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An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 2

This is the second in a series of blogs on the key philosophers of education. Part 1 can be found here.

Michel de Montaigne

Whilst sounding like she might be a woman, Michel de Montaigne is actually a dead white man – a group who seem to dominate the philosophy of education throughout history, which is quite impressive given that they are all dead. Born to an incredibly wealthy family in 1533, Montaigne went on to become one of the most prominent and influential philosophers of the French Renaissance.

He is famous for inventing the essay, and as such is the scourge of students ever since. Before he invented the essay, all clever ideas had to be communicated via pictures, charades, or in singular messages of just 280 characters.

Montaigne’s own education was an interesting one. Soon after he was born, his father sent him from the family chateau to go and live with a peasant family in a local village for three years, to cultivate in him an empathy for the poor and to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. It’s merely a coincidence that the infant Montaigne was shipped off to live with another family during the period of his life that involved night feeds, teething and ‘the terrible twos’.

When Montaigne returned to the family chateau at the age of three, his father insisted that he learn Latin as his native tongue, probably because “I done a poo” sounds much more sophisticated in Latin. He was sent to a prestigious boarding school from six years of age. When he had mastered the curriculum by the age of thirteen, he left the school to enter university. This seems impressive, but let’s not forget that Doogie Howser had managed to complete medical school and was a practising physician by the time he was 14, so Montaigne isn’t all that.

Whilst at boarding school, Montaigne studied a humanistic curriculum comprising of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy, built largely on a Classical model of education. Yet, despite benefiting from being taught an impressive body of knowledge himself, his own philosophy of education for others was rather different. Montaigne suggested that, “in true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk— they are all part of the curriculum.” This is perhaps the best argument I’ve ever seen against a knowledge-rich curriculum: Montaigne benefitted from one and yet still came out with the daft idea that “the blunder of a servant” is “as good as a book”.

Montaigne went on to be very critical of academics, once remarking that, “I prefer the company of peasants because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” Of course, Montaigne himself was very well educated so make of that reasoning what you will.

Elsewhere, Montaigne wrote in his essay, ‘On repenting’, that “I am not teaching, I am relating”, which is exactly the sort of annoying smart-arse slogan that you see in people’s Twitter bios right before you click ‘mute’.

John Dewey

Born as one of a set of triplets in 1859, Dewey went on to become more famous than his brothers Huey and Louie. He is now considered one of the most influential educational thinkers of the 20th century. To get a sense of his significance, he’s right up there alongside Johnny Ball and Mr. Belding.

Like many philosophers of education, Dewey began his career as a classroom teacher, spending two years teaching in a secondary school and one year teaching in a primary school. And like many education academics, he very soon decided that he’d much prefer telling people how to teach rather than being a teacher himself. However, with as many as three years of teaching under his belt before moving on, Dewey managed to inoculate himself against the kind of criticism that many Teach First candidates regularly have levelled at them for serving just two years in teaching.

During his career as an academic, he published over 700 articles and about 40 books, which, let’s be honest, is too many. But at least I know that you haven’t read everything that he wrote, so I can play fast and loose with the truth here. Among his many achievements, Dewey was in the original line-up of the Sugababes, as well as being the inventor of the Corby Trouser Press.

Most significantly, Dewey was a proponent of experiential and ‘hands-on’ learning. This means that he thought that people learn better by doing than by simply reading about things. You can learn all about Dewey’s theories of experiential learning and his many other teachings by simply reading some of the SEVEN HUNDRED ARTICLES AND FORTY BOOKS THAT HE WROTE.

Dewey famously said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” But I tested this theory out and I don’t agree with his conclusion. I taught today’s students as I taught yesterday’s and it just meant I was able to have last night off as I was able to use the same planning. As such, I’ve rewritten Dewey’s aphorism: If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we get to bing-watch some Netflix/go to the gym/see family/have an early night.

On the purpose of education, Dewey wrote that: “Each generation is inclined to educate its young so as to get along in the present world instead of with a view to the proper end of education: the promotion of the best possible realisation of humanity as humanity.” This is absolutely spot on, so totally and utterly true, and should be the singular aim for every single school. But does anyone know which bucket ‘the realisation of humanity as humanity’ goes in to improve your Progress 8 score?

Paolo Freire

Freire is one of the leading philosophers and proponents of critical pedagogy, which is a teaching approach inspired by critical theory. Critical theory is a social theory that aims to change society rather than document it, and is largely derived from Emmanuelle Kant (a French erotic film from the 1970s) and Groucho Marx. Critical pedagogy also takes inspiration from radical philosophers, such as Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Theodore Logan, who are considered most radical, dude.

