Author Archives: Martin Robinson

About Martin Robinson

Author: Trivium 21c; Educationalist with an interest in culture, politics, creativity, and the Liberal Arts (especially grammar, dialectic and rhetoric).

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.

School 21, A ‘Conversation’ With Peter Hyman.

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Late last year I had a long conversation with Peter Hyman in which we looked at areas of agreement in our education philosophies and areas where we disagree. This conversation took place within the walls of Windsor Castle, a most un-revolutionary backdrop, steeped in history, a place beautifully unencumbered by 21st Century thinking, unless you count the aeroplanes preparing to land at Heathrow that must disturb a good night’s sleep for various Royals, their servants and staff. Peter and I agree on many things but we also have some significant disagreements too.

In today’s Observer Peter has an article, It Is Time for a Real Revolution in Britain’s Schools, in which he sets out many of our agreements but also hints at those significant disagreements too. The article begins at an event which I attended in the House of Lords, a pupil gave a beautifully crafted speech, the need for eloquence is something about which Peter and I wholeheartedly agree. Peter was formally a speech writer for Tony Blair and shares with me a passion for the Art of Rhetoric, though, perhaps due to Blairite revisionism, he calls it ‘Oracy’. I contributed to the English Speaking Union and School 21’s book called ‘Speaking Frankly’ (Available for free: online edition, here) In the book I make my case, in a piece called ‘the Age of Rhetoric’, for argument, debate, logic and eloquence but also for the teaching of judiciously selected texts and a well thought through curriculum. It is on these points that Peter and I have real disagreements.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with Peter when he says:

An academic education (the head) starts with the basics of literacy and numeracy, then builds out to a deep love of words and facility with the English language. It then develops a depth of knowledge of key concepts and ways of thinking in areas such as science, maths, history and creative arts. This knowledge should be empowering knowledge – knowledge that draws on “the best that has been thought and said” from the past, as the cultural critic Matthew Arnold advocated, but importantly is shaped and applied to the needs of the present and future.

I’m not sure that he means the same thing as me when he writes this. To me this means emphasising subject based teaching, teaching knowledge explicitly so that children remember it and, importantly, it also involves the need for reflection, absorption and silence. Peter prefers a project-based approach to finding the ‘best that has been thought and said’, the problem I have with this is that it doesn’t tend to find the best. Let children free too early on the task of academic knowledge acquisition and they are more likely to find stuff that isn’t that good and also quickly pass over stuff which is difficult to understand. This stuff needs to be taught in a systematic way, it needs to unfold in a carefully constructed narrative, so that children learn in real depth. For this to occur, it needs to be chosen by teachers, presented in a specific order, and referred back to often. It should not be left up to the child to construct, not if you want them to truly learn.

I also worry about Peter’s idea of a ‘noisy’ classroom. If he means a classroom in which children talk and are questioned as well as questioning, where the ‘noise’ is purposeful, then great. If this is just a rhetorical flourish to get a reaction, that this is not the default position, and that if he saw children working silently and diligently on their own in a classroom he wouldn’t worry about it, then fine,  because sometimes we really do need to work alone and quietly, if we want to reach insight and understanding.

As a drama teacher, I love group work, yet I can also see its many problems and weaknesses. It is not a great way to learn stuff. Certainly not for every child in a group. It also suffers as an approach because a teacher can’t keep track of the ‘learning’ that is going on in a group and often quite fundamental concepts are distorted through a ‘Chinese whisper’ approach in which a nugget of knowledge is reshaped into a prize piece of nonsense.

However, we do agree that there should be debate, dialogue and conversation, these things have an important role to play. I worry that Peter has a slightly Utopian idea that his approach will make the world a better place, I’m not sure that we ought to try to make children more ethical and liberal, but we should certainly offer up the great issues of our time as well as the past so that they might be more informed but free to make their own decisions and, yes, mistakes as well as successes.

The great liberal arts tradition is, of course, an education that provides children with the means to learn valuable knowledge, to value discussion and thought, and appreciate the need for beauty and eloquence in their communications with the outside world.

It is great that we have a system in which a school like ‘Michaela’ and a school like Peter’s ‘School 21’ can coexist. I wonder if there is room for a school that seeks to put both approaches together and whether that would satisfy Peter’s desire for innovation?

