Saturday, 30 June 2012

Behaviour Chat with Charlie Taylor at the DfE: Die Hard- in a ministry

The Department for Education, and it seems, Charlie and Lola.
Mile End station, even by the standards of the staunchest Pollyanna, is an unlovely troglodyte's cave; get out at Mile End station and you expect to see still-smoking Sobanries on the floor, and wonder when the Soviets bailed. Get out at Westminster, the Jubilee flagship station, and you're in an alternate dimension of the future where the Empire never waned, all elegant mechanical spires and Olympic engineering. Such was my after school journey last Thursday, when I had the pleasure of attending the Ministry of Funny Teaching, sorry, the Department FOR Education. I emphasise this in case anyone mistakenly thought that prior to the name change in 2009, they were actually AGAINST education. Mind you, they paid for me to do Brain Gym, so who knows?

The raison d'etre was to take part in a Q&A with Charlie Taylor, the incumbent behaviour czar to the government, in a live recording taking part inside the DfE. The brief suggested arriving at five for a seven o'clock start, and I was wondering what would take two hours. I was kind of hoping there would be some kind of secret mission for me. Alas it was only the cover-every-eventuality turbo-planning of someone who was probably used to last-minute-Larrys goofing their schedules. Still, if there's a next time, I'm chipping up at five-to with a cheeky grin.

An estate agent would describe the interior as generously appointed. It's quite beautiful, with cities-of-the-future offices suspended around an enormous atrium. It would make, I'd like to suggest, an excellent setting for the next Die Hard movie ('Yippee-kai-ay, Mumsnetf***rs!').

NUT 'most wanted' list.
There's even a two-lift system: one of them allows the Morlocks to toil endlessly in the darkness, while another allows the Eloi to ascend to the loftiest heights; access to the second is gained only by, I presume, a retina scan and a password (I tried 'full pelt' without success). It reminded me of the lifts in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York; one set accommodates the people wearing fanny-packs, while another allows Paris Hilton access to her private eyrie (a guard told me, 'These lifts aren't for people like you,' and I said, 'What, with jobs?')

The waiting room was decorated (and I use the word with caution) with a chronological series of education secretary mugshots; a Butler, a Baker, an Academy Maker, that kind of thing. No M-Gove yet. But how long? The average tenure in the top chair seems to be just under two years per Grand Fromage. One more brown envelope, one more tart talking to the Sun on Sunday, one more cabinet musical chairs, and suddenly there's another A4 glossy pinned to the wall of the waiting room. Ah, momento mori.

I was hoping for The Thick of It, or at least the Office of Information Retrieval from Brazil; instead I got an open plan layer cake characterised by air, light and space. Of course the damning deal you make with the open plan is that you trade discretion for the Panopticon of the communal space. A chum at the TES described to me how their office goes onto Gove-standby when the Great Man wants his pencil sharpened or something. Pity these mortals then, who are on Def-Con Gove AT ALL TIMES. They must be in a state of permanent priapism.

Maybe not.

Full pelt with a Tranny

Everyone was charming and kind. There's a cafeteria (aspirant regime-topplers seeking clues, take note of my blueprint clues) at the base of the beast, open plan, of course. It looks lovely, like the showroom of the Chelsea Habitat. Unfortunately, like a McDonalds drive-through, all the seats are designed to get you off your arse and back on your feet after five minutes. They might as well attach them to the mains with copper wire, for all the comfort conveyed. Does that all sound a bit Michael Winner? I'm sorry *moves to the breakfast area, meets De Niro for snax etc*

The broadcast was fine- I'm happy to talk about behaviour until the universe succumbs to entropy. Charlie Taylor is, I gots to say, one of the most maddeningly reasonable men I've met in education, possibly because he knows what the f*ck he's talking about, which is often uncommon. He's that rare thing- a man talking about teaching and classroom management who has actually scaled the peaks before telling everyone else how to get there. I rate the fella, despite all attempts to find some significant dispute between us on matters of cheeky monkey management. Alas, I couldn't find a credit card to winkle into the space between our views. He also looks a bit like Clint, which should please Sir Michael Wilshaw. I have high hopes for Teacher Training.

'Yippee Kai-ay, memo-leaker.'
Anyway, if you want to see it, the DfE have it on their Youtube channel, and I've posted it below. Yes, they have a Youtube AND a Twitter account AND a Facebook and OMG HAVE YOU SEEN WHAT THE DEPARTMENT OF TRADE JUST POSTED ON THE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE'S WALL I NEARLY PISSED MYSELF SHE'S A TOTAL BITCH HAHAHAHA ARE YOU GOING TO THAT THING AT BRUSSELS?

*Michael Gove likes this*
*Stephen Twigg likes this if everyone else does*
*The Daily Telegraph likes this even before anyone else knows about it* 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Spectator One-Day Conference: 50 Shades of Gove

Got a half day out of school today, to attend....a school's conference. I know. I KNOW.

Because I AM ACTUALLY A TEACHER AND NOT SOME INTERESTED LOOKY-LURKER (which seems to be, in the main, from where the Masters of the Education Universe normally emerge) I had to teach this morning, then catch the flue network to the Hogwarts of the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster for a whole day of edu-chatter. None of this Wellington Festival of Education multiplayer, non linear, design-your-own-menu: it was a linear, mono-roomed affair, much like the rows and columns of my preferred teaching style. I think it set the tone for the rest of the day.

This was not a day for fluffy progressives and bunny-hugging lessons in happiness. This was the Spectator, damn your eyes, and the agenda was 50 Shades of Gove: Free Schools, How can we have more Free Schools, How should the Curriculum be redesigned; How Free Schools saved my life, etc. Gove must have walked in and thought, 'Oh! Have you all been reading my diary?'

Enjoyed my session: 'iEducate: Trends in Digital Learning.' Time operates with the physics of Narnia when you're at a podium. First up was Stephen Crowe, Senior Director of Cisco education, but he didn't sing the Thong Song once. Just stared at me. Then a man who was a joy to listen to: Professor Alan Mycroft. Not only is his surname Mycroft, but he's a professor of computing at Cambridge AND co-founder of The Raspberry Pi Foundation, which is currently killing it in the '$30 and under' section of the Argos PC catalogue. He joyfully stoked the stereotypes about the joyous, distracted, maladroit academic, even dropping the bloody thing as he waved it to the audience. He was my favorite speaker of the day, because he glowed with the singular aura of passion and intelligence married in one mad form. Brilliant. He even brought his pet in, in a Specsavers case.

'Gee, babylon take man fi flee flee'
I started off with a gag I thought of on the way in: nothing. I thought, 'Tough room.' But as every teacher knows, press on, persevere. The bastards, though. That would have killed 9M.

I spoke as best I could about the perils of digital over-integration in the classroom. It's a well worn saw for me, so I won't repeat myself, except to say that computer technology is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for great teaching. Give me a voice, maybe a pen, and a board, I'll give you a fantastic lesson. Given that no one in the room (or prior to 2007) enjoyed such a digitally enriched education, I'm guessing young minds are safe without tablets and virtual learning platforms. They're hoisted on schools by companies who profit by't, and there's no evidence they actually aid learning. And they're much more expensive than a marker pen and a good idea. IT can be great in lessons, but the primary question to be addressed should always be, 'Is this what I need to teach the children?' And the answer is almost always, 'No. I don't.'

I got a bit preacher at the end, but it seemed to go down well enough. Feedback was kind, at least.

Later on I had the pleasure of seeing Peter 'Groovy School' Hyman in action. I've blogged about his cool cat college proposal before. I have nothing against the man, and I wish his school nuttin' but love *fist bump* but he succumbs to what I consider some of the weaknesses of the progressive educational experiment- skill based learning, flipped classrooms, tea candles (might have made that last one up) etc. He spoke about...well, flipped classrooms, blended learning, and 21st century skills, and I thought, 'Gosh, what might they be like?' Because last time I looked we were 12% into the century, and the skills kids have needed for all 12 years of that have been...pretty much the same skills as ever. What next? Jobs that haven't been invented yet? God bless him.

