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.

Maybe the twain could meet…

Last week’s lesson observation fortunately went well, but as so often, the greatest insight was unexpected. After the observer had departed, the Year 9 class, who had put themselves instinctively on their best behaviour (there are still some one can rely on) relaxed somewhat. They had done 45 minutes of formal study of the possibilities for widening wealth distribution in India. They had worked hard and asked pertinent questions, and had told the observer that they found the subject interesting.

But towards the end of the lesson, many expressed exhaustion at the effort required to sustain their concentration for “so long”. For my part, I had been thinking that it was just what I would expect a normal, undisrupted lesson to be like, pretty much like how every lesson used to be when I was at school.

These are children who can expect a crop of top exam grades in a few years time – and yet quite innocently, they confessed that sustaining concentration for three-quarters of an hour was an exceptional demand on them. Yet again I was momentarily transfixed by the starkness of the contrast between what I consider to be a normal teacherly expectation and the starting-point of even able children. It occurred to me that summed up in that simple exchange lay the entirety of the conflict of expectation I quite often experience with my classes.

The experience cast new light on the complaints, later in the week, of another class, that the assessment I had set them was “so difficult” (it wasn’t) – as though that was an unreasonable thing to do. Somewhere, we have failed to transmit suitable expectations to these children – and to prepare them to be able to meet them.

I’ve been asked several times recently what I think of the protests over the testing regime. I’m in two minds. I can remember, even in primary school, doing sustained reading tests, and a series of others, one of which we were dimly aware was the Eleven Plus; I don’t think we felt greatly stressed by such things- it was just what the teacher gave us. And while the yearly grammar school exam regime was distinctly draconian compared with anything I witness now, and we hated it, we coped.

I have few issues with testing as such, even the proposed base line tests, as I think teachers do need to know who and what they are dealing with: how else can they devise suitable strategies or assess successful learning? On the other hand, the stress that testing causes may well be unhelpful, and I also have deep reservations about the way in which modern education in the U.K. has turned into factory-farming. I am increasingly convinced that the narrowness of the regime and the degree of compulsion backing it is a major cause of the indifference and indolence amongst young people that I referred to in my previous post. I worry that a great deal of the wider educational experience and benefit has been lost, to our collective impoverishment.

The balance between rigorous standards and a broad education is being presented as an irresolvable dichotomy. I don’t think it need be so, and a lot of it comes down not to the children at all, but to those who frame education. For all that I propound a rich, wide and intrinsic purpose for education, I don’t think that this needs to be advanced by unstructured classroom ‘play’. Teachers should model high-level intelligent thought and transmit the message that a serious but broad mind is a desirable asset, that is as personally rewarding as it is practically useful. The achievement of such a state demands high levels of concentration and thought, which children need to be shown and expected to work for. They need to be given a serious-minded programme (including due testing) that equips them for this. Unstructured ‘fun’ in the classroom clearly sets up an entirely different, and in my mind inferior, expectation which serves children increasingly badly as they get older.

The issue of stress is, I think, vicarious. My impression is that most is not coming from the children, but their parents and teachers. Undoubtedly this transmits to the children too: why wouldn’t it if the significant adults in their lives are constantly trumping up the stakes and exhibiting serious signs of anxiety themselves? The fact that these adults increasingly believe that education is a zero-sum game (which is, after all what they have been told) is where the stress comes from. With base-line tests, helicopter parents will be anxious that their little dears do not besmirch the upbringing they have thus far been given, or fail to exhibit the early signs of genius; the SATS of course are a public trumpeting of the success or otherwise of both the parents and the schools upon which multiple fortunes hang.

The problem is neither formal teaching and testing nor the breadth of the curriculum, which need not conflict at all – but the stakes we are being made to play for. I suspect that if we were just to shut up about all this, children would pass more smoothly and perhaps more successfully through a balanced regime of testing-within-learning without all the angst that is supposedly being created along the way.

And if we were also to shut up about education needing to be both ‘fun’ and economically relevant, if we allowed teachers the autonomy to model their own good practice and to make enlightened decisions about what to teach, we could restore the balance between the demands of formal study and the intrinsic value that allows it to remain interesting to children, in a way that could indeed resolve a multitude of problems.

