Footplate footnote


Knowing my interests, a neighbour recently gave me the book shown in the picture above. Quite apart from its nerdish historic interest 😉 I noticed something poignantly but topically significant on the back cover:


I can honestly say that the multiple prejudices stacked up in this modest text make the modern me instinctively recoil as much as the next person.

But perhaps we should pause and ask ourselves whether this truly represents a more blinkered era, or whether it reflects a time when personal differences and aptitudes were more readily accepted than they are today. Our modern lives insulate us from so many harsh realities – but it does not necessarily do us good. Consider, for example, the problems some have coping with the concept of death, or indeed misfortune of any kind simply because we encounter them so rarely in our sanitised lives.

In 1958 (the year of the book), more work was available for non-academic types – and it is conceivable that they would have neither wanted nor coped with the demands made of “Grammar and Public schoolboys who have the right qualifications…”

One might do well to consider whether this really represents a repression of the opportunities available to people from certain backgrounds, or a more pragmatic acceptance that not everybody is, or wants to be, the same. I think it is also highly significant that apprenticeships were on offer in “specific trades” which could well have offered furtherment to those prepared to work hard.

The world has changed immensely since the publication of this book, and I am certainly not suggesting that our (hopefully) more tolerant and positive language is a retrograde step . But it’s also noteworthy that the language here in no way talks down to young people as is the tendency today.

I’m no nostalgic, nor an apologist for undeserved privilege, but I wonder how different the outcomes from the present system really are, for all our sensibilities. Are we really much further forward when it comes to addressing these issues?

Good Sports?

It is a known phenomenon that (ex) P.E. teachers are disproportionately represented in management circles. In fact, I remember during my P.G.C.E. hearing them specifically advised to ensure they secured management roles because of their physical expiry date in terms of how long they could continue to keep up with energetic teenagers. As someone who increasingly feels the pace of even classroom teaching, I am not going to disagree when it comes to the effects of ageing.

I am not going to launch an ad hominem criticism, for despite that rather calculating advice, I am sure the majority of such people have a lot to offer: there are some aspects of learning where the P.E. approach would appear valid. But I am also getting sick and tired of sporting types trying to convince the rest of the world that it would be much better if only we could run everything through the medium of sports psychology.

Regular readers will also know that I have nothing against Psychology either. In fact, I think we need more of it in teachers’ professional armoury. But Sport Psychology is not the only, nor even the most appropriate type for the whole of education, let alone wider human endeavour.

Yesterday, I was invited to consider why the U.K. Olympic team has improved its performance so markedly over the past twenty years. A number of responses were offered by colleagues, but we were assured that it was, in the main, down to the psychology of marginal gains. It is the cumulative impact of lots of small technical adjustments that add up to large effects. This is what led to Olympic success, and it is to what Team Sky coach Dave Brailsford attributes Tour de France success too.

Members of my break-out group were asked to identify marginal gains that we could use in education. It was suggested that we could provide rulers and highlighters for children as they went into the exam hall. Some other ideas emerged. But they were all logistical: practical steps that teachers could do to remedy children’s deficiencies. (Whether we should do that is another matter; there is a view that says bringing the requisite equipment to an exam is part of the test). But when I asked how we might instead deliver – and identify – marginal learning gains, there was silence. Even those who were generally in favour of the concept seemed to struggle to know what a marginal learning gain is, and how we should know it when we see one. And that is before we can explain just how or why a specific marginal increase in knowledge might be tangibly more useful.

Matthew Syed is a well-known motivational speaker, which followed from his career as a top table-tennis player. I have no issue with his success – but he seems to be someone else who believes that what works for sports is directly transferrable to all other human endeavours. I disagree.

Syed falls foul of the Achilles’ Heel of sports psychology: he does not seem to understand the difference between practical, measurable performance such as a sporting ‘best’ and something that is a philosophical or existential imponderable, such as those which concern the effective development of the intellect.  And he multiplies his error by demonstrating his inability sustain an appropriate analogy.

His recent TEDx talk compared the mindsets of the aviation industry to sub-optimal performance with that of the medical profession.

