Monthly Archives: November 2015

A Classroom Should not be a Safe Space

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Should a classroom be a safe space?

Let’s unpick that a bit, should it be a space in which mortal danger can occur? Should it be a space from which a child is lucky to get out alive? If we take it to mean this then yes, a classroom should be a safe space, but should the classroom be a space in which ideas are not allowed to be voiced, or certain ‘trigger’ words are banned?  That some students have got to University and are so openly able to be traumatised by certain texts and behaviours that mean lecturers and other students, speakers at debates including well known figures, like Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, face calls to be banned from speaking at some campuses is an extraordinary sign of our times. Democracy is on the back foot, instead of  the common people conversing and arguing with each other, we have returned to an aristocracy, but this time the nobility are self appointed purveyors of more noble thoughts than the rest. Instead of being ‘the best born’ our new aristocrats are those with the ‘best thoughts’, they are able to close down the thoughts and uttering of the rag tag demos with their edicts from their moral high ground.

Where does some of this behaviour come from? Where do people begin to believe they have the right to rise above others? It might be from home, that was how the old aristocracy worked: ‘you have blue blood, my son, you are born to rule’ but the new aristos are self-appointed, they are not born, they are made, and one of the places that forges the new aristocracy is the school classroom. For where do these thought deniers get their prejudice and wholesale belief that they are the chosen ones but in a space that validates that view?

Any teacher who has faced the ignominy of being ‘interviewed’ by a panel of fourteen year olds understands that pupil power is taken very seriously by some schools. An adult, often a parent, sometimes in a stressful time of their life, wanting a job, finds themselves having to answer questions from pupils who represent the voice of the student body. An interview, which is more and more being exposed as a flawed way to judge a candidate, is a shop window for a statement about the school… what children say here, matters. But, of course, it doesn’t really. If student voice really mattered then our schools would be full of teachers appointed by students against the wishes of the adult interview panel. Some Headteachers would be subject to disciplinary procedures if Student voice was taken seriously, it’s window dressing, a sop, but it is part of the idea that what students say matters, as long as what they say doesn’t rock the boat.

For at the same time as student voice, classrooms have become places that tell children off for not saying the right things. Children are encouraged to express their views and their feelings about all sorts of things and, as long as these views and feelings are ‘correct’ they are taken seriously and validated and/or patronised. Emojis are employed for children to tick: ‘did you enjoy class today’? Classroom discussions elicit answers: do you feel  Hitler was a naughty boy? Imagine the response that a teacher would give to a child who argued that Hitler was right? What about the racist child? The homophobe? All are asked their views but some are immediately silenced: ‘You can’t say that,’ ‘You can’t use those words,’ This is ersatz free speech and children are given the impression that they have to say, in class, things that ensure they sound like they are thinking the ‘right’ things. This is not teaching, it is the use of authority to oppress people in the doublethink world of giving them a voice.

Children should not be asked for their opinions in class. Well, not until they have really thought things through. A classroom should not be a ‘safe space’ it should be a space in which children have their thoughts challenged, not by telling them what they can think but by exposing them to the thoughts of others. The best that has been thought and said, is often contradicted by other thoughts and saids that could also be described as the best. Classrooms should be places where children learn about the dialogues and arguments of the past and by engaging with these texts they will have their minds educated in such a way as to begin to be able to understand even the most obnoxious viewpoints and the arguments against them.

Most dialectical points are not necessarily between extremes, most are neither obviously right against obviously wrong and here, the complexity of arguments and thought is exposed and understanding enhanced. Instead of trying to take the moral high ground a pupil is placed in a position where they begin to see that complex differences between people are not solved by shutting down debate but through careful negotiation and dialogue and that, even then, positions can remain intractable. Texts can be juxtaposed to emphasise these arguments but also single texts which contain great arguments at their core can be chosen. Every child should have the opportunity to pick apart a great debate at the centre of a great novel or play. To be exposed at an early age to the great piece of theatre that is Antigone can only be a good thing. To realise that the implacably opposed Antigone and Creon can be both at the same time right and wrong could open their minds to empathising whilst disagreeing. Pupils should be taught to be disputatious, to love heated argument and debate. They should be taught to listen to other views, no matter how much they disagree with them, they should be taught to listen respectfully whilst searching their mind for good arguments to oppose whilst reserving the right to change their minds. Teachers should know how to conduct proper class debates where a knowledge base is used to argue from, Socratic circles can help here as they demand that references to texts are central to the argument.

