Blink!

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Gladwell is a somewhat esoteric writer who became known through his work on tipping points and it was also he who originated he idea of 10000 hours to mastery. His work has not been without controversy.

Blink concerns itself with the processes that go through the sub-conscious in be first couple of seconds of thinking about something. Gladwell’s contention is that our minds are able to make highly effective snap decisions even before our conscious thinking processes have had a time to kick in.

He cites examples where experts were able to predict outcomes of events too soon for rational processes to have happened, and a number of cases where fakery was detected by people who ‘felt’ there was something amiss, even though they weren’t quite sure what.

He examines the ability of mavericks to out-think the system by using instinct and doing unpredictable things – and he also considers sometimes tragic occasions where the ability to read situations went wrong, which he suggests is down to the interruption or disruption of people’s instincts by distracting events.

This makes for interesting reading, and there are a few education-specific applications within the book. For example, Gladwell asks to what extent teachers should frame their guidance to a particular student based on the rational knowledge of standardised test scores, and to what extent on a more instinctive knowing of that individual.

This might also assist one of my long-standing betes-noires – the disconnect between the rationalist approach to classroom management  and the more humane-instinctive approach, which I favour.

Gladwell suggests that long experience has the effect of embedding in the subconscious much learned practice, such that it can be accessed without the need for a conscious process of introspection. I have been watching myself (and my pupils) this week with this agenda in mind. It is striking how much in-class interaction happens in the sub-two second zone. The ability of a teacher to read and react to a particular event, be that a normal intraction with a pupil or something exceptional, mostly seems to rely on what they process in under a couple of seconds. Indeed, the ‘life’ of a class depends very much on the kind of experienced spontanaiety that this generates. An hour in which everything happened only at the speed of deliberative thought would be long and dull indeed.

It is my experience that this is one of the facts that most distinguishes the experienced-teacher me from my former novice self. It would also seem, however, to be something that has been overlooked in the drive to make teaching a planned and perhaps rigid activity. I think this might be one of the ‘missing pieces’ in my case that teaching is largely a matter of heuristic skill rather than consciously practised technicalities. Or at least that it is this rather than adherence to external rules that makes for successful teaching. I would go further and suggest that the ‘sparkiness’ that can make a lesson engaging derives from this skill, and the more we can operate in that zone, the more life our lesons will have.

There are two spin-offs from this: when experienced teachers instinctively react against something they are being told to do, it may not just be from bloody-mindedness – and this phenomenon might also warrant greater attention in situations when engagement with the educative process is not all we would want, and where technical fixes seem to be failing.

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Parallel lives

I spent Friday evening at one of Old Andrew’s blog-meets. It did little to disabuse me of the opinion from my previous post that education in the U.K. is an utter mess. True, voices of discontent often shout louder than others, and I do not doubt that plenty of British children still receive a decent education. But I wonder for how much longer this can continue when it is being provided by a profession that is in a state of perpetual turmoil.

The present system has been developing for over a quarter of a century – so what are its achievements? If it is so successful, why the endless quest for the supposed educational Holy Grail? And why are we facing a severe recruitment crisis?

We do not seem to be producing generations of inquisitive, thoughtful people who are moving society in enlightened directions. Judging from the snippets I hear daily, everyday life for the majority is cruder and more intellectually dead than for generations before. Basic functional and life skills seem to show little improvement, and if my experience is typical, more likely deterioration. Certainly, exam results rose – but were not above accusations of manipulation and dumbing down. For all the initiatives, I am not seeing substantially more motivated, educated people emerging. Dylan Wiliam appeared to be pointing to a sort of economic retrenchment as justification for educating; how uplifting is that?

We have also created a teaching profession which seems more widely disillusioned and burned-out than ever before. My previous post elicited comments describing people being over-worked to the point of distraction; of others being put in positions verging on victimisation from which their only escape was to leave teaching. Friday evening was dominated by the frustrations of teachers trying to make the system work, but also to preserve some vestiges of their own sanity. Perhaps the other end of the table was having happier discussions…

Simultaneously, we have witnessed the emergence of a managerial culture that often only has one solution – to be even more intransigent. It is one whose baseline is that educated people – potential role-models – are ignorant and lazy, or else elitist.

