We are number two but we try harder: the underdog narrative of progressivism

“It can be good to start with a shipwreck. Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbour.”

Christopher Hitchens,  Hitch-22

In 1962, advertising executive Paula Green came up with a slogan for Avis car rentals that is still used today: ‘We try harder.’ It was based on the premise that they were not the ‘top dogs’ in the industry but “a No.2 company”, and that “[w]hen you’re a challenger brand, you have to constantly try harder for every customer and can’t afford to offer anything less than great customer service.”

Avis - 'We are No. 2 so we try harder'In creating this campaign, Green established what is now known as an underdog brand biography – a rhetorical device used by companies “that chronicles the brand’s origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story”, often of “humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble strategies against adversaries.” This strategy has been taken up by many companies since: think Apple’s largely apocryphal ‘we started in a garage’ story, or the Adidas ‘Impossible is Nothing’ campaign, which tells the story of “a simple shoemaker from a small town”:

The concept of the underdog brand biography (introduced by Avery et al. in 2010 and given subsequent focus in their 2011 paper, ‘The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination Through Brand Biography’) taps into an enduring narrative that has a history for inspiring people. From the stories of David and Goliath and The Lord of the Rings to the well-spun narratives of presidential candidates (both Obama and McCain positioned themselves as the underdog in 2008), and taking in the life stories of Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling along the way, we like to root for the tenacious trier from humble beginnings. The 2011 study identifies the “two main dimensions of an underdog: (1) external disadvantage and (2) passion and determination.” It’s very easy to recognise these in so many of the narratives of culture today.  Why do they endure and entice? According to the researchers, it is because we identify with them due to the underdog aspects of our own lives. As most of us have felt disadvantaged at some point in our lives, we are drawn to “the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them.”

But it is important to see this as rhetoric. It is an advertising agency’s conjuring trick. Avis, Apple and Adidas are huge, multinational companies. They are top dogs (Apple and Adidas are arguably the top dog in their respective industries). As Avery et al. tell us: “Being an underdog brand can be a matter of consumer perception rather than a market reality.” Top dogs want to be perceived as underdogs because it lends them authenticity and garners them trust and identification from consumers.

I think that a similar trick has been performed in the rhetoric of progressive education. It seems strange to me that progressive approaches have dominated my short time in education, from training through to inspection (although this latter part seems to be changing), yet the progressive argument continues to take the position of underdog.

The greatest of these rhetoricians is Sir Ken Robinson. His ‘How schools kill creativity’ 2006 TED talk has had 31 million views (when it was at 25 millions views, his website equated this to having been seen by “250 million people in 150 countries”), making it the most viewed TED talk of all time. I am sure you have seen it in a school inset or during your initial teacher training. It is a pervasive narrative in education, a domain where Sir Ken is one of the most powerful people. As well as being professor emeritus at Warwick University, Sir Ken has been bestowed honorary degrees and doctorates from a range of academic institutions. This snippet of the biography from his website gives you a sense of the power and position he holds:

“Sir Ken works with governments and educations systems in Europe, Asia and the USA, with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and some of the world’s leading cultural organizations. In 1998, he led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK Government. All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (The Robinson Report) was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was the central figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, working with the ministers for training, education enterprise and culture. The resulting blueprint for change, Unlocking Creativity, was adopted by politicians of all parties and by business, education and cultural leaders across the Province. He was one of four international advisors to the Singapore Government for its strategy to become the creative hub of South East Asia.”

Despite all this, the image presented of Sir Ken Robinson – a knight of the realm, no less – is that of someone fighting against a system (“Bring on the learning revolution!”) I’m not certain that he is such a revolutionary. It seems to me that his beliefs are ubiquitous in education.

This isn’t about challenging Robinson’s ideas – that has been done in earnest by Tom Bennett, Alex Quigley and Joe Kirby; this is merely a contention that he holds a false position as ‘underdog’. I think his ideas actually prevail in education.

And so this narrative of progressivism as underdog is carried up by others. Debra Kidd’s book ‘Teaching: notes from the front line’ carries this grave incipit on its cover: “We are, at the time I write this, in need of a revolution in education”. Debra’s position is one of “activism”, railing against the powers that she personifies as “politicians, advisors and consultants.” Yet, most biographies of Debra include various ‘consultant’ positions amongst her many roles within education. As Robert Peal puts it, “Debra and her ilk inhabit those palaces” that they want to storm. Again, this is not a critique of Debra herself or her ideas – I know she is a brilliant and dedicated educator. I do, however, question the positioning of her ideas as revolutionary, and thus positioning progressivism as the underdog.

