Sunday, 26 February 2012

Real Steel in the classroom: how we need to be more than robots to be teachers.

Machine versus humans
Real Steel: boxing robots as a metaphor for teaching

For those of you who haven't, or will never, see it, Real Steel is a film aimed at the family market. It's set in the near-future, where boxing has been replaced with robot boxing.

Bear with me.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, an ex-boxer/ loser who bums around from fight to fight with an assortment of junk robots, always one step away from the gutter. Through an improbable twist, he gets temporary custody of his estranged 11 year old son; they start the film hating each other, and if you can't see the plot/ character arc sweeping down on you like the Valkyries then you need better narrative radar. It's a kids/ family movie, and I thought it was rather wonderful, but that's not the point.


Now that I've chased off the last few of you, it's just you and me. Either you've seen it, or you don't intend to, or you don't care. Either way, take a ring-side seat with me for the finale. Like a deathless Rocky meme, Charlie and his son have restored a beaten-up Atari of a robot and got him through unlicensed fights until he's up against Zeus, the World Champion, a gleaming, sinister, black Ferrari of a tank with fists. Programmed with an onboard fight simulator that can anticipate millions of combat options, he is unbeatable.

Contrast Zeus with Atom, Charlie's reconditioned junk heap; he's a ruin, he's old, he's built from scraps and spares. But he can take punishment, and most importantly, he's got the ability to learn to fight from humans, as Charlie reluctantly demonstrates when he agrees to teach the robot his old boxing moves. Also, Charlie tends to take remote control of the robot for some fights. If you haven't spotted the 'tin man with a heart' symbolism by this point, I don't know what. The heavy implication is that Atom, the ruined loser on a comeback, is the simulacrum of Charlie; both are lost and broken; both restored by the faith of a child (which was also the name of Celine Dion's last Grammy-repellant, I believe).

This is what gives Atom the edge; Charlie's experience and skill, transmitted through Atom, makes him see how the fight needs to be fought. There's even a nice touch when, as part of a pre-fight ritual, his son makes Atom dance before he gets in the ring (and at one point he even makes the the ROBOT. I hugged myself with joy).

In the final match, Charlie/ Atom puts up a good fight, but Zeus is too quick and strong. On the bell of the fourth, Atom slumps down, his voice command and online computer fried by the battering. As a last resort, Charlie switches Atom to 'Shadow' mode; Atom (an ex-sparring droid) will simply copy every move that Charlie makes from the ringside. He is quite literally, fighting Atom's fight. The last few scenes as Charlie's son glows with pride to see his old dad making a comeback in the ring are surprisingly touching, and I'm surprised Disney didn't nail this one years ago. I won't give the fight away to you, but as Barry Norman once said reviewing Rocky IV, 'If you can find someone to bet on the Russian, hold on to him.'

And I realised what was nagging away at me as I watched this fine piece of inoffensive entertainment. The boxer in the ring, Atom/ Charlie, is the teacher in the classroom. Zeus is the avatar of best practise, the recommended recipe. On paper, Zeus is unstoppable, just as on paper, the formal requirements for a good lesson should result in a good- sorry metasatisfactory- lesson. This guidance comes from educational research, from ministerial dogma, from ideologues and academics who have barely set foot in the ring- sorry, the classroom. We are told constantly how to teach by people who have never taught. Their only evidence base is the Mystic Meg method of research that clearly shows whatever it was they wanted it to show. I don't mind ministers and concerned parties telling me what we, society should teach children- that's their elected prerogative. But I massively, massively resent being told to follow the program when it comes to how I teach. The skeleton is there as a safety net when you begin, but after that, instinct, judgement and intuition start to take over.

We are best suited to knowing how children learn, and should be handled to do so. Other people's opinions are important, but no one is going to ask me to step into the ring and tell me how to throw or take a punch if I try it and it doesn't work. Let them step under the ropes and see how they guard, block and combo. If anyone IN the ring has advice for me, I often take it. If someone watching it in the VIP rows, or from TV has an opinion, I consider it. But I'll make the last call myself, thanks. I'm the one with the black eye and the cauliflower ear.

Atom/ Charlie won their fights because they went off the map; because they understood that boxing is an art and a craft that relies on techniques as well as the improvisation of those techniques. So is teaching. There are notes, scales and chords we need to learn from others, but if we really want to play music, we need to bring ourselves to the piece.

The Tin Man has to have a heart. That's Real Steel.


Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Love of Money: How schools became Markets, and everyone lost.

Reading John Lanchester's interesting Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay this week (and there's a publisher-suggested title if ever I saw one. Because every author secretly dreams of calling their book Whoops! Mind you, they used to get away with An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and such, so I suppose we reap what we sow). It's a good explanation of the recent boom and bust moneyquake that has underpinned- or excused- the austerity frenzy coming to a Lidls near you. Did you know that the RBS was the biggest company not just in Europe, but the world?

I did not know that.

The salient point he raises is to do with capitalism in general. He traces the current financial clusterf*ck back to the fall of Soviet Communism, and the removal of a direct competitor to the free market model of economic and political discourse. With this removal, he argues, there was less need for the capitalist economies to justify their superiority over the repressive, but undoubtedly more societally inclined (at least on paper) Marxist experiments. Until that point, capitalism, for all its flaws, had produced what Lanchester describes as the most admirable societies ever seen- not perfect, just the best ones so far. The cause of this, he argues, is that the jet engine of capitalism was yoked to the oxen of social justice. Efficiency, enterprise and opportunity were tied to the generation of the maximum dividend of personal gain, tempered with social responsibility.

And removing the great Satan of Communism as an immediate source of geographical and economic comparison (China is, let's face it, far away), meant that the economic engines were free to achieve escape velocity from those pointless, annoying liabilities we call justice and fairness. A triumphalist mentality emerged, where it was felt that capitalism could do no wrong, where it was felt that entrepreneurs should be freed from the shackles of taxation and restraint, and a free market should be more successfully realised. I mean, look at all the STUFF we have.

Fast forward through Thatcher, Reagan, and a worldwide surge in opportunism, Icelandic meltdowns and bank crashes, slow the tape as you approach the sub-prime tsunami that nearly drowned the world, and then let your finger drop on play when Fred the Shred gets his knighthood annulled (which will no doubt inconvenience him tremendously as he dries his tears with a handkerchief made of unicorn mane, and laughs from his golden throne on the Moon).

'Did we win?'
This is not 'Tom Bennett's blog on fiscal responsibility'. High finance crosses my eyes like Marty Feldman, as it does most of us, which is precisely why the banks now resemble the shop floor of your local Ladbrokes, and withdrawing money is like enacting the Schrödinger Cat experiment every time you go to an ATM. And this is the point; economics are now ruled by a priest class, so remote and dislocated from common comprehension that they wiled as much power as the priest class in any pre-scientific society. They are the shaman (and shawomen, increasingly) who read the runes and entrails of our financial futures, and dictate, almost entirely, political policy around the world.

When I get some time I will revert to my blog default and rail against economics as another example of the voodoo sciences that have crawled into the popular perception as real sciences, when in fact, no one knows anything, as William Goldman famously said about movies.

But I am a teacher, and I know schools. And I know what happened to schools at the same time as this impossible sense of exceptionality and superiority crept into the collective consciousness of the men in the City and the Street; the language of the marketplace crept into areas of public discourse where previously they had been seen as necessary evils at most. Of course I'm referring specifically to education.

Even when I started just under a decade ago, I was amazed by how much we were expected to gobble up the gastronomy of the bean-counter. Everyone remotely related to schools and children had become a stakeholder; we were expected to produce returns on our efforts. Children avoided- just- being referred to as customers in mainstream education, but we are devilishly close to the concept at all times. Don't believe me? Consider how much their views are now being taken into account, despite the concomitant lack of an obvious medium for the same communication from the teacher perspective.

