Kalkidan and the Demographic Transition Model: Diverse Curriculum Part 2.

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The first day I met her, Kalkidan told me she wanted to be an astrophysicist.

“Where I come from, my village,” she said, “there is no light at night. So when it is dark you see the stars very well. When I was very young, even before I knew what a star was, I used to wonder if people lived up in the sky. So when I moved to my school in the city, when I found what an astrophysicist did, I always wanted to do that. Now I know people do not live in the sky but I still want to know what is up there, so I still want to be an astrophysicist.”

Kalkidan was a scholarship student at the British International School in Addis Ababa while I worked there, with her fees paid by the embassy because she scored highly on her end of primary Ethiopian National Examinations.

I taught her geography in Grade 10, in a mixed class of Ethiopian scholarship students and international children whose parents paid full fees. It was an odd mix, with the Ethiopian pupils tending to be brighter but not as confident or forthcoming as the others.

We followed an IGCSE course, made even more fascinating by the blend of nationalities and hugely different contexts from which the children came.

I have a very strong memory of Kalkidan from a lesson in which I was teaching the class about the Demographic Transition Model, specifically about Stage 3, in which the population increases rapidly due to a high birth rate and a falling death rate. This was the stage in which Ethiopia sat, which made discussions around this especially interesting.

The international pupils were quick to jump in and offer their opinions. This was a big problem for Ethiopia, they argued, and that it was very important that the government educated people so they stopped having so many children. Some expressed baffled exasperation at why women would have so many children while in poverty and lacking the means to educate or perhaps even feed them. “They need education” was said, in different ways, again and again.

Until Kalikdan couldn’t take any more.

“You do not understand.” She said to the class. “You don’t understand at all. You don’t understand with your mobile phones and your trips to the cinema and your restaurants to go to, and your universities and your flights for holidays and your new clothes.

I am one of nine. My mother lives in a village with no school, or shop, or café or anything. We are all she has. She doesn’t have anything you have. We are all she has that brings her happiness. And you all say she is stupid for having so many children, me, my sisters and my brothers. And you don’t understand at all.”

There was a long, long silence. And because the class was full of nice children, someone apologised and then so did someone else, and I said what a good point it was. And when it was time for the assessments every child in the class wrote something influenced about what Kalidan had taught them, arguing that as well as education governments needed also provide more opportunity and infrastructure for the people living in the least developed areas.

What Kalkidan taught everyone was an important piece of knowledge, a piece of the jigsaw without which there the picture cannot be complete. And also a piece of knowledge we would never have got had Kalkidon not been in the class, because the people who write examination specifications and textbooks do not have mothers who live in villages with no mains power or running water.

This was my fault. The class was entitled to a teacher who did know all the reasons for high birth rates. I shouldn’t have assumed what was in the textbook was enough. I should have looked harder.

This is why I think that creating and developing a truly knowledge rich curriculum means proactively looking for knowledge from a wide range of places, and never being complacent enough to believe that we already know everything worth knowing about what we teach.

This is, of course, very tricky and there are many ways to get it wrong.

I really think we must avoid reductive ‘identity curriculum’, in which what we choose to teach operates on a sort of quota, with certain percentages allocated to ‘black’, ‘Asian’, or ‘white working class’ groups because this is a recipe for hotchpotch tokenism and incoherence, where content ends up being awkwardly shoe-horned in where it doesn’t really fit.

But equally I think we are right to be uneasy if we look over our curriculum and see that all the knowledge comes from the same places, not because there is anything necessarily wrong or incorrect about the material in itself, but because it is very unlikely that this is really representative of the domain in its fullest sense; our disciplines evolve and change all the time and our teaching needs to reflect this. For example, while it may once have been acceptable to teach the abolition of slavery by covering only the work of Wedgewood and friends, this would not now be satisfactory because more recent scholarship has effectively emphasised the role of the black abolitionists and the influence of slave revolts in the American South and the Caribbean.

Getting this right means actively seeking out perspectives different to our own not because of where they came or who said them, but because unless we do we risk oversimplification and myopia. Every one of us, whatever our background, is a product of our context and we can’t count on regular, serendipitous interventions from people like Kalikdan to nudge us closer to the truth. Indeed, it would be very unfair to even imply it is solely the responsibility of those with missing parts of the jigsaw to convince those putting together the puzzle that their piece deserves inclusion.

This is a shared responsibility in which we all have a duty to play our part.

This debate will function best and be most productive if all participants are proceed in good faith. Insults, accusations, rabble rousing and point scoring are the enemy if what we want to achieve is coherent curriculum that tells meaningful, important and disciplinarily authentic stories. We need to share our versions of truth based on the evidence of their significance and not because we think who makes them is self-evidently important and so above justification. We must explain what is obvious to us patiently to those to whom it makes no sense. We must be in rooms with people we feel we have little in common with and we would do well to remember that, whoever we are, the right to be heard is contingent on a responsibility to listen.

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Let us keep our schools safe.

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Anybody who works in a school will tell you one of the most upsetting things that can happen is a child you care about suddenly and unexpectedly rounding on you with something vicious and deliberately calculated to hurt. This might be a comment like “nobody ever learns anything in your lesson”, or “you know nobody in this school likes you?”

It feels like being slapped in the face. It can make you suddenly short of breath or bring the pinprick pain of bitter tears. In that instant we forget all the wonderful things children say (often by the same child who has just insulted us) and feel weak, degraded and unappreciated.

But we get on. We calmly give the appropriate punishment. We take our deep breaths. We think about something happier. We run it off after school and remind ourselves that the child who has hurt us is a child who isn’t yet capable of understanding everything we’ve done and will continue to do for them.

It’s hard but we do it. Because we have to and because it is the right thing to do.

Following days of politician and commentator moral pontification about how school exclusion rates are driving gang culture and associated knife crime I’m feeling something of the same emotion. I, like thousands and thousands of school staff, from cleaners to Head teachers, from TAs to governors, feel so very, very unfairly under attack.

