Monthly Archives: March 2016

A ‘British Value’ Worth Teaching

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I have argued against the idea of teaching ‘British Values’ on a few occasions but the NUT might make me reevaluate my position. If, for example, we made one of the fundamental British Values ‘nurturing civilised disagreement and debate’ then I could argue that this (so-called) British Value should be at the centre of teaching and learning.

That social media can platform all sorts of debate is a good thing but there seems to be a burgeoning desire for some to close down debate, to be intolerant of other viewpoints and to be vehement in the closing down of debate by using emotive tactics displaying ‘hurt’ or by ‘virtue signalling’ about how caring they are and about how cruel the ‘other lot’ are. This article on ‘the culture of sensitivity’* is a good description of how this is being played out on American campuses. There is something we could do about this in our schools. We could open children’s experience up so that they realise there are a wide variety of opinions, they could learn about different ideologies and the history of thought. Pupils could be made aware of where arguments might come from and why, in a pluralistic society, dissent and disagreement is fundamental to how we do things as is the ability to live with each other cheek by jowl and that debate, with all its difficulties, is at the centre of our democratic settlement.

If the reporting of the NUT conference is true, and I am taking this from the Telegraph so some bias might be occurring from what is being ‘left out’ of the story, then there are some worrying signs about what is becoming of debate in schools. It is, helpfully, summed up in the following words from one delegate:

We organised a politics day for Year 8s in the week before Easter. They had a day to form a political party in their tutor groups to come up with a manifesto, film a broadcast, and make banners and take part in a debate… Apart from the quality of the work, the other thing that really made my proud was that every single tutor group had as a policy, ‘refugees welcome, open the borders’.

I find this worrying in a number of ways. Firstly a ‘politics day’ might be ticking a box but can it really open up understanding of what is such a crucial part of understanding the world? This, from what little I can gather from the comment, seems to be asking children to do a lot of activity which might look like they are doing politics without really tackling what politics is about. Maybe it is a reflection of our times but there seems to be more activities about spin than about fundamental ways of thinking about how to organise our lives. That the pupils took part in a debate might be healthy, but that every single tutor group came up with the same policy: ‘refugees welcome, open the borders’ smacks less of debate and more of their teachers manipulating that outcome. Maybe it was co-incidence, I don’t know. In the context of what the teacher said, however, I would expect it is more about the teachers trying to get across a point of view:

We have to stand together across communities to bring down barriers, bring down borders, to say no to Islamaphobia, no to anti-Semitism, no to fascism and any form of racism. As my Year 8s said, refugees welcome, open the borders. 

I wrote this yesterday, about how we should avoid trying to get pupils to recreate our utopian view of what the future might be. It is for them to make the future and they will have to do this in the eye of the storm of differing views. That the western education tradition is reaching an impasse where children who disagree are silenced or realise their job is to be quiet so as not to upset the ‘politically virtuous boat’ should be a worry. I remember children taking part in ‘just say no’ plays about drugs, they knew what they ‘ought’ to be saying in the context of school, that drugs were bad, but then in the world outside of school some were happily indulging in whatever pill or joint took their fancy.

This is not to say that we should not challenge views that are beyond the pale, we should. We can’t do this, however, if those views are kept away from the classroom. The ‘Prevent’ strategy, as the NUT suggests, could ‘divide’ communities. One of the best ways to ensure children have a respect for, so-called, British Values is to ensure, rather than having a ‘politics’ day, that debate becomes a regular feature of how we educate. Instead of just encouraging children to sound off about whatever is the grand issue of the day this debate should be rooted in knowledge about issues, deep understanding of differing viewpoints and ideologies and where they come from. This should result in a realisation that the complexity of the world means that their generation will be responsible for things that will not be solved through bandying about a few agreeable slogans but through real thought and protracted dialogue.

*Thank you to Cristina Milos, @surreallyno for pointing this article out to me.

