The power to change men’s common way of thinking.

-Diderot

I’ve recently been teaching my Year 10 students the content of the poetry anthology for GCSE English Literature. In order to develop the pupils’ contextual understanding, and their understanding of what some of these poems are doing, we’ve been discussing Romanticism. As part of this, I found a BBC documentary about The Romantics over four episodes. The first episode explores the influence upon Romanticism of the French Revolution, and appears to present a juxtaposition between two friends: Rousseau and Diderot. The former, seeing feeling and emotion as offering a future of freedom for man who is “born free, and everywhere he is in chains” is played by a floppy haired David Tennant wondering around the wilds of nature. Meanwhile, Diderot is presented as seeing reason as being the means by which man will be set free and is played by a besuited and straight faced Jason Watkins.

Now, I don’t actually know very much about these two men, but a brief glance at Wikipedia reveals that this presentation is, of course, far too simplistic. Neither man really sought to promote either reason or emotion over the other, but argued for a recognition of the value of both.

But while I was watching the programme I was reminded of another documentary I had seen recently. I finally subscribed to Netflix and have been thoroughly enjoying the original series of Star Trek. I began with the pilot episode, with the Enterprise under the command of Captain Pike, and have been going through quite systematically. I’m now half way through the second series, and the portrayal of the characters is well defined and developed. Netflix recommended for me a documentary made by the son of Leonard Nimoy, reflecting on the life and work of his father. At one point in the programme, some talking head or other made the case that Mr Spock and Dr McCoy represent a kind of devil/angel duo, sitting on the shoulders of Kirk. Spock, of course, with his Vulcan logic and reasoned arguments is placed in contrast with the emotional McCoy. Between them, Spock and McCoy combine to make the ideal human being: Kirk.

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I can’t help to see some echoes of all these ideas in the discourse on #EduTwitter, with the juxtaposition of progressive and traditionalist ideas about education. Frankly, I don’t like either of these terms. Progressive ideas have been around since the dawn of mass schooling; indeed even before, with Romantic poets rejecting the schoolroom. But the divisive nature of the discourse is getting frustrating. As a number of writers have pointed out, there has been a dominant orthodoxy in schools for decades, with progressive ideas grounded in social constructivism being pushed by ITT providers, Ofsted and SLT. Now, over the last few years, a rising number of voices online have been arguing the case for “traditionalist” methods or/and a “traditionalist” methodology. The swing of the pendulum in policy reflects both the influence of the argument, and perhaps the co-opting of the argument by those who some have labelled as neoliberal forces. Whilst these concerns may be valid, the nature the rhetoric is bizarre.

Inevitably, these voices of traditionalism are being challenged less and less by rational, reasoned argument or even calls to philosophical emotion, but more and more irrational, abusive versions of emotional outburst. For evidence, one need only look at the abuse hurled at #Michaela, or the kind of language used when people are gossiping about @oldandrewuk. I have read a couple of blogs lately that have sought to position the rise of traditionalist teaching on the same political line as the far right, where traditionalist are compared to Farage, Trump, nazis and fascists. Such blogs spectacularly fail to understand traditionalist teaching, nazism and fascism. But more fundamentally they fail to see that preference for teaching methodologies has very little to do with party political preferences or left/right wing thinking.

And there are those who prefer to deny the debate, or use one term whilst refusing to accept the other. The #nobestway chat is illustrative of an attempt to close the debate rather than to contribute to it.

But perhaps the most obvious sign of the decline in the standard of debate must be the emergence of parody Twitter accounts whose sole intent is abuse.

So, here’s my call to the new New Romantics, the NeoRomantics: come forward with your impassioned but well reasoned arguments. Let’s have our Spocks and our McCoys hammering it out so that the Kirks can get on with making informed decisions; and let’s ignore the troublesome tribbles.

Perhaps this conversation is misplaced,
And words are squandered, twisted out of shape.
Progressive and tradition now disgraced;
A dance macabre from which they can’t escape.
These tortured yin and yang both rooted in
The same historic fractured, tainted ground,
Where myths of freedom, myths of discipline
Become the prattling, clanking background sound.
And all are blind and deaf amidst the din,
Unwilling or unable to discern,
The biggest, darkest, clearest stubborn sin
Is when debating has no place to turn.
The greatest strength that one can ever find,
Must be to welcome challenges of mind.

I’ve been resisting the urge to write about Michaela Community School. This is mainly because I am ambivalent about it. I have not visited the school, and I have not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers. I know nothing of the school beyond the discourse on Twitter, and some basic Internet searches. I am aware that my initial thoughts about the school probably reflect my own ideology (and there’s a whole other Foucault inspired blog post waiting to be written on that topic).

