The Impact of Impact: Research, Schools and the Chartered College

Great piece. And my first reblog.

A Chemical Orthodoxy

I was very 50/50 about whether or not to join the Chartered College. I’d read the blogs and watched the inevitable Twitter flame wars and wasn’t convinced. But it was right at a time when I thought teacher professionalism was on its way out and the offer of access to research papers was very tempting. In the end, my ego got the better of me. The idea of being able to refer to myself as a “Chartered Teacher” or even a “Master Teacher” just sounded too exquisite to pass up. So I joined.

I couldn’t go to the big London launch because we had a newborn knocking around and it just wasn’t the right time. I would’ve loved the chance to meet some of my tweeps and to hear Rob Coe speak, but ended up pretty grateful I didn’t have to massage any strangers or put on my karaoke best

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Schools, Prisons and Foucault

I recently enjoyed reading this post by @jamestheo. In it, James deconstructs five common arguments made about schools and learning. One of which – the picture of different species being instructed to climb a tree – I wrote about here.

However, one of his examples of a bad argument chimes with one of my own issues related to the work I’ve been reading as part of my EdD studies: the school=prison argument.

@jamestheo presents this argument with the following picture:

a65e290a7911b71f679b738cec5c897d3c017fe0863ad02098632899a3b98949_1

As @jamestheo points out:

… we could easily draw attention to similarities between all sorts of institutions based on these structures and rules. If you worked at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, you’d find much of those lists above structuring the way the place is run.

And I agree. Having said that, it’s easy to see how such comparisons can be drawn between institutions such as schools and prisons. In particular, I’m thinking of some schools buildings that I’ve visited over the last few years – new builds with three floors whose corridors look down onto the ground floor. Imagine if prisons had been designed by Google, with plenty of glass and grey carpets.

Version 2

Of course, this comparison between prisons and schools was articulated by the French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault – the theorist whose work I am using to build a theoretical framework for teacher discourse on Twitter. In his book Discipline and Punish, Foucault makes this grand claim:

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (Foucault, 1995, p.228)

What Foucault is talking about, though, is the development of the disciplinary society – a society in which we are inculcated into being docile bodies, capable of self-discipline. Foucault is not necessarily critical of this development in a negative sense; indeed Foucault throughout his oeuvre is keen to point out the creative potential of this kind of disciplinary action and what he calls biopower (probably a topic best saved for another time, when I’ve got my head around it).

In his blog post, @jamestheo presents that interesting comparison to The Magic Kingdom in order to draw out the absurdity of the school=prison argument. However, I think that Foucault might well have agreed that – in terms of the disciplinary aspects – The Magic Kingdom does resemble a prison, even if not physically. Employees are expected to behave in particular ways at all times, and are under the constant gaze of customers/guests as well – no doubt – as the CCTV systems. Have you ever watched one of the performances that process along Main Street? Each member of the cast is performing exactly the same routine in exactly the same way each time – just as the automatons do in It’s A Small World. I know because I was forced to endure that ride each day of our visit because children. Actually, because Mrs Sputnik.

And, to a certain extent, we as customers/guests perform a role too, and we conform to the rules of the institution – we queue patiently through the labyrinths that provide access to each ride; and we use only the permitted access gates to enter and exit the kingdom.

Furthermore, The Magic Kingdom could be seen as a heterotopia providing an other space which exists simultaneously within the real world and outside of it; a little bubble universe growing like a boil on the skin – or skein – of the universe of our daily stuff. Schools, too, are heterotopias, just as prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks are.

But Foucault’s claim that schools resemble prisons, hospitals, factories and barracks has always bothered me. I could just as easily say that schools resemble art galleries, museums or National Trust properties. Many of the schools I’ve worked in have been ugly, brutal things built in the 1960s, cold and brutal; and some have resembled the workhouse, with elegant Victorian functional elegance. Inside, of course, many schools are lightened with nice carpet, nicely coloured walls, engaging displays and beautiful artwork. In contrast, one school I worked in – a former grammar school – had glorious parquet flooring which, in some rooms, had been covered with foul carpet tiles.