These problems are utterly self-made. Teaching is fundamentally not a complex process. It involves finding ways of communicating knowledge and skills to those who don’t have them. Most of these rely on nothing more than the ordinary principles of interaction upon which all human behaviour is based. Key among them is Trust: the fact that one is genuine, something which can be relied upon when the way forward is not clear. Even children dislike being overtly manipulated.

More mysterious are the consequences  of education: it does have a real effect. In particular, getting people to use their rational as opposed to emotional minds brings about changes too complex to elaborate here.

But the process of doing this, particularly with immature minds, is not as direct as those in charge think. The great mistake has been to confuse deeply ordinary, humane interactions that lead to real learning with the technical, large-scale objectives for it – and then to allow the process to be dictated by the latter.

After thirty years, I have developed ways of reaching most pupils. For all that I follow certain principles, many are utterly peculiar to me. And I just know that children leave my lessons being a little better educated – even if they don’t always enjoy or realise it at the time. Yes, it is broadly measurable – but the more important benefits are intangible, such as the relationships I build with them, and the experience of reaching something that feels like insight.

But my difficulty, time and time again – as with many teachers I encounter – is that this does not match what Policy says education should be about. A less hubristic system might conclude that it was the policy that was wrong. But the psycho-tricks of power mean that this is the last question being asked. Time and again, it demands unachievable results using unrealistic methods. It has lost all sight of what ordinary teachers in ordinary classroom can actually deliver, and forces them to live parallel lives, doing what they know works – then pretending to do what they system wants when it is watching. As a way of delivering effective education, this is madness – and in terms of needless workload (and the morale it destroys) it is a disaster.

From my earlier lesson observation, which acknowledged good teaching but still ‘Required Improvement’ because I did not tick enough procedural boxes, to recent experiences of colleagues failing to meet delusory targets, to the whole marking/workload issue, to teachers feeling the only solution is to leave, to the ‘mysterious’ loss of older pupils’ motivation, this is a crisis manufactured by the application of the wrong system to a subtle and almost indefinable process.

Yet it is so engrained as to have become almost articles of the faith. Even John Tomsett repeated recently,

(Head) teachers are rightly challenged to ensure every single student gets the best examination outcomes possible.

I understand the thinking – but no! The responsibility for exam outcomes has to lie with the pupils; teachers cannot – and should not – control enough of the factors, and in any case, the view that ‘all shall have prizes’ is logically flawed. Besides, there are many more purposes to education than exam results or individual self-maximisation. I hope John also remembers what he wrote about Learned Helplessness, which seems to me to be a far more pressing problem.

This is now more about league-tables and inspections and careers than real education: that was lost long ago. And one might ask where the limits lie. Perhaps we should actually sit the exams for the pupils? That would certainly drive up exam results.

Also ignored is the trade-off between the needs of pupils and the entirely legitimate interests of those who teach them. The single-minded focus on pupils has been an excuse to neglect teachers, for example over just treatment or a reasonable work-life balance. It has too often led to the non-solution of flogging teachers harder. The excuse that there is no alternative is not a solution: teachers are not there to be the punch-bag of the system. In any case, any sensible factory-owner will recognise the need to keep the machinery in good working order.

Unlike in many neighbouring countries, British education seems to be in a state of perpetual crisis. What goes on in classrooms is not so different – it is the power that managers have over teachers. Much of my daily energy goes not into battling with unwilling kids (which in any case is what I’m paid for) but into navigating a system that seems intent on making life as difficult as it knows how.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what teachers need to do in classrooms in order to get children to learn, and what those driving the system want it to do. The real irony is that there is no fundamental disagreement about those larger aims – but too many of those who have removed themselves from day-to-day teaching have forgotten that they are best achieved humanely, and that issuing more diktats, bureaucracy, constraints and ways to fail are not likely to make them any more reachable. Indeed, current experience suggests that they are having precisely the opposite effect. And in the process, a monster has been created.

Teaching profession? What other profession drives its own practitioners to disillusion? Right now, I’d call it a shambles.

This way madness lies…

Some days ago, I found myself in the unexpected position of contemplating a new job. An appealing post came up in a local school – a Free School, no less – and despite having more or less concluded that I will probably see my career out at my present school, I began wondering whether a change might not be such a bad thing.

