Monthly Archives: May 2015

Character Ruck

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Pupils are said to be: “more anxious than ever because of a regime of constant tests and exams” and in response to this Nicky Morgan has decided to…

Introduce English ‘Rugby Players into schools to build backbone into pupils who are misbehaving and disaffected…’ reports the Sunday Times All I can say is ‘Rugger Off’ with your stupid character initiatives – this one costs £500,000, what the ruck do ministers think is going on?!? It’s just not cricket!

From my youth the Rugby club was certainly a place that oozed character, it was the place to go to get cheap booze, drugs, and it was the place I saw my first ‘glassing’ – shattered glass and blood everywhere… Certainly an experience for the victim that made him reflect on ‘setbacks’ I suppose, but, really?!?

You can imagine the ministerial conversation: ‘the working class kids don’t have character, we do… Why??? Hmmm… I know! It was because one did Rugger at school! Let’s get Rugby players into rough schools to ruck, maul and scrum the kids into being good characters!’

My message to ministers? Please try to ensure a proper education, rather than piecemeal nonsense initiatives. Yes, sport is a good thing in schools, so invest in facilities and good PE teachers and ensure the curriculum for all children has the necessary breadth throughout their school years.

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White Working Class Boys’ Day

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“I am here; and here is nowhere in particular.” Golding

If there’s something perceived to be wrong or unfair let’s shake a day, a week or a month at it. The Labour leadership hopeful Liz Kendall praised a primary school for holding an ‘aspirations week’. She said that the week would: “teach girls and boys, particularly from white working class communities, about the chances in life they may not even know exist – like being an engineer, a chemist and even leader of the Labour party.” This is a new rap, the jobs that do exist but the white working class don’t know about… I don’t know where white working class people get their prescriptions from but they must know that Ed Miliband was a not very successful leader of Labour, but no, clearly they need a week shaken over their brain dense heads to make them want to become leader of the labour party…

Every day is a something day it seems, as though these things make a difference, they are certainly easy to justify… ‘what have we done for girls?’ – ‘We had a sponsored something or other on international women’s day and raised awareness through an ironic wear pink clothes in honour of Harriet Harman’s bus…’

Now that white working class men fare so badly in the Western World should we have a special ‘white working class boy day’? It will raise awareness! Whilst the chattering classes have been sorting out their privilege, working maleness has been maligned to a point of pointlessness. Let them build office blocks, learn to be engineers, have a day to make them aspire! William Golding wrote in the Spire: “There’s a kinship among men who have sat by a dying fire and measured the worth of their life by it.” If the fire is dying, so is their worth…

But what are these men? All made of puppy dog’s tails, the heroes of yore,  have become the has-beens, the never-wills, of now… If the Labour Party elects a working class male there will be a cry it should have elected a woman… What do you want from these horny handed ones? To become middle class? To aspire to STEM jobs? In schools there’s not much Technology and Engineering the cry is mainly science and maths but not much to aspire to in S&M…

Get the mindset right boys and you too can be chemists… not naughty ones knocking out legal highs but ones who work in Boots…

This is the flaw in educating for the workplace, in the end it offers nothing to those who don’t fulfil their desires. We’re mostly failures in Britain’s Got Talent, the glory goes to a privileged few and the rest return to obscurity. As Golding writes: “There ought to be some mode of life where all love is good, where one love can’t compete with another but adds to it.” Can’t we all be at school for the sake of each other and learn to live with and love one another? Education for its own sake, pursuing wisdom, not factionalism, aspiration and S&M…?

Discrimination, Assessment and the Making of the Classroom Culture

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“Discrimination: The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex: victims of racial discrimination; Recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another: discrimination between right and wrongThe ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste: those who could afford to buy showed little taste or discrimination.”

Oxford English Dictionary Online.

We need more discrimination in our schools. Discrimination is a necessary component of assessment and the building of a strong, reflective classroom culture. It is the unfortunate consequence of a lack of discrimination that leads pupils to think that their individual ‘opinion’ counts, that if they think or feel something then so be it. “It’s my opinion!” is the get out of jail free card for a moment of challenge from a teacher or fellow pupil who is playing devil’s or, indeed, God’s advocate. If political correctness were to ‘go mad’ and stop children and teachers seeing the importance of discrimination then no useful assessment could take place.

