Wherever you look, there are signs of the damage being done to our civilisation by the effects of an overly-economised view of the world. The growing disparities of income and resultant life-opportunity are simply the logical result of a worldview that only values what it can measure. The most obvious example of this is money: an essential proxy for value without which our society could not function, but which seen another way is simply the most easily-made measure of a commodity’s worth – and not necessarily the best. All that money really does is to put a number on the supposed value of something, as positioned by the collective forces of supply and demand; it is only money’s fungibility that makes it valuable.

But value in this sense is simply a reflection of the availability of an asset, not its intrinsic qualities. There are many examples of vacuous ‘qualities’ having high values placed on them simply because a lot of people decide they want more, rather than because they are (arguably) anything of intrinsic worth. The ‘market value’ of certain C-list celebrities comes to mind – people who have little of substance, just superficial gloss or gimmickry that makes them briefly highly in demand.

It’s not easy to substantiate how some things have more inherent value than others, when one can argue that value, as a human construct is simply what people decide to make it. But there still remain certain natural truths about the world, which persist despite the superficiality of human values. For example, it is fairly demonstrable that educated minds tend to have a functional advantage over uneducated ones – and that is independent of the priority that society as a whole chooses to place on the matter.

This is the kind of issue that conventional economised thinking cannot account for. Indeed, were businesses to decide that what they needed above all else was sheer brute ignorance from their workforce, one could see how they might start paying a premium for stupidity over intelligence. But it would not change the enduring natural fact that educated minds perform better. In the same way, sheer force of sales numbers might suggest that pulp ‘airport fiction’ is superior to the great works of literature simply because it is more profitable.

Countering this argument is extremely difficult – not least because it is habitually framed in terms acceptable to the bean-counters who have been in the ascendant for so long. Approaching a senior executive with a plan that may make qualitative sense, but which cannot be proven in improved bottom-line figures is extremely difficult when the bottom line is the ultimate arbiter. I know: I tried – and I didn’t get anywhere…

Unfortunately, education has now been thoroughly monetised in the same sense: this is why it ‘makes (economic) sense’ to pay vice chancellors vast salaries while their lecturers remain on temporary contracts: if business prowess is your key criterion, then a modern V.C. is indeed more valuable. But it should come as no surprise if that institution subsequently loses sight of its academic-intellectual remit. The same goes for the secondary sector, which increasingly seems to be following the same pattern.

It is extremely difficult for bleeding-heart liberals to whinge away convincingly that ‘education is about more important things than money’ when they can’t bring forward the hard facts to prove it to those for whom the numbers are everything.

The supreme irony is that education is, in the harsh-speak of economics, a ‘post-consumption good’: in other words, you only appreciate its value once you have already got it. And there is no guarantee of the quality of what you will end up with either, because that is down to the recipient as well as the provider. I am increasingly convinced, simply from everyday observation, that having a certificate is not the same as being educated. Indeed, the hard-heads who so often are in charge these days are the living proof of the matter: in conventional terms they are often well qualified – and yet they have either completely lost sight of the value of non-economic matters, or they never understood them in the first place. That, to my mind is not an educated stand-point.

And yet nobody – not even the bean-counters – believes that the power of Shakespeare comes from the sheer number of words he used; nobody thinks that a Beethoven symphony’s quality derives from the number of notes on the score. And nobody argues that the essence of Picasso was in the number of brushstrokes in his paintings. We do not go to concerts or plays or exhibitions to be wowed by numbers. These are matters where we have no choice but to accept that the only way to communicate their value is through a cumulative, societal/cultural canon of shared subjective appreciation. One such is the ‘consciousness’ that the particular contribution of the Impressionists was the way they portrayed the effects of light – which informs why so many appreciate those paintings; try explaining that in numbers! It is in that very specific, non-quantitative meme that their cultural value lies.
Thanks to those same hard-heads who seem to think that educational value can also be expressed in numbers (most significantly those of their own salaries), the language of education has headed off down the long cul-de-sac of quantification. There is only one destination – the valuing of the measurable, and the ignoring of everything more complex. But neither salaries nor aggregated exam-passes can measure real educational worth.