Syed claims that the aviation industry has a rigorous and open culture that discusses its mistakes and conducts forensic investigations with the aim of improving performance. This, he claims is a Growth Mindset. He contrasts it with the medical profession, which he characterises as largely closed-mindset, where complacent professionals rest on their laurels, and will do anything including subverting uncomfortable truths in order to perpetuate their own status and hegemony. Quite where the evidence to support this claims is, is not made clear; it sounds suspiciously like lazy generalisation to me, and is certainly not what my knowledge of the Health Service would suggest.

But the real weakness of the analogy concerns the nature of these two ‘industries’. Aircraft are constructed by (human) engineers using known technologies to perform single, predictable tasks. When they fail, it is relatively straightforward to identify the failure, even if it is human error, and to put mechanical ‘fixes’ in place to rectify recurrent problems. One might also observe that the aviation industry is driven primarily by the profit motive.

Human bodies are not (in the evolutionary sense!) made by people. For all that we do know, they remain in many ways mysterious, and it is certainly not true that a specific intervention such as the administration of a drug will have only one, knowable, proportionate effect. It is also considerably harder and more risky to dismantle a human body and observe the malfunction in concrete terms – especially while it is still functioning. Human beings’ diagnostic software is notoriously unreliable and also subject to whim and emotions such as fear.

The job of a medical practitioner is therefore not the same as that of an aircraft engineer when it comes to offering confident diagnoses and plans of action. While the general principles of the human body are known, the way forward is much less certain, and that is without the problem that a human being has  feelings and multiple (sometimes conflicting) purposes and priorities in the way an aircraft does not. Given these differences, I would suggest that any reticence or even defensiveness on the part of medical practitioners is at least highly understandable. I suggest that at least in the U.K., much of the medical profession is not primarily driven by financial profit.

In many ways, medicine remains in part a matter of judgement, rather than a knowable applied science like mechanical and electrical engineering.

I have discussed this at length because too much is made of such analogies in educational professional development terms. The objections outlined above occurred to me pretty spontaneously – and to others as well. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising when such claims are greeted with scepticism.  There are undoubtedly some elements of education that are quantifiable, but much of what concerns people like me comes much closer to the considered judgement of medical professionals than the conscientious but largely mechanical procedures of aviation.

But there is a further objection, for which Mr Syed is as responsible as any: this is not being used dispassionately, but to promote the Growth Mindset and other specific agendas. There is an implication that those who disagree do so because their thinking or worldview or personal motives are deficient. Or to put it another way, ‘if only you thought properly you would come to the right conclusions’ (i.e. Ours).

I have no difficulty with the Growth Mindset, given certain caveats – but any value it has can only be destroyed by using it in a partisan way: this is not good academic practice. I have heard tell that even Dweck is not entirely happy at the way her concept is being used by education.

With my maverick’s hat on, I argued that the success of the Olympic team shows that selection by ability works. At least some of those athletes were head-hunted for their talent, and then around £5 million per medal thrown at them. No-hopers lost their funding.

I wonder how many of the Syeds and disciples of this world would demonstrate a growth mindset if presented with that argument, particularly in the field of education.

Unfortunately, the fallout of such P.C., partisan approaches is the undermining of training within our profession, not least in the eyes of those who are meant to be benefiting from it.

In the rush to impose sports psychology on even the most inappropriate of fields, such people ably both demonstrate their own lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties of education, and perpetuate the misgivings some of us have as to why it is they are deemed suitable to be telling the rest of us what to do.

Learning hard and easy

The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.

He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.

In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.

However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.

People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.

If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.

So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.

However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).

I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.

My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.

This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.

This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.

One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.

So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.

I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.

That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.


Bucking bronco

I was alerted to a lengthy comment by ‘egg’ on the blog Filling the Pail. The gist of the message is that far too many teachers exhibit undue confidence in their classroom abilities, and too much resistance to reasoned analysis of their performance. The criticism was also made that such teachers are often uninterested in self-improvement. And another point was challenging: the writer claims that teachers undergo a shift of attitude after they qualify, with the ‘natural’ doubts and reservations replaced by unbreakable confidence and large egos, typified not by any particular approach to education but simply the attitude that they “think they are right all the time”.

