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.

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When good begins to grate…

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Shortly after Christmas 2013, an off-duty rail worker, Matt Lenton noticed a man behaving oddly at his local station near Brighton. He engaged the man in conversation, and his suspicion was confirmed – that the man had been about to throw himself in front of a train. They talked, and Lenton then drove the man to a nearby garden centre for a coffee. Several hours later, and after having passed on the Samaritans’ phone number, Lenton took the man home, giving him his own phone number in case he ever needed ‘non-helpline’ help.

This incident would never have been known if it had not been for the man contacting Lenton’s employer, as Matt Lenton himself said nothing. He was recently given an industry award for his actions.

The significant point here is Lenton’s subsequent actions: he just went home and said nothing to anyone. The citation at the award ceremony said that he didn’t feel he had done anything that anyone would not do under the circumstances.

One of the key components of a vocation such as teaching is that it is done selflessly. Just as Lenton just went home at the end of that day, so teachers and those in other caring professions should do the same. There is no need to trumpet what one has done; even if one can be certain of one’s effect, the purpose of causing it is simply the knowledge that good has been done, not any benefit that might accrue to us from doing so.

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I always buy my wife amaryllis for Christmas, and I too am very fond of them. Their deep red is the symbol of Christmas, and their shamelessly sculptural shape is striking. They sit very nicely as a bold table centrepiece in our modern interior.

There is no point in analysing a flower any further: one cannot quantify beauty, or the pleasure it brings. It is meaningless to try to score it; and pointless even to ask how beautiful it is, let alone to attempt to compare different flowers in anything other than an utterly subjective way. Trying to quantify them in terms of value is fairly pointless too: while flowers clearly do come at a price, this is only in part a reflection of their desirability. One also needs to factor in supply-side considerations, their seasonal nature and the avarice (or lack of it) of the retailer before one reaches a figure. And this has little, if anything to do with the inherent beauty of the object.

There is a large amount of Life that also ‘just is’. Like Lenton’s act, and like the flowers, any further analysis is simply pointless, in the sense that it adds nothing, and may even detract. Yet we seem to be losing sight of this fact in the great quest for quantification and accountability. It seems that we are no longer content to appreciate inherent value: what we need to know is the price and our consequent ‘greatness’ relative to others.

This turns everything it touches from something of inherent to contingent or relative value, and we are doing this not only to objects, but to the acts of living and doing too. Evaluative self-scrutiny – the measuring of one’s social capital – has become such a widespread phenomenon that we risk spending more time on it than on doing things in the first place. Social media must take a lot of the blame, as must the pressures of accountability: actions risk becoming validated by the response they receive rather than by the doing of them in the first place. The depressing effects of social media on people’s self-perception are becoming more widely known, and I think the same phenomenon is having a wider effect on modern life in general. The self-conscious notion of ‘lifestyle’ becomes the enemy of the fulfilling life it describes; the concept of ‘career’ the opposite of a job well done.

Professional practice in many walks of life risks falling into this trap, but perhaps none more so than in the public services thanks to the scrutiny agenda. In education, the focus on ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ is part of this. Quite apart from the inescapable subjectivity, nay meaninglessness, of such terms, obsessing about these matters simply diverts attention from our core purpose. And yet this is has become a significant part of educational activity: institutionalised navel-gazing, the purpose of which is ostensibly to guarantee quality and hoist-up minimum standards. But its real intention is self-aggrandisement.

Developing from this is the burgeoning number of conferences, research activities and publications. Watching ourselves is becoming bigger business than doing what we’re meant to be watching in the first place; being seen to be good is more important than just being it. Books with titles like “Teach like a Champion” and “From Good to Great” are predicated on the assumption that there is some kind of meta-knowledge that we can eventually attain which will transform our effectiveness. But the cynicism and manipulativeness implied by such titles are beginning to grate with me.

I’m not suggesting that a degree of self-awareness is not a good thing – but this is rather different from the whole infrastructure that is springing up to impose others’ understandings of it on us. Yes, there are things to be learned from reflection, but we risk over-formulating the practice of teaching – and most other aspects of modern life – at the expense of simply getting on with it.

As numerous recent events worldwide would suggest, while we never know how many disasters never happen, the fact that calamities do still happen suggests that it is impossible ever to second-guess the future.We will never escape the raw fact that life has to be lived as it happens, and that shifting our eyes from that fact to meta-analyses simply takes our eyes off the ball, as a result raising contingent stakes in a way that can actually make matters worse.

I wonder how Matt Lenton’s experience could have played out differently if it had been possible to anticipate it. It is possible that as a Rail Neighbourhood Officer, Lenton has received training in how to deal with suicidal people, but even if he has, it is questionable how useful it was on that day a year ago. The fact is, every event is unique, and attempting to deal with it as though it were simply part of a larger pattern may be self-limiting. Treating vulnerable people as ‘just another case’ is close to the worst thing to do.

There is the fact that the incident happened when Lenton was off-duty; one wonders how his being on duty would have changed things. One cannot schedule suicide attempts to coincide neatly with the duty-turns of those who encounter them, but one wonders whether Lenton’s mind would have been less focused solely on assisting that individual, or whether he would have been preoccupied with following protocols and guidelines – and whether his actions might literally have been fatally flawed by that fact. For it seems that the defining element of Lenton’s heroism was precisely his authenticity, and it was his sincerity that changed the man’s mind. Had he appeared as merely the face of officialdom, the effect may have been very different.

