Monday, 31 December 2012

I think, therefore I learn: Why Thinking Skills are a pointless waste of time

Black Belt in Bloom's. Can't spell 'Taxonomy'.

Here's my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking Skills don't exist, at least, not in the way we are led to believe. Despite the fact that many schools like to flush precious resources on Thinking Skills days, they only serve to give teachers the illusion of what is often, terrifyingly called 'deep learning' (God save us). They are the phantom limbs of learning. They are a quite perfect waste of time, which is bad enough in the schools of the middle classes, but disastrous for any child who already starts with an economic disadvantage. The con is on.   

Now a proposition of that magnitude is going to take some propping up, so before anyone pops a vein, I'll issue the caveats. I don't mean that thinking doesn't exist. Descartes did a tidy job of showing us that it was perhaps the only truth that we could reasonably claim as being intuitively demonstrable. My man, who farted? buzzer sounds for the relatively modern claim that there are a specific set of skills that can be taught independently of the factual content of a topic, and that they can be taught in a meaningful way.

The first problem is that there is no consensus about what such a set of skills might even resemble. I get into a lot of arguments with indignant Thinking Skill fundamentalists who are perfectly happy to give me their definition of Thinking Skills, but who are then unable to show me why their taxonomy is superior (or even different) to alternatives. Before I discuss TS with anyone, I have to say, 'Wait, what do you mean, first of all?' So there's that.

Worse than that wobbly leg is that there isn't a table at all. What evidence is there to suggest that thinking skills exist as a discrete discipline of their own? I'm happy to advise at this point: none. It's an ontological invention. There is neither empirical evidence of their existence, nor are they demonstrably true by appealing to reason alone. As the Torquemada of Humanism, Richard Dawkins is tirelessly fond of pointing out, the burden of justification lies with those who assert the existence of the entity.

So that's a pretty big strike against them. But because I don't like to leave a job half done, I'm going to kick the non-existent skills when they're down: they assume that children need to be taught how to think. Which is completely absurd. Children don't need to be taught how to think. No one does. We think constantly. It's a pre requisite of consciousness, of cognition, of awareness. The very experience of experiencing, is thinking. It's the one thing I don't have to ask my kids to do. It's like teaching them to have a pulse.

What do people even mean when they say we have to teach thinking skills? Usually they mean 'to think in a certain way', or more commonly, 'to agree with what I think,' but that has often been the ambition of educational reform: not to teach children to be more intelligent than their tutors, but to conform to their specifications. Ironically, many people determined to inspire a generation of free-thinkers do so in a way that attempts to commit them to conformity.

Kill me.
As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. Let's pick a skill. Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them...well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit's guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don't fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.

Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious. Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff, otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.

These skills can't be taught, separately from content. They certainly can't be assessed on it. We don't even know what they are. They can't be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge. Let's stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time our children so desperately need on things they need to know. Let them deal with the thinking. They're fine on their own with that bit.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Importance of Being Santa: A Christmas Carol

Yesterday, because I am both Grinch and Gandalf, I taught a year 7 class about Santa Claus instead of the traditional first 45 minutes of Big Momma's House and Quality Street clusterbomb. As the rest were answering questions on Father Frost and Sinterklaas, one little girl put up a hand asked me in her secret voice, 'Do you think Santa Claus is real?' Her brow spoke of the cares of youth; her question suggested she was on the trembling verge of adulthood. Nothing was more important than this.

The Search for Santa

Who is Santa Claus? Most people know the jolly late 20th Century incarnation, broad of belt and prodigious of present, blitzing around the world in a single night of magic. But like Madonna or Doctor Who, this is only the latest in a series of regenerations. The 4th century St Nicholas of Myra, in Turkey, is the primary source. His parents died young, and the inherited fortune allowed him to embark on a life of philanthropy, like a Turkish Bruce Wayne: his first act of kindness involved saving three children from prostitution and slavery by providing their dowries (dropped down into socks, drying by the fireplace, giving us oranges in stockings). Already, we see St Nick as a patron and protector of children against the predations of adult expediency.

