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A Level Results Day and the Polymathic Adventurer!

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A level results day is always a bittersweet day for me, school left me when I was sixteen and by the time many of my friends were getting their A level results I was working on a market stall selling, amongst other things, whoopee cushions and fart powder. Both products with clear results.

But I digress. As a teacher I loved A level results day, it is exciting to see children, who you have seen grow, at a crossroads in their lives. Where to go? What to do? Did I get the grades? Fear, joy and misery, it’s an emotional day for all. Opening my results as a teacher was nerve-wracking, and sometimes there were individual students I’d think didn’t get the grades they deserved and sometimes the opposite, but mainly it was a day when I’d celebrate the successes with my students and say goodbye and good luck.

Despite this I can’t help think that A levels are doing our kids a disservice. Some years ago the AS level was brought in with one of the results being it gave pupils the opportunity to study a slightly wider range of subjects. A mainly Arts student could carry on with Maths, and a Science enthusiast could keep up their studies in Art; though for only a few months.

We have now returned to the ‘gold standard’ three A levels. Yet all around us we see the results of our system’s narrowness in our intellectual and academic lives. Some scientists don’t understand the Arts, and, in return, some arts graduates don’t get science, statistics; many of us struggle with languages, and the humanities become a world of their own. It seems we can’t rely on GCSEs to carry the burden of breadth.

This is why I’d like to see more schools taking on the IB, and in an ideal world where funding and staffing wasn’t an issue, I hope that many would.

I am fascinated by the polymathic individuals whose knowledge across the two or more cultures sustains their intellectual curiosity. This is why I look forward to listening to Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure on BBC Radio Four next week, a programme I hope will appeal to all teachers and all students. Despite a narrowness in exams studied it is possible, with great effort, to keep up interests in a wide range of subjects. The effort, however, is worth it –

So here’s to some great A level results and a continuation of a life lived as a polymath adventurer!

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The Problem With Austin’s Butterfly

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Ron Berger’s famous ‘Austin’s Butterfly’ is a great lesson about how redrafting and feedback can help a child create a more accurate ‘scientific’ drawing of a butterfly. In the context of the task picture six is clearly the ‘best’ depiction of the butterfly.

If one removes the context and no longer looks for accuracy and, instead, tries to judge the drawing on its own merits – art for its own sake, which drawings are the ‘best’? I would argue that, artistically, one and four are the ‘best’. How about these three Turner’s, which is ‘the best’?

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In terms of ‘accuracy’ maybe the first one, but the third, of a fire at the Tower of London, in 1841, a watercolour ‘sketch’ has an immediacy of response that might represent a different sort of ‘accuracy’, that of the artist responding to a moment in time in a way that captures something of the event beyond an accurate depiction of it. In fact, for many years, this was thought to be a painting of the fire in 1834 at the Houses of Parliament, does this mean the picture is not as good as it should be? Well, it was only a sketch but it did help Turner in developing his Art. This, from 1844, is a finished work:

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The art teacher has to rely on knowledge and intuition to decide what is ‘best’, sometimes this is not so easy, especially in a lesson where Austin has drawn the best butterfly already in the first five minutes.

Paul McCartney ‘dreamt’ Yesterday, and remembered it the next morning, quickly working out the right chords, but always thinking in the back of his mind that somebody else must have written it and he remembered it because it came to him so easily. Had a teacher overworked the tune with my ‘imaginary Paul as a music pupil’ who had come up with that tune – saying it needs redrafting, it might have ruined the tune. A lesson which has a given amount of time is often too short for work to be completed. Sometimes it is too long. What to do with those minutes if a child has already created a great piece?

Well, Paul, had to work on the lyrics, ‘scrambled eggs’ was not as good as ‘yesterday’…

But arts teachers need to think what happens if a pupil comes up with perfection straight away? I mustn’t ruin it and I need to feed their aesthetic judgement and taste to ‘know’ when good is good. How do we teach a child to ‘know’ when something is good…

And not, merely, accurate?

 

Spielman’s OFSTED Game Changer: The Importance of the Curriculum.

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Perhaps I had a bit of sunstroke but it seemed to me that what the new OFSTED supremo, Amanda Spielman had to say was a ‘game’ changer. In her gloriously uplifting speech at the, equally gloriously uplifting, Wellington Festival of Education she said that:

One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.

