Saturday, 30 July 2011

School Exclusions down: This is supposed to be a good thing?

Warning: Rant levels contained in this feature- Gale Force 8 on the Daily Mail Beaufort Scale.

I feel like I'm taking crazy pills. Why? Because I've just read the latest data, hot off the spin cycle, that suggests expulsions and suspensions in England have fallen AGAIN in the last year, by 12% in 2009-10, with suspensions down 9% for the same period.

'Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there was no evidence of weak discipline in the statistics.
"Fewer and fewer schools now need to resort to the ultimate sanction of permanent exclusion, a fact that should be celebrated, " he said.
"Clearly the existing powers on behaviour have been good enough for major progress to be made.'
BBC News Website, 2011

In fact, I got through the whole article, shook it upside down like a cereal packet, and still couldn't find anyone saying the obvious thing, the true state of affairs behind these figures. So I'll say it: the reason why schools now exclude far, far less than before is because a school's exclusion rate is now considered in its assessment by OfSTED inspections and by the LEA. There is an enormous pressure on schools not to exclude these days, and the simplest way of achieving this is by..well, by not excluding. Simply not doing it. Keeping kids in more and more detentions; giving kids 'time-out' in coolers and 'special' rooms up and down the country, off the books and off the Self-Evaluation Form.

That's it; that's the simple explanation behind these figures. Every teacher knows it; every senior teacher knows it. The problem hasn't been solved, it's been magicked away by legerdemain, effortlessly, mathematically proven not to exist. It is the educational equivalent of seeing no ships. It is the natural result of a monitoring system that lends itself, begs itself to be gamified, because doing so is a faster solution than actually solving the problem, which is big and messy and difficult to execute.

Using this as evidence to prove that behaviour has improved is like shutting down the 999 service and claiming that crime has dropped because no one's called. What did they expect would happen? When you make the observational criteria extrinsic to the property being observed, you lay the system WIDE open to all of a school's energy and resources being diverted to adjust and improve the external performance indicator, in this case, exclusion rates. It doesn't mean behaviour has improved; it just means that less pupils are being excluded, which means that more kids who deserve to be excluded are being kept in classrooms, disrupting lessons, making life Hell for teachers, and just as importantly, not learning anything. You want to know why we're (apparently) falling behind in literacy, numeracy, STEM subjects in every international survey? Look no further than the behaviour crisis. If even a tiny percentage of children want to wilfully disrupt a lesson, they can; it only takes, as Hobbes said, 'one thief in a community for all men to bar their windows.' A well-behaved learning environment is spectacularly easy to destroy, and they are, they are, I assure you.

This is a howling, howling, mad-dog scandal, and I am furious that statistics like these are allowed to pass into the mainstream without comment or criticism. From my Behaviour Column in the Times Educational Supplement, I think I get a pretty fair view of the national picture, and I stand by this: behaviour in schools is often appalling because of this tendency to negate exclusions rather than tackle the behaviour itself. If you have a disciplinary process in a school then there has to be a terminus to that process, an ultimate sanction, a point of no return, otherwise the whole process falls apart: if a child misbehaves, a sanction (say, a short detention) is set. If this is missed, the sanctions escalate; if the child still fails to cooperate, or fails to attend, then the school must, must, must reserve the right to suspend its duty to teach and care for that child. If they won't obey simple, reasonable instructions hen we can't guarantee the child's safety- or the children around.

But if the child knows- and some do- that sanctions  can simply be ignored, and little will happen if that ignorance is sufficiently strong-willed, then why on earth would they cooperate? The misbehaviour then becomes entrenched; other pupils notice that the penal system lacks teeth, and start to emulate the behaviour. And then teachers start to give up trying, certain that their efforts will result, in the long run, with no support or success. It is the dry rot that devastates a school from the ground up. It is the bullet in the gut to a school's behavioural boundaries, a slow and awful demise to watch.

And it is entirely preventable; we have to admit that our sanctions need somewhere to go; somewhere we don't want, but somewhere we need to know exists. Exclusions should be the last resort. But by God, without them, we're like a society with judges, policemen, laws and lawyers...but no prisons. Anyone fancy that?

'My pills are all gone.'
Schools aren't only run on boundaries of course; they need compassion and rigour. But boundaries are what define them, and us. That's why any society run on altruism and trust has lasted for less than a heart beat. To be civilised requires restriction; the Hobbesian social contract that ties us together so that we may be even more free. Trying to run a school without boundaries is anti-intelligence, anti-love, anti-civilisation. It is brainless, craven and bureaucratic. It is a victory of data over reality.

And the fact that it is trumpeted by the Head of the NAHT fills me with despair; the fact that Alison Ryan from The ATL echoes this as a victory for hard-working teachers everywhere makes me wonder when the unions stopped giving a shit about education. And then I see that the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb said that 'behaviour was still a significant problem,' and I realise that he knows more than two representatives of two of the biggest teaching unions.

And I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

My Next Book: some clips from the cutting room floor.

