Monthly Archives: December 2014

Trivium Schools 2015

trivium Happy New Year!

It was gratifying to see that Trivium Schools got a mention in the Guardian in a piece entitled: ‘What’s in store for education in 2015?’ It would be great to see the trivium network grow in influence over the next year. The network currently numbers thirty schools from both independent and state sectors and it would be good to see your school join! From the Trivium course at Oundle to the work on embedding the Trivium at Highbury Grove each school is looking at how to use the lessons from our great education tradition to build something that works in their particular community for the future.

If you are interested in finding out about Trivium Schools please contact me here. Joining the network is easy, all you have to do is invite me to work with your school for a day or more and your institution will automatically become a Trivium School for rest of the academic year. Each school in the network receives a monthly bulletin by email, the January 2015 edition looks at the trivium and the EPQ, and also members of your staff will be invited to attend a conference or two per year of membership. Ideas from each school are shared as are ideas from a number of other people and organisations and by getting a chance to hear what others are doing you not only get inspiration but also the opportunity to work with each other.

I look forward to working with you in 2015!

The Socratic Method, Teaching the Trivium: Dialectic


Not many teachers would want to wander into the staff room after a particularly robust seminar and be presented with a coffee cup full of steaming hot hemlock, ‘drink this you corruptor of youth!’ No, best to keep quiet in the classroom and not ask too many questions…

But how wise are you?

Admit it, you know nothing and in knowing this, you know you are wiser than anyone who thinks they know everything. This is the starting point for the Socratic method, do not start with a lofty appreciation of your own knowledge but with an appreciation of your own ignorance. It is through the admittance of ignorance that you can then begin to seek out how best to live. Know thyself! Rather than worrying about convention or worrying about what others might think, you have to find it in your own soul how to live the good life. For Socrates this is a moral and rational process that involves hard questions. These hard questions are a constant intellectual process through which we might uncover the truth and reality about our lives as lived. Make no mistake, this method is looking for truth.

Socrates used dialectic as a teaching method: ask questions, get answers, then question the answers. There weren’t easy answers to his questions, no wonder he pissed people off, as soon as something was settled up pops Socrates to undermine the consensus. Socrates saw himself as a kind of intellectual midwife bringing truths to birth; does this method do that?

Socratic method is a form of argument called elenchus – refutation and cross examination; it is great fun for those involved if all are happy to participate, it is however quite threatening to those who are not, they can see it as upsetting and quite aggressive. What the questioner tries to do is look for contradictions and inconsistencies in answers and by the time the session is finished most often participants find themselves in a state of Aporia or doubt about quite fundamental things. This is the heart of the Socratic dialectical form of questioning, with many people often ending up none the wiser.

Socratic questioning examines statements of fact, it questions something that might seem at first to be quite simple, say: ‘what is courage?’ and exposes it to analysis, resulting in a realisation that these ideas are really quite complex. Each statement is treated as conjecture, you then think about the consequences of such a thought. To give a contemporary example, someone might say that pupils need grit and determination, the Socratic questioner might ask: “what if your pupils are metaphorically banging their heads against a brick wall, is determination and grit a good thing, would not giving up be a better option?” The answer to this would be, yes, in this case giving up would be a better option. Therefore grit and determination are not what pupils need more of. This assumption, in turn, opens itself to another question and so on…

It has no doctrines to pull out of the bag, you don’t want to use it in a discussion where you want students to respond in one way. It would be dishonest to use it in a citizenship class to discuss in race or gender if you are wanting a certain outcome. Therefore use carefully in the classroom! Don’t open pupils minds to all sorts of thoughts only to castigate them for those thoughts. In fact it’s not a good method for lots of teaching, if you want children to know that 9 x 11 = 99 you might not want to question their answer if they get it right because the answer is ‘true’.

It is a good way to get students to realise the enormity of their own ignorance, and also yours! Therefore in order to pull it off the relationship between a pupil and teacher is important as well as the relationship between the pupils in the rooms: can the pupils take the rigorous questioning that is bound to come their way? Are they robust enough at a tender age to realise it is not them being questioned but our assumptions and that some unpalatable truths might be exposed on the way?

