Don’t call people idiots.

In the build up to Sunday’s England game, during it and in the feverish disappointed aftermath people behaved disgustingly.

Some pulled up trees while others chanted and sang. Some drunkenly exposed themselves and – worst of all –  some subjected our best players to atrocious racist abuse.

Those responsible for these shameful acts have been roundly and rightly condemned – in the press, on TV, on radio and on social media. It’s been heartening to see such strong pushback.

Those who behaved so badly have been called lots of words accusing them of lacking intelligence.

These are words I once used. When I heard others use them I approved if I thought the subject of the insult deserved it. 

Now I try not to use language like this.

I get fidgety and uncomfortable when others do and wince when I slip up.

Sometimes – not always because it is hard to do – I ask people not to use such words and explain why.

One thing binding all these insults together is they are reserved for people we believe to be ‘stupid.’

 We use them out of anger and frustration when we see behaviour we cannot understand or easily explain.

“That man’s just torn down a beautiful sapling – what an idiot!”

“That woman just cut me up at the lights – retard!”

“Moron.”

“Cretin”

And so on.

I think the line of thought goes that stupidity – lack of intelligence – learning disability – is a root cause of terrible behaviour. That people who learn slower than others are more likely to do destructive and damaging things.

This is odd

To my knowledge nobody involved in the vandalism, public indecency or shocking racism we saw last week had a learning disability. There is no evidence any of these awful acts were perpetrated by people who had any difficulties learning at all. Were we to go further we would easily find historical evidence demonstrating some of the greatest crimes ever committed on humanity were inflicted by very clever people.

While we all have the capacity to do good and to do evil there’s no causal relationship between levels of intelligence and ethical behaviour.

So why are words used to describe lack of intelligence often insults?

We do it because when we describe someone as, for example, an idiot what we really mean is they are a bad person. We use the words like cretin and retard because we have been conditioned to think of intelligence as a moral virtue. Doing this is innately comfortable – it insulates us from having to think about the potential in all humans – including ourselves – to do wicked things. As in “only stupid people are bad and I’m not stupid so I can’t be bad.”

Clever is good. Not clever is bad. Clever people do good things. People who aren’t clever do bad things.

For lots of us this is very upsetting.

Those of us who learn slowly and those of us who love people who learn slowly are forced to play an unwinnable game with demonstrably nonsensical rules.  

Much of intelligence – like physical beauty – is innate and those who have less of it cannot do anything about the genes they were born with. If we equate slower learning with being a worse person then we condemn those who learn slowly to marginalisation, vulnerability and abuse. We obscure positive characteristics and make it much harder for people with learning disability to be accepted and fully seen as they are.

It is made all the more infuriating because it so obviously apparent the logic is faulty.

A recent essay written by one of James Handscombe’s students at Harris Westminster Sixth Form and sent on to me struggled hard but well with this. The author noted terms now commonly used as insults originated as supposedly neutral scientific terms created to describe specific conditions. These words were then appropriated by wider society as insults, leading to new terms being created which were then – in turn – also used as insults too.

The words themselves aren’t the real problem.

The issue is our underlying assumption a supposed lack of narrowly defined type of intelligence is bad, which means any word used to describe someone who learns slowly will sooner or later become an insult.

The words we use will always be caught up and overtaken by the attitudes behind them.

This is a hard fight.

Negative attitudes about people who learn slowly are woven into the very fabric of society and have been for a very long time. They unite people and groups of radically divergent political and philosophical views.

People may be diametrically opposed on almost every issue but united in their belief those who oppose them must be unintelligent.

There is no haven or refuge for people with learning disability.

The Right’s veneration of individualistic achievement and self-reliance marginalises those who can’t ‘get on’ on their terms regardless of how hard they work. The Left’s aim of levelling the playing field so all can compete fairly at the same game just doesn’t work for those who won’t win regardless of the point at which they start.

We can’t properly defend a marginalised group by accusing its attackers of being another vulnerable group.

We can express disgust and horror at the worst of humanity without linking terrible behaviour to slower learning. This would be both more inclusionary and more truthful.

Such language exists – we don’t need to make up new words.

If behaviour is xenophobic or racist we should describe it as xenophobic or racist.

If someone makes a comment designed to gratuitously hurt others we should describe it as cruel. If someone encourages others to join in a co-ordinated attack on one individual we should describe it as bullying. If someone hides behind an anonymous twitter account to abuse someone we should describe it as cowardice.

Fundamentally all I’m asking is people use the words they mean.

I  – honestly – get why things are the way they are and choices we make about the words we use are not made in malevolence. When we call someone stupid we do not mean they have a learning disability. This of course means it shouldn’t be too hard to find more accurate words.

We are all creatures of our own experiences and the experiences of most of us have been the fetishization of a very specific type of intelligence and I know some will find what I’ve written here precious and finickity.

Until I became the father of a child who will always learn some things slower than others it’s not something I had ever thought about.

But now I am.

I have friends with learning disability and as I work more and more in this world saying nothing feels more and more disloyal – perhaps even a betrayal.

So I’ll say what I mean.

Standard

How much curriculum should be insisted upon?

Fifteen years ago there were many teachers who focused on knowledge and thought hard about what exactly they should teach their pupils.

I was – alas – not one of the enlightened.  

Instilled with a poorly formed, disorganised and uninterrogated understanding of child centred learning I worked hard at facilitating meaningful learning experiences in my classroom.

There were few fads I did not fall for.

VAK; multiple intelligences; brain gym; learning to learn – I rushed headlong into lots of them. When I did teach knowledge what I taught was often the very last thing I thought of when planning.

My aim was for pupil to rocket up through the plains of basic recall, past the foothills of description and ascend the mountains of analysis and synthesis.

To get them there I spent a lot of time planning the activities children would do in lessons – marketplaces, unstructured group work and self-directed research and I was disdainful of activities designed only to increase how much pupils knew.

Experienced and wise older colleagues tried to put me right but I did not have ears to listen.

I was too young and proud – confident enough to deliver training on all the buzzy ideas I thought I believed in to teachers decades my senior.

When my Head of Department insisted all assessments contained knowledge tests I scoffed and rushed doing the ones I’d been allocated sure this wasn’t necessary.

As my classes neared examinations I felt the first prickling of unease. My GCSE classes seemed to remember very little of what I’d taught them through roleplay and diamond nines. So out of necessity I rescued textbooks from dusty and cobwebbed cupboards. I made summary sheets and began explaining and modelling – at first uneasily and regretfully because I felt this was somehow doing teaching wrong and evidence I’d failed at proper pedagogy.

The years rolled on.

Without me ever really being aware of it happening I stopped being an inexperienced teacher and more and more I found I was not teaching in the way my PGCE said I should.

