Monthly Archives: September 2015

Teaching Volkswagen…

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And it all started so well…

(sings) The people’s car is in deepest shit… (To the tune of the Red Flag, for fun…)

Give us a test and we will find a way round it. The Telegraph reports that: “Executives at VW were accused of masterminding the emissions scandal from the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg. The chain of command of those involved in the rigging deception stretched all the way back from the US to VW’s home patch, it was claimed, with executives in Germany controlling the key aspects of tests which the firm now admits were manipulated…”

We can all look so smug, it is so obvious that instead of cheating Volkswagen should have made cars that passed the tests so that their emissions satisfied the exacting standards that the tests demand. But instead they thought: ‘lets look for ways around it…’

How many schools and teachers have been tempted to do similar things, maybe when OfSTED come a knocking or when coursework is not of the ‘required’ standard? Teaching to cheat the test is different to teaching to the test… but where is the line drawn in teaching? Where does teaching to the test tip over into cheating the test? (famously only a couple of consonants need to be jiggled around).

As for the emissions test itself, should we be satisfied with its pass rate? Should we be encouraging more diesel engines onto our roads at all? Particulates are doing untold damage to our lungs… So cheating at a test which seems to accept a certain level of pollutants might make one question the tail that wags the dog in the first place, but Europe made the choice to encourage us into diesel cars… at what price?

Always question what the tests are for. Are they the right test? If not, should we go for a more ‘moral’ position? Should Volkswagen have said diesels are bad so, we will only produce electric cars from now on? If they did, would it be proved, somewhere, that electric cars are also bad? Perhaps the Volkswagen bicycle will be the future…

But never cheat the test, be very clear where the line drawn between cheating and complying is whilst looking for the best tests for the pupils, tests that actually help rather than hinder, tests which have the interests of all at heart…

The Pupil’s Progress.

Chigwell_School_Chapel_-Pilgrim's_Progress

“Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound…”  John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

For the pupil, progress relies on hope, a belief in a journey towards a point of completion and an idea that ultimate salvation is just one more bit of effort away. This promised land, in which there  shall be ‘seraphims and cherubims’ and an eternal life of joy, will be won when the child has moved from a state of incompletion towards the superior state of ‘got some good exam grades’. Physically a child starts school small and finishes it tall, progress has clearly been made. Academically you start school without any certificates and you end with an Ebacc and an A level or two, or, God forbid, a vocational qualification, as you trudge towards the closed factory gate to the newly opened call centre. Rather than a heavenly pursuit, a pupil’s progress is tied to these rather mundane goals.

Teachers have algorithms to set their pupils targets. They distribute these goals like manna from heaven and report: “If Jacinta wishes to progress to a B grade she will need to knuckle down and work hard until the exam.” Then they track her progress towards that goal. This has become the extent of their ambition, justified by the belief that the B grade in such and such subject will get her a job in animal husbandry or law or a part time job in a beauticians. The belief in progress is underpinned by a dour utopian utility.

Most children make expected progress, which therefore isn’t really progress at all, it is doing as expected, so why is it fetishised so much? Because it can be measured, and if the underprivileged progress more than the privileged then all the added value boxes will be ticked and all will have really achieved (except the privileged who will have under-performed) and the bastions of privilege will come crashing to the ground and all will surrender to the new meritocratic reality: the meek will inherit the earth.

But this won’t happen.

And nor should it.

Progress is an anathema to a humane education, it is bowing out of our responsibility towards each other by sacrificing education on the altar of hope in a suburban heaven on earth, which is always one more qualification away, where we think perfection is attainable, – but only by adding an extra GCSE, PGCE  BA, MA or a Ph effing D… Education – inflation, inflation, inflation.

Instead of the hubris of ever marching progress we need to learn how to remain still, how to be us in the here and now. Teachers can’t make the future for their pupils, they must allow them to make it for themselves. Teachers should introduce pupils to the best that has been thought, said and done and enable their charges to begin to add to the best that has been thought, said and done; initiate them into how to use judgement, discernment, and discrimination, introduce them to past successes and mistakes, and share with them that humanity is a flawed state of being. No matter how perfect we believe our systems to be, teachers should not spend all their energies supporting systems of progress that insist pupils sacrifice themselves to the demands of a mechanistic target grade with its accompanying objectives and computer generated statements. The subject matter that is taught is more important and interesting than any grade; discovery and adventure more important than the progress myth and its simplistic goals.