Of course we all know it to be utter nonsense. We went to schools and paid attention before we worked in them. We understand the difference between correlation and causation. We understand how to interpret statistics properly. We’ve been in the fraught behaviour meetings. We’ve been to the courts. We’ve been on the phone to overstretched social services and the police, and CAHMS, and educational psychologists. We’ve made the plans and revised the plans and made more plans and revised them again. We’ve woken in the small hours and worried. We’ve been in the pub with our friends and family on a Friday night and suddenly gone quiet as we tune out, because a situation has suddenly exploded to the forefront of our minds like a malevolent jack-in-the-box. We’ve taken the calls from concerned parents and from others in the community. Our minds have turned over worst case scenarios if we get a decision wrong, we hear the insistent and insidious whisper of ‘what if.. what if.. what if..”

We know all this and we don’t complain because we don’t have time to and because the stripping away of social support over the last few years doesn’t change the fact that we stand on the front line and, come what may, have children to keep safe and educate.

And we do all this and we don’t complain and yet we are under attack.

We are attacked because by making the agonising decision to exclude a dangerous child we are now told we make society less safe. We are told that we are the reason that children join gangs. We are told that we are the reason that children attack each other. We are told that we are the reason that those we care most about are at risk of prison, injury or death.

Oh and how it hurts.

It hurts all the more because these attacks are coming from those who should be defending us – the same political parties that expect us to raise standards and drive social mobility now tell us that we should not be able to make the decisions that keep our schools safe. They indulge and parrot lazy assumptions that just aren’t true; that we systematically off-roll children just because they won’t get good exam results, and that we expel children for not having equipment or for not knowing Shakespeare.

They take England’s most worrying social problems, they gather them up, they roll them all together and then they flytip them outside the gates of our schools. Then they have the gall to wring their hands about how we can’t find or keep teachers.

Do they actually think we are to blame? Really? Or do they know we aren’t but see the opportunity to score political points by attacking those they think won’t fight back? It is impossible to say which of these possibilities is the more frightening.

None of this will keep me up at night though. I can shake this off. What will is the possibility that the narrative that school exclusions drive crime will be accepted, and decisions will be made that mean we can’t do what we need to do ensure the safety of the schools in which we work.

What keeps me up is the fear that our ability to keep our wonderful safe and happy school will be eroded by stupid, dumb and dangerous politicking. And I care far too much to stand for it.

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Can we debate curriculum diversity politely? (Please)

seacole

It is the 3rd March 2019.

I declare the Great Pedagogical War over.

‘What’ has beaten ‘how’.

While, like Japanese soldiers fighting in the jungle long after the end of World War Two, there are some consultants, teachers and schools still preoccupied with delivery they are isolated now, vanishingly irrelevant and will soon be pushed into the void.

The new debate will be over what exactly pupils should be taught in their schools.

This will be more acute in some subjects than in others. It is unlikely to be particularly contentious in maths and science because in these subjects what pupils should learn is more established than in others, particularly history where discussions are likely to be fraught and potentially antagonistic.

As uncomfortable as this may get it is the right time to be having the conversation. The emphasis of Ofsted’s new framework on curriculum intent means that MATS, schools and teachers are now thinking hard about what they are trying to achieve and what exactly pupils need to know to get there. Curriculums are being strengthened and rewritten from scratch with those responsible for them thinking hard about the very point of what they teach.

Thank goodness, saying ‘to get good exam results’ is no longer a satisfactory answer. Deeper, more profound questions need to be considered and answered. What is the purpose of the curriculum? What will be in it? How has the content of the curriculum been decided upon? Who makes decisions about what pupils should learn? How is curriculum Quality Assured? What processes exist to critique and revise the curriculum?

In these questions lie the seeds of irresponsible attack and unhelpful defensiveness. I think we’re beginning to see this already; accusations of racism, white supremacist views (albeit framed differently to the culturally dominant definition) and propaganda flew around twitter this weekend.

Those concerned about curriculum content, whatever the reason, have the right and responsibility to have their say, but I worry that some of what I’ve seen is based upon assumptions that are often not true.

For example, an argument I’ve heard made recently is that many history curriculums are racist because they teach that the abolition of slavery was solely the result of white abolitionists. Well, quite. But I haven’t come across a curriculum that actually does teach this. At my MAT, the abolition of slavery part of the curriculum contains the work of both white and black abolitionists, economic arguments influenced by Marxist historians, the influence of rebellions in the southern states and Caribbean countries and an examination of the reasons for changing scholarly debates and why these are particularly contentious. My understanding is that this, based on scholarship, has been the most common approach for quite a long time, although I am of course quite happy to be pointed towards evidence that shows I’ve got this wrong.

I wonder this sort of thing happens because some of those concerned about the content of the history curriculum have assumed that pupils are learning what I call The National Myth. This misunderstanding would be understandable, given that such narrative are often culturally dominant.

In this wrongheaded conception of history, Britain alone won World War Two, Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints, and there is serious debate over whether humans have ever been to the moon. That all of this is nonsense doesn’t make any of this fluff go away, and as I argued here a core purpose of history in schools should be to act as the Ghost at the Feast and fight such dangerous, inaccurate generalisations.

History teachers are allies here, not the enemy, and rather than call them to task over strawmen, it would be more productive to amplify their voices so that what they teach is better able to challenge the inaccuracies that infuriate us all.

None of this is to say that every history curriculum gets everything right. I think there is indeed a very important conversation to be had around how these are created and who creates them. But for this to happen properly it is just as important that challenge and debate happen in a constructive, collegiate and civil manner. Nobody wants topics or themes to be crudely shoe-horned into learning sequences just to tick a box or meet an arbitrary quota.