A child who is protected from persuasive dangerous views is given no thoughtful weapons against these views because they are crouched in a safe space that leaves them exposed to a life where argument is not broached. A space which allows no debate can leave a child bereft when they come across someone who is bent on exploiting them in some sinister way or other. A safe space is, paradoxically, a dangerous one.

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The Leaders, The Hydra and Managerialism

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“Princes should devolve on others those matters that entail responsibility, and reserve to themselves those that relate to grace and favour.”

― Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

It is useful to surround oneself with people to do thy bidding, especially if the bidding be somewhat awkward or controversial. Sometimes, jobs are awarded to staff for very good reasons, because they need a challenge, or their career needs a boost, but whatever the reasoning behind an appointment the more leaders in a school the more difficult it might be to fully realise a clarity of purpose. A hierarchical structure around a supreme and unimpeachable leader can be away of protecting the throne and like the multi headed hydra it can be a formidable force, keeping the underlings busy. Sometimes it can be the reason for good management and sometimes it can sew the seeds of a school’s march into mediocrity. A Hydra has unity of purpose, each head is attached to the same body, but too many heads of whatever in a school the more the likelihood that a unity of purpose will be lost.

Here’s what can happen: appoint a leader, ask them to manage others, give them performance management targets for the year, measure their success, ask them to justify their wage by introducing initiatives which form the basis of their performance management targets for the next year, ask them to gather data through which they measure their success, applaud them publicly or give them enough rope to hang themselves, they justify their  successes and excuse their failures… and managerialism takes over the school.

The more people appointed to leadership roles, the more they are asked to justify their position through initiatives and accrue data, the more that those at the chalk face will have to do. Pulled this way and that, by initiatives that might contradict other initiatives, compiling data all calmly broken down by gender, race, and target grade, the front line teacher is but a tool to justify partial gains, from very little information.

If a school has too many middle leaders all competing with each other for gold stars from the central office, a culture of back biting and resentment can grow. Each leader finds themselves a leader to the other leaders and also finds that the other leaders are, in turn, leading them. For every bit of data they collect, a bit of statistical spin here and there, they can show what a dreadful job someone is doing and how good someone else is doing. Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. As Niccolò Machiavelli put it in The Prince: “For whoever believes that great advancement and new benefits make men forget old injuries is mistaken.” As some climb up the pole others slide down, or remain stalled, ‘having found their level’.  Old scores will be settled, and the politics of the staff room takes over from the teaching of children.

For this reason and in these days of austere budgeting, how many leaders are needed? The plethora of Teaching and Learning positions that began a few years ago are at the root of the problem. Should senior leaders hesitate before they award members of staff a position which carries little weight but might need a lot of data?  Directors of Progress, Heads of Innovation, Assistant Heads of Data, Leaders of Achievement, Assistant Heads of Ethos, Vice Principals for Dealing With Underperformance, Heads of Creativity, Leaders of Leadership Development, Heads of Quality Assurance, all could be vying with each other to be noticed, or all could be introducing initiatives to justify their salaries.  A major problem with performance management is that it can be an annual invitation to introduce even more initiatives: initiativitis is a well known institutional disease.

Questions to ask: instead of creating a climate of managerialism by awarding lots of middle leading jobs, is a flatter management structure better? Are the jobs we say that we want doing all necessary? Can we have a few years embedding what we do well and abandoning all the initiatives that make us too busy for little purpose? What are our core messages and how are these strengthened through our staffing and our core policies? Instead of up to three performance targets per leader per year, how about just one for the whole school? Whatever the reasoning, the more middle leaders a school has, the more likely that different messages will abound. A good headteacher leads with a clear purpose and inspires confidence in her staff, pupils and parents. Good teams can be organised through curriculum, pastoral and administrative structures, which has always been at the core of good organisational structure in schools, any role beyond this, should be thought about very carefully before it is introduced. Teaching and Learning roles must enhance the core purpose of the school and not detract from it and not be so numerous as to completely detract from what good initiatives there are.

