Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Gatekeepers

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…the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try it in spite of my prohibition. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. I can’t endure even one glimpse of the third.

Don’t read this

The job of the gatekeeper is to stop you entering somewhere or to encourage you so to do. Blessed are the gatekeepers for they shall help you see the world whilst closing other bits off to you. They are self appointed or appointed by groups of other gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are prejudiced and subjective, they distort how the world is seen by forming ‘narratives’ but this is how it should be, for without them one wouldn’t be able to see the ‘wood for the trees’.

I dread going to art galleries, all that art! ~ picture upon pic, gallery upon gall, I soon get tired and mind-numbingly head ‘achily’ irritable. One day, in order to alleviate my exhibition pains, I decided to follow a gate-keeper who selected a few works and took us (a small group) through, told us stories, made connections and answered questions; she had selected a curriculum and told us about it. She was a teacher and we were a group of student novices, ready to be led. Her reductive approach, her selection, her biases all to the fore, allowed me to see more and understand more than I usually do when visiting such museums. What she showed was as significant as what she chose to ignore in a vast collection, itself selected by other gate keepers.

I suppose that now we live in the days of the algorithmic gatekeeper that spotifies your taste and knows you better than you know yourself, the art of the homemade music tape, selected with care, for a friend, is lost. If you still enjoy making selections, or lists, best of compilations, then you know what you leave out is difficult. The story you tell is about how the pieces you select ‘fit’ together, the order, the contrasts and the complementary qualities, a through line of thought holds the narrative together – maybe genre, style, type, geography, timeline etc. It says something about you and your tastes, as well as your idea as to what might be ‘good’ or ‘interesting’ for the person you are making it for. When the person listens to your ‘tape’ he does not think that this is all the music of the world, he does not expect it to be chosen to represent a bland no-thing selection free of biases, no, the very thing that interests him is your prejudicial selection and what it says about you and your impression of him: ‘why did you choose this?’ and ‘why did you not include this?’ becomes an interesting discussion, but more interesting is the stories that emerge from the selections themselves.

In his introduction to his book: ‘the Infinity of Lists’ Umberto Eco writes: “It… is in Homer that we find the celebration of a… descriptive model: the one ordered and inspired by the criteria of harmonious completion and closure represented by Achilles’ shield. In other words, already in Homer it seems that there is a swing between the poetics of “everything included” and a poetics of the “etcetera”.

The woman showing the selected paintings in the art gallery was showing an etcetera, she left a lot out, her job as the gatekeeper was prejudicial, subjective and thoughtful.

Ntokozo Qwabe, the Rhodes Scholar who co-founded the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign has reportedly said that Oxford University: “actively shapes the configuration of the Eurocentric curriculum which we study, furthers colonial epistemic injustices  and produces graduates with an unjustly skewed view of the world…” Should the gatekeepers of Oxford University not be ‘eurocentric’, should the colonial past be ignored, and should all institutions seek to not have a skewed view of the world? I think not. If I go to a Jazz Club, I would expect to hear Jazz-centric music, now I might complain about the type of Jazz but I would know that would fall on highly tuned ears; however if the whole evening descended into heavy metal or if every type of music were represented I might have a right to complain. That a curriculum formed in one of the bastions of european education is ‘euro-centric’ should not be a problem, what loss would occur to world culture if a curriculum in a Chinese institution was not ‘asian-centric’, an Islamic centre of learning was not interested in Averroes because studying him was too Islamic-centric (or not enough…) At times we are all ‘othered’ and, indeed, this is now, rightly, part of the story as peoples’ stories exist cheek by jowl but that doesn’t mean certain stories should no longer be told. Yes, we should look for new gatekeepers, yes they should open gates to new lists and collections but other gates don’t have to be slammed shut.

Western Civilisation is an ever changing story of associated works, that argue with, support and undermine each other. The stories ought to be told together, through various gatekeepers arguing with or arguing for, or bits of both, the western tradition. To dismiss the entire tradition as western centric and that therefore it should be dismantled would be a disaster. Just as local high streets, with local shops need protecting from homogenisation of global brands so do centric-curricula as they have unique stories to tell. A local curriculum, and a curriculum of nation, and continent, as well as an idea of what might be ‘universal’ values of humanity all have a place – a search for home, belonging; as well as reaching out into the world and longing…

The job of the gatekeeper is subjective, on different days and in different ways she can offer views of the world and works, ideas, thoughts, that inform us about what a view, views, lines of thought, make of the world and, indeed, beyond. A programme of study is a subjective work of art that does not ‘have’ to represent a balanced selection of works. It can make me angry!

