Saturday, 31 March 2012

Why News Reports About Schools Are Often Wrong

Alex Dolan: Heroine of Education
Sometimes when I watch news features on schools, I wonder if I am listening in Armenian to someone speak in Lithuanian. Take this report from BBC's Daily Politics. It started off by asking  the old chestnut, 'Have kids got worse?' before looking at some oddly divergent data:

1. Permanent exclusions are at a five year low- 0.08% of the school population, which is jolly low.
2. Reported violent assaults against teachers are at an all time high, with many resulting in hospitalisation.
3. A Teacher Survey indicated that 92% of teachers surveyed said that behaviour had become worse.

Incidentally, claims that students have always been like this are often supported by the tired old mare of Socrates, or sometimes Aristotle, sometimes Plato:

'Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.'

I've read this dozens and dozens of times. No reference can be found for it, because it's made up. Old Andrew (@oldandrewuk) does a fine job exploring this oddity. Perhaps Bill and Ted heard him say it? It seems that people who want to grow a bit of credibility for their prejudices are happy to invent supporters at times. I find it difficult to believe that someone would just invent a quote, but then I'm not Johann Hari.

So, forget Socrates. Are kids getting worse? WELL FAR BE IT FROM ME TO START A BIG BILLY JOEL FIRE, but the fact that exclusions have gone down at the same time as reported assaults have gone up, would seeeeeeem to indicate that there might be some kind of link between the two. If you fail to exclude the right students, then more and more teachers will get flat noses. Could someone 'investigate' this please? Because it seems fairly intuitively demonstrable to me.

'No, I said FRANCIS MAUDE was a tyrant.'
For me, a far more important question is, 'Is behaviour good enough?' and 'What needs to be done?' When I entered teaching I was flattened by the way kids spoke to adults and teachers. Truly astounded- and I'd just come from eight years in Soho nightclubs. We were used to finding and liquidising drug dealers and bad lads. But to find a kid of fourteen dealing skunk in my lesson the first week I taught made my head spin. Is it worse? Seems like it to me. But I don't care so much. The main thing is, it's bad.

And of course that's too small a description. It's worse in some ways, in some schools, in some segments of society. We, too often, speak about schools as if they were one school, about kids as if they all came from the same family, about teachers as if they were all of one voice. It's the mistake of the politico, and anyone who finds it more expedient to oversimplify for the sake of analysis, or for the sake of a three-minute feature on TV.

This news report was rushed, felt strangely like it had no centre, and jumped from one question to another without answering any way at all. It simultaneously achieved lack of breadth AND depth. It was a hurried, harassed head stuck round the classroom door and then removed before an image could form. No wonder people watch and believe Waterloo Road.

Which brings me to the reasons why so very, very many things I see on TV about schools are so utterly contrary to reality. Everyone likes lists. Magazines, blogs and the Huffington Post LOVES them. So here's a list:

Why TV Journalism about schools often resembles the Twilight Zone

1. They never, ever see a bad school. When does a camera get close to a class melting down? Into a school where the kids are routinely awful? Into a playground where they might get their lenses lifted? Never. Seriously, never. Cameras only get into schools with the permission of the Head, sometimes the Governors. It is a long ship to steer, and there is barely any guerilla footage of schools in crisis. Like the Queen, TV only sees schools at their best behaviour; like Ofsted. You think Vic Goddard would have invited a fixed rig into Passmores if he wasn't proud and confident about his manor? Of course not.

The very rare examples of 'found footage' of bad behaviour have to be smuggled in and out like elephant-foot umbrella stands or bush-meat through Gatwick. You may remember the excellent, eye-popping footage of a day-in-the-life of a supply teacher that the journalist Alex Dolan provided for Channel 4's dispatches. It was gruesome, even though teachers throughout the UK and beyond would recognise it as common. The GTC drummed her out of the profession for bringing it into disrepute, despite the act that it was in disrepute already because of situations like the one she exposed, and ironically the GTC supported that situation by suppressing its public dissemination. They should have given her a medal, not chastened her. What a pity it's been canned *throws a single white rose on its hearse*.

2. Like most people, they reckon they know what teaching a class is like. They don't. Unless you do it, you don't know. Unless you've had a room full of kids laughing at you, ignoring you, or cursing you for no reason other than that you wanted to get them all looking at a board, a book, or you, then you have no idea. Trust me on this. Dispense with your Care-Bear philosophies and Noddy-policies that suggest children will leap to attention if the teacher cares enough, or engages with them, or creates fun, funky lessons. This isn't Dead Poets.

3. Like most people, they believe that teaching is fairly straightforward. It is not. It is certainly not simply being an expert in your subject and devising interesting ways to communicate this expertise. Most of your job, especially at first, will be behaviour management, planning, paperwork and other thrill-suckers.

'Chairs IN, stand behind desks please.'
4. It's far easier to speak to non-teachers than teachers. I do a bit of telly-whoring from time to time; I speak at education festivals and conferences. But I have to do that outside of my real job, which is teaching. I had the possibility of a telly slot the other day, but I had to turn it down because- guess what- I would have been teaching. at the time. So who do we get? Anyone who's available on the Rolodex. If you're lucky, like in the DP report, you'll get some ex-teachers at least. But teacher opinion- the ones who rock up to the ACTUAL CLASSROOM- is rare. Rentagobs abound. They're often the ones with something to sell.