Lunch was....well, it was a standing up lunch. You heard me. A STANDING UP LUNCH. A fine one, to be sure. I imagine that's how Ryan Air'll have us all dining soon as we fly to Zchszczrevovwz Airport. Then Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust, took to the podium as we scarfed beef cobbler and compote of peryton. He started getting pelters from people whose main argument was, as far as I could see, 'Why are you only ploughing millions of pounds of private investment into helping SOME poor children? WHY DON'T YOU HELP THEM ALL YOU BASTARD?'

FFS. The poor guy. Fraser Nelson jumped in to rescue, who incidentally, should do voice-overs for film trailers, or recruitment campaigns for the army, or Sat-navs. Booming.

May I just say that it PAYS TO BE CAREFUL WHOM YOU TWEET ABOUT? I was dropping tweets like cheeky cluster bombs, going for gag rate rather than quality, when I mentioned how 'chillingly efficient' the staff in the room were, breezing about like prefects. Half an hour later....oh, yes, you're a sentence ahead, aren't you? THE HEAD OF THE STAFF TWEETED BACK. 'Thank you,' she said, 'If that was a compliment.' Dear God, I could feel the red laser dot on my temple.

Later on, I asked in the cloakroom if anyone had a spare delegate pack, to which she said, 'Yes, because you were nice about us,' and I remembered what every good leader or manager knows: don't piss off the help. They might look invisible (and sometimes, if they're good, they should be) but treat them like they are and they will have you, dressed like a wood pigeon. Plus, it got me a brochure.

' strategy....'
So Gove delivered his speech. I would reiterate it here, but The Daily Telegraph did a much better job of it than I ever could, approximately 12 hours before he said it. Wow, if that's how badly our classified documents leak then I hope the Germans don't get any funny ideas again, because man, you could drive a Campaign Bus through our security. No wonder people keep leaving briefcases full of launch codes on park benches (or, if you're Ken Clarke, wrapped in a kebab and plunged into a litter bin). How on EARTH do you think that document could have found its way so quickly to a friendly outlet? Did a disgruntled fifth columnist in the janitor pool of Greycoat Street think, 'This'll teach them to ignore our struggle for GCSEs!' and risk livelihood and liberty to smuggle it out? Nobody knows, not even Fraser Nelson, columnist for the Daily Telegraph and editor of the Spectator. IT'S JUST ONE OF THEM MYSTERIES.

I resisted the temptation to ask him the questions that really matter to teachers, such as, 'How can you justify the disintegration of pay and conditions in academies?' and 'Have you ever gone full pelt with a tranny?' Although I did ask him, 'Which member of Sex and The City are you?' To which he replied without hesitation, 'Samantha,' which caused some upset in the New Statesmen corner, who prefer to describe him as more of a Miranda figure: career minded, misandric.

That may not have been an actual question.

Some rascals bailed after the Big Beast bounded out, but they missed a treat: Michelle Rhee, New York and Washington State school reformer (and focus of 'Waiting for Superman') had an hour; it was supposed to be an interview with, but she needed little prodding to get going. I know little of modern American educational history- a blind spot that needs serious attention- and I've since heard her described as everything from a right-wing-nut union scourge to the South Korean-Madonna-saviour of state education. But I'll say this: she filled a room. She had 'that which I would fain call master: authority,' to paraphrase the Bard of Stratford E20. Mesmerising.

And that was that.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Wellington College Festival of Education Day 2

Well, the Festival made it to another year, and unlike my previous prediction, it didn’t end up being called the Sun on Sunday Festival of Education and Tits. Sauron of Wapping has been deterred, not defeated, it seems. I’m very glad it’s grown legs though. There are possible criticisms that could be laid at its door- the enormous disparity of state versus private sector representation; the preponderance of commercial interests who inevitably want to transform the learning experience of children by, er, selling them lots of equipment and packages they don’t really need; that it over promotes the interests of those merely interested in education rather than those actually involved in it. I mean, I love Jackie Stewart. But WTF?

But nothing in this world of matter is perfect (except perhaps the knowledge that an inspector has been stranded in a space/ time wormhole, and will not be observing your lesson). What I like is the emphasis this has on being a Festival, not, as Seldon says, a conference. Consequently, instead of dreary Travel Inns and the dingy dungeons of Retail Trading estates, boiled sweets in a bowl, receipts hoarded, comfort breaks, brain storms, desperation and the smell of dreams crushed on the wheel of witlessness, we have something closer to a comics convention: guest appearances, celebrity rentagobs, workshops (with little work, or need of overalls), agreeable surroundings, entertainment and, of course, the illusion, however temporal, that education is an important and exciting thing in which to be involved.

Which of course it is, anyway. Maybe one day they’ll describe Glastonbury as ‘Wellington for people who haven’t left home yet.’

Today, I saw....

John D’Abbro, in the Old Gym, with the Candlestick

John represented something that I think the Festival needs a lot more of: state school representation by working teachers in challenging mainstream circumstances. Frankly I’m slightly tired of every decision that matters to the way state schools are run- and let’s remember, that means the vast majority of them- being made by people who have never set foot inside one. Which isn't to say there isn’t an enormous amount of good that collaboration between the sectors can achieve, (and if I'm honest, there are many things about private schools that the state could easily and inexpensively adopt to improve things enormously, were they not so burdened with the leaden low expectations of the barely employables who seem to run things at that level), just that the solutions for one pupil, let alone one school, aren't always transferable to other environments, and some of the more optimistic remedies encouraged in state schools have been brewed by people who only ever saw one from a train as they sped by.

John had a tough gig; the dawn slot on Sunday; if he’d been placed a little closer, a little later, he’d have enjoyed twice the audience, and deservedly so. His session was, unlike some, not a grand vision to transform the way we learn in the 23rd century of some such ordure, but a plea- considered, and carefully made- to turn a three term year into a four term year, jettisoning the absurdities of a system based on the Harvest in an age when most of my kids think that Harvest is a posh restaurant. He had me convinced. He’s a good old lad, John: hand outs for the room, questions to the audience….takes a teacher to model that kind of best practice.

AA Gill and the Coal Miner’s Daughter

Couldn't resist seeing the big beast himself AA Gill (‘First A for Adrian, the second isn’t for Areshole,’ he said, cutting half his audience’s hosses off at the pass). He retrod footprints he had already left from last year’s discussion, but when a turn like him comes along, the joy is simply in appreciating the process. I’m a fan of Gill, and not particularly by what he says- much of which veers from vindictive misanthropy to devilish prescience- but by the fluency and confidence and articulacy with which he says it. He really is quite the word ninja. I don’t understand people coming to his events-voluntarily, obviously- and then getting upset with him before storming out in a huff. Which happened four times (different people, obviously). The most impressive was a lady who proudly announced that her Dad was a Welsh miner, went a bit Rita Heyworth, and stormed out loudly. YOU GO GIRL. Literally.

Why get upset? I mean, OK, he was pretty rough on schools (summary of argument: I had a rubbish time at school: schools are shit), but who gives a shit what AA Gill thinks about schools? I mean, seriously? And I don’t mean that as an insult to the man. I’m sure he doesn’t give a consommé of Hippogriff what I think about his column, and why should he? When a child kicks off in my class, I don’t get all upset and walk out; I think, ‘There’s a child kicking off. Do I need to do anything?’ 