Therefore, it is not my intention (yet) to comment upon its practices, and certainly not my intention to comment upon the individuals who work there. I’d like this to be very clear because there are those engaged in EduTwitter who are perfectly happy to criticise and make comments about this school and its staff without looking beyond the rhetoric. They argue that the school puts itself on a pedestal, engaging in aggressive self-promotion via insulting the rest of the teaching profession. There is some interesting dialogue occurring in response to the information which MCS puts out, but I fear that this gets lost in the shouting and boo-hissing which seems to erupt around this school, as if it were some pantomime villain. I must confess to finding some of the rhetoric from MCS somewhat distasteful, but it certainly does not warrant the kind of venom which oozes through a tweet labelling its staff as a “bunch of c****s”.

So, whilst I am not here to critique the school itself, I am really rather intrigued by the discourse surrounding it. And this is perfectly exemplified by the reaction to an advert published in the TES purporting to be for a School Detention Director at MCS. I say “purporting” because some of the response on Twitter has been to question the authenticity of the advert, such is the nature of its wording. Here it is:

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Days are 7:30am to 5:30pm, with Friday ending at 3:30pm

Do you like order and discipline?
Do you believe in children being obedient every time?
Do you believe that allowing children to make excuses is unkind?

If you do, then the role of Detention Director at Michaela Community School, could be for you.

This role isn’t suited to a would-be counsellor or to someone who wants to be every child’s best friend. This role is for someone who believes children need clear, firm discipline. This role is for someone who believes tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults.

We want someone who will analyse data, organise detentions, line-manage staff, be a sergeant major in the detention room, ring parents, be extremely efficient with time and paperwork, have heart-to-heart conversations with pupils and be inspirational.

You do not need any experience, but must be willing to learn on the job. You will need reasonable spoken English, but your written English does not have to be excellent. You must also be hard-working, willing to get stuck in and own the job like it is the most important thing in the world to you.

We will train you if you are the right person for the job. So don’t imagine you cannot do it. If you have presence, passion and a good voice, then we want to meet you!

The salary we are offering is far higher than a job like this would normally pay. This is because we want someone who is truly excellent. Even if we start you at the bottom of the range, the pay will rise quickly if you are good.

 

[Link is currently here, but I don’t intend to keep this updated, and I assume it will cease to work once the deadline has passed.]

Every aspect of the advert has been commented upon or derided in the Twitter chat, from the salary of £22k-£35k (“How can a school afford this?”), to the nature of the rhetorical questions, to the phrase “sergeant major”, and the stipulation that “your written English does not have to be excellent”. Indeed, the very existence of the advert has been seen as evidence that the school’s infamous behaviour policy doesn’t work. I can’t help but admire the kind of double-think that such a complaint requires.

But here’s the point. You know what this job is about. There is a kind of honesty about the wording, even if it does revel in its own brand of hyperbole, that is often lacking in school job adverts.

For comparison, let’s have a look at some of the other adverts currently listed on TES. I’ve selected secondary and I’ve also selected teacher in order to discard promoted roles. I’m not going to include the names of the schools or provide links.

Here’s the first one:

We seek to appoint a teacher of Physics with the ability to teach to A Level. This position is a full time post. We require someone with a strong subject knowledge and a passion to teach all the sciences to our younger students as well as Physics to our senior and most able students. This is an exciting opportunity for either a newly qualified or more experienced teacher to work within an ambitious and supportive department in a high achieving school. Excellent opportunities for development exist.

[School name] achieves outstanding examination results, has a strong focus on extra-curricular provision and seeks to nurture “mind, body and spirit”. We expect our staff to be fully committed to this ethos.

 

Here’s the second one:

[School name] is expanding its team as the school scales up and we launch our new sixth form and middle school. We are looking for an excellent art and design teacher who is passionate about their subject area and ready to develop their practice in a dynamic and innovative teaching environment. [School name] is an all-through school and your role will offer the opportunity to teach in the middle school as well as 14 to 18. The successful candidate will be an experienced teacher of Art and Design with a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress. Ideally, the candidate would have experience of teaching A-level and GCSE Art and Design and will have a well-developed skill set in the areas of printmaking, painting or illustration.

We believe the teaching of art and design should support students to think independently and to develop their own creative confidence as a means to making a difference to the world. Creating beautiful and expressive work is a key feature of [School name] as a whole and therefore we are looking for a highly collaborative individual who is passionate about spreading the use of arts or design-led approaches across the curriculum.

We are keen to build cross curricular links and develop projects that involve external partnerships. Our ideal candidate will enjoy collaboration and be keen to share and develop their understanding of project-based learning. Art and Design is popular subject within the secondary school and this will continue to be the case in the sixth form and middle school, so we are looking for a confident teacher who can help us build a distinctive and bold vision for the department going forward.