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

The Shield of Achilles
W. H. Auden

That the gatekeeper might be affected by geography, by tradition, by categories that are under scrutiny does not mean she should be stopped, argue with her by all means but don’t be destructive and demand she stop her stories – instead set up alternative curricula, telling alternative stories and become a gatekeeper yourself.

…how is that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.

(Prologue and Epilogue from Kafka: Before the Law)

Scrooge and the Last Day of Term

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“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” so the song goes setting its own challenges for institutions to make it wonderful. Barry Cryer said of Morecambe and Wise that: “Every time they created a great Christmas show, they’d create stress for themselves.” It is this stress that seems part and parcel of Christmas for far too many people, whether it’s the stress to make Christmas the best ever and how to get the presents and food right, or the worry about how to celebrate it without ‘offending’ people of different or no faith – people can get into quite a tizzy. And families… families…

Schools become a microcosm of different attitudes, some teachers can’t wait to put on a Santa hat, a Rudolph tie, brandish mistletoe in the staffroom and knock back the sherry. Others, more Scrooge-like, see the whole thing as a problem, especially where discipline is concerned and as a teacher I waver between the two positions. Drama teaching affords the possibility of doing a Nativity and/or a Panto, which, for me are both excellent teaching opportunities where tradition stands at the forefront of the lessons. The same with a Christmas Lunch, Carol Service, and the giving of cards and gifts to friends and colleagues. The Christmas drink and/or party is a good thing too and should be enjoyed. In all these we have the opportunity to celebrate: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.[ay, should we say ‘all’ rather than ‘men’?]” with varying degrees depending on the event and people’s faith or lack of it. The spirit or spirits can warm you and God and/or music or art can give you a glimpse of more than the mere day to day, and Christmas should be an opportunity for selfless acts rather than be a celebration of yet another ‘selfie’. And to ‘heaven’ with offending people, Christmas is part and parcel of how we do things around here.

How a school treats this season shapes how children see it. Some kids are subjected to endless ‘videos’ in endless lessons, endless because they never see the end of the ‘video’ before the bell interrupts the narrative. They eat mince pie and chocolate and drink squash and juice until they are heartily sick of having ‘fun’ and this might have a purpose to party them into submission so that they are so bored of festivities that they can’t wait to get home, or it can have the other effect of whipping them up into a frenzy of excitement that can only be disappointed with the ensuing come down, whenever it might occur. This endless Christmassing can cause unnecessary stress for other teachers who have to pick up the pieces or are trying to teach content until the bleakest end.

Voluntary work, raising money, making gifts are all better than watching the first forty minutes or so of ‘Nativity V’ or something…

I think teachers should teach until the end of term. By all means wear a tie, or a hat, or that Christmas Jumper because it’s for Charity on the last day of term, but don’t party on because it’s your last lesson with them until the new year. If you must do something different a competitive end of term quiz based on the University Challenge format can be fun, or the performance of the Pantomime. Give out cards as they leave your class and wish them a happy Christmas, I also give them a short list of books they could ask for on their Christmas list (one or two must haves for reading around the subject). Then, when the last lesson before the holidays is reached, whether it is timetabled or a form period – this can be the time for goodbyes, happy Christmassing, exchanging presents with those in that particular group, maybe a mince pie or two and watching the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special from 1977. “BORING” they say, yes, but look at the comic acting, LEARN from the past say I, it will make you a better performer in the future…

Happy End of Term Christmas.

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The Death of Classroom Conversation

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“…It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

Dickens: Tale of two Cities

We live in an age in which those who have knowledge, the thinking goes, have power. Nations compete with nations to climb up the greasy PISA tables in the yah boo sucks gameplay of our kids are better than your kids! Information is available on computers, on phones and every classroom is bedecked with technology in the mistaken belief that it is the machine that will get our kids to succeed. It’s the zeitgeist: this is ‘the information age’, in which children need twenty-first century skills in order to survive! But for all our cumulative wisdom this is also an age of foolishness and our biggest folly is found in the technological distractions in our classrooms. As Nicholas Carr puts it in his book ‘The Shallows’ (p116) “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”

In “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” Michael Oakeshott wrote that: “As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors… of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.” The conversant classroom is central to a civilised education in which pupils begin to pursue wisdom through human relationships, a teacher unfolds ways of seeing the world by introducing pupils to knowledge, thought, questioning, argument, articulate conversation and practice. In her book ‘Reclaiming Conversation, the Power of Talk in a Digital Age’ Sherry Turkle writes that: “We face a flight from conversation that is also a flight from self-reflection, empathy and mentorship.” It is through our fetishising of technology that we threaten to ruin our pupils’ sense of self and sense of others that is at the heart of the pursuit of wisdom. The more we fill our classrooms with machines the central pivot around which all conversations permeate is lost. Instead of their conversation becoming extended and more articulate, young people converse in shorter, less articulate, fear filled, aphorisms and grunts.