Individualised Bloody Suffering

I have been pondering this post for many months; recent experience has persuaded me to highlight this much misunderstood issue, and the wider dilemma it raises for schools.

In the past decade, in a faculty of consistently around fifteen people, I know for sure that at least six other colleagues have had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). A couple of weeks ago, I encountered for the first time a pupil who had the courage to ‘fess up that she was having some difficulties in class because of the same problem. I wonder how many others there have been.

Depending on whom you believe, between ten and twenty per cent of the U.K. population suffers from this at some point in their lives; there is uncertainty because of much suspected non-reporting. Women are about twice as likely as men to have IBS but it can afflict anyone. Although it typically becomes active between the ages of twenty and forty, it can also affect children, particularly if there is a family history of it. While the condition can to some extent be controlled, there is no cure; in extreme cases, IBS can lead to severe debilitation.

Relatively little is known about its causes, though it most certainly is not ‘all in the mind’. In simple terms, the sensitivity of the digestive tract to pain is enhanced, while the process of peristalsis is disrupted. That said, mental states of health are known to aggravate it; stress is not a cause, but it is known to trigger the symptoms, which may explain why it seems prevalent amongst teachers.

Symptoms are very variable between individuals, but are certainly not the sniggering matter that the condition still seems to elicit. My main point here is that the impacts on an individual are far wider than is widely known. For example:

  • Constipation or diarrhoea or sometimes both.
  • Abdominal cramping and pain.
  • Bloating and swelling of the abdomen.
  • Excessive wind.
  • Urgency.
  • Reflux and upper chest pain.

Equally significantly, but less widely known are the secondary symptoms, including:

  • Lethargy similar to chronic fatigue syndrome.
  • Nausea.
  • Lower back pain.
  • Fibromyalgia overlaps significantly with IBS, and this causes whole-body muscle and joint pain.
  • Urinary problems including night-time waking.
  • Incontinence.
  • Mental health effects. Because the bowel is a major source of serotonin, there is also a psychological element including anxiety and depression which most definitely is not ‘all in the mind’ and is not generated as a result of the general worry that the condition causes.

Some sufferers experience almost continual difficulties, while others have flare-ups with weeks or months of remission in between. Attacks can go on for weeks or months. The pattern of symptoms can change over time, and is almost unique to each individual.

I am not sure how widely this is known in schools, and how seriously it is taken by for example personnel and pastoral managers. Clearly, children who experience IBS need at least a degree of understanding. Perhaps more of an issue are staff who suffer from this or other ‘nebulous’ conditions that may affect their long-term performance.

When schools are run as exam factory-farms (to use a phrase I read this weekend) and when the prevailing mentality is that children’s education – or at least the results it yields – is a zero-sum game, then one might be concerned about the viability of teachers who have problems such as IBS.

While many continue to function with the syndrome, it can become a serious problem. For example, one of my former colleagues was hospitalised with suspected appendicitis that turned out to be severe undiagnosed IBS. In the longer term, IBS can be debilitating, sapping one’s energy and ability to focus, fragmenting one’s sleep and adding to anxiety. Given the open-ended nature of the condition, one might understand schools having concern about the impact of the syndrome on a teacher’s performance.

The all-or-nothing nature of modern education points in the direction that anyone who for any reason is perceived as a lame duck should be removed and replaced by a newer, fitter model. While there is of course legislation to protect people in times of ill-health, the nebulous nature of conditions such as IBS may mean that the protection is less effective, particularly is it is so person-specific and on-going.

On the other hand, nobody chooses to develop conditions such as this; the effects are bad enough without heavy-handed employers adding to the pressure. In the case of teachers, the very nature of their work may add to the problem. To be fair, I am not aware of harsh treatment of sufferers – but equally, experience suggests that the population at large is not aware of the far-reaching nature of the condition. School managers might need to consider the effects on susceptible individuals of events such as lesson observations, and the need to room such people near access to water and toilet facilities.  This does not always happen.It may also mean that teachers need to use strategies that conserve their energy, or allow for recuperation.