He may also have been aware of the need to report his actions afterwards, of the need to fill the inevitable paperwork, and the fact that this could conceivably contribute to his personal advantage. He undoubtedly could not have just gone home and said nothing: his interests would inevitably have been divided between genuine compassion and his professional obligations. I suggest that Lenton’s freedom to operate purely as he needed was the crucial element in the outcome that day; that the constraints of professional accountability may have fatally constrained his actions.

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There is little point in trying to specify what makes flowers beautiful; they just are. Musing on this over breakfast the other day, while admiring our Christmas amaryllis, did not get me far. Apart from the aforementioned qualities of colour and form, I was reduced once again just to enjoying them for what they were. Colour and form may be useful concepts, but they do not embody those qualities, only describe them. The only way to appreciate the flowers fully is just to take them for what they are.

The modern tendency for meta-thinking will likewise only get us so far; just as identifying procedures for dealing with would-be suicides or knowing that flowers beautify a room is not the same as doing or experiencing them, being able to identify certain qualities that make for successful teaching is an entirely different prospection from delivering them, let alone guaranteeing them. Yet one is left with the sense that, if only we can define these things, then that in itself will be enough to guarantee both their use and effectiveness. Why else the obsession with pinning it all down so far?

But it is not so; life will still need to be lived in the moment, as much in the classroom as anywhere else. Equipping people with meta-knowledge about what they are doing may not be without its uses, but I suspect that it is much less useful than is currently being claimed. I am also suspicious that the claims made for such meta-knowledge, with labels like ‘good’ and ‘great’ are of less relevance to actual classroom practice than to the self-promotion of those applying them to themselves.

The salient factor about Matt Lenton’s story is that he just went home and said nothing. The important thing was the doing of the deed, not the acclaim that could have followed afterwards. In fact, thinking about the latter may well have led to an entirely different outcome, as his employer later recognised. The important thing about amaryllis is that they just are, not why they are. Both Lenton’s action and the effect of amaryllis in our Christmas home are indeed great – but their greatness is merely a by-product of their being what they are. In both cases, setting out to be great (if flowers had consciousness…) would actually diminish the effect. It would just turn to narcissism.

Teaching and learning are just the same: they are best done unconsciously, just for the sake of it. The modern obsession with form over function risks getting us nowhere fast, and using it to self-label, whether as good, great or anything else is creating a hostage to fortune. We need to just get on with teaching as best we can, each moment for itself – and let go of the obsession with greatness.

This is not to say that there are not great things in the world – but as  both Matt Lenton’s story and my favourite Christmas flowers show, while greatness does indeed derive precisely from the subjective acclaim of others, it is really only earned by authenticity, not acquired by the self-conscious seeking of a deluded form of greatness for its own sake.

Mixed deserts

One evening last week was given to our annual New Parents’ Evening, which is supposedly a social event intended to allow parents of year 7 pupils to put faces to names. It is fair to say that it is not exactly most teachers’ favourite night of the year. But towards the end of the evening, in a packed school hall, I got a glimpse from a distance, of a heart-warming scene. A father was fondly saying something to his eleven-year-old son, and then the lad beamed and flung his arms unselfconsciously around his father’s waist.

It’s not often we see such overt affection in school: even by eleven, I suspect many children would consider it un-cool, certainly in front of their peers. Many of our highly competitive parents, too, might rather keep such displays for home. But for me, who has no children of his own, it was an endearing reminder that our pupils are very much members of hopefully-loving families.

It’s very easy to forget this when one sees their names on Excel tracking sheets, or even when planning one’s lessons with regard to the target culture which makes very possible to think of them simply as material to be processed and delivered. It’s even easier to think like that when being subjected to the various training sessions and research data that mention the recipients of our efforts largely in abstract and aggregate terms.

I am not in the least bit sentimental about children in the rather gooey way that some teachers seem to be; I have a job to do with them, which involves the transmission of knowledge and the development of skills and outlooks so as to improve their options in life, and to integrate them into a hopefully caring and compassionate society. But behind that seemingly rather dispassionate outlook, I do have a genuine concern for their personal wellbeing. I just don’t feel the need to try to out-do their parents, or to curry undue favour with the children themselves.

This is why, despite the above, and despite my genuine regard for most of the sayings and doings of John Tomsett, I was disappointed to see him begin a post the other day with the words,

“Our students deserve the very best; no one I have ever worked with would disagree with that claim.”

Well I do – albeit more out of semantics than sentiment. I dispute the use of the word ‘deserve’ in his claim. It is a lazy and often-repeated mantra that children deserve only the best. It betrays an ill-conceived understanding of the role of the teacher. I am not sure that anyone of school age has been on this planet remotely long enough to be said to ‘deserve’ anything in any great moral sense of the word. Neither am I certain that anyone deserves anything simply by virtue of either having been born or still being young. The naivety of Youth does not, in this often-harsh universe, entitle us to anything. And there are, regrettably, plenty of quite horrid children; one wonders what is ‘best’ for them – and indeed what they ‘deserve’. Genuine unfortunates clearly need special attention, but there are some who are just plain unpleasant. Encouraging them to think they deserve some simplistic version of ‘the best’ is not helpful in a wider sense, for all that some adults might choose to see them as victims.

And then there is the problem of what ‘the best’ is. Even if we can define and recognise it, there are so many conflicting ‘bests’ that it cannot be true that a child deserves them all. I can accept entirely that a parent will strive in a completely partisan way to provide their offspring what whatever they consider to be ‘the best’- but a teacher should take a far more detached view of not only individual children but the whole of the educational and wider societal context. It is simply not possible – and perhaps not even desirable – for all people to feel entitled to the best of everything, which is the value system such a view transmits.