Freire enrolled to study law at university in 1943 but rather than taking it up as a career, he became a school teacher instead. By 1946 – just three years after he entered university – he was appointed Director of Education and Culture for the entire state of Pernambuco, which is as speedy an ascendency into management as that really ambitious colleague of yours could possibly dream of achieving. You know the one I’m talking about.

In his seminal book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire criticised what he called the “banking model” of education, in which students were seen as empty accounts to be filled by teachers. I’m not sure that Freire has ever seen a teacher’s bank account.

He also proposed elsewhere that teachers should learn from their students. Assimilating this idea with the above banking model, Freire is suggesting that, instead of seeing students as empty accounts waiting to be filled, we should see them as overdrafts with which to dip into so we can spend money that isn’t actually there. Or something like that.

A focus of Freire’s philosophy was what he identified as “the teacher-student contradiction”. He suggested that education must begin “by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” Which reminds me of the time that I set half of my clocks and hour late and half an hour early and got stuck in a space-time continuum loop. Here are some of the ways in which you can overcome the teacher-student contradiction so that you can become simultaneously both a teacher and a student:

  • occasionally call your line manager “mum” or “dad” by accident
  • ask every individual pupil “what are we doing today?” as they enter your classroom
  • ask yourself if you can go to the toilet when you are bored of your own lesson
  • ask your pupils if you can do bubble writing when doing board work
  • P.E. teachers: get a note from your mum to get you out of teaching your lessons

Elsewhere in his work, Freire advocated for teachers to be political. In We Make the Road by Walking, he said that “the educator has the duty of not being neutral. The educator as an intellectual has to intervene. He cannot be a mere facilitator. He has to affirm to himself or herself.” What Freire’s followers will point out here, though, is the unspoken caveat: This is only applicable to teachers on the political left. Obviously, teachers on the political right have a duty to be completely politically neutral in the classroom.

Quotations from Freire are often cut and pasted into nice fonts inside colourful boxes and shared on the internet as a form of inspiration for teachers. Here is an example of one such quotation:

Such quotations continue to inspire educators around the world. For example, this particular quotation inspired Clark Kent to take a journalism course rather than study for a PGCE.

Freire is still very popular today, some twenty years after his death. In particular, he enjoys popularity amongst educators who like to think they are Joe Strummer because they don’t want to face the idea that, as a teacher, they are a part of the establishment that they’ve always railed against.

Perhaps Freire’s greatest legacy is his contribution to literacy teaching. In 1962, he taught 300 sugarcane harvesters to read and write in just 45 days. This model has been taken up by institutions all over the world. For example, many tabloid newspapers are staffed by ‘journalists’ who have clearly only been taught to read and write in the past 45 days.


An idiot’s guide to the philosophy of education: Part 1


Socrates was a brilliant man. Not only is he considered the father of Western philosophy, he was also a great teacher and, what’s more, a great teacher trainer. One of Socrates’ most successful students was Plato, who, in turn, went on to teach Aristotle, who himself would then tutor Alexander the Great. There are no records of Alexander the Great’s teaching career, so I imagine he was one of those that didn’t quite make it through their NQT year. Who knows what he did after that. Anyway, it’s clear that teacher retention was an issue even in ancient Greece.

But back to Socrates. He was a true polymath – aside from all the philosophising and teaching, probably his greatest moment was captaining Brazil at the 1982 FIFA World Cup in Spain. Not bad for a Greek. To put that into context, fellow philosopher of education Paulo Freire was actually a Brazilian national and he didn’t even get a single cap for Brazil, let alone captain them at a World Cup.

But what about Socrates’ educational philosophy?

Socrates saw education as a way to train the individual to become a “noble puppy” who will be friendly with familiars and fierce with foreigners. A bit like Katie Hopkins. But, unlike Hopkins, Socrates didn’t rely on some sort of deep-seated psychological need for attention to achieve this attitude. No, he used education. Specifically, Socrates believed that all people needed was an education in music (for the soul) and gymnastics (for the body). Just those two subjects. It’s basically what the EBacc would be if Sir Ken Robinson was Secretary of State for Education.

Socrates also invented the Socratic method, which is a method of birth control in which a partner is continually questioned and challenged during the act of coitus until they are so disconcerted that they are unable to achieve climax/no longer fancy it.

Ultimately, Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting his students, which is the worst Ofsted grade you can get.

Socrates’ last words were “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; please pay it and don’t forget”, which pretty much sums up why you don’t see him quoted very often on motivational posters.*

(*Although, I’m going to declare right now that I’d work for any headteacher who has this on their office wall.)

John Locke

John Locke was born in 1632 in Wrington, Somerset, which is in Middle Earth. Amongst his many philosophical ideas, Locke believed that a legitimate government is one that represents the will of the people. His views on a second referendum are unclear.