In situations like this, where is the trade-off between the needs of the individual to make a living and the rights of the employer to have a fully-fit workforce?

http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Irritable-bowel-syndrome/Pages/Introduction.aspx

http://www.theibsnetwork.org/

S t r e t c h….and squeeze……

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I always try to be very mindful of the need to take pupils into the ‘unknown unknown’. Indeed, I suspect that the type of teaching that only delivers what was stipulated at the outset is one of the main causes of the death of curiosity. It seems to me that young people have not – entirely – lost their curiosity, but that needs must dictate something beyond the limits teachers traditionally drew.

This week, curiosity was roused by an unusual errand that a pupil was asked by her tutor to run for me. As the colleague concerned also happens to be my lift-share and near neighbour, questions were forthcoming asked about our friendship. Normally, I would respond with ‘don’t be nosey’– but instead I responded to the question, “Who is your best friend?” with the reply, “My wife”. It seemed to gain approval. I was then asked whether the teacher concerned was “my best school friend”. I replied that it takes many years’ knowing someone before I would consider them to be a ‘best’ friend, but yes, said individual is a good colleague and indeed friend. I could see the cogs whirring – and again the response was favourable. Thus far am I prepared to go in the hope of compensating for some of the more antisocial attitudes to which modern children are exposed. I think the positive reception was down to the unexpected answers – and I hope those children are marginally wiser as a result.

The need to challenge understanding arose again later in the week – but this time the surprise was on me. We are often urged not to under-estimate children’s prior knowledge, and I suppose this relates to differentiation. I have always had strong reservations about formal differentiation – I worry that its real effect is too often to constrain progress, while being yet another source of additional work for the teacher that skilled heuristic classroom practice can actually remove. And furthermore, I have deep issues with mixed-ability teaching which is the provenance of the concept.

PowerPoint (and Prezi) may have their detractors, but for the geography teacher, they are a god-send, to the extent that virtually all my lessons use them at some point. The capability to bring images of the real world directly into one’s teaching, to annotate, inter-leave with data, animate ideas and more is, in my view unsurpassed.

Over the years, I have increasingly also used them as a tool for differentiation. My  typical lesson plan will involve the making of a PowerPoint. I hasten to add, I do not use it to script lessons, as I see done often. For me, it is a matter of preparing the images and information around which my narrative, discussion and other activities will be built. I used to prepare differentiated presentations for different classes, but increasingly I have integrated differentiation into single presentations. This makes for lots of slides –  for example, there may be several consecutive slides which present different complexities on the same issue.

Judicious use of the freeze button allows me to select either more or less complex versions of each concept according to how the lesson is going. I can simplify or complicate pretty much at will. Each lesson ends up being a unique combination of images, while still allowing me to teach in the traditional, teacher-led way that I prefer.

The week’s second surprise illustrated its potential: I was introducing a new topic, sustainable living, to various classes. The task in hand was to define and discuss under, over and optimum consumption. I expected that less able classes would need considerable time on this while more able ones could progress to the extension tasks. But as the week progressed, it became increasingly clear that the concepts were alien to virtually all pupils. Even the most able struggled with the abstracts behind taking too much – and perhaps too little – from our environment. Far from being conceptually ahead, the brightest class actually took longer to assimilate the ideas than some of the supposedly weaker ones. If they were thinking about in more sophisticated ways, then it was certainly well-hidden. In fact, they simply struggled.

While this is not customary, neither is it unique. I find it concerning that in recent years, I have encountered many able pupils whose on-the-ground practical and cognitive ability appears little different from supposedly much weaker students. I fear it is the pernicious effects of media and commercialism that are increasingly levelling down to the same common denominator – but the able have further to fall. In a lot of cases, attitudes to learning seem to be taking the same trajectory.

Far from stretching children to new heights, it seems the job in hand is increasingly remedial – of bringing pupils up to what one might once have deemed the starting-point. Luckily, creative uses of the tools to hand should make it possible to squeeze rather than stretch – even if we worry that it shouldn’t be necessary.

