1. Welcome to South Korean education and School Swap: Korea Style, the focus of an unusually good documentary presented by the Sunday Times’ Sian Griffiths.

    I say unusually, because schools on telly have a lineage like Argentinians with German surnames- there are bits in the past you want to forget deliberately. Belters like the aforementioned Educating Essex which managed to make school procedure watchable, but also forgettable stunt telly like Jamie’s Dream School*, which was hugely watchable but had as much to do with real teaching as…well, as this program’s theme song Kung Fu Fighting (an American song about a Chinese martial art) had to do with Korea. That was the most impressive example of ‘stuff it, that’ll do’ I’ve seen since we were reassured that Brexit did indeed mean Brexit.

    But that was the only bum note in a program that kept its premise simple: what was it like for a British teenager to study in a Korean classroom? They dug up three great kids from Wales and re-potted them in two university schools in Seoul. Sarah, Tommy and Ewan were lovely. It would have been easy to Channel 5 the pitch by dropping in three crazy horses and watching the fireworks. But this eschewed the obvious legerdemain of conflict documentary, and for people involved in education, it was Boxing Day TV. My scientific device of ‘reading Twitter’ reveals that this was omnipopular with teachers, which probably means it’ll bomb out the ratings. Personally, I watched this and recorded Sherlock.

    There's no place like home 

    The Welsh/ Korean connection was of course because of their position on the PISA tables; in 2016 Wales came in between 35th to 40th out of 71 countries in reading, maths and science. Korea came in 7th, 7th and 11th in the same set, the giant swots. The top ten is dominated by east Asian territories like Shanghai and Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, Vietnam. You cannot move in Hong Kong right now for European Dorothys looking for the Asian Wizard of Oz. Meanwhile the Welsh welcome wagon for educational tourists still has the price tag on in case they want to return it.

    Last year we saw an interesting counterpoint to this program: Chinese School: are our kids tough enough? (because you aren’t allowed ambiguity or subtlety in titles) also on BBC2. Five Chinese teachers took classes of 50 year 9s in Hampshire for four weeks and put them through a Great Leap Forward: pledges of allegiance, exercise, long hours and very, very teacher-led instruction. Some of the kids were digging tunnels to get out. Others loved it. But by the end something remarkable happened: students taught by the Chinese teachers achieved 10% higher results than their contemporaries. The head of the English school (who’d been betting on their failure) looked like he’d been asked to swallow a dolphin; the Chinese teachers were polite and serene.

    Hangwan Style

    This time the foreign flowers were Welsh. The students were a credit to their families- kind, open minded and bright. Ewan approached it like a scientist; Tommy missed his Playstation; Sarah was worried about missing her lie in. Classes stretched on as long as there was daylight, and beyond. A succession of after-after-after school extra revision, catch-up evening classes, or Hangwans. No Crackerjack or Blue Peter for these stalwarts.

    Tellingly, the Korean pupils were asked to sit a one hour GCSE Welsh exam in Maths; many of them nailed it in 15 minutes, saying it was easy. The teacher even described it as ‘Primary School’ material, just to rub it in a bit. We watched as the brave Welsh students even stumbled in English grammar lessons compared to their Korean counterparts. Which is unsurprising as most students in the UK think grammar is the answer to the question ‘Who was Little Red Riding Hood going to visit?’

    Two systems, both alike in dignity apart from one of them 

    The behaviour difference was striking. Students in Korea simply didn’t misbehave; no talking over the teacher, no make-up, no texting, no chair-wars fought with flatulence, no WHY DO WE EVEN HAVE TO STUDY THIS, I’M GOING TO BE FAMOUS AND GET ON BIG BROTHER. Just oceans of self-regulation, hard, hard work, and long, long hours. I know that complex outcomes like educational achievements are the results of even more complex social inputs, but it’s not quantum physics to see that ‘sustained effort’ is the secret sauce behind at least some of the South Korean miracle.

    Much has been made of the way these students are taught: lots of note taking, rote-learning and listening to the teacher at the front. Critics characterise this as boring, uncreative and mind numbing. Advocates point to what we know about learning; that we learn what we think hard about. UK lessons, marbled with group work and projects and card sorts and diamond nines and role plays about the Battle of Britain, dilute this effect.

    Both systems, to mind, have deficiencies. I wouldn’t want either Welsh or Korean systems held up as ideal forms, but I’m happy to see them as case studies. The Korean achievement is extraordinary, and seems to emerge as much from their extraordinary culture of self-discipline, respect for education, institutions and a tradition of hard work. Educational tourism is often just cherry picking with Air Miles. To import Korean pedagogy without importing the culture from which it emerges, would be an exercise in futility (despite it apparently being the reach- for policy of many education ministers).

    For extra marks, colour in the Buddha and tell me how you feel about it

    South Korea, aware of the enormous pressure their system places on children, has started to look to the West to see if they can learn anything about creativity, collaboration and other shibboleths of European progressive education. I would say Caveat Emptor. Can you imagine 12 hour days where students had to rewrite Coriolanus in the form of a rap? Battle Royale would look like First Term at Mallory Towers. Tragically we see too many policy makers visit [current PISA titan x], then declare that all schools must do [PISA titan random strategy y]. This has accelerated since PISA became International Ofsted. Which is a shame, because while PISA data has a lot to offer, turning it into a league table of goodies and baddies is the worst thing to happen to education since TED talks.

    But there are lessons for the careful, and some ideas can survive the journey from one soil to another. What could our Korean takeaway be? Longer hours perhaps- but not the harrowing Black Hole of joy represented by 14 hour shifts down the study mines; but perhaps schools could look more into an open all hours service, with catch-up and revision and nurture groups offered as a rolling, systematic, optional standard. I know some already do. Most school buildings stand empty for 2/3 of the year. What can we do with that?

    They come here, teaching our children maths

    Other things are harder to adopt. A robust respect for adults and teachers? That can’t be conjured up. Immaculate self-regulation, and laser-like work ethics? They can happen, but it takes huge effort from schools to build those cultures- which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Indeed, the success of schools like Robert Clack School, Mossbourne Community Academy or Michaela Community School show us what is possible with almost any demographic when you turn a barrage of ambition and effort onto it. These schools forge their own cultures out of nothing but sweat and determination and hope. But it will be a long time before British culture celebrates the kind of virtues that Korea does- even if we wanted it to.

    For me, the trade-off suggested was too expensive. One man revealed he worked 14 hours a day, six days a week to pay for the university school for his children. Which meant he saw his kids less than the average Fathers for Justice campaigner. That’s too high a price for me. I didn’t have children so that I could never see them. Plus, teachers get to be observed by parents, as well as being graded by other teachers and students. The Hell with that.

    The realm of the possible 

    But this isn’t a binary option; we aren’t forced to choose between that and anarchy. Ideally we want our children to work smart AND hard so we can see them-  and see them flourish. The PISA top ten is dominated by the workaholic nations and regions of east Asia. But there are odd exceptions: The People’s Republic of Canada, or Finland (henceforth to be referred to as Funland).

    And that’s even before we question the promise that PISA can define high performance in such a linear comparative way; that it’s judgements are sound; and that the conclusions it draws are sound, all of which are subjects for another feature (but I’ll summarise by saying that all of these provoke important caveats).

    But what this program showed us is what is possible. South Korean culture is different to UK culture, but students’ brains are the same everywhere. No matter they do better than us: they work harder, for longer. Imagine how well students could do if they worked as hard, and lessons were taught using what we now know about spaced practice, interleaving and best practices in Direct Instruction, rather than just hard core lectures. There’s an educational national super tiger waiting to happen right there.