I remember years ago I used to run one of many themed restaurants in the West End. No where before had I encountered the slavish 'customer is always right' mentality as I did here. One charmer put me up against a wall one night, hand round my throbbing jugular, and said he was going to 'F*ck me up.' Faith, dear reader, I lived. But the next day I was broken to learn that the company would pay him compensation and apologise to him; and I was told not to complain to the police, as it would damage sales, somehow. You might recognise some of the DNA from this incident in some schools, with their no-blame approaches to social responsibility.

'How do you sleep?' 'On a bed of money.'
We see some of the most foul examples of this marketisation in concepts like value added, or FFT predictions (used as targets), target setting and a million varieties of ways in which the business of education is forced into the double columns of the balance sheet. Have we reached targets? Have we failed them? If we do reach them, what are the new targets? Pass me the smelling salts.

Of course, this model assumes that education is amenable to being circumscribed by the language of the bank, and this is where the bomb goes off. Education is not the same as selling lemonade and rose water at a jumble sale. Perhaps you noticed? The product of our labour isn't easily numbered, weighed or measured. How we do it isn't amenable to regimentation or standarisation. The effects of our efforts sometimes aren't seen until decades later. Businesses run on the engine of arithmetic; but people defy this analogy with the abacus, because so much- my God, almost all, I should say- of our lives are not concerned with that which we can staple a number to. Our entire human experience is concerned with questions of meaning, value, emotion, desire and aspirations that are entirely resistant to enumeration.

Every time I see a number ascribed to something in education, I wince- a lesson, a school, leadership, the whole nine yards. I wince, as I witness yet another brainless attempt to shoehorn thoughts and dreams into the business end of a calculator. The two worlds barely intersect. They certainly don't coexist easily, and often, like matter and anti matter, they explode on contact with one another. Children do not- do NOT- get more intelligent by 5% every year, satisfying the budgetary- sorry, pedagogic predictions of a well run saucepan factory, predicated on the model of a infinitely expanding market, which is another fairy tale, incidentally. Our teaching certainly doesn't get better by the same. Yet we are assessed as if they are.

I am not anti-market; as Friedman said, show me a system that has worked better- but that doesn't mean that I welcome its presence in every facet of our lives. I don't judge my relationships by their numerical value, because such things are impossible to unearth. I do not love my family because they promise me secure returns on my investment. I do not teach because I add value to their grades.

I teach because I love them, and my subject. And I love both of these because I find them intrinsically valuable. Isn't that what life is at least partly about? Discerning what is valuable, and valuing it?

Not the market. Not making money. Not adding value that never existed anyway. Love. Not money.

Education Bloggers: What I Think I Do

It is never too late to jump on a meme bandwagon.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

My Way or the High Way? Why every teacher needs to be different

One road?
I had to change a fuse today; what tool did you think I used? If you imagined something shaped like a screwdriver, then award yourself a pre-decimal BTEC (worth five A-levels in old money), and proceed directly to Oxford. If you thought instead of something like a lawnmower, then thanks for your interest, and we'll get back to you. Have you thought of Bangor?

What if I wanted to change a fuse on the Mir Space Station. Could I use the same screwdriver? I imagine not; I fancy that NASA have designed something with a torch and a magnetic strap. The concept of using different tools for different situations is not, I hope, a controversial one, although anything's possible on Twitter, I suppose (WHY YOU HATERZ HATIN ON SCREWDRIVERZ? etc)

Yet in the world of teaching, this concept is apparently inconceivable to many. I know this because the last twenty or so years in education have seen tighter and tighter screws turned on exactly how we teach and how we should be measured. It's a topic I return to like day follows night- the idea that there is a centrally prescribed 'best' way to teach, and that teachers must follow these methods or be sacrificed on the altar of Cerunnos, the Horned One. These methods, usually generated in the minds of theorists and speculative educational scientists/ homoeopaths become best practise, and we, the teaching community, brace ourselves for another drenching in slurry. Wellies on, umbrellas UP, everyone.

But I have never found teaching to be like this. While I instinctively reject any reference to tool kits and workshops that don't involve Castrol GTX and circular saws, I do like the analogy of teaching strategies as being like tools in a box; the hammer hammers, the spirit levels, the screw drives, the crow bars etc (that might not have worked. Keep writing, they might not notice). The point is that one uses what is required at the time, in that peculiar, particular circumstance. This proposition I hold to be self-evident. It leads to the following consequences:

1. My methods might not work for you

This sounds like career suicide for a man who devotes 1/3 of his waking hours to being an educational rentagob, but, with important provisos that I will detail later, it is true. My teaching style suits me; and because I am not entirely shit at my job, I know what works with my classes. I know what works for me, with my classes. Example: when I first started to not drown in classes, I realised that one of my most effective strategies with tough classes was to tell them stories. Worked a charm, and helped me build up relationships. Now that is not a strategy I advise to everyone, because not everyone can tell stories, nor could I do what they can.

We play to our skills, and to what works in the specific chemistry of the moment, of the relationship you have with your class. Remember 'Clear off scumbags' from Educating Essex? Course you do. Would you recommend that as a coda to every lesson in the UK? Of course you wouldn't. Was it appropriate for him at that time? Of course it was. That was the point the Daily Hate and others missed. He knew what he was doing.

There are some kids you'll teach who respect nothing but strength, who will punish you for any drop of kindness; there are other kids whom, offered an abstract hankie of concern, will drop and give you twenty. You learn which approach to take with which kid, and you use what works. What you don't do is stick with a one-size-fits-all strategy you expect everyone to love. People aren't like that. Students, I infer, are people.

And THAT'S the Gospel Truth
There is an important exception to make: human nature. People are identical in many respects; they must be, otherwise they would completely defy taxonomic circumscription. People, I argue tautologically, are people. That's why I (returning to my career-bothering suicide note, above) still believe I can advise and help others; because people do respond in broadly similar ways to each other. For example; we avoid what we dislike, we attend to what we enjoy- in that way I can comfortably recommend that you sanction against people who behave badly and reward those who do not. On that level, there can be very, very broad consensus. What I'm talking about is the finer detail of the student teacher relationships, and how people should learn, and how they should teach.

So, for example, sometimes in a class the teacher will enjoy thrilling levels of trust, and can comfortably send the class out to wander the streets with clipboards and machetes. Other classes need to be set in rows and columns, given short tasks and monitored like Alcatraz. Some classes can be trusted with the keys to your Jag; others need  watchtowers and snipers.

That's why I think that a large amount of the debate in education, and over education is witless and meaningless. I remember reading the NME when I was a teen, and marvelling at how vicious the letters pages would get about the relative merits of The Smiths over, say, Duran Duran. They weren't really arguing about facts, but preferences. Similarly, when I hear teachers arguing that 'their' method is better than someone else's, and that all unbelievers must perish, I despair. What many people in this situation are actually arguing is that with their kids, in their classes, with their skill sets, such-and-such a strategy works. The correspondents should listen to each other, try to work out if there is anything transferable between their experiences, and then move on, safe in the knowledge that there may be no definitive, universal panacea to every classroom, every student.

2. International comparisons may be less useful than people hope.

Here come the educational consultants!
I know this may crush the ambitions of politicians everywhere when I say- and I feel comfortable saying this, because I'm a teacher and not some hard-on who worked in PR for a few years before becoming a minister for education-  that what works in one school might not work in another school, because of the enormous amount of variables dividing them. So how much less comparable might the education systems of two different countries be? I know that the Scandinavian Tiger is currently getting more attention than Lady Gaga's knickers, but do you remember when Ireland was seen as the economic tiger, and a model which we should emulate? Or Poland? Or Japan? Tigers have a tendency to turn into scrawny Toms after a time. Perhaps they were on the upswing of a normal fluctuation model? Perhaps they're just different. Perhaps, perhaps. We don't know. If I hear one more 'We should be like the Finns because they [fill in the social blank]' then I'll chin someone. Maybe they do well because they like licorice?