Do NOT approach
'Raise Online?' 'Thanks, I've just been.'
So if you find yourself in the lecture hall of a nasty columnist who thinks teachers are babysitters, and education is a modern and unnecessary invention, then just take a breath, think of your happy place, and work your ghosts out somewhere else. Gill dealt with each outburst like a farrier rasping dried dung from a horse's hoof ,sort of dislocated from giving a fuck by the practised manners of a man who intrinsically knows he’s better than you. He’s an acquired taste, I realise. Besides, he’s what my Mum would call a stirrer- he LOVES to see people pop a vein. It makes him mightier.

The Essex Boys- Vic Goddard and Stephen Drew

You probably know about my thoughts on this pair. I’ve followed their exploits so closely I nearly applied for a restraining order myself. Educating Essex was teachers’ landmark telly last year, and rightly so. Vic and Stephen were for-once-deserving reality TV stars, because they were famous for being good at something, not merely for having little sense of privacy or dignity. It harked back to a gentler age when people made the papers because they’d climbed something high or invented rubber.

Their session was all heart, and some brain- throw in courage, and you’ve got a yellow brick road right there. They were also a great double act: a combination of high camp and comedy that resembled Morecambe and Wise sitting up in bed, wearing dressing gowns and smoking pipes. They briefly described their TV experience, and linked it to their vision of teaching- sort of a ‘no child left behind’ policy that initially had me suspicious when I first heard about it in EE, but which had won me over once I realised that, far from not excluding pupils and then simply recycling them through the system, to the perpetual Hell of the teaching staff and no purpose at all for the kids (as normally happens in most schools that proudly claim to never exclude), they actually work with the kids through the process, trying to make the disciplinary process meaningful and constructive. It’s a Hell of a hard job, and unless a school can commit to the whole cycle with resources ands staff, it’s a disaster. But they made it work.

They, and their school, are on a pedestal for many in the profession, and it’s right that they are. Clone the fuckers and let’s get things sorted in mainstream education, please. Mr Drew starts a new Headship this year, and I wish him every success. Vic- young enough to have the energy required to do the job, old enough to have a wise head on his vertiginously tall shoulders, has big shoes to fill. Or none, given that the last time I saw Stephen in Passemores he was barefoot to the sock. Let’s hope his next school has carpets, or his whole strategy’s up the swanny.

Ben Goldacre and the Chamber of Bad Science

The God-King of Nerds took the cavernous marquee at what, for me, was the last gig of the day. I expected a room full of people all playing an online RPG while swapping insults based on the periodic table to each other on chat rooms that had been invented for just this session. I wasn’t far disappointed, to be honest; the Twitter rate was a blur in this room, in homage to the incarnation of data-based science who had descended to be amongst them.

I rate Goldacre extremely highly; his Bad Science book was an elegant and accessible hand grenade pitched into the murky swamp of media coverage, faulty experiments, Quixotic research claims and vested interests that devils our modern understanding of science. And his column has cross-bowed into a collective psyche that appears to have an appetite for reason and empirically testable claims. Science gets poorly treated in the popular media, mainly because most people in the media don’t understand science, having graduated with, at best, good degrees in literature and history, and at worst, degrees in media. Good science coverage is rarer than the Jabberwock, and science in schools, while treated as core, often loses out to children’s enthusiasm for the softer, less difficult crypto-sciences like Psychology or Sociology. Which, y'know, are about people and that and people are interesting, innit?

His set was familiar to anyone conversant with his writing, but he wasn’t there to launch a campaign, just repeat his message that good science and bad science are not the same thing, and that difference isn’t hard to make. One of the things I admire about him is that he offers on his website to come and do a speech, a chat, with any school that he can fit in, for free, as long as the school just gives him the travel expenses he asks for without lifting a pen to fill out a form. I rather like that. I imagine it puts many schools into a panic as they contemplate accounting for the sudden hole in their spread sheets.

I bailed in the last fifteen minutes, so unless anyone wants to tell me that David Starkey and Penny Independent came back and tag-teamed him like Hulk Hogan, I presume it finished in the same vein. 

'Right, who's sitting with whom?'
The Wellington Staff Room
On the train home I heard that AC Grayling claimed that students at school today were training for jobs that hadn't even been invented yet. It was probably just as well I left. AC Grayling, I am VERY, VERY disappointed.

Trivia, trivium, trivialla-ossenfeffer-Katzen-ellen-bogen-by-the-sea

1. Inexplicably, but gratefully invited to the High Table on Saturday Evening, where the Illuminati of Education gathered together to scarf jugged ocelot, potted centaur and Kraken mignons marinated in mermaid milk. I don’t know, I didn’t check the menu. I had to swear an oath signed in blood to secrecy, until everything went a bit Eyes Wide Shut and suddenly it’s FIDELIO FIDELIO AND I WAKE UP IN MY ROOM AND THE GIRL’S DEAD

So. Sat next to an interesting guy and we exchanged names as you do.

Me: And you are?

Him: *something I don’t catch*

Me: And what do you do?

Him: I run one of the largest teacher trade unions in the UK.

Me: Ah.

2. Bumped into Cordelia Williams the pianist who was at the Festival to talk about high performance playing. I was staying in the Wellington lodgings, the agreeably retro, time-capsule lodgings for errant guests of the House (or hapless speakers too disorganised to get their shit together to book a hotel in time). I left my room at silly-early o’clock to use the floor shower. She looked ready to attend a red-carpet awards ceremony, and walked with the air of the effortlessly elegant. I resembled, at that point in the morning, something that would normally be used to accelerate the coagulation of a good cheese. It was edifying. *checks* Sorry, mortifying.

3. Had some quality catch up time and first time introductions with an enormous number of people. Thank you to Old Andrew, Geoff Barton, David Didau, Liz Maine, Nic Amy, Paul Dix, Sarah Simons, Anne Mroz, David James, Amanda Speilman, Charlie Taylor, Gerard Kelly and many more. You are the wind beneath my wings. And thanks to Wellington for the best bit of CPD I’ve had in ages. Probably since the last one.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Festival of Education 2012: The Teacher's Olympics

'You want what Anne Boleyn got? DO YOU?'
Last year, AA Gill christened it 'Glastonbury for swots'. This year, before anyone else cuts in, I'm dubbing it The Isle of Wight Festival for Edunerds . Or perhaps The Avalon for Teacher Tweeters, as I couldn't take a step without tripping over people I had only ever known as Funkalicious Pastry or Digital Classroom Integrator (Twitter bio: 'interested in innovation, new ways of learning,and 21st century classrooms!' Always the exclamation mark, always. My guide to exclamation marks: look back at whatever you've written, and if you see an exclamation  mark, take the damn thing out and stamp on it until it cracks.)

Or maybe it was the Ragnarok of David Starkey. He certainly seems to save up his best shit for the Festival every year It's his gift to the world, apparently. But I'll give you details as I get them, because, like some clueless anti-Cassandra, I neglected to witness the session where he and an Independent journalist had a jackets-and-jewellery-off ruck. The word on the fine shingled pavilions of Wellington was that he said....well, you know the kind of things he says, and she got all OH NO YOU JUST DIDN'T and he was all like YOU HEARD ME BITCH and she was all OH YOU DID NOT JUST CALL ME A BITCH and he was like BITCH ARE YOU DEAF?

Or something. I wasn't there. I easily missed the best bit of the day, unless Anthony Seldon's opening speech was more spectacular than even I imagined.  I can only hope that David Cannadine turns up tomorrow and tells Stephen Twigg to start turning the jobless into dogfoodor something, just to keep the momentum going.

If you're unfamiliar with the Festival of Education, it's quite something. In its third year, it attracts all the usual  people interested in education- digital robber-barons circling the booty of the education sector like privateers, ideologues, zealots of all poles, the well meaning, the opportunists, and so many axes to grind one can imagine that Middle Earth is quite empty of dwarfs. And me, of course. My axe is tiny. Fortunately I have a large classroom.

The Festival is like 'Nam. If you weren't there YOU DON'T KNOW.