Another such book which takes the mainstream position and recasts itself as the outsider is Tait Coles’ ‘Punk Learning’. Yet much of what is in this book is the kind of stuff that is embraced in every school I’ve experienced, and has been pervasive in initial teacher training over the last decade.

Even a lot of edtech advocacy I’ve read presents itself as a revolution, struggling against the resistant stance of the establishment (schools and teachers). I don’t think it is struggling though. This BESA report paints a promising picture for tablet adoption, suggesting that the trajectory for 75% of schools is to adopt a 1:1 policy by 2020. Even now, tablets are doing pretty well for themselves in schools. I asked this question a few days ago:

Of course the responses I collated aren’t reliable data. But they give an idea of the prevalence of iPads in schools. I stopped logging the responses at 100 (they were slowly dripping in at that point – there were only a few more after this), but of those, 67 said ‘yes’, 30 said ‘no’, and three said that they were ‘coming soon’. Now, those positive responses will range from having a set for just one class or use in a specific department, right the way through to whole-school 1:1 adoption. These responses don’t seem to suggest a lot of resistance to tablets in schools, and they certainly don’t suggest that edtech is any kind of underdog, pursuing a revolution in education.

By tapping into the two dimensions of underdog brand biography – external disadvantage and passion/determination – many arguments for progressive education create a false position that lends it an enticing authenticity. It is easy for us to identify with the sense of disadvantage; and we are attracted by the passion and determination to overcome it. Indeed, these dimensions are inherent in the discourse of education: how many teachers do you know who don’t identify with the disadvantaged position? How often do you see or hear the word ‘passion’ in teacher’s CVs, job interviews and social media profiles?

Ironically, then, it may be the allure of these precise underdog dimensions that have allowed progressive approaches to occupy a position as top dog in education.

With this in mind, and despite progressivism’s already lofty position, I’m certain we’ll continue to hear the argument: “we are number two but we try harder”.


I ❤ January 2015

When TV shows run out of ideas, they fall back on that old faithful: the clip show compiling all of the ‘best bits’.

And when they run out of their own TV shows, there are always clip shows made up of the best bits of other people’s shows: the I ❤ 1984 (etc.) model, featuring talking heads from D-list celebrities reminiscing about the time that dog said “sausages” on That’s Life.

As a D-list blogger myself (what do you mean I’m getting above my station?), this regurgitation of other people’s brilliance is the perfect model for me to reminisce on the best blog posts of each month (with the added implication that I’ve run out of ideas).

(In all seriousness, I got to the end of 2014 and realised I’d read so many great blogs but not really collected them anywhere. So this monthly blog is a way for me to compile an anthology of some of the best reading in one place and be able to access it when I want to call upon it again.)

So without further ado, this is my ‘clip show’ of the blogposts that I read and enjoyed the most in January…

