the blog of Quirky Teacher in recent weeks, I have encountered some controversial views from a mature entrant to primary education and this has sown some doubts over its efficacy. While the long-term effects of learning are invisible, it is easy enough to observe how pupils fare with the increasing demands placed on them as they age.

My brushes with the primary sector have not filled me with confidence. Some time ago, I attended a Healthy Schools seminar dominated by primary teachers; I came away incredulous. The majority were young and female (I mention this purely in the light of Quirky Teacher’s comments about the over-feminisation of the primary sector). Much of their attention seemed to revolve around voracious careerism, various gossip and scandal. Not much specifically about teaching young children…

This was of course one isolated instance – but other experiences, including having a similarly-minded primary teacher as a near neighbour for many years, hardly dispelled the impression. I do wonder whether rampant careerism is really compatible with the core priorities of establishing key cognitive abilities in young children.

Equally, I sympathise with Quirky Teacher’s reservations about teachers (at all levels) who claim to ‘love children’. To me, this speaks of a level of emotional involvement incompatible with the role of a professional; we are not their parents. Certainly, the word may be used loosely, but that in itself raises questions about professionalism – and it also ignores the many other reasons for going into teaching. We do need compassion – but love?

This implies an emotional involvement that may prejudice the more detached work we have to do with them. Such focus risks cuddly indulgence, a narrow focus on the current state of a child’s being rather than where he or she is going next, and perhaps a reluctance to create situations that cause short term ‘pain’ in the interests of long-term gain. While it is hardly contestable that children entering the education system for the first time need a caring transition from the home environment, our job as teachers is gradually to wean them from this and induct them into the wider world. By the end of primary education, children should be equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to cope with the greater demands of secondary school.  Indeed, my own memories centre on groups gradually giving way to formal teaching and lines of desks.

I am not convinced that this is widely happening. Before I am accused of being over-critical of primaries, secondary schools make it worse by falling over themselves to smooth that transition; I would rather that children arrived in Year 7 being – yes – slightly apprehensive about what they will encounter. I think they should be a little in awe of the teachers, and we should not discourage this.

In secondary school, the problem is extended by treating educational ‘outcomes’ as being the end of secondary schooling with its attendant exam results; we need to question whether we are really using Key Stage Three to prepare pupils for Key Stages Four and Five – and whether we are really equipping older pupils with what they will need after school.

My recent lower school teaching has been heavily loaded with less able classes. I resolved to continue with my broadly traditional approach, and this initially created some low-level behavioural issues from children who appeared unused to it. Nonetheless, I established good relationships with the majority, even those who sometimes fell foul of my expectations. In particular, the issue of inappropriate talking arose; it seems to me that many children no longer have the self-discipline to know when it is inappropriate to talk; even with a very firm hand, self-restraint does not come easily. Delving into this suggests that they don’t understand what they are doing wrong, or that they need to modify their behaviours to others’ expectations. A lot of children transgress not through deliberate naughtiness but through learned bad habits – at which point we need to ask where they learned them…

The expectation appears to be that school is about fun (that word again) and not formal learning – hence the grumbling about being formally taught – and given that this started in Year 7, this message may have come from primary school. By the time they arrive in secondary school, it is harder to change the expectation, even though their book work has improved…

Confronting my Year 10 G.C.S.E. class this week about a very mixed set of exam results, the confession gradually emerged about how little revision many had done; despite clear advice, most seemed to think that a few hours just before the exam were enough to master a content-heavy subject like geography. I deployed the thinking of Robert Bjork and David Didau – the necessity for spaced learning, desirable difficulties and the rest. There was silence… and then one voice muttered, ”But that means we have so much work to do…”

Why exactly are able students, with much to gain from the educational system, who overwhelmingly come from comfortable home backgrounds, baulking so greatly at the need to work hard? And this in an outstanding school? Why is it that many of them have found the workload at Key Stage Four difficult?

I suggest there are many reasons. Wider lives have to play a part: many of these children want for nothing, and are used to being indulged by wealthy parents; they lack the hunger for self-improvement that often feeds educational effort as much as they lack clear boundaries. Schools may have fuelled this by providing extra support to get them through the exams; learned helplessness has become an epidemic. I have frequently challenged pupils up to sixth form age about this: they admit that the more we do for them, the less they do for themselves – and consequently know how to. On the other hand, maybe we need to consider the possibility that too much pressure has been applied through testing, and we are turning children off learning. Can both even exist together?

