5 common questions from the audience at the education conference

One of the great things about talks and debates at education conferences is when the speakers open up to questions from the floor. But sometimes it is hard to work out exactly what certain questions are really getting at. Below is a handy guide to what the questioner is really asking when it comes to some of the more common questions.

1. The steer

 

2. The techsploitation

 

3. The equaliser

 

4. The ‘me time’

 

5. The usurper

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An art history of exam season

I’m happy to present to you the third post in a series of art histories of education. Previously, we have looked at how artists have depicted both school inspections and the back to school season, and this time I thought I’d explore the history of exam season as depicted through art.

A common subject for artists depicting this period of frenetic preparation is that of the variety of revision techniques that pupils use. We’ll begin by discussing three paintings that take on this subject.

‘Highlighting the Key Ideas in the Text’ (c.1950-2) by Mark Rothko

In ‘Highlighting the Key Ideas in the Text’  (c.1950-2) by Mark Rothko, the artist shows us how the pupil has smothered the entire text with his yellow highlighter, showing a lack of discernment between ‘the key ideas’ and ‘everything the writer has written’. You can see at the bottom of the page that the pen has actually run out of ink, much to the frustration of the teacher, who has only just bought this new set of highlighters out of their own pocket.

‘The Flash Card of the Teacher’ (1992-3) by Gillian Wearing OBE

Another subset of revision art focuses on the use of flash cards. In the 1990s, British artist Gillian Wearing turned our perception of these as merely a revision tool on its head and created a piece entitled ‘The Flash Card of the Teacher’ (1992-3). In the piece, instead of photographing pupils with flash cards, she asked teachers, in the week before the final exam, to use the flash cards to express exactly how they are feeling as they try to ensure their pupils achieve their target grades. In an interview, the artist has stated that the teacher’s line manager is just out of shot in this image, frantically gesticulating and waving around a piece of paper containing the teacher’s performance management targets.

‘A Mindmap of Everything I Know About the Hydrological Cycle’ (1952) by Jackson Pollock

‘A Mindmap of Everything I Know About the Hydrological Cycle’ (1952) by Jackson Pollock is a portrayal of a common revision tool:  the mind map, or thought shower. In this piece, the pupil has attempted to write down everything they know about the hydrological cycle, only to throw a tantrum when they realise that they didn’t really know as much as they thought they knew. Legend has it that Pollock actually invented his famous style of ‘drip’ action painting in this exact way: he was mindmapping everything he was taught about classical art techniques at art school when he realised he hadn’t paid much attention, so ended up spoiling his canvas in a fit of rage. That particular ‘painting’ was later bought by Kanye West for $117m.

‘Predicting 9-1 Grades Just Before the Final Exams’ (1938) by Wyndham Lewis

As pupils find themselves on the precipice of exam leave, teachers are asked to give their 28th and final data drop of the year for their Year 11s. A major part of this data drop will include the need to predict their pupils’ GCSE grades. Whilst under previous specifications these predictions were fairly difficult, they have become an arcane act under the new 9-1 GCSEs. With 100% exam in many subjects, teachers no longer have any coursework grades as a basis, and combined with a lack of any direction as to how the raw marks will convert to actual grades, this has left teachers turning to the occult to make their predictions. In Wyndham Lewis’ ‘Predicting 9-1 Grades Just Before the Final Exams’ (1938), we see the teacher depicted calling on the help of the spirit world before drawing numbers randomly from a pack of cards prior to entering it into her prediction spreadsheet.

‘Extra Revision Lessons’ (1884) by John William Waterhouse

As the exams loom heavily over the class, the teacher finds themself offering extra lessons after school, at weekends and often during the Easter break. The painter John William Waterhouse captures such a moment in ‘Extra Revision Lessons’ (1884). There are a number of interesting details in this painting. Critics point out the look of frustration on the teacher’s face as she goes through something she has taught a few times already during regular lessons, remembering that some of the pupils in the room weren’t paying any attention then because they knew that their teacher would go back through it again in these extra lessons anyway. Another thought-provoking detail is the pupil with her head in her hands. Critics suggest that she is having a nap as she thinks that merely turning up to these extra lessons is sufficient for her pass her GCSE in the subject. It is likely that this pupil has also bought a revision guide which sits untouched but also carries a similar magical power.

