Category Archives: Teaching

The Mumpsimus in the Room (a short story)

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No EvilTimothy watched as his mother walked out of the school gates. He tried to keep his eyes on her as she disappeared into the crowd but it was like one of those tricks where they put a ball under a cup and then move it around, constantly swapping and switching places with two other cups. Soon it was just her head he could see moving through the crowd, then the head switched directions and became someone else’s head and then that was that: she was gone.

He turned and looked at the imposing building in front of him. This was it. First day at Dunn Park School. This wasn’t the first time he’d been the new kid – the last few years of moving around because of mum’s job meant that he’d already experienced this ordeal twice before.

Timothy looked up and read the words over the double doors: Pluris est Imaginatio quam Scientia. He tried to roll the words around in his mouth but got stuck on the first one, unsure whether it was a long or a short u. “It’s no use,” he thought, “I don’t even know how to speak French.”

“Who are you, then?” came a voice to his left. He turned to see a boy, slightly shorter than him, in thick-lensed glasses looking at him with a knotted brow.

“Er… um… my name’s Timothy. I’m new here today. We just moved into the village at the weekend.” Timothy replied.

“We?” asked the shorter boy, his voice pitched a little higher than Timothy’s own.

“My mum and I. We moved into Robinson Gardens, just near the playground.” Timothy waited for the boy to respond, looking to see if his mention of something familiar would unknot the boy’s brow and hopefully end the inquisition.

“Yeh, I know it. Whose class are you in?” Timothy resigned himself to the interrogation. “Um, my mum spoke to the school last week. I think the teacher’s name is Miss Mummyford?” Timothy’s eyes squinted as an inquisitive tone, in imitation of his scrutiniser, tried to wrap itself around the name as he uttered it.

“Miss Honeyford!” The boy’s round face finally ventured forth a smile. Timothy reflected the smile back as the boy became, in that very moment, animated. It was as if a different boy had suddenly replaced the surly one who had been questioning him. “She’s my teacher! You’ll be in my class!”

“Oh… good. I mean, great. What’s she like?” The ‘great’ may have been a stretch on Timothy’s part, but the question was meaningful. He’d had quite the range of teachers over the past few years and he really could do with someone normal, particularly after that bearded old duffer he’d had at the last school. What was her name again? Timothy actually felt a warming pleasure that he’d forgotten it already.

“She’s alright. Quite nice really. She’s good at teaching sums and she does a funny American accent when she tells stories sometimes. Oh, by the way, I’m Kelvin.” This last bit was accompanied by an outstretched hand, palm to the inside. This was the first time Timothy had seen another kid want to shake hands with him. Sometimes adults did it – men mostly – but he knew they were just being playful or doing it to show off to his mum. Timothy took Kelvin’s hand and the boy grasped it firmly and gave it a tug upwards and then swung it back down again just once before letting go.

“Miss Honeyford is better than most of the teachers I’ve had here. Geography is always fun – we made cliff dioramas last week. Yeh, she’s alright, except…” Kelvin paused as a flash of recollection came over him.

“Except what?” Timothy asked.

“Except… well… except for the mumpsimus in the room.”

“Mumpsimus?” Timothy repeated. Timothy wondered whether he’d heard that right. What on earth was a mumpsimus? At his last school, the teacher had kept a stick insect in the room. And he remembered his first teacher at that school in Wales had kept a guinea pig – all the kids got to take turns taking the guinea pig home for the weekend to look after. He remembers it because it was due to be his turn in the coming weeks and then he found out that they were going to move house before he’d get the chance. He remembers the teacher saying that he could even swap with the person who was due that week but Mum wouldn’t let him because they had “so much to do and having a guinea pig in the house would be a bloody hinderance.” Whilst Timothy would have loved to have taken that guinea pig home, he wasn’t sure he’d want to get too close to a mumpsimus, whatever that was. It sounded huge. Kelvin had said that it was in the room. “What is a mumpsimus? Is it in Miss Honeyford’s classroom?” asked Timothy, the sound of the word making him more nervous with every articulation of it.

“It’s… it’s… oh, it’s awful, Timothy. Just awful. It’s this… this… thing. And Miss Honeyford… she just… she just can’t help bringing it out in the classroom. It’s like it’s got some sort of hold on her. All the kids in the classroom know that it is terrible, but Miss Honeyford, she just… she just loves that horrid thing.”