    Roll on part 2.

    Other highlights:

    • The scramble of students in the girls’ school to write correct answers on the board first. My God, the only way to reproduce that effect in the UK would be to attach a box of Tennessee Fried Chicken to a hare and set it off round a race track. ‘What just happened?’ asked a stunned Sarah, and every teacher at home went, ‘We have no idea, maybe their chairs on fire?’
    • The queue- I repeat, the Queue- to get into the public library for after school study. One more time: a queue for the library.  
    • The Buddhist shrines where parents dedicated offerings to their children’s exam success, burned old books to ward off bad luck. In the UK we call this 'revision week.'
    • The fact that 3000 people applied for 36 places on the teacher training course at Seoul National University. Why was being a teacher so popular? ‘It’s a stable job, the 8 weeks of holiday, and high status,’ said the trainer. Well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad for us, I suppose. ‘The King and the teacher are equal in status,’ says an old proverb in Korea. See, it’s just like the UK.
    • If you’re late to lessons in University School, you have to come in earlier the next day and mop the floors. I wonder what happens if you’re late for that? And the day after? Eventually you’d have to invent a time machine and mop floors from the beginning of the 38th parallel.
    • The Seoul shops called things like ‘It’s Skin!’ and ‘I’m Café!’, that carried on the time-honoured traditions of using what probably sounded like groovy English idiom.  

    *I've blogged obsessively about these programs elsewhere on this blog, if you enjoy my partisan and slightly cranky TV reviews. 


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  2. 'If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you...'

    To mark the start of the new year and the Spring term, I wrote a short introduction recently for teachers to consider how they could approach refreshing the behaviour in their classrooms. In summary, it went a little like this:

    • 1.     Any behaviours that can be made into routines, should be
    • 2.     Communicate these to your class, explicitly and clearly.
    • 3.     Practise the behaviours until they become habits
    • 4.     Patrol the boundaries of these behaviours with micro-interventions
    • 5.     Sell the benefits

    In this post I want to talk a little about the same issue for school leaders. I’ve been working with schools on behaviour for years, and one thing that struck me early on was that while there was a great deal the individual teacher could do to make a difference to in-class behaviour, how the school itself was run made an even bigger difference to behaviour outcomes. When I used to run the behaviour advice column for the TES the second most common woe was- maybe surprisingly- based around issues teachers were having with school behaviour systems. Systems matter. Good ones let teachers teach and students learn. Bad ones hose everyone's ambitions in molasses. 

    Students are remarkably flexible in picking up how they should behave in different circumstances. Ever seen how a student will behave for one teacher but not another, as if they were two different people? They pick up cues and norms wherever they go; they act one way in the playground, another at grandma’s. The student is the constant factor in these scenarios, so it must be the scenarios themselves- the culture- that provide the explanation for the differences.
    mutatis mutandis

    In other words, there are different social norms and cultures adhered to in different zones of the school. And this suggests that the dominant influence over the pupil’s response is local, not generalised to the school. And that suggests that the school has a problem with its general culture. Its identity isn’t strong enough to influence behaviour in every room, and the teacher/ peer group is the key lever.

    Many schools overcome this, and here are some discussion points about ways they can do it.

    1.     Survey all staff and students anonymously.  Ask them what they think of behaviour. What are the problems? What do they think would be solutions? When do problems occur? Try to harvest some quantifiables. What % of lessons are disrupted? How frequently? This kind of self-reporting is subjective, but gather enough of it and you’ll find out how it seems to the people in the field the most. It’s also a useful metric to use over time as an indicator of strategy success. Of course, you have to share the results with everyone otherwise you look like Kim Jong-il.

    2.     Be the architect of the community. Cultures happen whatever you do; it makes sense to attempt to build a good one rather than cross your fingers, screw your eyes shut and hope hundreds of unrelated people spontaneously and silently decide to build a society based on mutual collaboration, compassion and success. Deliberately construct visible social markers of what your school stands for. There are milestone events like whole-school assemblies, lesson transitions etc that need to be stage managed like Les Folies Bergère. But of course, everything that happens in school is an expression of the school culture. And of course, cultures cannot be entirely woven from an ether- you spin the threads on your jenny-  but leaders have reins no one else has a hand on.

    3.     Everyone faces the same way. There are aspects of school life that require agency and autonomy,   
    Planners on desks please. 
    and areas where rightly, staff and students need air to breath, space to move and the freedom to self-manage. And then there will be other aspects of school behavioural life that need to be met by everyone. Non-negotiables of conduct to which everyone should try to cleave, like corridor etiquette, lesson starts, trips. Some of these will be essential to school life- prohibitions on fighting, for example- and others may reflect the culture of the school- standing up when visitors enter, or heads in books? I’ve been in groovy schools where the students wore jeans and called their teachers by the first name. I’ve been in others where you phone up and they say WE ARE BORG. Mileages will vary. But in every case the values and rules of the school need to be upheld by everyone, from Principal Skinner to Groundskeeper Willie.

    4.     Communicate, train, monitor. Rinse and repeat until you achieve the shade you require. Fine ideas about great behaviour are worthless unless we a) tell people clearly what they are, b) give them the support to do so (for example CPD) and c) actually track that people are doing it. When I worked in restaurants I was treated to a maddening maxim- you get what you inspect, not what you expect. Trite, but true. This is where quite a few schools stumble, I think. Are we watching to see if the fine sentiments written on the sign next to the school gates are being met? Are we nudging those who ‘forget’? Retraining when needed? Teachers are typically untelepathic (apart from one notable exception in North Salem) and may need to be actually told what the behaviour standards are.

    Running a school is one of the hardest jobs in the game. There are a million things to be done in a school. But behaviour needs to be pretty close to the top of the list.

    Good luck in 2017


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  3. A guy dies and finds to his horror that he's going to Hell. At the flaming gates of the Inferno he meets Old Nick who shows him to the dungeon where he'll spend eternity. To his puzzlement it's just a huge room full of people standing in giant cauldrons, up to their armpits in bubbling manure, all sipping tea from a cup.

    'To be honest it's not as bad as I was expecting,' says the sinner with a little relief. Old Nick pulls out a whistle and blows it hard.

    'Tea break's over, people,' he said. 'BACK ON YOUR HANDS.'

    Welcome back to your personal cauldron. Behaviour is one of the fulcrums on which such matters pivot. If your classes are civil and keen, lessons pipe along, content is covered and everyone's opportunities are multiplied. If your room resembles a game of Hungry Hippos played by gorillas, life is less sweet. Learning dissolves in the presence of even just a few stubborn Jaspers determined to set their shoulders against your ambitions.

    But teachers can reset and reboot their rooms at any time. Often it's the fear of doing so that defeats us even before we have begun. 'I've lost them,' we tell ourselves, guaranteeing it by doing so. But you've never lost them; you just drop the ropes temporarily. They're still there, waiting to be picked up again. Here are what you can do to pull your room into shape as quickly as possible:

    1. Outline the class routines. 

    Any behaviour you want to happen routinely, by all/ most of the class all/ most of the time, should be explicitly defined for the class as a routine. Don't assume they will all create their own civil codes of conduct. Make them clear. You want jackets hung up on the pegs before they sit down? Tell them. You want lining up outside, or equipment handed out by the monitor of the week? Tell them. They can be academic or social routines.

    The point being that if the behaviours you want are meant to be universally carried out, then save yourself a few years of repeating your instructions and make sure they know them from the off. Otherwise you reinvent perpetually; you guarantee that some will know what you want and others will not, and that you'll waste a lot of time, and theirs.

