Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Money buys luck. Everyone else needs to work hard

'Look darling- straight A*s again.'

In Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), Meryl Streep plays the eponymous New York heiress socialite who was determined to succeed in her chosen profession of opera singer despite the cruel blow fate had dealt her by making her both tone deaf and a terrible singer. Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant playing her husband, who simultaneously supports her ambitions while deflecting any of the obvious and natural checks and balances that the world typically offers hubris, such as criticism or anything resembling sincere feedback.

It’s an odd film in some ways, but surprisingly engaging. Despite Streep’s world-class ability to inhabit, humanise and broadcast the lightest of frailties (the irony, of course being that her superhuman ability is here deployed to convey the talent vacuum that is Jenkins) the moral narrative of the film appears to ask us to accompany its ambitions in an eccentric direction. We are asked to sympathise with her great fall from self delusion when she finally realises her ambitions of releasing a record and performing at Carnegie hall, with the concomitant mockery public exposure entails. No one could enjoy to see someone flayed alive by critics, but it hard to conclude that she deserves our sympathy for this acrobat's tumble into just desserts.

She's so lucky

Successful men and women frequently claim to be self made. If they are sensible, cautious and humble they will acknowledge the debt they owe to the people and circumstances that allowed them to blossom. And if they are wiser still, they will acknowledge the debt they owe to sheer, dumb luck. That isn’t to deny their often Olympian efforts from within their own reservoirs, but to account for the reality that success and failure exist within an often unforgiving ecosystem. How many Mozarts died of smallpox? How many Hawkings or Bransons or Bolts never got to a blackboard, a board room or running track? And how many Paris Hiltons or Kardashians watch us from the opera boxes of privilege because their talent was the good fortune to be born in House Lannister?

Jenkins survived and thrived in an arena that would normally have devoured and digested her because she possessed that adamantine shield that saves us from all but the most inevitable of life’s indignities: pots and pots of lovely money. Unearned status and a room full of coin are the ultimate edge in the great game of life. When Jenkins finally, finally saw her very first bad review, she keeled over and fainted, and the film’s plot beats tapped out a tragic tattoo on her behalf. Meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘Boy, I read two worse reviews for my last book before breakfast. Where’s my biopic?’ If you’re going to ask us to care for a character’s sine wave of fortune, then it’s probably best if what’s at stake matters to those of us looking up at Heaven.

If you teach, you’ll find Jenkin’s professional woes unremarkable or even intelligible. When you teach children who come from backgrounds where there are no golden tickets, no second chances, no parachutes or safety nets, where there are no trust funds to cushion you from a cruel world, then perhaps you’ll sympathise kore with the queue of unsuccessful pianists whom Jenkins dismisses before they even had a chance to audition, because the one she chooses was fortunate enough to play a melody that flattered her sentimental memories. Their hard work, their presumed virtues meant nothing to the whim of a woman who could afford to pay New York’s finest vocal coaches to bootlick and lie to her.

Everyone has potential- so what?

The children we teach mustn’t be lied to. When they stumble it is our duty to tell them where they tripped, not to congratulate them on how well they fell. When what they do is not wonderful, they need to know how unwonderful it was, and crucially, what the next step to wonder might be. Because they will be competing in a world where others will begin the race with a head start, one of the worst things we can do is to accept work below a pupil’s capabilities without comment. Effort is important, and its perpetual invocation is to be encouraged and imbedded as the fuel that makes everything else possible. But not just effort: achievement. We speak glibly about wanting to help pupils to achieve their potential, but potential is a weasel term unless you grasp exactly what it means. Most of us have extraordinary potential in so many fields. Almost any one of your children could climb Everest or graduate from Cambridge if they wanted to sufficiently, and are shown the way. But potential is nothing but a ghost. Being, doing, these are the things to which we rightly aspire.

I was once at a school where the head teacher wanted- rightly- to inspire and motivate pupils to believe in their dreams, by showing them short musical clips from Youtube that repeated simple aspirational messages about struggling and striving while music rose and surged in the background. If you have ever seen 500 bored faces watching yet another of these seemingly endless videos, you’ll understand why ambition, effort and inspiration can’t be taught as easily as a parcel is delivered. One of my omni-late sixth formers summed it up. ‘Sir, missing assembly isn’t being late. They'll just be showing another inspirational video.’

Money beats paper, scissors, rock

Florence Foster Jenkins is a perfect example of ‘when you win they call you a winner.’ Never ask someone with a trust fund how to get rich. The children we teach will, for the most part, be unencumbered by the golden armour of invincible privilege. When they leave school they will not be given jobs because they believed in their dreams, followed their heart songs or stayed true to who they are. This is not a Disney film, unless Disney have branched out into dystopian real-life dramas where evil frequently conquers good. Life is only a box of chocolates if you imagine that the strawberry creams have been replaced by gelignite and may blow your teeth out, and some of the caramels contain arsenic.

