Levels have their uses.

While the use of Key Stage Three levels nationally seems to be retreating into the dim past, and I’m not sorry about this, my school has made the decision to retain them for reporting purposes. I’m not sure how for long this position is sustainable, but that’s not the point of this post.

I have just completed the marathon of assessing twelve lower school classes of all abilities using the testing technique previously mentioned – that’s over three hundred A3 sheets.

The need was clearly there for something that allowed rapid but meaningful marking, and the levels provided it. The irony is this: freed from the overtones of spurious accountability and national reporting, these levels are not unhelpful. In my subject, I have reduced them to a simple series of statements that makes it straightforward to identify the general cognitive level that a pupil is at with given subject matter. Broadly speaking, it goes as follows:

  • Level 3: isolated statements of simple, unelaborated fact.
  • Level 4: more sustained or developed statement of fact, beginning to be linked into more complex statements
  • Level 5: Fully sustained factual knowledge, beginning to turn into simple explanation
  • Level 6: Developed explanation and sustained linkages of information
  • Level 7: Starting to reach considered conclusions.

This assumes that the subject information is sufficiently correct as to have merit in the first place, but taken as is, this taxonomy is simple enough that even my overworked brain can retain it. This is in stark contrast to the nightmare of how levels looked when they were first introduced, and is arguably what was needed in the first place. There are inherent ‘grey’ areas when one is deliberating, for example over the point when detailed statement of knowledge actually starts becoming an explanation, but this need not matter unduly when the framework is being used in a low-stakes situation between the teacher and the pupil. One soon gets a feel for it, and this is surely what professional judgement is all about.

As I mentioned a short while ago, my sometimes severe scepticism should not be read as an outright rejection of everything The System throws at us; I think that a universal framework for expressing cognitive development is potentially both useful and workable, so long as the tail does not start wagging the dog again. What it did not need to be was the huge and inflexible exercise in bureaucracy that we actually got.

I see the latest growing buzz idea is SOLO Taxonomy, to which we were formally introduced yesterday; to my eyes, this looks remarkably similar to the scheme I have outlined above, and I don’t have any particular attachment to one set of labels over another. The important thing is that it works and is manageable.

The sad irony, as I see it, is that many of the ideas put forward by the educational bandwagon are not necessarily unhelpful: they can become useful elements of a teacher’s repertoire. The problem comes when they are used in overdrawn ways, required by diktat be universally applied, to hold people to account or to offer scientifically precise representations of learning, at which point they rapidly lose any sense or helpfulness.


Good for Business?

One of the worst accusations in Britain today, it seems, is to be ‘anti-business’. It comes with associated overtones of luddism, of being anti-wealth, anti-opportunity and out-of-date. And worst of all, it supposedly betrays the heresy of being anti-capitalist, a give-away for old-style socialism, the last retreat of duffle-coat-wearing, stony-faced hard-leftists whose world-view was discredited three decades ago.

It is also an insult still regularly thrown at the teaching profession by those in the business world, often accompanied by complaints that teachers have an easy life, fail to prepare young people for the ‘world of work’ etc. etc. Most regrettably, it  comes in the same breath that also denounces academics for being ‘ivory tower’ (i.e. useless) and that propounds the ‘University of Life’, school of hard knocks and the rest of it – ad nauseam. As if a life of undeserved hard knocks is anything worth advocating  – or indeed the kind of society that dispenses them.

A letter was sent this week by a hundred ‘business leaders’ to The Daily Telegraph, urging people to vote Conservative for the good of business; it was widely covered across the media at large. Were we supposed to see this as anything other than an expression of sheer self-interest by those who in recent years have rewarded themselves so handsomely at everyone else’s expense? Who is most likely to gain from Britain being ‘Open for Business’? Was the hint of the loss of the low-wage, insecure jobs that employers increasingly demand really meant to scare us into obedience?

So I was extremely pleased to see a letter in The Independent (Keep business out of politics) objecting to the assumption that business leaders should have any more call on people’s voting instincts than anyone else.

This is the sixth richest nation on the planet, and yet we have a programme of austerity that is cutting into the marrow of our public realm. Whether the neglect is ideologically driven or not, civic amenities in the U.K. are a disgrace, and the state of the infrastructure (at least outside the capital) falls far short of that which I see in my frequent travels around other European countries. Support for people on ordinary means is evaporating, even as the rich force up the general cost of living; the ability to pool resources is being curtailed by pro-business legislation.

‘Good for business’ has entailed the de-recognition of representation for employees in large parts of the workplace, increasing job insecurity, reduced pension-provision and more. ‘Good for business’ has resulted in zero-hours contracts, and abuses of the minimum wage in areas such as the restaurant trade. Will Hutton’s most persuasive argument is that ‘good for business’ has led to the U.K. having the lowest levels of R&D in the developed world, while companies have largely become a means of extracting wealth for shareholders from existing assets, rather than investing in the economy of the future. If Hutton is correct, fewer than 20% of companies are actively involved in offering work experience or apprenticeships to young people.

‘Good for business’ has resulted in the U.K. economy becoming little more than a shareholder’s bargaining chip on the financial markets, further enriching the top 1% at the expense of the rest. It has meant the failure to pursue corporate and top-end tax avoidance. Having a friend whose company is currently being asset-stripped after an aggressive take-over, with his job at risk, I know this is not fiction. This is sharp contrast to many of our competitor-countries such s Germany and Switzerland (hardly a hotbed of leftism) who retain a much more balanced social contract.