While the scene I recounted at the start was genuinely heart-warming, many of our particular children come from such materially-privileged homes that they have a massively exaggerated sense of their own entitlemement, which can often be hard to stomach. I sometimes think that doing ‘the best’ for them might involve their swapping places with children twenty miles down the road in deprived areas of inner London for a term. They might appreciate their good fortune rather more then – but I wonder how many would agree with my idea.

So we should think through such blandishments more carefully before using them – and it’s all the more surprising that John Tomsett used this one, since the idea of Desert in the moral sense would seem rather at odds with the Growth Mindset that he also advances, with its emphasis on striving rather than entitlement.

However, I am not by any means the heartless individual that the foregoing might suggest! The final irony is that those like me who have resisted the advance of the accountability culture would consider ourselves as advocates of an approach that has the real interests of children deeper at heart than those who insist that education is simply about ‘having the best’. All of my reservations about treating children as exam machines derive from the damage that excess pressure to achieve can inflict on young people. I worry that the very notion of ‘the best’ commoditises education in an unhelpful and untruthful way. And if we are talking about pupils deserving their teachers’ best, then I think this rather denigrates the role of the sovereign adults in the equation; there may be times when those adults cannot deliver their best because of wider conflicts in their own, equally important lives.

Of course pupils need exam passes (in due course) but a system that sees ‘the best’ simply as the maximum number of high grades also has, in my view, a very limited view of what the best might mean. We also need to be sure that there isn’t conflation creeping in about who ‘the best’ is really for – the child or the school?

In my view, it verges on the immoral to discuss what is best for children if they are in fact being manipulated for institutional gain. A letter in The Independent last Friday, signed by around 400 people including a number of prominent individuals also called for an end to the exam-factory culture that is destroying children’s chance to experience of the joy of real learning – and their childhood at the same time. Yet those who make such calls have often been dismissed as the ‘enemies of promise’ –  and not only by those outside the profession.

In summary, what we have here is just another example of the dog’s-dinner that passes for reasoned debate in our profession. It’s hard to know where ‘the truth’ lies – just as hard, in fact, as knowing who ‘deserves’ what, or what ‘the best’ actually is. I wish there were an easy resolution to such conflicts, but I fear there is not. In the meantime, we could do worse than avoid carelessly flinging around meaningless phrases in the guise of argument – and also refraining from demonising those whose views appear contrary to our own.

Much of the time, I only have an uneasy sense of semi-decision on these matters in my own mind – there is simply too much conflict ever to arrive at any kind of conclusion. However, moments of tenderness should remind us that above all, we are dealing with people here, not machines  – and that goes for the teachers too. The only way to reduce pressure on children is to reduce pressure on their teachers, and the only way to do that is to reduce pressure on schools; nobody needs (or deserves?) the gnawing, depressing anxiety that comes with accountability culture. We need to reframe what it is we consider children ‘deserve’ from their schooling; we also need to rethink the pressure on the adults who deal with them, be they parents or teachers.

We might then have less self-consciousness about expressing genuine human emotions and sentiments in school communities, rather than treating the thing as though it is just one great impersonal machine.

The Carrying Stream

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There’s nothing like a walk up through the woods by a timelessly tumbling Scottish river to reduce National Curricula and exam targets a more appropriate level of significance – and distance. The manic obsessions of the school year tend to make such things loom far larger in all our lives than they really warrant, for all that real, life-enhancing education is important. They are not the same thing, anyway.

While we were away in Scotland, I was reading Gary West’s book Voicing Scotland. Rather esoteric, perhaps, to be added to this blog’s reading list, but of much interest for someone involved in playing traditional music. It also unexpectedly shone a useful light on our professional debate.

The Carrying Stream is the title of one of my all-time favourite recordings of Scottish music – beautiful tunes and songs, as far as can be imagined from the tartan tat of popular misconception. West’s book concerns the role of traditional folk arts in a modern cultural context, as relevant to the debate and forthcoming referendum on independence in Scotland, and he uses this same phrase in his introduction when considering what the word ‘tradition’ really means.

Traditional teaching has been much in the limelight in the past twelve months, being variously promoted as the salvation for falling educational standards and dismissed as a retreat towards the dark days of rote learning and corporal punishment. West’s analysis shed a little light on my own dilemma in this respect as well. Over the years, sheer experience has shown that for me at least, traditional methods work better and make more sense in terms of my own understanding of what education is, and is for. At the same time, I am resolutely modernist in most matters, and have little time for indulgent nostalgia. Teachers as a breed need to look to the future: their entire work is founded on the notion that the future can improve on the past – but they also need to respect the legacy that that past endows.

So where does this leave the supposedly redundant methods of ‘traditional’ teaching? West resorts to the notion of the carrying stream to explain. In his view – and he quotes the Scottish poet and intellectual Hamish Henderson – the carrying stream flows out of the past and into the future, linking our past accomplishments and understandings with those yet to come.

“It is a tradition that flows through time, picking up new flotsam as it goes, leaving some things on its banks in the process. At any given point, its content and form may be a little bit different from places further up or down stream, yet it remains recognisable as the same tradition”.

West also points out that a stream, in flowing, is not like a pond which is indeed static. He suggests this is the difference between tradition and convention, the latter of which is indeed stagnant and adhered to ‘because it has always been this way’.  Traditions tend to die when they become mere convention, as they need change and evolve to keep them alive. This is precisely what is happening in traditional Scottish music at present, as a new generation of brilliant young musicians reinterprets age-old songs and tunes for the present century.  See here and here.