I was talking more to classes.

I was testing them and becoming less and less swayed by the supposed learning styles and existing interests of my pupils. Although this worked but I kept it quiet. For observations I changed the way I did things to affectionate indulgence from the children in my classes who I am certain understood the game we were all playing when they suddenly found themselves doing activities we never normally did.

Then – and I’m not sure how this began – I discovered the work of people who did not think what I was doing behind my closed classroom door was wrong at all.

I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education and Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Through them I found E D Hirsch who I had heard of but knew only as some vague American child hating ogre to boo at whenever anyone mentioned him.

I was inspired by a lot of what Hirsch said but troubled too – and this led me to Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge.

I found teacher-bloggers who wrote about what ‘knowledge rich’ meant practically in classrooms. I began to blog myself and through this connected with organisations which provided platforms for teachers to share what worked and evidence it did.

A growing number of people began arguing we had spent far too much time and energy thinking about how to teach and not nearly enough on what to teach. As what felt a lot like critical mass was reached, the word curriculum began to be used more and more.

Rolling pebbles got larger rocks moving.

Suddenly the landscape shifted beneath us all.

Vanishingly small numbers of people now openly say knowledge isn’t the most important thing children should learn in their lessons.

Few admit to having ever said this at all although many teachers – like me – continue to feel this is what they had been told.

The voices of those who had always argued knowledge was of fundamental importance – such as Summer Turner, Christine Counsell and those she trained on the Cambridge History PGCE – began to be amplified and heard.

The knowledge rich approach was adopted enthusiastically by government which caused some understandable pushback given the sort of knowledge that – at least initially – seemed most valued.

Happily, productive recent debate – while fraught and sometimes unhelpfully bad-tempered – has been over what exactly should be taught.

The result has been more representative, more diverse and more exciting curricula that evolve and change. At least in many places.

What was once an insurgency is now the establishment.

The three Is.

‘Knowledge rich approaches’ are now Ofsted endorsed.

Ofsted divides the assessment of quality of curriculum into the now famous – or infamous – three I’s; Intent, Implementation and Impact.

We all know these words very well now.

To Ofsted intention is what a curriculum intends pupils to know, implementation is how well this curriculum is delivered and impact is how intention and implementation combine into positive outcomes.

But this a great simplification. Perhaps an oversimplification.

A great problem lies in any assumption it is possible to draw straight lines from what curriculum planners intend, through how teachers implement their intentions and –  all being well –  to strong outcomes as a result.

If we try too hard to plot these as a straight line on a graph, we are likely to do more harm than good.

The enacted curriculum

Summer Turner – one of the best curriculum thinkers we have – understands this well.

When she writes about curriculum she uses the word ‘enacted’, which encapsulates the inherent complexity well. Her chapter in the ResearchED guide to leadership is brilliant on this. For those who want to go further I can’t recommend Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners enough. Nuthall pays close attention to why children learn what they do and why this can be so different between children in the same class and demolishes the idea it is possible to ever be certain what children will take from a lesson or sequence of lessons.

The enacted curriculum -the curriculum experienced by individual children who study it – is affected by a near infinite variety of intersecting factors.

It is messy and complicated and ultimately what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday afternoon is more important than any piece of paper.

In fact what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday is the only thing that really matters.

There are so many variables. Getting hold of this is like trying to grasp water or catch smoke in a net.

A couple of examples might help.

Let’s begin with two imaginary Y8 history classes in the same school, Gasworks High.

Gasworks High is part of a large and well-resourced Multi Academy Trust. Both classes are studying the same part of a curriculum – an enquiry into trench warfare in the First World War.

Let’s suppose the first class is taught by Laura, the Head of Department who has a masters degree in military history and a longstanding interest in World War One. She is up-to-date on current scholarship and played a major role in planning and resourcing the enquiry which is taught across all schools in the MAT. The second is taught by Simon, an English teacher who knows little about World War One beyond war poetry which he has taught for many years.

While both teachers do their best to teach the same curriculum with fidelity what children remember from the lessons is very different. Most children in the first classroom gain a strong understanding of the trench features, military tactics and can explain reasons the war lasted as long as it did. Children in the second classroom know less about these things but know a lot about the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front.

The curriculum was the same but the two teachers were better at teaching different things because it was enacted differently.

What was achieved was different. Not necessarily better and not necessarily worse. Different.

And there is even greater complexity.

As Sonia Thompson has been saying for many years children do not arrive in our classrooms carrying nothing.  

They come with ‘backpacks’ of knowledge unique to them, which form their interests and affect their motivation towards different topics. The Matthew Effect means children who know something about what they are taught already are more likely to learn more than those children who are encountering something for the very first time. A child with a father with an interest in military history may learn more from military history lessons at school than a child from a background where nobody they know has ever shown much interest in anything that’s happened in the past.

This isn’t all just supposition – Nuthall shows just how complex the process of learning is and how much it of it is affected by factors beyond a teacher’s control – factors they are often not – and sometimes cannot be – even aware of.

All of this means those responsible for planning curriculum are naïve if they assume their intentions can be exactly and cleanly delivered in the classroom in which their work is enacted. What they intend will not be what happens.

So then, what should we do about this?

There is no definitive answer to this question that fits all circumstances.

How could there be? What’s best will vary according to context. Instead of trying I’ve decided to look at two deliberately extreme ‘bets’ schools might make and the advantages and limitations of each. Finally I intend to synthesise these two bets into a number of broad principles which mitigate the most worrisome implications of the first two.

I’m warning you in advance this synthesis will be a bit of a cop out. There will be no neat final answers to type into a pro forma document.

Bet 1: Enforce curriculum fidelity

Curriculum planners wishing to ensure their planning is delivered exactly as they intended could specify all aspects of curriculum to a very iterative level – core, hinterland the whole shebang –  and then enforce fidelity though high stakes quality assurance and robust associated actions.

In some contexts – at least for a limited period of time  – iterative prescription and enforced fidelity might be the correct bet to make.

If – for example – a newly arrived Head of Science at a school at the beginning of turnaround finds she has no subject specialists in her department and the only curriculum is a confetti of disparate worksheets downloaded ad-hoc from the TES website, she may well have no other choice but to specify exactly what should be taught lesson by lesson.

MATS, schools or departments adopting this approach wholescale would have to look out for and then eliminate variation and associated deviation.

They’d have to make sure teachers knew they were not supposed to go off script and keep them on the straight and narrow.

They’d have to make sure all teachers understood their own insights, explanations and opinions were not to be shared– this variation would make things less clear when the aim should be to transfer what was in the head of the curriculum planner to the heads of the pupils them with as little distortion as possible.

Anyone pursuing this aim would have to have a high degree of certainty the curriculum they’d created was a good one and would deliver the outcomes expected if enacted by its teachers in the ordained fashion, and that teachers had the capacity to perfectly enact what was intended.  

Sometimes this evidence might be available – for example with some synthetic phonics and Direct Instruction programmes – but more often it is not, making any such bet something of a stab in the dark.

This bet would mean accountability resting on the planner – if teachers had done exactly what they were told to do then disappointing outcomes would have to be owned by the person or people who designed the curriculum. Those responsible for its design and delivery would have to be, like Sauron’s Eye, constantly watchful on a panoptic scale for unauthorised deviation. Most people like at least some freedom when teaching and without close oversight there would be a constant risk to the model’s integrity through conscious or unconscious subversion.

Advocates of this approach would also have to answer the question as to what to do when children did not remember what they were expected to remember from a previous lesson or topic; a very prescriptive lesson-by-lesson curriculum would seriously reduce or even preclude the possibility of responsive teaching. This might be fine for the children who never drop behind but would be a disaster for those who don’t keep up whether this is through absence, poor behaviour or simple human forgetfulness.

Finally, anyone going for this model would have to be vigilant to the possibility of low morale and disaffection.

While it is not the role of all teachers to be curriculum architects the inherently creative and generative process of enacting a curriculum is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job- insisting on simple replication would be unpopular.

I expect what I’ve said so far has made you feel a bit uncomfortable.

It does me too. It just doesn’t sit well.

This command and control model is open to abuse and is probably more likely than not to result in disappointing outcomes.

This blog post by James Theobald contains helpful thinking as to why trying to make teachers reproduce perfectly what someone else has planned often ends up feeling unsatisfactory.

What James is getting at is when we plan a lesson much of what is planned is an expression of deeper unexpressed thought. This is why lessons so often fall flat when we try to teach them using someone else’s plan and resources.

Without their knowledge and mental models tasks and activities rarely hang together in a satisfying manner, leaving lessons feeling hollow and disjointed even when children have behaved well and tried hard.

I’m sure this is as true for curriculum as it is for lessons – all curriculum is the product of very deep oceans full of hidden currents that planners are often themselves unaware of.

It is often impossible for someone to exactly understand what the designer was trying to accomplish even if the designer fully understood their intentions themselves. Trying to force this often has a considerable opportunity cost  – if we are very iterative and directive about what is taught then we make it impossible for teachers who enact the curriculum to deploy their own mental models, which deprives pupils of their teacher’s true expertise.

Effectively we ask them to think with someone else’s brain.

Let’s return briefly to Laura and Simon in our imaginary history department at Gasworks High. In a very iterative and directive curriculum designed by Laura the children in her class would still know loads about trench warfare but those in Simon’s might well leave his classroom knowing little about trench warfare or about conditions in the trenches, which he would have been able to teach better had he had more freedom.

By making Simon teach what he doesn’t know well and not allowing him to teach what he does know well we could rob children of knowledge he could have effectively taught had he been allowed to.

We don’t have to go as far as this extreme example to identify other important concerns too – one centrally directed curriculum all are expected to follow can mean schools failing to capitalise on strength. A school lucky enough to have an RE teacher with a PhD in the theology of the early Church would be missing a great opportunity were it to prevent this teacher from sharing what he knows.

The more directive we are about curriculum the less agency teachers have in enacting it and the less agile schools and teachers can be. This is a risk with all deficit approaches to improvement – by trying to eliminate what we don’t like we can also destroy what we do.

Such strategies hinder a school or departments ability to play to its strengths and may result in an overall decline in how much children learn, sacrificing inconsistent riches and depth for a quixotic tilt at cold and illusory consistency.

Bet 2: Total autonomy

If trying to tightly control the content of curriculum causes so many problems perhaps then might it be better not to try at all?

Perhaps if teachers were free to teach whatever they wanted to teach they’d deliver what they know best really effectively. This would mean children in different classes in the same year in the same school leaving knowing very different things.

Perhaps that’s fine and we should try to be comfortable with it.

It is just about possible to envisage a context in which this might be a bet worth making.

I’m picturing Old Oak –  an independent school a few miles down the road from Gasworks High.

Here there is a highly qualified and very experienced English department in which there has been very low staff turnover in the past and low turnover expected in the future. In this school children move up with the same teacher so although there is no consistency between teachers everything important is taught at some point. Set changes are rare. Few pupils leave the school and few join after Year 7.

In this scenario letting teachers teach whatever they want might make sense.

It might.

But even if it did there would still be things to worry about.

What happens if someone does leave? How would the incoming teacher know what the classes they’d taken over had learned and what still needed to be taught? What problems might be caused by a system in which class changes were basically impossible? A completely decentralised curriculum would mean no common assessments – how would the Head of Department or anyone else work out which classes and individuals needed a bit of extra help? How is complacency guarded against? Is the curriculum revised?

Doing things this way would also be enormously labour intensive and potentially very limiting – while there are of course advantages to children in having teachers teaching what they know best, this also confines their experience of the subject to that of just one person who no matter how erudite can only ever be one person.  

And this could only ever work in Key Stage 3.

Once pupils began GCSE courses they would have to follow a common curriculum and allowing everyone to do whatever they wanted to before then might have serious ramifications at the sharp end of the assessment years. One might – of course – argue this is a problem with the way we do assessment in this country. While these are fun conversations to have in the pub they aren’t of much use to those of us who need to make decisions in the world we live in rather than the one we would like to live in if we ruled it.

Even in the kindest of contexts I can reasonably imagine handing total curricular autonomy causes very serious problems that make it a questionable bet.

In less amenable contexts the results of this bet could be catastrophic with new teachers fresh out of training expected to design as many curricula as the classes they teach. Some might do this really well. Others, as I did when given too much autonomy early in my career, might end up wasting weeks on activities in which little of substance was learned.  Even if teachers chose areas they knew well this would be extremely labour intensive and leave children at the mercy of the personal whimsy of whoever they happened to find responsible for them. The result of this – even in the very best case scenario – would be inconsistency on a massive, massive scale with no way of working out what was going on anywhere else.

It would make school and systemic improvement impossible and at scale would do the most damage to the already most disadvantaged children.

Neither total control or complete autonomy is an appropriate choice for the development and enactment of curriculum.

Both approaches cause more problems than they solve.

Bet 3: Between the two

All answers – and there are as many answers as there are classrooms in schools – lie at various points between the two extremes.

It isn’t possible to give one satisfactory, universal response to just how much a curriculum should be prescribed and how much left to the teacher enacting it. How much to insist on and how big a blank space should be left will be dependent on the subject, year group, teacher and class.

Very hierarchal subjects might need to be more prescriptive because progression to the next stage of a curriculum can be dependent on mastery of a preceding stage, whereas the benefits of cumulative subjects prescribing less content might more often outweigh the disadvantages of it in a greater range of circumstances.

A year group or class might be given a tighter more iterative curriculum than another because of issues with staffing and associated teaching in previous years.

The pupils of a more experienced teacher might benefit from them having more autonomy in enaction than a less experienced teacher because they are able to make more effective use of it.

But despite all this complexity I think it possible to be guided by a set of principles that frame this persistent problem correctly and might lead to better decisions.

Four Principles

  1. Prescribe the minimum you can get away with.

When I first began recording myself teaching and watching the videos back, amongst the most irritating of my many irritating habits was saying too much was important.

It had the reserve effect to what I intended.

By claiming everything was important I implied nothing really was.

It is easy to do. All of us – hopefully – believe every minute of time in our classroom is valuable.

This is as true of curriculum too – those who plan curriculum do not put in things they think nobody needs to know – they do not set out to deliberately waste time. But – as all teachers know –  classrooms are not carefully controlled laboratories and have no business trying to be.

They are unpredictable, serendipitous places and unexpected things often happen in them.

Sometimes lessons are cancelled because of a trip or because an inspiring speaker comes in. There are snow days and days in which the boiler breaks.

Some teachers are better than others and children in their classes learn more than in those in which practice is weaker. Sometimes it is really hot and although we all try hard not much gets done. There are many thousands of minutes in a year and it is unrealistic to expect children to perfectly remember everything they are taught in every lesson.

Unless intentional decisions are made about what to prioritise and emphasise we can’t have a clear picture of what from the curriculum has actually been enacted and learned, with lots of children likely to remember things that aren’t actually what we intended them to remember.

Curriculum planners need to decide what is most important and make sure this is understood by everyone teaching the curriculum.

They need to understand it is better to teach less well than more badly and the more they prescribe the less likely what they insist upon will be learned. Curriculum planners must also recognise and be alert to the potential of over-prescription and micro-management to limit the ability of teachers to use their own mental models.

They must also be aware insisting on nothing in specific being taught is almost always a terrible decision. The dangers of this are at least as serious as those presented by dictating everything that must be delivered to a very granular level of detail.

How much must be prescribed will of course vary across contexts and there will be circumstances in which a lot has to be dictated – particularly in more hierarchical subjects in which latter content is dependent on the mastery of earlier material, but we should aim to be as lean as we can – if there isn’t a compelling reason why it is important a pupil memorises something then we should not insist upon it. Curriculum planners should be asking themselves why and when pupils need to learn prescribed content. A mark of true expertise is knowing what is essential and what isn’t. If we find this a struggle we should be open to the possibility we do not understand the material as well as we should.

None of this is to say what we don’t insist on being taught isn’t important, or that we shouldn’t think hard about it.

To do so would be to misunderstand why Christine Counsell’s hinterland knowledge is so important – it is what gives meaning and richness.

Hinterland plays a foundational role in the memorable enaction of core and without it we have only impoverished facsimiles. We certainly should be talking about great hinterland and sharing beautiful examples of it but it isn’t something – in most contexts – that benefits from lots of particular aspects being insisted upon – instead all individual teachers should be aiming to find their own rich hinterlands – sometimes alone and sometimes collaboratively.  We should be comfortable with these being different.

Finally we also recognise the different nature of different disciplines means ‘the minimum of what can be got away with’ will vary enormously. And – of course – variations in levels of expertise and experience within the same subject will also affect how much has to be prescribed. 

The less a team knows and the smaller their hinterland, the more directive a curriculum is likely to need to be.

2. Teach and assess what is prescribed.

Once core prescribed content has been decided upon schools must make sure this is taught and what is taught is assessed.

The base for this is teachers understanding of prescribed knowledge within a wider curriculum containing rich hinterland.

This requires clear, unambiguous communication. In many disciplines, perhaps particularly so in cumulative subjects, the winnowing process is likely to be controversial with different members of the same team disagreeing as to what aspects must be emphasised although this will be less contentious if there is a shared understanding of what the curriculum is aiming to do. There is more likely to be acceptance of this – even if grudging – if team members have had a meaningful voice in decisions. If people have been consulted they are more likely to agree to compromise and align themselves with final decisions even when they don’t completely agree.

Alignment is necessary because without personal commitment not all content will be taught well and this will affect how much pupils learn in different classrooms.

With alignment attention can be more focused and less generic. Time can be spent on more specific things – say, for example, getting better at teaching the influence of the Church in the lives of medieval people instead of vaguer and more nebulous content like ‘religion in the medieval world’ which is much harder to pin down and improve at.

Once agreed content has been taught it must then be assessed if a teacher, department or school is to work out how successful it has been. Quality assurance and assessments – both low-stakes examples like daily reviews and higher stakes formal tests – should be aligned to core knowledge to be fair to teachers who teach the curriculum and the children who learn it.

Making sure teachers and pupils know on what material assessment will be focused makes it more likely children will remember the most important aspects of what they have studied. It makes it less likely they will remember things that  – while interesting –  might not really be that useful or valuable.

This problem can be illustrated by the story of King Henry VII’s pet monkey who drove him to distraction after it broke free of its keeper and ripped up his carefully kept financial reports. This is gorgeous hinterland. The point the story is supposed to make is Henry was a careful record keeper and used these records to extort tax from his barons. The records are important. The taxes are important. The extortion is important. The monkey is really interesting and helps us remember the records, taxes and extortion but isn’t the point.

We do not need to know how much children know about Henry’s pets but if we do not guard against it this is just the sort of thing they will end up remembering once what we wanted them to learn has withered away.

But maybe we do want them remember Henry’s pets. We certainly don’t want to stop them remembering his monkey if they find his monkey interesting.

None of this means doing anything as cynical and contrived as telling children exactly what will be on their tests. Principles of good assessment remain the same. Material should be drawn from a larger domain and teachers finding there isn’t enough to do this must consider the possibility they’ve stepped over a line into cynically teaching to the test.

3. Teach more than what is prescribed.

A danger of prescribing a limited amount of content is the implication nothing else is important and the creation of a disarticulated and lifeless skeleton.

Misunderstanding curriculum as just a skeleton is likely to result in formulaic, clinical teaching and the memorisation of facts divorced from context – it would be the straw-man caricature so beloved of the laziest critics of knowledge rich approaches.  

Such pedagogy would be likely to result in ever diminishing returns and less being learned than had a more expansive approach been taken.

To avoid this danger schools need to make sure their teachers know and understand a vital part of planning is working out how to best support core content by framing it within memorable hinterland that adds and enhances rather than distracting and detracting.

The distinction between core and hinterland is not an absolute one – what might be considered hinterland in one context might be core in another depending on what exactly the curriculum is focused on. Just as what we cover is a product of choices we make, what to emphasise should also be the result of intentional decisions.

And we cannot even be sure what we consider to be core and hinterland is what will end up being core, hinterland or ultimately not remembered at all by pupils whatever we think it is.

Let’s return to Sonia’s backpack again for a moment – children do not come into school carrying nothing. They have lots already and are already developing opinions and ideas about what they are interested in and what they learn in lessons may connect with one child in different fashion to how it connects to another.

When curriculum is enacted we may find Henry’s monkey does become core knowledge to some children, along with the core knowledge we’ve insisted on teaching. Who knows? Maybe a child has visited the Tower of London and was fascinated by the ravens they saw there. Henry’s monkey might build on this and kindle a lifelong interest that eventually results in a PhD in Monarchs and their Menageries.

Stranger things have happened and if you ask me Monarchs and their Menageries sounds pretty cool.

The point here is while we can’t predict the fires our sparks will ignite we can make more fires more likely be sending out lots of sparks.

A curriculum that teaches only the bare bones limits opportunities for unplanned but beautiful connections.

4. Devolve curricular decisions making to the lowest level you can.

A couple of years ago the BBC produced a brilliant podcast called “Thirteen Minutes to the Moon” about Apollo 11 – the mission in which NASA first landed human beings on the moon and then brought them back again safely.

Two things struck me.

The first was how astonishing an achievement it was and the second was just how young those who accomplished it were. The average age of Mission Control was twenty-seven.

During the thirteen minute descent of the Lunar Lander, a twenty-six year old recalls having to make a split-second decision on whether to ignore a computer warning or not – at that moment he had the power to abort a mission that had cost billions and billions of dollars and may well have resulted in NASA missing the target set by JFK to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He chose to proceed with the mission and he was right to.

And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision. Twenty-six or not and however junior or not he was the right person to own the decision. It was his system. He knew it. Nobody else – no matter how expert – was better placed to decide whether to go ahead or whether to abort.

The point I’m trying to make here is those who enact curriculum are best place to design it if they have capacity. This is because they know the ins and the outs – the sticking points – the bits that shine and the bits that need to be worked upon.

Those closet to problems are best placed to solve them and are more likely to be personally invested in doing so too.

For a piece of work completely unrelated to this I’ve spent some time this year looking at institutional goal setting theory, focusing on the work of psychologists Locke and Latham. One of the things they’ve spent most time exploring is the importance of being personally invested in achieving goals. Too often – I think – schools enforce goals without checking whether people even want to achieve the targets set for them.

Generally, it is more likely people will be personally committed to a goal if they have developed it themselves or at least been involved.

This is applicable to making decisions about what to teach broadly and what to focus on within broad areas – if these have been dictated and those who have been dictated to are not invested it is less likely they will enact curriculum effectively.

There is a balancing act to be struck here – one of the advantages of well-resourced and outward looking MATs is the way economies of scale allow for investment in national level expertise with the capacity to develop world class curriculum.

I am lucky to work for The David Ross Education Trust, which is one of these MATs.

This can be really beneficial so long as curriculum is designed in collaboration with and not just dictated to those who will enact it. The most effective large scale curriculum architects understand the developmental aspects of their role –  while they may take the lead in curricular development to begin with the ultimate aim should be to empower and develop subject communities made up of subject leaders and interested rank-and-file teachers to create and revise curriculum of which they are proud and to which they are personally committed.

This is also likely to result in better enactment of curriculum overall because it is more likely those closest to pupils will make better decisions about what to teach and how to teach it than those distant from them.

While this would be the ideal not all departments have the ability or capacity to design effective curriculum, which is why I’ve prevaricated; while it is best to devolve this to the lowest possible level there will be circumstances in which the lowest possible level is not the teacher or even school and it would be unwise to leave people solely to their own devices if they lack inclination, capacity or time to make good decisions about what to teach.

Leaders need to be hard-headed and careful – mindful those right at the beginning of the Dunning -Kruger novice to expert spectrum are unlikely to know they lack capacity.

Deciding how much of a curriculum to insist upon is not easy.

While recent systemic changes mean we are now clearer than have been for a long time about the importance of broad curriculum full of rich knowledge I worry these developments will not have the impact we want them if we aren’t judicious and careful about organising all the material into formats our pupils can digest, being intentional about what to give the most priority to and realistic about what we can know and control in a classroom.

I worry about displacement activity and work that looks great on a paper proforma but has little impact on real children in real classrooms.

We must balance prescription with autonomy, recognising the benefits and risks of each approach within the individual circumstances in which we develop synthesis.

Curriculum is not and should never be a monologue or diktat – it is a conversation in which what its designers create is only one part. Ultimately it is a generative process; the product of interactions between designer, teacher and pupil.

It is messy. It is unpredictable. It is maddening and beautiful.

If we are to avoid retreat into comforting but fantastical illusion we must accept this.

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What are we doing? Are we all doing it?

I have worked people who claim to be able to tell if progress is being made in a lesson within minutes of being in it.

One told me they could “smell” learning. Another told me they could just “feel” it.

Such superpowers elude me.

In a short lesson visit it is simply not possible to tell with any certainty if anything has been learned.

Life is much too complicated.

Certainly outside of our subject specialisms we do not know if the work children are doing is appropriate even if they are trying hard at it. Even within a subject we know well we can’t be sure what a teacher sets is worthwhile or not because we lack context and nuance.

We cannot know if every child in the room is listening properly to what the teacher is explaining. We do not know if what children are being exposed to will be remembered or if it will be forgotten.

As has been said by many people many times before, learning is invisible. It happens within our pupils and it takes place over weeks, months and years.

It can’t be seen in the ten minutes a member of SLT is in a French lesson on a Tuesday afternoon.

If the purpose of lesson visits were to work out if learning was taking place in them then they would not be worth the bother.

But they are worth the bother because this is not their purpose.

Lesson visits are temperature checks in which what we are really looking for is things are orderly and calm. When I drop in all I’m really looking for is whether pupils are clear on what they should be doing and that they are doing it. It’s wrapped up in the language I use “Hello! Good morning! What should we all be doing? Are we all doing it?”

If the answer to both questions is ‘yes’ I’m usually happy to go on my way. If pupils aren’t doing what they’re being asked to do I’ll stay and support the teacher until they are. If it isn’t clear what pupils should be doing I may ask questions to clarify things – for example ‘Sir, are we doing this in silence or are we allowed to talk about it? Do we answer in full sentences?’

This might seem unambitious but it is not.

So much has to go right.

Teacher explanation of tasks have to be clear. Pupils must know exactly what to do and then do exactly what they have been told to do. It means clear exposition and economy of language. It needs the teacher to check for understanding and follow up on pupils who choose to opt out.  

All of this working well results in lovely classrooms.

Safe, calm and orderly with neat clear ways of doing things and everyone knowing exactly where they are.

None of this – of course – means learning. But without pupils being clear what they’re supposed to be doing and then doing it, it is really unlikely learning will happen.

It is a proxy but it is not a bad proxy.

Necessary but not sufficient, but very necessary.

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Catch up? Make schools cooler in summer.

There are some sorts of answers we like more than others even when the other answers are better.

A while back a Head of Department (I’ve forgotten who so please let me know so I can credit you) wrote a brilliant blog post on this. The central plank of it was his memory of being asked at interview what he’d done as a Head of Department that had most improved results. His answer was that he’d adjusted the time allocated to different parts of the course so the component in which children traditionally scored worst got more time.

This was not the answer his interviewees were looking for.

They wanted something buzzy about CPD he’d done on questioning, or dual-coding or tier two vocabulary or something else cool.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things but I wonder if too often in schools we overlook simple, logistical and mechanical fixes because they don’t sit neatly within the mental contexts and frames of references in which we are located.

Too often we forget there actually isn’t a very clear line between what is operational and what is strategic and so miss powerful instrumental and technical fixes.

I’m thinking about this today because it is getting hot and I am remembering the many, many very hot classrooms I have taught five period days in. I am remembering steadily rising temperatures that peak after lunch when it feels almost unbearable. I am remember sweating all day and the constant smell of teenage deodorant. I am remembering paper fans and the almost shocked exclamations of “oh it’s hot in here” from every adult ducking in to pass on a message or collect a child. I am remembering headaches on the way home and a sort of intellectual curiosity about how awful the day was likely to be on the drive in.

As I’m remembering I’m wondering how many hours were lost to this temperature – how much learning didn’t happen because although we did our best it was really just too hot to remember anything much at all. I’m also wondering how many thousands and thousands of hours this would add up to if we totted up all the time lost in English classroom every summer and how much more we would all learn if we just got bloody air conditioning, or built classrooms that weren’t the sort of glass boxes that look great in an architects drawing but are a nightmare to be in.

What a superb spend of any extra money this could be. Almost certainly more impactful than an interactive whiteboard in every room or funding for tutoring for a handful of kids who probably don’t need it. Something that would last forever, continuing to have a positive impact for years and years to come.

But we won’t will we? Yes partially because it would be expensive but also because it isn’t the sort of answer we like. It’s too simply. Too logistical. Not the sort of answer we want.

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Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam)

There’s been some interesting discussions on Twitter this week. After a thread I tweeted on starting lessons blew up a bit Adam Boxer raised a concern about pupils copying Do Now questions if they don’t know the answer.

His issue was some pupils might not try to answer because it is easier to mindlessly copy than think hard.

Around the same time Tabitha McIntosh began a revealing and thought provoking discussion around cold calling with this tweet.

Both contributions were important and helpful.

Adam and Tabitha have good grounds for anxiety – I can very well visualise both my suggested strategy and cold calling going very wrong.

Imagine a hypothetical lesson which begins with pupils completing a Do Now. The teacher tells children if they don’t know they are to copy the question. Imagine the class is a top set with a large proportion of highly motivated perfectionists who know the teacher will go through the answers. Almost all copy without thinking for themselves. They want to be right and they want their books to look perfect. To them putting down anything they are uncertain about just doesn’t seem worth the risk – especially if it means crossing out. Plenty of children in this class know the right answer but don’t try to remember, which means they don’t get the benefit of retrieval or the testing effect.

It’s even easier to envisage a scenario in which cold calling could go really wrong. I’m picturing a class in which there are complex and troubling relationships between children and there have been many historic instances of cruelty and even bullying. I’m imagining a poor child being called upon for an answer and their horrified crawling hot blush as they go blank at badly suppressed sniggers behind them.

In this instance the teacher certainly should not have cold called.

Any strategy can be the wrong strategy.

When the wrong strategy is deployed issues often emanate from a lack of thought – sometimes the lack of capacity to think – about why it has been selected in the first place and what conditions need to be in place for it to be effective.  

In both strategies I’ve described the purpose is to raise ratio and maximise the chances all children doing the thinking rather than just a handful.

If this is not achieved by copying the question or cold-calling then the strategy has failed regardless of how successful this strategy might have been in other places and at other times.

Aping practices without fully understanding the purpose of them is at best risky – it’s like an untrained cook throwing disparate and uncomplimentary ingredients into a stew because they know that these are tasty things in themselves. It might not be noticeable (bay leaves), might result in an accidental culinary miracle (peanut butter and chocolate), or it might produce something inedible (chopped apple in school dinner curry).

It’s why a skilled teacher, like an experienced chef, is able to switch ingredients when the first choice isn’t available and still produce something good to eat – as Mark Enser points out in this post, reasons and thought structures behind strategy matter more than the specific strategy itself. If a chef knows they are looking for something sour they know they can replace tamarind with vinegar, just as teacher could replace cold calling with mini whiteboards if the class have a poor culture for error.

There are further complexities too.

Nobody likes to accept a compromise – I even wrote a blog post about them which appropriately nobody read. But as much as we may hate to do it, a middle ground has to be found. Both the imaginary scenarios I described earlier in this post were extremes and rare in real life. A combination of both classes is more realistic and this makes things even more difficult – the teacher cannot make decisions with any one pupil in mind – they must choose a best bet compromise that might not actually be the best thing for lots and lots of children in the class and they must often make decisions in the absence of important information.

Such is the life of a teacher.

If this is challenging for experienced teachers it can seem ridiculously so for trainees and teachers in the early years of their career. Every seemingly simple magic bullet ‘top tip’ comes in an invisible cloud of ‘buts,’ ‘make sures’ and ‘only ifs’. The end result of such an approach would be saying that because not everything works everywhere we shouldn’t advocate for anything – we’d condemn our least experienced teaches to invent effective teaching all on their own – a journey which takes decades and has an appalling attrition rate.

The answer must be to share ideas and strategies that do work and then find ways to unpick and understand the structures beneath them so when they are effective we know why, and when they are not effective we know why too, or at the least know the questions to ask.

To do this we need to be Adam and Tabitha.

We need to be open about our concerns even (especially) when it feels as if they’ve become uncontested pedagogical canon. Whether it’s copying questions in a do now, cold calling, retrieval practise, dual coding or anything else we have to stop to think about what we hope to achieve, what context we need for this strategy to be successful and whether something else might do the job better.

And we have to start somewhere even when our starting point might actually be the wrong one.

