An art history of school inspections

School inspections have long been an important subject for artists, and depictions of such inspections have been noted in the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians as well as the friezes of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In this post, I would like to retell the story of school inspections through the works of the great artists from the latter half of the last millennium.

Perhaps no other painter has captured the essence of an inspection quite as faithfully as did Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 16th century. One of his most famous works is ‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550):

'The Staffroom After "The Call"' (1550) by Pieter Brueghel
‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550) by Pieter Brueghel

In this painting, we see how some of the younger, less experienced members of staff have to restrain those that remember the school’s last inspection. It is also interesting to note that some of the members of staff take a more practical approach to the inspection by hiding or – more creatively – stripping down, putting their underwear on their head and defecating in the corner in an act of feigned illness.

Pieter Brueghel (1566)
‘Direct Instruction’ (1566) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

This later painting (above) by Brueghel depicts the moment when the lead inspector (far right foreground, light blue smock) informs the headteacher (dark smock, looking perturbed) that John the Baptist’s lesson has had far too much ‘preacher talk’ and not enough group work.

Interestingly, when this work was reproduced (below) by Brueghel’s son some time later, the bearded man – facing away from the preacher, in the centre foreground – was removed. According to documents attributed to Brueghel the Younger, he and other disruptive members of the group were taken to Olde Thorpe Parke for that version of the painting.

Reproduction by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (after 1616)
Reproduction (after 1616) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brueghel the Younger also painted a reproduction of the work below, ‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1480) by Heironymus Bosch.

'Grading the Lesson Observation' (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch
‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch

In this image, the inspector is giving feedback to the observed teacher, showing the teacher exactly how the grade is arrived at. Details about the methods of grading are sketchy, but we are led to believe it has something to with the inspector’s skilful legerdemain.

Bosch of course famously painted the classic ‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510), below.

'An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson' (1510) by Heironymus Bosch
‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510) by Heironymus Bosch

Again, not much is known about this painting, but art historians largely agree that the number of differentiated tasks that can be seen in the triptych’s main central image total at least 58, and we know from the title that this was enough to warrant a grade of ‘outstanding’. Some experts have argued that the fact that a number of the pupils in the image seem passive would have certainly led to a lower grade, but others suggest that the sense of creativity and fun that the lesson depicts would have been enough to distract the inspector.

Whilst depictions of inspections are most prevalent in the Flemish Renaissance movement, there are certainly many other notable pieces of work from later years that touch on the inspection experiences of teachers and leaders.

One of my favourites is William Holman Hunt’s piece, ‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854), which brings to life the moment, during an inspection, that the classroom door opens mid-lesson and it turns out to be merely a friendly colleague.

'Boy, Am I Glad It's You' (1854) by William Holman Hunt
‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854) by William Holman Hunt

Another more subtle piece is Ramon Casas’ ‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895):

'Data Manager: 4am, Day Two' (1895)
‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895)

This image of the school’s data manager, spreadsheet in hand, exhausted across a seat in the staffroom at 4am is one of the most enduring images of a school inspection. Commentators often note that she isn’t sleeping, in fact her eyes are open and the ‘thousand yard stare’ she holds is one of “whimpering resignation” (Sister Wendy Beckett).

Into the early 20th century, and this wood carving by Eric Gill (below) shows the head and deputy head offering up biscuits to the lead inspector upon his arrival. Note from the insignia on the biscuits that these are premium heather honey and saffron macarons from Fortnum & Mason, not those biscuits that you all get in staff meetings.

'Refreshments for the Lead Inspector' 1915 by Eric Gill
‘Refreshments for the Lead Inspector’ (1915) by Eric Gill

School inspections have long been a motif in art movements that span cultures and eras. I hope that you have enjoyed looking at a few of my favourites.

Have you tried *NEW* Diamond Shreddies? (Life after ‘life after levels’)

ShreddiesI can picture it now: It’s September 2015 and the DfE, under the stewardship of the new Labour government, are preparing to relaunch National Curriculum Levels:

“Here are the suggested slogans for the relaunch material we are sending out to schools, Mr. Hunt. We’ve narrowed it down to one of these and you have final approval.”

“Great, Toby, what have we got? Let’s see… What’s this? ‘THEY’RE GR-R-REAT!’ Hm. I like it, but we’d have to lose the tiger…”

“Righto. ‘Lose the tiger’. Okay, Mr. Hunt. What about this one?”

