History: the Ghost at the Feast

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The year after I left university, while working as a supervisor for a local bar and nightclub, I applied to a graduate fast-track scheme for a large recruitment consultancy.

The scheme offered good money, benefits and prospects. The process was competitive. I had to go through two local interviews and a regional one. Suited and slick, I must have done well. After a couple of weeks, I was asked to attend a final national level interview with the CEO of the company. I was told that although the panel would be seeing a couple of other candidates the general view was I had, bar unexpected disaster, done enough to be appointed and was told to begin looking for housing in London.

The night before the final interview I ironed my shirt, shined my shoes and went to bed early. The next morning I had a proper breakfast, set off with plenty of time to spare and arrived promptly.

The interview went well, being more of a getting to know each other chat than an in depth interrogation, and from the sort of questions I was asked it became clear I had the job.

And with the certainty came a totally unexpected emotion. Panic. In the eyes of those in front of me I suddenly saw an infinite procession of grey office days. On Target Earnings. Bonuses. Sweaty Christmas parties. Company Car. Private Healthcare. BMW. Tuxedos. Golf Clubs. And all for what? Profits for nameless shareholders and the hope of one day being able spend half the day on fairways and greens.

I wanted my life to mean more.

“I am so, so sorry,” I found myself saying. “I’ve made a mistake. I don’t want to be a recruitment consultant.”

Nobody said a word. The silence lasted hours.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’m going to go.” And I did. I still remember the screech of the chair legs on the lino floor as I pushed it back. Nobody said anything. A few seconds later, past the receptionist and her potted plants and I was out in the sunshine. Half way home I realised I had left my coat but never went back for it. I ignored phone-calls from the company for a couple of days and that was that. Less than a year later I was training to be teacher. Three years after that I was in Ethiopia with VSO. Fifteen years later here I am.

Good story isn’t it? It should be. After all, I have been telling it for years. I love it. It shows me exactly how I want to be seen; competent, clever and talented enough to have got a hot-shot city job but principled enough to make a scene turning it down. It shows me as reflective and thoughtful. It suggests that my decision was a wise one. It makes sense. It is part of my history.

Of course, it is only partly true. The factual bits are; I did pass the earlier interviews and I did walk out of the final one in the way I described. When linked to later events, it does make a convincing narrative. But this narrative has been constructed retrospectively. At the time, my twenty-one-year old self did not know he was going to become a teacher, or go to Ethiopia, or anything else. Yes, he did not want to work in an office but this was probably because he thought it would be really boring. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also young and arrogant enough to think he would have infinite opportunities and so turning this one down was no big deal. Twenty-one-year old Ben was also having a great time living with his friends and working in a nightclub with girls he fancied, and didn’t really want to move to London.

More true. Less noble. A much less satisfying narrative.

Real life very rarely supplies us with strong, convincing narratives so we create our own in order to give ourselves a sense of purpose and meaning. Real life is messy and random and when looked at dispassionately usually does not make much sense. Working out why we did things, let alone why other people did things, is very hard. So we create stories we like.

As a society we do this on a larger scale too. We mythologise past events and weave them into a story. We call it history. And if we are not careful, we teach these stories to the children in our schools.

There isn’t a term for this sort of “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” history, but it is everywhere. It is a land in which Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints with no human flaws. It is a land in which Churchill won World War Two with his cigar and V for victory sign. Here the Suffragettes are solely responsible for getting women the vote and Ring-a-ring a roses is an ancient rhyme about the Black Death. Henry VIII is forever the fat ogre who composed Greensleeves and Reformed the Church just so he could divorce his first wife.

This sort of history is the history of ‘everyone knows’. It is the history of ‘the man in the pub says’. It is the history of Philipa Gregory and the sexy Tudors on TV. It is Horrible Histories at the theatre. It is the history of Catherine the Great and the Horse. It is a story in which one thing clearly leads to another, which leads to another and then to another again and now here we are. It is a land in which, so long as events are set in the past, anything is acceptable.  For most of us, particularly those of us sharing a common heritage and culture, “Ye Olde Payst Tymes” is a nice, comfortable place. It is safe and warm. It is a party of familiar guests who all agree.

There is not much we can do about what happens outside our schools, but such nonsense can easily slip into our classrooms. This happens when the popular societal view of history is confused with the scholarly discipline schools are actually responsible for teaching. When this happens anything goes because what is being represented is seen as self-evidently true.