  • The nonsense of the grade descriptors by @chrishildrew: Chris went down the rabbit hole of grade descriptors and has exposed us to the mad tea party. As Alice said, “How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”
  • Why I Hate Highlighters! by @HuntingEnglish: I like this because Alex confirms what I think I might have always feared, but never quite confronted: highlighters often put a garish neon gloss over a lack of actual learning. Rumours are unconfirmed that this is the first in a series of ‘Why I Hate…’ blogs, which will feature other such objects of Alex’s anathema as children and Maths teachers. (For balance, and because I like him, this is highlighter advocate @jon_brunskill‘s rebuttal.)
  •  Some Problems With “Action Research” by @Bio_Joe: Thanks to this brilliant post by Joe, I’ve now added the word significant to my list of words-that-are-used-in-a-way-which-often-leaves-their-actual-meaning-behind-in-order-to-promote-a-pedagogy (see impact, evidence, research, etc.) The “study” Joe picks apart here comes from a website riddled with spurious arguments and “research” in the name of “evidence”. Which is a shame because it is an area I’d like to see some reasoned thought around.
  • Can we teach students to make inferences? by @atharby: Andy precisely and eloquently pinpoints the very reasons why teaching thinking skills is largely unhelpful, and why building student knowledge is a much more effective approach. I wish I’d had this to hand when I sat through a cognitive acceleration training course that promoted thinking skills in English recently.
  • How do we get them reading? by @katie_s_ashford: Katie generously shares the fruits of her scrutiny on the research and approaches to solving “the problem of reading”. These systematic and practical ideas are absolute gold – send this to your literacy coordinators/English department/SLT/everyone now.
  • Undermining teachers is easy by @LearningSpy: The blogdaddy David Didau reiterates the necessity for schools to master behaviour as requisite for learning, and decries the damaging line of thought (avowed in this instance by a school inspector, no less) that states that good behaviour is merely a product of good teaching.
  • A lesson is the wrong unit of time by @BodilUK: A second blog from Bodil, in which she questions why our discourse and measurement always revolves around ‘the lesson’ as a unit, when the reality of learning expands way beyond that unit’s boundaries. She’s absolutely right, as usual.
  • I Did Not Speak Out by @SurrealAnarchy: Martin’s writing always provokes deep thought, and this clever channelling of Pastor Niemöller is a stirring illustration of the constantly shifting focuses and measurements in schools (and the impact of these on pupils and teachers).

The map is not the territory: embracing desire paths in the curriculum

I once visited a school where the English teachers were whispering about their plan to teach grammar more comprehensively to their pupils. The reason they were so hushed was so that their head of department couldn’t hear them: it turned out that the head had designed a curriculum that was a little too light on grammar for their liking, but demanded that that curriculum was followed to the letter. The teachers took this oversight into their hands and a clandestine curriculum was developed, complete with a black market of resources. The staffroom was a speakeasy – the conversation flipped like the tables in Bugsy Malone when anyone walked in.

I’m sure we’ve all gone off-piste when it comes to curriculums – a good teacher will always respond to the needs of the class. But when  more than one teacher takes the same roving trail, what is created is what we might call a desire path.

I first came across the idea of desire paths during a module on my Literature degree centred on the motif of the city in writing, but they are a concept that belong more to urban sociology, psychogeography or town planning than the arts. Sometimes referred to as ‘desire lines’, these are the unplanned pathways created when people walk over the same ground again and again. Seen as organic footpaths that dismiss the prescribed routes, they have been described as an “ultimate unbiased expression of human purpose”.


We might choose to tut and point out the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign to those creating these paths, and we could also dismiss it as an act of cutting corners (in a pejorative sense). But it’s worth looking at the reasons behind their occurrence before rejecting them. Desire paths usually emerge because the prescribed route is inefficient and circuitous. But they can also appear because no current route is existent: they fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by town planners. The best town planners acknowledge the desire paths and incorporate them into their urban design.

It is important to note that desire paths aren’t created by just a handful of transgressors; they are the result of numerous people choosing a more effective and efficient route.

The desire paths of a curriculum can be seen where pockets of teachers seem to be following the same unprescribed route away from that which has been laid down, as with the story I related above. In such a case, it would be profitable for curriculum designers to look at the desire path and determine why it has appeared: does it fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by the curriculum?

People often look to Finland as a standard-bearer in education, thanks to Pisa league tables. However, it is in town planning that they could inspire us on curriculum design. It’s been reported that Finnish town planners are known to wait until the first snowfall and then visit local parks. They then note the desire paths that have been created by footprints in the snow, and use these to design the positions and routes of their appointed paths.

Such a responsive approach is important in curriculum design. The desire paths of a curriculum will be where a number of teachers are  teaching content which isn’t prescribed but which fills the gaps left by a narrow or incomplete map.

As long as leaders are approachable and receptive – unlike in the anecdote I began with – they will notice the ‘footprints in the snow’ in the conversations they have and witness around them.

But whether curriculum designers choose to acknowledge desire paths or not, the beauty of them is that they continue to exist and fill out the unfilled gaps and address the unaddressed needs of our curriculums.

And that’s why most curriculums largely succeed, in spite of themselves. It’s why the department that I discussed at the beginning of this blogpost are a successful one.

A Christmas Carol | Marking was dead time-consuming: to begin with.