'Please teach us, Mr Bennett.'
Here's a short excerpt from my new teaching book I'm writing AS WE SPEAK, to be published sometime next year with Continuum. I'm not sure if I'll leave it in or not at this stage, but I thought I would give it some sunshine. Hope you enjoy it:

A typical cover lesson:

I walk into the unfamiliar classroom (maths- references to Pi and Pythagoras on the walls, piles of graph paper, foreign to my Humanities mind, lie scattered on the floor in defiance of conventional storage patterns), with the familiar and unlovely cocktail of aromas unique to the post-adolescent holding pen- some artificial, some organic- in a cocktail that Coco Chanel is unlikely to market as long as humans possess noses. Although it’s the start of the first lesson, the registration class prior to my arrival has decided to scorn the reactionary principles of rows and columns in furniture, and has attempted to recreate Carl Andre’s minimalist Pile of Bricks from the Tate Exhibition in 1972, using chairs and tables. 
The word CUNT is written on the whiteboard; not the wipeable whiteboard, of course, but the eternally indelible interactive whiteboard that costs £1000. The effect is similar to scratching a cartoon phallus on the immaculate scarlet bonnet of a cherry-red 1975 Ford Gran Torino (symmetrical white vector stripes optional). 
The children are, of course, there before you, because they are familiar with their timetable, and you are a visiting dignitary in their private sphere. Not all of them obviously, because a significant minority has discovered that navigating between registration and their first class is impossible without several essential pit stops; things just need to be said to Darren, and Carmen has something she wants to let some people know, those sorts of missions. Darren, Carmen, Olatinji and the rest of the Baker Street Irregulars will be along presently, causing at least five restarts to the lesson. The students who are there then notice you for the first time. One of them shouts across the room, ‘Are you our teacher?’ in a way that fails to convey the reserve and cautious respect that they no doubt intended to display. ‘Yesss!’ he shouts to his friends, my presence now no more than peripheral to his concerns.
That ‘Yesss!’ carries a lot of context. For a start it means that the students are delighted. Now, unless you are actually Santa Claus, the Candy Man, or in the final five of the current Reality Talent mincing machine on ITV4+1, this reaction is unlikely to denote genuine delight at seeing you. The student is probably not celebrating you as a person, or saluting the holistic totality of your spiritual journey. Rather, he will be doing a little monkey dance at what you represent- which is a cover lesson, or in student parlance, a free lesson- and what you are not, which in this case means an authority figure. Your arrival has triggered the dopamine stores in their cortexes reserved for the start of the Summer Holidays or the final school bell. In other words, they’re delighted that they won’t actually have to work. As far as they’re concerned, I’m smoke. Now all I have to do is sit down and let them get on with conversations about Sartre, Dark Matter, Superstring theory, or more likely, has Hailey Mears got better norks than Jordan? 

I’m in a room with two dozen students; most of whom I most likely haven’t taught. Many of them will look familiar, like déjà vu in a dream, strangers to soap, academia and social convention. There are a number of hoods and jackets still on, and unlikely to come off without a lobster pick and some solvent. A variety of mobile phones are displayed as proudly as the pikestaffs of the Swiss Guard, and were I capable of seeing beyond the visible spectrum and into the ultraviolet world of radio waves, I would be blinded by the maelstrom of grammatical violations and inanities that the information age has facilitated. ‘Around the world, words will fly,’ the sixteenth century Christian mystic Mother Bernadette is alleged to have to have prophesised, ‘In the twinkling of an eye.’ She might have added, ‘But most of it will be total crap.’

With this, my life will be complete. Since 1978.
Some of the students, smelling mere anarchy, move seats in order to be closer to that special someone. Islands of lonely hermits start to appear; these are the ones who are perfectly happy to start working, and have made themselves pariahs for their temerity. Backs are turned to the front. A brave minority is eyeing the open doorway; a fearless vanguard of that subset actually storms it and vanishes down the corridor, hooting like geese. Somewhere at the back, someone’s Mum is cussed- the unforgiveable cuss- and swords are drawn. A book is thrown. Something - possibly Blutak, possibly a snotter wrapped in loathing- sails close enough to my desk to suggest volition. 

And you know what? You just deal with that too. 

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The sleep of reason produces monsters: Oslo, 7/7, and the battle for cultural literacy in schools

Love multiplies.
There are, I think, two appropriate reactions to the tragedy in Norway filling our media tight now:

1. The compassionate reflex: acknowledging the loss, expressing condolences, and bowing our heads and removing our hats before the awfulness of death and cruelty.
2. The rational interpretation: what can this teach us? What does it mean? How do we prevent it happening in future? What good can come of this?

The first reaction is simply a product of humanity; Aristotle claimed we had a natural sympathy for our fellow humans that extended our personal sensitivities to the community. This compassion could be dulled or made keen through practice. Blessed are those who mourn, the Beatitudes tell us, correctly. The correct reaction to tragedy is sadness, not sarcasm. The second reaction is far more fluid, and just as revealing in its production.