    2. Make them practice it until they get it right. 

    It seems an odd thing to ask, getting students to practice entering the room or whatever, but doing so makes it far less likely anyone will misunderstand what you want. Many teachers forget that good behaviour often has to be taught, just like any other part of the school syllabus. We wouldn't expect them to innately know the boiling point of sodium, so why should we assume they know what we privately mean by good conduct? Help them to understand. Help them to form good habits.

    3. Sell the benefits

    I tell every class I teach that I love teaching, want the best for them, and believe that everyone in the room is capable of great things. I tell them that if we all cooperate, everyone wins; everyone learns; everyone has a good time; lessons can become more interesting; we smash the world's expectations of what is possible and what is merely probable for us. And I tell them that the only way to get there is by working together, and that means following rules that optimise our opportunities. I tell them that I care so much for them, in fact, that I will move mountains to make sure everyone is safe, secure, and can learn in peace. And I'll make sure no one disturbs that pact.

    I have never heard a pupil reject that contract. The hard part is making good on that promise. That's the great game, of course

    4. Make it happen. 

    Words are easy; but if you want to turn those fine sentiments into a glittering tower, you need to build it brick by brick. That means reiterating the expectations ad infinitum, sometimes a ridiculous number of times in a day. So what? If it's the house rules, it's the house rules. If you're spinning plates, expect a lot of little touches to keep them going- a nudge here, a sturdy shove there, a little tap somewhere else. Patrol your expectations. Sanction, reward, rebuke, celebrate, do the million things that you do to remind students of what is desired and what is discouraged in your room.

    Eventually, routines embodied in repeated behaviour become habits. Habits are helpful routines, imbedded. Once the word become flesh in this way, your learning will hit the hyper drive, because your time will be spent, not patrolling expectations, but reinvested in greater learning strategies. And the students will be working in sociable, optimal ways that maximise their chances of success both civil and academic.

    Some people erroneously believe this is slavish; the opposite is true. Teaching students to self regulate their immediate desires is the ultimate liberation from the caprices of fancy and the moment. True freedom is not the ability to do as we please, but for what pleases us to be good, and to act on that. Addicts and compulsives are not free, and the student who acts immediately on their whims in a classroom is no more a free agent than a sub routine in a program. By inculcating good habits in our students, we multiply their agency both in the classroom and beyond.

    So: walk back into the classroom any day of the week and say, 'Let's pause the lesson to talk about how we behave towards each other. Some of the behaviour is good; some of it isn't good enough. Let's revisit what I need you to do, and why. And let's commit ourselves to that goal. Otherwise....' Or words to that effect. The point is, you need to show the room that you take their behaviour seriously, and that means holding a picture of what it should be in  front of them. They need to know that you have the highest standards of all. And what you do will have far greater impact than what you merely say. When your actions match your speeches, you teach them lessons they will never forget, or doubt.

    But the pay off is worth it ten times over. Good luck in 2017.

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  4. It’s still a wonderful job

    I usually have a Christmas ritual: I republish a post I wrote a few years ago called ‘It’s a wonderful job.’ It was a Winter rumination about why teaching was still one of the best jobs you could do, despite the aggro and the paperwork and rats carrying lasers*. It was a sentimental meditation, me on my rocking chair smoking a pipe and chuckling as I read Christmas cards from cherubic children.

    Love, Actually says at Christmas you have to tell the truth. This year it would feel insincere to regurgitate so straightforward a love letter to the profession- mainly because since September, and for the first time in 13 years I’m not teaching. Three years ago I started researchED as a kitchen table project, and I ran it on top of full time teaching for 18 months until the banjo string of my psyche threatened to snap. So I went part time. researchED grew and grew, more and more conferences in more and more countries and continents, but my kitchen table stayed the same size and once again my head started to feel like the Jumanji box. Nikki Morgan asked me to lead a behaviour review. The day stubbornly refused to expand past 24 hours.

    I knew something had to give when I returned from running researchED Melbourne, stepped off the plane at Heathrow and cabbed it to school for my period one class in Dagenham like Act Three of a Richard Curtis caper. I’m amazed by how much you can achieve when you really boot it, but there comes a point when you’re spreading your jam too thin and all you can taste is toast (which is what I was rapidly becoming- this year, after 3 years of researchEDing, I hit a wall, and a virus robbed me of the use of my hands for a few days- exacerbated, I was told by a specialist, by overwork. Who knew?)

    So I made a decision to reign in the breadth and focus on doing less things better. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do, the sensible thing and already I’ve been able to bring in another behaviour report, and rebuild researchED from the core in ways I’ll reveal next year when we relaunch with…well, when we relaunch.

    So why do I still miss it? Why is there this phantom limb of a job that I have to remind myself I no longer do? That’s easy to answer.

    Teaching saved me. I don’t exaggerate. I changed careers late- from running night clubs to student whispering at 30. I had lost my way so comprehensively in my 20s that I no longer even conceived of a straight path through the crooked places in which I worked. Never underestimate the damnably slow dissolution by attrition that desperation and lack of purpose can have on a busy mind. Waking up every day with the feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing, but undone.

    As Henry David Thoreau is often misquoted, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.’ That echoes. So does Chandler with his ‘Somebody get me off this frozen star.’ Through no one’s fault but my own, and squandering my launch pad of good schooling and family, I meandered for so long I ended up barely managing; existing, not living. I do not believe this to be uncommon.

    Now I have a purpose HO HO HO

    And then came teaching. It was as if, undeserved, Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket had landed on my mat. Suddenly, meaning, purpose, challenge and the chance to serve an end greater than oneself. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lit up for me like a fairground try-your-strength hit by a giant’s mallet. The job was maddening at first, and so hard it nearly broke me. But giving up was inconceivable, because I was home, doing the thing I knew I should have been doing. The universe is indifferent to our petty melodrama, but if it wasn’t I would say that I was where the universe needed me to be- and when. I claim no expertise or proficiency, just the intuitive certainty of being in the right place at the right time, like John McClane’s luckier cousin.

    And I’ve never doubted that. Life’s aim isn’t to be happy- heroin will serve just as well- but to flourish, as the Greeks would put it; to be usefully engaged with integrity, and fulfil your own conception of destiny in a community. Teaching frequently made me unhappy, with its turbulence and drudgery and melodrama, but it fed a hunger that could be sated in no other way.

    And it is a hard job. Too many teachers still steer with difficulty past the gnashing, clashing Scylla and Charybdises of difficult behaviour and the Sisyphean problem of workload. Policy churn, syllabuses that strobe past in succession, gimmick-learning, illiteracy…the list of bear traps and pitfalls to the perfect classroom can be summoned in an instant.

    But it is still a wonderful job. There are few other roles where you can intersect so meaningfully with another’s life; where you can be a small but significant link in a chain that leads to the benefit of others. Where you can give them a gift that really does go on forever, that never runs out, never needs new batteries, and can’t be returned: an education. To some children it can seem like finding a tangerine in their stocking, but it’s not: it’s stardust. Where else can you help children become adults, and students become scholars?  

    I said this in my previous blog post:

    ‘…. It isn't a job where you punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or the circus. 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 diamonds and rubies.

    You might never transform every 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 safety, support, and discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not always 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 many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds. We play a long game.

    …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. 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… I feel like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.’

    Come in, and know me better

    I don’t know if I’m on a sabbatical or a one way night flight to Venus, never to know staff party and dinner queues again. But education gets in your blood; that’s why you see so many families with three generations or more of teachers. Scientists in the future will probably discover a gene. Right now I think I’m where the Universe needs me to be.