The act of teaching and learning is not inherently an economic act. True, one might consider it to be a matter of supply and demand, but that is to latch onto a peripheral description of how it is provided, not what it is. In essence it is an interpersonal exchange of intellectual-cultural information effected through the distinctly non-quantifiable medium of specific human interactions. I will modify that: yes, it is possible to categorise and even quantify aggregate human interactions – but that is not at all the same as capturing the personal-intellectual essence of any one of them.

And in real educational terms, it is only the latter that matters – the nature of each and every specific educational act that occurs, whether in a classroom or indeed anywhere else. The impact of that act is exclusive to the individuals who experience it, not least because it lays down a memory of the experience that cannot be fully known by any who were not party to it. It is also worth adding that the presence of outside ‘others’ – such as lesson observers – cannot but modify the effect simply because their presence became a factor in the experience itself. It is known as the Hawthorne Effect.
This is why I have come to think that statistical analyses of education can only ever have very limited use: they may inform the decisions made at institutional or policy level – but they simply do not have either the relevance or level of resolution to encapsulate the real nature of the billions of individual interactions that comprise daily human educational experience.

The better alternative would be to construct a different conception of education: one that gloried in its subjectivity, that accepted that it can never truly be otherwise, that put on a pedestal not fictional production statistics but the real, demanding soft skills of those who are able to steer human interactions in an educationally productive way – classroom teachers. What’s more, the benefit those people endow – a capacity for rigorous thought – is at least as fungible as cash.

Certainly this would require a major culture-shift: it would mean conceiving of the body of professional educational expertise more in the form of the canon of work of a Shakespeare or Beethoven (and the body of critical awareness that now accompanies it), and less like an Excel spreadsheet. But that is the reality of what teachers do every day; that is where their value lies – and if one listens to teachers talking about their work this fact becomes utterly apparent, for all that managers have forced them to talk about spreadsheets too.

This is not an attack on the general need for logistical management in education – but it is a criticism of the way production management values have supplanted educational ones. This is why education has lost sight of what it is really for and about: the measures by which it is now appraised are simply not appropriate. We need competent managers – but they should never forget that theirs is a support function to the core activity – not the other way round.

Using this frame of reckoning, recognition would go to those who are culturally-intellectually the most valuable, while those who have removed themselves from the classroom, who choose instead to deal with targets, spreadsheets, agendas, policy initiatives and data would find their value – and with it their salaries – withering to something more proportionate to their real worth.

* In economic terms, a fungible good is one that is inter-exchangeable with another. Hence, something that is transferrable or universal in its use. 

Putting the Soul Back. Part V

Concluding this series. A good life is a discriminating one, in the sense that it allows people to make their own informed choices, no matter what the field. We need teachers who can show the way.

It is this failure to emphasise expectation that has been the undoing of education: whether through the well-meaning but misguided belief that learning needs to be made ‘accessible’ (i.e. undemanding) or through the neglect of cultural capital altogether. The most serious omission is the cultivation of the self-expectation that does so much to define people’s experiences of life. People who lack financial wealth but have high expectations will often find ways around the money problem; people who don’t even have the expectation won’t bother. And it does affect people’s external standards too: if they expect to be treated as inferior, they will accept that treatment when it arises. Thumping the table and demanding ‘respect’ is only another expression of the same thing. It is the presence of self-expectation – or what we might more habitually call self-respect – that determines how others treat us too.

What is most unforgivable of all is that the education system has come to collude in this evasion. By arguing that mass education (which in effect means state education) can only be a relatively functional affair “because that is what the punters expect from it” it is unwittingly perpetuating the cultural elitism that keeps personal standards and life-experiences so low for many in Britain. (In the last week, government ministers have been calling for public support to be removed from degree subjects with no perceived economic benefit: why do they see no wider benefit or purpose for education?)