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Schools Should Not Teach the End of History

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Schooling changes lives. That is the claim. Without having attended school our lives would be different, how different we do not know but, clearly education makes a difference. A liberal arts education is an education for freedom. This seems laudable but what does it mean? Freeing a person through knowledge, insight, and initiating them into the conversation of time, is different from freeing them into being at the beck and call of the tyranny of the majority or the strong. It is an internal freedom, an ideal, a freedom for thought, and to realise oneself through choices as well as being able to free others who come into contact with you. The paradox is that this freedom also gives you the freedom not to do this. You are free to be indoctrinated and also to indoctrinate others. This is where a liberal approach can falter.

By demanding that the future be ‘fairer’ or ‘kinder’ or ‘free from oppression’ one immediately faces the problem that in order to be fairer, kinder and free from oppression one has to deal with those who are deemed to be not fair, not kind, and a bit of an oppressor. Once these types have been ‘identified’ they are then unfairly, unkindly, oppressed. As this continues those who are being unfair, unkind, and oppress in the name of a better world, create a terror which is far from kind and fair.

In a school that believes one shapes the future in pre-ordained ways freedom falters. If a school has decided how a utopia is formed, let us say it is full of ‘fair’ people, they define what fairness is and decide that these ‘traits’ should be forced upon those in their care, whether these children and their parents agree or not with their definition. In the name of progressing towards a ‘new dawn’ children are changed. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains implies freedom but demands ‘unity’ and those that refuse to unite will remain chained.

Tradition offers a different approach, this approach imposes the habits of the past rather than a definition of a new age. Rather than change children for the future, this approach changes them to fit ‘in’ to current conventions. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. This can imply one way to be, just as much as the progressive vision. Both play with history, in one ‘it just is’, and in the other, ‘it must be…’

The liberal arts approach recognises the importance of initiating children into ‘the way things are done around here’ as well as a way of reaching out into the world. It is conversant with different voices and teaches children to recognise these competing voices. Where it is very different is that as it is education for independence it passes the world, in all its complex and competing ways, on. It does not impose on children a blueprint of a utopia that they must create, rather it gives children an idea of what was and what is so that they might form the future in the way that they see fit. Free.

Maybe this is where the obsession with ‘self’ comes from. The fetishisation of the self, the selfish, the selfie, the ‘it’s my opinion so it counts’… this would be the inevitable consequence of teaching that any content is king or anything produced by a child is queen. This could not be further from the truth. A liberal arts education is conversant with truth, with beauty, with quality, with excellence. It is conversant with what it is to be human, in all its divergent interpretations. It begins with the constraints of the past, it investigates and critiques in the present and passes the responsibility on to the next generation to continue the conversation but not in a way that finishes the said conversation in a vision of a utopian state but in a way that is responsible for continuing to pass the conversation forward to their children, their children’s children and so on…

A liberal arts education does not believe that history has ended or that history will end in a progressive vision of a fair and kind world, rather it believes that history will continue to be made and it hopes that the better the quality of a child’s education the freer they will be to make that world, then the better that world might be. Or worse, ay, there’s the rub.

Posters as an Academic Form

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The Oxford English Dictionary defines a poster as: A large printed picture used for decoration, and: A large printed picture, notice, or advertisement displayed in a public place.

For those who remember the ‘Athena’ chain of shops, posters are stuck in our memory. Ché or a dubious picture of a tennis player adorned many walls in the seventies and eighties. Posters, few words, striking images. ‘Your Country Wants You’ and ‘Pears Soap’ hint at a bygone age when advertising was in its infancy, but the rules still apply. Striking imagery, few words communicating strongly, a subliminal or, indeed, a clear message. ‘Labour isn’t working’ to Vorsprung Durch Technik’, successful posters stay in the mind. From futurist designs, to kitsch, from communist to fascist and everything in between the poster has had a vital part to play in our history but this is not the whole story.

In classrooms, kids are asked to design posters. Some are trained in the art and some are not. Yet there is another heritage of poster that they might draw upon and that is the ‘academic’ poster beloved of some courses in higher education. These posters are designed to communicate a body of knowledge and spark conversations. I wouldn’t call them posters, they are more like ‘info-graphics’, the compiler of the information and maker of the ‘poster’ stands by it as others walk past, intent on getting into a dialogue with the writer about their work. These ‘academic’ posters are ‘knowledge organisers’, akin to ‘research reports’, that need the person making the poster to exhibit a lot of knowledge but in a way that ‘simplifies’ and organises their research and arguments. This is a very different form to that of the ‘poster’ and could be deemed to have a useful purpose especially if accompanied by an essay, dissertation, speech and other forms of completed work.

When children are set a poster task in school I would expect the task to be specific to the subject and content that they are being set. Whether it is a ‘poster’ or an ‘academic poster’ the expression of learning would involve a great deal of knowledge about what is wanted to be communicated. Both should be eloquent and beautiful and work as piece in themselves, which would require a teaching of the ‘art’ as well as a thorough knowledge of the content.

It is also clear, like so many things in education, it could be taught badly. It could be used as an ‘activity’ to ‘engage’, it could be used too early when the pupil has little knowledge of the subject, it could be used without a thorough knowledge of the form, it could be used as a ‘busy homework’. None of these would be a satisfactory use of the form.

If a pupil has a thorough grasp of the art of the essay and/or can research and analyse, can make arguments and think logically within the context of the subject they are studying then the academic poster has a place especially if the ‘display’ of it is accompanied by the ‘exhibition’ where the maker responds to critique through a discussion about their work. This ‘assessment’ of the ‘art’ then becomes a crucial part of the process rather than just another pile of marking in the in-tray.

If the pupil is creating graphic art then the discussion around aesthetics would be foregrounded but would this be normally about creating second rate display-work rather than great art in the context of most subjects?

Bodil Isaksen has written an excellent piece on posters being used badly, in which she says: “a poster lesson is a desperate measure, not a rigorous first-class education.” This discussion has been triggered by a piece in the Evening Standard in which Tom Bennett is quoted, quite reasonably, as saying that poster tasks can be a lesson in which: “an hour trickles away and bubble-writing happens, and someone back-shadows the title, and four sentences are written while someone else cuts out pictures of ‘crime’ or ‘celebrity’ from the staffroom copy of Take A Break!”

The Stalinist Libertarianism of Nick Gibb

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On the Radio 4 Today Programme Nick Gibb announced that: “We can’t have two systems,” as a justification for the ‘Academicisation’ programme.

He should try living in Greenwich.

In this South London borough we have more than two systems adding to the mix of stress and anxiety for parents and children. The nearest school to us is the John Roan School, they: “are very proud of our six ‘Roan ready’ words: Collaborative, Compassionate, Creative, Independent, Investigative Tenacious. We expect all our students to demonstrate these qualities and skills not only in their lessons but also in their day to day life.” There is  Corelli College, a ‘Co-Operative academy’ who say they are ‘Learning together, Enjoying success.’ Greenwich Free School on the other hand: “insist on high standards from pupils and staff, adopting a ‘no excuses’ approach to attitude, work and discipline in which everyone takes responsibility for their actions.” Over at the Harris Academy they promise: “Pace Purpose Pride Our Vision Is To Develop Successful Students Who Demonstrate Courage, Behave With Integrity And Live Happy Lives.” Stationer’s Crown Woods Academy divides itself into a smaller number of schools which pupils: “are allocated to the schools based on ability, skills and interests.” In other words there is a degree of selection within the school as to which ‘school’ the child attends. Thomas Tallis School offers another contrast it states that the education they provide is for children: “To Understand The World And Change It For The Better.” There is the Royal Greenwich UTC, and some Catholic and Church of England Schools, there is the ‘Woolwich Polytechnic School’, where ‘Learning Empowers’ who state on their website that they are: “thrilled that Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for Schools has congratulated Woolwich Poly for its excellent value added score for 2015.”

Over at the percentage passes at GCSE we have a range of scores from 0% for the private schools that opt out of such things by teaching IGCSE and other nefarious techniques to 83% pass rate from St Thomas More, a Catholic School in Eltham. John Roan got 45%, Corelli 46%, the Free School have yet to enter any pupils for GCSE exams, the Harris 66%, Crown Woods 64%,  Tallis 49%, the UTC 39% and Woolwich Poly 79%.

The private options include Blackheath High School for Girls who ” aim to nurture all-round achievement and believe that developing interests such as sport, music, debating, drama and outdoor pursuits is the best way of doing this…” Colfe’s school promise that their: “unique and innovative ‘tougher minds’ programme helps GCSE pupils to think and work more effectively.” Eltham College, a boy’s school, state that: “every pupil is known and valued as an individual.”