Assessment and the Arts

 

The anti-Ken Robinson Robinson talks about cognitive dualism, the need for the subjective and the problems that creates for schools in a high stakes assessment and accountability system.

If the arts are subjective how can they be measured fairly? If they are assessed more objectively can they be considered to be worthwhile subjects of study?

 

George Monbiot on Factory Schools and the Future of Education

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On his website George Monbiot writes that:

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.

Just as importantly, journalists should show how they reach their conclusions, by providing sources for the facts they cite. Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references. A charlatan, in any field, is someone who will not show you his records.

This is good to know, in the light of an article he wrote called:

In an age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant

As a trainee Luddite I was quite hopeful when I saw this title, maybe it would be an attack on the mechanisation of our schools from the enthusiastic techno-warriors who try to ruin the environment of education by throwing technology at every child as soon as they have learnt to gurgle and cry. But no.

The piece opens with this paragraph:

In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

As Monbiot suggests, he cannot be definitely right when he writes this. Yet has he reviewed the evidence? Has he updated his knowledge? Has he provided evidence for the facts he has cited? Has he shown us his records?

Well, maybe he has a crystal ball, but I’m not sure he knows what the jobs of the future will be like. Although I’m surprised that he implies education is primarily for preparing children for jobs I wonder what jobs he is thinking of, I’d like to see his evidence for this assertion. Finally, evidence wise, which schools are teaching children to behave like machines? I only ask because Monbiot suggests I should:

Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references…

Monbiot writes that:

…why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

He doesn’t provide sources for the facts he is citing here, but as a drama teacher I can assure him that at A level and GCSE collaboration is not called cheating…

but, of course, it might be him referring to written exams only… but this misunderstands group work, sometimes children try to hide they can’t read or can’t do a task, assessment is important for the teacher to find out who can’t do something so that they might help the pupil. If every test was collaborative, would the education for the future that Monbiot has already described achieve his aim? But, oddly, Monbiot believes the schools we currently have are:

…designed to produce the workforce required by 19th-century factories. The desired product was workers who would sit silently at their benches all day, behaving identically, to produce identical products, submitting to punishment if they failed to achieve the requisite standards. Collaboration and critical thinking were just what the factory owners wished to discourage.

Yet if we do a bit of research we can see that in the 19th century, the schools which were designed to:

provide for England’s newly-industrialised and (partly) enfranchised society 

Were not ones in which

workers who would sit silently at their benches all day

In ‘Schools of Industry’ (As factory school as you can get):

The children were taught reading and writing, geography and religion. Thirty of the older girls were employed in knitting, sewing, spinning and housework, and 36 younger girls were employed in knitting only. The older boys were taught shoemaking, and the younger boys prepared machinery for carding wool. The older girls assisted in preparing breakfast, which was provided in the school at a small weekly charge. They were also taught laundry work. The staff consisted of one schoolmaster, two teachers of spinning and knitting, and one teacher for shoemaking. (Hadow 1926:3-4) In 1846 the Committee of Council on Education began making grants to day schools of industry towards the provision of gardens, trade workshops, kitchens and wash-houses, and for gratuities to the masters who taught boys gardening and crafts and to the mistresses who gave ‘satisfactory instruction in domestic economy’ (Hadow 1926:9).

Sounds like collaboration was needed, and not too much sitting in rows.

This is similar to Monitorial Schools:

The curriculum… was… the ‘three Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) plus practical activities such as cobbling, tailoring, gardening, simple agricultural operations for boys, and spinning, sewing, knitting, lace-making and baking for girls.

Whereas in Infant Schools:

The first infant school was established by Robert Owen (1771-1858) in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1816. Children were admitted at the age of two and cared for while their parents were at work in the local cotton mills. The instruction of children under six was to consist of ‘whatever might be supposed useful that they could understand, and much attention was devoted to singing, dancing, and playing’ (Hadow 1931:3).

Elementary Schools:

The question of how to organise children above the age of six in elementary schools was first addressed in Great Britain by David Stow (1793-1864)… He believed that in primary education the living voice was more important than the printed page, so he laid great stress on oral class teaching.