You will be trained in and develop a range of pedagogies including oracy-rich learning, project based learning, coaching, advanced literacy techniques and using technology effectively in the classroom. English Language is central to the life of [School name] and all teachers are expected to develop reading, writing and speaking skills within their subject. All teachers will also be expected to be a coach to about 13 students, developing their professionalism, well-being and confidence. In order to do this effectively, you will be trained as a one to one coach. Our oracy curriculum, teacher toolkit and our collaboration with Cambridge University has resulted in a school filled with purposeful talk and thinking. You will have the chance to shape this exciting area of the school’s culture, along with the ethos and core practices of the sixth form and middle school.

[School name] is a very special and different kind of place to work in. We empower staff to find their voice and their creativity. We offer collaboration and learning across ages and subjects. All staff have more planning time than most schools and a tailored programme of professional development which results in extraordinary outcomes for the students. We offer multiple routes to progression through subjects and pedagogies. We believe strongly in developing the full potential of all staff.

[School name] has built strong foundations in a short period of time, confirmed by our recent Ofsted which was outstanding in all categories. There was strong recognition for the ethos and approach of the school:

“Pupils across the school make exceptional progress.”

“Pupils have excellent attitudes to learning, impeccable manners and show respect for everyone.”

“Staff morale is exceptionally high. Teachers at the early stages of their career value the ‘fantastic’ professional development and opportunities to learn from each other. Those with more experience said that they have become much better teachers since joining the school.” 

Through project-based learning “pupils achieve remarkable standards of work and demonstrated knowledge and skills at levels beyond those expected for their age group.”

“Pupils talk and discuss with a maturity and confidence that is remarkable for their years.”

The successful candidate will be:

  • An excellent teacher and subject specialist 
  • Experienced at developing other teachers 
  • Skilled at fostering independent, student-led learning 
  • A creative and deep thinker about pedagogy 
  • A teacher of English language skills 
  • Innovative in using new technology to enhance learning 
  • A collaborative planner, able to work across subject disciplines 
  • Interested in the growth of every child – head, heart and hand 

ABOUT [SCHOOL NAME]:

  • 4 to 18 mixed, inclusive school in the heart of Stratford, Newham 
  • Cutting edge pedagogy and curriculum 
  • Small – only 75 children in each year group. From September 2017 we will have years 7 to 11, Reception to year 4, a new Sixth Form beginning and a Middle school starting for years 5 and 7 in the first year and years 5 to 8 in the second year. 
  • All teachers spend between 3 to 4 hours a week with their coaching group of about 13 students 
  • We have plans to set up two new schools in close proximity to [School name] which will give staff more opportunities to grow and develop. 

WE OFFER:

  • Outstanding career development and exceptional CPD 
  • Generous TLRs based on experience and skills 
  • The chance to network with outstanding practitioners and learn from the best 
  • Collaborative working across the 4 to 18 school 
  • Leadership training and development opportunities 
  • A strong feedback culture so that teachers can develop in areas of their practice that are important to them 
  • Every teacher being part of a team/circle that develops strategic practice

And a third:

[School name] is an established, successful and oversubscribed 11-18 mixed comprehensive school with 1300 on roll including a Sixth Form of 350+. The school is situated in outstandingly attractive grounds in a conservation area on the edge of London and achieves examination results well in excess of local and national averages. In addition to ‘Sportsmark’ we have also been awarded Arts Council ‘Artsmark Gold’ and the Religious Studies Bronze Award. In December 2016, Ofsted judged us to be a ‘GOOD’ school, maintaining this judgement from 2012.   

We are seeking to appoint a well-qualified, highly motivated professional who is an excellent classroom practitioner with a record of effective teaching or teaching practice to join our Modern Foreign Languages Faculty.    

Applications are welcomed from NQT’s and those professionals who can demonstrate a successful track record of innovation to inspire both students and colleagues alike. You must be able to teach French and Spanish to GCSE and either or both languages to A Level.    

We can offer well behaved and willing students; a friendly staff; well-equipped classrooms with interactive whiteboards; and well supported A Level classes. 

 

Advert #1 is short, but manages to pack in the key terms of educational jargon: “passionate”, “exciting opportunity”, “ambitious”, “high achieving”, and even “outstanding”. And yet these words tell us nothing really about the school. It could be anywhere, so generic is this language.

We go from the stunning shortness of advert #1, to the novella of #2. I suppose, at least, that that this one gives some sense of what the school stands for, with it’s reference to “project based learning” reflecting a pedagogy grounded in the progressive mythology of 21st Century Skills; a pedagogy which they see as being the grounds for securing the Outstanding Ofsted grading from which it quotes. This advert utilises jargon to which those of us whom work in schools have probably become so immune that we don’t even notice it anymore: they want somebody with “a track record of achieving exceptional results and progress”; they offer a “dynamic and innovative teaching environment”; and they are so keen for someone who is “passionate” that the word appears twice.

