Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (1563)

There sometimes exists in schools a cognitive dissonance that appears to hold these three theories as truth:

  1. Learning other languages is beneficial to pupils.
  2. Developing a wide English vocabulary is beneficial to pupils.
  3. Creating a common language across subjects is beneficial to pupils.

The reason I think this represents cognitive dissonance is because the third theory seems to want to reduce the language pupils use in school, whereas the first two seek to increase it.

It would be very hard to argue against the first two ideas. Learning a second language (or more) has obvious benefits in terms of communication in an increasingly global community, but there have also been neurological benefits identified too. And the importance of developing a wide vocabulary within English is uncontested (unless we count some pupils’ protestations: “I know all the English I need. I speak it already. This is pointless.”)

Despite this understanding that increasing the language of our pupils is a good thing, the idea does seem to exist, if not pervade, that we should create or rely on a reduced, common language to use across the various subject domains.

Most recently with the removal of National Curriculum levels, I have seen numerous people suggest that the levels and language of SOLO taxonomy could be a suitable replacement. This was notable during last Thursday’s #UKEdChat.

This is quite bizarre: one of the complaints about NC levels was that they were vague. I find it odd that some feel that moving to an even more equivocal set of levels and descriptors is the answer. Like Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO uses descriptors which are open to a wide range of interpretations, even within a single subject area.

And this is the other problem with assuming that a common language is helpful to pupils: words have different (usually polysemous, but sometimes homonymous) meanings in different contexts. Surely when words can shift in meaning depending on context, the language is no longer a common one? As each subject area presents a different context, the ‘common language’ gets taken in different directions by its different speakers. It’s analogous to the dialects of England and America and George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the two countries are “separated by a common language”: both England and America use the same words, they just don’t always mean the same thing.

But we don’t have to look at different dialects to see how meaning shifts. Standard English is a minefield of ambiguity. For example, the word ‘bank’ has a number of meanings. Ignoring the many definitions of the verb form, here are just a few definitions of the word as a noun (but by no means all of them):

  1. A financial establishment
  2. A stock of something available for use when required
  3. A receptacle where something may be deposited for recycling: ‘a bottle bank’
  4. The land alongside or sloping down to a river or a lake
  5. A set of similar things, especially electrical devices: ‘a bank of monitors’
  6. The cushion of a pool or snooker table

So if I said, “I took off my trousers by the bank”, the context in which I said this would certainly change the meaning of the word bank. You’d hope that I was stood by the side of the lake, replete with a bathing suit and not lining up a shot in the final frame of the World Championship at the Crucible.

It is therefore much more efficient for me to use a more domain-specific word (or words) other than bank to ensure the meaning I wish to convey is clear and precise: “I took off my trousers by the embankment,” or “I took off my trousers by the Abbey National.”

Likewise, if we have to rely on the vocabulary of a school’s common language, we are avoiding the more domain-specific vocabulary that would make meaning more precise.

So when I ask my pupils to analyse a text in English, it is a fundamentally different thing to when they are asked to analyse a chemical compound in Chemistry. Just look at this enormous list of applicants of the term analysis across a large number of disciplines. And even within disciplines, there are different meanings to the word. If analysis had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for the numerous collocations (‘aura analysis’, anyone?) in that list.

This means that if we try to establish a common language across schools, the words we use will have no meaning until they are applied to each subject. At this point the language is vague, at best. And as they have different meanings within each domain, the language isn’t a common one. It becomes more confusing and less helpful for pupils. Put simply:

I would always argue the case for schools to allow subject areas to establish their own,  domain-specific language for practice and assessment. Why assume that our students need a reduced, catch-all vocabulary in order to make sense of their learning across subjects when it is more likely that such a vocabulary will obscure the understanding process.

When it comes to world globalisation, we are always reminded of the importance of the plurality of languages and heed warnings to protect them. Are we as defensive of our domain-specific language when it comes to ‘globalising’ schools and blurring the boundaries between subjects?

As Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says of globalisation and language:

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

Likewise, if we are going to combine many subjects with very different vocabularies, we shouldn’t impose any single language across all of them.

How riding the herd mentality may have helped my GCSE classes

Petrified wood - ArizonaMany weeks ago, I grew concerned with the lack of independent preparation that my GCSE classes were doing for their English exams. Held up by the scaffold of intervention around them, I sensed that they’d become too comfortable to break out from it and stand up on their own. But then maybe that is our doing – should we be dismantling their scaffolding piece by piece as they approach the exam, allowing them to become freestanding in good time? Do we do the opposite and add more scaffolding then take it all away at once in the exam hall?