In my current school, I’m fortunate to work in a variety of buildings: converted houses, the Palace, and one custom-built 1980s built wing. Each has its own character and charm. My teaching room is a one-time lounge, I think, which has been divided up into two perfectly fine classrooms with enormous windows and beautiful wood panelling. It certainly doesn’t feel like a prison.

 

Reference

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage

Political Leanings

There’s been a few blog posts of late that attempt to align “traditionalists” in teaching with right-wing, neo-liberal political ideologies. Some of these blog posts have been written by people who appear to have some kind of vendetta, and have been found on Twitter hurling abuse at those who disagree with them, as documented by @oldandrewuk.

On a personal level, it appears that I have been aligned with the traditionalist end of the trad/prog spectrum; looking back on a post from a few years ago it wasn’t how I might have labelled myself then, but I have done since. Taking Old Andrew’s amusing quiz puts me down as a traditionalist.

Some on #EduTwitter might have you believe that my views about education, and the kinds of questions that I ask, make me a hard-right winger. Indeed, I was labelled an alt-right, pseudo-trad fascist by one prominent headteacher. But, much like @DavidDidau, I think that children deserve an education designed to empower them by inculcating in them an appreciation of the best that has been said and written (etc etc). This is especially true of those children from poor or/and deprived backgrounds – society owes to them its stores of knowledge and wisdom; this is their inheritance. I also believe that children deserve to be given moral and social frameworks to guide them in being happy citizens, to develop their self-control and self-discipline; not just so that they are obedient, but so that they have the confidence to embrace the opportunities with which they may be presented, and to create opportunities all their own.

Traditionalism isn’t about viewing children as empty vessels into which facts can be poured; traditionalism is about enriching children within traditions which have a heritage, but also equipping them for a progressive forward movement into a future which they will create, guided by the past but not slave to it.

Does this make me a right-winger? To find out, I took the test at Political Compass. I’d done this before, a few years ago, but perhaps my position had moved since then. Perhaps I had become more right-wing. Well, the results suggest not:

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 22.20.55

As you can see, I’m an ultra-right fascist sympathiser.

 

And which of the main UK political parties match me best? Well:

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Now, things have changed since the last general election – upon which these party placements are based. I suspect that under Corbyn, the Labour Party will have moved to the left and I reckon the Liberal Democrats probably have too. It will be interesting to see what Political Compass makes of the UK parties in 2020.

In the meantime, let’s stop this nonsense of linking a preference for traditionalist philosophies of education with a mythical infiltration of the ultra-right.

 

Learning Lessons about Language #EduDiscourse

I was on the end of a teachable moment recently. In fact two teachable moments. And I’m very grateful for them.

For reasons I can’t be bothered to go into, I’d tweeted a link to this blog post from a few months ago. In that post, I critiqued a particular view about differentiation. I received this tweet in reply from @lazymum:

A short while later, I received this tweet from @nancygedge:

Nancy then clarified with this tweet:

In the resulting conversation, Nancy made an excellent point about the medicalising nature of the language that is employed around SEND. I’m sure there must be a whole bunch of interesting research which has been done around this, and I’d be glad of any links anyone might be able to provide to such work.

In the day or so since this conversation, I’ve been thinking about how this links in with my thoughts around the kind of language that we generally use in the field of education, and specifically in teaching. I had been planning to continue my critique of the language of teaching job adverts, and I still might, but a more productive avenue of contemplation would be to consider the ways in which our everyday language in the classroom, the staffroom, in meetings and so on, might reflect the nature of the discourses which flow through and inform our thinking. There is a close association between language and thought, and the way that we speak about the children in our care is, naturally, closely associated with the ways in which we think about them – there is some debate, I believe, about which comes first.

I remember during my B.Ed being taught about labelling theory and its implications and effects in education, and I think it’s probably fair to say that we have all seen examples of it. And yet we allow a plethora of labelling within education in the UK, often making use of initialisms or acronyms. SEN, of course, is one but add to that FSM, G&T (which has now developed into the rather unfortunate acronym MAGAT) and so on. We know that teacher expectations can have an impact on outcomes for pupils, and yet much of our discourse is around the deliberate and specific labelling of children one way or another. Sometimes, it isn’t about these deliberate labels. In daily practice in schools, it could be something as trivial as having “top”, “middle”, or “bottom” sets. I’m wondering about the nature of awards and certificates that we routinely give out in schools – what are they called? What are they celebrating? What do these suggest about the culture of the school? What does the school really value, and how does this compare with what the school claims to value?