‘After Four and a Half Years of Avoiding Work, It’s Finally Clicked for Bobby’ (1852) by Robert Braithwaite Martineau

As the exam rapidly approaches, a greater number of pupils begin to realise that they will have to start working harder. In ‘After Four and a Half Years of Avoiding Work, It’s Finally Clicked for Bobby’ (1852), the artist Robert Braithwaite Martineau shows the moment when a particular pupil who has lacked motivation for so long finally pays attention to the work he is being asked to complete. We can see the enigmatic look on his fellow pupil’s face as she peers over his shoulder, having endured many years of ‘Bobby’ distracting her and the rest of  class. It is a look that has been interpreted in many ways by critics: from supportiveness and respect for his newfound work ethic to a smug ‘I told you so’ at his obvious struggle.

‘OMG Steph Told Me She Wrote Something Different For That Question and Now I’m Questioning My Entire Exam Paper’ (1937) by Pablo Picasso

Many artists have tried to depict the experience of the exams themselves. Arguably the most famous painting of the exam season is Pablo Picasso’s ‘OMG Steph Told Me She Wrote Something Different For That Question and Now I’m Questioning My Entire Exam Paper’ (1937). There is a strong moral message in this painting as Picasso warns the viewer of the dangers of discussing the paper with other pupils after they leave the exam hall and the consequent feeling of doubt that will naturally ensue from this. The lurid red juxtaposed against the bilious green and yellow represents the conflict in the pupil’s mind as they go over everything they wrote and decide all of it is invalid because her friend wrote something slightly different to her on one of the questions.

‘I decided to doodle this pattern instead of answering the question and then I wonder why I ran out of time in the exam’ (1975-6) by Jasper Johns

The abstract impressionist Jasper Johns offers this painting to the genre. Entitled ‘I decided to doodle this pattern instead of answering the question and then I wonder why I ran out of time in the exam’ (1975-6), it is a work that pulls the viewer’s eyes in many directions and forces the reader to ask a variety of questions of the artist, questions such as: ‘How long did this doodle take… I mean, it seems really intricate?’ and ‘You’ve even used three different colours – why the hell would you do this?’ and ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST TRY AND ANSWER THE EXAM QUESTION INSTEAD?’

‘Practising Leaping for the Local Paper’ (1972) by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi

Once exams are complete, pupils begin to think about results. This involves thinking about future plans – colleges, apprenticeships, careers. But more immediately, pupils must prepare for results day and how they will pose when a photographer from the local paper comes in to school. Pop artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s ‘Practising Leaping for the Local Paper’ (1972) depicts a pupil preparing for just this moment. The work concentrates on the difficulty in getting airborne whilst maintaining a sense of joy and grace, and he sets the image of the pupil against a propulsion airplane to effectively illustrate this eternal struggle of flight.

‘Arriving for Prom’ (1900) by Sir Frank Dicksee

Of course, whilst the exams are a worthy preamble, every pupil knows that the most important date during the exam season is the school prom. Whilst some pupils may spend lots of money and time and really throw themselves into the pomp and circumstance of the spectacle, Sir Frank Dicksee chooses one of the more understated and austere entrances for the subject of his painting ‘Arriving for Prom’ (1900).

This painting is a natural conclusion to some of my favourites on the subject of exam season. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Rejected ideas for ‘Get Into Teaching’ Christmas adverts

Christmas advertising, we are told, has “hit a record high” this year, with a unparalleled £6bn being thrown at advertising agencies to produce that perfect television commercial for high street stores.

In recent years, these ads have become less like the 30-second showcase of a few tinselly gifts that they used to be and more a kind of feel-good mini feature film that tugs on our heart-strings so hard that our ventricles end up in our bladders and we need to spend Christmas drinking enough to float them back out again.

Not wanting to miss out on this gravy train, teaching authorities recently asked advertising agencies to “get us in on that John Lewis Christmas misty-eyed pap bandwagon” and make them an advert of similar oily charm.

Subsequently, a number of pitches were made by agencies to try and create an advert that leaves the general public all weeping so hard that they’ll quit their comfortable jobs the very next day and start banging on the doors of initial teacher training providers demanding to “get me some of them teaching hugs”.

Eventually, they chose to take a different route with their campaign, but we’ve managed to get hold of a couple of the speculative scripts, which we are sharing with you below. Enjoy. And have a very merry Christmas.

Pitch #1: ‘Board pens’

Pitch #2: ‘Sweets’


The Little Book of Tycche: The Finnish Art of Wellbeing in Teaching

So, you’ve read all about hygge, lykkelagom and ikagai, and followed all of the guidance but none of these things have made a dent on improving your work/life balance in teaching, right?

 

 

 

That’s because they are all fads. Now if you want to make a real change in your life, the principles of tycche are what you need.

Tycche is a Finnish word that is used when one has achieved the perfect work/life balance. It is simultaneously an art, a practice, a feeling and state of being. It is something that you achieve, you do, you feel and you are. You can’t buy it. But you can buy a book about it, priced at £14.99. In fact, you need to buy the book to have even a vague idea of what it is. You probably still won’t be entirely sure after you’ve read the book, though, such is its nebulous quality. This means we can probably whack out a few more volumes to sell to you before you get bored of it.

There is no literal English translation for the concept of tycche (pronounced tee-chuh), but it is often used to represent a combination of various ideas – ideas such as: surviving, coping, getting by, feeling a fleeting sense of confidence or achievement before it ebbs away, balancing on a tightrope, not giving up just yet, marking, and cake. It’s widely believed that the word comes from the old Sami phrase tycco lek che – literally “sod this, I’m having a sit down”.

Tycche can be achieved through a set of simple daily rituals, both in and out of the classroom. Here, we’ll take you through some of the things that you can do to feel, achieve, do and be tycche.

TEA/COFFEE

The key to drinking your way to tycche is in embracing tepid as an acceptable temperature for drinks that other (normal) people might call ‘hot drinks’. Once you see lukewarm tea and coffee as not only acceptable but actually desirable, you will no longer feel that deep melancholy that you currently feel whilst tossing back unpalatable gulps from the mug on your desk. You will instead feel a sense of satisfaction. That feeling is tycche.

EMAILS

So you’ve been teaching all day, been on duty, had a meeting, and now you have planning and marking to do. But before you do that, you think you’ll just check your emails and spend a couple of minutes dealing with replies. And then you see it: 42 unread emails. How can you possibly deal with this much information? The replies alone will take about half an hour. Half an hour which you haven’t got. This is where the principles of tycche can help.

According to the laws of tycche, rather than spending time replying to your emails now, you should flag the most important emails for reply later. You must promise yourself that you will definitely reply when you get some time. Don’t worry, you won’t actually reply later, as there will be another 42 emails in your inbox by then and these first emails will have magically (that’s the power of tycche) disappeared onto the second page to be forgotten about until someone sends you a reminder at some point. But the key is in truly believing that you will reply: your good intentions are important here. Tycche will take care of the rest.

HOBBIES

In order to achieve tycche you need to ensure that you have hobbies – that is to say, pursuits that you undertake in your spare time. However, the problem that many teachers have is that it is difficult to find that spare time when snowed under with excessive workload. But that’s no excuse because: as it is a central tenet of the practice of tycche, one must undertake hobbies. The balance is easily met though, by simply making marking your hobby. By taking on marking as a pastime, you are able to enjoy your hobby every single day and complete your work. The perfect work/life balance.

CAKE

The key to finding true balance is for you to visualise all the sources of your current stress sitting on one side of a set of weighing scales. Go ahead, do it now. On the pan, you place every repetitive email, every piece of marking using excessive criteria, every data dump, every exhaustive spreadsheet, every lunchtime detention… put it all on.

Now, you just balance out the other side of the scales with cake. Lots of it. Fill the other pan with chocolate brownies, Battenberg, Viennese whirls, jam tarts,  millionaire’s shortcake, sponge cake, cream cake, red velvet cake… then drizzle it all with salted caramel until the scales are perfectly balanced.

This isn’t just an act of visualisation, though. To truly find tycche, you must eat actual cake every time your workload increases, every time someone dumps some extra work on you. Have to reply to some emails? Eat a Jaffa cake. Need to mark a load of mock exams? Eat some iced buns. Need to go to the photocopier? Take a chocolate Swiss roll with you. You must keep workload and cake in perfect balance with each other: that’s tycche.

WINE

If you are struggling to make the work/life balance of tycche through  any of these practices, simply open a bottle of wine. About half a bottle in, you’ll feel it: tycche.


The Little Book of Tycche by Skinni Lahti is available from all good bookshops for £14.99.*

*Spending fifteen quid of your hard-earned money on this book, plus spending 6 hours reading it are actually both in contradiction of the rules of tycche and will throw your life back out of balance. Luckily, that can be remedied with the The Second Little Book of Tycche, which will be out in hardback in time for Christmas at £20.99.

Teaching: if you aren’t dead yet, you aren’t doing it well enough

So another World Teachers Day has come and gone. All the build-up, all the excitement, and it just seems to go by in a flash. One minute we’re all hanging our stockings up in the classroom ready to be filled with gifts from our generous pupils, the next minute we’re all sick of spending the week eating leftovers from the big World Teachers Day feasts laid on for us by our families and friends.

I love all of the traditions of World Teachers Day: chugging a yard of tea, the enormous full-sized teacher-shaped chocolate cake (bagsy the heart – it’s the biggest bit!), marking under the mistletoe, pinning the grade on the lesson observation (blindfolded, of course), being allowed to go the toilet, the Airing of Grievances, the singing of teacher carols (“Mark! The Herald Angels Sing”), the Returning of the Glue Sticks, and – the best bit – all the inspirational memes.

The memes range from the uplifting to the banal via the truthy, just the way we all love them. But some memes tap into a well-worn trope that does more damage than good: that of the teacher as self-immolating martyr. See exhibit A:

Quite often promoted by non-teachers, this trope says one thing: good teachers kill themselves for their jobs.

The valorisation of teaching as a form of ritual suicide is subtle but pervasive. Once you realise it, you begin to notice it all around. It appears when the Chartered College of Teaching platforms speakers telling us that “teaching is a way of being, not just a job.” And it’s in motivational posters telling us that we should “give meaningful feedback on students’ work even if [our] pile of books seems endless”.

What of those teachers who aren’t prepared to give their whole self over for their job? Those teachers who put their family first or who want to have energy left at the end of the day for other interests? Maybe they should just accept the fact that they aren’t good teachers? If they simply won’t consume themselves to light the way for others, should they feel guilty? Why aren’t they prepared to throw themselves on the funeral pyre like all the other good teachers around them?

The thing is that people don’t share these sorts of ideas because they want to attack teachers. The intentions are actually good; it’s just that such ideas are also completely unthinking. People assume that it flatters teachers: “anyone who is prepared to self-destruct just so that every child understands quadratic equations/oxbow lakes/pointillism is a truly an angel.” But this kind of hagiography actually damages teachers. It allows the system to tell teachers they should always be doing more. It allows the system to say: this is what teaching is; this is what you have to live up to if you want to feel you are doing enough.

We really need to shift this narrative that teaching should be all-consuming and that self-destruction is part and parcel of our job. We can’t complain of workload issues at the same time as promoting this harmful shibboleth.

Perhaps years ago I might have seen the ‘candle’ meme above and not noticed the deleterious subtext. I might have seen it as a celebration of our job. But after years of full time teaching, I realise how unsustainable this attitude is, how damaging it is.

And this realisation means that I should probably throw away all of these old memes I made years ago when I thought I was celebrating teaching too. Silly, silly old me.

“This debate doesn’t happen in schools”

Ah, the good old debate around traditional and progressive philosophies of education. An important debate for some and one that such people tell us has given them enlightenment and understanding about what they do in the classroom.

Except we all know it isn’t important, no matter what they tell us, don’t we? And you know why we know it isn’t important? We know it’s not important because it isn’t a debate that happens in schools. It all plays out on the internet. And of course, things said on the internet aren’t really real. Those aren’t real people telling us this is important to them. They are just floating avatars spewing out the same rubbish day after day. Probably Russian bots or something. We should ignore them. If the trad/prog debate is something we don’t talk about in schools, it’s obviously not important at all.

Okay, that may be an extreme characterisation, but it is the crux of a particular argument: the trad/prog debate isn’t something that happens in schools so it is not important. The fact it isn’t spoken about in schools is largely true. Walk around any school and you’ll rarely see people having this debate. (The lack of the debate will be even more starkly obvious if you don’t actually work in a school: if you’re a consultant and you visit lots of schools, you will be able to report with confidence that in absolutely none of the schools you visit people have had this debate.*)

I think we’re all agreed then. If we aren’t discussing it in schools, it’s irrelevant. It’s unimportant. And if we aren’t discussing it in schools there’s really no validity in discussing it anywhere.

So let’s all agree that the trad/prog debate is an irrelevancy and let’s disregard it.

But if we disregard on this basis, then in the interests of fairness we should all agree that anything we don’t really talk about in schools is also irrelevant and should be disregarded.

So out goes the trad/prog debate. See ya!

