Razzle Dazzle 'em in education: why teachers need to beware of Billy Flynn

'All right, Mr Demille, I'm ready for my Ofsted.'
Spent Saturday at the TES Resources exhibition, delivering a couple of lectures on behaviour management. It was, as ever great fun- LOVE speaking to fellow teachers and scratching my education itch. I've never even been to a teaching exhibition before so I was curious what they actually were. I think my confusion spun around the problem of what they would have on each stand. I mean, what can you sell in education?

Oh boy. As I walked around the stands I saw the answer to that piece of naivety: there are plenty of things to sell in education. For a man like me, who feels that two marker pens and a spare exercise book is over planning it, I was astounded. Do people really use all this stuff? Apparently so. Stand after stand, hawking interactive games, software (oh, there was a LOT of software, believe me. I wonder how anyone learned anything before Pac-Man?), and more SEAL resources than you could club in a month, and lots of colourful toys and play benches. If you have a large budget and like taking a punt, then fill your boots. Some of it I could see as being useful; some less so- that's the point of a market, I suppose, and so far, so good.

But Caveat Emptor: if you've ever managed a school budget you will know how many temptations are strewn in your path, and in my experience, many of them are as useful as a sunroof in a submarine. But still companies vie for elbow room with their packages and their learning systems, and schools buy into them like they're being rationed by Francis Maude. Why? Because of Razzle Dazzle.

Razzle Dazzle 'em

If you want to make it look as if you're doing something in a school, you have two options:
  1. You can do something about it. This may involve actually telling people what they need to be doing, kids or adults. Unfortunately this option may be laborious and time consuming. So...
  2. You can generate a lot of paperwork and meetings, demonstrating that something is being done, although nothing is actually being done
  3. You can buy something; a package, an INSET, a box of books, a rag, a bone, a hank of hair. A saint's finger, a witch's tit.

(2) and (3) fall into a category I call Razzle Dazzle. I of course borrow from Billy Flynn's unscrupulous and amoral defence lawyer in the musical Chicago, a man devoted to exonerating his clients no matter how guilty they were.

Give 'em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble go into your dance

F*ck it.
Fighter pilots and submarine chiefs evading a missile lock throw chaff in their wake to distract targeting systems; in any management structure we can do the same, ejecting a mist of bullshit and empty activity to create the illusion of movement and structure, when all we have done is throw sand in everyone's faces.

Give em the old Razzle Dazzle
Razzle Dazzle them
Show them the first rate sorcerer you are
Long as you keep them way off balance
How can they spot - you got no talents?

There's a lot of this in the greater field of education. You see it far more clearly when you pull back from the classroom, step away from the whiteboard, and climb to the top of the mountain, for example when you attend exhibitions or educational conferences. THEN you see the big beasts circling the herd, wondering where they can take the first bit. 

Give em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give em the old hocus pocus
Feed and feather 'em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?

This is not unique to education; this is human nature. In the absence of a clear idea what to do, the need to do something becomes overwhelming. Grades a bit low? Behaviour a bit rubbish? Why not try a range of calming classroom perfumes? Or get a motivational coach in (surely the closest incarnations of educational Billy Flynns there are). Or buy a software package. Or cover the corridors with posters that promote the seven 'P's of great learning, or something similarly useless. Such an approach fills a folder of evidence, to astonish and amaze any inspector of peer reviewer. But...

What if your hinges all are rusting?
What if, in fact, you're just disgusting?
Razzle Dazzle them
And they'll never catch wise 

'FAIL your GCSEs!'
This strategy says 'I have acted'; I have pimped and vajazzled my classroom and my department with trinkets and gewgaws that make the same promises that all magic potion salesmen make. When I worked in Soho, there was a big Rastafarian called Danny who used to hang around my club waving refurbished bottles of Highland Spring, filled to the crusty brim with foul medicines brewed in his basement, or more likely, his septic tank. These, he claimed were magical antidotes to all ailments corporeal. Amazingly, some of the bouncers bought them; he had a gold incisor and a persuasive smile.

Danny no longer haunts my porch, but his descendants tap dance invisibly round all of our classrooms, all of the time. Brain Gym, INSETS costing a fortune, pointless suites of IT, Emotional Intelligence kits, educational psuedoscience, neuromantics, Steiner selection boxes... In many ways I don't blame people for falling for this: when I was a new teacher, I accepted what anyone in a position of authority told me, and why not? It would have been crass and vain not to. But it didn't take long to smell a nest of rats (and incidentally, I once witnessed a nest of rats being flushed, so I have form in this matter) every time someone told me that X was the best way to teach ALL children, or worse, that X would cost me a fortune. That's my basic question when I'm thinking about a new approach or resource. If it costs money, why does it cost money? Can I obtain the same effect without spending anything? Do I need the laminated colour posters and counters, or can I reproduce this myself by another activity? If I send a member of my department off on an INSET to a mid-price Travel Inn, will they learn anything that they will actually use, or are we meeting a Performance Management goal and nothing else?