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How I start a lesson

1. Before lesson begins, do now on board. PP, visualiser or handwritten on whiteboard. Doesn’t matter what as long as clear and appropriately pitched for hard thinking and a high success rate. Make sure everything you need for lesson is to hand. 

2. Stand on threshold with one foot in classroom and one in corridor so by turning your head you can see both. 

3. As children arrive tell them to stand behind chairs and get out exercise books and equipment and place on desk. Smile at them and greet. If anyone says something lovely like ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you’ make sure you respond effusively. 

3. Use some hammy Be Seen Looking to make sure children know you’re checking. Don’t be too fussed about quiet chat. The lesson has not begun yet and you don’t want to be unreasonable. 

4. When critical mass has arrived (approx. 80%) Move into classroom and stand in centre. Tell them directly to ‘stop talking’ and to look at you. 

5. Front Load Means of Participation. “When I say ‘go’ sit down, write date and title and begin the do now. You don’t need to write in full sentences. If you don’t know the answer copy the question”. 

5a. Copying question if don’t know is VERY important. It means that you can work out the difference between ‘don’t know’ and ‘cant be bothered’ as copying the question takes longer than writing an answer.
Also it means when you do go through answers notes are coherent. 

6. “Does anyone not know what to do when I say ‘go?” “Marcel can you tell is what you’re going to do when I say ‘go?’ 

7. “3, 2, 1 go!” Now start the timer. Show the time to brighten lines and create urgency. 

8. Take Pastore’s Perch. Narrate positive. “Super! Half of you are writing already! Now three quarters..”
Then anonymous individual correction.
“Just waiting for four people.. three.. just one.”
For the last few use The Look. 

9. All settled? Take the register. Say good morning/afternoon to everyone and if they say it back say it to you at their name say it as if you are DELIGHTED. (Of course you are) 

10. Once register is all wrapped up more Be Seen Looking. Circulate if you can and have a look at what success rate looks like. 

11. BEEP BEEP! Timer is up. Frontload MoP again. “I’m going to write the answers up now. If you got it right tick, if wrong don’t worry. This is a quiz not a test. Just cross out and write the right one in. If you wrote nothing write the answer under where you copied it.” 

12. Check for understanding again. “When I start putting answers up what will you do? (Pause) Dani can you tell us please?” 

13. Go through the answers. At the end of each one ask ‘did anyone get anything I didn’t that you think I missed?’ (Miss stuff deliberately to raise ratio) 

14. “OK hands up if you got at least one right. Well done! Keep it up if you got two, three, four.. full marks! Super!” 

15.  Brighten lines and front load MoP for next task.

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Teach them the moves

Years ago I saw a ‘documentary’ about a lottery winner spending his millions trying to be a pop star. He hired vocal coaches, stylists, songwriters and promoters and then a camera crew followed him to film the ensuing car crash.  

It was all very sad – although the camera never caught any specific instances I felt like the professionals he’d hired were laughing at him behind his back – something knowing and unpleasant lurked in their sychophantic eyes and smiles. It was a salutary lesson on how much money can’t buy. He seemed unhappy throughout – I suspect he knew he was on a hiding to nothing but was so committed it was harder to pull out than to keep going.

The most uncomfortable part was a bit when he was working with a choreographer, trying to work out a dance routine to go on the video for his single. What he really wanted were specific steps – or ‘some moves’ as he described them.

The choreographer did not want to do this. He said it didn’t work like that and – in a particularly excruciating sequence – tried to get the newly minted millionaire to ‘feel the music’, ‘move with the beat’ and ‘improvise.’

I wish I could see unsee it.

I think the choreographer got this wrong. I hope it was that and not just cruelty. I imagine because he was a skilled dancer himself and used to working with experts he hadn’t understood how impossible this was for his novice student.

Teacher training and development, particularly of early years teachers, should give teachers ‘moves’ – specific things that lead to order and calm even if the reasons behind these things are not understood by those deploying them to begin with. Examples of this might be Doug Lemov’s ‘be seen looking’ or ‘cold calling.’ It might mean a trainee teacher using Wrexler’s ‘because, but, so’ even if they don’t really know why this is often effective.

I can hear the howls of indignation. I am tempted to join in myself. Isn’t this the epitome of cargo cultism? Aren’t I specifically advocating for brainless implementation and the damage it continues to do to schools and learning?

I quite agree this is unsatisfactory and if it were the end point it would be unforgivably so.

Teachers who implement strategies without knowing the reasons for them will never see the full benefit. Their pupils will not learn as quickly as they should. The history of education in England from Blooms to WALT and WILF, from Growth Mindset to metacognitive strategies, is littered with the green-bin rubbish of reasonable ideas pulled uncritically from the gardens they grew in.

Action without thought would be totally unacceptable for any teacher if there was a better alternative. But in many contexts I am not sure there is. Teachers are increasingly trained on the job and even those who have had PGCEs or excellent initial teacher training of other types can’t be expected to understand the reasons behind everything teachers do all at once. It takes time and will take longer if they are at all at sea in their classrooms not knowing what on earth to do because nobody has told them how to start a lesson off or the best way to ask children questions. This is something – incidentally – that was well understood by Florence Nightingale who had little time for germ theory. Her point was that whether or not it was true it did not add anything to the work of her nurses. They knew keeping things clean reduced infection and – for the situation they were in – that was quite enough.

In an ideal world – of course – training would allow lots of time for the sort of thinking that gives meaning to action.

But we do not live in this ideal world and we gain nothing by pretending we do. Those responsible for teacher development must be realists and must not allow teachers to face a class with nothing in their armoury.

I may be accused of erecting a straw man. I really hope I have but I am pretty sure I haven’t. I acutely remember standing in front of a class watching them talk and talk and talk, desperate hot and prickly, absolutely no idea as to how to stop them, dreading teaching the group once the timetable rolled back onto them again. This went on for years with some classes because while I got lots of training on thinky things like assessment for learning I got precious little on specific things I should do in a lesson. Most of what I did learn I picked up watching others and then trial and error.

It does not have to be this way. Nobody must be the tragic millionaire swaying awkwardly in front of a mocking audience. While it is important teachers understand the purpose behind what works they shouldn’t be left all alone before they do. By all means, use strategies such the ones identified and explained in this excellent blog post by Adam Boxer to make the transition between doing and understanding faster, but don’t expect novice teachers to develop this understanding quickly all at once.

And until they do for goodness sake teach them the moves.

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Leave her at the hospital

He is a good old boy.

What might once have been called a gentleman farmer. Ruddy cheeked, brusque and jolly in tweed and a flat cap. Part of the hunting set.