    And the universe needs a lot more teachers far better than I to fill the gap and more besides. Recruitment is in a mess, and it won’t get any better if the only message people hear is how difficult it is. I mean, it is, and these things need to be said. But these violent delights have violent ends. It has become dangerously fashionable to forget that, amongst the struggle and the strife in the classroom, it really, really is a wonderful job too.  

    Merry Christmas, actually.

    (*Is that just me?)


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  5. 'You're live'

    I love social media. This will surprise no one with the misfortune to follow me. If they ever taxed it, I'd be pawning my kidneys on the Dark Web for screen time. I also love free speech, debate, and the potential for teaching to re-energise itself from within, from the ground up by international and powerful conversations you can have online. I like being able to criticise things. I also like suggestions about what to do next. I like dragon slaying and myth busting, even if I’m the dragon. It might be painful, but like going to the gym, you never regret it afterwards.

    Is Twitter the last great salon of free speech? I sometimes wonder. Open to anyone with access to the internet, free, instant and international, it smashes borders and levels access in ways unimaginable just fifteen years ago. From nothing, I used it to make connections with minds great and grand and groovy around the world. Without it, researchED would have been nearly impossible. Tweets can girdle the earth far faster than Ariel’s forty minutes

    But for every force, there is another equal and opposite; some don't embrace this new paradigm; who resent change, or its harbinger, discussion.

    You can say anything you like as long as we agree with you

    It's important to remember how far we've come at least in the UK. When I first started howling into the void, many things were dogma. It was practically inconceivable to write openly in dispute of the public wisdom of, among other things, universal group work, 21st century skills, learning styles, skills-based curriculums and so on. I’ve heard people speak forlornly about how lovely it was then, and how it were all handshakes and cheeky winks when social media were t’lad.

    I had a very different experience. It was lovely if you jogged along with the orthodoxy, but very intimidating if you disagreed. Happily what we see now is the creation of a space where dispute is a dependable part of the conversation. Tribes form in these digital spaces, just like they do in real life, and multiple viewpoints are presented, pilloried, paraded and prodded, just as they should be.

    Your mileage will vary about what you consider acceptable or unacceptable criticism. When I started teaching I was told to accept school paradigms because 'back to work, rookie'. When I wrote Teacher Proof I received emails from academics who told me I was quite wrong and didn’t really understand the science anyway. When I started researchEd I was told that teachers should be the recipients of the divine wisdom of Mosaic Tablets of academia, and our role was to deliver the exciting and yet strangely unworkable projects of novelty and vanity I often encountered in classrooms. As a writer I have seen people who should know better write that the current crop of online teacher authors should ‘be very careful because they were being watched,’ and that we were ‘wielding too much power. This, about people sitting at their kitchen tables blogging in their sweat pants and tweeting.

    That just makes me want to screw my eyes up and imagine these aristo gatekeepers naked, playing a trombone. In any pluralist society we enjoy and endure a magazine of belief systems. Crucial to the success of that system is that we permit the expression of those views. 'I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' remains as true now as when-people first misattributed it to Voltaire.

    Twitter yesterday
    The irony of course is that education institutions are created to be furious furnaces for molten minds, hot and fluid, but in times of turbulence they often seem the most thin skinned and resistant to challenge. The double irony is that many in education who would call themselves disrupters and game changers and crusaders are the ones who enjoy being disrupted least, or having their own games changed, their own cheese moved an inch.

    I've seen many in the traditional priest class  grimace and rail against this new model army of volunteers and expendables, unable to endure the mildest of criticism. But those who have status rarely willingly vote for the redistribution of their capital.

    School bullies: How schools can suppress professional conversations

    I've written, tweeted, blogged for around a decade and been lucky enough to escape nearly any heat from the institutions within which I taught. I think this was a combination of two things: broad minded management who rightly saw my opinions as personal, and a careful policy of never speaking about my children, my classes, my school, unless it was uncritical and supportive. I write about policies, strategies, ideas, not 'Man, that observation I just had blew and sucked simultaneously.' Others appear not to be so fortunate. I know of many schools who have a 'no social media' policy in their school policies, and few are the teachers so unencumbered by financial demands that they can bite their thumb at a salary for the sake of tweeting a few dank memes about Minecraft.

    There is a class system, a caste system of who is and who isn't allowed to have an opinion in any hierarchy.  Now, I’ve rarely been a victim of anyone trying to close me down, but I've been complained about twice to my schools for blogs I've written. I've been reported to the DfE, the TES, for holding opinions the complainants found objectionable. Since I started writing a couple of reports on behaviour for the DfE I’ve started to get sniffy comments along the lines of ‘Should someone in your position be making such statements?’ None of this concerns me. I am happy to be inappropriate, if being appropriate means being so anodyne that no offence could possibly be taken, The Hell with that.

    You're paid to teach, not think 

    Worse, when talking to teachers both here and abroad I’ve found out some are told explicitly that any form of social media presence that discusses teaching will result in disciplinary action. Where is this grisly and anti-intellectual cowardice coming from? What are they scared of? By doing so they close down a profession's ability to self critique, argue, grow and learn from itself. Joining Twitter is like Chewie punching it from the co-pilot’s seat. The ideas just keep coming, faster and faster.

    Crucially, what is being lost is more valuable than the perceived gain. I follow a lot of teachers, and in my experience the vast, vast majority of those who tweet and blog and engage are massive, massive nerds for their jobs, love teaching, love working with children, and want to swap ideas, research, stories and experiences. It certainly isn't a prerequisite to be a good teacher but by God it's a healthy quality for one to have, I'd say. The voices I follow teach me, enrich my understanding, and, yes, challenge me to reconsider my biases. Twitter is an enormous source of fresh ideas; it's also a beautiful ally of empowerment if you're on the margins of authority. Here, if someone reads you, you matter as much as any minister or magistrate. No wonder some people don't want you on it.

    Confident, mature minds welcome criticism. Those who believe they hold strong positions are comfortable to argue them. Famously if you want to know who really holds power in society, ask what you aren't permitted to talk about. Who tries to shut down your conversations, rather than tackle what you said with counter argument? Who tries to get you sacked, and who tries to tell your employer you're a terrible person? Who goes low when you go high? Who doesn't have an argument?

    I hope I've been able to be a small part of a conversation over the last decade that has helped normalise a more open discourse about what may or may not be discussed. And I hope social media never loses its power to surprise, agitate and animate.

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  6. 'Are you on Twitter again? Tom. We've spoken about this.'
    Before me, on my writing desk, are three things: a plaster bust of Socrates, one of Lincoln, and a small pewter Stonehenge. Unremarkable choices- the salariat equivalent of a lava lamp maybe, or the moulded plastic Buddhas beloved of garden centre grottos- but they are mine. It became a shrine by accident. I didn’t plan their purchase or position deliberately. The subliminal architecture of my world threw them together, and they are currently employed as mandalas, or muses, or mementos by default.

    Socrates pursued truth beyond all else, for its own sake and, according to Plato, drank Hemlock rather than betray his philosophy. Lincoln is an equally easy inspiration: the great orator, thinker, writer and wrangler for social justice. And I regard Stonehenge with a childish awe, hypnotised by its ancient enigma, a time machine from another planet, speaking of transience and permanence and industry in one brutal monument. It invokes mystery and mysticism and the marvel at the work of human hands.

    These physical objects are trivial compared to the mental objects they represent- the ideal form of our aspirations, however far we fall from them, or ridicule ourselves in their pursuit. In Browning’s Andrea del Sarto, the poet writes ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp -- or what's a heaven for?’