And ‘good for business’ has seen the misappropriation of the education sector – whose moral remit remains, through the development of the intellect, the preparation of young people for all aspects of life – into a mere tool of economic policy, whose purpose is to deliver workplace-ready fodder to employers, in order to save them the expense of training them properly themselves.

But concurrent with the above, the teaching profession has been busy getting itself a bad name again – hardly conducive to balancing the sirens of the business faction. Once again, the spring conferences are advocating strike action, this time to boycott baseline tests of children entering the education system. While this is a sensitive issue, the old-left instinct to strike over every issue does nothing to dispel the public impression of teachers as old-left dinosaurs. I support the principle of representation – indeed want it enhanced to mirror the German system of a legal requirement for employee representation at Board level – but I despair of the actions the profession’s (un)representative bodies, which certainly do not reflect my outlook. More specifically, when most Union policy still expounds ‘progressive’ views, it makes it very difficult to know where to turn if one wants to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, I am proud to record that I will most definitely not be casting my vote for the good of business. I entered teaching because of my desire to live in a civilised society, which presents its people with maximum enfranchisement and the opportunity to live a good life – and my wish actively to contribute to that.  I see my role as building social capital – of which economic capital is only one part – one that if not balanced by other civic considerations leads to a fragmented and polarised society. Regrettably, it is becoming ever-clearer that this is precisely what is emerging in Britain as a result of the ideologies of the past few decades, and one does not need to be on the hard-left to see it.

The track record of the business-led society in Britain in recent times is one of raw self-interest. Too much of what has been allowed to happen (with political complicity) operates in the narrow interest of those who own it, with far too little sense of social obligation to create wealth for society at large. The signs of this are everywhere to be seen, from income disparities to my friend’s predicament, to the state of our roads. The demonisation of the public sector (mostly led by the business community) has eroded public provision to an unacceptable extent, while the beneficiaries of the business-friendly climate have increasingly bought themselves out of the society that hosts them. Where opportunity and investment do occur, they often come with a free-market price-tag that excludes many.

Will Hutton’s book offers some interesting solutions to this impasse, which I will discuss in a forthcoming post. This is not, however, to cast myself as just another old-leftie. I remember the decay and disruption of the Seventies and would not wish to repeat that. So I am not anti-business – but I am most definitely anti- tax-avoidance, low-wages, executive incomes, low-investment and asset-stripping. I am anti business having any special consideration within wider society. And I am most definitely anti the way in which that corner-stone of civil society – our education system – is increasingly being modelled along similar lines.

I am pro-democracy, pro-civil society and pro-fairness. I am also pro-opportunity – but not only of a narrowly economic sort. Good business actually means precisely those things too – because it would invest in a wider fair and prosperous society and this is it patently failing to do; what the signatories of the Telegraph letter actually meant was ‘good for profits’.

Before making either special claims on voters’ loyalties – or its regular attacks on those, notably in the public sector, whose humane values do not support its often-rapacious ways – the business sector needs to clean up its own act.




The calls for an ‘evidence based profession’ keep coming, as though this would somehow solve all our troubles. But the problem with evidence is that it still needs to be interpreted by good old Mk1 fallible human beings. The idea that we will somehow be able to produce an education system that does not depend on this strikes me as not only probably impossible but highly undesirable.

All the evidence I have seen during my time in the classroom points to the fact that this would amount to the end of education and the start of people-programming. It would remove the ability of those in schools to function in an authentic inter-personal manner and replace it with a prescribed machine-ethic, which would produce human robots rather than complex individuals. Education is a social and intellectual activity, not a scientific-mechanical one; why would we want to make it otherwise?

This is not to say that evidence is useless – so long as it is defined in the broadest possible sense as ‘incoming information from the world around’. Indeed, doing anything without due regard for the context would seem to be little more than a form of madness. In my classroom, as in daily life, I constantly respond to the evidence of what is happening around me – but that it not to say that the response is simply formulaic. People are more complex than that.

Evidence comes in all manner of forms, and people use it in all sorts of ways. The evidence of the affection of one’s significant other does not usefully come in numerical form, any more than does the pleasure of a good meal or the first signs of Spring. The responses that ‘evidence’ of this sort evokes may just as likely be emotive as rational. People are more complex than that.

But  I suspect that those most loudly demanding evidence-based teaching have in mind something along the lines of medical procedures or scientific experiments, which they can plug into classroom situations safe in the knowledge that the desired outcome will pop out the other end. I fear they are going to be disappointed. People are more complex than that.

But other people use evidence too – artists and artisans, for instance. They work their material with an intimate knowledge of its properties, a deep skill in the use of their tools – and most importantly of all, an eye for the intrinsic potential of a particular piece of material. These methods may use science, but be less obvious and less easily transferrable than straight scientific procedure – but that does not make them ineffective with respect to their intended purpose. In fact, the very uniqueness of each artisan’s approach is what gives it its most desirable qualities.

In my mind’s eye, I see my practice a teacher more akin to the work of a sculptor than a scientist. As the JISC report mentioned in my previous post concluded, teaching can be seen as an artisanal activity, but I would argue, no less a skilled profession for that. I believe that this model would be much more helpful in guiding professional practice than the concept of a pedagogic scientist.

A skilled sculptor, Pygmalion brought forth from a crude piece of stone a figure of such beauty that he fell in love with it. He presumably did this only partially by recourse to his knowledge of the nature of stone. He also needed, in his mind’s eye, a conception of the beauty he was intending to create – and he then needed to fashion the stone in question to his ideals, while simultaneously reading, and accommodating, the flaws, blemishes and beauty of the material he was working with. His subjective reactions to what was unfolding would have guided his hand at least as much as his technical expertise.

