The Battle for the Educational High Ground: how deep is your love?

'Do you have any fantastic SEAL resources for me?' 
WARNING: Contains references to Bunny-Huggers.

There is a scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. If you've seen it, I will anticipate your attempts to recite it verbatim; and if you haven't, the example is redundant. All that needs to be said is that in one scene a small group of ultra-activist politicos pour scorn on the revisionist, repellant views of their former colleagues. One is, of course, the People's Front of Judea, and the other is the Judean Peoples' Front. Both are splinters from the same branch; both are anathema to each other. Both seem, outwardly, to be identical apart from in ways that would require Brian Cox and a very big microscope to discern. Perhaps not even then.

I'm reminded of this every time I wax down my cyber surfboard and catch some wwwaves in the edunet (apologies if neologisms make you sick a little bit in your mouth *heaves* it's ok, I'm fine), especially at the beginning of the school year. When I started teaching, the geography of the profession was so alien to me that everything looked the same. Now that I am a man, I can tell accents apart, as well as dogmas. You know how they're always telling you to be a reflective practitioner? What they really mean is 'I want you to agree with everything I tell you.' Which is funny, because the last time I checked that was the opposite of being reflective.

So I followed the opposite of the advice in every teacher training manual, and tried to become a reflective practitioner. Those of you kind or sympathetic enough to read my columns, blogs or books will be familiar with some of my more frequently visited tropes- bad educational science, the commodification of learning, and the behaviour crisis, to name three. I'd like to pick up on another, which I'm going to call..

The Great Education War for the Moral High Ground.

(If I can boil that down to one word, I can sell it to Michael Gladwell and we can go to print with it. Anyway.)

This is something I frequently see in any online discussion of education, in the badlands of Twitter, and most conspicuously, dripping from the pages of commercial educational websites. In the style of all good philosophy teachers, I'll define and illustrate with an example. Or was it exemplify with an illustration?

'The belief that one's own approach to education is the most positive, compassionate and moral. Often accompanied by the unshakeable belief that unbelievers are cruel, tyrannical child-haters who would be happier grinding preschoolers into strawberry jam and catching truants with a crossbow.'

A child's dreams, yesterday.
I only say this, because I find that in every village of the enchanted Kingdom of Education, there's a well-meaning crier in full throat, shouting stuff like, 'Every child who leaves school without succeeding is my personal failure,' or 'There is a rainbow inside every student, and our job is to let it out.' Or, my personal favourite, 'The job of the teacher is to learn from the students.' I'm serious, I've seen all these turkeys.

Smurf Spoiler Alert!

Now, on the face of it, it rather paints one as a bit of a meany to be critical of such sentiments, as if one were standing outside the cinema before The Smurfs started and shouting that Gargamel gets slotted in the end. But there is a danger in tacitly accepting this kind of babble, as if you were some kind of Teacher-Santa, indulgently messing the hair of a child and saying, 'Oh, you kids.' Because behind every platitude, there rests an enormous tangle of assumptions about the aims of education, how children should be educated, directed, and led. If you, for example, believe that 'Every child is a butterfly' or some flannel, then you'll have a very distinct approach to setting targets and discipline, than if you had the belief that every child was, say, composed of fire ants or tsetse flies.

So when I read something else on Twitter like 'If you catch them being good, you'll surprise them into learning', I feel like I'm reading a Cat Calendar, or the memoirs of Liberace or something. Yet inevitably if you challenge the integrity and authenticity of such comments (which, I might add, worryingly get about a million thumbs-ups, likes, retweets or however cyber appreciation is expressed) you get scowled at for being a downer. But this is the problem with platitudes; because they are broad, vague, poetic and ambiguous, they can be read in so many ways. And they certainly don't require any experiential support or evidence- their strength lies in their musicality, or the chord of emotional resonance that it rings in the reader. In other words, they rely on rhetoric rather than reason.

Is this you? I can see you.
It's almost as if many in education wish to be prophets, not coming down from the mountain, but climbing up, ever upwards, desperately trying to evade being beaten to the moral high ground. They have to be the ones who love children the most, the ones who want the best for the child. Often the only way to achieve this is to exaggerate the claims of their nearest competitors; so if one educational bunny-hugger claims that most children respond best to praise rather than admonition, someone else will say that ALL children respond in such a way. And usually, such views are irritatingly, cloyingly, depressingly optimistic. Nothing against optimism, but remember that it's an attitude, not a policy.