It is possible that the focus of Key Stage Three teaching, often informed by primary school techniques, is preparing pupils insufficiently for the greater intellectual demands to come – and it is also possible that over-loving primary schools are too focussed on naturalistic readings of early childhood to establish the key expectations of self-discipline and cognitive focus at that critical stage – apart from cramming for KS2 tests, that is. By the time children arrive in secondary school, it is nearly too late; many of the issues I deal with seem rooted in their earlier years.

While there is not much we can do about the wider societal issues, I think the time is overdue for the education sector as a whole to have a lengthy discussion about the totality of how we prepare children for their futures.

Carrying that can?

Word came to me this week via a roundabout route of a discussion between some upper sixth students. The gist of it was that they rated teachers who “taught them to be better people” higher than those who “just teach them to pass exams”. It gave me a real lift to hear that I was on their list. Now where’s my Student Voice questionnaire…?

I can imagine that such a conversation would give some of our masters a full-blown case of the heebie-jeebies. Here were real students expressing unsolicited views on which teaching approach they find the most inspiring – and they preferred just about the most  unmeasurable of indicators imaginable, while implying criticism of the line we (and they) have been fed for the past decade or more.

But professionals MUST be accountable (mustn’t they?) – otherwise we won’t know that they are using all those evening work-hours effectively, or ‘justifying’ the relatively modest amounts we pay them. The trouble is, how (and when) do you measure ‘being a better person’?

There presently seems to be a degree of debate abroad regarding the best way to assess teachers’ impacts; let us not deceive ourselves about that – the main reason for the target culture has very little to do with the recipients of education living fulfilled lives and very much to do with accounting for the beans that the State has lavished on the system, usually in ways devised by people who seem to have no concept of the more intangible aspects of life.

Like (I believe) many teachers, I have no issue with the concept of being held accountable for my actions: there have been two instances in the last couple of weeks alone where making an incorrect decision could have had potentially serious consequences for the individuals involved, and it was therefore important that correct procedures were followed.

But it becomes difficult where accountability is required inappropriately for the situation concerned – for example by holding people responsible for things over which they have little or no control. Even in those two recent cases, the decisions made involved more judgement than anything else, and in both of them (lacking the benefit of hindsight) all we could do was what seemed best at the time. How reasonable would it have been to have held people responsible had those decisions later proved ill-advised? And how much more difficult is it where neither procedures nor outcomes are clear or agreed?

High Causal Density dictates that this is actually the situation in the majority of inter-personal encounters (i.e. there are too many relevant factors ever to know them fully) – and educational situations fall well and truly within that.  In other words, in any situation where there is more than one decision-maker, holding one of them uncompromisingly to account for the actions of all others is simply not reasonable. Yet that is precisely what educational accountability has attempted to do, via beliefs that 100% of student outcomes were the direct result of teacher effectiveness.

Even the students know that this is not the case.

The quest for accountability has also conveniently downplayed to problems of proxy indicators. A number of commentators are increasingly reminding us of the obvious: learning is not a measurable phenomenon, except perhaps in the most mechanical of senses. (I can only ask, “What kept you?”)

Therefore we have to rely on proxy indicators such as exam results, lesson grading, pupil progress measures and student satisfaction, but it has been conveniently forgotten that all of these are just as subject to the vagaries of causal density as any other interaction, even assuming they are reasonable proxies in the first place. There are so many reasons why learning did or didn’t occur (always assuming you know what you mean by it) that to attribute it 100% to one cause is plain foolish, not to mention an injustice to any individual involved.

Reluctantly, I accept that this demand on us is not going to go away – so how could it be improved? If it is being realised that the usual measures actually don’t tell us much useful, then what should we do instead?

Given the likelihood that learning is not imminently about to become any more measurable than it ever was, I think the answer is to use precisely the same measures that we always have: exam results, lesson outcomes and pupil perceptions, amongst others. Perhaps even teacher-perceptions…? The real shift needs not to come in terms of what we use – but how we use it. The main principle is not to lose sight of the limitations of proxy measures, and to restrain the clamour for accountability (in other words, blame) that can cause this distortion. Further, we should ensure that this demand does not itself introduce more self-fulfilling distortions into the equation.