In the great Scissors, Rock, Paper game of life, the best we can do is teach them how to make each hand and what to do when fortune inevitably marks their card. They will succeed because we have believed in them enough to raise them as they need to be raised, not how they would like to be. Because we taught them that luck is beyond their control, but effort, applied and focussed like a laser on the unglamorous minutia of education was the most magical thing that was still within their power to obtain, and ours to nurture.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

I just countersued- Prince Ea: the same old arguments in a shiny new video




Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupid
Albert Einstein

You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called 'I just sued the School System' released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.) 

To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk 'Do schools kill creativity?' (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish. 



I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson's oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It's hard to put gas in a box. 'What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence', as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?

The People vs The School System


Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

  • Kill creativity
  • Kill individuality
  • Are intellectually abusive
  • Turn millions of people into robots
  • Are guilty of malpractice


These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are 'abusive'. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.
  
No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.

Fashionable in the 80s

The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.

The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place. 

To the narrator, it’s 'educational malpractice' for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that's a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y'know, facts

Bullsh*t Bingo

If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks
the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

Summing up

The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

Why do you hate children?

You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

Case dismissed. 




Sunday, 5 February 2017

Known unknowns: what I discovered in Stockholm


I was the worst kind of tourist today: an ignorant one. I was in Stockholm to host researchED Haninge and chew bubblegum, and I was all out of bubblegum. But unlike our ancestors, for whom international travel was an arduous pilgrimage, we skip across borders like children. Even so, normally on any visit you'd guide-book up; I knew zip. So when I found a few hours free on Sunday to poke around the city before I flew back I found myself a stranger in a strange land, a wise fool.

It was frustrating to pad around the beautiful Old Town, ignorant of every brick and cobble, every institute and palace and promenade. I bumped into the Royal Palace like I'd fallen from the Moon, and watched soldiers march up and down, uncomprehendingly. Of course, I wasn't a tabula rasa; I could piece together some of what I was saw: I knew a little Swedish history, a bit of ABBA, how to build a Billy bookcase, all the Larsson novels, Pippi Longstockings.  So I wandered around,  uncomprehending, dislocated from my circumstances by ignorance. Knowledge was the lack; misunderstanding the effect. No amount of puzzling it out by myself would make up for the it. The facts were not buried in me, waiting to be winkled out. I could no more have discovered what was what than I could have played written a book with no letters.

I could have found out; I could have quizzed everyone I met. I could have asked the shop assistants, and waitresses, and policeman what I was looking at, and built up a picture that way. But a) I would have no idea if I had discovered the most important things to know and b) I would miss my plane and possibly starve to death. But half an hour with a guide book would have opened it up like a treasure chest. I saw a billboard advert that said, 'For the travellers who go by instinct, not by must-dos.' I understand that. There is a special pleasure in wandering, driven by chance and circumstance and luck. There are Stockholms and Parises and Tenochtitlans wild and hidden and mysterious, waiting to be found. But imagine if you did that and missed the Louvre? Imagine if you went to Venice and wandered past St Mark's Square?

I know nothing

Wild learning, self guided, unpredictable and new, has many things to recommend it; surprise, novelty, personal investment. Everyone who likes to be a traveller rather than a tourist would prefer to say they had discovered their Tuscany, their Tromso. But doing do requires that you already have a hundred pegs on which to hang the new, unprocessed data: I know a little Polish history, so I can reverse engineer some of Swedish history from their wars; I live in a constitutional monarchy/ parliamentary democracy so I know that I'm not in immediate danger of being press-ganged into the King's militia without a warrant from John Company. I've seen enough charming ancient labyrinths to know a tourist duck shoot when I see one. Knowledge begets knowledge. To those that hath, shall be given. I missed almost everything, and how different it could have been. Stockholm, I apologise for walking through you as witless as Pinocchio was inside a whale's bowels.

Visit Auschwitz to see a contrast. Oświęcim locals will remind you: it's not a Polish concentration camp; it was a German camp, hence the retention of the Germanic form. And it's not a camp; it's a museum, a memorial. Visitors are required to take the tour, and lean on headphones to unpack the horror. It's easy to understand why. Without background, Auschwitz is rubble and grass and cattle sheds and mean, meaningless brick one-storey terraces. With explanation, it burns and hums with history and Hell and horror: the spot where Maximilian Kobe was martyred and murdered; walking though the gas chambers and trembling; shaking with sorrow at the bogs where the ashes of thousands were buried. What is a room full of spectacles but an odd jumble of garbage until someone points out their savage provenance? Rags, hair, suitcases are detritus until each one has a line drawn to a lost soul. 


You could find out for yourself. You could. You could- and should- talk to people there, ponder a little, work out why an oven needed to be so inordinately large in a prison camp. Or you could be told by an expert, and then do that anyway, broadening your understanding, imbedding that understanding with personal experience, and fixing it in your comprehension with depth and gravity. 