Egg does, to be fair, offer more reasoned analysis of possible explanations for this experience, but while reading it I could not help but scrutinise my own approach. After all, the whole process of blog writing implies opinionated views, though whether blogging attracts certain types or vice versa is less clear.

It is tempting to dismiss such comments out of hand – but to do so would be to risk affirming them. And I am genuinely interested in the claims and their possible provenance, not least because they have so many implications for professional conduct within the teaching profession. I do wonder, however, how much of this perceived trait really is brazenness and how much simply a reaction to circumstances.

I started by examining my own experience. It is certainly true that I lacked confidence as a trainee, and it took a good number of years in the classroom before I had really resolved this. I remember a number of more senior colleagues reassuring me that I was better than I felt. I have written before about the time required for real mastery of this job, and I think it took a good ten years before I really felt I was getting on top of it. And even today, on a bad day it can still feel unnervingly easy to be thrown off the bucking bronco…

But as I hope regular readers of this blog would agree, I don’t think complacency comes into it – indeed one might equally see the blog-writer as someone who is more than typically willing to reflect and ponder the issues. More of a problem, I would say, are those teachers who brim with such self-confidence that they never go near anything that challenges their views.

But here is a contradiction: that is how modern schools have encouraged their teachers to be. In my experience, they have felt that high-energy, self-assured team-leaders are what young people need, rather than those who exhibit more hesitation and self-doubt. I’m not even going to say they were wrong, because while the passage of further time has convinced me that quieter individuals still have a valuable role to play, the over-exuberance of many modern young people does make it hard to get the quiet message across. But extrovert people are perhaps not themselves greatly disposed toward introspection.

As time has progressed, I have indeed developed a view of education that I am increasingly prepared to defend. However, I do not think that this is the result of complacency: the fact that I regularly worry about becoming complacent is probably the best proof that I am not!

My view of education has been formed by three decades of day-on-day experience of the classroom. It is very difficult to explain to anyone who has not had that what it does to one’s perspective. While my views have in some ways crystallised, I won’t even claim that it has made me more certain about what I am there for. The more I teach, the more imponderable the fundamental assumptions behind it seem to become. I take comfort from the fact that this may well be another sign of growing insight rather than the opposite…

But I am still faced by one towering problem: each day when I enter the classroom, I can have little certainty of how successful my endeavours are going to be. I long ago learned the perils of not having a clear goal in mind, but for all the drilling we have had in lesson preparation, there is still no guarantee that even the best-prepared lesson is going to be successful. I simply don’t have the required level of control over a bunch of adolescent brains.

Sometimes a technique that I have used many times before inexplicably fails; sometimes the most random of events is what makes a lesson succeed. And even then, I have no real recourse other than my own judgement as to whether I am right or not. As Didau, Bjork and others have argued, the real argument-sinker is the fact that learning is invisible. I simply can’t see it happening – or failing to. Because it is invisible, frankly I can do little more in the classroom than have a stab at some things that thought and experience show might have the desired effect.

And even if they do, I still cannot be sure that real, genuine learning has taken place. Again, Bjork argues that being able to ‘perform’ something that happened in a lesson under controlled conditions is no guarantee whatsoever that real long-term retention has occurred. I have witnessed far too many times when short-term ‘progress’ has failed to translate to long-term retention for me ever to have any faith in a direct relationship there – and indeed too many times where learning did, to my surprise apparently occur from something I had deemed a failure. So I have developed a healthy scepticism for all those who claim to be able to measure ‘progress’ and identify clear methods for guaranteeing it lesson after lesson. And yes, this is a position I am prepared to defend in the light of my experience, for the simple reason that I have never come across anything (not for the want of searching) that gives me reason to think otherwise.

But as ‘egg’ suggests, somewhere down this path, it is necessary for teachers to develop some kind of belief in the fruitfulness of their daily labours: without that, I think we would all give up hope. How many people can work with such intensity for so long without any sensation of purpose or success? In the absence of any more reliable measures, I suggest that teachers simply come up with their own.

As for the degree to which teachers will defend their positions, I suggest this is not so much a product of intransigence, so much as working in an environment that steadfastly denies all of the above because it needs to deal in Certainty. And in the absence of such, it too has created its own – the whole edifice of the educational establishment that now believes that educational processes and outcomes are no different from churning out oven-ready meals on a production line.