Timothy actively felt a chill bolt down his spine. He thought that just happened in books. What sort of a creature is a mumpsimus? I don’t like animals that are bigger than me. And I really don’t like reptiles. That chill spilled down him again, began to subside and then expanded at the shrill sound of the school bell ringing.

“Come on! We’d best get in.” Kelvin said, grabbing Timothy’s coat sleeve and giving it a tug. Timothy dutifully followed Kelvin as they made their way though the double doors – under those strange foreign words – and into the building. Kelvin led them through the corridors and into Mrs. Honeyford’s room where the mumpsimus awaited them.


The morning went by quickly, and there was no sign of the mumpsimus. Timothy spent most of the time scanning the room for this creature, but it was well hidden. At least it couldn’t be as big as he’d originally thought it was, which was a relief. They’d done some subtraction, learned some spellings and read some passages from a book about a badger. Timothy was really pleased that Miss Honeyford hadn’t made him stand up and introduce himself like some of his previous teachers had. Lunch was some unexceptional pasta bathed in a rather wan and feeble tomato sauce, served with some over-boiled, greying carrots. After they’d eaten lunch, Timothy had sat on the steps outside the gym and chatted to Kelvin, who told him all about the village and shared his repertoire of stories about other kids at the school. Timothy wanted to ask Kelvin about the mumpsimus but Kelvin was directing the conversation and he seemed to be enjoying delivering the potted history of his new classmates.

When they returned to their classroom after lunch, they took their seats and Miss Honeyford announced that she had some puzzles for the pupils to solve.

She handed worksheets out to each of the pupils but when she got to Timothy, she paused and withheld the paper from him. “Not for you, Timothy. I have something different for you.” Miss Honeyford said, seeming very pleased with herself. “I’ll just get it for you.” She walked to the filing cabinet next to her desk, opened the second drawer and her hand began flicking through the suspension files, her fingers dancing with a verve Timothy hadn’t noticed in her before. It sounded like she was humming a song too.

Kelvin leaned in to Timothy. “The mumpsimus!” he whispered. “She’s getting the mumpsimus out! Oh God! Poor you!

Timothy felt a pang of horror. Oh my goodness. It was in that filing cabinet all this time! The mumpsimus. And now she’s going to set it upon him. He looked around the room at everyone else. They were all busying themselves with their puzzles. Weren’t they going to help him? Miss Honeyford started walking towards him with some paper carefully held out in front of her. It must be an insect of some sort, thought Timothy. It must be sat on that paper. He looked at Kelvin, who deliberately averted his eyes from Timothy’s and pretended – for Miss Honeyford’s benefit, thought Timothy – that he was completing his puzzle. Isn’t Kelvin going to help me? Isn’t anyone going to help me? Does this mumpsimus bite? Does it sting? What should I do?

But the more he let these thoughts dart through his mind, the closer Miss Honeyford had gotten to him. As she reached him she lowered the paper and placed it in front of him. Nothing. There was no insect on it. No creature at all. Just some writing.

“I’d like you to complete this quiz, Timothy. It just asks you some questions about how you usually learn things. It’ll help me work out how to teach you best. We all have what we call our ‘preferred learning style’. I’m a kinaesthetic learner. Kelvin here is a visual learner.” Timothy looked at Kelvin and saw him roll his eyes. “Some people say that learning styles don’t really exist but, even if they don’t, I think they are quite useful in helping me plan my lessons for you children. It doesn’t hurt to do things like this. I don’t care if everyone thinks it’s a load of old rubbish. We all have our little mumpsimuses, eh, Timothy? That reminds me, we forgot to do our Brain Gym before lunch.”

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Neck deep in the big muddy (the dangers of sunk costs and windmills)

In my last blog post, I wrote about taking one’s time. The flip side of this, of course, is that we sometimes invest too much time (and effort and money) in things that have very little or even negative impact. Why do we do this? It’s simple human nature, according to psychologists and behavioural economists. But that doesn’t make it right.

