Monthly Archives: January 2016

What Books Should a School-kid Read?

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Have you read War and Peace?

In ‘Cultural Literacy’ E.D. Hirsch, Jr. wrote that: “To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” Thriving is a lovely word, would that we all could. We should quibble with Hirsch’s use of the word ‘basic’ and think about what more we could do to educate our children. “Knowledge is ‘powerful’ if it predicts, if it explains, if it enables people to envisage alternatives.” wrote Michael Young, this idea of being ‘powerful’: having knowledge to get things done, to be active, and, what’s more, to think about alternative scenarios, arguments and possibilities, added to Hirsch’s thriving would be a heady mix. Then we hear the refrain: ‘whose knowledge should this be?’ I would argue that it becomes yours through the act of making a sense of it, whether to reject it or accept it, or degrees thereof. That still leaves us bereft as to choice, what to choose? For Matthew Arnold culture was: “To know the best that has been said and thought in the world.” Why not? In schools we oughtn’t waste our pupils’ time by studying the second rate, the tacky and the ill thought through, so teach the best. Yes, this is subjective, and gloriously so!

Hirsch writes: “To reflect the cultural reality, we have listed literary terms… as words and phrases rather than as texts… people are likely to know the title of a work and just a few bits of associated information.” This means that to be ‘culturally literate’ a child or, indeed, an adult might be little more than a dilettante, they might know that War and Peace is by Tolstoy, is currently on the telly and is set in Russia, but they needn’t have read the text. This is okay, to an extent, breadth is important and a ‘way in’ to conversations with a wide range of people and works throughout a lifetime, but depth is also important. In order for someone to be truly culturally literate they need to know some works in real depth, and these works need to be ‘the best’ in order to be powerful. As Italo Calvino put it:

A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway. The fact remains that reading the classics seems to be at odds with our pace of life, which does not tolerate long stretches of time, or the space for humanist otium…

Classic or great books are, of course, contested terms but that will not concern me here. I am taking for granted that some books are better than others. I want to think of great books as ‘powerful’ because they enable, or enabled “people to think in new ways” and are undoubtedly belonging to “the best that has been said and thought”. Wouldn’t it be an interesting approach to curriculum design if, instead of starting from concepts and knowledge, one began with a list of great books? What books would you include? What would be behind your choice, the quality of the book, its cultural significance, or the qualities of the writer and how they relate to other writers on a politically correct spectrum looking for works based on sex, class, race, and sexuality? Would one ensure that works with which one might vehemently disagree or personally dislike are included due to their importance and vice versa?

What books should a child have read by the age of seven, by eleven, by fourteen, by sixteen and by eighteen? Do they get a chance to have read any of them in their entirety in your school? Have you ever carried out an audit of the books that are being read, regularly, in your school? Is the resultant list full of great books or second rate books or hardly any books at all? What is your ‘cultural entitlement’ when it comes to books? Are your kids being fed Walliams or Winnie the Pooh, or neither, or both?

For what purpose? This type of education, one founded on ‘great books’ is one of liberation. As Myf Warhurst said of Germaine Greer:

Germaine Greer… reminds us that education is liberation… there is something utterly glorious about watching someone who is truly liberated through knowledge in full flight…

Knowledge, made your own, is personally liberating, all the more so if you were to be taught dialectically, for every great book you read, another one could offer a rejoinder. Fielding’s Tom Jones might be good to read alongside Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (if either were to be considered ‘great’ enough). These conversations about ‘greatness’ and ‘contrast’ should be continual in schools around the country, what to include and why should be up for grabs every year and great arguments should be had and decisions made. Schools should know what books are being taught in their entirety and when, and which ones are merely referred to in passing. Parents should be given lists of books being taught and also wider reading lists of great books that they should be encouraging their children to read and, maybe, reading themselves.

The resultant curriculum is T shaped, there is the culturally literate ‘breadth’ but also the cure of dilettantism: some books and other artefacts are covered in depth.

From Aristotle to Zola, from Aphra Behn to Greer to Winterson, from Newton to Beard to Wollstonecraft to Galileo, from Darwin to the Qur’an, and then the other arts… Beethoven to Hepworth, who to include? Who to exclude? Subjects? Sports? What to include? What to exclude? For include and exclude you must.

New School Initiative: Mindlessness Week

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In order to celebrate ‘International Mindlessness Day’ the school had decided on holding a ‘Mindlessness Week’. Children and teachers had to wile away the time in mindless activities and, as usual, not much thought had gone into what this might mean. Teachers were expected to interpret the mindless edict in ways that they might see fit as long as they left any lack of initiative they might bring to the process until the last minute. Mr Bolt was adept at leaving things to the last minute so was able to put an iPad on every kid’s desk so that when they arrived all they had to do was log on. Most kids had thankfully forgotten their login details, those that hadn’t were sent home for not being suitably mindless. When, finally, all the children were playing the new blockbuster game Mindlesscraft, Mr Bolt was able to stare out of the window and ponder ‘how did it come to this?’ But answer came their none as his mind had suitably atrophied.

Senior Management were trawling the school with a ‘mindless walk’, bumping into each other, smelling of coffee and yesterday’s booze, they cascaded into a number of classrooms, holding tick sheets full of empty boxes and no descriptors, they were ticking boxes entirely for the sake of it and gave no thought as to reasons or consequences. The sheer mindlessness of the task was wonderfully artful but no-one had the sense to appreciate to what level this performance had risen, they had reached Tate-Modern levels of arched ‘un’-knowing pointlessness! Mr Bolt’s class were engaged in the lack of thought the oblong shaped shapes on the oblong shaped screens didn’t demand of them and were entirely engaged in the media-ocrity that was being undemanded of them, seven boxes were ticked by the Senior Leader who smiled on her way in, all the time she was there and on the way out.

The Head-Lack-of-Learner put it upon himself to visit the Library where up until this week there had been a surprisingly dangerous number of books cluttering up the shelves. He had embraced Mindlessness Week with aplomb, promising that the ‘Mindless-Village’ as the school was now to be known (though only after ‘school’ had become ”un’-known’) was going to prepare children for the 21st century – the ‘lack of knowledge’ century as it was not to be known as, but just accepted as. The 21st Century Skills that kids needed to acquire, for the jobs that will never exist because robots and AI will make human beings redundant, were those that enabled children to wile away the hours of their life with mindless pursuits whilst sitting, staring at screens. This meant that the library was shorn of all its books and monitors put in their place. Each screen was connected to the school mindless-cloud and each morning kids had to download nothing into their brains from the cloud and empty their minds of any rogue intelligent thought that had accidentally crept into being. This was achieved through the use of the ‘Tabula Rasa’ App that had replaced their school crest on the new school blazer which was connected to the ‘internet of things’.

At the beginning of the week a child had been expelled for bringing a book into the Library, a sure sign of her thinkingness was a pair of glasses and a studious expression. On her expulsion the child quoted from The Dunciad:

Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all 

Thankfully, this time the Lie-brary was full of children, all Midwitch – Cuckooed, playing Mindlesscraft. Initially they had been told that they weren’t allowed to use the internet until it was realised what could have been a dangerous source of enlightened thinking was in fact better as a source of falsehoods and unthinking. The amount of crap kids were now able to fill their empty minds with, without thinking, was quite extraordinary. The Head-Lack-of-Learner was proud that his new charges were able to access without fuss flat-earthers, radicalised radicals, shock-jocks, safe-spacers, and all sorts of nut jobs to empty their minds of thought and fill them with new unthought. He also encouraged the use of mobile devices as long as they, too, encouraged empty headedness, so kids were encouraged to snap, to chat, to selfie, too vain, to vine, to send vitriol and self made porn to each other – what a wondrous week it was!

When the school returned to normal the week after, no-one noticed any difference. The Head had had an idea and with a little thought had ensured it went a long way… He called it his ‘No-idea’ and when asked by teachers and pupils if they should stop playing Mindlesscraft or whether they should get back to their studies… or whether… or whether… he just said ‘no idea’ and locked himself in his office to study data.

Education is Subjective, May It Remain So

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Schools awash with targets, data, and objective assessments seem to belong to a different world to that of the human being. Measures have been taken and each droplet of objectivity drips into our consciousness. At some point each school will become different, their core purpose will have moved from that of educating a child and children and they will have become a temple to percentages. Each child will cease to be a person and will become, instead, a type. Identified by sex, race, whether their parents pay for a meal or not, northern, southern, home-countied, Londoners, Seaside and deprived; each child will be known by the data they accrue. It won’t be obvious until it happens, and when it does happen those within the system may not appreciate it, but happen it will have. How many granules of sugar does it take to make a pile of sugar? Grains of sand a mound? How many hairs have to fall out before you are bald? When it happens, it is clear and when a school has gone from the granular introduction of systems that dehumanise to a school that is entirely a machine for education it will be as clear to all as the baldest head on the tallest man, though he might try to fool himself by attempting a comb-over with his remaining three hairs.

This is not to say data is a bad thing or that objective measurements don’t have anything to offer. It is to say that when these things become the business of the day to day that they replace education with measures and initiatives. For in the day to day at, what is still euphemistically termed, ‘the chalkface’ children and teachers exist cheek by jowl in a subjective space, not the objective world beloved of the mechanicals. If they are made to become slaves to the machine both become alienated from their purpose, children have little idea of what they are learning and teachers forget what they are teaching and instead targets and grades, tracking and progress, mindset and character take over. The school ceases to be a place of academic inquiry and becomes a delivery machine and, objectively, it might, indeed, be seen to work.

Husserl coined the word Lebenswelt which translates as ‘Life’s-world’ – this is the world we exist in and are conscious of. This world is subjective, it exists in our understanding and feelings about what we experience. One might best explain this by thinking about a piece of music, we react to it in a subjective sense, the objective ‘science’ of it is meaningless to our experience of it. Even scientific descriptions of our own brain seem all very well, but fail to get to the experience of what it is ‘to be’.

If schools try to fill the lebenswelt with the mechanics of their job, where everything is objectified, then education ceases to be fulfilling. Like a piece of music objectively described rather than heard and felt when education at the point of delivery becomes an exercise devoid of the meaning that matters it ceases to be of real interest for its own sake. In the classroom all should be focused on the subject of study, the human beings learning and the human beings teaching and nothing else should get in the way.

There is no need for a child to know what their target is and to have it written on their work, their expected grade and have it stamped on their books, their learning style, their mindset, their character profile, they just need to know what it is they are learning. Assessment should be about the child’s understanding, if they know and continue to know then great, if they perform or do, in a way that shows they can perform and do, then great, and if they don’t, then ensure that they do and continue to do. The teacher might make use of data to inform them about a pupil, but they should still teach the child and not over-burden them with the objective world. Sometimes it will be necessary to give them a glimpse, but it should not take precedence as part of the everyday.

The point is, imperceptibly, this objectification of education can take over and the real purpose of teaching can be lost. The pupil has then to be bribed with a grade, a job, or a course and any interest they might have been able to find for the subject they are studying is lost in the meaningless pursuit of a meaningful outcome. Each percentage gained or lost on a league table is not about getting a child over a line, it should be about each child accruing an understanding about things that should matter to them. Education should never be a means to an end; rather it is an end, and a beginning, in itself.

Sugata Mitra’s Inhuman Belief in Machines

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Today, according to the TES : “Professor Sugata Mitra, of Newcastle University, suggested that the conventional skills taught to children today were mainly “obsolete” and could be carried out by machines.” He went on to say: “Reading, writing and arithmetic should be deemphasised and replaced with comprehending, communicating and computing. That’s the world we live in today.” He continued:

“Is it not conceivable to think of an app where you can point it to a piece of Japanese text and it reads it back to you in English. If that app exists, would it be important to be able to read that Japanese? No, it is important to understand what that text is saying. Comprehension is more important than the process of reading.”

An app that reads Japanese and automatically translates into English as though that is an easy task? As though one language can easily be translated into another, and we can trust a machine to do this for us? Translation is an art.

Does Mitra also envisage an app that reads English and translates it into Machine English so that we no longer need to read and we merely have to comprehend? The process of reading itself is about comprehensionWhen one reads, one is not undertaking just a mechanical task that is easily outsourced, yes it is nice to be read to, yes to Jackanory and yes to viewing a play, but this is very different to reading and very different to outsourcing reading to ‘Siri’ or the computerised checkouts at Tesco.

Next Mitra will be saying making love is obsolete because we have the wonderful resource of online pornography and some ‘little devices’ we can attach to our hard drives.

Here are a few words from the poet Bernard Kops taken from his poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ known as the University of the Ghetto…

…A loner in love with words, but so lost
and wandering the streets, not counting the cost.
I emerged out of childhood with nowhere to hide
when a door called my name
and pulled me inside.

And being so hungry I fell on the feast.
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East…

And Rosenberg also came to get out of the cold
To write poems of fire, but he never grew old.
And here I met Chekhov, Tolstoy, Meyerhold.
I read all their worlds, their dark visions of gold.

The reference library, where my thoughts were to rage.
I ate book after book, page after page.
I scoffed poetry for breakfast and novels for tea.
And plays for my supper. No more poverty.
Welcome young poet, in here you are free
to follow your star to where you should be.

That door of the library was the door into me

And Lorca and Shelley said “Come to the feast.”
Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East.

This library is now closed.

Now I know Mitra is a provocateur, who believes in machines, but he is not a librarian or a teacher. Most teachers I know value reading highly as a habit they would want for their own children and the children in their classes. This tradition is centred around books. Even when reading to children, one holds the book with respect. A good teacher venerates books far more than the machines of the modern age.

Communication, whether a dance, towering rhetoric or a tweet, involves a love of language, written, spoken and felt; it is crafted. Just as a pot turned by Bernard Leach is a thing of beauty aided and abetted by a wheel but not made by the machine; we can deploy an inhuman PR machine to communicate for us, but we’d lose so much if we did. Communication is that most human of acts and we learn it first, close to home and its authenticity is always diminished when it is outsourced and many times removed from its first utterance.

Teach the art of rhetoric.

These arts of reading and human communication are sacrosanct to our understanding of ourselves as bequeathed to us through the years. It is central to the job of parents and teachers to ensure that these arts continue, unsullied by those who believe electronic media can render these arts obsolete and believe they should be one step removed from the child.

Don’t do away with the voice; don’t do away with the quill, don’t do away with the pen, don’t do away with the pamphlet, don’t do away with the newspaper, don’t do away with the book, don’t do away with the library, don’t do away with the bookshop.

Do away with Mitra’s inhuman belief in machines.

 

Schools Should Learn From Football

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Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football-

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Camus was a better writer than he was goalkeeper, but he owed a debt to football. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all write a pithy aphorism that sums up our relationship to our work, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our work allowed us time for reflection and to be able to say, as Hugo Lloris, another goalkeeper, says of his work at Tottenham Hotspur: “I’ve flourished completely here…”? It might be the lot of the goalkeeper that they have time to be reflective and the experience of glory and ignominy, sometimes within minutes of each other, would bring about an attitude of sangfroid that might create a philosophical view of life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if schools were places in which children could reflect upon morality, obligations and flourishing. To flourish. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all places of work valued life beyond the ‘bottom line’ and the mere chasing of results. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

The worlds of work and formal education can learn from football. It seems, too often, business and schools are in some sort of corrupting relationship through which it is a school’s job to deliver work-ready beasts of burden, sorry school-leavers, with the requisite 21st century skills to excel in a job market with a surfeit of jobs that have yet to be invented. Schools sell their soul to businesses by entering into the language of the workplace and justify that all that they do is deliver exam results so you can get a good job and get the necessary soft skills for everything from job interviews to being able to succeed in the boardroom, and what do they get for their pains? Constant sniping from ‘bosses’ that the children ‘delivered’ to their employ lack the necessary skills.

Football clubs, worth their salt, wouldn’t complain about schools not delivering footballers with the necessary skills, instead they’d invest more and more time on developing raw talent, working with skills academies and spending most of the working week on training their employees, rather than moaning and moping.

This is not enough, however. When I was in Moscow, I was shown factories with theatres attached, now I’m sure that the theatre played out in the factories at the time they were built was heavily censored and indoctrinated the workers but the idea of a theatre at a workplace as something more than workers’ playtime appeals to me. Indeed, it could have something of the ‘Worker’s Educational Association’ about it, as Tawney put it:

All serious educational movements have in England been also social movements. They have been the expression in one sphere – the training of mind and character – of some distinctive conception of the life proper to man and of the kind of society in which he can best live it.

To me, this is not “training of mind and character” for the workplace, or of a fixed notion as to what character is, instead it is about including as many as possible in the ‘conversation of mankind’ but far too many schools are abandoning the pursuit of wisdom in the face of lesser aims.

Schools must educate for the good of humanity, not business. Business should aim to train their employees and develop them too. It is to football that I return to paint the ideal picture for businesses and schools, Ostersunds FK are a Swedish football club with an English manager, Graham Potter. As it says in the Times:

Every year, at the end of the season, all of the club’s staff – players, coaches, those who work behind the scenes – produce and star in a cultural showcase. Dancing was last year’s theme; [a production of Swan Lake] this year’s is set to be Sound and Singing. One year the players wrote a book… another they staged a play… There cannot be many clubs that run a book group, one of the set texts last year was Dostoyevsky… the players regularly volunteer at a relocation centre near the town… 

Potter says that: “Exposing the players to the other sides of life – whether it is theatre or work with refugees – makes them more rounded people…”

At the moment things are working out for the club as they are becoming more and more successful but I would hope that this philosophy would continue even if they were being relegated. It is something that all businesses should foster and it should be something that is at the core of every education institution.

Schools should expand the self, not narrow the self.

On Character: Can We Know the Dancer From the Dance?

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O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

WB Yeats: Among School Children

The Sutton Trust report A Winning Personality identified:

…extraversion (sociability, confidence, assertiveness), self-esteem, and a positive outlook as particularly beneficial for career success, and an external locus of control (a belief that one’s successes and failures are outside one’s control) to be particularly detrimental.

By examining data from the BBC ‘Big Personality Test’ they decided that:

… highly extraverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year), with the odds being higher for men than women. We also found that people who scored high for conscientiousness (thoroughness, and a preference for planning and order) had approximately a 20% higher chance of having a high-paying job.

If only everyone danced the dance of the extravert, then all would be successful. If only the poor had big egos then all would be right with the world. But is it the dance of extraversion that makes a successful dancer? Could it be a character trait the successful develop when they look in their mirror: ‘Oh, look at me I’m great…’

Or is this another example of scientism? Science venturing into areas it is ill equipped to deal with.

Nietzsche talked of the ego as belonging to the master mentality rather than the slave morality. He thought Christian values were responsible for a slave morality where all men had the same worth. These slave values, based on envy, were doing a disservice to mankind by championing values of generosity and care for the weak. Nietzsche championed the virtues  of the powerful, the ‘Übermensch’; he thought the master mentality included the imagination, he admired the artistic spirit of Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner (until they fell out) these figures were: daring, curious, creative and brave and had, what Nietzsche called a ‘will to power’:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power): and to thrust back all that resists its extension. 

…my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche asks us to live! He sees values as created by man: we are free to choose whatever values we want to have it is this that enables us to be free…. God is dead  but what is a full life in a Godless world? Living your life as if it might be lived again and again. Nietzsche saw man as a process of overcoming conflicts within himself to surpass and become a tragic but noble hero. The Übermensch were both creator and created, they were both dancer and the dance and the next step in man’s development.