It is worth noting that this country suffers more than many, as a result of its embedded class-system; I have experienced much more egalitarian situations elsewhere. But the way to tackle this issue is not through the traditional class-warrior wish to ‘destroy the system’ – but to give access to those same parts of the ‘good life’ to as many as want it, such that it becomes untenable for the cultural elites to reserve them for themselves. ‘Ownership’ of those things cannot be prevented by social snobbery. I would, however, caution that dumbing them down is yet another way of in effect saying that we cannot expect ‘the masses’ to appreciate fine things without their being diluted for their consumption, in a way that will only perpetuate the same snobberies.

This is why it is so important what we expect from our teachers. Children who come from families that already access cultural capital do not need external help; this is not to say they should not enjoy the consequences just like anyone else – but theirs are not the critical cases. More pressing are the many who do not understand that complexity is the key to fulfilment, who self-select out of the ‘good things in life’ on the grounds that they are “not for the likes of them” – whether expressly vocalised or not.

The key to this is again the locus of expectation: such people need to be encouraged to see that access to the more complex aspects of life is not barred to them by anything other than their own unwillingness to make the necessary effort. And an effort it really is. The appreciation fine music, art, clothes, food, design, wine, or indeed anything else – and likewise the expectation and ability to experience good relationships and be treated well by others, be they partners, friends or employers – are not things that can be bought: they require work by each and every individual to access them for them self, no matter what their wealth. And if it is true of these relatively tangible matters, then how much more true is it of abstract matters such as the capacity for critical thought or social and political engagement? The fact that wealth often conceals a lack of these things behind a veneer of apparent and assumed privilege is neither here nor there.

The teacher is absolutely critical. We need to forget about trying explicitly to teach anything in particular; our academic disciplines are more than sufficient when it comes to teaching material. What’s more, they inherently foster the inclination to think at a higher level about things, to understand in depth, and to develop the intellectual rigour that will equip young people to aim high. But even more than that, we need teachers who, in the memorable words of a headteacher of Nancy Kline’s, will “teach themselves – and make darned sure that [they are] good”.

We need people who are able to exemplify those high expectations, who are equipped to lead the uncertain into the world of higher matters. It is not helpful if those people themselves are so utilitarian that they have no appreciation for themselves: they cannot be guides into things they don’t themselves know. This is why it is so important that they are authentic – so that they know the ropes, and experience the love that needs to be transmitted for themselves. It is why they also need to be sages on stages rather than the alternative: if the role of the teacher is simply to enhance children’s own instincts, they will never take those children into the many (often difficult) areas that it may never occur to them to explore by themselves: the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’ is where the teacher should habitually reside. And they should lead their pupils onward by confident example, and occasional direct instruction, rather than sheepish confession of their own ignorance.

To do this means that those teachers need a certain sort of life of their own to begin with – one where they themselves have high expectations – and not only of their working lives. Unless they are given the opportunity to become and sustain themselves as rounded individuals, then they will never own the skills required to help the next generation to do the same. And yet many schools have become places that have totally lost such understanding, both in their own sense and on behalf of their teachers. In the school where I worked, even the senior leadership never expressed any aspiration for the school or its staff beyond vaguely “being a good local school” – even when pressed by its governors to do so. I don’t think they knew how – or what ‘good’ meant, beyond a good Ofsted report with which to feather themselves. In many cases it was startlingly clear that they lacked cultural capital themselves; it was a case of the blind leading the blind.