Stave One: Marking’s Ghost

Marking was dead time-consuming: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. But then the new marking craze was embraced by all, despite Ofsted’s protestations that it had nothing to do with them. New marking was born: triple impact, verbal feedback stamps, dialogic, five different coloured-pens… the list went on. Old Marking was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge’s name was on all of the department emails and he worked his department to the grindstone.

But it was Christmas and, at length, the hour of shutting up the school arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to his expectant department, who instantly packed up their marking and put on their coats.

“You won’t be finishing that marking over the break, I suppose?” Scrooge said to his second in department.

“No, sir. I have family coming to visit,” came the reply.

“A poor excuse. Humbug. Make sure you are in early on the first day back to make up for it then.”

The second in department promised he would be; and Scrooge walked out with a growl.

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in the usual melancholy Greggs; and having read all his emails, and beguiled the rest of the evening at home with some more data analysis, went to bed.

As he drifted off to sleep, the bedroom door flew open and an apparition appeared before him. “I know that face! The Ghost of Old Marking!” exclaimed Scrooge.

He looked the Phantom through and through. “How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” said the Ghost of Old Marking, with the economy of words that Scrooge remembered of it.

“Tell me!” urged Scrooge.

“I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping the fate of eternal marking. You will be haunted by Three Spirits – expect the first  tomorrow, when the bell tolls one. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour.  And as for the third… well, you get the gist?”

And with that, the Spectre turned to the window and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.


Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits


And so on the very next night, at the hour of one, Scrooge received his first visitation. He introduced himself to Scrooge:

“I am the Ghost of Marking Past. Rise, and walk with me.” The Spirit held out his hand and Scrooge grasped hold of it. They passed through the wall and found themselves stood in what appeared to be an empty classroom.

“Good Heavens!” said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was trained in this place! I was an NQT here!”

But Scrooge looked again and he noticed that the classroom wasn’t quite empty. There were no pupils in the room, but sat at the desk was an old gentleman.

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig! He was my NQT mentor!” cried Scrooge with glee.

They watched on as Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of five. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:

“Yo ho, Ebeneezer! No more marking tonight. Let’s have the shutters up, before a man can say ‘Tristram Hunt’s Character Education’.”

From outside in the corridor, Scrooge heard the shutting of classroom doors and then caught sight of his younger self and his then colleagues gleefully giggling and making social plans for that very night as they walked past Fezziwig’s door – stopping, of course, to wish old Fezziwig “a jolly good evening” and to thank him heartily.

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these young folks so full of gratitude and make them teach with such brilliance.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the young apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig.

The Spirit said, “Why! Is it not! He has offered a few wise words of encouragement in mentor meetings and spent but a few pounds of your mortal money on a Terry’s Chocolate Orange for each of you. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune. For he has lightened our workload – our accountability tasks, and more to the point, our marking load.” Scrooge looked up at the Ghost in earnest. “My teaching was never better than in those days… I mean, the pupils’ results were better too and… they learned more when I… when I…”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing in particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my department just now! That’s all.” Then he added, with a plea: “Spirit! Please remove me from this place?”

There was a sudden flash of light and Scrooge was conscious, for a moment, of being alone once more in his bed. And presently, he sank into a heavy sleep.


Stave Three: The Second of the Three Spirits


The next night, Scrooge sat upright in bed, awaiting his fate. But when the bell struck one, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came.

At last, he began to notice a ghostly light coming from the adjoining room. Curious as to its provenance, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.

The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were piles of exam scripts, essays, homeworks, spelling and grammar tests, dioramas, and worksheets. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike a large red pen, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in, and know me better, man.”

Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit.

“I am the Ghost of Marking Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me.”

“Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

“Touch my robe.”

Scrooge did as he was told, and held it fast.

The room around them suddenly disappeared and they were flying above the town. Over the rooftops they went, until at once, they descended upon a house and found themselves stood in a dining room. The scene that confronted them was one of tumult: four children were sat at the dining table in various states of disquiet and their mother was harried as she went back and forth from the kitchen, dividing her attention between the children and as much as a dozen other tasks.

“I recognise these people. They are the family of my second in department, Bob Cratchit!”

Scrooge and the Spirit watched on as the children raised enquiry after enquiry:

“I’m hungry. When is dinner?” cried one.

“Where is my blanket?” squealed another.

“Where is daddy?” asked the third.

As they asked these questions, there was a crash of plates from the kitchen. The children continued their inquisition:

“Can you help me with my homework?” asked the first.