    If it wasn't for bad luck, we'd have no luck at all

    In a year that has already acquired a reputation for withering hope faster than we can gather it, we need all the inspiration we can get. Geopolitical earthquakes send tsunamis of uncertainty around the world in dark and uncharted currents and we are reminded that periods of stability and peace are probably the exception to a violent and less perfect norm. For most of us, these forces rage at a height so high that they may as well be wars in Heaven, and we wait for what chance and the tides wash up.

    That’s why we need, more than ever, reasons to believe that things can get better as well as worse. Hope, as someone said, can never be false. If you were to ask most people what century they would like to live in, had they but a time machine, many people’s first answers- Rome at its height, La Belle Époque, the Renaissance, Jane Austen’s 19th century theme park- are usually followed by the qualifier ‘and rich, of course’, because being poor has throughout history been a universal shitstorm. Even then these fantasies are usually discarded after a moment’s consideration, for the less glamorous but more pragmatic ‘Now’ with its medicine and comforts and social progress. Mileage varies internationally, but progress is irrefutable, however non-linear it appears up close.

    In education, my own small pond, the news is often wearying, as we read of illiteracy, incompetence, venality and lack every time we open our phones. You do not have to work with children for long to realise that in every room, students carry bruises under their uniforms, physical, emotional, and historical. That for some, progress is measured on a metronome, skipping along, and for others you need a microscope and holy water to see it. Workload buries many teachers; the lash of the inspection and the goad of high-stakes, irrelevant performance management makes many in schools wonder what it was they loved about the job in the first place.

    And yet. We all find our own wells of hope. There is good news with the bad. Like the recent clarification from Ofsted that clarifies- at last- that schools need not display extraordinary levels of deep or arcane marking:

    Unless of course schools choose to have marking policies that decimate their staff. And why would they want to do that? This page should be nailed to the front door of every school like the Luther's 95 theses. Marking levels has become abusive in many schools, as they panic to show progress once lesson observations were binned as a metric. This one announcement could, should, be an earthquake in schools practice. I wonder how long it will take to reach every governor and leader in England and Wales?

    The Passion of Amanda Spielman

    Then there was the mellifluous sound of the Chief Inspector-elect, Amanda Spielman publicly acknowledging that schools in poorer areas were more likely to receive lower grading because of their circumstances, and therefore the assessment of a head teacher’s performance in that context was less likely to be a fair reflection of their competency or efforts.

    ‘Ofsted's incoming chief inspector has said that the watchdog's overall judgements on schools are not a "fair way" of assessing headteachers' performance. Speaking today, Amanda Spielman said that this was because schools in poorer areas were less likely to get top inspection ratings because they were "harder to run". She said that recent research suggesting schools with disadvantaged intakes are less likely to be rated “outstanding” than those with more privileged pupils, was in part probably a reflection of “reality, whether we like that or not”.’

    This is a fantastic sign that Spielman understands the impact Ofsted has, and more importantly will think deeply about how to turn the institution from a sword into a ploughshare. If anyone can, I hope she will. 

    Michaela School Choir Practice
    What have the Michaeleans done for us?

    Finally few educators on social media could have failed to notice that the Michaela Community School/ Factory For Turning Children Into Glue and Tears (delete as your ideology dictates) ran a book launch that doubled as a rally for their unconventional blend of traditional teaching and 21st century learning- ultra trads, if you will. Live streamed, tweeted in real time, and punching so far above its weight that David and Goliath look like a fair fight, it represents a new model for how schools face the world. Scorned by people who have never visited, and often admired by those who have, I have yet to see an institution that, in the face of such antipathy, exposes itself so candidly to scrutiny, challenge and frontal attack. It’s almost as if they knew they were doing something extraordinary. Twitter sizzled with their battle cries, and it was inspiring to see so much positivity for a school that has worked hard to earn it. All credit to their head teacher Katherine Birbalsingh, who has two settings, as far as I can see: combine harvester, and dead.

    Green shoots, and good news. Maybe even ideas that will bear fruit in the future. Who knows? When all the troubles of the world escaped from Pandora’s box, the last thing left there was Hope. I’ll finish by referring to the beautiful close to the recent masterpiece series True Detective (in an idea possibly borrowed from Alan Moore). The two heroes, Rust and Marty, are discussing good and evil (Spoiler Alert, incidentally):

    ‘After describing his near-death experience, Rust tells Marty he's been thinking about the stars and how they've reminded him that there's an eternal battle going on between light and darkness. Marty's pessimistic about light's chances:
     RUST: It's just one story, the oldest.
    MARTY: What's that?
    RUST: Light versus dark.
    MARTY: I know we ain't in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.
     After Rust convinces Marty to haul him out of the hospital, Rust presents a counterargument, offering the final dialogue of the season:
     RUST: Y'know, you're looking at it wrong, the sky thing.
    MARTY: How's that?
    RUST: Once, there was only dark. You ask me, the light's winning.


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  7. 'Hello we're Ofsted'
    If you want to know how to upset the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, I can recommend saying- when asked- that you think using games like Minecraft in the classroom is a bit gimmicky and you can’t see much of a point to it. Cue: Boss level carnage on my inbox all day. And what it reveals about education is itself revealing.

    Friday. I get a message from the Sunday Times asking if I had any views on Minecraft, the popular Microsoft world-building game, as an educational tool (the hook being that a special educational version was being launched. Every story needs a relevance hook). You bet I do, I said. I thought it was a bit gimmicky. I’d seen a few classes use them, and I wasn’t inspired. Students seemed to be as occupied with the mechanics of playing Minecraft as they were with the content of the lesson. To me, that seemed like displacement; rather than drilling down deeply into a topic, time in the classroom, and attention space in the students’ heads appeared to be spent on playing the game. Some content was covered, but it seemed a huge faff to get there. And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was more useful than cheaper, simpler alternatives, like just teaching them. I wrote a few chapters about this in my last book Teacher Proof.

    And I said that. I think there are a lot of activities we use in classrooms that share this problem. Superficially they seem to interest pupils, but it’s more because they act as a seductive distraction rather than a supplement to the lesson, like turning the Gettysburg address into a Manga strip or something. Kids might spend happy hours (or not) drawing Abe Lincoln as a Japanese hero, but that’s a long road indeed to learn about the 16th President.

    I have no issue with hooks; I use hooks all the time- culturally relevant landmarks that act as seasoning for the meat of what we’re covering. In my philosophy class I used to show 30 seconds from X-factor or similar, then use it as way to discuss Virtue Ethics or Kant. But that was a heartbeat. Activities that invite students to think for an extended period about something other than what is being learned- and I mean something trivial, like the workings of a computer game- is time wasted.

    This matters. This really matters. Because I’m used to teaching students who don’t get a second chance at education; who (whether they know it or not) rely on education as their lifeline into alternate futures. Into literacy, jobs, opportunities. I take that seriously. Anything that wastes that opportunity is a crime against a child, against their options. And theft from the already poor is a felony. Many of them can’t afford tutors or catch-up classes, or bags of cultural capital. For them, education is their life boat.

    A level Philosophy, 2046
    So that’s something in my opinion I observed with many gaming platforms. I’m not anti-tech in education. I’ve seen many uses front and back of house, that help schools and classrooms operate. But this appears to me to be a serious issue. There are some brilliant tech writers in this field. Read Donald Clarke, a UK educationalist who is both passionate about tech integration but rigorous in his quest for evidence bases to back it up. Or in the US, Larry Cuban, who is a similar mix of enthusiasm and scepticism. Both are excellent and simultaneously Cassandras and Pollyannas to the tech sphere.