Gimmicks: A Thousand Techniques Bloom

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Hey Jimmy, gimme the gimmix
Another day – another fad:

John Cooper Clarke

How many gimmicks can one teacher get through? The short termism of ‘fill the lesson with gimmicks’ approach does untold harm to teaching and learning. That books and websites extol the virtues of little techniques you can use last minute for ‘starters’, for ‘plenaries’, and for that, ‘long dull bit in-between starter and plenary,’ should worry all who value thoughtful teaching.

The danger is not in some of the techniques per se, but lies in the fact that the short term gimmicks might be all or most of what there is. Why search for gimmick upon gimmick to get through a lesson with no thought to the overall need to teach something and for pupils to learn something? If a teacher doesn’t have a view as to how the whole of the course she is teaching unfolds over the years then she is more likely to seek out gimmicks, instead of every minute being precious, every minute is filled with activities. Instead of the gentle unfolding of interesting and/or difficult concepts, ideas, facts and skills, the lesson is about pace, engagement and getting through. Quick, grab a Bingo game! A last minute group game! A sponge ball to chuck at kids so that they have to answer a question in the plenary game!

The three part lesson adds to the problem, I mean what is a starter? In drama I would begin lessons with pupils standing still with their eyes closed, feet shoulder width apart, shoulders straight, heads straight… This was a starter ‘inactivity’ I suppose, but it served a purpose: focus, and I used the same beginning for nearly every lesson. Rather than a gimmicky starter, I would ‘begin at the beginning’ in a ritualised manner. I wasn’t desperately searching for a starter activity five minutes before I went into the classroom.

The queue at the photocopier is telling, does the queue consist of teachers holding meticulously sought out material that will aid understanding of the topic in hand, or are they clutching a word search that they needed five minutes ago? Do the teaching library shelves contain well thumbed copies of Teaching Gimmick books hastily read whilst spilling coffee and thinking about how to get through that lesson with 9Q last thing on Friday? Or is the staff room full of teachers talking about and sharing material to teach, about the content of the course, adding depth or breadth to what is being studied. Thinking about content might be last minute, it might be discovered during a lesson as the teacher gets further insight into the material being studied, this intellectual process is not aided by inane activities. A staff room full of teachers laughing, discussing, thinking, talking about other things than teaching too is undoubtedly healthy, though shouldn’t be forced by gimmicky happiness or mindfulness initiatives.

Gimmicks detract from teaching and learning and we let these thousand techniques bloom at our peril, for they stand in the way of a thought through pedagogical process. The thousand pacy ‘fun’ distractions that are being used in a classroom near you end up in with pupils looking for short term entertainment rather than the deeper joy to be found in getting to grips with a subject.

If you’re into gimmicks drop them now and get a grip.

 

When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.  Isaiah Berlin
Yesterday I read a post by @teachertoolkit about a measure he employs in his school called ‘book look’. In his blog he wrote that the measure was to check on: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” As my main teaching subject is a practical one I thought I would ask the perfectly reasonable question:

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My thought being that in subjects where much of the feedback, teacher, self and peer assessment is done verbally that instead of demanding those subjects should do unnecessary written work to fit in with the book look system, that the system might bend in a way to recognise the richness of this type of assessment.

Strangely, before I was able to receive an answer, this happened:

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This was an odd diversion. Clearly Paul, who is an Ofsted inspector, had been into Teacher Toolkit’s school and had seen the ‘book look’ in practice, he implies here that he likes it. He also makes a leap from my tweet to imply that I meant practical subjects don’t mark. No matter, I had a right of reply:

 

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And I expected it to be left there, after all, I was asking a question to which I hadn’t received an answer. My ulterior motive is to avoid subjects with a large practical component having to write everything down – where currently they are more effective by not having to log everything.

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Now Paul has begun to question my understanding of ‘practical subjects’ – I have taught drama for twenty-five years, so this certainly ‘bristled’ with me. All I can think is that Paul is deliberately misunderstanding me because I’m asking about the practical component of practical subjects.

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I know they all do written work. I am waiting for an answer from Mr. Toolkit about how they approach practical subjects, in other words do they want ‘everything’ logged in written form?

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This is where things went mad and we went into meltdown. I had spent the day leading a course on the new exam specs for drama so Paul’s comment that I need to look at the exam specs was particularly hilarious.

The meltdown:

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From this point the whole discussion went even further down hill, it is on twitter for those you who wish to see a spat about ‘you said this’, ‘you said that’.

There is something far more important going on here, the original book look idea is a bureaucrat’s dream but it falls apart when faced with practical subjects. Either it means that subjects with a sizeable practical  component will be asked to do more, unnecessary, writing or the system that has been brought in will miss the feedback given verbally and understood physically in, say, drama and PE.  Will this result in teachers at the school putting too much emphasis on written feedback and ignoring the richness of other ways of teaching and assessing?

Paul Garvey clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about and the best I can think of him is that he misunderstood the nuance of my question. He seems to have a huge vested interest in ‘book look’. As a consultant he had visited Teacher Toolkit’s school and, as mentioned above:

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has given ‘book look’ his blessing. As an Ofsted inspector his word carries power, I can see many schools jumping on the book look book check and adapting it for use in their schools. This would be a disaster for practical subjects and, I would venture, for all subjects. Read this excellent blog from Greg Ashman where he examines the thinking behind ‘book look’.

Since I pointed out the problem with practical subjects Teacher Toolkit has removed the bit of the blog where he wrote about checking: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” maybe because it doesn’t work for a large part of the feedback that is done in practical subjects. However, the tool doesn’t cover practical elements.

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The ‘yellow box’ areas don’t help for practical work – how could a ‘diagnosis’ of books pick up the improvement in a girl’s ball skills in football or a boy’s vocal quality in drama unless it is written down? The point is the writing down of these things interrupts the teaching of these things in the subject, slows them down,  and, in all likelihood, lowers the standards of teaching and learning in the practical element of practical subjects. By writing about your practical work, you cease to truly understand it. It would be like teaching a child to walk by insisting she wrote all the stages down, set targets etc. when, in real life, the understanding of how to do these things is quite mysterious to us. Each child is different, they respond, in practical work, to coaching in real time, not to stopping and starting and writing about it.

That this check seems to expect teachers to spend a lot of time giving written feedback, and what is assessed will be what is done, I think the above book checking tool will mean that staff will have to spend more and more effort and time with written work and feedback and reduce the time and the quality of verbal feedback. This excellent blog by Andy Day reflects on how these checks distort education. What a pity  to put all the effort into written feedback especially if verbal feedback is a far more effective method of raising standards.

Ideas nurtured in the stillness of a senior leader’s study could destroy the quality of education in a school. Unnecessary writing of targets etc. is the bane of practical work please stop it happening in schools just so that a leadership team needing something to do can check it and Ofsted inspectors needing to justify their consulting business sidelines can tweet about it. Hopefully the book look tool will ignore practical work and, maybe, ignore books.

 

Keep Taking the Happy Pills

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Dr. Happy is in School massaging the Headteacher’s ego. The new happiness initiative has resulted in all staff being 13.33% happier than they were before Dr. Happy had come to work with the school. The happyometer ‘nipple effect’ had made them all laugh on the first day, though to many it seemed a sinister development. “You must not wait to be happy at the weekend!” said the Doctor, “You must be happy at work because work is happiness!” The first thing Dr Happy introduced was a demand that all had to smile at anyone who came within two metres of their personage, this was tested by attaching large hoops to tall top hats that members of staff were required to wear on their heads, when people came into ‘your loop’ you had to flash a Gordon Brown smile at them. Wide corridors instantly became happy places, whilst dismal narrow and dark corridors were full of miserable staff running away from Dr. Happy.

Monday morning was the biggest challenge. The Head teacher had to acquire a sickly rictus grin and seemingly the best way to ensure this happened was either by chemical inducements or massage. The Head preferred the human touch. This massage showed 16 percent improvement in the Head teacher’s capacity to grin and bear it and this transformed the staff, most of whom were behind the bike sheds giggling on their first joint of the week.

Some of the other members of staff had promised never to smile until Christmas and the one who said he would never be happy until he left this effing place had dropped dead at his retirement do.

Every member of staff had to write down ten things they appreciated about working at the school, those who couldn’t write ten were made redundant. This ensured the happiness quotient was high with those that remained.