Nobody. Knows. 

I know schools where kids are allowed to come in on flexitime. Some schools let kids out at lunch. Some seal them in like a space station. Some have uniforms; some do not. Some of them are run badly, and some well. Some could do better by imitating others, and some have the balance right.

Hitting the right note at the right time is a craft and an art, for a teacher and for a school. What works at one point, with one class, with one school, might not work another day, with another cohort, in another area- or even over time. That's why teaching is hard- rewarding, but hard. There is no formula that we can all work towards; children- people- defy moronically precise classification and compartmentalisation. It's one thing that's so glorious about being human; our variability, our potential, our almost mystical levels of indeterminism. I call it free will.

What's the formula for a relationship, exact to three decimal places? Until someone can tell me that, every teacher has the right to their own methods. We are not reagents in a test tube, nor are we blocks in a Rubik's Cube. We are humans. Some of us are teachers. And teaching is not a science.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Who’s driving this thing? Leadership, and the dogs of the classroom

'I don't feel my needs are being listened to enough.'
If you have never been driven through the frozen Norwegian country in the pitch-dark night, may I recommend that you add it to your bucket list? If you harbour a secret passion to reincarnate as Roald Amundsen or even simply to gasp in awe at the perspicacity of a dozen Arctic Huskies as they tear across Narnia and empty their bowels with abandon simultaneously, then it is the very thing. I heard Stephen Fry, the great arbiter of all things middle-class describe it as the most exhilarating thing he has ever done and while I cannot vouch for that claim- jumping out of a plane will evoke far richer echoes of imitating Hemingway-it is peculiarly vivacious.

And at points, also oddly soothing. I have often used the metaphor of a pack of dogs with a driver as a blunt instrument to illustrate some basic truths of classroom management. (I know that the mere proximity of those images makes some critics howl with horror- children as animals? The teacher as a driver of dogs? And that, my friends, is why it is a metaphor, and not a photograph.)

For example, every group of humans will, like dogs, vie constantly with each other for supremacy of will, a class no less. There will be leaders and followers, and a thousand shades in between. There will be dominant voices, and submissive whispers, and there is no guarantee that reason or kindness will attach themselves to either one. And the teacher, however gently he perceives his role, must be the voice of authority, the leader of the room. If he chooses not to be, out of some misguided perception of himself as a facilitator, or enabler, or if he wishes to be but cannot, then in very many classes, Lord of the Flies will be re-enacted, and you just better hope you’re not Piggy. Most kids are nowhere near this difficult; but that’s the point, it only takes a few kids to resist the rule of wisdom and age, and a tipping point of challenge is quickly reached, a critical mass of dissent that ruins the room.

That’s where I stand; it’s a bag of truths I have witnessed from the moment I walked into a classroom. Agree or disagree, you know the measure of me.

The dogs I met were beautiful- and I love dogs like a child loves dogs. Lean and eager, they sat in their harnesses, tense as tightropes and quivered as they anticipated their mission. Let no one disagree that animals cannot reason and imagine; these beasts knew exactly what was coming. With a Sami holler they raced off with complete and perfect abandon.

The pack of ten dogs was headed by two leaders, two alpha dogs. Often, I was told, they were female, and you can take that any way you want. They had to be two things; strong, of course, both in will and stature, and intelligent enough to know when a sensible order was given. Also, obedient enough to know a command from question. Behind them were pairs of males, then some females, and finally two strong males at the back. ‘The males, they follow the females,’ said my laconic French driver. ‘It is the way of things, no?’  There was more than altruism fuelling this ship, it seemed. Short of staffing every leadership team with hand-picked Amazons and supporting them with strong, sex-starved male deputies, there didn’t seem to be an obviously transferable point to take from this experience.

As we drove, the dogs occasionally broke ranks; to sniff at some wild trail, or the spoor of an Elk, to squabble with each other, or even just to attempt the aforementioned mid-romp duodenal acrobatics (squatting and running; quite a feat. Whenever the tail rose I mouthed the words, ‘Shields Up!’). Louis, the driver, didn’t crack a whip, or draw down the Heavens; he simply shouted the dog’s name, and added a tone that spoke volumes. It said; I see what you’re doing. But, trained from birth to expect consequences, they knew to go no further, and the path was achieved once more.

At the end I joined him in rewarding the dogs for running so well; exhausted, they were stoically grateful for his attention, and if one dog was over attended by a rugged scratch behind the muzzle then the others clamoured for equity of affection. Dog Heaven.

‘You have a good relationship with these dogs,’ I said. ‘Good control.’
‘You have to have a good relationship with them to have good control,’ he said. ‘You work hard with them to understand what you want from them- the training when they are young is the hardest part. Then they work hard for you, and you need to show them when they do well. We have a relationship.’

Would you say they trusted you? I asked. ‘Certainly they do,’ he said. ‘Without trust there is nothing.’ I was surprised to see such a close bond between the driver and the driven. There was no casual, utilitarian unconcern for them as merely a means to move a sled; there was a bond between them of mutual cooperation. He knew their names, their character, their capacities, and they knew him. But certainly he was no mere odd, tall dog to them. He had a specific job to do; he was the driver, and he had the first and final say in where they went and how far and fast they moved.

This is something classrooms have taught me. I tell every one of my classes that everyone in the room is important, and everyone has rights. That no one deserves special treatment over any other. And that means two things: first, that nobody must be allowed to place themselves above the general need of the class for selfish reasons, and that anyone doing so could expect to be treated with justice. And second, that as a teacher I was no more or less important than them, but I had a different role from them, which justified my greater authority. And it needed no more justification than that. That’s why I often invite and encourage student feedback in my lessons and of me, but never defer or devolve the authority of decision making. That is where student voice can be fuel for a professional, not a ballast. But when it escaped from the laboratories of the theorists, it became a monster, fed on pastures where it should never graze.

And as I was drawn on through the night, I asked myself, who was in charge here? Was it the dogs, pulling us along so swiftly? From afar you could mistake them as the leaders; certainly there is leadership within them. But their every decision was circumscribed, like a devolved parliament, by the authority of the greater body, in this case the driver. Was he in charge, with his Inuit commands handed down through centuries? But he only drove because I, as the paymaster, the client and customer, funded the expedition.  So was I in charge? Up to a point; by I had no command over those dogs, nor they over me, nor any of us over each other. Where did power lie?

There were hierarchies within hierarchies, and lines of command that, even in such a small group, remained impervious to exact specification. He ordered. They pulled. I paid. We all knew our roles.

Everyone got to where they needed to be.

Monday, 13 February 2012

'You're here to learn about Satan.' How our schools are petri dishes for the Dark One, says everyone

A teacher at one of the UK's most successful sixth form colleges has rocked the educational world by claiming that students there would be 'better off learning how to pay homage to Old Split-Foot.'

In a recent article in the TES Online, he claims he advised a student to 'stick his A-levels up his arse and instead work out better ways he can serve The Father of Lies by accelerating the Last Days of the Apocalypse.'

The chattering classes of education were swift in their rebuttal of Mr Cypher's unusual pedagogic methods. 'This is a disgrace,' said Mr Mendicant of the Church of the Telegraphed Soul. 'Worshipping Satan has been an outmoded, outdated way to get ahead in the world since the sixties. We thought we had managed to leave all that pentacle-drawing, blood-letting progressive incantation nonsense in the Dark Ages. Our children are expected to follow the modern, scientifically proven method of emailing their aspirations to the Dark Gods of Cthulhu, as best practise demands.'