Added to this many parents and children are drawn to the grammar schools of Kent, Bexley and Bromley with a sizeable number of Greenwich children sitting entrance exams to these schools, as well as common entrance exams to Independent schools outside of the borough.

‘We can’t have two systems’ says Nick Gibb. We don’t. We have far more. Each school seems to be very different in this part of the country. Even if every school were an academy, each school would be running very different systems. Crown Woods is hugely different to Corelli school in ethos, system and overall results. Academicisation will not change this, it might make the number of ‘systems’ even more. For the systems ‘on the ground’ are not about DFE rationalisation, they are about values, ethos and quality. None of this is affected by who I vote for at local level, my vote has always counted for little when it comes to changing borough policy on education. It could be affected a bit by choice but choice, in the main, is a myth. Whichever school we choose as a family the LA will, most likely, allocate the ‘local’ school, John Roan. If we prefer our little ‘un not to go there, then we can move, go private or ‘go Grammar’. Our little ‘un prefers the option of an all girl’s school and she is unlikely to get that choice from the borough allocation. None of the choices on offer are our agreed ‘ideal’, but choice hardly ever is; plusses and minuses all the way.

In this corner of London we are miles away from only having two systems, let alone one. Academicisation will not make this more rational on the ground. The probability that this mirage of choice for most hides a centralised desire for all schools to be under DFE control via a number of competing chains makes no difference to parents who have never had a say over the education their child should receive unless they have the financial clout to make those choices. The idea that schools will be free, albeit within chains and networks, seems to ‘liberate’ schools whilst, at the same time, coming under closer scrutiny of the DFE. This is oxymoronic ‘Stalinist Libertarianism’, all the more Stalinist as parents don’t get a real choice: by having a choice based system and then by giving parents hardly any choice, except those with means at their disposal, it makes a mockery of choice.

What school will a parent choose? The one they’re given. As for a rural area, where the choice becomes even more reductive, what happens if you don’t want your child to have the ethos of the one academy shoved down your child’s throat? Again, those who have the means will make their choice, and those that haven’t… won’t be able to.

This leads me to think a voucher system would be fairer, with free transport provided, and every school having to take whichever one a parent chooses, this would mean massive over capacity in the system; or if it’s democracy you’re  after how about a system in which parents vote directly for the Headteacher of their local school every five years or so? The Head could have the power to hire and fire and change the ethos of the school to fit their vision. I realise that neither of these ideas are probable so we are left with the complex systems we have, where centralising takes place in the name of freedom and choice.

‘We can’t have two systems’  says Nick Gibb. How many systems does he want?

Building British Values, Character and Resilience in Every Child

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The recent white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere states that the Government is set on: “Building character and resilience in every child” It continues by stating that:

A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.

A gradual process of establishing the fundamental British value of knowing how to bounce back if faced with failure, a kind of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, if you will, finds itself nestling in with collaboration, perseverance and resilience. I suppose those might be British values or, indeed, the character traits of adults, the traits that clearly do not feature in Ian Duncan Smith’s personality as his resignation proves he is poor when it comes to perseverance. His resignation letter also proves a damning indictment of the character of Osborne, implying that collaboration is an issue for the ex St Paul’s boy as he is unable to fashion the spirit of ‘we’re all in it together…’

The character of these Government ministers does not display the stated fundamental British values, is this a failure of their education? Is this the sort of thing that this white paper will ensure never occurs again? Will everyone pass the British character test?

The white paper continues:

These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing… There are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.

Fundamental British values underpin academic success? I’m not sure if this is borne out by the evidence, immigrant communities seem to perform well, if anything the long tail of underachievement, as it has been known as for years, seems to be fundamentally a trait of the indigenous population.