As he left with cheque in hand, Dr Happy’s last words to the school were: “Teachers are hugely stressed, especially in rubbish state schools, we are constantly amazed at how worn out they are by the constant pressure of having to be happy. Positive psychology is about being your best happy clappy chappy and chappessy… let’s all laugh!” At this point a chorus of HA HA HAs was demanded from all staff and a conga formed behind Dr Happy… “Keep taking the happy pills!” he shouted as he was pushed into the river…

The Conga had turned nasty and, paradoxically, the staff seemed happier.

The above is based on this article from the Telegraph

 

Creativity, Education and Punk

The greatest punk manifesto:

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This image was from the fanzine ‘Sideburns’, though in common memory it is usually remembered as being associated with Sniffin’ Glue but it wasn’t that fanzine wot done it. Punk a reaction against the skilled overblown prog rock of the early to mid seventies was an attack on ability and artistry, it was a sonic and visual kick in the groin for the hi fi geeks listening to their ELP whilst smoking a joint and sitting on bean bags. Mark P begins his editorial in the first edition of Sniffin’ Glue like this:

The Ramones were in London this month and to realy [sic] get into the fact we’ve put this little mag/newsletter together. It’s a bit amateur at the moment but it is the first go isn’t it, I mean we can’t all be Nick Kents over night can we.

This was the ethos. Just do it. It’s this excitement that the best free schools seem to have – a kick back against the big prog establishments – and it’s why I like them. They get on with it, and find their way. They are creative institutions. They don’t wait for education experts, they won’t go knocking at the door of the edu equivalents of Roger Waters or Rick Wakeman to ask them what to do and how to do it, they’re going to do it their way and do it now. Here are three likeminded people, none of ’em are Nick Kents – now form a school.

Yesterday, I was fortunate to attend an excellent day of debates at Michaela Community School. Each debate got me thinking as each one covered critical ground. It was the one between Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodolou that got me thinking about the theme of this blog, how much knowledge does one need before one can be creative?  When is one ready ‘to do’? Clearly after three chords it would be impossible to form Genesis but it might be possible to form a band. Will the band get better, will they live long in our collective memory, will they produce work of quality, will they last in the competitive world of the pop business? Will they be better than Genesis?

How much do you need to know before you can begin to learn to do? In my book, Trivium 21c, this becomes a crucial question, I interviewed Ferdinand Mount about it and he said that although children need to learn how to think and argue that this should not be something that occurs before the age of 16. He went on to say:

The golden years of maximum brain activity should be spent in absorbing, in reading and listening to every conceivable source of knowledge. And rote learning, in all its forms, is an essential discipline in acquiring intellectual muscle. [p.184]

When should a child, in a school, begin to think, argue, test out, and/or refine their work? At what point do we move from the absorption of knowledge to the questioning of it? At what point do we know enough in order to *be* creative? Is this subject specific? Is this down to the individual teacher? Should this be enshrined in a curriculum? Is there a difference between practical and more traditionally ‘academic’ subjects in how teachers might approach the now or never or later of getting pupils to be creative?

Is it better to learn to be a teacher by studying the theory for a few years or by stepping into the classroom as soon as is possible? “Here are three ideas about how to teach – become a teacher…”  Or are the years spent absorbing the subject a good enough grounding in order for you to be an expert from day one?

I don’t think any of the answers to these questions are easy but if you believe that creativity is an important outcome of schooling then what you do might influence how creative your students might end up in your subject. If a music teacher just teaches her pupils to read music and play all the notes in the right order then her charges might be good musicians but should she teach them how to create, should she teach her pupils how to compose music and, if so, when? If she leaves it until they are sixteen is it too late? It certainly is too late for those who gave up her subject at the end of year nine…

What of those who know next to nothing, can they be truly creative with only three chords at their disposal? I would say they can be, they might be able to make a blistering song or two but their oeuvre might be somewhat limited after a time. Even the Ramones used more than three chords.

But Genesis were always dreadful.

