Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Empty Classroom

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The great theatre director, Peter Brook, wrote that:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.

This is the art of theatre pared down to its bones. At a time when theatre was getting lost in artifice, technical extravaganza, and commercialism it came as a welcome antidote. The book to which this is the beginning was called the Empty Space.

If we were to do the same with formal education we could, maybe, rewrite it in this way:

I can take any empty space and call it a bare classroom. A woman talks in this empty space whilst someone else is listening to her, and this is all that is needed for an act of schooling to be engaged.

Perfect.

Strip away everything. No computers and clocks; no pens, blue, black, red or green. No books. No chair or table. Just two people.

From this central relationship all else follows. If anything else is to be introduced into the space then it must be because at that moment it enhances rather than detracts from this relationship, maybe a great book, a blank sheet of paper and one pen…

But when finished with, de-clutter, and return to the bare classroom… the empty space, for it is in this space that you will both begin to understand how to teach and how to learn.

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Teachers! A Call to Arms!

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“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”

GK Chesterton

We need to summon up the spirit of, the albeit fictional, Ned Ludd and Captain Swing. We need to smash up the 21st century equivalents of the threshing machines and power looms!

O Teachers! Click on this link! Can’t you see what is happening in front of your noses? In the name of progress and twenty-first century skills? A movement made darker by its motto: “Kids don’t need teachers in order to learn…” This movement wants to see the Death of the Teacher!!! No more chalk and talk, no more elbow patches on tweed… No more planting a seed in the mind of a child…. No! Let the child go wild on the screen they say…

“Minimally invasive education,” is the future they say! We should see this, teacher, as a call to arms!!! You have nothing to lose but your livelihoods! Adults and teachers, passing on knowledge is seen as old hat! Embrace the new, they say, and put all your trust in faceless, global, neoliberal, evil corporations that accrue capital, steal your identity, and then sell it and resell it to the highest bidder! They TRACK YOUR EVERY MOVE!!! And some want these people to become the arbiters of your child’s education?!

Smash the Self Organised Learning Environment – it is a trick to keep the poor in thrall to big business! “Knowledge is Obsolete!” They say, whilst saying the internet is all powerful because it holds all knowledge! These people contradict, obfuscate and hide behind wooly ideas about: creativity, critical thinking, and social communication… BUT HAVE YOU SEEN A ROOM FULL OF KIDS STARING AT SCREENS???? How much critique do you see? BRAINWASHED BELIEVERS in the power of APP!!!! How communicable???? Grunt and SCREAM when you take away their screen!!! Creative??? They can’t even make a revolution, they can just click a like button…

“If knowing becomes obsolete I think it’ll leave us with space for something that is perhaps more important, which is creating,” WHAT DO THEY KNOW?????!!!!!

If someone wants to make knowing OBSOLETE, we should oppose them! They are a danger to our children’s BRAINS!!!!

I WANT OUR CHILDREN TO KNOW STUFF!!!!!

SMASH THE S.O.L.E. AND KEEP IN TOUCH WITH THE SOUL!

Voices Joined, Not Silenced.

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Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.  Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.

In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:

…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.

Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.

If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.

In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.

Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to  begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.

Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up,  they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!

Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.

If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.

Is There Such a Thing as a Crap School?

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Crap means something of extremely poor quality. I think a school can be of extremely poor quality. That does not mean all the constituent parts of a school are of extremely poor quality, I worked in a school I would describe as being extremely poor but the drama department was the diamond in a crown of thorns. I was on teaching practice. I had to observe an English lesson, my ‘other’ subject, the teacher had no control of the class, he was introducing a book by talking over them, they were indulging in loud chatter amongst themselves; he carried on and on and then said to me: “What do you think?” To which I replied “I think…” I said this quite loudly, “That the behaviour in this class is appalling!” I paused for effect… “I refuse to talk to people who are being so rude!” I know, what effrontery, and I mean mine not theirs… But it worked, the pupils shut up and we began a discussion about a book.

The teacher wasn’t bad, he had been worn down by teaching at that school. When the bell went for break the teachers would leave the classrooms and get into the staffroom as quickly as possible, that   is those that didn’t hide in locked classrooms… The Headteacher spent a lot of his time in his office. The corridors were chaotic, except around the drama department, where kids were welcome to visit and the corridors were patrolled by the team, telling kids off, having a joke, being welcoming and strict in equal measure. The kids responded well, felt safer, and the department got the highest results in the school, by far…

This experience stayed with me throughout my career and informs my judgements when seeing other schools. I once went for an interview in a school where I witnessed one child shout and scream and hit another child in the corridor and the teacher showing me around did nothing so I challenged the child and asked the member of staff where should I send the children? He then took action, but only then.

In another school I was shown round and saw teachers in classrooms at laptops and sixth formers sitting still in their coats, chatting, chewing, sleeping, not just in one classroom but it seemed to be the prevalent culture.

These are what I call crap schools.

As a parent or ‘ordinary member of the community’, I arrive at my judgement from outside the school gate. I look at how children behave to and from school, on the buses, and in local shops. If when the bell for the end of school sounds and children run out, swearing, pushing, shoving, hitting, punching, crying, hiding, avoiding… Then I can reach a judgement: why is there this behaviour? Is there a teacher or two on gate duty, challenging, smiling, telling off, congratulating….? Are the kids piling onto buses, pushing old people out of the way? Is there a teacher on bus stop duty insisting on restoring the lost art of the queue, being respectful to the public space, expecting polite behaviour from her charges? Are there lots of children, in the nearest park, smoking all sorts, fighting another school”s pupils, showing no respect for their beautiful surroundings? If so, where are the teachers sorting it out? The same in local shops, does a member of staff liaise with the shop keepers have an ‘on call’ number just in case of trouble? If the school doesn’t extend their remit into the community then they are not a true community school. And any school that lets all years out into the community at lunch time unless it is to move between sites is a disgrace except in exceptional circumstances in which case I would expect to see staff on patrol at all the places where problems might occur.

A school that does not feel it has any responsibility towards the behaviour of its pupils in, to and from school is a crap school.

Hashtag Fail

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It seems yesterday, October 13th was the ‘International Day for Failure‘. I mean, is this a hoax? A joke? I failed to notice, which, I suppose is apt. I did attend a Parents Evening and would not have celebrated if I’d heard tale upon tale of failure from the teachers, which would not be the point… I should’ve been celebrating the FAIL.

I am getting quite sick and tired of international days of whatever… like, I mean… ‘whatevs’ like… Can’t we just have our calendar back without having to come up with some good cause or other? In a secular world with no Saints days some people seem to think we would be bored without a cause tweeted into our timelines to retweet and get on our high horse about for a few minutes… seconds…

But…

Failure! Not content with just naming a day the organisers (who seem to be Finnish) give you hints on failure: “Fail. How? Just fail. You’ll find your own personal way to do it.” Yes, like vagrancy perhaps? Because this cause of celebrating failure is one that is always trumpeted by the successful who seem to want to devote their lives to telling you that the secret of their success was their failure. I doubt it. I expect the secret of success is success. No amount of celebrating grit, determination, strength in adversity will convince me otherwise. Failure is miserable, it might be one step closer to success but it also might be one step closer to yet more failure and those who have failed most will not spend October 13th celebrating misery.

It is the successful who will be celebrating failure day with a patronising nod and wink to those in the gutter ‘Hey look at the stars!!!’ they might say… or ‘look at me!!!!’ ‘I’m a multimillionaire, but I once was a failure just like you! But I stuck with it and didn’t give up and NOW LOOK AT ME! AT ME!!!!”

And let’s have lots of quotes from successful people saying how they failed. If they truly failed how many demotivational quotes could we stomach?

Isn’t it ironic that this day has been put together by the Finns Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 14.17.26

and, in particular, Pasi Sahlberg? If Finland had been at the bottom of the international tables for all of time I wonder if Mr Sahlberg would have such attention? No, because success has driven his exposure.

Now, of course we can all come up with moments of failure and some moments of success but let us not fetishise one over the other, it’s all about being human and rather than one leading to the other we should treat those two imposters just the same.

So, please, no failure day and no, no success day neither…

The Madness of Lesson Observation Checklists

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Checklists can be useful and they can be a curse…

In a recent blogpost David Didau looks at how checklists can be useful and also about how there is life beyond them, here I want to question, in the context of lesson observations, whether they are useful at all.

Checklists can be useful for routine yes/no answers, the ‘To Do’ list is the classic example: you have either done that email, fed the cat, watered the plants and bought coffee at Tesco’s, or you haven’t. Where they can become problematic is when they are not being used for something that is so easily sorted into yes and no and lesson observations (should) fall into this category.

Of course some things can be ‘checked’: Did the teacher take the register, was she there on time? Were the children in the same classroom as her? Away from this obvious, ‘yes-noing’ the going should get a bit more difficult. If an argument was to be made that, no it is not difficult, the checklist is a good way of ensuring high standards, then I begin to worry.

There is a lovely line in Moby Dick where Ahab spouts: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad…” it is this that comes to mind when tick boxes begin to deliver madness in a seemingly sensible way. If a leadership team decides to design a lesson observation tick list then no matter how easy and sensible the bureaucratic task seems, by wishing to impose directly onto teachers such easily ticked objectives, the curriculum will suffer and an institutional madness will hold sway.

This week I read the following question in an online forum:

“I’ve got an observation from the head teacher… any ideas of how to tick all my ‘good lesson’ boxes in this type of lesson?”

Now this seems a perfectly good question to ask, especially as it is probably the questioner’s first observation and as it is being done by such a senior figure the NQT might be feeling the need for some support but notice the line how to tick all my ‘good lesson’ boxes, this should ring warning bells. All the advice received was well meaning and could appear to be useful but, I believe, the advice was indicative of where observations have begun to crush good teaching and good teachers:

Children should set their own targets; there should be peer and self assessment; assessment criteria should be shared at the start of the lesson; children should identify what they need to work on at the end; Mini plenary should be used; the teacher shouldn’t do too much; the more independent work the better; DIRT. GREEN (!) Feedback from last lesson; Green pen marking; all children should be engaged…

And it went on and on…

When senior leaders bring in policies from on high and expect to see them take place in a classroom they often arm themselves with a checklist and a clipboard and pen. They then visit classrooms, expect to see DIRT or whatever the latest corporate mindset has decided is a ‘good thing’. Staff are made aware that when an observation is to take place the teacher has to perform the corporate dance so that they may be ticked off, rather than ‘ticked off’ for not doing the waltz. But what folly, what madness! The most obvious lunacy is on display during the dreaded ‘learning walk’ where the ‘team’ have decided they want to see something ‘tickable’ in every classroom, in the five minutes they’re with you quickly ‘do’ what ever is necessary for a quiet life and get the green tick whether the current fad has any relevance to the lesson being taught or not.

When the classroom door is ‘closed’ and the clipboards are back in the cupboard the day to day teaching carries on and no-one is any the wiser as to what is going on. Like speeding between speed traps, the game is played but what really changes? Maybe with the drip, drip of checklist thinking it is possible that teachers begin to metamorphose into ‘tickable’ thinking and fill up the rest of their lessons with the check-listed, observable stuff. Might the checklist lesson end up being so full of little tricks that the actual teaching falls down the list of priorities? Might target setting, peer assessing, independent DIRT, green penury et al, all begin to worm their way into every lesson and become the first thing the teacher thinks about? This would be madness, the madness of tricky little techniques taking the place of content and wisdom.

There is a need to get away from the checklist approach and a move towards more long term planning, based on what is being taught, a link between content and delivery, a more thoughtful approach to curriculum design. Instead of clipboards and high stakes observations classrooms should be ‘open’ and colleagues should be regular visitors, supporting, helping and offering advice…

Leave the checklist in the office, next to the rubber plant and the Nescafé…

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Teaching to Enable Creativity

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How many edu crimes are committed in the name of creativity or, for that matter in a negative reaction to the idea of creativity? For some it is a word that conjures up all that is wrong with a progressive classroom and for others it sums up all that is missing from a traditional one. It is one of those words that can mean anything you want it to mean: group work = creativity, display work = creativity, teacher in role = creativity, open questions, classroom debate, non-uniform day, all at some time or other have been excused by the idea that they are creative. Pity the writer sat quietly at home on their own scratching a few words with a newly sharpened mind onto their computer screen.