This is wrong and dangerous. It is wrong because any proper study of anything in history reveals nothing is simple. There is no uncontested narrative. History as Jim Carroll, has so effectively pointed out, is by its nature an argumentative discipline. The USSR won World War Two. Women got the vote because of their contribution in World War One. There is no record of “Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses” anywhere until the 19th century. Henry VIII was athletic most of his life, wanted an annulment not a divorce and the only reason the Pope didn’t grant it was that Catherine of Aragorn’s family had him besiged. Nobody ever died having sex with a horse.  It turns out that what everyone thinks happened is, very often, not what really happened at all and even when there is agreement on what there is valid scholarly disagreement on why and how.

Pointing this out does not make us popular. At the Olde Payst Tymes feast the historian is the ghost who mutters “well not really,” and “yes sort of but not in the way you mean”, and “there really isn’t any evidence for that you know.” True history is the weighing and shifting of evidence to support what is claimed even (perhaps especially) if it makes the world less immediately satisfying, less superficially logical and more difficult to understand. History is more a verb than it is a noun and the teaching of it in schools ought to reflect this. It should be tentative and uncertain and full of provisos. Children should know that almost everything they learn is disputed and that they too might, once they have enough knowledge of the events and what has been written about them, contribute meaningfully to the conversation.

Of course this can feel like it spoils a bit of the fun. It means not spending time in lessons designing shields for a Battle of Hastings reconstruction. It means less dressing up as Tudors and performing in plays. It means no to stories, poems and diaries and yes to lots of essays. It means no to posters commemorating the Battle of Britain pilots and yes to extended writing on the contested significance of the Battle itself. It means saying no to cross curricular links with English if they are studying “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and more reading historical scholarship alongside good textbooks.

This does not mean that creative activities designed to help students think hard have no place in the classroom, but these should be carefully and judiciously planned and should be a formative not final stage. Such activities can be inspirational and powerful, but should never be a simple celebration of a culturally dominant interpretation for its own sake.

This view is not shared by everyone. I know a history teacher who was told by an Ofsted inspector and History specialist after a lesson on interpretations of the Norman Conquest, “they don’t need this sort of thing in Year 7; just do the Horrible Histories stuff and get them excited.” It is really tempting to capitulate and join the fun at ye Olde Payst Tymes party but it is really, really important that history teachers do not because when we do we create the impression that there is only one interpretation of our past, which invalidates all others. It replaces nuance with black and white certainty, which is a betrayal of history in its purest disciplinary sense. Teachers who allow this to happen are not really teaching history at all.

It is dangerous too. If we create heroes then we must have villains. For every triumphant historical goody there must be a nasty historical baddy for them to defeat. This makes history a moral fable, which is fine as long as we agree with the moral but suddenly scary when those we disagree with create fables radically different to our own.

It isn’t right. The truth, almost all the time, is that history, like life, is painted in shades of grey. Those who lived before we do were no better or worse than we are, and to suggest otherwise is to paint in false colour.

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Great Explainers: Gary Neville.

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This is the final part of a three part series started by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) on ‘Great Explainers’. Following Adam’s excellent appraisal of Richard Feynman and Mark Enser’s on the Met Office, I am going to be explaining why football pundit and former player Gary Neville deserves recognition. Although he is almost always very good indeed this outstanding fifteen minute clip, on diving in professional football, is worth close attention.

For a history teacher the thesis/antithesis format is familiar. He begins with the widely held view that players that dive in football are cheats and should be punished, and then challenges it with the idea those with the opportunity to dive but choose not to are naïve. The controversial, challenging second interpretation is deliberately and dramatically set up when Neville says, at 1 minute 20 seconds, “penalty yes, diving yes” The statement, superficially completely counterintuitive establishes interest in the argument that will follow and, becoming more convincing each time, is repeated numerous times throughout his explanation. Rooted in the subject, this is a hook in the best, truest possible sense.

Neville then goes on the problematise the concept of diving. Before watching this clip I, as am sure many football fans did, saw this as straightforward; diving is the deliberate attempt to simulate a foul in order to gain an unfair advantage and undeniably immoral. Neville, using multiple examples, shows what an unsophisticated view this is. He moves clearly and logically through a number of sequential points:

  1. The line between a deliberate fakery and honest reaction is blurred.
  2. That it is widespread among almost all players of all positions.
  3. It is accepted as part of the game by those actually involved in it.
  4. That players who do not dive when touched by an opponent put their teams at a great disadvantage.