Is this what you want. IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?
When asked to defend his apparently indefensible stance on cannibalism, devil worship and desecration of the graves of saints, Mr Cypher was unrepentant. 'But...but all I said was that kids shouldn't get too stressed out by exams, and maybe they should still try hard but....oh, I didn't say it very clearly, but....'


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Son of Brain Gym: Dancing to Nursery Rhymes Boosts A-Levels or something.

In other news: thinking burns calories.
Remember Brain Gym? It was a now-discredited theory that pressing your brain buttons and doing warm ups would somehow improve the cognitive development of your learning conversation, or something similarly moronic. It would be laughable, except that a sizeable purse of public money was spent promoting this ridiculous snake-oil. You know, money that could go to orphans and homeless people and that. I should know, because I was one of the recipients- I was a cultish recruit on the now-defunct Fast Track program (motto: Be the inspiration- from the classroom to the staffroom, which should give you some kind of idea how much we were hated), sort of a predecessor to Teach First. They threw money at us, really chucked it as hard as they could. One of the now-unimaginable training bonuses was a three day residential where we learned NLP (another dubious bag of serpents and spanners) where we were taught the uncertain joys of Brain Gym, and had it recommended for dissemination in the real world.

Fortunately the stake has been fairly firmly planted in the heart of the Brain Gym vampire, especially after Ben Goldacre's famous assault on it in Bad Science. But not before thousands of schools had wasted their time, and most importantly that of the students, on pointless, pointy-headed miracle crystal exercises that made extraordinary claims to efficacy but without concomitant extraordinary evidence. Any efforts accrued from Brain Gym could be replicated from giving your pupils a break every now and then and getting them to stretch their legs a bit. Which, you know, people do anyway, unless you treat your students like laboratory beagles (and even they get very long fag breaks).

And THAT'S what it's all about.
But the dead do not stay in their graves; they rise, they reek, and roam the edu-sphere, looking for new necks, fresh blood and brains. Fans of feeling sad and slightly intellectually superior weren't disappointed this week if they read the news that 'Moving to rhyme may boost pupil results.' What the research appears to be telling us this week is that doing exercises set to nursery rhymes helps children to develop. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP I READ IT ON THE BBC WEBSITE THEY DO NOT F*CK AROUND:

The Primary Movement project involves getting nine-year-olds to do set exercises to nursery rhymes and will be tested in 40 schools in north-east England. The exercises mimic the earliest reflexes made by babies and foetuses. The theory is that children can be held back if such reflexes persist. Trisha Saul from the Primary Movement project said: "Some of the songs and the nursery rhymes will be familiar, it's the movements that are different. "These are designed to replicate movements the foetus makes in the womb and the baby makes in the first six months of their life."

 Now, why on earth would anyone think that this was a thing that actually existed, rather than simply being a whimsical daydream of a theory? Because the ubiquitous research suggested it, in a study by the Queen's University Belfast in 2000. Blimey, they've taken their time to get round to doing anything, haven't they? Or maybe it's a testimony to the distance back anyone had to dig in order to get any academic support for this latest foray into the desperate world of educational fairy tale research. Maybe not.

 The small scale little known research project found that children who carried out systematic physical exercises for a year gained 15-20 months progress in reading compared to a control group which did not do the exercises.

'Small scale'. 'Little Known'. It's not looking good, is it? They could have said 'obscure', but I think the Beeb draw a line somewhere. Trisha Saul, from the Primary Movement Project, said this:

"It's a bit like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but the butterfly still has bits of the caterpillar attached to it."

That's EXACTLY what it's like. What?

'I am a confident, independent learner.'
I had a look a Primary Movement's website (the body coordinating the project, which is taking place in 40 schools in England and Wales). It's far from illuminating, although it links to a sole credit- a press release from Queen's University, Belfast (oddly enough from 2006, and the article published by the no-doubt beyond beyond reproach Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs- available online only, of course- was in the November 2005 issue, so I don't know where 2000 comes from).

What it DOES offer is a number of courses that you can apply to take. There isn't a price list on it. I'm guessing it isn't free, for either the Foundation or Advanced Level certification. The website advises that as a parent, you should check if your local teacher is trained properly in the method, and suddenly it's getting a bit mystical and Alexander techniquey, and only the elect are chosen etc.

There is an interesting name that comes up again: Dr Martin McPhillips, who developed the Primary Movement program, and also appears as the author of five out of the seven published papers supporting the work of the PMP so boy, he's busy. As far as I can see, the research produced by the PMP seems to focus on children with SEN. I might be wrong, of course.

'The Primary Movement programme developed at Queen's University, Belfast has been shown to have a significant impact on reducing reflex persistence. It has been evaluated in a number of formal studies that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.'

In a school-based study of children in their first year at primary school, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on the development of fine motor control(9). In another large, school-based study, involving more than one thousand children, it was found that the Primary Movement programme had a significant effect on ATNR persistence. This led to improved academic attainments in reading, spelling and mathematics

'I endorse brain gym. And anything else.'
That last sentence interests me, because that's where programs like this intersect with my work as a teacher. The PMP is, I'm sure, beyond reproach, has impeccable academic credentials, and works solely to promote the well being of children. Its authors and board are undoubtedly motivated by nothing but the noblest of motives. That last sentence is quite a claim. I wonder how they reached that conclusion?

My concern is that it is far from clear that instigating a program, however well endorsed, of physical exercises has anything like a substantial effect on a child's learning ability, and if it does, can be replicated on anything more than laboratory conditions, on all, or even merely most children. And that it is far from clear that such a program has any significant difference from any other program of simple physical exercises. That the suggested increases in learning can be accounted for solely by reference to the exercise program, and can't be accounted for by other means, such as the children and the teachers feeling that there should be some kind of benefit. Maybe, maybe, maybe. That's the problem with this kind of research.

The problem remains with ALL forms of educational research; controls aren't real controls; exact conditions can't be replicated and tested against. High causal density in human interactions means that causal relationships can rarely, if ever, be inferred from any pool of data, and researcher bias becomes overwhelming in both the design, execution and interpretation of any such project.

Meanwhile, in austerity UK, trials like this receive funding.

Social science. It's not a real science, is it?

Teacher Voice.

Bankers: 'Better at taking risks with your money than making friends'

Russian Mafia: 'Applicants not vicious enough.'
People working in the finance sector are good at awarding themselves agreeable bonuses and managing their portfolios, but are poor at empathising with the needs of others or possessing a sense of humour about anything other than cruel jibes at the expense of the impoverished, a survey suggests.

Research by the Institute of Tautologies found that while they scored highly on tasks requiring avarice, egoism and the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, tasks that required collaboration, sympathy and sensitivity to the impact of one's actions were performed less well.

The Institute found that only 25% of leading financial institutions possessed any sense of social responsibility suitable for inclusion in humanity, while the remaining 75% received lower scores than the Cosa Nostra or packs of scavenging vampires in those areas.

Said one recent applicant, 'While I'm disappointed that I wasn't selected to join the lowest untouchable rank of their vile anti-life gang of aristocratic desperadoes, I can content myself with the fact that, even stacking shelves in Lidl provides more moral and spiritual nourishment than allying myself with the armies of The Beast.'

'And while I may be functionally illiterate and incapable of  making a decision beyond which brand of Pot Noodle I choose to mainline for breakfast, I, at least possess a sense of humour. And, indeed, some friends,' he added.

To read the original report in full, click here.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Breaking Teacher Training News! Kobayashi Maru Test to be adopted as gold standard.

