What The Foucault – slides from my #rED17 talk

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to speak at rED17 in September. Here are the slides that I used. I also did some stuff on teaching job advertisements, but I’ve already written about those here.




Outstanding Teacher Job Adverts – #rEDRugby 17 Part 3

In my previous post, I gave a brief comment on the changing usage of the term outstanding, noting how Google nGram Viewer reveals a shifting from its use as a term of economics to one of glorification.

In this post, I’d like to return to a favourite topic of mine which is the language of teacher job advertisements. I find these fascinating. I’m intrigued by what they may say about our profession in general, but also about the schools that write them. What version of a teacher is being promoted as ideal? What kind of school is being promoted as ideal?

Each of the advertisements below were selected from the TES Jobs website in or around June 2017. I have removed any references to the names of the schools, or academy chains.

The first that I’d like to look at is this one:


Deputy Headteacher – Curriculum and Standards

We have outstanding students and our aim is to always provide an outstanding education for all of them. As a school we will constantly strive to make the learning experiences of our students the best it can be. We aim to fill their days with happy memories and experiences so that they enjoy their learning and develop a thirst for knowledge and make the best progress possible and the greatest success in examinations. xxx (part of xxx Multi-Academy Trust) is a mainstream, non-selective, comprehensive school for students aged 4 -16. xxx School is built on traditional values. Pivotal to this is a positive ethos and culture of learning and success for all students. There is particular regard to outstanding achievement for all students whatever their academic starting point and a commitment to lifelong learning for all stakeholders.

I like the way this advert attempts to do something different with the term outstanding, subverting our expectations. Notice how, despite using the term three times, there is no direct request for an outstanding teacher. Rather, the students are outstanding and the school aims to provide an “outstanding education for all of them”. Furthermore, “There is a particular regard to outstanding achievement for all students”.

There is an interesting mix of student-centred philosophy where the school aims “to fill their days with happy memories and experiences”, along with the claim that the “school is built on traditional values”.

It’s all going pretty well isn’t it, until we hit that final word: “stakeholders”. Meh.


Now for one of my all time favourite job adverts.


Teacher of English + TLR

‘To be, or not to be: that is the question’… Are you passionate about teaching English? Looking for a step up in your career? Or are you wanting to be supported to develop into Leadership? Then xxx would love you to be a new member of our English department! 

The xxx Academy are looking for a passionate, enthusiastic and dynamic English Teacher to join our successful Academy. ‘We recruit for attitude and train for skills’ so if you are interested in leadership we have the opportunities available within the Department. 


There’s clearly been some thought put into this one. Someone has decided that a good way to attract strong candidates for English teaching might be to quote Shakespeare. And if you’re going to quote Shakespeare, why not go for perhaps the most famous line? Indeed! Here, they’ve taken this line – a line which perhaps challenges indecision – to be about being brave. To apply, or not to apply: That is the question. The ad goes on to ask if the potential applicant is “Looking for a step up in your career?” And I like the final sentence of the first paragraph: it’s very encouraging.

But wait. Let’s take another look at that Shakespeare quotation. This is taken from Hamlet and at this point in the play, our Danish Prince is contemplating the unthinkable. This isn’t about having the courage to face your fears and do something great. The man is contemplating suicide. In context, this is regarded as a sin. Hamlet is trying to decide which is better – to face the horrors of what he has to do in order to avenge the murder of his father by his uncle (who has then married his mother becoming his step-father too), or to end it all and face the eternal damnation of hell.

What is this school saying about itself?

Oh, and the ad goes on to use the word “passionate”. No, this isn’t my favourite advert of all time. I hate it.


Let’s see if another advert for a teacher of English post can improve the mood.


Second in Charge of English

More than just an exceptional classroom practitioner, you’ll be a thought leader in English – supporting the rapid evolvement of the department and placing us at the forefront of innovation and best practice. You’ll make sure that no child is left behind and that every student enjoys clear direction in order to ‘Aspire, Endeavour, Achieve’.

What is “evolvement”?





“Outstanding” My #rEDRugby 2017 Talk Part 2

Yeah, I know; it’s been ages since I wrote Part 1.