He has had a good day. The weather’s been fine. The guns have shot well. There’s a nip of whiskey on his breath as he leans to my ear in a kitchen packed full of men and dogs and the smell of the outdoors.

“I told her to leave her at the hospital and forget about her.” He says. He looks me in the eye. “I’m ashamed I said that.”

Although I don’t know him very well, he doesn’t look like the sort of man to which shame comes often. He has an air of thrusting confidence.

But I believe him. The way he fixes my eye makes this moment intense and the deliberate way he says ‘ashamed’ makes me sure he is telling the truth.

“I told her to leave her. To have another one and forget about her. It’s what everyone said then. It’s what you were supposed to do. She didn’t listen and now..” He breaks off and for a heartbeat I think he will cry. He does not and carries on. “I’m glad she didn’t listen. She’s a wonderful girl. Like other little girls. My granddaughter. She lives in Canada now but we visit all the time.” He pulls a phone from his pocket and shows me photos of a beautiful four-year-old on a beach, in a park, with her family.

A beautiful four-year-old with Downs Syndrome.

I don’t think this man knew he was making a confession or that he was in small way trying to atone. But I think it was what he was doing. He was also – of course – offering me kindness in the early months after our own daughter was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome. Trying to comfort me. Telling me things would be OK.

This sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

More now as the curriculum I’ve written and the website I’ve created goes out into the wild and begin to connect with people. What was once a trickle is becoming something of a flood. People stop me on corridors and send me emails. I get messages from the website and Twitter DMs.

As hard as they are to hear receiving these stories is an honour.

Whispers that rhyme with whispers I’ve heard before.

“They made us send him away.”

Nobody wanted to talk to us about it.”

“He’s embarrassed to tell anyone.”

“We couldn’t visit her.”              

“They just carried on around him like he wasn’t there.”

“They made us do it.”

“I feel ashamed, angry, bitter.”

Tales of love and loss. Of people who have loved and still love people with learning disabilities fooled into acting against their human instincts by tricksy words and sighs and meaningless platitudes like “it’s the best thing, it’s all for the best, move on, have another.” People who did what they were told was right but knew was wrong. People who hurt themselves by doing what everyone said they should do. People who were told not to love their own children.

The people who confess to me are confessing sins that are not theirs but have scarred deeply nonetheless.

There is something in our own humanity which knows all of us are sacred but we often struggle to find words to explain the reasons. Because we lack the words to defend people with learning disabilities awful things happen and it is because we know how wrong these things are that the horrors – whether this is T4 in Germany or the death rate from Covid-19 – disgust and appal us.

Our passions will not bend to our reasons.

We may think we have succeeded for a while with our clever thoughts and words but the illusion can’t hold for long. Soon the smoke evaporates and the mirrors crack, and when the damage is revealed it is too late to do anything but live with a pain that drips down through generations.

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The compromise classroom

Traffic laws, conventions and regulations do not perfectly suit many people. There are some excellent drivers who could safely exceed the speed limit on motorways. There are some drivers who have slower than average reaction times for whom even sixty miles per hour is much too fast. In the middle of the night there really is no reason why motorists could not safely park on double-yellow lines in some areas.

The laws, conventions and regulations we have are best-fit compromises – inevitably imperfect for an imperfect world in which there are a near-infinite number of interested parties with often conflicting aims.

We all understand and accept it has to be this way. The alternative – to personalise traffic laws to every motorist’s individual context – would be preposterously complicated and chaotic – worse for everyone overall.

We are not as good as accepting this about education despite the problem being effectively the same.

If we were to set up education to meet the individual learning needs of each child what we’d come up with probably wouldn’t look much like schools today. It might involve highly trained personal tutors for every child or at least for small groups of similar children. Teaching might start and finish later than most schools do today. It could mean no formal grades at all at any point.

Such an uncompromising approach to education – or a different one looking entirely different might – or indeed might not – increase overall learning.

It would also be incredibly expensive with the country having less money to spend on health or pensions. It would probably be a tough political sell and a party proposing it likely to be heavily defeated at its next election. It might pose serious childcare issues for families. It might also mean destinations using less transparent and more mysterious criteria than exam grades to make decisions about who to admit.

This is not comfortable. Nobody likes to compromise or even consider compromise about things we care a lot about. Doing so can feel like a moral failure and an admission of defeat. And most of us don’t have to do it. When we are responsible for only part and not the whole of the puzzle we have the luxury of not considering the trade-offs and can safely argue we want more or less of something without thinking about what the impact of this would be on other things. We can argue for exponential increases in school budgets without having to propose where proportionate cuts should be made. We could make a case for schools staying open late into the evening without worrying about how pupils will get home.

Others – those responsible for putting all the pieces together – do not have the luxury of such moral purity. These people make choices knowing in a world that’s never zero sum, advantaging one individual or group disadvantages others, and the relative merits of each proposed strategy or policy must be carefully and dispassionately assessed. This can be very unpleasant and disturbing work but it has to be done because not doing it means making huge life-changing decisions on whims without oversight, which sadly but inevitably often ends up damaging the most vulnerable in society most of all.

This is – of course – not to say bets are always right or those responsible for making them are always the right people. Very often they are not and often the consequences of the wrong bet can be catastrophic. My recent interest in the history of people with learning disabilities has provided me with many awful case studies of this – but doing better cannot mean thinking about the wider consequences of our decisions less.

All of this is as true for classroom teachers as it is for high falutin’ decision makers. What is best for a whole class may not be best for any of the individuals in it. The way children prefer to read is a good example – some individuals may like to read on a beanbag while listening to music while others may like to sit at a desk in silence. Both children cannot get their preference in the same classroom without making other adaptations that create further complexities. The teacher has to make a decision which will be a compromise which recognises many interlocking and moving parts and might not give any one person exactly what they want.

This is not to go as far as saying there is no place for very radical proposals. To say so would be to place blind trust in authority it can never be deserving of and precludes the possibility of paradigm changes from which huge numbers of people benefit. Those those making cases for dramatic change must also account for all the wide-ranging consequences of them and pre-emptively find ways to mitigate against the worst while allowing room to adapt to the inevitable unexpected.

Whether it’s ending exams forever, individually personalising learning or reducing holidays those advocating the idea must also have ideas about all the things that happen because of their decision and not just the good bits they’re excited about. They must understand all big decisions have losers as well as winners and they must be willing to speak calmly and rationally with those who will be negatively affected. They must recognise not doing this and making out their idea is a sort of panacea is at best disingenuous.

If we want thinking and conversations about change to lead to actual meaningful change we must have them in the context of the world we live in and avoid utopian pontificating – interesting in the pub on a Friday night but no good at all in a meeting on Monday morning.

Failing to do this isn’t bravery or conviction. It is wilful ignorance.

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