Teachers meanwhile are caught in the middle – between a machine that demands they operate with certainty, confidence and extroversion – and the inward knowledge that much of what goes on in the classroom is still basically guesswork, for the simple reason it can never be otherwise.

I don’t even think this matters: the longer one does this job the more one realises that it is the long-game that is important. Indeed, I am not even unduly concerned any more if children don’t learn in my lessons every specific thing which I wanted them to learn. What is more important is that they learn something – and that those somethings add up to a greater whole that will serve them well in all aspects of their later lives.  Some of that will indeed be what I wanted them to learn – but the only people who really need to worry about whether specific facts have ‘gone in’ and stayed are the bean-counters whose reputation rests on such things.

Most of the teachers I know are in fact not very confident at all; indeed many remain eternally insecure about the effect that they have. Those who claim to have cast-iron routes to effective learning are either incredibly talented – or incredibly deluded. Again, time teaches you that this is the only way a teacher can be, given the uncertainties of what they do.

But to the outsider, this need to find some certainly amongst so many imponderables could, I suppose come across as arrogance.

Tragedy – à la Grecque

Some of my favourite films are Claude Berri’s 1980s adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s novels Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. I struggled through the first in a cinema in Amiens not long after its release, when my French was not as good as it is now.  Full appreciation came with a second viewing of it, and reading the novel, a few years later…

The story has been described as an up-dated Greek tragedy, and heart-breaking it certainly is. The patriarch of the Soubeyran family played by Yves Montand finds in the denouement that two films’ worth of scheming deceit have destroyed no one more so than himself, and in the most exquisite of ways.

The Dragon School is an independent school in Oxford. A couple of weeks ago, a newspaper report investigated how the school has managed to produce so many of the nation’s greatest thespians. (I am working from memory here, having not been able to re-trace the source, so please forgive the lack of precision). Further investigation shows a wider set of notable alumni.

One of the deputy-heads attributed success to having the freedom to allow pupils to experiment with acting and public speaking and all manner of other aspects of liberal education. He was asked why he felt the state sector did not achieve similar results. The reply, if I recall correctly, was that the state sector is far too hamstrung by the needs of political accountability and bureaucracy ever to have the latitude to create this kind of opportunity. It also requires a view of education that understands that pinning teachers down to specified procedures and measuring educational success only in terms of league table data is not enough.

It seems to me that there is a distinct undercurrent running through the educational agenda, namely how to capture the enduring benefits of a private education for the many. (Having spent a couple of days in Liverpool over the holiday, one might appreciate why liberating the underprivileged masses might still be a worthy aspiration). The thrust of the Dragon School article was clearly this – and I suspect it may also underpin various governments’ faith in academies. What I can say with more certainty that at least some in state school management are driven by an envy of the private sector.

And yet, just as in Greek tragedy, it seems that the protagonists just cannot see that they are increasingly the agents of their own destruction. The whole point of private sector education is that it:

  1. Places significant onus on the pupils for their progress, not to mention personal development. From my brushes with the private sector, it seems most certainly not to be about teachers running round dementedly trying to be all things to all people, gaming the systems so as to meet arbitrary targets, so that pupils never have to lift a finger for themselves. Indeed, some private schools have run notoriously Spartan establishments.
  2. Still understands the fact that education is not a measurable or even very definable quality. It seems still to appreciate that there are limits to what any school can do for someone – and then you just have to create the space and support for them to fly if they will.
  3. That teaching is an equally elusive process, and that pinning teachers down to specific procedures – most of all bureaucratic ones – does not a good teacher make.
  4. That quality is more important than quantity. Clearly, this is a difficult issue for the mass-education system, but pretending that large class-sizes and an increasingly conveyor-belt like experience make no difference, is plain ignorant.


So if this is what the state sector feels it needs to emulate, how is it going about it?

Answer: by increasing all of the pressures that drive teachers (and schools) in completely the opposite direction: more narrow ‘accountability’, more data, more bureaucracy, more standardisation, less scope for the individual (pupil or teacher). A myopic view of acceptable educational methods and outcomes and decreasing emphasis on the liberal aspects that cannot be measured – but which, if the Dragon School experience tells us anything, is from where great talent sometimes emerges.