Locke lived through one of the most turbulent times in English history – witnessing Charles I quarrelling with Parliament and his subsequent execution, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, the Glorious Revolution, Dirty Den’s murder, Arthur Fowler stealing the Christmas Club money, and Janine pushing Barry off that cliff.

What about his thoughts on education?

In 1693, Locke published his treatise ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’. A treatise is a 17th century blog. If Locke were writing it today, it would be called ‘Musings on Education’ and it would have been reblogged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Locke suggested that, when we are born, our mind is a blank slate or ‘raisin de table’. Locke said that we are basically like an Etch-a-Sketch: our minds begin with a blank screen and, whilst some of us are lucky enough to be adorned with beautiful detailed pictures like the one below, most of us end up with a crude, unintelligible picture of something obscene.

As such, Locke believed that education makes the man, arguing that “nine parts of ten” of what constitutes a person comes from their education. The tenth part is made up of all lies they tell about themself on their CV and dating profiles (“love my work”, “really into existential theatre”, “do a lot of work for charity”, “quinoa is delicious”, etc.)

Locke was pretty much a utilitarian when it came to curriculum. He hated the idea of spending hours learning Latin when children could be improving their native language instead. Essentially, whenever a pupil repeats the classic refrain, “Why are we learning this? When am I ever going to use this?”, they are pretty much quoting Locke.

We can see further evidence of Locke’s utilitarianism through his attitude to various subjects. For example, he thought that pupils should be taught to draw because it would be useful for them to sketch things that they see when they are travelling foreign places and then bore family and friends when they return by showing them this visual record of their trip: “Here’s the waiter in the hotel that Margaret flirted with every night… ooh that’s me coming out of the flume… yes, those Speedo’s were a bit tight…”

Most of Locke’s ideas on education were aimed at the middle and upper classes, but he did turn his eye to the working classes in his ‘Essay on the Poor Law’. In this piece, he argued that working class kids were a burden on society and so ‘working schools’ should be established, in which poor children will be “inured to work” from three years old. To be honest, I find it hard to reconcile my shock at this attitude towards young children being sent out to work with the fact that I’ve watched and enjoyed ‘Bugsy Malone’ at least a dozen times. Locke’s influence on Western thought has been considerable, but I think we can all agree that it reached its finest moment with that film.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau was born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland in the 18th century and, among his many achievements, he is known as the inventor of off-rolling. He is thought to have had five children but this figure is uncertain as he did not keep adequate records of them. Rather than bringing up these children and educating them himself, he famously off-rolled them and they ended up being educated at the local foundling hospital instead.

But this is good news for us because, with his children out of the way, Rousseau was able to formulate his theories on education and child-rearing for which he is celebrated today.

After hearing about Rousseau’s children, Voltaire called him a “monster”. But presumably he meant like one of those nice friendly cuddly ones from Disney Pixar’s ‘Monsters, Inc.’ that are all child-centred and that by the end of the film.

What exactly were Rousseau’s views on education?

Rousseau wanted to share his views and ideas on education, so he wrote a treatise on education in which he put forward his philosophies on education. He called this book ‘Émile’. But then anybody picking the book off the shelf in Waterstones wouldn’t have known what it was about so his publisher made him give it the alternative title, ‘On Education’, which made more sense. It’s like when they renamed the 1987 comedy ‘Harry and the Hendersons’ as ‘Bigfoot and the Hendersons’, so everyone knew it was about a Bigfoot.

After its publication, ‘On Education’ was banned in Paris and Geneva and authorities ordered that copies of the book should be burned, whilst Rousseau himself was threatened with arrest if her ever set foot in his hometown again. This is basically like having your Twitter account suspended except not quite as traumatic.

‘On Education’ later became the most viewed TED talk during the French Revolution and eventually formed the basis of a national system of education.

Er, yeh, but what was his actual philosophy of education?

In Rousseau’s book, we follow the title character Émile throughout his early life, and the author uses the character to illustrate how a child should be educated. To begin with, Rousseau divides childhood into three stages:

  1. The first stage up until the age of 12, when children are guided by their emotions and impulses.
  2. The second stage between 12 and 16, when reason starts to develop.
  3. The third stage, from 16 onwards, when the child develops to adulthood.

It is notable that the three stages of childhood are precisely inverse to the three stages of Twitter:

  1. The first stage, lasting about three months, when the adult sets up their Twitter account and begins to develop their usage.
  2. The second stage, from 3 months to a year, when reason starts to dissipate.
  3. The third stage, from a year onwards, when users are guided entirely by their emotions and impulses.

In his book, Rousseau describes the way a child should be educated at each stage of their life. First he suggests that a child should learn to paint the fence and wax the car, before he then moves on to more formal training in order to achieve the ultimate aim of entering and winning the All Valley Karate Championship.