5. The issues of schooling are hard to summarise in a few minutes, and the usual approach of 'one person says this and another says that' journalism projects the illusion of balance at the expense of a clear picture. Some people think that teaching kids has become much harder because of a swing towards rights over responsibilities; that behaviour has become worse for many reasons. Who says so? 92% of teachers in the survey. Now that is a lot of people. Who doesn't say it? Mostly people who work in easier schools, or who only see schools at their best. Or Trevor Averre-Beeson, Peter Hyman's (ex Tony Blair speech writer, now Head of '21st century school' 21) old headmaster. What kind of balance is that?

I don't blame TV journalists for much of this; they are, of course, generalists, and can't be expected to be intimate with the cell structures of schools. But I can't be expected to be a teacher and not comment on it.

Friday, 30 March 2012

To see ourselves as others see us. The Ghosts of teachers past.

Been spending some time in an Glasgow attic recently. Not, I stress, as some kind of East Scotland Quasimodo, nor in the capacity of a squatter. At my father's behest, I was invited (read: endlessly told since time began, through the Big Bang, past the Singularity and into the transcendent ether of unknowability) to 'sort out some of that junk upstairs'. Junk indeed. Star Wars jigsaws, vintage Q mags, and Viewfinders, Merlins, Commodore 64s, comics in their thousands and posters of Cindy Crawford, all composting nicely for decades, in countless neat boxes like the US Military warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A childhood spent efficiently, which is to say, wasted, in a broth of fantasy, imagination and introverted theatrical extravagance.And probably, not many girlfriends.

In between the Dungeons and Dragons Player's Manual and the University essays I found an odd pocket of then: sketchbooks from a time when I fancied my pencil skills before I realised I had the natural gift of Stevie Wonder. I found a batch of caricatures and sketched impressions of my own teachers. For the first time I looked at them as the found artefacts of someone other than myself; seeing myself as a student at a school somehow separate from myself. Some empiricists say we mistake similarity for identity; that the person you were yesterday is not the person you are today, literally. The Buddhists believe that there is no 'you', in the same way that you can never put your foot into the same river twice (or, if you're of a Zen humour, even once).

Looking at these pictures I saw myself through another's eyes. What would I have made of such things if I had discovered them drawn of myself? The first thing that struck me was how simultaneously innocent and vicious they were; utterly unkind and indiscreet, but not in any way you would be surprised to see in a Beano (although I imagine by now the fruit of DC Thomson's cartoon loins is full of zombie disembowelment and barely veiled slasher pornography). Physical oddities were popular targets; height, weight, mad eyes, skinny fingers and tatty clothes. Smoking stood out, oddly in a Glaswegian school twenty years ago (where I imagine it was practically compulsory. I can still barely believe that when I was a rookie teacher my first school had a SMOKING STAFF ROOM. Dear God, I feel like Buck Rogers when I say that: 'Ah, Tweekie, this is what we called Disco. Dance with me!' 'Beedee beedee.' etc)

It's all pretty unforgiving. I used to do caricatures of teachers, students, on request, and churned these out in between lessons in the playground. (No, I didn't play much sport. Why do you ask?) Even more odd was that I used to SHOW THESE TO MY TEACHERS. I'm amazed they didn't spanner me. And if any of them are still alive, you're perfectly welcome to do so. Free go.

They also show how a teacher's personality or lack thereof will make its mark. There was the creepy one who licked his lips at the sixth formers, the playah, the Earth Mother, the useless one, the one that was too kind, the keen one, the mad ones....the taxonomy of teachers has been done to death in the fashionable blogs years ago, but you follow. Kids may not have lived a life of texture and complexities, but they are quick to categorise. (not unlike fans of Bloom) 

What does it teach me? Kids notice EVERYTHING about you. You're doing your monkey dance in front of them for a few hours every week, and you're on full view. You lost a button? Someone saw it. You excavate your lingerie with an 'invisible' pincer action? It's been noticed, filmed, and Youtubed. Flies down? You have a nickname, promise me, and not a kind one (unless you were visited by trouser fairies in the cradle). Didn't shave? Forgot to cut your nails. YOU HAVE BEEN JUDGED AND SENTENCED BY THE CRUELLEST COURT SINCE LA GRANDE TERREUR.

I'm now off to buy some more suits, white shirts and monocles.

That's a joke. I have PLENTY of white shirts.

*Apologies to Mr Matheson, Calder, Carruthers, Meek, et al. May God have mercy on my souls.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

BREAKING: New Ofsted inspection criteria found in lapdancing bar

Ofstedgate: Fresh embarrassment for Ofsted as we can exclusively reveal that inspectors actually receive some form of training. This document, the latest in a series of leaks that one observer has described as 'like the Deepwater Horizon spill, but not as easy to plug,' was discovered by a cleaner in the popular gentleman's lap-dancing 'Pirates and Wenches' private room of Spearmint Rhino, Tottenham Court Road. 'It's awful,' said Olga Grebenschikov, the burlesque host; I feel dirty just knowing it was near me.'

The Department of Education was unavailable for comment.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Teachers 'caused the riots', and failing an Ofsted is good for you- It's Odd Box

'Careful, lads; they've got BTECs!'
Proof, if any was needed, that apes will soon overtake us in the race towards world dominance, comes today in the form of two headlines, each of which are so odd as to suggest that the people who write for the MiniTrue are daring each other to come up with the most spectacularly bizarre assertions. That, or the Gods of Olympus now actively play with us, for sport.

1. Schools should build character, says  the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel.

Where do I start with this? It's like mugging a Womble, I almost feel bad. (No I don't.) I read this twice in case the first time I was having a fit or coming down from a mescalin enema. Yet another report on last year's riot; cometh the report, cometh the righteous finger pointing. Every time I read these things I just think, 'Nah mate, bollocks; get a job' (I'm printing T-shirts that say just that, and selling them outside TED conferences). Seriously, what on earth would these people do if they weren't churning out rainforests of rot? Get. A Job. And f*ck off and stop telling me how to do mine.

