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?

janus_small Well, it’s not quite midnight yet so officially I’m typing this right at the end of 2014. I didn’t do an equivalent post last year, so I don’t have any kind of targets to look back on. Which is just as well because targets and I don’t always make the best buddies. I’m a bit sceptical about targets in general. They don’t really work in Education and I don’t think they really work in life either. But I guess that’s not the point of #Nurture1415. I think it’s to encourage a Janusesque reflection of the year that’s gone and constructive hopes for the future. The latter might be better described as “ambitions” rather than “targets”. The T word seems to imply a sense of mandatory mustness. Or, slightly less forceful but just as coercive, shouldness.

“Ambition” on the other hand seems to speak of things I’d like to do, but it doesn’t really matter if I don’t do them. The problem with “ambition”, of course, is that it’s become synonymous with “drive”, which is a terrible word for a terrible concept. Perhaps “aspiration” might be a better fit.

In any case, my hopes for 2015 are not going to be targets. We have enough of that sort of nonsense in performance management – an appalling reflection of the kind of nonsense that infests our daily work lives; a sort of managerial mumbo jumbo that makes everyone feel nauseous. And we have enough of targets in our daily practice as teachers. One way to ensure that we kill effective or interesting learning is to targetise it. But at least we can evidence it :-/

Anyhoo.

2014

It’s been a funny sort of year. At the very beginning of it in January I remember saying to my wife – and it’s the first time I’ve ever done this – “This is going to be a good year, I can just feel it”. A month later I dropped dead whilst on interview. Not the most effective technique for securing a new position, unless the position one is after is slumped in a chair. Luckily, I was given swift CPR and attended to quickly by paramedics who zapped me back. The next few days are blurry and I don’t recognise them anymore.

It’s been a strange walk from there: several months of feeling like a character in that smashing French TV show The Returned – a zombie Lazarus out of place in the world. I covered some of this here, so I want retread it. Needless to say,  it’s all pretty much OK now, but my short term memory is unreliable, and my personality has shifted to being rather more short tempered and crabby. I’m guessing this is all a result of that brief lack of oxygen before the CPR began. In any case, this regeneration has been somewhat baffling and I think I’m more Peter Capaldi than Patrick Troughton.

Another side effect is that I’m slightly less inhibited. I think this is generally a good thing, as I’m a bit more likely to stick up for myself. But I also feel a little liberated. I’ve spent much of my life procrastinating – at least would have done if I’d gotten around to it. I think I’ve waited for things to happen rather than allowing myself to make them happen. Now i think I’m more inclined to actually do the stuff I’ve always wanted to. One example of this is that I successfully wrote an article for publication at The Conversation, which seemed quite well received. I know it’s small fries compared to what other teacher-bloggers have done, but it’s a beginning.

2014 also saw my first teachmeet – #TMBrum5. This was great. These things are great. Teachers organising events for teachers to discuss teaching, for free. Attending this one was particularly interesting because the keynote speaker was Mike Cladingbowl (@mcladingbowl) – a very important Ofsted chap. He had some very interesting things to say with messages that really need to be heard at every SLT meeting across the country. I won’t list them here for fear of misquoting him, but his use of the phrase “unintended consequences” was particularly telling, as was his dismissal of “triple marking”.

So, to summarise 2014:

  • Survived cardiac arrest
  • Got an article published
  • Went to a teachmeet

Perhaps not as impressive as some people’s accomplishments, but they’re mine and I’m happy with them.

Ambitions / Aspirations for 2015

This is simple. And vague. I’m not going to pin anything down to specifics, because then they will look like targets and targets are the whores of hell.

1) Be positive.

This is incredibly vague. But I just want to be a bit more smiley. I want to find the funny side of things a bit more. I want to enjoy what I’m doing. Teaching really is a great job, but it’s very easy to forget this when we are surrounded by so much nonsense and bobbins. I want to focus on the fun stuff and the funny stuff. This is true in a personal sense too, of course. My children make me laugh every day, and this is something to cherish.

2) Live in the Tao.

Yeah, yeah, I know. But there it is. And one of the things I want to remember is, “He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak” (probably a misquote from the Tao te Ching). In fact, there’s some very challenging ideas about knowing stuff in the Tao the Ching. So, I’m going to try to stop acting like a know-it-all. Because I really don’t know it all. This is actually really important for my doctoral research studies, and I think also for being a teacher. What I know about stuff is minuscule compared to the amount of stuff that can be known. We can only be the finger pointing at the moon. This humbling realisation is still working it’s way through my head. I also want to submit to Wu Wei, but this isn’t the time to go into that.