Pupils need to practise in order to live a good life, so support them in forever becoming. Teach, don’t track. Focus on ideas, knowledge, practice and debate, and not grades. Encourage children to do something now, for its own sake, and not in the mistaken belief that it will make them a better person, get them a better job or help them progress towards a far off, dull and distinctly obtainable, goal. Instead of these dismal stories offer them adventure in the never ending pursuit of wisdom.

Presentstory

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The increasingly known academic Bernie Bolt, so named because his mother, Jenny Bolt, conceived him during a rather vigorous edition of The Golden Shot, was preparing his Tedx talk. He had been invited to speak at Tedx Blackpool on his ‘new’ academic discipline ‘Presentstory’. Interestingly he had conceived of this new discipline whilst looking at History, moving right a bit, looking at futurology, moving left a bit, and he stopped and fired at the gap in the middle. “The story of all our nows” was how it was originally described on the website for his online MOOC, and here he was preparing to talk about a subject, which, to be honest, he knew very little about. The trouble with starting on such a venture is that he was suddenly thought of as an expert whereas, in reality, he was a complete novice. It was like asking Captain Cook to know all there is to know about Australia on the day he landed at Botany Bay.

However, there is something about his discipline of ‘the present’ that allows everyone’s ‘inner novice’ to be free. The idea of just studying the present means there is no need for a large body of knowledge, the entire subject is predicated on the idea that all that was needed to study it is a set of skills: quickness and alertness, the ability to think critically at the same time as doing something and/or experiencing something one could be instantly critical of.

His first ‘paper’ was on Football fans swearing at their most overrated or over valued player, but to capture the nowness he recorded his thoughts during a match and captured it all in a live ‘periscope’ broadcast on the internet. As the piece continued he was set upon by a small group of brutish 50 and 60 something thugs who had yet to embrace the modern game and he ended up in casualty with minor bruising and cuts.

But just like watching the Golden Shot, it was the ‘live’ nature of his academic discipline that caught the imagination of the ‘yoof’. They saw that here was a discipline that could be caught rather than taught, no need to study a body of knowledge as that would belong to the subject of ‘history’ and would pollute the unadulterated study of the present. How invigorating! Academic work was shared via snapchat in the early years, dissertations were written and read at the same time and then would ‘self destruct’. This was a course impossible – and that’s where its popularity resided.

As the course got accredited and the bureaucrats got hold of it, evidence and data had begun to take over, a body of knowledge had accrued and in some lesser universities courses had sprung up looking at the oxymoronic ‘history of the present’ and some phds had been written looking at the present as the start of our ever evolving future. This upset Bernie, I mean he was pleased because he was able to monetise his work in books and MOOCS but something had been lost, if one can lose the ever-present…

Here he was, preparing for a Tedx talk, and his excitement was precisely because his definition of the present, defined quite early on, had been shaped by TED. ‘Occurring now’ had had to be defined. Extreme anarchist students had insisted that this had to be 0.00001 seconds, they celebrated amnesia and ‘pretended’ that alzheimer’s was the ultimate expression of freedom, until they experienced someone close to them suffering from it, the elderly anarchist ‘leader’, who, in the end could only remember the poll tax riot and had to go to Trafalgar Square every day to fight with pigeons and tourists and those cheapskate ‘street entertainers’ who painted themselves to look like unconvincing statues… Bernie was not so extreme, he articulated, originally, that the present was defined in units of sense, when one starts ‘ a sense tense’, a sentence if you will, one knew, sort of where one might be going, even if one changes one’s mind or meaning during the course of it. But this was too loose a definition for the authorities and they needed the present to be defined more clearly so that they could ensure that any legal comeback from a student who had failed the course could be defended against in a court of law. Compromises were made, the subject suffered, but at least now the present was defined: “The present is defined as that which happens during the duration of a ‘sense tense’, which is a collection of moments comprising the thoughts of the academic engaged in  ‘framing the collection of moments’ and totalling, just as in a TED talk, no more than eighteen minutes.”

This, he deemed, was the ultimate way to engage students, keep the authorities happy, and retain a sense of nowness. – He was sure that the students couldn’t concentrate more than eighteen minutes, but, importantly, their motivation to be ‘academic’ could last long enough to monetise online product. The present, usefully, could have a commercial future, and, in this, he was to be proved right.