A key tenet of Rousseau’s philosophy is that, upon entering formal education during the teenage years, the child should only study what they are curious about. This, he believes, will then lead to them nurturing a love for all things. There’s no mention in the book as to whether, when told he should study only what he is curious about, Émile locked himself in his room for the next three years and demanded that nobody enter under any circumstances.

Rousseau went on to write a sequel to ‘On Education’, called ‘Émile et Sophie’, which was directed by François Truffaut, stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and is adored by pretentious sixth formers.

An art history of autumn term

The way that artists have portrayed education throughout history has been something of a fascination for me in recent years. Over a series of blog posts, I have explored how artists from various eras and artistic movements have cast their eyes, their brushes, their lenses and their, er, casts over the educational landscape before them. You can catch up with these blog posts by clicking on the links below.

An art history of school inspections

An art history of back to school

An art history of exam season

An art history of inset

In today’s post, I will be looking at the various artistic representations of the longest and darkest period of the academic year: the autumn term.

I’ll be begin by discussing one of the most famous paintings depicting the beginning of the autumn term: Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated ‘The First Seating Plan’ (1495-8).

‘The First Seating Plan’ (1495-8) by Leonardo da Vinci

In this painting, we can see the teacher surrounded by his pupils as they react to the seating plan that the teacher has placed them in. As da Vinci leads our eyes across the painting, we can see many students arguing that they don’t want to sit next to their designated partner, while others are still trying to work out where they actually sit from the simple diagram projected onto the whiteboard. But most striking is the teacher’s expression, which we can see in the detail below. His face simply says, “If getting them to sit in a seat is this hard, how on Earth am I going to teach them quadratic equations?”

Detail, ‘The First Seating Plan’ (1495-8) by Leonardo da Vinci

French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau also worked on this theme of the first seating plan in his 1718 work, ‘Get in! We’re sat together!’ (below), which focuses on the moment that a group of pupils show enthusiasm for the teacher’s random seating plan by hugging and dancing with each other. Of course, the moment that pupils show excitement at such serendipity is also the moment that the teacher’s heart sinks and they realise that they’ve really cocked up the seating plan by placing these pupils where they are obviously going to easily distract one another. She’ll give them a chance, but she’s pretty sure that the seating plan will have to be redone tomorrow.

‘Get in! We’re sat together!’ (1718) by Jean-Antoine Watteau

One of my favourite physical pieces of autumn term art is Tony Cragg’s sculpture, ‘All of the water bottles you’ve lost this term’ (1998).

‘All of the water bottles you’ve lost this term’ (1998) by Tony Cragg

In this piece, you can see the sheer volume of water bottles that a single teacher has brought into school during the autumn term, only to leave them somewhere and never get them back. You’ll notice plenty of common plastic mineral water bottles, as well as a number of flasks and fancy designer receptacles, including the expensive one that the teacher bought at the end of the summer holidays as a gift to themselves for the new term. They lost that one during inset on the first day back. The artist said of this piece, “If you think that the oceans are full of unwanted and left-behind plastic bottles, you should see school staffrooms.”

Whilst Cragg deals with the subject of drink, many artists turn their attention to teachers’ food during the autumn term. It is often striking in schools how little time it takes for cake to become a common sight in the staffroom, as teachers begin to ramp up their sugar intake in order to survive the autumn term. Below we can see Chris Killip’s 1977 photograph, ‘Teachers queuing outside the cake shop, two weeks into term’.

‘Teachers queuing outside the cake shop, two weeks into term’ (1977) by Chris Killip 

Killip’s piece is an important piece of photojournalism, capturing the sugary reality of this first term.

But whilst cake becomes a common in the mise en scène of the staffroom, there’s alway someone who, with good intentions, brings fruit in for colleagues. This has, of course, famously been portrayed by Sir John Everett Millais in his 1849 painting, ‘Fruit? Are you ****ing joking mate?’, as seen below.

‘Fruit? Are you ****ing joking mate?’ (1849) by Sir John Everett Millais

Critics have heaped praised on this painting, as it captures the well-meaning teacher bring a bowl of oranges into the staffroom, only to enrage her colleague, who was expecting, at the very least, a family pack of Kit Kats to see him and his colleagues through the morning.

As the term progresses, teachers often face their heaviest marking load of the year, as baseline assessments and data drops build up and mock exam period is swiftly upon them. This creates a seemingly endless pile of marking.

‘When will this mock exam marking end?’ (c1760-70) by Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough’s late 18th century work, ‘When will this mock exam marking end?’ expertly captures the mood of teachers at this time. Note the heavy reams of paper, as well as the wistful look on the teacher’s face has he remembers the days when he could spend time with his family. Viewers are drawn to the small square of light in the top right hand corner, symbolising the fragments of hope that keep teachers going throughout this time.

