Train Hard Fight Easy or how to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine Part 2

This is the second part of guest-blogger Adam Bantick’s post on the impact of stress on educational performance. He would be delighted to hear others’ thoughts on this, and can be reached via the comments page of this post.

In Part 1 we looked at how stress affects us both in general and with exams, and now we deal with what to do about it.

According to Crum/ Akinola/ Martin and Fath (2017), how we perceive the stress threat is important in dealing with it, calling it the Stress Mindset. When encountering a new stressful situation, we do the following things. We have a Primary Appraisal, where we work out whether we can deal with it. Then a Secondary Appraisal, thinking what resources we have to deal with it. If we fear our resources cannot deal with it, we see it as a Serious Threat. Thus, if we can use our resources to deal with it, it is a Challenge ‘The mountain is big, but I have climbed mountains before, so I can climb this one’. If we cannot deal with it with our resources, it is a Threat ‘The mountain is big, and I have never climbed a mountain before, so I will fall off it and die’. Thus, we need stress to live.

With the meta-cognitive Stress Mindset, if we can think about stress the right way, we can turn a disadvantage into an advantage. A Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset is constructive, because it gives us a push to do something; a Stress-Is-Debilitating mindset is destructive, because if we think we will fail, we will not do something. We use a Stress Mindset every day, although we may not realise it. When we cross a busy road, our brains perceive the traffic as a threat (we could get hit by a car), and produce stress hormones to keep us alert. As we have crossed busy roads many times before, however, we know that we can cross this one. Using our resources to deal with the threat (judging traffic), we can cross the road – we use a Stress-Is-Enhancing mindset to get us across. We get the usual stress hormones in our brains, but as we see crossing the road as only a challenge, we can do it.

Our Stress Mindset for exams is ‘Exams are stressful, but by adopting a Stress-Is-Enhancing way of thinking, the exam is a challenge, and can be overcome’. The Stress Mindset is a long-term thought process, because it governs how we see ALL exams, not just the paper in front of us. It is also essential, because the other ways of dealing with exam stresses are merely avoidance strategies, e.g. small rooms, extra time, coursework – the exam will not go away. Thus, we must change the way we think about exams if we are to overcome them.

Now, we return to the stress-confronting professionals who deal with danger every day. Every soldier, fire-fighter etc has been trained to do their job, and the longer, more realistic their training is, the more they will be able to do their job no matter what the difficulty. The Armed Forces, in particular, maintain a ‘Can-Do’ attitude, which means that whatever the obstacle, it can be overcome through training and practice; in other words, the Stress Mindset. They do not simply expose their personnel to repeated stresses, however, since that will only magnify the stress, but train them how to cope with it through Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). Firefighter trainer David Werner (‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ 4.8.13.), uses examples from the US Marine Corps (‘Warfighting: the US Marine Corps Book of Strategy’ 1989) in identifying and overcoming real-world stressors for his fire service. Here is Werner’s list of problems with my exam example: ‘Friction’ -things that if they can go wrong, will go wrong e.g. arriving late to the exam; ‘Uncertainty’ -not knowing what to expect e.g. the topic that you *knew* was not going to come up; ‘Fluidity’ -having to think on your feet e.g. the poorly-worded, random question; ‘Disorder’ -where our plans have been thwarted, and we must ‘re-order’ what we do e.g. supposedly memorising an answer that we cannot remember; the ‘Human dimension’ -our mental and physical state at the time e.g. having a bad cold in the exam; and finally, ‘Moral Forces’ -our mental preparedness for a hard task e.g. being confident of success due to proper preparation.

SIT was developed to condition personnel for these problems, and for the US Navy Seals, these are: Goal-setting and segmenting (working out what you intend to do, then break that goal into smaller/ more manageable tasks); Tactical Visualisation, (mentally rehearse what to do in any situation); Arousal Control, (controlling the physical effects of stress with deep-breathing etc); Self-Talk (talk yourself through how you feel and what to do); Focus Training (tuning out distractions and focusing on essentials); and Compartmentalisation (breaking thoughts into sections in order to deal with them).

A final observation from Murray is about ‘Weapon Push’. This is where soldiers believe that their weapon is better than their enemy’s (it doesn’t matter if it is), and so this confidence in their resources gives them an edge. In exam terms, our Weapon Push is the excellent subject knowledge and exam skills we have that enables us to take on the challenge of the exam; effectively our ‘secret weapon’.

Finally, to Marshal Zhukov (Soviet commander in World War II) and ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’. He realised that new recruits were being slaughtered on the battlefield because their training was inadequate. He popularised the dictum of ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ by making training as realistic as possible (train hard), so that when soldiers got into battle it was just like training, and they could cope (fight easy). Thus, all training must reflect the real problem to be encountered, and must be so effective that training routines become second nature.