Apparently schools have a key role to play in preventing further riots. You heard me. Yes, I'll just revise my curriculum to include a unit on 'How Not To Riot'. Which means I'll have to TAKE OUT the unit I already teach on 'How to Riot'. Honestly, make your minds up, lads. Do they seriously think that we don't do enough of this stuff already? That in schools the message is in any way ambiguous about whether it is socially acceptable to spanner old ladies and torch furniture warehouses? Boy, I'd love to see those assemblies.

Apart from the infantile, reductionist approach to human behaviour that the report endorses and assumes, it also commits the ultimate sin of neuroscientism or behavioural voodoo- it assumes that a person is nothing more than the product of their biochemistry, neurochemistry, genetics and background; seed and soil, it would seem, are Kismet. Which is odd, because I teach a whole heap of children who are poor, a bit bored, and would quite like to be rich who DON'T pan in Comet windows or boost tourists' MP3s. What on earth could explain such aberrant, altruistic behaviour?

'Please stop me before I riot again!'
Could it be that people have a choice? That 'not having a youth club to go to' isn't a sufficient excuse to riot? That 'not having enough support' is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of being a thug? I am dazzled by these people who claim that criminality is too simple an explanation for large scale disorder, and then provide such moronic explanations. Have they forgotten that human nature is often competitive, materialistic, opportunistic and selfish? That societies were invented as a mechanism through which cooperation could be encouraged, but that beneath that veneer man's animal nature still beat a hungry tattoo?

Their school solution is true comic genius: we need to build student's character. Now this is like shooting fish in a barrel, but here goes: what character would you like them to have? By whose standards? How would we assess such a thing? What rate of progress would you like? How would we personalise such programmes? Would they learn best in groups or independent enquiry projects? How would they be assessed? No? No idea at all? Then DO f*ck off. You have no idea what you're talking about. Fortunately I do, and so do millions of teachers.

We put up with this kind of well-meant but tiresome chatter all the time; worse, it often comes from people who actually possess some kind of influence over us. I wonder if any of the authors were affected directly by the riots? I wonder if they have ever been mugged? Burgled? Actually personally involved with working with people who are capable of such things? I have, and I am. You have no idea of the bottomless capacity of the human spirit to plumb depths of selfishness, as well as heights of transcendence, unless you do. And you have no business speaking about something of which you have no idea.

Building character is a fine aim for a school; but our primary job is to teach. Perhaps you noticed? It's in my contract. Building character is incidental to my role; I aim for it indirectly by providing a good example of behaviour and conduct. But it cannot be taught directly. I presume you don't like brain washing? How many more or less rioters would be produced by a few assemblies or units on 'not rioting'?  The more that such moronisms are loaded upon us, the more we look up to the Mountain Top and think, 'Let My People Go.' As I've said before, the people with the easy answers to the problems of society see themselves as Moses; but really, they're Pharaoh.

Or, if all they want is for schools to produce yet another document that describes how this is taught, we see just another tier of tiresome paperwork, and a job for someone to do three weeks before Ofsted.

My favourite bit is the idea that schools that failed to produce a satisfactory level of character building would be penalised financially. See, now you've just crossed a line, bub. You want to penalise schools for not doing what they could never be assessed for? You uncivil, officious little turds. Get. A. Job.

2. Schools that fail Ofsteds 'do better'

Isn't that marvellous? It seems that all the pain, the stress and middle-management pill popping has a purpose after all, as a spur to greater heights. Er, well, 10% higher grades next year round. How many of them from BTEC magic bean equivalents? Soft subjects? Selective entry? Answers, there are none. And 10%, I's not exactly Rocky II, is it?

So now we see the true purpose of Ofsted; not as a barometer, or even a dipstick of pedagogic standards, but a huge, bureaucratic clusterfuck game of Buckaroo!, using teachers instead of curious plastic bridles and buckets. 'All Buckaroo! horses that shed their burdens, gained pieces 10% faster than those that did not,' the report said.

Sometimes if it wasn't the absolute certainty I possessed that one day our nearest star will consume us in the brilliant riot of a Supernova, I would despair.

Anyone got any more bright ideas? I can do this ALL DAY.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Can Leadership actually be taught? Spoiler: no.

'I was awesome BEFORE Starfleet.'
Kent: 'You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.' 
King Lear: 'What's that?' 
Kent: 'Authority.' 

King Lear

Much talk in the news and on Twitter recently about leadership, and the needs for Heads to possess it.
But what IS leadership? This is the key issue to be addressed before we can discuss it; it's the classic philosopher's demand to define our terms. Because in most conversations I hear, the structure follows these lines:

P1: Heads are school leaders
P2: Leaders need to be good leaders
C: We should teach people to be good leaders

The invisible assumptions underpinning this argument are:

a) Leadership is a transferable skill set, or group of skills
b) They can be acquired by a teachable, repeatable process.

I would argue against both a) AND b). Leadership is an incredibly slippery fish to nail conceptually. In discussions I've had, I've heard it described as a hundred different things, or worse, a hundred different skills,  like the woeful check-lists of teaching competencies that dog our evaluations. The fact that people can't even agree about what it IS spells doom, doom, DOOM to the debate, because when people are talking about different concepts but using the same name to describe them, only comedy can ensue.

I found the same dilemma with the question, 'What makes a good teacher?' I can think of hundreds of different styles and approaches that all have their uses in certain contexts; and I know of dozens of different moulds from which teachers can be cast- the stern hardass and the funny aesthete all have their place. Identikit models are the death of humanity and ingenuity- and wit.