However, tradition tends to be a process of evolution rather than revolution – and maybe this is where the teaching profession is going wrong, both in its widespread rejection of traditional methods and its obsession with ‘silver bullets’, quick-fixes which often turn out to be rather less helpful than they first seem. West again:

“…change, within tradition tends not to be revolutionary or even rapid, but incremental, considered, evolutionary. That is not to say that radical new ideas or approaches do not appear…but time tends to be the judge. Roots are important, as is an appreciation of where things come from, where we stand within the stream, and how to use that knowledge to create fresh and meaningful art going forward.”

“Tradition can be of great use in the modern world, a questioning, solidifying force, and a reminder that society cannot spend its entire time in the fast lane. Yet it can help us move forward and to embrace the future with the confidence that comes from knowing where we’ve been.”

For me, this neatly sums up both the objections to the perpetual revolution that is supposedly going on within education and the virtues of a more considered approach. It demolishes the claim that ‘traditional’ does indeed mean going back to Victorian models of education, while accepting that the crucial element within education – human need – really doesn’t change very much despite all the technical developments going on around. Education is a deeply humane, largely non-technical process for which there is no quick fix.

All of our great professions draw on traditions going back millennia; it is only in recent times that we have fallen prey to the conceit that we need to be rid of all that for the sake of supposed modernity. Rather unexpectedly, I found Gary West’s book to provide an excellent resolution to my own modern/traditional dilemma, and I like his counsel that we should approach new supposed-panaceas openly but cautiously. Recent educational history would seem to justify this, and suggest that it is time for a readjustment.

Reading his book also transmits the richness and depth of tradition in Scottish culture, something that I feel is perhaps lost on many of us mongrel English; maybe as a profession, we would also do well to hallow our traditions and established wisdom (not mere conventions) rather more than we do.

My intention in the forthcoming year is to be less apologetic for my use of traditional methods, while remaining (as always) sceptically open to new developments. I am going to need to re-think some ideas, as I have spent the past quarter-century effectively denying what my intuition was telling me made sense all along in order to accommodate the short-lived fads that my employers demanded.

The Carrying Stream itself embodies an ancient concept whose use in the modern era would seem completely apt.

Just Ask Yourself…

I’m currently reading Ian Leslie’s book Curious, and very fruitful it is proving. Once again, this is not a book that is solely about education, though it does draw strongly on the educational scene, as one might expect. Once again, the best insight is coming not from a book that concerns itself with classroom mechanics, but with the big and oblique ideas that (should) lie behind it.

In particular, Leslie discusses the importance of questioning as part of not only the formal educational process, but of life as a whole – and the more I think about it, the more important this seems. I wrote a post quite some time ago about the qualities one might look for in an educated person, and by extension in a teacher, and Leslie’s book perhaps casts some light on this. In the manner of many of the best ideas, it’s so obvious – once pointed out…

The willingness to question lies at the core of what it means to be educated. I have always been bemused by people one encounters who may be very highly educated in formal terms, but whose education seems somehow locked inside a bubble that might have secured them certain life-advantages, but which somehow appears to do little to inform their wider lives. And conversely, inspired by people who may not have especially good formal education, but who nonetheless seem to have full intellectual lives. Questioning is indeed the answer, inasmuch as a curious mind will always probe things around it, learn more and thereby derive the intellectual kicks that our brains reward us with. The incurious mind, by contrast just accepts what it finds, with little exploration, little progress – and little reward. As Leslie suggests, this is not purely a product of innate intellect; for all that sharper minds may have the potential to formulate more incisive questions, quite often they don’t. Conditioning and learned behaviour also plays a role.

This may also be a feature of management culture, where the maintenance of an (apparently) successful status quo may actually be more important to those running it than asking critical but disruptive questions about how things could be different. I fear that recent educational practice has fallen well and truly prey to this mindset: the levels of accountability being demanded have suppressed much debate about ways forward. School managements have been more concerned with the reliable delivery of results than the unpredictable matter of asking awkward questions. This has infiltrated both the nature of professional debate (to which the blogosphere is providing a welcome antidote, with predictably diverse results) – and more importantly, the way we teach children. When the emphasis is on achieving exam targets, the nature of teaching tends to be closed, and geared towards the answers which secure those results. Leslie suggests strongly that deep learning is about asking the questions that are the outward expression of a lively curiosity. What is more, research suggests that children’s tendency to ask questions is largely influenced by the behaviour that is modelled to them, initially (and crucially) by parents, but I would suggest also by teachers.

If I’m honest, I’m feeling a little smug in reading this book, for it seems to be supporting many of my own thoughts on such matters.  My instinct is that technically-controlled, closed-process teaching-to-the-target is precisely the opposite of what is needed properly to educate children both in the short term – and to encourage them to develop the curiosity to carry on thinking and learning into later life. This is an inherently disruptive process, since the outcomes of genuine curiosity are distinctly unpredictable, and likely not to be what was expected. Thinking to a target is prone to becoming nothing more than an empty ritual of guess-what-the-teacher-wants.

When it comes to teachers themselves, the ones doing the real thinking may be precisely those who are the awkward individuals who are often the bane of management. But Leslie suggests that such free spirits are worth accommodating precisely for their ideas. Their approach is what it really means to be a ‘reflective practitioner’ – not just someone who always comes to the officially-sanctioned conclusions.

