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:

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.


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.


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.



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:-/



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.

So, for Valentine’s Day this year, I gave myself a cardiac arrest. I was broken hearted.

In this post I contemplate the story of my cardiac arrest, my earlier heart attack, and the life saving treatment I received from strangers. How does this relate to the debate over “knowledge transmission” vs “discovery learning”?

This story begins in my kidneys, apparently. It turns out mine aren’t great – one is very small. I never knew this. The medical people discovered it during the investigations following my myocardial infarction (MI), or heart attack. And the thinking is that, over the years, this caused my blood pressure to rise leading to heart disease. I thought my asthma was getting worse, which is what the GP told me too.

So, one June day I was eating my lunch in the school canteen when I started to suffer what I thought was indigestion. And a very mild panic, which I tried to ignore. Like when I haven’t done something important.

I returned to my room, where I tried to dismiss the weird sensation in my left arm. There was a voice in my head which was telling me that I was imagining that. Google said it was a key symptom, but I was just 36 years old at the time and I was obviously not going to have a heart attack at my age.

So, I went about my afternoon as normal, teaching my year 9 class. That evening was the year 11 prom, so I went home and got ready. My wife could tell that something was not quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on what I was feeling.

I drove to the prom, enjoyed it, and drove home again. Had a cup of tea. Went to bed. BAM! An elephant was sitting on my chest whilst someone was wrapping me in the hottest ice in the universe. I went into the bathroom where I found a cool patch on the floor to roll about on. Then I needed the toilet and the entirety of the cosmos left my body, whilst all of Hades came out of my mouth simultaneously into the sink next to me.

My wife called an ambulance. The paramedics worked quickly to treat me with something in my mouth and morphine in my arm. They took me to New Cross Hospital where I received swift treatment – an angiogram and angioplasty; I was fitted with two stents. Later, I was discharged from hospital with a bag full of tablets which signalled a lifetime of medical dependency. I was also put on a rehab programme of exercise, which was run by the British Heart Foundation (BHF). I began to look into the work of the BHF and was amazed at the amount of work they do, from CPR training, to research, to providing nurses.

Life returned to normal. Then super-normal, as we welcomed our second daughter into the world. Things were great. Then, in February this year I was attending an interview at the UCB in Birmingham when, during my presentation, I died. My heart went into VF and then stopped. This was a cardiac arrest. Luckily I received swift CPR from a security guard at the college, and was responded to by paramedics very quickly. Several people saved my life that day thanks to their calm and swift response – obviously the paramedics, but also the staff at the UCB and, of course, the man who pumped my chest.

I was taken to a local hospital, but I’m afraid I don’t recall or understand the details of the treatment I received there. Two weeks later I had an ICD fitted, which serves of a very physical reminder of what has happened as the device sits proudly under the skin of my moob. This clever bit of kit constantly monitors my heart’s rhythm and should it go into VF again, the machine will give me a quick zap. I understand it can give a shock of up to 8000 volts.

I had the great honour and privilege of being invited back to the college to meet this man and tour the building, as I had no memories of the place at all. This visit happened last week and it was quite an experience – what do you say to the man who saved your life? Not only that, but he saved my quality of life with his quick response and good CPR technique. This saved my brain – the biggest danger for survivors of cardiac arrests is loss of oxygen to the brain.

I think I may have suffered a very little as my short term memory is FUBAR and I struggle to organise speech in my head before it comes out of my mouth. And I have a fear of going anywhere by myself. But that will probably pass.

So, what has any of that got to do with learning, and the debate around knowledge transmission vs discovery learning?

Well, in the first instance I’m rather glad that those who have treated my following both of these events were able to call upon a body of learned knowledge in order to give me the best treatment, rather than having to look it up on Google before giving me the morphine, or inserting the stents, or giving me CPR or fitting an ICD.

This is knowledge that these people will have had to rehearse somehow I order for it to remain in their long-term memory. The CPR-hero told me that has trained in CPR for 15 years. I was the first time he had to actually use it.

But, medical science is not static. Rather it is fluid, and new guidelines are released frequently. Medical staff are required to keep up-to-date with recent research findings, and the advice given on CPR has changed over the years. These changes are based on new discoveries – ongoing research which is, by definition, a process of discovery learning. This is built upon, and intertwined with established medical knowledge. But that established knowledge was, in turn, learnt through discovery – right back with the men who began dissecting stolen corpses.

I guess I’m concluding that this debate is one of those dichotomies that we teachers and educationalists love to splash around in. And yes, I’m afraid I’m heading towards the suggestion that this dichotomy is one of those falsies.

I tend to get fixated on things. I obsess over something for a while, then I get bored and move on: astronomy; hakko-ryu aikijitsu; writing a novel; God; writing a blog, and so on. Right now I seem to be obsessing over learning styles. I seem to have begun a lone crusade to preach the message about the sheer nonsense of learning styles.

I used to think they made sense, but then I got onto Twitter. More than any CPD thing throughout my entire career, I have learnt loads from Twitter, not least about John Hattie and Daniel Willingham. My casual acceptance of VAK was called into question by a range of Tweeters and bloggers who I won’t list here (maybe in a future blog I will).

Now I have the zeal of new faith, and a desire, it seems, to proselytise about the nonsense, and possible dangers, of learning styles and Brain Gym. I’m getting a reputation at work. A member of SLT (and a friend) jokingly sort of compared me to Hitler on the issue. This was weird. On I’m over there with Ghandi. And the Green Party, it seems. I digress.

I wrote a newsletter about the myths and emailed to all colleagues. In it, I published the results of a little quiz I’d done with staff about neuromyths believed by teachers. It copied some of the statements from Dekker et al (2012), and showed that of my very small sample, Dekker’s results were echoed. My newsletter provided a bunch of links to people like Hattie, Willingham and Goldacre.
I got one reply, expressing interest in the piece.

Am I in danger of simply being an arse?

It’s quite clear amongst some colleagues that learning styles is not as dead as it should be. Indeed, green shoots of new growth are emerging. What is it about this particular myth that it still holds sway with so many? Is my zeal matched by an ardent faith-like position which refuses to see the blatantly obvious? Is VAK akin to Young Earth Creationism? And is it really my place to be making a big deal about it? Shouldn’t I just get on with teaching stuff to my kids? Should I
stay true to my Taoist leanings and just let others get on with it? Go with the flow?

Perhaps I shall get bored soon and move onto obsessing over something else.


Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard-Jones, P., et al. (2012) Neuromyths in Education: Prevalence and Predictors of Misconceptions among Teachers. Frontiers in psychology [online], 3 (October): 429. Available from:

Goldacre, B. (2006) Brain Gym – Name & Shame [online]. Available from:

Hattie, J. (2008) Visible Learning. London, New York: Routledge

Reiner, C. and Willingham, D. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles. Change [online]. Available from:

Willingham, D. (n.d.) Learning Styles FAQ [online]. Available from: