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’?

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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.

Workload: “And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint…”

Maître-D’: Today we have for appetisers: moules marinières, pâté de foie gras, Beluga caviar, eggs Benedictine, tart de poireau — that’s leek tart — frogs’ legs amandine, or oeufs de caille Richard Shepherd — c’est-à-dire, little quails’ eggs on a bed of puréed mushroom. It’s very delicate, very subtle.

Mr Creosote: I’ll have the lot.

[Pause]

Maître-D’: A wise choice, monsieur. And now, how would you like it served? All mixed up together in a bucket?

Mr Creosote: With eggs on top.

Maître-D: But of course, avec les oeufs frites.

Mr Creosote: And don’t skimp on the pâté.

Maître-D: Monsieur, I can assure you, just because it is mixed up with all the other things we would not dream of giving you less than the full amount.

The bilious Mr. Creosote: undeniably one of the Monty Python team’s most indelible creations. I only have to look at an After Eight for me to feel the rising impulse to cry out, with mock-Gallic intonation, the words “wafer-thin mint” to any poor unfortunate who happens to be trying to escape my company at that moment. Yes, I’m that guy.

If you aren’t sure of who he is, here is a video (disclaimer: don’t click the link if you are sensitive to copious vomiting, swearing, mild gore or bad French accents).

To my teenage self, the discovery of Mr. Creosote was joyful in all of its bad taste. But one thing about the sketch always struck me as jarring: this is clearly a gourmand, in what is obviously a restaurant of exceptional cuisine – so why does he choose to have all of the meals mixed together? Surely he’d want to taste them individually, enjoying the distinctive and distinguished flavours of each dish one by one? He’d still be a terrible glutton, but I’m certain he orders all of those gastronomic delicacies because of his absolute love of food?

And in actual fact, if he did consume the dishes individually rather than as a mushy bucket of pulp, he’d certainly struggle less in dispatching them. Because, in reality, whereas any individual would clearly find it difficult to eat those dishes “all mixed up together in a bucket”, if they were served individually – one after the other – they would actually be easier to eat, despite the volume of food being exactly the same. This is down to something called sensory specific satiety.

Sensory-specific satiety is the phenomenon of feeling full when eating one type of food, followed by a sudden renewal of appetite when exposed to another type of food. Put simply, it’s why you can feel full when you’ve had your dinner/tea* (*delete as geographically/socio-economically applicable), but conveniently regain your appetite when offered a dessert immediately afterward. It’s basically how Christmas works.

And its very similar to how work becomes workload. If, like Mr. Creosote and his lavish dinner, teachers had the excessive job requirements declared to them at once, we just wouldn’t accept it. We would be absolutely resolute in the impossibility of completing it all effectively and within the time frames required. And it would be quite obvious to those setting those requirements that they were asking too much. But workload isn’t delivered to us in one unpalatable bucket. It’s given to us piecemeal, over time. As such, it doesn’t seem so unappetising in such small chunks – a bit of marking, a phone call, a form to fill out, a detention to hold, a homework to follow up on, an email to respond to, a lesson to plan, a duty to complete: all of these things are perfectly digestible in the polite, slight servings in which they are presented to us.

Furthermore, they are not all presented to us by one person: the managerialism of schools means that workload is dished up by a variety of people – line managers, school leaders, middle managers, assistant middle managers, pastoral leaders, those with TLRs, those with SEN responsibilities, as well as by peers, mentees, ourselves and pupils: all of these people deliver us our workload in portions.

Yet, the demands of teaching are excessive when assimilated into the whole. The cognitive overload just from taking in the information from 10 emails alone must surely diminish our performances? Yet I’m sure the majority of teachers and leaders receive more emails than that in a day.

1food

This week, the subject of workload has been taken up by politicians in the three main parties – Nicky Morgan launched the ‘Workload Challenge’, asking teachers for their views on the subject; Nick Clegg repeated the announcement of that very same coalition initiative, but with his Lib Dem hat on; and Tristram Hunt threw his thinking hat into the ring, declaring Labours intentions with some vague non-answers to the problem.