One can consider the work of the teacher in a similar way: the purpose is to fashion a unique human being from the crude piece that one is given. In the early stages, this will mean removing large amounts of unneeded material, but the process will be increasingly one of refinement using a skilled eye and even more skilled hand to make just the necessary interventions to create the perfect result. But the process will never be the same twice, except in its most basic elements, since every sculpture will be different and every piece of stone unique.

It may be easy to dismiss sculptors as being of relatively little ‘use’ when seen from a scientific perspective, and yet they are equally skilled in their own way. What is more, they produce items that are not of mere practical application, but which beautify the world. And they do have a further purpose: to express  those aspects of existence than numbers cannot adequately communicate. In the case of Pygmalion, he produced a sculpture of such beauty that he yearned for it to become human – as indeed it did, thanks to the intervention of Aphrodite. And it was by becoming fully human, rather than a mere likeness in inert material – the stuff of scientists and statisticians – that it assumed its greatest beauty of all.

In researching this post, I happened upon another application of the Pygmalion story – the Pygmalion Effect. This has direct relevance for educators as it describes the effect of teacher expectations on pupil outcomes. I would argue that expecting our students merely to conform to technical definitions of success is actually to have low expectations of them, for all that this receives so much attention. It represents a failure of imagination: why would we wish future people to have merely technically accomplished lives, when living to the full is so much more? Surely it is far more important that those lives are things of beauty, lives well lived in an aesthetic, cultural and societal sense?

This need not conflict with an academic understanding of education, because it is through attaining the intellectual peaks that the wider views become visible, for all that the climb may be sheer hard work. But it requires a rather more organic view of learning than the sterile hitting of targets that the evidence-mongers seem to want.

If we are to use evidence, we need to be certain it is of the right kind, and that an appropriate response is possible. It needs to be the servant of teachers, not their master – and it needs to permit educators to raise people above the status of the merely technical, not plug them ever more tightly into it. My vision of education is closer to the classical ideal of  eudaimonia than the industrially mechanical, and for artisanal teaching we already have most of the evidence we need, simply through using our senses and intellects.

But I think it will be left to those teachers who have the sculptor’s aesthetic sensibilities to achieve this, not those who merely deal in technicalities.

As any teacher know?

A document from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) was recently brought to my attention. The author is Niall Sclater and it concerns codes of practice for learning analytics, largely with reference to the tertiary sector. However, there is one section that I believe may be of interest to  the school teaching community, and as it is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 I offer a few sections from it here. (It can be found on pages 26 and 27 of the original). I will leave most conclusions to readers; suffice it to say that I feel it supports some of my recurrent arguments about the severe shortcomings of use of statistics to inform the educational process.

The original document can be downloaded here:


“A working party at Charles Sturt University (2014) notes that “learning is a complex social activity and that technical methods do not fully capture the scope and nuanced nature of learning”. Reducing the complexity of student behaviour to a number or a traffic light is pointed out by Campbell et al (2007) to result potentially in oversimplified or insensitive conclusions. Any algorithm or method will be reductive in that it attempts to create a manageable set of metrics which do not necessarily reflect reality (Greller & Draschler 2012). No prediction can take into consideration all possible factors such as problems at home or financial difficulties…”

“Slade & Prinsloo (2013) point out that as much data related to learning is held in systems outside the control of the institution…it is impossible to obtain a holistic picture of student life. Moreover the data is itself temporal and may only afford a view of an individual at a specific place and time, not allowing for the changing and multiple identities of learners as they progress through their studies.”

“A number cannot represent the personal growth or development of relationships that arise from attending an educational establishment. Johnson (2014) worries that data mining can treat a subject as a collection of attributes rather than an individual. He discusses course recommendation systems where people are recommended to do what people like them have done before…For Johnson it appears that learners are being thought of as mere collections of skills to be matched to an outcome, rather than individuals. He thinks that such systems undermine student autonomy…denying students the opportunity to make their own decisions.”

“Tertiary education can be an “individual artisanal craft” where the standardised metrics and interventions of learning analytics ay not fit easily (Contact North 2012)


Do you have to weigh a pig to fatten it?

Yesterday: to Essex University with a group of upper school students to try to enthuse them for the academic life… In the afternoon, we had a seminar  with one of the young lecturers from the University’s Mathematics Department. I must admit that Maths never lit my own candle (possibly the result of a fixed maths-mindset at home, where the family was firmly on the arts side…?) so I confess my reservations about how engaging this would be…

But for ninety minutes, our pupils’ attention was held by a young guy with nothing more than a clear passion for his subject, a few fairly basic PowerPoint slides and a handful of challenging mathematical puzzles. Having done previous outreach work, he clearly knew his audience, and related well to them, pitching his opener at a challenging but accessible level and ratcheting it up from there. Even as an erstwhile maths unbeliever, I found it very stimulating, not least the way he demonstrated how problems can be difficult for ‘even’ maths to solve, once variables starts to increase in  number. (I was left thinking about classroom applications of this: Causal Density and the impossibility of predicting the specifics of how any given lesson will develop…) But for all that he enthused about the clarity of maths, for me the success of the session was down to the distinctly unquantifiable, untechnical element of his infectious enthusiasm.

A discussion over today’s lunch-table ranged far and wide from this starting-point. At one point (the circumstances are unimportant, but they related to education) the observation was made, “If you don’t measure things, you won’t know how to improve them!”