'Live long...and fail, eventually.'
Teacher training providers in England and Wales have taken a bold and novel approach to next year's cohort of prospective classroom teachers. Instead of the usual post/ pre graduate routes of the BA (Ed) or the PGCE resulting in a portfolio of demonstrable experiences, future candidates will instead be subjected to The Kobayashi Maru, from Star Trek, as a final assessment.
Little known outside of friendless, internet communities of Trekkies, the Kobayashi Maru is a fictional training exercise that Starfleet officer trainees underwent; a computer simulation of a no-win situation, where participants could never succeed. Rather than seeing if they could beat the program, candidates were tested to see how they coped with no-win situations, in essence, being guaranteed to lose.

As one inspector explained, 'We were all up late one evening, caning a very agreeable bottle of Cockburn's port and watching Sky Movies, when Star Trek came on, and we thought, hello; there's something in this.'

'And then we read some newspapers where journalists kept talking about teachers failing all the time, and letting the kids down whenever someone doesn't get a degree in rocket science and become prime Minister. We looked at each other and thought: 'Kobayashi Maru.'

Tested to Failure

'In future, all teachers will be dropped into schools in sink estates with little or no training in behaviour management, a head full of guff about thinking skills and happy thoughts that we cut and pasted out of New Scientist, and a bullseye painted on their foreheads. Then we give all the kids air pistols and tell them 'he just cussed your mum.' Then we see who lasts longer than a week.'

'You know that bit in Die Hard 3, when Bruce Willis is made to walk around Harlem with a racist A-board strapped to his chest? We thought that was an effective way to train teachers to be life-long learners. 'Well,' he added, 'They'll probably learn something.'

'We feel that experiencing the sensation of perpetually failing in their placement schools, will prepare teachers for the experience of being constantly described as vile losers in the national press, and by Ofsted in general.'

Chief Inspector Spock is 334 Vulcan years old.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Dickens Bicentennial Celebrated by Not Teaching Dickens

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. FML.'
As of next year, students will no longer have to study Charles Dickens- or any other text over 140 characters, or that cannot be summarised easily in a triptych about cats dressed as policemen and Harry Potter characters.

'We have to recognise that our children are cyber natives and 21st century learners, and we can't oppress them with our prescriptive notions about reading, writing and communicating with other human beings,' said the Children's Poet Laureate yesterday. 'A curriculum should truly enable our children to be life long learners in an uncertain, turbulent world where all knowledge is out of date before it's even been discovered, and we need to address that reading a book just doesn't facilitate their emotional discovery conversation in any way,'

When asked to give examples of how pre-21st century literature would be adapted for the curriculum review, she said, 'Check this out: turn Great Expectations into a series of unimaginative insults on Facebook Chat, and the kids can vote on whether they want Ms Havisham or Joe Gargery to go through to the next rap-battle. The most popular one at the end will be deemed the winner, and everyone gets a can of Red Bull, a Mars Bar, a 500 credits for iTunes.'

'Children can't be fannying about learning about Thomas Hardy and George Orwell- they've got virtual learning platforms to explore where they can all design paper-clips made of foam rubber, a hundred feet high. Or something. I'm not sure, Ken Robinson thought it was jolly exciting anyway.'

Claire Tomalin, a biographer of Dickens, agrees. 'They don't have the attention span any more. It's all that  happy slapping and LOL cats, probably. They can't stomach a good four hundred page marathon full of loose, baggy prose and sentimental characters.' When asked if she was aware that many of Dickens' stories were serialised in the first place, and therefore read in short bursts, she pointed to the badge on her lapel that read 'Charles Dickens #1 Biographer.

'See that?' she said. 'F*ck off.'

Charles Dickens is 200 years old, and is a dead white guy who wrote very long text messages and wasn't on Twitter.

*with thanks to the masterful Peter Serafinowicz, showing how Dickens can still be integrated with a healthy, nutritious education.

Scenes of chaos as research shows factors of underachievement exactly what teachers thought they were anyway

Circuses: 'not ideal for raising academic aspiration,' apparently.
Bedlam descended on the world of education as teachers reacted to the shock findings of  recent research, which claimed that, among other things, children who came from families that take drugs, have no money, or don't value education, have less chance in school than others.

'I don't know what's real any more,' wept one teacher who asked not to be named. 'Previously I had thought that kids raised in crack dens with two absentee parents and a day job scraping rust from the underside of moving trains were my best bet in the GCSE sweepstake. Now nothing makes sense and I don't know if I should be teaching them about chromosomes or hitting them with a shovel.'

'Make the madness stop,' he added.

Researchers at the Faculty of Research and Facts were adamant that this information would revolutionise how we understand the link between 'having a hard life' and 'not finding things easy'. 'This shows once and for all that children who have hard lives often continue to have hard lives, flying in the face of the common sense opinion that they will eventually find a magic lamp with a genie inside it. Now that theory can be well and truly put to rest.'

Faced with claims that this research was just what everyone already thought, the Spokesman was defiant. 'This is completely untrue. Now it's in a list.'

Teaching Unions saluted the findings. 'Now that we've discovered the Holy Grail of understanding 'difficult' we can take this data and really start to make a difference,' he said.

In other news: People who earn less money 'are poorer than people who earn more.'

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Educating Essex 8: The Parable of the Good School

'Excuse me, can you tell me where Passmores school is?'
Ladies and gentlemen, I have BEEN to the mountain top. This week I visited the mother-ship of telly schools: Passmores, in Harlow. It was, of course, the event horizon of the Channel 4 edu-phenomenon black hole Educating Essex, which gave me far too much to write about a few months back, as the fixed rig docudrama attempted to peel back the curtain of schooling and let the public see what kind of wizards were pulling the levers. It was the hit you couldn't miss if you were a teacher. I wanted, perhaps for the first time,  to draw a teacher-eye picture of what our favourite telly-comp was like from the inside, as opposed to a journalist's preferred storyline.

Not unlike an educational endoscope.


It is, I must say, hard to miss Passmores, given that the front of the building (I say front; it's built in the shape of a starfish, or the Nickelodeon Splat!) has the name spelled out in wooden planking thirty feet high, in a manner that could enable identification from space, should the Mir satellite ever need to aim something at them. It's a quite spectacular build. I should point out that Passmores moved into a groovy new edu-plex towards the end of the series being filmed. Hawk-eyed viewers will have noticed that results day was celebrated in what appeared to be Blofeld's hollowed-out volcano, as compared to the Grange Hill film set that served as prior address.

Not a BSF identikit model, but a spectacular example of what can be done when teachers, as opposed to committees design a building for purpose, it's swimming in broad open spaces, light and eye-lines that reminded me of the Guggenheim, or more closely, the central court of the British Museum; the assembly hall was contained in the heart of the starfish (do starfishes have hearts? Or are they like inspectors?), to give you some idea of the scale of this building, and the roof, like the Old Lady of Bloomsbury, is a glass porthole. Vic Goddard, the towering, towering Godfather of Passmores, who had kindly invited me for the day, told me that he had been part of the team that harnessed up and helped to clean off the shower of avian guano that speckled it daintily. Which tells you, I think, a little bit about the kind of Head Teacher he is.

Very surreal to be somewhere that I had written so much about, and meeting people who might have been, as far as I could tell, CGI mannequins. Every now and then I bumped into one of the heroes of my previous blogs, and I would freeze for a second, access my files labelled, 'Did I say something sarcastic?' and then carry on.