    Secondly, there’s the issue of evidence bases. I run researchED, an organisation dedicated to the better use of research and evidence in all levels of education. And one thing that repeatedly strikes me about the ed-tech sector, is how, often, products are sold on the basis of claims of extraordinary efficacy. Remember Brain Training games? All the rage a few years back, with claims they would keep your brain healthy or something. No evidence for it, but get those units shifted boys. They often get caught our when they make claims that are too specific, so many instead move onto intangibles that people also want. Things like ‘engagement.’

    Engagement is great. Every teacher wants their students engaged, focussing hard on what is being taught. We know that focus is a big part of learning. But engagement by itself is a poor proxy for learning. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ Which means, we remember that which we think about. Which is a problem if you’re teaching, say, the Tudor Kings, but for half the time in the classroom your students are thinking about collecting digital rings and power-ups, or building a pyramid with blocks. They might look fascinated, but what are they thinking about- Henry VIII, or blocks?

    From Willingham:

    ‘Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about. The direct relationship between thought and memory is so important that it could be used as a self-check for a teacher preparing virtually any assignment: Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Doing so may make it clear that some assignments designed with one purpose in mind will achieve another. For example, a teacher once told me that, as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad, he had his students bake biscuits so that they would appreciate what escaped slaves ate most nights. He asked what I thought of the assignment and my reply was that his students will remember baking biscuits. In other words, his students probably thought for 30 seconds about the relation of the baking to the course material, and then spent 30 minutes thinking about measuring flour, mixing dough, and so on.
     Another example comes from my recent observation of my nephew as he completed a book report. The teacher asked the students to draw a poster that depicted all of the events of the book. The purpose of the assignment was to have students think of the book as a whole, and to consider how the separate events related to one another. This purpose got lost in the execution. My nephew spent a lot more time thinking about how to draw a good castle than he did about the plot of the book.’

    And from Professor Rob Coe from Durham University:

    'Poor Proxies for Learning:
    • Students are busy: lots of work is done (especially written work)
    • Students are engaged, interested, motivated• Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
    • Classroom is ordered, calm, under control
    • Curriculum has been ‘covered’ (ie presented to students in some form)
    • (At least some) students have supplied correct answers (whether or not they really understood them or could reproduce them independently)'

    In other words, these things might be desirable in themselves, but by themselves they don't tell us if students are learning.

    So we should select our activities with care. If we use a game platform we need to ask ‘Will this benefit my students in a tangible way that can be measured?’ Grade increase, attendance, something. If the answer is ‘no’ then how do you know it’s working? The second question, just as important is, ‘Even if something is happening, is it worth the time spent on it that could be spent doing something else?’ In other words, maybe your students all leave the lesson knowing the Tudor Kings off by heart. But if it took a whole term to get there and you could have done it through other methods, then the cosy may outweigh the benefits.

    I spent a lot of time being told by people that ‘This works you idiot! Go back to the 1950s!’ but very little time being directed to evidence beyond ‘I say so.’ But the burden of proof lies with the claimants.

    Show me the Bit Coin

    And as far as I can see, there just isn’t a solid evidence base to substantiate the claims that many of these platforms make. Saying ‘My kids love it though’ isn’t nothing, but it’s not substantive proof either. When I was a rookie teacher, I had a brainwave: when we were studying Mandalas (a religious symbol or art piece designed to be impermanent), their homework would be to go home and make one. Some would come back with cakes shaped like Jesus and Buddha and so on. Delicious, and they adored doing it, but terrible, terrible homework, a complete waste of their time. Just because they love it, doesn’t mean they’re learning. It’s fine to have strong gut feelings about what is and isn’t working in your classroom, but in order to avoid these biases, we need scalable, replicable research to guide us. 

    I might be wrong. Minecraft might be the saving of our kids. They might all go out and colonise Mars with their mad Minecraft skills. But until there’s any evidence base to suggest it, it’s wise to be sceptical. And I thought my scepticism was pretty measured. I wouldn’t  ban it in classrooms, had I even such a Genie-like power, but I think teachers need to have these kinds of conversations, otherwise we don’t deserve to be called a profession.

    Digital Dummies and Cyber Prams

    The online reaction was extraordinary though. For the second time this week I’ve been struck by how passionately some people cling to their beliefs, and how viciously they’ll defend them from the slightest scrutiny. The kick back was breath taking from where I sat, I assure, you. ‘You must be a fucking moron’ was the general (and in some cases literal) thrust. Once again, people were ‘reporting me’ to the DfE, even though I don’t work for them (their hotline staff must be getting pretty sanguine about it. ‘Yeah hello DfE? No….no he doesn’t work here….noo…’). ‘Unfit to work with children’ ‘Completely out of touch’ ‘Gradgrindian bollockry’ etc. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, like a ticker tape of people demonstrating the 21st century maxim of ‘I disagree with you so I am entitled to speak to you like dog shit.’

    It made me pretty sad, again. Most of the worst comments were from non-teachers (am I surprised any more?), gaming enthusiasts who had a strangely robust confidence in their opinions about teaching and learning, and people with kind of scary avatars. Fair enough; I used to read a lot of comics and play Dungeons and Dragons, I get geek subculture. Even a childhood hero, Ian Livingstone (legend of Warlock on Firetop Mountain fame) had a pop, which marks, I think, the last leaf falling from the tree of my innocence. Journalists for gaming magazines, CEOs of edtech firms, edupreneur digital gurus, a huge, apparently infinite conga line of people who love both computer games and calling me an idiot for disagreeing with them.

    Well it works for me

    I had a lot more time for the teachers who used Minecraft and told me how useful they found it. I had even more time for people who told me how much impact it had on their autistic pupils or family members. It’s still personal anecdote but it least it suggests areas of enquiry, possibilities for the future. I was pretty clear: I’m not anti- all uses of this kind of tech, and I’d be delighted to see it help people. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence as either Hume or Hitchens used to say, and claims made for these kinds of platforms are often extraordinary.

    I’ve often felt that you know you’ve touched on a real problem when nobody wants to discuss it, or wants to let you criticise the status quo. And that’s what I found here. Some tech claims are so wild, so naïve, so radical, that people are scared to contest them. The ever-increasing integration of tech into classrooms is assumed. And I think teachers need to query that; need to say ‘where’s the evidence?’ a lot more. That shouldn’t be controversial. But it was. It really was. I stood in a wind tunnel of scorn today that made Storm Angus seem like a squall. Just for saying that we needed to be more sceptical of yet another platform that promises big and costs dollar. I wonder why that is?

    There is a lot of money in education. Tech firms would like some of it. And that’s not entirely a bad thing- if they can come up with products with utility that are efficient and appropriate. But I won’t apologise to anyone for asking for better evidence, and for a better deal for teachers and students in the classroom. I hope we can have this conversation without such pointless controversy and pearl clutching. I think it's a debate worth having, because I think what teachers do is valuable, I think children's lives are priceless, and it matters what we do to make a difference to them. 

    Game Over. 

    Further reading:

    Here's an interesting blog from Greg Ashman to suggest some ways why it might not work as well as its proponents hope: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/why-microsofts-minecraft-probably-isnt-the-solution/


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  8. What do children need? With today’s annual BBC charity jamboree looming large over playground and supermarket, it feels appropriate to talk about the children in our own schools, and what they need, and how we can help them get it.