Psychologists describe this as the sunk cost fallacy: when we invest in something, our emotional attachment to it is such that it becomes harder to abandon it. This may result in an escalation of commitment: we will commit more to this investment, in spite of any previous negative impact, in the hope that it will eventually return positive results.

One of my favourite examples of the escalation of commitment comes from the corridors of power in the Japenese city of Tsukuba.

In 2004, the Tsukuba Municipal Government decided to invest in green energy across the city’s schools. They commissioned experts at the highly-respected Waseda University to design and plan a system of 75 windmills and generators at 53 schools. It was proposed that these would create enough energy to power the schools and also produce a surplus that could be sold back to power companies, bringing extra funds to the schools. Not only were there huge financial rewards to be had from the programme, city leaders were also keen to point out that it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions as well as encourage a generation of eco-friendly children. Plus the schools could all run science and data projects on wind turbine energy production.

Windmill at a school in Tsukuba (source: The Times)
Windmill at a school in Tsukuba (source: The Times)

The following year, the university initially set up 23 small windmills at a cost of around ¥298 million to the city. 

 

But there was one problem. The windmills didn’t turn.

The university hadn’t really planned for the fact that there wasn’t enough wind in Tsukuba to power the windmills. They largely sat lifeless, except for a few weeks of the year in March when winds arrived with enough vigour to give them a little stir. But the winds soon disappeared again and the windmills sat dormant.

So the government cut their losses, right?

No. They actually spent more money in order to try and show that these windmills could be successful. And how did they do that? They imported power to make the windmills move. Yes, that’s right. They spent money (and produced carbon emissions) artificially turning the windmills to give them the appearance that they were being powered by the wind. In fact, in 12 months of operation the windmills consumed 43 times more power than they generated.

The city eventually – rather sensibly – aborted the project. And they then successful sued Waseda University for around ¥200 million for selling them a dud project.

The problem is not only one of sunk cost but also one of opportunity cost. What could the city officials have been doing to meet their goals of energy efficiency instead of continuing to pile more resources on a failing project?

As you read this, I am sure you are thinking about how ridiculous the decisions of the Tsukuba officials are. But the sunk cost heuristic is a powerful bias and we are all fallible to it.

The big fool said to push on

In no other arena has the escalation of commitment in the face of sunk costs been more prominent than in war. In 1967, Pete Seeger wrote the song ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ as criticism of America’s policy of escalation of commitment in the disastrous Vietnam war.

It is from this song that behavioural psychologist Barry M. Staw lifted a line to title his paper, ‘Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action’.

Staw’s study details an interesting experiment in which subjects were asked to make investment decisions over a period of time, given some information on how those investments performed. His study concluded that “individuals who are personally responsible for negative consequences will increase the investment of resources in a previously chosen course of action”. So not only do we often carry on when we have no impact, according to Staw we are actually more likely to carry on and escalate our commitment when we have negative impact. The big fool said to push on.

In schools, we are all susceptible to continue down a path that yields little to no impact because of our emotional attachment to it. I have certainly done so and probably will do again. @DHTJohn says here that one such area might be our escalating commitment to pre-exam interventions, stating that he has seen “schools where it’s observable that this culture of extra lessons actually makes results worse.” Headteacher John Tomsett also suggests a similar attitude to intervention in his justification of how his school reduced commitment to such intervention in favour of a different path.

The area which gives me the most concern in the face of our liability to  the sunk cost fallacy is where I see massive investment in technology in schools. Amongst other things, there are many schools now which have invested heavily in one-to-one devices for their pupils. I wonder how easy it is for decision makers to be objective given the huge financial and emotional commitment made? If anyone knows of an objective response to such trials, I would be really interested to see it.

I also think that the major technology companies have come up with a neat trick to ensure that we commit emotionally to their products: establishing their own accreditations for teachers. Just a quick look on Twitter and you will see teachers who identify themselves as certified by such companies. Some individuals even go as far as to include company logos in their Twitter handles. People actually tie their very identities to these companies. I would hypothesise that, in this way, people are sinking huge emotional costs in such a way that they would find it virtually impossible to change direction at any point. Worse, they might escalate their commitment despite a possible lack of impact.

Ultimately, the more we invest in something, the more likely we will continue to invest in it.