So why use it?

Where it works really well is examining a core belief in your subject that is open to doubt. In Art this might be the perennial question ‘What is Art?’ For me, as a teacher of theatre, I would return regularly to the question ‘What is truth’? It was a question that allowed us to look at the different theories of many theatre practitioners: Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud… We questioned ‘truth’ through realism and naturalism, surrealism, expressionism, dialectical materialism etc. Therefore, instead of questioning the ‘facts’ I wanted students to know, we had the purpose of bringing our knowledge of different theories to our Socratic dialogue. The students had to know lots of stuff to enrich the argument; my aim was always to disrupt the central question but not to disrupt the knowledge that was brought to bear in the argument, this I would always check for accuracy.

Eventually students would try to persuade people as to the efficacy of certain ideas more than others, I would expose that to questioning, we’d come up with a new understanding, expose that to questioning and so on, in other words the process of the trivium, through grammar to dialectic to rhetoric and round again. At the end of the theatre course students had explored fully the question of what is truth in theatre, and would be able to express their own strong opinions as to what it was to them; this helped each of them to know thyself as a maker of theatre.

Where Gradgrind Got It Right; Teaching the Trivium: On Grammar


Although I don’t like to talk about it I’ve got a soft spot for Gradgrind. Not exactly a sympathetic character, I know, but let’s look beyond his, er, how shall we say… foibles… for a minute and look at his emphasis on Facts.

“Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.”

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. 

The passage about him that is most often quoted follows… (I have crossed through the bits I disagree with to leave us with a rather kinder Grammarian Gradgrind.)

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

This Gradgrind is of interest, he opens up a world of possibilities, where we teach facts and know they are important. That some facts change or become more or less important with time, that some are deemed to be important by some but are challenged as to their importance by others, does not mean they shouldn’t be taught. Quite the opposite, facts become even more important because of this, without knowing facts we can’t enter into a dialogue about their relative importance.

In English the word fact originally meant an action or a deed, particularly an evil one, a crime. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word began to mean the sense of something being true or to have happened. This, through time became problematised as philosophers and others exposed the difficulties around knowing whether something was true or not, so much so that some people seem to think that the teaching of any fact is some sort of thought crime against which children must be saved. This, maybe, returns us to the original meaning of the word… but, I would say it is an ‘evil’ deed not to teach children facts.

What facts to teach? Some seem to be obvious, the classic times tables and alphabet come to mind but what others?

As a parent, teaching my daughter to ride her bike, I needed to break down the skill of bike riding into its component parts: balancing, pedalling, using the brakes, the facts of the road as well as when things are relatively safe or potentially dangerous. This extends the idea of facts somewhat. I call this the grammar of cycling. Every subject has its grammar, in the Oxford English dictionary it gives this definition Grammar: The basic elements of an area of knowledge or skill: the grammar of wine. As teachers we need to teach this grammar: the knowledge and skills that enable someone to understand the subject. For my ‘Grammarian Gradgrind’ facts become the grammar of a subject.

The national curriculum takes the selection of grammar away from teachers, I think, this is a great error. Teachers should be involved in the breaking down of their subject into its essential grammar, by doing this and in discussion with others, teachers can select knowledge and skills to teach what they believe gives children a fundamental understanding of the subject. This process will be easier for some subjects than others but fundamental nonetheless. It also helps teachers to think about the order in which things should be taught, what needs most emphasis, what can be mentioned in passing and what can be ignored, for now…

‘Grammar, the ‘facts’ of a subject, can be learnt, and can be tested. If the teacher tests for knowledge in a low stakes way over a period of time then it would make sense to teach grammar in a way that satisfies these tests. Testing can help students absorb the ‘facts’ and enable them to be able to draw on their knowledge subsequently in an automatic way. I wrote about this previously here.  By teaching it well, and ensuring it is learnt well, we open the grammar of our subjects up to the more open ended nature of dialectic and rhetoric both of which offer far more difficult challenges to assessors.