We have looked at the nature of the exam stress problem, and how important realistic training is to overcome Stress Threats. Now we need to see what to do to become an Exam Machine:

1 – Understand how our bodies perceive and react to stress. We have neurological, emotional and physiological reactions, which can inhibit our performance.

2– Acknowledge exams are Stress Creators. Exams create stress because they are tests with value-outcomes, such as grades. Our body’s reactions to stress can inhibit our performance in exams, so we must acknowledge exams are stressful.

3 – Adopt the Stress Mindset. Stress can be a destructive or a constructive thing – pre-exam nerves are essential to keep us alert. Stresses are challenges to overcome, not threats to kill us; exams are only a measure of our knowledge and understanding, not a judgement upon us personally. Do not catastrophise; even if we do fail, it will not ultimately make a huge difference in our lives. We are motivated to do well, because we could get high grades in the exam. Therefore, exams are a challenge, high grades are possible, we will use our body’s reactions to stress e.g. adrenaline, to work to our advantage and keep us focused.

4 – Train for the exam. We know the subject knowledge and exam skills inside out, which is our Weapon Push/ ‘secret weapon’. We will feel confident going into the exam, as no matter what the exam throws at us, we have prepared for it.
We have done our own Stress Inoculation Training through past-papers, revision sessions, mark-schemes etc. We have:
-Goal-setting and Segmenting- worked out what we intend to do in the exam, breaking the goal up into smaller, more manageable tasks.
-Tactical visualisation- mentally rehearsed what we intend to do in a given situation in the exam.
-Arousal control- controlling the physical effects of stress e.g. deep-breathing, drinking water etc.
-Self-talk -talked ourselves through why we feel the way we do and what we will do about it.
-Focus training -tune out distractions to focus on essentials in the exam.
-Compartmentalisation -break our thoughts into sections to deal with things when they go wrong. We are prepared for these problems:
-Friction – our physical preparations are good e.g. know our exam timetable, transport route, brought the right equipment
-Uncertainty – we prepared for all questions, revised properly
-Fluidity – we looked at all past papers, thought how our teacher would answer that question, and can plan it
-Disorder – we don’t rely on pre-prepared answers, don’t assume certain questions will/ will not come up
-Human Dimension -we sleep well, eat well etc
-Moral Forces – we have prepared as best we can, but keep a sense of perspective
Our brains use Cold Cognition in the exam, the Hypothalamus produces hormone to keep us alert and focused, but the Pre-Frontal Cortex and Hippocampus operate as normal. We feel confident because we have trained for the exam.

5 – Train Hard, Fight Easy. We have trained for a long time, and not just crammed for a while. We have done so many past papers that we can eat exams for breakfast.
Our exam training has been in proper exam conditions (timed, in an exam room, marked to exam standards). This exam will be just like a ‘normal day at the office’. We will show what we can do, but don’t worry much about the result. If there is a question we have not seen before, we think our way around it, using our secret weapon of knowledge and skills. We have been trained like this from the beginning of our course and everything is second nature. It will run like clockwork. We are Exam Machines. Our training will kick in.

And now for the teacher…
You probably prepare your classes using many of these ideas or methods already, but training for exams clearly takes a long time. Some students will have been preparing for exams from SATs onwards, but many children do not think about exams the right way. If we can equip our students with the right frame of mind and the right tools for the job, they should be better prepared for exams than ever before. How you do that bit is up to you. As any fire-fighter will tell you, heroes are not born, but trained.

Adam Bantick teaches History at The Sixth Form College, Colchester.

Bibliography
‘Brains and Bullets’ Leo Murray 2013 Biteback publishers
‘Stress Inculcation in Firefighter Training’ David Werner 4.8.2013
‘Mind Blanks in Exams’ Jared Cooney Horvath and Jason M Lodge Straits Times 31.10.2016
‘Exam Stress and Psychology’ Dave Putwain The Psychologist Journal December 2008
‘The role of Stress Mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and psychological responses to challenging and threatening stress’ Alia J Crum, Modupe Akinola, Ashley Martin, Sean Fath Anxiety, Stress Coping 2017

A fair crack at the whip.

One Friday in November 2016, I left my classroom – and never went back. The mental health consequences of working in a stressful profession for three decades had finally caught up with me. They were a combination of the specific conditions at the very demanding (but increasingly misguided) school where I worked, and my growing sense that education more generally was moving in a direction that I could no longer reconcile myself with.

In November 2019, I was asked to fill an urgently-needed supply post at a different institution – this time a sixth form college – and I found myself, rather unexpectedly back in front of a class. I greatly enjoyed the experience, and since January I have been working part-time in a different department of the same college, covering long-term staff absence with a contract that will last a few more months.