The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things,  notably the issue of marking. I’m going to bend my usual purdah on matters specific here, because I suspect the issue is actually more general. In my faculty, there are long-standing guidelines about the frequency of marking, which are demanding – some would say unsustainable – as they are. We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking. There are also burdensome codes that must be used for every conceivable error.

In addition, older pupils must have timed assessments at least once a fortnight, to be returned within a week and re-done and re-marked  if they do not meet their target grades. No matter if the weaker pupils end up in a mess with several on the go simultaneously. I should make it clear that, at present, this is not a whole-school issue, but the doing of an over-zealous middle manager.

I calculated that this would involve me in more than three hours’ marking every day of the week in order to meet the demands, and other colleagues fare even worse. That is without the additional work of planning and other tasks that the difficulties of our timetable impose. I also brought home several classes’ worth of assessments to mark over half-term, and a bag-load of G.C.S.E coursework and could easily have spent the whole week working.

There were protests, but they were brushed aside. I contemplated mentioning the impact on family life, but was advised this would simply be ignored. Where this will lead after the holiday, who knows.

Britain’s “patchy education system” is mentioned in this month’s Prospect as one of the country’s Achilles’ heels. Who working in education would not want the system to be as good as it can be? I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important.

But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. On a practical level, there are insufficient hours in the day, especially as marking time at school is almost non-existent. The only option is to mark in lessons, which is not a good use of teacher-time. Anyway, my brain cannot cope with such endless drudgery; I find that quality drops, and I end up howling for a break. It is simply not possible to maintain quality in such quantities with such intensity. Stultification sets in – and yet the system will not budge.

Teachers have been left with the prospect of eating yet further into their personal lives, cutting the quality in order to cope with quantity, or failing to meet the deadlines while trying to maintain quality. Either way, the stress of being set up to fail like this is unacceptable.

I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that shows that marking is the panacea we have all been looking for. There are plenty of countries with excellent education systems that do not take this approach; there are plenty of well-educated British who did not experience this regime either. Some of the most successful systems are so laid-back that you’d hardly recognise them as such; they tend to have people who actually enjoy working in education. Experience suggests that while pupils can be trained to respond to such systems, they do not do so voluntarily. Much of the response is mechanical and needs regular prompting, all the more so amongst those who might most need the support – and a necessary activity just becomes a millstone.

What we have here is just another example of the grinding, bureaucratic response that is the only way the British education system knows: if you need more horsepower, just flog the teachers again. No matter that it seems to have minimal impact on the effort or attainment of the pupils, and may even be counter-productive. This country’s system  knows no other way – but this is not the path to ‘world-class’ excellence. In fact, it is the response of a system that has not the slightest inkling what that phrase might mean in educational or intellectual terms.

I am resolute that this is where the ‘line in the sand’ lies; many colleagues concur. We have been left with no other option but to ignore the stipulation and deal with what consequences may emerge. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that this rapacious system knows no limits at all. The more we deliver, the more it demands. So, as it seems incapable of doing so, we will set the limits ourselves – at a point which delivers a more civilised and reasonable work-life balance. I have cut my evening watershed from 10pm to 9pm and anything that does not get done by then will not be. But it is not an entirely happy feeling; despite the welcome rest, the anxiety lurks even though finishing work at 9pm each day is hardly slacking.

And so I found myself looking at the job description for a free school. I wondered whether ‘free’ might mean free from the kind of madness described above. But then I read of the school’s rigorous policy of coloured-pen marking, of multiple-marking of pupils’ work, of peer assessment, learning walks, work scrutiny and the rest. What’s more, the foundation that runs it stipulates the exam board that must be used. Teachers are required to work in teams with partner schools to assure quality and develop approved teaching strategies.

And I wondered which conceivable definition of ‘free’ this might be.

Club, spear, operate!

I work at a school that, in its wisdom is continuing with the numerical grading of individual lesson observations. I do not comment publicly on my school’s policies, and indeed this is a practice that has doubtlessly helped the school attain its success, whatever the rights and wrongs of continuing with it now.

The recent observation of one of my lessons , while by no means a disaster, did not go as well as planned. I’m coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t perform well under scrutiny; I doubt I’m alone. In fact, I’ve always suffered from stage fright, which I had to work hard as an amateur musician to conquer. (The key is the realisation that an audience is almost never hostile, which may not always be said for the tone of some lesson observation frameworks).