For example, exam results are not the same as learning – but they are a reasonable reflection of how that learning can be deployed in certain, very specific and highly artificial circumstances. There are very many factors that can affect a given exam outcome, and therefore results should only be used as an general guide to the effectiveness of the lessons that preceded them, or a pupil’s ‘potential’, rather than a cast-iron piece of evidence about specific causalities. What’s more, distorting this by using (questionable) targets to promote learning in advance is likely to backfire by modifying the behaviours of all those involved – as that overheard student conversation suggested. Exam results are nothing more than an academic temperature-taking exercise, only useful when used retrospectively and summatively, not prescriptively. The psychology of contingent rewards sees to that. This however requires more relaxed attitudes to the use of such data than we have recently seen – let alone the consequences that have sometimes been attached to it in the name of so-called accountability.

Similar things can be said of pupil progress and student voice measurements. In both cases, they can no doubt be useful – but only when taken with a very large pinch of salt, and a suitably wide remit when it comes to considering mitigating circumstances. Pupil progress needs to be defined in an appropriately loose way, even though that may mean the judgments become more subjective in nature. It also needs to use appropriately-calibrated time scales – of which 20 minutes is rarely likely to be one. If that group of students is to be believed, a whole lifetime might be more helpful. And we also need to remember that ‘progress’ can impair real learning, for example by substituting short-term knee-jerk responses for something more lasting, or by disposing teachers to move on too quickly for real understanding to take root.

More obviously, student voice feedback should take account of the myriad of personal circumstances and perceptions that may colour what students write or say in such situations. A recurring example is the use of ‘fun’ as a criterion – which, as a group of pupils sheepishly admitted to me this week, is often shorthand for something that avoids doing real work, and therefore hardly a reliable indicator of lesson quality. Pupils by definition do not have a full and mature understanding of the process that they are experiencing, and that should never be forgotten.

I don’t think we will ever experience in the U.K. the Finnish outlook that education is simply too intangible ever to be worth trying to measure; that would involve just too great a leap of culture for our quantitatively-driven masters who always Need Answers. Given that fact, we might accept that there is little wrong with the indicators that are currently used – and in some cases have been for decades. It is what we do with them that needs to change.

Brave New World

I sometimes imagine myself having a face-to-face conversation with a wide-eyed edu-evangelist, one of those who continually remind us of just how much impact their interventions have on pupils. In my mind’s eye it goes something like this:

Me: “What do you think was the effect of your last lesson on your pupils?

Evangelist: Well, they made progress because they knew something at the end of the lesson that they didn’t at the beginning”. Oh – and I was rated Outstanding.

Me: And do you think they will now know and use this for the rest of their lives?

Evangelist: All the indicators show that they now know it, so why wouldn’t they?

Me: Assuming you are correct, what effect will this have on them?

Evangelist: Well, my intervention has clearly improved their lives.

Me: In what way?

Evangelist: They will get better exam results and go on to achieve their potential.

Me: What do you mean by that?

Evangelist: Well, they will have a better life.

Me: But what do you mean by that?

Evangelist: Well…  they will have a better life.

Me:  In what way? And where’s your evidence?

Evangelist: Err…”

I know this is very confected, but it serves to illustrate the point that education is in many ways the triumph of hope over experience – the very phrase Prof. Robert Coe used for his recent paper. As I have previously implied, the edifice that is current educational ‘wisdom’ is more akin to a religious movement than anything more rational – a strange state of affairs when you consider that we supposedly promote the virtues of advanced thought.

This, I suggest, is one of the roots of our difficulties in establishing full professional credibility – unlike other professions, we are unable to demonstrate a discrete body of proven practice with specific, tangible outcomes. Unlike in medicine or Law, education is an intervention in advance of the problem. If anything, the matter has been made worse by attempting to tackle this perceived deficiency by relying on pseudo-science, which some are increasingly likening to witch-craft. It’s hardly a reliable basis on which to build a profession.

As I have argued before, the best (and only) way to address the fundamental uncertainties of the educational process is to find a paradigm that works with it, rather than attempt to truss and cram it into something that doesn’t. That means glorying in its inherent serendipity, emphasising the refined sensitivities practitioners need to get the most out of an inherently unpredictable process, and acknowledging the multiplicity of its beneficial effects, even in their uncertainty. It means accepting that the only really helpful informant of such practice is reflective use of anecdote – otherwise known as experience. And it also means stopping promising things that we really can’t deliver, and talking up the very real benefits of those that we can.  These are all points I’ve made before; what’s changed is that others seem to be starting to say the same things.

For example, there are a number of current discussions regarding the relationship between learning and progress, of which this is one. At last, people are beginning to realise that these are not the same thing – something that I have felt in my bones for years, but have been unable to substantiate. Well, that’s the nature of professional instinct and experience, I guess.