“Can you play with me?” bawled the second.

“Where is daddy?” commanded the third.

This time, Mrs. Cratchit came with a response. “Daddy is busy. He has marking to do. Lots of it. He has to mark each piece of work three times. Each time in a different coloured pen. And he has to write in every piece of verbal feedback he has given. And after that, he has planning and data entry to do. I haven’t got time to help with your homework. You’ll just have to have a go at it yourself. And you will have to play with each other. Mummy is very busy.”

“God help us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of the children.

The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.


Stave Four: The Last of the Spirits


The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Marking Yet To Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The Spirit inclined its head.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Lead on, Spirit.”

The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, and they soon came upon a pile of school inspection reports. In this pile was the report for Scrooge’s school. Here, then, the school’s grading he had now to learn, lay in the pages before him. Was it a worthy grade? Had the comprehensive, stringent, ironclad marking policy he had put in place bore a sweet fruit?

The Spirit stood above the reports, and pointed down to one. He advanced towards it trembling.

“Before I draw nearer to that report to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the report by which it stood.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the page of the report his school’s name, followed by the grading: 4. He was at once aghast and sullen. He skimmed over the summaries and picked out the words:

“Utterly time-consuming marking policy… Students make unsatisfactory progress… Teaching is inadequate… Teachers assess with excessive regularity but do not have time to use it to inform planning… Teaching is rarely lively… Teachers are visibly exhausted…”

“Am I that man who lay this upon the school?” he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the report to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was pointing.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Marking in my heart, and try to keep it sensible. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this report!”

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.


Stave Five: The End of It

Yes! And the bedpost was his own.  The bed was his own, the room was his own.  Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in!

And so Scrooge sat down, took out his pen, and wrote a new marking policy. A sensible marking policy. 

He became as good a leader, as good a teacher, and as good a man, as the good old school knew, or any other good old school, in the good old world.  His department enjoyed having time to spend with their families and explore other interests outside of teaching – interests which made them better teachers. He was wise enough to know that nothing great ever happened in the classroom unless time was given to teachers; and he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in enjoyment of their job.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to create a good marking policy, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

And so, as Tiny Tim was later heard to observe, God Assess Us, Every One… But in a Reasonable Manner, eh?

EduTwitter: The Christmas armistice of 2014

Christmas Day 2014. At dawn’s first light, a progressive teacher logged in to Twitter and tweeted Christmas wishes to all, specifically extending those wishes to include “all the traditional teachers too”. Initially, the trads thought that the progressive may have just been in role in a Mantle of the Expert exercise, but they soon realised that the greetings were genuine and heartfelt and offered their own greetings in return. Such was the warmth of this initial exchange that more and more progressive and traditional teachers logged in to see what was happening. And they too offered their greetings to one another. And so it was that the two groups of teachers stood there, in no man’s webspace, eating plum puddings, singing ‘Fairytale of New York’ in harmony and exchanging Lynx Africa gift sets with one another.

Presently, one of the trads pulled out a football and kicked it over towards the progressives. One of those progressives brought out two itchy, ill-fitting jumpers that had been knitted by their nan and placed them down to make a goal. The trads followed suit at their end and thus began a legendary game of football.

The ball went back and forth across Twitter for quite some time with no goals scored by either side. Then, with both teams getting closer and closer to scoring, a bespectacled man with long, flowing red hair logged into Twitter and picked up the ball. With it tucked securely under his arm, he turned and walked off without saying a word.

“Hey! We were playing with that!” shouted one of the progressives.

“Yes. Give us our ball back you scallywag!” cried a traditional.

“Who are you anyway?” another teacher asked.

The man turned around to reveal himself. They all instantly recognised him as a man of some standing in the education community. He took a step forward and spoke, and when he did, everyone listened.

“I am John David Blake: history teacher, Labour teacher, writer and orator. I am taking this ball away because there is no such thing as bloody truce football. It’s a lie. How can you play football on Twitter? Think about it. You can’t. It’s a bloody silly idea and this is a bloody silly story. Now, get back to being nice to one another, and leave the fictional sentimentality to Sainsbury’s.” He turned away again, and with a swish of his lustrous mane, he was gone.

The teachers all looked at one another. And then one of the traditional teachers said, “It’s a good point. You can’t actually play football on Twitter.”