Why not just tell them?

Discovery is a fine thing; a necessary thing. some say it is the natural power of the human mind. It is the intuitive, animal legacy of our apprehension and it is a wonderful thing. But it was designed to construct knowledge of a world at a very human level: how not to tumble over, when to shield one's eyes from the sun, how far an apple will travel if thrown just so. But Newton spoke truly when he said he saw further because he stood on the shoulders of giants; propositional claims ('Stockholm is in Sweden'; 'Carl XVI Gustaf is King') can be imparted in the time it takes to say it. In this way we not only stand on giants' shoulders, we rapidly form a pyramid of giants and humans, and see for miles. 

When we teach students, there may well be times we want them to figure out the world for themselves. But when we do, we should ask, 'Why not....just tell them? What is to be gained by the game?' If we can't answer this, then we have a duty to inform, clearly, and with as much an impression as we can make. 

The unexamined life is famously not worth living. But the informed life is worth much more. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Sharing is caring: why centralised detentions might just save your sanity



Train spotters have their niche, I have mine. Over the last ten years I must have been in over 150 schools to look at their behaviour systems. What started off as a few consults became a habit. I get asked to work with schools that want to tighten up, reboot or buff their policies and practices. Sometimes it’s a check-up, and sometimes it’s an autopsy. It’s always a privilege.

I’ve found that some strategies are highly contextual, and some graft nicely on to a wide set of circumstances. It’s not often you can recommend a strategy blind to a school, because as Dylan Wiliam says ‘Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.’ But if we’re smart we can try to establish as many best-bets, highly-probables and ‘this works a lot’ as we can. Like an aspirin, most people feel better, and a few feel worse. But we still prescribe aspirin.

And one of the most successful strategies I’ve seen used by schools, and especially by schools that have very effective school behaviour systems, is centralised detentions (CD). Instead of setting and attending a detention individually, a class room teacher sets the detention which is then carried out by someone else, who may have several pupils in theor care from several sources.

Often the monitor is a senior member of the team. What they do there varies, but at the moment I want to talk about centralising detentions rather than justifying them.

The benefits:

  • Workload: The teacher does not have to attend part- or all- of the detention. This frees up a potentially huge amount of time, one of the most precious commodities in the teacher’s utility belt. I know some teachers whose every spare moment is guaranteed to be blocked out by someone in detention, all week. And just one detainee has the same effect on your schedule.  
  • Data efficiency: Because the detentions are centralised, there is better tracking of who does and does not attend. All data flows through one point, rather than being monitored by a web of people who may not share their data. 
  • Flagging up concerns: Multiple, repeat offenders, or ‘doubles/ triples’ (students set more than one detention at a time) can be identified immediately, and their issues addressed. 
  • Better skilled practitioners: easier to train staff appropriately rather than leaving it to dozens of teachers with variable skill bases.
  • Consistency of standard: School cultural norms can be more consistently conveyed at centralised detentions. Different teachers (even in the same school), have different standards of what pupils may or may not do in detention, from silent vigils, to playing on their phones. Pupils need to know what to expect.


The drawbacks:

  • Dislocation of response: It depersonalises the consequences. The pupils are often dealt with by someone who has no close connection to the relationship in the classroom. However, this can sometimes be a benefit too.
  • Exploitation: Teachers may take advantage of the opportunity. Running your own sanctions can be exhausting. If all they have to do is tap a button on SIMS, then a lot of teachers will be tempted to get trigger happy. Sad to say I’ve seen this. Rather than attempt to resolve matters in the classroom, the weaker teacher will simply hammer away at the detention bazooka. Because when someone gives you a magic hammer all your problems start to look like nails. The solution to this is for leadership to monitor the data, and support- not sanction- teachers who have patterns of high usage. After all they may simply be dealing with a more challenging intake, or carrying out the school policy to the letter. They might need support, or they might deserve a damn medal.


CD work best when

  • Multiple teachers set frequent detentions
  • In large schools or faculties
  • Teachers already have substantial workload issues (so: most places)
  • Problems occur due to inconsistency of teacher detention practices
  • Pupils frequently dodge detentions


CD works less well when

  • Schools are smaller
  • Schools already have personal detentions as a system and teachers and students feel that it works better that way
  • Detentions are very rare


So this is still no panacea; centralised detentions can be done badly, or worse can be done so badly they make things worse. But so what? That could be said of any system, from tax credits to dress down Friday. They can give staff back whole weeks of their years; they can free up substantial chunks of time on an almost dally basis. They can make the whole school detention system rock solid and air tight, which improves the whole efficacy of detentions as a system. Remember, the severity is far less important than the certainty.


I would encourage any school to try this. Try it for two terms.  Review it after the first term to see where the snags are. Improve it for the second. Then bin or beatify as you see fit. I bet some schools will never look back.