It also strikes me that a divergent, heuristic process like the exercising of real curiosity is another reason why educational research has its limits. It is the complete antithesis of predictable learning, which by definition seeks patterns. I realised many years ago that possibly the ultimate evidence of real learning going on is the pupil who asks the teacher questions, rather than simply tries to double-guess the answers – even (or especially) if those questions are left-field. Nothing more scientific than that. And the best way to encourage children to do this is to be speculative and open-thinking oneself.

One might conclude that the best way to do this is to become good questioners too – and this has significant implications for our own states of mind and world-views. We cannot easily be good questioners if we are not inherently curious ourselves. In a professional context it is a tragedy that so much of the corporate educational scene has effectively driven this out of teachers, demanding technical and corporate compliance instead. Despite a growing body of thinking and writing about the holistic and open-ended nature of real learning, large parts of the establishment still seem to think they can achieve their aims by yet more command-and-control. Another example of how management actually works against educational objectives?

But this is more than professional: it has implications for our own private lives of the mind too.

And what’s more, the instinct that has been saying this to me all along seems actually to be rather more than the mere hunch as which it might be dismissed. More research, followed by more predictability is not the way forward if we want to cultivate more genuinely curious thinkers and innovators; as The Independent strapline used to say, ‘Great Minds Don’t Think Alike’.  My own self-questioning is still telling me through both experience and instinct that more predictability is the very last thing we need.

 

Car mechanics or driving instructors?

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We took fifty of our Year 8 pupils to Lille in France yesterday, as we have each year for the past six or seven. A four o’clock start from home was distinctly beyond the call of duty, and the fifteen hour working day was as much of a marathon as always, but most involved seemed to enjoy the experience, despite the rain that awaited us. Even the thirty-mile drive to work was actually quite pleasant at the break of a warm summer day, with little traffic on the road.

Many of the pupils had not been on Eurostar before, and fewer realised how short the journey is (one hour) from Ebbsfleet to Lille. Many, too, had not previously experienced a major continental-European city either, for all their holidays in exotic resorts. Their reactions were interesting to watch – from enthrallment with the superbly-creative window displays in Lille’s many chic boutiques to apprehension at some of the more ‘colourful’ street-characters. (Lille still has a serious unemployment problem). I should add that we do conduct a programme of proper geographical fieldwork while there as well.

Pleasingly, some did try to speak French when purchasing things – and quite a few were left silent by the unexpected interior drama of Lille’s outwardly-dour cathedral. For all that modern children seem self-obsessed and incurious, we proved that it is still possible to ‘cut through’ in a way that does make some kind of impression.

But had we needed to know precisely what Effect Size such a visit would have before we organised it, I suspect it would never have happened.  I expect the answer is very little in terms of the attainment that John Hattie measures in his widely-discussed research.  Were we to attempt to anticipate the impact the trip had on each student using the latest research, I’m not sure we would arrive at any kind of sense there either.

I have very little firm knowledge of how the trip affected the children who took part. In fact there were probably as many different effects as there were participants – each will have got their own unique experience from it. But their faces and voices showed that an impact it WAS having, even if we can’t pin it down. I know from past years that many pupils will remember the trip for some time, and the greater educational effects will continue to bed down in their knowledge and memories for quite a while, in ways that even the individuals concerned are not fully aware of. Somewhere in their awareness, a perception has been changed – we just can’t be sure how.

Next Sunday, I fly to Switzerland with our sixth form for a week at our partner school; even by the standards of yesterday’s trip, the impact is huge, and potentially life-changing. Several  participants from previous years are still exchanging with their opposite numbers.

For me, such experiences are the true expression of real learning, even more – perhaps I should say far more – than what happens in even the best-run classroom. There is simply no need to know precisely what effect the experience had – or how ‘successful’ it was. Such concepts are meaningless when it comes to things that really teach children valuable lessons.

As I drove the final thirty miles home yesterday evening (as I have been doing every day for twenty years), it  occurred to me  that in order to find driving both useful and enjoyable, it really isn’t necessary to understand how or why the engine works, simply that it does. In that respect, my driving instructor was more useful than my mechanic – it was he who showed me how to put the car to good use.

Learning is pretty similar – so why are we insisting on turning teachers into mind-mechanics, when as in Lille, most people experience the significant lessons at the affective level? Surely we would be better acting as driving instructors, for all that the skills are rather softer?

Slowly does it…

We’ve reached that time of year when the school suddenly goes quiet. The G.C.S.E. and ‘AS’ students have already left, and the Upper Sixth go this week. The frenetic activity to prepare them for their exams is done for another year. There’s still a huge amount to do, of course: the workbook for the Year 8 day-trip to Lille needs up-dating – and it’s only a month until I make the return trip to our Swiss partner school with this year’s sixth form group. And already, preparations for the new year’s teaching.

But nonetheless, there is just enough of a pause to stop and ponder the frantic rush that secondary-school life has become, and wonder whether it is either necessary or beneficial to the pupils – let alone the staff. I think what capped it for me was a year 11 student observing to me a couple of weeks ago, how fast time passes by. I remember school years going on for at least a decade when I was in my teens – and I have to admit that my reply did go along the lines of ‘Just wait until you’re my age…’

I delivered a new CPD session a couple of weeks ago on this theme, and as it was very well received,  I thought I’d review it here; the title was Slow Teaching.

The Slow Movement originated in the mid 1980’s in Italy, as a reaction against the spread of fast food. The concept has now become a fully-fledged world-wide movement, and has expanded to include slow cities, slow travel, slow money, slow parenting – and slow education. There is even a Slow Education movement.

The principle is well-explained by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, who did much to bring the ideas to wider attention through his book In Praise of Slow:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes, rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible not just as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in just about everything from food to parenting.”