But we’ll also need to say goodbye to the mental health of teachers. That can go too. According to this TES article, “The one place you won’t hear much talk of teacher mental health is in schools.” Well, as we all know, not talking about it in schools makes it irrelevant and unimportant, of course. Bye bye teacher mental health!

Another unimportant issue we should disregard is violence against teachers. Again, in the TES: “I think this issue of violence against teachers is actually a taboo in our occupation. We don’t talk about it.” Well if we don’t talk about it in schools, it means it’s not important. Duh.

And our feelings too. We don’t talk about the emotional labour of teaching and the impact this can have, according to the Washington Post.  Who cares? If we don’t talk about it, it’s obviously of no import.

There’s a whole host of other things teachers and commentators tell us “we need to talk about” more in schools : the joy of learning, financial education, the dangers of pornography and sexting, healthy eating… all of these things are unimportant precisely because we don’t have enough conversations about them, right?

It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance that uses “we don’t talk about it in schools” as an argument to disregard some things and suggest they are utterly irrelevant, and yet sees the same “we don’t talk about it in schools” statement as a valid way to highlight that some things are unfairly undervalued.

Of course, I don’t think that any of the things above – mental health, violence, healthy eating, etc. – are unimportant. I think we should be talking about all of them. And I think the same about debates in education – no matter how unfamiliar the debate is to your daily experience, it is still a debate that people are having and to tell them it’s unimportant because it doesn’t happen in other arenas is ridiculous. The first reason/excuse people will give for any of the topics above not being talked about enough in schools is lack of time. Where do we find the time to discuss mental health of teachers, etc? We are so busy, that we just don’t find the time. Well, the same goes for the trad/prog debate. Where in a busy teacher’s day do they have the time to have deep discussions about philosophies of education? Somewhere between getting a cup of tea and going to the toilet before heading back to the classroom to set up their next lesson? Schools aren’t really the place for many topics that need unpicking at length. So what do teachers do if they want to discuss anything they don’t get to delve into in the school day? They use social media. And when they do, they get told: if you aren’t having this discussion in schools, then it’s an invalid discussion here too.

The whole this-debate-doesn’t-happen-in-schools response is an extension of the “you aren’t living in the real world” argument: teachers who debate and discuss the philosophies of education (a debate that has been going on for more than a century, by the way) on Twitter aren’t living in the real world of schools where, as we’ve established, nobody talks about this.

Jeffrey Israel, a lecturer in religion and political philosophy, argues that, amongst other things, the accusation that someone’s opinions aren’t from the real world is narcissistic. He defines narcissistic here as being “characterized by an inability to perceive the lives of others as anything other than examples of one’s own idiosyncratic preconceptions.” In this way, we might see those suggesting that the debate around education philosophies is insignificant (“because it doesn’t happen in real life”) as lacking the ability to attach value to anything that is beyond their own worldview. The debate may not be happening in schools, but it is happening on social media and in blogs and articles and thus it is real and it is significant to the people involved in it and to many reading about it. It might be seen as narcissistic to disregard it on the grounds that it isn’t happening “in real life”.

In fact, there really is no distinction to be made between beliefs held in different domains. Believe it or not, people discussing something on Twitter are real people. As Israel succinctly tells us:

“Everyone who is living is living in the real world.”

And whilst they aren’t having lengthy debates about philosophy in the real world of schools, they are having debates with real people in the shared world of social media.

There are plenty of examples of people who have developed or had their thinking shaped as a result of the debate online. Indeed, I wrote about my own experience last year.

 

Here’s a couple of tweets from real people telling us that the debate changed their minds:

 

Is the debate invalid because these people are choosing to discuss it on social media rather than the staffroom? Are they not living in the real world?

It matters not where the debate is happening. If it is happening, it is real. I am happy to listen to any arguments against the debate, but the argument that it isn’t valid because it doesn’t happen in schools is a very, very poor one that simply doesn’t stand up.

 

(*If you are a consultant and you think that visiting lots of schools and never experiencing something means it doesn’t exist, you are sadly mistaken. You are the least likely to actually experience it as your relationships with the people you come across every day, whilst I’m sure are useful and beneficial to the school and you, are largely of a fleeting nature. The context in which you would be a more able judge of whether something exists in a school is to work at that school. I should also add that you also aren’t privy to the conversations about consultants that undoubtedly happen after you’ve left. They do exist even though you don’t witness them. And they’re always entirely complimentary, of course.)

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