There are three terms that can help teachers when deciding what grammar to teach: foundational knowledge, threshold concepts and powerful knowledge. Foundational knowledge is the principles, ideas, skills and facts that keep coming up and without this you cannot ‘do’ the subject. Threshold concepts are central to the mastery of a subject. Powerful knowledge is different to the knowledge that we are likely to come across in our everyday lives and opens up so much more to us. These three areas of ‘grammar’ need to be discussed in subject areas, by teachers. By reflecting on these ideas when constructing our curriculum we can begin to see how we can prioritise certain ‘knowledges’ over others. It is through the continual review of these three strands that a vibrant and thoughtful grammar can be constructed in such a way that Gradgrind might find objectionable but it might actually make his central idea palatable: ‘facts’ are wanted in life…

it’s just a bit more complicated than that…

Bearing Gifts We Traverse Afar: A Trivial Christmas Wish


The Magi, magicians and astrologers three, the wise mysterious men of their age, followed a star to see what wonder might unfold. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. A child is born. What future shall we behold? What gifts can lift burdens and enable a flourishing life? And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Time, it came to pass, and gifts these days have changed somewhat. If we want a child to pursue wisdom and we have three wise people due to arrive, bearing gifts, what presents should we wish for? Gold, they all say, for it has power beyond its true worth. But once it is spent? What about an Xbox or assorted electronic games and whatever the thing is this year… Thank you three wise…

But the three wise philosophers are more irritating than that. They bring gifts that help build the child’s wisdom and character. They bring three arts: grammar, the wondrous knowledge of the world; they bring dialectic, “Children,” they say, “We want you to think, argue, practice, discuss and find humanity.” And they bring rhetoric so that the children might make, talk, persuade and add to the beauty of the world. They bring the knowing , the questioning, and the communicating realised by the three arts; in the past, present and future… They say, “We furnish you, the child alone, so that you may be content, and you, the child surrounded, we enable you to shine, with others, communing and making the future, your futures… We strengthen you in the head, heart and hand so that you might think, feel and do… better… and best. Be true.”

O star of wisdom…

Let all wise teachers bestow these gifts: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and where all things must meet and pass through, the trivium, allow some gloriously trivial magic to occur.

Happy Christmas.

On Dialectic: Dissoi Logoi – Teaching the Trivium


Plato saw dialectic as a way of refining opinions to reveal truth. Aristotle saw dialectic as remaining in the world of ‘opinion,’ (with logic being the way to reveal truth). In the ‘Topics’ Aristotle talks of dialectic as probable ideas being discussed in a spirit of enquiry, with the result likely to be opinion rather than certainty. To Aristotle dialectic is a series of interruptions, questions and answers, objections and counter objections.  Dialectic has a long and varied history as an idea and as a pedagogical and philosophical technique. Rhetoric seeks to persuade, dialectic, maybe, seeks to explore.

Nowadays we are, arguably, brought closer to conflicting world views in our everyday lives than ever before. It can be problematic to arrive at ‘the truth’ as it sometimes means we end up decrying another’s opinions as a lie, a falsehood or, indeed, evil. This means that relativism rears its ugly head, challenging us to believe that anything might be true and this truth is resident in the opinion of the individual. This belief has a long pedigree, we can go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE and to the sophists.

Protagoras, is thought by many to represent the epitome and the origin of a sophist world view, known for the aphorism: Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not… This is often explained in the following way: two people are sitting in a room, one finds it cold and the other finds it warm which to the Greeks was an interesting philosophical debate. Nowadays we’d solve the argument with a thermometer though the ‘result’ that this would show would still be unsatisfactory to the person ‘proved’ wrong as they would, no doubt, still feel cold or warm.

I find the idea that all is relative to be fascinating and, ultimately, unsatisfactory. Some things are better than other things. However, in order to explore what these things might be we need to surrender ourselves to the possibility of doubt, uncertainty and the risk of being proved wrong, and realise that not all things that we personally value are better than other things.