This is what went wrong with the way in which Mary Seacole was included on many curriculums in the past, where I’ve seen her thoughtlessly plopped in next to Florence Nightingale, her contributions to nursing and doctoring made to compete celebrity death-match style against those of her more famous contemporary in questions focused on medical significance in which she inevitably came off worse. In order to compensate, I think, I’ve also seen curriculum use the shade thrown by Nightingale at Seacole during the Crimean war to give the death-match an unhelpfully presentist moralistic element. A common, infuriating conclusion reached by pupils ended up being along the lines of, ‘Nightingale more significant but EVIL.’ I think this happened because while Seacole is absolutely worthy of including on a curriculum, not enough thought was given to why. In our curriculum Mary Seacole is included, along with the inherent interest found in any extraordinary life, to show how attitudes towards race and ethnicity are complex and have changed. We teach the importance of her work at the time, that when she returned from the Crimea a huge benefit concert was arranged for her by grateful ex-patients. We teach that her fame faded over time because far less was written about her than Florence Nightingale by historians until a comparatively recent rediscovery, while considering the possible reasons for this. This fits in with the ‘evolution or revolution’ theme of the unit of work, which examines the type and speed of social changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This hasn’t been easy and while confident I’ve put hard thought into getting this right, I’m just as sure there will be some certain I’ve got it wrong. And this is the point. Doing anything properly takes time and careful and sustained thought, and even then it isn’t at all clear that there will be a consensus on how successful curriculum planning has been.

I would go further and accept the likelihood there are themes, events, personalities and interpretations that perhaps should be on the curriculum I planned but aren’t simply because I am either unaware of them at all, or unaware of scholarship that makes them more significant than I thought them to be. Although I am a voracious and curious reader I am very busy, and a part of my own context as much as anyone else. Sometimes things that seem obvious to others are less obvious to me. I want this debate to happen over the specific not the generic. Less “you need more Indian history on your curriculum right now” and more “have you ever thought of including the Black Hole of Calcutta on your curriculum as part of a unit on Britain’s control of India?” Suggestions on history articles, books, exhibitions or new discoveries that challenge existing orthodoxies, the lifeblood of history, are even more welcome.

We do need to have this conversation, we really do. But this is a big, big debate which might involv deep structural changes (or not) for many history curriculums. Erecting strawmen won’t help. Nor will blunderbuss non-specific accusations of white supremacy or racism. Nor will defensiveness from curriculum planners when faced with legitimate challenge.

Collegiality and generous application of the Charity Principle will help. All of us want the best curriculums for our pupils, as we define them, and to say otherwise is at best unhelpful and at worst very disingenuous.

We’ve just finished one war. Let’s not begin another.

If we are to take best advantage of a welcome focus on ‘what’ over ‘how’, we must work together.

(Note: In an earlier version of this blog I wrote that the content of MFL was not particularly contentious. It’s been pointed out to me this isn’t true. I’ve edited. Please excuse my ignorance and thanks to those who patiently pointed me towards a debate I was unaware of.)

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Teach what’s important

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A year or so ago I wrote this blog post on “Ten Principles for Great Explicit Teaching”. It was a popular post, with Oliver Caviglioli kind enough to turn it into a poster which I’m vain enough to have printed out and pinned to a wall in my office.

Explaining things is something I’m always trying to improve at and while I think I’m steadily getting better, I’m even more certain there’s a great deal more for me to learn.

So I keep tinkering.

A big change for me moving schools was adapting to a context in which poor behaviour in lessons is genuinely rare. By this I do not mean ‘well behaved’ as in ‘quiet’, but wholehearted commitment to listening, completing tasks and answering questions.

This means that it is possible to talk to classes for long lengths of time and I, as will surprise nobody who knows me, have enjoyed this.

Perhaps a little too much.

I’ve noticed a lot of what I say is actually designed primarily to grab the attention of children, because I’m used to them switching off unless they are periodically jolted by something very obviously shocking, emotional or provocative. This might mean spending ages being the berserker on Stamford Bridge, or telling classes about Franz Ferdinand ‘s apparently cursed car, or relating a ghost story about a girl who died of the Plague in York. While I’ve always made sure what I talked about was linked to the subject of my lesson, it would be a stretch to claim these links were always strong enough to justify inclusion based on what I really wanted pupils to remember. I don’t completely blame myself for this. When I’ve worked in places without clear and functional behaviour systems in which there was little support for removing a child for poor behaviour, such strategies were necessary survival tactics.

Whereas in the past I felt I had no choice, delivering a gratuitously shocking explanation now leaves me feeling cheap and a bit ashamed of myself, and I’m now considering very carefully as to how I can make all my explanations useful and purposeful as well as entertaining.

Some of you are rolling your eyes now and – quite understandably – thinking “oh for goodness sake get that stick out of your arse.”

I get this but also think it wrong nonetheless.

Pupils often find stories fascinating because the events in them are decontextualised. For example, a child may love a story of two gladiators fighting to the death because this is so utterly alien to the society they live in that it feels like fantasy. Their response is an entirely emotional and not a historical one. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t teach about gladiators but the sweat, blood and guts shouldn’t be obsessed over simply because children like gore, just as we shouldn’t explain the events of the Children’s Crusade as if those who took part in it were somehow stupid or mad in the modern sense.

It is these stories that have in the past made me feel most tawdry, almost as if I’d betrayed the people I was teaching about.

Another problem with telling stories purely to get attention is that many of the stories turn out to be at best of dubious provenance and at worse, plainly not true. The story of Franz Ferdinand’s car is a very good example of this; while initially the idea of the vehicle being somehow cursed is a compelling one, it doesn’t take much research or common sense to work out that many of the details are exaggerated or just far too coincidental to be significant There are a thousand stories like this, from the obscure but fascinating (Monkey Hangers of Hartlepool) to those that have come to be accepted as canonical truth by wider society (Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh’s cloak) but almost certainly never happened.

But they are undoubtedly fascinating stories and surely they can’t do much harm?

I think they can.