I expect some will take me to task for my apparent emphasis on the more conventional forms of the ‘good life’ – but that is to miss the point. Complexity can be found in very many areas of human endeavour – but that is the critical element: endeavour. Many find their credibility and (self) respect in fields well off the cultural beaten track, and that is fine. The important thing is that people gain the agency to become masters of their own lives, to have a sufficiently clear sense of their own ‘meaning’ that they make the decisions, that they become active agents in the course of their own lives, and gain their own ‘grown-up’ distinctiveness. The real enemy here is not perceived cultural acceptability, so much as those forces that would prefer people to remain passive, indiscriminate, infantilised consumers of whatever they are given. And that includes politicians and the media as well as the more obvious commercial interests. That said, there probably are some fields that have more potential for complexity than others – those obviously lacking it being the offerings of indiscriminate mass-consumption, whose output is often shorn of anything demanding, deep or controversial in the interests of lowest-common-denominator marketability. Education should not under any circumstances become one of them.

A rudimentary, utilitarian preparation for a mere existence in the passively-compliant corporate workplace is no substitute for a properly cultured education: it does our country no good that its bounty is monopolised by so few, and even assuming that the employment-preparation is a success, good lives will only be lived if those people know what to do with what they earn.

The God of Small Things


It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just looking, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is  a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also the thing that we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

If education is about promoting well-lived lives, I am deeply uncertain that the  aspirational, target-driven approach is doing that. While young people are unsurprisingly future-orientated, the present manic approach seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good educational time to promoting the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of superb fabric.  (usual disclaimer)

The original version of this post can be found on my other blog:

All the Aitches

I knew about the Danish notion of Hygge a long time before it became trendy. The Welsh also have a word, Hiraeth, which (being Welsh) is a rather more melancholy version. The Germans use the word Heimat to express an untranslatable sense of belonging to one’s roots. The English have no such word.

It was once suggested to me that in the lengthy exchange of words between English and French, the French take practical words from us (le parking) and we take abstract words from them (sang-froid). The Brits, it sometimes seems, are not much good at the intangibles of life.

If there remains anyone who does not now know, hygge expresses the sense of warmth and belonging, a sense of security and nearness to people and places one cares about. And what happened when the word arrived in England? It was turned into a retail concept, thereby instantaneously becoming a pale, insincere shadow of its authentic self.

For hygge, read education. Sitting as I am at a distance from the chalk face, but reading the occasional blog post as and when my addled brain will allow, I see another concept that has been debased almost beyond salvation. The British crave education – even as many seem to have little real understanding of what it is and how it is acquired.

The thing is, of course, education cannot be traded or turned into a retail concept – but that hasn’t stopped us from having a darned good try.

Grades can be subject to targets, production lines and ‘interventions’. Time lines and tick lists can be devised to demonstrate (as I saw on a recent Australian example) that Jonny ‘knows what he thinks about’ something (What? All the time? Without a shadow of reflective doubt?) – and can thus be given a grade for it. Job done.

But by quantifying the thing we think we want, its very essence slips away. We are no closer to educational Nirvana than ever, perhaps even further away. More bits of paper to our name, but no more enlightened about the world – or even about why those bits of paper are, in their own right, meaningless. A bit like Quantitative Easing – money with nothing to back it.

All because The System cannot see that the best things in life need to be left to just happen – cultivated, yes – but not commanded; they cannot be produced to order.

Bucking bronco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something in the water?

It’s extremely difficult to extrapolate from individual experiences to national trends. I am enough of a statistician to understand significance testing and the difference between correlation and causality, but sometimes tendencies have the appearance of something more, no matter how flawed the theory might suggest it is.

My school is currently experiencing something of a downturn in the quality of its intake. Having been there for so long, I think I can say that with confidence, knowing that I have already allowed for the tinting of spectacles. Many colleagues agree.

We are finding pupils coming to the school less equipped with basic skills and attitudes than ever before. We are also encountering more, even aged 11, who seem actively, deliberately antagonistic. More time is being spent addressing these issues than ever, in a way unprecedented in the school’s experience over several decades.

I’m not going to fall into the number-cruncher’s trap of trying to attribute simple causality to this: my whole understanding of education is based on the view that many social and cognitive phenomena are simply too complex to deconstruct.