The man himself, Vic. He is actually eight feet tall in real life.
If you've read any of the interviews in the Guardian, or seen the various TV appearances they've done, you will have encountered a frequent set of phrases used by most people to describe Vic Goddard: inspirational; enthusiastic; infectious; committed. Now, I've been to a few business guru seminars where the hard-on standing at the podium whipped crowds up into cultish frenzies; I'm suspicious of anyone described as 'inspirational' because cults of personality are almost exclusively built around men and women who cannot possibly meet the expectations of the crowd upon which they surf. But I spent a whole afternoon with Vic, and I am happy to confirm what I already suspected: the man is an genuinely inspirational Head. 'They'll carry me out of here in a box,' he said with perfect sincerity. Of course if

he blows town next month with a bag full of money and broken dreams I'll look stupid, SO I'M COUNTING ON HIM NOT TO DO THAT THING.

He really is the genuine article; I have no idea what he was like as a PE teacher (other than, as all PE teachers, villains), but he conveys the sense of being an excellent leader- totally focussed on what he wants to do, totally committed to the well-being of the children, totally driven to make it happen. Best of all, he doesn't possess what I often perceive in the committed: intolerance, the fart in the spacesuit of excellence. Achieving any kind  of excellence required a focus like a laser, but the downfall of that single-mindedness is often the death of collaboration or humanity. Which doesn't make it a bad thing. But wouldn't it be an excellent thing to have that focus and still convey the sense that you gave a shit about the people you expected to carry out your vision? Take a bow, sir.

He took me on a tour of the school. Not an Ofsted serving suggestion, but just a general walk around 'the arms of the starfish' (which is also the name of a stag club in Soho, incidentally), past room after room of glass-walled classes full of children all working away, drawing, writing, turning the Tempest into a rap, the usual. Not one of them looked unruly or desperate; not one of them erupted into faux-outrage when we entered. There was even a cover lesson where the kids were working quietly (I KNOW!) in pairs, happy to answer questions. This wasn't something you could fraud for the cameras, and there certainly wasn't any 'days-out' jiggery-pokery with the naughty kids; this was a school where manners, respect and discipline were part of the atmosphere, and I have to admit, it was a beautiful thing. Maybe it was the CO2 monitors in every room, which, when they pipe up in warning, are answered by a designated pupil charged with opening windows. I AM NOT KIDDING YOU HERE THIS IS A SYSTEM THEY HAVE. Wouldn't it be simpler to have that automated? I asked, perhaps a little drunk on modernity and futurism. 'An extra hundred thousand,' said Vic.

(I was reminded of the scene in Running Scared, when the undercover cop asks the police garage to soup-up his patrol car, making it invisible, invincible, invulnerable. 'It won't be invisible till five,' replies the laconic grease-monkey.)

Of course, part of the wow factor is always going to be a beautiful new build with glorious attention to space, detail and utility. But the success of Passmores is so much more than that. I asked Vic to narrow down a bit on how Passmores enjoys such an atmosphere of calm and learning, and he had a practised but sincere response; consistency, a shared vision throughout the school communicated clearly to everyone, and reinforced by senior staff. Now I know from a variety of dodgy management positions that this is one of the hardest parts: first of all you have to have a vision, otherwise you deal with life as it comes, and endless other factors buffet you as they will; but next you have to acknowledge that you cannot do everything yourself; your job is to drive people in the direction you want, and let them to drive their people the same way, preferably with their buy-in, sometimes without it. The school chariot travels nowhere, and slowly, unless the horses all pull the same way.

Good example: the behaviour system at Passmores appears to be so tight that I couldn't slide a razor blade between its molecules: all detentions are collated centrally and displayed in the public space for all to see, 48 hours in advance. Meaty ones too- hours, hour and a half, enough to make most think twice. Kids who have a detention for laziness in class, low output, have a chance to hand work in before the hour of their sanction, to void the detentions- but they still have to turn up to have their status assessed. Best of all- and this is the clincher for me- the end of day registration, so all pupils have to report back to form groups (vertical age form groups, I might add- the one I entered resembled the auditions for Bugsy Malone), and if they have any detentions they get escorted back to the main hall, for collection by their captors and mentors.

It really was a joy to behold. Not because I enjoy seeing children assigned to the gaol, but because of the certainty of it, the difficulty for any child to elude it. Of course, they could just bolt, like any other sanction, but a member of staff is paid to analyse each day's detention attendance, and track/ pursue any fugitives. Simple; effective. What the anti-sanction brigade often forget is that the purpose of sanctions is to render themselves obsolete; that providing a deterrent to student misbehaviour is designed to make sure they don't incur sanctions in the future. And a deterrent is only a deterrent when it is believed to be inevitable, which in a school it can be, unlike, say, society, where justice and the jailer are easily given the slip.

I have to mention the toilets. If someone told me the staff dunnies in my gaffe were to be integrated with the students'- AND become Unisex, I would probably poke you in the eye with a marker pen and quit. But that's exactly what they did here....and it works, against every instinct and reservation I have about blurring the demarcation between students and staff, and the necessary invisible fences of probity and protection. They really are quite gorgeous: tall, sturdy, cleaned THROUGHOUT the day by dedicated cleaners who sign off an inspection sheet a la hotel toilets. Dyson hand dryers; a wash basin that could double as a chocolate fountain (another club in Soho, coincidentally enough); broad canopies of glass and light, and an entrance accessed through the broad pavilion of the corridor. Quite eye-popping. Caution demands that you should come back in two years' time and see if this egalitarian leveller can be maintained, or will it disintegrate through disinterest and decadence. Believe me, most cocktail bars don't have latrines like this, which in most schools are a grisly affair.

The toilets, Heathrow Terminal 5, VIP lounge. And Passmores.
And that's the point. Vic asked the kids what they wanted from the rebuild, and overwhelmingly they said, 'Toilets we can bear to be in.' Which put me in mind of the old maxim about restaurants; the attention paid to them reflects the care shown in the kitchen, which is absolutely, demonstrably true in my experience. How often do the staff give a damn about the facilities kids rub up against every day? An interesting exercise in perspective.

Man, the toilets here are better than my powder room and MY FRIEND THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Point to make; every time we passed a kid in the near-silent corridors (I said to Vic, 'Is anyone IN right now?' '900 of them, yes,' he replied. I thought maybe they were Borrowers.), Vic either spoke to them by name, or mentioned a previous conversation they had had. Now, you don't get that kind of face recognition unless you spend a large part of your time on the beat, walking into classrooms and not buried in data sets and meetings with the LEA. I think it was this that most impressed me; just on a simple stroll around the school staff were highly visible, and senior staff equally so. Passive supervision, Vic called it; everyone sees everyone else, like Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, and civil society occurs on a visible and subconscious level. Quite beautiful to see. And equally gratifying to see every kid speak with decorum, warmth and respect to Vic as we passed. I imagine Fonzie feels like this when he walks into Al's diner.

And, pleasingly enough I was also introduced to the Big Beast himself, the inimitable Mr Stephen Drew, whom we met while he was patrolling the corridor, looking for children with undone top buttons and inappropriate eye-liner so he could gather them into his sack and torture them. And, dear reader, I would like to exclusively  report that the man's feet were entirely unshod; devoid of shoe; naked to the raw cotton sock. I cannot recall if the TV shown included footage of Harlow's Zola Budd padding around barefoot; I can only assume it's a tactic with which he can creep up on anarchist students, plotting sedition in complete silence. It's a thin possibility, but it's all I've got. You don't ask questions like that, although he claimed his office was hot, and I thought A-Ha! a flaw in this Utopian edifice. The Daily Mail can have that one for free: 'Half-naked eccentric disciplinarian stalks overheated laboratory school.'