To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.

Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:

“Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”

Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?

I think the reason that some leaders might have overlooked this question is due to a number of reasons, for example, it might be assumed that the body of knowledge is down to individual teachers or departments; leaders might assume that the national curriculum and exam rubrics ‘are’ the curriculum; and in our recent obsession with ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning leaders might have focused on the ‘performativity’ of teaching rather than the substance, the script*, that is being ‘performed’. Learning walks, lesson observations, CPD focused on ‘pedagogical’ gimmicks and tricks have all added to the impression that teaching is a performance accompanied by engaging activities through which children are entertained or kept busy. I have argued for a long time that pedagogy is not separate to curriculum, the two are intertwined, and if you focus merely on pedagogy then you are neglecting the most important of the two. Curriculum must come first.

Spielman went on to say:

I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.

For many teachers this is not a surprise at all, in fact for a lot of us in the classroom this has become the dominant mode of ‘efficient’ teaching, soundly teaching to the test to deliver results. This is inevitable in a high stakes culture and though for many it is the high stakes nature that causes this problem, I wonder that without that culture richer curricula would be the order of the day? I doubt it. For a number of teachers teaching has become a short term exercise where the lesson plan, scheme of work/topic and ‘getting them through the test’ approach has become the norm and the slow unfolding of the narrative of a rich curriculum has become a lost art.

And make no mistake, it is an art.

A great curriculum not only unfolds within subjects it occurs across subjects too. Spielman recognises this:

All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.

A rich, broad, curriculum, experienced by children, giving them a variety of knowledge and experiences to enrich their lives is a precious thing and it is the primary reason for a school to exist.

How to ensure this happens?

One could do worse than begin with the recommendations made by Amanda Spielman’s colleague at Ofsted, Sean Harford. He recommended that:

Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding, ‘need for numbers’? that’s up to the school, best way of ‘knowing’ (not ‘demonstrating’) the above.

This is something I have been working on for sometime, I would argue that a ‘trivium’ curriculum approach ensures that schools can provide a broad, rich curriculum with a focused design and intent with a variety of ways to know the impact that it’s having. To this end Tom Sherrington and I have, somewhat fortuitously, put together a ‘powerful curriculum’ day course in London on July 7th. Planned before the Spielman speech, this day will nevertheless look at its potential implications for schools. If you are interested in attending click here for the link.

If you are unable to make it and there are only a few places left we hope to do more in the future.

It is heartening to see that OFSTED ‘s explicit recognition of  curriculum breadth and education for the sake of the knowledge learnt and its importance might help counteract the damaging effects of narrowing teaching and learning to ‘gaming’ the accountability system. That Ofsted has been part of the problem in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution in the future. I hope that Spielman’s speech will turn out to be a significant step in the right direction in which all children are able to access a broad rich curriculum that will help them live interested and interesting lives.

 

 

*NB, I am not advocating the scripting of lessons here.

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?

 

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.

 

Boris ‘Two Articles’ Johnson

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The Sunday Times has published an article by Boris Johnson arguing the case for remaining in the EU, that it was written a mere two days before he announced he would be campaigning for Brexit has led to a good number of people bemoaning Boris’s hypocrisy. First there was ‘two Jags’ Prescott, now there is ‘two articles’ Boris and people of twitter have not been slow in putting their opinions forward about Johnson being caught trying to look after his own interests rather than the interests of the nation.

Far from being a sign of Johnson being in two minds and coming across as a political charlatan, his two articles are really a sign of a good education. There is one sign early on when Johnson, as his his wont, uses a classical allusion:

“…like Hercules bringing Eurydice (sic) back from the underworld.”

But it is not just his ability to play around with classical knowledge that is of interest, it is the well known technique of getting pupils to see both (or more) sides of an argument that matters. As I argue in the book ‘Trivium in Practice’ :

…get children to explore… debate through a technique known as a dissoi logo. Through this method a pupil would be encouraged to look at two sides of an argument – or more – and be asked to write… [giving] equal weight to the ‘rightness’ of both sides. This is the process through which instant opinion is ‘shelved’ and stronger, educated opinion begins to be formed

As it says in Wikipedia the dissoi logo ‘considers each side of an argument in hopes of coming to a deeper truth’ and that ‘The Dissoi Logoi was found amongst the works of Sextus Empiricus who lived between 160-210 C.E… In ancient Greece, students of rhetoric would be asked to speak and write for both sides of a controversy.’