Whilst we might cynically see these as mere vote-grabbing acts in the advent of next year’s election, my concern is this: they are asking to hear about workload, yet it is not something that can be nailed down as one homogenous bucket of unsavoury gloop. In reality, it is a series of isolated and seemingly proportionate tasks which, when looked at individually, seem innocuous enough.

Indeed, I happened to mention to someone earlier in the week that I felt a paperwork task I’d been delegated had a rather short 48-hour turnaround. The immediate response was to defend it as a task that wouldn’t take very long. And I agreed that it wouldn’t. But it if I tossed it into the bucket with all of the other tasks I had to complete, it contributed to a workload that was difficult to manage. The problem is that those that contribute to workload often see the tasks that they set in isolation, as mere wafer-thin mints distinct from the main course. Yet we know the damage of a wafer-thin mint when added to an already burgeoning stomach.

So how does one go about ‘fixing’ the workload issue? The answer is: I’m not sure.

But maybe a step in the right direction lies in a word that we are all familiar with: plenary. I don’t mean the lesson plenary, that box to fill at the end of your planning pro forma. I refer to ‘plenary’ in the sense of plenary power: the conferring of authority to an individual to choose their actions. That is to say, should the government and school leaders and department leaders clearly set out their goals, values and parameters, and then allow teachers to be plenipotentiaries in delivering these? I think that workload has become excessive because it comes to us in portions, served up from a variety of sources. Maybe if teachers were given agency to create their own workload, based on very clear objectives and frameworks, and guided rather than directed, perhaps that workload would become more manageable?

I’m not saying this is a definitive answer – far from it – but it is a direction that I think the discussion might benefit from looking towards.

Now, where is that bucket of exercise books I brought home for the half term ‘break’?

The difference between managing and leading

If you believe a certain discourse, we live in a world of digital natives. Oh, and digital immigrants. And presumably there are also digital day-trippers, as well as trust funders on a digital gap year and people who just got a cheap last minute package deal to digital from Ceefax. (I imagine that some of these digital holidaymakers probably don’t really experience digital – they are merely little analoguers who use their sat-navs to prop up wonky table legs or use their iPads as kitchen chopping boards or… SNAP! Damn, I get through so many metaphors that way.)

Against the tide of the digitisation of classrooms, there is one analogue device that is resolute in its ubiquity: the classroom clock. Based on a 2014 study by Me, Myself & I (in which the researcher looked in a few rooms then extrapolated his observations), it is estimated that around 99% of classroom clocks are analogue. (What? Rigour? Piaget got away with this kind of research.)

I recently shopped around online for a new analogue classroom clock, and I noted a curious phenomenon in the images of the clocks for sale: almost all of the clocks and watches showed a time of 10:08. Clock Well, a few of them showed similar times – 10:09, or 1:49, 1:51, 1:52, etc. But the picture that these times create is all very similar – the hands become an inverted chevron, as can be seen in the example above. Intrigued by this, I made a cursory search to find out why this pattern pervades. And it turns out that the thinking behind it is based on pareidolia – the psychological phenomenon which involves our tendency to see significance in randomness, most commonly occurring when we see imaginary faces in arbitrary objects. You know, like when you see a cat’s profile in a cloud or Elvis’ visage burnt into your toast or a human face when you look at George Osborne. By tapping into Carl Sagan’s claim that we are “hardwired” to see human faces, clock sellers discovered that they do more business on their wares when the clocks look like they are smiling: we are drawn towards happy-looking clocks. Thus, a clock at 10:08 is a smiling clock, and we are more likely to buy it.

Apparently, a clock face at 10:10 looks too obvious and we feel we are being conned, but 10:08 just makes us want to take home that cheerful plump face and shower it with love. So what seems arbitrary at first – setting clocks to 10:08 – is actually a thinking and purposeful approach to selling. And what is more, it makes the jobs of the salespeople easier.

Comedian Dave Gorman identified this “10:08 rule of advertising” in his show ‘Modern Life is Goodish’. But Gorman also noticed something similar in digital clocks, or at least in products with a digital time displayed. Whilst out and about in the the London Underground, he noticed an advert for an HTC phone; an advert that looked a bit like this: htc_brand_6sheet-g_4 Notice the time that HTC choose to use when displaying their phones? In fact, if you just perform a quick image search for “HTC phones”, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of their images show that time: Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 20.58.01 Strange, isn’t it? I mean, there is no pareidolia to experience in 10:08 as written digitally, is there? It doesn’t look like a smiling face. So why do they continue to use 10:08 to sell digital timepieces? As Gorman asks, “You don’t suppose that someone in the marketing department of HTC phones actually thinks that 10:08 is just an inherently happy time, do you?”

