Category Archives: Teaching

Be more Goose: a school shouldn’t rely on Mavericks

Reading, in Berkshire, is a typical British town. In fact, it was once considered by some to be the most typical town in the country. In the years following the Second World War, its typicality was of great use to a nation rebuilding itself: it was used as a sample to gauge the morale of Britons on the whole. How the people of Reading felt, it was assumed, was exactly how the country felt.

Town planners noted the town’s typicality and sought to utilise it further. Thus, whenever it came to introducing new traffic systems, the planners thought that Reading, as the most typical town, would be the best place to trial them. If the new systems worked there, they should be able to work in most places.

This, however, had an affect on the town that the planners hadn’t taken into consideration. Reading – with all of its new-fangled roundabouts, unique traffic lights and unusual road systems – soon was like no other town in Britain. They turned Reading from the most typical in the country into the most atypical town.

When we train as teachers, we are encouraged to observe other practitioners in order to hone our craft. This is great advice. We learn so much about how to teach by seeing how others do it. In many ways, we are looking for typicality: we are trying to understand the norms of a good classroom. One of the most frequent focuses of this search for typicality is behaviour management. We are advised to go and dutifully observe a particular teacher to learn strategies to manage the behaviour in our classroom.

This seems sensible enough: if a trainee teacher can walk into a number of classrooms in a school and come away with an understanding of the typical approaches to behaviour management in the school, they will be able to work on assuming those approaches in their own classroom.

But if trainees are advised to observe specifically-identified teachers, with advice that ‘this particular teacher is good at behaviour management’, this might be a sign that such teachers are atypical of the school’s general management of behaviour. This might tell us that teachers in that school work in relative isolation to establish the culture of behaviour in their classroom. Whilst we send trainees to observe these teachers thinking they will see typical behaviour management, there’s a chance they are seeing the opposite. As with Reading, our ideas might have backfired.

I think that the domain of behaviour management has, in the past, valorised the maverick. We have lauded individuals who have developed a gift in handling difficult behaviour. And whilst we may have much to learn from them, often we have been presented with arcane wizardry beyond our mortal comprehension.

I can remember doing a placement in a school with a challenging cohort and being told to visit two teachers in particular: one, an imposing 6ft-plus  ex-army officer, who conducted the behavioural movements of the classroom like a symphony conductor, demanding discipline through the very cadences of his voice; the other, a tough, maternal teacher who seemed at once gentle and brutal, a bulwark made of feathers, magically providing a defence against the tempests of poor behaviour. I walked away from both observations with no idea how they did it and no clue how to replicate what they did in my classroom. Both of their behaviour management styles were inseparable from their very personalities; they had osmosed a lifetime of interactions in different domains into the subtle tics and acts of legerdemain: their behaviour management style was simply who they were. Sure, there were some things that I could take away, but in general, I left with more of a feeling of my own inadequacy than one of empowerment.

Now such mavericks have a very important place in schools. They encourage and enthuse pupils about education. We should seek them out and celebrate them. But we shouldn’t valorise the atypical at the cost of the typical. It is the systems and culture – and the teachers who follow and promote those systems and that culture – that make a school. In particular, we should venerate the systems and cultures of a school that allow a trainee can go into any classroom in a school and come away with an understanding of how to manage behaviour. We should seek out the typical rather than the atypical. And if the typical isn’t good enough, we should look to improve that, rather than look to the atypical for help.

With the publication this week of his behaviour report, ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’, it’s author Tom Bennett addresses exactly the importance of the culture of a school. It is interesting to note that all of the cases studies Bennett refers to are focused on what good schools do, not what good teachers do.

An example Case Study from ‘Creating a Culture: How school leaders can optimise behaviour’ (2017), Tom Bennett’s independent review of behaviour in schools.

 

As Bennett explains, “The school ethos, its vision, and the strategies used to achieve it, must be consistent with one another, and must be consistently demonstrated. Rules and values that fluctuate too much confuse what the school stands for.”

Fluctuation is the state in which mavericks thrive. In order for typical teachers to survive, we should take Bennett’s advice and establish typicality:

“Any area of general behaviour that can be sensibly translated into a routine should be done so explicitly. This removes uncertainty about school expectations from mundane areas of school life, which reduces anxiety, creates a framework of social norms, and reduces the need for reflection and reinvention of what is and is not acceptable conduct. This in turn saves time and effort that would otherwise be expended in repetitive instruction. These routines should be seen as the aspiration of all members of the school community whenever possible.”

