Monthly Archives: September 2014

Have we got the character to educate for character?

Watch out, the bureaucrats might get hold of character education, the world of data, clip boards and stern faces might be looking at children to judge how much grit, character and sheer damn resilience they have. It’s the resilience of teachers that astounds me, as soon as September has nearly left us the autumnal guffaws of initiative-itis have begun. Can the teachers put up with this? Judged on ‘results’, performance paid, doing their damnedest to satisfy the lowest demands of big data, teachers are being encouraged to take their eye off the ball, yes get the kids their GCSEs and A levels (because the kids won’t) and then when you think it’s all fine and dandy, that you’ve satisfied ALIS (ALIS, who the f*** is ALIS?) they now demand that your kids have karacter with a kapital k.

Nicky Morgan said today that:

“I have added a fifth priority to the department, because academic standards are of course critical, [also we] want to have young people who develop as well-rounded individuals.” This includes: “emphasising character, resilience, grit… all…things which I think probably many of our professionals in the teaching workforce already work so hard on [this is] preparing children for employment, and the importance of activities such as sport, creativity, debating and the list goes on, ways in which schools will develop the young people they are educating.”

The first four priorities are: ‘best possible schools, best possible workforce (teachers etc.), academic standards and protecting vulnerable young people.’ So the fifth, well rounded individuals, sits astride these aims literally as an afterthought, an addition to the others but should it be the first priority, the source of success for all the others? Or is it too wishy washy and open to interpretation to have been mentioned at all?

Earlier this term I had the honour to talk to the staff of Uppingham School about the trivium and the liberal arts and today the headmaster of Uppingham, Richard Harman, who is currently the chair of the HMC wrote in the Times about how Britain’s independent schools are some of the best schools in the world because of “…our insistence on a liberal, holistic education for children; we are not interested in narrow, sterile, performance measures.” Some people who know the independent sector might remark that Harman is being a bit disingenuous here because many independent schools care very much about exam results and ‘value added’ but his central point is a salient one: can a world of narrow data measurement exist alongside a holistic education? In his address to the HMC conference today Harman made the following observations: “Nurturing intellectual, emotional and spiritual awareness; developing character, creativity and critical thinking is the DNA of HMC schools.” That: “Academic success and excellent exam results are necessary but not sufficient.” He added an important rejoinder to Government: “We can’t solve all of society’s ills – education is part of the answer but economic, family and social policy matter too.” And he reiterated the point he made in the Times: “Our schools remain uniquely placed to insist on the vital importance of a liberal, holistic education for children in the 21st century.” This is good stuff, I believe that a well rounded education does not split into an academic curriculum with some great extra curricular bolted on for ‘character growing’ purposes. Harman is right, it is by ensuring the DNA of the school is focused throughout on developing the whole child that can make the real difference and he is also right that it is not just the school’s job. A school is not an island of virtue in a troubled sea, it can only do its work well if the society in which it is situated also enables a rich cultural, academic, spiritual, emotional and creative life for all in and out of school.

Can the performance measures currently in place help this process? Probably not, they are the work of a committee rather than the committed. Must state schools chase figures first or work on the DNA and hope the figures follow? It is my fear that they will have to prove everything is happening with evidence upon evidence and therefore will take the easiest way out, in other words some schools will decide that it will be in extra curricular work where ‘character’ is formed, and the grit of teachers will be sorely tested as their every waking hour will be dedicated to nurturing the imponderable. The effect of extra curricular is unmeasurable but it can be measured by tick list, numbers and time… Look what we’ve done: Ski trip, 100 kids 1 week, Theatre trips, 400 kids, 20 evenings, Football tournaments etc. etc. etc.. But something will give and it will probably be the character of the staff struggling to ensure that exams are passed, lessons prepared, work marked and the trip to stonehenge organised. As for the kids they will expect to be led through exams and then have their hobbies provided on a plate, organised lives all one step removed from the education they should be getting.

In Trivium 21c I write about how to ensure the DNA of schools can help the development of the whole child, please let’s resist unimaginative approaches to Nicky Morgan’s fifth priority, let’s show we have the character to educate for character. A holistic education is possible, just ensure you start from the right place.