It's interesting to see so many interests all congregating in one spot like this; I'm reminded of an arms trade fair. But I think the intention is genuine. I was having lunch with Gerard Kelly, the convivial, towering editor of the TES (I'm not joking; he could stunt double Optimus Prime) when the divine Mr Seldon, omnipresent host of the Teacher's Olympiad floated up; he quite rightly gazed at me with the slightly weary faraway stare of a man who has been running on self-belief and fumes for six months,and launched into an explanation of the water feature upon which we sat (I didn't say it was a particularly classy lunch- probably pulled unicorn or something) ,and how it detailed the eight aptitudes of the college. It saved me, at least, having to explain what I didn't do. And then he was off like Tinkerbell to point out the sandalwood basilisks in the chapel narthex to someone from Google.

I was waving my jazz hands twice today: once, interviewing Charlie Taylor, Behaviour B'wana to the DfE (trumping my mere Guru status considerably, which can be attained simply by delving into any box of Cheerios), and later with a solo gig in the Spirituality Room, which was...actually I don't know why it was called that. I think it was an aptitude. One I lack, clearly.

The Library, before they turned it into the Death Star's knickers
Because I was 'on' today, I neglected to see as many of the other bands as I should have- like being at a festival and missing Shakespeare's Sister because you were tuning up (see: Starkey). Charlie Taylor was, I thought, a sane, intelligent, experienced man in charge of a substantial brief in education, and no, I didn't expect to say that either. I've read most things he's written (I over-prepared like a fool; next time I'll just pick up that day's Metro or something) and I'd be hard pressed to find a substantive issue we disagree over in behaviour management. You'd almost think that anyone with experience of tough schools and challenging kids would intuitively come to the same practical conclusions. No, that would be CRAZY TALK.

The session seemed to go well. And ONLY ONE person asked one of those questions that isn't really a question, but a five minute monologue. Warning; if you do this, I will judge you. When someone launches into one, I just think 'Sometimes you cry when you check your inbox,' or 'Your parents' divorce is showing.'

I'm doing a another gig with CT next week at the DfE (home of initialisms), some sort of Q&A that's going to be live streamed. I'll tell you more when I know more, but we appear to be a bit of a double act, although I imagine he sees it more as a ship/ barnacle relationship.

Went to one session called,ominously 'What is education for?'. I say ominous because such discussions usually revolve around narcissists hopping up and down at each other like crows and waving their angry little fists as they reel off their pet topics at one another, to little avail. But Douglas Murray caught my interest; he started as badly as you could wish for, like a Polish farmer kick-starting his father's tractor, but when he found his stride, my God he was good. There's few things more impressive than watching an intelligent man find his voice and speak with confidence about something in which he is fluent. My favourite quote, in reference to (apparently) a video shown earlier in the day where Paul McCartney extolled the virtues of selective arbitrary taxonomies of diet (or vegetarianism), and he said, 'Why should we listen to him on the ethics of eating meat?' He followed with a pop at stand-up comedians acting as proxy experts on the virtues of taxation. Dougie, you had me at 'Oh for God's sake'.

He spent five minutes bemoaning people who didn't want children to learn the best of what we had to offer, to utilise the tiny window of opportunity we have to 'get civilisation to them', then someone said that teaching a canon of poems to children was elitist, and he nearly blew a vein. Dougie, I did not know you, but as of Monday, Amazon is lighter of stock to the tune of one of your badly hawked books.

I had an unexpected moment of nostalgia when I attended Ian Livingstone (the President of Eidos (think Tomb Raider)'s session; . When I was a lad he was the British face of Role Playing games and the Fighting Fantasy non-linear fiction books which stood in for a social life when I was a very young man. A small bubble of sentiment, long suspended under the sediment of years, broke free and bubbled to the surface. I mean, I wasn't weeping or anything, but it was touching. He was talking about the need for schools ot teach programming and code, not just more fucking powerpoints, to which I say AMEN, brother. When I was a kid I was programming my Commodore 64 in Machine Code. But I gave up because....well, it just wasn't something we did in school. Maybe I would have been sitting on  my enormous nerd private island driving a big nerdy billionaire's super yacht by now, if I'd stuck at it. DEAR READER I WOULDN'T CHANGE A THING I WOULD STILL LOVE YOU.

My crowd was so excited, they closed their eyes.
Wrapped up the day with my session; I think the room was entirely composed of people who read my blog, so all I have to say, naturally, is that I have rarely seen an audience composed of such natural wit, wisdom, balance of form and limb, symmetry of features, and grace. Comically, ironically, the IT was locked out by password problems, so I went a capella, and I thought 'Ah, it's just like school.' See, that's the problem that most IT zealots don't recognise: this stuff isn't snag free; we still need teachers for when the link goes down. I'm digitally literate all right; I speak fluent cock-up.And Bocce, of course.

I loved the session, and it was fantastic meeting everyone afterwards. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a craven Wormtongue, the whole Wellington experience was quite wonderful. The children were breathtakingly polite, warm and composed (thank you to Jaya for showing me around), the premises were Narnian and the whole Hydra-headed beast seemed to run like the engine of an Aston Martin. There aren't many festivals that could cope with losign the healdine acts (cheers, Mssrs Gove and Wilshaw) but this one made a fine fist of it.

Ah, there's too much good stuff to get down. Day two tomorrow. I may write something about it.


Thursday, 21 June 2012

Dogmatic debate in education only means everyone loses

I sometimes despair of the way we debate. One of my bugbears is the tendency we have to polarise discussions into simple for/ against propositions. Watch any parley, however nuanced, between two people and see how long it gets before their position, however tentative initially, becomes entrenched; before a view that they might have only held as lightly as a a JCB holding an egg, becomes as fixed and firm as the Pillars of Hercules.

This is humanity; we define ourselves by the things we value; those things we value, we become. An attack on something we value becomes an act of simultaneous intimacy and violence. It is this transaction, this sublimation of opinion with identity, that ruins the measure of many discussions.

I think we also polarise debate into simple dichotomies because it is easier to do so, because our frail minds, engines of self-justified righteousness, need clear, clean lines along which to navigate. A cartoon or caricature of someone's views, that flat, two-dimensional mockery of the mind that inspires it, is far easier to sketch, and then scorn, than the infinitely varied and personal honeycomb of the human condition. My enemies, we stoop to presume, are beasts and morons. My allies are paragons and prefects of Platonic idealism.

But this reduction, this transubstantiation of gold into lead (however base the gold might be to begin with), is the death of reason. Few people really effectively caricature the embodiment of idiocy or villainy that we imagine. This error takes many shapes in debate:

1. To presume that if my opponent holds opinion X then he must hold opinion Y

This is the curse of ideology. In Britain it is exemplified by the sometimes childish exchanges between the left and the right. 'If you believe in a welfare state,' runs the logic, 'Then you must be for learned helplessness in the poor.' Or to mirror this, 'If you value the liberty of the individual, then you must desire that companies pay no tax.' These are common mis-positions. A cursory glance at the variety of denominational philosophy that can be held within the churches of socialism, conservatism, liberalism or any other ism you fancy will quickly show that no ideology exists in a finished form; that while there are many orthodoxies, there are also many beliefs that can be both halal and haram under the same umbrella.

When a man calls himself a Tory, or a New Labourite, or banker, or a boxer, I resist the temptation to think him a scourge of immigrants, a warmonger, a parasite or a belligerent brute, because the boxes into which we force people aren't fit for their dignity, until they've proven it. We wouldn't countenance, in polite tea rooms, the vicious dogma of the anti-semite or the white supremacist, that demands that all members of subset A have characteristic B, so why do we move so easily from uncertainty to prophetic omniscience about a man's opinions?