A solution I found was to use what Wittgenstein called the 'Family resemblance' model; he talked about the concept of games- what does 'game' mean? On the surface it means a million different things- solitaire, golf, Final Fantasy, chess, Family Fortunes- which don't share a single common denominator. Yet we use and understand the term. How? Because of family resemblance; golf is like chess in that it has competitors; and chess is like solitaire in that it can be played alone...and so on. There is an overlap of concepts between each one; viewed from afar, we identify this daisy chain of concepts 'the family we call games'.

This can be applied to teaching, styles of which are often quite dissimilar (although it can be argued that several unifying features and skill sets stand out)- private tutors, Mr Miyagis, Mr Chips, Dumbledores, Mr Bronsons. And, I think, we can apply this to leadership. Different styles, approaches and skill sets, all linking together to form a family of concepts under one banner.

'Nothing will come of Ofsted: speak again.'
Good leadership is far easier` to evaluate retrospectively rather than contemporaneously: when someone makes a decision that is unpopular and destructive in the short term, they are often accused of being authoritarian and tyrannical. But only time can tell if their decisions are borne out to have been good or bad ones. In that sense, every leader gambles that their decisions will be the right ones, even if the outcomes are relatively certain. And of course, no decisions are ever truly certain, because the future never is.

Be Tom unmannerly, when Lear is mad. 

So what is good leadership? It is when a person in charge (formally or by the coup d'etat of opportunity) makes decisions that result in the success of whatever project they are engaged in. It strikes me that in almost the entirety of a Head's role, this will involve maintaining and administering correct structural procedures to ensure the efficient and utilitarian running of a school. In other words, most of good leadership is good management. A much undervalued leadership skill is, I think, the ability to discern when innovation is NOT required. If you listened to many leadership gurus, you'd think that good leaders spent all day revolutionising the way we operate on every level. What nonsense. That would imply that we have never managed to establish reasonably good ways of running schools and classrooms to the educational and social benefit of our charges. We have.

Innovation is only required when something isn't working; even then, the answer to most problems in a school context isn't usually something incredibly left-field, but instead probably involves tightening up on loose practises, professional black holes, and poorly enforced policies. Good leadership is usually simply making sure that what is supposed to happen, happens. Hence: management.

But leadership...leadership is an abstract that parallels 'inspiration' as a vapour, a mist, a ghost. It means something, all right. But that doesn't mean it's a meaningful set of easily understood abilities, much less something that can be taught formally. It's part of character, certainly, and that's a very hard thing to amend in a classroom or through the medium of project work and research. How many times would you have to study the Battle of Agincourt to become a great leader? How many Gallipolis would it take for you to realise the best way to storm a beach? Theory is a very poor vehicle for what leadership requires. Like wisdom, it isn't something I can learn from a book, or even a fabulous teacher.

Which is why I reserve grave doubts about any formal process that claims to teach leadership, that certifies one as a leader after successful completion of their courses. Because in demonstration, this just isn't true; many teachers know of a great many school leaders who are no such thing; and many excellent leaders I know are so despite their training, not because of it. Perhaps part of the problem lies with the prescriptivist nature of our system; certainly until we get to the most senior levels of school leadership, what is required isn't passion,innovation and ingenuity, but compliance, docility and serving the needs of superiors. In effect, leadership is precisely what ISN'T wanted.

And what of Heads? My experience running nightclubs in Soho taught me something: that the higher you go, the more demands are placed on you IF you take your role seriously. To the inferior employee, the superior always looks like they have more freedoms and power; the reality is often the opposite. Heads have to respond to,and anticipate the whims of Ofsted and a million ministerial caprices.

Leadership implies autonomy, agency, and an X factor that cannot be generated in a laboratory. Found, perhaps; encouraged and drawn out in some, maybe. But taught?


Monday, 19 March 2012

What is The Children's Commissioner actually FOR? Speakeasy exclusions and good intentions

The Office of the Children's Commissioner is yet again proving that it's worth every penny of the millions ploughed into it annually from the public purse, not the least of which is the gargantuan, supersized salary of the Grand Vizier herself, Maggie Atkinson, at around £138K, plus I imagine an enormous amount of lollipops and Sherbet Dips. When the office was created in 2005, it was envisioned that the Commissioner would give the 11 million children in the UK a voice. 22 million parents, I imagine, are perfectly conversant with the timbre and volume of that voice already, but it was a nice thought.

What is the Children's Commissioner actually for? To represent the interests of children? Well far be it for me to get all 'technical' on your ass, but the Commissioner isn't elected by a mandate, obviously, so it's imposed representation. By adults. So it's adults speaking for children. Isn't that what we do anyway?

And how are children represented by the office in today's news? Well, by the looks of it, by making it even harder for schools to maintain a safe and structured learning environment, it seems. This report on the BBC, and everywhere else, sees a new report produced by the Office claiming  that many school illegally exclude children, AND that children shouldn't be excluded for 'trivial' reasons such as uniform or hair styles. Or 'Leave Children's Weird Hair Alone' as the Express thoughtfully and sensitively put it.

I think everyone can agree that exclusions shouldn't be done under the table; they should be public, transparent and fair, and any process that smacks of the backstreet exposes itself to abuse. But what the Office doesn't recognise is that the reason that schools are forced into this position is because exclusions have been made so very, very hard to do. Schools are now picked apart like carcasses on the Serengeti for excluding children; one of their performance indicators, as assessed by Ofsted, is how low their exclusion rates are. A low rate is seen as indicative of good housekeeping.