Advert #3 offers us the jargon bingo entries of “highly motivated professional”, “excellent classroom practitioner”, and “record of effective teaching” all in one sentence. Here we want people to “inspire” and we are still peddling “interactive whiteboards” as a perk. And whilst the school is only “good” by Ofsted standards (having made no progress in this regard for four years, it seems), at least the grounds are “outstandingly attractive”, and the school has some nice badges to hang in reception.

Interestingly, none of these adverts mentions behaviour.

I have, of course, been deliberately picky and harsh with my critique of these adverts in terms of the wording and language used therein. I’m having a bit of fun at their expense. But are they really any more desirable than the much derided advert from MCS?

Perhaps the bluntness of the MCS advert is hard for us to accept, so inculcated are we in the corporate banality of educational discourse as it typically appears in job adverts. Or perhaps it is the honesty with which the school acknowledges that behaviour is an issue, or certainly a priority, and that it demands a full time, well paid post in order to support its teachers. Or perhaps the school stands for something that is so different from accepted orthodoxy that it has become a kind of totem – or anti-totem; less a subject of worship but an artefact of scorn. Perhaps, for some, the school is a manifestation of pedagogical practice that epitomises the dreaded Gove. For others, the school is a victim of its own propaganda; an open target for ridicule.

For me, MCS generates a field of discourse that helps me to formulate my own theorem, where Newton meets Foucault:

For every statement, there is an opposite and totally unequal reactionary statement.

It turns out that this blog is five years old. I haven’t really done as much with it as I had originally hoped; only a small number of posts, but gaining increasing readership as my Twitter follower count has increased.

I feel I’ve come some distance in that five years. Professionally, I’ve moved from the dark authoritarianism of a school locked in a dance macabre with a system it doesn’t understand, into the paradoxical forward looking freedom of an independent cathedral school, steeped in history and tradition. Personally, I’ve come through a heart attack and, 18 months later, a cardiac arrest which gave me a nudge into a seeing things differently. Academically, I’ve moved away from thinking Facebook groups might improve learning, to trying to construct a Foucauldian positioning of education discourse on Twitter. And virtually, I have engaged with the most extraordinary group of people from whom I have learnt more about teaching than during my three year B.Ed, or any CPD since. I’ve observed this network of teachers, governors, inspectors and academics grow in number and in influence, with policy makers and the inspectorate engaging with classroom teachers and senior leaders in ways which were unimaginable less than a decade ago. The network now straddles the space between virtuality and reality, with teachmeets and events such as ResearchEd providing platforms to meet and share ideas, evidence and hashtags in real time.

I attended my first ResearchEd only last year, meeting in flesh those names that have become figures of my adoration. And that they recognised me by my Twitter handle was the strangest feeling. It was a phenomenal event, attended by hundreds of people in their own time at a weekend. Attendees and speakers had travelled from across the globe to share in healthy debate, not tainted by hostile divisions but rather united in a spirit of belief in the power of education.

But the virtual network isn’t all smiles and winks. It is a mirror-world, and it has its dark corners in which lurk the nasties and the strange. In recent weeks, I was labelled an alt-right, pseudo-trad, fascist for daring to query ideas about differentiation. Elsewhere, schools claim great things and their detractors label them nazi. The language of edutwitter is both enriching, and morbidly fascinating. It rewards and punishes. It offers the promise of gold, and delivers tin. And I love it.

Twitter is a funny old thing, and I’ve no doubt that I’ve been guilty of tone crimes. I can be brusque, sarcastic, pedantic and disingenuous. But I have tried in recent months to curb these behaviours. None-the-less, I often find myself embroiled in conversations that can be irritating, confusing, and sometimes just weird. I suspect I am at least partially to blame – I can respond to things in a manner that may seem accusational or confrontational, I suppose. And I often fall foul of the 140 character limit and perhaps do not explain my thoughts and objections fully or clearly enough.

Thus, when I responded to a tweet from AdrianFGS (@Thembinkosi), about differentiation, I was not really expecting the conversation that ensued, or the nature of the labelling and insults that Adrian tweeted without directly tagging me. However, I am happy to concede that I may not have made quite clear what my objections to his initial tweet were, and I would like to try and do that here.

Adrian’s initial tweet was this:

With a link to this blog post.

 

I took issue with two things. Firstly, that in his blog post, Adrian gives must/should/could as an example of effective differentiation. Secondly, the picture shown in the tweet is terrible for a number of reasons. I shall deal with the picture first.

The cartoon is often presented with a quotation falsely attributed to Einstein. However, Adrian’s version doesn’t include it, so I shan’t spend too much time on that other than to say that  Einstein didn’t say it. Never-the-less, the message of the falsely attributed quotation clearly chimes with that of the cartoon. The quote reads: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. At first glance, this quotation and cartoon might seem a startlingly, obviously true reflection of our education system. The cartoon implies that asking every child to take the same test is unfair because children are individual and some children can’t do academic tests as well as other children can.