2. To argue that because I dislike the general views of opponent X, all his views, specifically, must also be disliked.

The temptation to universalise from a specific is perhaps natural to the human mind. A dog bites me, and I recoil from all future jaws. So far, so Darwinian, so utilitarian. But this shorthand way to find one's conceptual position- by defining oneself in opposition or attraction to a view because someone I already embrace or revile holds it, is slavish, and lazy. This is why we should never meet our idols; they inevitably fall short of the plinth upon which they are placed. I admire Sinatra's tone, but cannot conjoin with his approach to domestic violence; I find solace in the philosophy of David Hume, while rejecting his rejection of identity; I laugh along with the Krankies, but would rarely accept an invitation to a midnight fondue from them.
This is a blog about Gove's reforms, that emerged like the Chest Burster from Scott's Alien films (only the Daily Mail will serve as Harry Dean Stanton, here), and yet it is not a blog about that. I'll deal with the implications of Gove's nuclear detonation for GCSEs, the National Curriculum, the exam boards etc, another time.

I write this in response to the routine, ossified response, the catalysed, calcified effect that interminably follows cause, that passes for political debate at times. Here, I'm talking about the education sector, but I tip my hat to all fields of enquiry in general. I am not a Tory; nor do I support Labour. The only reason I say this is because of the syndromes I have already described. Frankly, you can keep the lot of them; my opinion of many of those engaged in politics ranges from the patronising to the emetic. You don't need to hear a parable from me on the inequities, frailties and inadequacies of the often half-formed troglodytes, parasites and unemployables that pass for our representatives, across the political spectrum; the detritus of society; the narcissists, the self-entitled, the craven, the career polticos fit to do nothing else in the world other than rule.

But for once- for ONCE- I wish that a policy could be announced without the submissive tarts of the press and edu-sphere thrusting their fleshy flanks skyward, or the angry army of denialists and militant naysayers springing into their Jungian Archetypes like Batman sliding down a pole, ready for combat.

There's a lot to analyse about what was announced today; in fact, there's always a lot to analyse, to meditate, to reflect upon, to discuss and to dissect. Some of it is undoubtedly good; some of it bad; some of it unclear. In fact, a LOT of it is unclear. So let's do something unconventional, radical, and truly progressive.

Let's ask, 'Am I right?' Let's think about it, free from the many-tinted spectacles of dogma.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Shazam! Teacher training, Teach First, and Gove's balls of marble.

'The wisdom of Solomon! The strength of Hercules! The stamina of Atlas! The power of Zeus! The courage of Achilles! The speed of Mercury!'

In the old Fawcett comic strip, Captain Marvel, the eponymous Olympian, magically embodied the six greatest qualities of crypto-history's six greatest heroes, which conveniently formed a mononymous acrostic in a way beloved of lazy english teachers setting homework everywhere. (Seriously: stop telling small children about this form of poetry. You condemn teachers to a stream of homeworks that look like this:


You SEE what Billy did there? DO YOU SEE? Give me strength. I usually smile, and say, 'Hahaha how long did this take you on the way in?' And we all laugh about it years later when they're robbing me on a night bus. Acrostic make wonderful mnemonics, and for fans of obsessive-compulsive disorders, and pedantry, I'm sure it's a hoot. For twelve year olds: less instructive. I'm sure some will defend it as an entry-level introduction to poetry, which is why I always start my kids off with John Cage's '4' 33'', as an introduction to nursery rhymes.)

But I digress, like a turkey stalling for time on Christmas Eve.

I suspect our very own wizard, Michael Gove, has been at the educational pick and mix too, judging by this speech he gave at the National College annual conference this week. 'The High Expectations of Singapore! The Success of Finland! The Exanple of Charter Schools in New York! The Transformation of London!'

Which spells 'Heset'. Hmmmm. MICHAEL GOVE ARE YOU F*CKING WITH MY MIND? See, this is how loonies get switched on to the Bible Code, or hearing messages from The Horned One in the lyrics of Judas Priest, or Katy Perry (especially her last hit Natas evol I)

It read...HESET.
Of course, any announcement by an incumbent Education Secretary will provoke gales, raging from hurricane hysteria to squalls of support. So what's the loveable rascal saying now?

1. Isn't London doing jolly well?

Is it? He quotes the stat that 62% of London kids leave with 5 A*-Cs, compared with 58% nationally. So far, so what; a 4% lead won't moisten any seats. But he 'digs deeper' to reveal that while nationally 35% of Free School Meal kids get 5 A*-C (including English and Maths) in London that figure is 52% Hooray! LET FREEDOM RING FROM THE HILLS OF HACKNEY ROAD TO THE SWAMPS OF HAMPSTEAD. He points to this miracle as being borne out of Academies, Outstanding schools supporting others, and 'a focus on improving the teaching- including Teach First.'

Except that this just doesn't follow. Regular visitors will know my pet saw; that in educational science, figures mean what you want them to mean, and linking cause and effect is as easy and  plastic as Playdo. If, every Saturday morning I wake up with a sore head, do I conclude that Saturday mornings cause sore heads? Or might I look to the pile of empty Talisker bottles that decorate my Ottoman? It's telling that he points to a metric that he replaced- the 5 A*-C bar, because that success criteria was famously gamed by schools in a Darwinian scramble for better and better results. One way this was achieved was by the adoption of BTECs and other qualifications, with their massively disporportionate equivalence to GCSEs. And where were these qualifications targeted? The D/C boundaries, and below. More capable kids didn't reap the same proportionate benefits, of course.

'Oscillate you hip and don't take pity
Me want fi see you get live upon the riddim when me ride.'
And schools aggressively targeted the C/D borderline kids, in one of recent educational history's most vile campaigns of injustice. Did you think schools were for everyone? Not a bit- bright kids could swim already, the least able could go drown in a shitty barrel because they would anyway, and the nearly-there's were VIPs, invited and goaded into interventions that must have made them feel, if nothing else, jolly special.

So while we can all pat ourselves on the backs for such a lovely FSM bottom line, let's not ignore what the figures conceal. After all, the coalition has successfully argued that schools were gaming the system, and changed the rules. And schools will bend themselves to that new order, and what is not measured will ultimately be ignored, as it always is.

There is another debate about academies, but let's not pretend that the figures show that they are grade-boosting engines of destiny. There are great ones and terrible ones, just as there are champions in the state sector, as well as chumps. The irony is that the more prescriptive the state system got (and let's be frank, it was getting to the point where we were nearly having our urine tested), the more damage to teaching resulted. Try and make every teacher and school fit into the same cookie cutter and see how far it gets you. Oh, we have. Ah.

This government is often accused of being both tyrannical despots of dictatorialism AND dismantlers of a state system that unifies and directs practice. Which is it? We appear to be run by Bruce Banner. There's an odd two-lane system in education right now- the national curriculum is being reworked at the same time as schools are being encouraged/ strong-armed out of the LEAs. The message seems to be 'ACADEMY STATUS WILL SET YOU FREE FROM THE TYRANNIES AND INEQUITIES OF......THE THINGS WE'LL TELL YOU TO DO.' What is going on?

Let me be clear- I think schools should have more autonomy; I think we've reached a point of synthesis in education- the internal stresses of the last few decades have to break something somewhere. But the argument that they result in better grades simply won't do- there isn't enough data yet; and claiming that they are the philosopher's stone to low grades just isn't scientifically tenable, when there are so many other possible explanations for grade improvement.

And that's without even beginning to get into the debate of whether grade progression is, or should be the main way that schools are assessed externally.