I’m NOT talking about discrimination that results in the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people this type of discrimination is abhorrent and as a result of much argument and struggle over years the vast majority of people in our society agree that it is wrong – this has become part of the ‘sense we make in common’ and laws have been put in place over my lifetime which have been a glorious and notable change to the way we all live. As time continues battles will probably continue and more unjust or prejudicial behaviour will be challenged in all sectors of society and this is to the good but this doesn’t mean discrimination itself is a bad thing because recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another and the ability to judge what is of high quality; good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’.

Assessment is, in many cases, subjective, especially in the arts. Assessment is essentially unfair, if by fairness we mean that everything ever said, made, done or thought by anyone is as worthwhile as anything said, made, done or thought by anyone else. Yet we need to embrace this very unfairness in order to understand its intrinsic importance to how we co-exist and make our culture in common.

In his memorable phrase: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor,” David Didau uncovers an inherent problem in assessment and that is where we believe our own hype… “You, child, have a target grade of ‘B’ and your rather dishevelled piece of work is a ‘D’ go away and redraft/redo/re-perform it at the required ‘B’ standard…” The teacher as the objective gatekeeper to the highest grade is of no use to anyone apart from petty bureaucrats.

The teacher has an important role to play in the teaching of discrimination and discernment, we need to teach pupils how to judge and judge well. This means that the teacher as ‘expert’ in a domain, in which she stands on the shoulders of giants, needs to initiate children into the tradition of the subject enabling them to get to know what quality has meant in the past and that it was likely to have been a complex history of agreement and disagreement over time. In order for a child to be informed about this history they need to be taught to refrain from making their own judgements too early, until they too have been introduced to the quality of the conversation through time. As pupils become adept at discriminating and judging work based on the tradition, as taught by the teacher, then their opinions should be sought more and also challenged more by the teacher and other members of the class who can then act as critical friends to each other.

Self and peer assessment are sometimes seen as the ‘be all and end all’ of formative assessment but they’re a dangerous idea if they’re used too early and without any guidance as to ‘taste and judgement’. Dangerous? Yes, if any child is able to think that: ‘well, it’s my opinion so it’s all right’ then we are doing them a disservice. If I may bring you back to what I said earlier: good judgement or taste is an essential part of the conversation of the classroom, where we build a ‘sense in common’ and this thoughtful ‘agreement’ or ‘disagreement’ through well argued reasoning is an essential part of a positive scholastic, collegiate, classroom culture.

If we want our children to be fully conversant with the wider culture outside of the classroom we have a wonderful opportunity within the classroom to model how to take part. We need to teach judgement, discernment and discrimination and help children to become sophisticated in the understanding and use of these by opening their eyes to the difficulty and importance of assessment.

Michael Gove Looking Great

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It is such a shame that when he was Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove was not able to dress up, the finery suits him and his rather quizzical look. Perhaps we can remedy this sad state of affairs for future Education Secretaries and demand that they dress up in Academic Garb as befits the post.

I vote that ‘Gown and Mortar Board with Ceremonial Cane’ should be worn from now on and I am sure such smartness will help raise the status of the job and also of teachers especially if such garb was to catch on throughout the profession.

Nicky Morgan you know what you must do:

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In Praise of Tory Teachers: A Hymn to Diversity in the Staffroom

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“The most successful tyranny…is the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.”

Allan Bloom

Should the staff at a school share one vision? Does your Headteacher stand in front of you and preach that He is the embodiment of the vision, that he is, as Queen put it:

“One man [With] One goal, Hah, one mission! One heart, One soul, Just one solution, One flash Of light, Yeah, one God, one vision…”

Are there unwritten rules that all staff share the same pedagogical vision, that all agree that the way things are done here is the only way and better than the other ways? The desire for uniformity is often strong, if only everyone thought the same way then we would have an outstanding school! If, as one school is reported to have put it, Labour is the only party who wants us to live who would want the Tory hand of death at the tiller?