I didn’t expect to find the profession had changed very much in those three years. But I increasingly sense that it has. While the different context makes direct comparisons difficult, my having tuned more widely back into teacher-talk is leaving me with a similar impression.

I should say immediately that what follows is no criticism whatsoever of the college where I have been working. I am extremely grateful for their having offered me a manageable way back into work, and the fact that they are continuing to employ me even over the current closures. It has been a pleasure to work in a place that values its employees in a way that my last one manifestly didn’t, and not to have to go to work worrying about hidden agendas.

But renewed exposure to the profession is increasingly suggesting that there have been further moves in a direction that gave rise to my previous misgivings. Education seems to have (been?) moved even further down the route of narrowly concerning itself solely with what happens in exams. In the process, the ability of individual teachers to provide creative, thoughtful and (hopefully) inspirational teaching seems to have been eroded still further.

I’m the kind of teacher whose main resources are his own brain, his character, and dare I say, his own eloquence. For me, teaching is akin to acting, not being a lab technician. To be able to function at my best with students, I need the freedom to think, create and interact with students in ways peculiar to me. Without it, I become little more than a human tape-recording. Rigid systematisation is all very well – but such constraints actually prevent the inspirational teaching that the system asks me to deliver. I have enough years in various classrooms to be certain about this – and recent experience is proving no different.

I suspect that this is a consequence of the Gove-led changes, which were only just starting to take effect in 2016. It seems that the changes in content and pitch have led to teachers becoming even more obsessed with what their students will encounter in the exam room. There also seems to have been a discernible quickening of the pace at which it is necessary to move through the curriculum, and a consequent increase in anxiety amongst teachers leading them to jettison anything that might appear not to be of direct use in an exam.

This worries me. It means that depth has been further sacrificed. It worries me even more that those in the profession seem not to have noticed. Or perhaps they just don’t share my misgivings. I read recently that education is not the meeting of fairly constant human intellectual and societal needs that I have always believed – but is instead a valueless, ceaselessly-evolving phenomenon which mutates in the way it conditions individuals for whatever is the prevailing socioeconomic climate of the time. In other words, it is reactive rather than formative, coercive rather than liberating.

This makes sense: as someone in his mid-fifties, I can hardly deny that my own education took place in a different era. It also explains why many of my younger colleagues and friends seem not to have the issues with the marketisation of society that I do, or to even notice what I tend to regard as its manifest failures. It also explains why the same phenomenon seems to prevail within the education profession: I am aware that my reservations seem not to be shared (at least publicly) by very many in the younger two-thirds of the profession. The obvious explanation is simply that they have grown up in a different era, more acclimatised to current norms and expectations. Maybe it really is nothing more than an illustration that I am getting longer in the tooth, than I care to admit.

But I don’t think so. Being adapted to a certain climate is no guarantee that it is actually benign.

I’ve been reading Seneca. The most striking thing about reading a 2000-year-old author is the similarities in the fundamental concerns of life then and now. In many ways, basic human need has not changed very much – and consequently neither, I suspect, has the need for an educated mind with which to tackle life’s difficulties and uncertainties – and whose success in doing so provides an equally enduring reward through a “well-lived life”.

Seneca counselled an approach to life that would serve us very well at the present moment. Yet modern education is moving further and further away from educating the “whole person”. It has become just another systematised production-line: good at maximising output, but lousy at quality control.

While it is of course important that every single young person gets a fair crack at the whip, that importance diminishes if the whip itself actually isn’t really very worth having. No amount of standardised, conveyor-belt education can ever attend adequately to the needs of distinctly un-standardised individuals. Those whom it attends to least are, as usual, those who arguably need it most. Neither is the answer to make the individuals more standardised.

Never has it struck me more forcefully than now, how essential real education is. Society’s responses first to Brexit and now to the coronavirus are symptomatic of a nation that simply lacks the widespread personal-intellectual maturity and resilience to cope with adversity.

That is a failure, amongst other things, of its long-term educational approach. We have created a society that is so deafened by the noise of trivial distractions that we have not bothered to develop the internal grit – strength of personality and character – to cope when it stops, and we are forced to fall back on the void where our own personal resources should be.

Many seem to be afraid of how they will cope when they no longer have endless working hours to fill their lives, to help them avoid having to stop and contemplate anything more fundamental – like how to address our own mortality, or the fragility of modern society. They seem to lack the intellectual horsepower that might help them get a grip on the real nature and scale of the current problems – and deal with them in a thoughtful, considered and resilient way.