We have so little time and so much to cover – I wouldn’t be surprised to be told there’d been a history book written on every single element of our extensive curriculum. There really is so much to get through there just isn’t time for superfluous elaboration. This is even more of an issue for those of us influenced by Nuthall’s “The Hidden Lives of Learners” which offers the hypothesis that we need to expose pupils to everything we want them to remember three times.

If we aren’t disciplined in giving explanations it can be all too easy to lose the thread and end up nowhere at all. While pupils may have been thrilled, entertained, disgusted or horrified by what we’ve told them, if it isn’t connected to what we want them to know it’s unlikely they’ll retain what, in a quieter calmer time, we know they need to remember.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t tell entertaining stories or explain things passionately. But we do need to be sure what we are saying has deep purpose. I’m working hard at this at the moment, looking carefully through my booklets before lessons and deciding exactly what analogies I’ll draw and which stories I’ll tell, and being strict with myself to make sure I know why.

I’ve had to kill some of my babies, which is sad. But as I’ve done it I’ve reminded myself I’m not a clown, stand-up comedian or circus entertainer. My pupils have so little time and so much they have to learn, and I care about them too much to waste their time now there’s no reason to.

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Why teach?

1 consequence

It feels as if we are finding this question harder and harder to answer. Year on year we fail to hit teacher training recruitment targets and lose more and more teachers to private family lives and other professions.

As the number of children in our schools rises, alarm may be turning into panic.

There are, of course, many reasons for this. The familiar culprits of poor behaviour, crude accountability measures, falling wages and inflexible working conditions have probably all played a part.

But there are more fundamental, existentialist questions to answer too. This talk will outline four common consequentialist justifications for teaching as a profession, explore their flaws and limitations, then aim to explain why, irrespective of all these, teaching is still profoundly moral and worthwhile.

2 Equal

Fifteen years ago part of the way in which I was drawn into teaching was a lie.

I was told, and believed, that because teachers were directly responsible for the grades their pupils got in public examinations, good teachers working in poor areas were helping redress societal inequality. The argument went that better teaching in poorer areas led to better grades for poorer children, which led to them going to better universities, which meant they got better jobs and then earned more money.

The outcome of my work would be that poorer children became richer adults and that, gradually but inexorably, I was helping construct a true meritocracy.

This argument, particularly attractive to the young who want to change the world, has not gone away.

Well-meaning teacher training programmes, particularly those working in areas of disadvantage, still use the gap between the richer and poorer sections of society as a way of signing up new recruits. We see this in adverts in which poor pupils talk enthusiastically about the impact a teacher made in setting them on the way to high-flying, influential careers and we see it when England’s Department of Education proudly crows the narrowing of attainment gaps between poorer and richer children.

Such messages are compelling. Most of us want to feel our lives have mattered. Righting the wrongs of life’s injustices seems a noble way to live and find meaning.

The problem is that, while there will always be examples that stand out as exceptions, we have little evidence that the gap between rich and poor people in Britain has narrowed or will narrow in the future. Much evidence actually suggests the opposite. If we accept this, and persist in believing the main reason for public education and teaching is to narrow differences in wealth, then we must accept that we have failed in the past, are failing now, and in all likelihood will continue to fail in the future. Recent surveys suggest that our younger generations are quite aware of this and increasingly cynical (or actually realistic?) about the idea of social mobility.

This should not come as much of a shock given the nature of our mostly cohort referenced public examination system, which effectively caps the number of top grades that can be achieved each year based on attainment in tests children take at ten or eleven. Everyone involved in the care of a child, and of course the child itself, is incentivised to use every advantage they have to outcompete other children of the same age. Those with more advantage will usually outcompete those with less, and go on to more prestigious university courses and better paid careers. If the whole cohort improves, then those in a position to do so will make sure the children they care about will improve more than others. Once again, it is the most advantaged who are in the best position to do this. While it might be a stretch to say things have been set up this way deliberately the effect is the same, as divisions in educational attainment are maintained or even widened.

Cohort referencing means we are being dishonest when we say to all our pupils “work hard and you will get a good grade”, because the limited number of each means that not everyone can. Those blessed with advantage be it affluence or higher intelligence are always likely to do better than those less fortunate. The worst consequence of all this might be that by tying the value of what we teach to a test score, we imply that those who do not get a high grade have been wasting their time. This is particularly alarming when we remind ourselves that the whole way examinations are set up makes it simply impossible for all pupils to reach the top of the ladder.

For some pupils to do better, others have to do worse.

The playing field is not level. If we teach to reduce social inequality then we are failures.

More evidence of this can be seen in admission figures to the best universities, which show that while more pupils overall are going on to university, there has been little if any improvement in the proportion of poorer young people going to Oxbridge and Russel Group institutions. This is important. While the number of high paid, prestigious jobs remain the same (and may even decline if our economy contracts after Brexit), then it would be entirely illogical to assume that the act of going to university, particularly if it is less prestigious, will lead to greater affluence.

Perhaps we could treat the justification of education as driving social mobility more seriously if those that made it had plans to make richer pupils perform worse in order to make space at life’s top table. This, of course and quite rightly for all sorts of reasons, is an absurd and silly suggestion. No sane government would ever introduce a law making it illegal for parents to pay for private tuition for their child, or banning them from reading to their children before bedtime to help them with literacy.

3 Happier

 

 

Even if we accept that our work does not narrow divisions it might still be possible to form an argument that it is a consequentially justified activity if we could prove that society in its entirety was becoming more educated as a result of our collective work.

Intellectually at least, this argument does carry some weight. While we should at least nod at the dangers of correlation-causation, educated societies do, on the whole, seem to be more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous. It is not a huge stretch to extend this to the belief that should we improve the overall level of education (effectively shoving the bell curve right), then the work of teachers would, overall, lead to the general betterment of society even if the divisions within it remain as acute as ever. This is a version of a classic capitalist argument, in its belief that competition between individuals and groups results in an overall improvement from which everyone, eventually, benefits even if inequalities are never ironed out.