Nietzsche saw the need for the elimination of the weak by the strong, a need to replace the stupid with the clever. Some contemporary educationalists delight in this self same idea, instead of indulging the morality of the slave and the values of compassion, the trait of ‘introversion’, and maybe a pessimistic mood, they seem to delight in wanting to seek the stamping out of ‘weakness’ by getting kids to adopt a changing mindset and the character traits of extroverted, confident, assertive optimists.

I must admit that Nietzsche’s list is far more attractive than that of the Sutton Trust, but in a Godless universe in which we can, and must, make our own values the Übermensch can write their own lists but our contemporary lists don’t seem to be about improving the lot of man. Rather than being free our second rate Übermensch need to delight in just earning a spit over £40,000 a year and remain slaves to the workplace. This is hardly the lot of tragic noble heroes. This dance is choreographed by the unimaginative: instead of stamping out the weak, we teach that those that earn below £40,000 do so due to their character flaws and even though teachers have done their best to point these flaws out to them, they clearly have the wrong mindset, poor fools. Mind you how many teachers earn below £40,000 a year?

If you kill God and replace Him with the marketplace, believe character is a measurable quantity and think that all the meek have to do is to dance the same dance as those that wear the smartest suits,  you miss the point. These are not the Übermensch. The cult of scientism seems to think some people are successful due to rather dull character traits. Can success on earth really be attained by dancing this dance? Nietzsche would have recognised that the dance and the dancer are one and the same and in order to join the Übermensch we would have to say NO to the values written for us by the Sutton Trust. Instead we should become the Übermensch by overcoming our burdens, wandering in solitude and roaring at those who step in our way and finally freeing ourselves, childlike to dance our own dances: becoming at once the dancer and the dance, in our circular heaven on earth.

But truly, to celebrate humanity in all its majesty we must celebrate all, both weak and strong, and appreciate our fellow human beings for what they bring to us, not bully them into acquiring the ‘winning personalities’ of estate agents, double glazing salesman and drama teachers due to some dubious science. There are many dances and dancers on the best dance floors.

And we make ourselves stronger by not believing the ultimate worth of man is travelling the tube to another dreary day of servitude in the hope we can all squeeze past £40,000 per annum.

 

 

 

 

 

Bye-Bye Ronald McTechdonald!

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Are you or do you know of a ‘Microsoft Innovative Educator (MIE)’ ? I am sure they are all very nice people. Their job is to: “…advocate and share their thoughts on effective use of technology in education with peers… They provide insight for Microsoft on new products and tools for education, and they exchange best practices as they work together to promote innovation in teaching and learning.” You too can apply to: “Build educator capacity in your community (school, district or at training events) by training and coaching colleagues and inviting them to join the online Microsoft Educator Community…” Over at Apple you can become an: “Apple Distinguished Educator… (ADE)” and be part of a: “…global community of education leaders recognised for doing amazing things with Apple technology in and out of the classroom. … explore new ideas, seek new paths and embrace new opportunities. That includes working with each other — and with Apple — to bring the freshest, most innovative ideas to students everywhere.”

The innovative tech educator’s job is not to be a good teacher, though they might be, their job is to be a double agent, a quasi sales-person as well as a technology developer. This is ‘soft commercial power’ writ large but is it also an insidious breech of trust? If school teachers had a Hypocratic Oath would ‘representing outside commercial interests, possibly to the detriment (or not) to the teaching of children’ be something that might fall foul of its moralistic timbre?

Ronald McDonald grooms children while they are young and vulnerable enough to fall for the soft sell of fast food, sweet drink, and can dream of a future under the golden arches whilst adults instead of dragging kids away kicking and screaming, encourage them in for ‘parties’. In schools Apple, Microsoft et al have Ronald McTechdonalds, fifth-tech-columnists, who try to get kids hooked on ‘devices’ – and in full view they groom kids, who are spending much of their time outside of school happily grooming themselves on the self same devices (only a bit more up to date).

According to the Sunday Times Apple is cutting production of the iPhone 6S and 6S plus by 30% and App sales are slowing. Apple shares and also Samsung earnings are falling so is the tech sector in the doldrums? If a slump continues will classrooms up and down the country be flooded with cut-price technology as firms try to keep profit-margins respectable? If the market is becoming tech tired then itz da kidz wot need to drive the market in the future. Already fat on fast food and fizzy drinks can they get more hooked on devices and apps, is there anything new for our youngsters to be shackled to? Tell the Google Teacher Academy graduate that’ Google glasses ain’t cool enough…’ Perhaps the Ronald McTechdonald could get back to their mentors and suggest the following: Google contact lenses, would be great for cheating in exams… and instead of BORING self drive cars think of the possibilities of kids hitching themselves up to a Google drone and delivering themselves to school, or some flash mob  – or their mate’s house… or their enemy’s…

Over at the Telegraph we learn that little boxes can be attached to desks to create: ‘automated workspace utilisation analysis’, think how Ronald McTechdonald could get this to work in a school! Who is at their desk, where is snotty faced girl? Quick nail her down! With a few tweaks we could work out how quickly she writes or, even better, types! Perhaps the fastest children could be attached to an energy efficient electric generator so the whole school could become self sufficient energy wise. Kids who write quickly could be encouraged to do so through a merit system, maybe they could get an extra GCSE in ‘working quickly’ – maybe it could be added to the ebacc.