On the subject of light, J.M.W. Turner’s masterpiece of chiaroscuro (below) addresses the dominating feature of the autumn term: its perpetual darkness.

‘Hello Darkness, My Old Friend’ (1809) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

‘Hello Darkness, My Old Friend’ (1890) depicts a teacher planning their lessons and marking books as the ubiquitous darkness of autumn term creeps in all around them. The lack of light plays heavy on the teacher’s mental state as their hand quivers near their face.  Turner deliberately leaves any indicators of time out of the painting, suggesting that this could be 8 o’clock in the morning, 4pm, or midnight. Let’s face it, they were probably sat there at all three times.

As the term goes on, the darkness and workload take their toll on a teacher’s energy. You will all recognise Millais’ famous painting depicting this subject below.

‘Bath, not shower’ (1851-2) by Sir John Everett Millais

During the latter part of the term, teachers find they no longer have the energy to stand in the shower at the end of the day. In ‘Bath, not shower’ (1851-2), Millais shows us the teacher reverting to lying in a bath out of necessity, complete with Lush bath bomb, a weary look, and – in this extreme case – all her clothes on. It’s fine though – all her colleagues will be so tired that they won’t notice that she’s wearing the same dress for two days running, this time with added creases and still dripping dry. “You smell nice,” they might say.

Late in the term, the weather begins to turn and we get our first cold snap. Tired and in need of any extra time they can get to catch up with marking or sleep, teachers often see the possibility of a glimpse of respite in this cold weather.

‘Praying for Snow’ (1888) by Alphonse Legros

Alphonse Legros’ ‘Praying for Snow’ (1888) shows the moment when teachers desperately wish for a day to catch up contemplate the educational opportunities a day of snow will bring to the children they teach.

As Christmas approaches, there is an air of excitement in the school. Departments will often celebrate the season by organising a Secret Santa gift-giving amongst themselves. David Hockney’s painting below depicts the moment of the exchanging of gifts.

‘Oh good – a book about teaching’ (1977) by David Hockney

In ‘Oh good – a book about teaching’, the artist shows us the faux gratitude shown by the teacher (on the right) receiving the gift, as he receives a book that is guaranteed to mean that he has to think about work throughout the Christmas holidays too. The teacher on the left seems satisfied that she bought him this instead of the Borat-style mankini she originally thought about getting him. Clearly, he would have preferred the mankini.

The final week of lessons approach and teachers and pupils alike can see the end in sight.

‘Can we have a fun lesson?’ (1851) by Richard Redgrave

In the above painting, Richard Redgrave’s ‘Can we have a fun lesson?’ (1851), we can see the teacher responding angrily to the question that he has been asked 14 times already this week. There are still two days to go.

‘Can we watch a DVD?’ (c.1850) by Frederic George Stephens 

On the final day of term, the question becomes even more deploring. Frederic George Stephens’ ‘Can we watch a DVD?’ shows a pupil begging to be allowed to watch the first half of a film before going to their next lesson to ask their next teacher if they can watch the first half of a completely different film, and so on for the rest of the day. It is arguable that such a day would actually have an educational benefit: it will serve as a good introduction to postmodernism and will ably prepare pupils to read James Joyce or Italo Calvino in the future. In Stephens’ painting, we can see the teacher wrestling over the decision to teach her planned lesson, watch an educational documentary or just give in completely and stick Elf on.

Once term is finished, teachers can really get into the seasonal festivities with their friends and family. Tom Hunter’s ‘Get the Party Started’ (2009) shows a teacher, back home after the long autumn term, really throwing themselves into all of the festive fun and cheer.

‘Get the Party Started’ (2009) by Tom Hunter

That’s it for this look at the art of the autumn term throughout history. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. See you next time!

Oblique National Strategies cards

Back in 1974, the musical innovator Brian Eno and the artist Peter Schmidt produced a deck of 113 cards called ‘Oblique Strategies’. On each card was an instruction or guidance to encourage a musician or artist to be able to laterally think their way through a creative block. When faced with the pressure of producing, they would often find that this very pressure would steer them away from productive ways of thinking, so they created the cards to jog their mind back towards these more, well, oblique ways of thinking. Here’s Eno discussing them in 1980:

“The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, ‘Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,’ or ‘Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.'”