There is an argument that 10:08 is the time that shows off the most segments in the old 7-segment digital displays: 7-segment1 But modern phones don’t have those segments. And wouldn’t 18:08 show off more segments? It seems that such an argument is an attempt to apply some retrospective reasoning to something that has no logical origin.

No logical origin, that is, other than they are merely following a practice that has gone before: the 10:08 rule of advertising. Yet we know that the 10:08 rule only works with analogue clock faces. So to follow that rule without question seems daft. Whilst the original practice was both thinking and purposeful, continuing to use it to sell digital timepieces seems the exact opposite: it is unthinking and purposeless. And it doesn’t help the salespeople do their job. It takes the position that many organisations take: “It’s what we’ve always done. Why change it?”

It struck me that the 10:08 rule, applied in these two ways, is a good analogy for the difference between leading and managing. Selling analogue clocks using the rule is an approach that has drive and thought behind it. It is deliberate and is based in theoretical beliefs. It is relevant. It supports and aids the shared goals of both management and staff. And, what is more, it makes the job of those on the front line easier. These are all things that leaders do. They have drive, thought and beliefs behind what they do. And they make it easier for those subordinate to them to do their jobs.

Conversely, using the same rule to sell digital clocks is just following what someone else has done. There is no drive, thought or belief behind it. There is no clear relevance to it. It brings nothing to the achievement of goals. It just brings uniformity for the sake of uniformity. It makes practice just about following rules, following “what we’ve always done”. And its aim isn’t to make the job of those on the front line any easier. This is what managers do: just ensure that things are being done as they should be done.

I am inclined to say that there is a place for both leaders and managers in any organisation.

But I’d also ask anyone thinking about taking the step up the ladder, which would you want to be? And if you want to be a leader, ask yourself: What do I believe in? What is my drive? How do I ensure relevance? How can I make teachers’ jobs easier and still achieve our goals?

As I finish writing this, it is approaching 10:08pm on a Sunday night. I have to get up for work in the morning. I’ve just looked up and the clock is smiling at me. It doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning. Smug bastard.

Why is opportunity cost so important? Bo knows.

Ask me about my favourite album at your peril. You might think of such a question as a throwaway conversation starter, but it is a question that will send me through The Seven Stages of Indecisiveness: excitement, confusion, shortlisting, redrafting, frustration, decision, and – ultimately – regret. The last one usually comes a couple of days after the decision, probably in the middle of the night: “I should have said ‘Pet Sounds’! Why didn’t I say ‘Pet Sounds’? WHAT WILL THEY THINK OF ME NOW?”

But ask me about the main thing that drives my thoughts on curriculum and what happens in my classroom, and I am pretty decisive: opportunity cost.

It is only since I have grasped this as a concept that it has begun to really inform my teaching. I mentioned it briefly in this post on sunk costs, but I haven’t really discussed the importance of it in any detail.

In my classroom, I previously judged things as to whether they succeeded or failed. Indeed, that is the way we have largely been primed to see things. We are encouraged to evaluate this way during initial teacher training. Probably more influentially, it has been the culture of Ofsted for many years (although, like a spurned philanderer, they claim to have changed“Honest, I’m not like that anymore. I’ve changed. Trust me, babez.”) And by dint of Ofsted’s mesmeric sway, it has percolated into the very bloodstream of many schools. Of course, there are gradations within this measurement, but it is still a measurement of success and failure nonetheless.

But of course, as Hattie tells us: “Almost everything works.” According to his observations, 95% of our teacher interventions have a positive effect on achievement. As such, Hattie suggests that claims to success are rather arbitrary. Whilst I often make such claims (and claims to failure too), I do agree, and so I have switched my decision-making from ‘what works?’ to ‘what is the opportunity cost?’ I ask myself: if I choose to use this intervention/approach (which, remember, will probably work), does it mean I miss out on doing something else which is richer in what it offers pupils?