“Well, not literally, of course,” replied one of the progressive teachers. “But we could just pretend to play a game of football. You know, like a role play?”

“Piss off,” said another of the trads. “I’m not role playing a game of football. That’s just daft. And a waste of time.”

“Well, I think it’s a good idea,” added one of the progressives. “It might be fun.”

“Fun? What’s fun about it?”

“Don’t be so negative…”

“It’s not negative to question…”

“You are so rude…”


“I don’t like your tone…”

This argument continued to volley back and forth, but this was Christmas day, and the teachers had turkeys to carve, LEGO Death Stars to build and Noel Edmonds to watch on the telly. So, as the teachers’ families gradually pulled their loved ones away from their tablets and laptops, the argument – that had so suddenly broken out – began to ebb away.

Because, as they all would come to realise that afternoon, Christmas is a time for arguing with your own family, not people on the internet.

Bless us, everyone.*

*Except the traditionals/progressives/dichotomy deniers/politicians (delete as appropriate).

The Magic Roundabout: why anxiety shouldn’t stop us learning

“I have had enough, I just want to get out
Let me off o’ this English roundabout”

So sang new wavers XTC on their 1982 album, English Settlement. The song, ‘English Roundabout‘, was inspired by the famous Magic Roundabout in Swindon. Less a roundabout, more a maelstrom of white lines; it looks like this:

Magic Roundabout, Swindon

If you’ve ever attempted to traverse this concrete vortex, you’ll be well aware that one must do so whilst repeating the incantation: ‘Omigodomigodomigodomigod‘, before endeavouring to leave the intersection. In some cases, one might have to re-enter the roundabout and repeat the ritual a number of times before the correct exit is finally negotiated. It’s such a dizzying experience that XTC weren’t actually the first to write about it – W.B. Yeats famously documented his (second) attempt at conquering it, chronicling the suffering he witnessed through the windscreen of his old Ford Falcon:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Okay, so that might not be entirely true. But such is the anxiety that the Magic Roundabout induces in those who seek to overcome it. And I’m definitely not alone in thinking this: over the years, it has been variously voted Britain’s worst roundabout, one of the World’s ten worst junctions, and one of the ten scariest junctions in Britain. You can even get an ‘I survived the Magic Roundabout’ t-shirt.

I was reminded of this rather un-magical roundabout this week when I read something that moved me to think about the idea of anxiety. I have had to deal with anxiety for much of my life, so when I read The Telegraph article decrying English lessons on the basis that “reading, writing, spelling, punctuation and grammar are creating “anxiety” among children and undermining their natural flair”, it made me balk (as I’m sure was the intention).

That report was actually a digest of this piece in the TES, written by Dr Heather Martin, Head of Languages at a prep school in Cambridge. Martin writes:

“Anxiety about English afflicts many parents and even more teachers. Schools have tended to address this head-on, squeezing ever more English into the school day and according it a hierarchical supremacy. The subject is jealously ring-fenced, measured, weighed and levelled.

But anxiety breeds anxiety, and the English problem will not be solved simply by doing more English.”

The idea that ‘anxiety breeds anxiety’ has a whiff of truthiness about it. It may be true in some cases, but it is important to note that it is also a rather pithy deployment of diacope, that persuasive tool of the Ancient Greek rhetoricians. I think it may not be the universal truth that it purports to be; might it also be true that anxiety breeds other, more positive outcomes? Anxiety breeds forethought? Anxiety breeds consideration? Anxiety breeds creativity?

As for the latter, I am sure we are all aware of the trope of the suffering artist, only able to create as a result of their anxiety. Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath were famously neurotic; and fellow poet T.S. Eliot was moved to express of his disposition that “anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity”. Lord Byron, Dylan Thomas and Franz Kafka were similarly afflicted, but it was philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who first supplied me with some reasoning and understanding about my own anxiety as a teenager.

That makes me sound terribly precocious, but I should note that Kierkegaard’s words came to me first via the last lines of the Manic Street Preachers’ song ‘Stay Beautiful‘:  “Anxiety is freedom”. They had expanded on the reference in the song by etching it into the run out groove of the 12″ record. From this, I discovered Kierkegaard’s paean to his anxiety as “the dizziness of freedom”.