I digress.Suffice it to say that I made what turned out to be a wrong call in one of those snap decisions over the track of the lesson, which slowed subsequent work and made it difficult to demonstrate students’ progress before the lesson ended. (No matter that we finished the task today with some very good thinking being shown by the class).

I was expecting this criticism, though I think that taking such a narrow view of lesson outcomes defies any sensible rationale. Does it really matter that because a snap decision failed to pay off, it took a class an extra half-hour to complete their work, so long as the result was good?

I was not, however, expecting the other criticisms. The first was that I had not put my objectives on the board at the start of the lesson. It was not sufficient to have a question/title in place, nor the fact that stating the objectives would have revealed the epiphany which I wanted the pupils to reach for themselves (which they duly if belatedly did).

The second was that too much time was spent on gathering factual information – even though it was clearly new information, and that the resource sheets required understanding and interpretation in order to acquire the salient points. I wonder whether this subtlety was even noticed. And here I was hoping that the blobby hatred of anything factual was dying out…

The final criticism was that pupils were not able to give specifics as to what they “need to do next to improve at Geography”. This question reveals a profound failure to understand the nature of learning; one might as well ask what they needed to do to bring about world peace. Non-specific questions of this sort cannot be honestly answered in any meaningful way, so it is not surprising that the pupils floundered.

Geography relies heavily on gaining a holistic understanding of the interactions of a vast number of natural and human phenomena, and trying to reduce it to simplistic linear progression is utter nonsense. Or at least using this as a success indicator is.

As I’ve observed before, in the hands of the experienced, rules can be gainfully broken. Unfortunately, the systems don’t allow for this, while the less experienced (or less imaginative) can fail to appreciate it. I don’t doubt that those doing the observing were dutifully following orders and I accept that the lesson was not perfect; we’re all human! But someone, somewhere devised the tick-list in use without much regard for the reality of teaching and learning, as opposed to mere performance.

It just goes to show what happens if you equip even the most well-meaning with a club and spear and then expect them to conduct brain surgery.

Take back your time!

“Look after your pupils and the school will look after you”.

This was the advice given to me as I started my career by someone who was coming to the end of theirs at about the same time. It may have been true once, but I fear not widely any more. The education sector is one that will take until you drop – and then demand more.

But the benefits of being rested are not imaginary – and rested includes mental as well as physical recharging; it need not mean that one is idle.

Conversations had or overheard in the last few days have brought this to the fore all over again. One concerned the difficulty of spending time (in this case enforced) away from work and the sense of emptiness that it can create. I can attest for this: despite the fact that I never have the slightest difficulty filling my wider life, after periods of particularly intense work, it is easy to get out of the habit of doing other things, and one is left feeling oddly lost once a little spare time does reappear.

Another conversation concerned the need for a period of readjustment once one retires. Again, this is not an unusual phenomenon, and it would be foolish to dismiss the change of perspective that retirement brings. But I would put a large sum on the fact that I am never going to be lost for things to do once that time arrives.

My current timetable involves lots of repeat lessons. I’m reaping the benefits of having prepared good resources in the past, and this combined with judicious use means that my preparation time has been cut noticeably this year. On the other hand the marking load has increased – but given that the frequency stipulated by the school is practically impossible since I do need to sleep, then squaring this circle is always going to be a matter of compromise. I can put my hand on my heart and say that I am doing as much as I can.

But I have also brought my evening cut-off time forward to 9.00. In recent years it was not unusual to be working to 10pm or later. Likewise, my Sundays used to consist of going to our local farm shop and then sitting down to work pretty much until bedtime. I used to do as many hours on a Sunday as during the regular working day. I can say with certainty that this had the effect of my arriving in school on the Monday already feeling jaded.

So I have set a limit to the amount of time spent working on a Sunday, which, I should add is done in addition to blogging time. But we also have some household tasks that need doing, and this evening I will be out playing music at my monthly pub session, of which I have now become Anchor. These things will no longer be made to wait until I can squeeze them in. And the effects of creating more time when I am not thinking about school are becoming very clear in both my mental and physical states.