“Hm. I’m not sure I get it. ‘Snap! Crackle! Pop!’…um, nope. I don’t really see…”

“That’s okay, Mr. Hunt. I didn’t really think… I… er, what about this one? Have you seen this one?”

“That’s it! That’s the one. That says everything we know people think about levels. It’s absolutely the reason why we are bringing them back: people love them; they just don’t realise that they love them. THIS is definitely the slogan we should use: ‘National Curriculum Levels – have you forgotten how good they taste?’ I love it!”

Of course people wouldn’t be silly enough to be resold back something that they didn’t think they wanted on the back of a rebranding. Would they? You’d be surprised.

In January 2008, the breakfast cereal Shreddies launched a new advertising campaign in Canada that resulted in a reportedly significant sales increase, and ensured the product continued to perform well for quite some time afterwards.

The reason for the spike in sales was this advertising campaign:

Brilliant/frightening, isn’t it? This is what Rory Sutherland (Vice-Chairman of international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and Spectator columnist) tells us is “intangible added value” in his very entertaining 2009 TED Talk on the subject – a talk in which he refers to the Diamond Shreddies campaign. Sutherland asks:

“How many problems of life can be solved actually by tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality?”

Can't decide? Try the Combo Pack.
Can’t decide? Try the Combo Pack.

That is exactly what the Diamond Shreddies campaign does. It takes something, changes the perception of it, adds intangible value.

And that seems to be what is happening with many of the approaches to replacing curriculum levels that I read and talk to people about. I know people are actually making changes – re-writing descriptors, changing bands, etc., but what this seems to result in – in many cases – is just another version of curriculum levels.

In these cases, I think people’s perceptions of what they are using may have changed and as a result they see value in their model, but this may come purely as a result of the sunk cost fallacy: “we invested lots of time and effort into this, so it must be better than what we had before.” The important thing to do now is to ask ourselves, honestly: Is this better? Have we improved the previous model? And we should continue to rewrite, redefine, remodel until we know what we are doing isn’t just turning the current model on its side and calling it ‘new’.

Part of me wonders whether our reluctance to travel too far from levels is due to the discourse we use. Every model I see discussed is always presented in its relation to levels: the phrase ‘life after levels’ is used in almost every blog and tweet on the topic. Failing that, it’s ‘beyond levels’, ‘post-levels’, etc. Maybe it’s time to stop using the word ‘levels’ in our discourse and start referring to it as ‘assessment’, ‘KS1-3 assessment’ or ‘KS assessment’. As long as we keep using ‘levels’ in our language, everything we do is anchored to the National Curriculum Levels and we will never really sail too far from them.

We should ensure that we aren’t just adding intangible value to a model that already exists, a model that we scorned over for years and jeered at gleefully as it was evicted from the Big Brother house.

Alternatively, we could just embrace the idea of intangible added value and apply it to all that we do in education. Back to Rory Sutherland (“Normally, as an advertising man, I actually speak at TED Evil”): 

“So I was discussing this. And I actually went to the Marginal Revolution blog by Tyler Cowen. I don’t know if anybody knows it. Someone was actually suggesting that you can take this concept further, and actually produce placebo education. The point is that education doesn’t actually work by teaching you things. It actually works by giving you the impression that you’ve had a very good education, which gives you an insane sense of unwarranted self-confidence, which then makes you very, very successful in later life. So, welcome to Oxford, ladies and gentlemen.”

 

How to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes (and why setting targets may hold back progress*)

Mustard Yellow BeltThis month, competitors at the height of their physical prowess came together to contest their sport’s most glittering and sought after prize.

No, I’m not talking about the World Cup in Brazil. And I don’t mean the Championships at Wimbledon. The event to which I refer is Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.