If you are a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to use stories to illustrate the theories I discuss in this blog. And a story that I think exemplifies opportunity cost well is that of American sports star Bo Jackson. You might remember him from the Nike ‘Bo Knows…’ advertising campaign from the early 90s:

The premise of this campaign rested on Jackson’s phenomenal athletic success, which led him to professional careers in both Major League Baseball and American Football in the NFL: he ‘knew’ sports. And not content with merely playing both baseball and football professionally, he was actually named in All-Star teams in both of them too. He still holds the distinction of being the only person to do so in two major American sports.

Like most sports stars in the U.S., his professional career began with the college draft system. This is the main recruitment system for major American sports teams, in which each team takes turns to pick eligible players from the colleges and offer them professional contracts. In a surprising act of fairness for big-money sports, the system is set up so that the poorest performing teams from the previous season get the first picks.

So, when Jackson reached his senior year at Auburn University as a star of the baseball team and the holder of the Heisman Trophy for most outstanding player in college football, he was highly sought after by major teams in both sports.

The NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided that they wanted him as their first pick. They saw that he was having a great season in baseball and didn’t want to lose him to that sport, so they set up a visit to Tampa Bay. For this trip, owner Hugh Culverhouse laid on his own private jet for Jackson.

It turned out that, whilst visiting prospective teams was okay, travelling in the owner’s private jet was against NCAA rules. When Jackson returned to Auburn to continue his senior baseball season, he found that he had been banned from playing for the remainder of the season. He was distraught.

Jackson felt that Tampa Bay had deliberately set him up so he couldn’t continue playing college baseball. So when Culverhouse told Jackson that the Buccaneers would make him their first pick in the upcoming draft, Jackson felt aggrieved:

“the officials at Tampa Bay told me personally, ‘yes, we checked it, [the NCAA] said that it was OK,’ — I think it was all a plot to get me ineligible from baseball because they saw the season that I was having, and they thought that they were going lose me to baseball. (They thought) ‘If we get him declared ineligible, then we got him.'”

Signing for Tampa Bay would have been very lucrative for Jackson, but he felt betrayed:

“I told Hugh Culverhouse, ‘You draft me if you want, you’re going to waste a draft pick.’ I said, ‘I promise you that.’”

But Tampa Bay did still pick Jackson as their first draft. And Jackson was true to his word and didn’t sign the $7.6m dollar contract offered. He ended up signing for the Kansas City Royals to play Major League Baseball instead for a mere $1m. He went on to start his football career with the Los Angeles Raiders a year later.

The loss of signing Bo Jackson for the Bucs was huge, given the impact he went on to have in the NFL. And the majority of people would see that loss as the most significant impact of the whole affair: not signing Bo Jackson was the failure here. But actually, the biggest loss was not in not signing Jackson, but in Tampa Bay using their first round draft on him instead of using it on one of any number of other players that could have had significant positive impact on the team. In short, they wasted the opportunity to do something else. In the words of Dave O’Connor, the producer of the documentary, ‘You Don’t Know Bo’:

“The opportunity cost of losing a first round draft pick isn’t just that Bo Jackson isn’t playing on my team. It’s that every other player I could have selected with that pick is not playing on my team either.”

And this kind of thinking is so important to decisions on curriculum. I recently saw this article on “using [Star Wars] to teach the Hero’s Journey and mythology”. Now I really love Star Wars, and I’m not in a position to judge the teacher in the article as I don’t know the curriculum they are working with, but I can’t help but think about this in terms of opportunity cost. If I were to think about teaching either the hero’s journey and mythology in my classroom, I’d have to consider the opportunity cost of teaching it using Star Wars when there is a clear opportunity to use the classic mythology and introduce pupils to an important branch of literature, a branch that is alluded to in the literature that followed it: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, Gothic literature, etc. The opportunity cost of teaching mythology through Star Wars seems huge to me.

So that’s it. The single main thing that drives my thoughts on curriculum and the classroom? Opportunity cost. Well, opportunity cost and building a body of knowledge. My two main drivers are opportunity cost and building a body of knowledge. And memory. Three – my three main drivers are opportunity cost, building a body of knowledge, and… I’ll come in again.


