Category Archives: Teaching

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…

Advertisements

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This debate doesn’t happen in schools”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

A Timeline of Literature (with GCSE texts)

The links below will take you to an easy to print version of a timeline of English Literature. Alongside other important moments in English Literature and the English language, it includes the dates of the monarchs of England and Great Britain, key literary and artistic movements, stages of the English language, as well as the dates of production/publication of MacbethStrange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, An Inspector Calls, and the poems from the ‘Power and Conflict’ cluster of the AQA Anthology. Obviously, you can edit these texts to fit with those that your pupils are studying.

The dates of the movements are up for debate, of course, as different commentators will put different dates on these periods. You can change them as you see fit.

You can also add any more key moments to the timeline. I kept it to these as I didn’t want it to get too ‘busy’.

This is for a display of landscape A4 sheets measuring 7 x 4 (28 sheets in total).

This resource takes ideas from displays shared with me over the years by colleagues, so I don’t claim originality.

I’ve included links to an uneditable PDF version, as well as an editable Powerpoint version. If you want to use the editable version, the fonts in use are Gill Sans for most of the text, and Mexcellent (regular) for the literary movements.

PPTX: Timeline of Literature

PDF: Timeline of Literature

If you notice any errors, aside from arguments over dates, please do let me know in the comments below. I’m looking at you, History teachers.

NB. As with any of the resources I share, I stipulate that I don’t give this freely to anyone who chooses to sell resources anywhere online. If you are such a person, I ask you kindly not to download this. Obviously, you can ignore this request as I have no way of monitoring this. But if you do, shame on you for ignoring my request. As for anyone else, thanks for keeping the sharing of resources completely free. You are wonderful people.

A Glossary of U.K. Education (Vol. 4)

We present Vol. 4 of our glossary. For previous volumes, please follow these links:

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

biro

/ˈbʌɪrəʊ/

noun

apparently one of the most explosive materials on earth, with a level of volatility somewhere between uranium and hydrogen.

collaboration

/kəlabəˈreɪʃn/

noun

the positive action of working with other likeminded people in order to produce something or promote an idea; this is one of the most important things one can do in education and is widely encouraged, unless of course the thing that is being produced or idea that is being promoted is one with which you disagree, in which case it isn’t collaboration, it is a neoliberal conspiracy.

data

/ˈdeɪtə/

noun

a substance that is difficult to control and can wreak havoc unless it is captured cleanly; it increases its potency as it gets more and more out of control, bouncing back and forth throughout the environment; it is vibrant green in colour and goo-like in its consistency. (Wait… this is the definition for Flubber, isn’t it? Oh, what the hell, I’ll just leave it here. I’m sure nobody will notice – Ed.)

Didau, David

/ˈdvd dɪd… er… dʌɪd… um…ˈdʌɪə… oh say it however you want/

noun

former All England Hula Hoop Champion and prime antagonist of everything you know about education.

dog

/?/

?

iono, is it even a word?

Festival of Education

/ˈfɛstɪv(ə)l ɒv ɛdjʊˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

like Glastonbury, though with more toilets, less beer, but exactly the same number of Tinie Tempah main stage appearances.

further education

/ˈfəːðə ɛdjʊˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

an education that is at a greater distance from one’s current location than other educations under consideration.

glue sticks

/ɡluː stɪkz/

noun

the most valuable currency in schools; should you find yourself in possession of a reasonable number of functional glue sticks in the summer term, it is advisable to have these valued by an expert, insured, and locked away in a safety deposit box in the vault of a high security bank.

OECD

/oʊ iː siː d/

noun

the official Finland fan club.

PISA

/ˈpzə/

noun

the Eurovision Song Contest of education, the prize for which is the legal mandate that the winning country must be mentioned in every single education speech or panel for the next few years; could be made better with an irreverent commentary by Graham Norton.

Six Thinking Hats

/sɪks ˈθɪŋkɪŋ hatz/

noun

a system designed by U2 frontman Bono as a tool for discussion; each of the six coloured hats represents a particular way of thinking: blue = lewd thinking; white = try not to think about anything (it’s hard, isn’t it? give this hat to the member of your group you want to keep occupied); red = think like a socialist (make placards, etc.); black = harness your dark thoughts, give in to them, strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete; yellow = what would SpongeBob do?

sports day

/spɔːtz deɪ/

noun

either the hottest or the wettest day of the year.

Teacher, The

/ˈtiːtʃə, ðə/

noun

your magazine from the NUT; you know, the one that you don’t even take out of its plastic wrapping; yeh, that’s it, the one that sits on the side for a month before you decide to throw it out; you don’t even know how often it’s published, do you? Is it monthly or quarterly? Nobody knows. Nobody.

TEDx Education

/tɛdɛks ɛdjʊˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

conferences for new media types who hated school themselves but think that schools might be a way for them to monetise their ‘creativity’ whilst simultaneously avenging their own schooldays; talks from these ‘thinkateers’ are interspersed with the occasional actual teacher to give the conference some credibility.

textbook

/ˈtɛks(t)bʊk/

noun

a pejorative term for a pre-printed large collection of sequenced subject resources (cf. individual resources which, due to the fact they are unsequenced, uncollected and you have to spend time creating and printing them yourself, are far superior).

toilet break

/ˈtɔɪlɪt/

noun

a luxury for teachers.