'My needs aren't being met!' 'And my voice isn't heard enough!'
But depressingly, the most obvious solution to any school wishing to appear angelic, is simply to exclude far less, which is a monumental example of putting the cart before the horse. Exclusions are a necessary and intrinsic property of a well run school. If a pupil defies the conventions and rules designed to keep everyone safe and secure, then they are usually set some kind of interim sanction- detentions, report cards, etc. But what if a pupil fails to respond to these, or any other interventions designed to help them habituate? There has to be a terminal point, reached only after every other option has been spent- and that point is the exclusion, temporary or permanent. It simply has to be.

The alternative is the current car-crash of a system that I walked into when I joined teaching ten years ago, where kids who persistently misbehave are simply...kept in classrooms. And the tragedy of it is that the education of everyone else is decimated. I've seen it, and every teacher in any kind of difficult school can see it. And even sadder, every kid I know who doesn't tell their teacher to stick their lessons up their arses can see it, and they despair. They simply look at us, the adults, and wonder why we don't seem to be able to do anything with persistent offenders. The answer is that many schools choose not to. They simply contain them in the classroom and cross their fingers.

You want to see education improve in this country? You want to see your precious PISA comparisons rocket up? You ant literacy and numeracy to improve? Worried about STEM subjects? Worried about social skills?

Then for god sake, let us, the teachers, do our jobs and make it possible to do so.

There exists a small, persistent minority of children who have the ability to completely devastate a lesson, and all lessons because they choose to do so. This isn't a statement of distaste or dislike for them. This is simply truth. Just as in any society there are some law breakers who place themselves beyond the values of the community, so too are there children- who grow up to be adults, incidentally- who display exactly the same characteristics. Yet we are often unable to remove them to a place where a) they can no longer harm the education of others and b) they can be educated in a one-to-one setting.

The current system is a complete clusterf*ck. They remain, and learn that there are few consequences to their actions. And they grow bold, wondering where the next boundary lies. And other children, whose lessons are routinely depth charged by these kids, look on, and wonder if they too can get away with misbehaviour; and so the behaviour normalises downwards, and everyone suffers.

Me, when I read today's papers.
And at the end of this grisly process is the teacher, going out of their minds trying to teach, and being interrogated by parents, 'Why can't you control the class?' as if control were some kind of Jedi Mind Trick. Which is why so many new teachers leave within five years of joining. It's as if we have vowed to protect the interests of the most disruptive and forgotten the rights of everyone else, as if they ceased to matter. I wonder when, one day, a parent will launch a legal challenge against a school for failing to provide a safe educational environment for their child. Soon, I hope.

The social and emotional damage this situation causes teachers and children is awful, and I am precise when I say that it is a scandal. It's why I got into behaviour writing in the first place, because schools and teachers weren't allowed to do the completely obvious, natural thing; show children that good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour is discouraged.

It's not that I want to see badly behaved kids punished for pleasure, or revenge; but actually because these children are so poorly served by the current provision- packed off to an 'internal exclusion' centre, which are sometimes brilliant, and often terrible, or merely holding pens. Given proper support in secure, disciplined environments by trained professional teachers, they could actually learn to become more socialised and educated. Instead they are frequently fobbed off with half measures.

And let's not pretend that children are routinely excluded for minor matters: these days you need to practically pick off milkmen with a sniper rifle to be considered for an exclusion. A permanent exclusion would require that the child had constructed an airborne Ebola virus and pump it through the school air con. And admit it. It is really, really hard to get excluded.

I saw two charmers on Channel 4 News tonight who were 'at risk' of exclusion, as if they had no responsibility in the matter. They admitted they had been 'rude' to the teachers. Only a teacher knows just how rude a kid has to be before they get put on Exclusion Death Row; it normally means weeks, months, years of abuse and arrogance, of making their teachers and other people lives misery. These aren't misguided angels with dirty faces. These children have to be persistently unpleasant to get there. So don't tell me that schools over exclude. They massively under exclude. And the reason they do so off the books is because doing it on the books will lead to them being labelled Unsatisfactory. It is as simple as that. The process has been driven underground because the government insists on Prohibition. No wonder Speakeasys start to open.

So, thanks, Office of the Children's Commissioner. I know that you have to justify your outrageous, credit-crunch-defying salaries somehow. And when it comes to taking the moral high ground, nothing is easier than saying, 'Will no one think of the children?' while wringing your hands like some Victorian Thespian.

Far harder to do what I and thousands of other teachers do, which is actually teach children (have you ever....? No, of course not. Few people in these positions actually have to get their hands dirty helping children directly.) Far harder to stand up for the rights of children like we do: their right to safe and secure schools; their right to a calm classroom; their right to a teacher who doesn't spend half their time dealing with terrible behaviour; their right to guidance.

Sometimes being an adult means saying 'No' to children, for their own good. I know it's easy to say 'Yes' all the time and be the nice Mummy. But all good parents- all good educators- know that sometimes, children need to know the boundaries. Tough love is still love, and love without boundaries isn't love at all; it's indulgence.

If a school excludes for make-up or uniform, it isn't excluding for those things directly; they exclude for the child's persistent refusal to follow school rules, created for everyone to be fair. If a child only follows rules they agree with, then schools cannot operate. Their acceptance of these rules is implicit in the application letter they sent prior to their arrival. In societies we don't get to personalise the rules; we abide, and support out community's will. We learn to rub along with others, and we learn that sometimes the individual's needs must be set against the greater community.

So, I return to my original question: what is the Office of the Children's Commission actually for? Because it seems to exist to undermine the institutions that want desperately to help children the most: teachers, parents and schools. Let us do our jobs. You can go...I don't know. What IS it you do again? Because £138 grand would buy me a lot of textbooks and pens.