A local acquaintance told me about his (adult) daughter – who goes out every night to some kind of event. They have all stopped; her comment was, “My life is over”. My response, had I met her in person, would have been, “No: it has just begun”. I tried the same approach, with varying success, with my students in the week before the college closed: “Now is precisely the time when you have an unprecedented opportunity to find out more about yourself, and what you are capable of when all the scaffolding is taken away”.

What it boils down to in the final reckoning is a system that does not know how to stop consuming. In a very real sense, education is just being consumed in exactly the same way as everything else: superficially, at top speed – and then discarded, without ever a chance to savour, and learn from, the quality of what really does not benefit from rushing so giddily past.

This is what concerns me about the headlong rush to cover exam syllabuses: at what point do students ever have the chance to stop and ponder the implications and deeper meaning of what they are encountering? How are they ever supposed to gain in wisdom from their studies if they are whip-cracked ever onwards, the whole thing just merging into an indistinct blur whose only purpose is to be just sufficiently organised that it can be regurgitated in an exam?

It is incredibly difficult to buck this trend, not least because it is now the prime determinant of what people expect education itself to be like. That goes for the teachers as well as the students. I have tried hard to enhance my new students’ lessons, in order that they could understand and appreciate the significance of what we are covering, rather than just fill pages with notes that do nothing more than scratch the surface.

It is, however, difficult to persuade them that this is worth doing, as it seems to be something they haven’t encountered before. It is almost as hard to convince colleagues that it is worth disrupting the hell-for-leather teaching schedules for, too. It is hard to persuade them that occasionally going a little off-piste for the sake of contextualising and enriching learning may be entirely productive even in the narrow, exam-specific sense. There is value – where one judges it appropriate – in going beyond what the exam board says we should know. Especially when the dividend is better learning – and wiser people.

There is so much more to education than skimming an exam specification. And so much more to teaching. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should abandon exams and formal syllabuses in favour of a 100% curriculum of fuzzy navel-gazing. But there is an art to getting people to think that is beyond “being lost”; in my experience, it is already widely lost. We are in a situation where education consists – and can consist – of sitting in a room going through the motions, without any real thinking going on at all. Just as long as sufficient is remembered to get through the exam. It’s not really the teachers’ fault, nor the institutions’. This is what, via the democratic process, ‘the nation’ decided it wanted its education system to become.

As a result, we are perhaps in the final throes of an education system that no longer knows why it really exists, except to perpetuate its own conveyor belt-like existence churning out more false certainties to people left too incurious ever to discover better. And to distract from the really big issues they need to be thinking and learning about. That art resides in allowing teachers to be more than mere technicians: to draw on their own intelligence, wisdom and above all humanity, in the interests of drawing the same qualities out of their pupils.

That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all: in these most pressing of times, the one force within human society that has the potential to help people to cope – education – has, to my mind failed to prepare them adequately for the enduring challenges of existing and surviving – let alone thriving – on this planet. It was too busy meeting targets. In the interests of preparing people to be compliant workers and consumers, it failed in its duty to encourage them to become complete humans. And faced with the last-chance saloon for doing so, it is still so busy listening to its own trivial internal chatter that rather than looking hard at what it could be doing right now, it is just busy churning out even more of the same. Fiddling like Nero. Meeting targets. In overdrive.

Holding this belief central to my own practice, I have seen all over again why my own sense of purpose went into meltdown those years ago. I simply cannot spend an hour in a classroom with young people and come out feeling they have done nothing more than learn how to jump through a few new hoops, but are otherwise none the wiser.

I feel that the way people are responding to the present wider emergencies is vindicating me.

Guest post: ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ or How to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine – Part 1

Stress seems to be a problem that is everywhere these days. Its implications for individuals are widely appreciated, but perhaps less well-understood. In this guest post, Adam Bantick discusses the causes of exam stress, and in part 2 he will examine strategies for addressing it.

He would like to hear the thoughts and experiences of others on this subject and can be reached via the comments column.

Adam teaches History at Colchester Sixth Form College.

We all know that exams are stressful, and so if we can find ways to overcome these stresses, then we should be able to train our students to become better at exams. A frequent comment from those tasked with dealing with the stress of life-or-death situations, from the police to the armed forces, is that ‘and then my training kicked in’. This article aims to explain what Exam Stress is, how it can be dealt with, and how to train our students to become Exam Machines. Part 1 explains what Exam Stress is, and Part 2 explains how to deal with it.

The problem is that exams are stressful situations, and the human body reacts to stressful situations in particular ways. Although much has been written about students feeling stressed before exams, and how teachers can help their students to deal with these stresses, these are mostly about mental health or a ‘how to revise’ strategy. Little has been written about what actually happens during an exam and how these stresses impact on student performance. Sometimes students remember enough to tell us afterwards, but other times they appear shell-shocked and unable to remember anything about the exam.