    I believe every child needs, and is entitled to an education- wherever possible- with their peers in a mainstream setting. I believe that where possible, reasonable adjustments must be made to allow children to access education; that could mean wheelchair ramps, or translators, or extra time in exams, and so on.  I don’t think that’s controversial.

    I also believe that they need wherever possible, classrooms run on reasonable rules that set a standard of civil behaviour and social norms, and those standards and norms should be aspirational. They should be based, not merely on compliance, but on the desire to help children learn powerful, useful habits of thought, self-regulation, work and civic participation.

    These needs, like many things we need, need careful consideration in order to maximise both. Sadly, sometimes the discussion around these crucial points falls short.

    Will no one think of the children?

    There was a minor flap on social media last night as some people wildly misunderstood something I said on this matter on a short video I made for the TES last year as part of an experiment in behaviour vidcasting. If you want to know how long it takes to upset people I can set my own personal best: Two minutes fifty. In it I mentioned that consistency was very important for creating a calm, safe classroom. What upset some was that I mentioned that some pupils who had IEPs (individual education plans) that allowed them to break these rules might be better served by requiring them to meet them.

    Some responses were calm, collegiate and inquisitive. Strangely (or perhaps not- I’ve been on Twitter some time) some people practically herniated. What was saddest of all was how some people read their own shock/ horror stories into it. Among the odd things I was accused of were:

    Breaking the law
    Encouraging teachers to break the law
    Telling people to ignore their SENCO
    Hating children

    None of which I said, but that didn’t stop some people. They may as well have laid Ebola and Trump’s razor-thin majority in Wisconsin at my door. For suggesting that maybe some children might benefit from focusing on the whole-class expectations was too much for some. In an odd whirlwind I was called vile, cruel, unfit to teach, contemptuous of autism (?) and on and on. Someone said I should be 'flung into an abyss'. Another accused me of 'chasing million dollar prizes' and of course the standard 'I hope this never happens to his kids' (but thanks for bringing them up). This, over cocoa. I love social media, but it’s a strange place at time. Some of it was from people who, curiously, had the words ‘compassion’ and ‘kindness’ in their bios. Someone contacted the DfE to complain about me. Someone contacted the TES. O tempora, o mores.

    I also love discussion, but equally strangely this was a useful example of how people can create a drama based on cognitive biases, strongly felt opinions, and innate triggers. It felt like a very fragile discussion space, where people were defending their own deeply held beliefs and taking any challenge personally. And that’s very sad, because this is a serious debate, and I take it seriously. And children- all children, need us to take it seriously, because the stakes for them are as high as it gets: the ability to access an education or not; a chance to flourish because of school, rather than despite it.

    Compassion Wars

    Children need calm, safe spaces in which to learn. And because of that, children need consistency of rules, standards and expectations. Now I don’t believe in zero tolerance classroom management, because I think almost every rule permits exceptions.

    And exceptions must be exceptional. Access to education is an issue of rights. It’s also an issue of utility; how best do we achieve it? One way to express that answer is ‘as best we can’. Hence, standards and norms, held up as much as possible. Where children can’t possibly reasonably meet that- a disability, a neurological condition etc- then we break sweat to make allowances. And children are quite good at understanding that. I worked with a class where one pupil had Tourette’s. Nobody cared, which was great because it meant that everybody cared.

    But what pupils can’t manage to absorb so easily is when a pupil who is choosing to disrupt lessons, is allowed to do so. And there are many pupils I have seen who have behaviour statements that were granted, not on the basis of a diagnosed condition, but retrospectively, as a description of behaviour rather than a diagnosis. This leads to a bizarre scenario where children who behave badly are then given a statement which attempts to provide them with less reasons not to. And I believe that is actively harmful to that child.

    And this is crucial. I believe that when a child misbehaves because they’re bored, or feeling a bit cheeky, or want to get a rise out of the teacher or amuse their mates, then they need to be reminded that isn’t good enough, through sanctions, or calls home, or conversations, or a million other things. But they need to be helped to learn better habits.  They need us to help them get there. That's our job.

    The land of do-as-you-please?

    And here’s an ironic thing; every great PRU and special provision school I’ve visited would agree. If you think PRUs are Bacchanalian riots of do-as-you-please, then you should visit a good one, where routine, structure and high expectations are even more important. The children need structure they don’t get elsewhere.

    And sometimes a classroom teacher can’t manage extreme needs, or repeated, extreme behaviour properly or very well, when they have a room full of other children, who also all need them. There might be other children with disproportionate needs in the room. And sometimes a pupil needs to have their needs met outside the classroom. It might be just down the hall, or next door, but they need space.

    If your answer is ‘keep them in the classroom, no matter what’ then I dispute that; in fact I call that terribly short-sighted. I say that when you need help you go where the help is. I’ve seen many wonderful schools who have terrific internal units run with compassion, dignity and rigour, to meet the needs of children who struggle in mainstream classes. The goal should always be to return to the mainstream classroom, because socialisation is a key goal of education, or schools at least. This isn’t chucking them out, or binning them. It’s the opposite. It’s bringing the child to the healing.

    Not doing that is real cruelty. Not doing that doesn’t help with what the child needs, although it might make some people who need to feel like crusaders to feel better. But they are not my concern. The classroom is not, intrinsically, the ideal vehicle of all succour. At times children need nurture groups, or one-to-one help, or extra-school programs, or special schools. Needs vary. But one-size-fits-all-in-the-classroom-no-matter-how-overloaded-the-teacher-is? That’s utopianism. I sometimes think that whenever someone hears the word 'exclusion' they instead hear 'thrown off a cliff'. But that's a terribly one-sided view of reality; what about internal exclusions, temporary ones, ones that nurture rather than attempt to punish?

    We need to talk about Tom

    We need to have a more mature discussion about how we provide for our most vulnerable. I’m damned sure we need to talk about how schools can genuinely include rather than simply keep in a holding pattern, in classrooms where everyone loses. We need to look at funding this. We need to look at special provision, PRUs and how we can work together. We need to be able to discuss ideas with SENCOs, rather than be commanded by them (and what SENCO would  say otherwise?). We need to be able to argue about what is and isn’t appropriate IEP practice, rather than face a howl of Twitchforks for even the mildest dispute.

    And children need to know we won’t give up on them. That’s what children need.


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  9. The recent publication by the EEF of their report into Project Based Learning (PBL) [click here] made troubling reading for anyone who enjoys throwing traditional syllabuses in a blender and making a wish. PBL, if you’ve missed is, is:

    ‘…driven by an essential question which has significant educational content. The projects encouraged pupils to create an ‘excellent’ product through drafting and redrafting and then to exhibit their work to an ‘authentic’ audience.’

    So far, so groovy baby. Rather than learn a subject through the clearly bonkers route of 'lessons about it', delivered by a 'subject specialist' in an incremental way, students are invited/ empowered/ inspired/ hugged to death to answer a question through self-guided investigation, to create a ‘product’ that could be ‘exhibited.’ It was recommended that this would take 20% -50% of the entire curriculum for one year. Fortunately we have loads of time spare for this kind of thing in year 7. Wait

    What were the findings? Anyone looking for evidence to substantiate PBL would come back with empty pockets from this. The headlines were bleak indeed:

    1. Adopting PBL had no clear impact on either literacy…or student engagement with school and learning.

    This is pretty damning. Advocates of PBL often start by claiming that it imbeds subject learning more substantially than traditional methods. When that fails to bear fruit. they often turn to less concrete proxies of success such as engagement. If that fails…..As the EEF paper says:

    ‘It is argued that the freedom and challenge that pupils experience as a result of solving the problems that arise in designing and building their projects result in high levels of student engagement (Wurdinger et al., 2007)’


    2. The impact evaluation indicated that PBL may have had a negative impact on the literacy attainment of pupils entitled to free school meals. However, as no negative impact was found for low-attaining pupils, considerable caution should be applied to this finding.