The Aristotelian view of dialectic can open up the power of argument or conversation without the need for a conclusion. In its own terms this is a useful technique for looking at questions which have no easy answers. An excellent technique for doing this is dissoi logoi (double arguments) a pedagogical technique associated with the sophists and thought to be close to the original methods employed by Protagoras. Unlike in court where a jury weighs the opinions of both sides of the argument with the outcome resulting in an opinion which we then hold as ‘true’ as this system allows it to be, or in a Socratic dialogue where, in Plato’s writings, Socrates was generally the interlocutor with people who were ultimately ‘wrong’ in one way or another, a proper two sided argument cannot arrive at a single truth.

I think the dissoi logo is an excellent technique to use within the confines of separate ‘arts’ (disciplines, subjects etc.) to explore areas of thought which present grey areas to us. It can also be a method to look at cross-disciplinary ideas where there could be conflict: For example in asking ‘how did the world begin?’ one could look for arguments from both science and religion. A dissoi logoi sees beyond a single truth or subservience to a tradition in that it opens up the possibility of other, competing, truths and traditions and gives them equal weight. The crucial thing being that this equal weight is not a debate in the traditional sense where two or more people from opposing sides argue with each other, the vital part of a dissoi logoi is that one person argues both sides, gives them equal credence and does not reach a conclusion.

Dialectic in the classroom:

The teacher needs to approach dialectic with care. In early days in a class it might be common practice to ask a student what they think of something. Don’t. Their opinions can be sounded off in many places, the playground, the corridor or even online. We don’t need to hear them in the classroom… Yet… One of the jobs of a teacher should be to educate the pupil to be able to think about things, because they know things, especially in areas where opinion counts. We need to move beyond immediate thoughts that might be an emotional reaction to, say a sonnet, as being ‘rubbish’ to a more sophisticated view that can critique said sonnet from a variety of viewpoints some supportive, others less so. Every subject has its areas of debate, these are fruitful areas to explore in a dialectical classroom, where knowledge of why something might be right or wrong enriches the debate and helps form sophisticated opinions through which the student can become more academically self assured by seeing why certain problems are far more interesting than their immediate response might have conveyed. I would go as far as to say that the immediate response of a student can destroy further study. A dialectical classroom is, therefore, not one of crude, violent, opposition, it is one where a great deal of empathy for differing views can grow. However as views will sometimes be difficult to explore it will be a challenging classroom and will need to be handled sensitively by the teacher.

Although some place dissoi logoi in the realm of rhetoric, I believe it belongs more to opinion than persuasion, and works well through challenge and response rather than through the unfolding narrative of great rhetoric. In order to use it well in the classroom the teacher begins the focus of a dissoi logoi through the means of a question. The question is then explored by looking at ‘answers’ to the question from different viewpoints. By studying two or more texts alongside one another a student might want to agree with one more than the other. Don’t let them. The dissoi logoi is a dialogue that presents both sides as carrying equal weight and therefore being equally true. It opens up debate rather than closes it down. It is ‘inductive’ rather than ‘deductive’.

The student is then asked to construct a narrative, either written, spoken or both by which they show how both sides (or more) of an argument have equal validity. This possibility can be pursued in order to increase knowledge and understanding before we begin to approach the vexed nature of mere opinion. This narrative can be represented as a debate between two people each refuting the other and making their points or it can be presented as one narrative by which the student explores the issues showing how fascinated they are in the argument rather than in the need for conclusion.

Dissoi logoi is a great way to ensure students aren’t concerned with their own prejudices and being proved right, as a result they become better scholars, and are readier to learn than refute.

Tell Us About Your Blog (Or Somebody Else’s): The New Spreadsheet

The Echo Chamber

There is now a new spreadsheet of UK Education bloggers available here, based on the latest version of the list of bloggers.

If you are a blogger, please fill in and check your details. Even if you aren’t, any time you can spare to look up and fill in details of other people’s blogs would be very much appreciated.

