Monthly Archives: March 2017

Stop Fetishising Failure and Success

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Famous ‘failures’ is a slightly ridiculous concept when tied to the idea of ‘success’. The cases above are famous people who have succeeded and have experienced some sort of failure in their lives. I’m not sure it is helpful to fetishise failure in this way. And yet many schools use posters like this one to ‘motivate’ children wanting them to see failure as a step towards worldwide fame and riches.

The inclusion of Marilyn Monroe is an interesting one, considering her death which to many might be a warning as to the type of success that is being promoted by this poster. ‘Success’ might be a mask to many other things. Any child who has even the remotest acquaintance with the genre of tragedy or knowledge of history will know that many famous ‘successes’ ended their lives in failure. The most famous moustachioed dictator for one, Napoleon for another. Contemporary famous ‘successes’ are notable for being tabloid fodder when it comes to dismantling their pretence of success. The thing is we are not one or the other, no one can be pictured as a success or a failure, this very idea is a diminution of their, and indeed our,  humanity.

Most children in an average school will not succeed in the ways the above have ‘succeeded’. Most will not fail to the extent of Napoleon. But if our classroom walls are plastered  with the vision of ‘motivational’ quotes and pictures, our own rather mundane existence, in contrast to theirs, is put into sharp perspective. This is hardly motivational. It is celebrity culture, seeing a race of superhuman people as separate to us then reduced to a headline: a picture and a quote, can only remind us of our lack of talent. Like surrounding yourself with rich people your lack of riches is put into perspective, depression and dissatisfaction can soon follow on.

It is the unknown failures that should worry us. How many blank spaces on our walls represent them? The lack of quotable quotes from the great mass of ‘failed’ lives might be more to the point. These are our lives too and can also be our futures. Like every political career is said to end in failure, it is the sheer ordinariness of failure and success that should be ours to contemplate. It is part and parcel of being human to fail, to succeed and often to just muddle on through.

For a number of people failure is a central part of their school experience. This is not helped with a pretence that this means you might be a prototype Einstein. The thing to do is try to deal with the child in the here and now, not refer them to a quote and some forlorn hope. Addressing the underlying reason for any failure might help more, but so also will reading. Reading stories, reading great literature, listening to great music, looking at great art, performance, and realising that great work can help sustain us and help us to grow. This work is the product of a variety of different people whose lives should never be ‘the thing’, no cod psychology of heroic humanity is needed. They and we are all human beings whose rich and varied lives tend to muddle through and meet triumph and disaster along our merry and miserable ways. We might be jealous of the lives of Marilyn, or Lennon or Elvis one day, the next day we are not. No more heroes anymore.

There might indeed be geniuses and there might be people who have more good or bad luck than others. But every person on the crest of a wave is as worthwhile celebrating as one whose life is down in the dumps, not as failure and success but life as it is lived. Celebrate human beings as we are, not as a race apart.

Democratic Education is no Utopia

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Don’t say goodbye to Mr Chips!!!

Maybe its because I’ve read Lord of the Flies but I’m not sure putting children in charge of education is the best thing for them, our schools, or, indeed, all of our futures. In her ‘Utopian Thinking’ piece in the Guardian, Rachel Roberts argues:

There are a few things we are teaching our children that will be redundant. First, memorising and regurgitating a lot of information – they have information at their fingertips, quite possibly beamed directly into their brains by the time they become active participants in adult society. Second, being told what to do – if they are going to have to resolve problems that have never been faced before they need to know how to think creatively, not follow. And, finally, they do not need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them simply to obey regardless of the orders – they need to be regarded as the experts that they are.

I don’t know whether Rachel has children or not. Imagine, however, if children were brought up by their parents following this fashionable approach. No learning to read, it might be beamed into your head in the future. No telling you what to do, no toilet training, shit when and where you feel like it: Reductio Ad Abturdum… No following any adult orders at all, just cross that road, I don’t want you to obey me, be the expert that you are, under the wheels of that car.

I have an inkling this is not what she means. I expect her views are not shaped by the home experience, I expect she has a fondness for a degree of adult authority in the home. Though I don’t know. But it is the school that is the target of most of her ire. Roberts is an education consultant.

So what does an education system that isn’t entrenched in top-down authority structures look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering our adult world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new realities?

Democratic education is needed

The answer: put children in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom they learn; have them resolving real problems day in, day out…

Such a system would be supported by two pillars. The first is collective decision-making, with children fully participating in governing the school community. This should go far beyond a school council. There should be a school meeting where one person has one vote – regardless of age – and where school rules, behaviour management and legislation are the matters at stake.