Indeed, the pervasive trope of the suffering artist seems to contradict The Telegraph‘s claim that anxiety undermines natural flair.

But anxiety does not only breed creativity; a study published in Academy of Management Journal last year suggests people with neurosis do better in group work and teamwork than expected; it also showed that extraverts tended to do worse.

In 1908, psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson published a study in which they increased the levels of anxiety in animals when completing a task. They discovered that the animals completed the task better if they were “moderately anxious”. Of course, if the anxiety levels were too high, the performance levels dropped. These tests have been replicated in humans many times since and the principle of there being a desirable level of anxiety needed to perform tasks well is now known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. As  Atlantic editor Scott Stossel writes in his book My Age of Anxiety:

“It’s kind of a Goldilocks law: too little anxiety and you will not perform at your peak, too much anxiety and you will not perform well; but with just the right amount of anxiety – enough to elevate your physiological arousal and to focus your attention intensely on the task, but not so much that you are distracted by how nervous you are – you’ll be more likely to deliver a peak performance.”

In the same book, Stossel suggests that “Anxiety may also be tied both to ethical behaviour and to effective leadership.” Leadership expert and psychologist Robert H. Rosen’s book, Just Enough Anxiety, is based on this very idea that a great leader needs an optimal amount of anxiety to be successful. He cites various examples to support his suggestion that:

“Anxiety is a fact of life. How you use it makes all the difference. If you let it overwhelm you, it will turn to panic. If you deny or run from it, you will become complacent. But if you use anxiety in a positive way, you will turn it into a powerful force in your life. You will uncover the hidden driver of […] success.”

Sally Winston, director of the Anxiety & Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland (ASDI), says that “Anxiety itself is neither helpful nor hurtful. It’s your response to your anxiety that is helpful or hurtful.”

It is this approach to anxiety that helped me turn a corner in how I dealt with my own neuroses. It was in Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, that I discovered a way to deal with my anxiety: to acknowledge it, to understand what it is that is making me anxious, and to accept it – to know it is okay to feel anxious about it. Once I learned how to do this – not to try and ignore it or hide it or run from it, it became less of a burden.

So isn’t this the case with the anxiety of learning? If we are to ignore what makes us anxious in the classroom, isn’t that anxiety just going to hang around for longer and to grow bigger? If we are asking them to learn “by accident”, how do we know when they have overcome the things that made them anxious? Are we just deferring that anxiety while the children are in our care, only for it to cause greater anxiety in adulthood?

I think that what we do as teachers, on a daily basis, is plan and teach lessons that have an unconscious understanding of the anxiety of learning. We may not think about it explicitly, but what we do when we think about the elements of teaching: pitch, scaffolding, modelling, feedback, questioning, explaining and discussing – amongst everything else we do – is that we are ensuring that we make things challenging enough, but not too challenging that they cause anxiety. And if they do, we respond to that. We just don’t ignore things because they might cause anxiety in some. Sally Winston of ASDI says that anxiety is provoked by “unpredictability, uncertainty and uncontrollability”. I’d certainly say that the first two conditions are also perfect for provoking learning. And as for the latter condition? Well, that is why we have teachers.

One other thing I think that anxiety breeds is caution. When I started thinking about the Magic Roundabout again recently, I thought about how anxious it makes people and how it must cause many accidents. Actually, it turns out that the roundabout has an excellent safety record. For such a busy junction, it has had far fewer accidents than would be expected – this is very much a success as it was built to replace a roundabout that was something of an accident blackspot.

So is it fair to say that anxiety can cause people to take care over what they are doing? Isn’t that something we strive for so much in the classroom?

Rather than run away and hide from anxiety, it is my belief that we should embrace it, understand it and manage it as a vital element of learning. In fact, why call it ‘anxiety’ at all? It seems that all we are talking about here is the feeling of finding something difficult. It’s okay to find things difficult. Pupils should find things difficult if they want to learn. For something synonymous with creativity and caution, ‘anxiety’ seems a rather pejorative term for what is essentially learning. Perhaps the people of Swindon have it right – they don’t call their infamous rotary ‘The Anxiety Roundabout’. So rather than classroom anxiety – that which leads to those desirable qualities of caution, care and creativity – how about we just call it classroom ‘magic’?