We are told that the jobs that have yet to be invented will require multi tasking individuals who can adapt easily to whatever situation in which they find themselves but these mythic individuals are ones that will live entirely in the shallows. Multi-tasking is impossible, instead of doing one thing well, you end up doing two or more things badly. Brain-dying, the multi-tasker might be able to function as a servant of a well oiled machine and deliver burgers quickly, but as high functioning individuals or, indeed, team-workers they will forever be looking for their next instruction or target to get them up to the next level in the computer game shaped lives the machines envisage for them.

Instead of saving our youth from this fate, far too many schools sell the souls of their students so that they might cohabit with the tech devil. School students face innumerable interactive whiteboards, they stare at hand held devices, they moving quickly between one class and another where more screens face them, with ever more jazzier and faster imagery ‘pimped up’ to catch the attention of the kids’ tiring eyes. Pupils write and research with screens, their eyes flit between one link and another, and they never arrive at an in depth reading of anything. Sure, pupils can cut and paste, and look for superficial links, as long as wikipedia or an algorithm or two leads them that way. But they can’t concentrate.

Some teachers encourage this shallowness by filling their lessons with little tricks which perpetuate the idea that kids can’t concentrate. The teacher who adapts her teaching for ever shorter concentration spans is part of the problem. Instead of slow, attention building activities these teachers base their entire lesson on the mistaken belief that what is needed are more ‘engaging’ activities. “More pace!” And one task is hastily replaced by another. Worksheets, and display material add to this impression – all headlines, bullet points and no substance. Most destructively, instead of a conversational classroom, discussion is replaced by a quick fire collection of questions blurted out by a teacher, a randomly targeted child is chosen quickly followed by one after another in quick succession for their bullet pointed responses. And then, quick, a video is needed! – get onto that Interactive Whiteboard – no longer than six minutes mind!

After school, the kids go on their journey home, staring at phones and at home they stare at their screens with the light disturbing their every night into the darkest and earliest hours and into the darkest recesses of the online world. Severely tired when they are woken up to get to school, they stare at their phone whilst munching on a cereal bar or a piece of toast, disengaged from life for another day to stare at screens at a school that hopes technology might engage them.

How will any child learn in this environment? Yes they will get through a delivered curriculum, but they won’t understand much of it. Education takes time. It also takes boredom, that moment before sense is made. So strip your classrooms of all technological devices, yes, tear down those IWBs. By all means have a room with tech in it, technology has its place, but its place should not be ubiquitous! If you bring it into classrooms ensure that tech is the slave to the pupils and not the other way round.

Schools must offer something quite different, they should be almost spiritual places of study. Just as a place of prayer can offer sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of our increasingly fraught lives, so schools should offer something different. Instead of looking into the dead eye of the iPad, we should get pupils to look into each others’ living eyes, and listen to each others vibrant voices. Students and teachers should belong to a ‘conversant order’, worshipping the slow and steady pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment. We need to replace the age of distraction with the age of conversation and for this to occur teachers need to cease worshipping at the altar of technology.

Keep it Simple

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If you want to look for advice as to what some of the best practices in teaching and learning are you needn’t look far beyond the 16 Century. In fact much of what passes today as ‘cutting edge’ theory and practice was already old hat by the renaissance.

In ‘The Didascalicon’ Hugh of St Victor wrote much that echoes down the centuries, written in the 12 century it has much to commend it including an echo that should resound loud and that is about keeping things simple.

His aim for education: “Of all the things to be sought, the first is… Wisdom [which] illuminates man so that he may recognise himself…” harks back to the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “‘Know Thyself’, for surely if man had not forgotten his origin, he would recognize that everything subject to change is nothing…”

That the pursuit of wisdom follows us down the ages as the reason for teaching and learning should cause pause for all those who wish to try to come up with new fangled ideas as to what the purpose of education might be.

Hugh saw the trivium and quadrivium as the ways in which “a quick mind enters into the secret places of wisdom.” But he bemoaned how many: “Students of our day, whether from ignorance or from unwillingness, fail to hold to a fit method of study, and therefore we find many who study but few who are wise.” He is concerned for a logical order of study, that grammar, for example, should precede dialectic, that the ‘letter’ or ‘construction’ is followed by ‘the sense’ the “ready and obvious meaning” and finally the ‘inner meaning’ through which a “deeper understanding which can be found only through interpretation and commentary.”