Each of the examples is clear and unambiguous, and explained enthusiastically, using self-deprecation and humour, which makes the challenging message far easier to absorb. His delivery is impassioned and deliberately confrontational. At one point he even leaps to his feet to demonstrate a mistake made by a defender. Neville also uses his own expertise and past experience as a player to shed more light on each example, firmly establishing a sense of credibility. This is an important point; if we are to use this video to guide forming good explanations we must acknowledge it at least very unlikely that Gary Neville could explain something outside his area of expertise to such a high standard.  The teaching parallel is clear – Neville takes what his audience thinks they know and then connects what he is explaining to it, using his own expertise of what he knows about football from both a player’s and a supporter’s perspective to carve away layers of ignorance and misconception.

The effect, for me and for many others, was dramatic. It became clear that moralistic naivety had blinded me to an entire aspect of a game I thought I knew inside out. Every time I watched a match in the past I had missed significant aspects of strategy and tactics, and the nuance in the micro-battles that occur all over the pitch. What I had regarded as simple and easy faded away, replaced by a far more intricate, subtle reality that suddenly made football make more sense.

“Ah, that’s why!” I thought.

But old, engrained ideas die hard and, of course, part of me still hung on to the idea that this might not be as widespread as Neville makes out. Surely, I thought, the most honest and upstanding players do not dive? But, as the skilled teacher he is, Neville has anticipated this misconception and hammers his message home by going through examples of such players and showing them diving too; Stephen Gerrard, Frank Lampard and the acknowledged best player in the world, Lionel Messi all appear in his rogues gallery. But, of course, his point is that they are not rogues or cheats; the best man at his own wedding, David Beckham, appears diving near the end of the clip to make it absolutely clear his message is not a personal attack on those he dislikes.

Finally, Gary Neville acknowledges that diving is an issue and poses new questions; when did it start? What are the downsides of the various solutions that have been suggested? Are these worth the price or do we have to accept it as inevitable? Having navigated us past our ignorance he then points to the real problems ahead, encouraging us to keep thinking.

His explanation leaves his interlocuter floored. For the audience the experience is revelatory and transformative; we leave both knowing more, and wanting to know more. We come away empowered; the next time we hear a crowd boo or shout ‘cheat’ (or worse) at a diving footballer we are less likely to join in, more likely to shake our head knowingly and look round for someone to share our greater knowledge and understanding with.

After all, one of the hallmarks of great explanations is that we want to pass them on.

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Nothing new, it’s a review – on why I killed my starters.

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When I trained to be a teacher lessons were supposed to come, like a meal in a fancy restaurant, in three parts – starter, main and plenary. The concept of a ‘starter’ became fetishised and developed into a systematic obsession. INSET courses on starters seemed to happen every week. They were a common focus for lesson observations and producing resources for them clogged up reprographics departments for months on end. Huge, huge amounts of time and effort for a part of the lesson which, although it expanded as time went on, was initially only supposed to last five or so minutes. It was as if we had all come to believe that if our starter was whizbangy, engaging and differentiated everything else would just fall into place.

And make no mistake, ‘starters’ were supposed to be whizzbangy. Laminated card sorts were good. Putting a laminated card sort in an envelope and labelling it “TOP SECRET” was even better. Using police tape to make a classroom look like a crime scene was best practice.

I would love to say that as a younger teacher I was wiser than my peers, standing back and seeing this for the nonsense it was but, of course, I did not. I could fill a blog with creative starter activities that now fill me with as much shame as they once did pride. Although I have spent years weeding them out of my planning they occasionally still jump out at me, lurking forgotten on dusty old hard-drives. Only recently an awful old starter I once created, which used choosing the next England football manager as a metaphor for the succession crisis of 1066, exploded out of a folder called ‘1066 and stuff’ like a malevolent, mocking Jack in the Box.

As time went by and I became more experienced my ‘starters’ did become more rigorous,  historically authentic and considerably less effort to plan. A couple of years ago they typically involved responding to a historical source linked to the content of the main part of the lesson. What they had in common with my old style of ‘starter’ was they usually looked forward and not back, which meant that while they were certainly better than they had been, the work produced by students was inevitably of limited quality – they couldn’t complete it to a higher standard simply because they did not yet know the content on which it was based.

I developed a sneaking sense that the time would probably be better spent testing my students on what they had learned in the past and, indeed, with my KS4 students this is what I did as exam dates drew closer. However, still to a point indoctrinated by the ‘hook ‘em in’ philosophy, I lacked the courage to unashamedly roll this out to all my classes; after all, what could be less engaging than beginning a lesson with a test?