Deus Ex MOOC Machina

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The machine marks an essay, it is unerringly accurate… the pupil has passed with a grade of 87.342%. The essay pointed out how machines were an essential part of our age. The essay argued how machines had freed people from a life of drudgery, of dirt, of degradation. The writing flowed with platitudes exhorting all to feed data into their smart phones and to do as the smart phone bid them: when to go to the bus stop, when to ride the tram, when to queue up for the ride at Disneyland and when to ‘Uber’ off home. The essay argued for the health benefits of always knowing your calorific intake, burn take, walk rate, heart rate, colonic evacuation profile, laughter generator, depression load, likely day of death and recommended products to buy… The machine enjoyed the essay, a world away from the usual peak of the bell curve nonsense it has to read from the second rate pupils from this ‘good’ suburban school.

The teacher was putting his feet up, happy in the knowledge that the essays were being marked, he is ready to make a feedback YouTube video to distribute to all his socially mediated ‘good suburban’ pupils. He currently teaches a class of 60,247 English speaking, socially sorted ‘suburban’ pupils from around the world, and at least ten times as many who drop in to watch some of his ‘lessons’ after his TedX talk brought him instant infamy due to its bleak look at the current state of ‘Presentstory’ the academic subject he invented, though now it seems all so ‘last week’.

His mark machine has finished the job and it bleats with an insane beep that he used to get confused with the sound the washing machine made when it was ready to ejaculate his clothing… but this time there was something more cloying, more annoying, was it re-marking an essay? He looked closely, he never usually opened the machine up to scrutiny, but this time something unusual seemed to be happening…

The machine had turned its screen green with envy – here was the essay, now remarked to add up to 100%, about ‘how machines were an essential part of our age’. The teacher looked at it and read it a few times, God how dull it was, predictable, making all the ‘right’ noises, in all the ‘right’ places and, indeed, it satisfied all the assessment objectives so, in many ways, it was the perfect piece of work. But it lacked something.

The pupil identification code was: 089464 AB 4690////3638459 ZXE 7494649026500000.797466 TT. This pupil was someone who logged on regularly to his lecture streams so yes ‘it’ should do well but if only he could know more about ‘them’ he could tailor his feedback. However, due to fears over influencing  his students or showing any bias in his feelings and dealings with them the online college authorities demanded anonymity for the pupils – it is our e-safety policy they declared.

That evening a Deus Ex Machina started to send emails to the teacher’s inbox… ‘You Have Mail’ – all of it was being fed directly into his Spam filter – thousands of messages… from pupil: 089464 AB 4690////3638459 ZXE 7494649026500000.797466 TT Ah, he thought, ‘what a coincidence’ and he ventured into his Spam… wondering if this was a virus or a genuine attempt by the pupil to contact him directly, thereby breaking the rules and upsetting the college mail system. He took the plunge…

Three weeks later his resignation email had been accepted. He had lost all faith in the world of MOOC. It seems his marking machine had awarded the first ever 100% grade to an essay entirely written by a machine. Pupil 089464 AB 4690////3638459 ZXE 7494649026500000.797466 TT was paying vast amounts of money to have a machine take the course and write all the essays. Pupil 089464 AB 4690////3638459 ZXE 7494649026500000.797466 TT had passed with straight A grades and the writing machine had gone into celebratory overdrive flooding the college email systems with mail admitting to the fraud. The college, however, decided to keep it quiet and awarded 089464 AB 4690////3638459 ZXE 7494649026500000.797466 TT the title of Pupil of the Year and wished ‘it’ luck with its future.

The teacher unplugged his marking machine for the last time and dumped it in the dustbin.

Ex Machina.

Say No to Gifted and Talented and Embrace Enthusiasms

Unknown-3 Antonin Artaud 

I was asked today what term I would use instead of gifted and talented, a phrase that I have always loathed, and I referred the questioner to my book Trivium 21c and, in particular, to page 139 where I wrote the following:

Being Awake; Being Alive

The theatre practitioner Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) had the idea that an artist should be ‘alive within the score’. For this, they had to submit to their necessity’, ‘be in harmony with their necessity’, and be like someone ‘burning at the stake, signalling through the flames’. By being aware of our mortality, doing what we do as though it could be our last breath, we achieve an intensity of purpose both in rehearsal and performance. It was this that Étienne Decroux (1898-1991), the teacher of Marcel Marceau, and a Marxist atheist, called the moment of having ‘God within you’. The word ‘enthusiasm’   reflects this – it is drawn from the Greek en theos, meaning ‘with God’. Enthusiasm is a necessary pursuit and should not be denigrated into meaning something lesser. Enthusiasm is the search for essence, that moment of ‘flow’, but also of intensity and work that is essential for high achievement. This is the idea of mastery: discipline, focus, work, beauty even in ugliness, truth, and the pursuit of in-depth knowledge. This is, perhaps, what Plato thought of as ‘being awake’.