The second is “self-directed discovery”, with children following their inherently inquisitive nature. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn. It puts the trust in the child, thus increasing their motivation and allowing them to learn what they need to.

This means rights and responsibilities. A child of any age. Now, with anything like this, it all sounds lovely if children vote the way you want them to. Roberts asks:

Wish some of our “grown up” political decisions were made like this? I’d say children are equipped to be involved, I’d trust them to take me through the challenging times ahead. Wouldn’t you?

But in a true democracy they might vote in ways that you don’t want them to. Just as well meaning ‘liberal’ types  have taken part in recent democratic processes and have found that sometimes people with opposing views to them can win and have found it to be a bit of a shock, I wonder what shock awaits the well meaning ‘give the kids power’ education consultant when they find that the children choose to exercise power in ways that they wouldn’t choose. Especially when you consider these are intended to be children who have received little to no authority in their young lives. As William Golding asks

“What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?” 

Who will intervene to ensure the behaviour management strategy is not ‘beating up the younger children because they are annoying?’ Where the school rules include sexual favours for certain children or where the right to indoctrinate younger children with terrorist propaganda is flavour of the month with the bigger kids? What if they vote to take away the vote from younger kids?

And why not intervene when a child is exploring online? The self centred discovery of a child lacking control as they are let free in a, so called, ‘adult world’ of depraved images and depictions, arguments and falsities. Roberts is entirely wrong when she states that:

A good education system doesn’t intervene, ask them to stop being this way and tell them what to learn 

Because a good education system DOES intervene, it is there to help children navigate a world of complexity and danger, beauty and joy, immorality and judgement, carefree and careful, an education in these things and more needs authority.

And just like the authority of the parent who teaches her child to read, his child to eat well, her child to go to sleep at a sensible hour, this authority is about love.

Exercising authority is about care. Care for our children is part protective and part empowering. This is not a process of throwing babies into a fully adult world. It is one of nurture. Children need to learn that the human condition is not perfect, they must learn how to cope with that realisation. The most caring way of preparing them for this is to educate them properly by teaching them in a structured and thoughtful way rather than neglecting them.

Roberts’ utopian view is a frightening dystopia in which adults lose any semblance of control they have and give it to those who have no experience about what to do with it. Our world is flawed not because we are adults but because we are human. It won’t be made better by putting children in charge, they are human too and, probably, even more flawed than us. Especially if no one has thought about how to best educate them.

Ofsted and the Development of a Rich Curriculum

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In her first major speech as the new HMCI Amanda Spielman said:

And that is why I’m announcing today that I have chosen the curriculum to be the focus of the first big thematic Ofsted review of my tenure. From early years, through to primary, secondary, sixth form and FE colleges, this will explore the real substance of education.

We will look at how schools are interpreting the national curriculum or using their academy freedoms to build new curricula of their own and what this means for children’s school experience. We will look at what makes a really good curriculum. And we will also look at the problems, such as curriculum narrowing, and what we can do to tackle them…

But I do want this review to provide key insights into some of the most important policy debates of the day. How do we best promote social mobility? How do we make sure that every child has the best possible start in life? And can the accountability system play a part in encouraging the development of a rich curriculum, rather than incentivising gaming?

This should be warmly welcomed. If Ofsted can see its role as ensuring that all our children receive a rich curriculum, one that isn’t narrow, and one that celebrates the innovative curricula work that is being done over and above just delivering the national curriculum, then much good can come from it.

What makes a really good curriculum? A good curriculum is a narrative, it has progress at its heart, though its not a linear journey, more of an adventure through which a student learns necessary knowledge and skills, practices and applies the knowledge and skills and begins to understand the logic of the subjects she is studying. She is introduced to great debates, she learns to argue and question, she understands that the great conversations and controversies in the field of study are exciting, fascinating, indeed, invigorating. She learns to develop her voice in that conversation, and whether it be in an essay or exam, performing or making something, she learns how to contribute to that conversation. This is, of course, the trivium model of great curriculum design. But whatever models your school chooses, ones that follow the needs of the subjects you are teaching are essential. An approach to curriculum design that ignores individual subjects and their differences will not help ensuring a rich or valuable experience for the pupils.

The real substance of education – what you teach and how you communicate the adventure and involve students in the conversation – is exactly what schools should be focusing on. As I argued here, a joined up curriculum is essential and, as I argued here, a coherent curriculum is more important, in the first instance, than the quality of teacher. Schools went down a cul de sac with an obsession about ‘outstanding’ teachers when, all along, they should have been looking at the quality of the curriculum being studied. From four years old to nineteen: what and who is being studied, when, why and how, and in what order? Assessment is there to aid the process of learning and rather than schools obsessing about one size fits all data collection, they would do better to have curriculum conversations throughout their institution.

Let’s hope, for schools that hitherto haven’t focused closely on curriculum, Spielman’s focus on curriculum brings about some healthy change.

Schools Are Not Businesses. A Message to Lord Nash.

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Lord Nash, speaking at the Challenge Partnership national conference, titled his talk: ‘what is relevant in business to education?’ According to the TES, he said that:

“…too often teachers have confused their individuality with their professionalism… Being a professional means embracing accountability, standardisation and consistency, although of course we want our teachers to be inspiring.”

He went on to talk about how: ‘using standardised content would allow teachers to focus on delivery and differentiation, and would reduce workload.’

Adding it was impossible to: “run an organisation of any size and any diversity, efficiently and effectively if you haven’t got consistent procedures… The content has to be provided by the MAT based on evidence-based best practice across the group.”

Perhaps it is inevitable with the introduction of MATs that business issues and practices would soon come to the fore. A local school that had its own identity serving the local area would not have had to consider ‘standardisation and consistency’ to any great extent. Games staff would teach games and the physics teacher would teach physics. When you have a MAT the temptation is to have a consistent brand, in which all the teachers teach their subjects in the same ‘branded’ way. It might also be a revenue stream, selling branded curricula, lesson plans, scripts and powerpoint slides to other schools and maybe even provide ‘MOOCs’ for those who home educate or live in places where schools are difficult to access. With a standardised brand consistency might be considered key.

McDonalds, at first glance as standardised a company as you can get, soon realised that the problem with standardisation is it’s lack of adaptability.  They developed a: “…consistent customer experience and branding while still allowing for locally relevant menu and service variations in segments across the globe…”

This tension between standardisation and adaptability is an interesting one. The ‘brand’ thrives if it can sell itself as a consistent experience, when I go for a Costa coffee or buy some Marmite, I am responding to this consistency. I prefer not to take too many risks when spending my cash. And, thankfully, I like Marmite. Imagine what would happen if Marmite tried to change in order to appeal to those who dislike it, they would lose my custom, the very reason that I like Marmite might be the thing they have to change to bring in customers who don’t like the bitter taste. Adaptability can be problematic.

It is interesting that Lord Nash feels standardisation rather than adaptability is the business model that schools should adopt. He suggests standardisation would require staff to be less individualistic and more professional. I question whether this is the dichotomy here. I think the role of teachers would change, but instead of being more professional, their profession changes. They become more like a sales staff. They are provided with the product, the ‘standardised content’, and then they are required to sell this product ‘differentially’ to different consumers. As someone who worked in sales for a period of time one of the adages was that a good salesperson must believe in their product. A period of training (ITT?) would be required to sell the the product to the workforce, to convince them of its efficacy and then train them with the techniques of teaching about and selling the product to the customers, in this case pupils and their parents.

Success rates of staff could be compared, figures shared, and each teacher would then be responsible for making it work, competitively, showing they could ‘sell’ the product through ‘delivery, differentiation and inspiration’ as Nash would have it.

This ‘differentiation’ that Nash talks of is, not ‘adaptability’ of product. The sales-teacher would be expected to deliver in the classroom. The teacher will try to sell marmite to all. Actually that is not quite fair, the ‘product’ will be far more varied than a jar of marmite can ever be, and maybe ‘adaptability’ can be provided by breadth of curriculum and content.

But whether we go to a McDonalds in Beijing, Berlin or Nairobi we still feel the corporate imprint. This standardisation is its strength and its weakness. Lovers of artisanal burgers, home made or made on an organic farm, believe McDonalds is decidedly second rate to the best of these burgers. McDonalds might need to entice you in with the promise of toys for your kids to make up for the mundanity of the product. Imagine the happy meal transposed to the classroom. Happy learning. Free toy with each maths exercise completed.

