All posts by jamestheo

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…

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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

Apprenticeshit

/əˈprɛntɪˈʃɪt/

noun

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.

bucket

/ˈbʌkɪt/

noun

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.

CPD

/spd/

abbrev.

continuing policy dissemination.

creativity

/ˌkriːeɪˈtɪvɪti/

noun

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/

verb

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/

noun

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

Fadlehrerfreudenverlustaugenblick

/just write it down and point to it/

noun

(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

/ˈfeɪθskuːl/

noun

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/

noun

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.

GDPR

/iː diː piː ɑːr/

abbrev.

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

Hendrick, Carl

/hɛndrɪk, kɑːl/

noun

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

Lionel Richie challenge

/ˈlaɪənəl rɪtʃi/

noun

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.

PLTS

/pɛltz/

abbrev.

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/

noun

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/

noun

Like maths, but better.

TES Resources

/ˈtɛz rɪˈsɔːsɪz/

noun

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.

Recipes for Teachers: A Cookbook for the Exhausted Educator

Whilst rooting around in a local charity bookshop today, I came across a real treasure: Recipes for Teachers. It appears to be a collection of recipes put together to help busy teachers get through the working week. I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but I’m certainly going to have a go at some of them next week! I’ll let you know how I get on, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share with you some examples from the book. Maybe you could try making them yourself, or maybe you’ve used some of these recipes before? Let me know in the comments. Bon appétit!

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

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’