Labelling also occurs with regard to staff, of course. The infamous aspirational Outstanding – a word which oozes through the educational discourse like a thick pus – is a holy grail in teaching, despite Ofsted’s opting to no longer grade individual lessons or teachers.

I’d like this reflection of the language of education to continue, and I would be grateful for any observations that you might have about the kinds of language which, if we were to just stop and think about it, we might see as problematic. Please comment below, or tweet me @sputniksteve.

“Reading”

Hello. How’s things?

So, I asked for some suggestions as to what to write a blog about. I didn’t get many. But I did get this one:

And then Naureen beat me to it.

The discussion around this topic has been fascinating, and has been going on for a long time. Specifically, the debate over phonics continues to be an issue around which the debate spins. Of course, this has been an issue for some time now, with proponents of phonics claiming it is the best way to teach reading, and critics claiming that reading is about more than decoding – which is what phonics is all about. I don’t intend to retread this tired debate, but I am interested in its recent resurfacing following two recent conferences which occurred on the same day: #rEDLang and #OxReadingSpree.

I wasn’t at either event. But reading through both hashtags was interesting. The former, unsurprisingly, has a lot of material about research and evidence informed approaches to language, whilst the second shares discussion of  some fantastic and lovely kids’ books. As a teacher of English at secondary level, I appreciate the need for, and value of, both strands of this reading debate. However, these two events help to serve as perfect symbols of the wider debate in education. This debate is often framed as trad vs prog, as alluded to by Naureen in her tweet. However, as I wrote about previously, I think it is more reflective of a dichotomy that goes even further back than the phonics debate.

On the one hand, reading is the physical act of decoding and deciphering written or printed shapes on a page which represent phonic articulations that we call speech. Learning to decipher the phoneme/grapheme code is crucial for children to do well in school and beyond, and I’m sure there’s lots of research to support this position. However, on the other hand, reading involves far more than decoding and deciphering the squiggles. It is about comprehension and understanding.

Following these two events, a discussion – often a little heated – arose following this tweet from @oldandrewuk:

Inevitably, I think a lot of this discussion was about crossed-wires. Some of the reaction to Andrew’s comments revealed a passionate (yes, I used that word) love of childrens’ literature. I particularly enjoyed my conversation with @redgierob about the ways in which picture books convey narrative, as exemplified here:

which included this image:

ReadingPhonicsPicBook

I am a big fan of this kind of work, and can see how reading includes this sort of text. But here’s the crux of the problem. For Andrew, this ain’t reading. For me – a teacher of GCSE English, A Level English and sometimes media studies – this is partly about semiotics.

Have a look at the Eduqas GCSE English Assessment Objectives:

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AO1 gives us the phrase “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. This is a kind of deciphering, but it is about what isn’t written just as much as what is. And look at this question from the old version of AQA GCSE English Language: “Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text. ”

[The past paper from which this comes can be found here, whilst the matching insert can be found here.]

And now have a look at the National Curriculum for KS2:

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 22.43.58

So, case closed? Reading really is about more than just decoding via phonics. Sorted.

And yet. In order for kids to really be able to do any of that other stuff, they really do need to be able to read in the strictest, basic sense of decoding.

The more I think about this sort of stuff, the more I’m inclined to see Martin Robinson’s Trivium as a good model. And, as I tweeted to Old Andrew:

Will that do? I’d like to eat my Bournville now.

The Language and Discourse of Teaching Job Adverts

Following my post about #EduTwitter’s response to an advert placed on the TES Jobs website by a certain free school, I’ve been contemplating the messages that lie beneath the surface of the language used in advertisements for teaching vacancies. In this post, I’d like to begin a critical look at that language and, more importantly, the discourses that such language reflects.

Before I begin, I think it might be worth offering a definition of discourse. However, this isn’t so easy. To begin with, dictionary.com offers these definitions:

 

noun
1.

communication of thought by words; talk; conversation:

earnest and intelligent discourse.
2.

a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing, as 
dissertation, treatise, sermon, etc.
3.