According to Mark Williams, the emeritius professor of clinical psychology at Oxford: “Every generation thinks it is more stressed than the last. It’s usually not true but this time it looks as if it is. That’s because this is the first generation that is constantly flitting between the actual, real world, and the virtual world of the internet. It’s not multi-tasking, it’s multi-switching and there are switching costs, mainly distraction, exhaustion, irritability and mood swings.” This is quite a challenge for the Ronald McTechdonalds but I betcha they’ll come up with:

THESE MOOD SWINGS ARE A TWENTY FIRST CENTURY SKILL THAT MUST BE LEARNED AT SCHOOL! Kids must learn to be distracted, sorry, engaged by ALL things that compete to catch their interest! If the kids have VIOLENT mood swings the technology could detect it and play soothing music in their headphones or give them drugs to calm them down, perhaps the tech could be attached to a drip, giving suitable dosage of drugs to each kid to counteract their attention deficit disorder. Or amphetamines could be pumped through their veins if they fail to have the pre-requisite number of required mood-swings. It is a 21st century skill to over react when people tweet something, blog something, with which you disagree so HOUND THEM DOWN! BE EFFING RUDE!!! CYBER-CRY-BABY-BULLY-HATE-MOB-WITCH-HUNT!!! Kids need to learn how to over-react and where better than at school?

School kids need tech they say! It will make them learn better! But learn what better and to what ends? Look how smart this device is they say! Just look what it can do for you! It will make parts of your brain that you never knew existed light up under our technically wonderful brain scanner which will prove that tech recognises the need for tech! Just look what tech can do for you! In the interests of the singularity tech is proving how good tech is. Isn’t this a conflict of interests? Should we trust technology that recommends technology?

Now they are wanting you to wear headsets that make the virtual world 3D! Every kid should have a headset that makes their world three dimensional – it will bring Ancient Rome to life and for homework you can have an affair with Cleopatra then watch it later on a huge screen that hugs you better than Caesar!

Has no-one realised you don’t need a curved TV or 3D anything – the real world is in 3D and is full of lovely curves. But just like fast food or over sugared drinks our ability to appreciate the world for what it is might be destroyed as our taste is distorted by experiencing virtual life so often and so early on. Over sugared drinks change our desire for different, less sweet, drinks and our diet alters… slowly…

Williams recommends that we “…need to practise single-tasking. Since we can’t un-invent tech, new intelligent, subtle tech may help us to do so.” Yes, you get it, in order to use tech less we need more tech. Maybe he is a Ronald McTechdonald! More is less!

In schools, however, instead of waiting for more tech to stop us using more tech how about the teacher just says: “Bye-bye Ronald McTechdonald!” And gets on with teaching in the real world.

 

Bowie, my Gatekeeper, RiP

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“I’ve always cited who my influences are. I felt it was important for people to be able to see how things are put together at any given stage. I let people know what’s going through my head. I’ve been quite vocal about that through the years… I’ve always loved the process – to see how things are put together.” Bowie

Bowie was a gatekeeper for me. He opened gates into interesting worlds, ever interesting he was interested… A polymath, interested in art, all art… A truly Romantic figure, avant-garde, he opened gates into even more avant-garde worlds.

My school daze were a disappointment, I left formal education under several clouds at sixteen, but thank God I had teachers in the wider ‘popular’ culture around me and Bowie was my way in.

Heroes, the first album I bought of his, in 1977, was followed by Low then Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory… I trawled his back catalogue for extraordinary sounds, discordant then melodic, with a suburban south London drawl.

And the gates he opened for me… most importantly: William Burroughs and writing from cut-ups; Lindsay Kemp and his creative dance/mime; Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble. Diamond Dogs opened Orwellian gates and a fascination with the dystopian, it was a Brave New World. Nic Roeg, Man Who Fell to Earth ‘weird’ movies; Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, Kubrick, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; Camus, The Wasteland, Greil Marcus, Colin Macinnes, Andy Warhol, Pop Art; Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the Velvet Underground; and Eno, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp; Bolan, Nina Simone, Scott Walker, Brel … all of these people, interested and interesting opened ever more gates. From Kraftwerk to Kafka to Kabuki, even his nightmarish cocaine fuelled thin white nazi caused confusion – ‘how could he?’ This leading to Rock Against Racism… and  the ‘bible’ of all this, and the burgeoning punk scene, was the NME – Charles Shaar Murray, Jon Savage, Nick Kent, Parsons and Burchill and Danny Baker… The Clash, Pistols… more gates opened as this boy looked at Bowie, at Johnny, at Joe, at Patti, and my walk on the wild side.