All this information is freely available here. It gives a lie to Monbiot’s assertion about what the 19th century education was like.

Monbiot’s assertion also ignores the social pioneers who pressed for reform throughout the 19th century, resulting in more schools educating the poor, educating girls, and also providing education education for ‘special needs’ children.

As for other schools, for the more ‘well-to-do’ the 1868 Taunton Report recommended, along class lines that schools should be seen as three different types:

first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a ‘liberal education’ – including Latin and Greek – to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
second-grade schools with a leaving age of 16 or 17 would teach two modern languages besides Latin to prepare middle class boys for the army, the newer professions and departments of the Civil Service; and
third-grade schools with a leaving age of 14 or 15 would teach the elements of French and Latin to lower middle class boys, who would be expected to become ‘small tenant farmers, small tradesmen, and superior artisans’. (The Commissioners treated these schools as secondary schools because the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12).

The Elementary Schools act of 1870 which took up to 20 years to enact is one where schools:

catered for children up to 14;
were for the working class;
provided a restricted curriculum with the emphasis almost exclusively on the ‘3Rs’ (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic);
pursued other, less clearly defined, aims including social-disciplinary objectives (acceptance of the teacher’s authority, the need for punctuality, obedience, conformity etc);
operated the ‘monitorial’ system, whereby a teacher supervised a large class with assistance from a team of monitors (usually older pupils). 

Perhaps these are the schools Monbiot meant? Some of which were only around for the last decade of the 19th century. These schools were not preparing children for the 19th century factory but, maybe, the 20th century one. Yet they were also doing something socially extraordinary, if we look back to 19th century Sunday Schools in which no child was taught:

writing or arithmetic or any of the ‘more dangerous subjects’

because they were:

‘less necessary or even harmful’

The fact that poorer children were being taught to read and write and do their sums was a great advance. Yet even then, at the end of the century, further social reformers were looking to improve the academic level of education for the poor, which led to many great schooling innovations in the twentieth century.

I have a great deal of sympathy with many of Monbiot’s sentiments, but his inability to provide much evidence at all for his assertions in the first half of his piece then leads to worries about the singular nature of the evidence he provides in the second half of his article.

In fact the whole piece reads as though instead of

constantly reviewing the evidence and keep improving and updating his knowledge

it looks as though he already had a conclusion in mind and went on social media to provide ammunition for his prejudices.

Surely he wouldn’t have done something like that?

And yet on the 8th February Monbiot had tweeted this:

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Next time, wouldn’t it be interesting if Monbiot followed his own advice and tried to produce (I paraphrase):

Journalism that is worth reading.

NB The image above is from the USA somewhere between 1900 and 1920

Katie Hopkins, Denial, and Teaching ‘Critical Thinking’

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AQA state that:

A-level Government and Politics enables students to develop their critical thinking skills and enhance their ability to interpret, evaluate and comment on the nature of politics.

For a teacher this is quite a challenge, especially in ‘politically charged’ days like these. Days in which the ‘politically impartial’ speaker of the House of Commons has found himself in hot water for expressing a preference as to whether Donald Trump should address the Houses of Parliament and stating that he voted for ‘remain’ in the EU referendum. A teacher of politics thinking about developing the political critical thinking skills of her students needs to ensure this critical thinking is sensitive to the values and beliefs of different political traditions. This is hard enough when the values and policies of the two seem to have much in common, it is a much harder task when they don’t.

According to Olga Khazan:

liberals and conservatives… now seem further apart than ever on their policy preferences

And, despite many MPs in the Labour Party marching through the same ‘Brexit’ lobby as the Conservative government’s MPs ,the same seems to be at play in the UK.

This distance between the two sides can easily venture into classrooms. A caller to a radio station last Sunday stated that her 17 year old son:

was forced to drop his Government and Politics [A level] after he was “alienated” by fellow pupils for voicing support for Trump during an in-class debate. The concerned mother also said that he was told by the teacher “he shouldn’t have such strong opinions”.

If a teacher and the majority view of the pupils in a class is such that Trump is beyond the pale it might be very difficult for someone with differing views to state their case. That his classmates reportedly shunned him in the next lesson and that this was seemingly supported by the teacher makes it even more worrying. If you can’t have strong opinions in a Government and Politics class, where can you? Maybe the teacher and the classmates need to think about the importance of denial.