Two years ago I finally plucked up the courage to stand by my convictions and, as a matter of routine, replaced all my ‘starters’ with ‘reviews’. Fifteen short questions, read out by me, completed in silence, to be self-marked by each student. Five on the previous lesson. Five on the topic. Five on anything they might have learned about since they had started history at secondary school. A doddle to plan, and homework suddenly became much simpler than it had been too – children were simply told to take exercise books and knowledge organisers home and learn them, using the read/cover/recite/write/check method we taught them in Year 7.

As I had expected, work improved. Extended writing and essays became more detailed and discussions in lessons more nuanced as children referenced previously covered material with greater confidence and fluency. What I had not anticipated was the enthusiasm with which children adapted to the change. Any fears I had about sullen resentment were soon dispelled. To my pleased surprise, students looked forward to these tests. They hissed ‘yesss” and even fist-pumped when I read out answers and they got it right. They groaned when they got answers wrong that they just knew they should have known. One boy even exploded out of his chair and shouted “GET IN!” the first time he got full marks. I found children testing each other in the corridor at break. Two girls who sat next to each other drew tables in the back of their books to keep track of their scores. What I had one believed would be miserable drudgery turned out to be full of fun and joy. Scores, overall, steadily rose.

I will never return to ‘starters’. I am sorry I persevered with them for so long. I should have known better.

So welcome to my lesson. Pens out. One to fifteen in your margins. Nothing new, it’s a review. Question one..

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Ten principles for leading change from below.

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As an unpromoted teacher, or even middle leader, it is easy to feel powerless. It can appear that the big, important decisions are made in higher orbits with any downward consultation, if it happens at all, more tokenistic than meaningful. It often seems that those above expect us to steadfastly enact central diktats whether we agree with them or not.

Engaging with research and the wider educational community, perhaps the teaching equivalent of taking the red pill, can actually makes this much worse. It is, after all, far easier go along with nonsense when you don’t know it has been exposed as such, or that there are sensible alternatives. But once out of the Matrix there is no going back – policies that once elicited no reaction or at worse were irritating, become infuriating.

It often feels as if there aren’t very many of us. Most teachers are not on edu-twitter. Most do not attend weekend conferences, read research or pedagogy books. And who can blame them? Expecting education to be everyone’s hobby as well as profession is a very big ask, especially as pay continues to decline and punishing workloads remain a cause of stress and even depression for many teachers.

This gloomy landscape makes it very easy for us to experience a sense of futility and helplessness. Although great beacons of hope (DON’T LOOK DIRECTLY AT MICHAELA, IT WILL BLIND YOU) burn on the horizon these can dispirit us further, making our own nascent campfires seem mean and pathetic by comparison. But, cold and alone, at least we are warmed by our righteousness.

And here lies a great danger. This righteous feeling is seductive and addictive. We can too quickly come to define ourselves by it. Convincing ourselves that change is not possible in our own contexts we may come to revel in our outsider status, sneering privately at the outdated use of double-marking, VAK, brain gym or the mindless application of growth mind-set. This is understandable, of course, but is also cowardly and unprofessional; if we know something is not right we have an ethical duty to challenge it. This process can be at best uncomfortable and, at worse, frightening.

This post aims to offer some advice on how to do this.

  1. Remember you and your SLT are on the same side.

“Let’s knowingly enforce policies that we know don’t work so our kids do worse, we get put in special measures and loads of people, including us, get fired.” Said no SLT ever. SLTs do not meet at midnight on stormy moors to plot ways in which to mess up children. Nor, although it may sometimes appear that way, are members of leadership teams generally selected for their idiocy. It is helpful to remember, before challenging an idea, that SLTS want the same things we do; better behaviour, better teaching, better outcomes, happy children and alumni with a wide range of options. It is also worth remembering that they are likely to be as busy, to the point of being overloaded, as we are and that they too have families and lives beyond the school gates. If they are not on the vanguard of the educational zeitgeist it is more likely to be because they are exhausted by endless changes and rounds of meetings than it is they don’t care. We should also remember that any mistakes they have made have been well-intentioned and that they, being human, are just as likely to react defensively to criticism as we do to consultants barging into our classrooms to tell us we are teaching wrong.

To establish conditions in which challenging but professional conversations can happen we need to be mindful of all this and think in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘you.’ Going in like a bull in a china shop and shouting the odds is always counterproductive.