To decide whether or not this works as a reason to teach we need to look at whether England is actually becoming more educated over time, then work out if this is because of schools, before considering whether or not any rise has increased general happiness.

David Didau, who tweets @DavidDidau, has done work on this. In a sequence of blog posts and in his new book, he has demonstrated that if we take IQ as a measure of intelligence, and I do realise this is disputed, then our children do, as a whole, seem to be getting cleverer.

The problem here is that it isn’t at all clear this has been the result of schooling. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is important to remember that children actually spend a very small proportion of their lives in lessons. It is just as likely that rises in IQ test scores, which assess ability to think in the abstract, are attributable to an increasingly complicated world that requires its inhabitants to think in an abstract fashion. This seems borne out by bigger increases in IQ scores in developing countries which are undergoing very rapid technological and industrial changes than in developed societies which went through these changes longer ago.  While David Didau has good reason to disagree with this, citing evidence which tracts differences in increases in IQ between pupils of different ages in the same year, I still don’t think there’s enough evidence for us to say with absolute confidence that England is becoming any better educated as a result of the work of its teachers. While there is evidence that IQ has risen over recent years, and while schools probably have contributed to this, the many societal changes that have happened in the same period means we cannot be sure that this has been only or perhaps even mainly the result of the work of schools. What’s more, depressingly and alarmingly, it appears that literacy and numeracy rates may now actually be declining. We are the only OECD country in which literacy levels of those aged between 16 and 24 are lower than those of aged 55 and over, which suggests our society may actually be becoming less rather than more educated.

It is at least possible that our recent preoccupation with examination outcomes as proxies of education may well have worsened the overall quality of education in England. Brutal, unsophisticated and high-stakes accountability incentivised schools to game play with low value qualifications and to teach to tests. What may have worked for individual schools may well have failed the collective if the overall aim was a better educated society. Encouragingly, it does seem that Ofsted, England’s school inspectorate, is acknowledging this as a risk with its latest framework, but it is far too early to tell how successful they are likely to be.

Even if we put all this aside and could prove that our children are getting cleverer, will continue to become cleverer and that this is because of our schools then it would still be impossible to say whether this has benefited society. This is because we can’t say whether people in the past were any happier than we are today. While we can make judgements based upon our own values, the inherent bias in making such judgements invalidates them. While we may look at the life of a medieval peasant and shudder their pain and suffering, our shudders are because we are imagining ourselves as them. What we fail to get is that if we were them we wouldn’t be us. We don’t know what it was like to be illiterate in a culture in which nearly everyone was. We don’t know what it was like to have a certainty of faith that meant we knew when we died our souls would still exist for eternity. This is not to say that men and women in the past were happier than us, but it does mean we just can’t make an accurate assessment as to whether or not being better educated, however we define this, leads to greater happiness.

So no. The argument that teaching leads to a more educated and therefore happier society is not one robust enough to use as a justification for why teachers do what they do.

4 Better

Some teachers believe the most important purpose of education is to make our world a morally better place. The argument goes that the world is unfair and that this unfairness is the result of flaws in the people who have constructed the societies in which they live. Children in school offer us a fresh start. If we can teach them to be less prejudiced, more honest and selfless, then the world they create when they grow up will be a better than the world we live in now. If we could eliminate negative influences then humans will not behave badly and the world will be better for everyone.

Alternatively, others claim that children are naturally selfish and will behave badly without corrective influences. They may argue that it is possible to create a better society by rewarding pupils for good behaviour and punishing them for bad. If we do this well then children will eventually internalise good values, which will lead to a better society.

There are lots of problems with both these approaches. The first of these is how we define what a ‘better’ society looks like. There is no consensus. For some people this might mean the withering away of the state and the final realisation of Marx’s communist dream. For others it may mean an orderly, traditional societal structure in which rigid hierarchies provide stability and security. If we cannot agree on the ideal society then it is impossible for us ever to achieve a result that satisfies everyone. One person’s dream is another’s dystopian nightmare. Those who do not understand this are naïve, dangerous ideologists or both. Teaching in a way designed to create a specific type of society means teaching children that those with alternative views are either misguided or wicked, which encourages narrow thinking and intolerance.

Even if we could all agree on what kind of society we want to create, there’s little reason to think schools could deliver it. In a typical year children spend only about 10% of their time in front of their teachers, meaning most of the time they are exposed to influences beyond the reach of their schools. This means that any child’s views are far more likely to be the result of their parents, friends and those they admire than they are the work of their teachers. While some countries, including Nazi Germany in the past and North Korea today, have tried hard to drastically increase the influence of schools to create the sort of society they deem desirable, most of us would not feel comfortable emulating their methods.

5 Productive

Every day in England, pupils interrupt their lessons to ask “why do we need to learn this?” What often follows is teachers parroting learned consequentialist justifications. In my subject, history, this might be a teacher saying “if you understand that people in the past had different views, then you’ll understand that people today have too any this will mean you get on with people better when you get a job.”  But trying to justify the content of our curriculum by its capacity for practical application is flawed. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy most of what is learned in school is not obviously useful in the wider world without making absurd leaps. This is something many of the pupils I have taught have been acutely aware of. While it can be amusing to try and construct contrived situations that justify the teaching of something pupils regard as obscure, for example, “if you become a baker and your till breaks and you have to work out how much Mrs Jones owes you and nobody has a calculator and there’s no way you’ll be able to get one then this algebra is going to come in really handy. If you remember it.”

Still worse, if we allow pupils to make this argument we suggest the only subjects which are important are those with a clear and direct link to practical tasks pupils might do in the future. While some might argue this is actually quite right, curriculum developed on this principle would be radically different to most of those we deliver in schools today. In with using Excel and developing a good phone voice! Out with Homer and the irrelevant Renaissance artists!

Do we really want our young people to learn only what is practically useful?