Linguistics. any unit of connected speech or writing longer than 
sentence.
verb (used without object)discoursed, discoursing.
4.

to communicate thoughts orally; talk; converse.
5.

to treat of a subject formally in speech or writing.
verb (used with object)discoursed, discoursing.
6.

to utter or give forth (musical sounds).

It might seem that the most immediate definition of relevance to what I’m doing is #3, taken from linguistics: “any unit of connected speech of writing longer than a sentence”. Certainly, this is the definition used by Eduqas in its A Level English Language specification. However, it is definition #1 that holds more pertinence for me: “communication of thought”. But I do not want us to settle for that because it seems to imply the conscious, deliberate act of communicating a conscious and clear thought. The term discourse points to more than this. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose, depending on your point of view), from an academic standpoint discourse doesn’t afford particularly easy definitions. A look at Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but I like it) reveals a number of schools or types of discourse analysis or discourse studies.

But, because my supervisor at the University of Birmingham likes him, I’ve been trying to get to grips with Foucault. He doesn’t do simple definitions. Here is Pat Thomson (@thomsonpat) doing a grand job of outlining a “Foucauldian approach to discourse analysis”:
  • discourse is a culturally constructed representation of reality, not an exact copy
  • discourse constructs knowledge and thus governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, what it is possible to talk about and what is not (the taken for granted rules of inclusion/exclusion). As such, it re/produces both power and knowledge simultaneously
  • discourse defines subjects framing and positioning who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do
  • power circulates throughout society and, while hierarchised, is not simply a top-down phenomenon
  • it is possible to examine regimes of power through the historicised deconstruction of systems or regimes of meaning-making constructed in and as discourse, that is to see how and why some categories of thinking and lines of argument have come to be generally taken as truths while other ways of thinking/being/doing are marginalised.
Now, I’m a novice with this stuff, so I’m not going to pretend to offer a Foucauldian critique of the job adverts that I’m going to look at. Instead, I offer them up as material to be considered. And, since we have her in mind, I suggest that Pat Thomson’s questions to ask of texts might provide some interesting contemplation of the messages that lie beneath the surface of teaching job advertisements.
  1. What is being represented here as a truth or as a norm?
  2. How is this constructed? What ‘evidence’ is used?  What is left out? What is foregrounded and backgrounded? What is made problematic and what is not? What alternative meanings/explanations are ignored? What is kept apart and what is joined together?
  3. What interests are being mobilised and served by this and what are not?
  4. How has this come to be?
  5. What identities, actions, practices are made possible and /or desirable and/or required by this way of thinking/talking/understanding? What are disallowed? What is normalised and what is pathologised?
So, as I give the examples that I do below, I’d like you, dear reader, to consider these questions.

 

A Note On Data Selection

I’m taking my examples from vacancies currently advertised on the TES website. I won’t provide a link, and I won’t name the school. Such texts a short-lived, as they disappear once the closing date elapses. I am looking at posts in the secondary phase, because that’s my own, but I suspect those in the primary sector a likely to be similar.

I’m not selecting any particular subject or location. I have selected role of “teacher” in an attempt to avoid promoted roles, but I know from experience that promoted roles often appear in such a selection. At time of writing, there are 2204 such roles. I will not be going through all of them! Instead, I’ve picked the firs three.

A Note On Agenda and Motive

I’d like to make it clear that this is in no way intended to be an exercise in the kind of criticism that so much of #EduTwitter seems to indulge in. I don’t mean to criticise these adverts. I’m not trying to highlight anything wrong with them. That’s really not my intention or job here. What is my intention is to ask questions about what the language chosen might imply; to interrogate the kind of language that is employed in the most mundane aspects of the educational field. 

So, let’s get on with it.

One

The first one is for a teacher of computer science and ICT. I quote the first paragraph:

An exciting opportunity to work in our popular, growing ICT and Computing Team within our Maths and Business Learning Village; it is suitable for an outstanding Teacher who is able to teach IT to all Key Stages including 6th Form and computer science to at least KS3, with KS4 and KS5 an advantage. We’re looking for an ambitious, talented teacher looking for an excellent stepping stone for leadership roles in the future and who shares our belief in the highest standards of academic achievement in an inclusive setting. For us attitude, ideas, potential and teaching skill are important, we will actively support your development.