S-Drew is equally impressive; an intelligent, friendly man whom, I imagine, is the same man in the corridor as he is beyond it. It's something that he seemed to share with Vic: an impression conveyed of being in exactly the right place at the right time, doing something you love, with dedication and care. Aristotle declared that the point of human life was eudaimonia- a kind of flourishing, matching one's potential to your challenges and developing thereby. I sense at least two men in a state of incremental eudaimonia here. And when the individual flourishes in his or her role, the community flourishes. And when the community flourishes, the individual flourishes, in a perfect integration of both  socialist and liberal visions. I would not, I hasten to point out, like to get on the wrong side of Mr Drew. There's a sense that he would crawl over broken glass to support your education but also that he possessed an ENDLESS OCEAN OF STUBBORNNESS THAT MEANT HE WOULD NEVER GIVE UP TELLING YOU TO DO YOUR TIE PROPERLY UNLESS THE SUN WENT SUPERNOVA. Perhaps not even then. Good man.

The Inclusion Centre. No, I'm NOT kidding.
It's a school run on law, but also character; not simply a prison of sanctions and rewards, but also a community that understands why such rules have to exist and works to make electric fences and punishment unnecessary. It would be easy to diminish their success by claiming that the catchment is agreeable and supportive, and that such children naturally comply and collaborate; but that would be wrong, for two reasons: firstly, while it might be no Hackney or Easterhouse, it's no Hampstead either, with higher than average kids on Free School meals and SEN children. Secondly, communities like this don't just happen by themselves; they take years to evolve, with direction and continuous struggle. Vic told me that it took years to get the ship turned around, and get everyone trained into the systems he wanted. Now that they had, you could barely see the wires any more. But they were there, just the same.

I even got a chance to meet that other hero of Educating Essex, Russell King, of 'Clear off, scumbags' fame. The Daily Hate and others had a bit of a field day with him, mostly because his awesome one-liner became a catchphrase for the series (and me) and became emblematic of a certain type of media outrage, directed against what they perceived to be inappropriacy and unprofessionalism. Except that it wasn't; it was evidence of fantastic relationships, where humour and context could enable communication like that without harm or risk. It was a sign of an expert teacher, not a bad one. But then, how could the journalists from the Hate and others know anything about that? They don't know anything about schools, not a drop. In other words, they can be ignored, as I ignore the opinion of anyone who knows f*ck all about schools because they have never been inside one except as a customer.I spent half an hour with Mr King, and his compassion and commitment to students is fathomless. He even had articles on his wall about inspiring students to go to Russell Group/ Oxbridge Universities because, 'We don't have a sixth form, and if they want to get to top Unis they need to be working towards that before they leave here.' So, even though there's no direct benefit to himself or the school, he chooses to give kids a leg-up into better futures.

That's a teacher, if you don't mind me saying. A real one.

As we mingled with students at the end, Vic chatted away to Mollie, whom we saw on the show; edited for the glass box, she seemed belligerent and troubled; in the flesh she seemed funny, intelligent and personable. That is, of course, the problem with TV; it adds ten pounds to your ego and idiosyncrasies. You wouldn't recognise this school from the simmering stock pot of insurrection and angst that the camera portrayed. Of course you wouldn't: dozens of fixed-rig cams filming for a year, boiled down into seven, forty-five minute segments of drama and narrative. Of course, no one wants to watch people working quietly in biddable cohorts of near silence, so that's Showbiz. But it's important that we recognise what we saw.

This Playa got humps AND junk.
I asked Vic two questions that were deliberately cheeky. First of all, I asked him what was next for him? Without hesitation, he said, 'Why would I want to do anything other than this?' And I believe him. Here's a man doing what he loves, in excellent manner. In many ways, isn't that the life ambition of us all? The second question was, 'Will there be another series?' For the first time, I saw a flicker of fatigue wash over his face, which normally defaulted to positivity, enthusiasm and good humour the entire time I was there.

'Channel four want to. I don't really; it wouldn't be the same now. When the first one went out, no one thought anyone would watch it.' Like Big Brother, which started attracting even more pathological personalities as the fame snowball rolled along, a second series would have no point, other than to satisfy sequel fever. It would be like the Godfather 3, or the remake of the Italian Job.

I know that Ofsted calls Passmores- sorry, Passmores Academy now- an outstanding school. But who gives a monkeys what they think? I'm a teacher, and part of me saw this as a chance to review it, like a restaurant. Well, you know what I think about the toilets, and someday I'll tell you about Vic's 'special' sandwiches, so I hope you'll take my comments in the context of a man who works and breathes education, schools and kids: Passmores is an outstanding school. I spend half my time trying to dismantle and scorn the moronism that permeates and percolates through education in the UK. It is a relief, a detox and a rest-and-be-thankful to talk about an example of education working so well, of a school where the systems, the leadership, the kids and the learning all embrace and support each other. There's no such thing as a perfect school, and what works in one context may not work in another- in fact, I would say that it's guaranteed that they usually don't- but Passmores does a damn fine job of doing what a school needs to do with its catchment. It's very easy to say what's broken in education; far harder to suggest what 'fixed' might look like. Ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A.

Vic walked me to the reception as I left. A visiting year 6 girl in the corridor shouted after him, 'I wanna come Passmores!' as we walked away. You can't buy that kind of rep. It has to be grown from a seed. In the cab back to the station, the driver asked me if I worked there. I told him I was just visiting. 'A good school, that,' he said as we sailed into the golden evening sun. 'One of the better ones.'

And I thought: Passmores; one of the better ones. Not a bad epitaph.

Same picture as before, but ruder. And therefore funnier.
Clear off, scumbags.

Click here for previous blogs on Educating Essex:

Episode one
Episode two
Episode three
Episode four
Episode five
Episode six
Episode seven

Click here for the funniest thing I saw this week.

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Friday, 3 February 2012

Let's say something so stupid we have to call it science: obnoxious, loud children 'learn better'

My learning style involves everyone else not learning.
NEWSFLASH: A study of 12,000 baby Tyrannosaurus Rexes found that the larger, more aggressive calves with longer, sharper teeth tended to outperform their more civil, amenable peers in standardised herbivore intimidation tests (SHIT). This contradicts the commonly held view that agreeable, polite mega-carnivores would be more successful. This raises questions about the need for T-Rex mentors to consider other methods.....(continues in a similar vein forever and ever until everyone dies crying)

Comedy Gold dropped into my email box this morning; a timebomb of stupid that I normally associate with people 'standing on street corners, selling coloured pencils from a tin cup,' to quote the Hitch. Only this time it was a paper written by m'learned educational scientists at Durham University, and blazed on the BBC news website here. The claim was that children who shout out in classes do better than their kinder, lovelier peers.

If Charles Darwin read this report he'd be chewing his long beard like Gandalf and wondering what all the fuss was about. 'Competitive, unpleasant organisms unfettered by social mores or self-restraint get more of what they want' isn't exactly news. Nor is 'teachers forced by obnoxious organic alarm clocks to focus attention on hitting the snooze button until Hell freezes over.'

'The lead author of the research, Peter Tymms, head of Durham University's school of education, said that among children with ADHD symptoms, those who got excited and shouted out seemed to be more "cognitively engaged and as a result learn more".
"Perhaps those children also benefit from receiving additional feedback and attention from their teacher," suggested Prof Tymms.'

YOU THINK? Noisy, greedy little attention-hoovers grab attention, do they? Well, KNOCK ME DOWN WITH A FEATHER. Who knew? Maybe they should ALL be like that, eh? Those quiet little f*ckers, keeping their heads down and working hard, what do they know, eh? Despicable little arse-limpets. They should step the HELL up and get some attention for themselves. Except....except if they all did that....then there wouldn't BE a survival advantage any more because the teacher would be split like a kaleidoscope into a million shards of fragmented attention. So for anyone to grab more attention than their peers they would have to....SHOUT LOUDER AND LOUDER UNTIL THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT IN THE COLD BROKEN UNIVERSE BUT THE BAYING SCREAMS OF CHILDREN HOWLING UNTIL THEIR THROATS HAD TURNED TO STONE.