Johnson is not showing his hypocrisy arguing for both sides of the debate in writing, rather he is showing what a good, classical, education he had. Actually, I can think of no better rhetorical technique for someone in the Foreign Office, I wonder if he has a few scribbled notes in praise of Putin in his pocket?

NB: I will be speaking on this and other Classical education ideas at the wonderful Battle of Ideas at the Barbican this Sunday coming, come along, it’s a great line up!

Should White Men Get Awards?

And should the curriculum be white?

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In today’s Guardian is a piece bemoaning the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan; as an idea that is perfectly acceptable however, the piece argues that the reason for not awarding Mr Zimmerman the Nobel should be because of his whiteness and maleness.

The Nobel prize in literature is infamous for its conventionality and the limits of its imagination. In its 115-year history, only 14 women have been awarded the prize, and only four of those women have been writers of colour. The Nobel prize has one of the worst gender ratios in any major literary award, which is troubling given that its internationality means that it is viewed as the most prestigious literary award around. 

There are some very important points being made here, the figures might suggest that the members of the awarding committee have been guilty of racism and sexism over the years yet it is equally possible that they might not have been. Bearing in mind Dylan’s Jewish heritage it was interesting that the writer, Natalie Kon-Yu, didn’t mention how many Jews have received the award. She goes on to say:

Prizes are subjective measures, but they are important: they reinforce the standards of great writing in our culture, with a focus on quality rather than popularity.

If the focus is to be on quality of the work and not on the race and sex of the person who makes the work anomalies might happen. Any accusation of sexism and racism would have to look at the quality of the work in order to prove that other work was better but, as Kon-Yu also points out, this is very much a subjective judgement. If the committee feels that Dylan’s work qualifies for the prize I am sure they are able to justify it in qualitative, subjective terms. Art should not be measured ‘objectively’. However, the argument in the piece doesn’t offer qualitative points about the art, instead it suggests that:

The Guardian listed Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami as favourites to win the prize this year – and all of those would have been a better choice than Dylan. There are also plenty of women, accomplished novelists, essayists and memoirists who could have won.

What about Atwood, who has written poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and whose work has been endlessly republished, studied around the world, and awarded major prizes for decades? Or Joyce Carol Oates, who has published more than 40 books of fiction as well as novellas, plays, poetry collections, short stories and non-fiction?

Or, if the Nobel committee really wanted to be radical, it might have given the award to Ferrante, who has achieved incredible commercial appeal for books that examine the sexism and classism of Italy in the 20th century.

Kon-Yu writes that: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami would have been a better choice than Dylan but doesn’t suggest why, yes there are plenty of women who could have won, that they didn’t might be that in a subjective argument about quality it was felt their work did not to match up to Dylan’s oeuvre. Maybe next time?

It is interesting that the argument given tries to reach for objective facts, the numbers of books published, awards awarded, times republished, and on all these scales Dylan is hardly surpassed as an artist. In many ways Dylan is such an icon he is difficult to ignore. Whether he deserves the Nobel prize for literature is an argument worth having because, qualitatively, his work doesn’t necessarily stand up on its own terms as great literature:

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

On its own this lyric doesn’t read well, yet put it with a guitar, a tune and a gravelly voice it works wonders, maybe the Nobel institute could look at making awards in a wider range of categories, though I am sure it is possible to pick out lyrics from Dylan’s many years of writing which stand up there with the world’s best literature, it’s his role as a singer songwriter and of the influence he has on others that makes him truly great.

His greatness should not be ignored because of his race or gender, the award should be for the work, nothing else. The same problem arises when choosing what to study in schools, is it the quality and historical importance of works that should be the reason for study or the gender and race of the writer? I would argue strongly for the former. However as a white male, if I was sat in a room of entirely white males, with similar backgrounds, putting together a curriculum, we could rightly be accused of having a view that is too narrow; the opinions heard must include voices that represent people whose class, race, sex etc. are truly representative of all, not because that would necessarily mean that the choices made would be different, though they might well be, but that we could be sure that the choices made had a universal, qualitative, importance. That some of this work might be produced by white European males should not exempt it from study, as the great black Marxist writer CLR James put it:

“I denounce European colonialism… but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.” ‘The Making of the Caribbean People’

I think that quality of work, rather than the gender and race of the writer, should be our touchstone, however I also think the members of committees who are in positions of power when designing curricula should be more reflective of the nation and in the case of international awards, the world.