His advice for teaching seems to be something that people looking into cognitive load theory might enjoy:

“Everything must be reduced to outline and presented for easy understanding – we should be content to set forth the matter in hand as briefly and as clearly as possible, lest by excessively piling up extraneous considerations we distract the student more than we instruct him. We must not say everything we can, lest we say with less effect such things as need saying… “

Hugh also highlights certain knowledge over other knowledges: “Do not strike into a lot of by-ways until you know the main roads: you will go along securely when you are not under fear of going astray.” Maybe threshold concepts were a thing for him, or powerful knowledge, or even cultural capital or literacy.

He was a stickler for memory and the important role it had to play in learning, saying that you should only rejoice if you can retain knowledge:

“We ought… in all we learn, to gather brief and dependable abstracts to be stored in the little chest of the memory, so that later on, when need arises, we can derive  everything else from them. These one must often turn over in mind and regurgitate from the stomach of one’s memory to taste them, lest by long inattention to them, they disappear. I charge you, then, my student not to rejoice a great deal because you have read many things, but because you have been able to retain them.”

The continual revisiting of knowledge, looking at gathering brief and dependable chunks of thought that can be used as a reservoir of knowledge on which one can build seems to echo in some of the ideas that our contemporary cognitive scientists recommend for teaching and learning nowadays.

Hugh also realised that learning is difficult and the student needs to have the right attitude when things get tough:

“And if some things, by chance rather obscure, have not allowed him to understand them, let him not at once break out in angry condemnation and think that nothing is good but what he himself can understand. This is the humility proper to a student’s discipline.”

And finally he looks to objectivity, the wisdom of the philosopher:

“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

 

The Great Leap Forward

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I think it is vital to discuss the purpose and quality of education, so you might think that I welcome the Commons Education Select Committee’s Inquiry as to what it might be… but I don’t. The worry is that they might reach a conclusion and it is here that the danger lies, for a committee deciding that either education is a utilitarian or utopian pursuit and that therefore targets should be set and some great five year plan set in motion is likely to cause untold harm to many. A Great Leap Forward is never what it seems, measures will be imposed, targets will be ticked and after the damage is done people will look back on the scene and point fingers. Mao looked back on the chaos caused by his Great Leap Forward declaring:

Comrades, you must all analyse your responsibility. If you have to shit, shit. If you have to fart, fart. You will feel much better for it.

That somewhere between twenty and forty-five million people were thought to have died as a result of the ‘Leap’ should remind everyone who has great visions that sometimes there are great costs. So too any grand scheme devised in a committee room, a bureaucratic compromise from which untold damage might be done to the education of millions of children. Imagine that the committee demand education be for the world of work and deem that everything should be pursued to this end and measured as to its success, or that everything should be to satisfy the nation’s international standing as measured by PISA, or some utopian vision as to making a better world. All these ideas might seem reasonable but are, actually, mad. Thirteen years of utilitarian education so that one might work in Tesco seems a drudgery that no true soul should bear. That a nation wants to compete with other nations and therefore demands sacrifices of its youth in order to rise up a dubious league table so that it can be top nation is a nation that is Maoist and anyone who freely serves this ideal will be asked one day to shit and fart at their leisure. As for making the world a better place, wouldn’t we all wish that this was what education was for? At first sight this seems ultimately reasonable but, like a parent who wants their child to become something they always wanted to become but never fulfilled their dream, things might fall apart when we deem a cultural revolution might be needed:

Both students and intellectuals should study hard. In addition to the study of their specialized subjects, they must make progress both ideologically and politically, which means that they should study Marxism, current events and politics. Not to have a correct political point of view is like having no soul.

On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People: Mao

The period of schooling should be shortened, education should be revolutionized, and the domination of our schools by bourgeois intellectuals should by no means be allowed to continue. – “The Whole Country Should Become a Great School of Mao Tse-tung’s Thought”  

Editorial, Renmin Ribao 1966

Politically ‘correct’ thought, getting rid of contradictions in the thoughts of the people and kicking out the bourgeois intellectuals from our schools in order to revolutionise education are ideas that might find a resonance in some of our contemporary discussions around utopian ideas for education. The dangers should be clear, the only way to have ideologically pure education is to purge schools of those who are not ideologically pure. Ousted by Ofsted, the ideologically impure bourgeois will have to be sent to thought camps to be rewired in the service of the ‘futurely’ correct.

The discussion set in place by the Ed Select Committee is welcome and an outcome is to be feared. Unless they can come up with something that, instead of shaping children in an image that we decide for them, allows children to shape the future for themselves. In that pursuit we can help by helping them learn what we think has been good and bad about our past and give them the wherewithal to join in with and continue that conversation, should they so wish. We should enthuse our children that the pursuit of wisdom is a welcome adventure and that the arrival at knowing it all is a deceit.