There are, however, a few factors that may well be part of the mix. The area now has a religion-oriented free school that is undoubtedly attracting some families and thereby changing the intake of the longer-established local schools. There have also been subtle changes to our own admissions policy, which I don’t agree with but whose aims are understandable. It is perhaps bringing to us more children who really need our help, but are less inclined than ever to accept it.

I suspect that impacts of the social media and technology revolution are beginning to be seen: there appears to be a change in children’s ability to concentrate, their ability to interact harmoniously, and their tolerance of people telling them to do anything that does not involve using an iPhone. I wonder too, whether this is narrowing children’s ability to find things interesting: it is becoming more and more difficult to catch children’s enthusiasm; many pass their lessons listlessly on auto-pilot, rarely really engaging with topics in the way that used to happen. Their default setting seems to be non-committal loafing; the old tactic of standing and waiting for silence seems to have a longer and longer lead-time. This despite my methods having, if anything, been improved and refined over the years.

I am finding more children ill-prepared with basic school equipment, and less willing to put more than the cursory effort of a couple of minutes into the tasks they are set. And above all, they seem less and less concerned about – and increasingly prepared to challenge – any instruction to the contrary.

I tried to engage my year 13 tutor group this week in a light-hearted discussion about their next steps. I used one of my stock lines for such situations: if you’re not a bit fed up with school by now, then we’ve done something wrong. But the grunts that were the habitual reply then crystallised into a torrent of resentment about how boring school has always been and how they expect university to be just the same. Nose stuck firmly on his phone, one muttered that he is only going so he can get a certain job; no amount of arguing that boring is all in the mind cuts any ice.

In between the two age-groups, I find low level disruption becoming a fact of life, and I know I am not alone. I had a discussion with some otherwise-biddable year eights whom I had had to tick off. The rather perceptive comment emerged, “I guess we got into bad habits at primary school”. If I have any sympathy it is only because my own enthusiasm for the endless round of target-setting that education now is, is no greater than theirs; has modern education actually created this ennui?

On the other hand, some of my year elevens said they were choosing my revision classes over others because I “teach the subject not just give us exam practice”.

If I were to put these pieces together and blame recent educational practice, no doubt the instrumentalist, statistics-faithful classes would accuse me of bias or weak analysis. It would be down to confirmation bias, because I am on record as opposing the grinding down of education into the dull conveyor belt that it has become. I would be over-ruled in my view that petty hoop-jumping, far from being motivating, is a dull and demoralising experience.

I might equally be criticised for my opposition to techniques that seem to have left primary-age children without the basic habits of mind to be able to cope in secondary school. I might be lambasted for continuing to believe in education for education’s sake, for trying to maintain, even enhance, the academic content of my teaching even when it was not immediately ‘fun’.

The more perceptive might accuse me of being the root of the very things I complain about, a proponent of ‘dull’ traditional teaching, without seeing that those year elevens have now come to realise that deep command of a subject is where the interest really lies, and that dabbling while lacking the basic skills you need to access it might initially be fun but is not ultimately very rewarding.

I might be further criticised for having the wrong expectations of our poor, troubled young people. But these are not the unknowing under-privileged. These are in the main children from homes where they want for nothing, who in some cases are almost sickeningly affluent and indulged. These are children who have grown up with such a massive sense of entitlement that nothing a mere teacher can tell them need be taken very seriously, children who treat their education as a consumable service, who believe they are entitled to the very best no matter how little effort or responsibility they invest for themselves. These are baby cuckoos, squatting beaks-open at others’ expense, not foals struggling against the odds to find their feet. This is the boredom of want-for-nothing wealth.