In this post, I want to give a brief account of observations I made about the use of the word “outstanding”. This was one of most mentioned words  in my survey of words that annoy on EduTwitter.

I admit that the methodology here wasn’t particularly academic! But it may serve as the beginning of an interesting analysis of the developing use of this word in educational discourse, amid discourse more generally.

I used the Google nGram viewer to compare the lexemes satisfactory and outstanding, identifying these two terms as being highly associated with Ofsted. The fist term has, of course, disappeared from the lexical set used by Ofsted. Perhaps this was in recognition of the feeling that satisfactory no longer meant satisfactory in its description of schools, having shifted to mean something akin to “not good enough”. I shan’t include anymore discussion of the word satisfactory here because it is redundant in terms of educational discourse.

The resulting nGram looks like this: OutstandingSatisfactory

The blue line for outstanding indicates a massive rise in usage between 1920 and 1940, where it begins to ebb, but remains in use. This Google tool gives links enabling you to view the texts listed for particular time periods.

For the period 1880-1900, we see that the texts listed are mostly to do with discourses around economics, where outstanding is used to mean an owed amount of money. Outstanding1800s


Compare this to the list of texts for the period 1994-2004:



Here, most of the texts use the term outstanding to mean something akin to “standing out for being particularly good”. There are examples of outstanding personalities such as sportspeople. There’s also a biographical text with the subtitle “An outstanding life”. There’s also, amusingly for me although I don’t know why particularly, there are several texts in a series of American craft projects.

There has clearly been a shift in usage between these selected periods, suggesting a move from the economic to that of celebrating achievement: what might be labelled The Cult of Outstanding. And I think this is reflective of the trend in education in terms of usage of this term, where there has been a rise of the cult of outstanding lessons, or worst still, the outstanding teacher. It’s with great relief and pleasure that I note Ofsted’s clear attempts to move us away from the cult of the outstanding teacher by dropping lesson gradings and so on.

Now, it needs to be noted that Google nGram viewer defaults to texts published in the USA; repeating the search to include the search term UK yields a similar trend. The default settings of the nGram viewer are but one potential problem for using it in any meaningful academic research, although people have done so. However, it is, at least, an amusement. But more than that, as I said above, it can I think offer the beginnings of a potential analysis.

It might also interest (or amuse) some readers to ponder the etymology of the term outstanding too.

In my next post, I shall return to a favourite topic of mine: Teacher Job Adverts.

Words, Words, Words Part 1 #rEDRugby 2017

I was honoured to be invited to speak at ResearchED Rugby, and it was an absolute delight to attend this event. It’s impressive to see so many teachers, academics, and educationalist come together on a Saturday to share their views, beliefs and ideas about education, teaching, and learning. And it is humbling to be surrounding by such good stuff.

This blog post is Part 1 of an exploration of some of the ideas I presented during my talk.


Part One


(Image taken from https://foucault.info/file/margritti-not-pipe-jpg)


Michel Foucault wrote a book about this picture (1). It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise what Foucault has to say about how this image operates and the astonishing juxtaposition that it presents. I have used this image in my teaching as a beginning to semiotics – this is not a pipe, but a representation of a pipe. We recognise this representation because we are imbued with a cultural recognition of that object.

The painting, by Magritte, presents us with a juxtaposition that jars our perception. The title of the painting is The Treachery of Images and Magritte himself said of it:

The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe’, I’d have been lying! (2)

The point of using this in my teaching is to lead into the notion that words themselves are, in fact, representations – signs which point to a potentially huge array of possible meanings, depending upon context.

At this point in my talk, I briefly mentioned why I think discourse studies are important in education, which is summed up in this quotation:

“The ways we think and talk about a subject influence and reflect the ways we act in relation to that subject. This is the basic premise of discourse theory” (3)

I am very keen to embrace the kind of empirical studies that talk to us about how children learn and the kinds of teaching interventions that are most likely to yield the best learning for our pupils. However, I am even more keen to encourage my colleagues to look beyond such studies and to embrace the theoretical and, perhaps, more quantitative kind of work that might be conducted. Education, after all, is a human endeavour and such endeavours are ultimately personal and social.

The name of the talk upon which this blog post is based comes, of course, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where we find this glorious little exchange:

Polonius:   What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet:   Words, words, words

Polonius:  What is the matter, my lord?