2. Teach First: better, faster, stronger, harder.

Then he claims that Teach First teachers have made a small but significant impact. I'm calling this one out, as I was involved in a similar predecessor program called Fast Track. Where's the evidence that it's building the teachers of tomorrow? The Fast Track was an expensive recruitment campaign, and most of my peers from my cohort have long since buggered off (or 'taught first', I should say...). The expectation seems to be that we'll have better teachers if we aggressively recruit top-flight graduates and those with business experience. But while I always applaud any drive to ensure that teachers are as academic as possible, it's not a sufficient condition of being a better teacher, above a certain level of certification. And as for business experience, I am reminded of the Troops to Teachers-style recruitment currently being rolled out. It's not that great graduates, business managers or ex-soldiers wouldn't be great teachers - I'm sure many would be, and are- but that the skill sets don't overlap in a particularly meaningful way. 

Besides, I can't find any data that suggests that TF teachers have done more or less to change education than any other cohort. Some, I bet, are total stars; some are Smeagols, no doubt. Funny that. Just like everyone else. And also, the training is punishing; all on-the-job, where the stakes couldn't be higher. It's a route (like GTP) that suits some, but is a devilishly risky way to teach a teacher. Here's some deep water, dive in. Oh dear, etc.

Oh, and I gather the drop-out rate for TFs isn't too impressive, which isn't surprising given the incredibly stressful way they're introduced to teaching. Yet the GTP route is being fazed out, which had many of the same stresses and strains.

3. Bursaries for highly qualified teachers to train.

I have no complaints about this (surprisingly enough), as I see no harm with putting incentives in front of prospective teachers with better degrees. Which isn't to say it's a necessary condition for a great teacher (see previous), but a good asset to have rather than not. Especially in shortage subjects. Eeh, I'm old enough to remember when there were bursaries for RS teachers, ah... good times.

4. Teaching Schools.

An aim to have 500 of these by the end of Parliament (I presume he means this session, but you never know; they might be dismantling the Old Lady or something. The Queen's been looking shifty lately, that's all I'm saying). The Teaching School Network: applications of this were so high, sayeth Gove, that he was 'blown away, man'. I applaud and fret about this: too many teachers enter the profession knowing more about Learning Hats than practical teaching skills, and there have been many, many members of the training establishment who were so out-of-touch with classrooms that they could barely remember which way up kids the USB went into the kid. But what they do provide is a useful reflection point on the training, and structured interpretation of the the teaching experience.

Training schools- they MIGHT work, but I'm curious: the quality of provision would be crucial, and that depends on people, not policies. Get a great teacher-trainer and you get great teacher training. Get a mug, and end up swimming in ordure. These schools would have to work their knackers off keeping great teacher-trainers. And how do you assess that? By other great trainers, I would suggest, although given my experience of the marketised school system, it will probably be moderated by an Ofsted-style tick sheet. Plus ca change.

What proportion of staff could be trainees? There's a tipping point where the training experience could damage the learning experience, unless the kids were very biddable. And if they were so biddable, then teachers won't learn much about behaviour management. We already have training hospitals, but at least with them you get a grown-up to make sure no one gets their frenellum stitched to their chins.

So: if Training Schools are just a cheap way of churning out exhausted, nerve-wracked cannon fodder who have no idea why they're teaching, or any sense of different styles of pedgagogy rather than 'what I saw from my trainer' then this could be a disaster. But then any scheme could. It could produce teachers with their eyes firmly on the classroom, and not on Dewey or Rousseau or any of a hundred romantic education wreckers.

I'll say this for the Goveinator; he has balls of purest marble. He really, really couldn't give a monkeys what anyone else thinks. Now that might be seen as a weakness by many, but to some extent this is a necessary quality of someone in a position of power. It has been famously observed that decisons made by committee are usually those those that offend the least number of people. Sometimes decisive action needs to be taken, and it takes a hard-ass to steer them through. You may criticise MG's policies, but I really don't have a problem with the fact that he isn't a big listening teddy bear. EVERY education minister drives through their own policies, and let's not pretend that any politican has any kind of duty to listen to everyone, stroke their big politician chins and pick the decision everyone agrees with. I like decisiveness in a politician: kind of makes a change.

Of course, his content can be challenged. But don't damn the man for sticking his flag in the sand.  Too many people have decided, 'Oh he's a Tory, so everything he says is evil and bad.' Well, from where I'm standing, I'm not seeing any smoke signals more inspiring from the Labour camp either, as they adopt the arse-in-the-air position of trying to please everyone, so beloved of politicians hungry for votes everywhere.

Gove then finished with a live set that included poetry readings from Michael Rosen,  and a punk acappella tribute to Tupac entitled 'Only Dave can Judge me.' Hollah.


'And then the Phonics Monster gobbled him up!'
Phonics. I'm a secondary teacher, specialising in Philosophy and RS. What I have to say about the acquisition of language is loaded towards fuck all. And yet LO: it appears that everyone is now an expert on it. I'm serious- everyone and their maiden Auntie has become a child psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a philologist. Holy Smoke, where can I get me some of whatever they're drinking?

It's odd, this sudden expertise everyone has. In fact, no it's not; listen to any pub full of gym-dodging lardies when the Euro's on, and you'll see this punditry in action. Do phonics work? Do phonics decimate language acquisition? I don't know- and neither, I suspect, do most of the people talking about it. And not just talking, but getting REALLY RED UNDER THEIR VESTS about it. It has become a Shibboleth- are you FOR us, or.....*beady eye* *fingers cutlass* AGINST US, YE DOG? Both sides are apparently convinced that the other side will liquidise the minds of children with their devilish, continental ways.

There is, I'm sure, a decent debate to be had about this, but if your mindset is 'Gove versus the DEATH, and to the victor the spoils, arrr', then you need to adjust the contrast on your conceptual telly, because it is set way too high.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Is it Christmas ALREADY? Have a few more pages of Teacher ON THE HOUSE. I'm cutting me own throat, guv.

'Oh Tom, have you written ANOTHER one...?'
I MAY have mentioned I have a book out. You can have a look at the first few pages HERE, but I thought it would be a gift that kept on giving if I were to shuck and jive your shekels by revealing a bit of ankle. So here's the first part of what I hope is a portable INSET- and unlike INSET, you can say 'I call bullshit on this' with confidence and magnificence rather than hiding it under a cough. And you can marinate yourself in Châteauneuf-du-Pape at the same time. Marvellous.

Here, then, is wisdom.

Chapter One- What does it mean to be a teacher?

Most people enter the teaching profession with only an intuitive understanding about what being a teacher actually is. This is understandable, but prone to pitfalls, because those tiny assumptions take root and grow into giant beanstalks throughout your career. Or worse, someone will tell you which seeds are the right ones, and if you’re not careful, you garden is full of…I don’t know, banana trees or something.

If you’re a teacher, you need to take a step back and ask some of the most basic questions about what it is that you actually do- and then assess if it’s what you think being a teacher is really about. So what is a teacher? It seems to me that we won’t get anywhere trying to be a better one if we don’t know what we mean by a teacher in the first place. If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will take you there.

What is a teacher?

Possibility1: Someone who teaches.

Think you’re clever, eh? Not so fast. We’ve only shifted the question back a bit. What is teaching?

Possibility 2: Someone employed by a school to stand in a classroom and…you know, do the thing.

This definition at least has the benefit of being concrete and definable. You are a teacher if someone provides you with a pay cheque to teach. You turn up, make educational jazz hands, and at the end of the day you go home to a pile of marking. Children vaguely address you as Sir or Miss (or if you’re in a progressive hell-hole, ‘Jim’). The problem then is that you’ve also simply pushed the definition back a degree, onto the shoulders of the people who employ you. How do they know what teaching is? What if different schools have different ideas about what a teacher is? No good.

Perhaps a better, less abstract method is to ask, ‘What does a teacher seek to achieve?’ The obvious answer is to say ‘learning’. And then we ask, in full Socratic style, ‘What is learning?’ And if you thought things were vague before, we’re about to press Turbo. Learning is another impossibly thick concept, i.e. it contains so many possible concepts and meanings that it could almost- almost- point to anything.