So, whilst I advocate taking one’s time over something before making a decision, I would also warn that such an investment of time can sometimes sway our thinking. It’s not easy, is it?

And here’s the rub: I decided earlier that I was going to write this post out and then delete it – “murder [my] darlings”, as Arthur Quiller-Couch puts it. Why? To prove that I could sink costs into something then abandon it (I planned to rewrite it again later).

And guess what? I couldn’t do it. This post is probably rubbish (it almost certainly is), but such is my emotional attachment to the decisions I made in writing it, I couldn’t let it go. Heck, I’m even just about to click ‘Publish’.  The big fool said to push on.

Lessons learned from Football League Division Two 1982-83 #1: The dilatory approach

Cambridge United - Panini Football '83

In 1982, Cambridge United went the entire month of December without conceding a goal at home in the league. Hardly remarkable, I know. But then they repeated this feat in January. And again in February. In fact, they continued to keep clean sheets at the Abbey Stadium for the remainder of the league season. So, to celebrate this record-breaking achievement, the club decided to publicly honour their unyielding back five with a special award at their last home game against Oldham Athletic on May 14th.

Cambridge continued their resoluteness on this day and went in at half-time with the score securely at nil-nil. Nobody was going to breach this defence as they readied themselves to be honoured for such am impressive record. So, with all the pomp the club could muster, at the half-time break goalkeeper Malcolm Webster was invited onto the pitch in front of the home crowd to receive the award on behalf of the invincible defensive unit to the appreciation of the Cambridge fans.

You already know what happened in the second half, don’t you? Yep, Cambridge conceded four goals in the space of 8 minutes and, with a consolation penalty for the home team just before the final whistle, ended the game – and the season – at the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline. What a miserable way to celebrate a club record. Maybe if Webster had been in the dressing room at halftime he wouldn’t have missed manager John Docherty’s team talk, which probably went something along the lines of: “Whatever you do, don’t concede four goals in eight minutes lads.”

Now, there’s two ways of looking at that award and the timing of it. You could suggest it was timed perfectly, awarded to Webster at the very last possible window available before the run ended. Impeccable timing. But I think most of us would surmise that it was celebrated too early – why not wait until the end of the run and judge it on what it was? It was still a great achievement which could have been reflected on with pride by the players and fans alike. But by giving the award out when they did, did they alter the course of the run? Did the players lose the concentration and not see through their achievement? Could it have gone on longer, into the following season?

(Incidentally, the following season Cambridge United went on to break more records: they went 31 games – home and away – without recording a single win, finishing the season rock bottom of the league table and securing relegation to Division Three.)

To me, this is a lesson in taking a dilatory approach: delaying the drawing of conclusion until such a time that one can really fully reflect on the outcomes. This term ‘dilatory’ is often used as a pejorative, but I intend here to reclaim it as a positive.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in recent years is the importance of taking time to trial and evaluate the things I do before I draw conclusions – something which I have to admit I haven’t always done, and something which is often stymied by the blustering pace at which schools operate.

I’ve blogged in the past on my ‘successes’ using SOLO taxonomy as well as worked with others in my school in using the model. I now realise (seeing the problems of the taxonomy and its hierarchical nature which places knowledge acquisition firmly in the ‘lower’ levels) how previous I was in doing so.

The Elements of LanguageFurthemore, I very recently tweeted a picture of a work-in-progress Periodic Table of English which I am trialling at the moment. This was a mistake as I had not at that point – and still haven’t – had enough time to appraise its usefulness and effect. However, I was immediately inundated with requests for copies of it, despite the project not being complete. I am very wary of having my name attached to something which may turn out to be a just bit of guff. Taking a dilatory approach to sharing the project would have allowed me to really think it through, develop it and evaluate it fully.

This sort of hasty approach is everywhere in education. I recently saw promotion of the idea of a ‘StudentMeet’ in a recently-published edu-book. This is basically a TeachMeet for pupils, at which they share their approaches to learning. Now, I am not disparaging the idea. However, what interested me was the author’s experience of a StudentMeet. What struck me was that the tense and tone used to talk about them was entirely speculative. There was no sense that the author had actually held one (I am happy to be corrected, though). The author had also ascribed a hashtag to the idea and a search for it shows only one tweet from them on the subject, which was just the hashtag followed by ellipsis. The author is not usually shy in sharing ideas, so I would be surprised if they’d held one and not blogged or tweeted about it.