By establishing typicality, we allow “all members of the school community” to thrive. Even the mavericks.

As a young boy, my first encounter with the concept of mavericks was in the movie Top Gun. Indeed, Tom Cruise’s protagonist was so maverick that they named him, erm, Maverick. But I always felt more investment in his co-pilot, Goose. Maverick was one-of-a-kind: a success in the skies, in love, and on the beach volleyball court. What’s more he had the self-confidence to pick up a microphone and belt out an impromptu blue-eyed soul tune in a packed bar. Let’s face it, you’d have hated him if he was a real person. But Goose was the level-headed, regular guy. Goose was the standard; the average; the typical. He followed the rules and would have made it to the end of the film if it hadn’t been for Maverick’s folly (yeh, I know, the investigation panel clears him of any fault). If I was choosing a wingman in a school, it would be Goose. Schools need Gooses more than Mavericks.

Teachers: be more Goose. And schools: establish the conditions and culture in which Goose can make it to the end of the film. I feel the need… the need to make behaviour a whole-school focus with attention to detail, consistent practices, visible leaders and clarity of culture. Yee-haw.

 

The variable obscenity of knowledge

“Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

This was the question famously asked by prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones to the Old Bailey jury at the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Griffith-Jones’ implication was that the book should be available for the pleasure of men of a certain class. But he was at pains to suggest that the morally vulnerable working class and the equally “intellectually and morally fragile” female readers should be protected from being exposed to the novel. The jury laughed: three of them were women and most of them were working class men who would have found the idea of having live-in servants extraordinary.

Griffith-Jones’ question has lived on in infamy, but it was the only time during the trial that he actually mentioned wives and servants. Much of his case relied on the fear that the book would make it into the hands of working-class boys. It is clear that the prosecution was targeting the already marginalised members of society.

The principle that the authorities would wish to ban publication of a text for a mass audience that it would happily allow for a privileged readership has since been given the term ‘variable obscenity’ (Hunter et al. 1993): it is obscene for the poor, but not for the privileged.

We can see the same principle of variability in some attitudes towards pupils receiving a knowledge-rich education. It is often the case that such attitudes are displayed by people privileged enough to be rich with knowledge themselves.

Take for example, this letter to Michael Gove, signed by 100 education academics, urging him to change his proposed knowledge-rich curriculum to one of “problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity”. Such academics have achieved their status through an accumulation of knowledge within their field: their ability to problem solve, think critically and be creative is a function of that wealth of knowledge, as Daniel Willingham suggests here.

Or when this headteacher decried how he “suffered” a grammar school education “constricted by academic content” and, elsewhere, complained that an “emphasis on content and knowledge over creativity and enjoyment” gives us a curriculum that “both pupils and teachers are bored with”.  One can’t help but notice that such an academic education set him up on his path to be a successful headteacher and writer. Why is this content-rich curriculum not desirable for our pupils too?

Or what about earlier this month when a Stanford professor told us that education isn’t about knowing things because “in today’s world, when information is at our fingertips, we don’t need to go to school to learn facts and figures — a quick Google search, a glance at Wikipedia, or a question posed to Siri will usually result in answers to specific questions.” Do you get to be a Stanford professor with Google, Wikipedia and Siri, or is that just an education reserved for the rest of us?

You don’t have to look very far to find successful people privileged with deep and broad knowledge in their domains telling us that kids should prioritise soft skills like creativity over knowledge.

In such a way, they seem to echo the attitude of Griffith-Jones and the idea that a work of literature is of variable obscenity. Just as society’s privileged back then suggested that the book in question was acceptable for them but not for the general public, so the academically privileged seem to suggest that a rich knowledge is something they can cope with, but is detrimental to the young.

I’d even suggest that not only have such people coped with learning an abundance of knowledge, this beautiful, rich knowledge has been the key to their success.

Next time a successful educationalist decries a focus on domain knowledge and extols the virtues of soft skills in its place, ask yourself: how much knowledge did they need to build to get where they are today? What facts did they need to learn? What knowledge did they need to commit to memory? How much repetition and revisiting did they need to undertake in order to remember, manipulate and apply this knowledge? How much content did they need to study? How many books did they need to read? And are any of those books ones that you would wish your pupils to read? Or should we hold our pupils to a variable standard?

Shakespeare’s Folio (Education Weekly Subeditors’ Edition)

Here at the Schools Education Supplement (SES, as all the cool kids are calling it), we are launching a new imprint of Shakespeare classics. You can get the first set of five plays for only £9.99.