  1. Play the ball not the man – question your own motives.

As I have written about here, many schools are peculiarly hierarchical and this can create unspoken grievance and resentment. When we feel we have been badly treated in the past, it can be tempting to try to take revenge on a perpetrator by attacking their work. We are more likely to find fault in a policy when we dislike the person responsible for it. Before proceeding it is worth questioning our own motives – if what we really want is a personal victory for its own sake it would be wise to think again. By going ahead we are likely to make all sorts of mistakes and even if we succeed, we may end up with a policy no better than the one it replaces. Still worse, we may end up contributing or even creating a negative professional climate in which meaningful change in the future actually becomes more difficult.

  1. Consider whether it is the right time.

Just because an idea is a good one does not mean it is always the right time for it. The day after a disappointing Ofsted is probably not the best time to volunteer advice. Before pitching something be sure that the environment is receptive.

  1. Be sure you are right – do your research.

A couple of years ago, right in thinking that a major obstacle to progress for my school’s students was their failure to work enough outside lessons, I got very excited about Flipped Learning. Off the back of a couple of blogs and articles I’d read, I went for it hard. I found extra reading and videos and encouraged those I worked with to do the same. Some promising initial evidence, primarily lesson observations, suggested it was having a positive impact and I shared what I was doing with the whole school. Unfortunately, before very long, it turned out that most children in my lessons were not retaining enough of what they were taught in regular lessons to benefit from any extra material. What they really needed was more regular retrieval practise and interleaving. While I had correctly diagnosed the problem, I had prescribed the wrong treatment. But, by the time I realised the idea was flawed, at least in the context of my own teaching, it was too late – the horse was out of the stable.

If I had waited just a little longer, read a little more widely and asked the right people the right questions I would have avoided the embarrassment of having to row back on a lot of what I had been advocating. I might also have avoided creating an impression that I could be somewhat mercurial, which would have made it easier for me to convince SLT that ideas I had later, which were actually much more solid, were worth taking a punt on. Fortunately, I did work in a school that gave me the benefit of any doubt but if I had encountered more resistance in the future, I would have understood.

Put simply, make sure you are right before pushing an idea forward; don’t open the oven door until you are sure your puddings have risen.

  1. Share and summarise what you have read.

SLT are busy. Expecting them to have read everything out there is, in many cases, unrealistic. Giving them a reading list in its entirety does not make them any extra time and they are unlikely to wade through the whole of E D Hirsch’s bibliography just because we think they should. Better to give summaries, focused on the change you want to make. Even better, provide summaries that already exist, be they blogs, short journal articles or Oliver Caviglioli’s excellent pictorial representations. By showing how you reached the point you have, you are far more likely to convince SLT that your idea is serious and worth considering. Try to make this a dialogue and be ready to field questions and critique – although this can be frustrating and can feel like going back over old ground, it helps create a sense of joint ownership, which might be helpful in the future. Don’t be afraid to be politely pushy – ask for a convenient time to discuss the reading and follow up if other things get in the way. Provide tea.

  1. Offer solutions.

A big mistake made when complaining about something, in outside life as much as in teaching, is not deciding on what should change as a result of the complaint. Moaning about a policy is very unlikely to end it if something else is not proposed in its stead. Failing to do this very easily creates an impression of irritating negativity, especially if it looks like a pattern. SLT are much more likely to be open to change if it is worded as “we should stop doing X and do Y,” rather than “X is stupid and we should just stop”, which is very easily interpreted as “X is stupid and so are you for doing it.”

  1. Start small.

Asking SLT to abandon a whole-school policy and immediately change to what you propose just because you did some reading is, charitably, naïve. Indeed, any SLT working like this would be ineffective. Rather than ask for this ask for permission to run a small-scale trial, perhaps with just one or two classes you teach. Carefully record results and share these with anyone who wants to see them. Done cleverly, this can actually bring SLT onside, moving the “I” to “we” and creating a shared sense of ownership over the idea. This bonding effect can be further strengthened by asking for help and advice and acting upon it when appropriate. Ideally, you want to get any SLT member you work with you to be as excited about your (our) idea as you are. And, as excited as you may be, remember ethical considerations and do not be disingenuous – if there are problems in your trial be open about them and don’t be tempted to massage or spin results. If you find yourself even tempted to do this then, again, it may be wise to consider your own motivations.