The caller was phoning in to the Katie Hopkin’s show on LBC is of note, at the end of the call Hopkins suggested she ‘might go into teaching’, something that might send many teachers into paroxysms of anger. Apparently this sort of response would be quite typical for people of a liberal disposition, our response, whether conservative, liberal or libertarian or a. n. other, to people with whom we disagree tends to be one of complete disbelief, after all our values are the correct ones.

Khazan cites a report by Matt Feinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and his co-author, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer, who have studied the difficulty in how to persuade people to your way of thinking. She writes:

One reason this is so hard to do, they explain, is that people tend to present their arguments in a way that appeals to the ethical code of their own side, rather than that of their opponents.

Feinberg states:

“We tend to view our moral values as universal… there are no other values but ours, and people who don’t share our values are simply immoral. Yet, in order to use moral reframing you need to recognize that the other side has different values, know what those values are, understand them well enough to be able to understand the moral perspective of the other side, and be willing to use those values as part of a political argument.”

For someone updating their status on social media this means they usually send out messages that take their own ethical code as being the one that everyone shares, and if someone doesn’t share it then there must be something wrong with them.

If you think Trump, his team and his supporters are a ‘bunch of deplorables’ it might not be the most persuasive language to use if you want to persuade his voters to change their minds. Brexit is another obvious issue with which it is easy to come unstuck and find yourself treating those ‘on the other side’ as if they are completely deluded. The more passionate one feels about an issue the less carefully one might choose one’s language.

For a teacher, in a classroom, if you want to connect with those who do not necessarily share your views it might be worth looking at how you communicate as well as what values you are promoting.

A classroom is a place where emotions matter but it is also a place where the use of reason and reasoning can be taught. As David Hare puts it in his foreword to Denial by Deborah E Lipststadt

“In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is surely true. It is however a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some opinions are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are. “

The classroom should not encourage children just to shout off their opinions but be places where opinions are developed through careful thought and analysis of facts and ideas. This would involve the teacher understanding different viewpoints and presenting material, where useful, dialectically. As this article puts it:

Surely [pupils] deserve the opportunity to learn how to think, before a teacher tries to tell them what to think as well.

This seemingly liberal view against teachers indoctrinating kids might seem reasonable enough, until you realise it’s from the Daily Mail and written by the aforementioned Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is a right wing controversialist and the Mail is a newspaper even shunned as a reliable source by Wikipedia, so when I tweeted the article I should have expected a reaction. Most teachers even those agreeing with the sentiment could not see past the Hopkins/Mail concatenation. Not all opinions are equal but for some this is due to who utters them and where, rather than what the opinion might be.

The film of ‘Denial’ shows this brilliantly, as much as someone might hate the words of David Irving because of who he is, in the court of law it came clear that the battle over what is said is more important than the battle around their character. If we are teaching about such things it would be important to show how the teacher should not say ‘Irving is evil’, no matter what their personal viewpoint might be. They might speculate as to his motives, but the most important part of the lessons should be about the facts of the case as presented. A great lesson in how to think forensically rather than purely emotionally, the film shows how difficult this can be and also how all involved are emotional beings and that this is an important part of what makes us all too human it might sometimes get in the way of ‘truth’.

If not all opinions are equal this cannot be based on what we ‘feel’ about those facts but on how we examine, analyse and use persuasive argument to see which opinions count for more. These opinions will sometimes, perhaps often, not reflect our own. We have to ‘deny’ our own feelings. This denial can be very important.

In a Government and Politics class, it shouldn’t be the initial opinions of the teacher, or the children, that matter. It should, however, be about discovering about where ideas come from. We might ‘feel’ our moral sentiments are universal (some of them might be) but we need to look at how other people might differ. Rhetoric can be carefully constructed to persuade those who disagree with us to think about what we might have to say with sympathy. The course could also look at the darker arts of politics: The Prince or, even, House of Cards, but most of all it should look at how to have educated opinions, how to muster arguments, empathise with your opponents, yet be able to argue with them respectfully, eloquently and thoughtfully and perhaps, even, sometimes change their minds. Articulating opinions sometimes needs the act of denial in order to make them stronger.