Maybe these traits – character and British values belong only to the successful and retrospectively we can blame misery on the lack of collaborative work and lack of resilience… Sorry, let’s think this through… Failure seems to be important, if you are able to ‘bounce back’, Chumbawumba did a song about it:

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never going to keep me down

Pissing the night away

Fundamental British values of getting drunk, knocked down, getting up again… The value of failure – in an economy that is struggling at best, to put everything down to individual character is harsh to say the least but getting up and smashing the system might be a show of character…

But that would be anger… the white paper seems to extol the idea of happiness. The positive psychology movement and the smiley yellow self help gurus with their books are making their mark, but is ‘happiness’ a fundamental British value? Isn’t a good degree of pessimism or ‘mustn’t grumble’ grumbling the reasonably positive traits for those of us born in these Isles? Our sense of humour delights in our collective misery, our ‘happiness’ might depend on an attitude towards tragedy and the rocks that are hurled at us in the every day. Unbridled happiness might diminish the attitude of stoic irony that sees us through the downsizing economy and the efforts of our ‘Betters’ to ensure we are ‘happy’.

Many schools across the country already offer a wide range of imaginative, character-building opportunities to their pupils and our vision is for schools to increase their range of activities, based on strong relationships with local and national businesses, and voluntary and sporting organisations.

I’ve got nothing against this, it’s all to the good, though, depending on the business and what it intends to do with the child to ‘build their character’. It might be that the youth build their character through shifting trolleys around a windswept car park, which does indeed ‘build character’ and it might build a sense of ‘stoicism’, though it would be stretching it to call it happiness. This is where the ‘science’ comes in…

…we will work with the Behavioural Insights Team and What Works Centres to develop tools that schools can use to identify the most successful approaches to building character in their pupils, and to track how well those approaches are working. We will also work with expert organisations to provide a platform where teachers can share best practice about character development, evaluate new ideas, find professional development materials and contribute data to build the evidence base.

And:

We will ensure evidence-based approaches to character development are built into initial teacher training programmes; and work with networks like teaching schools to spread the most effective approaches to developing character in schools. Finally, we will deliver a new round of Character Awards, recognising the schools and organisations which are most successful in supporting children to develop key character traits.

This is where things might get sinister. As Theodore Dalrymple puts it:

The inherent tragic dimension of human existence [is] a dimension that only literature (and other forms of art), but not psychology, can capture, and which indeed it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide from view with a thin veneer of science. Without an appreciation of the tragic dimension, all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.

This thin veneer of science will be placed over ‘character’ as though we can define it, measure it and judge whether the building of it is successful or not. What arrogance! This is government with a missionary zeal to convert your very self, not materially, but personally. This is government that feels its superiority, that is government by the Übermensch and they will use science to fool you into thinking that there is one way to be if you wish to be successful. This is shallow. It is also a sign of a culture in crisis. A confident culture can tolerate difference, opens itself up to conversation and argument about different ways to be, a society that tolerates, that knows it takes all sorts to make up the values that we could ascribe to be British or, indeed, human.

Who is to say what are the ‘key character traits’? This would imply cracking the human code, knowing the answer to what it is all about. Knowing the why and implying that we can codify these traits and all agree what that code might mean in practice. What nonsense, do we want a society where our very characters can be categorically measured against others?

To develop character the school day will be extended to include:

additional activity to help develop young people’s character… high quality instruction and coaching in sports and the arts, alongside activities such as debating, scouting and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The

 

knowledge-rich curriculum [will be] complemented by the development of the character traits and fundamental British values that will help children succeed

That knowledge of the arts and great literature can bring depth and richness to the conversation about what might constitute values and character traits that could be considered positive I do not doubt but to write these things in stone will not add to human knowledge, indeed it will surely diminish our knowing of these things. Imagine the shopping list of traits and all schools buying into the lesson plans provided by some well meaning ‘virtuous’ entrepreneur who determines to sell us the super scheme of character work. Imagine the character passports. Imagine the inset day with the humble consultant extolling the value of humility or whatever the list comprises. Hubris.

The white paper continues:

A 21st century education also promotes integration so that young people can play their part in our society. Schools and other education providers have an important role to play in promoting the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual tolerance and respect of those with different faiths and beliefs, while developing the knowledge, critical thinking and character traits that enable pupils to identify and challenge extremist views.

Mutual tolerance of those with different beliefs, but not ‘extremists’, does that include UKIP? Identifying and challenging extremist views does that mean taking on Jeremy Corbyn?  Why not identifying and challenging views, critical thinking is not just about some uncritical idea of what is extreme and this is not, critical thinking is a continual process, it can’t be written down as a list of acceptable opinions. Tradition can provide parameters for us but it should not be above critique. The, so called, British value of Individual liberty is a nonsense if you tell people what to think, what opinions they should have, and how their very character should be constituted.