To me it is clear that no consequentialist argument is strong enough to work as a justification for educating our children. As much as we might want to, we cannot say ‘we teach children in schools so that X will happen’, because we can’t agree what we want, can’t prove anything we want to happen does, and even if we could all agree that a change that had happened was a desirable one it would be impossible to prove that this change was the result of the work of teachers.

For many of us, accepting this means facing something of an existentialist crisis.

If nothing good comes of our work then why bother doing it at all?

This story might be a helpful way of concentrating the argument.

Not very long ago I heard about a senior leader who had a meeting with a Teaching Assistant assigned to work with a pupil suffering from a progressive disease, which meant he used a wheelchair and was not expected to live beyond his early twenties. The meeting was called because there were concerns the pupil wasn’t getting proper support, with the TA often appearing to be disinterested and bored. In the meeting the assistant accepted she had not been effectively supporting the young person and told the leader that she would prefer to prepare small groups of gifted pupils for Oxford and Cambridge University. When the senior leader asked them why they didn’t want to work with the disabled pupil they’d been directed to help, they were horrified to hear the reply “it’s not like there’s any point. It’s not like he’s ever going to do anything.”

Never going to do anything.

Upsetting, no? But if we derive our sense of purpose as teachers from consequentialism is it really that shocking? Whatever grades the young man got, he almost certainly would not go to university. He was even less likely to ever have a job. His early death would mean that in the big scheme of things how well educated he ends up is irrelevant to the general education level of society. Lastly he would play no part in future society because he would not be part of it so, what does it matter whether or not school equips him with the personal qualities or skills needed to impact on the world?

If we accept consequentialism then there is no point in educating young people like him at all, which makes the Teaching Assistant right.

What nonsense.

She was wrong and we know it.

The story makes us uneasy because on a deeper, instinctive level we know that the value of education is not in any outcomes we hope will be a result of it.

Instead, the true value of education is in the inherent worth of what pupils learn and their entitlement to it regardless of anything that might or might not happen to them in the future.

While justifying education in this way may feel unfamiliar it is not actually new at all. Our obsession with consequentialism may actually be quite recent. For hundreds of years an important reason for education was because what was taught was believed to have great inherent value. Everything taught was a precious jewel to be passed down through the generations. This has perhaps been most famously expressed by poet and inspector of schools Matthew Arnold who wrote in 1869 that the purpose of education should be for young people to know ‘the best that has been thought and said’. Those tempted to dismiss this as the privileged witterings of a Victorian man with a Messiah complext may be interested to learn that precisely the same sentiment was expressed by his socialist contemporary Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in which he argued that:

6 Tressell

This offers us a way forward.

In making the point of what we do the value of what we teach our children, and letting go of the idea we need something else to happen as a result of it we can find real and robust purpose.

We cannot shake consequentialism completely. If we are to make the reason for what we do the things we teach we have to believe that the children we are responsible for will recognise that value of what they learn. While this is of course still consequentialist it is much less of a stretch than the belief that learning Hamlet will result in a measurable outcome in a completely different domain. It is far more realistic for a teacher to say “I hope that by learning Hamlet’s soliloquy pupils will see that people often struggle with feelings of pointlessness” than it is for them to say we teach Shakespeare because it will make them richer. We can have even more confidence in pupils recognising the inherent value of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ if what we teach has been recognised as of great worth by many people over a long period of time. This is why teaching children the Odyssey is better than teaching them Harry Potter or Holes. It is why we do pupils a disservice if we teach them the history of football instead of the Magna Carta. It is why a geography teacher is right to focus on glaciation and wrong to allow their pupils to spend valuable lesson time colouring in and labelling blank maps.

I think we should push past Arnold’s narrow view of what is considered academic in the strictest sense too, expanding ‘the best that has been thought and said’ to ‘the best that has been made, cooked, danced and so on’. Deciding whether pupils will learn to cook a Rogan Josh or a Chicken Tikka Masala, or whether a dovetail joint is a better use of time than a mortoise and tenon should be just as important as deciding whether or not pupils should learn about the Napoleonic wars. There will never be agreement, but the most important debates we have in schools should be over what exactly we should teach our children based on intrinsic and inherent worth. On a subject of such importance there will never be agreement, but these are the conversations we should be having. We should be arguing about whether we should include Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko on our curriculum. We should be should be arguing about exactly which gothic novel should be taught.

Schools should not adapt what pupils learn based on what we think they will be. Instead they should teach children to alter themselves in order to become part of something greater. We all have voices but we sing as part of a choir. Our curriculum should whisper to our children ‘you belong. You did not come from nowhere.  All this came before you.”

This, the antithesis to the way in which ‘child centred’ education has been understood and interpreted in many English schools in recent years, may sit uncomfortably with those who feel it should be teachers making changes in response to whoever they find in front of them. Those feeling uneasy might want to think about how transformative and liberating it is to utterly lose yourself in a mathematical equation, poem, painting or piece of music. Curriculum is a powerful alchemy which can take a person out of their own limited experience and connect them to something so much larger. This is the real treasure. To allow our pupils to do this we must first help them shake off the intrusive egos that push all of us into imposing ourselves on what we encounter whether in school or elsewhere.

This idea was developed in Simone Weil’s 1942 essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”, which expresses the view that the primary purpose of schools should be to teach pupils to pay proper attention to what they are taught. While she sees the ultimate purpose to be an increase in the capacity for prayer, we do not need to go this far to see better attention as a worthwhile end. If we teach pupils to see the value in subsuming their own egos and individual characteristics to what they are learning and free them from the oppressive belief that what they do in their classrooms is only worth the bother if they are materially rewarded for it, we create an inclusive sense of meaning achievable for everyone.

This provide schools and the teachers in them with a powerful sense of purpose that enables us to throw off the existentialist horror in realising that we cannot be sure anything we do ever leads to anything else. It also presents us with a great, grave responsibility. If none of our actions leads to the outcomes we once thought they did, and the only value of what we teach is in the intrinsic worth of the material itself, then what and how well we teach assumes immeasurable significance.