The cards were famously used by Eno and David Bowie on the latter’s Berlin trilogy of albums – Low“Heroes” and Lodger, and have been used by a number of artists since –bands such as R.E.M. and Coldplay, for instance. You can see examples of some of the cards below:

It’s recently come to my attention that similar cards were produced by the National Strategies team back in the early noughties: whilst plenty of their resources were of good quality, they sometimes suffered creative blocks when coming up with initiatives and materials for schools, so they produced their own set of Oblique National Strategies cards to help them get through these blocks. And what’s more, I’ve managed to get hold of some of these cards. Rumour has it that these are still used by some agencies, organisations and MATs. I’ve attached some of the cards below so that you can use them if you have any creative block in policy making. Just click on a card at random and follow the strategy written on it.

An art history of inset

Over the past few years, I have been exploring the art history of teaching on this blog, sharing some of my favourite pieces of artwork across various topics within education. You can view my past blogs on these topics here:

An art history of school inspections

An art history of back to school

An art history of exam season

In this blog, I will be exploring another area that has proved a rich vein for artists throughout time: the inset day. Let’s take a look at how this topic has been approached by artists through the years.

‘I don’t have to teach tomorrow… I might as well finish the bottle tonight’ (1969) by Patrick Caulfield

One of my favourite modern pieces is Patrick Caulfield’s 1969 classic ‘I don’t have to teach tomorrow… I might as well finish the bottle tonight’, which depicts the preparation teachers might go through the evening before an inset day. Other works around this theme include Pauline Boty’s ‘So What if This Film Starts at 10pm? I’ve Got Inset Tomorrow’ (1963) and Andy Warhol’s ‘Lie-in!’ (1967).

This kind of preparation continues into the next morning, as teachers take the opportunity of staff inset to dress casually for the day. The work below is a diptych by August Sander in 1929, titled ‘Inset day outfits’.

‘Inset day outfits No. 1’ (1929) by August Sander

‘Inset day outfits No. 2’ (1929) by August Sander

These contrasting photographs are beautifully observed, the artist depicting both P.E. staff and classroom teachers from the school’s faculty. Sander plays with the assumptions of the layperson here – they might assume that the P.E. staff are on the left and the classroom teacher is on the right. Of course, as those in schools all know, inset day is the one day of the year where all the male classroom teachers wear shorts and the P.E. staff wear long trousers – both experiencing a sense of liberation that they crave every other day of the year.

Once the inset day begins, teachers might have the option to sit in groups of their choice, or they might face the prospect of being made to work in groups that have been selected for them.

‘This is the Group We Have Been Put In and We Are Really Happy About That’ (1989) by Thomas Struth

Thomas Struth’s 1989 photograph ‘This is the Group We Have Been Put In and We Are Really Happy About That’, shows an enthusiastic group of teachers really getting stuck in to working with the group into which they have been selected. This piece invites the viewer to really look at the faces of each of the group members to see their deep joy.

Once work begins within the group, staff will need to feed back their discussions and ideas on the subject matter of the training.

‘Write Your Ideas on a Post-it® and Stick Them it the Wall’ (1976-7) by Ellsworth Kelly

Ellsworth Kelly’s 1976-7 print ‘Write Your Ideas on a Post-it® and Stick Them it the Wall’ depicts the staple method of feedback used at all inset. The artist deliberately leaves the sticky notes blank, allowing the viewer to imagine their own feedback as they experience the painting. Critics note is that the central Post-it® note is black, and thus any writing on this note will be illegible to the reader: is the artist suggesting that your feedback won’t actually be read? Or is he suggesting that your true thoughts are hidden? What other interpretations might we make of this?

It may be that the inset training requires teachers to be creative in their feedback. Below are two examples portraying a common method of creative feedback from the past, in which teachers have been given some random objects to arrange in a way that represents their response to the subject matter. In Jean Tinguely’s 1970 sculpture ‘My Pedagogy’, the artist depicts a teacher who has been asked to present what pedagogy means to them. In this piece, there is a description alongside it that reads:  “Pedagogy is a series of tools that are in balance but are also simultaneously in a state of chaos”. Below that, Bruce Lacey’s ‘This is What Teaching Means to Me’ (1966) also shows how easy it is for a teacher to put some random junk together and then come up with a post-hoc rationalisation that it represents something profound when asked. The description alongside this piece reads: “I dunno, summink about support and helping hands and that?”

“My Pedagogy’ (1970) by Jean Tinguely

‘This is What Teaching Means to Me’ (1966) by Bruce Lacey

An inset day may also require staff to get up out of their seat and do something interactive as it is often assumed by the trainer that teachers are all extroverts who wish to make public displays of themselves at all times. Liu Bolin’s work ‘Please, Please Don’t Make Me Do This’ (2018) portrays the a teacher in the moment they literally attempt to blend into the background so that they don’t have to get involved in something that makes them uncomfortable. If you look very carefully at the piece, you can actually see the teacher in the centre, hiding in plain sight from the trainer, who has just asked him to sing and clap along to a song, or make some form of physical contact with the person next to him, or perhaps even something as upsetting as standing up for a moment.