A few notes:

The list, and the basis for inclusion, can be found here.

The information wanted is

  • Twitter Name: People are always asking me how to find their favourite bloggers on Twitter.
  • Gender: This should be M, F,  Unknown (intended for anonymous bloggers) and N/A (intended for group blogs).
  • Subject: This is intended to identify when a blogger mainly teaches one subject. If you teach many subjects (like most primary teachers) put “N/A”.
  • Role: As broad a description as possible. Preferably just Teacher/TA/Head/Consultant/SLT. No need to say if…

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From the sublime… On Beauty, Eloquence, Grit and Resilience


… to 1977.

The filth and the fury… Never mind the bollocksed grey seventies, the two glorious summers of 76 and 77 did not sate my teenage angst. Sex and Pistol were frightening a whole nation and bringing it to its knees. Little did we know that the bastions of the establishment: the church, media, army, police and politics were getting up to no good behind their net curtains, we just opposed them because there was the sniff of something rotten in the State of the UK. And it wasn’t Johnny. In 1977 many teenagers were becoming no-good boyos and girlos just through a little choice made in a record shop. Saturday Night Fever? No. Bat out of Hell? No. Abba? Hell no. The one band that did it for sheer visceral excitement were the dangerously dayglo Jamie Reeded Pistols with punk’s finest explosion. I caught a glimpse of something greater, later to be joined by the Clash and Janie Jones, as the beginning of the first few bars of Holidays in the Sun ripped out of the speakers of my record player, I was exhilarated. This was not beautiful but my God it overwhelmed me. A moment caught in time. You had to be there. And you had to be me. This Gothic vision, the memory, better than the music no doubt, sums up, for me what great art can do. It can overwhelm. To capture that moment well as only a pseud can do, words can’t capture the feeling. No feelings.

When I took a group of students from the Czech Republic to the National Gallery and we wandered into a room and they caught their first glimpse of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, two of them burst into tears. The flowers are not beautiful, they are dying, at that moment the exhilaration of colour, of fading glory of what once was, this decay catches us unawares and we surrender. Though now, seen everywhere, the sunflowers pass us by, another commercialised image to join the Rock n Roll swindled repetition of heard it, seen it all before… God give me more… something new… old… borrowed… blue…

Edmund Burke wrote about beauty and the sublime, he had controversial ideas as to what the difference between the two might be. The twenty-three year old Burke writes about a beautiful woman, in such a way that later he was attacked by Mary Wollstonecraft for his stereotyping of women as weak and feeble. This is not what interests me here though, it is his idea as to the sublime that excites. For Burke the beautiful attracts us and the sublime intimidates. Both rest in passion, beauty in love, the sublime in self-preservation. Awe, terror and fear inspired by enormity, infinity and indistinctness mark the experience of the sublime. As Jesse Norman writes in his book on Burke: “When humans encounter the sublime directly, be it in an earthquake or a snake, they naturally turn away and seek refuge. But when they encounter it indirectly or at a distance, as in a work of art or in imagination, they can be amazed and delighted. They can be astonished, or aroused to action, by language, poetry and rhetoric.”  Awe inspiring, exalted, cheapened by the overuse of the word awesome, the sublime gives us a gothic pretence of the heroic. Be heroic, in life, in art, and in what we ask of our students.

The authentic.

As Odysseus approached the Sirens he asked his men to tie him to the mast of the boat so that he may experience the Siren call, alluring and deadly, he wanted to hear what ever it was that lured many to languish or shipwreck on the rocks that surrounded the island. Tempted though he was he had, like every great teacher who organises an outward bound course, thought the risk assessment through beforehand and his men, with wax plugs in their ears so they couldn’t hear, rowed fast past the island leading them all to safety but he had heard their sublime voices…

The apocryphal story of JMW Turner tied to a mast of the steam ship ‘Ariel’ during a snow storm at night owes much to this tale. If only it were true, maybe it was. I like to think it was, because it appeals to this romantic tale. I want to say how his paintings were far more eloquent, if I am allowed, far more because of this experience. His pictures, however, can inspire awe, as can a film of his life.