In this we are saved. We do not teach because by doing so we can eradicate the differences between rich and poor. We do not teach to educate society, or to create a better one. We do not educate our children so that they have ‘skills’ that will lead to them being more productive workers. Our responsibility is more profound. We teach because, as Tressell has said, our children are the heirs of all that has gone before them and by teaching them well we gift them their birth right to the fruit of our civilizations. How important then is what we teach and how well we do it? There is so much to learn and so little, little time. When we make decisions about curriculum we do so as part of a great, great tradition. For hundreds of years, societies have been taking the baton of knowledge and passing it down through their generations and by doing so, showing their children that they are valued, important and part of something so much more enormous than they are.

So if you are a teacher and now or in years to come find yourself doubting whether what you do has real purpose, get up early and stand in any settlement in England. Watch the buses, silly uniforms and clip-on ties go by. Smile at the important, ritualistic frivolity. Think of the schools that breath in our children in the morning and exhale them in the afternoon. Think about how little these children knew when they started school, and how much they know now, and how much they will know in the future. Think about how barren their lives would be if there were no schools or teachers and they were never taught anything at all. Think about how poor they would be in the most important sense, if there were no schools and no teachers.

Think about this and allow yourself to feel the privilege and enormous weight of responsibility you carry, a weight that goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Picture yourself as a link in the only chain that really matters, a runner with a flaming torch you are thrusting into the hands of younger athletes so it won’t matter that one day, sooner than anyone ever thinks, your legs will fail. Remember that even if one of your young athletes does fall that they had the same right to run as their luckier compatriots.

Remember we are all part of race in which the aim is not to win but just to keep going.

We are the links in the chain.

We are the runners in the race.

We are the bearers of the torch.

And this is why we teach.

7 Weil

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My teachers don’t help me

drowning-hands

One of the most common complaints made by pupils in schools, especially when trying to justify poor behavioural choices, is ‘I didn’t understand the work and the teacher didn’t help me.’

This can feel like a devastatingly logical line of argument. After all, how can a child do work if they don’t understand it? And if they don’t understand it, isn’t it a teacher’s job to make sure they can?

But things, as they never are in schools, are not so simple.

Asking pupils who use this argument how they would like their teachers to help them is revealing. Very often, their understanding of help is very specific. Frequently, what they mean by ‘help’ is individual one-to-one support. They mean that they think their teacher should sit down next to them to explain each task, and how it should be successfully completed. They believe if teachers do not do this, they are not helping, which makes any poor behaviour, for example shouting out, justified, as in “I asked for help loads of times but Sir ignored me.”

Logistically, for most teachers in most schools, this is just not practical. I think teachers, certainly in most subjects in secondary schools, should spend most of their time instructing the class as a whole. Any time they spend in one-to-one support is time they cannot spend explaining content to everyone. When it is not necessary, as it often isn’t, one-to-one tuition in lessons is an inefficient use of time.

For pupils who have, for whatever reason, internalised the idea that help has to be one-to-one support, any whole class teaching must seem very frustrating. “Sir is talking to everyone again! He’s not helping me!” This can mean that they switch off and stop listening, which means they miss out on the material they need to complete the tasks they then think they need help with later on.They are then more likely to demand personal help and so create a vicious cycle of slow progress, poor behaviour and confrontation.

This is such a shame. Pupils whose understanding of help is limited to one-to-one tuition miss the truth; their teachers are helping them all the time. When a teacher explains something new to the whole class, they are helping. When a teacher goes through a worked example or model answer, they are helping. When a teacher tells their pupils common errors made on a test and corrects them, they are helping. When a teacher tells a pupil to stop lollygagging out of the window and look at the board, they are helping. Pupils who do not recognise this as help miss all of it, which means that when it is time to complete tasks, it is inevitable they will not understand.

All of this is not to say that teachers should never help pupils individually. When appropriate they absolutely should. But a teacher finding themselves having to do this regularly for an individual child should consider the possibility that the help the pupil needs is actually in engaging with what they are saying to the whole class. Regrettably, I think in the past some pupils have been so individually helped they have come to believe that they actually aren’t capable of understanding anything unless there is an adult available to translate for them. For some pupils this might be true but I am sure for most it is not.

This learned helplessness is dangerous because it robs children of the ability to learn in any other way. We must fight this and push our most vulnerable young people past the idea they need someone with them at all times in order achieve anything.

All of this means, as I’ve written about here, that schools, whether they do this through SLANT or something else, must teach children how to listen. They must insist that pupils know that in order to get individual help from their teacher they must first keep their side of the deal by engaging with support in its very widest sense.

Of course, unfortunately and inevitably there will be times when whole class instruction, whether through a teacher’s inexperience or something else, isn’t helpful. This does need to be dealt with. But the way to do this isn’t to say that the teacher should stop talking to the whole class and help each child individually instead. Such classrooms are chaotic which makes everything harder to do.

Anyone uneasy about what I’ve written here, and I think there may be some, should be clear that all I’m really saying is that I think children should listen while their teachers talks, whether it is to them individually or to them as part of a class, and that pupils understand that whenever a teacher is teaching, they are also helping.

Surely this isn’t controversial?

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First do no harm.

hippocrates

It is really hard to picture a lesson in which there isn’t any feedback. Just try. No questioning to see if children understand before moving on. No scanning the room to see if everyone is paying attention. No walking between desks to see if everyone is on the right question and has made a good start. No watching faces for signs of bafflement or indifference. No stopping to redo something as a class when it becomes clear lots of children are lost. No showing pupils a model answer before or after they’ve completed their own. No crouching down quickly next to a child to whisper a short correction. The closest I can get is the “anyone, anyone” economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s school.

Feedback is a component of teaching. Not the butter on the bread, but the bread itself. Without feedback whatever we are doing, we aren’t teaching.

Systemically we seem to have a problem understanding this. Perhaps because of an overly simplistic interpretation of Hattie’s work and perhaps because of insidious accountability audit culture we’ve decoupled feedback from teaching, and often treat them as if they were different things that can be measured separately.