This seems to make eminent sense to me, and not only because it would perhaps grant me the time I feel I really need – but never get – to do this job better, without going insane in the process. Slow would seem to appreciate that time spent reflecting on the last lesson and carefully planning the next is precisely what is needed – far more than the whole array of whistles and bells with which the education world seems as preoccupied as ever. It most certainly would not be time wasted – even if I were observed sipping a coffee or dare I say (given the nice weather) a kir in the process…

There is a vast amount in this idea, ranging from classical notions of education as eudaimonia (flourishing of the individual) through the much-debated ideas of 10,000 hours to mastery and Cognitive Load Theory (whereby care should be taken not to overload the working memory), to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of Flow being the deepest, intrinsic experience one can have (which presumably can’t be hurried either) – to the need for introverts to have the time and space they need to do things their own best way.

The Slow Schools movement unfortunately seems to have been appropriated by the further reaches of the constructivist movement, although they do concede that Slow should not be a prescriptive concept. However, I can’t see anything to prevent the idea being adapted by more traditional approaches too: developing the patience needed for full command of a subject is worth emphasising whatever the approach, as is taking the time to think before writing or speaking, and developing ideas as far as they can go. Having the patience to read a text carefully for full meaning is another example. And I think the technique described here some time ago, of getting pupils to do ‘brain-only’ tests, where they have to sit and think until they have written as much as they can recall, is inherently Slow in nature.

I do wish the idea would catch on more widely; it would be good to be able to savour both the experience of really developing pupils in a considered way, rather than rushing headlong at the next set of exams – let alone a little more of the life that seems to be going past just too quickly, squeezed in round the edges of the job. It seems that even some of the pupils might agree:

When it comes to a properly-grounded education, just what exactly is the rush?

Tell me truly

I’m reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow at present. I have known about his work on optimal experiences for some years but have only just got around to reading the original book. There is much food for thought here, and not only about teaching. I will write more about the wider concept on another occasion, though it may need explaining now that it refers to the state of mind achieved when someone is utterly absorbed in the task they are undertaking, to the exclusion of all other awareness. A bit like our pupils achieve all the time (in our dreams…)

What concerns me here, however, is one of the preconditions for flow, namely feedback. I have written before about the time being consumed by teacher-feedback, and pondered on the its productiveness versus its alternative uses. In general, I think the current emphasis on feedback as a whole is justified, and this can be partly explained by reference to Flow. But because of this, I am also left wondering whether the kind of feedback being asked of us is as productive as claimed, or whether this is just another example of good practice being seized on in an uncritical and misunderstood way and being applied (at great cost in teacher-time) without adequate consideration of its real utility.

Conventional wisdom has it that feedback allows pupils to identify their errors and rectify them, but I am sceptical about how often this really happens in anything more than a superficial way; as a rule, children are not that dedicated or intellectually mature. But Csikszentmihalyi describes feedback as an essential component of Flow, since it is only be being able to sense the consequences of one’s actions that one is able to adjust and reformulate them in order to refine one’s ability. In other words, its function is as much motivational as academic.

As a musician (indeed a trainee violinist) I found that the following particularly resonated:

“Optimal experience involves a very active role for the self. A violinist must be extremely aware of the every movement of her fingers, as well as the sound entering her ears, and of the total form of the piece she is playing, both analytically, note by note and holistically in terms of its overall design.”  

Without the ability to create noise instantly, the above process becomes impossible. The same applies to other everyday situations that can induce flow, such as conversation, reading, playing sports, cooking, and driving: it is the instantaneous nature of feedback that is important.

The other notable point is that the feedback is evaluated first affectively (i.e. with the emotions), and only slightly later rationally. This would seem to be consistent with Flow operating at something slightly below fully-consciousness, inasmuch as people respond more by intuitive reaction than structured deliberation when in Flow.

I’m trying to square this with classroom notions of feedback. While it is likely that Flow itself only arises sporadically in classrooms, what we can learn about feedback from it might still apply. The three essentials are:

1. Actions made by pupils need instant feedback so that they can then adjust their actions in real time.

2. Feedback is likely to be received affectively, in other words in terms of, “Am I doing well?” and “Do I like this?” This seems consistent with my experience: no matter what my advice, pupils normally head straight for the emotional pay-back of the grade or mark, and only later read the comments (if at all). I know the removal of grades has been advocated by some, but my experience was not that this made pupils pay more attention to the guidance, but simply that they paid less attention to the feedback at all. The affective element seems to be quite powerful, so maybe we need to harness it rather than ignore it.

3. With even the fastest turn-around is likely to be a matter of 24 hours before pupils see the feedback – nowhere near quick enough for the process to be of active, heuristic use to the pupil. By that time, it’s dead information about a completed activity; the affective kick will count for nothing and the pupil is left with a dry, diagnostic comment which may do little to inspire. So are we really doing anything helpful by spending so many hours writing in exercise books? As I said, the assumption that pupils are mature learners who crave technical feedback so that they can go away and actively reflect on it seems vastly wide of the mark in most cases.

While intellectual processing clearly develops with age, even in the secondary sector most of our pupils are still immature learners. In my view, the younger ones mainly work hard because they are obeying parental or other entreaties to do so, and what they really crave is affective approval for their efforts; the older ones may be moving towards intellectual self-scrutiny, but they still largely want encouragement as well as dissection.