  1. Be stubborn.

For SLTs introducing a new  policy is far less frightening than terminating one. This is because, in the absence of concrete data on what works and what doesn’t, it is often impossible to prove empirically that any policy has no benefit, which means stopping anything can feel like it carries risk. This is one of the reasons workloads spiral – changes in schools are more commonly additions than replacements. We often hear ‘we’d also like you to do X” but rarely hear “Y did not work so we are stopping it and replacing it with X.” Because, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, there will only ever be twenty four hours in a day, this leads to the watering down of good ideas to make everything fit in. A nervous SLT may see the benefit of predominantly verbal feedback but, should they introduce it as an add-on to an existing double-marking policy it will, inevitably, lead to dilution and poor implementation. Plus, our colleagues will hate us for increasing workload should we go along with what might seem, to begin with, an acceptable compromise.

It might be necessary to be stubborn. If an SLT has gone far enough with an idea to consider adopting it beyond the classroom in which it was first trialled, then they must be made aware that any revisions of it, or adopting parts but not all, might well mean that any positive effects do not replicate.

  1. Scale up slowly.

Many really good ideas fail when they are scaled up because they are implemented too hastily with too little oversight. Even a sound idea can be scuppered by poor application, which is likely when those involved do not really understand how it is supposed to work. This is even more likely if those supposed to apply the change feel it to be imposed on them, which results in half-hearted efforts and invariably poorer results. This can easily lead to the idea itself being written off as a bad one.

To avoid this scale up incrementally. Start small and expand slow enough to be sure that the policy you end up with is the same one you began with.

  1. Share the credit.

When an idea we are responsible for is successful it can be tempting to take all the credit. As understandable as this it is counterproductive because not allowing everyone involved to celebrate excludes key players from a feeling of success that might make further positive change more likely.

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Why I support the PTE

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Agreeing with someone of a different political bent to yourself can be a disquieting experience, but is one that happens more and more to a lot of us as we get older. When I was younger, knowing someone voted Conservative was enough for me to disregard their opinions and views before I even heard them. This saved me a lot of time, effort and thought, and afforded me a sort of ignorant, righteous certainty which I could use to dismiss arguments that did not fit in with my self-identity.

I now think this sort of thinking silly, immature and restrictive. It can be used as an excuse not to talk or engage with people, which make our worlds more divided. It also politicises ideas that are not political, muddies thinking and closes down meaningful debate.

Last week I attended the launch of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) pamphlet promoting knowledge curriculum. The event took place at the Houses of Parliament, and Schools Minister Nick Gibb made a speech on E D Hirsch, the reduction in attention given to knowledge in the past and why this has been detrimental to education.

In many ways it was an odd experience for me. As a member of the Labour party I would, of course, have preferred the event had been hosted by a Labour Education Minister representing a Labour government. It goes against the grain to me to agree with a Conservative politician. However, while I am certain there are many issues on which Minister Gibb and I would disagree, on this we see eye to eye. Indeed, to disagree would mean turning my back on what I think is the truth for no other reason than tribal political animosity.

Because I do agree that, for a long time, knowledge has not been given enough attention as part of school curriculum. While I do not think a ‘progressive conspiracy’ is to blame, or that those who emphasised transferrable skills had bad intentions, I do believe it happened. I do not think it matters why it did, or who is to blame. I also believe that failing to teach lots of knowledge in school disadvantages poorer children more than it does richer ones who are more likely to pick it up elsewhere, because it is necessary for academic success. I also believe knowledge is enriching and life-affirming in its own right and that by failing to prioritise it we further impoverish those born into disadvantage.

These beliefs seem to me consistent with my democratic socialist political views. Supporting the PTE does not mean that I am in support of conservative values. It simply means that I believe that knowledge curriculum is, in my view, the best way to bring about the societal changes I want.

It feels important this is made clear. Too often, and against a considerable amount of evidence too, belief in knowledge curriculum is assumed to be a synonym for right of centre political views. For those of us that believe in it this is worrying. If this sticks, leftist teachers and parents who might otherwise have considered it may dismiss it out of hand and a Labour government very likely to abandon it altogether. While I accept that very many intelligent, well-informed and thinking people disagree with me about knowledge based curriculum, for all sorts of reasons, to frame this debate in terms of political affiliation is misleading and unhelpful.

We cannot, of course, remove politics from this debate altogether. Should the PTE and others believing in knowledge rich curriculum succeed in placing it at the centre of English education, there will be fierce disagreement over what knowledge should be taught. On this, I anticipate I and my more right-of-centre friends and colleagues will argue. When this happens, although I know I will find it hard, I will do my best to be civil and open in my approach.