What is British, maybe, is that, like our language, these things come from ‘below’, through our civil life. Character and characters, awkward and harmonious, come to us from our living life and by allowing everyone the fullest life possible by opening up opportunity and education to all throughout their life can do much to encourage the richness of this process.

There is much in the white paper that can help, including the extolling of programmes like the Duke of Edinburgh award, the national voluntary service, debating, sports and the arts. Put money into all of this. Invest in teaching not just Maths until eighteen but a breadth of subjects and, most importantly, the arts as it is the discussion around great art that can add so much to our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human. A liberal arts approach to the curriculum, crowned by a baccalaureate with breadth and depth might be a good way to help deliver a richly humane education.

But, please, spare us the character ‘science’ and the pursuit of British values, it just isn’t , well, very British.

 

 

Where Did Education, Education, Education, Go Wrong?

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In a speech on 23rd May 2001 Tony Blair made the following pronouncement:

Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people… In the past four years our teachers have achieved outstanding results. They have carried through what Ofsted calls a ‘transformation’ in primary school standards. The best primary test results ever. 160,000 more 11 year-olds reaching the standard for their age in literacy and numeracy than four years ago.

Blair wanted Britain to be a ‘Learning Society’. So what did we learn?

In his excoriating attack on Tony Blair, ‘Broken Vows: Tony Blair, the Tragedy of Power’ the controversial author Tom Bower seems to set out to destroy whatever positive views  one might still have of the former prime minister. I’m not going to get involved in all that here, there is one area, however, that interests me Bower believes that the: “setting of targets… caused real damage to a generation of British schoolchildren.” In an article referencing the book in the Sunday Times 6/3/16 Bower cites the OECD report from January stating that the position of English School leavers as worst out of 23 countries in literacy and numeracy was a: “direct result of the strategies, standards, benchmarks, performance indicators and targets introduced after 1997.” He adds that, thanks to Michael Barber and ‘deliverology’, rigid rules were imposed on teachers demanding what they should teach and how to teach it. “By 2001 teachers were no longer imparting knowledge but cajoling pupils to pass tests.” The dichotomy is between getting through a limited test when pressured and cajoled by teachers or a deep understanding of the subject being studied.

The high stakes nature of the tests, stressing the child, the teacher and all those with an interest in the institution does not help, instead the perceived need for accountability replaces education. Yet all through this time the tractor counting of ‘more children passing tests than ever before’ formed a smokescreen that obscured something that was becoming increasingly obvious to many teachers at the time, whilst education was seemingly getting better, whilst standards were seemingly rising inexorably, why was it that a good number of the pupils in front of them seemed to know and care less?

What mistakes made in that period continue to be made? Do we still have the setting of targets, are we still obsessed with the minutiae of data and tracking and chasing the pupil? Are we obsessed with test scores and tracking? Are we insisting on rigid rules for teachers to follow? Is the Barber/Blair axis alive and well in our schools? Are we seeing ‘results’ whilst the underlying performance of the children is stagnant at best?

There is a problem with setting targets for individual children based on statistics of probable performance for a cohort. Ed Cadwallader has it nailed where, in a recent piece for Schools Week he writes that:

The culture of setting targets and holding people to account is so entrenched that it persists even though the method for deciding those targets is flawed. The very term “pupil targets” is misleading because really these targets are meant for teachers, who face censure when students fail to reach them, in spite of the fact that giving pupils misleading targets that cap their aspirations makes teachers’ jobs harder.

Is there still a culture in some schools that the only way to deliver success is the Blairite way? In the meantime will our children undergoing this form of education continue to satisfy some measure or other but continue to languish somewhat when it comes to actually learning something beyond the rather lowly ambitions of the ‘learning society’?

This is not to say that accountability is a bad thing per sé but that when accountability is too dominant those in the system become so fearful that though all or most of the headline measures might be reached, the underlying performance, ‘education, education, education’ is allowed to decay.