The Fear of God

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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 1:7

An interesting piece in the TES Why teachers should embrace the idea of instilling fear in their students took me back to my school days in the sixties and seventies. The article states that: ‘Teachers no longer throw board rubbers at poorly behaved students…’ and though this might be due to the ubiquity of the Interactive White Board, it was hardly ever the teachers who instilled ‘fear’ in us that carried out this kind of trench warfare. I have been in classrooms as a kid where chalk was regularly thrown by the teacher, where a board rubber was aimed and launched, I even recall a chair being hurled by a teacher at a recalcitrant teenager and a teacher exchanging blows with a third year student. Yet these weren’t the teachers we were in ‘fear’ of, the one we truly feared was a woman who never shouted, never threw anything, but managed to chill us with her steely presence. When she click clicked her storm troop stilettoed way down the corridors of the school all the no good boyos and girlos would shout ‘watch out it’s Sylvie’ and desist from whatever no goodness they were indulging in (probably torturing a first year). I joined in shouting the warnings too – none of us ‘liked’ her, she was the enemy – but I was lucky to have her as my history teacher for the one year before we chose our O level options and I can only wish she had continued to teach me. Her classroom was a sea of calm in the chaos that surrounded her. For all the efforts of the lazy violence of the other teachers hers was an altogether different method. Had Margaret Thatcher reached her zenith at this time rather than just snatched a bit of milk I think we would have compared her to the lady who was not for turning. Maybe some of my ex colleagues at school saw her differently but whilst I was slippered, hit with a ruler, shouted at and humiliated, she never resorted to these punishments. She didn’t have to and, I expect, neither did they but the school was like the wild west.

High expectations, what the article in the TES is really about, would have sufficed. Instead of breeding simmering resentment, strictness is an important part of a school. If you want other words, if the word ‘strict’ is too confrontational nowadays, how about: ‘having routines and rituals that are expected to be followed by all and if they aren’t then consequences lie ahead, and if they are followed classes run smoothly’? Kids appreciate it when things are calm, where no-one is losing their head trying to instil the fear of God.

Funnily enough I bumped into an ex-pupil the other day, let’s call him Terry, for that is his name. He said I had taught him a lesson that has stayed with him throughout his life and that was ‘Not to lie in order to try and get away with not doing something.’ It seems he was due to hand in an essay but he said he had left it at home, to which I replied, ‘Not to worry, let me drive you to your house so that you can pick it up.’ I am sure that these days you wouldn’t be allowed to do this but I contacted my line manager and was given the go ahead; we got into my car and I proceeded to drive to Terry’s house. As we got closer Terry asked that I stop the car, “Sir,” he said, “I haven’t done my essay, sorry.” I drove him back to school and told him I wanted it first thing the next day. Sure enough, it was handed in and from that time he made a point of ensuring his work was always in on time and so did the others.

Perhaps if I’d just relied on a detention it would have had the same effect, I don’t know, but as I was a new teacher I had to establish my expectations. I knew I was being lied to and I wanted to break through that – I think I thought Terry would have admitted his lie sooner. I felt the need to be a teacher with high expectations of behaviour and this meant ensuring all in the class had the same expectation as their teacher; the trick is to try to ensure this expectation isn’t tested too often and your reputation proceeds you, rather than it being a constant struggle to impose. ‘Sylvie’ had this, but it’s an act, and it’s hard work to keep it up but you have to, you have to believe in your own myth making.

This is not the same as: Fear ye not me? saith the Lord: will ye not tremble at my presence? (Jeremiah 5:22) No teacher can carry on like the old testament God because they do not have seven plagues to inflict on their class. In ‘classroom war’ they are many, ye are few, which always means they can win. Have high expectations, good routines and a steely determination to see things through. But schools need systems and routines on which all can rely or else we are left with teachers trying to play God in their classrooms and, while it works for some, most of us are merely human and therefore rely on the institution to provide, if not seven plagues, then at least some good routines and support, especially in times of need.

The Importance of a Joined Up Curriculum

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I often use the following example to illustrate the need for curriculum coherence: a primary school that had no handwriting policy. In this school children went from their Polish reception teacher who introduced them to cursive writing, to an English NQT in year one, who didn’t think it mattered, to a Spanish year three teacher who thought it did matter but taught it in the way that was different to the way the Polish teacher taught it. The Polish teacher had been taught cursive writing at her school differently to the way the Spanish teacher had in hers. Had the English teacher been taught it at all at her school? Even if you look to teach a style to ‘suit the child’, some sort of agreement and continuity would seem to be essential. The overall effect on the children was that there was no continuity in the way that they should approach writing, the curriculum was not joined up.