I’m not for one moment advocating neglect of our pupils – but I still think that we can sometimes be our own worst enemies. That emotional blackmail of ‘always needing to be better’ is a blank cheque to get people to work unendingly. I wouldn’t wish to prevent those who want to from spending their entire lives on their work – though even then, I would question whether it is wise: a heart-attack or divorce waiting to happen? And what does it say about lives lived in such a monoculture? Many teachers genuinely love their work (I might not go that far, but it is still important to me) but as I said, taking a break does, if nothing else, have tangible benefits once back in school.

Another piece of advice I was given is shown below. The important thing to remember is that you can only ever have two of the three options. In other words, if you want something good and fast, it is unlikely to come cheap.

GQC

I think education in the past understood this – see that advice I was given. Today’s education scene, as with most of the rest of the modern world, seems to think it can have all three, but that only comes at a cost externalised to someone else. To me, this is not acceptable. In the world of retail, you get what you pay for; you won’t acquire a new Roller for the price of an old banger – point. If I walked in to my boss’s office and asked for my salary to be doubled, I would very quickly be leaving to the sound of laugher – or worse. And yet the system thinks nothing of demanding this when it comes to my workload.

If we really are to have a market society, then teachers will have their price too – and the country should stop expecting them to come in the bargain-basement. It’s not easy, given that we have little leverage in other ways, but the one thing that is still variable is discretionary time.

I will end by re-stating: this is not a call for professional neglect, nor for those who wish to work all hours to be stopped from doing so. But it may be that we do need to be a little more hard-headed when it comes to giving unconditionally of our personal time. Our work is important – but not so much so as to justify the high and counter-productive cost it imposes on many teachers’ lives. That isn’t clever nor, in my opinion, even a sign of extraordinary dedication.

I don’t expect the establishment will like this message – but in the long run, as I have said many times, just why can’t it see that fresher teachers are better teachers? That’s not imaginary.

Sincerely

As I observed, the return to work has not been as bad as the contemplation of it. Once the teaching gets going, it’s fine – at least while everyone is fresh and relatively compliant…

I have started my new classes with a discussion of how one becomes proficient at sport or music and how one has to work hard in the short term to achieve the satisfaction and success that come later. I have been plain with my classes and told them not to expect to be gratuitously entertained by me this year “because I have more important things we need to do to make a success of your education.”

Although we are clearly still in the honeymoon period, so far they seem to have accepted this without question. One thing that no educational initiative, diktat or even technique can really match is the simple honesty of someone who tells it how they see it. I think that cuts through, even to those who might be expected to be too hardened to hear. This is why I argue that nothing is as important in teaching as the integrity and authenticity of the individual teacher.

I scarpered indecently quickly after school yesterday, and just about covered the 40 miles before Jeremy Corbyn came on stage. I was prepared to be disappointed – but he turned out to be a level, plain speaking man, who was unfazed by the presence of two nations’ T.V. cameras and a large press turnout. He filled a large university lecture hall to bursting and proceeded to set out his proposals with not a single swipe at a rival or opponent. Unlike the previous candidate whom I saw, he had substantive arguments, communicating them effectively and in straightforward way. He provided clear reasoning rather than hot air, advocated actions rather than ‘personality’. I left in little doubt that he would be an effective leader of his party and fully capable of holding his own in the Commons. If only he can cut through the smears and prejudices of those who are not necessarily hearing his actual words.

Whatever one thinks of his politics, he seems a man who is thoughtful, reasoned and above all sincere. It is true that he is untested – but so is anyone until they are put to the test; in the meantime, plausibility is all we have to go on. However, he certainly did not come across as the soft-touch that is being reported. Above all, what distinguished him from the previous candidate who said nothing substantive about anything was his passion and sincerity, visible in his person and not just his words. And his apparent lack of interest in either his own status or the media opportunities he was ignoring by directly engaging with the people present made this impression all the stronger.

I think this is why he is gaining support – that sincerity cuts through any amount of hype or P.R. window-dressing – just like it does with children in a classroom. Call me an idealist, but I don’t actually see what’s wrong with that – people do respond to honesty over any amount of slick manipulation.

