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

From novice to master

When seen in the driver’s seat, it is barely possible to distinguish between an advanced driver and a novice. Insofar as it is possible at all, it will mostly not be down to the actual operations that they perform (which are largely the same for any driver) so much as their body language and general ease with the task in hand.

Even when being driven by those two people, much of what makes one more accomplished than the other may only rarely be noticeable, for it resides in the domain of cognition. It is perhaps only in extreme situations that the expertise of the advanced driver may become visible, through the speed of their reflexes, and the strategies they can deploy. In many cases, however, the fact that experienced drivers are known to focus much further away from their own vehicle may simply mean that their expertise rests in the ability to avoid difficult situations in the first place.

It is also true that advanced motorists are taught to break some of the rules hard-wired into novices; for example, there are skills that involve using the whole road to corner safely and comfortably – where appropriate – that would leave a novice quaking. But that does not make it poor practice: it is simply that the master has better appraisal of complex situations and a wider range of appropriate responses to hand.

It is not so different in the classroom. Not many attributes will give away the level of experience of an individual teacher; perhaps age may be an indicator, but even that is not reliable since the profession has mature entrants. The basics of classroom craft are little different no matter what the level of experience.

What makes the difference is what the master-teacher knows, how this enables them to interpret what they are encountering – and how they then react. We might call this Experience. And once again, expert reaction may on occasions involve judicious breaking of the rules of supposed ‘good practice’.

There seems to be something of a backlash against the notion that skilled teaching is largely an intuitive matter, that experience is indeed important. The proponents of evidence-based practice argue that intuition, let alone ‘common sense’ is too dependent on the limited perception of the individual, and that it often misinforms or causes complacency. What is needed, they say, is considered practice based on the results of aggregated evidence.

I consider this to be a false dichotomy. It is not that the arguments for evidence are wrong, so much as naive – and impracticable. A significant proportion of a teacher’s time is spent reactively – adapting according to whatever circumstances arise in their class. Some can be anticipated, but many cannot. There is simply not time for rumination on what the evidence would say before a response is necessary.

The point about expertise being unconscious still holds. Having watched expert teachers amongst my colleagues for several decades, it seems evident to me that they operate at an intuitive level: the teacher is the person, and there is no need for them actively to ponder their response: they just drop automatically into ‘teacher mode’.

The trick of mastery is to reconcile these two elements: leaving a novice to work entirely on intuition may indeed lead to poor outcomes, since even if they have excellent technical skills, they probably lack the insight with which to ‘read’ a situation and reach instinctively for a good solution. A Master, on the other hand, will have precisely that back-catalogue of experience to draw upon (of which they may be only dimly conscious), which will allow them to respond in an effective (but not always predictable) way to a given situation. Embedding good practice in intuition is the answer, though what works on the ground may still not always be what aggregate research suggests; the circumstances of teaching are too situation-specific for that.

It is precisely this catalogue of prior experience that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Master, for it allows them to contextualise what they are encountering in a far deeper and more nuanced way than someone who lacks it. (There have been cases of clinicians correctly diagnosing people in restaurants just by noting their demeanour and subconsciously matching it against prior cases; try legislating for that…).

This is why it is both safe and advisable to allow experienced teachers latitude in their personal practice.

The problem is that this means that school managers have to relinquish control over what happens in their classrooms. The path to achieving mastery also makes it almost impossible to specify or prepare for. The course-leader of a significant teacher training establishment recently conceded to me that far too little is provided to help teachers move towards such excellence. Nobody seems to know how to do it. This is in part because that process does not ‘fit’ neatly with institutional practices; indeed it largely has to be done for oneself – and the traditional way has simply been by serving time. In the meantime, school-based professional development has too often become little more than a means of reinforcing institutional policy agendas.

I did significant work in this area to develop my own practice, and in recent years I offered a series of successful and popular CPD sessions to my colleagues. The intention was not to refine classroom craft (which was often already good) but to enhance the perspectives and contexts which people use to interpret what they encounter.

I regret that my personal misfortune brought this programme to a premature end, so I have been developing an online course using those materials and many more. I will be launching this in the coming weeks as an affordable resource for those who want to take the initiative of moving their own practice forward, and who are not afraid to break with convention in order to do so.