One of the problems that I have with this cartoon is the notion that children are so very different that they are analogous with being different species. That two children are so utterly different that an education system is unable to find suitable models of assessment that can identify knowledge and understanding shared by them. This is patently nonsensical.

In cases where children suffer physical disabilities or severe learning difficulties I can appreciate where the idea of a standard test becomes problematic. However, the cartoon is never presented to reflect such cases. Rather, it is presented as a humorous example of why we need to differentiate assessment. The problem here is that in most classes across the country, children’s learning capabilities are really not so extremely different as to mean that they can never access the assessment criteria of a given test. The cartoon shows 5 out of 6 animals that could never climb that tree. Do we mean to suggest that perhaps 5 out of 6 children will never be able to access the assessment criteria of any given exam? How does this correlate with the high numbers of pupils who manage to attain a pass (by which I mean at least a G grade) at GCSE in a range of subjects? The evidence of exam results clearly shows that the vast majority of children indeed can access the assessment criteria of GCSE. Indeed, the grading of GCSE has differentiation built into it. And in those cases where children have severe physical or learning needs, special dispensation can be given, offering equity within the system. Whether this works in practice is up for debate, and I would certainly not say that access arrangements are currently successful. However, I think this falls beyond the scope of this blog post.

Alternatively, the cartoon could be seen as a humorous reflection of the need to differentiate instruction. Indeed, this seems to be what Adrian was talking about in his blog post. The problem here is that the example he gives as good practice – must/should/could (henceforth MSC) – doesn’t really address the problem of genuine differences in need in the classroom. Strangely, in our Twitter conversation, Adrian offered a scenario:

I asked Adrian how he would apply his MSC model of differentiation in this scenario. In fact, I asked a number of times. I’m still waiting for the answer.

The issue is that MSC types of differentiation are unlikely to help in such cases. How would it work?

All pupils MUST be able to say a key word from this topic in English

Most pupils SHOULD be able to explain the topic in English

Some pupils COULD write a thesis on the topic in English

I just can’t see how this approach would help anyone in that class. Of course, I would differentiate as best as I could, but I am by no means an expert in EAL pupils, and I have limited experience of working with them. The schools in which I have worked with EAL pupils adopted an immersion approach, with withdrawal sessions focused on language.

In his blog post, Adrian says that “it is essential that a lesson be planned to cater for the learning requirements of all”. In reality, how is this possible through a MSC style approach to differentiation? Is it really possible to plan a lesson that is going to cater for the individual needs of 30 children? How can we even know what those needs are actually going to be? In any given lesson the needs of individual children can be different from the previous lesson, the previous day, the previous week. What about the kid whose mother has just been diagnosed with cancer? What about the kid whose elder brother has been arrested? What about the kid whose been bullied and is harming themselves in secret? What about the kids for whom none of those things are happening?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t know those things. But we can know about their diagnosed learning needs, through their IEPs and so forth. So what happens then? We know that Billy has dyslexia and that Jenny has ADHD. On what grounds are we going to differentiate their learning on our plan? Do we assume that the autistic kid won’t get that George plays solitaire because he’s lonely? What assumptions is it acceptable for us to make about our pupils? Who are we to assume that any child would be working at the MUST level of our objectives?

This is a serious problem with this style of differentiation – that it inevitably leads to low expectations. I have frequently heard teachers say things about bottom sets such as, “Well, what do you expect from these kids?”.

In a previous post, I wrote this:

Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.

This is an extreme form of the unintended consequences that comes from a MSC approach to differentiation. As it happens, that school insisted that lessons always have an MSC structure. A hinge-point question that would enable the teacher to divide the class into three groups, all doing a different thing. If a lesson were observed where children were doing the same task, it would be condemned. I got a GOOD in a lesson observation where I had a GCSE class marking sample exam answers and rewriting them. One group looked at a D grade answer, one group a C grade answer, and the other group a B grade answer. What’s the problem with this? Well, why shouldn’t the “D” group look at the B grade answer? Who am I to limit their experience of that?

[Of course, there is research to suggest that showing kids “Good answers” can do more harm than good in some cases. I think it is @lauramcinerney that I learnt this from.]

Back in the days of tiers in GCSE English, differentiation took the form of Foundation or Higher tier entries. But I know that some pupils were entered for the wrong tier. Some kids who could have attained a grade B or higher were entered for Foundation, limiting their potential attainment. This is something that I lament. At my current school, my HoD told me that she never entered pupils for Foundation tier. Her view was this: “If we can’t get a kid a D in GCSE English, we’ve done something wrong”.