Picture the Friday after the general election, staff turn up at school and face a briefing from the commiserating general picturing ‘five more years of misery’ and yet in the midst of the assembled ranks are some who voted Conservative, biting their lips either in guilt or in sheer joy at the pain inflicted on the Headteacher… Harriet Swain in The Guardian wrote:

As one ‘shy Tory’ put it: “It’s quite difficult being a Conservative in a comprehensive school because unions are vociferous and you can be made to feel quite uncomfortable showing mild support for a Conservative policy.”

Especially when Tories are described as ‘scum’  and senior staff begin sentences with statements like: “I know no one likes Michael Gove, but …”

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Is there the opposite problem in Independent Schools? Do the Communists meet secretly behind the bike sheds and over Old Holborn, Rizla papers and striking Swan Vestas set out their plan of action about what to do when the Great Day dawns?

Imagine the school in which the culture seems to be one where all agree, how adaptable to change would it be? How creative would it be?  Successful or not a culture that brooks no dissent will be a culture that ignores the idea of other possibilities. As Alicia Boisnier and Jennifer A. Chatman from the Haas School of Business University of California, Berkeley wrote: “Strong cultures may enhance short-term success but inhibit long-term organisational performance; they may even contribute to long-term failure by preventing organisations from adapting to changing contingencies.” Yet a school that has no unifying mission will probably be notable for its chaos. Boisnier and Chatman go on to say: “We propose that organisations with strong cultures can use subcultures to become more agile and to drive innovation.”

It might be the people, the ‘awkward squad’ and sometimes ‘awkward departments’ that are most unlike the strong central command and control culture, that have the wherewithal to challenge the school and enable it to adapt most to change. The wonderful paradox here is that in schools the subcultures of conservatism that exist in staff rooms might enable the institution to progress more than institutions in which all agree the ‘left wing party line’.

Again, from the Guardian article:

A ‘shy London Tory’ says his political views have been shaped by support for many of Gove’s changes, particularly those connected with the curriculum: “I believe all children should be able to have a traditional liberal arts education and not leave that for those who are privately educated or go to a selective school.”

The lesson of the liberal arts is education for freedom, not servitude. There is an argument to be had about whether current Conservative policy champions the liberal arts or is intent on destroying them but let us at least have the debate. Classrooms and Staff-rooms should be places in which debate is expected and welcomed and the ‘unifying culture’ is one that tolerates and encourages diversity of viewpoint as important to the health of the community and the education of children. It might even be, I hesitate to use the term, a British value.

Value all teachers and encourage their views to be heard. It would be a shame to think there are members of staff who feel that what their views are not welcomed by the overarching unspoken vision in which all are one but not for all.

Mobile Phones for Life!

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Twitter is awash with adults grabbing their mobile phones to tweet their outrage at the use of mobile phones by pupils in schools. There is evidence to prove student test scores can be improved if you ban mobile phones, the evidence “suggests that restricting mobile phone use can be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”

Is There?

But has anyone researched the impact of high stakes testing on mobile phone usage? Is there any evidence that GCSEs severely curtail mobile phone use? Is there any evidence that during the fortnight before the 15th May mobile phone use by pupils is severely restricted by the use of coursework deadlines to concentrate minds? What about mobile phone use by teachers, is there a scandal brewing? Is there any evidence of teachers being unable to tweet and blog as much as they can during the rest of the year due to the ridiculous demands of controlled assessments?

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It might be found from next year that, due to coursework changes brought in by Gove, teachers will be freed up to use their mobile phones more – Gove is a well known user/abuser of mobile phones witness how David Cameron had to severely admonish Gove and confiscate his phone for life when said device disrupted a cabinet meeting.

Perhaps it was the Cabinet Meeting that was getting in the way of the phone use?

There is an answer to all these problems: ban everything that gets in the way of mobile phone use.

Smart phones make you smarter – witness what the OCR board’s Will Hornby said: “I’m quite struck by the idea pupils might use techniques they did not know when they walked into the exam room by being able to search [the internet].”