Watch this space!

Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

To appreciate teaching, try learning.

Image result for nicola benedetti

The violinist Nicola Benedetti wrote an interesting piece for the ATL magazine (‘Final Word’, March 2018) on the educational-developmental value of learning a musical instrument. She is entirely correct, that pursuing such a discipline (and never was a word more appropriate) from an early age is an excellent catalyst to wider learning. It is also a lot harder than many classroom subjects.

For me, learning to play an instrument embodies all the essential qualities of good education:

  • The challenge to learn a complex practical/technical skill.
  • The need to acquire (and often commit to memory) a large body of detailed knowledge.
  • The need to understand (and apply) complex theoretic underpinnings.
  • Small scale technical and intellectual challenges to master in the service of…
  • …a much larger ‘whole’ whose effect depends on those niceties , but also the ability to appreciate a higher level over-view.
  • A combination of hands-on practical learning and received wisdom from an accomplished exponent.
  • The complete fusing of those technical elements with the objective of an expressive, aesthetically-rich end-product.
  • The possibility of experiencing ‘flow‘ in the process.
  • The ability to deploy the skills acquired in original, creative ways.
  • An immediate and very informative (audible) feedback by which to judge one’s efforts and make considered improvements.
  • An objective that is (almost) entirely intrinsic – making music is principally its own, deeply satisfying reward.
  • In addition, one might add significant personal development in the challenge of performing to (and thereby communicating with) other people.

After a long break, I have resumed playing my own instruments (at last, the inner ‘spark’ has recovered enough to make this needed…) and all over again I am being reminded of the inherent truths in the above. I have ‘gone back to school’ in another way too: I am now about a third of the way through an online diploma in interior design, which has always been an interest and ambition of mine. Again, the experience of being a learner (complete with tutor, student number and deadlines to meet) is proving informative.

In a rather different way, this subject is also a combination of the technical and the creative, and it is also very satisfying. But while the usual scaffolding of learning objectives, assessment criteria and more are present, it is the sheer affective reward that is making it worth doing. Personally, I need nothing more to re-convince me of the value of the kind of intrinsic-worth education I have always advocated – and on which I thought I would be drawing when I entered the teaching profession.

I would go further: in order to appreciate this, one needs to be back in the position of learner oneself. I am toying (purely theoretically) with the idea that all trainee teachers – if not others too – should be encouraged, or even required, to learn something new for themselves as part of their professional development. (Shock-horror! We might need to grant teachers sabbaticals to allow them to do this….)

There really is no better way of appreciating what education is ‘for’. Doing this reveals the innate truths of the matter, and in so-doing also exposes the endless techno-babble that now surrounds formal education for the needless froth that it is.

One can only appreciate these things by doing them – but once done, no further justification is often needed for either the process or the purpose.

Trying to describe this to those who have never felt it for themselves is like trying to describe colour to the blind – which is probably why  it is precisely the subjects that offer the most intense experiences of this kind that are under constant threat from the philistines who now largely seem to run state education in Britain. (The independent sector has always known rather differently of course, and the arts seem to remain valued in those schools and with those parents). I’m inclined to suspect that those who regularly reduce education to bean-counting and conveyor-belt monotony either have never felt these things, or did so such a long time ago that they have forgotten: the richness before their very eyes suffocated beneath the weight of targets and techno-rubbish that they typically seem to live and breathe.

It would be satisfying to end by saying that is only their loss – but unfortunately, it is not true.

Disorientation

Why am I publicly documenting my mental health problems? Partly as catharsis – but mostly because those glossy adverts for teaching enrage me so much. I think it is necessary to record the potential risks of falling for them…

A new routine has almost established itself; it doesn’t involve getting up and going to work every morning. The last four months are a blur, and I can’t quite believe that the spring flowers are already appearing. A sense of disorientation is setting in, and good though it is not to have to drag myself out of bed at an unearthly hour, it’s worrying.

There are days when I feel like my old self has almost returned – except for the wearying, racing mind, like a car engine revving in neutral. On the other days, it feels as though someone has thrown sand into the closely-meshed gears of my mind. And then there’s the fatigue and the disproportionate angst about every small thing. Such polarity is not yet a recovery, for all that I feel like a fraud on the better days.