Gifted and Talented is a problematic phrase in so many ways but especially because it implies no effort is needed, it has an air of ‘I’m so gifted and talented I really don’t need to try,’ it has an arrogance at its core. En Theos has a relationship at its core, here one is at ‘one with the work, the task, the discipline and the art’. It is this that makes the term rise above all other attempts at trying to mark out distinction.

In schools we can use the following terms: ‘She is a maths enthusiast’; ‘His enthusiasms are in modern and ancient languages’; We celebrate our pupils enthusiasms through our ‘En Theos’ programme; ‘She is able to enthuse her fellow pupils through her captaining of the football team’;  We have noticed how enthusiastic he is in ‘food technology’ and we hope to be able to give him an opportunity to test his enthusiasm through regular work experience at a local restaurant’.

So ditch gifted and talented and embrace enthusiasms instead. 

Key Stage Three: What is the Point?

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Boris Karloff Takes a tea break. Is Key Stage Three a tea break, a preparation for GCSE or an educational adventure?

I was chatting to an English teacher the other day who told me that in her previous school they were required to teach Frankenstein at A level, at GCSE, which they taught over three years from year nine, and in year 7 and 8 they were asked to ‘introduce Frankenstein’ though the use of drama. The whole experience at this school and, I accept the teacher might have been exaggerating, seemed to have been set up with exam results in mind rather than the broad education of the pupils.

This got me thinking what is the point of Key Stage Three? Why not go straight into GCSEs? After all that is what the school is being measured against: good GCSE results are a sign of good teaching, a good headteacher and a good school to attend for good pupils of good parents in a good area, so why not teach GCSEs from day one? Well, some people might object and say: ‘some children aren’t ready for GCSE classes yet’ but that is not an argument against teaching GCSEs that is an argument for teaching them in ways suitable for younger children and repeating the knowledge in more complex ways as the pupils develop. Some people might say: ‘but there’s a national curriculum with which we must comply,’ until it is pointed out that many schools have the freedom to ‘ignore’ the national curriculum and teach as they see fit.

So why not make every day of school a Groundhog Day of ‘if it’s English it must be Frankenstein Day’; why not just teach the stuff that the school is mainly accountable for? One can appreciate the thinking behind the idea of EBacc Groundhog from year seven, especially for, you know, those kids who are a bit… er, how do you say… ‘less academic’…?

Why not do it? Because it is limiting the pupils’ education to a frustrating round of bits of the body of a single limited course in a reduced number of subjects that does not count as a broad education. OfSted realises the problem and is urging Headteachers to do more to boost their school’s provision at this crucial time in a child’s education. Key stage three is an opportunity to open up the conversation, to introduce pupils to a wide range of subjects, disciplines, arts, voices, experiences all for their own sake and without the dreaded need to assess them to within an inch (a centimetre?) of their free thinking lives. This is not an excuse for a ‘tea break’ approach where it doesn’t really matter what you teach, key stage three should have its own worth – education for its own sake.

Release key stage three from being the poor relation of key stage four and don’t even dream of a three year GCSE, use the space to teach some or all of these and more: Art, Biology, Chemistry, Debate, Drama, Economics, Food, Geography, History, Dance, Information Technology, Latin, Classical Civilisation, History of Thought, Climbing, Grammar, Caving, Athletics, Music, Skiing, Camping, Mathematics, Design, Carpentry, Brick Laying, Physics, Logic, Astronomy, Engineering, Cycling, Football, Lacrosse, Horse-riding, Horticulture, Zoology, Rhetoric, English (Including the Gothic novel), Creative Writing (Poetry and Prose) The list could go on and on…

And sometime between the ages of eleven and fourteen, when a child is ready, have an ‘all must pass test’ of basic skills and knowledge in ‘numeracy and literacy’ which will show that a pupil has a good grasp of the basic knowledge required to be able to function independently whilst studying a vast array of other subjects through which they might be able to flourish.

Key Stage Three should be an adventure, not GCSE Groundhog years of studying Frankenstein courses and not three years of biding your time before the real stuff starts…