We need to understand what exams are, as well as what happens when we take them. Exams can be defined as time-limited, high stakes (pass/ fail/ graded), and taken solo. For these reasons, they are usually stressful – which manifests itself in a number of ways such as feeling sick, sweaty palms, needing the toilet, being thirsty, unable to concentrate, unable to remember…

Our brains have evolved to deal with stressful situations, but with the consequences listed above. A simplified explanation (Horvath and Lodge 2016), is that the brain has three parts which interact together. The Hypothalamus bridges the emotions and physical senses, and connects to the endocrine system controlling the flow of hormones in the body.

The Hippocampus stores information, and is very important for learning and retrieval of facts and concepts. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain. It includes Working Memory (holding and using information in the brain), Impulse Control (controlling outward physical behaviour), and Decision Making (choosing which response to give).

When a Threat is identified, two kinds of thinking are used, depending on the threat level. If a Mild Threat is encountered e.g. crossing a busy road, the brain uses Cold Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be low. The Hypothalamus produces small amounts of stress hormones, but the Hippocampus and Pre-Frontal Cortex operate as normal. If a Serious Threat is encountered e.g. driving test, the brain uses Hot Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be high. The Hypothalamus floods the body with the stress hormones Cortisol and Norepinephrine. Cortisol in the Hippocampus stops the neurons in the brain from communicating with each other, stopping memory retrieval. Norepinephrine in the Pre-Frontal Cortex prevents the neurons from working together, and affecting the ability to speak, write etc. The brain is shutting down non-essential functions in order to meet the Serious Threat. The Cold Cognition-driven Pre-Frontal Cortex has been supplanted by the Hot Cognition-driven Hypothalamus, affecting the ability to think straight, recall information, and write it down accurately – thus, poor exam performance.

The effects of Cognitive Stress are widely known, with most people familiar with the idea of ‘Fight or Flight’, where we either physically deal with the Serious Threat or run for our lives from it. As fighting a battle is about as stressful as it gets, soldiers have to confront this situation in their day jobs.

Military psychologist Leo Murray (‘Brains and Bullets’ 2013) identified not just Fight or Flight, but two other conditions as well – the ‘Four F’s’. Fight is where the body prepares for a physical encounter by using adrenaline to prime the muscles for action, by giving the feeling of extra strength and damping pain by narrowing blood vessels. Flight is where the adrenaline prepares the muscles to flee. In both cases, the body shuts down non-essential functions, such as food digestion, by re-directing blood flow to essential organs such as the lungs – sufferers feel ‘butterflies’ or nausea in their stomachs. Freeze is where the brain cannot decide whether to fight or flee, and sufferers are ‘caught like a rabbit in the headlights’, and do nothing – often appearing zombiefied. Fussing is where the brain moves on from Freeze, but not enough to do anything. The sufferer will ‘fuss’ over things that are trivial but well-learnt, such as re-checking equipment that does not need checking (micro-managing).

In addition to the Four Fs, Murray also identified Thinking Straight and Seeing Straight as problems. Thinking Straight is where the brain prevents rational thinking by cutting out new information/ short-term memory, and reverting back to older, long-term memory. In Murray’s observations, sufferers would blank out new instructions and follow older plans, despite the fact that they had been told of changes to the plan. Seeing Straight is where stress produced shut-downs of perception and senses, such as blurred vision, time speeding up or slowing down, or decrease in motor-skills. Depending on the gravity of the Stress Threat we face, we all respond in some form of the Four Fs and Thinking/ Seeing Straight, and we can see how that would play out in an exam that we found particularly stressful, with faster heart rate, feeling sick, sweating, time-speeding up, inability to remember ‘known’ facts, reversion to pre-prepared answers, going blank, doodling on the paper…

As well as the ways that stress affects our thoughts and behaviour, there are other, more education/ exam focused issues for us to consider. Dave Putwain (2008) has discussed Test Anxiety and Exam Stress, although there are similarities between them. Test Anxiety can be described as the way that we feel about the idea of exams in general.

A Test Anxious person will see exams as a Serious Stress Threat. The sufferer will fear failure, and being judged by others as a failure. This fear of failure will transmit to fear for the future, where no exam passes = no job. This fear will result in a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the sufferer will procrastinate to put off the inevitable failure. Exam Stress can be described as the way we feel about the current exam or round of exams.

The Exam Stress sufferer will face having to do lots of exams in a short space of time, exam season will impact on social life/ eating and sleeping patterns, this particular high-stakes exam fear (‘If I fail this exam I will be thrown out of 6th Form’), and judgements from peers, teachers and parents. Putwain says that Test Anxiety and Exam Stress have particular effects on individuals.