In order for us to be able to bring you this deal at such a low price, we have agreed to launch each play with a new title. As such, we’ve asked our subeditors to read every play in the First Folio and retitle each one with a name that reflects what they think is the main plot point of each story.

Our subeditors have a wealth of experience of writing headlines based on the main point of an article. Indeed, our peers over at the TES presented us with a brilliant example yesterday. They published a very sensible article by E.D. Hirsch Jr. in which the famed educator argues that some of the beliefs and misconceptions long-held by schools (such as the idea of natural development) have held back children, narrowed the curriculum, widened the achievement gap between rich and poor, and led to overtesting of non-existent skills. As such, Hirsch says that good, long-term research, rather than beliefs, should be our guide.

And, in what seems like a rather ambiguous, throwaway line he says: “We have become disappointed in policies and programmes that seemed experimentally promising, such as smaller class sizes, direct instruction and Success for All. They were all supported by carefully conducted experiments, but in the long run they have disappointed.”

Now an average person might think that this line offers nothing of import in comparison to the rest of the article. But not a brilliant subeditor. No, a good subeditor would use that ambiguous piece of information to create a headline. See:

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It is precisely this skill of the subeditor that we have tapped into to bring you our retitled editions of the plays of William Shakespeare. So, without further ado, we present to you the first five plays in the Shakespeare’s Folio (Education Weekly Subeditors’ Edition):

Priest Supplies 13-Year-Old Girl with Under-the-Counter Drugs (previously published as Romeo and Juliet)

Education for All? The Danish Prince Barred from Higher Education (previously published as Hamlet)

Peter Quince: “Delegating roles in Drama is proof that group work works” (previously published as A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Is This a Dagger I See Before Me? How Virtual Reality ‘Leads the Way’ in Scotland (previously published as Macbeth)

Earl of Gloucester: “It’s only when I started using eyepads that I got true insight into children’s thinking” (previously published as King Lear)

Don’t delay! Get hold of your copies of these new editions of old classics today!

 

 

 

“I hate poems”: introducing poetry

I hate poetry.

Of course that isn’t true.

But it would be equally untrue if I were to say I love poetry.

The reason both these statements are untrue is because they are huge, sweeping statements. Poetry, like music, movies, books, art, theatre, television and chocolates runs the gamut from the great (strawberry creams) to the woeful (coffee creams). I love some poetry. In fact, I love lots of poetry. But there’s some poetry I plain dislike. This is the first thing I discuss when teaching poetry: that it is a matter of taste. People don’t say “I hate music”; they say “I hate Kula Shaker”. They might hate The Voice and Top Gear and Hollyoaks, but that doesn’t mean they hate television. So if a pupil says “I don’t like poetry”, I suggest that what they mean is “I don’t like any of the poetry I’ve read to this point in my life”. And I tell them that I think that will change.

Such preamble out of the way, I always ask my pupils this simple question before studying poetry with them for the first time:

What is poetry?

Don’t read ahead yet. Just stop here and answer the question. Commit to a definition. Take as long as you need. Write it down if you want, but I want you to have a definition. If you don’t want to write it down, say it aloud. Poetry is…

Was that surprisingly hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you’ve thought about having a clear definition before. But if you haven’t, that might have taken a little bit of thought or refinement. Certainly, it seems a difficult question for pupils to answer. In fact, for many of us, it’s one of those things that we assume we know the answer to, but perhaps we don’t. Psychologist Rebecca Lawson explored this illusion of knowledge when she asked people to draw something very simple, something we should all be familiar with: bicycles. She found that, despite such familiarity, most people can’t draw a bike or even pick one out in a line-up of drawings.

Rebbeca Lawson - The Science of Cycology
Questions from Rebecca Lawson’s ‘The Science of Cycology’

 

When I ask pupils to answer the question “What is poetry?”, I get all sorts of answers, some vague, some pertinent: it rhymes, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it’s a way of showing emotions, it tells a story, it has a rhythm, it uses lines and verses, poems are short, etc.

Most of those answers might be true of some poems, but they never get anywhere near defining poetry. I spend a little time trying to falsify their answers: if poetry rhymes, does that mean this shop name is a poem?

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If poems tell stories, is this a poem?

of-mice-and-men-book

Eventually, we can all agree that we haven’t really defined what poetry is, so I suggest we need to understand what it is if we are going to study it.