I’m not suggesting that we should never provide diagnostic academic feedback, nor that it shouldn’t be in books – but whether the current fetish for it is justified, I’m still not sure. Just because something is deemed ‘good form’ does not in itself make it helpful. It would be no great surprise if the bureaucratic monolith had once again completely overlooked the more subjective aspects of this matter in favour of the technical ones.

This is clearly a complex topic and to some extent I’m thinking aloud here, but I think we need to question whether teacher feedback in the useful sense really does mean hours spent writing in books.  It seems to me that the best feedback would be above all instant and affective; diagnostic information is clearly part of the process, but might not be as important as seems currently thought. And given that instant written feedback is just not sustainable, maybe we would be better looking at other interpretations.

In terms of engaging our pupils with their work, more thought should perhaps be given to building flow-type feedback into lessons themselves. I suspect that this already explains quite a lot of why pupils sometimes engage with tasks (because they do provide feedback) – and why when they don’t, they often resort to chatting to peers; one might see this as opting for an activity that offers more instant flow/feedback than the task in hand. Tasks that offer feedback can come in many guises, and can include deep reading and – dare I even mention it – colouring in (though hopefully in a structured way, for example as in devising choropleth maps rather than simply ‘pretty’ ones).

And the other neglected means of providing instant feedback is of course that much-reviled activity talking to pupils. I suggest that verbal feedback is under-rated, and it should probably focus as much on heartfelt encouragement where merited, and tactical ‘nudging’ where not – as on in-depth technical critique.  It should also be used almost constantly in real-time in lessons. Using feedback as a motivational device to maximise engagement in class seems a much more realistic proposition than the current technical-diagnostic model that seems largely predicated on the idea it will directly improve retention.

I am quite attracted to the idea that feedback is not merely providing reams of sterile analysis, most of which will never be more than skim-read when the iron is already cold. Doing less of that would of course also free up more teacher time for more productive activities, and lighten our burden considerably into the bargain.

Parallel universe

A factoid that has cropped up several times in recent weeks is that teachers apparently make almost no progress in developing their professional technique after their first three years. This is the source that John Tomsett cited for that information in his recent blog post.

I must admit that a full read of that document is still on my ‘to-do’ list, so I will have to take Tomsett at face value for the moment. No matter what, I have also seen and heard that same point mentioned twice more ‘live’ and several times online in the days since the original post. Such is the power of the internet.

I’m aware that I’ve done a good bit of extended ranting in recent posts, and was planning on easing off for a while – after all, I have no wish to be destructive for the sake of it, but I find myself unwillingly faced once again with a huge divergence between what some ‘authority’ is claiming and my own experience.  The problem is, just what am I supposed to make of such claims, especially when it seems well on its way to becoming an urban – well a management – myth? I know that in my case at least, this is simply not so. Of course, I’m only one individual, but I don’t think my experience or behaviour is so very different from other teachers I know and meet.

The truth is, I feel as though all of my best teaching has been done in the last ten years. After three years, I had hardly begun learning what it is to be a teacher. I choose my words carefully – to be a teacher, not simply to teach. I can perhaps concede that I may previously have been technically more energetic than I am now – a combination of minor personal health circumstances, gradual ageing and less than optimal curriculum circumstances are factors over which I don’t have complete control, but which still have an effect.

But in that last ten years, the teacher in me – the whole person who is responsible for educating and nurturing the next generation – has finally come of age. In front of the class now stands a moderately-aging individual, who pupils know has taught some of their own parents; he has a degree of insight, resilience and world-weary humour that simply wasn’t there when he was younger. Even a degree of patience for the little dears’ many shortcomings – perspective has taught him that such things are simply rites of passage best handled with mock-resigned humour.

So I’m left to conclude that yet again those who seek to judge and control us aren’t even in the same ball park when it comes to being a teacher. They are still trying to count beans, and it may be true that these days I don’t pile them up quite as tidily as they would like. But the more I hear and read about the worlds of educational management and research, the more I conclude that it exists in a parallel universe from that of the classroom teacher. In fact, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that they are not finding what they want not because it’s not there, but because they simply aren’t looking in the right universe. In simple terms, they need to give up on the pseudo-science and try looking for a debate about education in the realms of philosophy and creativity instead.

And if that’s too novel an idea, let’s return to that basic claim; let’s assume for a moment that it’s true. Just why might it be that teachers don’t develop further? Is it that the people who do this job week in and week out are really a bunch of idle losers – or could it be (in the week when a report highlights the enormous hours being worked by teachers), that after three years they are simply too busy just trying to survive? That’s what bean-counters don’t see.

There’s more coming on this in following posts, but I think that’s enough resignation for one evening.

Blame it on Adam Smith

I recently read Edward Skidelsky’s Guardian review (also viewable here) of Philip Roscoe’s new book I Spend therefore I am: The True Cost of Economics (which sounds like required reading in its own right). I was struck by a reference he made to the writings of Aristotle, which further investigation suggests went along the lines of:

It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

Nicomachean Ethics Book I, (c. 325 BC)

This strikes me as eminently relevant to the current predicament of British education. Since entering the world of edu-blogging, I have been exposed to countless thousands of words directed at dissecting the process of education. Much of it is interesting and some challenging; some of it I readily agree with (Confirmation Bias at work again?) and some of it I don’t. That is probably healthy for the blogosphere itself. But I am always left wondering how much of the deeply technical discussion is in fact in vain. Are we still looking too hard for precise meaning in what is basically a simple and largely speculative activity?

Reading through (some of) the reams dedicated to classroom practice, the deployment of this or that procedure or technique, my general reaction is that this has nothing to do with what I do in the classroom. Maybe I’ve just advertised myself as a very poor teacher – but most of what I do is purely the instinctive reaction to the people around me and the task I have set us all to do.