Measuring Progress With The Trivium

The trivium is an excellent way to ensure progress in learning. We can see progress through the trivium in three stages: new knowledge followed by critique, ending in communication. In teaching terms this means firstly ensuring a body of knowledge is taught to students and that they understand the knowledge. Secondly the students build on that knowledge through practise, they test it out and see if it can bear scrutiny; this is in classic trivium terms the movement from grammar to dialectic. The students are then able to express their learning in an appropriate medium to the subject they are studying: ‘rhetoric’. For the teacher these three arts involve different ways of teaching and for the learner three different ways of engaging with knowledge. If only it was this simple! When I say ‘three’ I actually mean far more, the collective ‘mantra’ of grammar – dialectic – rhetoric covers a variety of different approaches, it has a richness and depth far beyond three words, it is, however, a useful ‘tool’ by which to organise complexity. From its simplicity grows complexity.

In these days when everyone in the education bubble is obsessed with progress and looking for systemised methods to understand and measure it from Solo taxonomy and Blooms to various systems of levels, the trivium is thankfully far more modest. Although it seems to have a hierarchy of progress from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric it is actually a continuous process of knowing, re-knowing, and showing. Each art of the trivium interleaves with the others. Someone who is able to communicate and be creative is not more sophisticated than the person who is struggling to remember a piece of information, the trivium recognises that all knowledge and skills work with and sometimes even against each other. It is my guess that this ancient method of learning, renamed by Francis Bacon as ‘the tradition’ will be found through the great random control test of time to have captured the essence of great learning in much the same way that the great ‘tradition’ that is the wheel seems to be essential in many methods of transporting something or someone from a to b.

Progress therefore in the trivium is not measurable in the way that Rhetoric sits at the top of a hierarchy of learning methods and once a child has ‘reached’ the rhetoric stage they are more sophisticated than a child ‘stuck’ at grammar. This hierarchy breaks down because once you begin to communicate knowledge and add to knowledge you begin to realise you need to ‘know’ more and therefore you need to find out more ‘facts’. Once you know more facts you might find they contradict your previous knowledge and you need to test this new knowing out, and often you find that there are arguments and disagreements in the domain you are studying that undermine your knowing exposing your mind to new ignorance. If learning is hierarchical this means you are becoming less sophisticated, because sometimes the more you study the less you know and understand. Learning is frustrating because it is not hierarchical, although within in it there is the possibility of mastery, mastery is just an opening into ever more areas of doubt and uncertainty. Here we can accept that there is a general move from novice to master in a domain but within that journey there is also a process of learning new stuff and once mastery has been obtained this process doesn’t stop.

The trivium is a process that takes one from a point of not knowing and stays with us through all our knowings and not knowings. It is our guide from novice through to master of arts and beyond. This process is continual from foundational ‘knowledges’ and through ‘elaborations’. It makes connections and exposes disputes. It looks for context and can find these in ever larger narratives yet can also unpick and extract ideas from one story to be fitted into new mental models. The trivium is both part of prior understandings and thoughts but is also a deeply personal way to remake understanding which is where it unlocks much creativity. To master a domain one reaches a level of competency that is measurable through the various methods of recognition of mastery that the domain has in place. The trivium doesn’t replace these ‘measures’. It does, however, enable a way of seeing progress in understandings throughout the process of learning whether you are generally a novice or a master.

The trivium has breadth at its core, it involves different ways of teaching and different ways of learning depending on the context and the subject of the inquiry. If we know how well a student is absorbing the arts of the trivium in order to learn we can teach them better. In order to gauge how well a pupil is engaging with each of the arts of the trivium we need to be able to see how the art is absorbed into their language and the approach that a pupil might be using to aid her understanding. If we accept the idea that learning is often ‘invisible’ is it possible to pick up on little clues that might make it slightly more visible?

The mantra of the trivium can be used to help measure progress with the understanding that the progress being displayed is a continuous process. Each pupil’s remembering, moments of insight and breakthroughs might be transformative or might not; they might be followed for some time by forgetting and fog. Therefore what is needed is a way to look at process that is sophisticated about knowledge and understanding but also of use both to teachers and pupils in the classroom, to a visitor to the classroom, a senior manager or even an inspector. Imagine an assessment method that shows progress but recognises the learning process as far from fixed or linear.