But nature: the wild, the tempest, “A plague upon this howling!” Our experience of our environment can bring us moments when we are attracted by our fear or wonder to experience our humanity in all its strength and fragility at the same time. Outside in a storm like Lear madly raging:

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ungrateful man!”

Ellen MacArthur as she sailed solo around the world gave regular updates, many moments inspire, this one is sublime: “Never in my life before have I experienced such beauty, and fear at the same time. Ten icebergs so far today …”

And this is it. By giving children a well rounded education, one where art, literature, music, poetry, rhetoric, study, debate, and authentic experience of going that bit further – up a mountain or down into a cave, cycling a bit further than before, hoisting the mainsail, conducting a  science experiment where dissecting a dead animal causes all sorts of reactions, anything that can take a child towards a sublime experience is where we can see how awe and fear can manifest itself with beauty: this is where eloquence, grit and resilience lie.

Listen to the siren call and dance outside in the rain.

Master* Teachers: Community and Expertise


“Obsessing about quality is a way of subjecting the work itself to relentless generic pressure; workers given over to this passion can dominate or detach themselves from others less driven. Both are dangers…” Richard Sennett: The Craftsman

Whilst writing Trivium 21c I came across the work of Richard Sennett, I would recommend his writing to anyone interested in arts, crafts, community, organisations and creativity. In The Craftsman he has some interesting things to say re: mastery, expertise, guilds and professional organisations. I try and get the gist of some of his ideas here and look at what implications they may have for our current debates in teaching.

Sennet talks about there being two sorts of expert, the sociable and the anti-sociable. One can quibble about silly dichotomies but this interested me. He posits the idea of the sociable expert as the master craftsman who was, from the middle ages onwards, central to the medieval guilds and their civic and religious rituals; participation and experience were key. However, as time went by, the ‘foraging curiosity’ of the amateur but experienced Master Craftsman was seen as being of lesser value than specialised knowledge. More recently, professional associations, that had started with similar community values as the guilds, became more in thrall to the knowledge of experts. In the twentieth century professional associations weakened over time as market forces and centralised bureaucracies took their toll. The professional, marked out as more than a mere employee, found herself having to react mainly to the whims of the law and legislation, dictating the very content of her expertise and thereby destroying ‘sociable expertise’ and replacing it with ‘anti-sociable expertise: the surrender of the mastery of the craftsman to the superior specialised knowledge dictated from above.

The ‘master’ craftsman possessed sociable expertise, through time, because of specialisation, this was replaced by anti-sociable expertise. This is where the conflict arises, if you know ‘so much’ about something, if you are ‘superior’, your expertise can be anti-sociable, because you may look upon the community from which you are now ‘apart’ as foolish. Sennett looks at the work of Vimla Patel and Guy Groen: they compared brilliant, novice, medical students with experienced doctors. The ‘by the book’, novice, applies the rules rigidly. The more experienced doctors focus on the patients and look beyond immediate cause and effect. The experienced doctor can see further ahead than the novice who knows ‘a lot’. The two sorts of expertise can be in conflict.

To paraphrase Sennett: ‘Treating others as whole persons, in time, is one mark of [mastery] sociable expertise.’ The master or sociable expert sees overall purpose, can make, make do and mend as part of a continuum. The master is good at mentoring and advising, reaching out with an open hand to the community of fellows and ‘customers’. Turning outward is the essential part of this sort of expertise.

Anti-sociable expertise institutionalises the inequality between the expert and the non-expert. This can lead to the experts feeling contempt for others as they withdraw into themselves becoming a group apart. You then have a profession of those ‘who know’ and the others ‘who don’t’. The non-experts feed on resentment and the institution becomes marked by division. Expertise becomes about showing off knowledge rather than sharing it. It can, when driven by competition, succumb to the need to beat others, often by cutting corners, and by not seeing the ‘whole picture’ due to the drive to see immediate rather than longer term results.