Anyone who read the Headlines that screamed ‘Al-Qaeda!’ and ‘Muslim Extremists!’ will know the quiet irony of discovering that the perpetrator- or the apparent perpetrator- seems to be a white Nazi extremist with a vendetta against immigrants. As I say, this is still conjecture. But the speed with which media outlets, talking head rentagobs and armchair commentators raced to accuse the obvious target, was revolting, and telling.

It reminded me of the morning of July the 7th, 2005, the day after London scored the Olympics. In the middle of the morning, word reached us that bombs were going off all over- it seemed- London, with the Aldgate East explosion particularly close. Of course, the word spread through the school faster than broadband, and classes were untameable with nerves, fear and excitement. Some pupils, instructed by their parents, climbed over the fence and went home; the word we got from the police and LEA was to keep all pupils in school until further notice. Behaviour fractured and frayed everywhere, and with mobiles down and the BBC crashing, we moved in a siege atmosphere.

Hate multiplies.
Most disturbingly, imaginations leapt to match everyone’s’ anxieties. Where my generation would have mouthed ‘The Republicans’ at the mention of a terrorist lock-down, these children belonged to a different age. ‘It’s the Muslims, sir’ one excitable boy shouted in class. ‘They’re finally starting.’ I assured him that nothing was starting. ‘My Dad says it was just a matter of time.’ And something inside me shrivelled up into a ball. Others agreed with him.

Other theories abounded; the most unusual was that it was ‘The French’ because they lost the Olympic bid, and amidst all the chaff against Islam, I even heard a lone voice asking if it was ‘The Jews’- at least his grasp of conspiracy and racism showed evidence of independent learning and scholarship. More and more, rumours were repeated as fact by credulous correspondents, until they were relayed as fact to third parties. I watched as conjecture reified into conclusions, and a crypto-history took shape. It was then I understood how myths take root, and transplant themselves into new soil. I saw the invention of cults and conspiracies in microcosm. In the absence of information, the human curiosity cannot bear the privation, and creates a scenario that satisfies its questions.

This is at once the human power and weakness, vice and virtue rolled into one: we abhor, like nature, a vacuum of explanation; we intuitively demand causes and explanations; our empiricist lust has propelled us to the top of the tree, and commits us to seeing patterns where sometimes, none exist.
I determined to fill that vacuum. You cannot teach tolerance, not in two fifty minute sessions a week, but you can dispel the darkness of ignorance and hold a candle to illuminate. I threw all my lesson plans out for that day (that was easy- I never used them anyway), and decided that for the next four lessons I would teach the same theme: Jihad, and the difference between fundamentalism and mainstream Islamic faith, tailored to the different age capacities of reasoning and comprehension. 

7/7 Memorial, Hyde Park
For the rest of the day, I hammered home the difference between Lesser Jihad (when a Muslim can legitimately wage war on an enemy; often foolishly and carelessly called ‘Holy War’) and Greater Jihad, the constant, daily struggle that a Muslim wages against temptation and moral weakness. We debated, and argued, I lectured and questioned; I got the few, sheepish looking Muslims in class to explain their perspectives on the matter...anything I could think of to have my classes leave school that day understanding a little bit more than they did before they came. What they did with that understanding was up to them. The curriculum went out the window, but I can live with that; so did everything else.

When something as horrific as the Norwegian massacre occurs, it offers us at least one, tiny crumb of opportunity: to react with dignity and integrity. The Prime Minister of Norway said that he would retaliate with ‘More democracy.’ That moving and powerful statement reminded me of Martin Luther King’s famous quote: 

‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies.’

Hate multiplies. And so does love.

Dedicated with respect to the victims and families of Norway.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Power Behind the Throne: Joel Klein, News Corp and the Education Revolution

Wormtongue and Saruman; Klein behind. Not in the pink jacket. Probably.
Joel Klein sat behind the Murdochs throughout their media crucible today. Why is he important? Because he’s one of the inner circle that Murdoch summoned to handle the crisis facing News International- and may I just say, what a brilliant job you've done so far. Really kept a lid on things.

He’s a man with a past, and a big interest in education, and he’s coming to a school near you. If that doesn’t chill your blood, I suggest that ice water already pumps through your veins. Last year he stepped down as head of New York’s schools so that he could take a position as head of News Corps Education Division (after turning down an offer to run the Security Wing of Omni Consumer Products in Detroit, after Dick Jones's misjudged Robocop venture).

In the US he also ran the Antitrust department of the US Department of Justice; antitrust, as you probably know, is a legal field concerned with breaking up and preventing monopolies, something that Murdoch is, let’s be honest, pretty interested in. And by ‘pretty interested’ I mean ‘up to his armpits, obsessively, consumed by,’ given his desire to see the BBC split into teams of three people or less, running through the High Street interviewing shoppers about the weather on phone cameras (as trialled by The One Show).