The temptation is to make up for lost time when the brain permits, to resume some of the actions of a fully-functioning adult – with the predictable consequences a day or two later. And the unspoken opinion of others seems to be that I am not being as coherent at it feels. A rather fraught session with my talking therapist yesterday suggests that may be right.

It also seems as though my hopes of getting the assurances I need from School are receding; it was pointed out to me that to concede what I need them to would risk opening themselves up to legal action, were I so-inclined (I’m not). Such is the cynicism of modern employment law.

But the racing mind cannot help but chew endlessly over the future; a resolution must happen at some point. The advice is that any return to the classroom would inevitably involve the scrutiny that I know is so unjustified, which triggered the current impasse. I cannot conceive of going through the stress of that process again, even without the feelings of injustice that accompany it. And yet no one remotely seems to think that the result can be annulled, for all that my colleagues keep telling me I have been harshly treated. I am not prepared to have to keep justifying myself in this way, least of all with one hand tied behind my back. Not when the actions of others were so unjustified.

I’ve never been particularly motivated by money, though I do enjoy my comforts. But cutting our household income in half is not an appealing thought, for all that health has to come first. Maybe there is life beyond teaching, but I can’t yet see what it might be. It’s a tough but reliable job, and that has to count for something in uncertain times.

On the other hand, a quick calculation arrives at the top figure under £15 per hour post-tax for my actual  hours worked. Somewhat over double the minimum wage – and I’m expensive for a teacher. One should allow a bit for the extra paid holiday, but it’s still unimpressive. My therapist charges £35 an hour; my G.P. earns double what I do. I don’t begrudge her a penny of it – but she still doesn’t have the unique pressures of the classroom to deal with.

£15 for every lesson taught. 50 pence per pupil per hour. Well, I guess it’s financially efficient. I don’t mind teaching for that; it provides enough for the life we want. But £15 an hour for all the other c**p that the job now involves? For the bullying and micro-management? For the stress of recent years? For the particular upset of the last four months? For the hours of personal and family life given up for the job? For the lack of appreciation and trust? For a totally avoidable broken brain?

Nowhere near enough.

Works in practice but not in theory.

“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference … our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”    Stanley Kubrick

When you’re forced to face the possibility of potentially serious illness, as I was recently, certain things come into full perspective. You realise, for example, that no amount of wishful thinking or reassurance from those around you will make the slightest difference to the reality of the situation. Fortunately, on this occasion, I seem to have escaped – but I guess this is the stuff that gives people existential crises in middle age.

When I taught Critical Thinking, my sixth formers used to struggle with the notion of an indifferent universe – one that is inherently neither good nor bad, but simply is. If one does accept this, the inevitable conclusion is that all notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are nothing more than human interpretation.

What interests me is the reactions that people have to such perceived realities. One can be brutally, even cruelly honest, but Alvesson and Spicer suggest it is more normal for people, organisations and even entire nations to retreat into avoidance, euphemism and self-deception, into stories they tell to create an illusion that the real world conforms more closely than it does to what they desire. There may be some utility in doing this – it makes for reassurance, optimism and unity – but it can also be dangerous if it blinds people to very real threats. For as I suggested, an indifferent universe is not governed by puny human desires, and at a collective scale, that applies as much to societal phenomena as to the natural world. We can no more steer the outcomes of billions of human decisions by ideology alone than we can natural processes by wishful thinking.

An Anglo-German family of my knowledge has just taken the step of renouncing their British-born sons’ nationality in favour of German. I think it is an astute decision, if a difficult one – and in some ways I wish I could follow suit. Whatever one’s opinion of Brexit, there will be an objective effect on this country, no matter what those in the respective camps wish to be the case. I have no idea what it will actually be – but in thirty years’ time, if this country has fallen into terminal decline, history will not judge us kindly for falling for a delusion.  In the meantime, both sides are continuing to interpret developments purely in the light of their own self-constructed narratives; how close they are to the truth, only time will tell.