How can they hear the truth above the ROAR?
I think that a lot of the wares being hawked on the internet and circulars sent to schools, and tarted about at education shows fall into this category; purchasing as a substitute for doing something. It's the educational equivalent of the machine that goes ping! It's expensive and impressive, so it must be useful. Really? All a teacher needs- I mean needs- is a voice and a pen. Sometimes not even that. Mr` Christ allegedly turned up to temple in Holy Week and did his nut because 'My father's house is a house of prayer- but you have made it a den of thieves.' Have we allowed our schools to become dens of thieves? Should we be lashing the conmen and the bean counters, driving them from the classroom? I think we should. If they don't help, they're in our way.

'It's the resource that goes 'Ping!''
I also fear that the higher one proceeds up the food chain, the more such paper tigers are required, which is ironic, because when you go in the opposite direction directly, towards the children, they need very little bullshit whatsoever, and have Radars for such matters that border on the trigger-sensitivity of a Geiger counter. Watch kids when you try to teach them something that is patently a load of crap- SEAL springing to mind- earnest, but hollow. They spot in half a second when something is a pointless waste of time. So should we. On a day when I read that Higher education DOUBLED its management budgets over the last few years, I wonder if we will ever learn that although most organisations need better management, that usually doesn't mean more managers, but a clearer understanding of what management priorities should be.

Let's keep the Billy Flynns out of the classroom, the management meetings and the department budgets. Buy it if you need it, but don't buy it because you have a budget. Let's just teach the kids. Remember them?


  1. How on earth do people think students USED to get taught before all the pricey claptrap, Tom? That's what puzzles me. How did I learn to read and write and do Maths in the 1970s when a mouse was still a little grey animal?

    1. How did anyone cope without IWBs and personalised learning plans? We must have been THICK as PIGSHIT :)

  2. Oh so familiar....
    I once went to one such educational bazaar ( or ought that to be bizarre? I digress...)One cheery chap was touting a box of 8 folders which were empty save for a single sheet of A4 flim flam. This flim flam urged the buyer to fill the folders with ideas, suggestions, topic plans, and all manner of wizardry designed to wow the pupils into a frenzy of independent learning.
    The real genius of this whole encounter though was that umpteen mugs (sorry, practioners)happily thrust their credit cards and grubby tenners at him as if he were Willy Wonka with a fistful of golden tickets. This was a victory of product lust over logic.

    I stood there agape, wondering why supposedly smart people were knowingly purchasing EMPTY folders costing £300!! To this day, I still don't get it. Razzle dazzle 'em indeed.

    1. I am STEALING this idea IMMEDIATELY before someone else does. *pulls on Emperor's New Clothes* *runs down street, waving* :)

      Razzle Dazzle 'em

  3. Devil's advocate for a moment Tom. Did you know that educational book publishers minimise their marketing efforts to schools because they know from their research that what most teachers holding budgets for books do, when they actually get around to buying books is...they order exactly the same they bought last time!

    1. I did NOT know that. Well, I did in that it's what I do, but I didn't realise it was the blueprint.

  4. I liken educational salesmen similar to cyclist salesmen. Anyone who can sell lycra to cyclists and tell them they look good, overcharge them and get free advertising for chosen affiliation...well says it all really!

  5. Or teenagers who pay a fortune to wear branded labels and advertise multinationals, in the aim of appearing hip and individual. Ah, the humanity.....

  6. And they keep asking you to speak at these things?

  7. Hah you can't fool me with all that paying for inset business everyone knows those incest days are where baby teachers come from...

    As a university student I have to say my insides sink the minute I find myself in a module with a lecturer who wants to use every device on the planet. My needs are simple-place to sit (in non boiling room) and smart person at front talking/asking. However, I'm in the minority as best I can tell, my peers expect 'stuff' and I imagine many secondary age students do too. Which is sad, since the best stuff is in the head of the person at the front. So many times though have I sat in student meetings where people are complaining because lecturer Z "only uses powerpoint...and we're paying" *faces of horror*, as if this were akin to sacrificing virgins (god only knows where they'd find any of those mind)...
    So I think you're not just resisting the Billy Flynns but the collective fear of that student voice you love so much (;-) )


Post a Comment