And now he’s got his sights and heart, were he to possess such a thing, on education. Not that he actually has any experience in such a thing- trained as a lawyer- but that didn’t stop NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg appointing him to run one of the nation’s biggest systems. See? Education’s easy. He wasn’t popular there, focussing on performance targets for teachers, data driven programs, closed schools and, some say, favoured charter schools (think: free) over state schools (think: poor). But he is frighteningly qualified, having worked for Clinton’s legal team during the impeachment, and graduating Magna cum Laude from both Columbia and Harvard Universities. Stupid he is not. 

But that’s the past. Today, Joel Klein is very interested in Digital Education start ups, or as Reuters puts it, ‘offering individualized, technology-based content and learning opportunities for to support students and teachers’, which is one of those phrases that makes you want to kill yourself before you even get to halfway.

Dreaming of digital e-learning platforms.
Let me give you a flavour of what Klein's mission statement is in education, and you can judge for yourself if you should quake or cheer  that he's in charge of Rupert Murdoch's bid for educational marketspace. He recently appeared at the Sunday Times Festival of Education; here's what he had to say in relation to that:

'And unless we’re prepared to do three difficult, but essential, things, we will never achieve real results: rebuild our entire...system on a platform of accountability; attract more top-flight recruits into teaching; and use technology very differently to improve instruction.'

So let me just clarify, based on what we know his favorite educational policies are:

1. Accountability. Setting targets for students and their teachers. Nothing wrong with teacher led, aspirational targets, but that's not what he means. He means statistical targets, inevitably generated by computer modelling, which is as individually predictive as typing your likes/ dislikes into a career program to work out what job you should take. Teachers, presumably, will be promoted, graded and granted access to unlock higher pay scales through such means. You can see why the Unions in the US didn't invite him over for Thanksgiving.

2. Attracting top-flight recruits. Again, this sounds great, who could possibly object? But who? Troops to teachers? The Stockbroker diaspora? People with first class degrees? None of these teachers offer a character and skill set that guarantees, or even increases the likeliness of someone being a great teacher. Great teacher training makes great teachers, as long as they've got certain basic qualities. As the Fast Track, and its successor program Teach First shows, the problem isn't that our current teachers are rubbish. The problem is that there's an international deficit of fairly traditional, authoritative and compassionate teaching/ schools with clear boundaries and consequences, and high expectations.

3. The Digital Classroom revolution. I am all for new technology in the classroom, used in new and interesting ways. But I have been waiting for this revolution since they introduced BBC Micros into my school, to transform and improve the paradigm of how we learn. And it still hasn't, because people (and their brains and their minds) are still substantially the same as we've been for thousands of years. IT offers wonderful opportunities, and I embrace them. But information on a screen is still information; getting children to work, to focus, to avoid misbehaviour, to think for themselves...all of these teacher challenges are ancient, and unresolved by the format upon which the learning is provided.

But there's another reason to be wary of a lot of what Klein might represent for education in the US or closer to home: education isn't a commodity. And any time someone tries to sell you something, you're right to exercise caution. The market and human welfare aren't easy bedfellows; sometimes it's closer to a not-for-profit than a business. So what can they sell to schools?

Answer: IT packages; hardware; software; lucrative support; spurious claims to revolutionary systems that improve learning by 150%. And that's the hidden danger of the revolution: it isn't a revolution at all.

It's a hustle. It's a corporate take over.

And right now, does anyone want News Corp getting involved in their school?

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Spanish Inquisition announces new 'no-warning' policy: the week's news in education

Inquisition announces new 'no-warning' policy: schools 'not expecting' it.

In a formal announcement today, the Grand Inquisitor or Her Majesty's Inspectorate revealed plans for 'surprise trials' for all baptised Christians of Spanish origin and any school covered by the Education Act, 1988. Miriam Rosen, the interim Inquisitor said that this would end the current practise of schools concealing heretical activities and breaches of Department orthodoxy.
Students can now trigger Inquisitions.

'The catechisms of best practise are there for a reason,' said Ms Rosen, standing in for Tomas de Torquemada, the previous Head. 'Mainly so that we know who to burn at the stake and who not to.'
Answering allegations that the dawn raids implied that schools had something to hide, Ms Rosen was characteristically unrepentant:

'Of course it doesn't. The innocent, pious mainstream majority have nothing to fear. But anyone attempting to conceal any one of the seven deadly sins with the illusion of good data management...well, let's just say that the auto-da-fé is just one of the many options we have; also, notices of special measures, but mainly auto-da-fé .'

'By testing out unannounced monitoring visits, we will see if there is even more we can do to help schools address behaviour problems: for example, immolation. Teachers will be encouraged to confess their sins, before being taken in procession through the town, until they reach the quemadero, or burning place. At that point they find out if they were graded satisfactory, good, outstanding, or damned forever in the fire that gives no light.

In an article in today's Witchfinder Times, it was reported that there were rumours that Michael Wilshaw, Head of Mossbourne Monastery in London's deprived diocese of Hackney, would step into the Grand Inquisitor role.