On the other hand, one might hope that with something around 25,000 hours of active teaching under my belt, the activity would be instinctive. If not, there probably is something wrong.  I do deploy techniques and activities that are specific to the classroom, things that I have learned and evolved over the years, things that I have borrowed, and things that generally make sense in terms of understanding my specific academic discipline and its modus operandi. It’s also true that some of these things were consciously learned over those years of developing my craft. What I don’t now do is make conscious techno-decisions at either the planning stage or the delivery stage.

Is this a definition of mastery? And if so, then why do so many experienced practitioners who must be doing pretty much the same things, seemingly not recognise it as such? Where is the real benefit in pulling wings off flies over this?

The three pictures below could all be said to represent paradigms for teaching:

(All sourced from Creative Commons – see bottom)

The armies of wing-pullers seem to prefer picture 1 – appearing to see education as a scientific process whereby precise interventions have known and predictable outcomes, and the role of teacher is similar to that of scientist, adding just the right chemicals at just the right moment in order to precipitate the desired reaction.

This is what generates those reams of worthy discussion – which chemicals to use at which moment – and teachers these days have every bit as much interest as scientists in reaching predictable outcomes. If you are attracted to this world-view, I wish you luck. The harder we look, the less we find – yet again we are in a phase when the orthodoxies of recent years are being turned upside down.

Those 25 000 hours of teaching seem to me to constitute a reasonable sample size over an extended period of time that would suggest it doesn’t work. Well, for me at least – though that wouldn’t be such a problem if the ‘scientists’ weren’t insisting that everyone adopt their approach. For an excellent exposition on why this is flawed, read Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof, which neatly dismantles the false assumptions and methodologies behind much of this thinking. (It is interesting that Bennett himself, a clearly-erudite individual who entered teaching via the fast-track programme, within ten years concluded that much of what he had been taught was pseudo-scientific balderdash).

The supposedly-scientific with its promise of guaranteed results, is easily misappropriated. The key ingredient for doing this is Management, from government down. There is of course, an absolute need for some form of co-ordination in organisations that involve many hundreds of people – but with his Division of Labour, Adam Smith has got a lot to answer for. As soon as you impose on the science-based production line a body whose sole purpose is to direct others what/when/how to do things, you create a whole set of secondary agendas and divided loyalties perfectly positioned to exploit the supposed predictability of the situation. The division of labour worked admirably when the output of the factory was pins, though even there, when looking at images like picture 2 and the one below, I’m always left doubting how great the experience was for those actually doing the (very repetitive) work. Those who became rich from the process were not those doing the making.

See bottom for attribution

Smith’s model has, of course brought great material advances to society – but when you make the mistake of applying the theory of the production line to an activity whose process involves cognitive rather than mechanical activity, whose raw materials and products are human beings, not identical inanimate objects, you cannot expect the same outcomes.

Picture three at the top shows what is for me a more appropriate model – that of the craftsman. Prior to industrial processing, each worker relied largely on their own resources to produce what was needed. While this was not time or cost-efficient, it did allow that individual not only much more autonomy in their work, but also the scope to develop and deploy a wider range of skills. The intervention is largely inductive and anticipatory, not deductive and corrective; it also creates the possibility whereby unique, non-standardised raw materials are not seen as rejects in the way that machinery requires – but potential for creative adaptation. Over time, the mastery developed by the craftsman does indeed become intuitive – and probably also unique to each; likewise, the product is often a finely-crafted individual item, distinctive to the maker, yet no two ever being precisely alike. And what’s more, the job satisfaction also tends to be higher.

For me, this is by far the best template upon which to build a mastery of teaching. There is certainly a need for the learning of the basic skills and tools of the trade, but real heights are only achieved when such technical constraints are escaped and the creativity of the individual is given its head. Both of my parents were teachers – my father trained as a furniture-maker before teaching woodwork and latterly Design & Technology; my mother was an English specialist who delighted in teaching the works of Spenser and Milton in the days when such things still widely happened. I have seen my father craft fine furniture and violins from raw wood – and the more I think about it, both of them crafted people in a similar way through their teaching. I know – I was one of them.

Skilled crafts-people require few managers to tell them what to do – their motivation and judgement comes from within. They are capable of examining each unique raw piece and knowing just how to work it to bring out its inherent qualities, yet also to bring it to the required form. This judgement is acquired over many years of personal experimentation – there is only limited use in their being directed to do what others do. They rarely do exactly the same thing twice in any case, yet they are capable of repeatedly forming items of beauty from crude materials.

Pretty much what teachers do.

Crafting is in some ways a mysterious, inexplicable process, as dependent on intuition as specific formal training; as Aristotle suggested, it sometimes pays not to examine such things too closely. There’s no need for all the techno-speak; production-line teaching only produces cloned results – the appliance of science is all about the predictable – and all the more so when the craftsmen are de-skilled to become mere operatives by a management class with ulterior motives. People are not standardised components to be put through a machine – they are individual ‘pieces’ with their own qualities and flaws, each of which accordingly needs individual shaping and finishing to bring out their latent qualities, be they teacher or taught. And the former needs to be given the latitude accorded to master-craftsmen in order to accomplish this transformation.

In the machine age, a huge premium if often attached to the unique, hand-crafted product. This is not an outdated methodology from the past – it is the only way to deal with human, as any other sort of diversity. The machine-approach to teaching is broken. Let’s leave it that way and learn to craft again.

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