Bowie has left us many a canon beyond just the music, for example his list of 100 books. For me he points to something essential that those in both popular, high, wider culture have a duty to open gates for those who have been somehow lost to education. Our public life, where we come together, needs to be interested and interesting and magpie like picking on a wide range of references – thoughts, ideas and works.

I did a ‘gig’ at a school the other day and was congratulated for my ‘polymathic presentation’, how I had included a wide range of references, thoughts, reading and examples, which included Bowie. It is him I have to thank for helping to broaden my horizons.

Heroes.

A Purposeful and Efficient Education

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…all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.

Herman Melville Moby Dick

Thank goodness for the efficiency culture in which the purposeful classroom is extolled as a place free from ideological baggage. Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 16.08.02.png This is schooling that has reached some sort of ‘end of history’; where classroom doors are closed to the intellect in the name of unthinking behaviours in which all seems sane rather than as places for the madness of the ‘purposeless’ pursuit of wisdom.

In his book: John Dewey, Confucius, and Global Philosophy, Joseph Grange writes about a world where mere information holds sway:

Meaning would fade away and be replaced by data. The responsibility to carry out human judgement… would be traded in for the security of statistical analysis. Numbers would be substituted for argument and reason. Machines would make irrefutable decisions. Human beings would become resources to be quantified. Life would flatten out and intensity, depth, and width of experience would be lost.

This might work in an efficient branch of Tesco but should it be what a school is like? The purposeful classroom is a place for a stop gap, time and motion, approach. Mere information rather than the adventure given to minds in formation. Teachers in this environment succumb neither to the virtue signalling of the morally certain progressive or the fallen misery of the traditionalist where all are tainted by original sin. No longer an optimist or a pessimist be, these teachers work in the day to day and believe they are ideology free. Time is spent full of motion: activity, follows activity and the wasteful pursuit of academe, is replaced by the minutely measured approach of efficient delivery that can be computed, and incentive schemes for managers, teachers and pupils are devised.Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 16.08.02.png

What use the barricades? All has been won and lost in wars past. This classroom has pre-packed PURPOSE writ large. These teachers have no need to question anything because they know what they are for, they do things purposefully. But, just like walking quickly through corridors with piles of books can make you look efficient, the reality might be merely busy-busy and only seemingly sane because everyone else is doing the same.

In this atmosphere staff become unthinking consumers of get-a-fix-quick-kits that they find online and in books. To satisfy the managerial instrumentalism of their leaders, and the ever-soon-to-visit government inspector, they ensure their pupil surveys are full of smiley emojis. Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 16.08.02.png They have to ensure their targets are hit or surpassed… they have to create data showing that their charges are on target or being held to account. The teacher has their yearly appraisal and adds meaningful, measurable activity upon meaningful, measurable activity to satisfy success criteria to show that they are a productive member of staff.

An unexamined idea of what works becomes the ultimately unsatisfactory pastime of filling in time. With nothing more to guide than the perceived need to do something, anything, neither management or teacher can break beyond the idea of the efficiency born of the time and motion study. The view that a school is an academic institution, is jettisoned and replaced with the culture of an office, a business, a place of instant results. Instead of thinking about what it is to be, they collect initiatives and kite marks, and bring in ideas to keep people busy: Someone thinks student voice needs democratisation so they give pupils an inconsequential vote, someone else thinks cross-curricular project work is a good thing to bring in, so they do. Someone else feels mindfulness, and mindset will help. Someone else says taking working class underachieving boys to a production of Blood Brothers will be a good thing as it might increase attainment. Many an initiative comes and goes. Some people become head of initiative wotsit, the thrust of which seems to be in conflict with the head of initiative what’sup and the data collecting for both seems equally as burdensome. But as long as it works… and you know it works if it increases the number of emoji smiles the customers, sorry, pupils provide.

With teachers being seen as mere captains of industriousness teaching becomes a smorgasbord of guff. With emojis as capital pupils are forever entering into transactions with teachers: ‘But is this in the test?’ ‘Is this relevant to my chosen career as a wage slave?’ The teacher tries to justify their subject and the chosen topic in terms of its potential marketability: ‘teamwork and creativity’ replaces the joy and insight into the human condition. Instead of playing or listening to a Beethoven string quartet and grappling with the impossible task of trying to put into words what is not quite understood, music has to be understood straight away, explanation given, not felt, one direction of meaning rather than a little mix of uncertainty. A difficult reading of a great novel is replaced by the reading of an easier second rate one, because ‘our kids’ can’t and, after all, if we want to measure success by emojis rather than a never ending intelligent inquiry into human life in all its forms, then we need to have purpose.

Art is replaced by commercial concerns, which, to be fair, the contemporary art world itself models with depressing regularity.