Far simpler would be to ban high stakes assessments, any pupil or teacher found in possession of an OCR, Pearson, AQA or ‘Educas’ paper could be put into solitary confinement and forced to watch a powerpoint on twenty-first century skills for hours until their eyes bleed and they too begin to believe.

This is the modern world, get with it cats!

Memory

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As a teacher I wanted students to remember certain things and to be able to recall them when needed.

DT Willingham wrote in his book Why Don’t Kids Like School: “Whatever students think about is what they will remember… Memory is the residue of thought.” To Aeschylus “Memory is the mother of all reason…” Thought and reason, it all sounds so reasonable, plausible and er… something, what was it…. it’s on the tip of my tongue, er finger, er lap top… lap tip, tip lap top finger… Where was I?

Dementia.

Losing your mind. Literally, losing memory… but memory is not clear, this residue of thought, of feeling, of meaning, of nonsense, of moments which appear, disappear and make new lovers with other collections of fleeting moments. Make sense damn you! Am I in control of what I remember? I mean I can make myself remember certain things I am sure, but can I control the way I remember them? Or even the way I don’t want to remember them, deep inside the residues of our minds – thoughts fester away without being uncovered for fear of what they might reveal…

Is it my memory, or a photograph of someone else’s? John Berger wrote: “What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together.” Isn’t this like our memories, thrown together? These bones of memory, shifting, fracturing, turning to dust, others added, to those forgot… Then remembered differently than before and your thoughts are there as well as mine, conjoined in some nightmares…

In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian prepares his memories thus: “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I’m old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” Memories as buried artefacts, we want to dig them up just when we need them, undamaged, unencumbered by our misremembering their context, failing to understand why they were precious in the first place. Our first loving kiss, maybe, but what about our second and third?

But, dear teacher, what is all this to you? You just want to play at memory – you want to throw the bones of memories into the desolate wastes of the brains of your tabula rasa’ed boys and girls. Nothing will compete in there and dementia, one hopes, is a long way off. How precious are they, the thoughts you want to instil? How long do you want them to be remembered? When you are long gone, what residues of thought about you and your interminable lessons do you want to remain etched on the grey matter, what matters now and what will matter then? I remember… She says to her grandchildren when I learnt about… and she reaches for that buried precious gift… oh… it’s on the tip of her…

Imagine a teacher who could implant exactly what he wanted a child to remember in exactly the way he wanted it remembered…

Which subject in our curriculum is most reliant on memory?

I would venture a guess: Drama…

For what is a performance of a play but an exercise in memory?

Remembering lines, remembering how to say lines, remembering how to be and not to be, remembering when to breathe in and breathe out and hold your breath and when to laugh and cry and remembering how to laugh and how to cry… and how to invest in your emotion memory, your movement memory, and how to remember what everyone else says and does, how to remember how to act and react in a way that makes it look as though this is the first time this has ever occurred to you…

How to remember the pace – even when the tempo has changed, how to bring it all back on track, that beast of the playing… how to recreate the memory in a way that is responsive to the now in which the co-operative venture between cast, crew and audience is ‘live’ but also rehearsed to the point that you remember to stand exactly in the right spot and in the right pose to allow that light to hit you just right… slightly differently every night…

And then when it’s all over… forget it… or store it away… another character, another day… another set of remembered moves and utterances ready to enchant.

As Eugene Ionesco said: “A work of art really is above all an adventure of the mind.” And theatre encompasses that adventure as much or maybe more than any other art.. and just when it is at its most whole, its most realised, it dies…

Theatre only lives on in memory and this is its greatest gift – it resides in memory and nowhere else.

This memory is not like a book stored on a shelf in the mind, ready to be drawn out from the library when needed (is any memory like this?) It is a lived process, by which the reenactment unlocks a myriad of understandings that are triggered or ignored, interwoven and juxtaposed in exacting, repetitive rehearsals, repeating the ritual, building together the moments that add up to the whole, it is irritating, exhausting, exhilarating, excruciating, exciting… Are all lessons like rehearsals? Could we tolerate learning at this level if they were?

But as a teacher I wanted students to remember certain things and to be able to recall them when needed, what else was I to do?