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

Today I attended a training session aimed at tackling the marking impasse. The aim was to develop smarter marking techniques, and it had been delegated to a poor sap who is a good colleague and friend, so I will begin by making it absolutely clear that this is not a snipe at him, nor indeed any of those present. My intention is to demonstrate that so-called smart working is in fact nothing of the sort.

I was however left with a deep sense that those in the room divided into two camps, with a chasm of outlook between them. I suspect it goes beyond marking, right to the core of what they think education is, and is for.

The session leader had been assiduous in researching the topic and had assembled a selection of strategies from the great and the good. Most of them involved the use of rubber stamps, green pens or various forms of what one might call enhanced peer and self assessment, the aim of which seemed to be to reduce the amount of input needed from the teacher. A number of them consumed considerable amounts of pupil time in lessons. This is not to say that there was nothing that will be worth trying, but as I said, I left with a deep sense that my entire professional and academic instinct is ever more deeply at odds with what is now being advised.

  1. The point of marking is not to make it convenient for the teacher. It is to give constructive feedback and affective praise (where due) to pupils. Why, on the one hand are we being told that marking is so important for pupils that we must do so much more of it, when the next step seems to involve all manner of contorted ways of writing less in the name of keeping it manageable for the teacher?
  2. I consider my job in the classroom is to ensure that pupils become as knowledgeable and skilled in my subject as they can. I do not see how the use of coloured pens, rubber stamps, printed forms or peer breakout groups will do that. They are a bureaucratic distraction and they swallow vast amounts of time that would be better spent studying the subject.
  3. All these approaches do is divert where time is used. If I were to adopt them, any time saved writing on pupils’ books would more than be absorbed by preparing and duplicating paperwork – and my work would be constrained by the need to access the same. Too often, form-filling makes it impossible to say what one really needs or wants to. The time would better be spent marking properly.
  4. These approaches contort lesson planning for the ends of assessment. They divert pupils’ attention from the wonders of the world around them and focus it on the dullness of paperwork, even at their young age. Maybe it is meant to prepare them for the world of work… The effect is to replace a motivating activity with one that is supposed to monitor motivating activity, but is actually pretty dull. It also has the effect of placing a bureaucratic distance between the teacher and the pupils, thereby muting the immediacy of any communication. And we wonder why pupils lose interest.
  5. Many of these techniques assume that pupils are able to assess effectively. The whole point of intellectual activity is that it deals in the realm of the ‘unknown unknown’ (from the pupil’s perspective). By definition, no one is in a very good position to assess the value of material at which they are a novice – so the chances of missing content being seen are slim.

The chasm I referred to earlier, I am afraid beggars belief. It seems there are those (many?) in the profession who seem earnestly to believe that the solution to the bureaucratic nightmare that presently is marking, is MORE BUREAUCRACY. They seem to think that all this low-grade administrative busywork is the answer to the marking problem and moreover that it can actually improve pupils’ learning. This outlook is precisely why the profession is in the dire workload straits that it is.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that there are those of us – often characterised as mavericks – who can see the solution staring everyone in the face. It is LESS bureaucracy. The only piece of kit needed is the ever-ready red pen. All that is needed is to accept that it is not essential to deep-mark everything that a pupil writes; much routine work is quite acceptably tick-and-flicked. Then we could concentrate, as I did today, on deep feedback of a complex piece of investigative work done by my best year nine class, where there were complex ideas to explore. Much of it was done verbally with pairs or threes, and it will be followed up with detailed, personally written comments in red pen. The pupils seemed more than happy with my constructive criticism and heartfelt praise.

The answer as so often, lies not in complexity but simplicity – and an acceptance of the reality of education rather than the imposition of a theorist’s dream. The fact is, marking cannot be, and does not need to be smart. Or if it can, then smart has to mean simple, not complicated. It is time-consuming but important – but it needs to be kept in proportion as the art of the possible.

I wonder why those who sit there (nationally) in rapture at the sound of all those intricate administrative routines don’t actually go and find themselves a job where they can genuinely release the inner pen-pushing minor bureaucrats that they evidently want to be – and leave those of us who just want to teach to get on with it.