Until we reach this point, I will be proud to stand alongside those of all political persuasions to achieve a goal I believe to be a laudable one.

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Why children do not care about being successful adults.

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Part of growing up as a teacher is becoming used to being given advice, both requested and unsolicited, and learning how to react to it in the culturally appropriate way. This means smiling, nodding and making a pretence at gratitude even if the advice is poorly timed, unwelcome, unhelpful or just plain crazy.

This cynicism, while useful in surviving the day to day, could of course lead to us missing really great pieces of advice with the potential to genuinely improve practice.

But usually we don’t miss the really good stuff. It sticks, burrowing deep into our psyches where it connects to other great stuff until, eventually, we find ourselves passing it on to those less experienced than us whether they want us to or not.

To my shame I cannot remember who first told me “children don’t want to be successful adults, they want to be successful children”, but it stuck and I think it a useful insight to understanding so much of what goes on in the lives of our students.

Childhood is a strange, bizarre and often surreal world that most adults forget soon after they leave it. A few writers retain an understanding. Phillip Pullman, Donna Tartt, William Golding and, of course, Roald Dahl among others seem to have a talent for authentically describing the shimmering, dark world that children inhabit. The very best understand that childhood is as full of fear is it is curiosity and is filled with dread as much as it is wonder. One of the reasons Stephen King’s best work, which often does involve children, is so unsettling is because he reminds us what it was to be filled with joy one moment and deep foreboding the next. A time when weeks lasted years and years were incomprehensible. A time when most of what scared us was completely beyond our own control.

Childhood is all-encompassing and those in it, usually in full on survival mode, do not spend time thinking systematically about what will happen them to when it ends. Indeed, I wonder if this is really any easier than it is for adults to think about what happens to us after we die.

I remember feeling this very keenly as a boy of about eleven, when I moved from a local primary school connected to my church, to a middle school some distance away. Here, for the first time, I felt different. I was different. It was a predominantly working class school and I was middle class. The other children already knew each other well, I did not. I went to church every Sunday. Few other children there did. For these reasons, and perhaps others I was not aware of, I did not fit in. Quickly labelled posh, I was mimicked and laughed at. For a while, I was very down and knowing this upset my parents made me even more sad. There were tears. I stopped working as hard at school because I felt that ‘clever’, on top of all the other things that marked me out as atypical, was a label I was better off without. I became obsessed by football I think now, not really out of genuine interest but because I knew this was what the other boys liked and thought learning enough about it might be the key that led to acceptance and contentment.

I do not share this story for sympathy. I would be a fool to. My privileges have, of course, in the long run very predictably turned out to be enormous assets, educationally, financially, professionally and personally too. But, as a child I neither recognised this, and nor would I have cared if I had. My school life was miserable and I would have done anything to be happier. The idea that by working hard I was more likely to be a successful adult one day, and should take comfort from this abstract idea, was inconceivable to me because my world was all-encompassing and the idea of ‘growing up’ had very little meaning.

To accept this is to accept that trying to motivate children by asking them to imagine their lives after school might be at best limited and at worst ineffectual. If we are to make children want to be successful at school, then we must make being successful at school part of being a successful child, not a sacrifice necessary for a better future. This is easier in affluent areas where academic success is culturally valued and celebrated, but much tougher in areas where to achieve well academically is to mark yourself out as being fundamentally different to your community. In such instances we need to become the community. Although visits, external speakers and good careers support can be part of the answer they can only ever be part. To normalise hard work and academic success we need to create a culture and ethos in which working hard, and being proud of doing so, is regarded as part of the criteria of being a successful child. We must have strict rules and routines that create a culture in which no child feels ashamed or different for working hard. We must wage war against insidious nasty terms like ‘boff’, which are designed to alienate those who study diligently.

We must not dumb down or over-praise. We must normalise following rules, wide reading, the practise of difficult tasks and an appreciation of art. We must work with our local communities to normalise success but not be afraid to stand as unashamedly different when values diverge.

We must not imply that the point of all this is just the exam grade because, by doing so, we re-inforce the impression that school is only a painful necessity and make learning for its own sake seem weird and pointless. In doing this we also run the risk of creating a very misleading view of the future; school is only ‘the end of the beginning’ and implying that it is the final hurdle is to invite disillusionment and high drop-out figures.