You’re Not Doing Growth Mindset Properly

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Brain Gym and Learning Styles came and went, well, the hope is they’ve gone. Fads and gimmicks come and go, often on the basis of some research or other. When this research is translated into the classroom setting it often takes on a very different hue than was originally envisaged. And, if what was originally envisaged was nonsense, by the time it has got to pupil questionnaire stage it is often double or triple nonsense.

The trouble with teachers is we like to embellish ideas with our own take. The ideas travel via whispered insets some twenty teachers away from the original instigator who wasn’t the original original but was the original who uttered it in a three minute slot at a teach-meet, which was then summed up in a tweet and a quote with a lovely picture of a mountain peak…

You can see how it happens.

Research is great for picking apart research and  also sorting out bad science from good. This is a vital part of its job. How many school canteens will be taking chips, toast and roast potatoes off the menu as of tomorrow? We’ve heard the news, now we must act! Mashed potato sandwiches are now the menu de jour. Tomorrow.

And now Growth Mindset has received a gentle nudge to its credibility, Li and Bates write that:

We find no support for the idea that fixed beliefs about basic ability are harmful, or that implicit theories of intelligence play any significant role in development of cognitive ability, response to challenge, or educational attainment.

If you teach in a school that trumpets itself as a ‘Mindset’ school this might be worth ignoring in the short term as another piece of research might be along in a few days that contradicts it. Or supports it. Which is where the problem lies. Should we base our entire teaching and learning ethos on one piece of research?

This came to mind today when I read that:

Height has an effect on academic outcomes:

The paper states that:

Height has positive effects on educational outcomes for students in large schools, but not for students in small schools.

The height effects are consistent with taller students being able to better capture school resources in large schools.

You’ll notice that not only height is relevant here but also the size of your school.

Tall students clearly can’t fit into small schools, whereas in large schools they not only fit snugly but outperform their vertically challenged peers.

When this is mentioned in a three minute segment in the next teach meet the outcome could be catastrophic. Clearly we need larger schools and taller students. Smaller students can be sent to small schools. Small schools being small, might not have enough room for lots of small students. When do we decide how small a student is? Key stage 2 height tests might be insufficient evidence for judging expected growth progress in the secondary school. Puberty might play havoc with the data, things might get very hairy.

And then a solution is sought and the utterance becomes: make all children stand tall: This is the real Growth Mindset. If children believe they are tall, they are tall. If they self identify as tall, they are tall. But there are always those who will let the school down, no matter how large it is. If you want to do growth mindset properly these children can be made tall:

Every school should introduce the rack. A few twists a day will see a real growth mindset for all children regardless of their genetic inheritance.

From such small things, big ideas grow.

Confine Post-truth Education into the Dustbin of History

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Two arguments have been prevalent in education discourse for a number of years: one, that the content of the curriculum is just a reflection of power relations and two, that all truth is relative. The arguments are often expressed as questions: ‘whose truth?’ And ‘whose knowledge?’ These ideas are then used to back up the idea that the curriculum should be personalised and that everyone is entitled to an opinion as all opinions are valid, so what we teach is less important than how we teach it.

The challenge to such thinking in education comes with two changes that occurred during 2016: our relationship with ‘Europe’ and the oft repeated claim that now live in a post truth age.

Whose knowledge? Imagine a curriculum that celebrated the importance of European culture, had explored the work of Beethoven, Goethe, and Dante, in which all children had been taught about classical civilisation, the languages of ancient Greek and Latin, they had been imbued with the philosophy of Hegel, of Machiavelli, of Descartes, and had tried to understand Kant, had felt the passion of Puccini, the splendour of Wagner and the brilliance of Mozart… and Napoleon… imagine a curriculum where children were now looking at Putin through the eyes of children who had been introduced to Tsarist Russia through the words of Tolstoy.