This was an object lesson for me. In a discussion in another school we were talking about definitions, in the English department it seemed some of the explanations as to what things were such as to what would constitute a sentence, a paragraph etc. were different depending on the teacher. Not only were the definitions different, elements of the definitions contradicted other teachers’ explanations. Members of the science department explained that, although they might agree on definitions, what they told the children was deliberately different depending on which year they were in, e.g. the explanation of the ‘atom’ went through three different stages: key stage three was dismissed when the kids began GCSE and the GCSE explanation was dismissed by the time the pupils began studying for their A level. Maybe, how the atom is explained at different stages could be improved they thought. That my daughter was taught about climate change before she had any understanding as to what climate was baffles me and her when faced with the question ‘what does climate mean?’ If the curriculum relies on chance, on ‘not giving the whole picture’ until later or at least referring to other explanations or ideas then pupils might have a problem remembering which explanation or method they are meant to be using at any given time, especially if they ‘were away that week’.

Joined up curriculum thinking would seem to me to be important. When I work with schools on the trivium this is often the point at which we start, mapping a coherent curriculum throughout a child’s schooling and ensuring all teachers are ‘singing from the same hymn sheet.’ The opposite point of view to this would be one where teachers turn up with no overall schema for their thinking. This is the culture that pins overall importance to individual lesson plans, one in which teachers are looking for tricks to get through lessons. I go as far to say that an emphasis on lesson planning hinders curriculum delivery as does looking for a hundred and one pedagogical tricks. A word-search task should only be used if it can be proved to be part of a bigger picture, not because it fills up a dreary Friday afternoon lesson in February. A culture in which whatever is in the stock cupboard will do for that day, is not one in which pupils will find it easy to make sense of what they are being taught. Having to relearn crucial things every year or so must take it out of them. Curriculum planning needs coherence.

Since 1872 Harvard College has had an agreed programme for writing and it is the one academic experience required of every one of their students. The ‘Harvard’ style is well known; what are the agreed methods in your department or school and how ‘well known’ are they to your teachers, parents and pupils? How much easier would teacher’s jobs be if they weren’t forever trying to reinvent a wheel? How much easier would it be for new staff beginning at the school if they knew what children should know and when, and what this really means they should know, because all staff have reached agreement about their explanations. A joined up curriculum, ‘this is the way we do things here’; agreed and regularly reviewed could have a huge impact on teaching and learning within any school that has never addressed it in detail.

Educate for Freedom

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Education discourse has become focused on the need to get children a good career with high earning potential and the creation of great character in a meritocratic society but education is for none of these things. A good education might create the possibility for some that these things might follow on but make them your aim and you will fail, and also you will fail to educate. Education in the Western tradition is tied to the idea of freedom, it must embrace the possibility that children will end up with a disastrous career, low earnings, bad character and the rich might remain rich or killed by anarchists. It is not for teachers to brainwash their pupils so that they will forever be in their thrall, it is for teachers to pass on the tradition into which children can grow in order to be free of their teaching, to accept it or reject it, or, more likely, a bit of both.

Tim Oates said, as reported in the TES, that: “The notion that kids should be ‘work ready’ from school, and the constant champing of the CBI of this absurd proposition really needs to be attacked by all of us.” This is wonderful to hear. School leavers should not be like oven ready fat birds for Christmas, ready to sacrifice their possibility of living a good life by sticking their head in some employer’s gas oven and sitting their arses on a baking tray surrounded by the trimmings of office life. School shouldn’t stuff children’s nether regions full of the need to be a good team worker, a curious collaborative creator adept at nonsensical twenty-first century skills. Who cares what Volkswagen, Amazon, and Bernard Matthews want from school leavers, school is there for the human being not the disposable human functionary that employers want to gobble up.

In his book ‘Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won’t Teach You’, William Deresiewicz writes that education has come to be seen as “not far from game theory, an algorithm to be cracked in order to get to the next level.” And it is this idea that is far too prevalent in our system. Education like that is only about the next level, it is never about the now or the past, yet without the past or the present it has no intrinsic value. Early years ain’t about being primary ready, primary ain’t about being secondary ready, secondary ain’t about being job or university ready, neither is university about being job ready and a job ain’t about being retirement ready and retirement ain’t about being death ready! Do all that and you’ve forgotten to live! You might’ve got a high score folks but it’s GAME OVER!