And as several experiences last term indicated, this does transmit to pupils. Even as one who has strongly suspected that the present system is the source of, not the cure to, the toxicity of state education, I was hit hard by the strength of the evidence.

Daisy Christodoulou recently reviewed a book, Ouroboros by Greg Ashman about his teaching experiences in Australia and Britain. The imagery here is also classically Greek: this is the notion of the snake eating its own tail, “a vicious antithesis of progress”. Daisy was struck by the endless recycling of bad old ideas within state education; for me the problem is similar: this is a system that thinks it knows where it wants to go, but lacks the insight to see that its chosen methods are heading it in entirely the opposite direction. And the more it struggles, the more it can – tragically – only see one direction: the one it already knows, regardless of the fact that this is increasingly being shown not to work.

You simply cannot bang the table and demand that people deliver liberal, creative or intellectual education in a homogenised, done-to-order, over-specified manner. These are the very things that destroy those qualities. While I accept that the independent sector does have in-built advantages, it does however still seem to understand this. Nicky Morgan may dream about the same being true in state schools – so what has she done?

Imposed another needless, time-consuming and expensive reorganisation on the system, which can only serve to distract further from schools’ true purpose – and if my reading is correct, reduce still further the freedoms of individual teachers to function as they need. Yes folks! The solution for our state education sector’s problems is….. MORE MANAGEMENT!

And in the best traditions of Greek tragedy, by doing so it is sowing yet further the seeds of its own undoing.

What works

I am nearing the end of the course with my hard-working Year 11’s. In last Monday’s lesson, I tried to enthuse them for the final push by saying that with determination, we might just finish before Easter. – and we proceeded to have a lesson where their work-rate was noticeably slower than normal. I can only assume they felt they could afford to put their feet up a bit; it just goes to show how unpredictable the classroom dynamic really is.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that some pillar of what we do – say, the pressure of preparing for high-stakes examinations – really did cause serious damage to young people, say long-term psychological harm, or at least depression and demotivation. Would the decision be taken to abandon it? Or are the institutional imperatives now so strong that we would continue anyway?

I suspect the issue would be evaded by saying that there is in fact no way of proving such a claim – and that is probably correct, for all that I may feel that excess pressure in my own education caused me to put the brakes on. (Come to think of it, things have not changed so much: the enormity of the marking mountain now being presented as a necessity is hardly making me all the more eager to climb it…)

Yet if one tries to deploy considered doubt in the same way to critique any of the seemingly questionable initiatives we are routinely required to enact – that same, utterly surreal marking regime for example – it is normally ruled inadmissible. I have had two conversations about marking in the past few weeks; in both cases, mine was a genuine enquiry regarding the provenance of cast-iron evidence that marking at such intensity does actually make a proportionate difference. In both cases, the tone of the response seemed to imply that my question was ridiculous; only one made any other response at all – and that was to invoke the name of Saint John (Hattie).

It is true that Hattie talks about the importance of feedback – but to the best of my knowledge, nowhere does he specify that this means mountains of written marking, let alone double marking, at any particular frequency or in any specific colour of pen.

What’s more, Hattie’s calculations themselves are not beyond doubt, nor the appropriateness of his ‘effect size’ as a technique in the first place. And, I would add, the results of meta-analyses can never be refined to a point that makes them useful at the level of the individual classroom: they are just too generalised. To be blunt, Hattie is simply not much practical help when one is struggling to cope with the daily realities of being a classroom teacher.

Yet this ‘proof’ is apparently deemed sufficient to warrant the consumption of vast amounts of teacher-time plodding through mountains of exercise books, writing www/ebi comments that pupils, unless prompted, will scarcely look at, let alone act on in any meaningful way. (I have suggested before that cognitively immature minds are basically after the affective ‘hit’ of praise, rather than deep academic analysis). It is even more groundless to believe that the addition of stickers, stamps, forms, coloured pens or any other such paraphernalia will make any substantial difference whatsoever to what people learn. And if they are intended to be a coping mechanism for teachers, they are only likely to compromise any benefit that properly written feedback might bring.