As for education, I fully subscribe to the inclusive principle that it should benefit as many as possible. I also subscribe to the fact that this means providing quality. But what that really means is far less clear than those who use the word with abandon appear to think. Personally, I tend to believe that we should be trying to cultivate ‘quality’ people – and by that I mean in all their aspects: intellectual, technical, ethical and more generally behavioural. I don’t, however, fully accept that this means giving the same thing to everyone. Meanwhile, the system we have seems to believe that high quality education is synonymous with the largest number of high grades on the nation’s exam certificates; the real-world consequences of this belief, I suggest, beg to differ.

On Friday, for a whole hour I held ‘in my hand’ a class of eleven year-olds. Entirely unexpectedly, they responded particularly well to some questions I posed. We ended up going significantly off-piste and discussing both some impressively philosophical matters as well as the general value of learning. They went away enthused – and one pupil remained at the end, sidled up and asked me an entirely unrelated question about the heritability of cancer, something that was clearly troubling her. I gave the most honest answer I could and tried to reassure her. Within that lesson I seemed to have gained her trust.

I like to think that I delivered high-quality education that hour, for all that it could not have been pre-planned. The skill of the teacher lay in the capacity to capitalise on what developed, and to have the depth of personal resources go where the lesson led. I hope the experience the children had that hour will prove to be durable. But I’m not sure how well it would have scored in official ratings.

Since I wrote my recent epic on selective education, the great and good have been queuing up in the media to denounce the idea. This post is not intended to continue that debate, but the imagery has been telling: The Guardian ran a cartoon in which the key figure was a teacher-caricature straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The BBC website filled its reporting of grammar schools with pictures of red brick, and wood-panelled staircases. (My own grammar was a bland, 1960’s system-built structure…) We are falling back yet again on comfortable prejudice; an impartial, unprejudiced debate this already is not.

My bigger point is this: be it Brexit, selective education, or any other matter, real-world outcomes will be what they will be, no matter how acceptable or otherwise to ideologues. If it is difficult in the extreme to comprehend the entirety of those consequences, it is even more so to anticipate the future. An intelligent way forward would be to accept this, and at least permit a debate that starts from an acceptance of all the realities, harsh and otherwise.

For example, if Robert Plomin is correct and intelligence is more heritable than it is fashionable to believe, the widespread unacceptability of that finding to educators will not change it. We would then be better to accept the fact and work with it rather than carry on wishing it not to be so.

Regrettably, public debate in Britain is not of an especially high quality: those comfortable delusions all too readily come to dominate. The media do not help – but neither do all those who pontificate publicly without admitting their partisan and inevitably flawed positions.

If it were true that selective education delivers more skilled, more thoughtful, more cultured, even more mobile societies, the fact that it is unpalatable to many will not change it. The assumption that education must be about social mobility and attempts to prove that selection does not deliver that, only skews the wider debate away from those essential truths. If unpalatable options are to be shown really not to work, then the ‘proof’ must be devoid of all ideologies and other partisan agendas. In this light, I really have no idea what the answer is – but I doubt many others do either.

“…fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts”. Bertrand Russell

But one thing seems certain to me: denying hard realities because they don’t match our ideologies is self-deception taken to risky lengths. The relevance for Brexit is all too obvious here; for education, it is also critical. If we really are serious about achieving the best outcomes, then we need to work with more than sound-bites and illusory certainties. And we should be honest that some of our priorities may be contradictory, compromise inevitable.

If nothing else, implacable opponents of selection seem to be missing a key point, namely that those who prefer it probably do so as much for reasons of culture and quality as any wish to secure social, let alone financial advantage. I know many who were impeccably opposed – until it came to choices for their own children. Until this is understood, it will never be countered.

I will develop this more in a subsequent post, but my own reasons for at least entertaining the selection dilemma are twofold: one, the knowledge that I would wish a child of mine to receive an education noticeably more – for want of a better word – highbrow than anything I have ever found in a non-selective school; and two: the sure knowledge that those who want the same are not about to give up on it because of other people’s ideological objections.

For all that I respect John Tomsett, his recent claim that state education in York delivers high quality for the whole city cannot be true while that area has as many independent schools as it does. Disliking or ignoring this uncomfortable fact does not diminish it, will not convince those who disagree with him – and may even make the real effects worse. This is the key difference between my stance and the many who will not even countenance discussion of certain conundrums, be they selection or anything else: until we are realistic about the actual issues, pragmatic about the outcomes, and accepting that differing agendas are not necessarily invalid, we will not even begin to tackle the problems they cause.