'We will have three weapons in the battle to reclaim schools as educational spaces,' he said recently. 'Consistency, uniform, discipline and clear leadership.'

Brian Mendicant, a teacher who asked not be named, said last night, 'I wasn't expecting this.'

New Teacher Standards hailed as 'Whiteboard Revolution'

Teachers filled the streets last night in tearful thousands as the news was announced that teacher standards would be include 'tolerance' and 'respect.'

More of this, apparently.
'Thank God, thank GOD,' said one jubilant teacher, 'This is what we finally needed after all the years in the wilderness. Now I know that I am supposed to both demonstrate and encourage basic manners and civility. Previously I wasn't sure if I could swear at them, or call them little sh*ts, but now it feels like the scales have fallen from my eyes. Hallelujah! Can I kiss you?'

The New Standards were launced in response to criticisms that the old standards were old, ambiguous and vague.

'These will be new, ambiguous and vague,' one government spokesman assured us. 'For example, teachers will be required to uphold British values. Do you know what that means? No, me neither. It might mean getting flustered in a queue when someone doesn't have the right change. Or then again, it might mean marching into someone else's country and strip mining it. See? Something for everyone.'

He added, 'Teachers should make sure their personal beliefs "are not expressed in ways which exploit pupils' vulnerability".' This finally clarifies the position that teachers must take if they, for example, feel tempted to tell small children that stealing is wrong, or that peeing in someone else's shoe might be a bad thing. Clearly, the child must decide for himself if such matters are right or wrong- top-down, prescriptive brain washing must be seen as directly contravening their rights as guaranteed by the Geneva Convention.'

'You are extremely welcome,' he said, before leaving for an Idea-Shower to rewrite the American Constitution in Trustafarian patois, and updating Delia Smith's instructions on how to boil an egg.

The Learning Environment: there are BALLS in your MOUTH

With thanks to Paul Anderson for providing the link to the excellent Penny Arcade..

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Box: Shift Doesn’t Happen, Ken Robinson, and the creative epiphenomenal imbroglio

++++Warning: contains references to Twitter memes+++++

The Box Mark II: Now, made from blancmange.
The box, the box, the box; the much maligned box. The box has been getting a pretty rough time of it lately- I think it needs to hire Max Clifford to do some PR. The poor bloody box. Thinking outside of it has become such a dogma that it almost begs the question, what did we ever need a box for? Stupid bloody box, why don’t we just get rid, and herald a golden dawn where boxes are remnants of a decadent past, and we all....oh, hang on. Where am I going to keep my bananas? I have no box. Perhaps I can build one out of some paper clips, made of foam, a hundred feet high.

Actually, does anyone have one of those box things?

Shift Doesn't Happen

Have you seen Shift Happens? Of course you have, when you’re not twittering about Hugh Grant. Around five million people have seen the 2006 viral PowerPoint by Karl Fisch that describes how scary and weird the future will be, and how we’ll all have to learn Esperanto and live in tree houses to cope with it all. I saw it years ago at a staff meeting, where it was used as a starter. Very stirring, full of portentous predictions about the future, and terribly big numbers about how many geniuses China had and so on; and the music was terrific. But even then I had my doubts, despite the ontological certainty it possessed.

Then I realised what gave it potency; it was the music- the music made it, in the way that good music can often rescue poor drama (see: the ending of any Holby City) or imbue any situation, however trivial, with pathos (see: X-Factor’s horrific misappropriation of Carmina Burana whenever some strung out twinky gets to the last round) and gravity. The excellent piece (The Gael, by Scots writer Dougie Maclean, and adapted by Trevor Jones) is used to great effect at the end of The Last of the Mohicans- a perfect example of music and motion working  in synchronicity, multiplying each other.
Shift Happens is an empty, brainless rant- it takes a stirring piece of music (which Fisch’s collaborator said he added ‘to keep people awake’, which is telling) and treats the viewer to a mixture of mundane statistics and spurious observation posing as deductive syllogisms. Try watching it with the sound down and you’ll see exactly how knuckle-headed it all is. I’ll summarise:

  •        Gosh, aren’t there lots of people in the world?
  •        The world is changing
  •         Everything we think we know will be useless in about five minutes.
  •         Shift Happens!
And this is meant to be a good thing?
And that’s it. It’s the video that popularised the mantra ‘According to the former Secretary of Education Richard Riley’- dramatic pause- ‘The top 10 jobs that will be in demand in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004!’ Now that is the stupidest thing I’ve heard for a long, long time. For a start, it assumes a knowledge of the future that I normally associate with the Delphic Oracle or St John of Patmos. Really? How the hell do you know? Add to that the Marx-Brothers logic of what it actually says: the jobs don’t exist yet? Where does he think that jobs come from? As many other commentators have noted, sure, maybe’ Iphone App designer’ didn’t exist as a career option in 2006, but the job didn’t spring out of nowhere- it emerged from existing careers and disciplines; design, programming, etc. To say it’s a ‘new’ job that ‘didn’t exist’ before is moronic- the job of sweeping up after the 2012 Olympics doesn’t exist yet, but when it does I suspect no one will faint in terror at the modernity of it all.