And this is how I get pupils to define it.

I show them a range of differing texts – about 8 or 9 – and ask them to look at them and answer two questions:

  1. Is this a poem?
  2. Why/why not?

The thing I don’t tell them is that every one of the texts is a poem. I just ensure that each of them is so different from the next. I throw in seemingly impenetrable modernism from Gertrude Stein, a short three-word poem, a prose poem, some nonsense from Spike Milligan, some E.E. Cummings, and a few others. I make sure that each of the poems do different things – some have clear meanings, some are abstruse; some rhyme, some don’t; some are long, some are short; some have end-stopped lines, some use enjambment; some are narrative, some present ideas or feelings.

For as long as I’ve been doing this task with classes, the pupils have always responded that they are certain that some of the texts are poems and they are adamant that others aren’t. They are also often some that they are undecided on. Sometimes I let them remain undecided but ask them to explain why.

Once pupils have made their decisions, we go through each of the poems, one by one, together. We explore meanings and messages, highlight differences and look at the features, and I slowly reveal my trick: that they are all poems.

We then go back to the first question, with a further clause at the beginning:

If all of these are poems, what is poetry?

(In other words, what do they all have in common?)

Then, with some questioning, we arrive at a very simple definition. The wording tends to differ with each class, but it goes something like this:

Poetry uses words (or language) in different ways (without having to follow the rules of grammar), often using patterns, to create meanings.

It is, as I say, a really simple definition, but I think it unlocks poetry a little for pupils. From here, we might actually apply this definition by giving pupils an opportunity to create poems such as humuments, blackout poetry or cutout poetry. I find this is quite efficient as it doesn’t rely on pupils trying to write something from scratch and gives them an opportunity to produce a poem by using words that are already in front of them and to apply the definition by using those words in different ways (breaking rules) to create new meanings.

I’ve always found this a simple but effective way to introduce poetry.

Schrödinger’s homework: the problem with takeaway menus

One of the signifying mantras of progressive education’s child-centred approach is the idea of giving pupils elective choice in what or how they study.

One example of this choice in action is the phenomenon of ‘takeaway homework’.

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For the uninitiated, this is where pupils are given a menu (usually emblazoned with the branding of a high street fast food chain) from which they get to choose to complete one (or some) from a range of homework tasks.

Whilst I’ll concede that it isn’t completely at odds with it, this idea does seem to sit uncomfortably with another of progressive education’s bogeymen: the marketisation of education (you can also add ‘Poundland pedagogy‘ as another bedfellow in this conflicted ménage à trois).

But that isn’t my main concern with takeaway homework. Neither is it the stealthy promotion of junk food that these menus might seem to endorse. It isn’t even, as Chris Moyse suggests, the excessive workload that takeaway homework creates.

No. The concern I have with takeaway homework is that, whilst it claims to be promoting valid homework, it’s actually doing the opposite. And that’s because it’s doing both.

You see, I think that takeaway homework can be seen as a thought experiment, similar to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.

This is what I mean. Take a look at this schematic figure of takeaway homework.

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Pupils are offered 4 tasks to choose from. We tell them that these tasks are all valid and useful. Pupil One chooses the circle task. This means that they do not complete the other three tasks. We are now saying that, if we are happy for Pupil One not to complete these, they can’t be important. On the other hand, as they are completing the circle task, this must have validity.

Pupil Two chooses the square task. This means that the circle task that Pupil One completed does not have importance or validity. We are happy for Pupil Two not to complete that task; they can miss out on the learning from this task. We must, therefore, also be happy for Pupil One not to complete that task, even though they chose it.

Pupil Three chooses the pentagon task. This means that nobody chooses to complete the triangle task. We are happy for nobody to complete that task, so it must be unimportant. The learning provided by the triangle task can be bypassed by all pupils.

Put simply, the tasks on this menu are both valid and invalid at the same time. By organising homework in this way, we are suggesting that each task is simultaneously important and unimportant; useful and useless; they have both a learning outcome that we think pupils need and no learning outcome at all.

And the crux of all this is: if we are saying that some of those tasks are unnecessary but it doesn’t matter which, then we are actually saying that all of them are.

This is the problem of takeaway homework.

I think that homework needs to be directed, with a clear intention and learning outcome to be effective. Woolly, ‘anything goes’ approaches like takeaway homework is the opposite of this. It seems to hinge all of its claimed ‘effectiveness’ on things like motivation and engagement, which, as Professor Robert Coe tells us, are actually poor proxies for learning:Poor proxies fro learning

Where Hattie has thrown some doubt over the effectiveness of homework as an intervention, wouldn’t it be better to, as Tom Sherrington says, “be more specific and precise” in the tasks we set?