Oh, you don’t think gorging oneself on junk food is a sport? Tell that to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body behind Major League Eating (MLE). And tell it to the international (read: mainly American; some Japanese) competitors who regular enter such prestigious circuit events as La Costeña “Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge, the National Buffalo Wing Festival (“wing fest”), and – probably the most perfect corporate partnership ever yoked – the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating. Major League Eating There is an apocryphal tale that tells how Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was first held in 1916, when four men held the competition to settle an argument over who was the most patriotic amongst them. It turned out that story was just a publicity stunt conceived in recent years, as the earliest records held for the contest begin in 1972, when the winner ate 14 hot dogs in 3½ minutes. The next few contests were held sporadically, but it has been held annually since 1978. In 1979, the competition became a 12 minute competition and the winner ate 19 hot dogs in that time. The winning number eaten each year fluctuated around that number for the next 22 years, and when the 86th Annual (in reality only the 26th – apparently apocryphal tales are enough to re-write history) Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest approached in 2001, the record stood at 25⅛ HDB (hot dogs and buns – yes, the sport even has its own technical initialisms).

So when a 23-year-old, 9 stone Japanese man called Takeru Kobayashi made his debut in the contest that year, nobody could have expected what would happen: Kobayashi ate 50 HDB, nearly doubling the previous record. 28-stone circuit celebrity Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker came second with a measly 26 HDB. Kobayashi went on to win the Mustard Yellow Belt (yup, really) and $10,000 prize for the next 5 years (until Joey Chestnut beat him in 2007, eating 66 HDB. Chestnut has won every year since.)

So how did Kobayashi smash the record? How did he go about eating more than the 25⅛ standard set the previous year?

Simple: he didn’t think about eating 25⅛ hot dogs and buns. He thought about eating one. That is that he thought about how he could eat one quickly. He didn’t care for setting a target – he just set about getting better at what he was doing. Kobayashi felt that the current record was an artificial barrier and disregarded it entirely. With that approach, taking one hot dog at a time, he doubled the previous record – a figure that hadn’t changed by more than a handful of hot dogs in 22 years.

Here is ‘Freakonomist’ Stephen Dubner talking about Kobayashi’s entire approach. The part that I want to think about is the idea of ‘false limits’, which he mentions around 5 minutes in to the video.

Perhaps the fixation that other competitors had with beating the standing record resulted in a form of anchoring? Anchoring is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to rely too heavily on a given starting point when making decisions. So were the other contestants in the hot dog eating contest relying heavily on the previous record and adjusting their limits around this? Were they being held back by anchoring themselves to what they thought was achievable rather than reaching their real potential?

The slippery concept of potential is something that schools hold a lot of stock in and Tom Bennett has written about it eloquently (as ever, the bloody talented sod) here. Tom’s approach to school targets is similar to many teachers I know: “to hell with them: I expect them all to get an A”. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also think that, despite this, the pupils and I also fall foul of the bias of anchoring. I am certain that I teach to the top end and aim for the A, but I am also aware that there are certain things that I do that anchor me to that target grade.

One of these behaviours of mine is obvious when I mark the work: I have the expectation that it is going to be around the target grade, and automatically look at that band in the assessment criteria. If I think it is a higher mark, I question my marking and offer it up for instant moderation from a plethora of colleagues (knowing they won’t be anchored by the target grade).

I wonder if many pupils also anchor themselves to the target grade, not realising that their potential stretches further than what the FFT  or suchlike says is probable? Thinking through Kobayashi’s approach to realising potential, I wonder whether we might try a different approach to target setting. Rather than setting targets for what they might achieve by the end of the key stage, could we set targets as to what they need to achieve next? And when they achieve that target, they move on to the next target. So if you are working at a D grade, your target is to work at a C grade. When you break through that C grade target, your target then becomes a B. Would pupils work harder knowing their next target is actually within reach? Would the momentum of achievement carry pupils to realise potential beyond the targets which would normally be set for them? Perhaps. It may be worth trying.

Certainly in the case of competitive eaters, setting end targets was detrimental to realising true potential. Once the contestants in the hot dog eating contests began adopting Kobayashi’s approach of taking the challenge one step at a time, they began setting new records too. The current record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. As Kobayashi says:

“I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use [my] method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.”

So is setting a target actually accepting a limit? Can we learn a lesson from Kobayashi,  a lesson that is about refusing to accept limits and to see targets as false barriers?

I’d be interested to see if anyone has any different approaches to target setting. Or competitive hot dog eating, for that matter. $10,000 would be a nice summer bonus.

*obviously I am not against target-setting per se, this is more about looking at different approaches to it.


For more on anchoring and adjustment, see: ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’ by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) For more on Takeru Kobayashi, see ‘Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2014) Think Like a Freak