Dylan William is right when he says:

Instead of asking “What level of achievement should we have as a target?” we should ask, “What do we need to do to make sure that this child is ready for Year 4?” As Rick DuFour says, “Don’t tell me you believe that all students can succeed. Tell me what you do when they don’t”.

We could add that knowing more than is needed for year 4 should not be a problem either. The target for all children in your class should be to ‘know their stuff’, do they have the skills necessary to tackle the subject you are teaching them and how do they compare with the other children? If all are struggling, what are you going to do? If one or two are struggling, what are you going to do? If some or many are excelling where do you go next? This is meaningful ‘targeting’ based on what you are teaching and what the pupils are learning.

I have written about targets replacing teaching here.

A true learning society would value the quality of learning rather than just the quantity of it. Measuring should support, not drive this learning, and rather than cajole teachers with centralised diktats and suffocate education with benchmarks, performance indicators and targets the teachers should ‘rise like lions from their slumbers’ and be free to teach.

Education, just say it once.

Progress in Learning

Greg Ashman’s extremely helpful blog ‘A two-axis model of approaches to learning’ points out that there are different ways of teaching and that these methods can be relevant to different levels of expertise in the learner. Ashman posits that: “As a period of explicit instruction progresses, it will actually become less explicit as the instruction moves from modelled to guided,” and that, ‘self-determined inquiry’: “is an appropriate approach for use by high prior knowledge individuals in the construction of new knowledge.” What Ashman calls ‘accountable inquiry’: “…may take the form of being explicit about methods but not about the knowledge to be learnt. For instance, students might follow a set experimental or research procedure but they might be expected to draw their own conclusions from this.” He concludes by suggesting that all these forms of learning “have their place.”

In an obvious way one could draw the conclusion that learning will be different in a primary school than learning at doctorate level, both are ‘learning’ through a formal procedure yet due to a number of factors, including expertise and age, the most suitable methods are different. This is why treating adults like children at an inset session and expecting children to learn in a way more suited to experts can both go horribly wrong. I have a couple of questions, what is the level of expertise required in a given subject or topic before one can move from explicit to guided to self determined and are all disciplines the same?

In Trivium 21c I extol the virtues of this model: ‘grammar’ lends itself to explicit instruction, ‘dialectic’ moves the instructional technique to more of a guided process as well as ‘accountable inquiry’ and practice, ‘rhetoric’ is ‘self determined’ within an understanding of suitable methods of expression. This gradual ‘letting go’ of the learner builds their expertise whilst also assessing their knowledge and ability as they progress responding sensitively and quickly to areas that, perhaps, the pupil needs, say, more instruction or practice.

This process is explored in more detail in the new book ‘Trivium in Practice’ in which Tom Sherrington, Samantha Gorse, Dave Hall, Nick Wells, Mike Grenier, Carl Hendrick, Nick Rose and John Taylor all contribute excellent chapters about how the trivium, or aspects of it, is relevant to their work or how they have gone about embedding this approach in their schools.

If these different forms of teaching and learning ‘have their place’ it is most fruitful to have a discussion about what, where and when this might be and how they might relate to one another in different contexts.

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Independent, Critical Thinkers and Schooling

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‘We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces.’ Danton’s Death: Buchner

The French playwright, Olympe de Gouges, the writer of the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,’ criticised the French Revolutionary Regime, complaining ‘equality’ did not seem to include female suffrage. She wrote that: “My aim IS TO SPEAK TO YOU FREELY” and that: “The free expression of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of woman…” She continued: “Let us move on and reflect on the frightful position that women held in society; given that a system of national education is now being contemplated, let us see if our wise Legislators will be rational in their consideration of the education of women.” She was guillotined for her fearless and outspoken words during ‘the Terror’ on 3rd November 1793. How tolerant of free expression can a society be?

How independent and free to think critically do we want our students to be? How far can they be free to disagree with their teachers? If the teacher is able to let go and is truly able to teach the student to be free of them, then we are performing a service that might be deemed ‘child centred’, in that the child, once free of the institution, has it within their grasp to be, forever free of that institution. Can the institution, the school or university tolerate individual freedom whilst the student is part of the institution or, in the name of equality, tolerance or respect, will it be stamped upon?