‘We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist yet...using technologies that haven’t been order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet...’

And so it goes on, serious as a chastened child, sticking it’s bottom lip out and frowning. If anyone has the time and energy, could you put this video up online, but this time with the theme from Benny Hill on behind it? Then we can all have a good laugh. Although it’s not all giggles; there’s even a slightly ominous ‘If we don’t get our shit together we’ll all be gobbled up by Indo-China’ thread running through it, which seems to be a rather gauche piece of fear mongering. We don’t want those f*cking brown and yellow people catching up with us, do we?

It doesn’t help that it chips in lines like:
‘If Myspace were a country, it would be the 11th largest in the world.’ 
Really? *clutches heart* And if the streets were made of trifle we’d all have to buy Wellington Boots. Lucky they aren’t, eh? And funnily enough, MySpace isn’t a country, so that’s that then, and neither are: ‘all the left-handed people in the world’, ‘all the people who watch Torchwood’, or ‘all the people who missed the tube on the way home last night’.  For God’s sake.
‘It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in his entire lifetime in the 18th century.
I have absolutely no idea how you would come about a statistic like that- what is information? How can you quantify it? As I sit here at my desk, I am bathed in a constant stream of experiences, from the light entering my eyes, to the feeling of the chair on my righteous ass. Is that information? How do I break that down into quantifiable units? Does a fact about the weather in Madagascar count as information, but the sound of a crow outside my window escape quantification? 

Or my favourite:
‘The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years.’
Really? How on Earth do you know that? What’s the measurement? It gets better:
‘For students starting a four year technical or college degree this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.’
Elmer Fudd could knock this one down. Outdated? If you mean ‘learned at a previous date,’ then, sure. If you mean ‘irrelevant’ then, er...not sure. So if I go to Uni and study the laws of thermodynamics because I want to become a scientist, they no longer apply by the time I leave? Boyle’s Law? The laws of motion? Yes, I remember when we had to throw them out the window and start again, after all ,they’re hundreds of years old, surely annihilated by the paradigm shifts that have taken place several hundreds of times, according to Shift Happens. Oh, wait, they’re still applicable. Funny that.
It goes on; apparently Nintendo spent a jillion dollars on R&D, but in the same time, ‘the US government didn’t even spend half this much on research and innovation in education.’ Oh no! Barricade the pet shops! Frankly, that last stat delights me- the idea that innovation is the transformative key to our industry, or the idea that research will act as its salvational mechanism, is appealing but dangerously wrong.

And it would be easy to ignore; but this type of thinking, fuelled by this sort of sexy, brave new world advertising has infected the way we view education, and harmed how we view the role of education, and the most effective ways of education. For a start, it generates the myth that what we teach children (content, facts, etc) is less relevant; because everything’s changing so frightfully fast, isn’t it, why bother teaching them anything? This leads to the second danger; the idea that if content is irrelevant (we can Google it after all) then what we should be teaching children is versatility, the ability to think on their feet, the ability to think creatively and adapt to the chaotic culture and fluid job market that our children will enter. Why, it’ll be barely recognisable! Who needs history, or formulae, when the inheritors of tomorrow will need all their wits about them just to inhabit the cyber sphere.

The creator of Shift Happens
Balls. Shift Happens came out in 2006, and some of its predictions could be tested in 2010 (in a manner not dissimilar to Back to the Future, which predicted a variety of dystopian/ utopian crypto-cultures that would be with us by the staggeringly distant...2015. Great Scott! Hover boots any day now). And having lived through the specified eras, I can confirm that...well, it’s not all that different, really, is it? The News of the World is still the biggest selling weekly rag, and Will Self still appears on Newsnight under the influence of Heroin. Even Sooty is back. Hello, Sooty *waves*.

The idea that we live in a radical, fluid epoch in history where nothing is certain, and the future is impossible to predict....well, isn’t that how it’s always been? That’s the problem of inductive inferences- you’re never certain, and we rely on the reassuring semi-certainties of past experience and the Einstellung effect to paddle our canoes into the future, or back to the future, perhaps. Kids need to be educated just as much in maths, English, humanities and arts as they always did. The minute we stop doing so is the point at which we will be de-educating our selves back to the Stone Age. Let’s not do that, eh?

Sir Ken Robinson, slayer of educational paradigms

Connected to this is the noble Sir Ken Robinson the spokesman of revolutionising the educational paradigms, which he does before breakfast, after which he moves on to inspiring, I don’t know, children on the Moon or something.

He is enormously popular, one of the new academic supercelebs created by the unifying power of the internet, and proving it’s not all LOL cats, schadenfreude and perversion.
He exists as part of the brainy internet elite created by the information superhighway; famous for his inspirational speeches and TED conferences, he has achieved a fame and influence that would have been hard to imagine prior to the web- which IS  one of the game changers that we can recognise as culturally significant.