Also, they usually tend to be of the 'progressive education' flavour, which always gets my goat nicely. Any criticism of such inevitably attracts one of the stock 'Your paradigm rests on the factory model' or something equally moronic and incorrect. My favorite response is usually when I make some sniffy comment about the failure of IT to revolutionise the classroom, and someone says, 'Dude, this is the 21st century,' as if we should all be in hover-boots by now. 'Why don't you work in a profession with no children if you want to bully them?'

Well I have something to say about that. I love children; I love teaching children, particularly in the secondary age range. I adore education, and I adore my subjects. Since becoming a teacher I have never been happier, and I have never felt more like I was achieving what Aristotle would call my Eudaimonia, my flourishing. Giving punishments makes me feel desperately uncomfortable, and maintaining the cold stare, the silence, or the disappointed tone, makes me squirm inside. But I know that I have to set sanctions because I want my children to succeed, and sometimes, admonitions and sanctions are the best way to set students back on Straight Street. I believe that the rest of society has already thought of this idea for keeping peace and encouraging good behaviour- it's called law, which is never perfect, but the boys in the lab have yet to get back to us with anything better.

So whenever I hear some well-meaning, pointy-headed middle-brow tell me that detentions don't work, that children will behave if the lessons are good enough, that setting sanctions trains them into habits of cruelty and resentment...well, I just feel kind of annoyed that these people have been allowed to ruin the education of thousands and thousands of children for generations. Being anything less than firm with many children will result in them playing hopscotch on your good intentions and ambitions. That doesn't mean hitting them, or shouting at them, or dangling them from the edge of Canary Wharf or something. It means being firm. It means setting boundaries and sticking to them. It means having high expectations of children and not accepting it when they want to immediately give up.

Sometimes this means showing them that your boundaries are meaningful, and patrolled meaningfully with sanctions. But these are behaviour modifiers, with an aim to providing the best habits to learn and flourish. They are the product of love, in exactly the same way that a parent will scold a child that acts cruelly, or selfishly in order to teach them to pursue other aims. It's because of love, not in spite of it.

To allow a child to do as they please, embedding habits of egotism and indulgence, is one of the cruellest things you do for them, particularly if you're interested in social mobility, which I believe is rather popular. Love is a broad enough concept that it often gets confused with the emotion part of compassion, but this is only an incidental, second order characteristic. Love is directed outwards; love seeks the  true benefit of others, even at the expense of yourself.

What does that mean to a teacher? That means putting the educational aims of the class before your own selfish desires, laziness, angst or anxiety. It means working as hard as you can for their benefit. It means identifying their benefit in the best education you can provide. What it doesn't mean is indulging their immediate desires, or deferring to their whims, because what serves the immediate pleasure of a child will often be to their eventual detriment, in the same way that a child, if given the choice, might defer salads and study for marshmallow and chocolate pizzas (which I have actually seen on sale in Glasgow, of course) and COD. This isn't an anti-child manifesto; it is profoundly pro-child, and an acknowledgement that children aren't angels or devils, merely human, just as we are, with all of our wonderful virtues and vices, frailties and perfections.

As teachers, we need to be more muscular in this aim; we need to be unafraid to state that these simple axioms are at the basis of the classroom relationship. We mustn't be ashamed to say that we're in charge of the classroom, that the child is subordinate in authority to the adult, that the teacher is the expert, and that praise and blame are equal partners in the field of behaviour modification.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to believe in the power of someone's dreams. Hold onto your dreams, and don't stop chasing rainbows.


  1. This article reminded me of a great quote from a Terry Pratchett novel:

    ‘Now… If you trust in yourself…’
    ‘… and believe in your dreams…”
    ‘… and follow your star…’
    ‘… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye’

    I'm considering putting it on display in my classroom.

  2. As I am busy introducing a Y3 class to the world of Juniors, I entirely agree with the role of firmness and consistency. We will eventually have helped them along the road to be independent effective learners, but I don't have a magic wand.

  3. @ Neil

    Never been a fan of TP, but in that instance, I'm on the team.

  4. @AliG

    Yes, the irony- if you give them clear boundaries at the start of their education, it becomes a climbing frame for them to reach greater heights of independence, as learners and as people. Ah, the irony...

    Good luck with the year 3s!


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