Are staff working within a standardised business really more professional than those who have more control over what they do? Being paid for doing a task that is imposed upon you is different to one which you have designed for yourself. As Cicero put it:

“vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery” Cicero: On Obligations

Although it is possible to enjoy your work when you work in this way it is a very different relationship with the school than teachers have been traditionally used to. This might be no bad thing, because if the school staff is made up of those with little artistic skill it is better to replace them with hired hands. Yet, there might be another way to achieve some form of consistency, to be true to the tradition of teaching, be adaptable and envisage teachers to be rather more professional than Nash’s view would seem to be.

When schools deliberately ape businesses, problems can occur. The Business Academy,  Bexley  opened to great fanfare in 2002:

…the concept of openness extends to the physical layout of the school, which is based around flexible, open areas, rather than corridors and classrooms…

Classrooms look more like hi-tech offices, with clusters of flat-screen display computers and lessons taught using touch-screen whiteboards.

…gushed the BBC, reflecting the cargo cult nature of the philosophy behind the school. Get Norman Foster to expensively design a school, which looks and runs like a business then all the positive aspects of business practice will imbue every individual who passes through. This proved to be a fallacious argument.

To many teachers it would have been obvious that problems might occur by doing away with corridors and classrooms. Experienced teachers’ professional expertise might be a useful rejoinder to the inevitable hubris of those who believe they have the right answers and reason on their side and are determined to use a top down model to impose this onto a workforce.

A school is not a business and should not be run as one. This is not to say it should be run badly or operate with a balance sheet in the red, but it should be run along different lines, it should be recognised that schools far from being merely rational places that can be measured with a simple ‘bottom-line’, they can be inconsistent, inefficient and completely devoid of standardisation and yet still be places in which good teaching takes place.

A school is not a business, it is an institution.

An institution, is a place of shared knowledge, grounded in emotions and feelings which then shape reason. This was essential to Edmund Burke’s idea in which we come ‘to love the little platoon we belong to…’ we inherit the wisdom of practices that are passed down to us. Far from being individuals, we are social animals, and rather than responding kindly to being fed from the top down for our manual labour, teaching has always been a collegiate activity within which teachers express their ‘artistry’, within the traditions of their school, subject and society.

A good school has a strong ethos through which all the differences can coexist, giving out a semblance of unity of purpose. Far from being imposed through a time and motion top down management model this comes about through various traditions coalescing in the institution.

A school is not the result of some grand plan or project, made up in some grand thinker’s study or laboratory, a school is a social institution, made stronger by man’s many interactions over the years. If one rides roughshod over all this sui generis history with the imposition of alien practices which have been proven to work in another domain one might lose the very heart of what kept the institution alive in the first place.

The making of a new school is not a soulless act of efficiencies and customer pleasing activities, it is about setting in place the means by which a school can grow into an institution. In this case the need for partnership is more, yes take notice of the ever evolving ideas of how to run a school but don’t base your school on current conventions,  base it on the tried and true ideas of centuries past that is embodied in the expertise of teachers, the history of subject teaching and the great teaching tradition. This could be MAT wide, it could form the basis of ‘product’ but it would be the product of an institutional, organic approach and not the business approach that threatens to de-professionalise the workforce.

Some sort of rights and liberties should be given to teachers to be creative in their classrooms. This is adaptability. But Nash is right about the dangers of individuality, a purely anarchic approach in which every teacher is a lone figure delivering curriculum in their own eccentric style will not help the progress of a child, if from year to year she has to relearn or learn stuff that was not rooted in previous learning or is at odds with it. The teacher is not a Grand Panjandrum but needs to work professionally as part of a team of teachers designing and reviewing their curriculum collectively responding in an agile way to the changing needs of society, represented mostly by the children who attend the school, their subject knowledge and by continually refreshing their professional expertise. They don’t become professional by being denied the need to be curriculum experts.

This relies on the teacher being ‘what they ought to be’, the professional, given the responsibility in which she can grow into that role. Teachers have, for centuries, developed habits, rules, and together have created subject disciplines, various canons, books, ways of teaching, tests, terms, without resorting to imposing a blueprint from above to improve their work. The risk might be that what is imposed from above, might be worse than what they already do. And, being imposed from above, its ability to adapt might be too slow.

Evidence-based practice across a group is an excellent idea but it requires flexibility in approach. A standardised approach does not have flexibility. Adaptability when decreed from the centre can only take its expertise from outside of the group, it devalues the professionals within the group even more by always having to bring in ideas from beyond. Innovation needs to come from within too, therefore anti-fragile adaptability needs to be part of the ethos of a MAT. It can achieve this by realising that schools are not businesses, they are institutions.