My Friday lesson undoubtedly broke many conventions and preconceptions about what ‘good teaching’ is, but using the best criteria I have – the impact on the pupils – it worked. Had I stuck to prevailing ideology, I probably would not have allowed the lesson to develop as it did. Neither would I have relied on the instinct and personality traits developed over the years that mean that from time to time, I do manage to strike gold. And perhaps the fact that it only happens occasionally would get me labelled as inconsistent, even though such things are by nature rare.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote of the BBC in Saturday’s Guardian, “it works in practice but not in theory”. Theory clearly has its place – but when it becomes dogma it may be damaging. Until we adopt a more balanced approach, have discussions as honestly and objectively as we can manage, and accept that in an indifferent universe, solutions may not always be found in the expected or even most comfortable places, we are never going to achieve what we largely agree we want.

That applies in pretty much whatever walk of life you want to apply it to. Education included.

Learning hard and easy

The hyper-active blogger Greg Ashman wrote an interesting post a few days ago, and this is my response.

https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/why-learning-is-hard/

He was contemplating why it can be so hard to get children to learn in classrooms, when it is something they seemingly do effortlessly the rest of the time.

In particular, he discussed the ease with which spoken language develops compared with written language, and I think he is broadly correct that there is an evolutionary imperative behind the former that the latter lacks.

However, I suggest that learning is not as elusive in the classroom as he implies; the problem arises when we try to control and direct what is indeed an innate but serendipitous process.

People’s brains continually acquire new information, some of which is retained for varying lengths of time in the process we have come to call ‘learning’. Young humans learn quicker than older ones for all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but if we revert to the primitive condition for a moment, this process is by definition haphazard. In a savage environment, what is beneficial to ‘learn’ and what is not is unlikely to be clear, as indeed is the prospects of being able to exert very much influence over which situations arise from which learning can occur. Furthermore, it is unlikely that primitive humans had the luxury of reflective meta-thinking over what they were learning.

If, as a number of workers suggest, it is correct that the basic workings of human brains have evolved relatively little in the interim, then it immediately creates a problem when we try to channel the learning process. The human brain is not particularly inclined to be directed in this way, and that is without allowing for the effects of immaturity. Even in later life, the loss of autonomy involved in being micro-managed is a major demotivator for people, and one effect of this is a decreased propensity to take in what one is being ‘fed’.

So we find ourselves in a classroom situation where control of the learning process is at best partial. Undoubtedly, the simple act of focusing on an issue is enough to create some learning (always assuming that that focus can be achieved) – but it is no guarantee that long-term retention of the intended material will result, nor that other things will not be remembered instead. Even today, some of the things I remember about my own schooling can best be described as random.

However, I think Ashman is correct to refute what might appear to be the logical conclusion – namely that learning should attempt to emulate the natural process. Placing people in controlled circumstances in classrooms is not natural to begin with – and I doubt that many would advocate just setting children loose in the world to see what they learn. (That said, I fear that many children’s opportunities to explore the world are now severely, harmfully curtailed – but not by teachers).

I think we also have to accept that education in the formal sense is not the same as learning. There is a clear agenda, even if we disagree over its content. And we should not lose sight of the fact that schooling is a process of socialisation, one might even say civilisation, and this too is a human construct. This of course involves the cognitive development of the individual, but also the transmission of societal and cultural information that we want or need the next generation to inherit.

My recent reading of Walter Mischel (see previous post) also casts useful light here. Perhaps the single most important aspect of formal education is the conscious effort to move people to a higher state of cognitive functioning. This is equally important for individual wellbeing and social functioning. I think Mischel is absolutely correct to claim that the critical point here is the ability of humans to defer their instant, instinctive gratifications in favour of more considered longer term objectives. This is effectively what the (supposedly) simple act of Concentration is.

This is as true for the process of empathising with others, of anticipating one’s later life, of not allowing one’s entirely valid, essential emotional life to head in destructive directions – as it is for reaching a considered academic position in a formal subject.