Pokémon Go! Must We be Servants of the Present Moment?

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Think how useless a teacher’s greatest labours are now, when he tries to lead one single student back to the infinitely distant and elusive Hellenic world, the true homeland of our culture, and an hour later that same student reaches for a newspaper or popular novel or one of those scholarly books whose style bears the repulsive mark of today’s educational barbarism!  Friedrich Nietzsche

In 1872 this was Nietzsche’s view, I wonder what it would be now? The teacher might wish to lead a student back to a time when they reach for a newspaper, a popular novel or even a ‘popular science or self help book’…

Or the teacher might have given up on even this meagre hope. Nietzsche has it in for journalists and describes newspapers as epitomising today’s [then] educational system with both as ‘servants of the present moment‘, taking the place of

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages

That is some teaching and learning policy, though he meant it more as a gifted and talented policy, I like to think of it as an aim for all…

I can only think a reincarnated Nietzsche would stare in horror at teaching as entirely a servant of the present moment as argued for by some who wish to ‘engage’ pupils in anything that will occupy their time at school rather than uncover their inner genius. Yet servants of the present delight in keeping up to date rather than exploring the ‘true homeland of our culture’, as one can witness with a cursory glance towards the latest ‘craze’ to hit the nation’s classrooms.

Pokémon Go is pushing Minecraft to the back of the class, Edtech magazine states there are ‘3 Ways Pokémon GO Can Create Meaningful Learning Opportunities‘ these are that it can ‘promote data literacy skills’, allow children to ‘explore the natural world’ and ‘inspire digital storytelling’. That what follows each of these is rather thin gruel seems not to worry the writer of the article. In fact in all three cases the game seems to lessen the activity rather than add to it.

Will it “help students start to become familiar with the data literacy skills of data processing, data manipulation, data presentation and data analysis”? How often will they have to play the game in order for this to occur? How many hours? Are there better ways of achieving these aims, and in more depth? In many ways this is its most obvious use, and maybe I could be persuaded but it seems little more than a passing activity. It could be argued that for autistic children it will help “research habitats that relate to where Pokémon can be found in your local area, as well as learning how to observe in a natural habitat and sketch the living creatures that you find there.” But will it get in the way of observation of the natural habitat, would the painstaking exploration of our natural environment take a backseat because of a fight in a Pokémon Gym? And finally, it might: “…fuel students’ creativity and promote language, research and technology skills by asking students to write stories around the Pokémon they capture in the game.” Or it might be a lesser way of doing that than approaching the same aim by grappling with great literature; is it better to play Pokémon Go or to read Lysistrata or the Oresteia in order to fuel creativity and promote language and research skills? As for technology, I am sure working on a production of a piece of Greek theatre will offer all sorts of opportunities for use of cutting edge technology if one would wish to really ‘Go’ for it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed seeing my daughter play the game, we have had fun exploring and noticing things but none of this is in the detail or depth I would call educational, nor is it edutainment, it is play, and that is fine as far as it goes; I love play. But I pity my little ‘un if she has to go back to school and comes across an enthusiastic teacher who has come up with a term’s work based on Pokémon Go in order to engage her interest, it will more likely enrage her to disinterest.

In the classroom, instead of Pokémon Go, can we have Pokémon No?!! And, instead educate for:

the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages…

 

A Call for Competence!

Ss this too much to ask?

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Do you remember the days when people voted Conservative because of economic competence, calmness in the face of a storm, ability to know what to do when faced with a crisis and an utter belief in the importance of tradition and the need for strong institutions, and a strong and United Kingdom?

Well, those days seem to belong to a bygone age.

Economically incompetent, panicking in the face of a storm, no idea what to do, pissing on institutions, breaking tradition and disuniting our Kingdom, these Conservatives have certainly broken away from anything that could be remotely classed as competent.

However, not to be outdone, Labour seems intent on trying to keep hold of the title of the most incompetent Party in Britain today.

What an absolute shower, a plague on both your houses!

Come back when you either know what you are doing or you have all resigned en-masse…

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