Even its advocates must agree that takeaway homework is far from specific and precise. And with that in mind, I’m personally hoping that we soon see yesterday’s takeaway homework menus as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.

 

Tell all the truth; don’t tell it slant

When Armando Iannucci delivered last year’s MacTaggart Lecture, he opened with this anecdote:

“Staring nervously out at you all, my future sitting in front of me, my mind goes back fifteen years, when I was lassoed into a BBC brainstorming session on the Arts, and I spent the day in a brightly-painted room at the mercy of a team of professional arts brainstormers.

These were experts paid to be spontaneously positive; they had degrees in being upbeat, and had trained with some of the world’s most optimistic people.

‘This is a day to let your hair down,’ said the leader. ‘It’s all about having fun. We want to have fun.’

And then she looked straight at us. ‘If you’re not prepared to have fun, get out now.’

I got out, and resolved the last thing I would ever do is trap a group of talented people in a colourful room and subject them to one-sided opinion masquerading as open debate.”

I think that Iannucci’s experience at the BBC at the turn of the millennium is probably not too dissimilar to the experience of many in the education debate today.

It is a common trope in education discussion for criticism or debate to be coloured as ‘negativity’, just as the charge towards ideas is often trumpeted by a reveille of voices calling for positivity at the sacrifice of challenge or critique.

Sir Roger Scruton (the knighthood has been bestowed in the time it has taken me to draft this post) suggests that some of the worst crimes in humanity are down to the charge of unscrupulous optimism (I won’t go into details, for fear of invoking Godwin’s Law but you get the idea). Scruton suggests that unscrupulous optimism entails clinging to a plethora of fallacies which protects one from the truth:

“Whole lifestyles are built upon these fallacies, and they confer upon those who espouse them a validation and a cost-free serenity that could never be achieved were they to invest their hopes in themselves and in the things upon which they can act with proper understanding.”

I’d contend that some of the worst things to happen in education – things that hinder pupil progress, things that cause stress to teachers, things that take money away from more useful areas – are done in the name of unscrupulous optimism.

But unscrupulous optimism isn’t a just a blind march towards a goal, blindly ignoring criticism. No, unscrupulous optimism often lashes out at criticism, in terms that seem to contradict the positive, caring, be-excellent-to-each-other ideals that they seem to hold dear. As Scuton notes:

“When these fallacies are questioned, therefore, optimists are apt to release a flood of defensive anger. Rather than examine their beliefs and risk the great cost of correcting them, they will turn upon their critics… The critics of unscrupulous optimists are not just mistaken in their eyes, but evil, concerned to destroy the hopes of all mankind, and to replace genial kindness towards our species with cruel cynicism.”

Education is full of unscrupulous optimism. Whilst there are wonderful platforms for debate at the Festival of Education, ResearchED, Michaela Community School’s ‘Debating Education’, etc., there are also many forums which choose to close down debate through unscrupulous optimism. The manner in which they do this is often in casting any critique as ‘negativity’.

Thus, one has to be cautious when challenging an idea for fear of being cast as ‘negative’. I have lost count of the number of times I have swallowed back a criticism or a question I want to offer because I fear the reaction. I’m not sure what this says about our profession that this reaction often exists to challenge or critique? Whilst Scruton suggests that unscrupulous optimists hide from truths, I am also aware that I myself am complicit in hiding those truths from them out of fear of the response. I often feel that confronting someone with a challenge to a belief will probably not help the discussion, even if I know that it should. This circuitous route around the truth reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Indeed, I delivered some CPD some time ago and I’d already taken some caustic shots at Bloom’s taxonomy and Dale’s Cone of Experience, when someone mentioned how a certain approach would benefit kinaesthetic learners. I should have made reference to the debunking of learning styles, but my internal voice was telling me that enough sacred cows had been slaughtered already, so I just nodded and hastily moved on.

Fear of offending or being called ‘negative’ often holds back important truths, truths that could move us forward as a profession. Whilst Iannucci fled from that colourful room at the BBC, I’m advocating that we stay. We stay in the room and we embrace open debate and we tell the truth – we don’t tell it slant – and we don’t give in to unscrupulous optimism. I’ll even let the bright colours stay. See, I’m positive?