Is this valid or not? It would certainly seem to be the case that without knowing what you’ve got, then it’s hard to appreciate it – and I suppose ‘improve’ it, always assuming it needs improving. If the aim is indeed to increase the quantity of what you’ve got, then knowing where you’re starting from would seem to make sense. And – most important in these accountable days – if you don’t measure, it’s hard to ‘prove’ there has been an improvement at all…

But this is where my habitual reservations kicked in: an increase is one thing – but an improvement is quite another. One objective, the other subjective; more is not always better. One needs to know what needs to be measured – and that it is being measured in a suitable way. Quantity is often not the only relevant factor – but quality is much harder to objectify. For all that the young lecturer promoted Maths on its objectivity, the significant thing that made his lecture succeed was inherently un-measurable in any really meaningful way.

There risks being a blind-spot in those who love the quantitative game:  assuming that everything is reducible to useful numbers.

There are some things in this world that are simply not measurable in any meaningful way. Sometimes, those things are important, even critical. I would argue that the supposed lack of precision in the arts and humanities is not the weakness it is sometimes presented as, but a sophisticated acceptance of, and response to the un-measurability of much human experience, in a way that an objective approach sometimes fails to capture.

Then there are the matters of whether measuring something actually can actually help improve it – and whether we risk valuing what we measure rather than vice versa. I was reminded of the proverb “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it more often”. And even if you do succeed in fattening the pig, there is no guarantee that the fattest pig will be the most flavoursome. Even though a recipe that involves pig products may begin with quantities of ingredients, there is no guarantee that the tastiest dish won’t have been improved by the intuitive adjustments made by an experienced chef.

I would not for one moment suggest that the relatively objective approach presented by subjects like Mathematics has no use – but I think we need to be wary of seeing it as a panacea. Those who approach life from a purely factual/logical approach may have an easily-made case – but it is not the only one with validity.

Quite often the things that really make a difference are purely qualitative, even indefinable. For example, can we really be so sure that the best teachers are simply those with the best statistics behind them?  Adopting an excessively numerical approach, especially to matters as complex and culturally-laden as education, may result in our over-simplifying the nature of what we are really dealing with – and missing the very qualities that gives something its inherent worth.


Over-professionalised or over-hopeful?

Yesterday evening I spent an exhilarating ninety minutes at a public lecture debating the track record of the coalition government, and the prospects for what might emerge after the General Election in May. I particularly wanted to hear Anthony King, one of the U.K.’s top political commentators, who is Professor of Government at the University of Essex. He (and the other panellists) did not disappoint, and I was particularly struck by the widespread acceptance that politics has become detached from everyday life in the U.K.

One of King’s lines of critique was that while the enduring stability of the British political system may in itself be creditable, the enduring instability of policy that has emerged in recent decades most certainly is not. He argued that many comparable European countries operate a much more consensual system, with a resultant continuity of policy, thus avoiding the perpetual and sometimes destructive policy shifts seen in the U.K. This is indeed my experience too.

I was pleased to note that the panel agreed with my suggestion that the professionalisation of the politics is partly to blame for this, with many politicians having little experience outside the Westminster Village, and also potentially falling prey to the conflicting interests of party career and democratic duty. (This was dramatically driven home to me some years ago in the days when I organised  politics days for sixth formers, by one invited speaker spending most of his allocated time expounding not the principles of democracy, but the benefits of politics as a career…)

If they are to learn this lesson, the politicians could well start with Education. I expect there are few teachers who would disagree that political interference of all sorts has been a major destabilising force in recent decades. This is not only because of the incessant policy shifts regarding the delivery of education but also what they have asked of the teaching profession too.

Many of the forces that have turned teaching from a social profession into a form of technical instruction have originated from the political classes, and have paralleled the changes seen in politics itself, from honourable calling to personal career choice. But the teaching profession itself is not blameless in this either, as many parts of it seem to have colluded willingly in the drive to send teaching in this direction, one perhaps driven as much by personal ambition and power-politics as a desire to do the right thing for young people.

Just as in politics, education professionals can now face a conflict between interests of career and duty – and it is by no means clear to me that the latter has always won out. In fact, just as stellar political careers may be deeply incompatible with the proper working of democracy, I would suggest that stellar educational careers may actually have very little to do with educating children.

Politicians could also well learn the lesson that excessive demanding of accountability causes more distortions than it solves – and so should education leaders. In my view, teaching has always been a profession – but not necessarily in the modern sense that seeks to demonstrate its credentials through closed technical procedures, stringent and misleading ‘accountability’, high-profile careers or large salaries. It may be wiser to accept that leaving classroom judgement to teachers is sensible and not just a cop-out for the incompetent. And for all the noble talk, there remains one thing that no senior manager has ever sacrificed to stay near the pupils: their career.

This week has also brought a couple of glimmers of hope: one was the fact that the politicians on the panel were prepared openly to concede that there is a problem, even if they aren’t yet sure how to address it – and the other was the fact that I was presented, during a CPD session, with an article from The Times by Adrian Furnham extolling the virtues of the teacher who is driven by an intrinsic wish to educate rather than an institutional obsession with exam results. That such articles (albeit some years old) are even being written is perhaps a sign of hope, and more important was the fact that it emanated, at school, from a source that has been a major proponent of technocracy, and which might not have entertained such ‘woolly’ views but a short time ago.

The buzz from the audience in yesterday’s lecture also suggested one thing: when people are being given genuine brain food, there is no need for spurious exit polls or progress indicators in order to know as much. Good learning ‘Just is’. We need to let it breathe.

If people are beginning to realise as much, then maybe things are indeed just about to get better…



Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina seems to have prompted a lot of discussion about the progress being made with artificial intelligence, and whether it will ever supersede human life on earth.