3) Write more.

This one is pretty straight forward. I want to write more. Try and get more stuff published, and write more blogs. The latter might mean actually using this blog as, y’know, a blog. Getting more ideas up on here might also help me with number 4.

4) Write my thesis.

I’d like to try and complete this in 2015, so I’d better get on with it.

5) There is a 5, and probably a 6, 7 and 8. But I’ll keep those to myself. I’ll let you know if I do any of them.

This is all terribly self-indulgent, isn’t it.

There’s much talk in the world of education as seen on Twitter about progressive vs traditional teaching. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the UK education system has been filled with progressive ideological pedagogical practices which have resulted in a dumbing down of learning, grade inflation, a distrust of knowledge and attempts to appease disruptive learners with play. Here progressive practices include a predominance of group work and discovery learning where teacher talk is seen by those in positions of power as a Bad Thing.

On the other hand, traditionalists are mocked for desiring a return to Victorian, Gradgrindian methods which view children as vessels to be filled with facts and who should be seen but never heard. In this view, Michael Gove’s reforms of the National Curriculum, GCSEs and the phonics screening test are symptomatic of a dominant culture which denies the rights of children to enjoy their learning. Goodbye vocational qualifications, coursework and Of Mice and Men, hello workhouse style classrooms and rote learning.

I am of course parodying these two positions in an attempt to emphasise the polarisation between them.

There is a third category – those who see these two positions as a “false dichotomy”, and who argue that most teachers employ a range of pedagogical strategies that straddle both ends of the paradigm.

Which am I?

At a recent informal gathering of Tweachers at a pub in Birmingham i stated something along these lines: “I’m as progressive as they come. I would happily see the school system stripped down, ripped apart and rebuilt from scratch. I would happily see kids of different ages in a class. I would happily see students choosing courses and classes that interest them. But I still expect the kids to shut up when I’m talking.”

This reflects what might seem a contradictory position. I consider myself a progressive, but I believe in the power and value of knowledge and I believe that kids should show respect to others. I think the lecture is a potent model for teaching, so long as the lecture is interesting. I think that there’s nothing wrong with pupils listening to a teacher talk for an hour. I think there’s very genuine reasons to argue that telling kids things helps them to know stuff. I also think there’s an argument for letting students go off and research stuff, so long as they have some guidance in what to look for, how to look for it and how to present their findings. These are essential skills that, despite being so called “digital natives” many pupils seem to lack.

I think the best teaching combines a variety of methods and strategies, but that the best learning comes from rehearsal. It doesn’t really matter if I tell students about the context of Animal Farm or if they look it up on Sparknotes, if we don’t make some use of that information then they won’t retain it; they won’t have learnt it. And yes, I can get them to write down “In today’s lesson I have learnt that Napoleon represents Stalin” at the end of the lesson, but that won’t achieve anything in of itself. We need to revisit that information, that knowledge, and use it over and over again (by rote?) if we want the kids to actually remember it and write in the exam. Of course, some of us believe that there is more to education than passing GCSE English Literature, but the same assertion applies because whatever we are trying to teach the kids we presumably want them to remember it. Furthermore, I believe that kids should study some English literature, but they should also study a whole range of other stuff which gets no mention in the National Curriculum, which brings me on to another point.

It is in the progressive tradition (how’s that for an oxymoron?) to assert that any attempts to prescribe a certain set of knowledge is oppressive. Whose knowledge should we teach? Now I can see the appeal of this position, but I don’t necessarily adopt it. I have said that knowledge is important, and it’s good for us too. The more knowledge we can get the better. But I do wonder about the current diet on offer to British school children (and I am talking from the perspective of a secondary teacher here).