However, I did see – using this hashtag – that someone in Australia had held one in 2012 and blogged glowingly about it at that time. I contacted them and asked if they’d held any since. They told me that they did indeed hold one in 2012 and that they were “Hoping someone else would follow up”. I  did wonder why something which was considered so useful and blogged about effusively was immediately forgotten about, but I’ll concede that sometimes schools and workload do that to us.

But, as I said, my point is not to disparage the idea, but rather the fact that this idea has barely germinated before it is being printed in a book of advice for teachers. I certainly would advocate a dilatory approach to publishing a book.

I was reminded of the need for not diving hastily into something only recently when the ATL voted for teachers to be trained in using neuroscience in the classroom. Doesn’t that seem brash and ill-advised?

I mean, neuroscientists don’t even know much about neuroscience.

Why on earth do we need to be toying with it? Can’t we wait until we have something solid and meaningful before we dice with it?

There is nothing wrong with taking your time over something. There is nothing wrong with waiting and observing. In fact, I’d say it is of utmost importance, when we are dealing with children’s lives, that we take a dilatory approach to everything that we do.

Patience is a virtue.

The rise of grok (or how I learned to embrace my ignorance)

A Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

The economist (Freakonomist?) Steven Levitt says that one of the most destructive factors in business is the inability for people to admit to what they don’t know. He says:

“Whenever I propose that a company run a randomized experiment, almost always there’s tremendous resistance. And the reason is because in order to make a randomized experiment be sensible, it means that you have to start from the premise that we don’t actually know the answer. And the randomized experiment is a way both to test whether what we’ve been doing is correct and also whether there’s another way of doing it better. And people always say, “well why would I run a randomized experiment when I already know the answer?” And consequently the firms never learn anything.”

Now this is where I was just a year or two ago. Not that I thought I knew the answers to everything, but that there were things that I was utterly convinced I knew.

And how did I ‘know’ these things?

I don’t know.

But believe me, I knew I was right. I knew that I could judge an outstanding/good/requires improvement lesson. I knew, at the point of learning, that my pupils were learning. I knew that this or that teaching practice, in which I’d invested lots of time and effort, was effective.

Except I found out that none of that was actually true. I thought I knew the answers, but I’ve since learned that I was way off. I didn’t know the answers. I’ve since been challenged on what I thought I knew and really, they were just beliefs. Beliefs that were also left wanting when held up to the unforgiving light.

The problem is that, in thinking I knew the answers, I told other people those answers too. I’ve led groups on the monolith that is SOLO taxonomy. I’ve taught on ITT courses about new technologies. I’ve been both kingmaker and heartbreaker in dispensing judgements when observing lessons.

Being challenged on what I think I know has made my approach to teaching much more discerning. But the important step I’ve had to take was to embrace my own ignorance. To not allow myself to think that I know the answers, or to assume that the answers I have are right.

Where does this belief that we know the answers come from, if often those answers are wrong? Frequently, when challenged on why we ‘know’ something, the response isn’t based in evidence, rather in a sense of intuition: we just know.

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein coined a word for this intuitive ‘knowing’: grok. In his 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land, he wrote:

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

As Heinlein points out, the ability to grok – to absolutely know intuitively – is actually beyond Earthlings’ capabilities, it is a faculty particular to the Martian race.

grok

Now I know that in the eyes of most pupils, teachers are an alien race. This is particularly evident if we are spotted in Tesco on a Saturday morning (point, stare, whisper, probe). But I think the belief that we, like Heinlein’s Martians, intuitively grok – we understand unconsciously – is prevalent in schools. And it worries me as to the extent in which grokking informs what we do. I think it pervades a lot of practice in schools. It certainly has informed a lot of my practice in the past.

I’m not entirely denigrating intuition – it is certainly very important in drawing ideas to our attention,  but we are wrong more often than we’d care to admit. (David Didau has written eloquently about it here and here, and I’d strongly advise everyone to read those pieces.)

What is important is that we always detach ourselves from what we think and consider why we think it. We should challenge our own assumptions, rigorously, and embrace our own ignorance. It’s okay not to know the answers. As Steven Levitt says, thinking that we do means that we’ll “never learn anything”.