We might believe, strongly, that the values of the institution are the right ones for that child and that our institutional values will see that child through into adulthood but if we forever want that child to reflect the values of the institution this is far from a child-centred education, it is more ‘institution-centred’.

Can a school shape a child? Boris Johnson and David Cameron are known as ‘Old Etonians’ – no matter what they do they will find it hard to escape the epigram OE that is knitted into our consciousness of them. Is it that that school had an impact on these two or is it just the prejudices of we onlookers wishing that OE means something, maybe, privilege?

To what extent should a school go to deny freedom to those who want to go against the grain? Jenny Beavan the Oscar and Bafta winning costume designer for the Mad Max ‘Fury Road’ movie shows that standing out, going against the grain, still causes ructions… But as she says: “I am British with a slightly rebellious character…” implying that the nation of her birth and rebelliousness have a symbiotic relationship, if she had worn those clothes every day to school, what would have become of her?

If we teach a child to adopt, forever, the beliefs of an institution so that they might forever obey those beliefs then we are not inculcating an education for freedom but one of servitude. If we dictate and impose the ‘British’ values of ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs…’ by repressing the individual liberty of someone who pushes the boundaries of what might be meant by ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ we act in a way that Olympe de Gouges might have recognised. Mutual respect and tolerance, can be an imposition, in much the same way as ‘equality’ was after the French Revolution, as one might be denying ‘individual liberty’ in order to ensure that ‘tolerance’ is shown. This is why we end up with such utterances as ‘intolerant of intolerance’; a moral dilemma that ought to be discussed rather than taken at face value.

Character education, values, beliefs, all sound great when they are values and beliefs you agree with and character traits you can warm to, but if schools have the power to shape the values, beliefs and characters of the next generation would we want everyone to be carbon copies of each other? How much freedom would we deny the school leaver in order to ensure they were carbon copies of a school values statement?

The rogue, the anarchist, the egoist, the sceptic, the awkward outlier, the shy, the introvert, the gritless, the witty and the witless… How many of these awkward cusses would survive in a new world order made out of the demands of school centred values? With a broad curriculum, a range of teachers and approaches and experiences, most children can find their niche, but in a narrower curriculum faced with the same old, same old, the same old children might struggle to find a ‘home’.

What about the rude, the right wing, the vile… according to Wikipedia, Kew-Forest School in New York: ‘provides a safe, nurturing, and intellectually vigorous environment that inspires every student to explore and expand creative interests, to apply courageous and innovative thinking, and to become an ethical contributor to ever-widening communities. Kew-Forest students develop the skills necessary for pursuing higher education and for acquiring the essential competencies of a responsible citizen.’ At thirteen years old, due to behaviour problems, Donald Trump had to leave this school (though I’m sure its mission statement was different in those days…) he attended instead the New York Military Academy which ‘was founded in 1889 by Charles Jefferson Wright, an American Civil War veteran and former schoolteacher from New Hampshire who believed that a military structure provided the best environment for academic achievement, a philosophy to which the school still adheres.’ Now, maybe, Trump was formed by his educational experiences, but would we want his character, beliefs and values to be tempered and formed by his school(s)? Would the world be better off if Trump was a different kinda guy? (Don’t answer that…)

Maybe a school can help with, socialisation, ’emotional intelligence’ or ‘manners’, within the microcosm of society that the school represents, but ought it encourage independence of thought? If a child is free to leave an institution so that they can then go ahead and forge their own way, even if that way flies in the face of the values that the school might have wished them to have, is that not preferable to a conveyor belt of similars being produced to a design deigned to be correct in the staff room?

How much freedom can an educational institution endure? Free speech, we’re banning it; the right to offend, we’re offended by it; eccentricity, we can tolerate it as long as it’s in your own home, in your own time, it’s not on Facebook and nobody knows about it… if not, there’s probably a therapist for it; politically incorrect? There’s a punishment for that…

When we say we want independent, creative and critical thinkers do our schools really have the power to achieve this and, if they do, can we tolerate a good degree of freedom within our walls to show we value these aims or do we wish to turn out independent, critically thinking clones of ourselves who agree with our every value and utterance?

An education that fosters individual liberty is a difficult aim to have, I wonder if it is an achievable one.