In the conversation on Twitter, which was joined by @DiLeed offering sensible contributions,  I felt that the topic had become dominated by the issue of EAL, but no-one seemed willing or able to explain to me how differentiation of the MSC type could be used to effectively help EAL pupils. Some comments were made about personalised curriculums, but that is a different thing entirely from differentiation in the classroom, which is what I thought Adrian’s blog was about, and certainly what I take issue with. However, I will mention @otspage who engaged more openly in the discussion offering some interesting thoughts, questions and challenges about assessment for children with physical needs.

So, the problem that I have with differentiation as it manifests in most schools that I have experienced is actually about having low expectations of some pupils – either because of a diagnosed “learning need”, or because of teachers’ low opinions of the pupils.

Instead of assuming that some kids can’t climb that tree, we should be finding ways of helping them to get up there.

 

 

 

 

In this post I attempt to work through some initial thoughts in response to some of the material I have recently come across. It is not intended to be definitive, and I would be glad of any thoughtful responses in the comments. My research is looking at teacher and educational discourse on Twitter. I am currently working my way through some Foucault to give me a theoretical framework, and I hope to blog more often as I grapple with some of the things I come across in this work.

In the course of working on my doctoral research stuff, I was pointed in the direction of Professor Stephen Ball of the Institute of Education at University of London. So, I went poking around and found this video of a lecture of his given a couple of years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6B6evKN0uHQ

It’s all very interesting stuff, in which Professor Ball illustrates the continued marketisation and commodification of higher education in the UK, which echoes many of my own observations about state schooling. Part of this is in the targetised, objective led way in which teachers have been forced to think about themselves, through annual review and performance related pay. Ball talks about the need to meet Research Excellence Framework (REF) standards in order to justify one’s position and how it doesn’t matter what one has done or achieved in the past, what matters is what one is doing now. This is, of course, a game that all teachers now play (in the state sector, certainly) where one has to justify ones salary by meeting two, three, or four performance management targets. In the worst schools, these include pupil attainment targets and lesson observation grades – yes, this is still happening in some schools. I have known colleagues face pay cuts (by moving down the pay scale) because they have not met the criteria of an average grade 2 or above across three observations over an academic year. In one previous school, the average lesson observation grade trumped the performance management targets – you could have the best results in the school, have done everything your line manager has asked of you, got fantastic rapport with students and all that, but if you didn’t get that magic average grade of 2 or above, you could get a pay cut.

Professor Ball also talks about the emerging rhetoric around research in education, specifically the what works kind of rhetoric. Now, I am a big fan of research and evidence, but I do have some concerns over the kind of research which is being mooted as some kind of gold standard, especially when there is dispute over which kinds of numbers hold more truth – are effect sizes the best measure? Do I need to use scales to ensure validity? And why are numbers perceived as being the only valid form of evidence? This is something that Ball mentions, referring to the work of the EEF. He points out that the kind of evidence favoured by the EEF is grounded in numerical, and ultimately financial terms.

Now, all of this is couched within an apparently agreed position that we are currently living through neoliberalism. This is a term which I had assumed was used mostly by the left on social media and in journalism to frame any political discussion in terms that demonise opposing points of view, and I had begun to see it as lazy labelling to shut down debate. As the UK Labour party currently eats itself, we see another term being used in a similar way – Trotskyist. So, in UK political discourse at the moment we have the fresh faced democratic socialists who are fighting the neoliberals on one front, whilst trying to save themselves from trotskyist infiltrators, whilst the trots wish to paint the democratic socialists as neoliberals in red shirts. Meanwhile, the liberals are furiously waving, trying to get our attention. But, it turns out, that this is the state of affairs in academia – we are all agreed that neoliberalism is the dominant political paradigm to which we have all been forced to surrender. The professor at my own university who pointed me to Ball said in correspondence that neoliberalism is “where we are for better or worse”.

So, having once believed that neoliberalism is real and the cause of many problems facing the world today, to deciding that this was just lazy thinking, I now question my own position on this. The professor at my uni pointed out to me that neoliberalism hijacks the language of freedom and fairness and somehow makes inequality sound fair. These are tricky issues for me. And I wonder if the current debate around the proposed College of Teaching actually might fit into this – is the CoT really about strengthening teacher professionalism, or is it a facet of neoliberalism?

From the standardised mode of performance management and the criteria referenced graded lesson observations that so many of us have faced, to the marketisation of the education system, and the CoT’s offer to let us pay for more criteria based assessment of ourselves, are we all neoliberals now?

“Why do I need to do Shakespeare, Sir? I’m gonna work with my dad plucking turkeys.”

 

This is a paraphrase of a particular question that I’ve been asked many times over my teaching career, and it reflects a particularly curious attitude towards what schooling should be for. The turkey bit is a half-truth.