Anyway, they weren’t doing the one thing that I wanted them to do off their own steam: practising exam responses.

As far as I’m concerned, practising exam responses is the most useful thing they can do before the English exam. It’s not just about technique – it’s about engaging with ideas in order to remember them and build on them, as well as preparing language analysis that is flexible and portable: I always tell pupils that their responses in their exam will be replications and adaptations of things they’ve written already if they are well-prepared. ‘Do the work now rather than in the exam’ is a mantra I often repeat to them.

I told them that they should be bringing in – or emailing me – exam responses regularly (over and above scheduled homework responses). The return was underwhelming.

So I started to nag them about the lack of exam responses and how concerning it was: “I am getting very few exam responses. I’m disappointed that only a small minority are working hard enough. The work you put in now is vital to your success!” Still very little. Why weren’t they responding to my genuine concern that they weren’t doing enough as a group? They are very good at responding to me in the classroom. What was different here?

Then, around this same time, I stumbled across a study by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini about creating social norms through the way we communicate. The study, Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment, was particularly interesting in its suggestion about how, when we are trying to establish behavioural norms in groups of people, it can often “backfire to produce the opposite of what a communicator intends.”

The study summarised that:

There is an understandable, but misguided, tendency to try to mobilize action against a problem by depicting it as regrettably frequent. Information campaigns emphasize that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and—most relevant to this article—that rampant polluters are spoiling the environment. Although these claims may be both true and well intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the statement “Many people are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message “Many people are doing this.”

The study goes on to detail an experiment at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, which at the time was suffering from the theft of around a ton a month of wood. They had signs up that read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time. “

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Cialdini and his colleagues felt that this was creating the impression in visitors that stealing wood was normative behaviour. The signs perpetuated the thinking: everyone else is doing it, so there’s no harm in me doing so too.

In order to test their hypothesis, Cialdini and his colleagues replaced the signage and measured the amount of wood stolen when this new signage was displayed.

When they displayed the sign, “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” alongside an image of three visitors taking wood, the percentage of wood stolen over a 5 week period was 7.92%. In contrast, when the sign they displayed read, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest” (accompanied by an image of a lone visitor stealing wood with a red circle and bar superimposed over the top), only 1.67% of the wood was stolen.

Similar studies have been completed in order to promote other societally beneficial conduct such as reducing energy consumption in whole neighbourhoods. Below is an example of the messages given in that energy consumption study (again by Cialdini) in San Diego:


And here is how those messages converted to changes in energy consumption.

Change in average daily energy use

The message is clear, as Cialdini concludes, we “should avoid the tendency to send the normatively muddled message that a targeted activity is socially disapproved but widespread.”

So, by stating my concern that the majority weren’t doing the work, was I convincing them that it was okay not to do the work?

I think so. With this in mind, I immediately started using language that didn’t imply this. I focused my language on emphasising  those that were. And responses began to get more frequent. Now, the rise in frequency may very well correlate with the imminence of the exam: the closer we get, the more we prepare. But I think that by emphasising inductive norms  (what people typically approve or disapprove) over descriptive norms (what people typically do), it has helped a great deal.

A useful reminder of how important our language is in the classroom.

I think I have had practise exam responses emailed to me at almost hourly intervals this weekend. Yes, the exam is in just a few days. But I’m not sure I recall having so many in previous years.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just checked my email and I’ve received 3 more exam responses whilst I’ve been typing this.

The seven miffs of education (first sequence)

Time for a blog digest. These are the things that have gotten me miffed (read: concerned) enough to write about them recently:

1. Misplaced accusations of elitism

2. Edu-myths and lack of engagement in research

3. Truthiness

4. Grok

5. Rushing in to things

6. The dangers of sunk costs (and opportunity costs)

7. Mumpsimuses

Now that I’ve shared these bugbears, I’ll try and blog some of my thoughts on overcoming them in the coming weeks.

The Mumpsimus in the Room (a short story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Except what?” Timothy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So the government cut their losses, right?

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

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

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

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

The big fool said to push on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cambridge United - Panini Football '83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patience is a virtue.

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

A Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

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

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

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

And how did I ‘know’ these things?

I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I'm just a teacher, standing in front of a class, asking them to be quiet and listen.

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