This is why you educate for its own sake. By bringing the best of the past into conversation with people in the present you have a chance of building up the principles that should endure in the future: the freedom to know, to think, play, love, work, create or even the freedom to not do these things. An education that doesn’t do this, which has a closed end point in mind is one that is paranoid, it closes down freedoms, it restricts what you study or how you study to centralised diktats determining what the future demands, it closes down texts and it denies a voice to people who dare to contradict the utopian world where everyone has been taught to think in the same way. Can you imagine a world like that, where in schools and universities debate is restricted and incorrect texts that might trigger incorrect thoughts are banned? Next, books will be burned and people will be told what to say and how to say it.

The only restriction on education for its own sake should be that its own sake is freedom, for that is its raison d’être.

Nicky Morgan and the EBACC OUTRAGE!

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Nicky Morgan said in her recent speech to Policy Exchange that:

I think every child should study maths, English, history or geography, a language and the sciences up until the age of 16 – Not because I think these subjects are the only ones that matter – I can see the masses poised behind their keyboards waiting to be outraged by the mere suggestion I might believe this to be the case…because these subjects are the academic core, the foundations of a good education that ultimately will keep options open for young people’s future.

I was in the audience and stood down from tweeting or blogging about this, I did not want to be accused of being poised by my keyboard waiting to be outraged…

I mean, why should I be outraged? What could possibly have outraged me? I want my daughter to have a good academic education… I have nothing to be outraged about.

Morgan protests that some people think she may be anti arts and she often comments about how important the arts are but then she goes and gets a headline like this in the Telegraph: “pupils ‘held back’ by overemphasis on arts

She is reported to have said:

If you didn’t know what you wanted to do… then the arts and the humanities were what you chose because they were useful, we were told, for all kinds of jobs… We now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. That the subjects to keep young people’s options open are STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths… Because the skills gained from studying these subjects will come in useful in almost any job you care to mention; from the creative and beauty industries to architecture.

The intended message might not be that STEM subjects are the only ones that matter but, the more you hear this kind of rhetoric from the Secretary of State the impression might be made that she believes that science, technology, engineering and maths are the most important subjects.

Hang on, isn’t there a problem here? Let us look at these two statements, the one from her Policy Exchange speech and the other from last year at the launch of a campaign called ‘Your Life’. In the first one Morgan defends the Ebacc in the second she waxes lyrical about the importance of STEM. Only Science and Maths feature in both, ‘Technology’ and Engineering, among others, do not. If the subjects to keep a child’s options open are STEM then, surely, STEM should feature in the Ebacc? Computer science features which might ‘suffice’ as a technology option but only at the possible expense of another science. This means that the Ebacc trumpeted earlier this week as: “the foundations of a good education that ultimately will keep options open for young people’s future.” has been shown up by the same Nicky Morgan not to be. This Morgan says that “the foundations of a good education that ultimately will keep options open for young people’s future,” include technology and engineering and not the humanities.

By implication Morgan believes that the humanities being useful for the job market ‘couldn’t be further from the truth’ and therefore the inclusion of history as part of the Ebacc as ‘the foundations of a good education that ultimately will keep options open for young people’s future… couldn’t be further from the truth.’ (And as for Geography, well I’m reliably informed that it might be a science anyway…) With recent reports stating that entries for Design and Technology GCSE are down by 29% are our young people able to keep their options open or not?

This is an outrage!!! What is the Ebacc for? It expands children’s options in one breath and in the next breath it limits children’s options. This mess is due to the possible intention of ‘engineering’ for darker purposes than the means towards the pursuit of wisdom. If you want the foundations of a good education to be carved in the stone of an Ebacc then you would start from the premise of breadth, as a good education includes a wide range of pursuits, it includes sport, technology, engineering, voluntary work, the arts, the humanities. You would not start with the view of what an academic education from the starting point of the Government’s rather limited little list. With the intention of getting 90% of pupils to take the Ebacc what damage to young people’s futures might occur?

As the Ebacc clearly doesn’t include all the subjects that Morgan believes: ‘keep options open for young people’s future’ I think it is about time what constitutes the Ebacc is put under review.