Of a number of articles in the press, Nicholas Carr’s in The Guardian was perhaps the most thoughtful. The debate falls into two camps: those who believe it is only a matter of time before A.I. becomes capable of outsmarting humans, and those who believe it never will.

Carr identifies the problematic non-transferability of artificial intelligence – in other words, A.I. can be vastly smart at what it is programmed to do and simultaneously hopeless at anything outside that realm. In the wrong hands, such single-mindedness could be lethal.

He also proposes that what makes humans smart is not their ability to process vast amounts of hard data but their ability to make sense of things, drawing on not only information but also observation, prior experience and emotion, and then weaving them into a whole, in a way that permits us to respond to the world in a manner both more sophisticated and subtle – and less predictable – than any machine. It’s going to take a formidable machine to equal the 100 billion neurons in the human brain.

This is why I think Carr is right when he says that the advantage we have over machines is that we are alive and they are not. The important thing is the fluidity of thought that those 100 billion neurons permit. Machines may become better than humans at specific tasks – but as Rhodri Marsden observed in The Independent, while we might end up with a cyborg that can paint like Monet, the chances of its also being able to come up with Duchamp’s Urinal are pretty remote.

In a sense, we are once again discussing the concept of causal density – the idea that reality is so complex as to be unpredictable. And the human mind is part of that. What makes us human is not our ability to be rational, but to go beyond that, into the realms of creativity, imagination, empathy and emotion. Machines can ape some human emotions, but that’s about as far as it goes – and as far as we know, they don’t actually experience them.

Carr suggests that a greater threat is becoming too dependent on A.I., such that we eventually lose those higher abilities. There is some evidence of that already, and I think there is more emerging in schools, where we might expect to see the first impacts of new technologies on up-coming generations. In particular, I am thinking about the decline I perceive in manual dexterity, including handwriting and general graphicacy.

Carr also discusses MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), which he claims are not being as successful as was predicted. He argues that this is due to their failure to replicate one aspect of traditional teaching: the largely indefinable effect of putting real human beings together and getting them to interact; here is another way in which the human sum becomes greater than its parts, and it’s why I believe that human teachers will always be, if not technically needed, at least desirable in human terms. Even if we can produce machines that one day can replicate such traits, I have my doubts that they will interact with humans fully successfully, simply because people will never trust a machine in the way they trust another human being.

Carr ends by suggesting that we should respect the abilities of smart machines, but that we should respect human capabilities even more. It was at this point that I saw a further irony: at the same time as we are up-skilling machines, we seem to be deskilling humans. Education is increasingly being seen merely as an exercise in logic and technical proficiency. The running is being made by the scientists and mathematicians within the education sector, whose concern is (rightly) with the transmission of technical skills, but whose model is being projected onto education as a whole. Yet in conversations, I am often left sensing that such people sometimes have even less real appreciation of, or time for, the more subjective – I would say humane – aspects of life than my humanities-derived prejudice suggests.

And yet it is these unpredictable and often creative aspects that form the core of what it is to be human. The majority of people’s lives are, I would suggest, lived more as an emotional narrative than as a data record. Major life-events are largely matters of emotion, and I would suggest from some experience that the more hard-headed amongst us sometimes fail to cope as well with such situations as the more emotionally-literate. While rationalism is of course useful, its tendency to devalue subjective experience is destructive to the quality of human lives. In educational terms, factual information only really becomes meaningful learning when it is mediated through the experience of a real human being.

Experience would suggest that such people also tend to see the management of institutions such as schools as a logistical exercise, rather than a human one. This might explain why they can appear insensitive to the disgruntlement they are wont to cause in their colleagues, and why they may make poor calls in critical situations such as recruitment, when an empathic ability to read character might be seen as an advantage.

If you are only relatively dimly aware of human sensitivities, it will be all the more difficult to factor-in the subjective elements that are needed for good logistical solutions. When planning a timetable, for example, does it really matter whether the patterns created cause difficulties or discomfort for the individuals concerned? I would argue that it can have a tangible impact on the quality of the resultant teaching.

And when it comes to lessons themselves, the same tendency is visible: we are neglecting the elusive, holistic experiences of human intellectual development in favour of a mechanised version of brain training. And we are preferring, as teachers, those who can deliver effective mechanical training over those who might have a more empathic, instinctive approach, who may value emotive quality of experience over clinical technical perfection. What’s more, those who are looking merely for technical ability will never understand the ‘something’ that many of the best teachers have,  which largely comes down to one subjective, unprogrammable thing: charisma.

Perhaps those who think that A.I. will one day outwit humans are right after all – but it may be achieved not so much by building more powerful cyborgs, but by our own goal in dumbing down human life and turning it into a low-grade machine-like experience – which is what sometimes seems to be happening in parallel.

To travel or to arrive?

Occasionally, while writing a blog post, I find I’ve written something that on second thought has greater significance than it seemed at the time. A case in point was the phrase used in my previous post, “The journey is the destination”. It’s hardly original, but perhaps worthy of further thought.

A couple of mornings ago, the Today Programme covered the latest claims from some M.P.s that High Speed 2 (the proposed new London – Manchester/Leeds rail line) “does not represent good value for money”, with the implication that therefore it should not be built.

The problems with this are twofold. Firstly, there is the assumption that Value for Money is a relevant, even defining, factor. In fact, there may be many other criteria which justify its construction: anyone who has travelled on French or German high speed trains will know just how excellent they are from a passenger’s perspective, whether or not they make money. Yes, a British ‘Pacer’ local train may get you to the same destination (eventually) as the new Intercity Express  – but the actual experience of getting there most definitely won’t be the same. Not that speed is everything, of course.