It is, of course, possible. I take heart from the great northern colliery brass bands, which show that world class standards of achievement are not beyond the reach of poorer communities when they are made part of a strong identity. In my time in Ethiopia I marvelled at how one of the world’s poorest countries produced some of its best runners and came to see why; when high class achievement and the hard work necessary to attain it is normalised, it is possible to do exceptional things.

Children do not want to be successful adults. They want to be successful children. We should make that easy for them by creating conditions in which being a hard-working academically engaged child is part of successful childhood identity.

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Elephants, riders and debate on Twitter

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Inspired by the blogging of Bernard Andrews (@bernywern) I have been reading very basic philosophy recently.

I think I like David Hume best.

Hume lived in the eighteenth century. Many philosophers before him had been consumed with identifying what it is possible to actually know, given that our senses and reason itself are unreliable and cannot be trusted. Hume agreed with this, believing that beyond mathematics, we cannot know anything for certain. On the face of it this is a paralysing conclusion; if we cannot know anything then how do we proceed? Any decision we take and any action we make is, if you accept Hume and other thinkers of his school, based on unsupported foundations. Hume goes further, writing that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. By this Hume means that the choices we make are not really a product of reason at all, but are in fact based on instincts that we cannot objectively untangle. We may use reason to explain our beliefs and choices, but this is done post-hoc and is self-justification, not empirical inquiry.

Hume’s ghost haunts the pages of Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful “The Righteous Mind”. In this book, about why good people disagree over politics, writes “the mind is divided like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” By this, Haidt means that humans are, primarily, instinctive creatures and that our ‘higher’ reasoning faculties are designed to justify our instinctive choices not to challenge them. Haidt uses this metaphor to explain why good people of contrasting political beliefs struggle to understand opposing arguments. Almost always, these arguments are between riders, who are unwitting slaves to their elephants.

For those of us interested in education there is a lot to think about in the work of Hume and Haidt. We inhabit a world in which it is very difficult to work out what works. We work in diverse, chaotic schools that contain so many variables that attributing success or failure to one thing over another is, in many cases, impossible. Was it our Growth Mind-set programme that resulted in our 7% GCSE A*-C improvement or was it our new literacy programme? Did our results fall because we introduced vertical form groups or was it because we stopped doing as many interventions after school? Is recruitment and retention an issue because of bad behaviour or is it because teaching does not pay enough?

Without clarity we are, whether we admit it or not, often led by our elephants. We make instinctive decisions about what to believe and then seek out evidence that reinforces the preconceived opinions and views that make us, us. Teachers like me, inclined towards pedagogical conservatism, seek out evidence that supports this teaching style and find it very difficult to listen to a teacher of a very different pedagogical bent with an open mind. I am sure the same is true in reverse.

We see this play out on edutwitteer where tribalism makes it even harder for us openly engage with the arguments of those outside our alliances. Even in the comparatively short time I have been an active member of the community I feel things have changed. We are no longer just pixels on a screen to each other – we are meeting more and more in real life. We are sending each other books and presents. We are becoming friends. This is wonderful but it brings with it the danger of further division, as personal loyalties strengthen our elephants and cloud our riders. As tribes coalesce it may become more and more difficult for us to find space in which debate can be truly meaningful and we run the risk of ossifying into silos lobbing empty slogans at each other.

Hume may offer some insight on how we can avoid this. He believed that we should hold our opinions lightly, knowing them to be based on instinct and our own experiences, and so fallible. This is not, for one moment, to suggest that we do not have fierce debate and disagreement or that we should all join hands and sing as one big family, Hume points out that while we know nothing for certain we still have to live in the world and this means having opinions, which of course means encountering and engaging with those we disagree with. Haidt has helpful things to say on how we might do this. He points out that opinions are rarely changed when we engage only on an intellectual, logical level.

Instead he says we should talk to to each other’s elephants.

I am always heartened when I see off-topic, warm exchange happening between those who disagree on educational philosophy. Whether it is a thread on Star Trek, gardening, football or a conversation about parenting, the effect is the same; the sun comes out and, as elephants relax, their riders find themselves better able to talk about more controversial topics later. It works because these small flares of humanity show that whatever and however strongly we disagree, we have respect for each other as people and make it harder for us to assume the worst of each other’s intentions.

It is in this spirit debate is most meaningful and productive. If we really want to influence each other, we must move out of our silos and meet with those with which we disagree.

Anyone fancy a pint?

 

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