In teaching the discussions about the role of professional associations, professional development and ‘what works’ research could do with discussing some of these ideas. Can an organisation encompass expertise that is at once both specialised and sociable? Can we ever recognise the value of experience and realise the Burkean idea of seeing institutional wisdom, exemplified in the tradition and carried out by experienced practitioners, passed down through the generations, as having importance and even value it alongside specialised expertise?

I like the idea of associations that grow from the grass roots, formed like the old guilds, that have their rituals and sociability ingrained in their community. I like the idea of experience being honoured as having a different form of expertise than one that is measurable or noticeable in the shorter term. I worry about expertise coming from outside of the profession and possibly passed down on tablets of stone via anti-sociable experts. This is what happened with ASTs, Expert teachers, QCA and the GTCE, a whole raft of expertise drawn from outside of the profession was used via these agents to dictate to the profession. It arguably ‘de-professionalised’ some members of our profession (vocation).

A college of teachers needs to be sociable and not built around the anti-sociable concern of teaching. It needs to be drawn from the community it serves, and within that community experience needs to be valued and not derided even if ‘the knowledge’ the expertise holds is seen to be inferior to the knowledge of the experts who ‘know’. I think this is crucial, institutional knowledge in the collective memories of experienced people needs to be harnessed. If an association of teachers tries to bypass the human relationships, for the ‘specialised’ knowledge from outside of the association by experts answering to the Government’s (or even Pearson’s et al) desire to ensure we top the PISA tables, then this is not a sociable guild it is an anti-sociable dance of expertise from outside the association fawning to whatever the current direction of the OECD dictates. In the long term this will be to the detriment of the very people we all desire to have flourishing lives: the children we teach. It is by valuing the teachers’ expertise that we can then help grow that expertise. Outsource that expertise, you lose it and you derail the tradition.

How can the researcher be brought into the association? And the consultant, the journalist, the nursery teacher and the university professor? How can we harness and share all this expertise and experience in a sociable way? At the same time how can we ensure an association is not a guild-like secret society protecting its tradition against outside influence? Who is valued, in the hierarchy of the association? To me it needs to be the ‘craftsman’*. The role of the teacher is central, it is her passion and experience that should ‘be’ the community, drawing on knowledge and expertise, from wherever it may come, but knowledge and expertise that she sees as relevant, rather than having this ‘driven’ by outside forces who see an association as a method of controlling teachers in the short term interests of the current whims of government and/or global organisations.

*for want of non generic terms – Master/Mistress Craftsman/Craftswoman I am aware I am using ‘masculinised’ terms though ‘mastery’ is not explicitly gendered… I try to counteract this by using she and her within the text.

Is Teaching A Profession?


(One of the arguments for a College of Teaching is that it will raise the status of teaching as a profession. Do I want teachers to have higher status as a profession?     


From the oldest profession to the newest ones ‘professionalisation’ takes its toll. Wage slavery sucking the life blood out of the servile ones, judging and being judged with payment justifying all crimes against the humane. Do we really see teaching as a profession, all tied into targets, managerialism, and ‘deliverology’? This is the lowest common denominator. What we want is the humane and wonderful, and for all to flourish in the day to day, by teaching children to know, to think, to question, to practice, to take part and to tell.

Many people fall into teaching, it seems to discover them rather than they discover it; for many it might be a last ditch attempt at a form of respectability and a regular wage. Then they discover a relationship with the work. Can one love teaching? We all hate it sometimes, but love it many times too. Teaching is emotional.