The truthiness of it all (and why three men make a tiger)

truthiness definition

Truthiness. the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year in 2005 (beating podcast and sudoku along the way), and dictionary publisher Meriam-Webster followed suit in 2006. But, in the circles I move in, it is a word that is as rare as a workless Sunday. Which is strange given that I move in education circles a fair amount: the word seems more than a cosy fit in so many of the experiences and conversations I’ve had.

The word ‘truthiness’ was coined (or rather: “a word I pulled right out of my keister”) by the American satirist Stephen Colbert in the pilot episode of his popular daily show The Colbert Report in 2005. It is variously defined as: ‘the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true’; ‘the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like’; and ‘the quality of being considered to be true because of what the believer wishes or feels, regardless of the facts’. You get the idea. Colbert himself used the words, “truth that comes from the gut, not books” in his mocking condemnation of the cult of truthiness in politics.

Our world of education is littered with such truthiness. Pithy, seemingly aphoristic sayings or rhetorical turns are tossed across social networks daily and retweeted with revelatory agreement. Just yesterday, two such soundbites made their way into my timeline. The thing about them is that, unthinkingly, they look and sound like truth. But if you take a second to question them, all you are left with is truthiness.

Take this one, for example. I’ve seen this tweeted many times before:

Knowledge and Experience

Just looking at it, I can feel the breeze from a wave of nods of pleasant agreement. But what if I did this:

Experience and Knowledge

I mean to me, this makes more sense. I won’t explain it here, but when I hinted at it, others (mainly people called ‘Robert’) agreed too:

But I think this is open to discussion. My point is that the original graphic doesn’t represent truth, only truthiness.

The problem is with these things is that the more they are repeated and retweeted, the more they seem to be believed and held up as truths (see: the daft exams/animals climbing a tree cartoon). There is a Chinese proverb that goes: ‘Three men make a tiger’. This comes from a story in which a king is being asked by an aide if he would believe a citizen’s report that he’d seen a tiger roaming the markets. The king said no, of course he wouldn’t. The aide then asked what if two people reported they’d seen a tiger in the busy markets and the king said he’d begin to wonder. When asked his reaction if three people reported seeing the tiger, the king said he would believe it. The aide then said that the notion of a tiger in a crowded market is absurd and that the king would believe something so absurd just because it was repeated often enough. Three men make a tiger. So when we repeat these things so heavily reliant on truthiness, they seem to slip effortlessly into truth for many of us.

The second ‘truthy’  thing I saw yesterday was this:

Bixf2X0IMAAbpKz

I mean, it is very sensible to teach pupils how to respond when they are not successful, of course. I think there is a lot to be taught in schools with regards to failure. But of the two things, wouldn’t teaching people to be successful be better? If that is the dichotomy on offer (and it seems it is set up as either/or), surely the first option is more valuable? Even the inevitability of ‘when’ in the latter statement is a little defeatist, isn’t it? Again, this is up for discussion. But the fervent agreement with which this was retweeted masked the truthiness of it all with an accepted truth. A truth that really isn’t solid.

It is really important that we all take a cautious, critical approach in order to spot the truthiness in these pithy factoids.

Believe me, the truthiness is out there. It’s bloody everywhere.

Undiscovering the Mountains of Kong

A West African Map from 1839.
A map of West Africa from 1839.

The map on the left looks unexceptional to me, a layman. It’s a standard, if rather archaic, map of West Africa.

But geographers are a lot sharper than most of us, with the kind of keen eye that can spot a child trying to pick up something very unpleasant on a wet beach at a distance of 100 yards. Through drizzle.

And those geographers would probably be able to tell you that the mountain range that runs along the north border of Upper Guinea doesn’t actually exist. It never has.

You see, this map was created by the cartographer James Rennell to accompany the Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s travelogue, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1798). Park was trying to find the source of the Niger river and was curious as to why it didn’t flow south of the Gulf of New Guinea. He saw a few mountains and assumed that this was the reason why. Rennell believed this theory and, wanting to show ‘proof’ of it, he forged on his map an entire (and entirely fictional) range of mountains that ran from West to East Africa: The Mountains of Kong.