‘Please, Please Don’t Make Me Do This’ (2018) by Liu Bolin

Below we can see Eric Gill’s representation of the holy grail of inset: having an external speaker come in to present to the staff. You can see the reverence from the staff as they hang on every word of this guru, who they’ve followed on social media for ages and have finally got the chance to hear speak in person. Critics have noted how the teacher depicted at the far end of the second row has a slightly dipped head, reflecting their disappointment at the revelation that the guru’s social media profile picture is infinitely more flattering than they appear in person and was probably taken five years ago, before the mounting sleepless nights and all-you-can-eat buffet breakfasts in Travelodges started to show.

‘External Speaker’ (1918) by Eric Gill

One of my favourite pieces is Linder’s photomontage piece from 1976, ‘Oh good – that Ken Robinson video again’, a punk-era work that asks the viewer to think deeply about the media content we consume in schools.

‘Oh good – that Ken Robinson video again’ (1976) by Linder

During inset day there is often a free lunch put on for staff in the canteen at a set time of the day. Below, we can see Lady Butler’s 1881 painting, ‘The Charge of the Lunch Brigade’, which depicts the moment that one department decides to make their way to the canteen a but earlier than the designated lunchtime in order to get served first, only to realise all of the other departments have done exactly the same thing. We can see the Head of Humanities, out in front in the centre of the painting, shouting “It’s fish and chips!” as he nears the canteen and gets his first glimpse of the food. Meanwhile, those behind try to hustle towards the front whilst simultaneously trying to maintain polite relations with their colleagues in other departments.

‘The Charge of the Lunch Brigade’ (1881) by Lady Butler

A legend often repeated with regards to staff training is that of inset bingo, a game in which staff members have individual bingo cards full of common buzzwords in education that they are supposed to mark off from their card if they are mentioned by the speaker. Perhaps the most famous painting of all time, below, is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lotto di cazzate’ (Italian: “buzzword bingo”), which deals with the moment someone at the table has a winning card. Critics have often debated the sitter’s enigmatic smile and the reasons behind it, but art historians have recently uncovered diaries from da Vinci that tell us that “the teacher in question has just won the game of inset bingo and is trying to hide her delight and, at the same time, maintain a professional demeanour in front of the speaker and her line manager – this conflict results in her enigmatic smile, a seemingly insignificant feature of the painting which I’m pretty sure critics won’t pay much attention to in the years to come”.

‘Lotto di cazzate’ (1503-06) by Leonardo da Vinci

I hope you have enjoyed this little voyage through some of the artists who have depicted inset day throughout history. Until next time!

We should future-proof education against the past

This is a piece I wrote for Teach Secondary in February. Click here and you can subscribe to see more articles like this from teachers.

“Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs Lancaster?”
“I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.”

Groundhog Day (1993)

Ah, the classic time-loop trope: a staple of stories and films, this simple device sees our hero or heroine being forced to experience the same period of time repeatedly.

Now, we all know that teaching isn’t like that in the day-to-day. In fact, the idea that ‘no two days are the same’ is often cited as a reason why we all love this job.

But in the long term, there is actually quite a lot of repetition in education. And unlike Mrs Lancaster – Bill Murray’s landlady in Groundhog Day – we don’t need to check with the kitchen for evidence of déjà vu. No, in schools we have our more experienced colleagues to remind us.

“I remember this intervention/trend/fad/torture the last time it came around.” We’ve all heard this said. Or we’ve said it ourselves. Because it is one of the universal truths of teaching: like Madonna or West Bromwich Albion, ideas disappear and then return a few years later, rehabilitated and revamped, with an almost predictable frequency.

Recurring nightmares

The time-loop trope in films is often used as a device of horror, or at the very least, grim frustration. And it can have the same effect in teaching.

I can’t even begin to tell you of the nightmares I’ve had about having to relive the hell that was APP again – an approach to assessment from the late noughties that involved lots of paper, huge amounts of priceless teacher time and yet still resulted in the same old subjective and inaccurate grades.

So why do I live in fear of someone bringing APP back from the dead? Surely we all know it was awful? Well, no, not all of us.

There will be people new to the profession who don’t remember the abominations of the past.

With good intentions, they will (re)invent this stuff and dump it into the laps of those who remember it the first time around, ignoring the defences from these battle-weary veterans of, “You don’t know, man! You weren’t there!”

Look back

So, how do we protect ourselves from this inevitable time loop? How can we prevent someone triggering our PTSD from a resuscitation of the PLTS? How might we avert a second attempt at a Brain Gym lobotomy? How do we avoid getting the shakes from VAK again?