‘Catastrophising’ is where the sufferer cannot get a sense of perspective about exams, and the slightest problem is seen as a catastrophe e.g. ‘I cannot answer Question 2, so I will fail this exam, then I will not get a job and I will die in a ditch’. ‘Selective Abstraction’ is where the sufferer focuses only on the negative things, and ignores what has gone well e.g. ‘I may have done Question 1 ok, but I’ll fail Question 2’. ‘Behavioural problems’ are where the Hot Cognition problems kick in, and ‘Personalising’ is where the sufferer feels that failing exams is just another thing that they fail at in life e.g. ‘I am the most stupid person in the world’.

So far, we have discussed why exams are stressful and how they affect our performance. In Part 2 we will discuss what we can do about these stresses and even turn them to our advantage to perform better.

Never say never again

When I awoke on Wednesday last week, I had not the slightest thought that by the end of the day, the profession that had so unceremoniously ejected me in 2016 might have called on me again. The view from the ‘outside’ has showed me just how much of a person’s life teaching steals, and I had decided that it has already had quite enough of mine. It was never that I disliked the actual teaching; in fact quite the contrary – but the whole package of what is these days imposed on the profession has tipped the balance too far to the negative, and its impact on my mental health had made that all too evident.

Over the past three years, I have found plenty of other rewarding and varied things to do with my life; since I managed to shake off the worst of the mental health issues that were the profession’s most immediate legacy, there has rarely been a dull day.

So the call from a former colleague, in need of someone to cover for a medical absence put me in something of a quandary. The local sixth form college is one of the few places that would still attract me; sixth form work was always my first preference. Such places also tend to be rather more grown-up in their outlook, and perhaps less condescending to those who work for them.

Despite the jangling of background nerves, I paid them a visit on Friday, and found the experience surprisingly comfortable. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess, and there was certainly none of the feeling of strangeness that accompanied the interviews I have had in other workplaces in the past couple of years.

So, if all goes according to plan, I will begin work on 5th November, just a week short of three years since my last time in the classroom – reincarnated as a teacher of ‘A’ Level Government & Politics, albeit just for a short while. We’ve been able to settle on some subject matter that is very comfortable too, and I’m actually quite looking forward to getting on with it.

I have no expectation of this leading anywhere; in any case I don’t want to return to the long hours of full-time teaching. But it has since occurred to me that this is nonetheless quite important: even if I never go near a school again, it will provide a different ‘ending’ to a story that so far finishes with my ignominious crashing out of my chosen profession in 2016. And that can only be good.

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of it.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the shared subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

The Great Exception

Just a reminder that my book The Great Exception – Why teaching is a profession like no other is still available here.

A teacher-reviewer described it thus:

This is a very thought provoking book. It is a challenging read, but once you get into it, it prompts you to reflect on what and how we should be teaching our children. These days, education seems to be all about exam results, but the author argues that there should be more to it than [apparent] academic success. He examines the nature of teaching and learning in depth and successfully makes a case for more autonomy for teachers, who at present, are to some extent hampered and frustrated by prescriptive guidelines on how to manage their classes. Teachers in training could learn a lot from dipping into ‘The Great Exception’.

Here is a short except:

…I want to discuss here the conflicts that the systems-approach creates in terms of what it actually means to be a teacher. The choice of words is important: to be a teacher, not simply to teach. The latter implies a specific physical activity that can, at least in theory, be defined as a discrete set of actions which can therefore be specified and measured. It also implies a recruitment process that is focused on technical proficiency that can be both easily defined for the purposes of job advertisements and judged during the recruitment process. It supposedly makes the evaluation of that process relatively easy when it comes to the whole matter of appraisal, reward and even capability proceedings. However, it overlooks the crucial matter discussed above – that much of being an effective teacher is a matter of personal qualities and characteristics that are neither easily identified nor measured. These non-cognitive qualities may be difficult to identify – but they are often the things that determine what sort of role-model an individual will make – and thereby what context they will generate within which to exercise more specific skills. As Hilary Wilce has observed, children tend to take their leads from role model behaviours not instructions – and it is for this reason that wider teacher-qualities and behaviours are so important.

That schools have to operate within a regulatory framework that promotes quantifiable, accountable decision-making is, of course, not their own fault; neither is it necessarily an undesirable thing in itself, as there clearly needs to be some mechanism for regulating these processes and identifying out-and-out malpractice. However, the presence of such defined, black-or-white prescriptions for teaching can easily cause wider issues to be forgotten under the onslaught of an officially-sanctioned ‘truth’. The ways in which such constraints are then interpreted can lead to a narrowing of job descriptions and a loss of appreciation of the actual qualities that make up a successful teacher, many of which are indeed intangible. However, the latitude for autonomy and self-determination that can be read into such frameworks by individual managements can still make matters significantly either better or worse, as suggested by the varying degrees of teacher freedom observed from one school to another.