Let's not do that.

'Ms Merrell, CEM's director of research and development, said she wanted to carry out further studies to see how pupils could be encouraged to shout out as part of the lesson.'

OH BOY OH BOY, I bet the teachers will be QUEUEING ROUND THE BLOCK for Ms Merrell to start doing her experiments in their class. Perhaps after that we can test the effect of letting kids fling faeces at the teacher like Barbary Apes. Form a line, comrades.

"We need to look more closely at this behaviour and how the interaction can be managed in the classroom." 

The data suggests that this is optimal.
No, chum; we don't. I, and every teacher, know how this interaction can be managed in the classroom. You don't allow it. If we allow the loud mouths and the intemperate to dominate the time and attention of the teacher, to guzzle the oxygen of attention, to monopolise discussion and personal resources, then all we do is create a war of all against all, where the loudest, neediest and least agreeable come first. Which is fine if we are breeding the next generation of politicians, transvestite cabaret artists or X-Factor participants. Less so if we seek to sculpt human beings.

Other aspects of this paper:

1. The title: 'ADHD and academic attainment: Is there an advantage in impulsivity?' Are they kidding me on? Are they really asking that question? Normally Educational Social Science needs to be pretty brave to show its face round my manor, but this takes the whole packet of biscuits. Are they having me on? Ask anyone with an ounce of language and experience and they would tell you the answer to the question: yes, of course there is, sometimes. But it still makes you a dick. I look forward to the follow up: 'stealing things- does it mean you get more stuff?'

For F*CK'S sake.

2. 'However, it is also recognised that these behavioural problems can lead to children being excluded from pre-school and school from an early age, and that early interventions are promising.' Or to put it another way, kids who shout out and misbehave get in trouble a lot, and if you work hard with them to control themselves at an early age, they can improve. Which we already know. How do we know? We work with kids. Isn't that grand?

School Uniform? More research is needed.
3. In the 'alternative hypotheses' section of the paper, the writers scratch their undoubtedly pointy chins, and ponder their own fallibility:

'Could an unmeasured variable, such as the intelligence, confidence or knowledge of some young children be acting as the key causal factor? This is a possibility; only intervention studies could firmly establish a direct causal link.'

Say it isn't so! You think it might be something else? You think maybe it wasn't just the shouting out that gave them an educational advantage? I love the cautious, wide-eyed uncertainty allowed to creep in at the end, as if they were scared to even ask the question: is it possible that human behaviour is so complex, that the causal density for potential explanations is almost infinite, and the possibility of exacting a clear predictive mechanism is next-to impossible? Let me answer that one for you: yes, it is possible.

It's possible that you wrote this paper before you wrote it. It's possible that you found exactly what you were looking for. It's possible that the first ten cars I see tomorrow will be red: does that mean that Friday generates a glut of scarlet Hyundais? If, every time I wake up on a Sunday morning I have a sore head, a wet mattress and a pocket full of sticky pennies, can I infer that Sunday mornings cause incontinence, cephalalgia and amnesia, or should I look to the pile of empty Laphroaig bottles surrounding my bed? 

4. Most importantly, this paper actually only makes the claim that pushiness is a competitive learning advantage in the group that already displays inattentiveness; in other words, being quiet and well behaved still outweighs all the other factors in terms of educational achievement correlation, as you might expect. It's just that the shouty kids who are inattentive do better than the quiet kids who are inattentive. Now that's not so much of a claim,but in my opinion, the paper frames these themes in such as way as to present them in a more newsworthy and provocative, bone-headed light. The news article certainly does.

T-Rex: surprisingly good Value-Added.
Social science, I despair of you. You're not really a science are you? Like an ape pretending to be a prince, you can wear the robes and hold a sceptre, but you'll never pass the laws. You can hide behind as many abstracts, tables and T-scores as you like, but you aren't physics. You aren't chemistry. You aren't even biology. Until educational research remembers what it can do- act as a commentary on human experience, suggest and frame that experience- and what it can't- discern causation in anything  more than the most rudimentary sense when it comes to human desires and direction- then I'll file papers like these squarely under 'that's nice, did you have fun writing it?' and turn to the classroom for the laboratory, the research, and the Petri dish of my teaching.

But more than that, I despair of the way that papers like this are presented in the national media. Normally sober and I'm sure, reliable journalists put things like this under the magnifying glass, cranking up the claims and turning a fairly standard investigation into data, into something beyond even the claims of the writers. The paper itself is no worse than many others, and was, I'm sure the result of many hours of dedicated enquiry and analyses. It isn't the author's fault that the factual conclusions of the research are so unremarkable, although it is their fault that the suggested implications are so knuckle-headed. But the BBC online news portal seems to be increasingly hyperbolic, as if no Thursday could be complete without a claim so absurd that the Krankies would have blushed to imagine it. 

And of course, the real heart ache is that people will pick up on research like this, and attempt to shoe horn it somehow into the classroom, advising impressionable teachers to let their kids shout out because of some imagined benefit it brings. What kind of people? Normally people who have never taught in a classroom, never will, and yet have the kind of stones to tell people like you and me how children best learn. Get back in your pit, weasels. We have a job to do.

Teacher Voice.

Thanks to @Bio_Joe for passing on the paper to me, and highlighting the alternative hypothesese.
Read the paper yourself here. It's a barrel of laughs. At least it's short.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

ZOMG! Ofsted are TOTALLY on Twitter. Jazz Hands!

Have you seen the Ofsted Twitter feed. LET ME TELL YOU IT IS A HOOT MY FRIEND. It is either written by a very earnest and serious young person, or it is, in fact, the MOST FINELY CRAFTED PIECE OF SATIRE THE WORLD HAS SEEN. I prefer to believe the latter.

There are many Twitter feeds that I have absolutely no understanding of- literally, cannot fathom why they exist, like the Coca Cola Twitter account, or the ASDA feed. Who the HELL is following these soulless, corporate ad-drips? And yet, and yet, followed they are, in levels approaching the Biblical. Going down a level in Dante's Twit-ferno, we find accounts for abstract nouns like 'Friendship' and 'Caring', and yet we see an exponential rise in membership. Worrying about follower numbers is like worrying how many nipples you have- pointlessness squared, but I worry about a world where people think to themselves, 'What shall I follow? Who do I want to hear from? Ah yes, Fanta. And Happy.' Give me strength.

'Spare us, Lord Wishaw! We are peaceful. We have no weapons.'
But my Twitter-de Jour, the Special on today's menu has to be @Ofstednews. It really is an ironic joy, a breath of subversion in a cold corridor of conformity. It MUST be. What other explanation could there be for such fortune cookie classics as....

'We must focus inspection on the things that make the most difference to the lives of children & young people' Or....

'Evidence suggests the quality of leadership correlates to the quality of service that children & young people receive '

BROTHER YOU HAD ME AT 'WE'. This is better than listening to the Arab Spring on the World Service. My only advice to them would be they should integrate the Twitter feed with the surprise inspections, so they could announce their every step as they take them.





@Ofstednews LORD WILSHAW I CAN EXPLAIN... *acck* *chokes*

@Ofstednews #ff@mgove #ff@mossborneacademy

@Ofstednews I hoover like a junior minister in a reshuffle. Schedule some private surgery time this weekend

@Ofstednews OMG I can't believe Ofsted are saying this about you! Click here

There is nothing not to like about Ofsted's Twitter feed. Unless, of course, they start to make judgements about YOUR Twitter feed. Ofstednews, you can have that idea for free. Just give me 48 hours notice to think of something to say.