Teaching is not a profession, if it is anything it is a vocation: a calling (even a ‘falling’) it involves dedication which has its own sense of worth through its very nature. A vocation has more status than a mere profession. A vocation has a claim towards a teacher’s autonomy from the managerial machine. This machine likes to manipulate professionals, it requires efficiency and delivery and it won’t tolerate imagination or eccentricity. The machine is systematic and is therefore susceptible to the worst effects of science, whereas a vocation responds to emotion and is more at one with the arts. A teacher answering the call of vocation is drawn to Athena, she loves her subject and wants to share its knowledge, rather than the professional who submits to and obeys the machine, no matter what…

The machine should only exist to allow the best teaching to occur, unfortunately the machine has a voracious appetite and tries to gobble up the humane and replace it with mechanical instruction. It goes so far that many theorists of the machine led view of education want to replace teachers entirely with technology and its way of working. Sir Michael Barber thinks: “The learning revolution will lead to fewer teachers and an ‘explosion’ of data.” He wants us to follow Singapore rather than tradition and embrace a new paradigm. In this new paradigm professionals are clearly replaceable. Professionals are replaceable, that’s part of the deal.

People who have answered a call to become teachers are not replaceable. A vocation is a way of being, Barber cannot stop teachers teaching no matter how much data he can accrue.

Will an explosion of data lead to fewer parents? Will data bombs lead to fewer artists? Will data splat eradicate emotion?

The vocation of teaching would never see children or their parents as customers, a school is a valued institution, not a business.


Teaching is an art, not a science.

Teachers must love science but not be in thrall to it.

Teachers must value the machine that frees them, not the one that defeats them.

Teaching is a vocation, not a profession.

Data will not replace teachers… Don’t even let ‘them’ try.



(added 14th Dec. 2014) This post has generated a lot of debate on twitter, it is probably my most controversial posting so far, therefore I thought the following might help the debate…

The Oxford English Dictionary (online) defines profession as: A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification: ‘his chosen profession of teaching’; [TREATED AS SINGULAR OR PLURAL] A body of people engaged in a particular profession: the legal profession has become increasingly business-conscious

And it defines vocation as: A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation:
not all of us have a vocation to be nurses or doctors; A person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication: her vocation as a poet; She was also a teacher in inner city London – a vocation which requires real dedication. The teacher does not hold the prospect of wealth but is accorded respect for his vocation and dedication to the care of the young.

In the longer version of the online dictionary profession is described as vocation and vocation includes profession, over time they have become synonymous.

In the Chambers dictionary of etymology vocation is defined as a noun meaning: occupation, profession. Both profession and vocation have religious roots, profession, before about 1200, was the vow made by a person entering a religious order. Before 1430 vocation was a spiritual calling. Profession was a public declaration and a calling… in 1541 it took on the meaning of an occupation requiring professional skill or qualified training. In 1553 vocation is recorded for the first time as meaning one’s profession. 

Interestingly profession is connected to the word ‘professor’ e.g. a person who professes to be an expert in art or science and teacher of the highest rank.

Here is a piece about ‘vocation’ from a Catholic viewpoint.

There is clearly much confusion around and so when I try to separate the meanings difficulties arise. However, I believe this is a conversation worth having. I am making a distinction between the two, vocation, to me, is profession plus, profession, to me, is vocation minus… Meaning that the feeling one has for teaching is vital, the calling if you will. In a spiritual sense, in a secular age, I am thinking about how this calling should be about the ‘pursuit of wisdom’, the calling is from ‘Athena’ as defined in my talk: ‘Athena versus the Machine’.

As for whether education is an Art or a Science, this is an ongoing debate. Daniel T Willingham has an interesting video addressing this question.

Was Gove only ‘Obeying Orders’?

Some interesting and controversial tweets by Dominic Cummings this afternoon:

He tweeted, that, in essence, Michael Gove did not want to take a confrontational line with teachers but he was encouraged to do so by David Cameron and his Downing Street Spads. DfE wanted Gove to build alliances outside Tory Party but Cameron and some of his Spads wanted education to be a party battleground. Michael Gove took the stance on education he did due to Cameron’s orders. Cummings said his team supported ‘non-party and cross party stuff’ but Cameron wanted it to be a political football. He tweeted: “Then when No10 finally realised error, DC of course didn’t say ‘I fkd up’ but ‘it’s all your fault’. But NB it was DC who ‘declared war'”

When I asked him to explain further he replied: “There’s confrontation over ideas – e.g has the exam system been devalued – and there’s party stuff. VERY different”