My suspicion that it is very possible to get people to ‘achieve’ (i.e. over-achieve) in observation or exam situations without necessarily having much real learning going on, seems to have some basis. This is clearly more in teacher’s interest than the student’s. Likewise, some people are beginning to argue that learning is an invisible process, and therefore all attempts to measure it are – and will probably remain – fruitless. It is even being argued that notions of ‘performance’ can inhibit learning – again something that I have felt anecdotally might be the case, but could not support with fact.

(with thanks to   for this and other links in this piece.)

If all this can be developed, it will hopefully reveal the sand on which the identification of supposedly ‘outstanding’ teaching is built. It will not make the job of accounting for ourselves any easier – but it might just more accurately reflect the true nature of the issue in the first place.

A rewarding incident occurred in a year 11 lesson this week: one perceptive lad was clearly itching to raise a point during a lesson on the varying impacts of globalisation. It was the kind of lesson that inspectors despise because it was (initially) led by teacher-talk. He was reluctant to do so, he said, because he was worried that he would be seen as racist. I reminded him that my policy is that pupils may ask or raise any point whatsoever within the walls of my classroom – so long as they are prepared maturely to justify and discuss their position.

He proposed that nearly all of the most economically-developed countries in the world are ones with white majorities; he was hinting as some kind of determinism. Amid an atmosphere of growing engagement, I asked him to elaborate, which he did. He built a reasonably-founded argument, to which a few others joined in.

There followed a discussion involving amongst other things the origins of the Industrial Revolution, the effects of the slave trade, imperialism – and the history of Japan.

Then, in my best Robin Williams manner, I leaned expansively back in my chair, hands behind my head, and posed the killer question: “To what extent are any of those factors you have outlined anything white people can claim conscious credit for – or was it simply an accident of history and favourable geography?” There was silence. No ‘progress’ was demonstrable – but I’m damned sure that learning was taking place in all its diverse glory, even though I can’t exactly define what. And I suspect that the product of that entirely unplanned episode will, in some residual form, linger in the minds of those who experienced it, their world view having subtly shifted in the process.

Meanwhile, anecdote is about to be given another boost. Just maybe, I can point the way for my imaginary evangelist: I suspect, in one or other form, we are all in this work because we believe in (hope for?) a better future. But I often wonder whether we would recognise it if we saw it – what would that ‘better future’ actually look like? I’m braced for the arrival later today of a sizeable group of staff and students from our Swiss partner school, whose annual visit I organise.  The next week will be manically active, but if previous years are anything to go by, it will yield massive, if unquantifiable learning for all concerned – which will be consolidated when we make the return journey in June.

Switzerland is far from perfect, but having travelled extensively there, I think that in its day-to-day life, it in many ways  represents the embodiment of a significantly ‘better future’ compared with what we have in the U.K. at present. Its people are prosperous without being brash, they generally respect each other’s interests; they have exemplary forms of democracy, personal liberty and environmental practice. They are strongly community-minded and have low crime rates. Their infrastructure works – and their education system seems to turn out highly effective, skilled individuals in all sorts of fields. All without a visible ‘progress measure’ or mention of that tired old Anglicism, “World Class” to be seen. I will write more on Switzerland in a future post.

Having Swiss people in our over-worked, rather fraught system for a week is not without its embarrassments. Very regrettably, the Swiss students regularly out-class ours in terms of the breadth and depth of their engagement and achievements: many of these are genuinely high-achievers – though I think I have fielded a particularly good bunch on our side this year…

The difference was best expressed by a student a few years ago, who having spent a week in Switzerland, simply said to me, “Sir, this place works”. That’s not a bad definition of ‘better future’ – and that’s learning.

Weasel words 4: Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

j) The correction of one’s previous errors?

k) Something else entirely?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weasel words 3: Progress

When I was learning to drive, I learned quickly, and my instructor said, “You’re making such rapid progress that we might as well put you in for the test early.” Then, a few weeks before the test, my ability to do hill-starts suddenly deserted me…

Progress is important; without it people give up. Daniel Pink identifies it as essential to intrinsic motivation. But to hear some people talk about progress, you’d think it can be sliced like a cake. Yes, you can measure how far you’ve walked down the street in a given time – progress of a sort, albeit merely quantitative rather than qualitative. But the term is now being misused in education by everyone from Ofsted down. Lesson observations can live or die on how much ‘progress’ the pupils supposedly made. When I was last visited by Ofsted, the ‘P’ question was indeed asked, and my not-untruthful answer was to say, “They now know X, which they demonstrably didn’t at the start of the lesson”. This seemed to pass muster, though whether said pupils still know X, six months later is perhaps more questionable.