But judging by the current tsunami, someone somewhere has decided that this needs to be wheeled out as widely as possible. Who – and where – are they? Or is it just some kind of educational meme? In which case, someone ought to be scotching it before it gets completely out of hand – this is no basis for the running of a credible profession.

To take the matter further, just how much of what we do really is, in its fundamentals, simply beyond proof? I would suggest that most of the educative process is still taken largely on faith. If, as David Didau and others have suggested, learning is invisible, then we simply have no way of knowing. Teaching will never become an evidence-based profession, simply because we cannot see the evidence. At best, we have weak indicators in the form of ‘progress’. But as Robert Bjork argues, I think convincingly, performance is not a reliable indicator of real learning either.

So what is left? Well, we know that learning happens. But it happens all the time, irrespective of what teachers do – it’s a normal, universal brain property; even Hattie accepts that. We know there are some things that impair formal learning, such as unruly classrooms and poor pupil attitudes, and it makes sense to minimise those where we can.

If we accept this, then all sorts of vanities start to slip away – such as the fact that teachers have anything like total control over their pupils’ learning, or the fact that teaching styles have a huge impact on learning (they shouldn’t, so long as classrooms are purposeful). That same year 11 class was genuinely horrified when I hinted that lazy pupils’ failings are held attributable to their teachers…

The only other thing of which I can be reasonably certain is that my ongoing presence in a room with a group of young people does have some impact on them – but I won’t pretend I know the half of what it actually is. I know that it is possible to engage their interest to a greater or lesser extent – but I also know that the factors that affect it are only partly within my control. It makes sense to maximise those that are.

But to do that, I need time and energy – both of which are increasingly being wasted on huge, mind-numbing, multi-coloured bureaucratic tasks whose ‘proof’ of effectiveness is no stronger than that with which my objections are regularly dismissed.

And much weaker than the evidence of my own eyes, that suggests the opposite. Evidence-based profession? Hmm; to use evidence this selectively and one-sidedly is really not to use it at all.

Mind the Data

A conversation reported to me by my most reliable informant (my wife) suggests that schools in general are pretty hopeless at data protection and freedom of information. Educational data is her professional field, and the conversation was with a lawyer specialising in the same.

The use of data in schools has – well, it hardly needs me to say…. and while one would hope that, as public institutions they understand their obligations, I wonder to what extent this is generally true.

For example, the use of algorithms to derive pupils’ target grades might seem harmless enough. But when those targets are used to inform specific actions in relation to individual pupils, there is at least a ‘grey’ area regarding  legality – and certainly what the pupil has the right to know. Every week I see cases where precisely this happens – teachers making decisions about expectations, intervention strategies, exam entries and more.

Section 12 of DPA covers automated decision making:

(1) An individual is entitled at any time, by notice in writing to any data controller (i.e. any organisation (not a private individual) holding their personal information), to require the data controller to ensure that no decision taken by or on behalf of the data controller which significantly affects that individual is based solely on the processing by automatic means of personal data in respect of which that individual is the data subject for the purpose of evaluating matters relating to him such as, for example, his performance at work, his creditworthiness, his reliability or his conduct.

(2) Where, in a case where no notice under subsection (1) has effect, a decision which significantly affects an individual is based solely on such processing as is mentioned in subsection (1)—

(a) the data controller must as soon as reasonably practicable notify the individual that the decision was taken on that basis, and

(b) the individual is entitled, within twenty-one days of receiving that notification from the data controller, by notice in writing to require the data controller to reconsider the decision or to take a new decision otherwise than on that basis.

The fact that automatically-derived data is being used to shape teachers’ decisions might therefore cause some concern. We should at least be aware of the above, which I will admit I was not until the chance conversation about it with my wife.

Other decisions are taken which are not always documented and this might cause further concern. For example, I have known of cases where raw targets were always rounded up rather than down simply on the whim of those doing it. While I think we can accept that education uses data for overwhelmingly benign reasons, the impact of specific decisions on the experience of individuals is not always positive, for example through the amount of pressure that the outcomes can apply.

The following (PDF) comes from the Open University’s ethical use of student data policy: See especially principle 3.

