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.


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.


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?

I am not your spirit guide: the intoxicating narratives of teaching

Earlier in the week this Slate article, loftily entitled ‘Spirit Guides’, ricocheted through my timeline.  Putting aside some of its more ‘interesting’ touches – ‘[t]he mind has “hands”‘ (huh?); its use of a moment from fiction as exemplar; its paraphrasing of Socrates on student-teacher relationships (!) – the piece attempts to take the well-travelled path of presenting the teacher as something more than a teacher: the mentor, the parental figure, the titular spirit guide.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is a time-honoured and usually very convincing vision of a teacher, so quite how the article fails to stir the emotions of the reader-teacher and have us ripping up textbooks is a feat in and of itself. Perhaps it is the seemingly conflicting ideas presented in the same argument – ‘a genuine teacher teaches students, not courses’; ‘”The teacher, that professional amateur teaches not so much his subject as himself.”‘ Or maybe it is just the downright silliness of some of the views presented: ‘”If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him.”‘

But where that article fails, the image of the teacher as avuncular genie or fairy godmother endures elsewhere. In books, television and the movies, the trope of teacher as more-than-just-a-teacher is ubiquitous.

I wouldn’t argue against the suggestion that teachers are often inspirers, mentors, or even parental figures by proxy. And, as the article suggests in its bland finale I’m certain that teachers do change many of their pupils’ lives.

But the problem with these pervasive grand narratives of teaching is that there is a suggestion that we should do this – or at the very least a consequence that we do try to do this – by design. That is to say that we are compelled to exert much of our effort in trying to be more-than-just-a-teacher. Indeed, that seems to be what the Slate article is suggesting.

And that, I think, is wrong. I think it is vitally important that, whilst surrounded by the eddying current of all these intoxicating narratives, we avoid getting carried away by them and we focus our efforts on being a teacher. Just a teacher.

Because being just a teacher is what we can do for every pupil. It is the most we will ever be to the most of our pupils. And it is tangible. Unlike being a muse or an angel or a guardian spirit, it is what we are trained to do and it is an area where we have at least some knowledge of what is required of us. Whilst the Hollywood narratives are thrilling and bewitching, they take us away from what we really are.

So be a teacher. Just a teacher. And I think you’ll find that, in being a teacher – in teaching and imparting knowledge – pupils might find their mentor, their inspiration, their spirit guide.

Why I think selling resources to teachers is wrong

Shut up and take my money

This is just a quick post in response to a brief discussion I had earlier.

After seeing a new website that was charging around £8 for a 31-slide Powerpoint and a few worksheets, I tweeted this:

A few people tweeted agreement. A couple of people defended the selling of resources to teachers and questioned why I felt this way. Here’s why:

1. It is generally teachers that pay for these out of their own money, not schools. If anyone wants to suggest that it isn’t, then why do these companies sell individual accounts and pay-as-you-go schemes? Teachers spend enough of their money on things like: subject knowledge books, teaching practice books, stationery, printing, class rewards, etc. (I’m sure you can all add plenty of things to this list). Charging them for things they could and should get for free is just exploiting their commitment to their job.

2. If the resources were produced by a jobbing teacher for their classes, the teacher has technically been paid for producing them. And as the state has paid for them, I feel uneasy that they are making extra income from selling them to somebody else working for the state. Why not just sell the pens out of the department stationery cupboard?

3. If the resources were produced specifically to be sold and not to be used in the creator’s classroom at all (i.e., by a business that solely produces resources), then it’s worth asking: are they selling something that has not been tried, tested and developed in a classroom first? How effective is that resource? New/desperate teachers might just assume it is worthwhile and spend money on it anyway. I’d also question the quality of a resource if the incentive for producing it is purely financial.

4. I don’t think there are many off-the-peg resources that can be taken straight from a third party to one’s classroom. Teachers will spend time developing and altering it to suit the needs of their class. I think it is fair to question the quality of a resource that is produced for generic classes, rather than one that is produced for a specific class.

5. Obviously, one could level some of those last criticisms at resources from third parties that one can get for free. The difference is that with free resources one can pick and choose. When you pay for a resource, you have sunk costs into that resource  – this is a bias that means you will probably be committed to using it, no matter how good it is. I’ve written about the dangers of sunk costs and consistency before.

6. The resources we create are a product of everything we have learnt as teachers over our careers – they are, in part, ideas that we have picked up from other teachers. Nothing is entirely original. If I were to sell a resource, I may have put the effort into typing up the slideshow or worksheet, but the ideas are partly made up of things I’ve picked up from others. I’d be profiting from something that was given freely to me. Again, that makes me uneasy.

7. Why not just be kind? What you give someone else will benefit other classes – classes the other side of the country, maybe the other side of the world. Even if altruism isn’t enough, what about the reward that your reach as a teacher is even greater than the walls of your own classroom? Doesn’t that give off a lovely glow to bathe in?

Please note that this is what my opinion. You may disagree entirely. I am merely responding to those questioning why I feel this way.

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


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