When we lick a battery we learn something; when we memorise a list of bones, we learn something; the first time someone breaks your heart, we learn something[1]. But surely this is an impossibly broad range of learning activities? The focus of this book is on the idea of a teacher as a profession, not in the broadest sense. What do teachers teach in schools? This is where the majority of teachers operate.. there are also an enormous number of home tutors and educators, parents involved in home teaching, coaches, mentors and various role models. They all have something in common. So I’ll give you my answer about what a teacher is…

A teacher is a professional who educates.

Let me analyze this innocent phrase. By professional, I mean a lot; I mean that it isn’t just a job; it isn’t something you clock on, mess about for a few hours and clock off again. This is important; like it or not, you operate in a very precious space: other people’s lives. You are a small but important link on the enormous chains that comprise other people’s lives. It’s closer to a vocation than a job; it takes heart, passion, guts and steel, knowledge and wisdom. It’s far too important to not care about. There are certainly people who think it is a job; it’s a huge sector, and a huge number of people are required to staff it- about 1.2 million people in the UK alone put Teacher on the census. You can dream on if you think they’re all The Knights of the Round Table. There are turkeys in this job, just like there are turkeys everywhere.

What are the aims of education?

Let me answer this by, annoyingly, sticking my boot into the question itself, and seeing what shape remains. Education has no aims. Education is an abstract. People have aims. A better way to answer this question would be, then, to say, What are the aims of people who educate? This is much easier to answer, because we can simply make a historical survey of what humanity has done previously, and then make a judgement.

Of course this leads us to another problem: just because we can understand what the aims of people are, or have been in education, doesn’t answer the question of what the aims of education should be. That’s a moral question, and one very much dependent on our values and ethics. And it’s one we’ll explore later on. Perhaps you already have an answer in mind.

Some possible aims of education

1. To produce a work force that meets the need of society. Not a very sexy ambition, to be fair, but at least it benefits from the virtue of simplicity. Society needs plumbers, airline pilots, lawyers and carpenters- so we design schools that will meet those educational needs.

Of course, one drawback with this model is that it has a depressing emphasis on utility- what is needed, what is useful. So that’s philosophy, arts and sandpits right out the window. Of course, you could argue that there is a need in society for entertainment, and people to provide it, therefore people to write, dance, sing, and perform, but that’s a fairly mean perspective to justify the arts and humanities from. And it writes off enormous fields of human endeavour that we unaccountably, perhaps irrationally are quite proud of, like Mozart, Shakespeare, you know, all that rubbish.

2. To socialize people into the cultural values of society.

The problem is that this aim, like many fuzzy ideas that lack specificity, means so much that it starts to mean nothing. Is it the job of education to instil the values of society? Even if we accept this axiom, the next question is, which ones? Even in Amish villages we can find dispute and subtlety of value. And a further problem is that teachers are not neutral umpires in this process; if we see education as the process where we formally instil values into children, then we encounter the problem that the teacher might very well have values of his own. You don’t have to go very far to find points of disagreement between people, even people who broadly share many values. How is a Catholic teacher to act if he is expected to teach how to put on a condom? How is an atheist teacher to react to the suggestion that children in his classroom will be expected to hear a prayer, led by him, every morning?[2]

You can’t just teach them values, not overtly. Despite a succession of well meaning governments, who have all seen the school system as the answer to the problems of society, children remain resolutely defiant of being told what to value. Perhaps it has something to do with how they are brought up at home? Just a thought.[3]

3. To develop their emotional intelligence

This is a more modern aim, and usually involves pitfalls and conceptual man traps similar to those found in (2) above. Emotional intelligence is so popular these days, I fully expect it to start Twittering and over take Stephen Fry. But what does it even mean? I’ve looked extensively into it, and I can report back, happily, that the answer is- very little. How can emotions be intelligent? How can feelings be reasonable? And by whose judgement?

Besides which, even if emotional intelligence was actually something real (which it isn’t) the problem remains; how would we teach it? I don’t know much about you, but I have a degree in Philosophy with Politics, which gives me a reasonable claim to expertise in those fields. What do I know about helping children to get in touch with their emotions and hug their inner child? Answer: none. I’m not a psychologist. A little learning, in this case, is certainly a dangerous thing, and brave indeed is the man or woman who dares to try to formally play games with anyone’s noodles.

4. To make them happy.

That’s nice, isn’t it? And it sounds good, until you consider that nobody is actually seriously suggesting that education should be about making people unhappy. If it does, then that’s incidental. Besides, the difficulty of actually trying to define happiness is so enormous, so Leviathan, that it’s almost pointless even trying, and certainly too conceptually abstract to develop anything like a teaching system that could be rolled out to millions of educational professionals. Another problem is that happiness means so many things to different people. Some people get their kicks from writing furious anonymous replies on educational blogs[4]; some people read Heat; some people collect stamps.

A further, even less appetizing idea that has crept into schools since the Every Child Matters initiative (of which more later) is the idea that teachers must actively try to make sure that students enjoy lessons. Again, while this sounds a perfectly innocent aim, it isn’t, because every time a student claims that they didn’t enjoy the lesson, the teacher is to be blamed. And as I’ll expand upon a little later, sometimes education just isn’t a blast. Sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s dry. Boo-hoo-hoo.

5. To develop their potential.

This is another idea that sounds lovely, mainly because it’s so vague that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. The idea that we should discover what a child enjoys, what he or she is talented at, and then encourage them to blossom like little tulips is very attractive, and to be fair, it has a lot of strengths. I would certainly argue that we are usually good at the things we enjoy; perversely enough, we also seem to enjoy the things we are good at. Surely this then should be the goal of education, leading intuitively as it does to the idea of happiness, fulfilment, and hopefully life-long success?

Well, perhaps, perhaps. And I would certainly give a cautious slow clap to this idea. But there are other things to consider: this indicates that students shouldn’t be made to do anything that doesn’t interest them, or that they feel uncomfortable with. But education must be more than simply allowing children to do study what they want, because there are many fields and areas of knowledge that at first we might be uncertain about, until a passion develops further down the line. Or more significantly, we might still make a claim that there are things that everyone should study, even if the student doesn’t like them. Maths, for instance. Learning isn’t all about child-driven interests, or our perception of their personal flourishing.

[1] Chiefly, to spurn humanity forever and live like the Mole Man.
[2] I suspect he would be hopping up and down.
[3] Crazy idea, I know.
[4] Bastards.

To read more, you masochist, click here. Hope you enjoy it. 

Saturday, 9 June 2012

What makes a good teacher? Clue: the answer isn't in a questionnaire

Apparently in the future, dentists will build people.
What makes a teacher? Such a small question, with so many arteries swooping away in fractal branches of infinite regress. Changes in the application process have predictably irked and irritated some. My favourite metaphor, well-worn but serviceable as a pair of lucky pants, is that of a Rubik's Cube; whenever something, anything, changes, something else changes to accommodate it, as if one were moving a white square from the centre to the corner of the fabled Hungarian toy for obsessed children of all ages.

As in popular solitary pursuits of manic friendlessness, so in policy. Given a closed system, every event has an equal and opposite response. Newton, you can HAVE that for nothing. If I spend an hour learning Sanskrit, my research into cold fusion suffers. I've learned to deal with it.

Some have not. Whenever anything changes, some people seem to be blind to this simple principle. Witness the Napoleonic shindigs that erupt whenever somebody moves a pixel on a social networking site. It's terrifying: pages are launched (ON THE WEBSITE ITSELF I MIGHT ADD. DEAR GOD IS IRONY DEAD?) decrying the desecration of the temple. Oh, the howls, the humanity. I tell you, I would LOVE to see some data on people who leave as promised in response to the unforgivable cheese-moving of Zuckerberg et al, compared to those who...well, seem to be jess fine three weeks later, their sensibilities soothed by time and being a bit stupid.