The experience is changing my views of education. Instinctively, I believe in equality of access, and I support moves to increase it for those who genuinely lack opportunity. But I am also increasingly of the view that those who knowingly reject what education has to offer have only themselves – and those who raised them – to blame. The argument that even these children are the blameless recipients of unfortunate circumstances has only so much traction when it comes to off-loading the blame for their boredom and laziness. People who live by the view that the customer is always right should have to shoulder the burden of their own poor choices.

I no longer feel much guilt at limiting what I am prepared to do for them; I don’t see why I should perpetuate their expectation of being waited on hand and foot. By secondary age, children are quite capable of making conscious decisions for themselves, and at very least of understanding the advice they are being given. If they wish actively to reject what the education system has to offer, I no longer feel that teachers or schools should lose sleep over it. Let them go out and try to make a go of their free-market lives using that grossly inflated self-confidence that so many possess – and good luck to them. They say education is wasted on the young…

Those wearisomely reading this, grumbling at another disillusioned teacher may be thinking that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps so – but this malaise does seem to be spreading. I would be entirely prepared to accept that this is simply the product of a set of local circumstances that say nothing about the wider health of the education system – were it not for the fact that I have unprecedentedly heard of two other schools within fifteen miles of here who are finding the same thing with their Year Sevens. Hardly statistically significant – but just a coincidence? One is a grammar school.

It is no doubt easy for the educationally right-on to dismiss my concerns and to claim I have a dystopian world view. It is also beyond their abilities even to consider that the policies they enthusiastically advanced might actually be harmful. But maybe they are right.

In which case, what was in the water round here back in 2004, when those children were born?

What works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Contrary wisdom

I’ve continued to edge forward through Tomsett’s book. I am not finding quite the kindred spirit that I expected, but there are nonetheless moments of insight which spark recognition here. Foremost amongst these is his sensation that the longer one spends doing this work, the less certain one becomes about things one formerly took as given. Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognise the same trend in my own scribblings. But at the risk of sounding hubristic, I think this is probably a sign that in our respective ways, we are both finally gaining the true wisdom that comes from knowing our work inside out. And I think it is only from this perspective that one finally perhaps appreciates why it may be unwise to promote people too quickly to positions where they are supremely able to cramp others’ style.

I’m disappointed that Tomsett identifies himself proudly as part of Gove’s Blob, for as I’ve said many times before, I don’t think that it is the role or right of the profession to attempt to impose particular ideological models or templates on society. I believe this can never succeed, and moreover any attempt to control what people may know or how they may think can only ever constitute a restraint on the pursuit of free Thought.

But there are pearls in there that schools would do well to heed. I well remember having a discussion some years ago with a youngish deputy head (now departed for promotion) in which he expressed incredulity that I only planned my lessons a few days ahead. As a Maths teacher, he said he planned his lessons at least half a term in advance. Perhaps it works in Maths, but it doesn’t in Humanities, and yet here was one model seeking to impose itself on the workings of another which it perhaps didn’t understand as well as it thought.

I’ve been instructed to prepare some materials in pretty much the same vein and it rather goes against the grain. It is reasonable to devise a plan of a course, outline its content, and perhaps some of the key materials, but as Tomsett says, how can you specifically plan the next lesson until you know how the last one went?

Indeed, this is actually an expression of formative assessment, where one refines one’s plans according to how a particular group of pupils progressed last time. And yet, the approved line seems to be contradictory: one should know precisely what one is going to do weeks in advance. You can’t do both. I’m glad Tomsett supports my own instinct on this one – once again the voice of practical experience counters the (sometimes naive) administrative will.

The next step could also be to listen to those of us who argue that the current obsession with marking conflicts with the best use of our time, which is surely spent planning in a more responsive way. I know many colleagues who admit that their lesson planning has suffered since the drive on marking appeared. And given the time required to do both tasks to a high standard, it is simply not acceptable to expect teachers to eat even further into what is left of their private lives.

It just goes to prove that there is always a perfectly justifiable counter-argument in education, which in itself should be sufficient to silence those who claim there is only one right way to teach. Leave it to people’s judgement.