It is impossible not to like Robinson; like Daniel Willingham in his excellent article for the Washington Post I have also been sent his 2010 RSA lecture (put to excellent animation by this video) by well-meaning friends who know that I am interested in all matters pedagogic. He is charming, erudite, quick witted and has a wonder sense of timing that makes him a rarity- an entertaining academic. But like Shift Happens, I’m worried about the content behind the music, and while I agree with him on many things, there are many dangerous ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear dangerous fruits.

He talks about our educational system as having emerged from the cocoon of industry, and being based on a factory model, which he says like it’s a bad thing. The image of schools as factories is a powerful one, and –correctly- makes us recoil to imagine children as drones in a hive, divided in their labour and alienated from their produce. So far, so Marxist. 

But we also need to consider the question, ‘What is a better way to educate millions and millions of children?’ The only answer that can be provided is ‘in large numbers, together, in schools. Those schools will require classrooms. And in those classrooms they will study subjects taught by specialists, because while all knowledge is undoubtedly interrelated, it is hard to find people who understand more than one specialism.’ Hence, the modern education system.

Welcome back
There is nothing nefarious or soul destroying in accepting this: yes, it would be great for children to receive genuinely personalised learning.  But what nation could afford this? And besides, who is to say that such a way of educating wouldn’t bring its own attendant problems. Until everything becomes free, the best, the most efficient way of teaching children is in the context of the class, in the school paradigm. Of course, Ken correctly identifies that there are lots of ways we can play with this model- why do we teach children in chronological cohorts( apart from the obvious reasons), when many countries allow progression only after ability has been confirmed, for example?

The claim that modern education was designed for a different age is wrong- for a start, the education system hat we know is frighteningly modern; the curriculum, some of the subjects, most of the qualifications, a lot of the teaching practise, and even the varieties of schools, are almost entirely the product of the post war era, and even formal state schooling itself was only instituted in any meaningful way right at the end of the 19th century. This isn’t an old system- this is a child, and pretending that we’re simply slavishly following the paradigms of the ancients is an absurd claim, absolutely at odds with the truth. Therefore the claim that it isn’t fit for purpose (for many of the reasons that Shift Happens claims) just isn’t true,. There are many things wrong with education, but that’s not the same claim as ‘the whole thing needs to be tipped on its head and made to limbo dance.’

One of his principle objections is that creative thinking has historically and currently been marginalised in society and education, and there’s some truth in that (although not when you consider that the top earners in society, discounting media moguls and businessmen, are often entertainers, artists and creatives). But I digress. It’s true that education is tilted heavily towards English, Maths and Science, and the structural appreciation of those faculties. But the last time I looked, the curriculum was also stuffed with drama, music, dance, writing essays, poetry, design, textiles, expressive arts, and on and on and on. If creativity is being given a raw deal I think it could be a hell of a lot worse.

Shift Happens's greatest fear.
And even in the so called academic subjects, where on earth is the prohibition on creativity? I don’t know of any subject in any of the academic disciplines that don’t cater for, or require a creative component. All humanities subjects need the student to synthesise ideas and promote their own arguments; English appreciation and literature involves the systematic reproduction of the creative process in order to criticise it, and that’s when the students are themselves not writing essays or poems. The suggestion that the contemporary curriculum is somehow the death-knell of creativity is nonsense. It's a bona fide saviour; millions of children exposed to a spectrum of art and opportunity that our grandparents would have drooled over.

Also, the idea that schools somehow drive creativity out of a child is laughable; Robinson’s hypothesis is this: a ‘study’ (ah, studies, my favourite. Ultimate Truth Alert!)  shows that if you ask a kindergarten child what a paper clip could be used for, 98% of them achieve ‘genius level’ number of answers. But as they get older, the % reduces, which proves, according to Robinson, that the dastardly education system turns creative geniuses into simple-minded, mouth-breathing morons. Or ...perhaps as children get older they realise that there’s a fabulous use for a paper clip that really, really makes sense: to bind loose sheets of paper together. Oh yeah, sure, it can be used as a miniature radio receiver for Stuart Little or some bloody thing, but frankly, there are better things out there that do that too. A paper clip makes a great paper clip. That’s not a deficit in the imagination of a child; it’s an asset for them to quickly associate intended function with form. That way they get their papers sorted out much more quickly. If you spend all your time trying to figure out a novel way of making fire, we’ll all freeze to death while the innovators rub their heads together furiously.

Sir Ken Robinson is a fantastic speaker and passionate advocate of the creative arts, and he deserves enormous credit for standing up against a good many inequities in education. But I tire of someone who has never been a classroom teacher telling me what classroom teaching is like, or how children should be taught. If I can paraphrase- I suspect- Christopher Hitchens, being told by a non-teacher with a PhD in education how to teach is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid. His good intentions and intuitions can't replace the real experience of teaching children. Well meant aphorisms about arming children to engage with the new learning society are easy to find inspirational; but they’re empty. It’s far harder to inspire someone with concrete and practical ideas. And abstracts, though they sound beautiful, are harder to both prove and disprove.