Management by Disaster Area (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Am I alone in detecting a change of style in school management? Several recently-heard anecdotes suggest otherwise. Time was when the senior staff at a school epitomised the school’s identity – and to do this they had to become in effect the embodiment of the school and its values, effectively the Head(s) of State. They were the leaders of a community of people who were travelling a complex, interwoven – but above all shared – route together.

In that sense, no doubt educational management remained in the dark ages, in an age where chief executives shift from one organisation to another with gay abandon, pursuing their own agendas – without, it has to be said, always distinguishing themselves in the process.  The emergence of the (self-defined?) super-executive elite has been widely observed – and it seems as though education is emulating it: I perceive the Disaster Area approach taking hold – of playing your instruments “ by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stayed in orbit around the planet – or more frequently around a completely different planet”.

Schools are not private commercial organisations but in managerial approach, it seems that they are catching up fast. Recent managers seem to be adopting a more detached position with respect to the schools they lead. Rather than becoming the embodiment of the establishment, the new style  it seems, is indeed more one of remote control, of management from a safe distance, of doing things to others, rather than running an establishment from the inside – and then perhaps moving on to higher things.

Schools, and those who staff them increasingly seem to be seen as problems to be solved, rather than communities to be led, and I think this is potentially deeply damaging to the notion of schools as societal role-models in which all people have, in one sense or another, a shared stake. The whole system will become denuded if it is allowed to become little more than the plaything of educational executives.

It also seems that the recruitment of managers revolves more closely around how to control conflict rather than how to maintain harmony. I appreciate that there are times when difficult decisions do need to be taken, and I suppose that maintaining a distance from those affected makes such actions easier to take. I can also appreciate why, when the jobs of senior staff are so dependent on the perceived success of their schools, they feel the need for total control over their decision-making. But the effect on the people who work under them can still be harmful: cold-blooded, arm’s length treatment cannot but have a disempowering effect on those on the receiving end.  I doubt whether the creation of fiefdoms is any more benign a model now than it ever was – and no matter how authoritarian the instinct, one cannot ultimately command the private thoughts and feelings of another.

Margaret Heffernan wrote some years ago of the risks of management blindness – of organisations whose top people become so infatuated with their own power that they neglect the basic issues that keep everyone else content, who get so used to pulling levers that they forget that the welfare of real human beings lies on the other end. Ultimately, such organisations can fail from the inside out as everyone else pulls up the metaphorical drawbridge too. And those that don’t, limp on for years, never fulfilling their potential, expending their energy fighting internal battles that make many miserable.

The ‘my way or highway’ school of management may present the apparent advantage of running a tight ship – but I deeply doubt whether it does much for the genuine loyalty that schools need their staff to have. If one feels like little more than a very small cog in someone else’s very large machine, whose wellbeing is nothing more than a very insignificant consideration in someone else’s mega game-plan, then it is hardly weak to start examining one’s loyalties. A like-it-or-lump-it attitude may command minds, but it is unlikely to win hearts.

I fear that this situation will only become worse as schools grow into even larger organisations through becoming chains – with so many individuals involved, the risk becomes real that those in charge will not even know their minions, let alone care for them, thus further eroding the human relationships upon which schools depend.

This seems widespread in the corporate sector, but the impact of the same situation arising in schools is arguably even more serious; where an organisation is basically cerebral in function, the scope for poor staff morale to harm its functioning is profound in a way that no amount of banging together of heads will correct; well-educated individuals are unlikely to stand for such treatment without some form of response in any case.

In teaching there has always been emotional blackmail to keep the staff in line: any curtailment of a teacher’s commitment was – of course – a dereliction of their duty to their pupils and therefore deeply unprofessional.The alternative, of moving to another school is not always possible, and in any case this may increasingly become Hobson’s choice.

But while it may often seem otherwise, there always remains a discretionary element to a teacher’s work – at very least the dedication that makes them ‘go the extra mile’ remains within their gift. Much though it would be to the detriment of our education system at large if teachers withdrew such goodwill, I would still advocate it in situations where there was felt  to be real disdain for people’s reasonable needs and interests by those have accepted the responsibility for maintaining effective organisations.

If the teachers are a school’s most important asset, then it follows that the maltreatment or neglect of that asset by management is the fault of the management, not the teachers. If people are pushed into defending even basic needs, then this is hardly unreasonable. And by extension, any detrimental effect on the pupils as a result is also the responsibility of the management for propagating the situation in the first place.