As I said, I don’t intend to deconstruct this text in some amateur Foucauldian hatchet job, nor do I intend to perform a genealogical analysis. But I would urge you to read this paragraph with Pat Thomson’s questions in mind. Furthermore, I’d like to ask some specific questions about this paragraph.

  • What might “exciting opportunity” imply?
  • What is a “Learning Village”? Is it a euphemism for “department” or “faculty”? Or is it a geographical thing? Is the faculty housed in a building separate from the main building?
  • In what way is the department (sorry, Team) “growing”? Are more pupils choosing the subject at KS4 and Ks5? Are more subjects being offered?
  • Since Ofsted no longer grades individual lessons or teachers, and many schools appear to have abandoned this practice, by what criteria are candidates to consider themselves to be “an outstanding Teacher”? And why has “teacher” been capitalised? Is this a typo, or does it reflect an attempt to emphasise the professional identity of the teacher?
  • Following on from that, does this school still grade individual lessons or/and teachers? What does this imply about the school’s performance management procedure [I once worked in a school that, even if you met your PM targets, would prevent you from climbing the salary scale if you didn’t hit Good in every observation, and if this happened for two cycles could decrease your pay]?
  • Why is “ambitious” synonymous with a desire for “leadership roles”? Why is leadership held in such high regard and esteem?
  • Are any and all “ideas” considered to be important? Are there any “ideas” which might be considered unimportant, unhelpful or unhealthy?
  • If a school is keen to support the development of the ambitions and potential of a teacher seeking leadership roles, does that mean the school is anticipating that such leadership roles will be available within its own setting soon? Or does it imply that they expect the candidates to stay only for a short period of time? Why might this be?

 

Two

The second advert is for a Lead Practitioner in English. Again, I’ve taken the first paragraph.

We are seeking to appoint a creative, highly motivated and dynamic candidate who ‘loves’ English to join our English Faculty as a Lead Practitioner.  This role will involve working closely with the Head of Faculty and KEY Stage Leaders to ensure the effective delivery of a challenging and engaging curriculum, delivered using the very best of new and traditional teaching and learning approaches.

  • How does one define any of the adjectives in the persuasive triplet in the first sentence? “Creative” in what sense? A Shakespearean one? Does the school want a candidate who is nimble with iambic pentameter? I’m being slightly flippant here, of course, but I think you’ll get my point. How about “dynamic”? I assume we can take this definition from the OED: “positive in attitude and full of energy and new ideas”. Again, like the previous advert, there is an implication of newness and, perhaps, change. I wonder: how many new ideas and how much change is the SLT of this school open to?
  • “Delivery” and “delivered” are interesting terms, aren’t they?
  • “New and traditional teaching and learning approaches” – is the school advocating #NoBestWay? Is the school leadership engaged in the debates on #EduTwitter surrounding pedagogical methodologies? Are teachers at the school free to autonomously choose which methods they use?
  • Whilst there are no explicit references in this opening paragraph to “outstanding”, the word does appear later in the advert, where the school is looking for someone who “has the ability to regularly deliver outstanding learning experiences”. Does this imply graded lesson observations operate in this school? How are these learning experiences judged, by which criteria?

 

Three

The third advert is for a Teacher of English. It’s a nice short first paragraph:

We are seeking to appoint an enthusiastic and well qualified English graduate to join our proactive, highly motivated and supportive team. You will be responsible for planning and delivering high quality lessons and achieving excellent results, instilling in all students a love for the subject and a desire to learn.

I’m going to leave you to form your own thoughts and questions about this one.

 

 

The next few adverts on the TES list are mostly focused on giving information about the schools, so I won’t reproduce them here. It’s interesting, though, that so many of them contain very little about the qualities wanted in the desired candidate. It’s also interesting how many adverts use the word “outstanding” in their candidate desires.

As I have said, it is not my intention to find fault with these advertisements. Rather, this is an attempt on my part to raise questions. I’d warmly welcome any comments.

 

 

Romanticism, Star Trek and the Prog/Trad Debate

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.

20170211-230648-83208976.jpg

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.