I was asked recently by a a friend of a friend who happens to be a primary school teacher a version of this question; this version echoes something I’ve heard from many colleagues and read in many Twitter and Facebook conversations over the last year or so: Does a six year old need to know about subordinate clauses (or whatever the heck they are called now)? This is essentially the same question as whether or not a 14 year old should study Shakespeare if he’s not going to be quoting the Bard in his daily vocation.

Another version of this question, or at least the underlying thinking that forms it, was when I worked in a school which was pretty good at playing the results game. At the time, I was Head of English and was discussing the content requirements of the GCSE Literature course with one of the Deputy Headteachers. His view was that we only really needed to bother teaching the Literature content to the top set; we would enter all the others for Literature but only so that their English Language grades would count towards the league tables. I tried to offer a counter opinion of this, but his retort stopped me in my tracks: “We only need them to get a C in English, not to be able to discuss the finer points of Of Mice and Men“.

This question reflects a train of thought which is that kids should only be taught things that they will need for some utilitarian purpose or other. How one determines what is and isn’t needed is never fully explained during these kinds of debates, but it seems that even approaches to reading and aspects of maths can sometimes fall under the un-needed heading.

The thing about this question is that the answer is really, very, very simple: No.

No, seven-year olds don’t need to know about clauses. No, 14 year olds don’t need to have any experience whatsoever of Shakespeare. But, come to that, no-one really needs anything that schooling has to offer. Human beings managed perfectly well without schooling in many societies for many centuries. Our offspring can learn all they need from us as parents, siblings, extended families, local communities and so on.

The need argument is reductionist and logically concludes in the abolition of schooling. We don’t need it. Come to that, we don’t need very much at all. Get rid of art, music, love, sex. Get rid of chocolate covered malted milk. Bye bye, lasagne. Bye bye, culture.

But the issue isn’t about need. It is about entitlement. You should do Shakespeare because it’s brilliant, and you might come to like it. You should do Shakespeare because it enriches your experience of life. You should do Shakespeare because, like Captain Kirk hugging, enveloping and making love to the mountain, it’s there!

Why shouldn’t my daughter learn about subjunctives? What is it about grammar, and maths, and poetry that people are so afraid of? Why have we made these things the bogeymen of educational experience? We should be encouraging our children to want to know these things, allowing our children to experience all that human culture, our culture – their culture – has gifted to us.

I know there’s an argument about which aspects of the cultural inheritance we choose to pass on, and how we decide which bits to leave out. And I know there is a serious conversation to be had about those choices. But, ultimately, to think just in utilitarian terms about what kids need is, to my mind, denying them a rich cultural heritage.

Someone on Twitter (and I really wish I could remember who, was it Martin Robinson? Or is this a Steve Original? ) once compared teaching to curating a museum or art gallery. I like this analogy.

Update: It was Martin Robinson (@Trivium21c) who made the analogy, in this post. Thanks to @5N_Afzal for tirelessly locating it!

 

I recently had the great privilege and pleasure of working with a group of SCITT trainees, talking about the use of research in education.

It was inspiring to see such enthusiasm and professionalism from a varied group of people, covering a range of ages and backgrounds. It was refreshing to see people excited about teaching and pedagogy.

The guy who is in charge of this particular SCITT is a wonderful eccentric, brimming with the fervour of a man who loves his job.

The whole experience made me feel quite positive about the future of the teaching profession if these folks are a fair reflection of those entering it.

However, during our conversations I was stunned to hear some of the dreadful and depressing things that these guys are being told in schools.

For some context, SCITT programmes are school-based teacher training courses which give trainees a focused on-the-job training route. In this particular case, trainees come together in a “hub” to reflect and share practice. So, it isn’t the hub as such that trains them; it is the staff within he schools who do that.

Such programmes help to fulfil Michael Gove’s desire to wrench teacher training out of the hands of the progressives who (apparently) run education departments in universities and who fill trainees’ heads with dangerous and harmful ideas about student-centred teaching and so on. Instead, trainees get trained in schools, by teachers and school leaders who can shape new teachers in their own image, grounded in the realities of daily practice and with a true desire to drive up educational standards instead of being “enemies of promise”.

There is a slight flaw in the plan which is this: Schools are too often dens of deceit and untruths. Schools protect and feed myths as if suffering Stockholm syndrome. It isn’t the education departments of universities that are the Blob, but schools themselves that are riddled with ideologies, and driven by paranoia and self-preservation that are doing Bad Things in the vain hope of achieving Something Good.

For instance, many of the trainees were astonished to discover that VAK is #EduLasagne.

Many more were gob smacked when I showed them the Ofsted handbook and Guidance for Schools documents which clearly state that they don’t need to see a lesson plan. One poor chap showed me his file of lesson plans that he’d had to produce during a recent Ofsted inspection – which all teachers in the school had been told to do. Their lesson plans had to detail timings for every little bit of the lesson; they were told that if Ofsted came into their lesson and they weren’t at the point the plan specified at that time, then they would be penalised. This was not a unique anecdote within the group.

Another trainee mentioned that her school demands data entry every three weeks. This data includes a level (yes, the ones that don’t exist anymore), and grades for effort, behaviour and so on. Every. Three. Weeks.

Numerous trainees told me of their school marking policies which are filled with green pen and a system which sounds entirely like triple marking. Again, the reaction to the section of the Handbook on marking was palpable.

One particularly frustrated young man asked me, “So if Ofsted don’t want us to do all this stuff, why are we doing it?”

Everyone looked at me expectantly, their eyes filled with the hope that I would be able to give them an answer which might save them from the ridiculousness of it all.

“That’s a good question,” I replied.

It’s been popping up on Twitter quite a bit today, and all over the national press it seems. The Guardian claims that “Half of all teachers in England threaten to quit as morale crashes”, whilst similar headlines can be found from The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Mail and the BBC.

Whilst the NUT press release does not use the word “all”, it certainly implies it.

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a morale crisis in state schools at the moment. And I’m not suggesting that I know for certain that 53% of all teachers aren’t thinking of leaving. But this survey and, more specifically, the way in which it has been reported are seriously misleading.

Before I go any further let me make something clear: I am not a statistician. I don’t really do numbers. In fact, numbers and I cross the road to avoid each other. Numbers is the language that Satan uses to confuse mortals. So, please do help me to see things differently if I’ve got all this terribly wrong.

Using the numbers given from the NUT (this is an .xlsx file) we see straight away a problem. The total number of participants is 1020. This may sound like quite a lot, until we see that, according to the most recently available data from the government,  “in November 2011, there were 438,000 teachers in state-funded schools in England on a full-time equivalent basis”

I realise, of course, that that figure will have changed. But even if the teacher shortage crisis means we’ve lost 38,000 teachers since then, that would still be 400,000 teachers in England. Using the published number, the NUT survey is dealing with a sample of 1020 out of a population of 438,000. This is 0.23% of the teaching population who responded to the survey. Less than 1 whole percent.

Of those 1020 participants, the NUT data table tells us that 53% said they were thinking of leaving the profession. That’s 53% of 0.23% of the total teaching population in England. Incidentally, the number given in the data table is 536.

The data also tell us that of those 536 teachers who are planning to leave the profession, around a third of them are aiming to retire (34%).

I’ve been told, and have read, that such a sample size for such a population is deemed to be quite good. I find this, in itself, quite staggering, and reason enough to doubt the efficacy of such surveys and such an approach to social science. But, it is only deemed good if the sample is random.

The NUT website gives no indication that I can find about how the participants were recruited to the survey. And so far I’ve been unable to locate any reference to it on the YouGov website. My suspicion is that the survey was conducted online and probably via a link sent to members of the NUT via email, or perhaps through other member communication. This in itself would raise questions for me about how securely warranted any claims that this survey reflects “all teachers” might be. There is an assumption, if I’m right, that the NUT membership is genuinely reflective of the general teaching population. Furthermore, this survey only reflects the views of those NUT members who could be bothered to take the survey. What views are such teachers likely to hold?

I’m not saying there isn’t a genuine issue at the heart of this. There probably is. But can anyone out there tell me how this survey can really tell us anything? Is it typical of social science? If so, educational research is buggered.

One

Year 9. Discussing sentence structure (I think), so not quite sure how this began.

Girl: How do we know what happened back then?

Me: Erm, records.

Girl: But writing didn’t exist before Jesus.

Me: [Pause] What?

Girl: Someone told me, there was no writing before Jesus.

Me: Erm, what?

Girl: Someone told me, I think it was an RE teacher.

Me: Your RE teacher told you that writing didn’t exist before Jesus?

Girl: Yeah.

[Pause]

Girl: Back with the dinosaurs.

Me: Erm.

Girl: And how did they find the dinosaurs?

Me: Pardon?

Girl: How did they know where to look?

Boy: They used a metal detector, moron.

___________________________________________

Two

Year 12 class.

Girl: Sir, I never know how to talk to you.

Me: Really?

Girl: Yes.

Me: Erm. Ok. Why’s that?

Girl: It’s not that you’re difficult to talk to, just that you’re weird to talk to.

Me: [Grabbing my post-its] Do you mind if I take notes on this?

Girl: See what I mean?

Me: Erm.

Girl: And you always answer with a question.

Me: Do I?

Girl: Sometimes, I ask a serious question and you just look at me for a bit, then walk away. Or sometimes, I ask a simple question and you answer with an essay.

Me: [Blinking] Would you write me a reference?