Teacher Voice.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Keepin' it real dumb: maths teaching saved by game-changing idea

This article from the BBC website caught my breakfast eye today. Professor Pratt (that's ENOUGH at the back. Any more and you'll see me at the end), a lecturer at the IoE has made the claim that maths is taught backwards- that, much like learning a language, users should learn by doing, before learning the rules.
"The problem with maths is that it is taught in way that is disconnected from the children.
"They don't see how it is relevant to their lives. It is presented only through abstract concepts, rather than in terms of experiences."
Which sounds jolly reasonable. I was ace at maths at school- a real test-busting kiss-ass. And to this day I still have no idea what differential calculus is actually for. The mysteries of SOH CAH TOA are as opaque and as inscrutable today as they ever were. Like SIRI, Apple's inexplicable attempt to corner the market in devices that say, 'Sorry: I don't understand,' to people, it makes sounds, but without comprehension.

The problem is, though....even when I was at school (Scotland, eighties) we used practical examples ALL THE TIME. If we weren't trying to work out the compound interest of bank loans, or the average speed required for a lorry to get from Brighton to Beirut, stopping off at the Westfield Wagamama's (and spending twenty five minutes there) before tea time, then we weren't doing much else.

But that would appear to be arithmetic. And even Plato observed that 'a slave knows that half of a circle is a semi-circle.' There is a basic level of geometry and arithmetic that speaks to us on a very emprirical level, demonstrably true by reference to experience.

'I vant you to vork out how many stressed teachers you can count.'
But beyond that there is a level, incrementally more dense, like the atmosphere of a gas giant, where we leave the realms of the easily demonstrable, and enter territories more a priori and strange. And this is partly where maths cannot, I think, be taught in such a sensually intuitive way. It becomes an abstract plane, where the ability to manipulate data becomes easily removed from understanding the language of that data. In fact, the rationalist philosophers thought that maths was the very ideal a priori knowledge, known prior to experience and using reason alone. Language never enters these kind of surreal levels of impenetrability, until you find yourself trying to work out what Mick Jagger or Eric Cantona is saying.

 'He added that the approach was not the same as old-fashioned mathematical "problems" which were often contrived and irrelevant to children's real life experiences.'

Oh really? So tell us what brave new world of practical, real world dilemmas will seize and engage the young mind....

 'For example, decisions on where to build a village bypass or how to advise someone on medical treatment have a mathematical element'

Sesame Street took it too far.
YOU HEARD ME RIGHT I WOULD NOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP. Learn maths by working out where to build the village bypass. Yeas, that's much better than working out compound interest on a mortgage. You can just IMAGINE their little HEARTS LIGHTING UP LIKE A PINBALL SCOREBOARD WHEN THEY HEAR THAT PIECE OF GHETTO.

But best of all- BEST of all, and I have been saving this until the end, is the idea that....

'He suggested that older pupils might be asked to approach questions with moral dimensions through mathematics.
For example, decisions on where to build a village bypass or how to advise someone on medical treatment have a mathematical element - but ethical considerations and social costs that are harder to quantify also play a part'
Can you hear that sound? That's the collective sigh as maths education finally breathes its last gasp, realising that intelligent people who are listened to consider that maths and ethics are somehow two subjects that should be taught together. I felt the same way when, as an RE/ Philosophy teacher, I used to be required to show how I was conveying numeracy to my children (thanks Numeracy strategy. Now F*ck Off), and I was left scratching my head and asking, 'Why?' before feebly mumbling something about tithes and zakah. I used to mock this idea, saying that I would justify my numeracy approach in Philosophy, the day they asked maths teachers to teach ethics and metaphysics.

And here, we are; the day has arrived, justifying the endlessly verifiable quote from George Orwell that there are some things so stupid, it takes an academic to say them.

And these are the people telling us how we should teach? Give me strength. This is an idea that no classroom teacher could have thought up, or would have felt comfortable even bringing up in a department meeting, let alone take to the governors. Yet another pot pourri of naivety, wishful thinking and irrelevance, that would be funny were it not for the fact that some of it gets through and hits us, like a blunderbuss filled with birdshit, right in our faces. And on the kids, which is worse.

*Ahem* Teacher Voice. Needed now, more than ever.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Interactive White Elephant in the Room: If IT is killing your lesson, pull the plug

'You disgust me. You're not even a mouse!'
My name is Tom Bennett, and I'm a recovering IWB user.

fet-ish /fetiSH   Noun
  1. An inanimate object worshipped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.
  2. A course of action to which one has an excessive and irrational commitment
  3. Any form of sex described in a tabloid newspaper that doesn't involve two people having sex face-to-face through a white sheet with a joy hole cut out.
How many times have you taught a lesson from a PowerPoint, or similar? Title, aim, date starter....the four unholy corners of the starter square, and I DO mean square, man. Have you plodded through slide after slide, maybe a bit of video embedded from Youtube, then questions or a task....? I BET you  have; don't think I can't see you, you pervert. Speaking of which, Interactive White Boards have become the modern classroom fetish, certainly in the first two senses given above, and just give it time for the triple.

By this I mean that it is unthinkable for any classroom now not to possess one, and any that do are in the process of being kitted out. It is now the telos of every classroom to have one. It is the altar and font of the learning space. Teachers deprived of one will write angry emails to their line manager about how it's impossible for them to teach any more, because the magic white rectangle of learning is silent. I used to be one of them.