The Intelligent Fridge

Once upon a time, a technologist in need of some extra cash decided to develop the intelligent fridge. S/he reckoned a device that could work out what was inside it and communicate this directly to the supermarket would be a sure seller. All the technology existed to make it a reality.

And so development began. An analysis of the problem identified the key elements required of the technology. Each item would require a chip or barcode so that the fridge could identify it; the bar code already existed. The scanning technology existed to make this possible – until the technologist realised that users would need to scan each item as they took it out and replaced it, something that would be less than 100% reliable.

No matter, taking inspiration from airport x-ray scanners, the technologist devised a system where the fridge could scan the items within it at regular intervals – once it had worked out how to ‘see’round items that were obscuring others. This was Progress. But another issue presented itself: while the fridge could now identify its contents, it could not ascertain their state of emptiness. How was it possible to know how much milk was left inside a bottle, or how many olives inside a jar? And given the varying consumption rates of different items, how could it work out when things actually needed replacing? Maybe the fridge needed to learn the item-by-item use-rates of its users.

Undeterred, the technologist deployed the weighing technology used in supermarket self-checkouts. The fridge would contain weight-sensitive pads that could sense small changes in the contents of the containers. There was only one problem: it meant that each item needed a distinct allocated place within the fridge and relied on the user to replace each item accurately each time.

No matter, the technologist reasoned, surely it is possible to combine these technologies so that the fridge recognises products and weighs each no matter where it is positioned. But this meant the installation of highly complex weighing systems that were not confused by the varying size of products or the infinity of subtle variations in the positions of those items.

The costs of manufacturing the technology started to soar; No problem, the technologist thought, time and mass-production will reduce these costs. A few prototypes were built and put into homes for trial. They were an instant flop.

The technologist conducted user-surveys to find out why the fridges were not meeting needs. They were identifying, counting and weighing successfully, and the guinea-pigs had not had to pay the now vastly-inflated price of the fridges. Why were people not going home to find the supermarkets delivering precisely what their fridges knew they wanted?

The fridges, it seemed were over-ordering, and people were being inundated. The technologist had resorted to using sell-by dates to work out what needed replacing, ignorant of the fact that these were often set by supermarkets to increase consumption rather than as a true indication of perishabillity.

The technologist built in a date-bias to compensate – only to find out that some goods were now perishing and turning the fridges green. Further adjustments were made, but still the users were finding that the fridge could not make the correct decisions. More consultation ensued.

The answer came as a bolt from the blue. As one user put it: “I don’t want the same stuff every week – and sometimes I change my mind at short notice. My fridge can’t know that”. A second user added, “The increased hassle outweighs the benefits”.

From a conversation had last week, the above may go some way to explaining why intelligent fridges have yet to make a major impact on our homes.

I have been reading a number of blog posts written by people who have attended various educational seminars and conferences that have taken place recently. As usual, I’m afraid they both leave me cold, and make me wonder what on earth they really have to do with teaching specific young people. Far be it from me to say that such conferences should not exist, nor that teachers should not use their personal time attending them – maybe the distinctly unscientific ‘inspiration factor’ is their real raison d’être… but I do wonder whether the outcomes really add much to the day-to-day job of teaching real people.

Parts of the profession show no sign of ending their faith that the future of education lies in the technical fix. I have not been to such conferences, so I accept that my view may be inaccurate – but I do take the trouble to read people’s reports, and they make me no more inclined to attend. As the fridge story shows, no amount of ‘science’ can overcome the simple fact that people are not logical, predictable (learning) machines but are unreliable, quixotic animals the reasons behind whose real needs no rational, technology-based system will ever fully fathom.

The only way to make it work will be to turn people themselves into machines – and that is something I will resist at every turn. Instead, I think I will continue to develop my understanding of the human species and its needs by my much-enjoyed pastime of people-watching. Come to think of it, maybe that’s where the real benefit of those conferences could lie after all…