This process of delaying gratification is difficult, demanding work, especially for immature minds. The chances of most of them doing it unaided are slim; allowing people the opportunity to seek immediate gratifications through concentrating on the short term in the classroom can, it seems to me, only lead to most of them repeatedly avoiding facing up to the difficult task.

One might also interpret the whole ‘fun/contingent rewards’ worldview as an attempt to shorten the delay between effort and pay-back. But this can only ever make the required deferment less demanding, thus compromising the chances of the individual eventually developing that capability. This is particularly important for those children who are unlikely to have gained the ability elsewhere, of which the majority are likely to be from less structured backgrounds.

So I think the recent re-emphasis on a demanding education is correct. It may also help if we try to explain these concepts to children, rather than leaving them un-discussed as was the case with my generation – or if we try to kid them that it isn’t happening. Early uses of my Marshmallow Prezi this week did generate interest, and perhaps even a short-term practical pay-back. But then, it is only the beginning of the beginning for this academic year.

I think there is a more immediate lesson here for educators, though.

That is to accept the inherent uncertainty of the process. In particular, we would do well to be rid of the use of the word ‘Learning’ in the sense of a knowable, predictable, quantifiable entitlement. This would in turn divest us of many of the false promises that commodified education makes. And it would also rid us of the huge burden placed upon all who do their best to educate children day in day out, by the unrealistic expectation that it is a simple matter of delivering a pre-packed product, of which the failure to do so can only be down to the ineffectiveness of the provider.

 

Of marshmallows and mobiles

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted what became a very famous experiment known as the Marshmallow Test. A pre-school child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of them, and a bell. The adult left the room, having told the child that they could ring for attention at any time, at which point they would be able to eat the marshmallow. But if they were able to resist until the adult returned (up to twenty minutes later), they would be able to double the reward. The experiment has been repeated many times, and there are plenty of entertaining covert videos on YouTube watching children’s attempts to resist.

One of the issues I want to address this year is that of sustaining children’s engagement at a time when attention spans and motivations seem to be shortening. The school’s intake seems to be changing for the more difficult, and keeping children’s effort and attention is requiring new thinking. As I wrote some months ago, I am increasingly exasperated by the constant demands to have ‘Fun’ in lessons, and that comment by one Year 7 girl who had not done her work “because my lesson was not sufficiently entertaining” is still ringing in my ears. Not because it hurt, but because I felt it is symptomatic of a problem we face with today’s children, namely that many are so indulged that they have no sense of obligation to do anything other than seek immediate gratification. That expectation has been perpetuated by schools encouraging children to want their lessons to be, above all else, fun.

When asked, many pupils are actually very vague about what kind of fun they want; what they really want, I think, is to shorten the pay-back time to their perceived ‘reward’ for the lesson. In a materialistic world, the notion of intrinsic rewards unfortunately seems increasingly thin.

Mischel himself describes the difficulties encountered by indulged children when the school agenda changes with the primary/secondary transition, so I am in good company here. It was a fortunate coincidence that my wife bought me Mischel’s book at this time.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Walter-Mischel/The-Marshmallow-Test–Understanding-Self-Control-and-How-to-Master-it/17432519

I had already been playing around with developments of Daniel Kahnemann’s two brains model, and wondering whether I could use this to tackle the issue in the classroom. I had decided to use three brains (the third, or first, the unconscious brain, being responsible for bodily functions), and I mentioned this rather spontaneously to a class last term. Rather unexpectedly, they threw the idea back at me some weeks later, so it clearly stuck. I am now wondering whether formally presenting pupils with this concept at the start of the year might help them understand why they need to be able to defer their gratification in my lessons at least.

The Marshmallow Test is  a measure of the ability to do just this, and Mischel’s  longitudinal studies (using precisely my own year-group, I realised…) suggests that this early ability can indicate future life prospects quite closely, even into adulthood. In essence it is about the ability of people to over-ride their ‘Brain 2’ (hot, emotional brain) with their ‘Brain 3’ (cool, rational one) when difficult decisions are needed. The stronger one’s ability to do this, the more likely one is to be able to persevere in the short term for the sake of longer term gain.

It turns out that Mischel worked with Carol Dweck, and he outlines strategies that can help people to develop greater resolve. He is directly concerned with their use by teachers and parents, and the link with the overworked but basically plausible idea of the Growth Mindset is clear.