John Cary's 1805 map of Africa
John Cary’s 1805 map of Africa

Following Rennell’s map, other maps began to include the Mountains of Kong. In fact, for almost 100 years nearly all of the maps we had of Africa contained this feature. Nobody checked to see if these mountains were really there. Indeed, explorers actually avoided the area because the mountains were stated to be of “stupendous height” and were considered an “insuperable barrier”, making them impassable. Other cartographers just added more lies when reproducing maps: one added snow and another connected them to the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa, they themselves being another entirely non-existent range invented in the ancient world.

It wasn’t until the French explorer Louis Gustave Binger went on an expedition to chart the Niger between 1887-1889 that this lie was uncovered. Binger effectively undiscovered a mountain range.

Whilst most cartographers stopped including the Mountains of Kong on their maps henceforth, they did still pop up now and again: they were indexed in 1928’s Bartholomew’s Oxford Advanced World Atlas and they even appeared in the 19th edition of Goode’s World Atlas as recently as 1995.

The reason that these mythological mountains prevailed in print for so long is down to the belief that cartographers are ‘guided by an ethic of accuracy’.

When I heard this story I was struck by how analogous it is with education, particularly with regards to initial teacher training. There are lots of edu-myths paraded around in these early stages of our careers, and they find disciples due to the belief that educators are guided by the same ethic of accuracy as people believed of 18th and 19th century cartographers. But the truth is that some of what we learn has little or no provenance of any discerning and plenty of it is based on the whim of people aiming to make money out of schools.

I faithfully followed many of these myths myself, and would still be doing so if it weren’t for the emergent wave of bloggers and academics engaging teachers with research via social media. My approach and practice has certainly been sharpened because of this. But not only have I noticed a change in my approach, I am also seeing a great deal more trainee teachers coming into schools with a critical, questioning and discerning mind; new teachers who are clearly actively engaging with research via social media and blogging. Whilst it took me a few years to undiscover education’s Mountains of Kong, there are loads of bright, new teachers who are questioning their existence from the very beginning. I wish I’d been so switched on at that stage of my career.

The difficulty I think we have in education is not in getting new teachers to engage with research, but rather in getting long-standing teachers to let go of the mumpsimuses that have been largely debunked by research. The good news is that there are people and institutions out there that have grasped the nettle of getting teachers to engage with research:

Today is the eve of another of Tom Bennett‘s prized researchED conferences, David Weston‘s National Teacher Enquiry Network is working with some great schools on research projects, and the Education Endowment Foundation is a great source for research and is developing an evidence base for school and classroom practice.

There’s a great deal of research available to teachers now. I’d encourage everyone to explore it.

The Elements of Language (a periodic table of sorts)

My recent project has been to reduce my displays from being crutches upon which pupils were relying, to being the sites of memory cues for things that they should know.

Previously I’ve used all sorts of displays, full of poetic and rhetorical devices, sentence structures and examples of uses of punctuation. I found that pupils were not committing these things to long term memory and solely relying on what was written on the classroom walls. Clearly, this doesn’t help them when they write elsewhere, most obviously in the exam hall.

I wanted to ensure that my displays didn’t replace knowing for the pupils (and that it also didn’t replace teaching for me).

So, I looked at a way of reducing all of the information I’d previously been giving them to mere cues that could help them access the information from memory and this is where I am now: the periodic table of English.

The codifying of terms will hopefully not only serve as memory cues, but also be useful as shorthand for annotation.

It’s currently a work in progress, and if I find its use is limited I will go back to the drawing board. One of the areas that I am concerned about is the information on each element: this will be revisited as I begin to gauge its use – whether it is to reduce the amount of information or just the visibility of it.

Interestingly, I tweeted a picture of this a few weeks ago and the response was one of aesthetics. I wanted to post this brief précis  of how I’m using it because it has its basis in something other than just aesthetics: it is a project on learning, memory and memory cues.

Many people have been asking for the files, so here is a link to them. I would add a caveat that, as these are the elements that I teach my classes, you should adapt them for the things that you use with yours and not just rely on these as standard elements.

(And I apologise if you lose any formatting due to font changes on your operating system – this was created in Helvetica Neue.)