So: teacher training is being shaken up. THREE. CHEERS. Here we have one of the most important professions in the world, but in the UK we have an application process that appears to be as rigorous and diligent as a Sorting Hat. ('Ah, you have patience, and a pure heart: an ENGLISH TEACHER you'll be. Now have cunning and slavishness at your core......CITIZENSHIP MY LAD.' etc). I had an odd route into teaching; I had a two-lane process- the normal PGCE hoop-jumping, and the 'Fast Track' (motto: 'Be the inspiration from the Staffroom to the Bathroom'), which was a sort of hellish, prodigal precursor to Teach First (motto: 'I will work myself to death for a year')  .

The PGCE was thorough, if nothing else. If the online question form had asked me to record the volume and intensity of my gastric dilations, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. Then an enormous wait; then a placement in Primaries and induction observation weeks. Then the interview with the teacher training provider. Here's an odd thing; at the interview I thought I did fine, and then I was hit with the requirement, a week later, that I should spend ANOTHER week in a secondary school before they would accept me. So I went back to my same school (Ellen Wilkinson, *tips hat*) and spent another week with the fine George Wrigley doing exactly what I'd done the first time already, losing a week's pay in the process. Cheers for that.

Which is fair enough- maybe they spotted some naivety on my part, some wandering inexperience. The thing is, I had no idea what the second week was for, but that it had to be done; and once done, I was accepted onto the course. 'One more week,' they thought, 'That'll sort the fucker out.'

On the Fast Track application, it made joining  the special forces seem like applying to become a Jubilee river-pageant steward. ANOTHER online form, with red tape straight out of Winston Smith's holiday Visa application to Eastasia.

Here's where it gets serious. THEN a psychometric testing session that took a whole afternoon. And THEN, and then... a two-day residential psychological assessment where we had one-to-one monitoring by aptitude psychologists, who gave their evaluations to the Grand Fromages. ('Shows promise; may eventually write a petulant and cretinous blog about trivia. Keep away from children.'). Can you imagine the expense of this enterprise? I might add that I swooped through this like the Red Arrows. Clearly I was the Alpha DNA of teaching, to be copied and reproduced in Petri-dishes everywhere. A bit like Judge Dredd.

And when I walked into classrooms, I got shredded like Jeremy Hunt's emails. Truly dissected, suggesting the surgical abilities of the Whitechapel Ripper. Looks like all that psychometric voodoo wasn't so prescient after all. Regular readers will know all about my hilarious adventures in misery, my first few years in the blackboard bungle-jungle.

Why? Because in all that lovely assessment, and subsequent teacher training, I had maybe a couple hours of formal lectures on behaviour management, and the unluck to be placed in one school with immaculate behaviour, and another placement where the behaviour was apocalyptic and the coaching was ...light, shall we say? There was more emphasis on working with EAL pupils in my teacher education than there was in running a classroom. Isn't that appalling? Isn't that the most witless, gutless, moronic way you could imagine to disempower a teacher? You wouldn't send a soldier into the theatre of war with a diploma in trowel-appreciation skills, yet we send teachers into the battleground/ rainbow-wonderland dream-factory of the classroom with barely a fig leaf of expertise.

I get angry about this, and we should ALL get angry about it, because it's symptomatic of the necrosis in education; an emphasis on what people would like teaching to be about rather than what it is about; an infantile belief that all classrooms are staffed by legions of biddable, keen, creative children who only need the flint-spark of inspiration to catalyse their evolution into the Omega state of flourishing. Allow me to testify- this is not so. Many children are, by the time they reach school, perfectly civil and altruistic, almost exclusively because of good parenting. But many are not; many treat the teacher as a punch bag until they are taught to do otherwise. For many children, a significant portion of their socialisation occurs WHILE they are at school, not prior to the experience. And we are the ones who are expected to do this, simultaneous with teaching them to read, write, calculate, hurdle and revise.

Allow me a plug: I write about this in my latest book Teacher, Mastering the Art and Craft of Teaching (allow me? Hell, this is my manor; I'll plug as I please and damn your eyes, sir). Click the loyal link to purchase. If you feel a stirring of your loins as you do so, this is perfectly normal.

What do new recruits need?

'Then we remove the spine and the testicles...'
Literacy and numeracy. I know of teachers who were allowed to resit and resit and resit the QTS online tests until they simply passed. Is that a reasonable allowance? I would say no, and I apologise to any this concerns. But if we the teachers can't provide a reasonable level of these key skills, how can we expect our charges to flourish?

Expertise in their subject area. I can't believe I even have to justify this, but apparently Satan is in charge of the material world, so I do. It isn't enough to be a paragraph ahead of the kids. You have to have a degree of some kind in your subject OR some kind of comparable expertise evidenced in some other way. I'd far rather have a drama teacher who was/ had been successful in their field than someone with a degree in Method. A requirement to degree level understanding ensures that a teacher can teach to A-level, and to challenge the most able as well as the mainstream. I have no problem with the current restrictions on third class degrees, and reduced funding for sub 2:1 bursary applications, because what on earth is a degree but some kind of indicator of expertise? This is not too much to ask. I don't want any of my as-yet non-existent descendants taught by someone who isn't highly qualified in their subject area, and I suspect most parents wouldn't be either. So why defend the 'right' to  do so? It just seems odd.

It says here that applications for Teacher Training are down by 15% since this time last year. Is that a bad thing? I know that teachers already find it hard to get work because of geographical and demographical imbalances between supply and demand. There probably needs to be less, and if the ones that are applying have shown the dedication to get higher degrees, then only someone unconcerned with child welfare would decry it.

'Did you remember to add the SEAL muscle?'
Psychometric testing, though? Hmm. You've just read my experience of this arcane and inscrutable process. It says here that from September, many teachers will undergo personality evaluation. Now on the surface this is a good thing; there are simply too many teachers who aren't cut out for the job, and I can say this safely because it's true of ANY profession. We all know teachers who appear to have selected their career by shooting an arrow into a job-centre Rolodex.

OK, Computer- RAGE against the Machine

But the answer isn't psychometric testing. Why? Because such methods give the illusion of sifting and selecting, of discernment and rigour, while simply being a way to legally insure the training provider against future challenge. 'Look,' they'll say, 'The Bones have Spoken. The entrails never lie.' Who says psychometric tests can predict the suitability of a teacher? Any such test is going to be limited to the success criteria imagined by the psychologist designing it. Can any human being so carefully and completely map the well of human experience to say which man or woman will succeed in this life or that? To design an algorithm that anticipates the compatibility of body A to circumstance B? You, gentlemen, are trying to catch lightning in a bottle.

But anticipating the suitability of character is important. So how do we measure it? Simple. By NOT measuring the unmeasurable. By assessing like with like. By having successful teachers monitor and evaluate emergent teachers as they progress through the application and training process, and giving their evaluative opinions as the process proceeds. No test score can do that; only humans, judging humans. We are attempting to assess notions of value and meaning, and we need engines that understand such things, not fatalistic mathematical models of brutality and quantitative banality.

Here are the key teacher virtues: wisdom, gestated through experience; courage, to allow all action to be attempted; knowledge, as the basis for imparting understanding, and justice, to underpin all social conduct in one's sphere. Build upon these, and I find that teachers turn out fine. Build upon anything else as a foundation, and the edifice tilts and leans, sometimes throughout a whole career. 

So I wouldn't bother with psychometric tests. It suggests to me just another way for the teacher to be further codified and circumscribed by people who couldn't do the job themselves. Let teachers judge teachers, and let parents and the Polis judge the result of those labours. I wouldn't dream of telling a parent how to raise a child, nor a politician how to justify charging a second home to the public purse; I'm simply not qualified to do so. But I AM qualified to talk about teaching.

Because I am one. But no one asks us.