Further reading: ‘What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?’

Bloom’s: the slipperiness of soft skills doesn’t make them higher order

One of the best things about taking cover lessons outside of your subject area is that you often come away having learned something new. In my particular experience,  Geography is the lesson I usually come away from loaded with bags of new knowledge, having bugged the kids with questions for the best part of the hour. To put it bluntly, before I started teaching, my knowledge of tribal communities mostly extended to the moment that a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango, stuck it with the others and then danced a dainty tango and… well, the rest is history.

But thanks to Geography cover lessons, my knowledge of tribal communities is much deeper. I now know that Um Bongo is actually produced in Somerset (they do genuinely drink it in the Congo though).

I also recently learned about another tribal community, named the Mundurukú, who live in the Amazon River basin. As far as I am aware, they did not invent any soft drinks, but they are interesting for another reason: they have a number system that only goes up to five. That is to say that they only have words in their language for numbers one to five (which is probably why Brazil did so badly at the last World Cup: if they’d have won, it would have been their sixth trophy – how would they have explained that to these people?) And whilst we may find having only five numbers in your language peculiar, the Mundurukú would probably look at the Pirahã people (a ‘neighbouring’ tribe located some 700 miles away) with a similar curiosity: the Pirahã only have words for numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’. Don’t worry, they’ve got all eventualities covered: for anything greater than two they use the word ‘aibaagi’, which means ‘many’.

So basically, everything with these tribes is quantifiable up to a point and then it just becomes vague, ambiguous and equivocal beyond that.

To us it seems unworkable to have a system where everything is clear and distinct to begin with, then becomes imprecise and woolly once it reaches a certain level. But that is basically how I see taxonomies of higher order thinking, such as Bloom’s.

Higher order thinking

It strikes me that, according to such taxonomies, the higher the order of your thinking, the less likely it is that we can actually define or measure it. Which is problematic if we are encouraged to live by them, as we are in many schools.

But maybe it is precisely that same problematic nature of these ‘higher order thinking skills’ that puts them at the top of the hierarchy in the collective consciousness? Because – and here’s the crux of my thoughts on this taxonomy – I don’t actually believe that those soft skills at the top are actually harder than those distinctive ones at the bottom: I think it is often harder to remember than it is to create. I’m of the belief that it can often be more difficult to understand than to evaluate; indeed, it is only once you understand a concept that you are in a position to evaluate using that concept. I’d even argue that, if you have full understanding of a concept or concepts, evaluation of it/them is a very simple process. Just watch how quickly and precisely experts like Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood evaluate the shortcomings of a technical bake – they do this because they have complete understanding. One could even suggest that their understanding came after mastering creating.

Yet, it is the slippery nature of these soft ‘higher order’ skills that means we see them as somehow more advanced than the others.

I recently went on a course aimed at improving higher order thinking skills. During this course, there was never any discussion of pupils actually knowing things. It was all aimed at them being able to do the stuff at the top of the taxonomy – creating, evaluating, analysing. What the course missed was that, by teaching pupils content, by building their knowledge base, by making sure they can remember things, by ensuring they understand concepts, the ‘higher order’ stuff becomes much, much easier for them. With stuff like Bloom’s, we are often deceived into missing this.

For me, it seems that the so-called ‘lower order’ skills (such as remembering, understanding) often involve a lot more cognitive processing than the ‘higher order’ skills (creating, evaluating, etc.) Indeed, those ‘higher order’ skills often involve the brain just making short cuts using the hard-earned knowledge – that which was acquired through ‘lower order’ thinking.

So, Bloom’s taxonomy? Higher order thinking? If we want pupils to do the things at the top of those ranks, I think we should ignore these hierarchies and, instead, concentrate on teaching content and building pupils’ knowledge. Honestly, I think it is that simple. As simple as do-re-mi, A-B-C, 1-2… um… many?


Note: the penultimate paragraph – italicised – was added on 30th September 2014, to clarify the argument made in the post.

 

Killing off the Brontosaurus, again: how can research reach further?

Q: Which dinosaur became extinct twice?
A: Brontosaurus.

That’s not meant to be a joke, by the way. It’s (sort of) true.