For a while feedback became a synonym for marking. Feedback was good, the more of it the better. This meant marking was good, so the more of this the better too. A storm of green pens, highlighters and stick in sheets fetishised the form and we lost sight of what all of it was for. The emergence of helpful research which showed written marking had no discernible impact on pupil learning, and Ofsted’s laudable endorsement of this research, prompted by Alex Ford, has helped matters but triple-marking and other onerous time consuming policies stagger on. With the evidence so clearly stacked against them, and in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis at least partially due to workload why is this?

Firstly, I think, we are still struggling to shake off an audit culture in which compliance to a policy set by a school’s SLT is regarded as evidence of strong leadership, with some afraid to let go of their vice-like grips on the reins, perhaps out of a prideful fear of admitting they may have got things wrong in the past. Ofsted hasn’t helped, so often the tail that wags the dog, with a major focus of its most recent frameworks seemingly being how consistently teachers adhere to a school’s policy regardless of efficacy. This may go some way to explaining why some schools are so obsessed with everyone doing the same thing, but doesn’t explain why their leaders would interpret this to mean that teachers should very visibly mark, in depth, all the work produced by their pupils.

The most important reason for this is an ill-judged obsession with ‘visible learning’. For whatever reason, some of us have come to believe that a pupil’s work should be a map or download of their brain, or a sort of livestream of the lesson itself. If pupils have received feedback then there must be evidence of this, because this proves it happened. If there isn’t evidence of it, then it didn’t happen. Sadly, this sort of thinking, as I wrote about here, is even infecting the verbal feedback movement, which is becoming muddied and corrupted by standardised forms and other generic formats.

All of this is nonsense.

Learning is invisible. Regardless of how many times a pupil has redrafted a paragraph, or corrected a spelling mistake in green pen, or written down a ‘target’, it is impossible to know if they have really improved or just mechanistically and slavishly followed the directions of a teacher working through the ‘non negotiables’ of their school’s policy. If we define learning as ‘a change in long term memory’, as Ofsted is now doing, then we probably can’t judge whether or not they have really got better until long after the lesson or sequence of lessons in which they received the feedback, and even then we still would not be able to pin down any improvement a pupil made to it given all the other factors (e. g a supportive, educated family) that may have had an impact too.

An even more serious effect of prescriptive policies, however onerous or not, is that they force teachers into believing this written feedback is a separate and more important thing than other types. If we conduct quality assurance on books, folders and tests as if these existed as separate to day-to-day teaching we imply that all the other things mentioned in my first paragraph aren’t as valuable, and lead teachers away from focusing on them. When marking policies are very time consuming we exhaust teachers and may make them worse at these things even if they understand just how important they are. Finally, we should be humble and accept that, certainly outside our own subject specialisms, we are unlikely to be able to judge whether or not a pupil is getting better as a result of feedback, or indeed whether or not they are getting better at all.

Audit culture has also had wider unintended and unforeseen consequences. When teachers are told how to teach or give feedback, they are effectively absolved of the responsibility of working out whether their practice is effective or not. Their job becomes to simply follow the rules. In such contexts their feedback is very unlikely to be as good as it could be because they are responding primarily to top-down edicts and not the needs of their classes and individual pupils. If a teachers’ job is to mark books twice a week, and they do, then they have done their job regardless or not of whether the feedback was appropriate or effective. For schools still hanging on to performance related pay, it may also be worth considering how fair this is if they have limited the freedom of their teachers. Accountability without autonomy can only be defended if those who set tight policies can prove, beyond all doubt, that the methods they insist on are effective. This is impossible.

At the root of all this is the understandable but erroneous desire to know things with a degree of certainty we just can’t. The only way we could really know, with any degree of confidence, whether or the teachers in our schools are really all giving effective feedback would be to replicate Graham Nuthall’s methods and kit out every classroom with cameras and microphones. We’d then need to employ a team of subject experts to carefully watch all the videos and listen to all the recordings before cross-referencing them with the test scripts pupils did months or even years after the initial teaching. This, for a thousand and one reasons is impossible, and even if it were we still wouldn’t really know whether pupils had learned what they had because of the feedback they got or because of a something else that happened outside their classroom that we are completely unaware of. We can’t be sure, and just shouting “I know whether good feedback is taking place” louder and louder won’t help win any reasoned arguments.

This, for school leaders, may seem depressing. But it is only depressing if we assume that teachers are incompetent, remain incompetent without rigid rules and don’t want their pupils to get better. As Mark Enser has so often pointed out (and, I believe, has a book out soon that I hope will make the point even clearer), when schools create cultures in which working to continually improve is a key component of professionalism, teachers placed in charge of their own development generally, with the right training, support, agency and respect, will eventually arrive at effective methods that work in their own context.

This is not to say there are no bad apples. There are some lazy teachers just as there are lazy and careless people in all walks of life. But the solution to this is not to introduce policies designed primarily to make feedback visible to an external observer. Lazy teachers will pay the loosest lip service they can get away with while the conscientious and talented will find themselves hamstrung.

We could do worse than take instruction from the Hippocratic Oath; first do no harm. The purpose of this Oath, created a time in which medical science was in its infancy, was sensible. If you aren’t sure what you think is right, then the first thing you should be sure of is that what you do doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t make any sense to direct teachers in schools to follow tight, prescriptive marking policies if you aren’t certain (and you can’t be) that they actually accelerate learning, especially if you do know they have negative effects on things like classroom practice or the workload of your staff. Much better is to have a loose policy that says something like ‘Feedback takes many forms. Here are some. You may see some, all or none of these if you visit our school. The only thing we can guarantee is you will see feedback.”

As scary as it may seem, at some point you have to trust teachers. The danger of not doing so is cargo cultism, oppressive accountability, exhausted, resentful staff and pupils who learn no more than if you’d had no policy at all.

Please. First do no harm.

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