Where I stand is this:

  • I think that schooling is fundamentally undemocratic. It is something that is done to children (and teachers) rather than with them. This can lead to resentment and apathy.
  • I think that schooling is not synonomous with education or learning.
  • Schooling has a whole bunch of agendas and motivations running through it that detract from the stated core principle of the system.
  • I think that the term “school leadership’ is an oxymoron because in our society our ideas of what leadership is are fundamentally flawed.
  • I would like to see schooling offer pupils far more choice in what subjects they learn and when they study them. I envision a university style system of core and optional classes, with credits building towards certification.
  • i would like to see an ethos which fosters a thirst for knowledge and enjoyment of learning for its own sake, not just as a step towards economic security.
  • I would also like to see teachers given the professional autonomy to tell a pupil to leave the lesson if the pupil is disrupting it. This shouldn’t then result in that teacher having to waste time issuing and chasing detentions.
  • I think that knowledge should be valued, cherished and celebrated, but I also think that it shouldn’t be limited to a bland curriculum that runs for years.
  • I think that every teacher, every teaching/learning assistant, every middle “manager”, every senior “leader” and anyone else who works in or with schools should read this excellent blog post from @pedagog_machine and seriously consider the bullet point list presented in it. And the question at the end of that post should be on every agenda at least once in the academic year.

I was treated to this on my Facebook timeline from Brainpickings. It’s an OK read, but a cracking video in which Josh Knobe discusses some ideas about the Self in his work on experimental philosophy. Knobe poses some thought experiments which are designed to get us thinking about whether the Self that we become in the future can really be described as the same person as the Self now. Imagine a time when 30 years from now there are people doing their day-to-day things and one of them might be a person who you could describe as being you. But, that version of you may well have entirely different beliefs, ambitions and goals to those you possess currently. Is it really the same person as you are now? He goes further, and refers to some work which reveals that if we are given a strong sense of future self, we may even become competitive with that Self. If you begin saving money now, you won’t feel the benefit – it will be a future Self that does. 

Watching this coincided with some existential angst I’ve been having following my cardiac arrest in February. So it goes. You may have had the pleasure of watching the rather superb French television series The Returned. I had begun to see myself as a character in that show – brought back from the dead, to the joy of some but to the disgust or fear of others. Somehow I felt slightly out of place, a re-animated version of Me that I couldn’t quite recognise. This was confounded by the effects on my short-term memory and my speech – something no-one else noticed but that made me feel like Frankenstein’s creature trying so desperately to learn how to articulate. 

But more recently I have begun to wonder if this is an opportunity. Imagine you are given a blank sheet and given the chance to design a new Self for you to be. What would it be like? Which bits of your former or current Self would you choose to keep? Which new bits would you like to try out? If you could design a Self, how similar to or different from your existing Self would it be? 

When the Eighth Doctor is given the choice of what kind of man to become, in the context of the Time War, he chooses “warrior”. But he also realises that this will mean he can’t be called the Doctor anymore. His future selves choose to bury this version away deep in his subconscious, as he chooses to be the Doctor again.

We don’t really need dramatic events such as Time Wars or dicky tickers to be given this opportunity, of course. Each day is a rebirth with the endless potential for change and renewal. We may be able to reinvent ourselves each morning: “Today I choose to be …” 

Or is this an illusion? Perhaps Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians are right:

If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” (Slaughterhouse Five)

 Is it possible to re-carve the Self, or are we destined to inhabit a Self beyond our own control? “That’s the problem with regeneration. You never know what you’re going to get” (The Fifth Doctor). In either case, what am I going to be now? A zombie or a phoenix? Am I going to try and carry on being the former Me, but not quite getting it right? Or am I going to rise above all that and soar above the flames of my old Self? And what would that even look like?

 

And if I find this difficult – facing a choice about who I might want to be – how do children feel? What concept of Self do they have? How do they perceive their future Self? Perhaps they don’t, and perhaps this is why teaching them is so difficult. For younger children this might not be an issue. I doubt they let concepts of Self worry them too much. 

I asked my daughter yesterday: “What’s it like being four?” 

She thought about this for a short while and replied, “Hurting yourself”. I think she means from falling over, or jumping into things. But it sounded deeply profound to me. Perhaps she was demonstrating a fundamental awareness that what we do as a child has huge implications for the Self we become as adults. 

But I suspect this becomes a problem for teenagers. We constantly expect them to develop a sense of future Self, and to invest time and effort into making life comfortable for that future Self. But the current Self doesn’t get the reward. Perhaps we need to shift attention way from knowing stuff to pass exams in order to get a good job. These ideas are future-locked and for many young people the future is as alien as the surface of Venus.

Perhaps we need to encourage a love of knowledge that will serve the present Self. Knowledge in and of itself is rewarding, and yet we so rarely say this in schools.