The fact that teacher-specifications have increasingly focused on technical capability at the expense of more indefinable personal qualities may be a reaction to outside circumstances, such as the need to widen the field of potential teachers to those who perhaps lack natural talent or insight, but who are nonetheless needed on sheer numerical grounds. Likewise, anti-discrimination legislation has perhaps forced more specific criteria on those involved in recruitment. But it has nonetheless shifted general perceptions of what it is to be a teacher, from that of someone with desirable personal qualities to that of ‘mere’ technical ability.

If this seems like a rather idealistic argument, then I suggest attempting a similar exercise in drawing up a ‘job description’ for an artist, actor or indeed a spouse, and then appraising their effectiveness in finding the ideal candidate. One might also consider the effect of one’s own behaviours on the responses one obtains from such people. Teaching has often been likened to acting in terms of the qualities required to ‘hold’ a class – but a merely technical outline of the necessary requirements for being an actor do not approach an explanation of why some actors are celebrated while others spend a lot of time ‘resting’. It comes down to a unique and largely indefinable set of specific personal qualities. The same is certainly true of spouses; I cannot imagine there are many people who would consider willingly marrying someone purely on the basis of a technical description, for all that dating agencies attempt to do just that…

I am told that the chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman has a copy. Whether it has been opened or not is, of course, another matter…

If I were going there, I wouldn’t start from here…

I’m awaiting the arrival of Robert Plomin’s new book Blueprint: How DNA makes us what we are. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Plomin claimed that the statistical evidence suggests that heritability is a more significant determinant of human characteristics than we like to believe. He also observed that one of the fields proving most resistant to his findings is…education.

I find this rather ironic, given how the education world has supposedly jumped on the bandwagon of evidence-based practice over the past few years. If this is to mean anything at all, it has to be about responding to whatever the ‘evidence’ tells us. Instead, it seems that education is still choosing to ignore evidence that does not correlate with its carefully crafted and jealously protected ideology. We are right back to the Cargo-Cult.

Equally ironically, the often-dogmatic view that the main impediment of individual life opportunities is societal, leads the Left quickly in the direction of the Positive Psychology movement, with its right-wing insistence that anyone can be anything they want, if only they try hard enough (and overcome any social obstacles). The logical conclusion of this, of course, is that anyone who failed simply did not try hard enough, and should be shown no pity. I suspect this is a position that many on the well-meaning Left would feel much less comfortable with.

Having also recently read Danny Dorling’s Inequality and the 1%, which contains a long chapter on educational inequalities, I have somewhat reconsidered my view of selective education – or at least the process by which it occurs. It has become apparent to me that the whole circumstances in which it now operates have changed considerably from what I experienced in the 1970s. For a start, the Eleven Plus is no longer the discrete, everyday classroom test that it was then. Now it is a pressurised, Saturday-morning marathon, which depends on the ability of parents to ferry their offspring to the nearest grammar school. Consequently the whole social display of preparing for and taking it has become more conspicuously elitist than it was. Likewise, the ability of selective schools themselves to control the nature of the test seems to have dropped it right into the laps of those who would indeed use it for social rather than intellectual purposes.

While this has made me reconsider my views on the test, those who are implacably against selection should also bear in mind that the current nature of the Eleven Plus is not the only way it can be. I would argue that the historic approach was fairer, not least because access to it did not depend on anything other than going to school on an otherwise normal day. Today’s inequities are more about the social context than the intellectual principle of the test itself. We should not allow our view of selection to be determined entirely by the means in which it is sometimes effected. Once again, I can’t help but reflect on the considered, low-key  (and reversible) way in which it happens in Germany and Switzerland, countries where matters of intellect and education are not routinely conflated with social status or mobility, as they are in Britain.

At the root of opposition to selection is, of course, the view that it unfairly discriminates against certain groups. Well, discriminate it does, but as Plomin points out, if it is indeed true that aptitudes are more determined by genes than we care to admit, then it can equally be argued that putting everyone through an identical schooling experience makes no intellectual sense, and may just as easily be unkind or even harmful. Socially, we can of course attempt to use uniform education as a leveller – but only by holding the more able back. Which educator would knowingly embrace that – particularly as (in economic terms) it patently doesn’t work?

Plomin is no elitist: he is at pains to show that the conclusions from his findings might just as easily be used to justify more support being given to those who are ‘genetically disadvantaged’, as the opposite.