I have prepared a Prezi that I am going to trial with likely-looking classes, and it can be found here:

https://prezi.com/obktg6kxg4ow/your-brain-is-amazing/

I think this might be the making of a ‘nudge’ strategy – I also have a PowerPoint slide of a marshmallow ready to project at a moment’s notice when attention seems to be slipping or the F word gets used…

One unknown is the extent to which the target group of children will be prepared to pay attention to this in the first place, and the extent to which they are willing (or able) to take its message on board. Does conscious awareness of such things make them more or less useful? There is a risk, of course, that precisely those who most need to know this may be those least likely to be able to make any deliberate response. We will see.

Where do mobiles come in? I am also increasingly convinced about the negative impact of mobile phones on children’s concentration spans, let alone ability to find anything else interesting. Mischel writes about the strategies children (and others) can use for increasing resolution to resist. One concerns the mental ‘distance’ one puts between oneself and the temptation. Actively thinking about the tastiness of marshmallows makes temptation worse; thinking about them as fluffy clouds weakens it.

It strikes me that mobile phones are nothing more than the mother of all marshmallows when it comes to modern children’s attention: by definition immediately to hand, and of almost unlimited, instant gratification. The more they use these devices, the shorter their attention span becomes as they get hooked on instant feedback; by comparison, the deferments required by serious learning must seem deeply unattractive, even without all the surrounding inducements.

No wonder they can’t think about anything else. So I am also considering declaring UDI when it comes to phone policy in my lessons. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I have to separate the damned things from the little addicts…

Summerhill by the back door

Desperate times call for different solutions. No, not more about Brexit, though there are parallels. Rather against my better judgement, I found quite a lot to agree with a report in The Guardian about a Berlin school that has turned traditional assumptions about school structures upside down.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/no-grades-no-timetable-berlin-school-turns-teaching-upside-down

In essence, it is the pupils who decide what they wish to study, rather in the way that A.S. Neill’s notorious (?) Summerhill School did (and in fact still does).

http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/

I must admit I still struggle with the dilemma between the traditionalist view that the teacher knows best, that they are the experts in the room, that they should decide what children need to learn and that children should therefore be expected to comply – and the problems that this clearly poses in modern times, where children are simply not equipped with the necessary powers of concentration and respect for authority and knowledge that this approach requires. For all my traditionalist leanings, some of the arguments used by the Berlin school may have some traction.

As I have mentioned before, the intake at my school is changing significantly. In some ways, I suspect this simply marks the end of the charmed life that it has led for most of my time there, and it is now being forced to address the reality that many schools have faced for years. But there have been times this year when I admit I have been at a complete loss for how to engage children who seem to have no inherent interest whatsoever in anything I teach,  whose starting-point is below anything I have encountered before, who have no regard at all for the authority of the teacher or indeed any other adult, and on whom my long-established practices make barely a dent. I am very reluctant to go down the edutainment route because I believe I would be neglecting the very things these children above all others need to have addressed. But on the other hand, the traditional approach is being found somewhat wanting too.

In some cases, these are children who hitherto would have gone to other schools, but no longer. Some of them I suspect come from homes where any kind of structure is absent – but by no means are all from underprivileged backgrounds. Some are clearly quite the opposite, and the phrase ‘silver spoon in the mouth’ does not begin to describe the attitude of entitled condescension that they manifest. But the one thing these two types have in common seems to be the sense that they need not lift a finger in support of their own education. Indeed, when challenged over their lack of work, one eleven-year-old this week told me to my face that my lesson had “not been entertaining enough”.

As I said, desperate times call for new solutions. I wonder whether this German approach might have something to recommend it. I think there are two important points here: firstly, so far as one can tell, there is no judgement made about the teacher in situations where, for instance, children choose not to engage with their lessons; likewise, there remain consequences for children if their chosen approaches do not yield the required outcomes. This is not responsibility-free freedom.

By coincidence, I have been deploying a somewhat unorthodox approach to my dilemma outlined above. I am fortunate to have a connecting classroom that is rarely used at this time of year. Consequently, the opportunity has arisen for children to be given the choice of whether to participate in my lesson and thereby accept my rules and expectations, or to spend the time in the other room (albeit under discrete observation by me).