Then it gets crowded. Many European countries already had mid-Winter festivals, as an act of defiance and hope against the darkest, deepest time of cold, dark and death. In England it was called Yule, and lasted days as communities feasted with what they could save. Later, Christianity rescheduled it to coincide with the celebration of Christmas. This Germanic festival celebrated Odin, and his Wild Hunt across the skies. And many countries developed a remarkable number of mythical figures who represented this time of Solstice. In 17th century England, for example, it was Father Christmas, a merry man who is probably most familiar to modern minds as one of Scrooge's cautionary spirits in Dickens's classic A Muppet Christmas Carol.

These figures started to merge as the world grew smaller, until the Santa Claus meme ate the planet entire. Some countries still hang onto their Father Frosts, but it seems that any nation with 3G now views St Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas and Sinterklaas as the same guy who brings Coca Cola to our TV screens in the first week of December, giving everyone an ironic thrill on Twitter, and giving the shareholders of Coca Cola even more of a thrill. (Incidentally, it's a myth that Coke had anything to do with the modern portrayal of our jolly benefactor, although their marketing dollar undoubtedly had an effect on popularising the already existent image. Santa's had a red suit all the way back to St Nick.) A lot of the mythology arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the form of poems and songs. Santa Claus is Coming to Town gave us naughty and nice lists (and you thought they came from the Renaissance, didn't you?), and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer gave us...well, you know.

So what? Well, it gave me pause. Santa's been around, with different passports for centuries. Ideas don't last like that unless they have meaning and value for people. And it isn't just to sell Barbies and Smart Phones, although it undoubtedly also does that. Santa was always about helping people who needed it, not choking spoiled children with Transformers and chocolate. He went where he was needed. He represents a great spirit of pure benevolence; of love and life, no matter where or for whom. Notice his sleigh crosses the world in a night, invisible to radar and satellite. Every child anywhere who needs him is his charge, in war or peace. This is why he endures in the hearts of children and the scarred, scared hearts of adults who no longer dare to dream. Because he represents, past the adverts and the cynicism, the antidote to hopelessness and despair.

Most of us no longer believe in the man, because we were disappointed by the world, and its inadequacies, by its squalor and its suffering; by the lack of any evident cosmic justiciar; by the relentless way it crushes the kind and the gentle. This is rarely more clear than in the year of Savile, when modern protectors of children have been revealed to be the very worst of their enemies, when children are exposed to escalated sexualisation daily through advertising aimed directly at them.

There is a reason why he is immortal; because, like the Olympic Gods, he embodies something within us that, thankfully, always endures: the spirit of hope and love. As teachers, we need to remember this Pole Star. We are small but important links in the chains of their lives, with a professional part to play. Teach to the best of our ability; act as role models as much as possible, and and treat everyone we encounter with compassion and altruism (even if they don't understand or appreciate it at the time). As tears fall throughout the year, Santa Claus is working away to make toys for the desperate. And every time one of us commits an act of charity and benevolence, you can hear the hammers of elves and the tinkle of bells. At times it seems that humanity's factory settings are cruelty and selfishness. And at times, it does not, and for a night, we can imagine that something better is possible.

So I answered her as honestly as I could. 'There's no proof he exists,' I said. 'But maybe he's real in a way if you believe in him.'

And that seemed to satisfy her.

Merry Christmas


Sunday, 16 December 2012

It's a Wonderful Job: A Christmas Story of Teaching

 Note: this is an edited version of a blog I wrote for a previous Christmas. I thought it was still appropriate, though.
Finally watched Frank Capra's 'It's a wonderful life' last night, and if you are one of the two or three dozen that haven't yet met this charming American filmic myth, then let me be the latest in a long line of people to say, somewhat redundantly, that it's a masterpiece. (In other news: fire is hot). It's a tale of the little guy who makes a difference in his community, being rescued from the brink of despair by a poignant, Christmas Carol meme of 'what if?' Lionel Barrymore, I'm afraid to say, is as wooden as Patsy Kensit as the Guardian Angel. But Jimmy Stewart can play likeable everyman characters in a way that makes Tom Hanks appear edgy and controversial.