Analysis based on the characteristics of individual students at the start of their study must not be used to limit the University’s or the students’ expectations of what they can achieve.

  • Predictive analytics reflect what has happened in the past, not the future. In their calculation of error rates, it is accepted that there will always be individuals whose behaviours do not follow the typical pattern.
  • We should guard against stereotyping. Students who do not fall within any priority group may encounter difficulties during their study which become apparent as a result of learning analytics data, and subsequently benefit from targeted interventions.
  • Caution needs to be exercised in the interpretation of data for a variety of reasons and guidance provided to staff will aim to support this. For example, individual members of staff may not have access to the full data set that is available to the University and may have an incomplete view of the student and their experience.

We might also consider the situation with respect to teachers. The data derived about their classes is a major factor in determining their performance. A lot hangs on this data being correct, particularly as the thing of the moment seems to be the judging of ‘progress over time’. Such judgements can only have significance if the baseline data are correct to begin with. Again, the consequences of getting it wrong can be severe.

At very least, the mechanisms used to derive data should be available for scrutiny, yet I’m far from certain this is always the case. While I haven’t gone over it with a fine toothcomb, as far as I can see there is nothing on the Fischer Family Trust website that provides public access to even an outline of their methods. Perhaps it is available behind the log-in, but I don’t intend to register to find out (even if it will allow a private individual to do so).

Some years ago, another reported conversation indicated that a County Council personnel professional was only too glad to see the back of schools as they were a nightmare on that front. The use of data is now so endemic that many teachers probably scarcely pause to consider the implications. Too often, data are treated – by schools, if not individual teachers – either with gay abandon or as the gospel truth, especially when it comes to predicting exam results. In doing so abuses may well be being perpetrated that potentially invalidate any judgements being made.

Here, we may have another example of the way the supposedly shiny corporate culture of modern schools is hiding unacceptable practice. At very least, I suspect that more training for schools and teachers might not go amiss.

With thanks to my wife for the D.P. input.

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.

Utter rubbish

I occasionally re-read my recent posts, just to check that I wasn’t talking U.R. I have just done that with last week’s. Glad to say, I didn’t come to that conclusion, and the talk of the staffroom this week has appeared to bear out what I was saying. But I was drawn to Dylan Wiliam’s quote of Lleras-Muney (2009) who “estimated that one additional year of school adds 1.7 years to one’s life”. At the time, I was more concerned with constructing my own argument, but on reflection, does this not have to be edu-rubbish of the most utter kind?

I think the give-away is in the word ‘estimated’, and I’d be interested to know what methodology said worker used to reach this conclusion, particularly given the precision of the figure.

We in education have been subjected to some drivel over the years, but this takes the biscuit. I concede I know little of this ‘research’ but common sense is surely all that is needed to debunk it. To begin with, it is impossible to know what age any individual ‘would have lived to’ in the alternative scenario with or without education. While mass-statistics may yield some insight, as always the disconnect between macro-data and the specific experience of any one individual is too great to make any meaningful claim of this sort. Secondly, causal density is so high that isolating any one factor with the necessary precision is impossible. I can accept that educated individuals may make certain choices or have certain opportunities that increase their chances of a longer life – but does holding a PhD really reduce the risk of getting cancer or motor neurone disease, or of being run over by a bus?

Within my own circle, my highly-educated mother was dead of cancer at the still-young age of 67, while my in-laws who had limited education and who smoke and drink heavily are still going strong in their eighties. My former academic tutor was killed in a car crash that was not his fault, and Stephen Hawking’s cerebral abilities can only indirectly have impacted on his remarkable survival.

It is risible that such claims are still being made as a serious attempt to justify specific educational practices, and very concerning that people like Dylan Wiliam are prepared to cite them in support of their own work.

If I am missing something essential here, I will happily stand corrected!



I hold two enduring images of fifty-something teachers in my head. They are both male, perhaps because they draw to some extent on people I have known, and perhaps because they also serve as the poles of the role-model I hold for myself. I apologise to female readers…

One is polished, urbane, supremely assured, completely in control of his work and his life. He is a successful teacher, probably head of a largish department (in the days when HoD still meant something). Nothing comes as a surprise to him – he has seen (and dealt) with it all before. He is liked and respected by his pupils, and treats them with a mixture firmness and good-humoured condescension.