Stop looking for the new Brain Gym. Start looking for the new Monkey Crouch

We all know that Brain Gym is guff. It’s so obvious to us now. In fact, it is such guff that it has even given birth to an edu-snowclone:

X is the new Brain Gym.

What is interesting is how schools swallowed it in the first place. Why did we? I think much of it came from its truthiness, and the problem there is that nobody was really measuring its impact. As far as my brief fledgling complicity goes, I was told it was based in ‘science’ and it looked interesting so why would I question it? Why would I need to measure the impact it had made over a period beyond that moment when everybody was actually engaged in the activity?

And this is the crux of the issue: with much of what we do in the classroom, we respond to the moment. Our education system seems built on what is happening at the moment of teaching, over and above what impact that moment has. From the very start of our careers when we are observed during training, we are encouraged to reflect on the individual lesson. More so than the sequence of lessons. More so than how the learning has developed over the term.

Whilst there is an acknowledgment from some camps – Ofsted include themselves here – in moving away from it, lesson observation feedback (and grading, where it exists) is largely given based on what was seen in the moment – notes are made and I’d wager that any grading is decided on in the majority of cases whilst the observation is still taking place.

But wouldn’t it be more useful for the observer to come back later (a lesson later, a week later… longer than that?), find out what the pupils have actually learned from the lesson – what they have retained and remembered; what they can do now – and give feedback based on that?

With such a culture of immediacy, it is no wonder that we fall foul of so many ineffective teaching practices – as highlighted in the Sutton Trust report published this week. The report, written by Professor Robert Coe et al. from Durham University, offers up some examples of practices that have strong evidence of impact, as well as those strategies which are prevalent in schools but aren’t supported by evidence. In many of the cases of those that aren’t supported, I would suggest that they are approaches that are quite visible or tangible in the moment – praise, grouping, discovery learning, active learning, etc. – and perhaps that is where their appeal lies: we can see them so we are drawn towards them as ‘evidence’. Conversely, the two factors with the strongest evidence are those which might often be invisible or less tangible in the moments of a lesson – their impact is in the long term and so, perhaps, is their visibility:

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 22.22.01

An area where a similar dislocation in the judgement of practice has occurred is in the age-old sport of horse racing. Although, ancient as it is, it is a sport that hasn’t really changed an awful lot since Areion of the Black Mane won the 2.30 at Nemea by a nose (no doubt in front of a young John McCrirrick). Indeed, in the past 100 years – when we have made huge strides in almost every arena of civilisation – horse racing times have only improved by a trifling 1%.

But, actually, in the late 19th century, there was development in horse racing that improved times by around 7% in just a few years. Yet it was a development that, when judged in the moment, was actually derided and ridiculed by jockeys and the sports press alike. At this time, jockeys used to race in an upright position, as in the picture below. jockeyonhorse-early However, an American jockey noted for his observant mind, Tod Sloan, took a different approach. A 1900 edition of Vanity Fair tells us that he “studied the problems of wind resistance and adopted a posture of crouching along the neck and shoulders of the horse.” That same publication also tells us that he was ridiculed for this at first – indeed VF‘s founder Jehu Junior mockingly likened his “peculiar seat” to that of “a monkey on a stick”.

In those days, Britain was the centre of horse racing. Having conquered the sport in the US, Sloan came to London in 1897 with his ‘monkey crouch’ style. He was instantly rounded upon by the British press, who took great joy in ridiculing and mocking his methods in both the written word and with satirical cartoons.

But Sloan won races. Lots of them.

And as he won more and more races, slowly people started to copy him. In the few years that followed, as more jockeys began to take up the ‘monkey crouch’, race times improved by much more than they have in the 100 years since. The Daily Mail finally had to concede: “It is useless to deride the style and methods of a jockey who keeps winning.” In 1900, he was asked by the Prince of Wales to ride for the royal stable, wearing the soon-to-be-king’s colours. Today, every jockey rides using the approach that Sloan was ridiculed for at first.

Those in the horse racing world made the mistake that we have in recent years – they judged what they saw in the moment ahead of looking at the results of the method. Instead, as the Sutton Report suggests, we should look at the effectiveness of our approaches and evaluate teaching based on this. Professor Robert Coe suggests caution in judging the moment:

“Given the complexity of teaching, it is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious.”

How long before we start to evaluate more effectively, outside of the moment? Place your bets.

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