Secondly, there is the implied certainty in the claim, even though it involves making predictions about a project that will take many years even to construct.

Cost-Benefit Analyses are being done by organisations all the time. Government is a past master at them, as they supposedly represent an evidence-based approach to effective management of national expenditure. They have also become extremely complex, and I don’t pretend to understand their intricacies. The results they yield, normally expressed as a multiplier factor of benefit to cost (as in 4.3 : 1), look precise, and seem increasingly to be accepted without question. But quite apart from the questionable possibility of quantifying the future, one needs to remember that the interpretation remains totally subjective. Discussions about the value of  productively-used time on trains  are immutable, as are the financial figures attached to things like environmental benefits.

And the threshold for what is considered to justify investment is, as far as I can tell, entirely arbitrary and subject  if nothing else, to political expediency. Moreover, CBAs attempt to second-guess uncertainty by incorporating elements such as ‘Optimism Bias’, which is a figure inserted supposedly to counteract the effects of excessive enthusiasm. On what grounds such figures are arrived at, is unclear – but they can make or break a project.

They can still be spectacularly wrong. Cost-overruns on governmental computer systems and the now-closed Millennium Projects are examples, while a classic is the Channel Tunnel, which has never reached its predicted traffic levels – largely because when the CBAs were done, nobody foresaw the emergence of low-cost airlines and the global shift to China. No amount of complex analyses will make the future any less of a Black Swan. On the other hand, the London Eye was meant to be temporary but proved to be so popular that it was retained, while Andy Scott’s Kelpies sculpture near Falkirk has proved wildly more popular than predicted and the local authority is now hastily developing expanded visitor facilities.


The education sector has been blighted by bogus quantification. We too like to imply that the future is certain, and that pupils’ educational results are a matter of when rather than if. It makes schools look as though they are in control, that they can deliver a predictable ‘product’. But I don’t think this helps because it can cause complacency, while unrealistic targets can demotivate if they are taken too seriously. The presence of such bogus certainty can create an intractable sense of destiny, and if the future does indeed turn out unexpectedly, the consequences can be far-reaching.

Assuming we are not going to scrap the procedures entirely, we desperately need an optimism bias to counter practices such as the arbitrary rounding up of targets for no better reason than “that’s what we feel we should be aiming for” – which is hardly scientific.

But there’s a deeper level of concern. The focus on ‘destinations’ diverts the attention from the journey of getting there. The whole of the Research drive in education is inextricably linked with the assumption that outcomes are what matter; the process of reaching them is treated as no more than a means to an end. One wonders what will happen if the most learning-efficient processes turn out to be morally or ethically unacceptable.

Yet given that all of us only have one ultimate destination, one could argue that it’s what happens along the way that is of more importance – at least if you’re not religious. The process of becoming – and remaining – educated is arguably more important than any one destination that it might have. It’s the experience of doing it, every day, that arguably offers greatest rewards.  And destinations are, in any case, as numerous as people – so just as with ‘cost-effectiveness’, on what grounds are the assumptions justified?

Yet all sorts of arbitrary destinations are being used, be they exam results, inspection outcomes, career objectives or that ultimate measure of arbitrariness: “success”. It’s not completely unhelpful to set objectives, of course, as they clearly create the impetus to get things done. But we should perhaps pay more attention to their mostly arbitrary and rarely final nature. Even where major investment predictions have proved catastrophically wrong, life generally went on; fudges were developed to explain why – when theory  fails to live down to real life, it is ultimately the theory that has to give.

While the question, “To travel or to arrive?” has two valid answers (and each may be appropriate in different circumstances) we need at least to ensure that the choice remains, either for what is necessary on specific occasions, or just for what people might choose. The quality of the journey can be valuable in its own right, no matter where we are going.

The more I think about this analogy, the more traction it gains. Which is more important: the supposed ‘outcome’ of a lesson – or the educational experience that the pupils have on the way? How do we treat lessons that might offer great views, but where they destination isn’t especially exciting? Let alone lessons/journeys made entirely for the pleasure of doing so, where there is no especial destination? I’m not advocating specific teaching styles here, but from a philosophical point of view, ensuring that we balance the experience of learning with the more utilitarian aspect of ‘objectives’ is perhaps more important than we presently consider. We tend to obsess about punctuality (and indeed this may sometimes matter) – but does a few minutes’ lateness really matter, if we gained from a pleasant journey?

It seems to me that we in education have become so focussed on the supposed destinations of the educative process that we have neglected the quality of the journey. I would go so far as to claim that for many children, it is the experience of school that is more important than the pieces of paper they end up with; it’s only the adults who obsess about the latter, even if it rubs off on some pupils. Those who have had a good journey may be more likely to keep on travelling than those who took the short-cut, seemingly reaching the same place, but who missed out on the experience. I often encounter such people struggling to come to terms with ‘A’ levels…

It is easy to dismiss those who object to the target culture, but there is a perfectly sustainable objection based on the unreliable assumptions that such predictions cannot avoid. Given the unreliability of futurology and the finality of our ultimate destination, one might argue that what we do along the way is all that matters. In education the journey is (at least) as important as the destination.

Hobbies are important!

Do enjoy the atmospheric picture of rural France below, because it’s really rather special…



…All the more so when you learn that it measures all of about two feet across, and was made by an extraordinarily talented couple called Gordon and Maggie Gravett whom I once had the pleasure of meeting, while their model Pempoul was still in its early stages (it took twenty years to complete). If you’re wondering what model-making has to do with education, please bear with me.