There is no avoiding the fact that the workforce needs due consideration; they are, after all, people not machines. Good managers, I suggest, never forget this and retain a humility that keeps their feet on the ground even while their heads are in the clouds. But the direction in which educational management is heading seems to be the opposite one – and ironically this still places it firmly in the dark ages, since the more enlightened of private sector employers have already gone to the other side of “treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen” and back, finding that it doesn’t ultimately work if you are in need of a skilled, committed and stable workforce.

So if the buck stops at management, then it has to do so consistently. If that position justifies elite treatment, then it also carries the other responsibilities of power as well. I doubt those who disagree will lose much sleep over this – but as they are fond of observing when taking harsh decisions, “It’s all for the children”. Just like those salaries, no doubt.

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.

 

Bread and butter

“….and what do you write about?” asked the pleasant lady from Ofqual. “Erm…erm…well, educational matters actually”, I mumbled. She seemed to lose interest.

For the second time in one evening, I had struggled to explain what my blog is about. And with it, my approach to teaching. I wasn’t able to mention discussions of classroom technique, specific educational research, the latest initiatives or the benefits of hard data. (“If you can handle data, then you can sock it to Ofsted by playing them at their own game”, I was told).

All evening long, the education conversation flowed; this is what Andrew Old’s blog-meets thrive upon. While there seems to be a general presumption in favour of more traditional teaching, the spectrum of opinion is wide, perhaps once again giving the lie to the them-and-us view of the divide between traditionalists and progressives.

The age-profile of the attendees is predominantly young, though there were a few greying heads in the crowd. I don’t for one moment blame ambitious young teachers for being excitable about what they do, and for being highly engaged with the policy and technical debate; I was once, too…

But time has, I must admit, wearied me of such matters. I’ve come to see it as marginal to the real, everyday business of dispelling young people’s ignorance. That’s not a criticism of those who enjoy it, but it does seem to me that the bread-and-butter of teaching is so easily marginalised these days in the wider politicised, technical-ised discussion within the profession.

Perhaps it’s a function of the fact that I’m of an age with even older pupils’ parents these days, rather than their older siblings, but the personal impacts of education seem to matter more and more, and the policy less and less. I know some would argue that the two are inseparable, but I’m not so sure.

I very much doubt (in hope) that John Hattie goes home each evening and runs his family the same way he would have us running education. “Hmm, must buy the wife some flowers; perhaps she’ll cook dinner then. (Effect size 0.7). Won’t bother talking to the kids – they only ignore me anyway. (Effect size 0.2)…” I don’t operate like, that, and I sincerely hope that others don’t either.

For my money, teaching remains a simple human interaction, not so different from any other. Granted, the classroom demands a certain protocol – but then so do many other social situations. But while we all have a broad understanding of the dynamics of social psychology, across wider society, I genuinely hope that effect sizes are not overtly the reasons for people’s actions. We would all be the poorer for living in societies that operated on such mercenary lines.

People’s needs are just as holistic, irrational, conflicting – and ultimately humane – as they have ever been. It is not our ability to be rational that defines our humanity, but our ability to go beyond that into the fields of empathy and originality. Our growing understanding of the workings of the human brain may be showing us how it works – but not why. It would be a tragedy if this insight were to reduce the human experience to that of biological-economic machinery. Neither will it explain the subjective experience of being human, any more than Hattie’s effect sizes explain the subjective experience of learning.

So for all the techno-talk, my blog remains resolutely low-tech. I am really not especially interested in the machinations of the professional educational world. I am, however, greatly interested in how people’s minds and personalities develop, of how they know what they know and do what they do, and how they come to form part of the wider groupings we call society.

I’m not sure how that can be adequately expressed in technical terms. Authentic human lives and societies are a matter of narratives, and wide-ranging ones at that. For this reason, I believe that education is best discussed in such terms. Despite the data we deal with, much of teaching and education is still experienced as a narrative (just listen to the dominant conversation in any staffroom), and I don’t think this is a weakness. For all its lack of technicality, there is much the teacher can learn from the insights obtained in this way.

That (I hope) is where my distinctly wordy, sometimes ill-defined blog comes in.

With thanks to Andrew Old for organising another stimulating evening.

Fluidity

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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.