Touch the screen and be healed

Then I had a Damascan epiphany, caused, like the best of superhero origin stories by a mysterious accident. Due to a BSF rebuild, I was given a room outside the school which, for a few weeks, was IWB free. I mean, OBVIOUSLY it was getting one, because my human rights would have been violated otherwise, but until then I was solo. It felt like someone had cut off my arms. But in a few days something odd happened: I remembered what it was like to teach without an electric dummy-board. It was liberating, especially in sixth form lessons, as I explored non-linear structures, taking new approaches as the lesson progressed, and abandoning tasks as soon as they became redundant. (It is also, I might add, far more kinaesthetically pleasing to write with a pen; to rub out instantly and easily, to shade, to feel the connection between finger and ink. No stylus and hard, unyielding plastic screen reproduces this. A small point, perhaps, but an important one.)

It reminded me how liberating it was to be truly free when you are teaching a subject you know and love. To Hell with the next slide, if I decided that the next thing they needed to know was a recap, or a new topic, or fast forward to something from next week, as long as I met the objectives we set out from the start. And sometimes, not even that, if I decided that new objectives would work better.

The strange thing is that I already considered myself somewhat of a free radical in lesson structure. I mean, I KNOW about three part lessons, about plenaries and starters, about the scaffolds of dogma that we find prescribed  as we enter the secret's just that I don't agree with their universal efficacy. Nothing could be more obvious. What hadn't been obvious to me was that the technology had become another straitjacket, and that I had volunteered to tie the straps tight.

I bet you LIKE that, eh? You revolt me.
Now, there are obvious, obvious benefits to the projector/ IWB combo. I KNOW this. On a simple level, it allows better preparation and presentation of board content. It also opens up media possibilities of sight and sound that are quite wonderful- showing my kids the Moon Landing, MLK's Washington Address, the Hajj, an argument with Richard Dawkins; even their own video work, is something very special indeed. Integrating it with t'web multiplies its power to the strength of ten. I wouldn't lose it for a second.

But I have noticed something: there are some teachers who really, really like using the IWB. Maths teachers, for example, who adore the possibility of manipulating geometric shapes, inputting answers, uncovering correct solutions as they progress, getting kids up to the screen to write up their answers etc. And that's great; seriously guys, go nuts. But it took me a long time to overcome the feeling that if I wasn't doing all of these things (even in a philosophy lesson) that I was somehow letting the teaching team down, and being an ossified dinosaur. Then I realised that there was absolutely no need for me to feel like that. Some teachers love it; some don't. There is no harm in either approach, nor is their any innate, universal superiority of method.

What would Plato do?

It's an obvious point, but it's worth reiterating for clarity: nobody before this generation learned anything through means other than the teacher's voice, a textbook and if they were lucky, a battered old Soviet radio that took a hand-crank to start. My multimedia classroom experience was a tape recorder and a television larger than a family car. And I genuinely do not think that the experience was marked by any privation for the lack of brain-enhancing nanites and holographic distance learning. It worked out jes' fine.

So why have we bought so suddenly, so avariciously into this new paradigm? Many reasons. I think no one wants to look like a Luddite reactionary. No one wants to peer up and notice that the Emperor's natty new onesie barely covers the crown jewels. So allow me. THAT ROYAL MAN IS NAKED AND IT IS NOT A PRETTY SIGHT LET ME TELL YOU. It is easier to look like you're doing something by buying the latest toys than it is to make and stand and say 'why?' But I wonder how often we realise that the IWB has become a millstone, when it was supposed to be jetpack.

I have seen observation criteria sheets that have a box marked, 'Did the teacher use IT in the lesson?' as if it were some kind of minimum expectation. Dear God, when did it become compulsory to use an IWB to teach Logic, or Geography, or Sex Ed? How on earth did we cope before its introduction? I imagine we must have all been rolling around the classroom floor, slapping our heads like chimps and wailing, 'Someone invent the iPad!' One can only guess how we ever escaped the primordial swamp.

What has the Silicon Chip done for us?

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the current role models of educational excellence and ambition- the Steve Jobs, the Gary Kasparovs, the Steven Hawkings of the world- were all educated in circumstances untouched by blended learning, break out zones, webinars and Google? That EVERYONE SMART EVER was educated in the conventional classroom? That, as of yet, there is absolutely no evidence that children learn significantly, reproducibly, indisputably better when IT is a common prevalent factor? Yet we have embraced it like a slave, and I use that word carefully.

IT is a wonderful tool. Like any tool, like many tools, if I try hard enough I can think of wonderful and interesting uses for it in the classroom. But I could say that of any strategy, prop or tool. Give me a basketball and an onion and I'll give you a dozen thinking tasks or starters. Give me a pair of scissors, a lava lamp, a Sultan's slipper and an Angora goat and I'll give you a lesson that would make an Ofsted inspector whistle La Marseillaise. The fact that IT resources bend themselves so agreeably to novelty and the nouveau doesn't define them as necessary or sufficient conditions to good teaching and learning. They are a tool, and like all tools, sometimes they are not needed.
So let's rebel against this new orthodoxy; let's be digital radicals, and I task you this in the form of a dare. I DARE you to walk into school on Monday, go up to the white board nothing. Simply don't turn it on. Turn instead to the board; the lesson in your head, your voice, and your own instincts.

Try it. I call it extreme teaching. Some people just call it teaching. I don't care what you do instead, just don't use it. Just TURN the F*CKING THING OFF. Put 'Police: Do Not Cross' tape across it. Tie a three-headed guard dog to the monitor to deter yourself. Just go cold turkey. For a week. It's Lent, you heathen, and if you haven't already given up other forms of self-abuse, give up this one.

A few years ago, I took part in a parachute jump, in a fit of vitality and joy. Naked teaching is like this: terrifying at first. Then, it's exhilarating.  If it terrifies you, you can always pull the ripcord.