The only consequence is that they will need to explain themselves if found during learning walks (having chosen to opt out of their lessons, they are not being deprived of anything by me) and the lack of marks in their books with consequent lowering of reported grades. In some cases, I provide opters-out with the work to be done at home. A few have chosen to remove themselves – but those who remained have generally shown improved co-operation, and lessons have been smoother without the disruptive elements. After a few weeks of this, one or two are beginning to see this a skive, and I need to think what to do next about them. But opting-out rates have fallen, and the effect seems to have been marginally beneficial. I expect to get into trouble for this sooner or later – but as I said, difficult circumstances require new thinking.

In an age when children come with the Attitude that they do, I increasingly believe that making them face the consequences of it is the only way to break through the arrogance and complacency that causes many of them to think that they can behave as they like within the classroom, safe in the knowledge that their “rights” are inalienable.

Schools and teachers have increasingly been shorn of the ability to deploy sanctions that hit home to this breed of sassy, brazen youth, and children know it. Given that children are now so marketised, perhaps the only thing left is to make them face the consequences of their consumer choices, make them actively ‘buy in’ to their education if they want it, rather than letting them get away with the diminished responsibility whose main effect is to damage the opportunities of the better-thinking others.

Sometimes it is only when we are deprived of something that we come to realise its true value.

First, engage the correct brain…

There are times when one has to stop being a subject teacher and just be a teacher. When concentration is lagging, or pupils are whingeing about the lack of Fun, I’ve found that they seem to resonate somewhat with a ‘three brains’ model. I’m not claiming any credit for it since it just grew from my reading of basic psychology, notably the work of Daniel Kahneman.

Silently, I just clear part of the board, and draw a simple side-profile of a head, with a brain inside. I put three asterisks at the back, middle and front and number them one, two, three. Curiosity has often been aroused by this point. I either label the diagram, of give a simple verbal explanation along the lines of 1) primitive (rear) brain, responsible for metabolic function 2) mid-brain, responsible for emotions and 3) front brain, responsible for higher thought.

Two and Three correspond to Kahneman’s two modes of thought. I explain that people’s minds ‘naturally’ reside in Brain Two, where emotional responses rule, whereas learning requires the use of Brain Three, higher thought. I  explain that Brain Three also requires most ‘energy’ and one has actively to move one’s mind into that mode.

It’s over-simple – but in the last month I have had three occasions when pupils have bounced the idea back at me in subsequent lessons. It’s something they seem not to know, which is odd when one considers how much effort has gone into meta-thinking about the educative process. I think this also helps to explain some of the issues I’ve raised in my previous two posts: a life of indulgence has the effect of pampering Brain Two, while reducing the need to activate Brain Three. While people can aspire on the grounds that Brain Two is unhappy, it requires Brain Three thought to figure this out – and pampered people have little reason to make this effort.

But I think it is a mistake to imply that Brain Three is the only important one. People need to be able to leave Brain Two in good hands in order to be able to put themselves in Brain Three mode, without the self-fulfilling worry that Brain Two will reassert itself. It’s why people can’t think when they are afraid, or when their basic needs are being threatened. That is why I’ve always considered that building good relationships with pupils is paramount, and far more important than any teaching techniques that one subsequently chooses.

My current reading is Ha-Joon Chang’s book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, which despite its glib title, is a thoughtful critique of economic theory. As a South Korean (now Cambridge professor) he has an interesting position from which to comment on the way Britain runs its affairs, including education. It might suggest that we have been guilty of running our society too strictly along the lines of economic Brain Three, while ignoring the costs of neglecting welfare Brain Two.

Thing 5: Assume the worst about people and you will get the worst.

People are not rational economic beings, motivated only by self-interest. If you assume that, you will contaminate people’s evident other motivations, and spend inordinate amount of precious resources checking up on them to make sure they aren’t cheating. You will also add pressure that will make them more likely to cheat for self-preservation.

Thing 9: We do not live in a post industrial society.

The salient point is that you cannot increase productivity in services the way you can ramp it up in manufacturing. If you do, it will be at the cost of quality.

“In some cases, the very attempt to increase productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a twenty-seven minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled?”

School managements and government ministers take note.