The Gravetts’ work has been filmed by BBC4 and their model now has a five-year waiting list for exhibitions. They also draw people from long distances to hear their lectures. Whatever your impression of railway modelling in general, these people are surely artists, as are those responsible for the picture below, Pendon, which is also a model.


I wonder what the teachers of people such as the Gravetts would make of their success. I doubt it is something that could have been anticipated in the classroom, though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they had been good at art. It is people like the Gravetts – not to mention my own lesser activities in the same field – that cause me to struggle with those who choose to narrow educational objectives to exam results, qualifications and ‘progress’ shown over the course of a matter of minutes rather than years, who choose to render the purpose pointlessly self-conscious and entirely mercenary.

The life of the mind is not , and should not be, restricted to a few narrow aspects of mundane practicality; in reality, it affects everything we do: not only work, but relationships, home-keeping, raising families – and fundamentally ‘pointless’ activities like hobbies. In short, it can enrich every aspect of one’s life. While we still hear platitudes about the ‘breadth’ of education, I wonder how many people really still believe it – but here, in the world of hobbies, is a very real example of the wider impact that developing one’s mind can have.

If you asked any teacher in the country what the point of education is, I very much doubt they would say railway modelling. And yet, why not? Both the Gravetts and the Pendon team have demonstrated high levels of critical thought, historical research, ability to synthesise and then realise their designs as they strove to reproduce the essence of 1950’s Brittany and 1930’s Berkshire respectively, to the ultimate degree of historical fidelity. They have high levels of both knowledge and practical expertise, indeed they have reached the top of their field – and who is to say this isn’t as important as sport or music or painting or literature? Or that their expertise is any less important than workers in more recognised fields? All they have chosen to do is to communicate their knowledge in a different format; the fact that railway modellers are still widely seen as anoraks isn’t their fault. More importantly, they have found something that is utterly absorbing and deeply rewarding.

I think it is no coincidence that many of the most intelligent people I know/have known have all engaged in often-arcane hobbies of one sort or another, for it is simply the mark of an enquiring mind that it rarely rests. The point of education is both everything and nothing: it is just about what happens to the mind as it is exposed to developmental opportunities, and an enquiring mind will never tire of seeking new material. Such a mind should be able to bring itself to bear on pretty much anything it encounters – which is why attempting to narrow its ‘purpose’ to the passing of exams, the securing of jobs or the earning of cash is such a betrayal, such a mark of the lack of real appreciation of its potential, of the death of the imagination. It represents the abandonment of the admittedly subjective enrichment that an active mind can bring, in favour of a dull utilitarian view propagated, I suspect, by those in grey suits who lack the imagination to have creative hobbies themselves.

I used the word ‘talented’ earlier on. Yet the current vogue for the Growth Mindset would have it that talent is much over-rated.  Could just anyone produce these masterpieces? Well, the materials and techniques used are surprisingly mundane; what is more defining is the attention to detail which comes from that fine eye, a willingness to experiment, a refusal to accept second-best and a persistence that sees the Gravetts scribing each stone of each building separately – and then painting it equally. Could just anyone do that? Possibly, yes. Can everyone develop a ‘fine eye’? Possibly yes. Hobbies can be empowering in a way utterly consistent with the Growth Mindset.

My own interest in railways and modelling has sustained a two-way dialogue with my wider intellectual and educational self for nearly fifty years now, virtually as long as I have lived. It was railways that first taught me my geography and which stimulated a wider interest in that subject; conversely, my academic discipline has brought a depth of insight to my hobby that otherwise probably would not have been there. Model-making was also where I first experience the phenomenon of Flow, and once you know how to cultivate it, you can do so elsewhere.

Working in a fairly disciplined hobby really does provide vast developmental opportunities: were it not for model-making, I would never have learned to solder, to etch and to airbrush. I would have a lesser understanding of electrics and electronics and my carpentry skills would be less developed. My ability to work with precision with would be non-existent. I would not have learned the rudiments of photography. But perhaps as importantly, I would have less-developed patience, eye for detail, appreciation of the need to plan and set myself objectives, and above all, sense of empowerment that comes simply from knowing I can do things. What’s more, by the sharing of these things either in ‘meat’-space or virtual space, communities are formed, and I encounter people whom otherwise I would be very unlikely ever to meet – largely in an altruistic and generous-minded context not always present in other aspects of life. Some have become good friends.

I hope it’s a little clearer now why I chose to discuss such an esoteric field: when one examines activities which are utterly elective, and in some ways utterly pointless, then it throws the whole issue of people’s abilities and motivations into stark relief. It also permits a discussion of these issues unburdened by all the usual educational agendas. Yet I challenge any educationalist to deny that the disciplines discussed above are important.

In many ways, hobbyists are the epitome of the educational ideal: people doing and discovering things simply for the pleasure of doing so. And for all that education can help in the more pragmatic elements of life, I believe that some of its greatest rewards are to be found in purely intrinsic expressions of what it can do. We need to ensure that our pupils understand this too.

I will end with another view of the Gravetts’ talent –  small-town French life captured to perfection.


Term Eighty-two

I enjoy reading blogs from Newly Qualified Teachers – it gives me a useful perspective on what it is to be entering this profession now, of encountering the whole caboodle for the first time, of struggling to reconcile the conflicts that have multiplied many-fold since I was in the same position. And also to revisit the optimism of starting out on a great career- journey.