The Box

And that brings me back to the Box. 

There has been an assault on the box. Thinking outside the box is the by-now clichéd way of expressing an ability or tendency to think in new, unusual or creative ways, bringing surprising solutions to old problems. It assumes that existing paradigms (ie conventional conceptual schemes, or ways of perceiving something) are inadequate for dealing with unusual or new challenges. And that is correctly perceived as a good thing. Like Alexander, mythically cutting through the fabled knot at Gordus, lateral thinking has become the new orthodoxy for intelligence.

But it assumes that existing paradigms are inadequate, and that the original box wasn’t fit for purpose. And it fails to take into account the wisdom of tradition; it assumes that the new paradigm will be a superior solution, when it is not. Or it may be a partially superior solution for one aspect of the paradigm’s problems, but not for others. 

Calling education ‘unfit for purpose’ is simply a statement of opinion, and an ill-informed one at that. There is a reason why a bowl of custard makes a poor key ring- that’s unfit for purpose. But a small circle of metal with overlapping ends that require you to lose a thumbnail to access? Well that works quite well, actually. Children and adults already think creatively- that’s something axiomatic about human nature. I imagine that every card carrying genius level designer, artist and innovator- the Dysons, the Fosters, the Sinclairs, the Einsteins that we so admire, had an education that was in many ways traditional- the box was a perfectly suitable start for them; providing a framework, a structure, a skeleton of the best of previous generations’ thinking, creating a springboard from which they could...well, spring. 

Isaac Newton’s famous quote ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’ is a perfect expression of this art. No thinker exists in a state of solipsism; we all lean on the achievements of our predecessors, and the most inventive of us will adapt and improve that work, often in surprising ways, but rarely in a manner that is literally entirely new. 

The internet is the product of prior discoveries in telecommunications, which can be traced back to the tinkering of Marconi and the embryonic machinations of Edison, Faraday, and a million other explorers. Rap, grunge and garage can all be traced back to common ancestors of thought and ingenuity. We are a culture in a stream of cultures, and the biggest mistake we can make is to fail to discern that this is so. Creativity is a quality in the human spirit; it can, and should be encouraged by bold experiments and grand failures, both in schools and in the greater world. Of course it should. But innovation isn’t all, and paradigms that have existed for thousands of years might not benefit from constant, and foundational innovation. Sometimes, like the shark, they have remained in a stationary state of evolution because they are exactly fit for purpose. Old ideas are not always bad ideas, and the endless advancement of novelty and the shock of the new is a poor reason to overturn everything. Revolutions must serve a purpose.

'First Owl Trend ever. Win.'
Take the chair I’m sitting on; as we speak it has four sturdy legs supporting its valuable cargo, tapping away. But hold! There’s nowhere to put my Irn Bru. What a crock of sh*t. Thinking creatively, I give one of the chair legs a stiff tug, and attach it to the back rest with some sellotape I have handy, in case the creative muse grips me. Oh dear, I now appear to be on my ass.

The chair, you see, was a pretty good shape for the purpose it was designed to fulfil. Now it’s an unusual paperweight in the middle of my floor, and I’m wearing a soft drink.

In a vague but determined attempt to shoehorn some contemporary news into this post, I could mention that Joel Klein, News International’s head of Educational Resource Development and Child Sacrifice, and now a prominent figure in the face saving antics of NI this week, is part of this push for unnecessary progress; his aim, and NI’s aim (which therefore makes it Satanic) is to develop (i.e. push, like cocaine) software and educational packages deeper and deeper into the curriculum, with an eye to students learning for themselves from educational software, devaluing the role of the school and the teacher. Who needs teachers, anyway? What do they actually do? Nothing that a computer program couldn’t, it seems. At least, that’s what this implies. And of course the ideology that informs this (apart from self interest and profit, which are the real motivators) is the idea that the teacher is essentially a delivery mechanism, replaceable by something kids can stick into the back of their Playstations. Innovate, innovate, innovate. If it’s new, it’s good.

Every time I hear about someone saying that kids learn in different ways these days, and that we teachers have to get on board or get off the bus, I despair. No they don’t. People are the same as they’ve always been. And they learn in the same ways. And no amount of expensive software or digital popcorn will alter that fact. This isn’t being reactionary- this is me trying to fight off the vultures that want to commodify education, and turn it into something they can sell us. It isn’t. Education takes place in a space where the teacher and student exist in a relationship; where the learned instructs and guides the learner. It isn’t a software package; these things are tools, strategies, but not replacements.

And every time I hear people calling for a revolution in the curriculum, or a brand, brave new world of education, where pupils turn up and give the lessons in semi-circles, using the medium of the Haka to describe their physics homework, I roll my eyes and wonder when the bad noises in my head will stop. 

Innovation is fine. And sometimes a paperclip is a paperclip.

Washington Post article

OldAndrew's blog on similar issues; like mine, but with better research and references.