To this end I have produced a table that shows different ways a teacher might begin to recognise a pupil’s grasp of the different arts in a given topic and/or domain. This table and further thoughts about it is being shared with the trivium network of schools and might form the beginning of further, more sophisticated, ways of developing ways of measuring progress in all three arts of the trivium, different subjects and stages. The aim of this assessment method is to help the teacher to see how well a pupil is understanding something whilst the pupil is in a fog of not seeming to have grasped it at all. This tool can therefore aid the teacher in his or her teaching and also might give the pupil some solace as they grapple with difficulty. I think for many teachers this understanding of how a pupils is ‘progressing’ is part of their intuitive armoury, this table just gives them a way to unpick their understanding in a way that is then communicable to others and to aid communication between the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll keep you informed as to how we progress, if I can think of a way to measure that!

The Researcher and the Teacher: the slides

The Slides should be available here if I know how to do this sort of thing…

The Teacher and the Researcher



The reading behind this half thought through presentation came from the following books:

John Gray: Straw Dogs

Terry Eagleton: Culture and the Death of God

The article Slightly Overweight People Live Longer by Julian Baggini

and the radio programme: Everything We Know is Wrong


It might turn into a blog when I get everything clearer in my head!

The Teacher and the Researcher

                                                        walrus and carpenter



Rain was pouring through the roof,

Pissing with all its might:

The pupils got very wet, both

The stupid and the bright

They won’t patch the hole as

The research won’t say if it’s right.


The Head-teacher is asking if

All the data is done?

She wants to know if

She can Randomly Control everyone

“She’s a fascist!” Cry the staff!

“She thinks this will be fun!”


The school was shit as shit could be

The kids all knew it too

Want to learn? Then truant!

Or spend your lessons in the loo

No staff enjoyed working here

As they knew not what to do


The researcher and the teacher

Were walking close at hand

They wept like anything to see

Crap teaching in the land

“Why don’t people know what to do?”

“If they did t’would be grand!”


“If seven ofsted inspectors

Observed for half a year

Do you think?” the teacher said

“That they would be quite clear?”

“I doubt it,” said the researcher,

And shed a bitter tear…


“O Pupils come and learn with us,”

The teacher did beseech

“A pleasant lesson and we’ll know,

What’s the best way to teach…”

The kids all shouted out ‘paedo’!

When he offered his hand to each.


The eldest pupil looked at him,

Until finally he said:

“How much will you pay me to learn?

Nothing?” he shook his head,

“If I don’t get money to earn

I won’t get out of bed.” 


Four younger pupils responded

All eager to be taught

Their coats were pressed, their lugholes washed

They’re ready to use thought

They all looked eager, clutching the pencils

They have brought.


Four other pupils followed them,

And yet another four

The thick, the smart, they came at last

And more, and more, and more

All hopping to the new free school

And pushing through the door.


The teacher and the researcher

Wondered what the hell to do

Which ones will be the control group?

And which the chosen few?

And all the little pupils stood

And waited in a queue


“The time has come,” the teacher said

“To start our random tests

Clean shoes you shits, no mobile phones

Free cabbage for you pests

In fact free school meals for you all!

You’re welcome as our guests!”


‘But wait a bit,’ the pupils cried,

And one by one they sat;

They wheezed ‘we are all out of breath

As all of us are fat’

“No hurry,” said the researcher

They thanked him for that!


“Let’s give them drugs,” the teacher said

“It’s what they chiefly need:

Shut them up for the afternoon

When on them we can feed

Now if your ready, pupils dear

We can start the deed…”


‘Drugs? We’ve all got ADHD!’

The pupils all looked sick

And opened up their mouths

‘But we are all so thick!’

“Well that’s okay,” the teacher said

And gave them all a kick


“Welcome all to our little school

You all look very nice,”

The researcher said nothing but

Basted them all in spice

“I hope you are all good learners –

learn to taste very nice…”


“Such a shame,” the teacher said

“To randomly sort by size…”

He sobbed as he sorted out

All those with the fattest thighs

He did a baseline assessment

On who ate the most pies.


“Oh pupils…” said the researcher

“You’ve had such lovely fun!

Shall we continue tomorrow?”

But answer came there none!

The pupils had all disappeared!

They’d eaten everyone…!




with grateful thanks to Lewis Carroll and to Alice, and the Oysters