The other sad character lacks confidence, is slightly dishevelled, probably has leather elbow pads (a sore point for me as a geographer) keeps to the shadows, and is both the butt of disdain and the recipient of hassle from his managers. Long-suffering personified – but he is not necessarily a bad teacher.

Most importantly, both are their own people – and neither probably fully exists.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I am sulking as a result of the mishap outlined in my previous post, and I would like to thank those who have made or sent supportive comments, notably e=mc²andallthat, whom I met once and found to be much on my wavelength. But it’s true, my professional pride was bruised this week and it nudged my self-perception slightly towards the perhaps less desirable end of the spectrum.

I think the consummate professional would take the blow on the chin, identify what went wrong, and move on. So that is what I have done. I am annoyed at myself for getting a few things wrong, notably forgetting that the school introduced (I’m tempted to say imposed) a new observation form this year. I prepared using the old one, only realising my error five minutes before the observation took place. I also took at face value the new advice not to produce lengthy plans for observations; had I done so, I could have spelt out some things that went overlooked.

Bizarrely, I had a slight sense of sleep-walking towards my doom, probably not helped by an actual shortage of sleep over recent weeks. But I also refuse to angst over the things that I know full well were simply the misfortunes of chance.

It is absolutely right that one should ask oneself hard questions in such situations – I am not in the habit of defending the indefensible, but I do know that I am fundamentally a perfectly competent teacher, and it should take more than one somewhat poor lesson observation to dent that . Quite how I deal with the recent self-realisation of just how much I change under scrutiny is another matter.

But I am also annoyed at a system that generates these problems in the first place. Once again, my reluctance to discuss publicly the specifics of a particular school makes providing detail difficult, but there is value in reflecting on the wisdom of using an observation form that stretches to four pages of close A4, over twelve narrowly-defined categories. Often it is stipulated that the absence of concrete evidence must result in a ‘Requires Improvement’ verdict. While there is a certain logic, this narrows the scope of what a teacher can do, and utterly ignores the fact that much of what makes lessons work is subjective or impressionistic, or both. One is guilty until proven innocent.

It also flies against the policy that there is no (longer a) presumption for or against any particular teaching style, as what is expected all but ties both hands behind one’s back. The effect is rather insidiously to deprive both of my bi-polar role-models (and everyone in between) of their essential autonomy and turn them into powerless apparatchiks of the school-state.

I was actually somewhat heartened to read the form, as most of the criticisms were in fact defaults to R.I. because I hadn’t demonstrated the required form. This is less damning than criticism of my actual teaching, of which there was little. Basically, I once again demonstrated my inability to jump through hoops.

It didn’t help that the two observers were both young and relatively inexperienced, despite their rapid promotion; I suspect they found it difficult too – but they were confined by the stipulation of tick-boxes that leave no room whatsoever for interpretation or wider context. And I think this is the lesson to be drawn here: over-constrained scrutiny engineers a magnificent possibility to snatch failure from the jaws of success. The wider profession seems, slowly, to be realising this – so why are schools like mine and that of e=mc²andallthat heading in the other direction?

I talked over my lesson with a couple of colleagues. During the feedback, I enquired whether certain significant subtleties within my lesson had been noticed; the reply suggested not. Again, I don’t cast blame: I’m not sure, aged 25 I would have spotted the finer points of a lesson from a thirty-year teacher, either. But as one of my colleagues said, it seems as though I have been judged using tools insufficiently sharp for the job.

I am now wondering whether to let this lie, or attempt a response – and this is my main point for writing in detail here. Some time ago, a senior colleague ran CPD on conducting “Courageous Conversations”; someone asked whether this included conversations up the hierarchy as well as down. It appeared that the possibility had not been considered.

I know that some see me as wordy (some readers might agree!). But education is a complex business, and sometimes it is necessary to develop ideas at length. After all, we would criticise students who did not attend to necessary detail. And when we are scrutinised in such precise and minute detail ourselves, is it not reasonable to expect a detailed response?

So I shall be writing a response to the observation, but it will have to be on plain paper. The room provided on our new observation form for a comment from the teacher is – well, I think you can guess that…