From this I concluded that Ofsted does indeed use a definition of progress which thinks it can be sliced by the hour. I suppose it might possible in a skills-based subject, such as P.E. Maybe it’s easy enough to measure how fast someone can run, give them some concrete instruction, measure their new speed and identify an improvement – which is supposedly down to your intervention. Even in relatively skills-based academic subjects like Maths  it is perhaps relatively straightforward to teach a new procedure, get the students to do 20 exercises and give them a mark to show that they can now do something they previously couldn’t. And yes I do know there’s more to Maths than that… It’s also possible to differentiate by task, simply choosing an appropriate level of challenge for each pupil, a bit like you do on a computer game.

I think it’s from this mind-set that the whole edifice of techno-teaching has evolved, and I suspect it might even explain why some subjects seem to gain more favour than others. Many of its proponents do indeed seem to come from the kind of subjects where it is relatively easy. But what happens if you teach a humanities or arts subject? These subjects deal with uncertain and even intangible matters. There is no single, linear pathway through the content of Geography, let alone Art. Neither is there a single, neat answer that can be judged right or wrong in the arts or social sciences, particularly at the higher levels. There is no such thing as the ‘right’ route through an English or Philosophy essay – let alone Critical Thinking (which I teach) for which exam marking must be an absolute nightmare of non-standardisation.

Given subject matter which is largely non-linear and content-based, differentiating meaningfully by task is also much more difficult. You either know your stuff or you don’t, albeit at a given level of sophistication. Greater sophistication equates at least in part to more knowledge, not necessarily more sophisticated knowledge – though what you do with it is another matter, and just as hard to pin down. With certain exceptions, the skills are largely generic, so (important thought they are) there’s not very much to be gained from focusing on them instead – even assuming you could benchmark them accurately.

All of this makes measuring progress in the National Curriculum/Ofsted sense just another game of charades. Even deciding which Key Stage level lower school children are on is a lottery, given that there is no simple measure or linear direction for the work they actually complete and the things they understand. In plenty of assessments I mark, pupils hit different levels for different parts of what are inevitably multivariate tasks, such as identifying, describing, explaining and analysing a given phenomenon. Even more perplexingly, there is not always a correlation between the levels achieved and their position on Bloom’s Taxonomy. It’s not unusual to find competent explanation piggy-backing off poor description, even though the linear progression says that’s not possible. Deriving an average from this is as meaningless as it is difficult; you simply can’t average describing and explaining.

Another misconception is that progress is linear and constant. Yet I know from learning curves of my own, that they are bumpy, and can even go into reverse. Quite often, you spend hours, days, weeks seemingly getting nowhere; you may even consider giving up in frustration. Then, for no apparent reason, you make a surge of rapid progress. It’s as if the brain needs to let new ideas ferment for a while before it can assimilate and apply them. In extreme cases, as with my hill-starts, you actually go backwards in order to go forwards (just as suddenly, the skill came rushing back…). Measure this process at the wrong moment, and you will get some extremely unwelcome results to show to Ofsted.

Short-term memory is notoriously fickle, and the process by which both skills and knowledge transfer to the long-term memory is still not understood in any methodical sense. I have measured children’s ‘progress’ at the end of an hour, in the advised way, and then tried testing them again several weeks later. The retention levels are not always impressive; does this mean that my teaching is ineffective, or just that the expectations are unrealistic? Recently, I have told children to try learning a fact a day when preparing for a test; I have lengthened lead times accordingly, and refuse to tell them the precise date of the test until it is nearly upon them. As yet I don’t know whether this works, but it is an attempt, albeit fairly crude, to circumvent the short-term learning-rejecting cycle that is too easily mistaken for real progress if the time frame is wrong.

The problem with this weasel word is not the concept behind it, but the fact that it has been applied in a narrow, blanket sense to subjects that really aren’t suited to it. It assumes that progress is a single, measurable, unidirectional entity – which in many situations, it simply isn’t. Such a definition of progress could, to my mind, only have been devised by someone with no real appreciation of how learning actually works – or at least how different it can be from subject to subject. It seems to be an Affluenza-derived definition that sees both it and learning in general as an acquisitive, cumulative and certain process little different from the way in which a millionaire might acquire new cars.

It isn’t that either.

What’s more, as Doppler knew, progress also appears different depending where you’re standing relative to it. And we haven’t even touched the value-laden question of which kind of progress you might be looking for…