The answer is to future-proof education. But I don’t mean by listening to the futurists – they’ve been playing guessing games, making guff up and getting it wrong for centuries.

(Incidentally, why do futurists never predict that in the future, people will look back at futurists’ ideas and laugh at how wrong they were? That would be a more prescient observation.)

No, I mean that we should – and can – future-proof education against the past. That’s where many of our most pernicious ideas come from (mea culpa: I don’t stand apart from these ideas – I’ve been complicit in many of them).

And that’s also where we have the evidence and experience to say with more accuracy: this idea is useful/of little use/downright damaging.

We can easily future-proof ourselves against these ghosts of the past, these reanimated corpses of past horrors, by reading widely around the ideas and making sure we know about the research and discourse that informs or refutes them.

Knowledge is power

There comes a point in all of these time loop narratives when the protagonist stops letting the grinding repetition get them down, when they stand up and take control of their own destiny; when they cry, as Bill Murray’s character declares in Groundhog Day, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.”

So when the APP gremlins multiply and take over thanks to some well-meaning yet oblivious individual feeding them after midnight, we should arm ourselves with the one thing that can protect against them: knowledge.

Know more about them than we are told. When we know more about the past, we are protected against the future. Only then can we be guided by the things that work. Then we won’t have to live by their rules again. And again. And again…

A Glossary of U.K. Education (Vol. 6)

We are pleased to present Vol. 6 of our ongoing glossary of U.K. education. For previous volumes, please follow these links:

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4

Vol. 5




collective term for any of a range of words or phrases used in schools that sound like team names on The Apprentice, and thus should be treated with caution, e.g., resilience, relevance, rigour, facilitation, growth mindset, flight path, etc.




a receptacle used by pupils to fill with GCSEs at the end of their secondary education; they then take these buckets along to prospective colleges or employers and empty the contents out onto the desk of the admissions officer/manager in the hope that it will impress them enough to take them on.




continuing policy dissemination.




an abstract phenomenon that was brutally murdered in 2006 by schools, who were themselves subsequently brought to justice by Chief Inspector Ken Robinson of the TED Police.

curriculum dumping

/kəˈrɪkjʊləm dʌmpɪŋ/


phenomenon whereby politicians, journalists, public figures and commentators identify a need or failure in society and automatically decide that schools should be the ones to pick up the slack of that need; this is usually announced through the press using the headline format “Schools should teach X“.

Dale’s Cone of Experience

/deɪlz kəʊn ɒv ɪkˈspɪərɪəns/


Ben & Jerry’s ice cream variety which combines invention and lies to create an overall flavour of scienceyness.


/just write it down and point to it/


(origin. German) word for the moment when a teacher seizes a youth trend in order to make their lessons seem cool and “relevant” and thus immediately kills the youth trend, automatically making it seem lame and joyless in the eyes of the children.

faith school



a school that teaches a general curriculum but which also aligns itself with a particular belief system based on the supernatural guidance of an exterior force and which is based on faith rather than empirical evidence; see also: edtech

fidget spinners

/ˈfɪdʒɪt ˈspɪnəz/


fiddle toys that were absolutely necessary for many pupils to be able to concentrate in their lessons for a few months in 2017 until they went out of fashion and pupils were suddenly able to concentrate without them again.


/iː diː piː ɑːr/


an elaborate and wide-ranging policy enacted solely for the purpose of forcing me to tidy my desk.

Hendrick, Carl

/hɛndrɪk, kɑːl/


annoying man who walks around picking up things and asking, “What does this look like in the classroom?”

Lionel Richie challenge

/ˈlaɪənəl rɪtʃi/


a challenge undertaken upon being asked to cover an Art lesson in which the cover teacher, whilst pupils are working, attempts to find the clay head in the room that looks most like that of Lionel Richie in the ‘Hello’ video.




a framework of six skills identified by the QCA in 2006 to be  “essential to success in learning, life and work” and identified by classroom teachers immediately afterwards to be a nebulous and vague distraction from the job of teaching; the six skills were Team Worker, Reflective Learner, Creative Thinker, Assistant Manager, Golden Retriever, Tiny Dancer.

Progress 8

/ˈprəʊɡrɛs eɪt/


Directed by Nicky Morgan and starring Vin Diesel, the eighth and latest instalment in the popular Progress franchise, a series concerned with school performance measures; other instalments in the series include The Rapid and the SustainedProgress 2: EBacc in the Habit, Five A*-C (starring English and Maths), and International Progress: Singapore Drift.

Singapore maths

/ˌsɪŋəˈpɔː maθs/


Like maths, but better.

TES Resources

/ˈtɛz rɪˈsɔːsɪz/


popular online website that cleverly taps into the gap in the education market for teachers who wish to buy back their own resources from people they once they gave them to for free.