My reservations about non-selective schooling derive not from any inherent wish to hive off certain ‘elite’ sections of the population, so much as the dulling effects on those who as a result experience inappropriate education for their needs. Unfortunately, most comprehensives were more a matter of ‘secondary moderns with bright kids’ than ‘grammar schools for all’. What was – and is – too often lacking in comprehensive schools is a strongly thoughtful ethic. Note that ‘thoughtful’ need not mean traditionally academic: it is about valuing the power of deep, demanding thinking, and the achievement of high standards, no matter what the discipline. But the agenda in many comprehensives was that high standards are themselves elitist, and were therefore to be rejected.

The dominance of that view is to be seen throughout the comprehensive sector to this day; my impression is that relatively few of those who staff or run our schools are themselves genuine ‘thinkers’. The mania over exam results is no denial of this: more a confirmation that the entire thing is being run by people who either understand little or care less about the true nature of high cognitive development. Those who understood the true relationship between education and exams would be more considered in their approach.

The impact on the population has recently become all too clear: the legacy of education as a form of low-brow entertainment (just because some supposedly struggle to cope with more) did not prevent the campaigns over Brexit – and the subsequent factionalised nastiness – from proceeding on the most facile of bases. It failed to protect the populace at large (including many who should have known better) from being misled – perhaps by both sides. That people are now increasingly recognising that they were misled does nothing to diminish the fact that a more widely educated population would have been better-informed and less easy to deceive in the first place. The claim that ‘we were told what to think by the wrong people’ misses a much deeper truth about the nature of, and responsibility for, individual knowledge.

The same is undoubtedly true in many other situations where the growing power of the media to distort is meeting little resistance from ‘consumers’ who arguably ought to be better-informed and wiser to begin with. It is such qualities and values that bland, dumbed-down, universalised education has too often failed to transmit.

I have never doubted or disagreed with an egalitarian ideal for education; Heaven knows, this country still suffers enough from its historically having been otherwise. But blank denial of the (possible) reality of the situation hardly strikes me as a good position from which to begin. I am not suggesting Plomin’s work should be accepted without careful scrutiny – but if it turns out to be more correct than our sensitivities would prefer, pretending otherwise will only mean we are starting from the wrong place. And this is only going to frustrate the provision of educational opportunity genuinely tailored to the needs of every individual.

Tonic for Teachers introductory offer!

Now that the new school year is well underway, time to think about professional development? Tonic for Teachers is a programme of fifty short audio commentaries (and associated downloads) on issues pertinent in education in the widest sense. Developed in the U.K. from a successful series of delivered CPD sessions, it discusses the nature of the teacher’s craft and sets it in a wider philosophical, psychological and social setting.

Available for a short time only at an introductory rate of approx. £10.00 (charged in Aus$) for unlimited access.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning 

Introducing Tonic for Teachers

 

 

What separates an expert from a novice is not purely technical procedure. It is insight and interpretation – the refinement that allows the expert to ‘read’ a situation more fully and to respond in more nuanced ways.

There is little available in the world of teacher professional development to cater for this need.

Tonic for Teachers is the new online resource that I have created to address this need, using materials from popular and successful CPD sessions and developing many of the ideas proposed in my book The Great Exception.

For a modest one-off payment, it gives access to fifty short short audio commentaries totalling over five hours of material, together with downloadable hard copy, other resources, video links and more, aimed to make it as accessible as possible for busy working teachers. The aim is not to provide quick-fix classroom tricks, but to promote growing insight and increased resilience in classroom practice.

Find out more at Tonicforteachers.com or enroll directly at Open Learning  and please share!

You Can Handle the Truth

For quite a few years, I taught Critical Thinking ‘A’ Level to pupils at KS4 and KS5 (i.e. 14-18 year olds). I observed the great impact of the subject on those who studied it – and I include myself in that. Being trained to teach this subject had a significant effect on my own thinking skills, and has proved to be one of the driving forces behind this blog.

Unfortunately, in my school,the subject was considered a minority interest, and its effect was never taken seriously, despite strong testament from many pupils. The fact that some pupils did not engage with what is a demanding subject sometimes pulled the results down (though others were spectacular), and eventually the school abolished the subject.

I always argued that instead, it should have been made part of the core curriculum.

This programme, recently broadcast on the BBC World Service is one of the most uplifting and relevant things I have heard about education in a very long time. (Sign-up required). It concerns successful efforts to teach even young children critical skills in relation to health care and online matters in Uganda, Norway and the U.S.

I will largely leave it to speak for itself – but if we ever needed a reason to carry on against the odds, this is it.

I also particularly admired the school that places statues of its teachers around the school grounds…

I’m unsure how long this is available for, but it is well worth a listen.

Title: You Can Handle the Truth from the series The Documentary.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csxgn3