But see how long you can last before you do. It feels like flying.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Bad Girls, Bad Girls- What You Gonna Do? Tips for Teaching in a Women's Prison

'There better be PAL lessons or I'm fuckin' wreckin' the place.'
I was asked to advise someone working in a young offender institution. Because my experience is solely in  secondary comprehensives, and I'm not entirely an ars*h*le, I asked someone who had more knowledge in this area. Obviously this flies in the face of current educational voodoo, which recommends that I instead discuss it in a group of other people who don't know the answer either, and then feed our collectively-conjoined ignorance back to the class as the new right answer. Or 'share ways forward', as they say in Hades. No, I went old-school and asked an expert.

Here's what an experienced women's prison teacher told me about managing classes- not quite a secondary comp, but perhaps we can just see it as an exciting further-education academy where break-out zones mean something else entirely, and the teachers actively discourage creative thinking in the workshop, particularly when it comes to fashioning crude katanas from toothbrushes and razorblades. The teacher prefers anonymity, for reasons of professional discretion, and not wishing to wake up next to the head of a guinea-pig:

"Six years of teaching art in women's prisons taught me the following tactics:

'I endorse this advice.'
  1. Make the aim of the lesson clear the second they enter the room- these are institutionalised people who may find being in a room where they will have to make choices for themselves quite daunting until they warm up; this will cause anxiety, which could cause friction and start a lesson off badly. It will also get rid of  anyone just coming in for a chat with their mates.
  2. Keep everyone busy at all times!! Give a relevant book or magazine (have a stash of these) to anyone too dozy for whatever reason to work (prisons give out really strong anti-depressants). Remember they may not know how to read, so ones with pictures.
  3. Be sympathetic but firm about the activity. Let there be a bit of chat in the first 10 minutes, as something is often going on back in the units/wings (officers being heavy-handed, lack of medication to control depression or drug addition, or a fight). Education block is where they can let off any anxieties and discuss problems without officers hearing. End it with a, 'Right lets get on,' otherwise it will interrupt the whole lesson.
  4. Be over fussy and firm about any sharp tools in the room, make it very clear that safety is your priority- don’t be afraid to come across as prissy about scissors or cables; this will affect discipline. Inmates need to feel safe so they can relax and work, and no-one is going to put their head down and write if there is an unattended blade in the room- don’t underestimate the fear in the room; they are all really good at hiding it .
  5. Don’t place the blame too quick in a confrontation; that will lead to a fight as everyone else in the room will feel obliged to take sides. Be firm and fair to both sides even if you know who the ringleader is. Use, 'OK, lets stop winding each other up,' or, 'Can this wait until after the lesson? I don’t care who's doing what, just get on with the project!'
  6. Have a naughty list which will go to the officers at the end of the lesson. Leave prominently on your desk- you can be firm but jovial about this; it is childish, but you have no choice. Tell them that they are stopping others from learning and you from doing your job. Offer to take them off the list if they start to be reasonable and stick to this; don’t tell the officers. There is no real point in getting involved in punishment on the units (loads of paperwork-trust me). This will gain their trust and next time they see you they will remember that you won’t grass and will continue to behave.
  7. Separate one of the disruptive ones and make them sit really close to you, even at your desk- often they just want some attention even if it is from you. You may have to spend the rest of the class in mindless chat but if the rest of the class is relieved from it, they will achieve more.
  8. Bribery. Life in prison is unbelievable grim . Promise to finish the lesson with 15 minutes of doing something they want to do. Write a poem/ have some short ones for them to copy out/ have some crosswords photocopied/ word-searches/put on some music.  At the end of every session I would bring out some A4 card, some really cheap and cheerful stickers- hearts or teddies and pens so they could make a card to send to their kids/ boyfriends/ girlfriends and I would help them make a simple envelope with recycled poster paper and double sided tape. This one-to-one task doing something that they want to do can be a great 'getting to know you' moment and a chance for you to get feedback on what they thought they had achieved in the lesson. Check with the officers what they are allowed to take back with them first, but giving them a small pencil or betting pens, some writing paper, can make their evenings locked up more bearable, and they will come back.
  9. Use the officers-they will not hesitate to help you. Ask them to pop in half way through the lesson; this is always a last resort as I’ve never met a subtle officer, but your own safety has to be your and their priority."

I imagine it's a bit like this.
An interesting insight to how a safe learning environment is achieved in a very high-stakes environment. What I find fascinating is the universality of some of this; some things are constant no matter what or where you go. People need to know that there is a structure and boundaries to their space, and they need to know that there will be consequences to abusing that structure. They also need to know that the consequences can be in their favour, or contrary to it, depending on whether they cooperate with the good of the polis, or contravene it. Such is the nature of humanity.

Schools are not prisons (I checked in a dictionary), but a class is a class. In any school, the stakes are high enough, at least if you care about the future well-being of your students. But at least most of us don't have to worry about lockdowns, cell-checks and riots. Not yet, anyway.

Mind you, they don't have to worry about FFT or thinking hats. On second thoughts, maybe....

Raise a glass to all the teachers in extreme classes *Raises glass*

Thursday, 1 March 2012

First they came for the people on Myspace: a moving poem

First they came for the people on Myspace
And I did not speak out, because I was not on Myspace

Not many people were, TBH

Then they came for the people on Facebook
And I did not speak out, because I was not on Facebook

Because I'm not twelve

Then they came for the people on Pinterest
And I did not speak out, because I can only look at so many pictures of pancakes, dogs and sunsets

Then they came for the people on Twitter
And I was on Twitter.

But people speaking out was not a problem there, let me assure you.

Oh no.