Hamlet:  Between who?

(Hamlet 2:2)

This is, of course, a joke. At this point in the play, Hamlet is playing the fool, pretending (is it a pretence?) to be mad in order that he can say the unsayable to uncover the murderous truth of his father’s death. Throughout the play, he shows utter contempt for Polonius, mocking him and making lewd comments about his daughter – the former object of Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, who herself is driven insane by Hamlet’s cruel words. Oh, and the murder of her father.

In this short exchange, Shakespeare makes a wonderful play of the notion of double meanings. But the joke only works if we understand the various meanings and connotations of the words at play. Even the word words is used to manipulative effect, like a private joke between Hamlet and the audience. And the word matter is also the subject of semantic tomfoolery. These are only effective if we know how these words actually work. This is a nice example of how the signifiers can be twisted to point in unexpected directions.

In the discourse of #EduTwitter, and education in general, words as signifiers can be used to point to intended meanings, but can also reveal some intriguing thinking and ideas. Often, the words can point in twisted ways to produce unintended consequences.

The Discourse of #EduTwitter

It would be unrealistic to imagine that I could present here a detailed critique of the discourse of teachers and educationalists on Twitter; it is dense and fast moving. However, there are a few things that have emerged over recent weeks that have caught my interest.

The first is around the very event upon which this blog post is based – #rEDRugby, its speakers, and the very notion of research. I have blogged separately about this, but I also spoke on Saturday about what I consider to be the flawed analogy between education and medicine. However, I think that could warrant a blog post of its own, so I shall leave that for another time.

I then picked out a small selection of words that I perceive as being either dominant in the discourse of #EduTwitter, or of sudden and significant impact:

  • Trad
  • Prog
  • Troll
  • Dick

It would be quite possible, I think, to explore each of these in some detail. One could chart a genealogy of each term in turn, unearthing the layers of history to determine, in a Foucauldian sense, the conditions in which these notions have come to be. However, I don’t intend to embark on such an exercise. But I do want to emphasise what I see in the discussion around these terms which is the emergence of a clear sense of the teacher as a defined subject: a professional (whatever that term means) who conforms to a set of social and discursive practices. There are, of course, written doctrines of such codes of conduct – they can be found in any person specification in a job advert, in the national teacher standards documentation, and in what appears to be arising as part of the Chartered College of Teaching. However, there also seems to be an unwritten code of ethics at play; certain lines that should never be crossed.

The terms trad and prog are positional in relation to pedagogical beliefs and practices – some would say tribal positioning. The term troll is certainly one of some controversy – being used by some to refer to perceived abusive behaviour, and being being decried by others for being, in itself, an abusive term. And equally, dick crosses certain lines which some commentators found wholly inappropriate whilst others found the reaction to be exaggerated. It is not my intention here to comment on the rightness or wrongness of using any of these terms, but rather to use them as markers, signifiers, of a general discourse of teacher identity and professionalism which I find quite interesting. There is clearly something about the public presentation of the teacher which is deemed to be important. It could be interesting to chart the development of the figure of the teacher and how that has been, perhaps, problematised with the advent of social media.

In the next part, I shall explore the kinds of #EduWords that fellow tweachers find annoying.



(1) Foucault, M. (1982). This Is Not A Pipe. (J. Harkness, Ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from: https://monoskop.org/images/9/99/Foucault_Michel_This_Is_Not_a_Pipe.pdf

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Treachery_of_Images

(3) Karlberg, Michael (2005) The Power Of Discourse And The Discourse Of Power: Pursuing Peace Through Discourse Intervention International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 10, Number 1 http://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol10_1/Karlberg_101IJPS.pdf?scrlybrkr


Sonnet: On Target

The fatal kiss of targets blows upon
The wind like whispers heard in darkened rooms
The measurements become our only truth
Imagination murdered in the womb
And who would dare to question how and why?
For fear of fateful consequence to come
And judgement is that numbers are the key
For raising the attainment of just some
It’s more to justify the jobs of those
Pathetic parliamentary pimps of hell
Who prostitute our children’s future dreams
And have no souls their own that they could sell
There is a secret hanging in the air
It’s only known by those who really care


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:


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.



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