(I must add that, for the majority of my adult life, I was under the illusion that It's a Wonderful Life was directed by Franz Kafka. I always suspected it was a bit fishy, but I didn't want to say anything openly. I look forward to seeing Jimmy Cagney in The Metamorphosis.)
The central theme that rang a tuning fork in my hard heart: we barely notice the differences we make in other peoples' lives, and unlike George Bailey, we rarely meet a divine messenger to point out how things might have been. Coincidentally, yesterday two things happened that figuratively speaking, showed me the ghosts of Christmas past and future.

The first one was a simple card from an ex-pupil, one who had left several years previously. Because I'm not entirely a whore, I'll spare you the details, but in summary it was a kind, thoughtful thank you for helping him get through his A-levels, and for contributing in some small way to his present position at University. I suspect that in years to come I'll be greeted by boxes of flaming avian offal pushed through my letter box once students appreciate the debt they now enjoy thanks to my goading.

The card was nice; it came at the end of a day when I had to deal with some difficult behaviour that, while entirely routine, required the proportionate routine responses, paperwork, and colleague-bothering that we know and love when it comes to working the system. All resolved, lots of good outcomes and conversations, but tiring and time consuming. The sort of thing that eats away any spare time you might have jealously accumulated in the noble hope that you might actually be able to achieve something you want done, as opposed to meeting the endless requirements of working in any heirarchal institution.

The second thing was beautiful; a really kind reply from a correspondent on the TES Behaviour Forums to whom I had offered some of my unworthy advice several days back. Normally I don't expect replies, because, well because everyone's busy and frankly I (and many other regulars) do it both because we enjoy it, and perhaps because we should. I shouldn't be amazed- but I still am- how frequently behaviour in an internet context can degenerate so quickly into oddball aggression and nastiness.

Every week or so, amongst the grown-ups and the professionals, you get one of these, and they can make you think, 'Why do I bother? I don't have to take this sh*t,' especially if you've spent twenty minutes of your valuable, non-reclaimable existence crafting a response to their questions. But once in a while you get a response like the one I got yesterday, when someone tells you that  you were in some way instrumental to their perseverance.

I'm under no illusions about the depth or the quality of the advice I give on the forum; I'm just another teacher, like many others, plugging away and hoping that what we do is the right thing. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, nor do I imagine that my opinions are either definitive or final. The same with my teaching; I work my ass off, care my ass off, and try my best to make sure that I'm doing exactly what I'm paid to do at least, and then some if there's time. Why? Because there's nothing more important than what happens to the kids in our care; that's our duty, and it's a sacred one. This isn't a job, that you walk into, and punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or cabaret. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don't, you won't ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then you'll see that it's one of the best, most important roles you can ever have, outside of parenthood (I imagine).

Many new teachers enter the profession wanting- demanding- to change the world, to transform the lives of children like Samuel Jackson in Coach Carter; and good for them that they want to. But then they find their passion and enthusiasm are cold currency in a climate that requires tenacity, dedication and rigour before they can often even reach the ones they want to help. Many give up because their illusions are shattered. Many more persevere, but smoulder with resentment and disappointment that things weren't fair, that things weren't the way that they expected them to be; they stay on, they teach, they end up hating it. I have nothing but sympathy and professional camaraderie for both groups.

But teachers should realise that they will never change the entire world by themselves, no more than you could push the earth out of its orbit by putting your shoulder to a cliff side. That's not what we do; that's not what anyone does. The way you change the world is one square metre at a time; look in front of you and say, 'What needs fixing? How can I help?' Then you do what you are capable of, no more, no less; and you go home and sleep at night, not kept awake by guilt demons that whisper at you, 'You failed, nothing has changed, nothing is better. Give up.'

That's what we do; we plug away and we try to make the world a better place. You might never 'transform' a child's life; but that's not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safe, supportive environments characterised by discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not, sometimes, be enough, and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But we must- we must- keep going, because many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds, we play a long game.

We are small, but significant links in other peoples' lives, in a chain that goes on forever in both directions. As supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. It is an honour to be able to assist a student into adulthood; it is an honour to be able to offer advice to a fellow professional when they need some TLC, because I remember the times when I have needed support and assistance. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why after moments like yesterday I felt like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.

It's a wonderful job. Merry Christmas.