In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh, a Professor of Palaeontology at Yale, discovered the skeleton of a new dinosaur, which he named Apatosaurus ajax. At the time, he was involved in a fierce battle of discoveries with a palaeontologist from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, named Edward Drinker Cope.

When the two men first met they got on well, but over time they developed a strong dislike for each other which rapidly escalated into a rivalry which, in turn, manifested itself into a desire to outdo each other professionally. This feud saw Marsh and Cope not only attack each other in their scientific publications but also swear to outdo each other in the field of discovery.

As such, two decades of intense fossil speculation ensued from the early 1870s onwards that was to be known as ‘The Bone Wars’. Whilst they yielded plenty of new discoveries, the wars also  involved underhand – and unscientific – tactics such as destroying bones left in the ground just so that the other man couldn’t discover them. During this time, the men discovered more than 130 new species between them, whilst simultaneously destroying the public reputation of palaeontology and leaving themselves financially ruined.

The discoveries were fast and frantic and so it was that, two years after discovering Apatosaurus ajax, Marsh discovered a similar dinosaur: Brontosaurus excelsus. The thing is that this wasn’t really a different dinosaur. It was just a bigger Apatosaurus. Oh, and when he was piecing the skeleton together, Marsh had accidentally put the head of a different species on it. In fact, there is no such thing as Brontosaurus at all.

Whilst this mistake was corrected soon afterwards, the Brontosaurus lived on. He appeared in movies and in books and cartoons: you’re certain to remember how Fred Flintstone was partial to a Brontosaurus burger with a side order of Brontosaurus ribs. I certainly remember seeing that big lummox in the dinosaur books of my childhood in the eighties. Yet it was when the U.S Post Office issued a set of dinosaur stamps in 1989, one of which was labelled ‘Brontosaurus’, that his final decline began:

1989 US Postal Service stamp that finally put an end to the Brontosaurus.
1989 US Postal Service stamp that finally put an end to the Brontosaurus.

The release of this stamp caused uproar amongst dinosaur enthusiasts and, as a result of the publicity from this outrage, it seems that he was largely left to disappear. Previously a stalwart of children’s dinosaur books, he now seems to have been finally made extinct. Again.

Like the Brontosaurus, there are ‘discoveries’ in education that have since been debunked by scientists: Pashler et al took down the myth of learning styles in 2008, which has since been echoed by psychologists such as Professor Daniel Willingham:

 

Further theories to be discredited include such classroom favourites as Brain Gym and what is often called the Learning Cone, but is derived from Dale’s Cone of Experience.

Yet, like our friend the Brontosaurus, these myths refuse to die. There exists two realms in education: the realm of teachers and schools that are aware that these are myths; and the world where they continue to live on in certain classrooms: Jurassic Park schools. They exist because, sometime in the early 1990s, Richard Attenborough extracted DNA from chewing gum scraped off the underside of teachers’ desks and began cloning these classrooms, ensuring that the educational falsehoods live on. Or maybe they exist because people just haven’t heard the theories debunked? It’s one of the two.

What is certain is that these theories do still survive. They survive despite us being in a climate and era where research and science is having its greatest influence on education. Where the EEF and NTEN exist, and where Tom Bennett’s juggernaut researchED is about to host its fourth conference in just a few days.

researchED is popular. It is extremely well-attended. It is recognised by policymakers and commentators alike. It attracts brilliant speakers from a variety of spheres within education. The message is out there and hitting the bright lights, but is it reaching the dusty corners of education? Not while so many myths still exist. This is not a criticism of these organisations – far from it – but a lot of what is shared is preaching to the converted. The challenge for these organisations is to get themselves noticed by those that are blind to them.

And so, on the eve of researchED 2014, the question I have is: how does the research-savvy community extend its reach? Are conferences enough? What about publications? Would it be possible for researchED to have representative writers, writing under the banner for publications such as TES, SecEd, Academies Week, etc.? What about commissioning books produced under the same banner – could an educational publisher house an imprint? Is it feasible for these research-focused organisations to produce free publications to put in staff rooms?

It took over 100 years to kill off the Brontosaurus a second time. How can we ensure the extinction of today’s edu-myths isn’t as slow and painful?

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