Can you teach creativity? No. Can you teach in a way that enables pupils to practise their creativity? Yes. If we use the OED definition: ‘The use of imagination or original ideas to create something;’ then clearly, if we allow pupils to ‘create something’ from their ‘imagination’ or from some ‘original ideas’, which I expect means originating in somewhere akin to the imagination… then we are allowing the pupils to be creative. If imagination is: ‘The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses’ then use of it is a creative act in itself. Where on earth do we allow such things to happen at school?

Well, just about everywhere. If creativity is in the act of creation, then writing an essay is creative. The pupil starts with a blank sheet of paper and uses their imagination to create the essay. But, of course it is not as easy as that, because one needs constraints – a question to answer, an argument to make, a rhetorical structure to follow, a word count, an appreciation of an intended audience… With these constraints in place the creative act becomes more focused, more disciplined and, paradoxically, more creative, like watching improvisers playing with a theme, we can appreciate the skill in negotiating the imponderables, and delight in the connections, collisions, and the difficulties encountered by dealing with the constraints.

This is art. Just as the apprentice begins to paint at the behest of ‘the master artist’, learning the constraints imposed by the canvas and the colours, the style and the composition, and the ‘master’s’ instructions, at some point the apprentice finds their own style based somewhere between the acceptance and rejection of the tradition of the art and the spirit of their age.

Education consists of arts and disciplines.

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 4 April 636) wrote in his Etymologies:

Discipline and art (De disciplina et arte) 1. A discipline (disciplina) takes its name from ‘learning’ (discere), whence it can also be called ‘knowledge’ (scientia). Now ‘know’ (scire) is named from ‘learn’ (discere), because none of us knows unless we have learned. A discipline is so named in another way, because ‘the full thing is learned’ (discitur plena). 2. And an art (ars, gen. artis) is so called because it consists of strict (artus) precepts and rules. Others say this word is derived by the Greeks from the word 􏰃ret􏰄, that is, ‘virtue,’ as they termed knowledge. 3. Plato and Aristotle would speak of this distinction between an art and a discipline: an art consists of matters that can turn out in different ways, while a discipline is concerned with things that have only one possible outcome. Thus, when something is expounded with true arguments, it will be a discipline; when something merely resembling the truth and based on opinion is treated, it will have the name of an art.

If the teacher is teaching something which can only have one outcome, the teacher is teaching a discipline – this is what is right, is true, and the pupil needs to know this then this ‘knowledge’ needs to be learned. This is not creativity, it is, however, learning the discipline that they are being taught which is the root of any worthwhile creative act. If, however, the pupil is being encouraged to then move beyond the knowing, moving beyond the discipline of being the apprentice, and is being asked to produce work that might be different to other pupil’s work in that subject then they have moved from discipline to art. This is where they begin to use their creativity.

The trivium is an ‘art’ in itself, it is the base of the liberal arts and it is open ended:

You start with knowledge, rules and precepts, ‘the grammar’; you then develop your own logical understanding and thinking, and can then move to exploring ideas in collusion, collaboration, or conflict with the knowledge you are exploring and practice your art – dialectic. Finally you learn to express your ideas in a variety of ways – where ‘rhetoric’ comes into play.

Creativity begins with the constraints of a discipline but ends up with something different to the work of others. If the essays your pupils write are all identical then you’re not teaching to enable creativity. The likelihood is, however, that the work of your pupils will be different in someway, some will be wrong, some will be a disaster, some will be okay and some will be brilliant but all will be creative and you will be teaching to enable creativity. You will be teaching your subject not as a discipline but as an art. So don’t get hung up about it. Teaching creativity is something most teachers do for some or, indeed, most of their time.