But by this stage of the year, one reads some posts where the tarnish is already visible, the disbelief at the stress and workload already manifest. And I smile wryly and think, “Now do it all again – about a hundred times”.  For therein you have the sum of an average teaching career. It has been notable in recent conversations with some of our current young staff that quite a few say they cannot envisage remaining in teaching long-term; well, many of us had problems at that age envisaging forty years of anything (let alone the number of years that they will have to do) but even so, I can’t say that I blame them, for all the professional problems it could cause…

For me, this was term number eighty-two, and I’m afraid to say it has to go down in the annals right at the pits end of the scale. As I observed at the time, for some reason things got ridiculously hectic surprisingly early on, and it just kept getting worse.

On the positive side, I was invited by John Tomsett to visit Huntington School, and I hoped to take up his offer, partly to quell some of my reservations about the Growth Mindset, but also because I am mightily curious about how he runs a tight ship while still both visibly caring for the wellbeing of his staff and retaining his humility as a classroom teacher. If all is what it seems, this is a remarkable balancing act. Unfortunately, my request was turned down by my own school. Growth Mindset harrumph.

The week before half-term, I caught a nasty viral infection that laid me low for several weeks, and which I then kindly passed to my wife and several other people. I don’t know whether it’s just age, the post-viral legacy of an even nastier thing a couple of years ago (which my G.P said could linger for years) or just the cumulative wear and tear of working life, but I don’t seem to be able to shake these things off as quickly as I used to… The idea that teaching can cause physical burnout is NOT A MYTH. Treat with respect.

Just when I had rather prematurely returned to work, the school landed a bombshell. Suffice it to say that last year’s department GCSE results were not our finest moment, but despite some significant internal and external extenuating circumstances (not least the fact that the exam board had introduced new content in mid-flight) it had clearly been decided that a head had to roll. It has been suggested to me by incredulous colleagues that there may have been some behind-the-scenes finger-pointing, but I’m not going to speculate. Whatever the reason, my head, it seemed had been chosen. It would appear there are some things that even eighty-one terms of good karma can’t protect you against.

Despite my convalescent state, and needing to care for my wife who was still signed-off, I was put on a ‘supportive process of  informal monitoring’, albeit of reduced duration – which sounds innocuous enough until you hear mention of the consequences of an unsatisfactory outcome.  I later realised that this was probably ‘just’ a statutory requirement.

The process involved three SLT observations over a couple of weeks, and my observation of some Outstanding teachers’ lessons. To be fair, once the issue had been raised, finger-pointing or not, ignoring the matter was clearly not an option for the school management who no doubt had a few fingers pointing in their direction too. And to be doubly fair, the process was carried out with courtesy and professionalism, and it soon became clear that my initial anxiety about a witch-hunt was unfounded. It was emphasised that this was NOT a capability procedure, more a matter of quality assurance – though that was cold comfort at the time, as both my personal life and normal working routine still went into a violent tailspin. I’m not the kind of person to take something like this lightly: it is a rabbit-in-the-headlights experience that can easily induce a kind of mental paralysis whereby you simply can’t think about anything else. It becomes all too clear that as stress levels rise, negative outcomes can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And no amount of previous experience can fully inure you to that fact…

“Engage with the process”, I was advised, and indeed I did, not being the door-slamming, storming-out-of-office type – though it didn’t feel like there was exactly a lot of choice about it at the time. In the event, I was ‘cleared of all charges’ with the lessons observed having no significant weaknesses, the pupils saying good things, and my marking being deemed fine. I can think of several reasons for the ‘lack of some pace’ that was the only recurrent criticism.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and indeed the first opportunity for some time to watch other teachers was useful, if only for seeing that their good-but-routine lessons did not differ significantly from my own, except perhaps in their adherence to ‘approved’ structures. Likewise, I have now had my own practice tested close to the limit and found not to be greatly wanting; in a strange way that is quite reassuring. Even the anxiety attacks and sleepless nights have gradually receded.

I often talk up the virtues of experience, though I can now add there are some kinds it is better not to have had. Nonetheless, it was enlightening, if only because one realises just how easily things can go wrong. These days, I have little real doubt in my own competence (and more) as a teacher – but as such situations develop, it is all too easy to start believing the scenario oneself. One also starts to worry that others, with their manifestly different outlooks, may not see it the way you do. If I did have a worry, it was the fact that I may not be sufficiently ‘on message’ for official taste; in the event, that concern was largely laid to rest, too.

It highlights the inflexibility of the current accountability culture, where ‘results’ really are all, and other factors – to say nothing of one’s wider contributions – seem to get so easily pushed to one side. One also starts to appreciate the collateral damage of such events, both in terms of people’s personal lives and their wider professional responsibilities. Are the stakes really so high that there is no better way?

An unfortunate casualty  has been the CPD session that I had planned on the engaging professional-development benefits of edu-blogging, the latest of a sequence of very well-received sessions I have delivered in recent years – which I am told will now have to wait until all three of my PM targets can once again be ticked ‘Pass’. Nose, face, spite methinks.

Still, the term ended on a good note: my current upper sixth class clearly think enough of my teaching to have bought me a John Lewis Christmas Hamper, so I can’t be all bad, even when I’m not being observed. It provided more of a lift than they will ever know. On which note, I wish my readers a joyous Festive Season, another process that I fully intend to ‘engage’ with – once I have got my taste buds back from the customary end-of-term streaming cold.

As I have said many times, social reality and in particular the nature of causality, is so complex that we attempt to rationalise it at our peril, which is why I am suspicious of people who claim they can, especially in a field like education.  The impacts of getting it wrong are arguably so wide as to be unknowable; when one hears of academics, G.P.s and head teachers taking their own lives as a result of career worries, is it really worth such a draconian approach? Even in my own (now seemingly-) mild case, while I bear no grudges, the experience has hardly been endearing.

Here’s to term Eighty-three; may the next be better than the last.