What sort of world should school represent? Should it just prepare kids for a life of office drudgery – in which case it probably functions very well, or should it prepare youthful humanity to realise its higher possibilities? Should it expand the self or narrow the self? For many people school is the one chance to glimpse the possibilities that are both spiritual and temporal. This is Culture with a capital C, not as something contingent on bourgeois values but something, once released from that burden, as freeing of the intellect and the soul. This collective and individual endeavour sees teachers, as Isaiah Berlin put it, making a student :

…more at home in the intellectual world…

By ensuring that they have the:

capacity for rising to a clear perception of structures of thought and knowledge, of their similarities and differences, of their methods of discovery and invention and their criteria of truth and validity; above all a grasp of their central principles… what is novel and revolutionary in a discovery and what is development of existing knowledge that lifts men intellectually.

From this pupils can look at patterns, thoughts, artefacts, they can take part contemplatively or actively exploring that which is:

permanent or changing, buried in, or imposed on, the welter of experience, which philosophers have regarded as man’s highest attribute; but even if they are mistaken in this, it is surely not an unworthy goal for… education.

And this pursuit, should be a common pursuit, which in the end is far more efficient than that of the stop gap ‘what works’ collection of techniques to collect the highest number of emojis.

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To the Things Themselves!

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Target setting and pupil tracking can distract teachers and pupils from what they are meant to be studying. By being concerned about grades over and above learning many teacher pupil conversations can avoid talking about the things themselves. When there is an over-emphasis on the marking criteria, where it replaces the thing being learnt, teacher and pupil can spend many a fruitless hour trying to decipher what marking criteria might mean and whether the pupil is achieving a target guessed at by the teacher, especially in a climate where many of the exams being taken are new.

For fun, I thought I might look at this through a phenomenologist’s eye. The philosophy of ‘phenomenology’ is described in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy in the following way:

Classical phenomenologists practiced some three distinguishable methods. (1) We describe a type of experience just as we find it in our own (past) experience… (2) We interpret a type of experience by relating it to relevant features of context… hermeneutics, the art of interpretation in context, especially social and linguistic context. (3) We analyze the form of a type of experience. In the end, all the classical phenomenologists practiced analysis of experience, factoring out notable features for further elaboration.

Let us imagine three conversations and look at them from the point of view of the people involved in the conversation:

Scenario One:

Teacher:     You have fallen behind on your target grade. You should be getting a B, but in your last essay you got a D. This isn’t good enough.

Pupil:          I know sir, I’m sorry, I had a lot of work to do in other subjects and I wasn’t able to put the time into the essay I should have.

Teacher:     OK, next time, come to me if you need an extension.

Scenario Two:

Teacher:    You have fallen behind on your target grade. You should be getting a B, but in your last essay you got a D. This isn’t good enough.

Pupil:          I know sir, I’m sorry, what should I have done to make my grade higher?

Teacher:     Let us look at the mark scheme. You should have ensured that, for what I estimate a B might be… Ummm; that you should have expressed “ideas coherently and with development.” Whereas you presented “ideas with some clear topics and organisation.” If you really wanted to assure a B grade and, maybe, aim higher you might want to: “express ideas with sophistication and sustained development.”

Pupil:         Can you give me examples sir?

Teacher:     Er… yes, well, whilst you have been clear, you haven’t been coherent… Is that clear?

Pupil:          Er… I think it’s clear sir, but I’m not sure if it is coherent.

Teacher:     Let us settle this by looking up coherent  and clear in the Oxford English Dictionary…. Right… coherent means logical and consistent, is that clear? It’s often useful to look at the synonyms… logical, reasoned, rational, cogent, clear… ah, yes so… anyway, is that clear?

Pupil:          I’m not sure sir.

Teacher:    Right, well let’s look up ‘clear’. Well, this is clear: ‘Easy to perceive, understand, or interpret.’ Whereas to ensure higher grades you need to be logical and consistent.

Pupil:         What are the synonyms, sir, for clear?

Teacher:    Ah, they are: understandable, comprehensible, clearly expressed, logical, lucid, clear-cut, coherent… right, ok is that clear? Look, forget this, for the highest achievement you need to: express ideas with sophistication and sustained development…

Pupil:          What do you mean by sophistication sir?

Teacher:     DICTIONARY corner, here we go: It means you are ‘aware of and able to interpret complex issues’.

Pupil:          Should I do that clearly or coherently sir?

Scenario Three:

Teacher:     Ok, it seems you do not quite understand something about the texts we are studying, let me explain it to you…

(later)

Pupil:       Thank you Miss, Sir keeps going on about targets and mark schemes, confuses the hell out of me. What I like about you is you address the things themselves. I know what I could write now. (turns to leave, looks back…) by the way, what do you think of….    etc.

If we look at the intention of each scenario, then all three have the same end in mind which is that the pupil improves, but only one, the third, is clear enough in this intention. Scenario one avoids all discussion about the topic and, in this fictional case, the pupil was lying. In scenario two there is no coherent discussion about the topic being learned. Scenario three addresses the topic. It is only when the pupil knows what they are talking about that they could hope to decipher what the exam board is asking for. If the pupil knows their stuff and they know how to write an essay properly (which should have been taught to them throughout their schooling) it should be relatively easy to cope with an exam question and certainly without having to unpick exam criteria all the time.