    Not encouraging. But caveat emptor- an odd inconsistency between the two, and a sign that the data might be weak.

    3. The amount of data lost from the project (schools dropping out and lost to follow-up) particularly from the intervention schools, as well as the adoption of PBL or similar approaches by a number of control group schools, further limits the strength of any impact finding.

    This is a huge hole in the bow; so many schools dropped out that the project loses most of its value.

    4. From our observations and feedback from schools, we found that PBL was considered to be worthwhile and may enhance pupils' skills including oracy, communication, teamwork, and self-directed study skills.

    That word ‘may’ is working harder than James Brown on a kibbutz here.

    5. PBL was generally delivered with fidelity but requires substantial management support and organisational change. 

    Translation: this took a lot of effort. Which means you better be sure of a significant pay-off to justify the full spent on take-off.

    This report was transparent about the project’s shortcomings, and to me exemplifies good practice in educational research communication: here’s what we did, here’s what happened, here’s what we think happened, here's why we’re not sure. If more research presented itself so openly, the field of ed research would be much healthier.

    And speaking of the evidence base for PBL, what did there EEF literature review uncover?

    ‘The existing evidence for a causal link between PBL and attainment outcomes seems to be weak. Most of the reviewed studies did not involve random allocation of participants to control and experimental groups and, as a result, a causal link between project based learning instruction and positive student outcomes has not been established. The majority of studies were based on a quasi- experimental pre-test/post-test design with some baseline equivalence established for the outcomes measured at the classroom level. ‘

     You'll never find me lucky charms

    Project based learning, yesterday
    So what conclusions can we draw? At the very least, it offers no support for PBL as a viable strategy, at best. And the evidence base for it is pretty thin- being generous. Given the enormous upheaval it costs a curriculum, the material generation, the training investment required, you would hope to see a high probability of leprechaun treasure at the end of that particular rainbow. But Irish Gold there is none.

    And at worst? A suggestion that the least able lose out the most, and for no perceptible gain elsewhere. This data isn’t strong enough to substantiate that. But one has to wonder why schools dropped out so significantly. In my experience schools often do this when they feel a project runs contrary to schools needs, it obstructs improvement, or there are signs of engine failure mid-flight. Or they were promised magic beans and realised they just bought a cow.

    My experience tells me that these kinds of educational approaches aren't without value, but frequently work best with the most able, independent and informed students. Those struggling already, behind in content knowledge, dealing with challenging habits, fall further back than they otherwise would in a more structured environment. And if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club. So until we start finding out that PBL miraculously adds value to the school experience rather than robbing it, I;d give it five minutes if I were you.

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  10. Unless you’re in a chemically induced coma it is impossible not to see how America creates itself constantly. It does it so, so habitually that I imagine most of the time it doesn't even know it’s doing it. People have often commented on the palpable and very visible culture of civic responsibility that exists in America, certainly compared to, say the UK. Participation, citizenship, are very live, livid concepts.

    One one hand this is unremarkable considering the circumstances of its birth. A former colony that had to pull itself out of the womb, bite the umbilica and tie its own knot, you can understand how that violence, that conscious act of rebellion and self-discovery leads to an equally conscious ambition to celebrate its identity. America does democracy like Apple does iPhones: better than anyone else. The UK may enjoy the Mother of Parliaments, but come to Washington and see Parliament 2.0. It’s impossible not to be a little in awe of this re-invented Leviathan, this custom-built, nuclear powered democracy, like someone looked at Rome at its height and said, ‘I’ll take one of them, but brand new please.’

    Four-score lessons ago

    My bucket list got a few wishes lighter today when I visited the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and National Archive where, under Lovecraftian lighting, I could view The Declaration of Independence; the Constitution; the Bill of Rights (I have no idea how Nicholas Cage was supposed to burgle the things; a poor boy there nearly saw the business end of Boot Hill when he tried to take a picture). Next to them, the Reader’s Digest narrative of their histories. Visitors leave with no ambiguity about what these documents are, what they represent, and what they do.

    Ask an American about the Gettysburg address, and even the most politically disengaged will probably run off the first line or two for you, recalling school plays with stove pipe hats and beards glued on with gum. Wars of Independence, of Federal versus Slave state, of expansion, annexing and absorption are imprinted on the national consciousness. Wedged between Hallowe’en and Christmas we find Thanksgiving, a national celebration of national memory. Ask any Brit to recite the Magna Carta and you’ll have enough time to memorise the Ramayana and boil an egg before anyone comes up with two words in the right order. Then ask them to define what being British means. Or ask them to list any significant events in the history of the UK’s inception. You’ll have time to learn Japanese with an indigenous accent and discover anti-gravity.

    The bloggers are coming

    America has, in 200 years plus change, invented itself. The Constitution was written in just over 100 days and contains 4543 words, or to put it another way, 5 times what you're reading. The Bill of Rights is 462 words. 462. But currently 319 million people cleave to it. People from the Mississippi Delta to the port of Anchorage sing the Star-Spangled banner. In the UK half the population think the national anthem is the theme from Hawaii 5-0. We’ve had 1500 years to work out that we have no idea what we have in common with one another. No wonder all it took was a cough at the Dispatch Box for wheels to start falling off Britain like a clown’s car.

    The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum- Out of many, one. And while Texas keeps looking at the door, and a few survivalist eschatologists kept getting their hopes up, that culture endures. Because they have a story they can tell about themselves. Some of that story is composed of myth, and some of it is yarns, and a lot of it is faith. And some of it is true. It’s Paul Revere and Tea Parties and Mount Rushmore and Sic semper tyrannis and apples trees cut down, honestly and Miranda and Brown vs the Board of Education. But what matters is that these stories are shared, over and over and over. They aren’t told once and forgotten. They’re memorised and eulogised and argued over and disputed. Flags may be burned or folded carefully over coffins. Arms may be borne or beaten into ploughshares, but the 1st and 2nd Amendments are in little danger of becoming obscure.

    Schools that don't try to have a culture get one anyway

    I’ve visited a lot of schools, particularly over the last year and half in my role as independent advisor to the Department for Education on behaviour management. One of the things that has been frequently, almost indivisibly associated with the schools who enjoy the highest average levels of civil and academic conduct, is the sense that the school has a powerful, robust, and most of all explicit culture. Culture’s a will o’ the wisp to nail down, but ‘the way we do things around here’ has yet to be beaten for me as a definition. And schools where there exists a sense of communal identity centred around kind conduct, altruism, service, dignity and industry are often ones where behaviour is at its most impressive. And these schools don’t let leave their cultures to chance, because even if you don’t invest in a culture, one will exist anyway. And good luck with that. Instead they hammer them out on a forge built on mottos that lie on the lips of every pupil and staff member; values that are lived, not just printed on school crest. Rules and boundaries that hum like electric fences and, when broken, are done with conscious intent and the aim of a greater good. Everything is conscious, everything coheres, and everyone understands what the shared stories are.

    School vision statements, like a constitution, don’t have to be long; they have to be lived. In a world where data is king and bureaucracy chokes the heartiest of ambitions, it’s worth remembering that no school- no community- ever thrived because the paperwork was perfect, and nothing else. Paperwork is great. But words that only live on a page have no meaning.

    Tom Bennett is in Washington for researchED Washington- tickets and details here

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