In education we have for too many years not given enough credence to cultural, artistic, philosophical and political understanding of our European home. Isn’t it a shame the referendum debate lacked a position on the cultural history of our continent, our place within it, its Christian history, as well as Jewish, Muslim and Pagan, its architecture and geography…? Instead these things have been frowned upon for years by a significant number of educationalists. Much of our shared European culture has been seen in our schools as a colonialist history, full of white male domination including, of course,  Hitler. Instead of some sort of communal European identity and feeling, our place as Europeans is absorbed as problematic. And whether you were for Brexit or not, Europe is a part of all our lives. Especially as our island story has an uneasy relationship with the continent, we should teach for a better cultural understanding of our shared and different histories.

Now we hear about how disgraceful it is that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age from the same mouths who have for many years asked but ‘whose truth?’ and stated that: ‘there is no truth…’ How they can suddenly believe that we have lost something they thought we never had is beyond me. Derrida and Foucault, dead European men both, have infected the discourse in the arts and humanities for too long.

It is precisely in the Arts and the Humanities that we should regain a sense of truth, of truths, of the need for a pursuit of truth and some sense of a common history. Education  should reaffirm its purpose of introducing the cultural and philosophical conversations through time to children, we can use education as a way of bringing us back together through all our differences to at least understand that, in the words of Jo Cox MP, “we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

If the arts and culture are merely taught in terms of reflecting privilege and power and all is relative so there is no truth, we will struggle to raise children who can see a value in the arts, apart from an X Factor money making and fame generating opportunity. If the arts and humanities abandon the pursuit of truth and leave that noble aim to science and maths, we will struggle to understand!

This means stop pursuing ‘personalisation’, everyone is different, tailor-made approaches in which children are merely customers exercising consumer choice. Instead it means teaching the great works, thoughts, and ideas of the past, restoring a sense that some things are better than others. It means we should teach about our cultural history, the agreements and the clashes of civilisations and ideals, the wars and the peace, but ensure, into our great tradition, we include a wide range of voices, including the dissenting ones to enable new voices to feel that they have a stake in continuing the conversation.

Value the tradition and value the pursuit of wisdom and truth. Confine the wrecking questions of whose truth? and whose knowledge? to the dustbin of history.

 

Don’t Educate the Working Class

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Not all working-class children want to be middle or upper class.

says Garth Stahl, the author of Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration… emphasising that education is about changing people and not everyone wants to change. We are defined by where we are in the rat race and that is where we feel most secure. This fear that education might change people, who they are at their very core, is something that eats away at some people’s fears about schooling. ‘Shakespeare is not for our kids,’ might be the cry of some secure in the knowledge that teaching Macbeth to the oiks might see them rise up to Upper Middle Class rectitude and result in them indulging in dark arts at the golf club or even, God forbid, in the Labour Party.

Stahl might have a point, imagine an education that sets out to change Upper Class people into Working Class toilers… What would the timetable consist of? The school lunch menu would be relatively simple: KFC. The lessons could comprise the subjects of gambling, tabloid reading, beer swilling, football (playing as well as the pride and prejudice), Brexit fear of foreigners and all sorts of other such stereotypical nonsense. How would the Upper Class like that?! Do we really think that the working class are a morass of people who indulge in such behaviours that define who they are and if they are subjected to opera, fine dining and JMW Turner their entire world view is shattered and they are left bereft?

This is the problem with the model of education that purely celebrates identity. Firstly we rely on the idea that there is a broad ‘type’ of people defined by their job, or lack of it, their gender, fluid or not, their race, culture and creed. This is useful for Marxist sociologists, snobs , advertisers and algorithm designers – and, indeed, it becomes ever so sophisticated as we are all seen as ABC1s D2s and CD borderlines… but do we really fear teaching and learning things that are of human value beyond our algorithmic echo chambers? If we want education to worship at the altar of our own identities then we will never learn to look beyond.

Rather than change people education refines our understanding of who we are as human beings, it adds to our knowledge not through social engineering; neither meritocratic or anti- aspirational, a good education should expand the self. If education is about the rat race then rats are the only ones who will benefit. If education is a personalised, Narcissistic look at trying to make ourselves feel better about who we are or have chosen to be then it will never be about who we truly are. We don’t have to change who we are, but in order to find out, we might have to take a broader view than the one we think justifies our personal proclivities. An education in ‘high culture’ is for all, not just a supposed elite. Shakespeare is for everyone, whether they like it or not.